Supply Run

The knock at the door signaled the delivery Julia had been anticipating. Aisha was standing on the other side, her bag slung over her shoulder, smile wide on her face.

“Hey, stranger. Good to see your face.”

Nearly two years had passed since Julia had been trapped in the past. She had met Aisha shortly after her relocation to the other side of the country, and she had been providing Julia with supplies for over a year. The move, and relying on Aisha, was all to avoid having any impact on her own past.

Even before her move, Julia knew that no one was coming back for her. No matter how long it took them to figure out how to return, they could have always traveled back to the time she had closed the portal. That no one had appeared in the first few days after she was trapped meant she was on her own. If she wanted to get back to her proper time, she would have to do it herself. However, she had no real idea how to go about it. Instead, she threw herself into research, and Aisha was crucial to that.

“It hasn’t been that long, has it?” Julia stepped aside to let the other woman come in.

“Well, I tried to come by yesterday, but you weren’t here. Or you were ignoring me.” Aisha walked into the living room and sat down without waiting for an invitation. “So which was it?”

Julia sat down facing her. “I wasn’t ignoring you. You know better than that. I thought you weren’t coming until today, so I was visiting a friend.” Esther and Rook still wanted her to drop by now and then.

“I didn’t think you had any friends. Beside me, that is.”

“Very funny. I’ll have you know I am very popular.”

“So popular, you live alone in a cabin in the middle of nowhere.”

“Okay, okay.” Julia held up her hands in surrender. “I give. Your tongue is too sharp.”

Aisha’s smile widened, flashing her teeth. “Not just my tongue.”

Julia ignored that. “So what did you bring me this time.”

Aisha was brash and friendly, but there was more to her. Julia hadn’t gotten too far below the surface, but she valued the other woman’s company and friendship.

“The mundane supplies should be delivered tomorrow. As for the more interesting stuff…” Taking her bag off her shoulder, Aisha set it on the table and opened it. “First, and most obviously, more crystals.” She pulled out more than a dozen empty crystals and put them down on the table. “I was also able to track down the rarer ingredients you asked for.” She set five jars with different substances next to the crystals. “This one,” she held up a bottle containing a purple powder, “was the tricky one. Asking for ground quartz exposed to temporal magic raised more than a few eyebrows.”

“I appreciate the effort, Aisha. Were you able to track down any books?”

“There I struck out, I’m afraid. You have to know mages don’t write a lot of books.”

“I suppose not. Thanks anyway.” Julia had never asked if Aisha was actually a mage or not.

“However,” Aisha pulled out a file folder, “I did manage to track down some notes that might be usable. On mana, not temporal magic.”

Julia took the folder and began paging through it. “Aisha, this is wonderful. Anything helps. I cannot thank you enough.”

“Glad I could help.” She hesitated for a moment. “Can I ask you something?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got your payment.” Julia looked up from the pages in the folder to hand six charged crystals to Aisha.

“Not that. Although, thank you.” She put the crystals in her bag. “I’ve been supplying you for a while, and I know it’s none of my business, but would you tell me what you’re up to? Your requests are always so specific, and I thought it might help if I knew what you were doing.”

Julia smiled. “You’re right, it’s none of your business. You want a beer?”

Aisha shrugged. “Sure. We can talk about the weather instead.”

Past/Present (part six)

Julia knocked on the door and was relieved when Esther opened it. This was the one place she could think of that offered some hope. Somehow, Esther had recognized her, so the older woman must have some connection to the future. Wanting to be certain Jason wasn’t home, Julia had waited nearly half a day before approaching the building.

“Julia, you’ve returned. What a pleasant surprise.” Esther’s smile seemed genuine.

“Hello. Do you mind if I come in? I don’t want Jason to see me.”

“Of course, of course, dear. Please, follow me. I’ll make us some tea.”

As Esther led her down a hallway, Julia caught glimpses of other rooms. The entire place looked exactly like one might expect from an elderly widow’s home. Bits of cross-stitching hung against old wallpaper patterns. Small lamps sat on doilies atop end tables. The couch was covered with rough upholstery. It was almost too perfect, as though its occupant was trying very hard to put forward the image of a kindly grandmother.

