The Cure? (part one)

“Hello, David. It is good to hear from you. How are you doing?”

David had contacted his old guide using the mental discipline Samuel had taught him years ago. Given Samuel’s knowledge of horrors, he seemed the most likely to be able to help David with this current problem.

“Greetings, sir. I am well. And yourself?”

“We’ve talked about this. You have come into your own, and we are equals. No more ‘sir.’”

“Yes, sir. . . . Sorry.”

Samuel gave the impression of a chuckle. “Keep working at it. Now I doubt this is merely a courtesy conversation. What is troubling you?”

“I have encountered a horror.”

HIs guide’s presence lost all sense of light-heartedness. “Your mind is still intact?”

“Yes, s. . .” David caught himself. “I remember my training. The horror is rather small and weak; it is secure and poses no threat. However, the owner of the house where I found it was exposed. Her mind is deteriorating.”

“That is unfortunate. Was she a friend of yours?”

“No. Just someone I was trying to help.”

“Still, I am sorry about her fate.”

“I am hoping you would know how to reverse it.”

“Reverse it? There is no way to reverse the kind of mental damage done by a horror. Even a small one. I’m afraid she is beyond help.”

“That can’t be right. There must be something to be done.”

“If it were you, or someone who had your mental training . . . Maybe. But a lay person with no experience? She is lost.”

“I can’t accept that.”

“David,” Samuel had switched into his “teacher” voice. “I know I taught you that we don’t always win. That sometimes things happen which are beyond our control. If she has fallen victim to the madness, we are helpless. As difficult as it is, we need to acknowledge our own limitations.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are your own person now. I cannot tell you what to do; that is your decision. But if you still value my experience, you will take my advice, my advice as a peer, and let this go.”

“Thank you, s. . . Samuel. I do appreciate your advice.”

The connection between them ended, and David was left with his disappointment. One thing kept nagging at him, though. If there truly was nothing to be done, why bother warning him to let it go? If nothing would help, what was the harm in the attempt? Perhaps there was something that might work, something dangerous. But what?

Horror Madness

It was staring at him. Even frozen and inert, David could feel the horror staring at him. Was that even possible, or was he starting to go mad? He sat down to meditate, reinforce his mental defenses, but it was difficult to focus with it staring at him.

After studying it for weeks, there was little David had learned about the horror. It wasn’t very powerful, so it couldn’t have created a portal on its own. Someone had brought it over, but who and why? The creature itself provided no clues; he needed to go back to where he had found it.

The woman who answered the door was not the same one who had come to his shop that day.

“Hello. Is Jennifer here?”

The woman studied him carefully. “She’s resting. Not feeling well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Who are you?”

David began to feel a little exposed under her probing gaze. “I’m from the magic shop nearby. I helped her a few weeks ago, and I had some follow-up questions for her. But if she’s not feeling well . . . Just tell her David stopped by, and I’ll come back another time.” He turned to leave, but she stopped him.

“Come in. She’s back in the bedroom. Maybe you can help.”

“Help?”

“You should see for yourself.”

David followed the woman down a short hallway and through a doorway. Inside, lying on a bed, was Jennifer. Bandages were wrapped around her arms and her fingers, but she was smiling.

“You came back! Did you find the monster?”

The question puzzled him. They had talked weeks ago after he had captured the horror. “Yes, I did. Don’t you remember?”

“It’s fine. He’s a nice man.” Jennifer clearly wasn’t talking to him. Instead, she seemed to be looking at an empty corner of the room. Abruptly her attention focused back on him. “What did you do? Did you hurt him?” David had no idea what she was talking about.

She began scratching her left forearm, but the bandages rendered her attempts ineffective. After several seconds of trying, she managed to push the bandage on her arm down a little, revealing a jagged, ugly wound.

The other woman ran to the side of the bed and slapped Jennifer’s hand away from her arm. “If you keep this up, I’ll have to bind your wrists again.”

