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.”

Near Death Experience

Sarah’s head was pounding when she opened her eyes. The room was too bright, intensifying her headache and forcing her to shut her eyes tight to block out the light.

“Sarah!” The concern was evident in Matthew’s voice. Still, she couldn’t imagine why he was in her room.

“Sarah!” He repeated.

“Please, not so loud. Why are you in my room?” Slowly she began opening her eyes a little once more.

“This is my room. You don’t remember?”

She tried to think back. “The last thing I remember is a very loud noise just before everything went dark.”

“Your room exploded, burying you under a pile of rubble. It’s a miracle you survived. You’ve been unconscious for three days. I had to bring someone in to heal you.”

Matthew’s worry now made sense, but the explanation gave rise to new confusion. “My room exploded? I was working on illusions. How could that have caused an explosion?”

Matthew sighed and sat down on a chair next to the bed. “You didn’t cause the explosion. It happened in the room next to yours, but it caused your lab to collapse.”

“You mean . . .”

Matthew nodded. “Something happened in Thomas’s lab.”

“Is he okay?”

“Are you serious?”

“What?”

“Thomas nearly killed you, and you’re worried about him?”

“I’m sure he didn’t do it intentionally.” She understood how Matthew felt. She even felt a little anger herself but was determined to keep it in check, at least until she knew more. “Is he okay?”

“Yes. He’s fine. He wasn’t even here when it happened.”

“Has he explained the cause of the explosion?”

“Not to my satisfaction.”

“Then we need to talk to him.”

“Listen, Sarah, I know he’s our friend, but I think we should leave. Maybe find another house to join. Even start our own house. But I don’t think we ought to stay here. He promised to give us a heads up when he was engaged in dangerous magic, and he didn’t. It doesn’t matter if this happened on purpose or not; he is keeping things from us and putting us at risk.”

More than she could say, Sarah wanted to leave with Matthew, but she knew she couldn’t. “Matthew, I have to stay.”

“Why?”

“I made a promise to Thomas.” She hated herself a little for lying to Matthew. The Mistress had sent her with Thomas to keep an eye on him. She also had sworn Sarah to secrecy.

“Sarah, that’s absurd. He’s put us in danger. More than once. He’s shown no regard for us. Whatever commitments we’ve made, he cannot really expect us to keep them now.”

“Still. We need to talk to him.” Sarah began to feel tired. “Though maybe not today.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No. I’m just worn out.”

“Do you want me to get the healer?”

“It’s not necessary. Really. I just need more sleep. Who was this healer, anyway?”

“A friend of mine recommended her. Rebecca. Don’t worry, I stayed and watched over you the entire time she was here.”

“I should thank her.” After those words, unconsciousness overtook her once more.

Parting Again

“The Elder is gone?” Marie sounded unconvinced.

“Yes. My death ended him while I escaped. With my body empty of possession, Bailey was able to return my soul.”

Tears began streaming down Marie’s cheeks. “It’s finally over.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes.” As she watched her friendly silently weep in relief, guilt welled up in her chest. “Marie . . . I’m so sorry . . .”

“Ten years,” Marie muttered.

“What?”

Marie tried to wipe her eyes clear. “Ten years under his thumb. Ten years where my life wasn’t my own. Ten years where my body wasn’t my own.”

“I know.” Rebecca couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Do you? Do you know what he did to me?”

“Marie . . . I’m sorry.”

Marie stood and faced away from Rebecca. “I understand why you ran. I didn’t then, but I do now. He was awful.”

“But he’s gone now, and our lives are ours again.”

Marie turned to look at her. “So we can return?”

That took Rebecca by surprise. “You . . . you want to go back?”

“Of course. With the Elder gone . . . Well, it’s our family. Why wouldn’t we go back?”

“With what we’ve been through . . . What you’ve been . . .”

It’s our home, and he’s gone.”

Rebecca looked down. “It hasn’t been my home for ten years.”

Marie stared at her with her mouth open. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t go back. Phillip thinks I died. Maybe that means Peter believes I’m dead, too. As far as they’re concerned, I’m happy to stay dead. This is my home now.”

“What about us? What about me?”

“You don’t have to go back, either.”

“It’s the only home I know.”

