New Tradition

The candles were once more arranged in concentric circles within Julia’s pocket space. This time, however, she had arranged four couches within the candles. Rebecca sat on one of them between David and Marie – the latter was resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and seemed to be dozing. Sarah lounged on the couch across from them, her elbow propping up her body. Julia sat on a third, while Aisha rested her head in Julia’s lap. The fourth couch remained empty.

“So you and Jason spent every Winter Solstice like this?” David asked.

Sarah gave him a look of warning, but Julia shrugged it off. “I appreciate the concern, Sarah, but it’s been roughly eighteen years since Jason’s death. I know it’s more recent for all of you, but I have had lots of time to find some measure of peace.

“To answer your question, David, yes. He and I would stay up all night talking. I know a number of magical traditions make use of this night for special rites, but he and I used it as a time to step back from every day life and reconnect as friends.”

“So why did you decide to invite us?” David followed up.

“Jason wanted me to belong somewhere. Maybe that sounds silly, but it was one thing he always was on me about. This night used to be about us, but I figured he would want you all here. And I think over the last several years, I’ve begun to understand the importance each of you has had in my life.” Absently, Julia ran her fingertips up and down Aisha’s arm, and the other woman smiled up at her.

“It’s too bad Thomas can’t be here,” Rebecca said softly so as not to waken Marie.

“Yes, it is. But no business tonight. No worrying about current troubles. Tonight is just about friendship.” Julia was firm but not angry.

“So the fourth couch?” Sarah gestured at it.

“Well, I did want there to be plenty of room to sit and get comfortable, but I have to admit it’s also for Jason. The last time I was here, Jason showed up. I thought there might be a chance . . .”

After a brief lull, David changed the subject. “So you were stuck in the past for fifteen years? What did you do the entire time?”

“Mostly, she got in trouble that I had to bail her out of.” Aisha answered.

“Ignore her.” Julia playfully covered Aisha’s mouth.

“Actually,” she continued after moving Julia’s hand, “she was quite boring. Always inside doing research. I had to find ways to get her to leave the house.”

“Yes, wild goose chases after magical books. Threatening to reveal my existence to my past self. Life with you around was never boring.”

Aisha laughed. “That’s why you kept me around.”

“Hmmm.” Despite her attempt to seem put out, Julia couldn’t keep a smile from her lips.

Sarah looked at Rebecca. “Have you heard from Bailey?”

“No.” Rebecca seemed a bit melancholic at the mention of her friend.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring you down.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t. Not really. I think about them now and again, but they are really good at not being found. I hope they’ll come back eventually, but we can’t control others.”

Marie murmured at shifted a bit without opening her eyes.

“Anyway, even ignoring all the major events of the past year, I’ve been busy helping Marie get set up. So I haven’t had much time to worry about Bailey.”

Another comfortable lull descended.

This time, Julia broke the silence. “How’s business at your store, David?”

“Slow, but I’m starting to develop a few regulars. I’m just happy to be in the community making connections.”

“It’s a good store. I’ve found a few items for my clients there,” Aisha volunteered. “I could probably funnel a few more customers your way.”

“That would be great, but I wouldn’t want to steal any of your business.”

Aisha waved away the concern. “There will always be more esoteric requests to keep me busy.”

Conversation continued to ebb and flow throughout the night. Julia look around at the group and couldn’t help but think that Jason would be pleased.

Meeting with the Enemy

“You aren’t seriously considering going?” Rebecca was nearly shouting.

“She’s right, Sarah. It’d be crazy to show up.” Julia was more subdued in her agreement.

The three of them, along with David, were sitting around the table.

“This is a chance to find out more about who attacked us.” Thomas had always kept his own counsel; Sarah was determined to operate more openly, so she told everyone what had happened while she was investigating the house where Matthew had been imprisoned.

“Do you even know where you’re supposed to meet?” David asked.

“I have an idea.” Sarah answered. “No one has been able to locate a temporal mage, so we have no way to break the spell on Thomas. This person can tell us what happened, maybe give us a clue as to how to help Thomas. And as long as he is out there, we’re all still in danger. He’s not going to stop until Thomas is dead, and that means going through us.”

