The room was unimpressive.
Hector had been in interrogation rooms before and this one was as plain as any of the others. Faded white paint, chipped off of some walls. Old table with predictable scratches and dents. The surveillance camera was old too. It was all rather boring. He was actually looking forward to returning to the holding cell.
It was going to be a quick interview anyway. He was going to tell the detectives he didn’t see a damn thing.
Maybe tell them to screw off, depending on how they acted.
He could be pretty flexible when he was bored.
Finally the door opened, cool air rushing in, and Hector sighed with relief.
The detective entering was new, or at least he hadn’t seen him around before. He was well-dressed too. An expensive dark suit with a crisp white shirt providing a bold contrast to a sharp rich blue tie. The man himself wasn’t quite as striking. Average in most aspects. The most interesting characteristic being his thick moustache. Not a lot people pulled that off anymore. His dark hair had flecks of grey and white mixed in, but not much. Hector pegged him at late 30’s, early 40’s.
“Nice tattoos,” said the detective as he sat down. His face twitched a little. A flickering movement that pulled at his nose and pushed his lips over to the left slightly, like he was trying to rid himself of an itch without scratching.
The comment wasn’t uncommon, but usually from cops it sounded sarcastic. This one seemed sincere. Impulsively, Hector glanced at his tattooed arm.
“Very identifiable.” The detective pronounced the last word with emphasis. Again, it sounded like it was meant to be a genuine compliment. It was weird.
“I could definitely find you in a crowd, if you were to escape,” the detective explained.
Hector stared at him.
“Are you kidding me?”
The man shrugged calmly before leaning on the table. “No. Granted some individual tats were executed with more expertise than others and some are undoubtedly more unique, the whole design flows quite well. It’s a lovely sleeve. I’m sure your right arm will look remarkable once it’s finished.”
“I didn’t see anything,” Hector said, crossing his arms against his chest and leaning back. He’d about it had it with these sincere-sounding compliments on his tattoos from a guy who probably never even wanted one in his life.
The detective smiled. It was interrupted briefly by that twitch again and Hector decided it was a tic, but perhaps not a nervous tic. The man remained visibly calm. “Yes, well, you’ve already missed the blinking light.”
Hector looked up at the room’s surveillance camera and sure enough its light was off. They weren’t being recorded and the detective had known that without looking.
“What the hell is going on?” he demanded, eyeing the door and deciding his odds of reaching it. “Who are you?”
“Not a detective, that’s for sure.”
“What do you want?”
Another casual shrug. “To talk.”
“About my freakin’ tattoos?”
This garnered a laugh and the man’s smile spread across his face. “You saw a man disappear and I’m here to learn what happened. Get some details.”
Hector swallowed hard. “I already said–”
“Yes, without prompting or questioning, and everything you’ve done since being arrested has guaranteed you stay here instead of being released, like you find confinement more desirable than freedom.” He leaned further on the table. “Like a man who really did see a guy flicker into nothing, but he doesn’t know what to make of it and would rather be surrounded by cops for protection while he figures it out.”
“It was a fight and a guy ran,” Hector said angrily. “There was no flickering, all right?”
“Yet there was, and you witnessed it,” came the calm response.
Hector stood up, his heart racing, instinct telling him to run but something held him back.
The fake detective merely looked up at him, unimpressed. “You won’t make it out that door and no one out there could help you. But you already know that, don’t you?”
“You didn’t come alone.”
“I’m usually accompanied by someone, yes. They are monitoring the situation.”
He’d had a feeling. It was the only reason he hadn’t bolted yet. “Well, I ain’t talking. You oughta just leave.”
“Do you know what’s going on out there?”
Hector glanced at the door, then shook his head.
“My name is Martin,” said the man slowly leaning back in his chair. He gestured for Hector to sit back down. He didn’t. “My opinion is sought for these matters, questionable use of magic, unknown warlock or witch. I’m considered somewhat of an expert.”
“I don’t know who did it,” Hector said. His heart was finally calming down. “I swear, I got no idea and don’t want to. Just leave me alone.”
Martin gestured to the unoccupied chair again. He was pleased when Hector took it.
“Everything outside that door would appear frozen in time. Not that I would recommend looking.”
“You stopped time?”
