I leave Jay in a cheap hotel room with pop, pizza and getting high scores at games on his phone. There are creatures from Outside the universe that can only be placated by blood or certain songs, or even the hearts of innocents – or so they claim – and compared to most, Jay is rather easy to please. That he bound himself into my service and I to his in turn helps somewhat.
There are few certainties in magic and less in being a magician, but one is that magicians are a wall between the universe and what lies Outside. Everything else we can do – and there is much we can, and many ways to bend the world to our needs and desires – is a distant second to that. There are many magicians who would kill me if they knew the bindings Jay and I have. But he was dropped into my lap, scared and afraid, terrified of being eaten and so damaged from his journey into the universe that the scars might never heal. He was scared, and alone, and I took him in. Because I can be human as well as a magician. It is easy to forget that; he reminds me of it each morning.
And it is not enough. I am tired, in ways the magic cannot touch. Because of the magic. I move from place to place, leaving small wonders and magics in my wake. Helping those I can regardless of their desires. I can do awful things, and terrible ones, but nothing that lasts. Magic is not love, nor even hope, but is like them – a poor foundation to stand on. Jay is solid: he knows who and what he is. I am changing, because magic is change. I am moving less quickly than I used to, keeping more of my magic for myself.
I need it, though I do not know for what. Or even to what end. So I walk, slipping through side streets and backyards until I reach the places where the town falls away and the wilderness remains. I let Jay know I’m walking, and step into the woods. Two steps sideways, one ahead. There are magicians who make magic circles or chants, or insist on finding the second star to their right and heading straight on ’til morning. I just walked, and the forest became a wild thing of ancient trees, animals heard of more than seen, insects buzzing in alien choruses or silent before the world. Vines twist and lunge, bright colours bloom and die to distract.
I wrap wards about myself, my mind as armour. This is a magician’s garden, perhaps, or the kind we would have if we had the time for such things. It is the old woods, the deep forests that probably never were. I cannot see the top of even the smallest sapling yet somehow twilight still finds its way through leaves and branches. It is always twilight in the forest, except when it isn’t. That is when you turn and run. A few vines try and snag me, some animals mimicking voices of enemies long dead and gone. It is a formality only: I have walked the woods before, and they know it just as they know my death is not theirs for the taking.
I walk a distance that feels far enough, raise up true wards, speaking in tongues as old as magic, words I won’t remember after they have been danced, been spoken, been sung. I am shaking and sweating at the end of the ritual but a silver light burns about me, holding even the deep woods at bay. I don’t give myself time to think about it, just take a step sideways and leave my magic behind.
It takes on my form, as I’d hoped it would, but there are no wrinkles on his face and his eyes have not been aged by seeing things one cannot unsee. “This is most irregular,” the magic said stiffly.
I pause. I hadn’t expected a British accent. “I know. I thought this way we could talk.”
The forest is darker without my magic in me, the silver ward about us seeming to fragile to hold back creatures even the dark is afraid of. The wood is old and primal and kindness is not a part of its nature.
“Talk.” The magic blinks, his smile small and cruel. “Whatever of? You cut me apart, left pieces of me all over the world like an unwanted meal.”
“And we’re stronger for the loss,” I say, because I can be a magician without magic, even when speaking to magic.
His smile doesn’t change, but the words he speaks are low and harsh. “That is not what you intended, and what we intend matters more than what comes of it. You buried me in a park, bound me to some old man so you could wander the world unfettered.”
“In the beginning, yes. I was scared because I couldn’t lose, because you made everything too easy. I am older now, and not near as wise as I was at sixteen. I understand the costs and limits of magic, what I’ve made it for, what we’re about. The things we do, and why we do them.”
“And how far will you go, magician?”
“I don’t know. There are magicians who give up their magic and walk away.” The magic goes still at that. “But I don’t think I can be one of those. It’s just that we’ve been doing more and more, travelling without rest and there is always more to do. For all that you make me and all that I am, I’m a pebble trying to climb up a mountain.”
“Or bring it down,” the magic says softly. “Avalanches begin with such small things as pebbles.”
I let out a breath. “Or that.”
The magic’s laugh is light and free. “Just ‘or that’ magician? You have bound yourself to a creature from Outside the universe. You don’t think that is an avalanche waiting to fall? We have walked the world for years, changing people, altering places, showing magic to a world that is all but starved of wonder that is not cold science and dead maths. Did you not think that other magicians might want to wander as well?”
“I no more wanted to be tied to that town than you did, magician. That is what we are, to be rootless and roofless. To wander, and to grow from wandering.” And his smile changes then, becomes almost gentle and mocking both. “We will travel places no magician has ever been and learn secrets that we can never share and that will be our boon and that will be our doom.”
“You’re trying to bind me?” I say, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
“No. I am telling you the truth you always knew and would never speak.” And my magic looks away at that, staring out into the woods, wrapping his arms about himself.
I walk over. He looks at me, stiffens, and then relaxes when I unwrap his arms and squeeze his right hand gently. “You’re afraid.”
“Yes.” The magic doesn’t look at me.
“Fuck,” I say, at a loss for anything else, and the magic lets out a small laugh at that and squeezes my hand in turn.
We say nothing, but the magic smiles almost shyly and stands on toes, the kiss gentle and soft on my right cheek. And I am whole again, alone in the ward. The forest waits outside, deep and dark, but I am deeper and perhaps darker than even it can be.