A Conversation with Marie

Half an hour after leaving the bar and driving to the airport, Sarah found herself outside the gate of the group’s compound. She was certain she had taken the correct route, but here she was. A large man – the one from the bar, surely – approached her.

“Private property.”

Did he not recognize her? “Marie invited me.”

Without hesitation, he walked back to the gate and opened it. “Up the hill. First house on the right.”

A small part of her continued screaming that she needed to leave, but the scenery was beautiful as she drove up the wooded slope. The more she admired, the easier it was to ignore her concerns.

The trees ended to reveal a small cluster of houses grouped around a central gathering space. On her right was a somewhat larger house with a parking area next to it. Six or seven cars were already parked. Marie stood on the porch and waved to her as she pulled into an empty spot.

“I’m so glad you came,” Marie greeted her as she walked up to the house.

“I don’t think I had much of a choice.”

Marie’s face became a pout. “Don’t be like that. Come inside and let’s chat.”

Sarah followed the other woman into the house. It was spacious, yet adorned simply. Marie led them through a couple of rooms to a small library. Its large picture window looked on to the center of the small community. They sat facing one another.

“Now,” Marie began, “before we go any further, I want you to know that you wouldn’t have felt any compulsion if you didn’t have some interest. I just helped you over any reservations you might have had. We would never want anyone to be here against their will.”

Sarah was unsure whether she believed Marie. Consciously, she wanted to leave, but maybe there was something drawing her that she wasn’t aware of. Still, she didn’t like feeling like she’d been forced to come.

“I’m curious, Sarah. Why did you come here? I know you were asking around about us. Are you looking for a place to belong?”

Sarah wanted to lie, wanted to take the cover story Marie offered her, but whatever forced her to come here wouldn’t allow it. “I think someone from this group attacked my friends.”

Marie frowned. “Someone from here? Very unlikely. We are a small family here. Self-sufficient. No one has any reason to leave. And no one has any interest in making enemies. You must be mistaken.”

“No.” If she couldn’t resist answering, maybe she could at least keep the answers short and stop herself from revealing everything.

Marie stared out the window for a few moments, lost in thought. When she turned back to Sarah, her expression had changed subtly, but it was impossible to read.

“Do you know the name of the person who attacked you?”

“Yes. Peter. His name was Peter.”

Marie’s face went blank and revealed nothing. Sarah had assumed Peter had been sent by the cult to retrieve Rebecca, even that he might be their leader. Marie’s reaction didn’t fit those assumptions.

When she spoke again, Marie’s voice was shaky, almost fearful. “How did you know Peter was from this group? What did he want?”

“A friend of mine. He tried to take her. She told me about this place.” The closer the conversation got to Rebecca, the harder Sarah fought to deflect it.

“This friend,” every word sounded like it had to be forced, “what is her name?”

She couldn’t explain why she resisted so hard against revealing Rebecca’s name. Surely Marie could already guess who it was. Nonetheless, Sarah fought, but the name was pulled from her anyway. “Rebecca.”

Something inside of Marie seemed to snap. Her face changed, taking on a softer, kinder appearance, even while she became frantic.

“Leave! Now! As fast as you can. Don’t come back. Ever! Whatever you do, keep Rebecca away from here.”

As soon as the first word left Marie’s lips, Sarah felt the compulsion on her dissolve. She ran to the front door with the rest of Marie’s admonitions chasing her. Jumping into the car, she then sped down the hill as quickly as she dared. The scenery was still beautiful and inviting, but she was able to ignore it.

Remembering the man who had opened the gate, she cast a quick glamour. The car became an elephant running, its feet thudding on the ground loudly. As she cleared the trees, she saw the man dive out of her path. The car managed to survive crashing through the gate, and she sped down the road.

Now that her head was clear, she was able to make her way to the airport. Another spell hid the damage to the vehicle; it would last until she was safely away. On board the flight home, she tried to make sense of what had happened. Her body, however, demanded sleep, and she drifted off before the plane lifted into the sky.

Visiting the Family of a Friend

If the bar had an air conditioner, it must have been broken. The air inside was hot and stagnant. Since it was also the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday, the place was practically deserted. Only the bartender and another patron, a man sitting at a table by himself, shared the room with Sarah.

She was sitting at the bar, nursing a glass of chardonnay. It wasn’t her preferred drink, but she thought it fit better with her disguise. She checked herself in the mirror behind the bar. She made herself look like a rich, middle-aged woman who had a plastic surgeon on call. The spell itself was simple enough, but it was the little details that really sold the look. The slightly smudged mascara, the bead of sweat on her forehead. She took pride in her work. The disguise was probably unnecessary, since she was unlikely to be known by anyone in the area. Still, it never hurt to be cautious, and it gave her an excuse to practice her craft. The last few days hadn’t left her time for her own studies, and it felt good to be using her skills again.

