Lesson Learned

“What is this?”

Thomas looked up from the notes he had been studying. Though he had learning from his mentor for six years – since he turned nine – the man still intimidated him. He was fair and treated Thomas well, but he was also reserved and demanded discipline. Upsetting him always caused Thomas a little anxiety. The paper he was holding was one Thomas had left on his desk.

“It is a summary of my progress yesterday, sir.”

“There is a prediction here. A visitor is coming.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thomas, I have told you once already. I do not like having to repeat myself.”

“Sir?”

A scowl flashed across his mentor’s face. It vanished quickly as the man refused to let any negative emotions show. Instead, he calmly asked, “What have I told you about scrying?”

“But I was only looking at the front door,” Thomas protested. “I wasn’t exploring any person’s future.”

“What have I told you?” His mentor asked again; that was never a good sign.

His defiance melted away, and he averted his gaze downwards. “Scrying is forbidden.”

“Good. Why?”

“Knowing the future can change it. The more that know, the higher the chance of deviation.”

“Good.”

Thomas continued to look down until his mentor took his chin and drew Thomas’s gaze towards his own.

“Dreams are inevitable, especially a gift such as yours. But we ought not go looking for such knowledge. And when we do have it, we must keep it to ourselves. Tell me you understand.”

“I understand, sir. I am sorry.”

“Do not apologize. Just learn from your errors.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You are right, though. We are expecting visitors today. I am surprised you saw only one. An old friend of mine is bringing his student to meet us. It will be a good chance for you to interact with one of your peers.”

Thomas had met few other people since his training had begun. “Are they time mages as well?”

“No. My friend works primarily in mana. His student also studies chaos magic, I am told. It will be good for you to learn a little something about other domains. However, that is later. For now, I want to see how your experiments with slowing and accelerating plant growth are proceeding.”

“Yes, sir.” Thomas led him over to a table with three different planters.

Careful What You Wish For

“I’m bored,” Jason said aloud to no one in particular.

Thomas, who was also in the common room, replied without looking up from his book. “Don’t you have research to work on?”

“Don’t feel like it right now.”

Thomas rolled his eyes. “Honestly, I have no idea how you even became a mage.”

The house belonged to Thomas’s mentor. Jason’s teacher had sent him here to further his education. Since his arrival, however, Thomas hadn’t seen him study even once. In fact, Thomas wasn’t certain he had ever seen the other mage use magic.

“Just lucky, I guess,” Jason said with a shrug.

“Luck has nothing to do with magic.”

“Maybe not with yours. Chaos magic is intimately entwined with luck. Fascinating realm. Not much to study, really.”

“Don’t you also work in mana?”

“I guess. Not my focus though. My teacher insisted on it, and it is useful for powering other spells. But chaos is where the real fun is.”

“Show me.”

“What?”

Thomas put his book down on the small table next to his chair. “Show me. I want see some of your chaos magic.”

Jason began to look a little apprehensive. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea. You must know a little something about it.”

“I do, but I’d like to experience your fun first hand.”

“Well . . .”

Convinced that Jason was mostly talk, Thomas picked his book back up. “Maybe you should go study so you can show me later.”

“Is that book one of a kind?”

“No. Now please let me read in peace.” As he finished speaking, the pages yellowed in front of his eyes. They became brittle before crumbling under his touch.

“What . . .?!”

“Chaos magic. It can rapidly age items. It can also preserve them, but that’s harder.”

“I was reading that!”

“You said it wasn’t one of a kind. Get another copy.”

“It’s still rare and not easy to get a hold of.”

“Oh. Then I’m sorry. But you did ask for a demonstration.”

Looking down at the bits of paper on his lap, Thomas said, “Put it back together. Right now.”

“I told you, that’s harder. I’m not sure I could manage it, especially without being familiar with its contents.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“I told you it was fascinating.”

“Don’t talk to me.”

Jason opened his mouth to respond, then thought better of it and said nothing.

A Friendly Game of Cards

*This story take place prior to Thomas forming his house.*

The room was dimly lit, with most of the light coming from a single lamp hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it was a table with four people sitting around it, cards and poker chips strewn about.

One man flipped over the cards in front of him.

“Four Jacks.”