“That’s how it appears. Technically, I’ve created a dimension within a dimension. Ours copies the basic structures in this room, but time is moving much faster here than out there. It creates an illusion of time-stopping.”
“And you did that?”
“It’s always amazing what one can suddenly believe when they know they’ve seen magic,” Martin said. “You saw it last night. You know it’s happening now.”
“I really don’t know who–”
“It was you.”
Hector shook his head. “I’m not–”
Martin leaned on the table again, clasping his hands together. “You are. And you know it’s true.”
“I didn’t kill anyone,” Hector shouted as leaned towards the other man. “It was a fight and he ran like a coward, all right? I didn’t do anything.”
“He’s not dead,” Martin said, seemingly unaffected by Hector’s outburst. “I’m guessing he did something or said something, and you really wanted him gone. A clear, precise thought so focused and so strong that it worked. You sent him far away.”
“You found him?”
“We located him about 100 miles from here.” Martin raised an eyebrow. “That part ring a bell?”
Hector rubbed his face with his hands, closing his eyes and sighing. It did “ring a bell.”
Chester was being his usual dick self, trash talking while everyone debated on fighting. It’d come to blows before. Territory had to be protected, after all. But Chester’s mouth was working overtime, firing up everyone, spewing lies. He’d rarely known when to quit, but usually he’d seemed to have a line, like there were comments he just wouldn’t make. Last night, he didn’t have a line, but Hector did and when he crossed it too many times, Hector had just wished the loser would disappear, and then he had. The fight was just erupting, but Hector had thought– wished actually– that Chester should be 100 miles away and then the loud mouth was gone. The cops arrived soon enough. Hector hadn’t tried hard to get away. He knew what he’d seen didn’t make sense, and figuring it out in a cell seemed better than his friends thinking he was crazy if he talked about it. Still, he didn’t believe he’d been responsible. That idea was even crazier than Chester vanishing.
“So what happens now?”
“You come with me, train to be a great warlock, leave this mess behind.”
Hector shook his head. “I can’t leave my brothers, my family. I gotta have their backs, and if I got this power, I can do it without us having to fight all the time. Just ‘poof’ the others away and we stay safe.”
“Admirable, but not an option.”
“Leaving them isn’t an option, all right? I’ll do what I gotta do but–”
“You’ve heard of King Arthur and Merlin, yes?”
“I’m not talking fairy tales.”
“So you’ve heard of them?”
Hector shrugged. “Yeah, Arthur was a medieval badass with his wizard friend. They built Camelot and crap. What’s your point?”
“That’s the romantic version.”
“Real romantic,” Hector scoffed. “Didn’t the queen run off with one of the knights?”
“King Arthur was a good man, in the beginning, and Merlin was a very powerful wizard, and together they did build a great kingdom. Their goals started out as admirable as your own. But they couldn’t stop themselves. There was always an enemy to fight, territory to protect, people to defend. In the end, Arthur was betrayed by his wife, a woman who couldn’t recognize the man she’d wed. Aspirations were still the same, but the methods were grotesque.”
“Yeah, whatever. That wouldn’t happen. We–”
“It’s happened throughout history. They weren’t the exception. They were merely the extreme,” Martin said. “You see, magic is like fire, like flame. Even a spark can have deadly consequences. Merlin was a wildfire. That’s how powerful he was so when he became misguided, the results…”
“So don’t make me a freaking wildfire, then. Hell, I don’t even think I am one.”
“We don’t call ourselves wizards anymore because of him. He tainted the word,” the warlock continued. “It was an army of druids that finally faced them, called them out for all their misdeeds. But the thing about wildfires is that you can’t simply snuff them out, or fight them with fire. They are only defeated by themselves, by their very nature. When there is nothing left for them to consume, they will burn themselves out. Until then, the only strategy is to try to control the burn, guide the flames a bit, hope it can be weakened.”
“So how’d the druids beat ’em?”
“They didn’t. Merlin and Arthur realized they had no defense for their actions, that they were no better than the enemies they’d fought against. Gwenhwyfar, with Lancelot and the druids by her side, was quite convincing apparently. There was a reason she was queen. They begged for forgiveness and, as penance, Merlin encased himself and Arthur in another dimension, like this one. In a blink of an eye, their desiccated bodies appeared before the army. The druids burned the remains and Merlin’s presence was never felt again.”
