Reunions (part two)

It was a pleasant day outside with only a few wispy clouds. Sipping her tea, Sarah sat on the patio and watched the people walking along the street. Her mind began speculating about the history between Rebecca and Bailey. Rebecca was nervous, yet she had been glad to see Bailey. That much she was sure of. Years of observing others in order to perfect her own illusions gave her some confidence in being able to read body language. Maybe seeing her friend would give Rebecca some comfort.

A bright flash of light from behind interrupted her rumination. Sarah jumped out of her chair and ran back inside the cafe. The source of the light was nowhere to be found. Neither was Rebecca. Bailey was laying on the floor, dazed. It looked as though they had fallen out of their chair rather than being knocked out of it.

She bent down over Bailey. “Where’s Rebecca?”

Bailey looked confused. “What?”

“Rebecca. Where is she? What happened?”

After looking around for a few moments, Bailey turned back to her. “She was right here. I don’t understand.”

“Was there someone else here? Did someone take her?”

“I don’t know. We were talking and then there was this bright light. The next thing I was aware of was you kneeling over me.”

Sarah rocked back onto her hands. No one should have been able to find them here. Her concealment spells were still in place, and no one had entered after they arrived. Could someone have been here, waiting? If so, why would they wait for Sarah and Bailey to arrive if Rebecca was their target? There were too many questions and too little information. Unless . . .

“Did you do something?”

Bailey seemed taken aback. “No! Are you trying to blame me? Why would I want to do anything to Rebecca?” Their reaction felt genuine, but Sarah didn’t know Bailey well enough to feel confident interpreting their reactions.

“I’m just trying to figure out what happened. Where she went. Who might have taken her.”

“You think someone took her?”

“I don’t know what else to think.”

“You don’t . . . she’s not dead, is she?” Bailey’s fear was palpable, and it led Sarah to soften her tone.

“I don’t think so. There’s no sign that anyone was hurt. And if someone took her, they probably wouldn’t go to that trouble only to kill her. We just need to figure out where she is.” The words were much calmer than she felt. Had Peter found his way back? Sarah never learned where Julia had sent him. Was he capable of something like this? There was too much she didn’t know. Could Madeline help find Rebecca again? And what was that flash of light? If only she could ask Jason.

Looking shaken, Bailey was still sitting on the floor.

“We will figure this out. For now, we should go back to the house. Okay?”

Bailey nodded and stood up slowly.

“Take it easy. I don’t want to push you, but can you think of anything else? Anything unusual at all?”

“No. We were just talking, catching up a little. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.”

“Okay, then. Let’s get back and find some help.”

Reunions (part one)

A knock at the door broke Bailey’s concentration. It was loud enough to be heard over the background noise of the television. They put the pen down and walked over to see who it was.

Sarah stood in the hallway with a wide smile. “I found her.”

“Really? Where is she?”

“She wants us to meet her somewhere. I can take you.”

“Let’s go!” Bailey knew they were being impatient, but they had been in the house for over a week now, and it was starting to get to them. Only so much to do stuck inside.

“Tomorrow. We’re meeting her tomorrow. I just wanted to let you know that the waiting was over. Try to get some rest. I’ll come by at 10 in the morning to get you. Okay?”

Bailey nodded. “I’ll be ready.”

The next morning took its time arriving, and when it did, the knock on the door set Bailey’s heart racing. The two traveled to a small coffee shop several miles away. Rebecca, seated at a table in the back, was the only customer in the place. A lone barista stood behind the counter. Rebecca looked the same as the last time Bailey had seen her. When they approached, there was no smile to greet them.

“How did you find me?” She directed the question at Sarah.

“I have an old friend who specializes in finding things. Don’t worry; I didn’t draw attention to you.”

“It really is unnerving that it was so easy to locate me.”

“It wasn’t. And I’m keeping us hidden now. In fact, I can protect you better if you come back to the house.”

“No.” Rebecca’s tone was final. “I’ve already told you. I can’t risk it. I can’t risk everyone.”

“We can . . .”

“I said no.”