Everyone stayed silent. Maybe they were trying to find fault with her reasoning. Maybe they just didn’t like it. Sarah didn’t like it herself, but she had to do this.

“Okay. So let’s consider how to approach this.”

* * *

“You’re a day early.”

The place where Thomas had apprenticed was now just an empty lot. Thomas had inherited it, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The remains of the house had been removed, but otherwise, it had remained untouched. Several trees were scattered around the edge of the area, and the rest was just grass. The attacker stood on one end of the lot, with Thomas’s image about fifty feet away.

“I thought I should check to be sure there were no surprises,” Sarah said with Thomas’s voice.

“Suspicion isn’t very becoming.”

“Hmmm. Well, I am here now; what did you want to say to me.”

“Where are my associates?”

“You called me here just to ask that?”

“No, of course not. It just seemed a waste not to ask.”

“So why am I here? Have you decided to call a truce?”

“Ha ha!” The man threw his head back in a genuine laugh. As he did so, the ground beneath Thomas’s feet exploded. Rubble flew in every direction, and smoke filled the air.

When it cleared, Thomas was in the same spot he had been.

“You’re not even really here? How disappointing,” the other man said.

“As I told you, I was expecting surprises.”

“I guess it was obvious.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sarah didn’t really expect an answer.

“You know I’m not going to tell you that.” He took a few steps back. “Well, I don’t intend to get into another battle with you right now. And since you aren’t really here, I suppose we’ll have to do this some other time.” After several more steps, he vanished.

“I still think we should have tried to eliminate him while we had the chance,” Julia said to Sarah. They had concealed themselves down the street from the empty lot.

“I know, but without knowing what he is capable of, that could have gone horribly wrong.”

“So did you learn anything?”

“No. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to make the attempt.”

Aisha stepped out from a nearby shadow.

“Were you able to plant it?” Julia asked.

Aisha smiled and nodded.

“Then we got what we came for,” Sarah said. “Now we can try to fill in some of our blind spots and better prepare for our next move.”

“You’re the boss,” Julia said with a smile.

After the Siege

“Matthew?! What happened?” Sarah’s surprise threatened to overwhelm her.

“If I could sit . . .” His voice was strained, and every movement caused his face to contort with pain.

“Of course.”

Sarah and David slowly led Matthew to one of the big armchairs where he collapsed into the soft cushions. While Matthew tried to find a comfortable position, David spoke.

“I found him tied up in a basement down the street. The men who entered the house earlier came from there. I think they were holding him.”

“Good guess, kid. They thought I could help them, give them information on the house. In the end, though, they just left me there. Did they get Thomas?”

Sarah wasn’t sure how much to tell him. Trust wasn’t an issue between them, but she wasn’t sure he was strong enough at the moment to deal with the whole situation. “He’s still upstairs. Not dead. My current priority, however, is your well-being. How badly are you hurt?”

“I’ve felt better, but I’m going to live.” He forced a smile.

The light-heartedness he was trying to project actually caused her to worry more. “Do you think they’ll come back?”

“Hard to say. If they didn’t get him, they’ll be back. I don’t know how soon.” The pain showing on his face had become constant.

“Rebecca? Can you help?”

“Of course.” Rebecca closed her eyes and stretched out her hand towards Mathew. After only a few seconds, his head dropped towards his chest, and his breathing steadied. “Julia, I need some help getting him to the infirmary.”

Julia opened a portal and helped Rebecca carry him through.

“So what happened in the house?”

Sarah was thinking about Matthew and didn’t hear David’s question.

“Sarah?”

“Sorry.” She shook her head a bit to try to bring her focus back to the moment. “What did you say?”

“I asked what happened.”

“As Matthew said, they were after Thomas.”

“But they failed?”

A wave of exhaustion swept over her once more, so she slumped into a chair. “Sort of. Thomas is in his room, frozen in time. Two of the attackers are up there, too. They didn’t kill or capture him, but he is currently incapacitated.”

“How do we save him?”

“That’s what we were discussing when you came in. We aren’t sure yet.”

“Why didn’t you tell Matthew.”

