Resolution

“I thought you had let this go?” Sarah was practically pleading.

Remaining defiant, Julia shook her head. “For the sake of Rebecca, I had put it to one side. Now that that’s been settled, we need to deal with him.”

“It’s his house, Julia.”

“I don’t care. He put everyone and everything at risk. Not telling me? Trying to set David up? And in the end, Jason paid the price. Jason who was an ‘old friend.’” Sarah could almost see the sarcasm drip from Julia’s mouth. “We should harbor no misconceptions. He would let any of us suffer the same fate, considering we mean even less to him.”

“You can’t believe that. He didn’t want Jason to die. Or even you. Maybe he went about it poorly, but he was trying to keep everyone safe.”

“So? What follows from that? Am I just supposed to forget it all? Pretend he isn’t responsible for Jason’s death? He gets off without any consequences?”

“Julia. What would you have me do?”

“I don’t know. You say we can’t kick him out. But how can you expect me to stay here, in this house, while he remains?”

“Julia is right.”

Both women turned in surprise to see Thomas standing just inside the door of the living room.

“Thomas?” Sarah didn’t want to try to infer the meaning of his statement.

“I said, Julia is right. It is unreasonable to expect her to stay in my house.”

“So you’re kicking me out?”

“You misunderstand. Julia, I have thought about this a lot. Especially since yesterday, but even before our last exchange. I thought I was doing the right thing. As you have repeatedly asserted, I was wrong. I apologize to you, and everyone else in the house. I need to do better.

Julia seemed to deflate a bit. Thomas’s admission had taken some of the edge off of her anger, but she wasn’t going to be pacified so easily. “That’s all well and good, but . . .”

Thomas interrupted her. “There is more. Your hesitation in staying is understandable. So I will relinquish this house and give it over to Sarah. I merely ask that I be allowed to stay, at least on a probationary basis. If I again act so as to violate your trust, or anyone else’s, I will accept Sarah’s judgment. You would be part of Sarah’s house, not mine. Is this satisfactory?”

Julia was taken aback. Before she could recover, Sarah spoke up.

“Do I get a say in this? You’re handing everything over to me?”

“Sarah, we both know you’re more suited to this than I ever was. You take care of nearly everything already. I am merely proposing we make it official. Truly, this is already your house.”

She could think of no objection. Truthfully, she didn’t really want to object.

“Very well. Julia, does this arrangement work for you?”

Julia looked as though she still wanted an argument, but she relented. “Yeah. This will do.” Without waiting for any further discussion, she opened a portal and left the room.

“Are you sure about this, Thomas?”

“The house needs her. This seemed like the best way to keep her. Besides, the paperwork has already been filed. This has been your house since the morning.”

There was nothing she could think of to say, so she just nodded her head. After Thomas left, she sat there for a long time, wondering what this change would lead to.

Confrontation

Julia was reading through some of Jason’s notes when there came a knock at the door. Absorbed in the pages, she absently called out, “Come in.”

After the door opened, it took her a moment to realize who was there. His appearance was completely unexpected, but there was no question it was Thomas.

“Julia, I was . . .”

She jumped up and closed the distance between them in a flash. “What are you doing here? How dare you show your face in these rooms!” The anger welling up was almost impossible for her to control.

Though she stood nearly a head shorter, Thomas visibly flinched. “I just wanted to talk to you about Jason’s crystals.”

“Don’t!” She shoved a finger in his face. “Don’t say his name! Don’t come to his rooms! Don’t even think about him! You betrayed someone who called you a friend. You don’t get to talk about him. Ever. If this wasn’t your house, I would end you myself. Never doubt that.”

“I wouldn’t bother you if this wasn’t important.”

She shook her head in disgust. “You can’t even apologize. What you put me through. How you used David. How your games led to Jason’s death. Hell, you even abandoned Rebecca. And now you want to talk about Jason’s research. You’ve got a lot of gall. Get the hell out of here.”

For a moment, it looked like Thomas was going to argue further. Instead, he merely turned and left the room.

She needed to talk to Sarah. Something had to be done. First, however, she wanted to calm down. Yelling at Sarah wasn’t going to help. Tomorrow, though, she would resolve this situation once and for all.

