Bequest

Trying to understand what she was reading, Julia shuffled through a stack of papers. It wasn’t that Jason’s handwriting was atrocious, though it was; instead it was the words themselves that didn’t make sense. She could read each one, but they wouldn’t go together properly. The only thing she could be confident of was that these represented Jason’s research in magical energy. Few mages specialized in raw magical power – Jason was the only one she knew personally – and her own training covered very little of the theory. Most mages, herself included, only learned enough about it to provide energy for their own spells.

Periodically, she would stop and try to read through a page. Jason had said he would teach her about this aspect of magic. Along with so many other things, his death had put an end to that plan. Comprehension of his notes danced just out of reach. So many times she thought she was beginning to grasp some of the ideas, only to have them slip past her once more.

She let the papers she was holding fall to the desk and rubbed her eyes with her hands. A headache had formed from all of her concentrating. She needed a break. Rook, Jason’s cat, jumped onto the desk and rubbed up against her arm. When she looked up, he was staring expectantly at her with his deep green eyes. Scritching behind his ears almost always made him happy. This time, though, the cat didn’t close his eyes and lean into the affection. He just stared at her.

“Are you hungry?”

She really didn’t expect him to answer, but she couldn’t think of what else he might want. As expected, he didn’t react.

A thought occurred to her. “Do you want to show me something?”

At that, Rook jumped down and walked to the main room of the apartment. Once he knew she had followed, he jumped on top of a chest of drawers and began pawing at the top drawer.

Ever since Esther had told her the cat’s name, Julia wondered if the animal actually spoke to the landlady. Sometimes, he seemed to behave as if he knew what she had said, but he never talked to her.

Inside the drawer was a simple wooden box and more papers. Julia had spent most of the last few weeks at the apartment, but there was so much to go through, she suspected she hadn’t found even a quarter of the things Jason had hidden all over. The box was secured with a trick latch, but by now, she had worked through enough of them that it didn’t take her long to get it open.

Upon opening the box, she found four different color crystals: blue, purple, yellow, and orange. They looked very much like the green crystal she had used to open the door that led her back to this very apartment. Six small mounts were spaced evenly in the box, and two were empty. Perhaps the green was one of the missing crystals. That left one unaccounted for.

She closed the box and turned her attention to the small stack of papers. There was the same, nearly illegible, handwriting she had been staring at for the last few days. This time, however, the words didn’t slip through her mind.

Julia,

I intend to give you this box in person, but I also know that events don’t always go as planned. If you’re reading this note, either I’m dead, or you’re snooping. If it’s the latter, knock it off. You’ll get this when I give it to you. If it’s the former, well, I guess you should keep reading.

Julia looked up at Rook. The cat was licking his paw and ignoring her.

“You couldn’t have shown me this earlier?”

Rook simply jumped down and walked into the kitchen. After taking a moment to blink her eyes clear, Julia began to read again.

Inside the box are several crystals. You are already familiar with the white ones I use to store energy, so I didn’t bother putting one in. And since you’ve found your way back here, you must have also discovered what the green can be use for. Admittedly, the green are likely to be the least useful to you. But it was your magic that helped me create them. The rest of the crystals you will need to figure out on your own. Carefully. Remember how we met, and don’t repeat my mistakes.

The pages with this should help you get started. Nothing else will make sense until you master these. I said I would teach you about my own magic. This is me making good on that promise. Study the crystals; I think you will figure it out.

Yours,

Jason

P.S. I think the cat is conspiring with the landlady. Probably harmless, but I thought you should know.

Julia wiped away a couple more tears and chuckled a bit. Jason’s version of paranoia always made her laugh. The box sat in front of her on the chest. It almost felt as though the crystals inside were calling to her. Some sleep was probably in order, but she didn’t think she could wait any longer. She opened the box and pulled out the blue crystal.

The World of The Cabal

The world has witnessed marvels made possible through scientific and technological advancements. Devices that were the stuff of science fiction mere decades ago are now commonplace. The world today would be unrecognizable to people only a few generations back. And yet, there is another world within this one that is even more fantastical.

This other world is filled with magic and its practitioners. For millennia, mages lived openly among other human beings, sometimes revered as leaders, and other times reviled because of their power. With the ascension of the Christian Church, mages withdrew from everyday society, and stories about them became nothing more than myths and legends. Few people believe they ever existed, and fewer still know they exist today. Even those that see magic in use often dismiss it as a hoax or some sort of special effects trickery. 

