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.”

Helpless

David was useless, and it was the most frustrated he had ever felt. Rebecca was slumped on the floor and not responding to any of his pleas. The man who had terrified her into this position was walking over to her. And David was trapped in a stuffed rabbit with no ability to use magic. He could hardly imagine a worse situation.

The man – Peter, she had called him – approached Rebecca looking much like a predator. No magic was necessary to know that he had nothing except malicious intent, but David did not know how to stop him.

“Come now, Rebecca.” Peter said, looking down at her. “There is no need to be afraid. No one is angry with you. Your family just misses you. Don’t disappoint them. Let us return, so that they might be happy again.”

When Rebecca stood up woodenly, David found himself sinking even deeper into despair. She was going to go with him, and he could only watch.

“Good girl. Follow me, and we’ll put this place behind us.” Peter turned around without waiting for her to respond; his confidence that she would obey was absolute. After she followed him into the hallway, he paused and looked back into the room. With a flick of the fingers on his left hand, a spark flew to one of the armchairs, causing it to become engulfed in flames instantly. Rebecca did not react.

As the pair walked down the hall, David snuck out behind them, avoiding the flames. There was little in the hallway before they would reach the stairs. Could he reach Sarah or Thomas before they got out the front door? Even if he could, would he be able to make them understand the situation? He decided the best option was to follow them, to see where they went, so he could help the others find her later. Nothing else seemed to have much chance of success.

A portal opened in the hallway. Was that how Peter was planning on leaving? David got ready to jump into it to follow them when Julia’s voice came from the other side.

“Who the hell are you?”

Peter sneered. “How are you still alive?”

“My house, my question.”

“Not that it’s any of your concern, but I am Rebecca’s father. She’s coming home. Aren’t you, Rebecca?”

“Yes.” Her voice was hollow, nothing more than an echo of herself.

“Nobody leaves here unless I let them.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t think you have enough power to stop me. That’s why you aren’t showing yourself.” Peter waved his hand and muttered something; the portal vanished.

As they reached the top of the stairs, David heard another voice. “Now! Run in front of him.” It was Jason, but that was impossible. Once more the voice reverberated though his head. “Now!”

David ran as quickly as he could manage when Peter began to take the first step. Peter’s foot struck David and sent him flying down to the first floor. Turning over and over as he flew through the air, he could tell that a number of stairs were missing. Instead, there was a hole that appeared to open to a cave. The only light inside was from a burning armchair. Peter, having lost his balance, fell forward and through the hole. His scream was abruptly cut off by the portal’s closing.

Rebecca sat down on the floor in the hallway. David clambered up the steps as quickly as his small body would let him.

Are you okay?

Rebecca looked at him with a confused expression on her face. He expected her to ask him who he was, but she didn’t. “I think so. Is he really gone?”

As far as I know. Julia sent him . . . somewhere. I assume he won’t be able to get back right away.

“Good. Julia? Are you still around?” Rebecca looked around the hallway, but there was no response.

Was that really your father?

“I don’t want to talk about it right now.”

Okay. David searched for something else to say. Hey, during all that, just before your fa . . . just before Peter fell, did you hear Jason?

“Jason’s dead.”

I know. But I could have sworn I heard him telling me to trip . . . Peter.

“I think I would know if his spirit were around here. It was probably just Julia.”

Yeah.

Rebecca stood up unsteadily before righting herself against the wall. Together, they walked back to her room.

. . . It Pours

Rebecca felt uneasy. So many things had gone wrong in the last twelve hours, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t over yet. Being stuck in her room only added to her sense of worry.

What is going on? The stuffed rabbit that David’s spirit was inhabiting stood on the floor in front of her.

“I don’t know any more than you. Thomas said the hallways are unstable, and we should stay here.”

This is maddening.

“Complaining about it isn’t helping.”

Fine.

She shouldn’t have snapped at David, but her patience was wearing thin.

Can you really put me back in my body?

Her guilt got the better of her. Being stuck in a stuffed animal had to be frustrating, and while she hadn’t really gotten him into this mess, she did sympathize with him. No reason to take her own concerns out on him.

