I could easily take a bus to Hunter’s, but I want fresh air and time to organize my thoughts. I call the bookstore as I pass through the lobby. My manager, Mike, answers.
“Hey Mike, I’m really sick today. I’m so sorry – I can’t make it in.”
“Seriously? There’s only like an hour before… whatever. Just feel better and try to call me sooner next time.”
I cringe, feeling guilty for lying. Again. “Thanks, Mike. I’m really sorry.”
I hang up, pausing outside the lobby doors. It’s surprisingly warm given that it’s already the beginning of September. The sun beats down comfortably on my pale skin. I close my eyes for a moment and just enjoy the feeling of it, like a warm embrace. I inhale, deeply, and start walking. I’m less paranoid than I was a couple of weeks ago, but my eyes still flit over shadows and linger on anyone with long blonde hair. My suspicion is instinctual now, and so leaves my focus unbroken as I review everything I know about the man named Hunter Elliott.
At first, I’m furious with him – even more so than Yagher. Both men have kept secrets from me, but Hunter also touched me. Kissed me. I remember the terror as his lips touched mine, the dread of not being able to move. I realize now that my paralysis must have been a product of his powers. That he stripped away my free will so he could do what he wanted. I shudder.
Not to mention that all of this happened because he tried kill Yagher in the first place.
If I trust Grant and admit that I don’t completely understand Hunter’s motive for attacking Yagher, I can move past this detail… for now. What happened in the past has already happened, and dwelling on an event from over three years ago isn’t going to help me.
As for Brie’s party… if he had tried to tell me the truth, I almost definitely would have thought he was crazy and dismissed him. He could have proven it to me, but then I would be involved – something Grant said he had been determined to avoid. By trying to revive my memories, he was quietly returning what was stolen from me and, in a sense, he was giving me a choice. I could either dismiss the memories as crazy, or, I could choose to believe them and seek out the truth.
The angry part of me hated to admit it, but his words and his demeanour on the night of the party made it clear that he found the physical contact uncomfortable. He showed no sign of taking any sort of advantage or pleasure in it. And certainly, if he had asked me, I would have said no. It doesn’t justify his actions, but at least I can understand where he might have been coming from.
What does still bother me is why he has he been so adamant to avoid me since the night of our escape?
I’m beginning to tire now, my legs aching and my head swimming with possibilities. Anger and frustration fade into nervousness. Fear. What if Grant is wrong about him? What if this is a trap? What if he’s just like Mirena?
I turn onto Everest, the street written on the paper from Grant, and shift my attention the numbers on the houses. I reach number 32 about three blocks later and find the letter B attached to a door on the side of the red-brick house. It clearly leads down into a basement apartment and has a peephole installed just above the gold letter.
I hesitate, my resolve melting into a puddle of uncertainty. Amidst all of these doubts is a part of me that actually wants to see him again, this mysterious man who helped derail my life and who is supposedly trying to help put it back together again. This man who saved my life and whose life I helped save. This man who could read my mind with a single touch.
I knock at the door and wait, the sound of my heart shamefully loud in my ears. I count the beats to pass the time it takes for him to open the door. One… two… three… Grant told him I was coming, didn’t he? … four… five… six… seven… maybe I should leave…. eight… nine…
I hear the lock click and the door open. I barely see him as he quickly turns and says in that deep voice, “Come in.”
I follow him down the steps from the landing into the basement proper. Aside from a small bathroom tucked away beside a stacked washer and dryer, there is only one small room. It contains everything from an apartment-sized fridge and stove to a two-person table and a single bed that doubles as a couch. Somehow, it doesn’t feel crowded but practical and Spartan. There is nothing unnecessary, nothing out of place. The only kind of decor consists of a small shelf by the bed which seems to hold a variety of candles, statuettes and an assortment of other religious-looking objects.
Hunter still doesn’t look at me, but heads straight into what could be considered his kitchen. He opens a cupboard above the stove and pulls out a small metal kettle. I notice suddenly that his hair has been cut short and he’s sporting two, more recent, scars on the right side of his forehead.
“Would you like something to drink? I don’t have much, but there’s some tea, milk, water,” he opens another cupboard above the small sink this time and I recognize a box of Sencha on the upper shelf.
“Green tea?” I ask, apparently as eager as he is to avoid talking about anything important. I try to imagine this soft-spoken man trying to kill Yagher with nothing but his hands. I look around at my surroundings again and wonder once more what kind of person he is.
