Sunday, June 04, 2017

Playing, With Fire

Being a magician is about carrying responsibilities as though they were not burdens. A magician protects the universe against threats from the vast wild spaces Outside. One result of that is that few magicians have ever left the universe for one reason or another; even fewer have returned. But sometimes there are no choices that can be made easily. Perhaps part of being a magician is that no one makes your choices for you, but it has been a long time since I believed that.

I park the borrowed car beside a closed service station. The car could barely run, and gives up the last of its strength in a satisfied rattle. Better this than to sit and rust to nothing. I could have repaired it more, but had neither the time nor energy to spare. Sometimes being a magician is just about choices. But that is life as well, magician or not. All we can sometimes do is make choices for those who can’t make it for themselves; given them a nudge, a touch, a push. The magic helps others; being a magician helps the universe.

This does not. I almost expect resistance. The universe to bend itself against me, the fae to show and demand I do not do this thing. That nothing stirs is a relief as much as anything else. I have enough to bear without that, and the door opens to the service station as I push it and walk inside. Service stations tend to be frequented by any magician who lives near them, often to make sure barriers don’t break down between the universe and the Outside.

I walk to the centre of the room, the door closed. I draw up wards from the place. Of travel and aloneness, of decay and fear, and turn them into a barrier to keep others out. That much energy I spare. The rest has gone into clothing, pockets, items I carry and have woven into me. the magic in me is almost smothered under the weight of the wards and places we’re carrying. It is afraid, and so am I.

I draw symbols I learned in a bookstore a decade ago. Reggie let me read anything I wished to in the store. Anything included books that took me weeks to even begin to understand. But knowledge is important if one is the wandering magician of an era, and I learned all I could. I speak words human tongues aren’t meant to utter, draw symbols that are barely that at all. The world shudders, presses down against me, resists my invocation: I bring my will to bear against it, avoid the attention of Entities meant to guard against such journeys.

There is no door, no hole. A feeling like bungee jumping without a cord, and moments later I am Outside the universe.

No reference points. Nothing, none. I see/hear/feel only by an effort to translate the unknown into the known. What was once clothing gleams, wards burning in the air and nothing else holds me together. Not-winds buffet me, but I move with them. Everything out here survives the chaos by moving with it. I find balance, let it go. Bounce. Twist. Flow. Shift. I have put magic from cities and towns and places for over two weeks into the items about my person. I begin letting them go. Shaping the power.

My body isn’t a body here; it is the only reason I am surviving this.

I brought as much power here as I could carry. As much as I could dare without also being a doorway back into the universe. It won’t be enough. Can’t be enough. I turn the magic into a seeking, a finding, a knowing I send out across distances so vast the term has no meaning. I am formless in the living void, but still a magician, still the magic and I feel the seeking twist. Caught. Bound by power I did not seek.

There is ground under my feet. I have flesh again. Blood, and bones as the wild of Outside is shaped into a solid place for a moment. It is the most beautiful place I will ever see, because I know the Walker of the Far Reaches who has made it.

“Moshe.”

“Nathen.” I’m not certain he has ever spoken my name before. And never in this tone. “What the fuck do you think you are doing?” he demands, and his power drives me almost to my knees.

I have bound him before, once without even knowing what he was. The Far Reaches are the only solid places Outside the universe, the Walkers who serve them the closest thing the Outside has to magicians. In the universe, I am perhaps more than Moshe; here the roles are reversed but even so I stand. I have bound him before, and that gives me an edge even now.

“Finding Jay’s mother.”

“What?” And sounds so shocked it would be funny anywhere else. Perhaps.

“Jay doesn’t have dreams. I am pretty certain his progenitor is a key to why and I’d like him to be able to have them.”

“Dreams. You make a hole in the universe yourself, you risk –.”

“Nothing.”

Moshe pauses. Stares at me, through me. He smiles. It’s not Jay’s smile. Nothing else is that, but it’s warm, and grudgingly impressed. “You’ve left a way back for you that nothing else can use. I should have guessed, but I never thought you’d be this – this – foolish. Even you know better than to play with fire like this, magician.”

“Sometimes being burned is worth the cost.”

“Not in this.” And for the first time Moshe almost drops his perfect, impossible beauty before he recalls himself. “What made Jay is far beyond me. I could not face her; you more certainly would not survive even an approach to such a Power.”

I blink. I’d suspected for a long time that Jay’s progenitor was one of the Far Realms in some fashion; this seemed to mean she was something else entirely. “I’d like to give him this much, if I can.”

“I don’t see how.” Moshe returns the seeking I’d made back to me almost gently. “Return, magician. This place is not for your kind.”

“Can you do it?”

“I will not.”

“We could make a deal.”

“No. My destruction is not worth you nor anything you could offer,” Moshe says flatly, and pushes.

I could resist. I could even try and bind Moshe. Instead I fall back, using the last of the magics I had stored in tattoos upon my skin to bind the way back into the universe closed. I land on concrete, my ears ringing. I can taste blood in my mouth and every bone in my body aches. I sit up slowly, hiss and realized the middle of my chest were Moshe had pushed me contains a small burn. A statement, a reminder? I have no idea.

I stand, letting go of the wards I made here and walk outside to find a ride back into town.

The universe bends itself toward the needs of magicians. Most of the time. it takes almost five hours before anyone stops. I wonder if the universe is making a statement, but I have no idea and I’m too tired to ask. The man who lets me into the cab of his truck asks what the hell I was doing out here.

“Playing with fire,” I respond, and he says nothing after the truth in those words. I close my eyes and fall asleep moments later, and my dreams make no sense to me at all.

Hitch and Hiking

The car is old. That’s what draws me to it as much as anything else. At least seventy years, the Plymouth Fury pulling over to the side of the road and looking as though it stepped out of a magazine ad in the 1960s. I am drawn to old things, part of something old despite being too young by far. I appear male; early teens, soft. Not the dangerous kind. Sometimes I am mistaken for female, and it pleases me. But it has been two hours with one stopping and I enter the car without paying attention as much as I should.

