Entering and Breaking

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Julia muttered.

“C’mon, you know you love me.” Aisha gave her a mischievous grin.

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“I’ve got a lead on a book about temporal magic. You want it, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Julia reluctantly agreed.

“We’ll be in and out before anyone notices, so don’t worry.”

Julia didn’t feel reassured, but they were already outside the house. One portal brought them to a second story balcony, and another took them through the glass doors. They were inside a nicely furnished office.

“What about magical safeguards?” The ease with which they had entered made Julia uneasy.

“This isn’t a mage’s house. Just some rich collector. There is only mundane security which is easy to deal with.”

“So why did you need my help?”

“I like the company.”

Julia let out an exasperated sigh. Over the years she had known Aisha, she had come to trust the woman more than anyone she had met, except Jason. Even so, she wasn’t always sure when Aisha was joking and when she was serious.

“Okay, here’s the safe. Give me a minute.” Aisha had opened what looked like a cabinet door. The dark metal front of a safe glinted in the dim light. She used shadow magic – a branch of spatial magic, Julia had gathered – to manipulate the safe’s lock and open it.

“You do this a lot?” Julia’s question was rhetorical, but Aisha answered anyway.

“Only in emergencies. I prefer get my acquisitions through mutual understandings. But this collector was being stubborn.”

Aisha stood up holding a small, brown leather book. “Here we go.” She began looking through the pages.

“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Julia started opening a portal when noticed Aisha’s look turn to puzzlement and then fear. “What is . . .” Before she could finish her question, a faintly glowing cylinder surrounded the other woman.

“It’s a trap. Look.” Aisha turned the book so Julia could see that all of its pages were blank.”

“Shit. I’ll make a portal to get you out.”

Every portal she tried to open failed. The barrier was blocking her spells.

“So much for that. What about you?”

Aisha shook her head. “None of my magic is working.”

“I thought you said this guy wasn’t a mage.”

“He isn’t. At least, he’s not supposed to be.”

Both women fell silent while they tried to think of a solution. Julia probed the floor below the barrier with no luck: the barrier was completely sealed. Finally, Aisha broke the silence.

“You need to leave. You getting caught here is bound to have ramifications for the future. Get out. I’ll be okay.”

“No.” Julia hadn’t even paused to consider the suggestion. “No way. I am not leaving you here. You’re too important . . .”

“Julia, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. We have to keep you out of this.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’m not leaving a friend, someone I care about. I can’t lose anyone else; I have too few friends as it is. Now help me come up with a way out of this.”

Just as Julia remembered something, a man entered the room. He had shoulder length black hair and was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, but Julia thought she had seen him before.

“Looks like the cheese lured in a mouse. Two mice,” he corrected himself after noting Julia. “But you aren’t who I was expecting. Who are you?”

Neither woman responded. Julia tried to maintain eye contact while she searched her pocket.

The man turned all of his attention to her. “What is going on with you? This can’t be right.”

As soon as she felt the right crystal, she pulled it out and touched it to the barrier. It disappeared instantly, and Julia shoved the crystal back into her pocked before summoning a portal.

“Wait!”

Ignoring the man’s yell, Julia grabbed Aisha’s arm and pulled her through the portal, closing it behind them. They both fell to the grass outside Julia’s cabin and spent some time catching their breath.

“That was fun,” Aisha said after a while.

“You have a weird notion of fun.”

“Probably. You’re going to have to tell me how you managed that.”

“Later. Let’s get inside. I need a drink.”

The Dangers of Time Travel

“You traveled back in time?” Aisha took a sip of her whiskey.

“Yes.”

“But how? You’re not even a time mage.”

“I… It’s long story, and I don’t think I should tell anyone how I managed it. Can you imagine what would happen if others figured it out. Would you trust people not to abuse the information? Honestly, I’m not even sure why it worked. Maybe because of how desperate I was. Or maybe because I got lucky. Now that I’m here, I am scared to do anything to alter the past. My past. So I’m staying away from anyone I knew.”

“Maybe you can’t change the past?”

“What do you mean?” Aisha’s response had taken her by surprise.

“Think about it. If you did change something, it could create a contradiction, a paradox. Since those are impossible, maybe it’s impossible to do anything that would cause one. Maybe, in your past, you were always here, always doing these things.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a brilliant or terrifying. But I also don’t want to test your hypothesis. If you’re wrong, I don’t want to think about the damage I might do.”