As he spoke, he began to reach for the pile of chips in the center of the table. Before he could sweep them towards himself, he was interrupted.

“Four Kings.”

Jason flipped over his cards and revealed the kings. He reached for the pot, but the other man grabbed his hand.

“You’re cheatin’.”

Jason pulled himself free.

“No, I’m not.”

“You are. I know you are because I’ve been cheatin’, and you’re still winnin’.”

The other players appeared unfazed by the man’s admission and continued to focus their scowls at Jason.

“You know what happens to cheaters?” He pulled a gun from under the table.

“Are you going to shoot yourself?”

“No.” He took aim at Jason, but seemed to freeze in place.

“There you are.”

Jason turned around to see Thomas standing in the doorway. Sounds from the gaming room could be heard behind him.

“You froze just them?”

“No need to get the whole building, if the threat is only in this room. Why are you here?”

“Look at all the money I’ve won.”

Excitedly, Jason pointed to the large pile of chips in front him. It was much larger than anyone else’s on the table.

“Why?” If Thomas was trying to keep exasperation from his voice, he failed.

“It’s fun.”

“But you don’t need the money.”

“Doesn’t make it any less fun. Why are you here?”

“To save your ass. Again.”

“I don’t need saving.”

“He was about to shoot you.”

Jason waved away Thomas’s concern. “The gun would have jammed or something. It always does.”

“One day, your luck is going to run out.”

“Probably not.”

“Hmph. Let’s go. He wants to see you.”

“Who?”

“Who do you think? Your teacher. He’s the one who sent me after you.”

“I have to cash out first.”

“Leave it. If you’re lucky, it will be enough to keep them from coming after you.”

“I’m always lucky.”

“Yeah, yeah.” 

Blank

The future was blank. Laying on the couch, Thomas tried work out a solution. As best as he could determine, this was Jason’s fault. When he first began noticing glitches, he realized he could not longer find Julia in the future. Backtracking, he found the moment when Julia discovered Jason’s blue crystal. From that time forward, the future became harder and harder to explore.

With Julia out of the future, and Bailey following a little after that, any of his observations became increasingly unreliable. He had a sense of what the house would look like without them, but unless they actually left, that future would not come to pass. 

Discovering the existence of the crystals had explained some mysteries involving Jason. Thomas had longed believed it was Jason’s chaotic nature that made his presence elusive when scrying. The crystals provided a much more straightforward explanation. Now that they were held by others, though, it upended everything.

For the first time in decades, Thomas didn’t know what was in front of him. He had no inkling about potential threats. No clues as to how to prepare. The very idea was terrifying. The future once more was an unknown, filled with hidden terrors. 

The only solution he came to was removing the blue crystals from circulation, but doing that would not be easy. He couldn’t find them scrying, and he had no idea how to counter their effects. Asking Julia was obviously out of the question. Still, something had to be done, even if it meant that Julia would hate him more.

Family Meeting

Sitting around the dining room table, everyone looked to Sarah. It may have been Thomas’s house, but all the residents recognized Sarah as the de facto leader. It had been she who called them all together.

“Rebecca is missing,” she began, without preamble.

“I thought she had already left?” David hadn’t been happy upon hearing of her departure.

“She had,” Sarah replied. “But Bailey and I went to meet with her.” She gestured towards Bailey, who ducked their head sheepishly. “During that meeting, she vanished amid a bright flash of light.”

“So you think she was abducted,” Julia said, rather than asked.

“I don’t really think she would have agreed to meet if she was just going to leave in the middle of it.” Sarah tried not to sound defensive.

Julia held up her hand. “I’m not doubting you. I just want to understand what happened. Was there any sign before she disappeared? Any indication of what sort of magic was used?”

“No. I wasn’t actually there. I had gone outside to give Bailey and Rebecca some privacy. I saw a flash, and when I ran back inside, Rebecca was gone.”

“Bailey? What happened? Tell us everything you can remember.”

Clearly nervous and upset, Bailey looked up at Julia. “We were just talking, catching up a little. I think she was scared, but not of me. I was asking her for help with my living situation. Next thing I knew, a bright flash knocked me backwards. When my vision cleared, Sarah was standing over me, and Rebecca was nowhere to be seen.”

Julia sat back in her chair and began chewing the inside of her lip.

