My voice is hardly a whisper. I watch Mr. Harris’ brows gently furrow and then relax as he recognizes me. Hunter lifts his mask.
“Trick or treat,” he says and Mr. Harris smiles, shaking his head. I feel relieved to see him well but am also overwhelmed with regret as I recall how we last parted.
“You know each other now?” I’m not sure what else to ask or how else to make sense of the situation. I am terrified that he’s about to pull away like he did the day I derailed his life.
“Caelen found him,” Hunter explains, “Apparently this is where he’s been disappearing to all this time.”
“But, aren’t you being watched?” I ask and look around worriedly, as if any surveillance would be in plain sight.
“I don’t have many contacts in Merlin House, but we’ve worked together to ensure our visits are private.”
“Still not the best idea to have our meetings on the front porch,” Mr. Harris opens the door wide to let us in, “Best come inside with the rest of us.”
Rest of us? I wonder. I can hear the murmur of hushed voices as I step into the entryway. To my right is a living room, furnished simply with a taupe couch and coffee table. A small television is tucked away in the corner. Hunter continues through a doorway that opens onto an eat-in kitchen. I move to follow him but Mr. Harris lays a hand on my shoulder, urging me to remain behind. I turn and look at him in his faded brown pants and grey cardigan. His hair is dishevelled and the wrinkles across his brow have deepened since we last parted.
“Selene, how are you doing lass?” he asks.
“I’m alright,” I begin, but I decide that he deserves a more honest answer, “I’m alright now, anyway. It was… rough… for a while. When they took you I told Harvey Yagher everything. He tried to erase my memories and I was in hiding for a while. I feel horrible for what happened. I’m so sorry. I should have told you everything from the beginning.”
My voice cracks and I become aware of the growing warmth of unshed tears. Mr. Harris draws me into a hug. “No, no, no,” he soothes, “I’m sorry I got so angry at you. You were the one who was betrayed, and it wasn’t fair of me to add to it.”
“But you lost everything,” I lean away to meet his eyes, prepared to take responsibility for my decisions. He smiles sullenly and shakes his head a little.
“It wasn’t your fault. And it was just a dream anyway, one that I was clinging to for far too long. We all have to wake up eventually,” he puts his arm tenderly around my shoulder and leads me to the kitchen, “Besides, look at all the people waiting for me in the land of the living.”
He gestures to an oval table to the right of the doorway. Hunter sits at one end and grimaces as if he has a stomach ache – probably because Mirena is sitting at the opposite end looking as calm and intimidating as ever. In between them, seated directly on the table, is Caelen.
“Well hello Dorothy,” he says in that sarcastic drawl I was almost starting to miss, “how’s Kansas treating you?”
“Couldn’t tell you – I haven’t been back in months.” I take a seat beside Hunter before asking, “So what are we all doing here anyway?”
“Plotting,” Mirena smiles mischievously and I can actually feel Hunter tense beside me.
“Discussing,” he chides before elaborating, “Everything is coming to a head. Marle has been ruthless these past few years and the families are on edge. With Yagher’s position in the police force he is able to monitor and approach them on multiple fronts – via the justice system and through his own position as the head of the most powerful magical family. Now he has started hinting that he’s found a way to ensure no one steps out of line again, that everyone behaves in a way that respects the human world and stays the hell out of it.”
“Yeah well we’ve seen what that means. He’ll restrict magic to the kinds he can control and understand. Punish those who use their magic to forward themselves, unless of course, he thinks it’s for the greater good. And God-forbid if anyone suggests some kind of change. They’ll be put under house-arrest and watched every damn day of their lives,” Mr. Harris’ voice is bitter, and it’s obvious he isn’t speaking hypothetically.
“And everyone else knows it too, which makes them desperate,” Hunter continues, “Desperate like Johannes.”
“What do you mean desperate?” Mirena asks defensively, sitting bolt upright in her chair.
“I mean that the families are preparing for conflict or trying to find the Limitation Stone. Either way they’re starting to resort to whatever means necessary.”
“You think Johannes was after the stone?” Mirena’s face is thoughtful, as if she’s encountered an idea she had never considered before. Hunter simply shrugs.
“Wait a minute,” I interrupt, trying to wrap my head around the conversation, “what do you mean find the stone? It’s missing?”
“Not missing,” Mr. Harris explains as he mills around the kitchen fixing tea and plates of fruit and cheese, “It’s hidden. The magic used to create the stone has been lost over time. In theory, if one understood it and possessed enough power, it’s possible that they could change the rules. Return power. Take power away. Merlin House was entrusted with the stone because they had the resources to protect it. They keep it hidden so it won’t be stolen or tampered with. But with Marle being so damn self-righteous and with Yagher being what he is…”
“What he is?” I ask, but I can already feel the pieces clicking into place creating a clear picture. When Hunter said Yagher was able to control two types of magic, I thought he meant Yagher was powerful, but now I understand how other mages might see him as a much bigger threat, “It’s his magic, isn’t it? The stone uses crystal magic and rune magic and he can use both. That’s why everyone started building up their resources and training skin mages when they found out.”
Hunter nods, “Yes, his talents have made the families uneasy. Honestly though, I don’t think there’s much possibility of his affecting the stone. An immense amount of power was used to create it, not to mention ten mages…”
“You forget that he doesn’t need to create a new stone, just alter the original,” Mirena speaks to Hunter like an impatient adult to a child. I hear his long, slow breath and I appreciate the effort it must take to sit in the same room as her, to include her in this conversation. Despite sharing Hunter’s memories, I have to agree with her this time:
“He did tell me he was working on something tonight. Something big that could change the way Merlin House enacts justice.”
