Miriam Kowles is crying. Right now it’s all she’s good for. I don’t like the thought, but it’s mine. Ten minutes ago, the town of Raven’s Bluff boasted over two thousand people in it. Before a banker banished the entire place Outside the universe befeft of words and protections just to make a statement. I don’t have profanity strong enough for what I feel about Steve Dowell right now. I remind myself that banks – even the Bank – have done far worse than this over the centuries. I remind myself that I am far outside the universe and there are limits to what a magician can do in this situation.
I pretend all that helps. Everyone else is dead. Most of them died in the first two minutes as I was trying to figure out how to draw up and shape energies in this place. In the universe, magic is about will and need and desire; here is it is a wild dance, a shaping of chaos to fling it into foes and friends alike. Mirium stumbled alive into the bank despite the late hour on earth; she’d been doing a night deposit when I came out, I managed to ward her.
That was it. I warded her, and by the time I got the ward to hold together everyone else was dead. If they were lucky. The town is floating in an ocean of white noise, what we’d call sky alien shapes bleeding overhead. Entities are moving through what had been the town. Miriam is seeing flashes of yellow and black; I’m a magician. We learn to see what is really present, and that is not always wise. The creatures are thin, existing in two dimensions alone, metal-blade bones ripping apart buildings and people as they move in directions and shapes I don’t have words for.
“Miriam.” I thread power into my voice, but it doesn’t touch her fear. She’s whispering, “Oh, God, Oh, God,” over and over, but the pitches are different. Not a broken record. Something slices half the bank apart behind us; I push her out into the road, wrap my arms around her. “Miriam, listen to me. We can get home. Think of home. Think of Earth. Make your dreams a way.”
“Dead. They’re dead.” She twists her head up to stare at me. “Why aren’t we dead?!” I say nothing, and she lunges at the silence. “This is your fault, isn’t it?”
“You may call it that. It was not my intent,” I say, and my voice is distant even to my ears. She tries to slap me; I catch her hand. “I am a magician, Miriam Kowles, but I have neither capacity nor desire to see the shape of all things before I act. It did not occur to me that the Bank would sacrifice an entire town just to make a statement to the rest of the world about me. Perhaps I have been looking for monsters in the wrong place for some time now.”
She tries to hit me again, not hearing my words at all. Or perhaps hearing them too clearly. I move back, and she falls to the ground with a wail of pain that calls something in this place, summons it through wards and protections. Like to like, feeder to food, predator to prey. Miriam’s body jerks to its feet as something alien stares out of it at me, bones and flesh twisting wildly as they try to accommodate another presence inside them.
I should be angry. I should be furious. I am far past such things now, but the numbness still hurts. I am not a monster. The people who caused this to happen are. Repetition is power; say it enough, and one might almost believe it to be truth.
“A magician, here? Tender, sweetling magician,” her voice says. “So far from your Universe. So far, alone and lost.” Miriam’s body spasms at each word.
I pull on the nature of this place, on what is being done here, and unmake the body and whatever is inside it. I’m me enough for that. I don’t know how much more. I take a breath, another. Short, sharp, and reach through the bindings that tie me to Jay. He’s from far Outside the universe, bound into my service and sitting in a car back on Earth playing games on his phone. I reach for him, and get raw fear, almost enough to overwhelm the bindings that hold us together.
He’s too terrified to come Outside. Even for me. And he has no idea how to cope with that, with what I need, and that his fear is bigger than anything he can do to help us. But it gives me a direction. I crouch, as things move beyond my own wards, beyond my nature. A magician binds and banishes, and they know this without knowing it. I don’t know how long it will keep them away, but I doubt it will be long enough.
Here is a truth: it is harder to cut yourself open than one might suppose. I slice rock along my hand four times before I have will enough to cur through skin, let the blood strike earth. Magic so old it isn’t even magic anymore. Blood to blood, sky to earth, the tilling of ancient fields. Raven’s Bluff was built by people and desires to be home as much as I do. I grab that, find the last shreds of the banishing the Bank made through Dowell’s will.
