Victor drives us to the hall in some fancy sports car whose model I should probably recognize but don’t care enough to. My stomach rumbles as I sit in the back seat; it’s nearly six, but I haven’t been able to eat, the tension roiling in my gut. I roll the small stone between my fingers to distract myself. Victor’s eyes flit to the rear view mirror occasionally, watching me, so I keep the stone concealed in my pocket.
“Marle is the one we need to be concerned about,” Victor’s voice is nonchalant, as if speaking of a casual game of chess, “his son may be more powerful, but from what I can tell he’s not eager to be a threat to us.”
Those green eyes stare into mine for a moment. I feel oddly defensive of Yagher, wanting to tell this smug man that Yagher would be the last person to let his romantic feelings interfere with his ethics, but I don’t want to draw those eyes upon me again. I clench the stone tightly in my hand and stay silent.
“I don’t think Marle will be a problem,” Mirena says, almost as calmly as her self-declared father, “I destroyed his cane.” I had forgotten her strange fixation with his cane. I never thought to ask her why she took the time to snap it.
Apparently Victor knows the answer and he starts laughing, almost hysterically. “Wonderful! Brilliant! You should have told me earlier. All this time I’ve been concerned about nothing more than a weak old man.”
He smiles at her and she turns away to look out the window, taking no pride in his approval.
“Why does his cane matter?” I ask them.
“Marle’s health is very poor,” it is Victor who answers, Mirena lost in thought beside him, “Most of the time he is too weak even to walk. His cane was constructed by three of his strongest craft mages over more than a year’s time. It supports his body and helps maintain his health. Without it, he will be lucky if he can use his magic at all.”
He laughs again and my stomach twists into knots at the cruelty of it. I should feel relieved, but I can’t reconcile Marle’s determination to attend the exchange with the state he’s supposedly in; Marle isn’t one to show weakness.
When we pull into the parking lot the surrounding street lights are already on and the sun is almost set. There’s just a hint of rosy light coming from behind the squat, square building in front of us. Two other cars are pulled into the lot, so we know we are the last to arrive. Victor scouts ahead, looking for rune traps he says. As he reaches up to touch the frame of the outer door his sleeve rides up enough for me to glimpse black ink against his light skin. Tattoos like his son. Reckless.
“It’s about time you got here.”
I’m alarmed by the bodiless voice until I see a feline form separate from the shadows on the pavement. I scold myself for being so uptight that I didn’t even recognize his characteristic sarcasm.
“Little jumpy are we?” he teases, brushing up against Mirena’s leg. She leans down and strokes his fur gently.
“Let’s just get this over with,” I say.
Victor nods and we walk through the doors and down the short hallway. Caelen takes up position at the entrance, waiting in a dark corner as we continue forward. The main room of the hall is large, well lit, and primarily empty. Several foldable tables are pushed up against the wall to the right and beside them are about a dozen stacks of simple chairs. Across the yellowing linoleum floor is a small stage. Yagher leans against it, talking quietly to Hunter who is seated up on the stage with his legs dangling down. His hands are behind him and I assume he’s bound. Otherwise he looks like usual, if slightly tired. As I exhale a relieved breath, I realize that I hadn’t expected him to be completely unharmed. My tension eases, probably a little prematurely.
Apparently Victor spoke the truth about Marle because he’s sitting in a simple, black wheelchair beside a tall, broad man that looks to be in his mid-forties. He seems familiar and I assume he was one of the men present at Marle’s estate when we escaped. We halt several feet from them.
Marle speaks first, his voice sounding the slightest bit strained, “I’m assuming you have the stone?”
I take it out of my pocket and hold it up, really seeing it for the first time. It’s fairly round and perfectly smooth but otherwise unremarkable — like a rock you’d find at the side of the street. Its surface is marbled with thin pink and white veins. For a moment, I almost wonder if we’ve made a mistake, but I see Marle’s eyes grow wide at the sight of it and I become certain.
“May I ask how you managed to find it?” He is genuinely curious, I can tell. Of course he would be. The fact that anyone might have outsmarted him is beyond his capacity to imagine.
“My son found it, actually,” Victor offers, arrogantly.
“Ah yes, Johannes. He was quite strong that one. It was a shame to put him down. But if the dog bites…”
“Father,” Yagher says sternly, noticing Victor’s rage rising with the tide of blood in his face. His hands are balled into shaking fists.
“And your son,” Victor reposts, “It must be a noble man that offers his own friend’s body as a means to guard his father’s treasures.”
Yagher’s heavy brows sink in a look of confusion and he turns to his father. Hunter is watching them both closely. He didn’t know. Marle hid the stone in Grant knowing Yagher would protect him.
“As entertaining as this conversation is,” Marle says before his son can question him, “I’d like the stone now.”
