Near Death Experience

Sarah’s head was pounding when she opened her eyes. The room was too bright, intensifying her headache and forcing her to shut her eyes tight to block out the light.

“Sarah!” The concern was evident in Matthew’s voice. Still, she couldn’t imagine why he was in her room.

“Sarah!” He repeated.

“Please, not so loud. Why are you in my room?” Slowly she began opening her eyes a little once more.

“This is my room. You don’t remember?”

She tried to think back. “The last thing I remember is a very loud noise just before everything went dark.”

“Your room exploded, burying you under a pile of rubble. It’s a miracle you survived. You’ve been unconscious for three days. I had to bring someone in to heal you.”

Matthew’s worry now made sense, but the explanation gave rise to new confusion. “My room exploded? I was working on illusions. How could that have caused an explosion?”

Matthew sighed and sat down on a chair next to the bed. “You didn’t cause the explosion. It happened in the room next to yours, but it caused your lab to collapse.”

“You mean . . .”

Matthew nodded. “Something happened in Thomas’s lab.”

“Is he okay?”

“Are you serious?”

“What?”

“Thomas nearly killed you, and you’re worried about him?”

“I’m sure he didn’t do it intentionally.” She understood how Matthew felt. She even felt a little anger herself but was determined to keep it in check, at least until she knew more. “Is he okay?”

“Yes. He’s fine. He wasn’t even here when it happened.”

“Has he explained the cause of the explosion?”

“Not to my satisfaction.”

“Then we need to talk to him.”

“Listen, Sarah, I know he’s our friend, but I think we should leave. Maybe find another house to join. Even start our own house. But I don’t think we ought to stay here. He promised to give us a heads up when he was engaged in dangerous magic, and he didn’t. It doesn’t matter if this happened on purpose or not; he is keeping things from us and putting us at risk.”

More than she could say, Sarah wanted to leave with Matthew, but she knew she couldn’t. “Matthew, I have to stay.”

“Why?”

“I made a promise to Thomas.” She hated herself a little for lying to Matthew. The Mistress had sent her with Thomas to keep an eye on him. She also had sworn Sarah to secrecy.

“Sarah, that’s absurd. He’s put us in danger. More than once. He’s shown no regard for us. Whatever commitments we’ve made, he cannot really expect us to keep them now.”

“Still. We need to talk to him.” Sarah began to feel tired. “Though maybe not today.”

“Is something wrong?”

“No. I’m just worn out.”

“Do you want me to get the healer?”

“It’s not necessary. Really. I just need more sleep. Who was this healer, anyway?”

“A friend of mine recommended her. Rebecca. Don’t worry, I stayed and watched over you the entire time she was here.”

“I should thank her.” After those words, unconsciousness overtook her once more.

Equal Exchange

The solution took Thomas weeks to work out, and once he did, it seemed obvious. Even so, he wasn’t at all sure that it was possible. Determined to make the attempt, he once again wrapped the note in a shell to isolate it from time and projected himself into the past.

Back in his old lab, he began looking for something he could use. The overall tidiness of the room made his search harder. Finally, he found a crumpled piece of paper in the wastebasket. Unable to interact with it directly, Thomas began casting the stasis spell. This was the most uncertain part of the solution: would he be able to cast a spell in the past? Against his expectations, it worked, and the paper was unmoored from time. Now he could pick it up easily.

The idea was an equal exchange of mass between temporal moments should prevent time from rejecting either. He had succeeded in removing the mass of the crumpled paper, so theoretically there should be a “gap” in mass that his note could now fill. He placed the note on the table in the corner, and, after a deep breath, released the stasis spell. Unlike his first attempt, the note stayed where it was. Now he had to wait for his past self to notice it.

Nearly an hour passed before his patience was rewarded. When the other Thomas saw the note, he picked it up and unfolded it. As he read, his face did not hide his surprise. Now that he had accomplished his goal, Thomas returned to his own present.

He was back in the house he had founded. There were no obvious changes. Thomas did not even remember finding and reading the note. Yet he had watched himself read it. Why did his memories not reflect that? Something had to be different. Perhaps the attack had changed, even though there were no obvious changes in his own room. The only way to be certain was to travel back and watch it again. He had visited that moment so often that he could cast the spell without thinking about it.

