Looking for Julia

“I had no idea,” Sarah said after Rebecca had finished her story. “Did Thomas know you had escaped from a cult?”

Rebecca looked surprised. “They aren’t a cult. They’re my family.”

Sarah wasn’t sure if she was just telling herself that or if she really believed it. Whichever it was, Rebecca clearly did not like the word ‘cult.’ There was no reason to push the issue. “I’m sorry. Did Thomas know about your family?”

“No. I hadn’t told anyone. It’s been years since I left, so I thought they had forgotten about me. Until now.”

“And you said Julia got rid of this Peter?”

“She sent him through a portal. I don’t know where.”

Sarah looked over at the rabbit who was David. He was sitting on the couch a bit away from Rebecca and showed no reaction. That Julia had stepped in to protect Rebecca was a promising sign. Unless there was some other reason she had for getting rid of the outsider. For now, though, she would give Julia the benefit of the doubt. It gave her some reason to think Julia hadn’t turned against everyone in the house. She needed to hang on to that hope. Still, this group coming after Rebecca added to the growing list of concerns that needed to be addressed.

“Do you expect Peter to return? Or someone else from your family?”

“If he isn’t dead, he will probably come back.” There was genuine terror in her voice as she spoke. “He may not have told anyone else where I was, though, so if he is dead . . .”

“Okay.” Sarah had made at least one decision. “We need to speak with Julia. She can tell us where she sent Peter. And she can also help us get David’s body back.”

Rebecca nodded quietly. David perked up when she mentioned his body. Reading the body language of a stuffed rabbit was beyond her, but she guessed that he was eager to go.

Back into the hallway, things still appeared to be normal. Julia’s room was only a few yards away, and Sarah reached it without incident. David was close behind while Rebecca slowly followed them both.

Knocking on the door repeatedly elicited no response, however. Before she gave up and left, Sarah tried the door and was surprised to find it unlocked. “Julia?” She called out as she slowly pushed the door inward. It was pitch black beyond the threshold, and the room sounded empty as her voice carried on into nothingness. Caution spoke against entering a mage’s chambers uninvited, and as her eyes adjusted, Sarah was glad she had listened. It wasn’t that the room was dark; rather, the room wasn’t there at all. Beyond the door was simply void.

Sarah slammed the door shut before she or anyone else could fall in. Had Julia moved her room, or had it always been elsewhere? More importantly, where was she now?

“Have either of you seen her since Jason . . .” She stopped herself. Jason. She remembered a wall blocking the hallway to Jason’s room when she had come upstairs earlier. At the time, she had put off worrying about it. Now it made sense that Julia might have put it there to keep people away from her and Jason’s room.

Just past the door to David’s room, the wall still stood as though it had always been there. She needed to get around this obstacle, but how?

“There’s a wall.” Rebecca’s voice from behind startled her a bit.

“I know that. I’m trying to think of a way to get through it.”

“No, Sarah, not you. David asked why we stopped . . . What? What do you mean there’s no wall?” Rebecca stepped up next to her and knocked on the wall. “See? Pretty solid.”

“He doesn’t see the wall?”

Rebecca looked back to Sarah. “Apparently not. He is still adamant that there’s nothing there.”

That didn’t make sense, did it? Unless . . . “Is it possible that Julia set this up against humans, but not against other things? Like animated stuffed animals?”

Rebecca shrugged. “I don’t really know anything Julia’s spatial magic. I suppose it’s possible.”

Sarah turned to the rabbit. “David, would you please go to Jason’s door and try to get Julia to come out? Or at least confirm she’s in there?”

“He said, ‘yes.'” Rebecca answered. “He wants his body back.”

“Okay, then. Good luck.” She watched as the rabbit walked through the wall and disappeared.

A Crisis of Leadership (part three)

The rest of the day passed very slowly. When Marie came by, Rebecca told her that she still felt worn out. That allowed her to stay alone in her room. Yet she had nothing to do to occupy her time. For awhile, she tried to sleep, but sleeping for nearly two days left her with too much energy to be able to keep her eyes closed. Instead, she spent hours practicing her simpler spells.