“So that’s it?” David asked. “We don’t have any leads?”

“Peter,” Sarah replied. “He has already tried to get her once. Maybe this was him again.”

David looked at Julia. “Could he have escaped wherever you sent him?”

“Yeah. I mean, I just got him out of the house; I didn’t imprison him.”

“Who’s Peter?” Bailey asked.

“Someone from Rebecca’s past, before you. Did she tell you anything about her life back then?” Sarah found herself surprised that Bailey didn’t seem to know.

“No. She never wanted to talk about that.”

“Oh. Well, he had tried to get her to leave with him about a month ago. Are you sure you didn’t see anyone else?”

“It was just me and her.”

“This is a waste of time.” Thomas finally spoke up. “Rebecca left the house. She isn’t our responsibility any longer.”

Before Sarah could respond, Julia leapt to her feet. “Just abandon her to fate? Do you already know? Is that why you are so quick to give up on her?”

Thomas stayed in his seat and kept his voice even. “First, you get mad because I tried to save you. Now, you are mad because I am not trying to save Rebecca. You need to be a bit more consistent.”

“You are avoiding my questions.”

“Alright. I do not know what happens to Rebecca. My point is simply that she left. If she had stayed, we could have helped her. And she knew that. She must have had reasons for leaving, for not relying on our help. I simply believe we should respect her choice.”

“I’m not comfortable with that,” David said. “She is still our friend.”

“Beyond that, I feel responsible for her being there in the first place. I tracked her down and got her to come meet us. I want to make sure she’s safe, even if she doesn’t want our help.”

Thomas stood and shrugged his shoulders. “You do not need my permission. You are each free to pursue whatever you wish, as long as you do not endanger the house. I choose to return to my studies.”

As he left, Julia glared at his back.

“That . . .”

Sarah cut her off. “Let him be. I understand your frustration, but let’s focus on Rebecca.”

Julia slumped back down into her chair. “Fine. But we need to deal with him at some point, and soon. Otherwise, I don’t think I can stay.”

“We will. For now, would you please check the cafe?”

“Sure. What am I looking for?”

“Since you specialize in spatial magic, I was hoping you might be able to figure out what was used, how she was spirited away.”

“I’ll go with her,” David volunteered.

Sarah looked at Julia, who simply nodded.

“Okay, while you two are gone, I’m going to retrace some of the steps I took finding Rebecca in the first place.”

“What can I do?” Bailey looked at each of them in turn.

Sarah thought for a moment. “If you can remember anything, either from the cafe or from your past with her, that might give us something to go on. Anything at all.”

“I’ll try.”

“Okay.” Julia stood up again. “I’ll let you know if I find anything. Let’s go, David.” The two headed towards the front door.

“Be careful,” Sarah called after them before leaving the room herself.

Being Social

As they walked back into the living room, Sarah was surprised to see another person in the room talking with Bailey. Even more unexpected, that person was Julia. She looked far more casual than the last time she’d seen her, before Jason had been killed. She had her hair tied back and was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Her demeanor was friendly. Sarah had no idea what to think.

Julia looked at her as she entered. “Hello, Sarah.” She was obviously ignoring Thomas. “Bailey and I were just having a little chat. Were you planning on inviting her to join the house?”

“What? No. I mean, it was raining outside and Bailey needed help . . .” Why would Julia jump to such a conclusion?

“Ah. Well, Bailey was just about to tell me how they met Rebecca.”

Oblivious to all of the strangeness regarding Julia, Bailey nodded. “My . . . uh . . . my teacher threw me out. It’s not much of a story, really. I was homeless, and Rebecca helped me out. Found me a place to live and gave me some advice. She was nice to me. Told me to come here if I ever needed any help.”

“And you need help now?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I . . . I lost my apartment. Times have been tough, and I . . . didn’t make rent. I really don’t want to be homeless again. I thought Rebecca might have some ideas. If I could just talk with her.”

Sarah sighed. “As I told you, Rebecca is busy with something important right now, and she’s not available.” She ignored the questioning look Julia gave her. Bailey appeared crestfallen. “However, I think we might be able to arrange for you to stay here for a little while. What do you think Julia?”

Julia appeared to consider the idea for a few moments. “I imagine I could find some space somewhere.”

