When I come to I’m half-lying on the bed with my feet on the ground and my guitar teetering dangerously on the corner of the mattress. I pull it up beside me and hold it close. I press my head against the neck and start sobbing into the strings. There is a fullness inside of me – a space I hadn’t realized was empty until it was filled again. I know that if I try now, I will be able to sing.
I also know that I won’t let myself. If I sing now that stranger from three years ago might die. Maybe he’s dead already, I think. The few lines in the shower yesterday… had they been enough? I roll onto my back and stare at the ceiling. Tears trickle down the side of my face and I wonder why the man from the alley blocked my memories. Had witnessing a similar event triggered them, despite their being purposely locked away?
I hear my phone vibrate in the other room, shattering my focus. I don’t want to get up. I just want to stay here, staring at the ceiling until Wynn comes home and drags me out of bed. Maybe I’ll fall asleep and she’ll leave me here until tomorrow morning. But if it’s Brie and she needs me…
I force myself up and off of the bed. The call is about to go to voicemail when I answer it.
It takes me a moment to recognize the voice; I’ve only ever heard him call me by my surname.
“Yes, I just wanted to check in on you. Make sure you were okay and see if you remembered anything,” he sounds tense, maybe panicked. I wonder if something’s happened. If maybe I should be worried too.
“I’m alright,” I answer. I don’t say anything else, afraid that my voice will betray my tears. There’s a long pause at the other end.
“Do you want to grab a coffee? Hell, wanna grab a beer?”
I look at the pile of laundry, still waiting to be done. I think about my face, blotchy and red from crying. I think about Wynn who will be home in an hour and the shift I have tomorrow morning. Fuck it.
“Where should I meet you?”
Yagher suggests a quaint little pub not far from the station. We sit in a small booth at the back, away from the noisy regulars seated at the bar. A young couple plays darts on the opposite wall, but not close enough to overhear our conversation. They smile and laugh, occasionally letting their hands drift over each other’s bodies. I try to ignore them and concentrate on Yagher, but I’m not sure which makes me feel more insecure.
Yagher is dressed down in jeans and a black long sleeve dress shirt despite the summer heat. I feel a little underdressed in torn jeans and a Doctor Strange t-shirt, but you know… laundry. Yagher looks tired again today – the circles under his eyes are almost bruise-purple and he seems less animated than usual. Less energetic. I wonder if he’s been working too hard.
“Stopped in to see your friend Grant today,” he says, “They’re sending him home tonight.”
“I’m glad to hear he’s doing okay. We’re not actually that close,” I explain, “Brie and I have been friends since high school, but we don’t usually get along with the same people.”
“Ah. That explains a lot,” he says without elaborating further. He doesn’t have to.
“She mentioned my roommate.” Brie and Wynn have never gotten along. I think Brie harbours some jealousy over the time we spend together. The fact that Wynn is openly asexual, with no interest in sex and only a passing interest in any sort of romantic relationship, is also completely mind boggling to the girl who is openly obsessed with both.
Yagher nods and grins. “I’m not repeating what she said, so don’t ask. I’m opting to stay out of it.”
“Wise choice,” I say and take a drink of my Rickard’s Red. I’ll have to have a word with Brie later.
“She did say something else I’m curious about though,” he ventures.
“Oh?” Discretion is not one of Brie’s strong suits, in fact I sometimes wonder if it’s even in her vocabulary. I can only imagine the types of things she might have told him.
“She said you were asking about a red haired man. With a scar?”
Why would you tell him that of all things?
I try to act calm and nonchalant, smiling and laughing a little before answering, “Honestly, I swear Brie catalogues every man I speak to. There was a guy at her party. He made a couple passes at me. Don’t worry, I turned him down.”
That last line throws him off balance for a moment; he drops his gaze from mine and turns to watch the dart game beside us. When he looks back at me his grin is downright charming, and I hope he will drop the subject. No such luck.
“That’s probably a good thing. I think I’d be a little wary if I found out you were interested in a skin mage.” My own grin falters. I remember what he said about skin mages being dangerous.
“You know who he is?” I ask.
Yagher nods. “His name is Hunter Elliot. He’s best friends with the psycho from the other night, in case you’re wondering.”
Why did he protect me?
“You’re sure it was him? I mean, I saw him leave shortly before the attack.”
“Did he touch you?” Yagher’s eyes have gone cold again. I don’t know when his smile disappeared, but now his face is stern and discerning.
“No,” I shake my head.
Why am I protecting him?
Yagher sighs. “I didn’t figure it was him. If he was there, he was probably involved in the attack; there’d be no reason to protect you. If you see him again, don’t approach him. Call me right away. He’s incredibly dangerous. Maybe even more dangerous than Trent.”
He’ll kill him, I think. If Yagher gets his hands on this Hunter Elliot guy, he’ll end up just like Trent. And then I’ll never know the truth.
“Why are skin mages so dangerous?” I ask. I shudder to think of someone with more power than the man who almost killed my best friend.
Yagher takes a drink then glances around cautiously. The couple at the dart board are completely engrossed in each other and the booth in front of us is still empty. The waitress is busy at another table. When he is confident that no one is looking, he unbuttons the top of his shirt.
His skin is a mass of light pink scars that remind me of burns. He pulls the shirt away from his chest so that I can see his shoulder where another scar rests. I realize the shape is not unlike that of a human hand.
“Your arms too?” I ask, and he nods. I realize now that every time I’ve seen him, he’s worn long sleeves. He buttons up his shirt just before the waitress comes over to offer us more drinks. When she leaves, he explains.
“Most mages need a medium to channel magic. It provides a space to store and shape focused energy before expressing it as a spell.”
“Like your crystals?” I remember the stones laid out over Grant’s bloody body.
