The stage lights focused on an empty space in the center. A woman appeared, and the crowd applauded. I didn’t see a pocket watch in her hand, and she didn’t have a quelling band on her wrist. She’d used wild magic. I didn’t know if she’d concealed her arrival on stage or if she’d teleported. Either way, she wasn’t hiding what she could do. I understood immediately these people wanted what she had. They wanted to free their magic. The applause died down as the woman lowered her hands.
“Thank you all for coming,” she said. “This is our largest meeting yet. I’m glad you’re finding others like yourselves who are tired of our government’s lies. If we gather enough people to our cause, I know we can change things. Keep reaching out, my friends.”
The audience applauded again.
“I heard some discussion about bringing Casters into these meetings. But I urge you not to, yet. I’m sure that we will find sympathy in their community. They have more, but they are still confined by unnatural limitations. Unlike you, they don’t wear their bonds around their wrists. Their shackles are in their minds. The academies indoctrinate them into believing they can only reach so far. In some ways, your road will be easier. Once we cut your quelling bands, you’ll be ready to embrace your power with a clean slate. Caster will have to unlearn what the system drilled into them to be as free as you will be.”
“The day we can fill this theater with like-minded people, we will cut you free. They won’t be able to stop us then. Just like they couldn’t stop me. I’d like to tell my story again to our new friends.”
A chorus of cheers drove her on.
“I used to be bound just like all of you. My family couldn’t afford to give me a magical education, but they couldn’t bear to part with me either. They submitted me for a quelling band. And my entire childhood, I felt cut off from who I really was and who I was supposed to become. As I aged and they replaced my quelling band, I craved that moment from one band to the next. Those few precious moments of freedom. I couldn’t do anything except feel whole for the smallest window.”
“When I was fifteen, I couldn’t stand it anymore. As soon as they released me, I used my magic. I thought I would die. That’s what they tell the Caster. I’m sure you’ve all heard it too. Wild Magic is deadly. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to know what it would feel like, and if it killed me, at least I’d leave this realm feeling complete. My magic burned so brightly that it gave me a chance to escape. That was twenty years ago.”
“For the first few years, I lived like I would die that very day. I never did. Because Wild Magic doesn’t kill. It gives us life. All magic does. The academies’ rules don’t protect Casters. They control them. But together, we can break their control over all of us.”
The crowd cheered, clapped, and stood from their seats in excitement. I did too. I could tell myself I did it to fit in until I could get away, but it would be a lie. She was compelling. I’d thought that Dimitri and I were pushing limits. We’d expanded one another’s worlds. This woman left us in the dust. She planned to change everyone’s world.
With her speech done, she came down from the stage and started meeting new people. She shook hands and hugged her way around the room. Everyone lit up under her attention. I got caught between wanting to meet her personally and wanting to go undetected. Daniel ordered discretion. I shifted around the room, avoiding whichever group she headed to next. Eventually, I ducked into a hallway, hoping to find another exit. She appeared in front of me, so suddenly I nearly ran her over.
“Leaving so soon?” she asked.
“I was just looking for a toilet,” I lied.
“No, you weren’t,” she accused. “I don’t appreciate spies coming into my meetings.”
“I’m not here to spy on your meeting. I have nothing against what you’re doing here,” I stammered.
“That’s the truth; interesting,” she said. How did she know? One of Dimitri’s watches could detect lies, couldn’t it? “Why are you here, then?”
“My boss sent me to check up on the woman he’s seeing,” I answered automatically. Did she make me? I didn’t like to create spells spontaneously, but if this woman could mess with minds, I needed to try something to stop her. I called on my magic and concentrated on a barrier between her and my mind.
“You’re like me,” she said with wonder.
“That’s Wild Magic! You cut your quelling band, too,” she exclaimed. “When? How long have you been using magic?”
“I need to leave,” I said, thankful that my spell worked well enough. I pushed past her and hoped I was headed for an exit.
“Wait,” she demanded. Her magic tugged on me, but it didn’t catch hold. “Please.”
“Why?” I asked, only pausing because I heard yearning in her voice.
“I’m sorry for compelling you,” she said. “Can we please talk?”
“It doesn’t have to be right now. We meet here twice a month. Come back for our next meeting. It is in two weeks,” she said.
“I’ll think about it,” I told her.
“Fair enough. If you follow this hall and turn left, you’ll find an exit,” she said.
I followed her directions and exited on the east side of the building. When I looked over my shoulder, I saw a solid wall. How did she do that? How much more could I be doing with my magic?
The next morning, Daniel, Dimitri, and I loaded into a carriage and went to the rental that Daniel had arranged. I showed up just a few minutes before Dimitri, hoping to avoid discussing the meeting while I considered what to tell Daniel. He’d expect a report on Aubrey, but how could I tell him any single part without explaining the rest? What would he even do with the information? He’d supported my magic and Dimitri’s unique enchantments. Maybe he’d be supportive of Aubrey’s involvement with the group. I considered lying to him. He admitted he didn’t know when she’d attend the next meeting. I could tell him she’d closed early, and I got there too late. It was mostly true. I still hadn’t decided when we arrived at the building Daniel wanted to show Dimitri. We walked into the empty store, and I put the decision on hold.