Finally, after night had fallen, there was a soft tapping at her door. When she opened it, she saw Phillip looking around nervously. He quickly entered the room and closed the door behind him.

“Okay, I have everything arranged. There will be a car outside waiting to take you to the airport. Here’s your ticket. Also, I was able to get you a debit card with a couple hundred dollars on it. It’s not much, but it’s all I could manage in such a short time. I will try to send you more when I get a chance.”

Her head was spinning. It felt almost like talking to Marie when she got on a roll.

“Car? Airport? I don’t want to leave. I just don’t want to be the Elder’s vessel.”

“This is the only way. If you stay, you’ll have no choice but to go along with the Elder’s wishes. Your only escape is by leaving.”

“But this is my family. You are the only people I have in the whole world.”

“If you stay here, you won’t have anything. I saw how you fought against my father’s possession. Remember that feeling? That will be the rest of your life.”

“I don’t want that. But can’t I just refuse to join with the Elder?”

Phillip’s look told her how naive she was being. “The Elder’s wishes are known to the whole clan. They won’t let you disobey.”

He was right. Marie’s reaction when she expressed reluctance was proof that he was right. It was foolish to think she could stay. But to leave . . .

“You don’t have time to think about what to do. If you don’t go now, you may not get another chance. You’ll have to live with my father crawling around inside your body.

A wave of nausea went through her. “Fine. Let’s go.”

Moving cautiously, he led her downstairs and out the front door. Once outside, they walked towards the gate at the edge of the compound. Just past the last building, he turned to her.

“I’m going to go ahead and make sure the car has arrived. Wait here until I return. And stay hidden.”

She nodded. Once she was alone, doubts began to creep back in. She had grown up here, the outside world always at arm’s length. What would life outside be like? How would she manage? The more she considered it, the more certain she became that it was a mistake. Seeing Marie wandering around outside seemed like a sign.

“Marie? What are you doing out here?”

The other girl jumped a bit when Rebecca first spoke, but calmed down as soon as she spotted her friend. “I could ask you the same thing. Why are you not in bed?”

“I . . .” Should she tell Marie? Maybe she should stay. But if she was going to leave, shouldn’t she at least say goodbye?

Before she could answer, another voice came out of the night. “And where might you two be going?” Peter. Malice was evident in his voice.

“Nowhere. Just out for a walk.” Lying to him was so much easier than lying to Marie.

“Is that so?” He looked at Marie.

“Oh, yes. Of course. I thought Rebecca could use some fresh air.” Marie might not know what was happening, but she had never liked Peter. If Rebecca wanted to lie to him, her friend was happy to play along.

Even in the dimness of the evening, Rebecca could see Peter’s snarl. “I don’t believe you.”

He didn’t use any obvious spells, yet Marie crumpled to the ground. In spite of herself, Rebecca cried out and began to rush to her friend’s side.

“Stop. You will tell me what you were doing out here.”

“I . . . I don’t have to tell you anything.”

Peter’s snarl grew. “Yes, you do. And if you don’t, I will force you to do so. Truthfully, I’m hoping you’ll make me force you.”

A cold terror took hold of her. Once again, she felt helpless before this man. The threat he posed was greater than she could comprehend, and she had no defense.

Something struck Peter in the back of the head, causing him to pitch forward and fall face first onto the ground. From behind him, Phillip emerged holding a rather solid looking tree branch.

“You have to go.”

“But Marie . . .”

“Now. I will take care of the girl. Go. Hide. Don’t come back. Ever. You must avoid discovery. Get on the plane and never look behind you.”

“But I . . .”

“NOW!”

The force of Phillip’s voice propelled her to the gate of the compound. She could see a car’s headlights and approached it.

“You my fare?” It was a woman, probably in her 40s.

“Yes,” Rebecca mumbled.

“Airport, right?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t have any luggage?”

“No.”

“What is this place? Do you live here?”

“Not anymore. Let’s just go.” Tears ran down Rebecca’s cheeks as she climbed into the back seat.

