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.

Julia and Jason

It wasn’t the sound of the explosion that drew Julia to the building as much as the odor. Some people talk about the smell of rain. This was the smell of magic, and it attracted her to the collapsed structure like a lamp attracts a moth.

Police were on the scene trying to keep people away from the rubble. Their presence suggested that the small house was unaffiliated; otherwise mages would have kept away prying eyes. She would need to avoid them if she wanted to get a closer look.

Several minutes were spent probing the rubble from afar. She was looking for any empty spaces large enough for her to shift into. From what she could gather using spells, the house had been only a single story with a basement. The explosion had occurred on the ground floor and caused it to collapse. While some debris had fallen into the basement, it was largely still intact. For now. Eventually, the damage would cause it to cave in. She doubted that the authorities could act quickly enough to prevent that from happening, which gave her an opportunity for some scavenging. Opening a portal next to her, she shifted into the basement.

The place was nearly pitch black, and dust choked the air. From her pocket, Julia produced a small marble, which began to glow after she muttered a few words.Then she began to search for anything that might have some value.

In one pile of rubble, she found a couple of books that were probably useless, since they were written in the personal code of the mage to whom they belonged. Still, she put them in her pouch anyway, just in case something might be gleaned from them. Mostly the place was just littered with useless debris. The scent of magic was still strong, but she couldn’t identify the source.

After moving a broken wooden beam, she found a crystal, one that stored magical energy. The crystal itself was valuable, and even more so with charge left in it. With hopes she had found a small cache of the things, she dug through the area looking for more. Instead, under chunks of the house, she found a person.

At first, Julia thought he might be dead, but the rise and fall of his chest indicated shallow breathing. He was unconscious and covered in soot and dust. The magic radiating off of him signaled that he had been in the center of the explosion. It wasn’t clear how badly he’d been injured, but she knew he needed some medical attention.

Every instinct she had screamed at her to leave, and she very nearly did. Yet there was something about him… He seemed so helpless, like a small animal injured on the side of the road. He needed help, and no one else was around to offer it.

It was a fantasy, she knew. She was no hero for anyone. And there was nothing special about him. Probably, just another mage whose ego had led to his own destruction. Perhaps he had even done horrible things. Who knew how many people his own self-importance had hurt? She needed to leave. Take what she had found, and let the consequences of his own pride finish him off.

Something stopped her, though. A ridiculous hope that not everyone was a lost cause; that she herself wasn’t so heartless. She wasn’t sure she believed either of those things. However, the moment she let herself consider them, she knew she wasn’t going to leave him.

Clearing away as much of the debris as possible, and before she could reconsider her decision, she opened a portal and shifted them both out of the ruined building and into one of the safe rooms she maintained for herself. Once there, she cleaned him off and tended to his injuries, all the while ignoring the voice in her head screaming at her to leave. His obvious helplessness made a demand on her she didn’t understand and couldn’t ignore.

Days later, when he regained consciousness, she still didn’t understand her own behavior.

He smiled weakly at her, his eyes barely open. “Who are you?”

She ignored the question and went about the tasks she had set for herself.

He tried again. “I”m Jason. I assume I have you to thank for being alive, so thank you.”

“Julia,” she replied. “Don’t think it’s going to be a habit.”

His laugh hurt her as much as it seemed to hurt him. “I hope not. I don’t plan on doing that again.”

That last must have sapped what little energy he had recovered as he slipped unconscious again. For a long time, she stared at this odd mage who seemed completely unconcerned that a stranger had complete control over his well-being. The exchange only served to magnify her confusion.

Late Night Snacks

Jason was sitting alone in the kitchen, a carton of vanilla ice cream on the island in front of him. He would have gotten a bowl, but then he would have had to wash it, so he decided to just eat right out of the container. No one else was around to object.

A door appeared in the middle of the room. It opened, and Julia walked through. After she closed it behind her, the door vanished. Julia was a head shorter than he was and looked younger, though Jason knew that might be a deception. Her long hair was tied back in the usual ponytail. He couldn’t make out the color of her hair and wished he could remember what it was.

“Jason? Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“Don’t need light to eat.”

Julia sighed and turned a light on.

Black! Her hair was black!

Grabbing a box of crackers from a cupboard, Julia sat down on a stool on the other side of the island. “You didn’t want a bowl?”

He just shook his head.

“So why are you up so late?”

Jason looked at his wrist, but there was no watch there. “Is it late?”

Julia sighed again before changing the subject. “So someone new has moved into the house?”

“Did they?”

“Jason! You’re the one who told me about him.”

“Oh right. An elementalist, I believe. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Why did Thomas bring in someone new? This place is already too crowded.”

“I don’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me why he does things.”

“Yes, he does. You just never remember.”

“That’s probably true,” Jason said with a laugh.

“This place is too crowded.”

“You already said. But how would you know? You almost always stay in your room.”

Julia frowned. “You forget that I helped create all this space. I know when it’s occupied.”

“Yeah. Still, you should get out more.”

“No, thank you.”

Cocking her head a bit as though listening to something Jason couldn’t hear, she hopped down from her stool and summoned a door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jason.”

After the door disappeared, Sarah rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Jason? I thought I heard Julia.”

Jason waved his hand at nothing. “She just left.”

“Dammit. Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Leave. She really doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.”

“She seems to like you just fine.”

“I’m her brother; she has to like me.”

“But you’re not her brother! You two aren’t related.”

“Really?” Jason appeared genuinely puzzled.

“Really. You both say that, but you aren’t.”

“Huh. Well, maybe I remind her of her brother.”

“Honestly, Jason, I don’t know how you make through the day sometimes.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”

“Uh huh.” Sarah slumped down onto the same stool Julia had recently occupied.

Jason looked down at his ice cream, which had become rather soft, and decided he’d had enough. He threw the spoon into the sink and put the carton back in the freezer.

“So have you met David yet?”

“Who’s David?” Jason asked, absently.

“The new kid. He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen him. Is he nice?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Don’t worry about Julia. She’ll come around eventually.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously, how do you get through the day?”

“With a smile.” Jason pulled a pretzel rod from… somewhere and put it in his mouth like a cigar. “Have a good night, Sarah.”

“You too, Jason.”