I sit at the little wooden table beside the bed and wait as he makes the tea. I readjust my position several times, unsure what to do with my body as my eyes scan the small room for possible escape options. His silence drags on as he prepares the cups and sets the kettle on the burner. I am scrounging for the words I had spent the past hour preparing, when he approaches me, head down and hands in his pockets. I can see the tension in his face, the reluctance behind whatever it is he’s about to say. When he finally looks at me, staring down into my face, his expression is one of immense solemnity.
“Selene Kondo, I need to say this now. I am so sorry. Sorry for everything I’ve done to you.”
I hesitate, but the anger I felt has already been used up, and there is something in the sincerity of his tone that begs my patience, “It’s alright, listen…”
“No,” he interrupts and surprises me by dropping to his knees, letting his head sink downwards, his hair still long enough to fall around his face and obscure his features. There’s a slight tremble in his voice when he continues, “It’s not alright, Selene.”
When he says my name, my stomach tightens and my breath quickens. It frustrates me that the feeling isn’t altogether unpleasant.
“That night, your voice, your songs… I remember thinking that you were going to make it so far. I heard people talking, about how you’d quit school. I was thinking how difficult that would be, to believe in something so hard when everyone you love thinks you’re making the wrong choice. I even hoped you’d make it just to show them.”
“Why are you talking about this?” He’s not even touching me and he’s already ripping through my past.
“I want you to know the truth. I should have told you from the beginning, I should have known better. Secrets only ever cause harm. All they do is take away our free will,” he turns his head back up to me and his storm grey eyes catch my dark ones before I can look away, “When I saw Yagher come in with his father, Marle, I should have left. But he didn’t see me so I stayed. I snuck out and waited beside the doors.”
I don’t want to hear this. I don’t want his confession.
“I was lucky that he came out alone. All I had to do was grab his arm as he walked out of the bar. He wasn’t expecting it, wasn’t prepared. I hated him and I focused that hatred into my body, through my skin and into his. I burnt him alive, ripped into his flesh…”
I want to close my eyes, to look away, but there is no thirst for blood in his expression, no anger; only desperation and fear. He is afraid of what he’s done, and that there is nothing he can do to change it.
“I’d spent so much of my power, of myself, that I had to hide when I heard his father looking for him. I hopped over a short wall and sat there, cowering as I listened to him lament his son. It didn’t feel good, it wasn’t satisfying, it was just done. I was about to leave when I heard him call to you. I recognized your voice when you answered him. And you, you hardly hesitated when he asked you to help, even though it cost a piece of yourself.”
“What was I supposed to do? He was going to die!” I feel the tears trickling down my burning cheeks. I ache deeply when I think of Yagher – an incessant yearning for closure I hadn’t realized was there all this time.
“Walk away. People do it every day. It wasn’t your problem. You could have walked away and told yourself it wasn’t your fault. The man needed medical attention, not anything you could give. But you didn’t.”
I bite my lip and shake my head. I’d done enough looking away, I couldn’t do it again.
“I was raised in a word where humans are selfish as a rule. If you don’t take power, someone else will, and who can you trust with that power but yourself? But you weren’t selfish. You put your trust in someone else and gave them something you could never replace. It wasn’t just some talent, a pastime – it was the person you had decided to become, even if the world was against you.’
‘Every excuse I had ever made to do my family’s bidding, every justification I had ever made for using my powers to get ahead, were destroyed in that instant. You were living proof that it wasn’t true. That there is always another choice.’
‘I ran away. Travelled. Tried to figure out what I wanted to do next. When I found out they’d taken your memory I was furious. I wanted to undo as much of the damage I’d done as I could, but I’d never seen magic like Marle used that night – some kind of secret Merlin House has been keeping to themselves. It took a long time and a lot of research, but I understand it now. The frustration and longing, the regret, those feelings maintain the spell. You were different because they took your memory too. Usually the spell requires conscious avoidance of the chosen sacrifice, but your avoidance occurred subconsciously. A part of you had decided to never sing again, and that part continued to prevent you from singing even though your conscious was unaware of the decision. The pain and frustration were still there, and that’s all that mattered,” his voice trails off, and he finally breaks his gaze from mine. He stands and walks away, never once removing his hands from his pockets.
I become aware of a high pitched squeal, and I realize the kettle has been screaming. I’m not sure for how long.
“Hunter…” I start, but he isn’t finished.
“I’m really sorry for my behaviour at the party,” he says, and my face grows hot. He brings me my tea and very seriously says, “I couldn’t think of any other way. I had never performed a spell like the one I put on you that night, I didn’t realize how long it would take. It’s part of the reason I’ve been avoiding you. It’s not the sort of thing you do expecting to see someone again.”
