After Viola helped me with the doctor, she led me into a quiet hall with a hot drink vending machine. “Are you sure about who those people were?” She said.
“Yes. It happened on Main Street; I could see them clear enough.” I said.
“Main Street? They attacked you in the middle of town?”
“I guess they disabled the CCTV first. I avoided any cameras on my way out of town.” The damage my solution caused was going to be all over the news; no one needed to know it was me.
“What did they want?”
“They wanted a potion, and they think Eli stole it from them. The Leader paralysed my legs while he beat the shit out of Eli. He told me to put some music on and close my eyes. I thought they were going to kill him.”
“They wouldn’t be that stupid. They likely didn’t want you to see him moved to a second location. Never let someone take you to a second location unless they have a strong motive not to kill you. If you let someone take you to a second location, you’re dead.”
“Why are you telling me that?” I forced myself to keep a calm expression and meet her eyes. She’d scared me ever since we were kids.
“Men don’t think about their vulnerability enough.”
“If what you said about Eli was true, why are you so scared of them? It’s just some work thing, isn’t it?”
“Why did they just let you go?” She narrowed her eyes at me.
“They wanted to give him a chance to give the potion back.”
She sat on the floor beside the machine. “I knew he was into some stupid shit, but I didn’t think it was this bad.”
“What’s going on?”
“I knew for sure when he didn’t want to tell you about the community after the wedding. Keeping you at arm’s length to keep you safe.”
“A fat lot of good that did. I was on the other side of that curtain two weeks ago.”
“They were only bold enough to approach you like that because you know.”
“The guy in charge threatened Eli’s life if he doesn’t hand the potion back,” I said. “He thinks Eli’s life is equivalent to a potion.”
“To him,” she clenched her fist so hard her perfectly manicured nails broke her skin, “that Fucker’s lucky they wear masks. Whoever’s under there, if I get the chance, I won’t hesitate just to show him how much Eli’s life is worth to me.”
“That’s why I called you. I knew you’d help me without heaping on parental disappointment. Part of me wanted to call my brother, but I knew he wouldn’t have the same concern for Eli.”
“I know you love Mason despite everything, but I need you to promise me something.”
“Don’t tell Mason about this or anything regarding Eli and this group in the future.”
“Who are they? I need to know, to ensure I don’t let anything accidentally slip.”
“It’s complicated political shit.”
“We’ve got some time, and I’m good at listening.” I got us both a cup of strong black coffee. I’d need a bucket of it to pull through to tomorrow, as I was due back at work. I knew no one could know Eli was hurt. I wanted… needed to know more, and at least it’d keep her from asking what I’d done to get away.
“We practice magic under the administration of a place called Nate Island. Any magic-user who calls themselves a Mage and lives in communities near Mages are required to follow the rules they set or find themselves branded a criminal. Places like the Agency are tasked with helping ensure the members of their communities follow the rules. They decide who learns magic, who knows about magic and what magic is taught or allowed to be used.” She said.
“Some people with magic aren’t allowed to use it because they say so?” I said.
“There’s this deep dark secret that no one likes to mention because it might make them feel just a little less special.” She paused then whispered her next words. “Anyone can learn magic.”
“Anyone?” My head spun. Gran’s anger made a sick kind of sense. Without her father teaching her magic, her life path would have been entirely different. Would I exist without her and Pop connecting over magic? Not in a universe where they were strangers. Would I have survived the demon attack if she had listened to Pop and refused to teach me magic? I would have walked into that house without any knowledge of the creature inside.
“It’s hard, but anyone can learn. The test that prevented you learning magic looks for people who have the aptitude, skills and personalities found in the greatest Mages.”
“It’s a test for six-year-olds.”
“I know. There’s a lot of flaws in the system. Which is why so many people are unhappy with it.”
“And you think Eli is one of those people.”
“Yes. I think he’s part of a group acting against the authority of Nate Island.”
“Where do the people who attacked us come in?”
“They are a secret society, a militant group dedicated to preserving the power and administration of Nate Island. Hell, they like the idea of the Knights Templar so much they mimic them.”
“What does Nate Island get out of maintaining power over places like Dunn?”
“Power. Like all good vassals we have to pay tribute, the founders of Nate Island had an extreme hard-on for Feudalism. I’m surprised they were so revolutionary when it came to magic.”
“Revolutionary?” I said.
“They created a whole new system. Everyone in Europe practised Alchemy, until the Enlightenment Era. Then it became chic to specialise in only two or three types of magic. The ideal Alchemist of the Old World had a vast knowledge of magic. Some of today’s Mages can’t even protect themselves if they chose to specialise in non-combative magic.”
“I guess it’s not good for Eli to be part of a rebel group.”
She gave me a stony look. She shared Eli’s eyes, and it was utterly unnerving to look into them. He’d never looked at me like that. “It’s fucked. The whole family is fucked if they have enough evidence against him. I can’t believe he was stupid enough to let slip who he was. This is all fucked; he put us in so much danger.”
“What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is Mason part of this? Why did you mention him?”
“I don’t know one hundred per cent, it’s a secret society but from a good family with his personality, job and skill set, he’d be a perfect recruit. Lewis and Ned would be ideal too.”
“I can’t imagine Ned joining a group like that.” The idea of my little brother being capable of that made me angry. How could she suggest that of her own?
“You haven’t seen him at work or heard his opinions on magic. Your little brother is a grown man. I know he was still a teenager when you left for university. There’s a big difference between thirteen and nineteen. He and Lewis aren’t the boys in your head anymore.” Viola said.
“What do we do?” I asked.
“Pretend nothing happened. If they had the evidence to bring official charges they wouldn’t be lurking in the shadows. They’re fanatics that Nate Island uses to do their dirty work. How were you hurt if you were in the car?”
“I tried to get out and hurt myself,” I said. “Like I said, the Leader paralysed my legs.”
“Just don’t let Eli pull you into his shit. You have an idealist view of the world and the people in it. An attitude like that will only get you killed.”
“You only see the good in people until it’s too late. I’d love to see the world the way you do but I can’t. I can’t even see my brothers that way. I truly believe that Eli would sacrifice anyone to save himself, me, and you included.” She blinked her tears back. “If it gets to that point, don’t let him win.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“He’s my brother I’ve seen the absolute best and worst of him. It takes decades for people like you to see the worst in their partners. Siblings and parents have a front-row seat to the shit show. People are a contradictory mess; the sooner you learn to be wary of people’s motives, the longer you’ll live.”
“Eli would never leave me in danger.”
“Don’t get any ideas about learning magic, it will only get you killed. You’re too ignorant for our world. Keep the fuck out, or you’ll be dead within a year. No one will hesitate to kill you. You hardly have more value alive than dead.” She stood up and downed the rest of her coffee. “Get some rest in a waiting room.”
Before I could say anything else, she walked off. I walked in the opposite direction to find a place to be alone.
I entered the first waiting room.
I found myself in the same room as Lewis and Eli’s grandparents without meaning to. They turned to look at me but didn’t say a word as I sat down across from them. Hostility between his family and me over this was the last thing I needed. I threw my coffee cup away and pulled my legs up onto the lounge and rested my face against my knees. Why had I come back to this town? Shit like this was the reason I’d walked away in the first place. I wasn’t capable of dealing with the political baggage that came with magic, legal or illegal. All these people claimed to love me, yet I had no one to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. Was it going to be okay? I screamed into my knee using the limb and fabric to silence the sound and block out the world. I knew they could hear, but I didn’t care.