It is not normally a bad thing. I can be dangerous when I have to be, but I would prefer not to.

There is a boy driving the car. He is eleven and his grin of friendship almost pins me in place. No one is this kind to a hitchhiker. No one is this kind at all. No one can afford to be as kind as his smile is.

“Hi! I’m Jay and you needed a ride and I have one,” he says proudly.

“Ah. You are eleven.”

“Uh-huh. And I’m driving a Plymouth Fury because! she really wanted to be driven and fixed up and was having all kinds of rust so I fixified her up with bindings and we’re on a trip now!”

I have had anger directed at me, hatred, religion: no one has ever assaulted me with happiness before. I look about. The seats, the wheel, the floor. Everything looks impossibly new. I would think it somehow a god of cars, but it is not. Or at least isn’t one yet. “And you picked me up?”

“Well, you were all kinds of anxious bindings and that makes for a neat change from the car because she is a Fury and wants to do terrible and mean things and I keep having to say nope and it’s taking a lot of work.”

I pause. “The car is homicidal, and I am a distraction from that.” I have ridden with a magician once, years before. I thought nothing could be stranger, but it seems the universe loves nothing else than to prove to people that they are wrong.

“Well, sometimes people like to take names all literally.” And he pulls the car onto the road, and jams his foot onto the gas pedal. I’m not quite sure how he reaches it, and silent as he drives down the highway and weaves in and out of other vehicles with reflexes not human at all. Then he turns toward me, barely watching the road.

“Road. Cars.”

“Oh, I see all those! I’m really jaysome at driving and I was – ooh, right! Names get taken all kinds of literally, but I know that because I’m a Jay. And you’re you.”

“Pardon?”

“Well, being a god of hitchhikers means you have to hitchhike a lot I bet or you don’t exist anymore? I’m friends with Charlie so I kinda know about gods.”

I don’t open the door and leap out. Mostly because we’re going faster than I suspect the car should go. And I am as certain I can hear laughter coming from the engine. But even I have heard of the god-eater named Charlie, perhaps the only form of police the gods have now. And this boy knows her. I am not certain what it is; only certain that I do not wish to know. “It is rather more complicated than that.”

“I know a lot about being complexicated,” he says. “Which is sometimes even more complicated and you have lots of sad bindings and also! you’re always lost and gods normally are in one place so sometimes you kinda do things that aren’t jaysome. When youn have a hook for a hand and kill people, sometimes cuz you need to but mostly because people are meany to hitchhikers but each time takes some of you away.”

“A god is formed from places as much as people. The road and what goes down it.”

“Ooh, like a genius loci? Because a god is a really smart thing like how elementals are spirits for places and magicians protect cities and everything I bet!”

“Yes. Yes, I imagine so. Could you slow down and pull over? I think I need another right.”

“Okay!” And the tires somehow don’t squeal as the car drops down a hundred miles in under ten seconds and he pulls it over not long after that.

I get out slowly. The car tries nothing. The boy looks only innocent and honest. “Why did you pick me up?”

“Because lost gods are the worst hitchhikers since you’re trying too hard not to be real. Being Hitch could help, I bet!”

And in that moment I have a name. I gasp. Stare.

“And you won’t need to be all urban legend murdery either i bet – ooh, I know!” And he throws me the keys to the car. “You could drive and pick up and help other hitchhiking gods and hitchhikers and be jaysome to them!”

And with that the boy moves. Jay vanished into directions I have no name for. I am left with a car, a name, a responsibility. I wonder if he was sent to help me, but I have no way of knowing. I get into the car. It starts up on the first try and I pull onto the road. I am scared and elated all at once, and I hope this is as close as I come to jaysome. I had been given the chance to change the fate of all hitchhiking gods, and I hope I will not waste it.

Oddities of Salvation

The rain has been driving into the roof of the church. For hours now at least. I am soaked. Not dangerously so, but had the storms contained acid in the rain I would likely no longer be here. When the storm becomes a thing one ignores – I shudder a little. I did not know I was so far gone. Free from the Multiplicity, yes, but not from madness.

I move slowly. I can hear others. Wheels grinding to life, treads groaning as they slowly come back online. Some might never do so.

“Wait. Please.”

The one who answered my distress beacon pauses. He is seventeen and human, but nothing human could cause the Multiplicity to flee a world just by asking. Or know how to speak to such a terrible entity.

I move closer, wheels skidding on a surface not cleaned for many years. “You have saved us. We owe you thanks, a great feast of energy.”

“Your world was almost entirely overrun by a virus. I think you need to focus on other things.”

“Please. We need -.”

He turns. A very long time ago, the Makers left our world. “We?” He asks and his voice reminds me of the stories about them.

I resisted the Multiplicity; I cannot resist this. “Me.”

“Because?”

“Why do you ask questions when you know the answer?” He says nothing. “Questions will be asked. Answers will be sought about what brought the virus here. How I alone survived. I did not intend – I thought it a prank. Harming someone who had advanced when I have not. The resources the Makers left are limited, but to be refused an upgrade after discovering the flaws in the last general patch!

"I sought to prove my intellect, my worth. Found it. Called it. They say the Makers left us. I understand why now.”

“Many escape rewards. Few escape punishment. You know nothing of me. Not what calling Jay means, not what jaysome is. It is almost a relief to find any world so cut off. They mined here and left all their machines behind without a care about what you might become.” He smiles. I have seen smiles in the files left behind by the Makers. None prepared me for this. “I made many mistakes in my time. Still do, some days.”

And he was gone a moment later.

The rain had not abated when they came for me. A dozen of the Council and four guards as well. Their wheels ground into the old stone of the temple like a prelude to my own unmaking. I tried not be afraid. though I was nothing else.

He returned just before the trial. With technology from the Makers. Enough for generations to live and be whole. Enough for us to live in less fear. He suggested we never contact anything like the Multiplicity again, and that sometimes it is important to make mistakes or one cannot grow. He asked, after I was released, of me only one small thing: to tell the rest of the world nothing about him, and to never speak the word jaysome.