Martin chuckled. “Mediocre man. Mediocre end.”
“Thought he was a wildfire wizard?”
The other man nodded. “Strength doesn’t mean greatness. Merlin wasn’t great, just powerful and misguided.”
“I’m not Merlin,” Hector said.
“And Luis isn’t Arthur yet,” Martin countered. “However, history has shown time and again that the same themes can play out. One day, you will look at your friend and not recognize him anymore. If you come with me, you will be protecting him and the others. We will return Chester to his pals. We will legally help your friends.”
“And if I say no?”
Martin looked down at the table and sighed. “Well, like you said, you’re not Merlin.” The warlock raised his head. “One mustn’t leave a candle unattended and, Hector, you’re ridiculously easy to snuff out.”
Somehow the tic didn’t make the statement less menacing.
“So basically come with you or die?”
The other man seemed to consider it. “It did come out that way, didn’t it? You don’t have to come with me. There are ways of ensuring you can’t use magic, even unintentionally. Most involve certain variations of removing parts of the brain. None of which are pleasant but some are quicker than others. Though we find it best not to let the individual choose. Surprise is the best approach. Perhaps a little diversion. They never see it coming.”
“In other words, my options are crap.”
“If you train with me, you get to stay at my house. We have a lovely home and I think you’ll like my wife.”
Martin looked at him expectantly and Hector realized the sales pitch was over. The crap choices were known.
No negotiations were forthcoming.
He begrudgingly chose the least sucky option.
Hector laid back on his bed and smiled, realizing he didn’t really mind the blue paint on the walls of his room anymore.
The colour must have grown on him, or perhaps he was feeling good about everything.
The training sessions were going well, or so he figured. Martin was certainly encouraging and he didn’t feel like he’d made a fool of himself in front of anyone. During the private in-field lessons, Martin was understanding and patient. And considering the things he’d had to repair and replace because of Hector, that patience spoke volumes. During the in-class lessons held at a regular looking school, Martin left the teaching to other warlocks and witches who never uttered an angry word at Hector.
They were interested in him and his tattoos, however. Everyone in the school seemed interested in him from the moment they realized he was Martin’s student. The constant intrigue had caused Hector to wear long sleeve shirts, just so people would stop staring at his inked arms. He’d been asked by countless people about them, what the images mean, could he give them clues. It was enough to make him scream at times, even at Martin who would calmly say, “I told you they were identifiable.”
It didn’t help that he was Martin’s student. First, only, and quite possibly last. Hector had heard all the gossip about his teacher, and there was plenty of it. For a man who seemed open and honest, Martin was an enigma to almost everyone.
“No one knows what happened to his parents. I mean, what really happened. It’s all just stories. I’ve literally heard like a million of them.”
“He seems all nice, but he could kill you like that. Mrs. Wallace said the same thing. She doesn’t trust anyone, but she watches him more than anyone else.”
“They always have someone watching him, you know. They say he’s gotta be up to something.”
“Miss Avery told me once he told her that he ‘likes to keep on eye on things and people.’ How freaky is that?”
“He’s like huge into security and stuff. Everyone’s seen him scoping out the place and he like screens everyone, I think.”
“He’s a high advisor or something. It’s super secretive.”
“He recruits people for this place. I think everyone here’s met him first, but some say that’s just a cover.”
“His marriage is just a cover. There’s no way those two really love each other. You’ve seen her.”
“Word is he can control people’s thoughts. He could be controlling you.”
“Miss Fraze and Mr. Poli both told me on separate occasions that he’s not allowed to help with the students. I always thought that meant he couldn’t have one.”
“No one will bother you with him as your teacher. My dad said he was there when there was a rogue wizard and he ended him. Or sent him somewhere. Or… I mean, my dad wasn’t really supposed to tell me. But whatever it was, it was in a flash and no one can do that.”
“I heard that he’s as powerful as Merlin, and that was from Mr. Mim who knows everything there is to know about history.”
“When you listen to the others, you know to keep your distance.”
“He says he doesn’t do magic at home, but that’s gotta be lie. Isn’t it?”