“So if you don’t want to change the past, why did you come back?”

“Because I didn’t think it through. A friend of mine had died. I – foolishly – thought I could come back and prevent it.”

“But you couldn’t? Then my idea . . .”

“I didn’t really try. I came back so far that he hadn’t yet met me. When I went to speak to him, he convinced me . . . He made me reflect on the dangers inherent in changing the past. So I said goodbye without saving him. He’s still out there. Alive. For now. And even if I decided to take the risk, he won’t let me.”

Julia choked out the last few words and fell silent. Research had kept her distracted, but talking about Jason made her heart hurt. She couldn’t talk to him. She couldn’t even talk to his ghost because he wasn’t dead yet. A deep sadness came over her.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Aisha reached out to touch her arm.

Julia realized tears were running down her cheeks. She wiped them away and tried to force a smile. “I didn’t realize how much grief I was holding in.”

“So now you’re stuck? You can’t get back to your own time?”

“That is another long story. I had to close off my way home. That’s why I became a recluse and need your help.”

Aisha laughed. “Well you have my help, but it’s not free.”

“I know. So are you satisfied with my explanation?”

“It’s an outlandish story, but for some reason I believe you. And you’re secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you, Aisha.”

The Truth

“You’re saying you saw someone who looked like me?” Julia tried her best to sound confused.

“Don’t insult me. I procure items and information. I know what I saw.”

How should she answer? A lie would be better, perhaps, but what lie even made sense? Julia remembered how she got into this situation: Thomas and his secrets. Was this any different? She was trying to preserve the past, make as few waves as possible. She told herself she was doing the right thing, but that was what Thomas believed about his own secrets. Keeping the truth hidden had caused so many problems, and she didn’t want to follow Thomas’s example.

“We can go inside and see her if you don’t believe me.”

“No!” Aisha’s suggestion surprised her, and she panicked at the prospect of confronting her past self.

“So are you going to explain?”

“Why were you even here? Were you investigating me?”

“Don’t change the subject. If you won’t tell me, maybe she will.”

“Okay, okay.” She didn’t want Aisha making the situation worse. “Can we talk back at my cabin? I don’t anyone, especially her, to see me.”

Aisha stared at her for a minute, seemingly trying to decide if she could trust Julia. “Fine, but if you don’t come clean, I’ll be coming back here.”

“Fair enough.” Julia opened a portal and stepped through.

Back in her cabin, Julia fell into an armchair. “I’d offer you something to drink, but you’d probably just accuse me of stalling.”

Aisha sat down facing her but said nothing.

“I’m not sure how to explain this, but I must ask that you keep this a secret. Telling you is dangerous. If it were to get further than us, I can’t imagine what damage it might do.”

“Okay.” Aisha sounded skeptical.

“That woman you saw, the one at the bar, that was me. About twelve years ago. Or rather, I am her, twelve years from now.”

“What does that mean?” Aisha’s confusion was obvious.

“I traveled back in time. She belongs here; I don’t.”

“Time travel? That’s impossible. No wizard has ever managed it. And you’re not a time mage. You really expect me to believe this?”

“I don’t know what I expect.” Julia didn’t even want to tell Aisha any of this, much less try to convince her of it. “You wanted to know what was going on, this is what’s going on.”

“I thought maybe a twin sister, or even a clone, but this . . .”

“Those would have been good stories. But I am choosing to respect you, to trust you with the truth.”

“Thanks, I guess. But still . . .”

“I’m trying to avoid screwing up the past. I need her life to stay the same, so that my past doesn’t change. So please don’t talk to the other me. Please.”

There was several moments of silence before Aisha responded. “I think I will have that drink now. Something strong, please.”

Research Sabbatical

Mages’ notes were nearly impenetrable to anyone else. Short-hand, idiosyncratic symbols, and personal abbreviations made such notes basically useless if you weren’t familiar with them. So it came as little surprise that Aisha had had trouble finding any written material.

Luckily for her, Julia still had Jason’s purple crystal, which made it possible to decipher the notes Aisha had brought her. It took months to get through them, and she reread them multiple times. Not having Jason’s gift for mana was a hindrance, but Jason’s notes had given her a start. Too bad those were still in the future where she couldn’t get at them. Still, she was able to make out some of the basic principles and was making progress, albeit slowly. Luckily, she had nothing else to do.