Silence feel over them. Marie turned away again, and Rebecca stared at her hands. She knew how hard it was to leave. Had she not been forced to it by Phillip and Peter, she might have found it impossible. But she had been forced, and now Marie found herself facing a similar choice. With the Elder gone, Marie could return safely, but how would she handle the constant reminders of her long trauma?

That wasn’t the only reason she didn’t want Marie to leave. The uncomfortable truth was that, with Bailey leaving, she didn’t want to have to say goodbye to another dear friend so soon. She was afraid of the loneliness that would almost certainly follow.

Marie finally broke the silence. “I don’t think I can leave. Just come back with me.”

“I can’t. I wish I could, but even the short time I spent with the Elder convinced me I did the right thing in leaving. I wish you would stay, but I can’t go with you.”

“So that’s it?”

“It doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to leave. At least you don’t have to leave right away.”

“I don’t think I should stay away too long.”

“Well we can still keep in touch.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

Neither woman could look at the other directly.

Running Away

Before Bailey reached the end of the block, a portal opened in front of them. Rebecca stepped through, anger evident in her expression.

“Seriously?”

“I thought I would get further away before you noticed.”

“You are leaving without saying goodbye. Again. What the fuck, Bailey?”

“I don’t belong here. I figured it would be easier to just fade away.”

“Easier for you, maybe.”

“No, easier for you Rebecca!” More anger came through in their voice than Bailey intended. “You have Marie. David. Who knows what else you have to deal with regarding your cult. Family. Whatever. You don’t need me around complicating life even more.”

“Quit it. Quit trying to decide what’s best for me. Especially since you always decide it’s best for you to leave.”

“I saved your life after your dumb plan. You, of all people, know what that cost me. I did it for you. And I’d do it again without hesitation. Now, I need to go. Just accept that.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay?”

Bailey chewed on the inside of their lip. “I can’t be what you need. What you want.”

“What do you think that is?”

“A mage who embraces their gift. A friend who isn’t . . .” Bailey’s voice trailed off.

“You don’t know how to ask for what you want, so you hide behind excuses of what you think I want.”

“I betrayed you! How do you expect me to face you after that! You should hate me! Go back to your friends! To the people who fought for you!”

Overcome by their own emotions, Bailey tried to hurry away, but Rebecca grabbed their shoulders to stop them.

“You were right. I do know what it cost you, so I know you fought for me, too. You were there for me when I needed you most.”

Rivers of tears were streaming down their face as they shook Rebecca off. Half running, Bailey quickly moved away without looking back. Rebecca just stood, helplessly watching them disappear.

Bailey’s Trial

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

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

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

“How long have you known her?”

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

“You didn’t know anyone before coming?”

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

“Your guide?”

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

“Ah. What tradition . . . Crap.”

“What’s wrong?”

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

David nodded, but his concern was still palpable.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now we wait for her to wake up.”

“How long?”

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

David nodded and left the room.

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

“Bailey?”

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

“Where’s Phillip?”

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

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

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

“Yes. But you . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

“I was hoping you’d let me leave.”

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

“I think it’d be for the best.”

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

“The charm prevented me.”

“And after the crystal suppressed it?”

“It . . . It’s complicated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Out

It had required a great deal of patience to put things together. Rebecca spent weeks studying the Elder’s habits, making sure to identify places he ignored. It took even more time to gather the materials she needed. Never knowing when her chance might come added to her anxiety. What if it came and she wasn’t ready? Still, however much she wanted to rush, that could lead to disaster. Every day brought new opportunities for her to be found out. She had to trust that there would be more than one chance to carry out her plan.

When things were finally ready, a new set of worries arose. How long would she have to wait? Would the Elder – or even Marie – discover her preparations?

Marie. Rebecca tried not to think about her oldest friend. They had shared so much together. Since her return, she and Marie never got even a moment alone; the Elder was always present. Did Marie still care about her? Or did the other woman hate her for leaving? Was she loyal to the Elder because she still believed in him? Or was it fear that kept her by his side? Rebecca could think of no way to get honest answers to those questions, so she tried to put them out of her mind.

After almost a week of waiting, Rebecca decided to take a chance while the Elder was sleeping. Once she was certain he was asleep, she carefully got out of bed and made her way to the desk. The drawer in which she had hidden the necessary items was cluttered with papers and other miscellaneous objects the Elder almost never used. Before she could open it, there was a knock at the door. She froze, unable to decide whether to rush back under the covers or not. The sudden movement might wake the Elder, so she stayed where she was.