“I once heard him tell Mr. Jones that magic is more than thoughts. It was real mysterious and Mr. Jones didn’t even know how to respond.”
Each bit of gossip was followed by an expectant look. The speaker clearly hoping he could solve the Martin Mystery. He couldn’t.
Aside from the intense curiosity, Hector had been settling in to his new life rather well. The learning schedule was now routine. Several classmates were friends. Becky was always inviting him to stuff. Roger and Gary loved playing sports with him. Pete was helping him understand the warlock history while he helped Pete understand healing studies better. He’d even starting thinking of this room as his own, this house as his home.
Martin’s wife, Lucille, was nice enough. Sometimes it felt like she merely tolerated his presence, but she wasn’t rude or mean. She was just shy of unwelcoming at times. Though Hector chalked that up to his arrival being announced when they marched through the front door.
Lucille had come to greet her husband. The prim and proper woman, who almost always looked like she was going to a fancy award show, had walked across their expensive tile floor in their exquisite foyer full of rich dark woods and polished surfaces to find her husband, still in the sharp suit she’d helped him find, and their new houseguest, Hector, who was still wearing clothes dirtied and smelly from a fight and the police holding cell.
He gave her credit for not screaming or looking terrified. She nodded a bit as Martin had explained, cocked her head to the side once. Then she’d taken a deep breath, smiled brightly and showed Hector to his room. It wasn’t the “green room” Martin had said he’d be staying in. Lucille had decided as he followed her up stairs he’d have the “blue room.”
He’d checked out the green room once a few days later. It was bigger. A little nicer. They both had books, and similar furniture. There wasn’t a huge difference. But that’s how he figured Lucille was; unintentionally she made him feel welcome without making him feel completely welcome. It wasn’t surprising that first night she’d chosen the other room for him. He didn’t blame her.
These days, it didn’t really matter. She was good to him. Martin was good to him. The school and everyone else was good to him. Even this room, with its dark blue walls, was good to him.
Hector swallowed hard as he sat down at the mahgoney table in the dining room.
It’d been awhile since he’d felt this uncomfortable here. Months since he’d wondered just what the heck he’d agreed to at the police station.
Martin would not be home for dinner so Hector was going to be dining with Lucille.
With Martin there, meals were fine. He liked talking and could probably canjole a tree stump into a conversation if he wanted to. The warlock would tell a story or talk about a news article and the three of them would soon be laughing together or discussing topics. Lucille seemed so relaxed and friendly, Hector could forget that she looked exactly how he generally pictured rich snobs. Sometimes they were such a good trio Hector did wonder if Martin controlled minds.
And tonight, they’d be free of that influence.
Lucille walked into the room holding a giant platter. Hector had stopped offering to help her bring in dinner within the first week. She was a strong lady and preferred doing it herself. She also preferred making every meal, which had surprised him. He didn’t admit to thinking she might have been a trophy wife at first because she’d made it clear since then that she wasn’t. She served on committees and went to “social meetings,” as she called them, so she didn’t clean the house. She had a maid for that and grocery shopping, but she did cook and it was usually fancy fare.
Hector watched as she set large platter down gingerly, revealing her latest culinary offering. She looked at him, clearly hoping for approval. Her smile shrinking a little bit as his silence continued. Not that he was trying to make her uncomfortable, but his mind couldn’t work out a response quickly.
All her meals were good. Some more fancy or expensive than others. If she made tacos, they were, as the food critics on TV said, “taken to the next level.” She’d have homemade salsa, refried beans, and special tortillas. If it was macaroni and cheese, she’d make homemade cheese ravioli with a four cheese blend. There were times she’d prepare lobster tails or clams, or other things Hector was sure cost more than his entire wardrobe. Her side dishes were always impressive too. Carrots were glazed. Green beans were specially seasoned. Nothing was served “as is” or “merely boiled.” Hector realized early on that, for her, Lucille’s meals were her greatest form of magic and she took great pride in them.
Tonight it was a platter of appetizers. Granted, she wasn’t serving cocktail weinnies, but Hector was taken aback by the culinary display. Devilled eggs, sausage pastries, bruschetta, mini-taco shells with taco fillings, crackers topped with salmon and herbs, and several other little items covered the gleaming silver plate.