Except for her occasional visits with Esther, she didn’t got anywhere; indeed, she rarely even went outside. Aisha brought her everything she needed, and she spent all her time researching. She wanted to work on the problem of temporal magic, but she had no resources to draw upon. Instead, she worked on the crystals, trying to work out the nature of the crystals that she hadn’t yet understood.

The focus on research wasn’t about boredom; rather, it was to keep her from temptation. Too much free time allowed her mind to wander to events that she wanted to prevent. Rebecca would be fleeing from her “family” in the near future. Bailey would be thrown out of their apprenticeship. It wasn’t only Jason’s death; there was other pain and suffering she could do something about. But Jason had made the dangers clear. As much as she might want to help, there was no way to know what the effects might be if she tried.

Her musings were interrupted by the phone ringing.

“Hello, Aisha.” The other woman was the only person who had the number.

“Hey. I know you hate leaving the house, but could you come here?”

“What? Why?” She trusted Aisha, but this request seemed very out of character.

“I need you to see something. It’s important. I have the crystal you gave me, so I assume you can find me with it.”

“Aisha, I really don’t . . .”

“It’s important. Please.” Her voice was urgent, but she didn’t sound panicked.

“Fine. Do I need to bring anything?”

“No. Just you.”

Julia hung up and focused on the crystal she had given Aisha. Once she had locked on to it, she opened a portal next to it. The street she found herself on was very familiar. She was in front of The Nameless Bar.

“So you do know this place.” Aisha had obviously noticed the surprise on her face.

“What’s going on, Aisha.”

“You’re going to have to tell me. You see, I just followed you here. At this very moment, you are sitting at the bar. I dialed your number, you answered, but you were sitting at the bar speaking with the bartender at the same time. How is that possible?”

Supply Run

The knock at the door signaled the delivery Julia had been anticipating. Aisha was standing on the other side, her bag slung over her shoulder, smile wide on her face.

“Hey, stranger. Good to see your face.”

Nearly two years had passed since Julia had been trapped in the past. She had met Aisha shortly after her relocation to the other side of the country, and she had been providing Julia with supplies for over a year. The move, and relying on Aisha, was all to avoid having any impact on her own past.

Even before her move, Julia knew that no one was coming back for her. No matter how long it took them to figure out how to return, they could have always traveled back to the time she had closed the portal. That no one had appeared in the first few days after she was trapped meant she was on her own. If she wanted to get back to her proper time, she would have to do it herself. However, she had no real idea how to go about it. Instead, she threw herself into research, and Aisha was crucial to that.

“It hasn’t been that long, has it?” Julia stepped aside to let the other woman come in.

“Well, I tried to come by yesterday, but you weren’t here. Or you were ignoring me.” Aisha walked into the living room and sat down without waiting for an invitation. “So which was it?”

Julia sat down facing her. “I wasn’t ignoring you. You know better than that. I thought you weren’t coming until today, so I was visiting a friend.” Esther and Rook still wanted her to drop by now and then.

“I didn’t think you had any friends. Beside me, that is.”

“Very funny. I’ll have you know I am very popular.”

“So popular, you live alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

“Okay, okay.” Julia held up her hands in surrender. “I give. Your tongue is too sharp.”

Aisha’s smile widened, flashing her teeth. “Not just my tongue.”

Julia ignored that. “So what did you bring me this time.”

Aisha was brash and friendly, but there was more to her. Julia hadn’t gotten too far below the surface, but she valued the other woman’s company and friendship.

“The mundane supplies should be delivered tomorrow. As for the more interesting stuff…” Taking her bag off her shoulder, Aisha set it on the table and opened it. “First, and most obviously, more crystals.” She pulled out more than a dozen empty crystals and put them down on the table. “I was also able to track down the rarer ingredients you asked for.” She set five jars with different substances next to the crystals. “This one,” she held up a bottle containing a purple powder, “was the tricky one. Asking for ground quartz exposed to temporal magic raised more than a few eyebrows.”

“I appreciate the effort, Aisha. Were you able to track down any books?”

“There I struck out, I’m afraid. You have to know mages don’t write a lot of books.”

“I suppose not. Thanks anyway.” Julia had never asked if Aisha was actually a mage or not.

“However,” Aisha pulled out a file folder, “I did manage to track down some notes that might be usable. On mana, not temporal magic.”

Julia took the folder and began paging through it. “Aisha, this is wonderful. Anything helps. I cannot thank you enough.”

