Esther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you?”

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

“Julia.”

“Julia. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you know Jason well?”

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

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

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

“I’ll make sure to tell him.”

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

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

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

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

“Rook?”

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

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

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

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

A Door to the Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bad Feeling

The sidewalk was full of people walking to their afternoon destinations. Some were staring down at their phones; others looked straight ahead while managing to avoid eye contact with anyone. The bustle was typical for the time of day, and even surrounded by so many others, everyone kept to their own private worlds.

A young boy, no more than ten, wove his way through the crowd and tried, with only modest success, to avoid being jostled. As he reached the corner of the block and waited for the light to change, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see a middle-aged man, with a wild look in his eyes, bending down to talk to him.

“Excuse me, young man, can you tell me where Maxwell’s Cafe is? I seem to be turned around.”

The boy knew he wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but the man did not seem dangerous despite his looks. Pointing back the way he had come, he said, “Two blocks . . .” A truck roaring past drowned out his voice for a moment. “Two blocks that way. It’s on your right. There is a big blue neon sign.”

“Thank you.” The man straightened and began walking in the direction the boy had shown him.

Seeing that the light had changed, the boy crossed the street and continued on his way. 

*     *     *

“Why did you do that?” Julia asked Jason. “You know where Maxwell’s is.”

Jason looked back over his shoulder at the boy and smiled. “Did you notice the truck that went by?”

“There are a lot of trucks going by.”

“One went past when the boy was giving me directions.”

“Okay. Maybe I remember that.”

“It ran a red light. If he hadn’t stopped to give me directions, he would have been in the street. That truck would have run him over.”

“You knew about the truck?”

Jason chuckled. “No. I just noticed it go by when he was talking.”

“Then why . . .”

“I knew he was in danger. I just didn’t know the details until I saw the truck.”

“So you stopped him . . .”

“. . . to keep him out of danger. Yes. I just get these flashes, something is good or bad. The boy must have brushed me, and I picked up on his immediate fortune.”

Dumbfounded, Julia just looked at him.

He chuckled again. “Just something I’ve always had. Never details, just a sense of success or failure, good or bad.”

“Seems handy.”

Jason gave her an enigmatic smile.

“Wait a second. Why did that building fall on you back when we first met? Shouldn’t you have been able to sense that whatever you were doing was a bad idea?”

“But it wasn’t.”

“A building. Fell. On. You.”

“And as a result, I met you.”

“That counts as a success?”

Jason shrugged. “Good ideas work in mysterious ways.”

Getting Through

More than anything, David wanted his body back. Being unable to talk to anyone other than Rebecca was frustrating, but it was nothing compared to being cut off from his magic. For whatever reason, this body left him with none of it. He was grateful not to be dead, but he wasn’t really alive, either. If Julia could fix that, he had to get through to her.

He approached the door to Jason’s quarters with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. Rebecca and Sarah were convinced that Julia was angry at everyone, that she wanted nothing to do with them. How would she react to him? The only thing to do was knock on the door.

“Go away!” Julia’s voice came from the other side. It sounded raw and pained. The strength with which she had spoken to Peter was gone.

He knocked again. This time, the door opened. Julia stood there, eyes red, a wild look on her face. She looked down at him.

“What are you? Another of Rebecca’s minions? How did you even get here? Go back to your mistress and tell her to leave me alone.” She began to shut the door but abruptly stopped. Looking behind her, she seemed to be listening to something or someone he couldn’t hear. After a few moments, she turned back to him. “You’re David?”

He nodded.

“Fine. Come in.”

She stood aside to let him pass. As he entered the room, he looked around but didn’t see anyone else. Walking over to a chair and sitting down, she motioned for him to sit as well.

“Why are you here? For that matter, why are you a stuffed rabbit?”

David began trying to explain, but she didn’t seem to be able to pick up on his thoughts. The hope he had been given when she identified him was quashed just as suddenly by her expectant stare. He had no plan to communicate with her.

“Seriously? That’s messed up.”

Surprised, he looked at her, but she was paying attention to . . . an empty space next to her. Who was she talking to?

Julia turned back to him. “So Rebecca saved you and put you in this stuffed animal? But she didn’t do the same for Jason.”

There it was. He had been saved, and Jason had not. Would the unfairness of it keep her from helping?

“I know! Quit saying it. I still don’t have to be happy about it.” Once more, she wasn’t talking to him. “If he knew so much, why couldn’t he see what would happen to you?”