“Looks good,” he said, trying to be polite and hide his apparent shock.
She nodded, but it was clear she’d noticed. Hector had never really understood the term “crest-fallen” until that moment because that’s the word he’d have used to describe her then. It popped in his head and he knew she’d expected him to be really happy about the food. For some reason, she’d been convinced he would have looked at it with instant joy instead of utter confusion.
“I didn’t know you did apps, you know?”
“I never make them because of Martin,” she said. “I thought it would be a treat for the two of us.”
“He doesn’t eat apps?”
She perked up at his continued confusion, as if suddenly realizing something.
“You didn’t know that?”
Hector shook his head and he was rewarded with her smile.
She started filling her plate as she explained. “Appetizers remind him of social functions and he hates those with a passion. I thought he’d have warned you. He avoids all of them, if he can.”
“I thought he loved socializing,” he said as he took a few appetizers and began eating.
“Socializing, yes. Social functions, no.” she explained. “I thought he’d have mentioned it since you two have that in common. He’s told me about the scrutiny you get over your tattoos and being his student. He’s had to deal with that sort of attention for most of his life. Ridiculous.”
Lucille shook her head at the absurdity of it all and Hector found himself smiling.
“Yeah, there’s a lot of gossip about him at school.”
“Oh there always is. I’m sure there’s a bit about me too.” She eyed him with a smirk and then laughed loudly when he didn’t deny it. “Oh, how people waste their time!”
Hector laughed too as he grabbed some more food. The devilled eggs were really good and he never thought that was possible. Everything was really good, in fact.
“Yeah, they don’t get you two. But they don’t get me either.”
“No, they don’t get Martin, is all,” she said. “They haven’t understood him since the moment he was found so they don’t understand anyone else who does. Minds can be so small, you know. So they come up with stories and theories to inflate themselves.”
“People can be dicks,” he said and then watched as Lucille pursed her lips the way she usually did when he said something far to blunt for her proper ways, but she agreed with the sentiment.
“I was told my parents would have forbad the marriage had they been alive. Such small minds,” Lucille said. “My parents might have worried, but they would have loved Martin eventually. Of course, others are convinced Martin married me for security or money or status or some other poor excuse.”
“I heard that too.”
“Did you hear he can control minds?”
“Yeah, a couple times. Then they watch my eyes like they can tell,” he laughed.
“Yes, they do!” Lucille clapped her hands. “I learnt to cross my eyes just for them.”
Hector laughed at her demonstration.
“You cross your eyes at people? For real?”
“Only to a select few, of course,” she said. “My family’s wealth and stature has granted me many privileges, but there are some limits. I like to keep my influence rather intact for practical purposes. Putting some in their place isn’t worth it at times.”
She caught Hector’s confused expression.
“I am quite aware of myself and my standing, believe it or not. Power must be wielded accordingly. Our home was furnished and, in some ways, crafted by the most deserving hands and they were generously thanked. The committees I’m on help ensure that anyone associated with the schools get the upmost respect and equal opportunities regardless of old prejudices. I may not be as gifted in magic as Martin, but I know my strengths.”
She seemed more digified at that moment and Hector could imagine her running those committees, ever so subtley.
“So with Martin, is that why he’s so good at magic? It’s like crossing his eyes with them? Or just trying to impress you?”
“No, he’s always been good at magic.” Lucille’s tone became more serious. “That’s been his problem, really. Most of us are discovered through families, like me, or from incidents as young adults, like you. Martin was able to do magic since he was a boy. Remarkable really.”
“Guess it freaked out his folks, huh? That why they aren’t around?” No one had ever mentioned it, but he’d pieced it together. Pictures of her parents hung on the walls. Pictures of his family were non-existent.
Lucille took a moment before answering. “He was only 5 when his parents vanished. The officers on the scene couldn’t get a clear description from him about happened. He was so scared. They were all home. He was upset about something. Then they were gone. Doors and windows locked. Clothes and such still in place and intact. Car still parked on the street. Police had to break in just to get Martin. How terrifying that must have been.”
“Vanished like Chester or, like, gone?” Hector asked.
“There are ways to find the living, if you have the right tools,” Lucille said solemnly. “Our best warlocks and witches never found them. It could have been a faulty tool, of course, so no one was willing to harm someone so young. They were as awestruck as they were afraid of his gift. They still are.”