“He needs rest. Needs to recover. There’s nothing he can do right now in his condition. Was there anything else in the house where you found him? Any clue?”

“No. The place was empty. I doubt they had been there long.”

“Okay. You should get some rest, too. Oh, and would you mind not leaving the house for the next few days. If they do come back, I’d rather have you in here with us.”

“Sure. Whatever I can do.”

“And David? Thank you for finding Matthew.”

“Purely accidental. But you’re welcome.”

David left Sarah alone with her thoughts. Matthew being back in the house, even wounded, managed to give her a little comfort, but there were still a lot of unknowns to deal with. Her first task was studying the features of the men in Thomas’s room. She wanted to be able to reproduce them as exactly as possible.

Siege (part eight)

“So there are three people frozen in time in Thomas’s room, and we have no idea how to release them?” Rebecca’s voice betrayed the toll that stress had taken on her.

“Yes. That is the current situation.” Sarah felt exhausted.

“On a positive note, the barrier seems to be gone.” Julia tried to sound upbeat but failed.

The three women were sitting downstairs. They had tried to move the men without success. For now, at least, they were stuck in their current positions.

“Can you use your blue crystal?” Rebecca asked Julia.

“No. I haven’t figured out how to extend its use. I was lucky that it worked on Bailey. But mind control is a different sort of magic than temporal stasis.”

Rebecca slumped further into her chair, the hope she had harbored briefly fully extinguished.

“We need another temporal mage.” Julia said. “Do you know anyone, Sarah?”

“No. Thomas was . . .” She caught herself. “ . . . is the only one I’ve met. It’s clear they were after him, but we still don’t know why.”

Silence fell over them as each reflected on the matter. For her part, Sarah was not certain how to feel. She knew she couldn’t leave Thomas as he was, but it might mean the house was safe, at least for now. On the other hand, he might also have an idea as to who their attackers were, or even why they had attacked.

“We should restore our own defenses. Whoever it was that got away, he could come back. Can you put up a barrier of our own, Julia?” Sarah refused to sit still and wait for the next thing to happen.

“I can, but there is a reason I didn’t put one up before. With preparation, they can be taken down. It worked in this case because we didn’t have the time to break it. If I set one up, they could figure out how to deal with it before we notice. At best, it would slow them down.”

“That’s better than nothing.”

“Okay. I just wanted you to know the limits of it. I’ll put one up and reactivate the long hallway. Leaving one up for too long might also attract unwanted attention. Once I can figure out a way to remove barriers quickly, I think we should consider taking it down.”

“What about the men upstairs?” Rebecca asked.

“There’s nothing we can do about them, remember?” Sarah answered.

“No. I meant, what if the stasis is temporary. What if they can start moving. They’re still a threat.”

“That’s a good point. I’ll put up a barrier around them. Even if they manage to break out, at least we’ll know.”

“I’m sorry to put so much on you, Julia.” Sarah said.

Julia shrugged. “Defending the house is my job. It’s why you all let me stick around in spite of my anti-social attitude.”

“That’s not true,” Sarah protested.

“Relax. I’m joking. Mostly. Anyway, it’ll give me something to do.”

“Rebecca. Do you think you could contact Thomas’s soul? See if it’s frozen too? Maybe we can contact him through the spirit world?”

Rebecca appeared to think about the idea for a few moments. “I can try. I don’t know if it will work, but I will try.”

“That’s all I ask. I will see if I can track down the identities of our uninvited guests. Maybe that will provide us with some answers.”

They heard the front door open and then David’s voice.

“Barrier’s down. Is anybody here?”

“In here,” Sarah replied.

David came around the corner, but he wasn’t alone. He was supporting another person who seemed to be unconscious.

“David! Who . . .?” Sarah had rushed over to help.

At the sound of her voice, the figure raised its head and gave her a weak smile. “Sarah. It’s good to see you.”

Her surprise caused her to take a step back. “Matthew?!”

Siege (part seven)

“Try again,” Rebecca insisted.

Sarah knocked on Thomas’s door again, with the same result. It didn’t make a sound. She looked at the other two mages and shrugged. They knew that others had entered the house, but they had been unable to locate them. Thomas’s room was the obvious place to check.