“Glad I could help.” She hesitated for a moment. “Can I ask you something?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got your payment.” Julia looked up from the pages in the folder to hand six charged crystals to Aisha.

“Not that. Although, thank you.” She put the crystals in her bag. “I’ve been supplying you for a while, and I know it’s none of my business, but would you tell me what you’re up to? Your requests are always so specific, and I thought it might help if I knew what you were doing.”

Julia smiled. “You’re right, it’s none of your business. You want a beer?”

Aisha shrugged. “Sure. We can talk about the weather instead.”

Past/Present (part six)

Julia knocked on the door and was relieved when Esther opened it. This was the one place she could think of that offered some hope. Somehow, Esther had recognized her, so the older woman must have some connection to the future. Wanting to be certain Jason wasn’t home, Julia had waited nearly half a day before approaching the building.

“Julia, you’ve returned. What a pleasant surprise.” Esther’s smile seemed genuine.

“Hello. Do you mind if I come in? I don’t want Jason to see me.”

“Of course, of course, dear. Please, follow me. I’ll make us some tea.”

As Esther led her down a hallway, Julia caught glimpses of other rooms. The entire place looked exactly like one might expect from an elderly widow’s home. Bits of cross-stitching hung against old wallpaper patterns. Small lamps sat on doilies atop end tables. The couch was covered with rough upholstery. It was almost too perfect, as though its occupant was trying very hard to put forward the image of a kindly grandmother.

In the kitchen, two teacups were already set on the table, and, as if on cue, a kettle began whistling on the stove.

“Were you expecting someone?” Julia asked.

“Oh no. I just like to be prepared in case someone drops by. Now sit, dear. I only have the one kind of tea. I hope you don’t mind.” She brought the kettle to the table and poured hot water into each of the cups.

They sat down across from one another, and Esther began absently stirring her tea.

“So how did your visit with Jason go yesterday?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m not omniscient, dear.”

“Of course.” Julia couldn’t say why she thought the other woman would know, but she was surprised that Esther didn’t. “We had a brief visit. It was good to see him again. But he persuaded me that altering the past wasn’t a good idea.”

“Mmm.” Esther nodded. “Probably not.”

“I have to know, how did you recognize me yesterday? Are you a time mage?”

“No. Nothing so interesting. Rather, it has to do with the nature of time itself. What’s the best way to explain?” Esther was silent for a moment, presumably trying to decide how to answer her own question. “Most people think of time like a river. Events, information, flow from upstream to downstream, earlier to later. That’s how most people experience it, so it’s a natural analogy.

“But time’s not really like that. A better analogy would be to think of time like a lake, rather than a river. A pebble falls into the lake, and the ripples expand in every direction. If you travel in a boat from one side to the other, you’d be tempted to say the shore you sailed from is the beginning and your destination is the end. But there are other orders in which parts of the lake can be experienced. Just because many people see the lake in a particular way doesn’t make that the only way to observe it.”

“So when we met, and I told you my name, that rippled to you now?”

“Exactly.”

“Then, if you aren’t a time mage, what are you?”

“Just someone who experiences time differently than most.”

“Does that mean you can help me get back to my own time? Or no?”

“Unfortunately, seeing time differently does not mean traveling through time differently. Are you not able to go back the way you came?”

“I had to close that off that path. I didn’t want to, but I had to.”

Before Esther could respond, a familiar-looking black cat jumped up on to the table.

“Rook, you know you aren’t supposed to be up here.” The cat ignored Esther’s scolding and licked his paw.

“Rook? That’s Rook?” As far as Julia could tell, the cat looked exactly the same as it did fifteen years from now. “How old is this cat?” Rook took a few steps in her direction and lowered his head. She scratched between his ears, just like she always did.

“He obviously remembers you. As for his age, he doesn’t experience time in the way you do, either.”

Julia continued petting Rook as she turned her attention back to Esther. “Is there anything you can do to help me get back to proper time?”

“None that I can think of. I’m sorry, dear.”

Julia knew that coming here had been a long shot. She needed a source of time magic, and she had no idea where she might find one. And even if she did, she wasn’t sure she could replicate what Rebecca, Thomas, and she had managed to do. If Esther couldn’t help, it was time to move on and figure out what to do next.

“Thank you for your time. And the tea.” Julia stood to leave.

“Where will you go?”

“I’m not sure. I should probably leave this area, though. Too many chances – too much temptation – to mess up my own future.”

