Magicians are drawn to bars like lodestones. There’s something numbing about them that lets us relax, pushes pressures and worries slightly to the side even if we are just drinking mineral water. I’ve been trying to drink nothing stronger than coffee lately, for a lot of reason that mostly make me miserable. Things that make sense tend to do that, which in turn helps them not make sense. Like how someone once told me diets functioned as anti-magic, and was probably right.
The dead man walks in half an hour before closing as I’m nursing a beer almost as expensive as the bottled water the bar offers and checking the time. Jay is watching movies at the local theatre and I said we’d get pizza after that; bars don’t much care if you sit and drink and bother no one, so I’m doing all three until he comes in. He doesn’t look dead, truth be told, or even smell it, but I catch a glimpse of him in a window and see symbols and veves drawn under his skin and on his bones. He’s bargained with someone for a long life and that almost never goes right.
Thing is, no matter how many stories tell people it is a bad idea, they still attempt to make bargains like this. Speak with magicians, try and breach the walls of the world to address entities from Outside the universe or even make deals with stranger things beside. He’s done the latter: hunted and cornered an elemental and reached some agreement for immortality. He spots me in turn and walks over, sitting beside me.
I say nothing. If his agreement involved trying to kill a magician he was in for more trouble than he knew. Mostly because I wander a lot and had some friends who would hunt him down and destroy him even if he did manage to kill me.
“I am not here for you,” he says, his voice old in a young face. “This I swear on my power.”
“How nice for you.” He buys himself a beer in turn: nothing fancy, nothing that would stand out. You learn not to do that if you’ve made that sort of bargain, not unless you want to spend a few centuries chained up under the earth and being tortured for your secrets. I wait until he finishes half his beer before asking: “Why that bargain? Power, wealth, love: those I understand. I’ve never understood people who want to live forever.”
“Think of what I will be witness to.”
“I was told that magicians have a poets soul; is yours so clouded that you cannot see the Light that burns within us all?”
“I’m not the kind of magician who can lie to myself,” I say, and flowery words slipped out that I might have held back sober. “I know happiness is no constant to be sought, that joy only has meaning because it is rare. And I know that if I lived long enough no joy would be strong enough to blunt the rest of the world unless I was ignorant or mad.”
“There are magicians who aren’t mad?” he says tightly.
I just smile and sip my beer, linking our drinks together and weaving magic into his. I’ve been nursing the same one all evening, because two drinks would become four. “We’re sane enough not to make bargains like you made, by and large, to find our own power rather than to steal it from others.”
“We are not all fools,” he said, and then said a most foolish thing, tongue loosened by both his drink and the magic I’ve weaved into it: “My bargain was perfections itself: I cannot die unless I touch an innocent and this world has no innocents in it at all.”
“You made a bargain like that and wanted to live forever?” I sigh and pushed the rest of the bottle to the bartender as I stand. “I know at least one innocent and I could have a dozen in this bar within moments. But you are quiet, and seek no riches, no fame, no glories. Most of your kind aren’t that wise, so let me offer you this: anything from Outside the universe is an innocent to this one. Any of those could destroy you with a touch.”
He set his own drink aside, the colour draining from his face as he stood in turn. “Oh,” he says, and almost manages to sound like he hadn’t known that himself. It gets harder to act the longer you exist, I think, to be someone other than yourself. He does a good job of faking it. I’d almost believe he didn’t want to kill me if he hadn’t come in the bar looking for me. Arrogant, but that also goes with extended lives.
I walked out the back, not surprised when he follows. The lone chef in the kitchen cleaning up the sink didn’t bat an eye at either of us. The dead man closed the door behind us and said nothing as we enter the back alleyway.
“You think killing a magician will help you get a new bargain or change your current one,” I say as I turn to face him. “I run into this about once a year or so,” I add into his silence. “I am still here.”
“You forced my weakness from me, but there is no innocence to you,” he says and takes a step forward, fingers flexing into unnatural forms. “I can recognize creatures not from this universe and learnt long ago to avoid them.”
I sigh and reached for the bond between myself and Jay, pull it about me like armour. He was Other, and bound to my service: it would be innocence enough to destroy with. “Walk away.”
The dead man steps forward, swift and sure, his right hand snapping out to catch my left wrist, words of power on his lips dying a moment later as his body topples over. I let go of the binding, sending reassurance to Jay’s confusion, and whistle sharply. Creatures that looked like fireflies flit into the back alley moments later, light descending into the dead man to devour the body whole. They are the light that eats darkness, and leave after the meal without a single glance in my direction.
I stare down at where the body had been and sigh. It seems epitaph enough as I walk away, heading toward the pizzeria I’d told Jay we’d meet at, wondering at what kind of bargain being a magician was to magic and what prices I might be asked to pay after I died. I think a second beer would stop such thoughts, but don’t go back for it.