With an outsider present, Sarah had to struggle to conceal her shock at Julia’s willingness to engage with house matters.

“More importantly, however, are we sure this is a good idea?” Julia looked back to Bailey. “I don’t mean to sound uncaring, but we have experienced more than one . . . misfortune recently. I’m not saying you would cause any trouble, but we need to be careful.”

“I can vouch for her.” Sarah had momentarily forgotten Thomas was present. She braced herself for Julia’s outburst, but it never came.

Instead, Julia remained focused on Bailey. “Bailey, do you know this man?”

The question was a trap, of course, but the newcomer had no way of knowing that. The implications for any answer were unpredictable, especially to someone unfamiliar with Julia and Thomas.

“No, I don’t.” Their uncertainty was palpable. “I know he told Sarah that he had seen me somehow.”

“Well, I won’t hold that against you.” Julia directed her attention to Sarah. “I don’t know. If it’s temporary, I’d say it’s your call. You run the house, after all. I can set something up with a few safeguards. It would be good to get Rebecca’s take.”

“Yes. I’m trying to get in touch with her. Can you give Bailey a room and access to the kitchen? I think the room next to David’s is free.”

Julia’s face grew dark, and Sarah quickly worked to tamp down her anger. “Not his. His room is yours. For as long as you want. I meant the room on the other side.”

Confusion abruptly replaced fury. “But that’s . . .”

“Yes. It is currently not being used. I think it would be perfect.” Sarah hoped Julia would pick up on her meaning and not pursue the conversation any more in front of Bailey. She still didn’t want their visitor to know Rebecca was gone.

“Okaayyy. So you want me to make sure the room is clear and put in a door to the kitchen?”

“If you would.”

“Alright. Just give me a few minutes.” Julia stood and gave Bailey a rare smile. “Don’t worry. It’s weird here. Just go with it.”

Sarah stared after her as she left and then turned to Thomas. “What do you make of that?”

Thomas was staring at the doorway through which Julia had recently left. “I don’t know. Maybe she has made peace with everything? She clearly still wants nothing to do with me, but perhaps . . .” He trailed off without finishing his thought.

Bailey took the opportunity to speak up. “Is everything okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that Julia is not usually so sociable,” Sarah answered. “She must like you.”

“How is she going to put in a door in just a few minutes?”

Sarah exchanged glances with Thomas. “If you know Rebecca, I assume you would know . . .”

“Oh. You mean magic? I just didn’t know it could make doors.”

Sarah smiled, a little relieved. “Well, it depends on who is using it. I should tell you, there are a couple of conditions for you to stay here. Except for the kitchen, you won’t really have access to other parts of the house. And you won’t be able to leave your room unless you are with one of us. We’re not trying to keep you prisoner; you’re free to go any time you like, but you must be accompanied by one of us. I hope you understand.”

“That’s fine. I’m just happy to have some place to stay. Do you know when Rebecca might be available?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t. I hope it won’t be too long. If you accept the conditions I’ve laid out, I think I can show you your room now.”

“Thank you.”

An Unexpected Visitor

The house was well insulated against both the weather and noise from outside, but even so, the sound of rain was unmistakable in the foyer. The doorbell rang again. Sarah could not remember if she had ever heard it ring before. Both curious and cautious, she opened the front door.

The person standing on the front step of the brownstone was soaked. Their shoulder length hair, heavy with water, was plastered against their head. The small awning over the top step provided minimal protection from the seemingly endless downpour.

Half yelling to be heard over the sounds of the storm, the person asked, “Is Rebecca here?”

Sarah studied the visitor and tried to recall whether she had seen them before. They were young, early 20s probably, with soft features blurred by water droplets. Nothing stood out as familiar.

“Who are you?” Recent events had made her increasingly suspicious.

“Um, I’m a friend of hers? Well, she helped me out a few years back and gave me this address if I ever needed to find her. I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

“Are you a member of her Family?” Would Peter or Marie have sent someone new after Rebecca, to bring her back? What sort of danger did this person represent?

“No. We’re not related. She was just . . . just helped me once.”

So either they really didn’t know about the cult, or they were prepared for the question. Sarah didn’t like feeling so paranoid, but it couldn’t be helped. Even telling someone that Rebecca had left the house might put her in danger.

