The Missing Crystal

Why wasn’t it working? The principles should be same as the crystal she had made to knock down spatial barriers. Yet, no matter what she tried, Julia couldn’t get this version to cohere. The reverse white crystal drained magic power, but she couldn’t make it mix with temporal magic.

The jar in front of her contained the last of the purple powder that had been exposed to temporal magic. Aisha had gotten it for her years ago, while she was still stuck in the past. There was only enough left for one, maybe two, attempts. Aisha still had had no success in tracking down another temporal mage, so she wasn’t likely to get anymore.

Looking at the clock on her wall, she realized she’d been sitting, hunched over, for almost six hours. Exhaustion hit her. Despite her desire to keep going, she needed a break. Maybe she should go back to Thomas’s rooms and look once more for anything that might provide a clue. First, she needed some food. And maybe a nap. She pushed back from her work bench, stood, and stretched.

Out in the living room, she found Aisha sitting cross-legged on the couch and reading. Aisha looked up from her book. “She emerges.”

“Yeah. I needed to step away for a bit. So what did Sarah want?”

“If I had to guess, she has some doubts about Matthew.”

“Really?”

“She didn’t say anything directly, but she asked me several questions about that incident we had with him a few years back.”

“Hmm.” Julia didn’t know much about the third founding member of the house, but she always had the impression that he and Sarah had been close. “I was going to go get some food. Care to join me?”

“Sure. Where?”

“Do we have anything in the cabin?”

Aisha shook her head. “We need to restock. How about Mediterranean?”

“Greece it is.” Julia opened a portal. “After you.”

Sitting outside a small cafe in the outskirts of Athens, they sipped their frappes.

“I don’t know how you can drink it plain. Isn’t it bitter?” Julia asked. She always ordered hers sweet.

“This is how I had it the first time. Never felt the need to add sugar.”

“Don’t you drink your tea sweet?”

“Chai and Greek frappe are not the same thing. Stop that.” Julia had been mouthing the words as Aisha spoke. After a moment, both women chuckled. “Okay. We’re here. We have good coffee. The prospect of good food is imminent. What are you stuck on?”

Julia sighed a little. “Am I that obvious?”

“Let’s just say I’ve known you for a little while.”

“It’s the crystals again. The missing one, it has to be temporal magic. That’s the most glaring omission. But no matter what I do, I can’t put it together. I prep a red crystal, tap into the temporal essence, but it won’t fit.”

“And you’re sure it’s temporal magic?”

“Thomas was a friend of Jason’s for a long time. Jason got spatial magic from me; it stands to reason he would have picked up temporal magic from Thomas.”

“And it’s a red crystal?”

“That’s the only primary color that’s missing from his set. It has to be.”

“All of that seems reasonable. So let me ask you, with how well you know him, how reasonable – no, how predictable – is Jason?”

“Are you saying . . .”

“I’m not saying anything. I don’t have any answers. You know him. What do you think?”

Julia stopped to consider Jason and what she knew of the crystals. “If I toss my assumptions, I’m back to square one.”

“If your assumptions were wrong, square one is further than you were.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

The food they had ordered arrived. Leaving magical puzzles behind for the moment, they turned their attention to eating and enjoying the pleasant afternoon.

Looking for Problems

A knock at the door interrupted Sarah’s rumination. It was Aisha.

“Julia said you wanted to talk to me?”

The other mage was much more outgoing and social than Julia, but Sarah was familiar enough with disguises to know she kept many things to herself.

“Julia gave you a badge?” She must have, or Aisha wouldn’t have made it to Sarah’s door alone.

“She lent me hers. Wouldn’t give me one of my own unless you okayed it. I’m guessing she still hasn’t asked you about it.”

“No. With everything that has happened . . .”

“I understand. I’d have to be playing a very long game, but to you, I’ve only been in your lives for a few months.” Aisha smiled and waited.

“Oh! Forgive me. Please come in and have a seat. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thanks. Some water would be nice.”

“Of course.” Sarah went to the sink in her kitchenette and got two glasses of water. Upon returning to the living room, she set one down in front of Aisha, who was now sitting on the couch. She took the other one with her to an armchair.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

“Matthew.” There was no real point in being circumspect. “You and Julia had a run in with him awhile back?”