“I’m guessing it’s sealed,” Julia said. “We probably couldn’t move it no matter what we do.”

“Couldn’t you bypass the door?” Rebecca asked.

“Don’t.” Sarah said to stop Julia from trying. “We have no idea what’s going on in there.” Sarah leaned against the wall.

“So we just sit out here and wait?” Rebecca sounded frustrated.

Neither Sarah nor Julia answered. Sarah wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but a part of her thought that Thomas deserved whatever was happening. His recklessness had driven Matthew away, killed Jason, and he had refused to help Rebecca when she had been taken. If this attack was aimed at him, then he hand endangered everyone. Again. Saving him from himself . . . Saving those he so casually put in harm’s way over and over . . . It was all exhausting. She would rather not continue doing it.

But the rest of her knew she couldn’t ignore the situation. Thomas was a member of this house, and she wouldn’t abandon him, even if that’s what he would do. “Julia, do you think you can get in?”

“Probably.” The spatial mage focused her attention on the wall beside the door. She took a few steps down the hallway, before turning back. “Here. You want me to open it? Are you ready?”

Sarah nodded. “Do it. But let me go in first.”

The wall appeared to flow open, and on the other side, she could see a man crouching over Thomas. It looked as though he was trying to pick the mage up and not having any success. The moment he noticed her, he began casting.

Sarah had already crafter multiple images of herself, leaving him without a clear target.

“This again,” he muttered. He pulled spell sphere from his pocket and dropped it as his feet.

Julia yelled from behind her as the portal opened up, but it was too late. The man had already jumped through, and it closed behind him.

“Can you follow him?”

Julia shook her head.

Thomas hadn’t moved at all, so Sarah bent down to check on him. He didn’t seem to be breathing and was completely stiff. More than that, she realized, she couldn’t move him at all; not even his skin gave way to her touch. It was as though he had turned to marble.

“What about these guys?”

Julia’s question drew her attention to the rest of the room. There were two men standing near the door, and neither of them were moving.

Sarah suddenly understood. “Stasis. They are frozen in time. So is Thomas. They must be the other mages who came into the house.”

“Frozen in time? I didn’t realize that was even possible.” Rebecca said. “How do we unfreeze them?”

Sarah looked back down at Thomas. “I have no idea.”

Siege (part four)

The pounding in her head was the first thing Julia became aware of. Underneath her was the hard ground, bare of any vegetation. The light was that of the late afternoon, but there was no sun overhead. She was in one her own extra spaces. The explosion must have thrown her inside, probably sparing her from the worst of the blast. Behind her, the portal to her room was still open.

On the other side, she saw Rebecca and Sarah just sitting in the middle of the debris. Neither was moving; they just seemed to be staring at nothing.

“Rebecca. Sarah.” She called to them, but they didn’t react.

When she tried to pass through back to her room, Julia discovered another barrier had cut her off. This one had the same resonance as the one around the house. Whoever was responsible must have erected it after she had been tossed through the portal. This barrier extended all around the space, trapping her in an even smaller area, only about five feet in diameter.

Her friends weren’t in any condition to help her. The mage who had erected these barriers – even using them to circumvent the Long Hallway – was impressive. But how impressive? There was little doubt as to their skill, but how much stamina did they have? How much magical resources did they have at their disposal?

While this space was small, Julia had intended to make it larger, so she began adding volume to it now. If nothing else, it would give her more room to think. Someone watching from the other side wouldn’t notice any change because only the portal was in her room. But the barrier would have to grow to cut off the entire area and keep her trapped; otherwise, she could just create another portal somewhere else.

As her pocket dimension grew, she could feel the barrier thinning. Julia had a number of the white crystals with her, so she had plenty of energy. Eventually, the barrier broke apart, popping like a balloon. The other mage must have reached their limit and chose to maintain the barrier around the house instead of fighting her.

Julia quickly stepped through the portal and let it fade behind her. Would the same trick work on the larger barrier around the house? She wasn’t sure. It would probably require a lot of magic to create enough extra space, and she wasn’t sure she had that many crystals available.