A Crisis of Leadership (part two)

When Rebecca opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was Marie’s face. The girl was hovering over her as she lay in her bed. At first, Rebecca could not remember why she was so tired.

“You’re awake!” Marie exclaimed. “You slept forever. How do you feel?”

“Tired. What happened?”

“Don’t you remember? You channeled the Elder. I told you you could do it. It must have worn you out, though.”

The Elder? Her memory was slowly coming back. Marie kept talking.

“Now that the Elder is going to return, and you’re going to be his vessel, you’re the most important person in the clan. Lots of people want to talk to you. But I can tell them you’re not ready for that yet. Still, we’ve only got nine days to prepare, and there’s lots to do, so you won’t be able to put them off forever.”

The words were coming faster than Rebecca could follow them.

“Marie. Marie!”

Her friend finally stopped and took a breath.

“What do you mean, I’m going to be the Elder’s vessel?”

“Isn’t it exciting? The Elder agreed to come back and lead through you. You’ll basically be the leader of the clan.”

“I don’t want it.” The words slipped out before she realized what she was saying.

Marie frowned. “Of course you do. Everyone already loves you. And now you’ll get to be even more important to the clan. I’m actually a bit jealous.”

Because Marie was looking at her so intently, Rebecca forced a smile. “You’re right. I’m just tired, I guess.”

Marie returned her smile. “Of course. You get some sleep. I’ll make sure everyone leaves you alone today. Rest up.”

“I will. Thanks, Marie.”

The other girl nodded as she slipped out the door, leaving Rebecca alone with her thoughts.

What would it mean to be the Elder’s vessel? Would he just talk to her? Or would he possess her again? She couldn’t go through that experience – that violation – another time. It was for her clan, her family, but it was too much. Surely they would understand.

That thought consoled her as she drifted off to sleep.

When she woke again, light was streaming through the window, indicating mid-morning. The last time she had been awake in the early afternoon, so nearly an entire day had passed. She felt better, rested and alert. One of the perks of serving as a medium for the clan was her own room, instead of sleeping in the communal room for single women, which meant fewer interruptions in her sleep.

She rose from the bed and walked over to the closet. She selected a simple dress and took off her night shirt in order to put it on. As she was changing, the door opened and closed behind her.

“I’m up, Marie. No need to check on me. Still, thank you for letting me . . .” After the dress was on, she turned around to see Peter standing in front of the door, smiling in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. Shock and embarrassment caused her face to flush. “Oh! Peter . . . I . . . Sorry, I thought Marie had come in.”

“No need for that. I just wanted to come by to congratulate you on your new position. And to offer what assistance I may.”

Shock gave way to apprehension. “Thank you. I’m just getting used to the idea myself.”

Peter took a couple of steps towards her. “I am curious, if you don’t mind me asking, how you managed to arrange this? Assuming that was really my father, I wonder what you said to him to go along with this power grab of yours?”

Rebecca backed away from Peter and bumped into the bed, involuntarily sitting down. “I didn’t . . .”

Approaching even closer, Peter’s smile grew even more unsettling. “It’s okay, Rebecca. It is a brilliant plan. I applaud you. You are a much more impressive and resourceful woman than we gave you credit for. You have my full support.” Standing over her, he reached down and brushed her cheek with the back of his hand. She didn’t think anything could feel worse than being possessed by the Elder, but this did. It felt like her soul was being crushed. Her flinch was instinctual, but Peter seemed not to notice it.

“I should warn you, however. My brother is angry. Say the word, and I will stay by your side to protect you.”

“I . . .” Rebecca faltered. She wanted him to leave, but couldn’t find words to make that happen. “I . . .”

A knock at the door saved her from more stammering. “Rebecca? It’s Phillip. I was hoping we might talk.”

“Send him away,” Peter whispered.

Rebecca grabbed the reprieve she’d been offered. “No. I should speak with him.”

Peter stared at her for several moments, and she had the impression he was weighing the pros and cons of striking her, but he eventually relented. “Of course,” he tipped his head towards her. “But I do hope you’ll consider my offer.”

“I will. Thank you.”