Yagher puts his hand on Hunter’s shoulder and Hunter drops down onto the floor. We each take a step forward before Victor reaches over and rips the stone out of my hand.
“What are you doing!?” I shout at him.
“I’m not giving this self-righteous old man what he wants. He’s had power for far too long. You think he’s going to risk this happening again? That it’s a coincidence he trained his son in the two arts needed to decode the stone? It’d be insane to trade it for the life of one man, however noble his goal may be. Tell them Hunter! Tell them it’s not worth your life.”
Hunter hesitates beside Yagher and looks up into his face, considering. He responds with the conviction I’ve come to expect, though his words aren’t the ones I anticipate, “Give them the stone, Victor.”
Apparently Victor is as surprised as I am because his mouth hangs open slightly and he hesitates, leaving Mirena enough of an opening to grab his wrist. Victor crumples to the floor at her feet and she bends down, retrieving the stone and passing it back to me.
“Entertaining,” Marle reiterates and gestures for us to continue the trade. I look down at Victor’s unconscious body for a moment before continuing forward. Yagher lets Hunter walk to my side and I reach forward and pass him the stone. He holds my hand for a second too long before taking it from my grasp. We both back away to our former positions.
I embrace Hunter and he drops his head onto my shoulders, unable to reach his hands around me. I spin him around and look at the cuffs on his wrists, not unlike the ones Mirena once wore.
“Remove his bonds,” Mirena orders Yagher.
“No, I think he’s fine the way he is,” Marle answers instead, “You’ve removed those restraints once, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble doing it again. Though he won’t need them much longer.”
It’s bait, she must know it is, but she bites anyway.
“What are you rambling about old man?”
“You should learn to respect your elders, maybe then you would have listened to him,” he gestures toward Victor on the floor, “You see, he’s right — we have the power to control the stone. It is now within our grasp to determine who is worthy of possessing magic. Those who aren’t… well… there’s no need for such barbaric punishments anymore. We can simply take away the privilege they no longer deserve.”
“You conceited son-of-a-bitch,” she says and advances on him. Of course, the broad man intercepts her. He pulls out an intricately carved wooden wand from his jacket pocket and I realize now that he’s wearing carved wooden beads around his neck and wrists. There’s a faint shimmer in the air around him and Mirena seems to be struggling to reach his arms, as if there’s an invisible barrier. My ears pop and I can feel a change in air pressure. Mirena tries to duck and snatch at his legs but he blocks her. He trips her multiple times as they adopt an elaborate dance around each other.
“Mirena stop!” I shout at her, but she ignores me, trying to dash past him towards Marle. The man blocks her path and somehow strikes at her face though I don’t see the attack. Her head swings backwards and I see a bloody welt quickly forming on her cheek. She continues her advance undaunted.
“I think this may be an ideal time for a demonstration,” Marle says to Yagher, and his composure disgusts me.
Yagher looks at the stone and I see tiny runes appear around it, scarlet symbols rushing to the surface like blood.
“Harvey, you don’t have to do it,” Hunter says, taking a step forward despite being completely vulnerable, “Remember, there are other paths we could take.”
Yagher looks up at him in defeat, “He’s right though, Hunter. There are some people that shouldn’t have magic.”
“And what makes you think you’re the one that know who those people are? You know what this will cost, just wait a little longer,” Hunter’s voice is desperate and he takes a step closer.
Yagher ignores him this time and starts rotating the stone in his grasp, looking at the runes and muttering things under his breath. I move to stand beside Hunter and I can feel the air warming around me. There’s an audible hum emanating from where Yagher stands.
Mirena shouts at me, “Selene, do something!”
Marle swiftly turns his head towards her.
“What can I do!?” I shout back, watching her catch another blow, this time against her right hip.
“Sing!” she shouts.
I can’t. I won’t kill him. But I refuse to sit by and watch. I start running towards Yagher, hoping he’ll at least look up at me. He still trusts me, I realize, maybe if we can just talk…
A large bang reverberates in the hall, like a small explosion. And then a second. I fall forward, though I’m not entirely sure why. Pain explodes in my knee and my stomach. I hear Mirena and Yagher both shout my name and then Hunter’s voice, quiet beside me, “No…”
“How dare you!?” Mirena shouts, “I’ll fucking kill you!”
I hear more fighting and the snarl and hiss of a cat. Caelen shouts, “Mirena, no!”
I can’t see anything. Why can’t I see anything? Someone is screaming, am I screaming? Is this my pain…? Some small, logical part of my brain knows that I am in shock.
I feel someone hold my hand and turn me onto my back as another bang deafens me. I feel so cold, but that hand is warm against mine. There’s a face above me, I can see that much. I reach up to touch Hunter’s face before I realize it isn’t his. I can barely make out the strong brows, broad nose, and the charming freckles on his tanned skin. Yagher’s face is the last thing I see before everything goes dark.