“But Sue, it itches!”

“I don’t care. I’ll put some more ointment on it in a bit.”

“You can’t. She’s my sister.” Jennifer was again addressing the empty corner.

Sue gave David a look of helpless desperation.

“How long has she been like this?”

“It started a few weeks ago, and she keeps getting worse. Talking to people who aren’t there. Saying disturbing things. Even trying to scratch her arms off.”

A few weeks ago would have been around the time he caught the horror. She must have seen more of it than he had realized.

“Jennifer, is there anyone who would want to hurt you?”

Sue appeared shocked. “You think someone did this to her?”

“I don’t know. I’m just trying to understand what happened.”

Jennifer was again smiling at him. “Why would anyone want to hurt me?”

Sue frowned. “What about Mark?”

“He wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s always been so kind.”

“Who’s Mark?”

“He’s her ex. A real jerk. That’s even how she used to describe him. Before . . . But I can’t see him going so far as to hurt her like this.”

“Does he have access to the house?”

“I don’t think so. Jennifer moved here after their divorce, so he shouldn’t have a key. Do you think you can help her? Do you know what’s wrong with her?”

“I . . . I’m not sure. I am going to try, but I need to do a little research. Do you know where my shop is located? In case you need to get in touch with me?”

“Yes. She told me about it, about you, before . . .” Her voice trailed off, as though talking about her sister’s condition would make it even more real.

“I’ll be in touch. Soon. I will do whatever I can to help your sister.”

Sue nodded, but kept looking at Jennifer with concern. David left the house on his own. Was there anything he could do? He wasn’t sure, but he had to try.

Motivation

“So, time travel, huh?” Sarah was sitting on the couch in Thomas’s outer room. “Nearly killing me and driving Matthew away wasn’t enough?”

“You’re being dramatic. No one got hurt.” Thomas was sitting in an arm chair across from her.

“You lost a hand!”

“That was Julia’s fault, not mine. You will recall defending her.” Maybe she was imagining it, but he sounded almost petulant.

“And you will recall turning the house over to me. Obviously to keep Julia around so you could use her for your next stupid scheme. You’ve only yourself to blame.”

“If you have come just to berate me, you can leave.” He met her gaze for the first time since she arrived. “I am not in the mood.”

She didn’t move. “Do you appreciate the danger you’ve put the house in? Once word gets out that you have successfully traveled through time, mages are going to come after you. And we’re all caught in the middle.”

“No one is going to find out. Unless someone from this house shares the information.”

“You’re sure of that? No one could view the past and find you? No other temporal mage will notice the ripples your spell created? You know for certain that no one is going to show up looking for your secret?”

Her rapid fair questions appeared to stun him into silence.

“This house is now in jeopardy. Because of you. Tell me why I shouldn’t revoke your membership?”

“You would evict me from the house I founded?”

She sighed. “Thomas, why did you start this in the first place? You don’t trust others, you barely interact with any of us, and you have been entirely unconcerned with the wellbeing of the house. I have stood by you for over a decade, and yet I don’t have the slightest idea what motivates you.”

He seemed hurt by her words. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet and devoid of emotion. “If you tell me to leave, I will. I gave you the house. It is your decision.”

“Thomas, I don’t want you to leave. I want you to consider how your actions affect us all. I want you to care about this house and its members. If you can’t, or won’t, then I don’t understand why you stay.”

Instead of responding, he simply stared into his cup of tea.

“Fine.” Sarah stood up. “If you are going to stay, I need you to come up with some ideas about how to minimize the risk to the house.” Walking over to the door, she stopped and turned back. “Oh, I should tell you. It seems that Matthew had set a trap for you several years ago that Julia fell into. I don’t know why, but I figured you’d want to know.” Without waiting for him to react, she left his rooms.

Recognition

“What did happen with Thomas?” Sarah asked.