Before working through that problem, she needed to wake her friends. Shaking each of them by their shoulders didn’t work. Even yelling in their ears had no effect. It was like they were hypnotized or possessed . . .

Julia jumped up and hurried to her work bench. It had been years – at least from her perspective – since she had seen it, but it was here somewhere. After sifting through the clutter, she found what she was looking for in a drawer: the blue crystal she had made for Bailey. With the crystal, she ran back to the other mages and put it into Sarah’s hands. It took only a few moments for Sarah’s eyes to begin to focus.

“Julia?”

“Yeah. Hold on.” Julia thrust the blue crystal into Rebecca’s hands.

“We were looking for you, but couldn’t find you.” Sarah sounded unsure of her own words.

“I think someone was messing with your heads, though I don’t know for sure. I think you’re okay now. Rebecca? Are you with us?”

Rebecca nodded. “We definitely need someone who specializes in mind magic.”

“Later. Right now, we need to deal with the barrier on the house.”

“I think I have an idea,” Sarah offered.

Siege (part two)

Minutes went by, but their search turned up nothing. While they continued sifting through the rubble, Sarah asked, “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

“This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

“When I asked her about breaking through the barrier, she said it was probably impossible. But maybe she found a way? And doing so created an explosion? I just don’t know.” Sarah couldn’t help but feel anxious. They were already down a member with David outside of the house. If Julia was also missing, the house’s defenses would be seriously compromised.

“Well, I don’t see any signs of her,” Rebecca said. “I hope your speculation is right, because all the other possibilities I can think of are horrible.”

Sarah nodded in agreement.

A door leading to one of the back rooms opened and Julia walked out. “What’s going on out here?”

“Julia?!” Both women exclaimed in unison.

“What happened to you?” Sarah asked.

“Where did you go?” Rebecca’s question overlapped Sarah’s.

“What are you talking about? I’ve been right here.” Irritation was obvious in her voice and body language. “Why did you two break into my room? And what did you do to create this mess?”

Sarah looked to Rebecca, who briefly closed her eyes. “It’s her.”

Sarah turned back to Julia. “Don’t you remember? The house is under attack. We thought you’d been hurt because Rebecca lost contact with you.”

“You were spying on me?” Julia glared at Rebecca.

Sarah stepped between the two women so that Julia would be forced to look at her. “Julia. What is going on? We were working together. We are all in danger. Why are you acting like we’re the enemy?”

Julia’s anger seemed to subside a little, and confusion replaced it. “That doesn’t make sense. I don’t recall any of that.”

“Is she under the influence of a spell?”

Rebecca shrugged. “I can’t tell. I know it’s her, but I don’t have any good way to determine whether there is a spell on her.”

“You think someone has messed with my head?”

Sarah gestured at the room. “You don’t remember this happening. You didn’t hear it happen, even though you said you were here. Rebecca and I arrived after this. Do you have any explanation?”

Julia thought for a few moments and then lashed out, her anger returning in force. “Just get out of here.”

“Julia, you’re not making sense. We need to work together.”

“I’ve seen how Thomas works, Sarah. I’m not interested.”

Sarah was caught off guard. Hadn’t Julia let go of her animosity toward Thomas? Even if someone had erased her recent memories, they wouldn’t have wiped fifteen years worth, would they? Could they?

To Rebecca, she asked, “Are you certain this is her?”

“Without a doubt.”

“How did . . .”

Sarah was struck by a wave of disorientation. When it passed, she returned to searching through the rubble. “Are you certain Julia was in here?”

Rebecca nodded. “This is where she was when I lost contact. Could she have gotten out?”

Siege (part one)

Rebecca had no experience with an attack on a House, unless Peter’s attempted abduction counted. According to Sarah, such attacks were not unheard of, but her family had never been subjected to one. An advantage of being isolated from the rest of the world, she assumed.

Nothing had happened yet, but both Julia and Sarah were convinced something was coming. How were they to prepare for such an attack without knowing when it would come or what form it would take? Her expertise seemed particularly ill-suited for dealing with this situation.

