The truth about magic is this: you spend a lot of time in bars trying to forget yourself. Two cans had become four, to no effect at all. A body for the earth, a soul for the sky, and that is all magic is. Even if you're not sure about souls. All magic has given me is more questions, uprooted the solidity of life and dreaming.
It's like this, if you want to be a magician (and you don't; there are fewer of us every year): one day you wake up and you can speak to the world and the world can speak to you. That's it. That's all magic is, at the core of things. Just words that cannot be ignored, will that cannot be denied, desires that can always be satisfied. Dreams that can be made real, if you pay the prices the world requires.
Alcohol was my way out of the chain of causality. It beat human sacrifice most days. I was considering a fourth drink when a bottle was slipped into my hand. I looked up into eyes the colour of honey and a voice sweet as any sin.
"Hello," she said and offered up a smile that had the bouncer at the door twitching. People with smiles like that can break people as easily as cities.
"Whatever you're selling, I'm not buying." I pushed the drink back and smiled in turn, though my smile was mostly a baring of teeth.
She drew back and then he smiled and reached fingers, brushing over the stubble on my cheeks. "And if it's free?"
No one else notices her become a him. People don't, as a rule. I dig out a cigarette, ignoring the signs, light it, breathe smoke. Slow and sure.
He pulls back, puzzled, still hungry.
"Nothing worth having is free." I blow smoke at him.
He parries, cliché for cliché: "Freedom is quite expensive." He leans in, runs a finger along my jaw, offers up that smile again.
This time it hits me, a little bit; I don't try to hide that, let him draw close, form a circle with the smoke. I press a finger to his lips before he can try a kiss, finger burning from the cold inside him.
He draws back, eyes clearly from honey to snow-stained white. Magicians don't feel warm like other people do, I think. Maybe we give too much of ourselves away, or not enough at all. Both male and female slide away as its fingers flow into needle-claws.
"No." I don't say anything else, but it pulls back into human with a shudder. I stand, dropping a twenty on the bar. "My place."
It follows, tugged by the smoke wreathed about its neck. A few people notice the guy – or was it a girl – doesn't seem the same, but it's the tail-end of the night, and only the bleak drinkers remain, their concerns more with getting a couple of drinks before the end of the night than another man's sorrows.
I walk outside. I don't have keys, or a car. I don't even know where I'm staying tonight. I just know I'm not drunk enough and tired of more things than I can name. "You have a place."
"Yes," it says, voice the sound of ground glass in a waste disposal system.
I grunt, stop. "You can save the games for the prey, creature."
"No game." It smiles, rows of teeth baring sharply, tongue a thin silver blade that licks it's lips. "What is a magician but a game the world moves?"
I pretend to consider that. The creature strains at the smoke, thin and twisted, dark scales glittering over pale flesh as it surrenders more assumed humanity. It's good. I'm better. The story of my life, where the things that lurk outside the dark are concerned.
"Maybe so. Perhaps the world is the dealer, but I am a magician. We know the cards everyone is holding. Where do you make your lair?"
It tells me, unable not to. I walk the six blocks to the hotel; no one pays us any interest, but I'm not sure if that is my doing or the creatures. I know the hotel door opens to my wish, the elevator to my will. We go up, the creature no longer straining against my will, an uneasy cast to its flowing features. I haven't banished it yet, which is the least I can do after a binding.
"Why?" it says, sounding almost human in its fear.
"I need somewhere to spend the night. That, some money for the bus. Sex, if you want. No strings, binding gone when I leave," I say, pitching my voice deep and formal.
It stirs, smiles strangely even for such a creature. I think it might pity me. I'm just drunk enough not to care.
We enter the creature's room. A honeymoon suite – i don't ask about other occupants, the room offers up no ghosts who speak to me. Not that I was in any mood to listen. I don't offer up stories, it doesn't pretend to ask. We don't kiss, not once, and I give as good as I get.
Scars that the dawn will wither away.