Esther followed Julia to the front door, with Rook close behind. Once at the door, Julia reached down to give him a final pet.

“If you need to talk, or even just a cup of tea, you’re welcome here any time.”

“Thanks, Esther. I appreciate that.”

“And you have to come back to visit Rook. I think he would be upset if he didn’t get to see you again soon.”

Looking at the cat, she said, “I will, I promise.” Then she turned and walked away.

Past/Present (part five)

“Julia!” Rebecca’s warning carried through the portal. From where she was sprawled on the floor, Julia could see Thomas trying to make his way back through the portal. Stopping him was her priority, so she did the only thing she could think of: she closed the portal.

Pulling herself up, she slowly walked over to where the portal had been and just stared at the emptiness in its place. She was fifteen years in her past with no means of returning to her present. On the floor was a severed hand. It had to be Thomas’s, caught on the wrong side of the portal when it had shut. Voices on the other side of the door warned her that others were about to enter the lab, so she grabbed the hand and crouched behind one of the tables.

“. . . never seen anything like it.” That sounded like Thomas, but younger.

“Where is it?” An older male voice she didn’t recognize.

“What? It was here! You must believe me.”

“I do, Thomas. Do you know what sort of portal it was?”

“As I said, I did not recognize it.”

“Research it. Come find me when you know. Then we can decide how to proceed. I will check the rest of the house.”

The door opened and closed again, then she heard someone, presumably Thomas, open a book and begin paging through it. Thomas had said he wanted to learn something in this time, but what? It couldn’t be about the portal. The moment they traveled back he must have realized what the portal was. So what had he come for?

Thomas was always so secretive; it was why she had never trusted him. This could be a chance to find out more about him, about his past. Something important happened on this day, in this place. Important enough for him to solicit her help to come back here. However, she didn’t know what he had been looking for, and she had no idea how her presence here might alter events. Her focus had to be on finding a way to return to her own present.

From behind the table, she heard the door open again, followed by the sounds of someone casting. This might have been the event Thomas wanted to learn about, but whatever it was, Julia was certain she didn’t want to be involved. She needed a distraction so she could get out of the situation. At least, that was the excuse she told herself. In her heart, she knew that she could probably have just left without drawing too much attention. After all, someone was casting a spell which probably meant that things were about to become chaotic without her help. She just wanted to be sure, and it almost certainly wasn’t to mess with Thomas. Probably.

Without a reliable location set up in advance, there was no controlled chaos she could create. Instead, she simply opened a portal in the ceiling to let whatever was in the room above fall into Thomas’s lab. Once things began to drop, she opened a second portal and left the lab before anything else could happen. She didn’t know what spell the new arrival had been about to cast, and she didn’t wait to see Thomas’s reaction.

Once more on the street, she wandered aimlessly. Fifteen years ago, she would have still been in training, so she wasn’t likely to run into her younger self. Jason already made it clear that he couldn’t help her, and approaching anyone else might have a ripple effect into the future. Thomas’s magic had made the trip possible, but now she had no access to time magic. If she couldn’t come up with a solution, she was stuck in her own past.

Past/Present (part four)

“We’re leaving.” Julia’s voice sounded definitive but not angry.

“Julia? What happened with Jason?” Rebecca assumed Julia had realized Thomas had his own motives for this trip.

Julia didn’t take her eyes of Thomas. “Later. When we’re back at the house. For now, we need leave before we mess up the past. Or at least before we mess it up anymore.”

“Nothing has been ‘messed up,’ as you put it,” Thomas objected. “That is not how time travel works.”

“Really, Thomas?” Now there was irritation in her voice. “Why don’t you tell us how it works? When we talked about this earlier, you said you didn’t know.”

“You are not being fair, Julia. I formulated probable . . .”

“I said, later.” Julia cut him off. “Let’s go.”

“We cannot leave yet; I still have not learned about . . .”

Before he could finish, Julia closed the distance between them and began pushing him toward the portal. Thomas stumbled back a few steps before he regained his footing. He then managed to shove Julia to the ground.

Rebecca wanted to intervene, to stop this altercation, but she didn’t think either of them were in a mood to listen. When she noticed Thomas trying to cast a spell, she expected things to get much worse. Instead, nothing happened, and he scowled.

“You drained me. Is this why you took all my magic in casting the spell? To make me powerless?”