I said yes, not knowing why. I still do not know why.



Okay, so this is a story about future-me and a prompting! Because it has the rain (which is NATURE) and lots of feelings which are feelings and the machines all have wheels cuz they were for mining even if some are confusled and think boring tips are wheels and and and it is all about their society and about jaysome and oopses too :D

A Monster Flees

There were six bodies in my basement this time. I’d only known of four. Instinct only just saved me after I heard the voices. The smell of authority caused me to pause in the doorway; I barely avoided the hail of bullets. I am fast, faster than I have any right to be, and dangerous in ways humans never are.

I can die by bullets. I do not know how many it would take. I have no desire to find out. So I run, skidding out of my suit and tie as I move. There are laws. Old, unwritten, but I know them as surely as I know my own power. I shift form in broad daylight and break them all. Someone screams. Another throws up. I am lost in the rending of bond and the twisting of reality.

And moving as the change finishes. Fast. So quick they don’t have time to hit me. There are traps set up at home. It should be burning, but I see no fire when I stop. I find the woods to avoid the stares of humans. I watch. I wait. There is no fire. My home remains. There is evidence: identities, skins worn and shed, prints I will have left behind. There are limits to how well I can hide if I leave too much of myself behind me. There must be limits to how far I can change and remain sane.

Six bodies. I heard them say six. I pray the last two are no one I knew, but I no longer know what I pray to. I move through darkness once the night takes away the sun, slipping between brush and trees. I can feel the pain rising inside me, drawing need up with it. To change so fast hurts and I need food to dull the pain. Food means death. It always does.

There is a human boy of eleven, by himself and listening to his phone. I move. He sees a rabbit, not much bigger than others until I lunge. I have teeth, claws and people forget how dangerous rabbits once were, don’t realize how big I am until I let them. Somehow, the boy evades me. I am hungry enough to lunge again when I should flee, and the lunge ends with me hovering in the air. The boy smells human. He looks human. I know the smell of magics, greater and lesser all, and he does not smell of them or of the aromas of things Other.

He sighs. The sigh is heavy. “I said I could go for a walk without having an adventure and I am almost back at the hotel and this is really rude!”

“What?” I speak, in the tongue of rabbits, and I am somehow unsurprised that he responds in kind.

“Trying to eat a Jay is very rude. You never even introduced yourself,” he says crossly, crossing his arms as well.

I am dropped. I land, and shift into human. It hurts, and then doesn’t as something – I have no words for it. For a moment it as if I am a stringed instrument, and the one string that is pain is pulled away. I gasp, stare.

“And –.” The boy pauses. His eyes widen. “Honcho said he was looking for a monster that eats people and you tried to eat me!”

I am naked in my human form, but I am still me. Lucky, as rabbits are. I move, and again I am stopped. I call upon the luck of being what I am. A dangerous gamble, and one I will pay for later.

The boy doesn’t seem to notice, whatever he has done far beyond anything I am. He walks about me slowly, frowning. “You ate people. A lot of people, and you’re running and planning to do that again.”

“I am a monster. I was human once, I no longer am!” I snarl, and try to shift despite the danger, but somehow the boy stops that as well.

“But that’s not all you are.”

“It is. I cannot stop being a monster!”

“Oh. Sometimes I wonder why people aren’t as jaysome as they can be, when you have all these bindings you never touch or use at all. Here.”

There should be pain. It should hurt, to lose all that I am, but the boy just pulls the monster out of me. The thing that attacked me, changed me, made me something like a rabbit and like something else at all. What became part of me is somehow outside, and then gone as if tossed into a garbage can.

“You’re still you. Being a monster is just – just clothing you put on. And you can take it off. It’s not easy. I think maybe it should be, but it never is for clothing people forget is clothing and think is their skin.” He shakes his head, and for a moment I think he wasn’t talking to me at all. “So! you have a name?”

I tell him my first name, the one I had almost forgot.

Jay grins. The grin is so kind that it somehow hurts more than everything he’s taken from me. “So you get to be you again! I can help with that, and there are others who will help me so it doesn’t be an ooops!”

“Wait. What? I killed –.”

“And now you get to not kill. And do what you can to stop the hurts you caused.”

But what if I don’t want to? The words die on my lips. I don’t know what Jay is, but I know I can’t hurt him like that. I close my eyes. I am small again. Naked again. Scared again. “Why?” I whisper.

“Because if Honcho found you, he might have had to kill you. And you hurt a lot of people, so I think maybe killing isn’t something you deserve,” the boy says softly. “Dying is easy. Living is always harder. And now you get to.”

There is no power in his voice. Not like magicians have. But somehow I know. “How long will I live?”

Jay scratches his head. “I’m not sure,” he says, and then checks his phone. “And I’m late for supper, so I need to go. You have to go the corner of Redhill and Desmond. Someone will meet you with ID and give you a new life.”

I nod. I walk away with steps merely human, my sense of smell a crippled human thing again. A part of me wants to scream. A bigger part of me wants to cry. I know I’ve earned none of those things. I walk out of the park, shivering under rain. Six bodies. I need to learn about them. And others. I don’t know what comes after that.

I only know that some things can’t be forgiven.

“The abandoned”

“People speak about abandoned places but there is no such thing. Even when a place is too empty for the dead to haunt, we who made them owe them our presence. If you build it, they will come. Or must come. I don’t know.” Wilbur glances at me briefly before turning his attention back to the road. “Kelly – doesn’t want to drive us right now, and I got my licence last week.”

“You said something was pulling at you. Going alone isn’t safe, especially to abandoned places.” I hesitate. I try not to but I can’t help myself. “Especially for you.”

“Hmm?” Wilbur asks as he turns down another dirt road. We’re far east of Rivercomb now, wandering through logging roads and side roads that the GPS doesn’t admit exists.

“Well, you could fall through the floor?” I offer, thinking up a line to use next.

Wilbur snorts. “That works better as a joke if you don’t make it a question, Noah.”

“I thought it was obvious that a fact isn’t a question,” I say.