“Well that sounds ominous,” Caelen chimes in. As if to emphasize his point, the room grows silent.
“So we find the stone,” Mirena breaks the silence and draws everyone’s attention. Hunter looks sceptical. She continues, “We find the stone and use it as a bargaining chip. Or we keep it and study it ourselves. You can break the thing yourself instead of waiting around for their permission.” The last line is delivered as an insult and I can tell Hunter is losing his patience from the deepening creases in his forehead.
“No,” he snaps, “Absolutely not. I’ve told you before, this isn’t my choice. It’s a decision we mages have to embrace together, all of us. I’m not hiding in a dark hole somewhere plotting everyone else’s destinies. That’s the kind of thing that got us into this mess.”
Mirena opens her mouth to speak but Hunter isn’t finished, “Besides, trying to steal the stone could mean a full assault on Merlin House’s estate. If it’s even there! We don’t have a clue where to look.”
“It won’t be at the estate,” Mr. Harris says, sitting down to join us, “It’s too obvious. Marle is clever, he’d find a better hiding spot than that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hunter sounds frustrated and it’s the first time I’ve heard him lose control of a conversation, “We’re not going to be able to find it and I’m not using it as currency to buy the world that I want. It has to be something that is built by the people living in it.”
“That’s well and noble,” Mr. Harris says, not unkindly, “but sometimes you have to find a way to make people listen to you. Finding the stone would be a good way to grab their attention.”
“Even if that is the case, you already said we don’t have a clue where to look.”
Mr. Harris looks at Hunter and grins, leaning back into his chair and crossing his arms. “I never said that, I only said that it was pointless looking at the estate. With the right tools… you can find anything.”
Hunter looks confused, but I’ve already caught onto his insinuation, “You think you could build something that could locate the stone?”
He gives an exaggerated shrug, and I can tell he’s enjoying being a useful member of this group. His mock-arrogance makes me smile. I raise an eyebrow to tell him to stop showing off and get to the point.
“Well there are already ways to detect magic, but they’re rather crude and unrefined. They can tell you when magic is being used or is held within an object, but that’s about it. It would be relatively useless for finding a single stone when we have no hint as to where it could be,” he leans forward onto the table as if he’s about to tell a secret, his excitement barely contained, “But, if we combine that with technology, a sophisticated program that can differentiate between types of magic and how they’re being used… well we just might stand a chance.”
“You can do that?” Mirena asks, clearly astonished. Everyone is staring at him as if he just said he could part the sea or move mountains. I’m less surprised having known his magical specialty for some time now and, I think, because I still harbour some unrealistic expectations about magic.
“I told you he’s a bloody genius,” Caelen laughs and stares admiringly at his uncle. I wonder why Caelen finally sought him out. If maybe he was afraid when he watched Yagher take him away, or maybe he realized he might not have many chances left to connect with the old man. Regardless, it’s obvious that he cares a hell of a lot more than he previously let on.
“You’re damned right I’m a genius. So, what do you say Hunter? Do I get started, or do we sit around waiting until Merlin House accidentally stumbles upon our little meetings, eh?”
Hunter looks away, chewing the scar on his lip. I try to ignore how extremely attractive this is and focus on his dilemma. If he finds the stone and uses it to force Merlin House to listen to him, is he resigning himself to playing the same dishonest games the families have been resorting to for centuries? Is there a way to use the stone so that it doesn’t undermine the integrity he strives so hard for? A way that won’t look like aggression to Yagher and Marle?
“Alright. Do it,” he answers finally, “Once we know where it is we can go from there. I’m not using it as a bargaining chip no matter what any of you say, but we might be able to learn something about the stone. The more knowledge we have, the better. And if you’re right about Marle’s plans… well… we can stop him from hurting anyone if we need to.”
Mirena snorts, clearly unimpressed with his passivism. He shoots her a warning glance but says nothing.
“It’s a start,” Mr. Harris concedes, “No point getting ahead of ourselves anyway. I don’t know how long the software will take to develop, especially with those idiots keeping such close watch on me.”
“I’ll look into loosening up your surveillance further,” Hunter offers, but Mr. Harris eyes him warily.
“Don’t go sticking your neck out too far, boy. I’ll manage fine one way or another.”
“I have to go,” Mirena interrupts, “Victor will be panicked when he realizes I’ve gone out. He treats me like a child since I… since we escaped.” She looks at me and nods slightly. Her lips tighten to the side like she’s considering something she wants to tell me.
“I’ll go with you,” Caelen offers and Mirena turns toward the doorway, the thought lost or at least reserved for another time. She swipes her hand in a casual wave and heads out the door with Caelen trotting close behind.
Hunter and I decide to head out too; apparently there isn’t much time before Mr. Harris’ surveillance is due to resume.
“Come see me again soon, if you can,” Mr. Harris says as he hugs me. He then turns and shakes Hunter’s hand.
“Thank you, for all your help,” Hunter says to him. Mr. Harris grunts and shrugs a little; apparently his former humbleness has returned now that his audience has dispersed.
We walk down the steps of the porch, Hunter pulling his mask down to conceal his face. I turn, for a moment, and wave. Mr. Harris’ eyes behind the glass of the door are distant, his mouth drawn in a thin line. Were his cheeks always so gaunt? When he notices me he grins and waves back. As I walk away, I try not to dwell on how much he has changed or how that grin seemed a ghost of the one I remember from such a short time ago.