Mages are generally content to keep to themselves, conducting their research and keeping out of the affairs of the ordinary world. Preferring solitude, mages never developed a hierarchical structure nor ruling body. They do often, though not always, organize themselves into houses for both protection and material support. Such arrangements are always a matter of convenience and governed by whatever agreements made by the members of the house.

There have been many different magical traditions, many of which have been passed down and are still practiced today. No matter the techniques employed, every mage specializes in one (or, very rarely, two) area of magic. Such areas are many and varied, ranging from elemental magic to magic governing time itself. The effects possible cover an even wider scope of possibility, often limited only by the ingenuity of the wielder. 

The concerns of material wealth or worldly power hold little interest for those who study magic. Such things are easily acquired and pose little challenge. They pale in comparison to the mysteries the arcane holds. As a consequence the activities of mages rarely encroach upon the ordinary world. It is not that they could not pose a threat; it is merely that they choose not to do so.

Perhaps you have never met a mage and never will. Or perhaps one is standing in front of you at the coffee shop. Likely you will never know. And there is no reason to worry yourself about it.

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.”

An Unexpected Visitor

The house was well insulated against both the weather and noise from outside, but even so, the sound of rain was unmistakable in the foyer. The doorbell rang again. Sarah could not remember if she had ever heard it ring before. Both curious and cautious, she opened the front door.

The person standing on the front step of the brownstone was soaked. Their shoulder length hair, heavy with water, was plastered against their head. The small awning over the top step provided minimal protection from the seemingly endless downpour.

Half yelling to be heard over the sounds of the storm, the person asked, “Is Rebecca here?”

Sarah studied the visitor and tried to recall whether she had seen them before. They were young, early 20s probably, with soft features blurred by water droplets. Nothing stood out as familiar.

“Who are you?” Recent events had made her increasingly suspicious.

“Um, I’m a friend of hers? Well, she helped me out a few years back and gave me this address if I ever needed to find her. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Are you a member of her Family?” Would Peter or Marie have sent someone new after Rebecca, to bring her back? What sort of danger did this person represent?

“No. We’re not related. She was just . . . just helped me once.”

So either they really didn’t know about the cult, or they were prepared for the question. Sarah didn’t like feeling so paranoid, but it couldn’t be helped. Even telling someone that Rebecca had left the house might put her in danger.

“Unfortunately, Rebecca is not available at the moment. I will tell her you dropped by.” Sarah began to close the door.

“Wait!”

Sarah paused and looked at the visitor.

“My name is Bailey. Please. I .  . . I don’t have anywhere to go.” They seemed to be trying to hold back tears.

What should she do? it would be dangerous to let a stranger into the house, but turning them away felt wrong. Who would she be putting at risk, after all? Rebecca had left. Jason was dead. No one knew where Julia might be. Only she, David, and Thomas were left. Was the risk really worse than turning Bailey away?

Just as Sarah was resolving to take the risk, Thomas walked up behind her. “Who is it?”

Surprised, she looked back at him. “They say their name is Bailey.”

“Oh?” Thomas raised one eyebrow, appearing more interested than she had seen him in some time. “Let them in. It will be alright.”

That raised several more questions, but Sarah moved to let Bailey walk in. “Stay near me, or you will get lost. This place is bigger than it seems.” She led them to the living room. Thomas followed.

“My name is Sarah. Please, have a seat. Do you like tea? Or coffee? You look chilled to the bone.”

“Tea would be nice.”

“Okay, we’ll be back in just a moment. Whatever you do, don’t leave this room. Understand?”

Bailey nodded.

Sarah started heading for the kitchen and dragged Thomas along with her.

“You know them?”

“After a fashion.” He was as cryptic as ever.

“How?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Thomas, we’re not doing this again. What do you know?”

He gave a sigh that was heavy with resignation.”I saw Bailey’s arrival when I was observing the future. As far as I can tell, they aren’t the source of any trouble.”

“They said they know Rebecca.”

Thomas shrugged. “I cannot say. It was not something I saw.”

“But they don’t pose any danger?”

“Not that I could see.”

“Okay. Might as well become a halfway house.”

“That is not . . .”

“It was a joke, Thomas. If you think you can be appropriately social, you can join us for some tea.”

He nodded.

“Good. Let’s go see what we can find out about our new guest.”