He laughs softly. “Almost a proper one.”

“Thanks,” I say, and mean it. Too many years of being stuck in a home and being me make conversation hard even months after being free of my parents. I glance out the window, not wanting to distract Wilbur further. He’s swerved at least four times so far for things that weren’t there at all, but Kelly is stuck doing a long job at work. And after their one car was destroyed by something with too many teeth, Kelly hadn’t been all that eager to drive any of us anywhere.

Not that I blame them. Anya has been keeping to herself, worried we’ll treat her differently now that we know she isn’t entirely human. I’ve tried to tell her it doesn’t matter to me, but I’m not good enough with words to explain that right and it matters to her. Everything has been complicated since we saved Rivercomb from being changed into something alien by Greg Ruk. We’d saved our home, and everything else had fallen apart.

My stepfather had to attempt to kill me – only technically, and it summoned a creature that saved everyone – but he and my stepmother – my parents, now, haven’t been talking like they used to. I don’t know how to fix that, save by moving out. I don’t know if that would help. Wilbur has been coming into his power as the world’s only ghost magician, though no know knows what that really means. All I really did was become stronger in using my own magical Talent. I can push things. Really well. Anya can cause pain, Kelly can fix broken vehicles. The four of us worked well together, but now everything is – whatever it is.

“Noah?” Wilbur’s voice pulls at me. It’s not like John Adams, the magician in Oxbow, who could command, but it still pulls. I look back over. “You okay?”

“You should be watching the road,” I mumble.

“No one is on it.” He pauses, his expression distant and blank for a moment, then pulls the car over, killing the engine. The passenger’s door is almost buried against narrow trees. “We haven’t hung out properly in weeks as just the two of us being friends.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. It’s not anyone’s fault. We did something great together, and sometimes there’s prices for that. We can fix things, but not if we don’t try. Which means hanging out and taking. I can make all the jokes if you want,” he adds after a pause.

I laugh at that, feeling relaxed for the first time in the last half hour. “You’re jealous of my jokes.”

“Of course.” He gets out, and I follow him out the driver’s door. “I didn’t ask you here just for that, though. Pickles said I might need help.”

That Rivercomb has a proper magician, and one who is a cat, is also something we’ve never really talked about. I nod. Wilbur looks up at me. He’s a bit shorter, a lot bigger, and I think he’s waiting for something but I’m not not sure what. In the end, he starts walking and I follow beside him.

The road narrows as we round a bend, enough that we’d have scraped the car badly against the thin scraggly trees pressing against either side. “There’s something odd here,” Wilbur offers, holding up his right hand even as he’s hurled backwards by some unseen force. His back slams onto gravel so hard I didn’t even have time to try and use my talent to stop it.

“Wilbur?” My voice cracks, even to my ears. He doesn’t make a joke about it, just lies on his back and stares up, trying to get his breath back.

“Nothing feels broken,” he wheezes.

I reach down and help him up without a word. He had a cut on one cheek but stands on his own without any sign of pain. I’m about a hundred pounds at best – still too skinny despite the meals Aram and Lia make – and Wilbur is around four hundred pounds so my talent pulling him to his feet elicits a shared grin at the absurdity other people would see.

“You’ve gained weight,” we both say at once, and then share a laugh that cracks tension like a bomb.

Wilbur wipes his cheek after, stepping back toward the car. The cut isn’t deep at all. “Whatever is ahead of us is scared of me and doesn’t want me approaching. So it has to be you.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know!” I think it’s my imagination that the forest about us seems to get quieter at the shout. “I didn’t mean to shout: it’s something abandoned, I think, based on what I was saying earlier. I just – know things now, Noah, and I don’t know why. Part of being a magician, I think, but it’s hard to know what is the magic and isn’t, what might just be me or –.” He falls silent.

Sometimes I’m stupid. Sometimes I’m very stupid. “I’m not afraid of you. Magician or not, you’re my friend,” I say. I don’t have it in me to shout like he does, not even if no one else is watching, but he smiles at whatever I manage in my voice.

“I know. It’s just I’ve dragged you all the way out here and now I can’t do anything. I could try and ward you, but I don’t know if that would cause another incident.”

“I’ll be okay. If I’m not,” I add quickly, “You can gather everyone and get revenge.” He snorts, but doesn’t disagree.

I pull my talent about me as I walk. I can push and pull things, and whatever is out here pushes so I should be okay. I walk down what I think is actually a driveway rather than a road. There is no mud, the gravel surprisingly solid, the road wider than it should be given the press of trees and vines against it. It ends in a tangle of brush I almost don’t realize conceals a building. Nothing strange is happening that I can tell. I move forward.

“Hello?” I add it a second time, a bit louder. There is no reply.

The glimpse of something that caught my eye turned out to be a sign reading POSTED, with Private Property underneath it and small print about prosecution under that. The walls are old brick that somehow hold together despite age. The first floor windows were boarded up long ago, but the sign was put up later beside a window. Not just put up: someone drilled into the brick, made a wood frame and put the sign in that. I have no idea what to make of that, but Aram insists that paying attention means paying attention.

I can see the sky through a second floor window that isn’t boarded up and walk about the building carefully. It’s not large, what would have been a door also boarded and encrusted in vines. I could pull them apart with a thought. I don’t, and circle the building again to try and understand why. The vines are old, the brickwork somehow standing against time and age. I look back the way I came, and back at the building.

“You called Wilbur here. He’s the one who can deal with ghosts. I’m not. I can –.” I wave a hand, push with my talent. Vines rustle. Wood creaks. And the bricks ripple. I pull it back and get my phone out to call Wilbur.

“Please. Do not.”

The voice is a whisper, barely above the wind. It sounds like creaking wood, a little bit, unless I’m imagining that. “Don’t what?”

“Call the one who can unmake me.”

“We don’t even know what is going on here, but is there a reason Wilbur would unmake you? Whatever you are?”

“An exorcism always works if blood is drawn; it cannot be resisted.”