“Unfortunately, Rebecca is not available at the moment. I will tell her you dropped by.” Sarah began to close the door.

“Wait!”

Sarah paused and looked at the visitor.

“My name is Bailey. Please. I .  . . I don’t have anywhere to go.” They seemed to be trying to hold back tears.

What should she do? it would be dangerous to let a stranger into the house, but turning them away felt wrong. Who would she be putting at risk, after all? Rebecca had left. Jason was dead. No one knew where Julia might be. Only she, David, and Thomas were left. Was the risk really worse than turning Bailey away?

Just as Sarah was resolving to take the risk, Thomas walked up behind her. “Who is it?”

Surprised, she looked back at him. “They say their name is Bailey.”

“Oh?” Thomas raised one eyebrow, appearing more interested than she had seen him in some time. “Let them in. It will be alright.”

That raised several more questions, but Sarah moved to let Bailey walk in. “Stay near me, or you will get lost. This place is bigger than it seems.” She led them to the living room. Thomas followed.

“My name is Sarah. Please, have a seat. Do you like tea? Or coffee? You look chilled to the bone.”

“Tea would be nice.”

“Okay, we’ll be back in just a moment. Whatever you do, don’t leave this room. Understand?”

Bailey nodded.

Sarah started heading for the kitchen and dragged Thomas along with her.

“You know them?”

“After a fashion.” He was as cryptic as ever.

“How?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Thomas, we’re not doing this again. What do you know?”

He gave a sigh that was heavy with resignation.”I saw Bailey’s arrival when I was observing the future. As far as I can tell, they aren’t the source of any trouble.”

“They said they know Rebecca.”

Thomas shrugged. “I cannot say. It was not something I saw.”

“But they don’t pose any danger?”

“Not that I could see.”

“Okay. Might as well become a halfway house.”

“That is not . . .”

“It was a joke, Thomas. If you think you can be appropriately social, you can join us for some tea.”

He nodded.

“Good. Let’s go see what we can find out about our new guest.”

Looking Back

Time is one of the most dangerous schools of magic to study. It requires discipline and self-control. One wrong move could lead to erasing yourself from existence or some other disaster. For that reason, among others, those who practice time magic are very careful in selecting their apprentices. Aptitude was not sufficient. A student must be able to resist temptation and be judicious in the application of power. Few have the requisite temperament. 

All of this precaution was to prevent the very thing Thomas was about to try. Viewing the past wasn’t dangerous in itself, but it raised the possibility of changing the past. The potential problems that could arise were innumerable, so even looking into the past was generally discouraged. However, his questions remained unanswered and demanded investigation. He could think of no other alternative. He prepared the incantations and sent his consciousness back.

Almost immediately, Thomas knew something was amiss. Despite the numerous items connected to Jason that he had gathered, the timeline was black. There appeared to be no moments where he could locate his friend. Jason had warned him once against trying to view him from other times, and Thomas had respected his wishes until now. With Jason’s death, the promise no longer held, or so he told himself. After searching for longer than should have been necessary, he finally found Jason in his lab a couple of days before his demise. Thomas drew closer to the time to see what he could learn.

As soon as he entered the lab, Jason turned toward his approximate location. “Thomas. I assume it’s you, otherwise this is embarrassing. I thought I asked you not to look in on me.”

Thomas was taken aback. Jason should not be aware of him.

“The nice thing is, whenever I talk to you, if you aren’t here, most people will think it’s just me being my usual nutty self. Maybe I am. But I like to turn off my crystal now and then and pretend you’ve come to visit. If you never see these moments, then there really isn’t any harm.”

So he was talking just in case Thomas were to look in on him? Maybe Jason was crazier than he realized. On the other hand, this time at least, he happened to be right.

“If you are here right now, I’m assuming I died. That feels like the only reason you would do this. If I’m not dead, then you’re an idiot for going to the past for no good reason.”

Jason bent down over the table he was standing next to and picked up a blue crystal that was giving off a dim light. “Now for my normal introductory lecture. This crystal is why you can’t usually find me. I know I explain this every time, but I never know which time you might visit, so I feel I have to do it. Anyway, this crystal prevents me from being observed by any magical means, even yours. I periodically turn it off and talk to you, in case you want to check in. I think the faint light means you’re watching. That’s what it’s supposed to mean, but I’ve never been able to check it.”

