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.

A Death in the Family (part 3)

Thomas knocked on the door. Urgency made him want to rush, but he forced himself to stay calm. There was still time.

The door opened revealing Rebecca behind it. “He followed Julia, just as you said.”

“Good.” Thomas nodded. “Are you ready?”

The glare Rebecca gave him was pure ice. “You have been asking that question far too often lately. Considering how little you’ve told me about what is going on, I think I’ve been very accommodating. The least you could do is stop questioning my competence.”

“Fine. Let’s go.”

Thomas turned to walk toward the stairs and nearly crashed into Jason.

“Where are you rushing off to?”

Jason was his equal in many ways, but too carefree for his own good. Thomas envied him, but resented him, too. He never took anything seriously.

“We are trying to prevent something bad from happening.”

“Such as?”

“No time to explain right now. Maybe later.” Over his shoulder, Thomas called back to Rebecca. “You know where David is?”

“Yes.”

“Good, then…”

“David?” Jason interrupted. “If you’re going to see him, could you give him this?” Jason held out a white crystal that was a little longer than his hand. It glowed brightly.

A feeling of dread spread throughout Thomas. “What is that?”

“It’s the special power crystal you asked me to make for him.”

“Why doesn’t he have it already?”

“Took longer to make than I expected, but it’s done now. Why do you look so upset?”

“Rebecca! Show me where David is. Right now!”

For a moment, Rebecca said nothing. Maybe she was taken by surprise. Maybe she was getting ready to chastise him again. His urgency, however, had boiled over, and there was no time for niceties. David needed that crystal. Now.

“It’s one of Julia’s pocket spaces. An outdoors one. Hard to pinpoint, but use this. It should help.” She handed him a glass vial with a strand of hair in it. “I need it back.”

Thomas nodded and began to focus on the hair. Julia was better at this than he was, but a piece of his target helped make up some of the difference. After a couple of minutes, he had a link to David. Another minute, and a portal opened. He grabbed the crystal from Jason. “Let’s go,” he commanded, and stepped through. Rebecca followed and immediately held out her hand for him to return the vial.

They found themselves in a grassy clearing at night. About fifty feet away, a figure was holding up a hand that was wrapped in flame. It took a moment before Thomas recognized David, but before he could say anything, a creature leapt from the night, wrapped itself around the younger mage, and dragged him to the ground.

A sense of terror knocked Thomas to his knees. He hadn’t been able to find the source of the danger no matter where he looked, and now he knew why. Mage devourers were impossible to detect with magic. Now that it had David, Thomas knew of no way to get it off him. What was worse, he didn’t know how to stop the creature after it was done with his first victim. David was supposed to stop it somehow, but Thomas didn’t know how that might be accomplished. It had something to do with the crystal Jason had made. That he hadn’t given to David.

“Cool.” Jason walked up next to Thomas. He must have come through the portal as well, though Thomas hadn’t seen him arrive. Before Thomas could reply, Jason had snatched the crystal and began walking toward David and the devourer.

“Jason! What are you doing?” Thomas tried to follow him, but couldn’t manage to get back on his feet.

“Probably what you should have asked me to do in the first place.” Jason’s voice was matter-of-fact with no hint of accusation. He kept walking. As he neared the downed mage, the devourer let go of David and immediately sprang at Jason, who didn’t even try to avoid it. The crystal in Jason’s hand began to glow brighter and brighter. The explosion knocked everyone back.

Thomas must have lost consciousness. When he came to, he heard crying from a little ways off. Looking around, he saw Rebecca stirring a few feet away. In his terror and confusion, he had forgotten about her part in this.

“Rebecca. Did you …?”

“Yes. Now quit yelling. My head is killing me.”

Another survey discovered the source of crying. Julia was holding a body in her arms, rocking back and forth. It had to be Jason. He stood and walked over to her. The body had indeed been Jason. There was no sign of the devourer anywhere.