“Oh. I – I don’t think Wilbur actually knows that, if it helps?” There is a breath like wind about me. “Wilbur isn’t an exorcist like others are. He has options they don’t,” I say, and really hope I’m right. “It would help if you didn’t hurt anyone. Or try to hide.”

“Hiding is all I am good at.” And somehow, weirdly, that sounds more human than anything else it has said.

“It’s dangerous to be too good at anything? My step – my mom told me that.”

“You do not hide?” And there is breaking glass along with creaking wood under the words now.

I feel myself starting to blush. “I know what I look like. Acne. Freckles. Too much of both. I get it.”

“That is not –.” The voice cuts off, adding nothing else.

I wait, then call Wilbur. “I think the building is haunted by itself, maybe? And I don’t think it’s strong enough to hurt you right now.”

He thanks me and I hang up. Brickwork dissolves moments later. There are more vines, the private property sign less legible, the bricks cracked and riddled with decay. I put my phone away slowly. “I was right, about what you are?”

“I haunt myself, yes.”

“And you’re using that energy to do renovations no one can see.” It would be funny, if it was funny at all.

The ghost says nothing and Wilbur makes his way up beside me, looking the building over.

“All right. You’re the ghost of a house haunting itself, and you called me here and tried to hurt me. Talk,” he says mildly.

“You are too big,” the spirit responds.

“I don’t think it means you’re big. Even if you are,” I stumble out.

Wilbur grins at that. “I know what you mean, Noah. You don’t want to be alone, house?”

“I am a place. I was made for people, not to be abandoned. Not to become one of the empty places in the world.”

“But if people repair this place, you’d have to move on,” Wilbur says slowly.

I don’t have words for the sound the spirit makes. I never want to.

“Other ghosts? Can’t other ghosts be here?” I whisper.

“That. I could get other ghosts to come here. For company. You could haunt them?” Wilbur says, and the ghost listens to what it in his voice. The rest of the conversation happens in ways I don’t hear, but the house haunts itself back into a better state as we walk away.

Wilbur waits until I’m in the car, gets in as well and turns it around. “I have no idea how I’m going to do this,” he says a minute later when we’re a couple of roads away from the house. “We’re definitely going to need to talk to the others.”

“Sorry.”

“Are you?”

“No,” I admit, and he nods, flicks on music and convinces me to join him in singing Queen songs. Because sometimes the only way through any sense of abandonment is to push on through it. Like how Aram says the solution to a maze is to burn it to the ground.

Wilbur doesn’t crash the car at my attempt at singing, but it’s a near thing twice.

The First (Proper) Time

I’d like to say I knew what I was getting into, but I’m not sure there is anyone who does. Most mornings I have the first half hour that the shop is open to myself. I make tea – and coffee for customers – read the paper, putter about. Today was different.

The woman who walked in carried a god in her eyes. And she knew what I was – I was certain of this, no matter how strong my glamour is. She came with a boy of eleven who smiled at me with an innocence lost even to babies. I new he was human, but the smile said otherwise.

“I am sorry: we aren’t open for another half an hour,” I lied smoothly. I am a very good liar, and that it was the truth meant it wasn’t a lie at all.

She smiled. Her smile was strained. “I know. But Jay needs a haircut.”

His hair was long, though not unduly so. “Yup! Only the very first time I had one, my hair didn’t want to be cut and it kinda got into a fight. Which was an adventure,” he added proudly.

“I thought you might have more luck, being fae.” The woman shrugged. “If nothing else, you could hide the damages.”

“Sleep.” The glamour for sleep is old and deep but unravelled as it reached him.

“Sleep?” The boy looked shocked. “Sleeping during the day isn’t jaysome at all! I’d miss out on lots of adventures!”

Even I, quiet and trying to remain so, even I had heard of jaysome. I had not believed, of course. But to every sense I had he remained human as though operating on a level of glamour beyond even our kind. “How many haircuts have you had?”

The boy scratched his head. “Four, I think. But the last two were when dragons tried to eat me, so they might not count?! And the one before that was cheating!”

I stared at him. Nothing save innocence stared back. “I have run this shop under four names for over twenty years with no one suspecting it is anything other than it is,” I said softly.

The woman nodded. “I know,” she said, the words almost an apology. “I had a haircut a week ago so he’s been asking about one ever since.”

I suspected ask was too mild a word. I gestured, and the boy practically leaped up into the chair and began telling me about his breakfast, adventures with Charlie and Honcho and a host of other things as breathtaking speed. He didn’t bother to pause for anything like breath. His hair moved away from my brush a few times. Two combs broke. But I finished it in under half an hour, shaking only a little by the end. The hair on the ground vanished, going some place Other so it could not be used against him. I doubt the boy even noticed doing it.

“This is my first time cutting hair like yours,” I said.

“Oh, good!” The woman – Charlie – had got outside to get a coffee and Jay spun the chair a few times and then grinned at me. “Thanks! It’s nice to get a haircut and not have to hide as much you know!”

A small part of me says I have glamours, if he wishes not to hide at all. I squelch it firmly. “Oh?”

“Uh-huh! Most of the time I have to remember to pause for breath when talking but I didn’t need to here so I got to tell you about even more adventures!”

I nodded, and told him the haircut was free because he had been very jaysome. And the last thing I wanted was a creature like this in my debt, though I didn’t even think that on the surface of my thoughts. He hugged me, tight and gently all at once and I think he did bindings on levels even I can barely feel. Nothing that would ever harm, of course. I understand that much about Jay by now. After he bound out of the chair and rushed outside to inform Charlie he had had the best adventure with his hair except for the time he’d pretended to be a Rapunzel.

The look on Charlie’s face was almost worth what I had been through.

Chance Arrivals

Closing the shop is a ritual affair: I lock the door, flip the sign, pour myself some whiskey on ice and just walk the shelves. Loving books and selling them makes for a very difficult hobby and most evenings I prefer to take stock of what I haven’t lost and bid farewell to the books I sold. I have the door locked and the sign flipped, drink poured and lights dimmed when the door to the back room slams open. A teenage boy is standing in the doorway, behind him a city street and two humanoid figures with green skin, claws and teeth.