The knock came again. “Rebecca?”

“Come in!”

Peter turned to the door and greeted Phillip with a laugh. “Good morning, brother. Rebecca, if you will excuse me. Perhaps we might continue this conversation a little later.” Without waiting for a response, he swept out of the room while Peter stared after him.

After the door closed, Phillip turned back to Rebecca. “I hope he didn’t bother you.”

Relief had flooded through her the moment Peter had left, but she tried to keep it from showing. “No. He was imply offering his help.”

“I can imagine.”

Peter had told her that Phillip had been angry about the situation, but she saw no evidence of that now. He had always been kinder than his younger brother, but she didn’t know what he was thinking. Did he think she had planned all of this as well?

“Anyway, I came to see how you were doing. Marie said you seemed rather worn out from the other day. Have you managed to recover any?”

She nodded. “None of this was my idea. You know that, don’t you?”

“Is that what you’re worried about?” He chuckled softly. “No. I don’t think this is your doing. This is exactly the sort of thing my father would do. In fact, I didn’t want you in the middle of all of this. Peter demanded we use you to consult the Elder. If anyone is responsible for this situation, it is him.”

“I . . . I don’t want to do this.”

“I know. I just said I didn’t think it was your idea.”

“No. I mean, I don’t want to do this. I can’t. I don’t want to be the Elder’s vessel.”

“Oh.” Phillip fell silent for awhile.

Rebecca stayed on the bed and was grateful that Phillip had remained by the door. The room wasn’t large, but it was enough to allow for some distance between them.

“Are you certain?” The suddenness of his question startled her.

“What?”

“Are you certain? About not joining with my father?”

“Oh. Yes. I . . . I just can’t.” A wave of nausea hit as she thought about the Elder possessing her.

“What are you willing to do to avoid it?”

“Anything.” She said the word without thinking about it. Then she remembered the feeling of Peter touching her cheek and regretted it. What might Phillip ask of her?

“Very well. I need to arrange a few things. I will return after dark. Say nothing of this to anyone. I will find a way for you to escape this fate.”

Before she could ask a question, he was gone. She wanted to trust Phillip; he had never treated her badly. Peter’s touch, however, had taught her a new kind of fear, and now she didn’t know what to think.

A Crisis of Leadership (part one)

Even though she’d been expecting it, the knock on the door still startled her. It must be time. The entire clan was depending on her.

The door cracked open. “Rebecca?” Marie stuck her head in the room. “Are you ready?”

Not trusting her voice, Rebecca just nodded.

Marie entered the room fully and closed the door behind her. “Are you okay?” She was only a few months younger than Rebecca, but her smaller frame and carefree disposition always made her seem like a little sister. Marie’s presence usually was a comfort, but today Rebecca’s anxiety was greater than any friendly presence could master.

“Rebecca? You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m sorry, Marie. I’m just feeling a lot of pressure.”

“You’ll do fine. You’re the most talented medium we have.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is so. You work harder than anyone. Besides we’re your family. No one is going to judge you.”

“Phillip and Peter will.”

“Who cares? Those two are the reason you’re in this mess. They have no right to complain about anything.”

“I suppose so.”

“I’m right, and you know it. Now go out there and show those boys who you are.”

“Okay, okay. Let’s go get this over with.”

The two left the room, walked down the stairs, and went out the front door. In the courtyard, the whole clan was gathered around the cairn in the center. Marie left her side to join the audience. Rebecca walked slowly to the center of the group.

She tried to block out all the people standing around and focused her mind on the image of the Elder that she had studied. She spoke the words of the spells out loud and reached out to him. At first, when there was no response, she began to worry that the spell had failed. Eventually, however, another presence approached her.

“Daughter. You have called me?” His image was faint, but he looked like the picture she had. At least she hadn’t failed.

“Yes, Elder. We seek your wisdom, your guidance, one last time.”

“My time has past. Surely I did not leave you all helpless, unable to fend for yourselves.”

“No, Elder, you did not. Yet there is the question of your successor.”

“Oh. Both Phillip and Peter claim leadership. Because they cannot settle the matter themselves, they involved you.”