“I’m not sure how much Rebecca has told you,” Julia began, “but after we arrived in Thomas’s old lab, I went to talk with Jason. Before I could say much, Jason stopped me. He didn’t want to know anything about the future to avoid changing it. He encouraged me to go back to my own time.”

“That’s why you were so insistent we leave?” Rebecca was listening as attentively as Sarah.

Julia nodded. “I was worried Thomas was going to change something, screw things up. As much as I didn’t want Jason to die, I couldn’t know if Thomas would make things worse. The whole plan had come to seem like a very bad idea. So I shoved Thomas back through the portal, and I had to close it before he could return.”

“You shoved him?” Sarah tried to imagine the two mages coming to blows. “He didn’t use magic to stop you?”

“Casting the spell took all his energy. Well, I suppose I used most of his reserves to power the spell. I needed magic infused with temporal essence to get it to work. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy draining him, but it really was necessary.”

“My guess is that his anger is more about being prevented from finding out more about the attack rather than anything else. I’ll try to smooth things over with him. Maybe stay out of his way for now.”

“Sure.” Julia shifted a little, as though she was uncertain about how to say something. “Maybe now is not the best time to bring it up, but there was someone helping me over the last fifteen years. I think she would be a good addition to the house.”

“I’d like to meet her . . .”

“Me, too,” Rebecca interjected with some enthusiasm.

“. . . but you’re right that we might want to wait for a formal invitation, at least until Thomas has cooled off some.”

“I’ve told her as much. Let me introduce you.” A simple gesture from Julia opened a portal and a woman stepped through. She was the same height as Julia, and her shoulder length black hair was pulled back. She smiled at both Sarah and Rebecca.

“Hi. I’m Aisha. Julia’s told me quite a bit about both of you. You’re Sarah?” She extended a hand to Sarah, who accepted it. “And you’re Rebecca.” She repeated the offer of a handshake. “It’s good to meet you.” Then she turned to Julia. “Well, the house is still standing. I assume the reunion went okay?”

Julia shrugged. “There was a moment when I wasn’t sure. Sarah managed to diffuse things.”

Sarah was beginning to feel overwhelmed, but she made sure it didn’t show. The years had really changed Julia. Technically, she was now the oldest member of the house. And Aisha was personable and disarming, not the sort of person she would expect Julia to befriend. There was a lot to process, and she was doing her best to keep up.

“Aisha, it is a pleasure to meet you. I must thank you for helping Julia. It has been a crazy twenty-four . . .”

Aisha had stopped paying attention and had focused on a framed picture on top of the mantelpiece. She picked it up and walked over to Julia with it.

“What . . .?” Sarah didn’t understand why Aisha would be interested in a photo of the original members of the house.

After exchanging a meaningful glance with Aisha, Julia looked at Sarah. “This is you, Thomas, and . . .”

“Matthew. Yes. It was taken shortly after we started the house. Why?”

“We had a run-in with a mage several years ago. He had been setting a trap for a time mage, someone he said was a friend of his. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. It was Matthew.”

Past/Present (part eight)

The morning after Thomas and Rebecca had returned from the past, Sarah was sitting in the living room lost in thought. Time travel should not be possible; no one had successfully done it before. Not that anyone knew of. If Thomas had really managed it, she couldn’t even fathom the ramifications. Most immediately, could he repeat it to get Julia back? Would he even try, given what had happened between them?

When Rebecca entered the room, she had to put all of those questions on hold.

“How’s Thomas?”

Rebecca nodded back the way she had come. “Still sleeping. Healing the wound is not a problem, but I can’t replace his hand. Especially when we don’t even have it.” She fell into a chair, obviously still tired.

“Can he time travel again?”

“I don’t know. I think Julia did a lot of the work. Without her, I’m not sure he could manage it. But honestly, I just don’t know.”

“Why didn’t any of you talk to me?”

“Julia and Thomas were working together. I know it seems naive in retrospect, but if the two of them both thought it was a good idea, I figured it couldn’t be that bad. I was stupid.”