Looking Back

Time is one of the most dangerous schools of magic to study. It requires discipline and self-control. One wrong move could lead to erasing yourself from existence or some other disaster. For that reason, among others, those who practice time magic are very careful in selecting their apprentices. Aptitude was not sufficient. A student must be able to resist temptation and be judicious in the application of power. Few have the requisite temperament. 

All of this precaution was to prevent the very thing Thomas was about to try. Viewing the past wasn’t dangerous in itself, but it raised the possibility of changing the past. The potential problems that could arise were innumerable, so even looking into the past was generally discouraged. However, his questions remained unanswered and demanded investigation. He could think of no other alternative. He prepared the incantations and sent his consciousness back.

Almost immediately, Thomas knew something was amiss. Despite the numerous items connected to Jason that he had gathered, the timeline was black. There appeared to be no moments where he could locate his friend. Jason had warned him once against trying to view him from other times, and Thomas had respected his wishes until now. With Jason’s death, the promise no longer held, or so he told himself. After searching for longer than should have been necessary, he finally found Jason in his lab a couple of days before his demise. Thomas drew closer to the time to see what he could learn.

As soon as he entered the lab, Jason turned toward his approximate location. “Thomas. I assume it’s you, otherwise this is embarrassing. I thought I asked you not to look in on me.”

Thomas was taken aback. Jason should not be aware of him.

“The nice thing is, whenever I talk to you, if you aren’t here, most people will think it’s just me being my usual nutty self. Maybe I am. But I like to turn off my crystal now and then and pretend you’ve come to visit. If you never see these moments, then there really isn’t any harm.”

So he was talking just in case Thomas were to look in on him? Maybe Jason was crazier than he realized. On the other hand, this time at least, he happened to be right.

“If you are here right now, I’m assuming I died. That feels like the only reason you would do this. If I’m not dead, then you’re an idiot for going to the past for no good reason.”

Jason bent down over the table he was standing next to and picked up a blue crystal that was giving off a dim light. “Now for my normal introductory lecture. This crystal is why you can’t usually find me. I know I explain this every time, but I never know which time you might visit, so I feel I have to do it. Anyway, this crystal prevents me from being observed by any magical means, even yours. I periodically turn it off and talk to you, in case you want to check in. I think the faint light means you’re watching. That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ve never been able to check it.”

Putting down that crystal, he picked up another. This one shown with an intense white light. “If you ever do see one of these moments, could you please tell me so that I can’t quit explaining all of that?” Jason turned this new crystal over in hand a few times. “As I said, if you are here, I expect that I’m dead. And if you’ve come to this particular moment, it’s probably because of this.”

Thomas looked more closely at this crystal and recognized it.

“This is the crystal you asked me to make and give to David. I’m not going to. Just one of my feelings, but if I give it to him, I’m pretty sure something very bad will happen. I’d rather it didn’t. Maybe I die, but the alternative would be worse. Trust me on that.”

An urge to shake Jason rose up in him. The man could be so stubborn and foolish. He had intentionally kept the crystal? If he had just listened to Thomas, things would have worked out. In that moment, Thomas considered trying to change Jason’s mind.

“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but since you’re still here, you must be thinking about it. Do not try to change the past. I’ve already made up my mind, so you’ll just make things worse. You know this better than anyone, so leave it alone.”

Jason put his hand on the blue crystal once more. “One last thing. Please don’t tell Julia you did this. And do not teach her how to do it. She’ll torture herself with it. Okay? Please. Anyway, go live your life. Quit looking back.”

The blue glow from the crystal intensified briefly before the timeline went black again. Thomas reviewed everything Jason had told him. He had no idea what would have happened if his friend had given the crystal to David like he was supposed to. And he never would; not unless he risked even greater danger.

Unsatisfied, but out of ideas, Thomas returned to his present. Jason had made his decision. The only thing he could do now was respect it. If going to the past wasn’t going to resolve his doubts, he would have to look to the future.

Hotel Dying

“Please wake up.”

Erik’s voice sounded far away. A dull ache pounded against the back of her head as Rebecca slowly regained consciousness. She hadn’t opened her eyes yet, but she knew she was sitting. Her hands were bound behind her back. Attempting to open her eyes, she shut them quickly when the bright light intensified her headache.

“Erik? What happened?”

“Oh good. You’re awake.” His relief was obvious.

Squinting hard to keep out most of the painful light, she could just make out the desk clerk crouching in front of her. “What happened?” she repeated.