In the kitchen, two teacups were already set on the table, and, as if on cue, a kettle began whistling on the stove.

“Were you expecting someone?” Julia asked.

“Oh no. I just like to be prepared in case someone drops by. Now sit, dear. I only have the one kind of tea. I hope you don’t mind.” She brought the kettle to the table and poured hot water into each of the cups.

They sat down across from one another, and Esther began absently stirring her tea.

“So how did your visit with Jason go yesterday?”

“You don’t know?”

“I’m not omniscient, dear.”

“Of course.” Julia couldn’t say why she thought the other woman would know, but she was surprised that Esther didn’t. “We had a brief visit. It was good to see him again. But he persuaded me that altering the past wasn’t a good idea.”

“Mmm.” Esther nodded. “Probably not.”

“I have to know, how did you recognize me yesterday? Are you a time mage?”

“No. Nothing so interesting. Rather, it has to do with the nature of time itself. What’s the best way to explain?” Esther was silent for a moment, presumably trying to decide how to answer her own question. “Most people think of time like a river. Events, information, flow from upstream to downstream, earlier to later. That’s how most people experience it, so it’s a natural analogy.

“But time’s not really like that. A better analogy would be to think of time like a lake, rather than a river. A pebble falls into the lake, and the ripples expand in every direction. If you travel in a boat from one side to the other, you’d be tempted to say the shore you sailed from is the beginning and your destination is the end. But there are other orders in which parts of the lake can be experienced. Just because many people see the lake in a particular way doesn’t make that the only way to observe it.”

“So when we met, and I told you my name, that rippled to you now?”

“Exactly.”

“Then, if you aren’t a time mage, what are you?”

“Just someone who experiences time differently than most.”

“Does that mean you can help me get back to my own time? Or no?”

“Unfortunately, seeing time differently does not mean traveling through time differently. Are you not able to go back the way you came?”

“I had to close that off that path. I didn’t want to, but I had to.”

Before Esther could respond, a familiar-looking black cat jumped up on to the table.

“Rook, you know you aren’t supposed to be up here.” The cat ignored Esther’s scolding and licked his paw.

“Rook? That’s Rook?” As far as Julia could tell, the cat looked exactly the same as it did fifteen years from now. “How old is this cat?” Rook took a few steps in her direction and lowered his head. She scratched between his ears, just like she always did.

“He obviously remembers you. As for his age, he doesn’t experience time in the way you do, either.”

Julia continued petting Rook as she turned her attention back to Esther. “Is there anything you can do to help me get back to proper time?”

“None that I can think of. I’m sorry, dear.”

Julia knew that coming here had been a long shot. She needed a source of time magic, and she had no idea where she might find one. And even if she did, she wasn’t sure she could replicate what Rebecca, Thomas, and she had managed to do. If Esther couldn’t help, it was time to move on and figure out what to do next.

“Thank you for your time. And the tea.” Julia stood to leave.

“Where will you go?”

“I’m not sure. I should probably leave this area, though. Too many chances – too much temptation – to mess up my own future.”

Esther followed Julia to the front door, with Rook close behind. Once at the door, Julia reached down to give him a final pet.

“If you need to talk, or even just a cup of tea, you’re welcome here any time.”

“Thanks, Esther. I appreciate that.”

“And you have to come back to visit Rook. I think he would be upset if he didn’t get to see you again soon.”

Looking at the cat, she said, “I will, I promise.” Then she turned and walked away.

Past/Present (part five)

“Julia!” Rebecca’s warning carried through the portal. From where she was sprawled on the floor, Julia could see Thomas trying to make his way back through the portal. Stopping him was her priority, so she did the only thing she could think of: she closed the portal.

Pulling herself up, she slowly walked over to where the portal had been and just stared at the emptiness in its place. She was fifteen years in her past with no means of returning to her present. On the floor was a severed hand. It had to be Thomas’s, caught on the wrong side of the portal when it had shut. Voices on the other side of the door warned her that others were about to enter the lab, so she grabbed the hand and crouched behind one of the tables.

“. . . never seen anything like it.” That sounded like Thomas, but younger.

“Where is it?” An older male voice she didn’t recognize.