“Is it usually this hot around here?” Her attempt at starting a conversation with the older man behind the bar was met with a brief, empty smile before he turned back to whatever he had been doing before.

This trip had so far been a waste of time. It had taken some work to figure out where Rebecca’s cult was. Sarah’s other talent, gathering information, came in handy in that regard. Asking Rebecca directly might have upset her, or worse, so Sarah used less mundane methods. When she had left, Rebecca was trying to return David to his body, Julia was still holed up in Jason’s room, and she didn’t feel like talking to Thomas. After resolving to get away from the house for awhile, she decided to find out what she could about Rebecca’s “family.” The appearance of this Peter at the worst time made her suspicious of some link between this group and what had happened. At the moment, she had nothing more than that suspicion.

The group owned land a few miles outside of this town, so Sarah hoped to find out a little more about them but had had no luck. The bar was her last hope for information. The bartender’s reticence signaled the end of that hope.

The bell just above the door chimed as another customer came inside. She was a young woman, probably mid to late twenties, with short, sandy blonde hair. She was on the shorter side and probably got mistaken for a teenager, or younger, a lot. What really caught Sarah’s attention was how she carried herself. If her face said twenties, and her body suggested teens, her bearing was that of someone older. Confidence exuded from her. Sarah couldn’t help but wonder if this person might also be a mage in disguise. There was no obvious magic at work, but there wouldn’t be if the mage was any good.

The woman sat down at the bar, one seat between her and Sarah, and motioned to the bartender. He brought over a small glass already filled with a clear liquid and set it down in front of her.

“I haven’t seen you before,” the woman said looking at Sarah.

“My first time here. I’m just passing through.”

“You must be taking a strange route. The place isn’t on the way to anywhere.”

“I like to take back roads. See more interesting parts of the country that way.” She couldn’t get her bearings with this woman. Something was certainly off, but Sarah couldn’t identify what it was.

The woman nodded and took another sip from her drink. “Makes sense.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Sarah tried to think of a way to get into a conversation that might reveal some information, but her thoughts wouldn’t stay put long enough to organize them. Some sort of illusion spell made sense, but she had never been affected like this before.

Finally, the other woman spoke again. “Where are you headed?”

Sarah used the words to steady herself. “Nowhere in particular. Just going wherever the moment takes me.” A specific lie might be more believable, but it also carried the risk of being uncovered. Sometimes, simply being vague was easier.

“Do you have a home?”

It was an odd question. “Sometimes I wonder.” There was a little more truth in that than she liked. She also did not fail to notice the bartender’s reaction to the conversation; he seemed almost alarmed.

“You look a little lost.”

“Maybe I am.” Why was she saying all of this? She was giving away too much information.

“There are good people in this world. Friendly people. People who care. You just have to look for them.”

“Do you know me?” Sarah’s voice was more brusque than she intended.

The woman shook her head. “No. Just people like you. Lots of people lost these days. I’m sorry if I upset you.”

Sarah immediately felt guilty. “No, I’m sorry for snapping at you. Guess things are bothering me more than I want to admit.”

“That’s alright. If you ever want to talk about it, about anything, I have a place just outside of town. If anyone asks, just mention my name. Marie.” She held out her hand.

Marie? Rebecca’s old friend? Could she be the same person? She was nothing like Rebecca described her. She must have changed quite a bit in the intervening years. Sarah took her hand. “Sarah. Nice to meet you.” Why did she tell this woman her real name? 

If Marie noticed Sarah’s confusion, she hid it well. “It is nice to meet you, Sarah. Enjoy your stay.” Marie finished her glass and left the bar. Soon after, the other patron left as well.

“Be careful, miss.”

Sarah was taken aback by the bartender’s sudden willingness to talk.

“About what?”

“That woman. Marie. That group of hers is weird. Bunch of hippies or something. They are nice enough; don’t bother anyone. But there is something odd about her. I wouldn’t go visit if I were you.”

“Thanks for the advice.” The bartender shrugged and walked away.

What should she do? Continue on her own or go back and inform the others? She wanted to go alone, but the urgent desire made her suspicious. She had already revealed more to Marie than she meant to, and she would normally not be so reckless. Wanting to take a risk in going alone suggested some sort of outside influence. Better to go back to the house and regroup before going any further.