I’m not sure if I should feel better or worse when I realize he’s blushing too.
“It’s not okay,” I say and he nods. I wipe at the tears still lingering around my eyes and decide I’m not emotionally ready for that conversation. Besides, I still have too many questions, “Hunter, why did you want to kill Yagher?”
He gestures at the seat across from me, “Is it okay?”
“Mm,” I answer.
He sits across from me, and I’m strangely aware of the closeness of his legs to my own. I shift my chair back, crossing my legs away from him. He doesn’t seem to notice as he runs his thumb along the rim of his chipped mug. Steam rises from it in fragrant swirls. Peppermint.
“I blamed him for Freyja House making me a skin mage. He’s a prodigy, an exceptionally talented crystal mage with extensive knowledge of rune magic. It’s unusual for mages to have the focus and strength to learn more than one type of magic. And he’s even more strict than Marle in terms of their House code. Many of the Houses see him as a threat and are gathering forces to resist him. I was the most talented of my generation and showed the potential to learn skin magic, so they sent me to apprentice along with Mirena.”
“You trained with Mirena?” Yagher had said that skin mages were rare, I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised.
“Mm,” he replies, “She even finished my training when our master grew old. Training to be a skin mage, it’s unpleasant. No… it’s hell. To see people’s worst secrets, to experience them. To cause pain and then relive that same pain over and over. We don’t just see people’s memories, we live them. The more we sift through a person’s mind, the clearer and more real their thoughts become to us. The easier they flow.”
“That’s why she…” I don’t mean to speak out loud, but it’s a question that has been plaguing me since the kidnapping. Why she had spent so much time sifting through seemingly irrelevant memories. I figured she just enjoyed learning my secrets, and watching me flinch as she tore open wounds I had tried to forget. I’m afraid for the answer he will give to my next question, but I have to ask, “Did you ever… interrogate anyone? Do you do what she does?”
I glean his answer from the way his head drops to stare at the table even before he begins to speak, “I used to. It was part of training, and then they’d order me to do it for them even after,” he pauses, then looks up, “But never like Mirena, no. I never enjoyed it. I’ve never wanted this power.”
Something occurs to me then, a flaw in his story. “You hate your magic?”
He nods and I believe him.
“Grant said you wanted to sacrifice your magic to save Yagher, if I ever broke the contract I made with him. But would it really work if you’ve never wanted it anyway?”
His brow furrows and then he stares intently at his tea, mulling over what I’ve just said. For just a second, he looks utterly lost and confused, but he quickly covers it up with a nervous smile. “Would you think me stupid if I admitted that I actually hadn’t considered that?”
“Only a little,” I answer with a nervous smile of my own.
In a gesture of exasperation, he rubs his large hands over his face, pausing to stroke the scar over his lip. “I swear my plans are usually much more thorough than this.”
“Like the one where you help me escape from the crazy interrogator who locked me up in a warehouse?” I ask, cocking an eyebrow. He purses his lips tightly and smiles at my mocking tone.
“We escaped didn’t we?”
“Thanks to my perfect landing,” I rub my back, “which still hurts by the way.”
“I’m sorry,” he says and throws up his hands in mock surrender, “I guess my plans tend to go awry when they involve you.”
I choke on my tea, and I’m certain my face is turning red. I realize too late that he meant it as a joke.
“You never do act the way I expect you to,” he says, clearly trying to recover from my misunderstanding, “When I try to protect you from danger, you run head-first into it. When I return your memories and your voice, you refuse to sing.”
“Lucky for you,” I point out.
He laughs and shakes his head, “I would have found something else, though Yagher would have probably been less likely to listen to me if I still had my magic.”
“Listen to what? Your apology for that night?” I take another sip of tea, realizing that I feel oddly comfortable; I had expected Hunter to be intimidating and stoic, but so far he’s seemed nothing but sincere and open. Mirena probably knows how to be charming too, I remind myself, but the comparison feels superficial.
“There’s not much to say about what happened then. Yagher isn’t one to accept apologies or excuses. I think we’re both more interested in the future. Do you know anything about the Limitation Stone?”
“Is that the stone that limited magic to the members of the ten houses?” Thank you Mr. Harris.
“I want to destroy it,” he says simply. He watches me closely, waiting for my reaction. He isn’t disappointed as my jaw literally drops.
“Why? How? And why do you think Yagher would help you?”
“Because everyone is entitled to magic. The reason behind making the stone isn’t wrong exactly, but it is flawed. There are people who will use magic for harm, yes, but there already are people doing that now. What if we kept most of the world from learning science, simply because a few people decide they want the atom bomb? Medicine, electricity, space exploration, all of the technology that helps us stay alive and in touch with each other wouldn’t be anywhere near the point it is now.’