“What? It was here! You must believe me.”

“I do, Thomas. Do you know what sort of portal it was?”

“As I said, I did not recognize it.”

“Research it. Come find me when you know. Then we can decide how to proceed. I will check the rest of the house.”

The door opened and closed again, then she heard someone, presumably Thomas, open a book and begin paging through it. Thomas had said he wanted to learn something in this time, but what? It couldn’t be about the portal. The moment they traveled back he must have realized what the portal was. So what had he come for?

Thomas was always so secretive; it was why she had never trusted him. This could be a chance to find out more about him, about his past. Something important happened on this day, in this place. Important enough for him to solicit her help to come back here. However, she didn’t know what he had been looking for, and she had no idea how her presence here might alter events. Her focus had to be on finding a way to return to her own present.

From behind the table, she heard the door open again, followed by the sounds of someone casting. This might have been the event Thomas wanted to learn about, but whatever it was, Julia was certain she didn’t want to be involved. She needed a distraction so she could get out of the situation. At least, that was the excuse she told herself. In her heart, she knew that she could probably have just left without drawing too much attention. After all, someone was casting a spell which probably meant that things were about to become chaotic without her help. She just wanted to be sure, and it almost certainly wasn’t to mess with Thomas. Probably.

Without a reliable location set up in advance, there was no controlled chaos she could create. Instead, she simply opened a portal in the ceiling to let whatever was in the room above fall into Thomas’s lab. Once things began to drop, she opened a second portal and left the lab before anything else could happen. She didn’t know what spell the new arrival had been about to cast, and she didn’t wait to see Thomas’s reaction.

Once more on the street, she wandered aimlessly. Fifteen years ago, she would have still been in training, so she wasn’t likely to run into her younger self. Jason already made it clear that he couldn’t help her, and approaching anyone else might have a ripple effect into the future. Thomas’s magic had made the trip possible, but now she had no access to time magic. If she couldn’t come up with a solution, she was stuck in her own past.

Past/Present (part four)

“We’re leaving.” Julia’s voice sounded definitive but not angry.

“Julia? What happened with Jason?” Rebecca assumed Julia had realized Thomas had his own motives for this trip.

Julia didn’t take her eyes of Thomas. “Later. When we’re back at the house. For now, we need leave before we mess up the past. Or at least before we mess it up anymore.”

“Nothing has been ‘messed up,’ as you put it,” Thomas objected. “That is not how time travel works.”

“Really, Thomas?” Now there was irritation in her voice. “Why don’t you tell us how it works? When we talked about this earlier, you said you didn’t know.”

“You are not being fair, Julia. I formulated probable . . .”

“I said, later.” Julia cut him off. “Let’s go.”

“We cannot leave yet; I still have not learned about . . .”

Before he could finish, Julia closed the distance between them and began pushing him toward the portal. Thomas stumbled back a few steps before he regained his footing. He then managed to shove Julia to the ground.

Rebecca wanted to intervene, to stop this altercation, but she didn’t think either of them were in a mood to listen. When she noticed Thomas trying to cast a spell, she expected things to get much worse. Instead, nothing happened, and he scowled.

“You drained me. Is this why you took all my magic in casting the spell? To make me powerless?”

Julia, who had gotten back to her feet, chuckled softly. “You sound paranoid. If I had known then you were up to something, I wouldn’t have drained you. I simply wouldn’t have cast the spell in the first place.”

Even though Thomas seemed to be without magical resources, Julia wasn’t taking advantage of that fact. She was keeping the fight physical, not using her own magic.To Rebecca, it looked like Julia was holding back, though she couldn’t imagine why.

Julia sprang at Thomas, but he was ready for her and shoved her back to the floor.

“Stop this, Julia. It is unbecoming to engage in such a brutish display. I have no desire to hurt you. I just need to see what happens here today. Then we can leave, and you can chastise me all you like.”

Rebecca knew that Julia wasn’t going to give up; she was even beginning to think Julia was right. Thomas always had a convenient excuse while he manipulated people. She didn’t even trust that he merely wanted to observe this attack, if there even was one. She needed to end this before anyone got hurt.