“No, don’t beat yourself up. I think seeing them cooperate would have thrown me off, too. Still, Thomas’s obsession with that attack has already caused so many problems.”

“It was an attack on his master’s house?”

Sarah nodded. “Fifteen years ago. He was the only survivor. I know it haunted him, but I thought he had finally given up on it.”

“Apparently not.”

They could hear the front door open and close. Sarah was about to ask if David had left when Julia entered.

“Hey you two. Nice to see this place hasn’t really changed while I was gone.”

Both women jumped out of their chairs.

“How did you get back?” Rebecca asked.

“You filled Sarah in?” Julia asked, ignoring Rebecca’s question.

“Yes, she did. I should probably yell at you, but I’m just relieved you managed to return.”

“Wow. Okay, you two both need to take it down a bit. I’m not used to all this energy. Anyway, as far as your concerned, I’ve only been gone for . . . what? A day? This is a little too much excitement for such a short absence.”

“But you were trapped in the past,” Rebecca objected. “We weren’t sure how to get you.”

“Simple. You just wait. Well, I wait. Roughly fifteen years.”

Sarah and Rebecca were both stunned into silence.

“Okay, maybe a bit more excitement than this. We’re not at a funeral.”

“You lived through the last fifteen years? Didn’t that . . . I mean, what did you . . .” Sarah was struggling to even form a coherent question.

“Yes, I just went about life for the last decade and a half. No one came to get me, so I tried to find a way on my own. Didn’t make any progress. At that point, I figured I’d just come back shortly after we left. No awkward moments with myself, and no worries about messing up the past.”

“You didn’t save Jason?” Rebecca asked.

“You both still remember him dying? He’s not around the house? Then it happened. He asked me not to, so I didn’t.”

“That must have been hard,” Sarah said with all the sympathy she had.

“Lots of things were hard. I couldn’t save Jason or Rebecca, or stop any of the other horrible things that happened. But Jason was right. Changing the past could have catastrophic consequences. So I had to work very hard at not affecting anything.”

“So Jason convinced you to attack me?” No one had noticed Thomas’s arrival.

“Oh hi, Thomas.” None of the animosity that usually permeated Julia’s tone with Thomas was evident.

“Thomas! You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Rebecca sounded like a mother scolding her sick child.

Thomas ignored her as he continued glaring at Julia. “Out of respect for Jason, I’ve tolerated your disruptions, but attacking me was too far.” Such an overt display of anger was uncharacteristic for him. “I formally revoke your membership in this house. You need to leave immediately.”

Julia looked surprised but then began to laugh. “I think you’re forgetting something, Thomas. It’s been a long time for me, but not that long for you. Sarah?”

“Thomas, this is no longer your house. You turned it over to me, remember? You have no authority to remove a member unilaterally.”

For a moment, Thomas looked like he was going to say something. Instead, he turned to leave.

“Thomas.” Julia stopped him. “I saved your hand. I don’t know if it can be restored, but I’ve kept it in deep freeze to try to preserve it. For what it’s worth, I am sorry that happened.” Julia produced a small package.

Thomas stared at her for a beat and then turn and strode away.

“Rebecca? Do you think you can do anything with it?” Julia handed the package to her.

“I don’t know. I can try, but no promises.”

Sarah studied Julia. “You’ve changed. I’m not sure exactly how, but you have.”

Julia smiled. “I hope so. I’ve had fifteen years of living since we met last. And, honestly, it’s good to be here.”

“I’m glad you’re back, too.” Sarah returned her smile.

Loose End

Yesterday had been particularly hard for Julia; it was the day Jason died. Not the anniversary, but the actual day itself. If it weren’t for Aisha keeping her company, she probably would have gone to try to prevent it. It couldn’t be stopped, she reminded herself over and over again, but she still had wanted to try. She hated that there was nothing she could do except not get involved.