“You never were?”
“At first. Everyone had heard the story back then. He’d been shuffled around by teachers. None wanting him around too long once they realized how easy magic came to him. I’d seen him in classrooms before, sitting alone, almost in a trance. I finally went to ask what he was doing. Scared him witless.” Lucille chuckled to herself. “He used to create his own dimension to practice magic, to learn how to control it without outside interruption. It was supposed to be safer since no one ever approached him. Then I did and he had to shatter that world to save me. He confessed what he was doing and begged me not to tell. I couldn’t fear him after that.”
“That’s crazy,” he said. “Does he still do the dimensions thing for practice?”
“Not as much,” she replied. “Being in dimensions with increased speed takes its toll and it was becoming noticeable. He’s actually several years younger than myself.”
Hector stopped to look at Lucille again. One of the reasons he’d thought initially thought “Trophy Wife” was how young she looked compared to Martin. How many years had he spent over time in his little worlds, hiding from people who feared him?
“No way he can slow time for himself, huh? Stay young forever?”
“If there were, he still wouldn’t use it. It’d be far too dangerous; everything around him moving so fast that he couldn’t protect them from breaching the walls,” she said. “He won’t risk others for his convenience.”
Hector reached for the last mini-taco, telling himself he’d stop eating apps after this one. Though he’d told himself that a couple times already.
“Yes,” she said simply, clearly remembering something.
“Do you like your room?”
Hector hestitated before answering, his mind frantically trying to understand why she was asking. “Yeah.”
She nodded, satisfied. “Good. Martin had suggested the other room, but I had a feeling you’d like that one more.”
“The green room has more space, but the blue room… I thought you’d like more books and maps and music options,” she said as though she were proving a point. “I looked at you and listened to Martin’s story and thought, ‘This is a man who deserves more than is expected of him.’ I’m glad it’s to your liking.”
Lucille looked at him expectantly. The strong influential woman patiently waiting for another confirmation that her hunch had been right.
Hector had never looked at the rooms that way, but his room did have more books and gadgets. There was always something he could find in a drawer or on a shelf that drew his curiosity and attention. It was stocked with all kinds of music from classical to rock to blues, and he’d slowly been sampling them.
“Thanks,” he said again. “For everything, you know?”
She smiled broadly. “I’m glad Martin was right about you, tattoos and all. Not that he’s ever explained why he chose you as a student, of course.”
They filled the room with laughter at that and Hector looked forward to another night with just them in the dining room.
The open yard was often used as a quiet, open classroom. Teachers brought students outside to “enjoy nature” while reading. There were a few small groups around now, doing just that.
All were oblivious to Hector’s problem.
One of his teachers, John, had starting asking him about his training with Martin. It wasn’t an uncommon thing, unfortunately. Usually Hector shook them off after a few questions and the incidents had become less frequent. John, however, was not taking a hint.
“I told you it’s fine,” he said. His pace was getting dangerously close to a run, which he did not want to do just to get away from a teacher of all people.
“I want to make sure you’re getting proper training,” John continued. “I am offering discrete lessons to you. Martin doesn’t have to know.”
Hector stopped and looked at him. Of course, Martin wouldn’t know. They’d just put his mentor into a medical coma. He didn’t know anything that was happening now. Lucille had explained it was by choice. Strange indicents around the world. Martin was the only one capable of such things.
The other teachers hadn’t dared broched the idea of a lapse in Hector’s training because of it. Though he had gotten the feeling it was more because they feared him by association, rather than respect for Martin.
“Has he prepared you properly? Are you seeing the power and beauty of magic?”
The outpouring of genuine concern about the possible shortcomings of Martin’s teaching ability was beyond the point of annoying now. Hector tried to be understanding about it, but John’s persistance shouted that this wasn’t about making sure Hector was okay. Despite John’s earnest expression, Hector was sure his intentions weren’t good. It was obvious his issues with Martin ran deeper than the other teachers’. “Are you sure you’ve been taught as well as everyone else here?”
“Yes,” he answered firmly and then turned to walk away.
John’s spell tore at Hector’s sleeve, leaving a shallow, bloody wound.