Thomas was focused entirely on Julia as she slowly circled him. Because of that, Rebecca was able to get behind him when he was facing away from the portal. She made sure Julia saw her, and the next time Julia lunged at Thomas, Rebecca tripped him when he stumbled backwards. As he fell to the floor, she grabbed his arm and dragged him through.

The portal was several inches off the floor, and she had to let go of Thomas as she tried to keep her balance. Thomas pushed her away when she went to grab hold of him again. He turned back to the portal as she fell.

“Julia!” She yelled. Julia needed to get through and close the portal. Rebecca didn’t know what Julia was worried about, but right now she trusted her more than Thomas.

As Thomas reached the portal and started to cross back over, it suddenly vanished, along with his left hand.

Past/Present (part three)

As soon as Julia had left through her portal, Rebecca turned to Thomas and asked, “So why are we here?”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Not you, too.”

“Julia was too focused on Jason to notice, but your explanation doesn’t make much sense. We had to go back fifteen years to find a place that no longer exists? Do you have any respect for the intelligence of others?”

“Fine,” Thomas sighed. “Today, this house will be attacked. Most of its occupants killed. I was the only survivor. I want to learn everything I can about the perpetrators, determine their motives.”

“So this wasn’t about Jason at all?” Rebecca was beginning to appreciate Julia’s distrust of Thomas.

“It is about Jason. But this is a unique opportunity; no one has ever successfully traveled to the past before. So we can save Jason and find out who attacked this house at the same time.”

That made sense, she supposed, but Rebecca doubted Julia would see it that way.

“So when does this attack happen?”

“In a few hours. That should give Julia enough time to reach Jason.”

“Have you thought about what you’re going to say to her when she gets back?”

“What do you mean?”

Rebecca couldn’t decide if he was truly this oblivious or if it was just an act. “How do you think she’s going to react when she discovers your ulterior motive?”

Thomas scoffed dismissively. “I got her back to Jason. Why should she care if I take care of some business of my own?”

There was no point in arguing with him. He was determined to keep making the same mistakes. It was common for mages to struggle with interpersonal relationships, but Thomas seemed worse than anyone she had ever met. Not for the first time, she wondered how Sarah put up with him for so long.

“If my memory is correct, I will be entering the lab soon.” Thomas had already moved on.

Rebecca’s train of thought had not shifted as quickly. “What?”

“I remember this, though I did not understand it before now. I come into this room and see the portal.”

“Are you going to talk to your past self?”

“No. I had considered it, but I do not want to change the past too much. The consequences of doing so are unpredictable.”

“Then what?”

“We should hide. I will leave the lab after studying the portal for a bit.”

“You leave with an unexplained portal open in your lab?”

“Yes. To consult with my master. Then we come back here . . .” His voice trailed off.

“And?”

“Nothing. The portal is gone when we come back.” Thomas was speaking slowly, as he seemed to be trying to work something out.

“What’s wrong?”

“I saw the portal, but not you or me. And the portal is gone when I came back. How do we conceal the portal?”

He didn’t even seem to be talking to her anymore. She tried to follow his questions back to the root of his concern.

“Wait. You said you remember the portal being here? Does that mean we already came back? That this trip was always part of your past?”

“Perhaps,” he admitted.

If they had always come to this point in time, was it possible to even change the past? Had Julia always tried to save Jason? Had Thomas always investigated this attack he was worried about? What, if anything, can they accomplish in this time?

“I have an idea!” Thomas’s exclamation startled her.

“What?”

“First, we have to hide. I will be entering the lab soon.” He pointed to behind one of the tables in the middle of the room. They crouched behind it and soon heard the door open.

“What the . . .?” The voice was Thomas’s, but less gruff.

Long minutes of silence followed, each increasing Rebecca’s anxiety that they would be discovered. Eventually, however, she heard the door open and close again.

“That felt longer than a bit.”

Thomas waved away her complaint as he stood. “Only a few minutes. Now we should have some time to get ready. I have an idea on how we might conceal the portal. Can you telepathically make him, me, unable to see it?”

The question was unexpected. “No.”

“But your gift has to do with souls, minds . . .”

“I don’t specialize in telepathy. I can link willing minds, but my expertise is in spirit. I thought you knew that.”