Today was different. Today she could do something. After years of study, she was convinced that she couldn’t change the past even if she tried. Everything that had happened to her during the last thirteen years had already happened. Jason was interested in mana worms because of her brief visit. Indeed, she was convinced that their entire time together, he knew her from that visit and never said anything. That realization, that the past was set, gave her reason to stay away. Something else she realized gave her reason to act today.

The cave was dark, damp, and cold just as she remembered. She waited while sitting on a rock outcropping against one wall. The long wait – at least it seemed long – made her worry that she had gotten the date wrong. When the chair on fire dropped through a portal, her doubt vanished. Her preparations had been thorough, but she still felt a little anxious. There was always the possibility that he might have some surprises. The one reassurance she had was that, after her one encounter with him, they didn’t hear from him again for the next few years until her trip to the past. If he had disappeared, it might have been because she did something about him.

A few minutes after the chair, a person crashed to the ground. Immediately, Julia threw up a barrier around him. He seemed to be unconscious, probably from the fall. After several minutes, Peter began to stir.

“Where am I?” he yelled into the darkness.

“This is just one my little homes away from home.” Just as she had done with David, she used portals to move around while talking, to keep him disoriented.

“You.” Peter said it like a curse.

“Me. I assume you sent the mana worm?”

“How did you manage to survive it?”

Julia clicked her tongue a couple of times. “That’s the wrong question. You should be asking how important to me was the person it did kill. And the answer is that there is no one in the world that mattered more. And then you should be afraid.”

Peter scoffed. “Even now, you’re still hiding. You don’t scare me. If you were going to kill me, you would have done it already.”

“I don’t want to kill you. I could spend years tormenting you. It’s what you probably deserve. Not just for what you did to me, but what you did to Rebecca.”

“What do you want?” His voice was little more than a growl.

“I want to make sure you can never hurt anyone I care about. Ever again.”

Flames began to surround his hand.

“I should warn you that you have limited oxygen in there. If you burn it all up, you’ll suffocate.”

The flames went out. “So you’re just going wait until I asphyxiate?”

“The thought has occurred to me. But lately, I’ve been working on myself. Trying to grow. So I’ve made a nice little pocket space for you. You can hunt, fish, grow crops . . . Whatever you like. It’s big enough that you can walk for hours. Much nicer than this cave. The only limits is that you’ll be alone, and there is no way out.”

“How long do you intend to keep me there?” Maybe she had imagined it, but Julia thought she heard a touch of nervousness in his question.

“Forever. Like I said, I won’t give you another chance to hurt anyone I care about.”

“You can’t . . .”

“I assure you that I can. No one knows where you are. And no one is looking for you. Even your little cult has banished you. I could do much worse; you’re lucky I’m not feeling more vindictive.”

He began to yell, but Julia ignored him. She opened a portal on the floor of the cave beneath him. He tried to avoid it, but it expanded rapidly and soon covered the whole of the bottom of the barrier. When he finally fell through, Julia closed the portal.

She stayed in the cave for a while. Maybe it would have been kinder just to kill him, but she thought Jason would probably disapprove. She wasn’t sure how long she would really leave him there, but for now, it was one less threat to worry about. She opened another portal and returned to her cabin.

Past/Present (part seven)

The scream brought Sarah running. It sounded like someone was dying very painfully. Before she got to the room, the scream ended, but that just made her more nervous. She burst through the door to find Thomas collapsed on the floor and Rebecca kneeling over him.

“What is going on?”

Rebecca gestured towards Thomas. “There was an accident. Thomas’s hand was severed.”

A sense of horror replaced her concern. “Where is it?”

“If I had to guess, I’d say about fifteen years ago,” Rebecca sighed.

“What?”

“First help me get him to bed. I stopped the bleeding and helped dull the pain, but he needs sleep. Lots of it.”