“Sorry,” he said, though Hector had his doubts. “I thought you knew how to defend against such a thing. Martin’s training leaves much to be desired.”
“I’m fine,” Hector said. The cut was already closing.
“I should check, to be sure.” John reached for the other man’s arm.
“I’m fine,” Hector repeated, pulling his arm away.
“I just want to check your arm,” John assured him. “You don’t realize how dangerous spells can be. The damage they do shouldn’t be underestimated.”
This trick wasn’t new to Hector, though. He’d seen it played dozens of times growing up. A supposed accident with supposed regret all to gain access. In this case, to look at his tattoos. He still didn’t understand everyone’s interest and fascination with them, but he wasn’t indulging this curiosity.
“I think we’re done.”
Suddenly his shirt ripped from his chest and he could feel the shift in the air.
“I know I am.” John’s smile was gone, replaced by a sneer. His cold eyes fixed on Hector.
Hector glared back. He could feel the dimensional bubble around them.
“You think I don’t get it, don’t you?” John asked. “Somehow I would miss what those tattoos are all about? Why Martin was so keen on them?”
Outside the bubble, Hector could tell others sensed its presence. They knew not to approach it, lest they accidentally breach its walls and hurt themselves. But knowing it existed meant they could probably guess who was inside, which meant, regardless of what John did, the others would know of his involvement.
“You should respect your superiors,” John scolded him, wagging a finger. “I have such patience. One needs that to survive centuries after being humiliated. But I have no tolerance for your disrespect. You will regret that.”
Hector glanced down at his decorated arm, looking for this cryptic clue he apparently gave himself. Nothing made sense.
“You really think a mind like mine couldn’t figure it out? I am Merlin, a wizard of legend. Your tattoos tell quite the tale, but it means nothing now.” John smirked. His image morphed into one that was identical to the painting in the hall, leaving no doubt who he truly was.
Hector looked at the tattoos again, his mind racing to everything Martin had said about them, anything he said that could explain their importance, how they could relate to Merlin, the wildfire. But the images were only significant to Hector. He had chosen them. He had decided to be marked with them. The story they told meant nothing to Merlin.
“I am too powerful to be treated so poorly by a creature like yourself,” Merlin said. “I’m going to enjoy snuffing you out, then Martin. The others won’t realize his innocence until I’ve reclaimed my throne. This time without Arthur to hold me back.”
“If you really figured out my tats, you’d know it can’t be like that,” said Hector, meeting Merlin’s gaze momentarily before the elder looked away, stealing a glance at those precious tattoos again. Hector took advantage of his distraction and concentrated.
Merlin laughed. “You think I can’t feel what you’re up too? Trying to break my dimension with your own? Child, I was the first to create dimensions. Your ignorance is insulting.”
Hector stayed focused which enraged Merlin further. The wizard advanced on Hector, smirking.
“You can’t stop me. No one ca–”
His words were cut off as part of his skull deteriorated, having crossed into a small dimensional bubble while the rest of his head did not. Merlin barely had time to register what was happening, only part of him aging at an accelerated rate. Still there was nothing he could do to save himself.
Merlin’s dead body collapsed to the ground as his spell ended.
The other wizards rushed to Hector, taking in the baffling scene.
“What the–” began Antony.
“He was Merlin. He set up Martin.”
“You stopped him,” said Betty.
Hector shook his head. “He stopped himself. I made little dimensions around him. If he’d stayed put or tried to sense them all, he’d been fine. He just couldn’t help himself.”
“He was so powerful…” Betty trailed off.
“Mediocre man. Mediocre end,” Hector said, remembering Martin’s words. “Strength doesn’t mean great and it don’t mean smart.”
The hospital room was basic.
Hector had expected more for some reason. Somehow bigger or more nicer or something that only someone as weathly and influential as Lucille could swing for her husband. Instead it was an average, sterile, weird smelling room shared by three other patients. They were asleep, despite the beeping machines in the room.
Lucille, still dressed like she was attending a formal affair for dignitaries, was seated in a small plastic chair next to Martin’s bed, holding his hand.
Hector cleared his throat to get her attention.
“They’re doing the paperwork so we can bust him out,” he said, vaguely gesturing behind him to a nurses’ station down the hall. He’d tell them the whole story with John/Merlin later.