I unmade Miaram’s body.
I use the knowledge to half-umake the banishing, reversing it. To walk back to the universe alone is tiring, though not hard if one knows of a Way. To do it with an entire town is probably not possible. I do it anyway, shoving prices aside to pay them later. The Bank will balance the books on this, that much I am determined to see happen.
There is darkness, and more shades of grey than there are of black of white, until even grey bleeds from the world. There is me, and the town, and the faint sound of ravens helping to pull it back into the world, Jay’s terror a beacon I use with ruthless efficiency. It takes time and pain, but time is something I have and pain is only temporary. The sky is a sky, between one moment and the next, as if I sneezed and everything was real after.
I walk. I stand, and I walk out of Raven’s Bluff, and if the Bank had any other traps planned, nothing goes off. I am not sure they would dare to.
Jay is in the back of the car when I arrive, sucking frantically on his right thumb in terror, pale eyes wide and desperate as he flings himself into me with keening, blubbering words I barely catch.
I push him away, perhaps harder than I need to. “We need to get away from here. Somewhere else. Rest.” I say rest instead of hide, because pride demands it. “You drive,” I whisper, and crawl into the back and it takes too much to bind away the pain but somehow I sleep anyway in the end. I don’t dream. Somehow, I don’t dream. Somehow a ten year old kid drives the car to a hotel.
The hotel room smells of fresh sheets, subway melts and fear. I’m lying in a voluminous bed, Jay pacing beside it with a nest of clothing he must have been sleeping in beside him. I feel sore, but alive. Awake. He’s sucking on his thumb still, frantically desperate as he paces.
“Honcho?” He spins, but doesn’t move closer, body vibrating.
“This is a king-sized bed; there is more than room for you to sleep in it, kiddo.”
He shakes his head, not moving.
“I failed you. You needed me to help and I was too thcared,” he says thickly.
“I know. We can work on that. Come.” I don’t have it in me to use power, but I pitch my voice deep and he comes over to the bed with tears rolling down his face. I’m sore and drained, but I reach out a hand and pull his thumb from his mouth. It comes out slowly, scabbed and tender to even look at. “We’re in a hotel?”
“I mugged mean people in the park for money,” he whispers, trembling. “I didn’t know what elthe to do.”
“Muggerth. The bad kind,” he adds quickly, pulling his thumb free and shoving it back into his mouth.
“There is a good kind of mugger?”
“Thometimeth,” he mumbles, a little more himself at my smile. “Honcho, I –.”
“It’ll be okay, Jay. I screwed up. That’s not your fault.”
He blinks, eyes wide, then just nods and pulls his thumb free of his mouth with an effort. “I thtill – you needed a way back and I couldn’t –.” He bites into his lower lip. “I’m thorry, tho thorry,” he whispers, repeating himself thickly a few times.
“I know. I am, too. I knew you were afraid, but –.” I sigh. “The people of the town were dead long before I was able to call you, Jay. That’s not your fault at all, okay?”
Jay manages a nod at that, then reaches into his pocket with his right hand and pulls out his cell phone. The casing is battered, the screen shattered in a dozen places and he hands it over to me wordlessly.
“I thaid I wath thorry, but that’th not enough tho – my phone.”
“You broke your cell phone to say sorry.” He nods jerkily. “You think that’s a fitting payment?”
“Yeth.” And he does.
A small, terrible part of me wants to laugh, but I force it back. “Okay. Okay. We’ll work on that. I need to sit up now, if you could?”
He helps me; that I ask and need it says a lot, but neither of us talk about it. I gesture and he crawls into the bed, on the covers in clothing: he’s not human, and removing clothing reveals that to any human. He’s remembering lessons even as he curls up into the hug I offer and just trembles with silent tears. I find I have some left as well, for a town and my own mistakes, and many other things besides.