Morning Ritual

Every line on her face meant something, represented some experience. Sarah wouldn’t trade any of them for anything. In the mirror, she studied them all, committing every detail to memory. This was her ritual nearly every morning. As much as she loved changing her looks, playing with form, it was important to her that she never forget what she looked like without magic. Some illusionists couldn’t pick the face they were born with out of a line-up. Looks were flood, even with magic, but she never wanted to lose the connection with her unmodified self.

Once she was certain she could remember herself, she began to play. First, the right eye changed from green to blue. Her shoulder-length brown hair grew halfway down her back and lightened to silver. Checking her profile, she decided to lengthen her nose just a bit and then added a few freckles to either cheek.

She stood and walked over to the full-length mirror. After trying several outfits, she settled on a simple green dress. She finalized the look by taking a couple of inches off of her height. Studying herself in the mirror, she silently approved of the final result. This was as representative of her as her appearance without magic was.

This morning ritual was about her practicing her craft as well as creative expression. It was for her, and her alone. The rest of the day might bring headaches and work, but for a few minutes each morning, she could enjoy her gift and use it to create herself anew. Magic could be used for many things; Sarah wanted to use hers to bring more beauty into the world.

Reflections on The Cabal

The Cabal began as a one-off story. The main character of that story – Jason – was based on a character I had played in a tabletop RPG over 25 years ago. That character (whose name has completely escaped me) was inspired very loosely by Peter Falk’s Columbo. The name of the group was a quick momentary decision with little thought behind it. That’s why you’ve never seen “The Cabal” used in the text of any of the stories.

Almost immediately after writing that first story, I realized I had created a set of characters that I wanted to get to know better. It’s been several years since I had a regular gaming group, so I began to think of these characters and their stories as a stand-in for role-playing, where I get to play all of the characters. (I’ve also thought about this as a serialized story like a comic book.)

I’ve now been living with these people for almost two years. Some of them I like better than others. And some of them I feel as though I understand more than others. One of the things I appreciate about being around characters for this long is when they surprise me. Julia has done this more than others, perhaps, but I have also learned a lot about both Rebecca and Bailey. The biggest surprise, by far, was the end of the “Death in the Family” arc. The original plan did not include anyone’s actual death, and certainly not the death that transpired. In fact, I was nearly done writing that story when I realized what the ending was going to be.

That is not uncommon in my longer stories. I might figure out the major beats before I start, but there is a lot of flexibility built in so that the characters have the freedom to do the unexpected. I’ve gotten to know these characters over the last two years, and I still enjoy their company.

So I intend to continue telling their stories for now. I will also still drop in the occasional one-off story now and then. I hope you’ll stick around and see where this goes next.

Running Away

Before Bailey reached the end of the block, a portal opened in front of them. Rebecca stepped through, anger evident in her expression.

“Seriously?”

“I thought I would get further away before you noticed.”

“You are leaving without saying goodbye. Again. What the fuck, Bailey?”

“I don’t belong here. I figured it would be easier to just fade away.”

“Easier for you, maybe.”

“No, easier for you Rebecca!” More anger came through in their voice than Bailey intended. “You have Marie. David. Who knows what else you have to deal with regarding your cult. Family. Whatever. You don’t need me around complicating life even more.”

“Quit it. Quit trying to decide what’s best for me. Especially since you always decide it’s best for you to leave.”

“I saved your life after your dumb plan. You, of all people, know what that cost me. I did it for you. And I’d do it again without hesitation. Now, I need to go. Just accept that.”

“Why? Why can’t you stay?”

Bailey chewed on the inside of their lip. “I can’t be what you need. What you want.”

“What do you think that is?”

“A mage who embraces their gift. A friend who isn’t . . .” Bailey’s voice trailed off.

“You don’t know how to ask for what you want, so you hide behind excuses of what you think I want.”

“I betrayed you! How do you expect me to face you after that! You should hate me! Go back to your friends! To the people who fought for you!”

Overcome by their own emotions, Bailey tried to hurry away, but Rebecca grabbed their shoulders to stop them.

“You were right. I do know what it cost you, so I know you fought for me, too. You were there for me when I needed you most.”

Rivers of tears were streaming down their face as they shook Rebecca off. Half running, Bailey quickly moved away without looking back. Rebecca just stood, helplessly watching them disappear.

Bailey’s Trial

Julia stayed out of sight, and Sarah remained in the living room with Marie, but David insisted on following Bailey back into the lab with Rebecca’s body. Bailey knew they couldn’t refuse; after all, there hadn’t been a chance to independently confirm that the charm had actually been lifted. Of course Rebecca’s housemates would want to keep an eye on them.