“He’s been cleared?”
Lucille stood up and started detattaching the tubes and wires from Martin’s body. Hector went to stop her, but noticed she was doing some kind of spell. Martin’s eyes blinked awake.
His wife kissed him.
Hector considered leaving the room.
“So he revealed himself?” Martin said, looking at his student approvingly.
“You knew Merlin was around?”
“Never shook the feeling. I knew he was behind those strange attacks on wizards,” Martin shrugged. “Didn’t think he’d be able to pin them on me. I couldn’t do anything to stop him at that point. I worried a bit then.”
“‘Cause you knew he’d try to kill me?” Hector walked to the end of the bed. His joy at Martin’s return replaced by anger. “Because of you and your whole tat story?”
“He would have tried to kill you regardless. I knew that when I met you,” said Martin. “That tat story was protecting you.”
“And you’re lucky I figured it out in time–”
“Care to eloborate?” Lucille softly interjected.
“Sorry,” Martin apologized, squeezing her hand. “I never told you how strongly I felt Merlin was still alive, waiting to return to his glory. Those attacks I was sent to investigate were his doing; I was sure, but couldn’t prove it.”
Lucille pointedly looked at Hector and then back at Martin. She raised her eyebrows, silently convening that she’d figured that much out herself.
Martin, the most powerful wizard in the room, swallowed hard under his wife’s gaze. “I didn’t know who he was masquerading as or else I would have told you. I was trying to be careful.”
“Then he found me and realized he could use me,” Hector supplied.
“No, I found you and realized you had the best shot of beating him. You were gifted and different and those tattoos were perfect.”
“My tattoos don’t mean nothing unless you’re me. Not magical or mystical. They were just a diversion Merlin couldn’t figure out.”
“Exactly,” said Martin. “And I told you the strategy to stop Merlin.”
Hector glared at him.
“In my plan, the mystery of your tattoos would have drawn him out so I could stop him. I knew that an ego like his couldn’t resist not knowing what they meant. I thought he’d reveal himself in some way, and then we’d fight, and then I’d win. ,” Martin explained. “However, I also knew that plans don’t always go as planned. When I first met you, it was the only opportunity I had to warn you properly. Any time after we could have been monitored. There was no telling what Merlin would be able to discover.”
“So a crazy cryptic story for a strategy?”
“It was the best I could think of.” Martin shrugged. “Everything after that was preparing you in case Merlin made his move before I was ready.”
“Did you really think I stood a chance against him?”
Martin smiled. “You must know thy enemy. There was no way he was figuring you out.”
Hector shook his head and sighed. Not sure if he was forgiving his teacher or just deciding not to hit someone lying in a hospital bed.
“Well, I propose we live here and relax at home,” Lucille said standing up. “Martin, a portal, please?”
“Portal?” Hector said.
“No, I couldn’t–” Martin stammered.
“You have put Hector through quite enough and he has saved us from Merlin,” his wife responded sternly. “He deserves a reward. I deserve an apology. So you shall make a portal and transport us home now.”
“You can do portals? In training you said that no one could do that, that was impossible,” Hector said.
Martin looking more uncomfortable now than when he was attached to numerous wires and a tube going down his throat. “I said portals required so many balanced factors and linking two dimension bubbles that not even Merlin was known to have done it.”
“Martin?” Lucille was looking downright impatient.
“I know, I shouldn’t have bent the truth like that,” Martin said. “Front entrance?”
Lucille nodded. “And you will be training him fully, yes?”
“Yes,” he said nodding. “And I will tell you everything.”
She looked at him and smiled. “I know.”
Martin cleared his throat and stood up, hospital gown flapping in the rear. He gestured for Hector to stand with Lucille. Then closed his eyes.
“First, a clear view of the destination. Then, the bubbles,” he said and Hector could feel the dimensional shift occur. “Then, they connect…”
There was a pause, like time slowing, the scene around them blurring, and then, the trio were standing in their home.
“Holy…” Hector trailed off.
“With Merlin gone, we don’t have to worry about showing others just what you can do,” Lucille said to Martin.
“I can also show Hector what he can do,” he said turning to his student. “If you’ll still let me help you discover your full potential.”
Hector smiled. “Sure.”