Silence fell over the three of them. Bailey didn’t know what was behind all the tension, and neither woman seemed interested in filling in the details. After a few minutes went by, they cleared their throat a bit.

“I’m sorry to break in, but can I talk to Rebecca alone, Sarah?”

Sarah looked at the other woman, who nodded. “Okay. I’ll sit outside and keep the illusion going. Please let me know if I can do anything.” She sounded resigned, defeated. Her failure to convince Rebecca to return with her seemed to weigh heavily on her.

After Sarah went outside and sat at one of the tables on the sidewalk, Rebecca turned to face Bailey squarely for the first time. “So you wanted to talk to me?” Her voice was a little softer than when she had spoken to Sarah, but there was still an edge to it. She was guarded.

“That’s the first thing you say?”

“Bailey . . . You walked away. Remember?”

That hurt, but only because it was mostly true. Bailey tried to ignore it and move on. “Who’s Marie?”

Rebecca’s face didn’t change expression, but some of the color drained out of it. “Are you jealous?”

“Rebecca . . .”

“No, seriously. Are you? I haven’t seen you in years, and now you track me down to ask about someone else?”

Anger started to rise up in Bailey’s throat, but they recognized Rebecca was trying to push their buttons and derail the conversation. “I’m not jealous. I was given a message to pass along to you . . .”

Rebecca grew even paler. “Who? Who gave you the message?”

“No one. It was left at my door. I don’t know who left it or how they even knew of my connection to you. It just said I was to give it to you. I didn’t know you were in hiding until I arrived at the address you left for me. It was signed ‘Marie.’ So who is she?”

“An old friend . . .” Rebecca was staring off into nothing, chewing on the inside of her mouth. It was a look Bailey had seen before. She was trying to figure out which way to run.

“Well it sounds like your old friend is in trouble. Are you going to help her, or run away again?”

Rebecca gave them a sharp look. “I didn’t run away from you.”

“Fine. Do you want the message or not?”

“Let me see it.”

Bailey pulled a plain envelope from their shirt pocket and handed it over. Rebecca pulled out the single sheet of paper inside. Bailey knew the message by heart and recalled it as Rebecca read through it.

Dear Rebecca,

A lot has happened since you left. I know you’re scared, and so am I. Peter is no longer here, but I really need your help. Please.

Yours,

Marie

Rebecca continued to star at the paper.

“See? She’s in trouble.”

“What are these symbols?”

“Symbols? There aren’t any symbols on . . .”

A terrified expression twisted across Rebecca’s face. “Oh no! What did you . . .?” Rebecca’s frantic voice was cut off by a bright flash of light that completely disoriented Bailey.

When their vision began to clear, she saw Sarah standing over them. “Where’s Rebecca?”

The words didn’t make any sense. “What?”

“Rebecca Where is she? What happened?”

Bailey looked around the room. No one else was in the cafe. Rebecca was gone.

Motivations

Bailey could only toss and turn in the bed, not sleep. It was comfortable enough; in fact it was probably more comfort than they had experienced in months. The problem was that this was Rebecca’s room.

Nothing of the missing mage’s possessions remained, yet Bailey could tell. The room smelled like her. She must have lived here for quite some time. If Rebecca’s housemates were allowing someone else to use it, they weren’t expecting her back, at least not soon. Their motive for letting Bailey stay was a mystery, but if Rebecca was gone, there was little point to staying.

Finally giving up on sleep, Bailey threw the blankets off and got out of bed. All of the rooms were mostly empty. A bed and set of drawers in the bedroom. A couch and coffee table in the main room. Nothing that might serve as a distraction. Restlessness growing, Bailey approached the main door.

Sarah had warned against wandering the hallways alone. Opening the door, there was nothing obviously dangerous outside. Bailey stuck their head out and looked both ways. The hallway was empty and appeared just as it had when they had been escorted to the rooms. For an extended moment, Bailey considered taking the risk. It wasn’t fear that stopped them but curiosity. If they left, they would never know why these people had let them stay.

Closing the main door, they turned to the one that led to the kitchen. It opened easily, and the other side was obviously a kitchen. A double-sized refrigerator stood against one wall, and a large island took up the center of the room. Several stools were placed around it. One of them was occupied, and upon hearing the door open, Sarah looked up.