“Shh. Not so loud. You don’t want to draw attention.”

“Why am I tied up?”

“Be quiet.” He sounded . . . scared?

“Why? Are you going to kill me too?”

“What?” Confusion replaced fear.

Her eyes were starting to adjust and she could make out another blurry figure enter the room. An unfamiliar voice spoke. “You should have stayed in your room.” It was deep, masculine, and full of threat.

“Who are you?”

“Doesn’t matter. You won’t be alive long enough to bother explaining everything to you.”

“Don’t kill her!” That was Erik again. He was standing, facing the new person.

“What are you two doing?” 

“Two? I must have hit you harder than I thought.” The man seemed confused.

Erik turned to his head towards her. “I’m not doing anything. He attacked me, too!”

“There’s only me. Unless you’re counting the corpse you’ll be joining.”

Finally able to see clearly enough to get a good look at Erik, Rebecca understood.

“Erik, can you help me out?”

“I’ve been trying, but I can’t seem to do anything to the ropes.”

“Don’t worry about them. Just face him and start screaming and waving your arms.”

“What? How will that help?”

In spite of herself, she sighed. “I’ll explain later. For now, trust me.” It would take too long to help him come to terms with the transition. And the man was approaching her.

“I am going to enjoy this.”

“Now, Erik!”

Rebecca muttered a couple of short incantations as Erik began making noise and gesturing wildly. The murderer, who was standing right in front of him, yelped in surprise and stumbled backwards. He tripped over the body on the floor behind him and fell, smacking his head on the cement floor. He did not move again.

“That worked? How did that work?”

As Erik looked in disbelief at the man he had frightened, possibly to death, Rebecca felt the handle of a knife pressed into her hands. With it, she was able to make quick work of the rope that bound her. After she was free, she rubbed feeling back into her wrists and thought her thanks to the bear.

“Seriously, why did he seem startled to see me? I’d been here all along.”

Rebecca looked up at the translucent figure before her. “Erik, I’m sorry. You are dead.”

“What? No I’m not. We’re talking to one another right now.”

She nodded. “Yes, we are. I can see and talk to ghosts.”

“I don’t feel dead.”

“I know. Look at the other body on the floor. The one he tripped over.”

Erik bent down and looked at the face. Shock caused him to fall into a sitting position. He stared. “That’s me.”

“Yes, it is. I’m sorry.”

“I’m dead.”

She didn’t say anything. He needed to come to grips with this himself.

After a few minutes, he looked at her. “So what do I do now?”

“That’s something you have to figure out. You could stay here and haunt the hotel. Some spirits seem to enjoy that. Or you could move on.”

“To what?”

“I don’t know. The living aren’t allowed to know.”

“But you said you can talk to ghosts.”

“The ones I can talk to haven’t moved on.”

“Oh.”

Rebecca got to her feet slowly.

“Wait. What about him?”

She didn’t even glance at the second body. “He’s dead. That blow to the head was very hard.”

“Won’t he haunt this place?”

“No. After I made you visible to him, I made sure to trap his spirit. He’s stuck with his body.”

She waited until he said something.

“I don’t know what I should do.”

She really did feel for him. He didn’t deserve to die; few people do. He would get used to his new situation, but it would take time.”

“You will figure it out, I’m sure. And there are others like me you can talk to.”

He nodded, unconvinced. “Okay, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik, you can call me Rebecca.”

“Oh. Okay.”

*     *     *

The next night, she walked back into the lobby and was greeted by a new desk clerk whose name she had yet to learn.

Erik also stood behind the desk. “Hello, Ms. Jones.”

“Erik,” she thought at him, so as not to arouse suspicion from the other person.

“Sorry. Good evening, Rebecca.”

She smiled. “Better.”

Hotel Living

“Good evening, Ms. Jones.”

It took a moment for Rebecca to recognize that the night desk clerk was speaking to her.

“Hi, Erik. You’re on again tonight?” Somewhat scrawny, he looked like he could be a teenager.

“Every night.”

Rebecca had been at the hotel for a couple of nights already and had seen him every night so far. He was a bit odd, but friendly.

“Well, I hope you don’t get bored easily.”

“Not tonight. There is a Twilight Zone marathon on.”

“That sounds . . . rather creepy for a night shift.”

“Nah. It’s just fun. It’s too old-school to be really scary. You wanna watch some with me?” As soon as the question left his mouth, Erik’s face flushed, and he looked away. “I . . . I mean . . . You can see it on the TV in your room. It’s on channel 56.”