Julia looked up at him, her eyes red from grief. “You did this. You killed him.” He knew that, if she had more control over her emotions, she would have destroyed him then and there. Instead, she turned back to the burnt out husk of the only person she seemed to care about.

A Death in the Family (part 1)

“So do you know what Thomas is up to?” Rebecca watched Sarah closely for any reaction, but the other woman was unfazed by the question.

They were sitting in Rebecca’s room, drinking tea. Rebecca genuinely liked Sarah, but she was still cautious around her, the result of living on her own for too long. In that respect, she knew that she and Julia were alike. But Julia was even more closed off, and the two had rarely spoken to one another.

“Honestly, I don’t. What makes you think he is up to anything?”

“Just some questions he’s asked me.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Before Rebecca could find a noncommittal response, yelling could be heard in the hell outside her door. Both women leapt to their feet and rushed out into the hallway. Julia was standing at the bottom of the stairs that led to the floor above.

“. . . should never have come here! I can’t believe I ever considered trusting you!”

“Julia. Please listen to me . . . ” Thomas’s voice came from up the steps though he was still out of sight.

“No! I’m done listening to you!” Julia spun around and walked over to Sarah and Rebecca. “Did you know about this?” She pushed a piece of paper into Sarah’s hands. On it was a short list, and Rebecca could see one item in particular: “Julia has not died.”

“What is this?” Sarah asked.

“I found it in Thomas’s room.” Julia’s voice was angry, yet fear permeated it as well. “You don’t know anything about it?”

“I swear, Julia, I don’t.”

Rebecca nodded her agreement with Sarah’s denial.

“Then I recommend you get out of here before you wind up on one of his lists.”

Thomas appeared at the bottom of the stairs, but he didn’t say anything. As soon as she saw him, Julia stormed away. She crashed into David, who was just coming out of his own room, and knocked him down. Without stopping, she headed down to the main floor. The slamming of the front door reverberated throughout the house.

Sarah held up the piece of paper in front of Thomas, who had joined them outside of Rebecca’s room. “What is this, Thomas?”

“It’s personal. She took it from my room, a violation of the rules.” As always, his voice was subdued and betrayed little emotion.

“Perhaps, but you admit it’s yours, and it does seem troubling. Convince me it’s not.”

“Could we discuss this privately?”

David had gotten up and joined Rebecca in watching the exchange between the two senior mages.

Sarah shook her head. “They will have questions, too. Unless you want to let suspicion fester, best we talk in front of them.”

“Very well,” Thomas sighed. “Looking around the timeline, I find it useful to leave myself notes so I don’t lose track of when I am, of what is future and what is past. No one is supposed to see them.”

“And this is one such list? Julia found it?”

“Yes. I have safeguard in place to keep everyone out, but her talents with space are greater than my own. Obviously.”

“So you know she’s going to die int he future?”

“No. The future isn’t fixed. But it might happen.”

“When?”

“It’s not clear. Soon, though.”

“Why didn’t you tell us? Or at least tell her?”

“I… She… I don’t have any specifics. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. And you know she doesn’t like others interfering with her life. I was trying to find a way to help her without upsetting her.”

“Well done, then.” Sarah thought a moment. “If she’s in danger, it might mean we all are. You should have…”

“No. No one else is in danger. I checked.”

“You can’t be sure of that. If you want this house to work, you can’t keep these kinds of secrets.”

“I don’t need you to tell me. . .”

“You put me in charge of this house. This is my responsibility.” She paused a beat. “Or are you forcing me out?”

Thomas opened his mouth, then closed it again. He went back upstairs without saying anything else.

Sarah turned to the other two mages. “I’m sorry about all of this. I promise to sort it all out. Let’s all take some time to get a little perspective, then meet again later to discuss everything.”

“What about Julia? Shouldn’t we go after her?” David’s concern was obvious.

Sarah shook her head. “She doesn’t want to be bothered when she isn’t upset. I doubt she wants any of us following her now. Better to let her cool off.”