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.

Moving Forward

Sarah fought to keep herself from screaming in front of Thomas. He had been a friend, which was why she was so angry with him now. He should have confided in her. That he hadn’t, worried her.

“What should we do about Julia?”

At first, his words didn’t make any sense. She blinked a couple of times to bring him back into focus. 

“Julia? I was thinking I should deliver your head to her. Might calm her down.”

“This is no time for jokes. We need . . .” He wasn’t even looking at her.

“Who’s joking?” Through sheer force of will, she kept her voice low and even. “She thinks you betrayed her. And Jason. From where I’m standing, I don’t see how she’s wrong.”

“We can cast blame later. Right now, she has control of our house!” He was unwilling, or unable, to match her calm.

“Do not raise your voice to me.” She drew herself up nearly to his eye level. “You are not my master. We are peers, and you will treat me with respect.” Daring him to contradict her, she glared at him. He met her gaze for a few moments before looking away.

“Fine. But we need to do something about Julia. She’s putting the whole house at risk.”

“Yes. And I will handle it.”

“How?”

“To start with, I won’t treat her like an adversary. She’s upset. With reason.” Thomas started to interject but promptly changed his mind. “She deserves to be heard. And you can’t be involved.”

“But . . .”

The look she gave him was enough to make him stop.

“There is nothing you can do that will help. She blames you. If we’re very lucky, she blames only you.”

“And if she blames everyone?”

“Then we’re in trouble. She’s already let a real demonic bear loose in the house. The hallways are not responding to the sigils. I’m not certain I can even get to her. But I’m going. Alone. It’s the only hope I have of getting through to her.”

“What would you have me . . .”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Stay here, in your rooms. If she sees you leave, she is likely to assume the worst. Just stay put.” Without giving Thomas a chance to argue, Sarah turned and walked out the door.

Once back in the hall, her bravado deflated some. How could she make it to Julia if the house itself wouldn’t let her? Asking Thomas for help was not an option, so she would have to make the attempt.

A possibility occurred to her. If Julia was turning the house against them, she might be using the sigils to track them. Perhaps she had inverted the spells protecting the house. If so, then getting rid of her sigil might give her the freedom to move around.

The chance seemed remote. Julia may simply have removed the exception for the sigils. Sarah didn’t know the details of the spell well enough to know which solution was more likely, or what Julia’s frame of mind would lead her to do. Still it was the only idea she had at the moment.

Sarah opened a small pouch she kept hidden in her clothes and dropped the sigil in it. The pouch was designed to hide its contents from magical detection. In theory, the sigil would no longer function. Then she turned her attention to the wood floor. As she walked down the steps, she tried to focus on the grain in the floorboards to keep herself anchored to this area. If she was careful, and if Julia wasn’t paying attention to her, it might be enough to keep her in the house and out of the long hallway.

Her slow progress was frustrating, but she dared not move any faster. As far as she could tell, it was working. She made it to the second floor and was steadily moving closer to Julia’s room. She rounded the corner and caught sight of Rebecca and the rabbit David possessed. Before she could say anything, the scene shifted, and she was trapped again.

“No!” All of her pent up anger poured out in her scream. “Dammit, Julia! I’m trying to help you!” The only response she got was silence. Unwilling to play along, she sat down right where she was. If she followed the hallway, she would end up with the dire bear again, and she had told Thomas not to leave his rooms. If Julia was keeping tabs on her, she might as well talk to her here.

“Julia, if you can hear me, please listen. Thomas was wrong to keep all his secrets. I can’t bring Jason back, but I still want you to be part of this house. Talk to me so we can find a way forward.”

More silence. Sarah thought about what she had said. Did she mean it? Earlier today, she had been considering leaving the house herself. Why was she now fighting to save it? Why not just wash her hands of this whole mess? 

Maybe she should. Maybe that’s what it would come to. But not yet. Not like this. If she were to leave, it would be by her choice, not because she was driven out.

Another question forced its way into her consciousness. How were Rebecca and David walking around in the house? Why weren’t they trapped in the long hallway with her? Was Julia only targeting her? Or were the sigils working again? She quickly retrieved the sigil from the pouch, and as soon as she had, she was back in the house. Whatever had gone wrong had been corrected. Had Julia even done anything? Was Thomas wrong about her being behind it? She wasn’t going to find any answers just sitting around, so she stood and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Rebecca answered the knock immediately.

“Sarah? What’s going on? We saw you briefly in the hall, but you vanished.”

“Got stuck in the long hallway, but it seems to be sorted out now. Has anything happened?”

