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.

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.

Esther

The apartment looked the same as it always had, as though Jason had never moved out. Maybe he hadn’t. The question was why? Julia looked around at all the clutter and tried to guess why he had kept this place. No answer immediately suggested itself.

She sat down and started going through the nearest pile of paper. It consisted mostly of notes in Jason’s indecipherable handwriting. Before she could begin a new stack, there was a knock at the door. She sat very still and waited for whoever it was to go away.

Instead, they began to fiddle with the lock. Her first instinct was to leave and return later, but she stopped herself. She didn’t want anyone tampering with Jason’s things. Standing and preparing to defend herself, she waited for the door to open.

When it did, she was surprised to see an older woman dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt standing on the other side. the woman pulled a set of keys away from the lock and stared at Julia over a pair of reading glasses.

“I heard you up here,” the woman said in response to a question Julia hadn’t asked. “Where’s Mr. Wizard?”

The situation had become something unexpected. “Mr. Wizard?”

“Your friend, Jason Wizard. He is your friend, isn’t he? Or should I be calling the cops on you?” The lines on the woman’s face suggested she was in her 80s, but there was nothing frail about her.

Wizard? That was the name Jason had used? As smart as he was, his lack of common sense still amazed her.

“Yes. He and I are friends. But he’s not here right now.”

“I thought so. You used to come around occasionally. Hadn’t seen you in awhile. Thought maybe you’d had a falling out. Anyway, rent’s due. Jason asked me to collect it from whoever was here.” The woman walked into the apartment and headed to the kitchenette area. She put some water into the kettle and set it on the stove. While it heated up, she took out two mugs and a couple of teabags from the cupboards.

Julia watched all of this in stunned silence. This woman, Jason’s landlady, seemed quite at home here. Had she visited often? Julia couldn’t recall meeting her before. The cat appeared from wherever it had gone off to and began rubbing up against the woman’s legs.

The kettle finally whistled, and the woman poured hot water into each of the mugs before dipping the teabags in. “Do you take any milk or sugar in your tea? I know he has sugar, but I can’t be sure there is any milk.”

“No.” Julia was still not sure what to make of all of this.

“I hope you don’t mind if I use some sugar. Helps bring out the taste. Come on, now. Have a seat.” The woman sat down at the small table across from the stove. From a covered bowl, she extracted two sugar cubes and dropped them into the mug in front of her. Julia walked over and sat down in the other chair.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Esther. I own the building.” The woman’s smile was genuine. “And what’s your name? Jason never told me.”

“Julia.”

“Julia. Nice to meet you.”

“Do you know Jason well?”

“He’s been living here for years. You get to know people a little after so much time.”

That didn’t really answer her question, but Julia decided not to push the issue. “Well, I’m afraid Jason isn’t here right now.”

“So you said, but rent is still due. He is a good tenant, but I have bills to pay.”

“I’ll make sure to tell him.”

The woman’s smile didn’t fade, but a tinge of sadness crept into it. “This must be hard on you, no doubt. If you’re here alone, I assume something happened to him. He told me it might, and that I should expect you if it did. I guess I hoped he was just pulling my leg again. I am sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

Julia shook her head. “If I get you the rent, can I keep this place?”

Esther reached out and patted her hand. “Of course.”

The cat jumped onto the table between them and laid down. Esther waved her hand at the animal. “Rook, get down.” In spite of her expression, her voice didn’t convey any real threat.

“Rook?”

“Oh, he never did bother to figure out his name, did he? The cat’s name is ‘Rook.’ Jason would have known if he had ever bothered to ask.”

Julia stared at the woman. “Who are you?”

“I already told you. My name is Esther. I own the building. Rent is due on the first of the month, which was yesterday. I know you’re in mourning, so I can wait a few days. But not too long, okay? And be sure to keep the tea and sugar on hand.”

Julia nodded and took a sip from the mug in front of her. The tea was warm and comforting. She felt more peaceful than she had in a long time.

A Door to the Past

After David left, Julia turned back to talk to Jason’s apparition, but it, too, had gone. She dropped into a chair and stared at nothing in particular. She really had nothing to do, at least nothing she wanted to do.

Surprising her, Jason’s cat jumped into her lap. She hadn’t seen it since Jason’s death; in fact, she hadn’t even been certain that it was still around until just now. As far as she knew, Jason had never given it a name. It jumped back to the floor and crawled under the chair. Julia stood up to go find some food for it.

Before she even took a step, something hit her foot. The cat had knocked a green toy into her. She bent down to pick up, not a toy, but a green crystal. It radiated power, but it didn’t look like the power storage crystals Jason normally created. Indeed, she had never seen him make or use anything like this. Getting down on her hands and knees, she looked under the chair to see if there was anything else under it that might be a clue to what the crystal was for.

The only thing she saw was the cat, who meowed at her and walked away. Julia sat back onto her legs and examined the crystal more closely. There was power, but it was already bound up in some purpose; it wasn’t the freely available power that could be found in Jason’s usual crystals. Without more information, there was no way of knowing what it was for. The cat began meowing repeatedly, so she walked over to where it was sitting, next to a small cabinet. Inside the cabinet was a bag of cat food. She found a bowl and set it down on the floor.

While the cat ate, she continued to turn the crystal over in her hand. It stubbornly refused to give up its secrets. Casting her gaze around the room, she saw nothing remarkable, nothing incomplete or out of place. Her eyes finally settled on the door to Jason’s back rooms. She had avoided going back into the other parts of his personal space. Even though he was gone, it felt wrong, as if she would be prying. The door was now ajar. The cat must have opened it and gotten out. That was a good thing, else it might have starved. 

Now that the door was open, it felt like a sign for her to finally enter. After all, his belongings needed to be dealt with, especially if anything else was alive back there. Clutching the crystal tightly, Julia steeled herself and walked into the next room.

To someone who didn’t know Jason well, the room would have looked cluttered and disorganized, as thought someone had been in the middle of three projects and left suddenly. She knew better. He had probably been in the middle of at least six projects. Chaos was his order, and he understood it better than anyone else she knew. She couldn’t always follow how his mind worked, but there was no denying that he saw patterns no one else could.

Three more doors led away from this room. One would go to his personal chambers. Another went to a more traditional lab space. And the third . . . confused her. She had made these quarters according to his instructions. There should only be two doors besides the one she had come through. Had he added a room without telling her?

Opening this extra door revealed nothing but a blank wall. There was no doubt that Jason was odd, to say the least, but he always had a reason for everything he did. So what was the point of a false door? She closed it and examined the side facing the rest of the room.

It appeared to be just a normal door; there was nothing odd about it at all. The door handle was made of glass and cut to look like a large gem. A little fancy, perhaps, but nothing extraordinary. Otherwise, it was a simple wooden door that led nowhere.

A meow startled her. The cat was standing next to her looking at the door, obviously expecting to be let through. She obliged the cat, but the wall was still there. It sat pawing at the wall, apparently confused. She closed the door again and went over it carefully. This time she noticed a notch in the handle. It looked like it belonged, so she hadn’t noticed it the first time. There was no other indentation or marking anywhere. She pulled out the green crystal and fitted it to the notch. Effortlessly, it snapped into place. This time, when she opened the door, she saw the inside of a familiar apartment. It was where Jason had been living when they had first met.

The cat did not hesitate to enter its old home. Why did Jason have a door to this place? Was there something important here? She couldn’t begin to guess the answers to her questions, but she was determined to find out. Carefully, she followed the cat through the door.