“Hello, Bailey. Come on and have a seat.”

It wasn’t an order. The woman seemed genuinely to want Bailey to sit down with her. That just added to their overall puzzlement. Sarah was a stranger; why would she be so friendly?

They walked in and sat on a stool across from the woman. Something was different about her, but it took Bailey a moment or two to realize that her hair was shorter and perhaps a little darker. There was something else, too, but it was impossible to pin down what else had changed.

“Did you get a haircut?”

Sarah chuckled. “Thanks for noticing, but no. I just changed my appearance a little. My special talent.”

“Ah.” Magic, then. Bailey wasn’t used to mages being so open with their gifts. This was her house, though, so maybe not so open after all. “Rebecca’s not coming back, is she?” They had considered slowly working up to the question but thought it might be better to try to catch Sarah off guard.

Sarah ducked her head a little, perhaps out of embarrassment.  “I don’t know. I hope so. I think she’d be better off here.”

“Why did she leave?”

“I think that’s her story to tell, not mine. I’m sorry.”

Bailey nodded. As much as they wanted to know, Sarah’s deference to Rebecca’s privacy was something they could respect.

“Okay, but then why did you let me . . .”

A door suddenly materialized in the middle of the kitchen, interrupting the conversation. Julia walked through, looking much as she had before, and the door vanished.

“Oh, you’re both here. Good evening.”

Sarah gave a small wave.

“Hello again, Julia,” Bailey said.

“I hope the room is okay. If you need any furnishings for it, let me know.”

Sarah frowned. “Not stolen, I hope.”

Julia rolled her eyes. “No. I remember the rules. I have sources, legitimate ones, so you don’t need to worry.”

Bailey tried to interpret the dynamic between the two women, but couldn’t. They seemed friendly, yet guarded. There was something between them, but it wasn’t clear what it might be.

“I guess a television wouldn’t hurt.”

“No problem.” Julia looked at Sarah like she was daring the other to ask where it would come from. “One thing you should know . . . Sarah probably warned you about the hallway . . . But I wanted to reassure you that I won’t go into your rooms without your permission. Another one of the rules. As long as you’re a guest no one can get into those rooms without your approval. Unless there’s an actual emergency. Just in case you were worried about that.”

“I . . . I wasn’t.” That possibility hadn’t even occurred to Bailey, thought it probably should have. “But thank you for letting me know.”

“No problem. I’ll drop off the TV first thing tomorrow.” Another door appeared behind her.

“Julia. Wait.” Sarah stopped her. “I don’t want to intrude but . . . if you want to talk . . .”

Julia smiled, which seemed to catch Sarah by surprise. “Thanks Sarah. I know you want to help. I just need some time.” Then she stepped through the door and vanished.

There was silence in the kitchen as Sarah was lost in thought. Eventually, Bailey decided to leave her to her reflection. Just as they stood to leave, though, Sarah spoke.

“You want to know why I said you could stay? It’s for her. You seem to coax her out in a way no one else has been able to. I don’t know how or why, but I’ve seen and heard Julia more since you arrived than in the two months prior. It’s completely selfish, but I hope you’ll stay. And to make it worth your time, I am trying very hard to get in touch with Rebecca. Maybe you can even get her to return. Obviously, I’ll understand if you want to leave. But I hope you won’t.”

Sarah didn’t wait for a response. She stood and left the kitchen quickly – by an apparently normal door – as though she was afraid Bailey would reject her.

It was several minutes more before Bailey stood and went back to their room. They didn’t know what to make of Sarah or Julia. Only when they were back in bed did they realize they had forgotten to get something to eat.

Being Social

As they walked back into the living room, Sarah was surprised to see another person in the room talking with Bailey. Even more unexpected, that person was Julia. She looked far more casual than the last time she’d seen her, before Jason had been killed. She had her hair tied back and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her demeanor was friendly. Sarah had no idea what to think.

