It was days like today when Isaac Stirling especially enjoyed his coffee. The air in Seattle hanged in the air like a soggy net, and the sun was barely creeping above the brick buildings around him. The shore was a ways off, but Isaac could almost picture the waves rolling calmly across his feet. He clutched his coffee, feeling the radiating warmth through the glass. It was the most bitter brew the small corner cafe had on hand. Just the way Isaac liked it. It perked him up and gave his mind the jolt it needed. Cream was for nights when he needed to calm down.
Only a few people were crossing the street ahead of Isaac. Mostly businessmen grabbing breakfast, construction workers changing sidewalk tiles, and the occasional homeless person. Isaac himself was dressed in a rigid, black, cloth coat and dark blue jeans. With his thinly trimmed beard and messy black hair, he looked something like a cross between a model and a college professor. Though his grumpy complexion ruined any chance at the former. He didn’t mind, however. Cameras were some of the most annoying things invented to Isaac. Especially nowadays, when they were in practically every device.
A city bus pulled up on the street, and a small cluster of passengers stepped off. Among them was a middle-aged, sturdily-built man wearing a Hawaiian-style button-down over a stark-white undershirt. His cargo shorts exposed his bushy legs, and allowed the man to show off his complete tan. Even down to his sandals. with his buzzed blonde hair, he looked like a tourist. The moment he made eye contact with Isaac, the man waved both his hands in the air and called out, breaking the image of a mucho-macho-man he gave off.
“Isaac! Isaaaac! It’s me, Gregory!”
Dammit, thought Isaac. It’s been forty years since he’s seen anyone from the Collective, and nearly a hundred since he left. He knew it was only a matter of time before he ran into a fellow mage again, but he wanted to at least finish his coffee how he liked it, and now the moment was ruined. Gonna need creamer now, I guess. No point in being alert, Gregory is enough of a character to force my thoughts to move. Of course it had to be him. Guess he’s better than Kimberly.
Gregory pulled up a chair from another table and shouted through the window, “I’ll take a white chocolate mocha mint espresso with cream.” The cashier was flustered, but she seemed to interpret his order. Satisfied he would get his drink, Gregory’s face hardened as he turned towards Isaac, who was trying to hide behind his own cup of coffee.
“Long time no see, huh Isaac?”
“Hello there, Gregory. How’s your family?”
“The usual. Daughter’s in high school. Unlike you, they’re all members of society. Even make an effort to say hello in the morning.”
“You’re mad huh?”
“Oh you betcha’. You know who else?”
“Don’t say it’s Kimb-”
“Kimberly. Max. Even Christian’s worked up.”
“Max is mad whenever the sky clouds over. Christian just needs to grow up. He should be an adult by now.” Isaac stirred a cream in, trying to avoid Gregory’s eyes, which were practically black holes, pulling at Isaac until he finally looked up again.
“Not going to sugar coat it, you may’ve abandoned us, but you’re still family. We want you back. Trouble’s creeping back ’round. Sure you’ve heard of Edward Bell? Or are you underground these days?”
“The slimy suit running for the Chair? Might have heard he wants to rule the world.”
A waitress brought over Gregory’s concoction. It was a heavy-smelling drink, a weird blend between chocolate, cream, and mint that seemed to tip the table slightly. Isaac was picking up the faint smell of spiced soap, too.
Peering his eyes over his ruined coffee, Isaac spoke up softly. “You wearing cologne now? Or did you wash what little hair you’ve got?”
“Don’t change the subject. Kimberly wants you back in for this.” Gregory downed a portion of his drink before slamming the cup down like a mug of good beer, startling some older women who were peeking at him.
“This? I remember getting a briefing before a mission.”
“She wants us to investigate Bell’s world peace plan. You know how can turn out.” Gregory took another hefty swig.
“You switch to coffee instead of booze?” Isaac finished his own drink, grumbling to himself as the stark taste of cream stuck around.