“Uh . . . You better come in.”

Rebecca was visibly shaking. Even though Sarah was eager to find Julia, this seemed important as well. “Okay. Talk to me.”

Lost

As soon as Sarah reached the top of the stairs, she could tell something was wrong. The hall to the right was too short. The door to David’s room was across from the stairs, and there was nothing past it. It should have continued to Jason’s room. Why it stopped suddenly, she could only guess. However, speaking with Thomas took priority; this mystery would have to wait. So she turned left to make her way to the third floor.

After a few steps, it became obvious that she was in the long hallway. Checking her pockets, she found the blue infinity symbol. It should be impossible for her to have gotten here. Were Julia’s spells breaking down? If so, that needed immediate attention. Until she got out of the hallway, however, there wasn’t much she could do.

After walking for an interminably long time, she entered the central room, her own image staring back at her. “If you’ve found your way to this room . . .” The message began automatically.

Sarah tuned out her own voice and began looking for the secret exit that had been included in case a member of the house accidentally found their way here. Mostly for Jason. It should be on the wall to the right of the door that had brought her here, but knocking around didn’t reveal it.

Her automated message ended. Even though she knew the sound of a dire bear was coming, it still startled her. The auditory illusion was very convincing and she felt a little surge of pride when she heard it for the first time in awhile. The sound itself was frightening, perhaps even more effective because she hadn’t created an image to go with it. The door shaking, appearing to be under assault from the other side, had been a nice touch, she thought.

Just as she realized she hadn’t included that detail in the illusion, a real dire bear crashed through the door and into the room. Sarah barely had time to register that the creature shouldn’t be here before it lunged at her.

She just managed to avoid the attack. There wasn’t much in the room other than the chair her image projected onto and a small table that held a few candles. If she left the room, she probably wouldn’t be able to find her way back. Moving quickly to put the chair between herself and the bear, she cast an invisibility spell. The creature stopped momentarily and began sniffing the air. It found her almost immediately.

If she could buy a few moments, she could mask her scent, but it wasn’t going to give her that chance. It attacked again and again, missing only because it couldn’t see her. Each swipe of its claw got closer and closer, and Sarah could feel herself growing winded. If she couldn’t get away soon, it would catch her.

The next moment, she was on the floor outside the room. Looking around, she saw Thomas standing next to her. They were back in the house proper, at the foot of the stairs leading up to the third floor.

“Wha…?”

Thomas helped her to her feet. “I came in through the back entrance and stopped time long enough to get you out. How did you get in there?”

“My badge stopped working. I think Julia’s spells may be breaking down.”

“I don’t think so. I think Julia is actually changing the house, trying to get rid of us.”

“Seriously?”

“I think so. The hallways are fighting me. It’s taking some effort to stay out of the long hallway.”

“This is your fault.”

“I know.” He sounded resigned.

“What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m not sure. Let’s get back to my room and out of the hallways. We can discuss it there.”

“Fine.”

“Stay close to me. I don’t want you to get lost again.”

“What about Rebecca and David?”

“Safe in Rebecca’s room. Now let’s hurry.”

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?

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.

Coffee Break

Sarah sat sipping tea at the coffee shop. The other mages rarely left the house for mundane reasons, but she found it relaxing to escape now and then. Taking care of the house and keeping up with her own research didn’t leave a lot of time for much else. Ever since Thomas had approached her with the idea of setting up a house, and then asking her to run the operations, this had become her life. She didn’t mind too much, but she jealously guarded the times she could get away.

“There is so much magic coming off you, I’m surprised you haven’t attracted every mage within five miles.”

Sarah looked up to see a familiar face standing next to the table. It was a tall woman in a long, grey coat. Her hair was cut short, and she wore dark glasses, but Sarah would have recognized her no matter what. She and Madeline had studied under the same teacher, though Madeline was a bit younger.

“I’m not giving off any aura; the disguise is passive. Even you shouldn’t be able to recognize me.”

Without waiting for an invitation, Madeline sat down across from her. “You know better than that. Finding things is what I do.”

Sarah ignored the smile on Madeline’s face. “So you were looking for me?”

“Oh, no. I just noticed you as I was walking by. There was a large blank space that drew my curiosity. And here you are.”

“So just coincidence.”

“Believe me or not. I just wanted to say hi.” Madeline began to pout.

It was almost certainly a ploy, but Sarah softened in spite of herself. “I’m sorry. Just a bit on guard. Always expecting people to want something.” Maybe Julia was rubbing off on her.