The first step was to heal the wound in Rebecca’s chest. In this respect, it was easier with Rebecca dead; there would be no need to fight living tissue and force it to mend. They simply had to restore its integrity so that it could contain life again. A small feeling of panic began to well up in Bailey, but this was one bit of magic that they hadn’t rejected, thus it was easy to push it back down.

David stood around looking nervous and helpless, so Bailey tried to distract him.

“How long have you known her?”

“Well, I came to this house almost a year ago. That’s when I met her. And everyone else.”

“You didn’t know anyone before coming?”

“My guide knew Thomas. The two of them arranged for me to come.”

“Your guide?”

“My master? Sort of. It’s a person seekers study under.”

“Ah. What tradition . . . Crap.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I slipped. Nothing irreversible. Don’t worry; I won’t let anything bad happen to her.”

David nodded, but his concern was still palpable.

“So are you two a couple?” Bailey hadn’t intended to ask the question, but his emotional investment made their curiosity overwhelming.

“What?”

“You seem to care a lot about her. So I thought . . .”

“She saved my life a while back. It was a bottle very similar to this one. That’s how I recognized it.”

“That makes sense.” Bailey wasn’t convinced that there wasn’t more to his concern, but they didn’t want to push it.

“What about you? We’re you and she partners?”

Bailey hadn’t expected the question, but they couldn’t very well object now.

“Once. It feels like a long time ago. Pretty sure those feelings are in the past. Especially after all this.”

They both fell silent. Bailey was relieved as the work was getting trickier and required more focus. They considered telling David how Marie felt about Rebecca, but it wasn’t their place. David would have to navigate that minefield on his own. Bailey wanted nothing to do with it all.

“Okay. The preparations are done. Give me the bottle.”

David handed Bailey the bottle containing Rebecca’s soul. Rebecca had discussed all of this with Bailey once. Even though they hated this realm of magic, Bailey had listened attentively at the time because it was something she was excited about. That was enough to interest Bailey. The soul needed to be coaxed back into the body. Since it was the soul’s original body, it should be relatively easy.

None of that really mattered, though. Nausea and panic hit Bailey with wave after wave. The only thing they could hear was the voice of their former master screaming. Every step of the process was excruciating and threatened to incapacitate Bailey. They repeatedly whispered Rebecca’s name to maintain focus and fight through every step.

After the soul was back in the body, it needed to be secured so that it wouldn’t simply drift away. The sense of terror intensified and each part of the process took five times as long as it should have. Bailey was terrified of manipulating the magical forces, and even more terrified that they would fail. There was no one else who could help Rebecca. Just when Bailey thought they might collapse from stress, it was over. They slumped into a chair next to the body.

“Now we wait for her to wake up.”

“How long?”

“Minutes? Hours? It’s hard to know. Why don’t you tell Sarah and Marie it worked.”

David nodded and left the room.

As soon as he was gone, Rebecca’s eyes fluttered open.

“Bailey?”

“Hey, sleepy head. That was quite a stunt.”

“Where’s Phillip?”

“He refused to intervene, so I saved your ass.”

“Oh, no. Bailey. I’m so sorry to have put you through that.”

Bailey lightly touched Rebecca’s arm. “Don’t apologize. It was the least I could do after putting you into that mess. More importantly, did it work? Are you free?”

“Yes. But you . . .”

The door opened, and David, Sarah, and Marie all came in the room. They crowded around Rebecca, who was struggling to sit up. In the general commotion, Bailey slipped out.

Back in the living room, they used the portal to the kitchen. Once there, they called out to Julia, who appeared soon after.

“It worked. Well done. You didn’t want to stay to celebrate?”

Bailey shook their head. “She and Marie have things to talk about. Figure it’ll be hard enough getting rid of Sarah and David.”

Julia’s look suggested that she thought there was more to it but wasn’t going to ask. “So now what?”

“I was hoping you’d let me leave.”

That seemed to surprise Julia. “You want to leave?”

“I think it’d be for the best.”

“Bailey, if I can ask, why didn’t you tell us you were a mage?”

“The charm prevented me.”

“And after the crystal suppressed it?”

“It . . . It’s complicated.”

“Okay. But there is room for you here. I’m sure Sarah, David, and Rebecca would agree.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Julia was quiet for a moment. “I’ve been alone. And that can be okay. But I’m learning there is something to be said for belonging somewhere.”