Putting down that crystal, he picked up another. This one shown with an intense white light. “If you ever do see one of these moments, could you please tell me so that I can’t quit explaining all of that?” Jason turned this new crystal over in hand a few times. “As I said, if you are here, I expect that I’m dead. And if you’ve come to this particular moment, it’s probably because of this.”

Thomas looked more closely at this crystal and recognized it.

“This is the crystal you asked me to make and give to David. I’m not going to. Just one of my feelings, but if I give it to him, I’m pretty sure something very bad will happen. I’d rather it didn’t. Maybe I die, but the alternative would be worse. Trust me on that.”

An urge to shake Jason rose up in him. The man could be so stubborn and foolish. He had intentionally kept the crystal? If he had just listened to Thomas, things would have worked out. In that moment, Thomas considered trying to change Jason’s mind.

“I can’t believe I have to tell you this, but since you’re still here, you must be thinking about it. Do not try to change the past. I’ve already made up my mind, so you’ll just make things worse. You know this better than anyone, so leave it alone.”

Jason put his hand on the blue crystal once more. “One last thing. Please don’t tell Julia you did this. And do not teach her how to do it. She’ll torture herself with it. Okay? Please. Anyway, go live your life. Quit looking back.”

The blue glow from the crystal intensified briefly before the timeline went black again. Thomas reviewed everything Jason had told him. He had no idea what would have happened if his friend had given the crystal to David like he was supposed to. And he never would; not unless he risked even greater danger.

Unsatisfied, but out of ideas, Thomas returned to his present. Jason had made his decision. The only thing he could do now was respect it. If going to the past wasn’t going to resolve his doubts, he would have to look to the future.

Future Unknown

Thomas watched Sarah leave and had to fight the urge to follow her. This was his house. He should be the one to deal with problems like this. However, Sarah had had a point; Julia wasn’t going to listen to him right now.

Julia. Not for the first time, he wondered if it had been a mistake to let her join the house. Now, his apprehension seemed to be justified. Everything he had done to try to save her life, and she mistrusts and blames him for . . .

For Jason. It was because of Jason that she was even here. He’d insisted, refusing to join unless she did as well. So, Thomas had relented. Now, one of his oldest friends was gone, and that friend’s latest project had control of the house. Things were pretty sideways.

Thomas walked over to a table where a chessboard was set up. Jason always won their games. Thomas suspected he played by instinct rather than strategy, and while that sort of chaos seemed to work for his friend, he knew he couldn’t emulate it. Yet, the skills necessary to predict his opponent’s next moves eluded him, and he failed to master the game. The irony of that was not lost on him. Perhaps his own magic was too much of a crutch. Being able to see the actual future, he could never quite get the hang of relying solely on his own wits.

On the board was a puzzle Jason had left for him to work on. When he had finished setting it up, he had chuckled in that otherworldly laugh he sometimes had. Thomas stared at the puzzle; its solution once again escaping him. Now he would probably never know the answer. He almost reset the pieces, but decided to leave them for now.

Why didn’t Jason get the crystal to David earlier? If he had, David would have taken care of the mana worm. Rebecca would have saved him, and everything would have been fine. Jason’s own absent-mindedness did him in.

Even as he had the thought, the idea rang hollow. Maybe Julia was right. Jason’s fate was on his head. He had tried to cheat death, had been overconfident in his own cleverness, and all he had done was trade one death for another. Now he was in a future he had not foreseen, and he had no idea what might happen next.

Until Sarah made her attempt to get through to Julia, there was nothing for him to do, so he decided to explore this new timeline. Jason had sent them all down an unexpected branch. Thomas needed to begin planning now for whatever might be ahead. After one more long look at the chessboard, he turned to begin preparing the spells.

Moving Forward

Sarah fought to keep herself from screaming in front of Thomas. He had been a friend, which was why she was so angry with him now. He should have confided in her. That he hadn’t, worried her.

“What should we do about Julia?”

At first, his words didn’t make any sense. She blinked a couple of times to bring him back into focus. 

“Julia? I was thinking I should deliver your head to her. Might calm her down.”

“This is no time for jokes. We need . . .” He wasn’t even looking at her.