“Yes. If we can get it. We’re going to need Julia’s help though, if that was one of her spaces.”

So it can be done.

“Yes.”

If the hallways were unstable, did that mean something was wrong with Julia? Would they be able to get David’s body back? She tried to keep her own doubts hidden, but Thomas couldn’t come back soon enough. He would be able to set things right.

She wasn’t sure if she really believed that anymore. This whole situation was the result of his planning. He had been so certain he knew how things would work out. He was wrong. The safety of the house had been shaken, so where did that leave her?

Someone knocked on her door.

Is that Thomas?

“Either him or Sarah.”

She opened the door. On the other side was a large figure wearing a blood-red cloak. The face was in shadow under the hood, but she knew who it was before he spoke.

“Hello, Rebecca.”

Peter. Her mind began to race as panic overwhelmed her. It didn’t matter how, she had to get out of here.

“Aren’t you going to welcome me?” He stepped through the door just enough to block it completely.

“Get out of here!” There were spells she had prepared in case this day ever came. Terror drove them all out of her head.

“That is rather rude. Especially after all the trouble I went through to be able to visit you.” Every syllable that fell from his mouth felt like a drop of acid hitting her spine.

“You can’t be here.” She shifted further away form him, but he didn’t move from the doorway.

“Yes, I can. There seems to be something wrong with your house’s security.”

David’s voice was screaming in her mind, but she couldn’t focus on that. She needed to find a way out of here.

“Come now, Rebecca. You know you belong back with us. With your family. Come along, and no one has to get hurt.”

“Leave me alone!” Why couldn’t she think of any spells?

“I can’t do that. I am taking you home.”

She backed into the wall on the far side of the room. Unable to get any further from him, she sank to the floor and covered her face with her hands.

Grief

“What are you doing?”

Julia looked up at Jason with a mixture of confusion and pain. She was sitting on the floor in his room. “What do you mean?”

“Why are you messing around with the hallways?”

“Thomas needs to be punished.”

“Even if that were true, Sarah and the others don’t.”

“You’re not even here. Did Rebecca send you?”

“No, she didn’t. Now…”

Julia stood quickly, her fists clenched. In a single moment, her sadness was replaced with anger. “Shut up! You’re not real! You died! You died because Thomas was keeping secrets! He deserves to be punished!”

“You mean, you want revenge.” His disappointment was evident.

“So what if I do?” Her voice had dropped almost to a whisper.

“You’re better than that.”

“You always tell me that. But it’s not true. You want me to be better than I am; that’s different. You always see the good in people. Not everyone is good, and now you’re dead because of Thomas’ scheming.”

“You don’t know that. He brought David here to protect you. When David failed, I . . .”

“Stop. Please.” Her voice cracked. Hearing Jason say that he died to save her would be more than she could bear. Besides, she knew it was Thomas’ fault. Thomas, not her. This was just some trick to distract her from that.

When she regained a little control over her emotions, she looked back at him. “And anyway, how do you even know David was here to protect me?”

“Thomas had asked me to give David a crystal. When he found out I hadn’t given it to David yet, Thomas went after you two immediately. I think he believed David could use it to beat that worm.”

“You’re making this up.”

“I’m not.”

Julia broke again, collapsing to the floor. This was too much. Jason was gone, and she was in a house with strangers. Alone once more, she could feel the world collapsing around her.

“Why did you even bring me here?” she managed.

Jason crouched down in front of her to peer directly into her eyes. “We need people. You need people. I wasn’t going to be around forever, so I wanted you to find a place for yourself.”

“I was just fine. We came here, and now you’re gone. Great plan. So now I’ll just make this house mine. I’ll show you I don’t need anyone.”

“Julia…”

“No. Stop. Tell Rebecca her little trick didn’t work. I don’t believe you’re Jason. Tell them to leave. If they go, I’ll let them. But if they don’t…” Her voice caught in her throat. Jason looked profoundly sad, which wrenched a sob from her. “Just go. Just go. Go.” She closed her eyes and continued to chant those two words over and over.