“Yeah. At least five or six years ago now. We had been looking for information on temporal magic. Julia was looking for some way to return to her original time. Turns out it was a trap set for someone else.”

“Do you remember where you got the information that led you to that trap?”

Aisha thought for several moments before shaking her head. “One of my informants, I’d guess. But I don’t remember which one. Too long ago, I’m afraid. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. I figured it was a long shot, but I wanted to check.” Even asking these questions felt like she was being disloyal to Matthew. He was one of her oldest friends and had done nothing to earn her distrust. But as guilty as it made her, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“It’s okay. Just letting paranoia get the better of me.”

“One thing I’ve learned – mage or no – never ignore gut feelings. Maybe they aren’t sending a clear message, but they are telling you something. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“You give motivational speeches, too?”

Aisha laughed. “No. I just don’t like seeing incredibly capable women running themselves down.”

Sarah wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Well, thank you for your time. I hope I wasn’t intruding too much.”

“Not at all. This was nothing compared to what Julia usually asks me to do.”

“I hope this isn’t out of line, but I think you’ve been really good for her.”

“Trust me, it goes both ways.” Aisha stood up. “I should probably get going. If you need anything else, or even just want to chat, you know how to get in touch.”

“Thanks again, Aisha.” Sarah stood to walk her to the door when a thought occurred to her. “Hey, did you and Julia ever tell Matthew your names?”

“Nope. We were very careful, especially Julia. She didn’t want to do anything that might put her past in jeopardy.”

“That makes sense. Well, have a good day.”

“You too, Sarah.”

After Aisha had left, Sarah thought about that last bit of information. Maybe Matthew had gotten Julia’s name from somewhere else. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. But maybe it did.

Educated Guess

“You know there’s a color missing from the box you left me.” Julia could feel Jason’s presence across from her, but she didn’t look up from her workbench.

“Of course. I’m the one that left it out.”

“You going to tell me what it is?” Her hands were busy carving a crystal into the proper shape to store mana.

“That depends.”

“On what?” She gritted her teeth as she hit a particularly stubborn spot.

“On whether you think I’m real. If I’m real, then I know the answer. If I’m not, then any answer I give is really just you guessing.”

“Lovely. How should I know if you’re real? You didn’t appear at all while I was trapped in the past. If you’re a figment of my imagination, wouldn’t you still have come around? Or maybe, since my subconscious knew you hadn’t died yet, it kept me from imagining you?”

“Excellent points.”

“So are you real?”

“How should I know?”

Julia slammed the tool in her hand onto the bench. “Jason!”

“What? I feel real, but maybe you just have a vivid imagination.”

“I think you have to be real,” she said while trying to suppress a smile, “I don’t think I hate myself enough to irritate me this much.”

“As far as I know, you don’t hate yourself at all.” Jason returned her smile. “You know, I didn’t give you all of my research so that you would ignore your own work.”

“What can I say? This fascinates me. So are you going to tell me about this missing color or not?”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe you’re not ready.”

“Jason!”

“Fine, fine. If you really want me to tell you instead of discovering it for yourself, I will.”

Loud knocking from the front room interrupted him. She heard Sarah call her name. “Julia!”

Julia glared at Jason. “Don’t go anywhere.”

The knocking finally woke her up, and she lifted her head off the workbench while cursing dreams.

She opened the door. “Is something wrong?”

Sarah shook her head. “I was just hoping to talk to Aisha. Is she here?”

“Oh? What about?”

“I just wanted to ask her about Matthew. Something is bothering me, and I thought she might able to shed some light on it.”

“Now I’m curious. Unfortunately, she’s not here right now. Last I knew, she was tracking down a lead on another temporal mage. I can try to get in touch with her.”

“Thanks, Julia. That would help a lot.” Sarah already seemed to be thinking about something else as she walked away.

Once the door was closed, Julia was tempted to try to find her way back into the dream, but Sarah’s request had piqued her interest. As she was deciding to track down Aisha, another thought occurred to her. Jason had been right: she should have already figured it out. Getting in touch with Aisha might need to wait.