“So how can we hide the portal?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t even know this was going to be a problem, or we could have asked Sarah for help.”

Thomas fell silent to think over the problem anew. Rebecca sat on one of the tables and studied the room. There was nothing in particular she was looking for, but she had nothing else to do.

The silence was interrupted when a second portal opened in the lab, and Julia stepped through.

“Thomas, whatever you’re doing, stop. We’re leaving.”

Past/Present (part two)

“So what is it that you really need to talk to me about?” Jason sat on the couch as he spoke.

The apartment didn’t have as much clutter as when she first saw it, but he had only been here a few months. Sitting with him seemed so normal that Julia had to constantly remind herself that he didn’t know who she was.

“Are you sure you want to talk to me?”

His question shook her out the silence she had been keeping while he waited.

“I’m not sure how to say this, or even how much to say. I’m here to try to keep you from dying.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. Every expression he made drove home how much she missed him. “You can’t really stop me from dying. Everyone does it.”

“I mean, I want to prevent your untimely death.”

“What makes a death untimely?”

“Dammit, Jason! I’m trying to save your life!” She had forgotten how frustrating a conversation with him could be sometimes.

“I recognize that irritation. It suggests you know me, so you have me at a disadvantage. You said your name is Julia? I’m fairly certain I don’t know anyone by that name. So how do you know me?”

She hesitated. What should she tell him? What would he believe?

“I can’t really respond unless you say something.” Jason was sitting forward, studying her.

“I know this might sound crazy, but I know you in the future. We will meet a few years from now when . . .”

He cut her off. “Stop. Right there. Just stop. You’ve travelled back in time?”

“Yes, we wanted . . .”

Once more, he interrupted. “Don’t. Don’t say anything. This is incredibly dangerous. I like mucking about with reality as much as any chaos mage, but the timeline is incredibly fragile.” He sounded as serious as she had ever heard him.

“What do you mean?”

Jason shrugged, all the seriousness gone from his demeanor. “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say.”

“I’m not joking around. I’m trying to save your life.”

“Can you do it without causing something worse? If I live, does something else bad happen? Do you know?”

“How could I know what happens if you don’t die?”

“Exactly. If you really know me, you know that I wouldn’t want to saved at the expense of others.”

What would happen if he lived? How would they stop the mana worm? Would it have gone on to kill even more people after David? No one was even sure exactly what Jason had done. Was there some other way? Could Jason kill it without sacrificing himself?

He smiled as though he were following her train of thought. “I take it that my death did some good then?”

As much as she wanted to argue with him, he was right. “So that’s it? You won’t listen? And coming here hasn’t changed anything?”

“I don’t know if it’s changed something or not, but think about it this way. What if you change the future in some way that keeps us from meeting? If you keep me from dying, do you make the trip back? I doubt the universe tolerates paradoxes, and I am not sure I want to see how it would fix this one.”

It all made sense, but she hadn’t thought about the possible consequences. Her grief and searching for a way to bring him back had blocked out all of these questions. So when Thomas suggested . . . Thomas. He had used her grief, her desperation, to get her to go along with this. Without that, she never would have trusted him at all. He must have thought about all these questions. Maybe he knew that Jason wouldn’t go along. Now that she had stopped to think, she should have known, too. So why did Thomas really want to come back here?

“What’s wrong, Julia?”

“It occurs to me only now that I’ve been manipulated. Jason, I really miss you, and I wish we could spend more time together. But you’re right, I wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the time we will have. I need to go stop whatever is happening.”

“Go. And Julia, I’m looking forward to meeting you.”

She smiled at him. “Just . . . Research mana worms, okay?” She enlarged the portal she had kept open in Thomas’s lab and stepped through before she could change her mind.

Past/Present (part one)

Standing in the lab from the image, Julia asked, “Where are we?”

“My old lab. From when I was an apprentice,” Thomas answered.

Her face already growing hot, Julia spun to face him. “So we’re what… At least fifteen years in the past?”

“Roughly.”

“Why? We didn’t need to come back this far to find him. He and I haven’t even met yet.” She knew she should have listened to the nagging doubt she had when Thomas presented this plan.