Once more, she had been asked to stretch her abilities and connect everyone mentally. If they survived this, she was going to insist on recruiting a mentalist mage. Spirit magic wasn’t really mean for this. The best she could do in this situation was to keep track of emotional states. It lacked the exactness of verbal communication, but it should alert her if someone was attacked. Julia had left a small portal open for her to share information, but because she was also trying to prepare, she had only had the concentration for keeping one open.

Something began tapping her leg. Looking down, she saw the bear trying to get her attention. It had been roaming the halls on the lookout for anything unusual. It was motioning her to follow.

“Julia?”

“Busy.” Julia’s voice sounded strained.

“My bear found something. I’m going to go check it out.”

“Be careful.”

The bear led her through the hallway to the stairs leading down to the first floor. At the bottom of the stairs laid a pack of cards. Jason used to play, but she hadn’t seen a deck since his death.

A slight distortion shimmered in the air around the cards. It quickly dissipated, and the cards seemed to settle more naturally on the floor. As she tried to puzzle out what had happened, a wave of surprise washed over her and then vanished. Someone was missing.

She located Sarah’s calm, determined mind immediately. After a few moments, Thomas’s mix of anxiety and irritation came into focus. “Julia?” There was no response. She couldn’t find the spatial mage anywhere.

Taking the steps two at a time, Rebecca hurried to Julia’s door and began knocking loudly. “Julia? Julia!”

Her own fear grew with the silence. No one else was experiencing distress, so she ran to Sarah’s room. The other mage opened the door immediately.

“Something has happened with Julia.”

“Where?” Sarah’s calm demeanor helped ease Rebecca’s own anxiety a little.

“Her room.”

Sarah walked quickly down the hall to Julia’s door and knocked. “Julia?”

“I already tried.”

With a slight hesitation, Sarah grabbed the knob and turned it. Both women were surprised when the door swung wide open.

Instead of the void they had found the last time they had entered Julia’s rooms uninvited, there was a room. However, it looked like the aftermath of explosion. Debris was scattered everywhere, and the ceiling had collapsed. They could see an inky void through the hole. Without waiting another moment, both of them began digging through the rubble, looking for their friend.

The Cure (part two)

“You want me to do what?”

David couldn’t tell if Rebecca was confused or irritated. “I need you to connect me to someone else’s mind, so I can try to undo the damage caused by a horror.”

Clearly skeptical, Rebecca just stared at him.

“I figure, if I can get into her mind, I can use my own training to strengthen her against the madness.”

“Are sure the horror hasn’t driven you mad?”

“Rebecca, please . . .”

“First Thomas, and now you. If everyone is in such need of a mental specialist, we should recruit one. I am a spirit mage. There is some overlap, but this isn’t really my forte.” She didn’t sound upset so much as helpless.

“I know, and I’m sorry, but I have no one else I can ask. I just need you to get me in. I can take it from there.”

“You know I’m not prepared for this, and I’m not just talking about specialties. I have no training in dealing with horrors. What if the madness spreads to me?”

“That won’t happen.”

“Are you certain? You’ve done this before?”

“Well . . . no, I haven’t. But horrors can’t infect others through an intermediary.”

“David.” She sounded a bit like Samuel. “Even if it’s not dangerous for me, what about you? I’m not comfortable with the idea of helping you do something so risky.”

“I know this seems foolish, but this woman came to me for help. She doesn’t deserve this. I have to at least try.”

Rebecca was silent for a minute, perhaps considering his plea. “You know, I may not be able to do it. This really isn’t my area.”

“I know, but we can try. Thank you.”

She sighed and followed him. As they turned the corner onto the block with Jennifer’s house, they saw the flashing lights of an ambulance. David ran to the house just as the ambulance doors slammed shut. Jennifer’s sister, Sue, was standing in front, tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What happened?”

Gesturing at the ambulance as it drove away, Sue replied, “I left her alone for just a minute. She seemed better . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she began sobbing. David tried to console her, but she shoved him away violently.

“You said you would help her! Where were you?!” Sobs again wracked her body.

David started to explain but stopped himself. The last thing she needed was to hear him make excuses. Rebecca arrived and gently pulled him away from the inconsolable woman.

There was still a police officer on the scene taking notes. David walked over to him.