When she opened her eyes again, he was gone. His lifeless body lay on the couch where she had placed it. A sense of urgency, that something needed to be done, gnawed at the back of her mind. Yet the only thing she could think about was that her friend was dead. She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked herself as sob after sob rolled over her.

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?

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

“So this is where you live?” Julia looked around at the unremarkable, and very cluttered, apartment.

“Yep.” Jason replied absently as he dug through one of the piles of miscellany.

After she had gotten him out of the collapsed building, he had convinced her to come to his apartment to repay her for saving him. Uncharacteristically, she had agreed. That, by itself, bothered her. She should have said no. The fact that she didn’t only intensified her curiosity about him.

Though he looked a few years older than she was, he acted younger. Even taking account of the fact that a building had just collapsed on top of him, he appeared disheveled. If she couldn’t feel the power coming off him, it would be easy to mistake him for a vagrant. She didn’t understand this strange man, and she wanted to.

“So if this is your home, what were you doing at that other place?”

“Research.” He didn’t look up.

“Why there and not here?”

“Because then my apartment would have been destroyed.”

The reasoning was impeccable and completely baffling. “You knew the building was going to fall down?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Just a sense I get. I thought I would have better luck trying my spell there than I would here. Since the building didn’t survive, I’d say it was rather lucky I didn’t do it here.”Jason gave up on the pile he had been digging through and started searching another one.

“Aha! Here it is.” He sat back, a triumphant grin on his face. In his hands was a long, slender crystal that glowed. He held it out towards her. “Here you go.”

“What’s this?”

“A crystal.”

“I know that. I meant, what’s it for?”

“You can use it to power magic. I thought you were a mage?”

“I am. Ugh… Why are you giving it to me?”

“Oh. You saved my life. Least I could do.”

“I can feel the power from here. It must be worth a fortune.”

Jason shrugged. “I don’t know. I make them in my spare time. Useful to have around. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”

Julia took the crystal carefully and turned it over slowly. It was one of the strongest crystals she had ever encountered, and he just had it laying around. It would provide enough power for a normal month’s worth of spells for her.

“Why do you live by yourself, in this apartment? If you can make this, you should have people beating down your door begging you to join their house.”

“Not really interested. I have an old friend who keeps inviting me, but I’m not much for joining.” Jason cleared off a seat on the couch and offered Julia a nearby armchair. “I like the solitude. Easier to focus.” As if to give the lie to his words, a black cat jumped up onto the table in front of the couch and stared at him.

“Uh huh. What’s your cat’s name?”

“I don’t know. And he isn’t mine.”

“Is he a neighbor’s? How did he get in?”

“Oh, he lives here, but he doesn’t belong to me. He’s his own person.”

“He lives here, but you don’t know his name?”

“No. He hasn’t told me yet.”

“He hasn’t told you? His name?” Everything Jason said or did made him seem more strange.

“Right…” Jason’s voice seemed to trail off.

“What?” Julia had been too focused on the cat.

“I asked if you belong to a house?”

“No. I don’t mix well with others.” Why did she say that? It was true, of course, but why tell this mage she had just met?

“Too bad. Your command of spatial dimensions is fascinating. I’d love to learn more about it.”

“You seem to have your own talents.” She indicated the crystal she was holding.

He slapped his hands down on his knees and stood up suddenly. “It’s settled then. You will teach me about your magic, and I’ll teach you mine.”

“What? I didn’t…”

He pulled her to her feet and began walking her to the door. “Tomorrow afternoon. Back here.” The cat, who had been following them, meowed. “Fine,” Jason replied to the animal before turning back to Julia. “Bring some food for the cat. He insists. Thinks you will get better food than I give him.”

With that, Julia found herself in the hallway, the door to the apartment closed behind her. How had he arrived at the conclusion that they would swap magic? This was insane. No, Jason was insane. He had to be. She should just leave and never come back. As she considered the crystal in her hand, she knew she would return.