“I can explain, just hold on…”

Julia had to fight back the impulse to drop him into a volcano then and there.

“We needed a place that didn’t exist anymore. Otherwise we might have created a standard portal in our own time. Because this lab doesn’t exist now, when you saw this through the portal, you could be sure it had worked.”

Did that even make sense? Julia wasn’t certain. Her inclination was to ignore his explanation; after all, something definitely felt off about all of this. But maybe it made sense. Still, fifteen years ago? Where was Jason, even? Could she, a stranger to him, convince him to trust her?

Rebecca spoke up. “So Jason’s still alive. We can make this work. Do you know where he is, Thomas?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure. He had been staying here for a while, but he moved out around six months ago.”

This new information didn’t even surprise her. Of course Thomas didn’t know where he was. “You brought us back fifteen years and you don’t know where he is. Do you even want to save him?”

Thomas looked genuinely hurt, but she didn’t believe his act. “Of course. He’s in the city somewhere. It shouldn’t take long to find him.”

“Right. You stay here. That portal is our only way back to the present. Make sure it remains open.” Her voice was ice.

“I should at least escort you out.”

“No need.” Julia opened another portal. “Rebecca, would you stay with Thomas. Keep him from causing any other problems.”

“I don’t need a baby-sitter.”

“Nearly ever decision you’ve made since I first met you suggests otherwise.”

Rebecca, who had been quietly observing, finally interjected. “I’ll stay behind; not to watch you, Thomas, but so that Julia can approach Jason without scaring him. One unknown mage is plenty. Okay?” Both of the other mages nodded. “Do you need help finding him, Julia?”

“No, I already have a guess. If I get stuck, I’ll contact you. And get in touch if any problem comes up.” She gave Thomas a threatening look before stepping through the portal.

She was standing on the sidewalk of a quiet street. She had only been outside of the building across the way a handful of times, but it was enough for her to know it very well. This was the place where Jason had his apartment. If she was remembering correctly, Jason told her he moved here after leaving Thomas’s old house. If Thomas didn’t know where the apartment was, she wanted to keep its location secret. She was grateful that Rebecca volunteered to stay behind.

It took her a few minutes to work up the nerve to cross the street. How did you introduce yourself to an old friend? She knew him as well as she knew anyone, and he hadn’t even met her yet. Knowing Jason, he might just take it in stride, but it was going to be weird for her.

The front door was unlocked, as usual, and opened into an entry way. A set of stairs to her right led up to Jason’s apartment, and a hallway to her left ended at a door. She could have used a portal to get into the apartment, but if he was there, she didn’t want to startle him.

She just started to climb the stairs when she heard a door open.

“Hello?”

Julia looked down the hall to see Esther, the landlady, emerge from her own apartment. She looked exactly the same as she did when Julia would meet her in the future.

Julia came down off the stairs and waved at her. “Hi. I’m just here to visit your tenant on the second floor. Jason.”

“He’s in, but are you sure you want to see him?”

Julia had to hide her relief that her memory was right. “Why wouldn’t I want to see him?”

“Well, Julia, you are a few years early, aren’t you?”

That sent a shiver through her. When she had first met Esther, the landlady didn’t know her name. But now, fifteen years earlier, she did?

“How . . . how do you know my name?”

“You told me. Don’t you remember?”

“I do, but how do you?”

“I could explain it to you over a cup of tea, but then you’d miss your chance to speak with Jason. It’s up to you, dear.”

“I really need to see him, but I do want to hear your explanation some time. Rain check?”

“Of course. Do be careful. This is a perilous journey you’ve undertaken. Good luck.” Esther disappeared back into her apartment. For just a moment, Julia hesitated, tempted to go after the other woman, her vaguely ominous warning playing over and over in Julia’s mind. But Jason was just up the flight of stairs, and she didn’t want to wait any longer.

Almost immediately after she knocked, the door opened. Jason, looking the same as he always did, stood on the other side. “Hello?”

“Jason.” She struggled with flood of emotions upon seeing him. She was not a physically affectionate person typically, but she felt an intense urge to hug him. Standing in front of him, now, she didn’t care about anything except keeping him safe. “My name is Julia, and I really need to talk to you.” The words spilled out of her quickly.