Conversation between Old Friends

Matthew was sitting up in bed when Sarah entered the infirmary. “You look better,” she observed. “How do you feel?”

“Still tired, but definitely on the mend.” He gave her a weak smile.

“That’s good.” She took a deep breath. “So where the hell have you been for the last decade? You just leave without talking to me? You know I’ve been looking for you.” Sarah stopped herself before getting more upset.

“I’m sorry. I thought if I left, you might leave as well. I know I abandoned you, and I’m sorry.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I notice you brought Rebecca into the House.” He seemed eager to change the subject.

“I had to rebuild. A House with only two mages isn’t much of a House.” She was trying to shove her resentment to the side, but she also wasn’t prepared to let it go completely.

“Yeah.” He did sound contrite. “Who else did you bring in?”

“You remember Thomas’s friend Jason? He joined about a year after you left.”

“Oh, right. I’m sorry about Jason.”

That caught her attention, but she continued. “He brought another mage with him, a spatial mage. And Thomas recruited David a few years ago. He’s another elementalist and also the one that found you.”

“The place sounds pretty lively. I’m a little surprised Thomas has included so many mages.”

“It was that or lose the House completely.”

“I suppose. So Thomas is okay?”

“More or less. Who are the people that attacked us? What do they want? You said you were working with them for a time?”

“They kept a lot of things from me, but I think there are two mages behind everything. One of them is a temporal mage who goes by Solomon. The other is an elementalist named Robert. They bring in others when necessary. They told me that they wanted to stop Thomas from messing with the timeline, but eventually I realized they wanted to kill him. I never did find out why.”

“Are they going to come after you?” Her concern was genuine.

Matthew shrugged. “I assume. If they think I’m in their way.”

“Do you know where they are?”

“I knew where they were. I’m guessing they’ve moved by now.”

Sarah thought for awhile, absorbing everything, before asking, “How long ago did you fall in with them?”

“About two years ago. Hey, would you ask Thomas to drop by. He and I should talk.”

“I’ll ask him, though I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“You should get some rest.” Sarah stood to leave.

“I will. Tell Rebecca, David, and Julia thank you. And hey, do you forgive me?” He gave her a look with puppy dog eyes.

“Yes. We’ll talk more later, okay?”

Matthew nodded and laid down.

Sarah wasn’t sure she actually did forgive him. Their conversation had bothered her for some reason, and she needed to work it out. Matthew had been a friend for a very long time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

New Tradition

The candles were once more arranged in concentric circles within Julia’s pocket space. This time, however, she had arranged four couches within the candles. Rebecca sat on one of them between David and Marie – the latter was resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and seemed to be dozing. Sarah lounged on the couch across from them, her elbow propping up her body. Julia sat on a third, while Aisha rested her head in Julia’s lap. The fourth couch remained empty.

“So you and Jason spent every Winter Solstice like this?” David asked.

Sarah gave him a look of warning, but Julia shrugged it off. “I appreciate the concern, Sarah, but it’s been roughly eighteen years since Jason’s death. I know it’s more recent for all of you, but I have had lots of time to find some measure of peace.

“To answer your question, David, yes. He and I would stay up all night talking. I know a number of magical traditions make use of this night for special rites, but he and I used it as a time to step back from every day life and reconnect as friends.”

“So why did you decide to invite us?” David followed up.

“Jason wanted me to belong somewhere. Maybe that sounds silly, but it was one thing he always was on me about. This night used to be about us, but I figured he would want you all here. And I think over the last several years, I’ve begun to understand the importance each of you has had in my life.” Absently, Julia ran her fingertips up and down Aisha’s arm, and the other woman smiled up at her.

“It’s too bad Thomas can’t be here,” Rebecca said softly so as not to waken Marie.

“Yes, it is. But no business tonight. No worrying about current troubles. Tonight is just about friendship.” Julia was firm but not angry.

“So the fourth couch?” Sarah gestured at it.

“Well, I did want there to be plenty of room to sit and get comfortable, but I have to admit it’s also for Jason. The last time I was here, Jason showed up. I thought there might be a chance . . .”

After a brief lull, David changed the subject. “So you were stuck in the past for fifteen years? What did you do the entire time?”

“Mostly, she got in trouble that I had to bail her out of.” Aisha answered.