“Who’s joking?” Through sheer force of will, she kept her voice low and even. “She thinks you betrayed her. And Jason. From where I’m standing, I don’t see how she’s wrong.”

“We can cast blame later. Right now, she has control of our house!” He was unwilling, or unable, to match her calm.

“Do not raise your voice to me.” She drew herself up nearly to his eye level. “You are not my master. We are peers, and you will treat me with respect.” Daring him to contradict her, she glared at him. He met her gaze for a few moments before looking away.

“Fine. But we need to do something about Julia. She’s putting the whole house at risk.”

“Yes. And I will handle it.”

“How?”

“To start with, I won’t treat her like an adversary. She’s upset. With reason.” Thomas started to interject but promptly changed his mind. “She deserves to be heard. And you can’t be involved.”

“But . . .”

The look she gave him was enough to make him stop.

“There is nothing you can do that will help. She blames you. If we’re very lucky, she blames only you.”

“And if she blames everyone?”

“Then we’re in trouble. She’s already let a real demonic bear loose in the house. The hallways are not responding to the sigils. I’m not certain I can even get to her. But I’m going. Alone. It’s the only hope I have of getting through to her.”

“What would you have me . . .”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Stay here, in your rooms. If she sees you leave, she is likely to assume the worst. Just stay put.” Without giving Thomas a chance to argue, Sarah turned and walked out the door.

Once back in the hall, her bravado deflated some. How could she make it to Julia if the house itself wouldn’t let her? Asking Thomas for help was not an option, so she would have to make the attempt.

A possibility occurred to her. If Julia was turning the house against them, she might be using the sigils to track them. Perhaps she had inverted the spells protecting the house. If so, then getting rid of her sigil might give her the freedom to move around.

The chance seemed remote. Julia may simply have removed the exception for the sigils. Sarah didn’t know the details of the spell well enough to know which solution was more likely, or what Julia’s frame of mind would lead her to do. Still it was the only idea she had at the moment.

Sarah opened a small pouch she kept hidden in her clothes and dropped the sigil in it. The pouch was designed to hide its contents from magical detection. In theory, the sigil would no longer function. Then she turned her attention to the wood floor. As she walked down the steps, she tried to focus on the grain in the floorboards to keep herself anchored to this area. If she was careful, and if Julia wasn’t paying attention to her, it might be enough to keep her in the house and out of the long hallway.

Her slow progress was frustrating, but she dared not move any faster. As far as she could tell, it was working. She made it to the second floor and was steadily moving closer to Julia’s room. She rounded the corner and caught sight of Rebecca and the rabbit David possessed. Before she could say anything, the scene shifted, and she was trapped again.

“No!” All of her pent up anger poured out in her scream. “Dammit, Julia! I’m trying to help you!” The only response she got was silence. Unwilling to play along, she sat down right where she was. If she followed the hallway, she would end up with the dire bear again, and she had told Thomas not to leave his rooms. If Julia was keeping tabs on her, she might as well talk to her here.

“Julia, if you can hear me, please listen. Thomas was wrong to keep all his secrets. I can’t bring Jason back, but I still want you to be part of this house. Talk to me so we can find a way forward.”

More silence. Sarah thought about what she had said. Did she mean it? Earlier today, she had been considering leaving the house herself. Why was she now fighting to save it? Why not just wash her hands of this whole mess? 

Maybe she should. Maybe that’s what it would come to. But not yet. Not like this. If she were to leave, it would be by her choice, not because she was driven out.

Another question forced its way into her consciousness. How were Rebecca and David walking around in the house? Why weren’t they trapped in the long hallway with her? Was Julia only targeting her? Or were the sigils working again? She quickly retrieved the sigil from the pouch, and as soon as she had, she was back in the house. Whatever had gone wrong had been corrected. Had Julia even done anything? Was Thomas wrong about her being behind it? She wasn’t going to find any answers just sitting around, so she stood and hurried to Rebecca’s door.

Rebecca answered the knock immediately.

“Sarah? What’s going on? We saw you briefly in the hall, but you vanished.”

“Got stuck in the long hallway, but it seems to be sorted out now. Has anything happened?”

“Uh . . . You better come in.”

Rebecca was visibly shaking. Even though Sarah was eager to find Julia, this seemed important as well. “Okay. Talk to me.”