Rebecca smiled. “No, thanks,” she said gently. “That sort of show always gives me nightmares. But thank you. I hope you enjoy the marathon. I’m going to get some sleep.”

Upon hearing her answer, he seemed equal parts relieved and disappointed. “Okay. Goodnight, Ms. Jones.”

She gave him a wave goodnight and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Her room was halfway down the hall.  Back inside and away from the world, she threw herself face first onto the bed. The bear walked over to her and patted her head. She laid there for awhile, not moving and ignoring the food she had brought back with her.

The story Sarah had told her about Marie only served to reinforce the fact that she needed to leave. If her family hadn’t known where she was before, if Peter had acted on his own, they certainly knew now. She knew Sarah had been trying to help, but all she had done was make Rebecca’s departure more urgent. Now she was in a strange town, living in a hotel, unsure of where she should go next. All she knew was that she needed to get lost again before anyone else came after her.

Eventually, she sat up and ate the now cold fast food while watching an episode of the Twilight Zone. She actually loved the show, but the lie was an attempt to avoid, in a kind way, more conversation with Erik. She really wasn’t looking to make any friends right now. The television was still on when she drifted off. Her last thoughts before sleep were about Marie. At least she was okay.

*     *     *

After only a few hours, something woke her up. There was an entity in the room with her. When she had first arrived at the hotel, she had walked around looking for spirits. With all the people that came through them every day, and any number of accidents or more sinister encounters, haunted hotels were rather common, so she always checked. This one had been empty. Either this spirit was from somewhere else, which was unlikely, or she had missed it, which also seemed unlikely.

Whatever the case, the spirit did not show any interest in her. It simply exited the room by walking through the door. Even though it didn’t seem to harbor any aggressive intent, she followed it into the hallway. The entity walked towards the center stair case that led to the lobby. As it descended, Rebecca realized it was actually taking steps and trying to hold on to the handrail. Maybe it was a new spirit, which would explain why she hadn’t noticed it before. If that were the case, however, it meant someone had died recently, and there had been no news of any deaths in the hotel.

Down the stairs, it walked over to the front desk and disappeared into the office. It hadn’t been manifesting, so Erik would not see it, but she wanted to find out where it was going. She cast a simple spell to see if the clerk were around. There were no life signs in the immediate vicinity. He must be in the bathroom or something. The office door was unlocked, so she hurried inside.

The spirit had already moved on, but Rebecca noticed another door in the back of the room that was ajar. Looking through the crack, she could see a set of stairs leading down. It was foolish, she knew, but her curiosity was in charge so she went through the door.

At the bottom of the stairs, she saw large bright room to the left. Inside were laundry machines and folding tables. In the center of the floor was a person, laying face down in a pool of blood. Something hit her from behind, and the world went black before she finished falling to the ground.

On the Run Again

Her backpack was already full. Rebecca was surprised to discover she had accumulated so much stuff in her time here; proof that she had stayed in one place too long. Peter’s appearance had been a wake-up call. It was only a matter of time before he returned, and she intended to be gone long before he did.

Frustrated at herself for getting attached to so many things, she began grabbing things out of the bag. Discarding most of the clothes, she was able to make space for a few charms and other tools. This house, these rooms, had come to feel safe. No longer. Thomas couldn’t protect her. No one could protect her. 

The only thing now was to run. David was restored to his body. There was nothing more she could do here. It was time to leave. Running was all she knew how to do. Her magic couldn’t protect her; if anything, it is what got her into this situation. She just needed to find some place where Peter couldn’t get to her, wherever that might be.

Having reduced the contents to the bag to only the most essential items, she took one more look around the room before opening the door. The stuffed bear was staring at her from the entrance to the lab. Somehow its face, which never changed, looked sad.

“I’ve got to go. It isn’t safe here anymore. Not for me.”

The bear wasn’t like David in the rabbit; it only had rudimentary abilities to communicate. In this case, confusion.

“I can’t take you with me. I don’t know where I’m going, and it will be hard enough taking care of myself.”

Why was she explaining herself to this spirit? It was just a thing; it didn’t need her. It didn’t require nutrition or anything else. With or without her, its existence would remain the same. So why did she feel guilty for walking away?

“If you come, I can’t promise to look after you. Traveling will be hard, much harder than staying here.”

The bear gave the impression that it was shrugging.

“Fine. Let’s go.”