David nodded and headed back to his room.

“We’ll talk later?” Rebecca asked.

“Yes. Promise.”

Rebecca accepted that and went back through her own door as Sarah walked away.

Several minutes after the hallway emptied, David’s door opened again. He quietly crossed over to the stairs leading down and followed Julia out of the house.

Hair Sample

There was a light tapping on the door. It was so quiet, David almost didn’t hear it, and when he opened the door, there was no one there. As soon as he closed the door, the tapping returned. This time, something caught his attention in his peripheral vision, and he looked down.

A light brown teddy bear, not even a foot tall, stood on the floor looking up at him. As soon as it was certain David had seen it, it began running down the hallway.

“What the hell?” He was tempted to follow the stuffed animal but decided it was probably a prank from one of the other house members. He closed the door and headed back to his research. Almost immediately, the tapping was back once more.

Sure enough, the teddy bear stood there. This time, it waited for him to step into the hallway before running. It moved surprisingly fast for its size, and he had to jog to keep up. After rounding a corner, it stopped outside another door and looked at him.

This wasn’t Sarah’s room, and he hadn’t met anyone else yet, so David hesitated. The bear, however, appeared to grow impatient and knocked on the door itself. A moment later, a woman opened the door. She looked at the bear first.

“Is this him?”

The bear nodded before walking into the room and vanishing from sight.

“David. Nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca. Please, come in.” She opened the door wider and gestured for him to enter.

A little perplexed, David nodded and stepped inside. The room before him was circular. A round table was pushed against the wall, and a couple of couches faced each other in the center of the area. Two doors led elsewhere, though both were closed. This place had an entirely different layout from his rooms, and it looked as though it wasn’t even in the same building.

“Have a seat. Can I get you anything to drink?”

The question forced his attention back to her. “Uh… I’m sorry. It’s nice to meet you, but I don’t know what this is about.”

She smiled. “Oh. I just wanted to introduce myself and get to know you a little. Thomas suggested everyone do so, and I just hadn’t had a free moment until now. You weren’t busy, were you? I didn’t mean to drag you away from your work, if this is a bad time.”

“No, it’s fine.” He waved away her concern. “I was just taken aback by your… bear.”

“Yeah. It’s my assistant, after a fashion. Not a usual sight, I suppose. I really need to give it a name.”

“Your assistant is a teddy bear?”

“Haha. It’s a spirit. I put it in the bear. Useful, if a little unpredictable. Nothing malicious about it, though. I used the bear thinking it would be less unsettling.”

“Hmmm.” David was unsure it had achieved the desired effect.

“So… how do you know Thomas,” she asked.

“I don’t. Not really. He knew my… instructor. Asked if I would join the house once my training was finished. Seemed like a good opportunity, so here I am. Not really sure what to make of it, or what’s expected of me. But it’s nice having my own lab.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes it is. Honestly, since I’ve been here, no one’s really asked much of anything from me, either. I feel a bit like a freeloader, actually. Jason supplies us all with crystals. Sarah and Julia seem to handle security. And Thomas is rarely around. Every time I ask Sarah if there is something I should be doing, she tells me not to worry about it. That Thomas will let me know if I’m needed for something. Mostly, I just pursue my own investigations.”

“She told me something similar. And I still haven’t even met Jason or Julia.”

“You may not meet Julia for awhile. She keeps to herself. You’ll bump into Jason eventually. My advice? Just relax. This is a rather laid back house.”

“I’m getting that… Ow!!!”

It felt as though he had been poked in the head with something sharp like a needle. He spun around to find the teddy bear on the back of the couch. “What the…?!”

Rebecca jumped to her feet and rushed over to shoo the bear away. “Crap! It’s never done that before. Are you okay?”

Rubbing the back of his head, David tried to downplay it. “Yeah. It just startled me. Are you sure that thing isn’t evil?”