Julia, who had gotten back to her feet, chuckled softly. “You sound paranoid. If I had known then you were up to something, I wouldn’t have drained you. I simply wouldn’t have cast the spell in the first place.”

Even though Thomas seemed to be without magical resources, Julia wasn’t taking advantage of that fact. She was keeping the fight physical, not using her own magic.To Rebecca, it looked like Julia was holding back, though she couldn’t imagine why.

Julia sprang at Thomas, but he was ready for her and shoved her back to the floor.

“Stop this, Julia. It is unbecoming to engage in such a brutish display. I have no desire to hurt you. I just need to see what happens here today. Then we can leave, and you can chastise me all you like.”

Rebecca knew that Julia wasn’t going to give up; she was even beginning to think Julia was right. Thomas always had a convenient excuse while he manipulated people. She didn’t even trust that he merely wanted to observe this attack, if there even was one. She needed to end this before anyone got hurt.

Thomas was focused entirely on Julia as she slowly circled him. Because of that, Rebecca was able to get behind him when he was facing away from the portal. She made sure Julia saw her, and the next time Julia lunged at Thomas, Rebecca tripped him when he stumbled backwards. As he fell to the floor, she grabbed his arm and dragged him through.

The portal was several inches off the floor, and she had to let go of Thomas as she tried to keep her balance. Thomas pushed her away when she went to grab hold of him again. He turned back to the portal as she fell.

“Julia!” She yelled. Julia needed to get through and close the portal. Rebecca didn’t know what Julia was worried about, but right now she trusted her more than Thomas.

As Thomas reached the portal and started to cross back over, it suddenly vanished, along with his left hand.

Past/Present (part three)

As soon as Julia had left through her portal, Rebecca turned to Thomas and asked, “So why are we here?”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Not you, too.”

“Julia was too focused on Jason to notice, but your explanation doesn’t make much sense. We had to go back fifteen years to find a place that no longer exists? Do you have any respect for the intelligence of others?”

“Fine,” Thomas sighed. “Today, this house will be attacked. Most of its occupants killed. I was the only survivor. I want to learn everything I can about the perpetrators, determine their motives.”

“So this wasn’t about Jason at all?” Rebecca was beginning to appreciate Julia’s distrust of Thomas.

“It is about Jason. But this is a unique opportunity; no one has ever successfully traveled to the past before. So we can save Jason and find out who attacked this house at the same time.”

That made sense, she supposed, but Rebecca doubted Julia would see it that way.

“So when does this attack happen?”

“In a few hours. That should give Julia enough time to reach Jason.”

“Have you thought about what you’re going to say to her when she gets back?”

“What do you mean?”

Rebecca couldn’t decide if he was truly this oblivious or if it was just an act. “How do you think she’s going to react when she discovers your ulterior motive?”

Thomas scoffed dismissively. “I got her back to Jason. Why should she care if I take care of some business of my own?”

There was no point in arguing with him. He was determined to keep making the same mistakes. It was common for mages to struggle with interpersonal relationships, but Thomas seemed worse than anyone she had ever met. Not for the first time, she wondered how Sarah put up with him for so long.

“If my memory is correct, I will be entering the lab soon.” Thomas had already moved on.

Rebecca’s train of thought had not shifted as quickly. “What?”

“I remember this, though I did not understand it before now. I come into this room and see the portal.”

“Are you going to talk to your past self?”

“No. I had considered it, but I do not want to change the past too much. The consequences of doing so are unpredictable.”

“Then what?”

“We should hide. I will leave the lab after studying the portal for a bit.”

“You leave with an unexplained portal open in your lab?”

“Yes. To consult with my master. Then we come back here . . .” His voice trailed off.

“And?”

“Nothing. The portal is gone when we come back.” Thomas was speaking slowly, as he seemed to be trying to work something out.

“What’s wrong?”

“I saw the portal, but not you or me. And the portal is gone when I came back. How do we conceal the portal?”

He didn’t even seem to be talking to her anymore. She tried to follow his questions back to the root of his concern.

“Wait. You said you remember the portal being here? Does that mean we already came back? That this trip was always part of your past?”

“Perhaps,” he admitted.

If they had always come to this point in time, was it possible to even change the past? Had Julia always tried to save Jason? Had Thomas always investigated this attack he was worried about? What, if anything, can they accomplish in this time?

“I have an idea!” Thomas’s exclamation startled her.

“What?”