He stepped to one side, inviting her in. “You should come in then. The hallway is no place for important conversations.”

Cooperation

The plan was insane. Julia couldn’t believe she let Thomas talk her into it. Doing anything with him had been unthinkable just days ago. Now she and Rebecca were weaving spells together with Thomas in order to try to save Jason. Saving Jason was the only reason she had gone along with this idea. However, given the difficulty of making the spells work together, Julia tried to keep her expectations low.

The first spell was Thomas’s, cast to view the target time frame. Images were forming in Julia’s mind, sent from Thomas’s mind to hers through Rebecca’s spell. Slowly, a room came took shape; it was a small lab. Several tables were against a wall. On two of them were potted plants spaced out evenly. Each was at a different stage of growth. A third table held two cages, each occupied by a single mouse. One was grey, while the other, larger, one was all white.

Julia focused her attention on one plant, and it seemed to get closer. She studied it carefully, making note of each leaf in detail. Then she moved on to the next one and repeated the procedure. After she had examined every plant and both mice, Julia turned her attention to the rest of the room.

In the middle of the room was yet another table with a book set on it. Next to the table was metal stool. She was grateful that there was only one book and that it was closed. On the brown leather cover were embossed several symbols in gold. She wasn’t familiar with them but committed them to memory.

One small, empty table in the corner exhausted the furniture present. Two shelves held clean lab equipment, carefully organized. Another two shelves of ingredients were also well ordered.

Once she had made note of every detail, she mentally signaled Rebecca. Soon, a stream of bluish green magic from Thomas began pooling next to her. She focused on the image of the lab while weaving Thomas’s magic into the portal she was forming.

As the portal opened, she saw the ruins of a collapsed building on the other side. The spells weren’t working! Shoving the panic to one side, she poured all the magic pooled beside her into the portal and concentrated on the room she had been shown. Unfortunately, more than merely the force of her will was required for success; finesse was also necessary. Was it possible she had overlooked some detail?

There was no room for doubt, either. She had missed nothing. The problem was that more magic was needed. Following the bluish green magic back to its source, she forcibly drained everything she could to bolster the portal. Finally, the scene began to shift into the room from the image.

She stabilized the portal and connected a white crystal to it. Only when she was certain it wouldn’t collapse did she dare open her eyes. Sitting on her right, Rebecca opened her eyes as well. She had been casting longer than Julia and looked exhausted. Thomas, at the third point of the circle, had collapsed to the floor. The portal was in the middle of the group.

“What happened to Thomas?” Worry was evident in Rebecca’s voice.

“I had to take a lot of his magic to get this to work. He will recover.”

“It did work, though?”

“See for yourself. You should recognize the room.”

“How long will the portal stay open?”

“If it works like my other portals, it will last as long as it has power. Of course, this isn’t like my other portals.”

“So we just need Thomas to recover?”

“Yes,” Julia begrudgingly agreed. She didn’t want to wait, but they needed Thomas, too.

As if on cue, Thomas slowly pushed himself upright. He was pale and appeared weak. “What did you do?”

Julia scoffed. “I just did what was necessary for the spell to work. You did want it to succeed, right?”

“You nearly drained me completely.”

“More temporal magic was needed to focus the portal on the room you were watching.”

Thomas looked like he had more to say but stayed quiet.

“If there’s nothing else, we should go.” Julia stood and took a step toward the portal.

“I’m going to need a bit to recover,” Thomas said.

Julia took out another, smaller, white crystal and tossed it at him. “Use that. We don’t have time to waste.” She stepped through the portal and called back, “Let’s go!”

Thomas, still shaky, got to his feet. Rebecca followed him through the portal and into the past.

A Glimmer of Hope

Sitting alone in the kitchen, Julia absently stirred the ice cream that was in front of her. It was mostly melted by this point. She hadn’t even realized that she was eating Jason’s usual snack. Her experience on the Solstice had her thinking once more about how Jason might be brought back. They were mages; their entire lives were filled with impossible occurrences. Still, when death did come, it seemed irresistible.

She smiled at Rebecca when the other mage walked in. “Hi, Rebecca. How are you?”