Rebecca and Sarah propped him up between them and walked him slowly to a room Rebecca had set aside as an infirmary. They laid him onto a bed. After Rebecca assured herself that he would stay asleep, she led Sarah to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine.

“So what’s this about ‘fifteen years ago’?” Sarah didn’t sit down.

“Do you want the long version or the short?”

“Rebecca…”

“Okay, the short version is that we traveled back in time about fifteen years ago. Coming back, the portal closed while Thomas was reaching through it. That’s how he lost his hand.”

“You went back in time? How is that even possible? And why fifteen years?” Sarah’s head was swimming with questions and overwhelmed by the implications.

“I don’t think I can explain how. They combined their gifts to…”

“Wait. They? Who else…” A thought popped into her mind, but it couldn’t be. “Where’s Julia?”

Rebecca sighed again and took another sip of wine. “Again, best guess? Fifteen years ago.”

Finally, she had to sit down. This was too much to take in. “She went too? Why would she do anything with Thomas?”

“He said we could save Jason.”

“That… makes sense. But why fifteen…” At first, she hadn’t realized why the number of years was significant; now it hit her, too. “Oh shit. You went back to his master’s house, didn’t you?”

Rebecca nodded. “Julia was furious. He said something about an attack.”

“Yes. That’s when I met him.”

“Julia decided to keep him from doing whatever he had planned. So she shoved him back through the portal and closed it when he tried to go back again. Thomas lost his hand, and Julia lost her only way back to the present.”

“I thought he had finally let it go,” Sarah said, not to Rebecca but to herself.

“Well, I’m exhausted. I’ll sleep in the infirmary tonight to keep tabs on Thomas.”

“What do we do about Julia?”

“I honestly don’t know. I can’t even keep my eyes open.”

Rebecca left her to her worries. Sarah grabbed a glass and poured some wine for herself. She had no idea Thomas was still obsessing about the attack, but she couldn’t ignore it any longer.

Discovered

A knock at the door meant Aisha had arrived. She was the only visitor Julia had had since getting stuck in the past. No one else knew she was here. So it was more than surprising when she saw someone else on the other side of the door. It was the black-haired man from their attempted robbery the year before.

“You are a hard person to find.”

His demeanor was casual, unthreatening, but Julia saw danger everywhere. She immediately began summoning a portal, but the man held out a hand to try to interrupt her.

“Wait. I just want to talk. Honest. Please, just let me explain.”

He sounded sincere, but people with ill-intent rarely announced it. Still, if he had found her this time, Julia reasoned, he could probably do so again. Maybe it was worth the risk to see what she could learn.

“Fine. Outside.” Indicating the two chairs she kept on the porch, she shut and locked the door. It would do much if he was determined to get inside, but she wanted him to know that she wasn’t going to drop her guard.

He sat in the chair closest to the edge of the porch and waited for her to sit before speaking.

“Thank you for hearing me out.”

“You didn’t exactly give me a choice, showing up at my home like this. Who are you?”

“Oh, are we exchanging names? Are you going to tell me yours?”

“Probably not,” she admitted.

“Then I hope you won’t be offended if I don’t share mine. I was trying to stop… a friend… from going further down a bad path. I put out rumors there was a book… he would want. I was hoping to lure him out. You and your companion caught me by surprise.” The way he said ‘friend’ suggested that he wasn’t sure he should be using the word.

“So we walked into a trap not meant for us.”

“Essentially. Why were you interested in the book?”

“I wanted it for my research.”

Julia felt like they were circling one another, each giving only enough information to draw the other out.

“Your research? You weren’t there on behalf of someone else?” He seemed surprised by her answer.

“I’m not working for anyone.”

“What about your companion? Is she working for someone else?”

“She’s working for me. Are you going to tell me what this is all about? Why you tracked me down after a year? How you tracked me down? Or are you just trying to get some information for nothing?”

“I wanted to be certain you weren’t there on behalf of… my friend. But I was also curious about you. You seem… out of place.”