Bailey offered a weak smile. “Maybe some day, but not now.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you from leaving. You have to figure out your own path.”

In spite of themself, Bailey threw their arms around Julia in a meaningful hug. The other mage was clearly not used to such displays, but awkwardly returned the embrace.

“Please remember you have friends here if you need us. I mean it.”

“I will. Thank you, Julia. For everything.”

Neither of them said anything else on the way to the front door. Bailey left without looking at Julia so that the other wouldn’t see the tears rolling down their cheeks.

Bailey’s Gift

As soon as David showed them the bottle, Bailey knew what it was. They could even guess why Rebecca had killed herself. David’s distress was palpable, but it was mixed with hope as he, too, seemed to recognize what he had found. Julia’s crystal, however, prevented Bailey from doing anything about it. Phillip’s refusal to help made the situation more dire.

Bailey hated their own talent. Dealing with bodies and with the dead had always been upsetting. They wanted to study the elements and weather, but their master would not hear of it. He had determined Bailey’s aptitude and refused to consider alternatives. That disagreement had ultimately led to Bailey leaving before the end of their apprenticeship. Rebecca had been the one to help them move on from the experience.

Now Rebecca was in need of help. Help Bailey could offer if they could access their magic again. The charm had taken it away, even prevented them from thinking about it. With Julia’s crystal suppressing the charm, they remembered their magic, but it, too, was rendered inert by the crystal. As much as Bailey had tried to distance themself from their own gift, Rebecca’s life now depended upon it.

With the charm suppressed, Bailey knew Marie had been responsible for it, so she ought to be able to undo it. Bailey stared at her and waited for her to admit it.

“I . . . I can’t.” She stammered. “The Elder said you were too dangerous.”

“Right now, I’m Rebecca’s only hope.”

“But . . .”

Having watched silently until now, Sarah finally interjected. “Marie, at the moment, the Elder is gone. We are here. If Bailey can help, you must let them.”

Marie hesitated for another beat before relenting. “Alright. I don’t know how long it will take.”

“Then we should get started,” Bailey replied.

They laid down on the bed, and Marie got to work. Bailey could feel her poking around in their mind. It took a great deal of effort not to resist her every move. The nature of the work exposed them both. While Marie, with the Elder, had already been through Bailey’s mind, Bailey was now able to get glimpses into Marie’s. For the most part, they tried not to pry. However, memories of Rebecca were rather vivid and all around. The two women had been close friends for most of their lives. The Elder’s presence had disrupted all of that.

Bailey redoubled their efforts to shut out the memories; they felt as though they were intruding on something intensely private. Instead, they tried to distract themself by going over the necessary pieces to bring Rebecca back. Going through the rituals was uncomfortable, but they focused on why this had to be done.

It was not immediately clear how long it took to undo the charm. Upon checking the clock on the nightstand, Bailey discovered that two hours had past. Without knowing the specifics of the spell Rebecca had used, there was no way to know how long until she might be lost for good. Time was against them.

“Okay. Let’s take her back to her rooms in your house. I’ll need some of the materials there.” Bailey addressed Sarah.

Sarah nodded, but before they could move the body, Marie interrupted. “You can’t take her!”

Bailey turned on her. “I need her lab to work. I don’t have any tools here. You freed me to save her. You have to let me.”

“Then I’m coming too.”

“Wait . . .” Sarah began to object, but Bailey stopped her.

“Let her come. David, please make sure she keeps this on her at all times.” Bailey held up the blue crystal Julia had given them and thrust it into Marie’s hand. “Okay?”

Both Sarah and Marie nodded. David helped Bailey carry Rebecca’s body through the portal.

Aftermath

“Is David with you?” Sarah asked Julia through the portal.

“Did Rebecca just . . .”

“Yes. Is David there?”

“No, but . . .”

“Get him and send him here. I don’t know what sort of hell is about to break loose, but I want some firepower nearby just in case.”

“Why don’t you just get out of there?”

“I doubt Bailey would leave. And I want to figure out what just happened.”

“I’ll get him. Just . . . be careful.”

Julia’s tone of voice drove home how precarious everything was. She had been so standoffish as recently as a few months ago. Now she sounded genuinely worried about others.

Both Bailey and Marie were kneeling on the floor on either side of Rebecca’s body. The knife was still in her chest, and the two of them were trying to stop the bleeding. Sarah could tell that it was pointless: the bleeding had already slowed to a trickle. Rebecca’s heart was no longer beating. Leaving Bailey and Marie to their grief, Sarah’s mind turned to the question of why Rebecca killed herself.