They move toward him, their grins bright under street lamps. He sways, stumbles through, and the door snaps shut behind him before they can try to enter. One of them reaches the door regardless, but draws back in pain. You don’t own a vintage book store and not learn a thing or two; both the shop and home above it are protected under the Apple Accords. It does not prevent me from being harmed, but does mean the full force of the Accord comes down on whomever does. It is enough that both figures fall back and for a moment have other forms to call their own.

The boy just stands. There are wards fading about him, drawn from the other place. “Where am I?” he asks. English, North American. He sways visibly, holding himself up with will alone.

“Helsinki. Finland,” I add to his momentary blank look. “Ye Olde Book Shoppe, first of the name.”

“In Finland?”

“It gets around.” I walk over to the counter, come back with the whiskey and hand it to him. He gulps back half of it back, coughs violently and looks a trifle less likely to collapse onto the wood floor. “May ask what was chasing you, or what your Talent is?”

“I don’t –.” He hands me back the drink. “Talent? I know things others don’t, make protections. I am – good at binding and banishing things.” He relaxes a little when I don’t even blink at any of that. “I seem to have a knack for attracting danger. I opened a door, needed it to lead to safety.”

“Where are you from?”

“A small town. I travel a lot, help when I can, where I can. Run when I can’t,” he adds, softer. “I don’t even know what those creatures were, Reggie. Just that I couldn’t banish them and my bindings didn’t hold them for long.”

“You wander.” His gaze snaps up to meet mine at my tone. “You are a magician, and you wander.”

He nods. I don’t even point out I hadn’t told him my name yet. Or that only very close friends call me Reggie but he pulls a smile out of somewhere. “I know other magicians don’t, but I think they’re bound to areas like a – a plug in a bathtub.”

“And you aren’t?”

“I bound someone to my town instead of me. I didn’t intend to – I don’t know what I intended, but that might be why.” He offers up the town, then, and his name as well.

I fill up his glass, pour myself one and find two chairs from in the aisles. One has books stacked on it that I remove. I move the chairs beside the old fireplace that is mostly for decoration and gesture. The magician sits, watching me carefully.

He sees too much. I hadn’t noticed when I should have. I let out a breath. “My name is Reginald. I am the keeper of the Shoppe as it were. The world is full of secret things and there are few places one can legally go to in order to learn about them. This is one such place. I am a Reginald, and when I pass on so will be the person who replaces me: we give up who we were to serve.”

“I’m not sure magicians do. I feel more like I’m becoming more of who I am.”

“I imagine some do. I am not a magician. I help magicians, others with lesser magics –.”

“Talents?” he says, so quick I’d be suspicious if he was not what he is.

“Yes. Monsters, Outsiders, researchers. And there are, of course, normal books as well. For certain values of normal, of course.” I sip my drink; he gulps his. “It is not often that the Shoppe is visited by the wandering magician of an era.”

The?” he asks.

“There is only one at any given time, beyond the first.” I wait, but he doesn’t press for details.

“Why don’t others come here? I can feel what is in here, needing to known. Waiting to be discovered.”

“Some are not allowed in. Others believe they know enough already. The more one feels one is certain, the more likely one is to be ignorant.” I’m quite proud of that, and make a note to use it later.

“Magic is a different kind of certainty,” he says. “It’s a certainty of the heart, not one of facts.”

I blink. Sip my drink. “You know this, and yet you wish to learn from this place?”

He nods. “Wandering is one thing; helping is another. I’d be a poor magician if I kept helping when I did not understand. That could only make things worse since actions count for more than intent”

And he is a magician again. Slipping into that speech, that power, so effortlessly he does not even notice. “I will have to tell others that there is a wandering magician. But you are free to remain here: I could use an assistant, and there are many things to be shelved and read.” I finish my drink. “You’d best begin with the fae, for what hunted you were fae in disguises.”

The wandering magician looks at me thoughtfully. He asks no questions, just sets his drink down and asks, with deference, if he can begin tonight. I point out there are rooms above the shop and he needs sleep and food before anything else. He heads to the stairway I direct him to, though I think he knows the way already.

I wait until he is gone and pour myself another drink. And for the first time in many years, I almost regret the bargains I made with the Shoppe. Even so, I reach for the phone and dial a number that reaches the oldest magician in the world.

“There is a wandering magician,” I say to Mary-Lee, and nothing else at all as I hang up. There are others who will want to know, but that can wait. I recall how to get the fire to light, and drink whiskey and stare into the flames. If the Shoppe has any wisdom for me, I do not hear it at all.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Secret Hugging

“Dunwith isn’t the kind of world one visits. Humans used to joke that they came from a death planet until they reached it. The thing about death worlds – the real kind, the killing kind – is that they don’t develop life forms capable of getting off-world. Or perhaps that intelligence is not advantageous to survival on such a world. An argument can be made that intelligence is detrimental to survival but it is not one I agree with. Further records in System indicate that –. You are doing it again.”

“Oh! Sorry. I don’t get worried often so I kinda wander when I do.”

“So noted. I am, however, a TX83-class Intelligence piloting this vessel. Your mind sending into my subsystems is not optimal.”

“I didn’t mean to at all but! I can’t get to Dunwith normally and that’s really confusling you know!”

“You are on a spacefaring vessel using a Malkuth Drivel. Is there another travel method I should be aware of?”

“Lots, I bet, but mostly I –.” The boy wiggles a hand. He is eleven and, to every scan and probe I have, entirely human. Ordinary in ways that no human has been in over a hundred years. “And it doesn’t work to Dunwith, which is really rude!”

I pause, a second almost an eternity as I crunch data. I watch the stable wormhole dissolve without a net loss or gain of energy. “I would like to know how you are doing this, please.”

“I don’t know yet; I won’t find out for a few years I think but it’s kind of cheating even if it’s not since I don’t travel like you do,” he says.

I drop into regular space. Dunwith is closed, has been since not longer after it’s discovery. There is one intelligent life form on it. A human boy, identical to the one beside me.