“Ignore her.” Julia playfully covered Aisha’s mouth.

“Actually,” she continued after moving Julia’s hand, “she was quite boring. Always inside doing research. I had to find ways to get her to leave the house.”

“Yes, wild goose chases after magical books. Threatening to reveal my existence to my past self. Life with you around was never boring.”

Aisha laughed. “That’s why you kept me around.”

“Hmmm.” Despite her attempt to seem put out, Julia couldn’t keep a smile from her lips.

Sarah looked at Rebecca. “Have you heard from Bailey?”

“No.” Rebecca seemed a bit melancholic at the mention of her friend.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring you down.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t. Not really. I think about them now and again, but they are really good at not being found. I hope they’ll come back eventually, but we can’t control others.”

Marie murmured at shifted a bit without opening her eyes.

“Anyway, even ignoring all the major events of the past year, I’ve been busy helping Marie get set up. So I haven’t had much time to worry about Bailey.”

Another comfortable lull descended.

This time, Julia broke the silence. “How’s business at your store, David?”

“Slow, but I’m starting to develop a few regulars. I’m just happy to be in the community making connections.”

“It’s a good store. I’ve found a few items for my clients there,” Aisha volunteered. “I could probably funnel a few more customers your way.”

“That would be great, but I wouldn’t want to steal any of your business.”

Aisha waved away the concern. “There will always be more esoteric requests to keep me busy.”

Conversation continued to ebb and flow throughout the night. Julia look around at the group and couldn’t help but think that Jason would be pleased.

Desperate for Clues

Jason’s rooms had been a mess, but Julia was familiar with how his mind worked, so she wasn’t overwhelmed by the chaos. Thomas’s rooms, in contrast, were tidy and organized, but her unfamiliarity with how his mind worked prevented her from discerning the order. Instead, she was forced to meticulously go through every book, every drawer, looking for anything that might help.

Several spell beads had been tucked into various nooks throughout the room, probably for emergencies. She could identify the temporal magic within but not the specifics of the spells they contained. She had also found a file containing notes about the past and future; she put it back as soon as she realized what it was. Other notes made little sense to her.

“Not sure Thomas would approve of you going through his things.” Sarah was standing in the doorway.

“Well then he shouldn’t have gotten stuck in time.” Julia didn’t look up from the drawer she was searching. “Every temporal mage we have managed to locate has already died, so this was my last idea for finding… something.”

“And have you? Found anything, I mean.”

Julia slumped back to sit on the floor. “No. I just don’t know enough. There are these spell beads that I don’t dare use without knowing more about them. Some notes that are difficult to interpret. Do you have any insight?”

“Sadly, I doubt I know any more about Thomas’s magic than you do.” Sarah walked over to the two mages standing frozen. “Do these two unnerve you?”

“Not really. They’re just part of the scenery at this point.”

“Are you still keeping tabs on our friend?”

“Yes. So far, he hasn’t stayed in one place long, so I’m still not certain where he’s hiding. On the positive side, he doesn’t seem to be aware that he’s being tracked, so we’ll get him eventually.”

“Good.”

“Do you think Thomas would mind if I took some of these beads and notes back to my room? I want to study them further.”

“I think he would hate the idea.”

“Do you mind?”

“Not at all. If you can find some way to break the spell on him, it will be worth whatever irritation he expresses.”

“Great. Oh.” Julia pulled a crystal from a pocket. It was blue with green swirls. “This should be able to knock down any barriers.” She handed it to Sarah. “I want to keep refining it, make it stronger.”

“Thank you, Julia.”

“Sure. And I’ll let you know if I make any progress on our temporal magic problem.” Julia gathered up the items she had found and carried them back to her own rooms.

Meeting with the Enemy

“You aren’t seriously considering going?” Rebecca was nearly shouting.

“She’s right, Sarah. It’d be crazy to show up.” Julia was more subdued in her agreement.

The three of them, along with David, were sitting around the table.

“This is a chance to find out more about who attacked us.” Thomas had always kept his own counsel; Sarah was determined to operate more openly, so she told everyone what had happened while she was investigating the house where Matthew had been imprisoned.

“Do you even know where you’re supposed to meet?” David asked.