She listening for another minute before speaking to David again. “You know, if Thomas had Rebecca prepare to rescue you, he must have known you life was in danger, too. I’m guessing, though, that he didn’t say anything about it to you. He treated you the same way he treated me. Treated Jason. He doesn’t deserve your trust.” 

She paused and studied him. David doubted very much that she could read the reactions of stuffed animals. Still, his top concern was recovering his body. Everything else was secondary to that.

Finally, she let out a sigh. “And you don’t deserve to be stuck like that. Though, I have to admit, you are kind of cute.” She let out a small chuckle. “Go back to Rebecca. I’ll drop your body off with her.”

Overcome with excitement, David hopped off the couch and headed for the door. Her voice stopped him.

“But you have to tell her. And Sarah. Leave me alone. At least for now. The hallways are back to normal, but I want to be left alone. They owe me that much.”

David nodded his understanding and waited to see if there was any more.

“Go. Get out of that silly body.”

Dismissed, he hurried to return to Rebecca as fast as tiny legs could move. Something resembling normalcy was within his reach.

To Save Rebecca

“While you’re sulking in here, Rebecca is in trouble.” Julia looked up at the ghostly figure of Jason in front of her.

“I thought you left.”

“I had. I came back. It’s not like I have anything else to do, but you really should help Rebecca.”

Her curiosity getting the better of her, she cast a spell to determine who was in the house. At first, there was no one in the hallways; after a minute, however, Rebecca left her room with another person. They were headed toward the front door.

“Who is that?”

“Not sure, but Rebecca seemed terrified of him.”

“So I was right; she did send you.”

“No. I was just watching.”

“Right.”

“Whatever problem you have with Thomas . . .”

“Problem? You’re dead.”

“Whatever your problem, it isn’t with Rebecca. She needs your help.”

Julia didn’t want to admit that this might be her fault. If she hadn’t flipped the hallway permissions, this man couldn’t have gotten inside. She was angry, but she wasn’t so angry that she was okay with someone else coming into the house and hurting her neighbors. She opened a portal in front of Rebecca and whoever was with her.

“Who the hell are you?” Julia didn’t like the looks of this man; he was older, severe looking. Whatever he intended would not be pleasant. She made sure to keep out of his line of sight.

“How are you still alive?”

She hadn’t expected that. “My house, my question.” Why did he sound so surprised to hear her?

“Not that it’s any of your concern, but I am Rebecca’s father. She’s coming home. Aren’t you, Rebecca?”

“Yes.”

Julia knew that tone of voice. Rebecca was in danger, and she didn’t deserve what he planned to do to her.

“Nobody leaves here unless I let them.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think you have enough power to stop me. That’s why you aren’t showing yourself.” Her portal was forced to close suddenly. Who was he?

One of her alarms started sounding, indicating a fire in Rebecca’s room. Because of the alarm failsafe, Julia was able to open a portal into Rebecca’s private quarters. One of the armchairs was on fire, so she quickly opened a hole underneath it. The chair fell into one of the several secluded caves that Julia kept track of, precisely for these occasions. After that threat was dealt with, she turned back to the intruder.

He was about to head down the stairs, then he and Rebecca would be gone. Clearly a magic user of some sort, she had no idea what protective measures he might have in place. Attacking him directly was a risky proposition. Instead, she opened another portal on the stairs to the same cave. Then she had to hope he fell through.

She watched, expecting him to notice the portal and avoid it. At the last moment, something – she couldn’t tell what – flew in front of him and caused him to fall. She quickly closed the portal after he went through it. Then she reversed the hallways back to normal, to keep anyone else from coming in.

Rebecca was safe for now, so Julia left the rest of the house to its own devices. She had a new puzzle to work on. Why had he been surprised by her presence? For that matter, how did he even know who she was? There was more to this story, and she needed to find out what it was.

. . . It Pours

Rebecca felt uneasy. So many things had gone wrong in the last twelve hours, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t over yet. Being stuck in her room only added to her sense of worry.

What is going on? The stuffed rabbit that David’s spirit was inhabiting stood on the floor in front of her.

“I don’t know any more than you. Thomas said the hallways are unstable, and we should stay here.”

This is maddening.

“Complaining about it isn’t helping.”

Fine.

She shouldn’t have snapped at David, but her patience was wearing thin.