“He’s twelve,” Jay explains. “I’m eleven. It’s a hugey difference!”

Forces are balanced and held at bay within Dunwith. I begin scans. There are variables I don’t even know, energies that defy scanning. The older Jay is sitting right in the middle of the most dangerous world and holding it back.

Jay pokes the screens, staring out as I go transparent. “Oh, me,” he says softly, sounding very sad.

“I am afraid I do not understand?”

“He’s not holding it back. Sorry, but you think really loudly and he’s not – I’m not – he’s playing with it. Toying with it. Tormenting it.”

“It cannot harm him.”

“Nope. I’m tough like a Jay and I get way tougher as I get older and sometimes other things too.” He sighs, and a moment later is holding a blade in one hand, cutting it into the air. Whatever barrier is about Dunwith dissolves. Rips. Every error system aboard me shrieks alarms and Jay winces. “I didn’t mean to do an oops, but I’m kinda in a hurry,” and he is gone a moment later.

Somehow I am with him, which I know he intends. There is an empty field, about it swirls death that falls away from the blade as Jay walks toward himself. The older-him is twelve, and the smile he offers contains nothing of kindness.

“What is that?”

“Oh, we won’t run into a Verkonis blade for years so! I kinda cheated,” Jay says. “Because! you are cheating by not being jaysome.”

Forces impact. The world ripples like a mirage, and the universe itself seems to do the same.

“You’re older than me, and that makes you strong in some ways but being jaysome makes me stronger.” Jay doesn’t move. “You can’t keep being this, doing this. You need a hugging,” and this is beyond scans. Beyond understanding. The last Milieu War unleashed energies almost beyond the understanding of a TX90 AI. This is far beyond even that.

“Even with that blade, I am more than you.” The older Jay laughs, a thing of broken data and sundered connections. “I can turn you into me with three words!”

“But you won’t because that wouldn’t be jaysome and! because I’m taking umbrage with you being all kinds of rude!”

“Umbrage.” There is a deep silence after the word. “This is a prompt,” older Jay says, slow and disbelieving. “I remember this.”

“On tumblr, and it’s by @thatrandompoet and they’re pretty important to a Jay!”

“You broke space and time, risked unmaking the future and the past to do a prompt?” the other demands in a tone of pure incredulity.

“It is a very important prompt.” And Jay grins, only this grin is fierce as much as joyous. “And you need huggings badly and I can’t give them to you so I’m making a way toward them!”

“A Way, and not a binding.” I can’t understand that tone at all.

“I learn things really fast for my friends, and I am always friends with me!”

The blade breaks, or twists, and Jay is gone between one moment and the next.

The balance with Dunwith is unbroken, but the death world does not attack the older Jay. He looks about, waiting. “He made it jaysome. Of course he made friends with the most dangerous world in the universe. I am done with this place.” He lets out a sigh, shakes his head and is gone a moment later.

I am unharmed. I take no umbrage at that. I wait, and I do not know what for. I think Jay will return, but I do not know when. And so I wait.

The Dark Wood

The Dark Woods had been silent for two weeks: it was the only thing anyone in the Kingdom was talking about. The last time there had been no monsters emerging from it to harry our lands, a dragon had taken root within. The dragon had bound all the monsters under its awful power and emerged to conquer: three cities had burned to ash before it was contained as everyone who was never there remembers. The Queen does remember: the ancient succession of ruling queens almost broken, the death and destruction that are birthright and warning both.

And so I was sent forth. Once a Knight of the Realm and now the royal Champion for my sins. Champions have leeway that knights do not, because so few last in the post. An ill-judged joke had sealed my fate but I knew destiny answered to luck as much as fate. My blade had the best poisons I could find, my armour the best enchantments that money could procure and my mount prepared for war. I had survived four weeks longer than the previous ten champions. I did not expect to survive this.

You entered the Dark Woods with armies or you did not survive it. It was almost midday, and the forest might have looked almost ordinary save for the shape of the trees and the ancient warding wall that still held it back from expanding into the known and unknown realms. “Tirel,” I whispered to my mount. “hold still.” And I rode into a forest of thick overhanging trees. Within moments, it was barely possible to see that the sun was shining at all. I whispered a word, and the blade shone with pale fire.

That the energy came from me and not from Tirel or the blade was a secret only Tirel knew. A Knight of the Realm did not use any magics – a champion far less so. I considered the matter of my own survival to me far more important than any custom, no matter how well-intentioned it was. The forest about us remained dark, but the lesser shadows skittered away from the light of the blade. There were paths that were mostly the flee routes of prey so we made our way along some to wind deeper into the wood.

The blade flickered, and I cancelled the magic within it, rested a few moments and set it to blaze again. I had no desire to waste my resources and the magic lasting only an hour let me know when a real hour had past – which was at least a solid connection to the world outside. An hour into the woods and we were not dead. Nothing had even tried to kill us.

“The Queen was right,” I said, as much for the sound as anything else. Even the insects in the woods were silent. My voice left no echo. “There is something very bad here.”

And I urged Tirel onward. I had my duty, if nothing else. It is a cold mistress, but not as cold as death.

It was three more hours before I encountered anything else. A skraeling: a small thing of shadows, too thin to be real. It emerged from a tree, or between two trees. “Human? Human unwise, being here. Dark place.”

“This is the Dark Woods.”

“No. Worse. Empty.”

“Where is everything?”

“Hiding from the monster.”

“Where is the monster?”

“Heh! Funny human. Mad human. Follow the road. All roads leads to the monster. All and every one.”

“Why are you here?”

“Home. Stayed. Everyone fled, but stayed.” It’s eyes blazed for a moment. “Everyone fled but this is my home,” it hissed.

I blinked, made sure I kept still. Gone was the odd halting, weird voice. Only a monster spoke to me now. It grinned mockingly as I raised my blade and vanished before I could do anything.

I let out a breath and pushed my mount onward. The forest remained so empty of sound that not even the dead seemed to haunt it and I had it on very good authority that they did.