“Can I ask what happened?”

The officer looked up. “Who are you?”

“A friend of Jennifer’s.”

“Her sister seemed pretty angry at you.”

“I had promised to help, but I took to long to get here.”

“How were you going to help a suicidal woman? You a therapist?”

“Something like that.”

“What did you say your name was?”

Before David could respond, the radio on the officer’s shoulder began making an inhuman shrieking sound. The officer covered his ears involuntarily, then ran to his car, which was making the same noise.

With the officer distracted, Rebecca again came up to David and led him away.

“Did you do that?” He asked.

Rebecca smiled. “Spirits love messing with electronics. It doesn’t take much encouragement.”

The rest of the walk back to the house was quiet. David was lost in his own thoughts, and Rebecca seemed unwilling to interrupt him. Just before they went inside, though, she stopped him.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Why does it feel like it is?”

“Because you care. But you can’t save everyone.”

“You sound like my guide, Samuel.”

“He must be a very wise person.”

He gave a half-hearted chuckle, but he couldn’t forgive himself. Not yet.

Recognition

“What did happen with Thomas?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not sure how much Rebecca has told you,” Julia began, “but after we arrived in Thomas’s old lab, I went to talk with Jason. Before I could say much, Jason stopped me. He didn’t want to know anything about the future to avoid changing it. He encouraged me to go back to my own time.”

“That’s why you were so insistent we leave?” Rebecca was listening as attentively as Sarah.

Julia nodded. “I was worried Thomas was going to change something, screw things up. As much as I didn’t want Jason to die, I couldn’t know if Thomas would make things worse. The whole plan had come to seem like a very bad idea. So I shoved Thomas back through the portal, and I had to close it before he could return.”

“You shoved him?” Sarah tried to imagine the two mages coming to blows. “He didn’t use magic to stop you?”

“Casting the spell took all his energy. Well, I suppose I used most of his reserves to power the spell. I needed magic infused with temporal essence to get it to work. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy draining him, but it really was necessary.”

“My guess is that his anger is more about being prevented from finding out more about the attack rather than anything else. I’ll try to smooth things over with him. Maybe stay out of his way for now.”

“Sure.” Julia shifted a little, as though she was uncertain about how to say something. “Maybe now is not the best time to bring it up, but there was someone helping me over the last fifteen years. I think she would be a good addition to the house.”

“I’d like to meet her . . .”

“Me, too,” Rebecca interjected with some enthusiasm.

“. . . but you’re right that we might want to wait for a formal invitation, at least until Thomas has cooled off some.”

“I’ve told her as much. Let me introduce you.” A simple gesture from Julia opened a portal and a woman stepped through. She was the same height as Julia, and her shoulder length black hair was pulled back. She smiled at both Sarah and Rebecca.

“Hi. I’m Aisha. Julia’s told me quite a bit about both of you. You’re Sarah?” She extended a hand to Sarah, who accepted it. “And you’re Rebecca.” She repeated the offer of a handshake. “It’s good to meet you.” Then she turned to Julia. “Well, the house is still standing. I assume the reunion went okay?”

Julia shrugged. “There was a moment when I wasn’t sure. Sarah managed to diffuse things.”

Sarah was beginning to feel overwhelmed, but she made sure it didn’t show. The years had really changed Julia. Technically, she was now the oldest member of the house. And Aisha was personable and disarming, not the sort of person she would expect Julia to befriend. There was a lot to process, and she was doing her best to keep up.

“Aisha, it is a pleasure to meet you. I must thank you for helping Julia. It has been a crazy twenty-four . . .”

Aisha had stopped paying attention and had focused on a framed picture on top of the mantelpiece. She picked it up and walked over to Julia with it.

“What . . .?” Sarah didn’t understand why Aisha would be interested in a photo of the original members of the house.

After exchanging a meaningful glance with Aisha, Julia looked at Sarah. “This is you, Thomas, and . . .”

“Matthew. Yes. It was taken shortly after we started the house. Why?”

“We had a run-in with a mage several years ago. He had been setting a trap for a time mage, someone he said was a friend of his. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. It was Matthew.”