None of his words sounded like a question, so Rebecca remained silent.

“I suppose we have an audience? The entire clan is watching you?”

“Yes, Elder.”

She never expected to hear a ghost sigh.

“Very well. Permit me to speak through you.”

“Of course, Elder.”

There was always a possibility it would come to this, but it didn’t make it any easier. The spirit entered her body, and it felt as though something was crawling under her skin. Almost instantly, she knew she no longer had control of her own body. The whole experience was nauseating. When her mouth open a voice that wasn’t hers came out.

“My children. I am told uncertainty has gripped you. Phillip. Peter. Come here.”

Rebecca’s vision was hazy; it felt like her eyes were far away. Still, she could make out the two men approach her – or rather their deceased father. Each towered over her, though they seemed cowed by their father’s voice and presence.

“You two cannot decide between you who should lead?”

“No. Father, you . . .” Phillip, the older of the two, spoke until he was cut off.

“So you make this girl bring me here to continue to make up for your failures.”

Every moment the Elder possessed her body increased the terror she felt. She wanted to scream, but even that release was denied her. Without consciously choosing to do so, she was constantly rebelling against the invader. The Elder proceeded as if she didn’t exist.

“The uncertainty was causing . . .” Peter tried, but he, too, was interrupted.

“You have demonstrated your lack of leadership skills, both of you. You have demonstrated to the entire clan that each of you is incompetent. You could not command respect and obedience now, even if I were to declare one of you. Very well. I will return and lead you once more.”

“But, father . . .” Phillip objected.

“Silence! You had your chance, and you squandered it. You asked for my guidance, and now I will give it. Not for your sake, but for our family’s sake. I can see they need better than you. In ten days, the new moon will rise.” Rebecca felt her body turn to face the gathering as a whole. “Make preparations. In ten days, I will return to you. This girl has shown more composure than either of my sons. When I return, I will join her to lead you out of this darkness you have fallen into. Rejoice! And prepare for my return!”

Rebecca wanted to say something, but she was overwhelmed by the physical sense of relief that washed through her body when the Elder left it. The world went black as she sank to the ground.

Helpless

David was useless, and it was the most frustrated he had ever felt. Rebecca was slumped on the floor and not responding to any of his pleas. The man who had terrified her into this position was walking over to her. And David was trapped in a stuffed rabbit with no ability to use magic. He could hardly imagine a worse situation.

The man – Peter, she had called him – approached Rebecca looking much like a predator. No magic was necessary to know that he had nothing except malicious intent, but David did not know how to stop him.

“Come now, Rebecca.” Peter said, looking down at her. “There is no need to be afraid. No one is angry with you. Your family just misses you. Don’t disappoint them. Let us return, so that they might be happy again.”

When Rebecca stood up woodenly, David found himself sinking even deeper into despair. She was going to go with him, and he could only watch.

“Good girl. Follow me, and we’ll put this place behind us.” Peter turned around without waiting for her to respond; his confidence that she would obey was absolute. After she followed him into the hallway, he paused and looked back into the room. With a flick of the fingers on his left hand, a spark flew to one of the armchairs, causing it to become engulfed in flames instantly. Rebecca did not react.

As the pair walked down the hall, David snuck out behind them, avoiding the flames. There was little in the hallway before they would reach the stairs. Could he reach Sarah or Thomas before they got out the front door? Even if he could, would he be able to make them understand the situation? He decided the best option was to follow them, to see where they went, so he could help the others find her later. Nothing else seemed to have much chance of success.

A portal opened in the hallway. Was that how Peter was planning on leaving? David got ready to jump into it to follow them when Julia’s voice came from the other side.

“Who the hell are you?”

Peter sneered. “How are you still alive?”

“My house, my question.”

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

“Yes.” Her voice was hollow, nothing more than an echo of herself.

“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.” Peter waved his hand and muttered something; the portal vanished.

As they reached the top of the stairs, David heard another voice. “Now! Run in front of him.” It was Jason, but that was impossible. Once more the voice reverberated though his head. “Now!”