David stepped through the portal and took in the scene. “What the . . .”

“David, I need you to be ready to defend us.” Sarah spoke calmly in the hope of keeping him calm.

He nodded while continuing to stare at Rebecca’s body. As he knelt down near Bailey, Sarah at first thought he was sharing in the grief, but then she noticed him picking up something off the floor. Before she could ask him about it, the door opened, and a man she didn’t recognize walked in.

“Mistress? What is going on?”

Marie turned around. “Phillip! We need your help. You have to heal her.”

“The Elder is dead?”

“No! You can save her! Please!” Marie’s voice cracked repeatedly with desperation.

“The Elder is dead. Finally.”

“Phillip!”

“I’m sorry, Marie. I have lived under his boot for too long.”

“Her! This is Rebecca!”

Phillip grabbed Marie’s shoulders. “Marie, listen. It hasn’t been Rebecca for months. The Elder took her over. You know this. She’s free, and he’s gone. I’m not going to lift a finger to bring him back. I am sorry about Rebecca, but this is better for everyone.”

Despite Marie’s pleading, Phillip turned and left. When she looked back, Bailey was right there.

“Is that it? Do you have anyone else who can help?”

Marie shook her head. “Phillip is our only healer.”

“Then you have to release me.”

Marie’s confusion was obvious. “What do you mean?”

“Release me!” Bailey was getting angrier.

“But it was the Elder. I can’t do anything.”

“Bullshit. It was your magic the Elder used. You can release me.”

“I don’t know how.”

Sarah watched the two going back and forth. The source of the charm Bailey was under had become clear.

“You have to do it. If you want to save Rebecca, you need to free me. If you can’t, Rebecca is gone for good.” Bailey glared at Marie, who averted her eyes and shifted nervously.

The Way Out

It had required a great deal of patience to put things together. Rebecca spent weeks studying the Elder’s habits, making sure to identify places he ignored. It took even more time to gather the materials she needed. Never knowing when her chance might come added to her anxiety. What if it came and she wasn’t ready? Still, however much she wanted to rush, that could lead to disaster. Every day brought new opportunities for her to be found out. She had to trust that there would be more than one chance to carry out her plan.

When things were finally ready, a new set of worries arose. How long would she have to wait? Would the Elder – or even Marie – discover her preparations?

Marie. Rebecca tried not to think about her oldest friend. They had shared so much together. Since her return, she and Marie never got even a moment alone; the Elder was always present. Did Marie still care about her? Or did the other woman hate her for leaving? Was she loyal to the Elder because she still believed in him? Or was it fear that kept her by his side? Rebecca could think of no way to get honest answers to those questions, so she tried to put them out of her mind.

After almost a week of waiting, Rebecca decided to take a chance while the Elder was sleeping. Once she was certain he was asleep, she carefully got out of bed and made her way to the desk. The drawer in which she had hidden the necessary items was cluttered with papers and other miscellaneous objects the Elder almost never used. Before she could open it, there was a knock at the door. She froze, unable to decide whether to rush back under the covers or not. The sudden movement might wake the Elder, so she stayed where she was.

Rather than another knock, the door creaked open, revealing Marie in the light of the hallway. The two locked eyes for a moment. Rebecca wanted to believe she saw recognition in Marie’s stare, but she wasn’t certain. Marie looked down and closed the door quietly.

Shaken by the brief encounter, Rebecca lost her resolve and crawled back into bed. Did Marie know? Would she say anything? Why had she come in the first place?

The next day, Marie told the Elder about some issue that had arisen. Rather than disturb him, she took care of it herself. The Elder was displeased and demanded to be informed next time. For whatever reason, Marie said nothing else.

Days went by, each one leaving Rebecca uncertain when, or even if, she should try again. She stayed hidden as much as possible during this time. It made it harder to learn what was happening around her, but it also kept her secrets safer.

Concern emanating from the Elder brought her out of hiding. He was using anger to mask nervousness. First was a message that Sarah was back, and he told the guard to turn her away. Then word came word that fires had started in several buildings. At that, the Elder decided to retreat to his room, leaving Marie to prevent anyone from coming into the house. Whatever Sarah might have had planned, with the Elder distracted, this might be an ideal opportunity.