Can you really put me back in my body?

Her guilt got the better of her. Being stuck in a stuffed animal had to be frustrating, and while she hadn’t really gotten him into this mess, she did sympathize with him. No reason to take her own concerns out on him.

“Yes. If we can get it. We’re going to need Julia’s help though, if that was one of her spaces.”

So it can be done.

“Yes.”

If the hallways were unstable, did that mean something was wrong with Julia? Would they be able to get David’s body back? She tried to keep her own doubts hidden, but Thomas couldn’t come back soon enough. He would be able to set things right.

She wasn’t sure if she really believed that anymore. This whole situation was the result of his planning. He had been so certain he knew how things would work out. He was wrong. The safety of the house had been shaken, so where did that leave her?

Someone knocked on her door.

Is that Thomas?

“Either him or Sarah.”

She opened the door. On the other side was a large figure wearing a blood-red cloak. The face was in shadow under the hood, but she knew who it was before he spoke.

“Hello, Rebecca.”

Peter. Her mind began to race as panic overwhelmed her. It didn’t matter how, she had to get out of here.

“Aren’t you going to welcome me?” He stepped through the door just enough to block it completely.

“Get out of here!” There were spells she had prepared in case this day ever came. Terror drove them all out of her head.

“That is rather rude. Especially after all the trouble I went through to be able to visit you.” Every syllable that fell from his mouth felt like a drop of acid hitting her spine.

“You can’t be here.” She shifted further away form him, but he didn’t move from the doorway.

“Yes, I can. There seems to be something wrong with your house’s security.”

David’s voice was screaming in her mind, but she couldn’t focus on that. She needed to find a way out of here.

“Come now, Rebecca. You know you belong back with us. With your family. Come along, and no one has to get hurt.”

“Leave me alone!” Why couldn’t she think of any spells?

“I can’t do that. I am taking you home.”

She backed into the wall on the far side of the room. Unable to get any further from him, she sank to the floor and covered her face with her hands.

Grief

“What are you doing?”

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

“Why are you messing around with the hallways?”

“Thomas needs to be punished.”

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

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

“No, she didn’t. Now…”

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

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

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

“You’re better than that.”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re making this up.”

“I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

“Julia…”

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

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

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

“So this is where you live?” Julia looked around at the unremarkable, and very cluttered, apartment.

“Yep.” Jason replied absently as he dug through one of the piles of miscellany.

After she had gotten him out of the collapsed building, he had convinced her to come to his apartment to repay her for saving him. Uncharacteristically, she had agreed. That, by itself, bothered her. She should have said no. The fact that she didn’t only intensified her curiosity about him.

Though he looked a few years older than she was, he acted younger. Even taking account of the fact that a building had just collapsed on top of him, he appeared disheveled. If she couldn’t feel the power coming off him, it would be easy to mistake him for a vagrant. She didn’t understand this strange man, and she wanted to.

“So if this is your home, what were you doing at that other place?”

“Research.” He didn’t look up.

“Why there and not here?”

“Because then my apartment would have been destroyed.”

The reasoning was impeccable and completely baffling. “You knew the building was going to fall down?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Just a sense I get. I thought I would have better luck trying my spell there than I would here. Since the building didn’t survive, I’d say it was rather lucky I didn’t do it here.”Jason gave up on the pile he had been digging through and started searching another one.

“Aha! Here it is.” He sat back, a triumphant grin on his face. In his hands was a long, slender crystal that glowed. He held it out towards her. “Here you go.”

“What’s this?”

“A crystal.”

“I know that. I meant, what’s it for?”

“You can use it to power magic. I thought you were a mage?”

“I am. Ugh… Why are you giving it to me?”

“Oh. You saved my life. Least I could do.”

“I can feel the power from here. It must be worth a fortune.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. I make them in my spare time. Useful to have around. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”

Julia took the crystal carefully and turned it over slowly. It was one of the strongest crystals she had ever encountered, and he just had it laying around. It would provide enough power for a normal month’s worth of spells for her.

“Why do you live by yourself, in this apartment? If you can make this, you should have people beating down your door begging you to join their house.”

“Not really interested. I have an old friend who keeps inviting me, but I’m not much for joining.” Jason cleared off a seat on the couch and offered Julia a nearby armchair. “I like the solitude. Easier to focus.” As if to give the lie to his words, a black cat jumped up onto the table in front of the couch and stared at him.