Rebecca returned her smile on the way to the refrigerator. “I’m not used to seeing you here.”

“I thought I’d try to be more social.”

“That’s good.” Rebecca sat down across from her with some yogurt. “It’s nice having you around more.”

“Thanks. Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure.” Rebecca sounded surprised.

“If a ghost of someone is still around, is it possible to bring them back?”

Rebecca’s expression turned somber. “Jason?”

Julia nodded.

“Have you seen his ghost?”

Julia was hesitant to answer, but if she wanted help, she had to open up a little. “He appeared on the Solstice. We had a long conversation. Maybe it was just my imagination, but if it really was him, I thought there had to be a way . . .” Her voice faded. She couldn’t bring herself to even whisper the hope aloud.

“For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think it was your imagination. When I was possessed . . .”

A pang of guilt rose in Julia’s chest. In trying to resolve her own trauma, she was making Rebecca revisit her own.

“. . . Jason spoke to me a bit. He even inspired me to come up with a way to free myself. So don’t doubt that he was real.”

“Does that mean there is something we can do?”

“Oh, Julia.”

Julia hadn’t thought she had any hope left to lose, but the tone in Rebecca’s voice drained a reservoir she hadn’t realized was left.

“Maybe someone has developed some method,” Rebecca was trying to give her something to cling to, “but I don’t know of any. I was able to revive David because I had captured his soul. And that’s how Bailey brought me back. But I don’t have any way to capture a soul of someone who is already deceased.”

“I know. You’ve told me before. He just seemed so real the other night. I thought maybe . . .”

“I haven’t forgotten about him, Julia. I want to bring him back, too, if it’s possible. I promise I will keep working on the problem, and I will let you know when I find something.”

“Thank you, Rebecca.” She tried to convince her voice to convey gratitude, but it was hard.

“I might have an idea.”

Both of them jumped at Thomas’s voice. They had been too engrossed in their conversation to notice his arrival.

“What?” Julia felt her cheeks getting hot.

“I said, I might have an idea for bringing Jason back. But I’ll need help from both of you.”

Remembrance

Rituals and celebrations had never been important to Julia, but two years had passed since Jason’s death. From the time they met, they had spent every winter solstice together, and this year, Julia wanted to remember that tradition.

For the first time since that night, she was back in the artificial space where the mana worm had attacked. Nine concentric rings of candles surrounded her as she sat thinking about her friend.

There were no stars above, so she had no real sense of the passage of time. At some point, she noticed a translucent image of Jason sitting on the ground facing her.

“Tonight’s the solstice?”

“Are . . . are you real?”

He gave her one of his mischievous smiles. “Does it matter?”

“Yes. I’d like to know if I’ve started hallucinating.”

“If you think I’m real, then I am. If you don’t, then this is just wishful thinking.”

“Death hasn’t changed you.”

His smile got a little bigger. “No, I don’t suppose it has.”

He sounded like Jason. Spoke like Jason. Yet Julia found it difficult to believe; she didn’t want to open the door to disappointment. Still, maybe he was right; maybe it didn’t matter if he was really Jason. This night was about remembering him, and it didn’t much matter if this was just her mind trying to recreate him.

“So how is it? Being dead, I mean.”

“Boring. But time flows differently, so I don’t think it has been boring for long.”

“No great revelations? No insight into the great mysteries of the universe?”

“Sadly, no. Of course, if I did have any such insight, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to share it. Anyway, enough about all things I can’t talk about. What’s been going on with you?”

“Well, Rebecca was possessed.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Everyone helped to save her. Except Thomas. As soon as she left the house, he gave up on her.”

“But she’s okay now?”

“Yes. It’s quite a story.”

“We have all night.”

For the next several hours, Julia recounted Rebecca’s story as completely as she could. Throughout the telling, Jason listened without interruption. Only when she finished did he speak again.

“It sounds as though you are feeling more a part of the house.”

“I suppose so.”

“That’s good.” Jason looked up, though Julia couldn’t see anything herself. “Night is nearly over. I have to leave now.”

“Jason.”

“Yes?”

“Can I see you again sometime?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“I miss you.”

“I know. I miss you, too.” With that Jason faded away.