The scene looked just as it had every other time he had watched it. Just as the intruder entered the lab, Thomas cast a spell to stop time. He hadn’t tried before, but his success with the stasis spell gave him reason to believe it would work. When he finished casting everything was frozen. Now he could examine the attacker more closely.

As he approached the other mage, a voice startled him.

“You aren’t the only one who can wield time magic, you know.” The other mage was staring straight at him.

“How . . . ?”

“I just told you. I’m not going to repeat myself.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Before I answer that, what are you doing?”

“I am trying to discover the motive behind this attack, as well as the identity of you and your accomplices.”

“Really? That’s all you’re trying to do? Nothing more?”

“What else would I be doing?”

“Trying to change the past, perhaps? Alter the outcome of this encounter?”

“What if I am?”

“I would have thought your master taught you better.”

“You mean the man you kill?”

“None of this happens without you. Try to remember that.”

Even though Thomas had not canceled his spell, time began moving again. The attack began to play out just as it always had. He didn’t wait for it to end. Instead, he returned to his present.

Having nothing to offset the extra mass, he left the piece from the attacker’s shirt in its stasis shell. Once he could figure out how to remove it without it disappearing from this time, the fabric might provide him with some clue about the identity of the attackers.

The Problem with Roommates

Matthew was in his rooms when magic began behaving strangely. There were a number of power cells he had created using electricity magic, and each of them began throwing off sparks at the same time. The electrical discharges became more frequent until each was just a thread of electric current. All of the threads were curving towards one wall, each a tendril reaching for . . . something. Whatever they were pointing to was beyond the wall that separated Matthew’s and Thomas’s rooms.

Worried about the risk from fire, he began deactivating the cells. Before he could finish, however, a crashing sound from the other side of the wall distracted him, and when it had stopped the streams of electric current disappeared. He waited a few moments in case the strange effect started up again. When it seemed that it had truly passed, he hurried to Thomas’s door.

Sarah was already there, knocking.

“Thomas? Is everything alright?”

“So it wasn’t just my imagination.”

“All my illusions began to distort.”

Sarah knocked again, and the door opened. Thomas stood on the other side of the threshold, disappointment obvious in his demeanor.

“My apologies for the noise. A bookcase fell over.”

“That doesn’t explain why our magics began to warp,” Matthew said. “What are you doing in there?”

“I was just working on some research.”

“Thomas,” Sarah interjected. “Whatever you are up to in there is affecting us. We need to know what’s going on.”

“I am not ready to talk about it yet.” Thomas seemed ready to leave the issue there, but Matthew wasn’t.

“I respect everybody wanting to keep their research private, but when it goes beyond your lab, we need to know if it’s dangerous.”

Thomas sighed. “I am trying to discover the identity of those who attacked my master’s house. I thought I had worked a spell that would reveal new information. The results were . . . unexpected.”

“That’s it?” Sarah sounded unconvinced.

“Yes. I have to rethink the spell. I will not cast it again without giving you notice.”

“Can we help?” Matthew offered.

“It relies on time magic. I do not think either of you will be able to assist me.”

“Well, if there is anything we can do . . . We were there, too, and we want answers as well. Just . . . Be careful.”

“I will. And again, I apologize for disturbing you both.”

After the door closed, Matthew gave Sarah a questioning look. She shrugged back. “It’s plausible. I’ve never had much experience with time magic. And while he doesn’t show it, the Mistress did tell me he was distressed about the attack.”

“Should we do anything?”

“I don’t think he’ll let us. Not right now, anyway. We’ll just have to trust him to keep his word about keeping us informed.” With a weak smile, Sarah headed back to her rooms, leaving Matthew alone with his doubts.

Experimenting with Time

The man entered the lab and started casting. Thomas had watched this scene play out many times. His younger self began casting a protection spell that would only partially keep him from harm. He stopped watching before Matthew dispatched the intruder.

It had been almost a year since he had established his house, and most of that time was spent revisiting the moment he had been attacked. No matter how often Thomas observed it, he could find no additional information that might lead him to the identity or motive of the attackers. Because he only had a link to himself, he could not view any other members of the house; this fact had completely thwarted his attempts at getting answers. He needed to know more.

His research had led him to one idea; it was risky and might not work, but he had gotten nowhere merely observing the past. Under the supervision of his master, he had mastered a stasis spell that would protect an object from the flow of time. The spell was intended to preserve items from decay, but he had come to believe it could be used to insert something into a different time. If it worked, he could warn his past self about the attack before it happened.