“Mhm,” he says, “But there are plenty of other things too. Some people channel best with wood, and so they use wands and staffs. Some mages are best at channelling their magic in things they make or build – potion mages or craft mages. Some use writing, like runes.”
I remember the white marker that the man used in my vision.
“And skin mages?”
“Skin mages are unique in that they don’t need a medium. They channel the energy directly through their skin. All a skin mage needs to do to cast a spell on you, is to touch you.” I notice his hand rise to absently rub his chest.
“So Trent was a skin mage too?”
“No. You probably didn’t notice because there was so much going on, but Trent was covered in tattoos. Of runes. The runes allowed him to draw and release energy across his skin, but it was the runes themselves holding the energy there. It’s a reckless practice. It’s easy for the runes to draw too much energy from their user. He probably would have killed himself eventually.”
I wonder if that’s one of the ways he justified executing him. “So how is a skin mage more dangerous than someone like Trent? Or even you? I mean, I saw you attack Trent from a distance. Wouldn’t a skin mage have to touch their target?”
He snorts derisively, clearly offended by my comparison. He sneers in disgust as he speaks: “For one, when a skin mage touches someone’s skin they can draw energy from that person. If I run out of charged crystals, I’m screwed. They have instant access to energy without having to store it in a medium. They also have a unique ability to connect to the mind of any person they touch. They can see memories, alter them, take them away completely. My family and others like mine sometimes use a jolt of energy to… sort of… block a memory. Lock it away inside the unconscious. Skin mages are different. They actually enter a person’s mind.
It’s incredibly difficult to become a skin mage, that’s why they’re so rare. We don’t have any. The other side always keeps a few around. They’re particularly good at interrogations. Reading memories. Removing unwanted ones. They’re also quite adept at physical and mental torture.”
The other side? Interrogation? Torture?
“Officer Yagher… what you’re talking about sounds like war tactics.” Again, I find myself wondering what the hell I’ve gotten into. I feel naive for ever dreaming of magic as beautiful and life-affirming.
Yagher sighs heavily, the ice in his eyes melting. He looks deflated. Apologetic even.
“Look, Miss Kondo… Selene. I don’t want you to be involved in this. I’m sorry that you even had to witness any of it.” He thinks for a second. I’m certain he’s deciding whether or not he should tell me anything. Eventually he scratches the back of his head and shrugs, “I guess it is a war, though maybe not the way you’re imagining it: an openly violent conflict between two parties. It’s more… complicated, more subversive. Most mages aren’t as blatant and suicidal as Trent. Usually they rely on more discreet rule bending or at least try to conceal their actions.
But yes, ultimately it’s come down to two sides: the ones who want to keep magic a secret and continue to protect humans from it, and those who want to use magic to become powerful. Even if that means revealing the secret we’ve kept for centuries. Even if it means taking power by force.”
Yagher laughs at my outburst, breaking the tension a little. “Heavy stuff, isn’t it?”
I nod and down the rest of my beer, to which he laughs again before ordering me another.
“Dwelling on it really isn’t going to make it any better. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about yourself.”
I’m still busy trying to comprehend the implications of an actual supernatural war; his question catches me off guard. I feel suddenly vulnerable and struggle to think of anything to say. “Err… I don’t know. I work in a book store, and bartend sometimes. I told you, my life is boring.”
“I’m sure there’s more to you than that. Brie said you’re quite a talented singer. Even had a bit of a following back in school.”
He beams, like he thinks he’s giving me a wonderful complement. I try to return his smile, but I can feel my eyebrows knitting together. I lower my voice, looking away as I say, “I guess she forgot to tell you that I haven’t sung in over three years.”
He looks concerned and tilts his head to try to see my face. “Really? I’m sorry. Did something happen?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know,” I answer. I think about the man with the bloody face. The stranger I gave up everything for. Was that really true? “One day I just couldn’t sing anymore. I was under a lot of pressure… I dropped out of an undergraduate science program to pursue a career in music. My family told me it was a waste, that I was making the wrong choice. Most of my friends didn’t understand either. I think it all added up and… maybe something snapped.”
I turn my face to look at him and am surprised by his expression. He looks … broken. Like he’s the one who has lost a part of himself. Something he gave up everything for. I wonder if he ever has.
“I’m sorry,” he says simply.
“I’ve moved on,” I lie.
He sees right through me, I can tell, but he smiles anyway. He points to the now vacant dart board, “Wanna play?”
We play for the next hour and I whip him badly. He’s a good loser though and we have fun. We chat as we play, avoiding any topic we think might upset the other. He offers to drive me home, but I decline, still unsure about him. He makes me feel safe, nervous and warm – all of those silly feelings you get when you’re interested in someone – but something about his confidence when he talks about the war, his indignation at anything that questions the side he’s chosen, makes me unsettled. I’m thankful when he drives off, leaving me alone to think.
The late summer sun is already setting and a pink glow illuminates the street where I wait for the bus, only a block from the pub. The air is still cloyingly hot, especially after stepping out of the air conditioned bar. I wipe my hand across the sweat beading on my forehead and pause mid-gesture. My hand slowly drops to my side as I make eye contact with a figure standing across the street: a thin man in blue jeans and a grey t-shirt, with long red hair.
Only a day ago I had chased after him, but today I’m less confident. I try to imagine him as a ruthless, mind-reading killer. I need to talk to him, I’ve risked Yagher’s trust to talk to him, but I can’t move. My fear roots me to the spot.
A bus screeches to a halt in front of me, blocking my view. I flash the driver my pass and dash to a window. People are staring but it doesn’t matter. Hunter Elliot – that scar leaves no doubt as to his identity – meets my eyes for another heart beat, his brows creasing in frustration, or maybe confusion. As the bus closes its doors, he shakes his head and turns away.