“Well, there was no one else behind our attempt on the book. And I’m not about to tell a complete stranger anything about myself. So thank you for stopping by. Don’t come back.” Julia stood, and walked to the door.

He looked as though he would object but seemed to think better of it. “Very well. I appreciate your time.” Before he stepped off the porch, he turned to face her. “A bit of advice from a complete stranger. Your research involving time magic? Give it up. I’ve seen people hurt by it.” With that, he walked away.

It hadn’t sounded like a threat; rather, it seemed to be genuine concern. Julia wasn’t sure what to make of it.

A short time later, Aisha arrived. “How’s it going?”

“I think it’s time for me to move,” Julia said.

Aisha looked sad for just a moment before she reasserted a placid expression. “Does that mean you’ve solved the problem?”

After a moment of confusion, Julia realized there was misunderstanding. “No, no. You’re still stuck with me. I meant literally; I need to move. That mage, the one from our book heist? He showed up here.”

Relief changed to concern in an instant. “Are you okay? What happened? How did you get rid of him?”

“Everything’s fine, but I don’t know for how long.” Julia gave her a quick summary of the visit. “Even though he left, I don’t like the idea of someone else knowing where to find me. I didn’t even want anyone to know about me.”

“So you’re leaving the cabin?” Aisha looked around wistfully.

“No. I’m just going to move the cabin into a pocket space. That way, no one can find it. I should have done it years ago, but it felt like overkill. Not so much now.”

“If no one can find it, then how…”

“I was hoping you’d come with me. I have room. And I can always make more. We can also work out a way for you to come and go for your business in the outside world.”

Aisha was quiet for long enough that Julia started to get nervous. “I’m sorry. That was too much. I can just figure out a way for you to come by when…”

Putting a finger to Julia’s lips, Aisha broke into a smile. “Stop. Of course I’ll go with you. I’m just happy you’re not leaving yet.”

Entering and Breaking

“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this,” Julia muttered.

“C’mon, you know you love me.” Aisha gave her a mischievous grin.

“That has nothing to do with it.”

“I’ve got a lead on a book about temporal magic. You want it, don’t you?”

“Of course,” Julia reluctantly agreed.

“We’ll be in and out before anyone notices, so don’t worry.”

Julia didn’t feel reassured, but they were already outside the house. One portal brought them to a second story balcony, and another took them through the glass doors. They were inside a nicely furnished office.

“What about magical safeguards?” The ease with which they had entered made Julia uneasy.

“This isn’t a mage’s house. Just some rich collector. There is only mundane security which is easy to deal with.”

“So why did you need my help?”

“I like the company.”

Julia let out an exasperated sigh. Over the years she had known Aisha, she had come to trust the woman more than anyone she had met, except Jason. Even so, she wasn’t always sure when Aisha was joking and when she was serious.

“Okay, here’s the safe. Give me a minute.” Aisha had opened what looked like a cabinet door. The dark metal front of a safe glinted in the dim light. She used shadow magic – a branch of spatial magic, Julia had gathered – to manipulate the safe’s lock and open it.

“You do this a lot?” Julia’s question was rhetorical, but Aisha answered anyway.

“Only in emergencies. I prefer get my acquisitions through mutual understandings. But this collector was being stubborn.”

Aisha stood up holding a small, brown leather book. “Here we go.” She began looking through the pages.

“Good. Let’s get out of here.” Julia started opening a portal when noticed Aisha’s look turn to puzzlement and then fear. “What is . . .” Before she could finish her question, a faintly glowing cylinder surrounded the other woman.

“It’s a trap. Look.” Aisha turned the book so Julia could see that all of its pages were blank.”

“Shit. I’ll make a portal to get you out.”

Every portal she tried to open failed. The barrier was blocking her spells.

“So much for that. What about you?”

Aisha shook her head. “None of my magic is working.”

“I thought you said this guy wasn’t a mage.”