The note was short and direct, indicating the date and time of the attack. He had written it by hand and ensured that his handwriting would be recognizable. The paper itself was folded into a small square so that the stasis spell wouldn’t need to be large and also to minimize the impact on the past. The spell was relatively simple, merely a modification of the spell he had originally mastered. The original spell rooted its target to a particular moment in time, isolating it from the normal effects of time’s passage. His modification unmoored the target from time entirely. His master would have vehemently opposed this use of the spell were he still alive to raise an objection.

Once the note was protected, he secured it inside his sleeve and began projecting his consciousness back in time. This trip took him further into the past, arriving in his old lab a month or so prior to the attack. If his memory was accurate, his past self would be working on the modifications he was currently employing in this experiment.

Looking around the lab for a suitable place to leave the note, Thomas noticed an empty table in the corner. He placed the note in the center of the table where, given his own fastidiousness, it should stand out to his younger self. Intending to wait until the note had been discovered, Thomas released the stasis spell. The instant the spell ended, however, the note vanished.

The anti-climatic ending to this experiment caused disappointment mixed with relief. His plan had failed, but it hadn’t caused a catastrophe. The other Thomas hadn’t even looked up from his work. Determined to figure out what had gone wrong, he returned to the present.

Back in his rooms, he discovered that someone or something had caused a chaotic mess. One bookshelf had fallen over, spilling its contents onto the floor. A small hole in the wall where it had stood suggested something from the outside was the cause. His writing desk looked like it had been smashed by a sledgehammer. Finally, in the center of a small clear patch on the floor, he saw a small square of paper. The note had returned to its proper time.

Rejection

“Jason. Thank you for coming.” Thomas sat in the parlor. It was his favorite room in the Mistress’s house. Bright and peaceful, he had spent many hours reading there.

Jason stood in the doorway. “I couldn’t say no to you.”

“But you also couldn’t be on time.” Over the years they had known each other, Thomas had learned to expect Jason’s lack of responsibility, but he still pointed it out.

“There’s a reason this time. I knew we would need to have a private chat.” Jason finally entered the room and sat in a chair.

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I just knew it would be better to be late.”

Thomas knew from experience that he wouldn’t get any clarity from Jason, so he dropped the subject.

“I asked you here because I have a proposition for you. I inherited some money, and I plan to use it to start my own house. At the meeting I asked you to attend, I invited Sarah and Matthew to be founding members. They both accepted, and I’m hoping you will join us.”

“No.”

The speed of Jason’s response surprised Thomas. “At least take a moment to consider it.”

Jason smiled in that mysterious way that always vexed Thomas. “See? I was right. We do need to talk. Good thing I was late.”

Exasperated, Thomas asked, “What do you mean?”

“I think Sarah and Matthew will be great choices, but I can’t accept your invitation.”

“Why not?”

“I have things I need to do, and belonging to a house will get in the way.”

“What do you have to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? The house wouldn’t stop you from carrying out your research or whatever else you need to do. You know this.”

“It can’t be helped. I can’t be part of a house right now.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“I’ve tried to explain this to you before. I just know when something is a bad idea.”

“So you are saying my house is a bad idea?”

“No. I’m saying it’s a bad idea for me. I need to be free from such associations right now.”

“You are actually turning me down?” Thomas was not certain which surprised him more: Jason turning him down or the disappointment he felt.

“It’s not you. I would have turned down any offers. Just not my path right now.”

“Well, I must say this is unexpected. And unfortunate. I suppose we will have to move forward without you.”

“You’ll be fine.” Jason continued to smile, much to Thomas’s annoyance.

Inheritance

“Mistress? You wanted to see me?”

The elderly-looking woman glanced up from the table. “Ah, Thomas. Just a moment.” She wrote a few more words before putting her pen down. Thomas knew it was a mistake to take the Mistress’s appearance as genuine. She used illusions all the time, and he couldn’t be certain he had ever seen her true face.

“Thank you for waiting, Thomas. I dislike leaving a thought incomplete. Now, how are you doing?”

“My recovery seems to be complete. I would like to thank you, again, for opening your house to me over the past few months. You have been most generous.”

“Thomas, you are too serious for your years. Your master and I were old friends; I couldn’t not take you in.”

“Still . . .”