“Yes. Or… at least I was.” She picked up the bear, opened one of the doors, and threw it inside before slamming the door shut again. “I’m really sorry. If I had any inkling it would do that, I never have let it out.”

“It’s okay. Just… Check it, will you? I’m not fond of demonic entities wandering around. Even if they’re only teddy bears.”

Rebecca tried to stifle a chuckle. “It’s not, but I will make sure. I’m sorry we’ve gotten off on a bad foot.”

“We haven’t. But I think I’ll head back now. Maybe you could stop by sometime. Without that thing.”

“Of course. Again, I’m so sorry.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.”

After David had left, Rebecca opened the door to her lab again, and the bear walked out.

“Real subtle,” she said. “Did you get it, at least?”

The bear held out one arm with two strands of hair wrapped around it.

“Good. Perfect.” She unwrapped the strands. “Now, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to stay inside for awhile.”

The bear seemed to sigh before walking back into the lab.

An Exorcism

This was a stupid job. Rebecca tried to focus on the money, which she needed, but it was hard not think about how ridiculous it was. This kid’s doll was almost certainly not possessed, yet the parents insisted she exorcise it. They had seen too many horror movies.

Part of her thought she should feel grateful that supernatural horror was popular, but it led to so many bizarre ideas and even paranoia in the public. She knew she didn’t really have to take these jobs, but having some money of her own made her feel a bit more secure. It was something that was hers, that no one could take from her, as well as giving her a sort of independence. She didn’t have to rely on anyone else if it came to that.

However, it sometimes meant searching through a child’s messy room looking for a doll that had moved on its own, or so the family claimed. None of them wanted to be near it, so they had left her to find it. She spent some time digging through piles, looking under the bed and in the closet, and checking other, less obvious, nooks before finally finding it under the dresser.

There was little doubt that this was the doll in question: porcelain, blue dress, and a creepy, realistic face. If you’re going to watch scary movies with possessed dolls, why would you buy something like this? Rebecca had no idea, but she could see why they might believe the doll was possessed. If demonic dolls exist, this what they looked like.

Her intention was to take the doll, tell the owners the spirit possessing it wouldn’t bother them anymore, and go home. Out of curiosity, though, she cast a simple spell to check for spirits or related activity and discovered, to her surprise, that a spirit did indeed inhabit the doll.

The spirit was rather weak and could manage only to animate the doll in minor ways, moving one arm or blinking the eyes. There was no malevolence in it, and no real danger. Of course, seeing a doll move would probably terrify most normal people. Rebecca felt slightly embarrassed, but only in her mind, since she hadn’t confided her skepticism to anyone else. At least she didn’t have to admit her mistake out loud.

Another spell, this one a bit more complicated, allowed the spirit to communicate.

“Can you hear me?” Rebecca asked tentatively.

“Uh.” The response was quiet.

“Do you have to stay in this doll?”

“Nuh.”

“How about this house? Are you tied to it?”

“Nuh.”

“Are you willing to come with me?”

There was a pause before the doll answered, but it did finally reply. “Uh.”

“Alright. Let’s get out of here. Easier than fighting about it.”

She opened the bag she had brought with her. It mostly held props that clients expected someone like her to use. They were all for show. She picked up the doll.

“Is it okay to put you in this bag? Just until i can get you back to my lab?”

“Uh.”

She carefully placed the doll inside and latched the bag closed. Before leaving the room, she checked the house for other spirits. There was nothing else unusual that she could detect.

Downstairs, she reassured the family that she had secured the doll and the spirit would no longer trouble them. They arranged payment, and she told them, as part of her guarantee, to call her again if anything else weird happened.

On the way back to the house, she decided she had to move the spirit out of the doll. There had to be something less creepy she could use. Maybe Sarah had a teddy bear or something. More importantly, Rebecca wanted to figure out how the spirit got into the doll in the first place. That sort of thing was not common. It might be worth keeping it around for awhile.