Julia looked at her as she entered. “Hello, Sarah.” She was obviously ignoring Thomas. “Bailey and I were just having a little chat. Were you planning on inviting her to join the house?”

“What? No. I mean, it was raining outside and Bailey needed help . . .” Why would Julia jump to such a conclusion?

“Ah. Well, Bailey was just about to tell me how they met Rebecca.”

Oblivious to all of the strangeness regarding Julia, Bailey nodded. “My . . . uh . . . my teacher threw me out. It’s not much of a story, really. I was homeless, and Rebecca helped me out. Found me a place to live and gave me some advice. She was nice to me. Told me to come here if I ever needed any help.”

“And you need help now?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I . . . I lost my apartment. Times have been tough, and I . . . didn’t make rent. I really don’t want to be homeless again. I thought Rebecca might have some ideas. If I could just talk with her.”

Sarah sighed. “As I told you, Rebecca is busy with something important right now, and she’s not available.” She ignored the questioning look Julia gave her. Bailey appeared crestfallen. “However, I think we might be able to arrange for you to stay here for a little while. What do you think Julia?”

Julia appeared to consider the idea for a few moments. “I imagine I could find some space somewhere.”

With an outsider present, Sarah had to struggle to conceal her shock at Julia’s willingness to engage with house matters.

“More importantly, however, are we sure this is a good idea?” Julia looked back to Bailey. “I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but we have experienced more than one . . . misfortune recently. I’m not saying you would cause any trouble, but we need to be careful.”

“I can vouch for her.” Sarah had momentarily forgotten Thomas was present. She braced herself for Julia’s outburst, but it never came.

Instead, Julia remained focused on Bailey. “Bailey, do you know this man?”

The question was a trap, of course, but the newcomer had no way of knowing that. The implications for any answer were unpredictable, especially to someone unfamiliar with Julia and Thomas.

“No, I don’t.” Their uncertainty was palpable. “I know he told Sarah that he had seen me somehow.”

“Well, I won’t hold that against you.” Julia directed her attention to Sarah. “I don’t know. If it’s temporary, I’d say it’s your call. You run the house, after all. I can set something up with a few safeguards. It would be good to get Rebecca’s take.”

“Yes. I’m trying to get in touch with her. Can you give Bailey a room and access to the kitchen? I think the room next to David’s is free.”

Julia’s face grew dark, and Sarah quickly worked to tamp down her anger. “Not his. His room is yours. For as long as you want. I meant the room on the other side.”

Confusion abruptly replaced fury. “But that’s . . .”

“Yes. It is currently not being used. I think it would be perfect.” Sarah hoped Julia would pick up on her meaning and not pursue the conversation any more in front of Bailey. She still didn’t want their visitor to know Rebecca was gone.

“Okaayyy. So you want me to make sure the room is clear and put in a door to the kitchen?”

“If you would.”

“Alright. Just give me a few minutes.” Julia stood and gave Bailey a rare smile. “Don’t worry. It’s weird here. Just go with it.”

Sarah stared after her as she left and then turned to Thomas. “What do you make of that?”

Thomas was staring at the doorway through which Julia had recently left. “I don’t know. Maybe she has made peace with everything? She clearly still wants nothing to do with me, but perhaps . . .” He trailed off without finishing his thought.

Bailey took the opportunity to speak up. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that Julia is not usually so sociable,” Sarah answered. “She must like you.”

“How is she going to put in a door in just a few minutes?”

Sarah exchanged glances with Thomas. “If you know Rebecca, I assume you would know . . .”

“Oh. You mean magic? I just didn’t know it could make doors.”

Sarah smiled, a little relieved. “Well, it depends on who is using it. I should tell you, there are a couple of conditions for you to stay here. Except for the kitchen, you won’t really have access to other parts of the house. And you won’t be able to leave your room unless you are with one of us. We’re not trying to keep you prisoner; you’re free to go any time you like, but you must be accompanied by one of us. I hope you understand.”

“That’s fine. I’m just happy to have some place to stay. Do you know when Rebecca might be available?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t. I hope it won’t be too long. If you accept the conditions I’ve laid out, I think I can show you your room now.”

“Thank you.”

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?