David ran as quickly as he could manage when Peter began to take the first step. Peter’s foot struck David and sent him flying down to the first floor. Turning over and over as he flew through the air, he could tell that a number of stairs were missing. Instead, there was a hole that appeared to open to a cave. The only light inside was from a burning armchair. Peter, having lost his balance, fell forward and through the hole. His scream was abruptly cut off by the portal’s closing.

Rebecca sat down on the floor in the hallway. David clambered up the steps as quickly as his small body would let him.

Are you okay?

Rebecca looked at him with a confused expression on her face. He expected her to ask him who he was, but she didn’t. “I think so. Is he really gone?”

As far as I know. Julia sent him . . . somewhere. I assume he won’t be able to get back right away.

“Good. Julia? Are you still around?” Rebecca looked around the hallway, but there was no response.

Was that really your father?

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Okay. David searched for something else to say. Hey, during all that, just before your fa . . . just before Peter fell, did you hear Jason?

“Jason’s dead.”

I know. But I could have sworn I heard him telling me to trip . . . Peter.

“I think I would know if his spirit were around here. It was probably just Julia.”

Yeah.

Rebecca stood up unsteadily before righting herself against the wall. Together, they walked back to her room.

Jason Is Dead

Sarah sat alone in the living area. The room seemed smaller each time she entered; she was certain Julia was taking space from it little by little. It was hard to blame her, though; no one ever used it. Sarah still made a point to sit occasionally, in the hopes she might encourage others to socialize. So far, it hadn’t worked.

Now Thomas’ secrets were undermining whatever little cohesiveness the house had. Maybe Madeline was right; maybe she should start her own house. This place was not what she had had in mind when she, Thomas, and Matthew had started the house. Now Matthew was gone, Julia was an anti-social recluse, Jason was . . . strange. Rebecca and David were too new to really have a sense of. A new house might be the answer. Maybe she could even convince Matthew to join her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by a stuffed animal running into the room. It was a . . . rabbit? Grey and brown, with long, floppy ears. Instead of hopping around, it was walking upright on its two back legs, though rather unsteadily. It looked up at Sarah with black eyes full of intelligence, and clambered up onto the couch next to her.

If she had lived a normal life, the situation would be terrifying. However, she recognized Rebecca’s handiwork, even if this one was new, and it was hardly threatening. The doll touched her hand, but soon got a frustrated look and stopped.

Rebecca walked in. “Sarah, have you . . .”

Before the other woman could finish, Sarah pointed to the rabbit.

“Oh, good. Thank you.”

“A new project, Rebecca?”

“Yeah…uh…no. Sarah, no. No lies. This is David.” Rebecca slumped into a chair. “I had to stick David’s spirit in the rabbit.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Last night. David followed Julia after she stormed off. Thomas and I followed. David was attacked, but I managed to capture his spirit before it vanished.”

“This all happened last night? How did you even know to follow them?”

Rebecca sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“I need to know what’s going on. Tell me everything.”

“I don’t know everything. What I do know is that a couple of months ago, right after David moved in, Thomas came to me and asked me to find a way to safeguard David. He really didn’t tell me much, just that David was likely to be fatally attacked, and that I might know how to save him. So I prepared a vessel, a receptacle for David’s spirit, but left the last step undone. Then it would be a matter of moments to trap him in the container.”

Rebecca stopped talking and stared at the rabbit for a few moments. “Yes. That’s why the bear took some of your hair. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything then. Thomas told me not to.”

She turned back to Sarah. “And I’m sorry to you, too. I really didn’t know what was going on. I trusted Thomas. I should have trusted you, too.”

“So then, David was attacked and you completed the container to stop his spirit from leaving.”

Rebecca looked back at the rabbit. “I’m getting to it.

“David wants me to get to the most important part. After David was attacked, Jason stepped in. I . . . I didn’t have a receptacle made for him.”

Sarah sat quietly, as the implication of that last detail slowly smothered her.

“Jason is . . .”