“I have an idea.” Sarah answered. “No one has been able to locate a temporal mage, so we have no way to break the spell on Thomas. This person can tell us what happened, maybe give us a clue as to how to help Thomas. And as long as he is out there, we’re all still in danger. He’s not going to stop until Thomas is dead, and that means going through us.”

Everyone stayed silent. Maybe they were trying to find fault with her reasoning. Maybe they just didn’t like it. Sarah didn’t like it herself, but she had to do this.

“Okay. So let’s consider how to approach this.”

* * *

“You’re a day early.”

The place where Thomas had apprenticed was now just an empty lot. Thomas had inherited it, but he wanted nothing to do with it. The remains of the house had been removed, but otherwise, it had remained untouched. Several trees were scattered around the edge of the area, and the rest was just grass. The attacker stood on one end of the lot, with Thomas’s image about fifty feet away.

“I thought I should check to be sure there were no surprises,” Sarah said with Thomas’s voice.

“Suspicion isn’t very becoming.”

“Hmmm. Well, I am here now; what did you want to say to me.”

“Where are my associates?”

“You called me here just to ask that?”

“No, of course not. It just seemed a waste not to ask.”

“So why am I here? Have you decided to call a truce?”

“Ha ha!” The man threw his head back in a genuine laugh. As he did so, the ground beneath Thomas’s feet exploded. Rubble flew in every direction, and smoke filled the air.

When it cleared, Thomas was in the same spot he had been.

“You’re not even really here? How disappointing,” the other man said.

“As I told you, I was expecting surprises.”

“I guess it was obvious.”

“Why are you doing this?” Sarah didn’t really expect an answer.

“You know I’m not going to tell you that.” He took a few steps back. “Well, I don’t intend to get into another battle with you right now. And since you aren’t really here, I suppose we’ll have to do this some other time.” After several more steps, he vanished.

“I still think we should have tried to eliminate him while we had the chance,” Julia said to Sarah. They had concealed themselves down the street from the empty lot.

“I know, but without knowing what he is capable of, that could have gone horribly wrong.”

“So did you learn anything?”

“No. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to make the attempt.”

Aisha stepped out from a nearby shadow.

“Were you able to plant it?” Julia asked.

Aisha smiled and nodded.

“Then we got what we came for,” Sarah said. “Now we can try to fill in some of our blind spots and better prepare for our next move.”

“You’re the boss,” Julia said with a smile.

Bait (part two)

Footsteps tracked all over the ground floor for the next several minutes. Finally, the basement door opened, and someone walked down the first two steps.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” It was a man’s voice that Sarah didn’t recognize. “I have a message for you.”

She had no intention of accepting anything at face value. There didn’t seem to be any magic left in the house, but she couldn’t know what surprises this person may have brought with him. Eventually, the man finished descending the stairs.

He didn’t look like the attacker who escaped, and she didn’t recognize him from anywhere else. Did this mean there were even more people involved in coming after Thomas?

“Who are you?” Her voice came from the other side of the basement, a simple illusion spell.

The man spun around looking into the dim corners of the empty area. “Who’s there?” He seemed nervous.

“I asked first.” Thomas’s voice was deep and, she hoped, intimidating.

“I was told to bring a message here. Give it to someone named Thomas. Is that you?”

“What’s the message?”

“Where are you?”

“Do you have a message or not?”

“I was told to only give it to Thomas.”

“You can hear me. Do you need to see me, as well?”

“I need to be certain. See your face.”

“Fine.” Sarah revealed Thomas’s visage. “Now. What is the message?”

“He said you are to meet him at the beginning in one week’s time. If you are still alive.”

A bright orange glow began emanating from the man’s chest. His face was twisted in pain and fear, but he said nothing else. A second later, an explosion ripped through the basement before Sarah could do anything else.

* * *

When the air cleared, Sarah looked around. There was little left of the messenger except for small pieces scattered about. Such callous use of a life shocked her, all the more because the sender even suspected Thomas might survive. It had been easy enough to cast the illusion of Thomas across the room, but she had expected an attack not a living bomb.

Whoever was behind these attacks clearly didn’t care who else was hurt in the process. Maybe this messenger wasn’t innocent, but Sarah suspected he hadn’t agreed to be killed. Now she had a week to figure out what to do next.