Rather than another knock, the door creaked open, revealing Marie in the light of the hallway. The two locked eyes for a moment. Rebecca wanted to believe she saw recognition in Marie’s stare, but she wasn’t certain. Marie looked down and closed the door quietly.

Shaken by the brief encounter, Rebecca lost her resolve and crawled back into bed. Did Marie know? Would she say anything? Why had she come in the first place?

The next day, Marie told the Elder about some issue that had arisen. Rather than disturb him, she took care of it herself. The Elder was displeased and demanded to be informed next time. For whatever reason, Marie said nothing else.

Days went by, each one leaving Rebecca uncertain when, or even if, she should try again. She stayed hidden as much as possible during this time. It made it harder to learn what was happening around her, but it also kept her secrets safer.

Concern emanating from the Elder brought her out of hiding. He was using anger to mask nervousness. First was a message that Sarah was back, and he told the guard to turn her away. Then word came word that fires had started in several buildings. At that, the Elder decided to retreat to his room, leaving Marie to prevent anyone from coming into the house. Whatever Sarah might have had planned, with the Elder distracted, this might be an ideal opportunity.

When she heard Sarah calling for her, she gave the Elder a nudge, planting the idea that he could end the threat by confronting the intruding mage. The Elder took the bait and stepped into the hall. Sarah slapped a blue crystal into his hand, and Rebecca felt . . . something. Had the Elder’s control eased a bit or was that just more wishful thinking on her part?

She managed to keep him absent-mindedly playing with the crystal, hoping that it would have an effect, but there was no noticeable change. The Elder seemed more suggestible, but he was still in charge of her body. Rebecca heard him speculate that the crystal was an attempt to break various forms of mind control, but if so, she already knew it would fail. She was possessed, not charmed.

Eventually, she gave up and dropped the crystal. Turning her attention back to the interaction with Sarah, Rebecca could tell the conversation was nearing its end. Sarah sounded as though she had been defeated, so it was no surprise when one of Julia’s portals opened.

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the Elder to take even one step toward the portal. When Bailey came through it, however, he seemed to panic. He clearly thought it was impossible for them to come to the compound with the charm they were under.

The Elder’s shock gave Rebecca the opportunity she needed. She asserted control, walked to the desk, and pulled out the knife and the bottle she had prepared. Acting quickly so as to keep the Elder off-balance, she drove the knife into her chest and opened the bottle.

Screams were the last thing she heard as she slipped away.

To End A War

Sarah studied Rebecca, looking for some indication that her friend was free of whatever influence had had a hold of her. However, there was no change in her demeanor. She was turning the crystal over in her hand and examining it with mild interest.

“What is this supposed to do?”

Sarah wanted to ask Julia if it might still work, but that would give away her escape route.

“I am sorry, Elder,” Marie said from behind her. “She got past me.”

With a wave, Rebecca dismissed the apology. “Is this crystal is supposed to ‘free’ me from whatever control you think I’m under? I assume that’s why you’re here; you believe I’m not really me.”

“I . . .”

“And you, or someone with you, started the fires?”

Deciding that anything she might say could worsen the situation, Sarah remained silent.

“Let’s talk, just you and I. Marie, wait outside my door in case I need you.”

Rebecca turned and led Sarah into the room from which she had recently come. Once inside, she closed the door. Nothing about the room suggested it belonged to Rebecca. It was sparsely furnished, and there were no personal belongings.

“You know, I think I was rather forgiving after the last time, when David destroyed one of our buildings. Now you return, bringing even more destruction. What was your intention? Kidnap me? Take me away from my family? Don’t you have better things to do?”

“Rebecca, you have not been acting like yourself. And whatever was done to Bailey – by Marie or someone else here – has not worn off. I can’t believe you would just abandon a friend.”

“No. I would never abandon my family. That’s why I am here. And why I will stay here. Bailey – and you for that matter – are not my family and thus not my concern.”

This was definitely not the Rebecca Sarah knew. Rebecca’s words confirmed that. She still had the blue crystal, which had worked on Bailey, so why did it seem to have no effect now?