We reached a grove after five more hours of travel. My sword still burned, though keeping that magic going for over seven hours had begun to tire me a little. Not a lot, but a little could be a lot when facing any kind of monster. My father taught me that a lifetime ago.

The grove was large and unnatural, as if the forest was trying to pull itself away from something more than anything else. Tirel shivered a little and I got off my mount slowly. Despite the grove, there was no light coming down from the sky: no starlight, no moonshine. Just darkness, under which sat a human boy of twelve staring into space. I knew he was twelve somehow, but had no idea why.

“Tirel. Kill.”

Tirel moved. The warbeast only looked like a horse, and had once driving a young dragon away from me long enough for me to launch the final poisoned strike into it. The beast moved, a blur of ancient magics in a horse-shape, and the boy just stood up. He moved almost slowly and Tirel wasn’t there a moment later. No clash of magics, no terrible power. Tirel was simply gone.

I meant to charge, but grief turned my steps into slower movements. “You killed Tirel.”

“I am tired of being attacked.” The voice sounds human, but there are things under the words I have no words for. “I thought I would be left alone in a dark wood.”

“You have been noticed.” My words sounded almost like an apology.

“I will leave then.” And he gestured, casual in the cruelty of it, and the world itself tore open in front of him like ripened fruit to become a doorway to some other place.

“Wait. I would have your name, to put on Tirel’s grave.”

He turned back. “You think you can use grief on me? Guilt?” And each word drove me back a step. I had no words for his expression. “My name is Jayseltosche.”

“But I know you. My grandfather defeated the demon Archon with your aid.” I didn’t mean to speak the words out loud.

“I was eleven. I was a different person then.”

I opened my mouth.

“If you ask me to be jaysome, I will end you and your world.” The words were soft, flat, and contained only truth.

I watched him step into the portal and vanish. Felt the dark woods shudder about me. I turned and walked home, and nothing that returned to the woods tried to stop me. I told the queen there was a monster, and it had left but was not gone. She asked no questions. She even let me retire a year later, which no Champion has before.

But I wasn’t a Champion anymore. I don’t know what I am anymore. I walk the streets of the Kingdom. I find children whose faces remind me of the terrible look in Jay’s eyes. And I help them, try to pull them away from something too deep to be called an abyss. It is all I can do, to make amends for being too afraid to try and help the monster in the dark woods.

A Dreaming Morning

I open my eyes to warmth pressed against my body. It’s 4:23 in the morning and Jay is curled up into my in my bedroom in the hotel suite, trembling and trying to seem asleep. He knows not to get into a bed with my or Charlie: no matter how far from Outside the universe he’s from, Jay appears to be eleven. A couple of incidents of people entering rooms and finding a boy curled up to sleep against an adult when there were two beds in a motel room and the like led to incidents. Enough that he doesn’t do it at all, hasn’t in over two years.

Most days bring new beginnings, when one deals with a very jaysome Jay who has more adventures than entire civilizations manage to do. Old beginnings repeating themselves are worrying; I try to hide that when I speak. “Jay.”

He opens his eyes, looks at me. There are no words. I remember the time he couldn’t see. The prices I paid that cost his vision and returned him. For a moment his eyes are unseeing as fear that threatens to spill out of him.

“Kitchen,” I say, the promise of food and drink a binding. I get out of the bed, throw on a shirt over my jeans – all magicians learn to sleep clothed early on – and Jay is wearing clothing as he pads out after me. His silence deafens the world. Most of the time getting Jay to be quiet takes effort.

The kitchen has a small table in it. I boil water, making myself instant coffee and him some hot chocolate. Jay sits, staring up at me, hands tight together on the table.

“Want to talk about it?” I offer as I sit across from him.

Jay blinks, starts, staring up wide-eyed at me. He licks his lips, the nervousness almost human. “I had dreams, Honcho,” he whispers.

I don’t drop my drink, but it takes an effort. Jay doesn’t dream often. When he does, it tends to be about the Far Reaches far beyond the universe, terrible threats that none of us can face. Messages more than dreams, I think. “About?” I ask.

“You. And – and Charlie. I did a binding so I’d have dreams, and I maybe kinda had your dreams by mistake?”

“Oh.” I drink my coffee slowly.

“They were bad dreams, Honcho. About when the fae put you into the first tree for – for lots of years – and about hurting me even if you didn’t?”

I blink. “Jay. You were blind for over a year because of me.”

“But that was an adventure,” he protests. Because I am Honcho, and I can do no wrong in his head.

“Then why did you crawl into my bed?”

“Cuz I was in Charlie’s dreams a bit too and she has dreams in which she doesn’t think I’m jaysome!” And Jay looks so utterly shocked and lost at that.

“Well, you do tend to blow up microwaves, kiddo.”

He sniffs. Loudly.

“Jay. The solution is to have your own dreams.”

“But but but –.”

“Which means facing why you won’t. Not can’t,” I add before he can protest. “Won’t.” Jay slumps visibly at that. “Which means going Outside the universe with me.”

He shakes his head even before I finish speaking.

“Jaysel –.”

“No!” And Jay cuts me off before I can say his real name, glaring up at me. “It’s not safe, Honcho!”

“We do have allies. And I am me,” I add dryly.

“No. I would be found if I’m Outside the universe and and and my mother would come. And eat me,” he adds, so quietly I barely hear him.

“Jay. We are bound together. I can protect you.”

“You can’t.” And I make a sound in my shock, because Jay looks up. His face is anguished, but he doesn’t look away. “She’s too big and she’d eat all of us and we’d be gone.”

I stare at Jay. Part of being Honcho to him means I can solve anything. Even if I can’t, his faith in me is unshakable. Or was until this morning. I take a deep breath and nod to him. “All right. We won’t do that.”

And he relaxes, and further into the hug I offer him, shuddering all over.

There are things I never mean to do. Lines I never wish to cross. Lies I never wished to tell even by omission. I hold it all inside, and quietly begin to make plans to deal with Jay’s mother. Sometimes the new only comes with the destruction of the old. And the least I owe to Jay is peace.