Bait

Thomas walked down the street while trying not to draw attention. Sarah knew his mannerisms, his voice, so using his visage to draw out the attackers was easier than trying to copy someone she didn’t know. The problem was that Thomas had essentially been a recluse for the last decade or so, and she wasn’t sure anyone would believe he was willing to leave the house now. Investigating the house where Matthew had been tied up seemed a plausible reason for him to go outside. She hoped anyone watching would see it the same way.

It wasn’t a long walk, but dragging it out would almost certainly be seen as suspicious, so she had to hope whoever might be watching was paying attention. Inside the house, Sarah maintained Thomas’s appearance, just in case they were keeping an eye on the inside of the house. It also meant she had to try to look for clues, even though she didn’t expect to find anything.

After looking in the empty rooms on the ground floor, she headed to the basement. There, she found the chair and rope that had bound Matthew. There was nothing remarkable about any of it. The rope was in two pieces, with an end of each piece being scorched, presumably where David had burned through to free the other mage. The basement was otherwise empty.

The only magical residue she could identify was a small amount of fire magic, probably David’s. Either they hadn’t used magic here, or they had covered it up very well. Though she hadn’t counted on finding any useful information, the complete absence of even the most mundane things surprised her. Someone must have gone to great lengths to remove every trace of the attackers’ presence.

Something began to itch in the back of her mind, but before she could give it her attention, she heard a sound above her. Someone else was walking around upstairs. Had her ruse worked, or was this merely coincidence?

Taking no chances, Sarah quickly cast an invisibility spell, while still maintaining the image of Thomas, on the off chance that they could penetrate the invisibility. Then she waited near the bottom of the stairs for them to come down.

Two Problems

The open box on the desk was taunting her. Six crystals sat inside, each nestled into its own spot. Orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and white. The very first space was empty. Nothing in Jason’s notes indicated what the seventh crystal should be. The spectrum suggested red, but Julia couldn’t guess what effect it should have.

White, providing raw power, was the one universal crystal. Every mage who created mana batteries made them white. But the other colors seemed to be particular to Jason. Green used spatial magic, and blue interfered with magic. Purple was connected with knowledge. She had finally determined that orange was associated with elemental magic. As best as she could tell, yellow had to do with light. Assuming the missing crystal was red, what did Jason associate red with? Did he never discover the missing crystal? Or had he hidden it from her? If so, why?

“Are you still staring at those?” Aisha walked into Julia’s study and placed a cup of coffee down in front of her. “I thought you were working on a barrier for your house?”

Cradling the warm mug in both hands, Julia leaned back in her chair. “I was, but I needed to take a break. No matter how I look at it, a barrier is clunky and a waste of power.”

“So you are distracting yourself with a bigger problem?”

“What can I say? I’m a masochist.”

“Really? That opens up some new possibilities.”

“Don’t go getting any ideas.” Julia knew she was joking. “I just can’t shake the feeling that these crystals might help in some way. For fifteen years, all I could do was work from my memory of Jason’s notes. I thought maybe I had forgotten important details. Now that I have the notes in front of me, I thought I could find . . . something. Turns out, my memory is pretty good.”

“You know, trying to force it to make sense isn’t going to get you anywhere. Take a break. Let your subconscious work on it for awhile.” Aisha took a sip from her own mug.

“Two intractable problems. Taking a break from one to work on the other is getting me nowhere.”

“Well, let’s go back to the barrier. Why do you want to create it?”

“I don’t. But I think Sarah is hoping to avoid a repeat attack.”

“And how does a barrier prevent it from happening again?”

“Well, if we have a barrier set up, then someone else can’t erect one that can be manipulated against us.”

“So the real problem is someone else setting up a barrier?”

“Of course. But you know this already.”

Aisha waved away the objection. “The question is, is a barrier the best solution to this problem?”

“No, but . . .”

“Then why are you trying to make a solution work that isn’t the best?”

“Because . . .” Julia trailed off as a new idea began to take shape.

“I’ll leave you to it then.”

“Thanks, Aisha.”

She turned around and gave Julia a little smile as she left the room.