When she heard Sarah calling for her, she gave the Elder a nudge, planting the idea that he could end the threat by confronting the intruding mage. The Elder took the bait and stepped into the hall. Sarah slapped a blue crystal into his hand, and Rebecca felt . . . something. Had the Elder’s control eased a bit or was that just more wishful thinking on her part?

She managed to keep him absent-mindedly playing with the crystal, hoping that it would have an effect, but there was no noticeable change. The Elder seemed more suggestible, but he was still in charge of her body. Rebecca heard him speculate that the crystal was an attempt to break various forms of mind control, but if so, she already knew it would fail. She was possessed, not charmed.

Eventually, she gave up and dropped the crystal. Turning her attention back to the interaction with Sarah, Rebecca could tell the conversation was nearing its end. Sarah sounded as though she had been defeated, so it was no surprise when one of Julia’s portals opened.

No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get the Elder to take even one step toward the portal. When Bailey came through it, however, he seemed to panic. He clearly thought it was impossible for them to come to the compound with the charm they were under.

The Elder’s shock gave Rebecca the opportunity she needed. She asserted control, walked to the desk, and pulled out the knife and the bottle she had prepared. Acting quickly so as to keep the Elder off-balance, she drove the knife into her chest and opened the bottle.

Screams were the last thing she heard as she slipped away.

To End A War

Sarah studied Rebecca, looking for some indication that her friend was free of whatever influence had had a hold of her. However, there was no change in her demeanor. She was turning the crystal over in her hand and examining it with mild interest.

“What is this supposed to do?”

Sarah wanted to ask Julia if it might still work, but that would give away her escape route.

“I am sorry, Elder,” Marie said from behind her. “She got past me.”

With a wave, Rebecca dismissed the apology. “Is this crystal is supposed to ‘free’ me from whatever control you think I’m under? I assume that’s why you’re here; you believe I’m not really me.”

“I . . .”

“And you, or someone with you, started the fires?”

Deciding that anything she might say could worsen the situation, Sarah remained silent.

“Let’s talk, just you and I. Marie, wait outside my door in case I need you.”

Rebecca turned and led Sarah into the room from which she had recently come. Once inside, she closed the door. Nothing about the room suggested it belonged to Rebecca. It was sparsely furnished, and there were no personal belongings.

“You know, I think I was rather forgiving after the last time, when David destroyed one of our buildings. Now you return, bringing even more destruction. What was your intention? Kidnap me? Take me away from my family? Don’t you have better things to do?”

“Rebecca, you have not been acting like yourself. And whatever was done to Bailey – by Marie or someone else here – has not worn off. I can’t believe you would just abandon a friend.”

“No. I would never abandon my family. That’s why I am here. And why I will stay here. Bailey – and you for that matter – are not my family and thus not my concern.”

This was definitely not the Rebecca Sarah knew. Rebecca’s words confirmed that. She still had the blue crystal, which had worked on Bailey, so why did it seem to have no effect now?

“Now what can I do to keep you from ever returning? Perhaps it was a mistake to let David go last time. Maybe I should take a hostage to keep you out? Would that work, Sarah?”

“You want a prisoner?”

“Do you expect to walk out of here without paying a price?”

Staring into Rebecca’s eyes, Sarah looked for some sign that her friend was still in there. How long should she wait before giving up? This verbal sparring match could only delay things for so long. Julia could pull her and David out, but at what cost? Was starting a war the only thing she had accomplished?

“Is there anything of Rebecca left?”

The slight smile that twisted Rebecca’s lips crushed the last shred of hope Sarah still harbored. “I don’t know what you mean. It’s me, Sarah. I just can’t have you continue to break in here and disrupt my family.”

Sarah ignored her. “It’s over.”

At that signal, Julia expanded the portal at Sarah’s side so that Sarah could step through. Before Julia could close it, however, Bailey, who had been observing alongside Julia, rushed through the still open portal.

“Rebecca!”

“Bailey?” There was genuine surprise in Rebecca’s voice. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but Sarah thought she heard a hint of her friend. At the very least, Bailey needed some protection, so she stepped back through the portal. Grabbing Bailey’s arm to keep them from rushing forward, Sarah watched Rebecca walk over to the desk and open a drawer, from which she retrieved a knife. Before anyone could react, she plunged it into her own chest.

“No!” Bailey and Marie – who had opened the door – screamed in unison. As Rebecca fell to the floor, both of them rushed to her side.