“Uh huh. What’s your cat’s name?”

“I don’t know. And he isn’t mine.”

“Is he a neighbor’s? How did he get in?”

“Oh, he lives here, but he doesn’t belong to me. He’s his own person.”

“He lives here, but you don’t know his name?”

“No. He hasn’t told me yet.”

“He hasn’t told you? His name?” Everything Jason said or did made him seem more strange.

“Right…” Jason’s voice seemed to trail off.

“What?” Julia had been too focused on the cat.

“I asked if you belong to a house?”

“No. I don’t mix well with others.” Why did she say that? It was true, of course, but why tell this mage she had just met?

“Too bad. Your command of spatial dimensions is fascinating. I’d love to learn more about it.”

“You seem to have your own talents.” She indicated the crystal she was holding.

He slapped his hands down on his knees and stood up suddenly. “It’s settled then. You will teach me about your magic, and I’ll teach you mine.”

“What? I didn’t…”

He pulled her to her feet and began walking her to the door. “Tomorrow afternoon. Back here.” The cat, who had been following them, meowed. “Fine,” Jason replied to the animal before turning back to Julia. “Bring some food for the cat. He insists. Thinks you will get better food than I give him.”

With that, Julia found herself in the hallway, the door to the apartment closed behind her. How had he arrived at the conclusion that they would swap magic? This was insane. No, Jason was insane. He had to be. She should just leave and never come back. As she considered the crystal in her hand, she knew she would return.

A Death in the Family (part 2)

There was a penetrating chill in the air. A simple spell would have kept it at bay, but David was reluctant to use magic away from the protection of the house. The run in with astral beetles – which felt like years ago but was actually only a month earlier – had taught him a level of caution that years of training had not managed to instill. 

Still, despite his newfound appreciation for discretion, here he was chasing after a mage he barely knew and who, he’d been told, did not want to be found. She had a master-level command of spatial magic, and he had no idea where she might be headed. He didn’t even know why he’d followed her, except that his Guide, Samuel, had also ingrained in him a responsibility towards others. And he would want someone to come after him, if the situation were the other way around.

Ever since he had been invited to join the house, he knew he had a role to play in keeping it safe. Going after Julia had felt like his responsibility, but now that he was actually looking for her, he found he had no idea what he was really doing. David wanted to live up to Samuel’s faith in him, but he was no longer sure of himself.

The world abruptly shifted. One moment he’d been walking down a city street, then the next step he took was on a grassy field. The artificial light was gone; only the stars overhead provided any break from the night. He looked around, but there was no indication of civilization in any direction.

“Who are you? Really?” A woman’s voice reached him from somewhere close by. It sounded like Julia.

“What’s going on?” He was trying to stay calm. A spark flicked from his hand, but he shoved the impulse away. He needed to understand what was happening before he reacted.

“Me first. Who are you?”

“Fine. I am Searcher David, led by the Guide Samuel down the path of the elements.”

“Quite a mouthful.” The voice kept shifting directions, like the speaker was running around him. “But not really what I was asking. Why did you come out here?”

“Julia? Look, I just wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“Bullshit. Who sent you? Thomas? He brought you into the house. He must have, otherwise we would have been consulted. Or did someone else send you? To come after me?”

“No one sent me. Thomas brought me into the house, but I haven’t even spoken with him since I got here.”

There was no response. David wasn’t even certain Julia was still there.

“Okay? My turn.” He hoped his voice wasn’t shaking. “What is going on? How did I get here?”

More silence. Was she thinking? Or had she left him in the middle of nowhere?

“Julia?”

Still nothing.

“I’m going to cast a spell just to give us some light.” After giving his warning, he wrapped his hand in cold flame. Julia stood about twenty feet away, staring at him.

“I don’t believe you.” Her expression was unreadable, especially in the dim light, but her voice carried more distrust than he had ever encountered before.

“Then just send me back. I was trying to help, but I don’t need to be here. I’ll leave you alone, just put me back in the city.”

“Why shouldn’t I just leave you here?”

“I haven’t done anything to you.”

Julia’s demeanor suddenly changed. She seemed to forget about him and was paying attention to… something else.

“What…?”

“Shh!” She interrupted him and pointed off to his right.