“Yes, yes.” She waved her hand absently. “I have two things I need to speak to you about.” From a small stack of papers, she pulled out a folder and handed it to him. “Inside is the final report from my investigating team. At least three different mages were involved in the attack on your master’s house. Unfortunately, the team was unable to identify any of them. Neither were they able to determine a motive for the attack.”

Thomas thumbed through the pages, not really absorbing any of the information. He hadn’t expected much, but this was less than that. An attack like this was unheard of. And they had managed to carry it out without leaving any identifying traces.

“I am sorry, Thomas. I hope you know that I will keep looking into this. I don’t like the idea of my friend going unavenged.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your efforts.”

“The second thing I have for you is likely to be bittersweet for you.” She handed him a large envelope.

“What is this?”

“Just open it.”

Inside was a letter addressed to him, written in obtuse legalese. He skimmed the two pages and found a check behind them.

“Your master was clearly fond of you. That represents the bulk of his mundane wealth. Money may not be important to us, but you may still find it helpful as you begin heading towards your future. It’s yours to do with as you will.”

Thomas had already begun to think about what he might do next. This unexpected windfall would allow him to move forward more quickly.

“Take your time, Thomas. You can stay here while you sort things out.”

“Thank you. Again. I do have an idea.”

First Meetings

*This story takes place before Thomas established his own house.*

Before there was anything else, there was pain. The air around him was warm and acrid. At first, Thomas was only aware of the pain in his head, but when he tried to move, he discovered that it was everywhere.

“You’re still alive?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. Thomas opened his eyes but blood flowing from his forehead obscured his vision. Wiping it away with his sleeve, he could make out the man standing over him, but he was a stranger. He was in his lab, but it was almost unrecognizable because of the destruction that had taken place. Trying to cast a spell to stop time nearly caused him to pass out.

“Who are you?” he asked, weakly.

“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be alive long enough for it to matter.”

How did anyone get into his master’s house? And this much destruction should have triggered the failsafes. None of this should be possible. Now this intruder was going to kill him? Everything was too chaotic, Thomas couldn’t make any of it make sense.

Six men appeared, all of them facing the intruder and ignoring Thomas. He hadn’t seen them come in, and they weren’t from the house, either. There was something else off about them… They were identical, Thomas realized after a few moments.

“I don’t know who you are.” The first intruder didn’t seem to be talking to anyone Thomas could see. “But if you are going to use an illusion to try to scare me, don’t make it so obviously an illusion. All six of these guys look alike.”

A female voice came from somewhere nearby. “Illusions work best when they let you hide something in plain sight.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“In this case, there are only five illusions.”

“What . . .?”

Electricity arced from the hands of one of the men and struck the intruder. He flew back, hit the wall, and slumped to the floor. The other five men faded from existence.

The remaining man bent down next to Thomas. “Are you okay?”

“I seem to be alive. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

“Can you move?”

“I . . . I think so.” With the other man’s help, Thomas managed to get on his feet.

“Matthew? What are you doing? We shouldn’t be moving him.” The person behind the other voice was now visible. Appearing next to them was a young woman whose hair was constantly shifting colors.

“Sarah, we need to get him out of here. We don’t know what other dangers might be nearby.”

Sarah glanced around the room. “Fine. Help him. I’ll go first in case there is anyone else around.” She vanished as Matthew supported Thomas to help him walk.

Slowly, they made their way out of the lab. The destruction was everywhere; not a single room had been spared. The power required to cause all of this had to have been immense.

“Where is everyone else?”

Matthew ignored his question.

After several long minutes, they stood outside the ruined house, and Sarah reappeared.

“There is no way only one person did this,” she said.

“That sounds like an excellent reason not to be here any longer,” Matthew replied.

“Shouldn’t we figure out what happened?”

“I expect your Mistress would want you to get Thomas to safety and have his injuries looked after.”

“You know, Matthew, you’re a bit of a suck up.”

“And you’re mad that I’m right.”

Sarah looked at Thomas. “Can you hang on? We’ve got a car nearby, and we can get you to some help.”

Thomas managed to nod before slipping back into unconsciousness.

Resolution

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

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

“It’s his house, Julia.”

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

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

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

“Julia. What would you have me do?”

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

“Julia is right.”

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

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

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

“So you’re kicking me out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure about this, Thomas?”

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

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

Confrontation

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

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

“Julia, I was . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.