‘Think of the advancements we could make if we combined science and magic together, the advances we already would have made. The lives we could save or improve. There are dangers, but they aren’t nearly as extreme as other mages would have you think. It takes years of training to be able to do anything practical with magic, and even then it requires stamina and great amounts of energy. Sure it can be used as a weapon, just like practically any other force or invention on the planet,” his deep voice is full of passion, though it is gentle and warm compared to Yagher’s cold fierceness. He reminds me a lot of Mr. Harris. In fact, I’m pretty sure the two would get along famously. I file the thought away for later, unwilling to risk the old man’s secrecy without his permission.
“But how would you find it and destroy it? Surely not even Yagher is that powerful, is he?” I’m surprised when his face changes and he hesitates.
“You… you don’t know who Harvey Yagher is, do you?” When I don’t answer, he quietly says, “Yagher is the heir to Merlin House. All of the secrets of their lineage, everything about the stone, rest with him and his father.”
Yet another detail Yagher has neglected to share with me. “So you’re going to try to get close to Yagher and steal the information from him?”
The accusation clearly offends him, but his tone is calm and level when he answers me, “No. That’s the sort of thing my family does. I want to talk to him, that’s it. I want a chance to convince him that it’s the right thing to do. I’ve been rallying a lot of people these past two years. People who will stand behind me. Together, we might have a chance to convince him to help us. If he’ll listen.”
“And if he doesn’t execute you all as a risk to magic’s all-important secrecy,” I immediately feel cruel for saying it, guilty for shutting him out over the past few weeks.
“It’s a possibility we’ve all considered and a risk we’re willing to take. If we can at least show the families that there might be a way other than conflict and bloodshed, it will be worth it,” he says, and I understand now why Grant decided to follow him, even with Yagher breathing down his neck.
“Hunter,” I start, trying to make myself realize the gravity of what I’m about to say, “I want to help, if I can.”
He looks up at me, astounded, “You don’t have to. I’ve already put you at risk. Hell, it’s a risk for you to be anywhere near me.”
I shrug, trying to look cooler than I feel, “I’ve spent the past few years in limbo, working when I have to and passing the time away doing nothing important. Just waiting for my singing to return, or for some other tragedy to strike I guess.”
He opens his mouth as if to say something, to blame himself probably, but he stops, listening intently as I continue to speak. “It’s okay. I never moved on because I couldn’t understand why it happened. Now that I know, I think I can live with it. I chose it, it has meaning to me now. I need to move forward, and maybe helping you is a good place to start. I’m a part of this world now, regardless of whether either of us like it, and if there’s anything I can do to help make it better that’s what I want to do. I may not be that useful, but at least I might have some sway with Yagher. Or I can, you know, point out when you’ve come up with a stupid plan.”
He laughs and throws his head back, looking up at the ceiling. He takes a deep breath before looking back at me. For some reason his scar catches my attention, and I find myself recalling the way it felt under my lips. Confusion flutters clumsily about my stomach – though I’ve decided to trust him for now, he’s still a skin mage and betrayal would be as easy as a single touch.
“I never expected you to be my ally, but I won’t stop you. I believe in a world of choices, I’m not going to get in the way of yours.”
I nod and I start to reach out to offer a handshake, but he stands and takes his mug to the kitchen. When he sets it down, he turns toward me, leaning against the counter. His hands are in his pockets again.
“I should head home,” I say quickly, his lingering avoidance slightly painful, “I’ve been putting Yagher off while my bruises heal. I should probably try to clear things up soon. I’ve got a lot to think about.”
He nods, “Me too. Selene, thank you.”‘
He gives me his cell phone number and I text him mine, in case we need to contact each other. I follow him up the stairs, and as he opens the door for me to leave, I ask him one last question. “Your cat, he’s a Cat Sidhe isn’t he? Where is he?”
“He’s definitely not my cat, or anyone’s cat for that matter,” he laughs, “His name is Caelen and I’ve hardly seen him since we sprang you from Mirena. If you happen to run into him, tell him to stop by. Tell him I’ll buy sushi from the good place this time.”
“I will,” I answer as I walk away.
I’m only three or four blocks down the street, searching for a bus stop, when a big black cat crosses my path. I notice the white patch on its chest and shout, “Speak of the devil!”
“Shut up!” he hisses back, “Just pretend you’re not paying attention to me, but follow as closely as you can.” He skitters away down the sidewalk then disappears behind an old Victorian house. He appears on a fence a short way down the street.