“Still got a thorn for a tongue, was worried you’d become soft. Guess it’s more like I need to be especially awake now.” One last chug and Gregory finished his drink. Isaac barely registered what Gregory said before the large man grabbed at the air next to him, ripping it away like paper to reveal a tall, matured woman in a caramel turtleneck and evergreen skirt. She almost seemed sculpted with her sharp-edged looks, like she could pierce the resolve of anyone she looked at. Standing next to her was a young lady with chin-length black hair. She wore jeans, a grey knit sweater and green scarf.
“So it is you, Kimberly. Has nobody said you reek of Old Spice? I could smell it behind your cloaking spell.” This is bad, thought Isaac, She looks like she’s got some kind of vendetta.
Kimberly tossed her dark brown hair, “You noticed? You still have your touch, even though you’ve been all but dead these past hundred years.”
“Well being stalked by a relentless boss-lady tends to keep a guy on his senses.” Isaac’s eyes turned towards the young lady, who constantly shifting around, glancing at Isaac, then turning away.
“Oh! How terribly rude of me,” Kimberly exaggerated, pushing the lady by her shoulders, “This sweetie is my adopted niece, Gretchen. Gretchen, this is Isaac Stirling, the famous hermit. He used to be the most feared mage around before he disappeared and everyone realized they’d been duped.”
That woman, Isaac gripped his mug before he made a scene. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gretchen, really. I’m just surprised you had a niece.”
“You’d know if you didn’t run away like a heart-broken cat, Darling,” Kimberly said, grinning through the bone-chilling glare she gave Isaac.
“The pleasure is mine,” Gretchen’s voice was soft, as if she wasn’t sure how to act.
Kimberly clapped her hands and everything outside of the group of four stopped in time. “We don’t have time for arguing. We need you to come back, Isaac. There are issues arising that we can’t handle on our own.”
Isaac leaned back into his chair, “C’mon, Kimberly. You know I’ve been out of commission since the War. You don’t need me in the field.”
“I’ve had it with your laziness. You and I both know that’s not true.” Kimberly was almost in Isaac’s face, and when Gretchen tried to speak up, Gregory grabbed her shoulder, shaking his head.
Isaac’s patience was wearing thin, “I can’t help you. I haven’t practiced serious magic for a long time. I’ve been burned out since the fight.”
“Oh come on! You’re just using that as an excuse, you know as well as I do that you dealt with that a long time ago.”
Isaac slammed the table, “You and your goddamned mouth! Stop talking like you know everything about me! You couldn’t possibly understand how it felt, how much it hurt… And for what? What makes that experience worth it?”
Kimberly didn’t move an inch, but her face began to glow with anger, “What make’s it worth it? How about that you’re alive? The war ended, and you helped put a stop to it! You even saved Gretchen!” Kimberly looked over as Gretchen removed her scarf. Across her neck was a dark, jagged scar across her neck.
Isaac’s body cooled, memories spinned through his head, and he wanted nothing else than to run out of here. He’d been running from his past for so long, it was surreal to see the girl here, like a ghost who’d come to torment him.
Swallowing his fear, Isaac tried to save face. “So you’re a mage as well, huh?” Gretchen just nodded, seemingly just as nervous to see him. “Explains how you survived.”
“After she recovered enough to leave the hospital, I picked her up as my apprentice.” Kimberly held Gretchen and tousled her hair. “She became like my family, and she’s grown a lot. Enough to impress you, I think. In fact, I think I’ll reassign her to you.”
That woke Isaac up from his daze. “Excuse me? Now?”
“Yes, I think think that’s a wonderful idea. Just the thing to get you back into the world again.”
“You have no right to do this!”
“Actually,” Kimberly shifted her eyes towards Isaac, and her voice adopted a menacing tone, “I have every right. You forget you’re still under contract to the Collective. We let you run away for a hundred years, but playtime’s over. It is time for you to come back in, like a good boy, and quit this escapist’s vacation.”
Isaac was furious. The air started to pop with energy, like the feeling that crawled across a person’s skin before a severe storm. Gregory shifted around in his seat, afraid that Isaac might lose control. However, when Isaac looked back at Gretchen, he saw a look of wonder. It reminded him of his own time as an apprentice. He’d seen Kimberly like a hero, as well, when she brought him in. At least, until he was old enough to be considered an adult, and Kimberly became the bane of his existence. It was a cunning trap, the perfect way to drag a runaway back home. In any other situation, a fight probably would have broken out.