The light wasn’t bright enough to reveal anything, so he intensified it. At the very edge of illumination, he could see it. At first, it seemed to be a long snake with far too many eyes that appeared to be hovering in midair. Then he caught a glimpse of long legs holding its body up, three feet off the ground. It looked like nothing he had even heard of, but it terrified him at a fundamental level. After a moment, it skittered back, disappearing once more into the darkness.

“We need to get out here,” David whispered toward Julia. Before he could do anything else, the creature grabbed him from behind, wrapping him like a constrictor, its legs folded back into its body. He could feel his clothes dissolve where the creature touched him. The weak acid deadened his nerves just after he felt suckers latch onto his skin. As a scream filled the air – it could have been from Julia or from him – he felt magic drain from him, followed by his consciousness.

A Death in the Family (part 1)

“So do you know what Thomas is up to?” Rebecca watched Sarah closely for any reaction, but the other woman was unfazed by the question.

They were sitting in Rebecca’s room, drinking tea. Rebecca genuinely liked Sarah, but she was still cautious around her, the result of living on her own for too long. In that respect, she knew that she and Julia were alike. But Julia was even more closed off, and the two had rarely spoken to one another.

“Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think he is up to anything?”

“Just some questions he’s asked me.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Before Rebecca could find a noncommittal response, yelling could be heard in the hell outside her door. Both women leapt to their feet and rushed out into the hallway. Julia was standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the floor above.

“. . . should never have come here! I can’t believe I ever considered trusting you!”

“Julia. Please listen to me . . . ” Thomas’s voice came from up the steps though he was still out of sight.

“No! I’m done listening to you!” Julia spun around and walked over to Sarah and Rebecca. “Did you know about this?” She pushed a piece of paper into Sarah’s hands. On it was a short list, and Rebecca could see one item in particular: “Julia has not died.”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

“I found it in Thomas’s room.” Julia’s voice was angry, yet fear permeated it as well. “You don’t know anything about it?”

“I swear, Julia, I don’t.”

Rebecca nodded her agreement with Sarah’s denial.

“Then I recommend you get out of here before you wind up on one of his lists.”

Thomas appeared at the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. As soon as she saw him, Julia stormed away. She crashed into David, who was just coming out of his own room, and knocked him down. Without stopping, she headed down to the main floor. The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.

Sarah held up the piece of paper in front of Thomas, who had joined them outside of Rebecca’s room. “What is this, Thomas?”

“It’s personal. She took it from my room, a violation of the rules.” As always, his voice was subdued and betrayed little emotion.

“Perhaps, but you admit it’s yours, and it does seem troubling. Convince me it’s not.”

“Could we discuss this privately?”

David had gotten up and joined Rebecca in watching the exchange between the two senior mages.

Sarah shook her head. “They will have questions, too. Unless you want to let suspicion fester, best we talk in front of them.”

“Very well,” Thomas sighed. “Looking around the timeline, I find it useful to leave myself notes so I don’t lose track of when I am, of what is future and what is past. No one is supposed to see them.”

“And this is one such list? Julia found it?”

“Yes. I have safeguard in place to keep everyone out, but her talents with space are greater than my own. Obviously.”

“So you know she’s going to die int he future?”

“No. The future isn’t fixed. But it might happen.”

“When?”

“It’s not clear. Soon, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Or at least tell her?”

“I… She… I don’t have any specifics. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And you know she doesn’t like others interfering with her life. I was trying to find a way to help her without upsetting her.”

“Well done, then.” Sarah thought a moment. “If she’s in danger, it might mean we all are. You should have…”

“No. No one else is in danger. I checked.”

“You can’t be sure of that. If you want this house to work, you can’t keep these kinds of secrets.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . .”

“You put me in charge of this house. This is my responsibility.” She paused a beat. “Or are you forcing me out?”

Thomas opened his mouth, then closed it again. He went back upstairs without saying anything else.

Sarah turned to the other two mages. “I’m sorry about all of this. I promise to sort it all out. Let’s all take some time to get a little perspective, then meet again later to discuss everything.”

“What about Julia? Shouldn’t we go after her?” David’s concern was obvious.

Sarah shook her head. “She doesn’t want to be bothered when she isn’t upset. I doubt she wants any of us following her now. Better to let her cool off.”

David nodded and headed back to his room.

“We’ll talk later?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Promise.”

Rebecca accepted that and went back through her own door as Sarah walked away.

Several minutes after the hallway emptied, David’s door opened again. He quietly crossed over to the stairs leading down and followed Julia out of the house.