“Now what can I do to keep you from ever returning? Perhaps it was a mistake to let David go last time. Maybe I should take a hostage to keep you out? Would that work, Sarah?”

“You want a prisoner?”

“Do you expect to walk out of here without paying a price?”

Staring into Rebecca’s eyes, Sarah looked for some sign that her friend was still in there. How long should she wait before giving up? This verbal sparring match could only delay things for so long. Julia could pull her and David out, but at what cost? Was starting a war the only thing she had accomplished?

“Is there anything of Rebecca left?”

The slight smile that twisted Rebecca’s lips crushed the last shred of hope Sarah still harbored. “I don’t know what you mean. It’s me, Sarah. I just can’t have you continue to break in here and disrupt my family.”

Sarah ignored her. “It’s over.”

At that signal, Julia expanded the portal at Sarah’s side so that Sarah could step through. Before Julia could close it, however, Bailey, who had been observing alongside Julia, rushed through the still open portal.

“Rebecca!”

“Bailey?” There was genuine surprise in Rebecca’s voice. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Sarah thought she heard a hint of her friend. At the very least, Bailey needed some protection, so she stepped back through the portal. Grabbing Bailey’s arm to keep them from rushing forward, Sarah watched Rebecca walk over to the desk and open a drawer, from which she retrieved a knife. Before anyone could react, she plunged it into her own chest.

“No!” Bailey and Marie – who had opened the door – screamed in unison. As Rebecca fell to the floor, both of them rushed to her side.

One Chance

Pulling up to the gate of the compound involved a heavy dose of both anxiety and deja vu. Sarah had decided trying a straight-forward approach was most likely to succeed. However, walking into this place once more was not without risk. Rebecca needed help, though, and she wasn’t going to abandon her.

The guard approached her window.

“I’m here to see Rebecca.”

“The Elder is not receiving visitors.” His voice was wooden and his face was expressionless. Sarah wondered if everyone here was under a charm.

“It’s important that I speak with her.”

“Important to you, perhaps. Not to the Elder.”

The guard turned around and walked back to his post.

“Plan B?” Julia’s voice came from a small portal next to her.

“I really don’t like that idea.”

“Do you have another one?”

“You can’t open a portal inside the area?”

“I have tried, but I don’t know the area well enough. I can only open this one because of your badge.”

“Okay, fine. You’re right; I don’t have any other ideas. Is David ready?”

“Yes. Get ready to move.”

Sarah turned the car around and drove away, stopping down the road and out of sight. It was only a few minutes – but it seemed like hours – before Julia signaled her.

“It’s lit. You should be clear.”

The problem with this plan, Sarah knew, was that it was a must succeed situation. After this, she would not be able to come back. If they didn’t get Rebecca now, she might be lost forever.

She drove back to the gate. The guard was indeed gone, but the gate was still closed and locked. Sarah left the car and began jogging up to the compound. As she got closer, she could hear the chaos of many people trying to put out several fires. She spent a moment hoping that no one was trapped.

Inside the main house was very quiet. Sarah began to worry that Rebecca might have left to help with the fires.

“How did you get inside?”

Sarah turned around to find Marie glaring at her from the bottom of a stairwell.

“I came to see Rebecca.”

“You aren’t supposed to be here.”

“I’m not going to argue with you, Marie. I will see my friend.” Perhaps Marie had orchestrated this situation, but she wasn’t the reason Sarah was here.

“You’re behind the fires, aren’t you?”

“Where is Rebecca?”

“You need to leave.”

Sarah pushed past the shorter woman and climbed the stairs.

“Rebecca? Where are you?”

Having followed her up, Marie grabbed her left wrist. “Leave.” The strength in her grip surprised Sarah.

“Rebecca!”

Marie began to drag her back to the stairs when a door opened. Rebecca appeared.

“Sarah? What is going on?”

Immediately, Marie let go of her, and Sarah quickly closed the distance to Rebecca. “I wanted to give you this.” Pulling out the blue crystal Julia had given her, she pressed it into Rebecca’s hand.

“What is this?”

“Rebecca? Do you feel any different?” Julia had said the effect should be almost immediate.

“Why? What is this? Marie, why is she here?”

Nothing. There was no change in Rebecca’s demeanor.