“. . . Dead. Yes. Whatever the creature was – Thomas called it a mana worm – attached itself to Jason. There was an explosion. When it subsided, the worm was nowhere to be seen. And Jason was dead.”

This couldn’t be happening. David was a stuffed rabbit. Jason was dead. This wasn’t possible.

“What about Julia?”

“She survived. Physically, at least. After yelling at Thomas, she shunted him and me back here. I haven’t seen her since.”

“And Thomas? Where is he?”

“His room, I imagine. I went immediately to my lab to re-embody David. Unfortunately, David’s body is back in whatever space we found Julia. We need to get that back.”

“We will. But I need to talk with Thomas.” Jason was dead. “Thank you for telling me all this, Rebecca. And for saving David. You two should rest. We’ll talk again. After I’ve spoken with Thomas.” Jason was dead. The time for talking had passed. Yelling would be a better approach. How could Thomas have let this happen?

Maze

David struggled to focus on the maze Samuel had set before him. Moving the snowball with his thoughts as quickly as he dared, he struggled to avoid the flames that constituted the walls. Its size had already been noticeably reduced.

“You are trying to force it.” Samuel’s voice came from behind him. “Magic is not a tool. It is an extension of the self. It is you. You are it.”

David knew this lesson by heart. However, knowing the words and putting them into practice were very different things. Samuel’s presence added a level of pressure that annoyed him. After being a searcher for several years, he thought he should be immune to such anxiety.

“Stop.” Samuel tried to hide his disappointment, but David knew him too well. “You have come very far, but you still have work to do. You cannot let yourself become distracted so easily. And you still need to learn to see the magic as a part of you, rather than a separate thing.” Samuel’s voice softened. “You did make it further than you ever have before. You should be proud of your progress.”

That was typical of Samuel. Chastise and then encourage. Still, David did feel a little better. Samuel had been his guide since the beginning, and there must be some hope if he was still willing to train David.

* * *

Years later, after David had mastered the maze, the two sat down together.

“You are nearly ready.”

David had waited a long time to hear those words, but he kept his excitement in check lest he give Samuel a reason to doubt his own judgment.

After seeing no reaction in his searcher, Samuel continued. “It’s time for you to consider what is next.”

This was not the conversation he had been expecting. “Would I not simply stay here? Help you carry on your work?”

Samuel shook his head. “You have learned much here, yet there is much I cannot teach you. To continue to grow, you must go elsewhere. You must find your own way.”

“I thought you wanted me here. To take over for you eventually.”

The smile on Samuel’s face was big and genuine. “Perhaps someday. You need experience. You need to learn things I do not know. Then, if… when… you do come back, you will bring skills you cannot get here. You will be a better mage.”

David’s mind reeled. “Where will I go?”

“I have a… an old acquaintance. He has a house and has asked after you. He wanted to send you an invitation, but I asked that he let me speak with you. In certain circles, he is well respected. This is a good opportunity for you.”

“So I must leave?”

“Everyone must leave at some time. You have been given a choice, however, and not everyone gets that.”

“But you want me to go.”

“It’s not a question of want. Being around Thomas, the other members of his house, will expose you to other ways of thinking about magic. It will give you experiences that can only deepen your understanding of our art.”

“Very well.”

“Good. Resume your studies. We can talk more about this at dinner.”

* * *

“David? David?”

At first, the voice sounded far away, and then became almost unbearably loud. It took several moments for his vision to clear. When it finally did, he saw Rebecca standing over him. She seemed much larger than he remembered.

“Good. You made it.”

He tried to ask what happened, but his mouth wouldn’t move.

“Don’t try to speak. Just think what you want to say. Clearly. I’ll be able to hear you.”

It took him a minute to figure out how to think the words without saying them aloud. What’s going on?

“You were attacked by a mana worm. Do you remember?”

What’s that?

“Long story. You were attacked. Nearly died.”

You saved me?

“After a fashion. I managed to trap your spirit before the worm completely devoured it. Unfortunately, your body was seriously damaged, so…”

Her voice trailing off sent a chill down his back. He raised his head a bit to look down at himself. Where his body should have been there was only the body of a stuffed animal.