She opened the door just before Sarah could knock on it. Sarah looked at her bag and nodded to herself.

“I get it. Peter is after you. However, before you go, we have to talk. Then you can leave, if you want to. I won’t stop you. You need to hear me out first.”

Rebecca took a step back to let Sarah in. Whatever she had to say, Rebecca felt an obligation to listen.

Talking to Oneself

Even just a few days in a stuffed animal left David feeling a little awkward to be back in his own body. His limbs felt too long, and it was odd not seeing the world from only a foot off of the floor. Still, he welcomed the strangeness of it as he walked back into his own rooms for the first time in days.

He set the stuffed rabbit down on a small table just inside the door from the hallway. Rebecca had told him to keep it, but it was unsettling, like smelling food that had made you sick to your stomach the last time you ate it. He considered throwing it away, or even burning it; for now, however, he just put it down and tried to ignore it.

The only other instruction Rebecca had given him was to rest. The whole process of being restored to his body had left him feeling exhausted, yet there were too many thoughts racing around in his head. With all that had happened, plus what Julia had said to him, he didn’t think sleep would come that easily.

Instead, he entered the small room he had set aside for his spiritual practice. It was little more than a walk-in closet, but it helped him to focus. He sat facing a single candle, a mere thought sufficient to ignite the wick. That simple spell left him feel ecstatic. As much as he had missed eating and even talking, magic had been the hardest loss to deal with. He wanted to just start casting every spell he could think of, but now wasn’t the time to indulge in excess. He needed to center himself and reflect on all that had happened. So he sat, staring at the flame, until that was all he could see.

After an indeterminate amount of time had passed, the light shrank once more to a candle flame. Now the candle sat on a desk in a small study. An older man sat, writing. He noticed David’s gaze and turned to face him. The man wore the face of Samuel, David’s old guide, but he knew it wasn’t really him.

“Well, come here, then. You must have some questions if you’ve decided to call upon me. No sense staying over there.” The old man waved him over.

David obeyed and drew closer. He knew this spirit personified some aspect of himself, yet that it appeared in the guise of his old teacher gave it an aura of expertise he had to stay wary of. Consulting oneself always carried the risk of conveying a sort of divine authority to one’s own ideas. When those ideas were echoed back by a respected figure, they could take on an air of infallibility, even if the seeker knew it was coming from an aspect of himself. 

Once David was closer, the man spoke again. “So ask. I’m not going to read your mind.”

“Do I belong here?”

The old man’s expression didn’t change. “What an odd question. Why are you always convinced that you belong some places and not others. Belonging is something that comes from you, not a function of location.”

“That’s not really helpful.”

“Isn’t it? It seems like something you need to learn.”

“I want to know if I should stay in this house. I almost died. And . . .” He could still hear Julia’s warning about Thomas.

“And you aren’t sure you can trust Thomas.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to read my mind.”

“You were taking too long. What does trusting Thomas have to do with you staying?”

“Samuel sent me here to learn. But if I can’t trust Thomas . . .”

“Do you really think you have to trust someone in order to learn from them? Don’t answer. I already know you don’t think that. And now you know you don’t, as well. You can learn from anyone, if you are willing to hear what they are teaching.”

“But should I stay?”

“You know, I could tell you what you want to hear. I know what you want to hear, even if you aren’t willing to admit it to yourself. But I’m feeling a little cranky, and you’re being incredibly dense, so I’m not going to answer you. Stay. Leave. What does it matter? That’s the real question. Why would you stay? Why would you leave? Maybe the real question is whether this is all about Thomas. You have to learn to trust yourself. Don’t look to me for the answers, not when I’m just a stand-in for your mentor. What do you want? Answer that question, and own that answer.”

“Thanks for that.”

“Hey, you want a better answer, next time look to a more helpful aspect of yourself.”

David opened his eyes, and he was back in the small room. Snuffing out the candle as easily as he lit it, he stood and walked back to the living room. Falling into a chair, he kept mulling over the conversation he’d just had with himself. 

What answer did he want to hear? Was it significant that he said “want” and not “need”? What answer did he need to hear? Was it the same? David needed to come up with those answers himself, and he knew that. It didn’t make it any easier.

He noticed the stuffed rabbit had fallen off the table, but he was too tired to get up and replace it, too tired even to go to bed. Instead, he closed his eyes to sleep in the chair. Everything else could wait until after he had gotten some rest.

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.