However, looking at Gretchen calmed Isaac down. It wasn’t closure, the fight with Rachelle would haunt his memory forever, but the fact that one good thing survived what seemed like the end of his life flowed into Isaac like a warm breeze. It soothed his numbed soul, and he relaxed a little.
Damn you, Kimberly. Behind that pretty figure you’re a silver-tongued witch. You only brought Gretchen here to keep me in line and bring me in.
“You win. Don’t expect me to be much help. It’s been a long time since I’ve used magic.”
Kimberly grinned and tossed her hair over her shoulder, “Oh Isaac, quit lying to yourself. You have to train Gretchen now. Take good care of her, she’s my niece after all.”
A spiral of red light wove around Isaac and Gretchen’s right forearms. It spilled into their skin, leaving a brand shaped that spelled their names, signifying the apprenticeship. A lifelong declaration that would only be released by death, or whenever Isaac declared Gretchen’s training as complete. When the process was finished, Kimberly clapped her hands, and time began to flow around the group once again.
Laughing heartily, Gregory smacked Isaac across his back. “Welcome back.”
“Believe me, you’ll probably regret it.” Isaac massaged the brand, the process itched just as much as the last time.
“C’mon, gonna upset Gretchen. She’s done nothing but train her ass off.” Gregory pointed his thumb towards Gretchen, who bounced on her heels eagerly as she listened to one last talk from Kimberly.
Gregory’s right, thought Isaac, It pisses me off, but this isn’t something I can run away from. It’s happening again… Isaac shook his head, No. I can’t let what happened to Rachelle happen again. I’ll do better. I swear it.
Isaac walked over to Kimberly and Gretchen, reaching out his hand. “Let me introduce myself again, properly. I am Isaac Stirling, a Warlock of the Collective. You might know me as the Quicksilver Mage, but please call me Isaac.”
Gretchen, who’d been a nervous wreck until now, looked thrilled, and it nearly threw Isaac off his formal attitude. He wasn’t used to people being excited by his presence. She’s a true amateur, isn’t she?
“My name is Gretchen Glade, and I’ll be your student, Isaac. You saved my life, and I hope to repay you by becoming your best apprentice.” Gretchen looked directly into Isaac’s eyes, with absolute determination filling her eyes.
She knows exactly what she’s saying, so she understands what happened. Kimberly, you are good. This young lady could be your daughter, let alone your niece.
The pair shook hands as Isaac spoke, “It’ll be my pleasure. Show me what you can do, and we’ll see where you end up.”
Gregory rubbed his hands together, “Let’s grab something to eat then, my treat. We’ll celebrate, and then get down to business.”
“Business? What do you call this, then?” Isaac already knew the answer, but it felt nostalgic to egg Gregory on.
“A family reunion. Messy as ever. My wife’d be drooling over this. Loves this kind of action. No family to gossip about, so we’re a bit starved. Almost sad you’re back, your teenage runaway act was our choice topic for years.”
“Missed you too, Gregory.” Isaac rolled his eyes. The sour taste of cream was stuck in his mouth as the group left the cafe. Gregory spoke loudly as he lead them to a nearby steakhouse, catching Isaac up on the Collective’s latest ventures. Kimberly clarified everything Gregory said, since he’d keep leaving out bits and pieces of things he thought were unimportant. Isaac shambled behind, checking the area for anyone eavesdropping. Gretchen trailed Isaac, almost prancing around like a puppy following its beloved master.
Deep down, Isaac felt a little nostalgic. Despite his sour face and twitching eyes, he had missed these moments. It was like he finally belonged again. He’d returned to the place where he felt like he meant something. He hated the attention, since he was used to not speaking to anyone, but Gregory’s voice seemed to drown out every negative thought creeping into Isaac’s mind.
“Keep up, Isaac,” Gregory broke his monologue as Isaac began to drift further from the group.
Shaking his head, Isaac quickened his pace to catch up again.