“Is that place running you down so much? You should really come join my house. We hire people to manage things.”

“That’s kind of you to offer, Madeline, but I have no plans to leave. We have magical servants to handle the menial stuff. I just oversee things. Thomas’s offer to you is still open, though.”

Madeline laughed. “Thomas never wanted me in that house. It was really just to humor you.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is. I can tell. I don’t know why you stay. You are respected enough that any house would take you. Or you could even start your own. Why put up with Thomas?”

“I helped establish this house. Doesn’t feel right to leave.”

“Your friend Matthew left.”

“That was a different situation.”

“Have you spoken with the Mistress lately? She’s asked after you.”

“No, I haven’t. I take it you have. How is she?”

“She’s fine. Worried that you haven’t given up on Thomas, yet.”

“No, she isn’t. Besides, I’m not staying because of Thomas. I have my own purposes.”

Madeline studied her for a moment. “You’re still an odd one.”

“No reason to change.”

“I suppose not. Still, if you ever find such a reason, I’m willing to lend a hand.”

“That’s… thoughtful of you.”

“You sure I can’t persuade you to join my house? We really could use your skills.”

“Could I convince you to join mine?”

“Not a chance. I couldn’t stand Thomas.”

“There you go. We’ve each found our place. Still, I appreciate your offer.”

“Alright. I’ll tell the Mistress you are well?”

“Yes, Madeline. Thank you.”

“Sure. Take care of yourself.”

“You, too.”

Late Night Snacks

Jason was sitting alone in the kitchen, a carton of vanilla ice cream on the island in front of him. He would have gotten a bowl, but then he would have had to wash it, so he decided to just eat right out of the container. No one else was around to object.

A door appeared in the middle of the room. It opened, and Julia walked through. After she closed it behind her, the door vanished. Julia was a head shorter than he was and looked younger, though Jason knew that might be a deception. Her long hair was tied back in the usual ponytail. He couldn’t make out the color of her hair and wished he could remember what it was.

“Jason? Why are you sitting in the dark?”

“Don’t need light to eat.”

Julia sighed and turned a light on.

Black! Her hair was black!

Grabbing a box of crackers from a cupboard, Julia sat down on a stool on the other side of the island. “You didn’t want a bowl?”

He just shook his head.

“So why are you up so late?”

Jason looked at his wrist, but there was no watch there. “Is it late?”

Julia sighed again before changing the subject. “So someone new has moved into the house?”

“Did they?”

“Jason! You’re the one who told me about him.”

“Oh right. An elementalist, I believe. I haven’t met him yet.”

“Why did Thomas bring in someone new? This place is already too crowded.”

“I don’t know. Thomas doesn’t tell me why he does things.”

“Yes, he does. You just never remember.”

“That’s probably true,” Jason said with a laugh.

“This place is too crowded.”

“You already said. But how would you know? You almost always stay in your room.”

Julia frowned. “You forget that I helped create all this space. I know when it’s occupied.”

“Yeah. Still, you should get out more.”

“No, thank you.”

Cocking her head a bit as though listening to something Jason couldn’t hear, she hopped down from her stool and summoned a door. “I’ll talk to you later, Jason.”

After the door disappeared, Sarah rounded the corner into the kitchen. “Jason? I thought I heard Julia.”

Jason waved his hand at nothing. “She just left.”

“Dammit. Why does she always do that?”

“Do what?”

“Leave. She really doesn’t like me, does she?”

“Don’t take it personally. She doesn’t like anyone.”

“She seems to like you just fine.”

“I’m her brother; she has to like me.”

“But you’re not her brother! You two aren’t related.”

“Really?” Jason appeared genuinely puzzled.

“Really. You both say that, but you aren’t.”

“Huh. Well, maybe I remind her of her brother.”

“Honestly, Jason, I don’t know how you make through the day sometimes.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t think there’s a trick to it.”

“Uh huh.” Sarah slumped down onto the same stool Julia had recently occupied.

Jason looked down at his ice cream, which had become rather soft, and decided he’d had enough. He threw the spoon into the sink and put the carton back in the freezer.

“So have you met David yet?”

“Who’s David?” Jason asked, absently.

“The new kid. He arrived yesterday.”

“Oh. No, I haven’t seen him. Is he nice?”

“As far as I can tell.”

“Don’t worry about Julia. She’ll come around eventually.”

“How do you know?”

“I don’t.”

“Seriously, how do you get through the day?”

“With a smile.” Jason pulled a pretzel rod from… somewhere and put it in his mouth like a cigar. “Have a good night, Sarah.”

“You too, Jason.”