“First, we have to hide. I will be entering the lab soon.” He pointed to behind one of the tables in the middle of the room. They crouched behind it and soon heard the door open.

“What the . . .?” The voice was Thomas’s, but less gruff.

Long minutes of silence followed, each increasing Rebecca’s anxiety that they would be discovered. Eventually, however, she heard the door open and close again.

“That felt longer than a bit.”

Thomas waved away her complaint as he stood. “Only a few minutes. Now we should have some time to get ready. I have an idea on how we might conceal the portal. Can you telepathically make him, me, unable to see it?”

The question was unexpected. “No.”

“But your gift has to do with souls, minds . . .”

“I don’t specialize in telepathy. I can link willing minds, but my expertise is in spirit. I thought you knew that.”

“So how can we hide the portal?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know this was going to be a problem, or we could have asked Sarah for help.”

Thomas fell silent to think over the problem anew. Rebecca sat on one of the tables and studied the room. There was nothing in particular she was looking for, but she had nothing else to do.

The silence was interrupted when a second portal opened in the lab, and Julia stepped through.

“Thomas, whatever you’re doing, stop. We’re leaving.”

Past/Present (part two)

“So what is it that you really need to talk to me about?” Jason sat on the couch as he spoke.

The apartment didn’t have as much clutter as when she first saw it, but he had only been here a few months. Sitting with him seemed so normal that Julia had to constantly remind herself that he didn’t know who she was.

“Are you sure you want to talk to me?”

His question shook her out the silence she had been keeping while he waited.

“I’m not sure how to say this, or even how much to say. I’m here to try to keep you from dying.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. Every expression he made drove home how much she missed him. “You can’t really stop me from dying. Everyone does it.”

“I mean, I want to prevent your untimely death.”

“What makes a death untimely?”

“Dammit, Jason! I’m trying to save your life!” She had forgotten how frustrating a conversation with him could be sometimes.

“I recognize that irritation. It suggests you know me, so you have me at a disadvantage. You said your name is Julia? I’m fairly certain I don’t know anyone by that name. So how do you know me?”

She hesitated. What should she tell him? What would he believe?

“I can’t really respond unless you say something.” Jason was sitting forward, studying her.

“I know this might sound crazy, but I know you in the future. We will meet a few years from now when . . .”

He cut her off. “Stop. Right there. Just stop. You’ve travelled back in time?”

“Yes, we wanted . . .”

Once more, he interrupted. “Don’t. Don’t say anything. This is incredibly dangerous. I like mucking about with reality as much as any chaos mage, but the timeline is incredibly fragile.” He sounded as serious as she had ever heard him.

“What do you mean?”

Jason shrugged, all the seriousness gone from his demeanor. “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say.”

“I’m not joking around. I’m trying to save your life.”

“Can you do it without causing something worse? If I live, does something else bad happen? Do you know?”

“How could I know what happens if you don’t die?”

“Exactly. If you really know me, you know that I wouldn’t want to saved at the expense of others.”

What would happen if he lived? How would they stop the mana worm? Would it have gone on to kill even more people after David? No one was even sure exactly what Jason had done. Was there some other way? Could Jason kill it without sacrificing himself?

He smiled as though he were following her train of thought. “I take it that my death did some good then?”

As much as she wanted to argue with him, he was right. “So that’s it? You won’t listen? And coming here hasn’t changed anything?”

“I don’t know if it’s changed something or not, but think about it this way. What if you change the future in some way that keeps us from meeting? If you keep me from dying, do you make the trip back? I doubt the universe tolerates paradoxes, and I am not sure I want to see how it would fix this one.”

It all made sense, but she hadn’t thought about the possible consequences. Her grief and searching for a way to bring him back had blocked out all of these questions. So when Thomas suggested . . . Thomas. He had used her grief, her desperation, to get her to go along with this. Without that, she never would have trusted him at all. He must have thought about all these questions. Maybe he knew that Jason wouldn’t go along. Now that she had stopped to think, she should have known, too. So why did Thomas really want to come back here?

“What’s wrong, Julia?”

“It occurs to me only now that I’ve been manipulated. Jason, I really miss you, and I wish we could spend more time together. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the time we will have. I need to go stop whatever is happening.”

“Go. And Julia, I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

She smiled at him. “Just . . . Research mana worms, okay?” She enlarged the portal she had kept open in Thomas’s lab and stepped through before she could change her mind.