“He isn’t. At least, he’s not supposed to be.”

Both women fell silent while they tried to think of a solution. Julia probed the floor below the barrier with no luck: the barrier was completely sealed. Finally, Aisha broke the silence.

“You need to leave. You getting caught here is bound to have ramifications for the future. Get out. I’ll be okay.”

“No.” Julia hadn’t even paused to consider the suggestion. “No way. I am not leaving you here. You’re too important . . .”

“Julia, it’s okay. I’ll be fine. We have to keep you out of this.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’m not leaving a friend, someone I care about. I can’t lose anyone else; I have too few friends as it is. Now help me come up with a way out of this.”

Just as Julia remembered something, a man entered the room. He had shoulder length black hair and was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt. There was nothing particularly remarkable about him, but Julia thought she had seen him before.

“Looks like the cheese lured in a mouse. Two mice,” he corrected himself after noting Julia. “But you aren’t who I was expecting. Who are you?”

Neither woman responded. Julia tried to maintain eye contact while she searched her pocket.

The man turned all of his attention to her. “What is going on with you? This can’t be right.”

As soon as she felt the right crystal, she pulled it out and touched it to the barrier. It disappeared instantly, and Julia shoved the crystal back into her pocked before summoning a portal.

“Wait!”

Ignoring the man’s yell, Julia grabbed Aisha’s arm and pulled her through the portal, closing it behind them. They both fell to the grass outside Julia’s cabin and spent some time catching their breath.

“That was fun,” Aisha said after a while.

“You have a weird notion of fun.”

“Probably. You’re going to have to tell me how you managed that.”

“Later. Let’s get inside. I need a drink.”

The Dangers of Time Travel

“You traveled back in time?” Aisha took a sip of her whiskey.

“Yes.”

“But how? You’re not even a time mage.”

“I… It’s long story, and I don’t think I should tell anyone how I managed it. Can you imagine what would happen if others figured it out. Would you trust people not to abuse the information? Honestly, I’m not even sure why it worked. Maybe because of how desperate I was. Or maybe because I got lucky. Now that I’m here, I am scared to do anything to alter the past. My past. So I’m staying away from anyone I knew.”

“Maybe you can’t change the past?”

“What do you mean?” Aisha’s response had taken her by surprise.

“Think about it. If you did change something, it could create a contradiction, a paradox. Since those are impossible, maybe it’s impossible to do anything that would cause one. Maybe, in your past, you were always here, always doing these things.”

“I’m not sure if that’s a brilliant or terrifying. But I also don’t want to test your hypothesis. If you’re wrong, I don’t want to think about the damage I might do.”

“So if you don’t want to change the past, why did you come back?”

“Because I didn’t think it through. A friend of mine had died. I – foolishly – thought I could come back and prevent it.”

“But you couldn’t? Then my idea . . .”

“I didn’t really try. I came back so far that he hadn’t yet met me. When I went to speak to him, he convinced me . . . He made me reflect on the dangers inherent in changing the past. So I said goodbye without saving him. He’s still out there. Alive. For now. And even if I decided to take the risk, he won’t let me.”

Julia choked out the last few words and fell silent. Research had kept her distracted, but talking about Jason made her heart hurt. She couldn’t talk to him. She couldn’t even talk to his ghost because he wasn’t dead yet. A deep sadness came over her.

“Hey, it’s okay.” Aisha reached out to touch her arm.

Julia realized tears were running down her cheeks. She wiped them away and tried to force a smile. “I didn’t realize how much grief I was holding in.”

“So now you’re stuck? You can’t get back to your own time?”

“That is another long story. I had to close off my way home. That’s why I became a recluse and need your help.”

Aisha laughed. “Well you have my help, but it’s not free.”

“I know. So are you satisfied with my explanation?”

“It’s an outlandish story, but for some reason I believe you. And you’re secret is safe with me.”

“Thank you, Aisha.”