It is night when we reach Raven’s Bluff. The town is lit up by ice-pale searchlights and people walk it in dark suits, faces cold and grim as they hunt the ruins of the town for secrets about its doom. The CIA, FBI, NSA: they’ve sent a few people for appearances sake, but they’re not part of the real game. The Black Chamber has operatives in dark leather and sunglasses making casual jokes and walking about easily as if they saw things like this every day. The Institute has a dozen scientists using technology that looks to have too many crystals in it to be real and the Border Patrol walk the edges where Raven’s Bluff meets the world. They’re armed, weapons levelled at us even as Dyer walks up and hands over our IDs.
Dyer died a hundred years ago. He’s all thin and frail, the kind of build that makes people go ‘d’aaaw’ and old ladies want to put him on shelves. It had no effect on the men of the Patrol, each boating dark hair and pale blue eyes. Clones grown somewhere, I’d heard, bound by terrible oaths to maker sure no one normal became aware of the weirdness only slightly to the side of the world they’d always known. The Black Chamber butchers monsters; the Border Patrol had a body count that made them seem like Quakers.
They accept the IDs, read them over, study us. CASPER is a secret agency, and there could be ghosts here. Raven’s Bluff isn’t outside our remit but we are pushing the limits of it. Questions will be asked eventually, but right now I don’t much care. They let us pass; I offer up a cheerful wave that has Dyer wincing but he doesn’t say a thing as we keep walking.
The town was home to over two thousand people. Almost every building is shattered, streets torn apart like a child digging fingers through a sandbox. There are no bodies. There are no stains. But not a single bird is flying over the town and it sounds empty save for the secret agencies moving through it in search of answers. I am a god-eater, among other things, but walking here feels wrong, as if we are disturbing things best unknown. And I once left Jay unsupervised with youtube for four hours.
“Charlie,” Dyer says in his soft whisper of a voice.
“Yeah.” I reach over, take his hand and squeeze it. Any other time I’d laugh at his shock. This isn’t a place for that. I’m not an expert on weird shit: I don’t think anyone is, but magicians are good at faking it. But I do know that seriously damaging the walls of the world is what makes bad places. We know what happened here, but it still just feels empty. It should feel bruised, damaged. Wrong more than just still. That it doesn’t makes it feel wrong in itself.
I let the go inside me out, turning in a slow circle. No gods here at all. I can eat other things, if I want to. I sense nothing at all, flex unseen claws slowly. The god inside me isn’t worried by this place, but it was a monster under my bed. Monsters probably feel at home here. It’s probably a good sign I don’t.
“Anything?” Dyer asks, his arms wrapped tight about himself.
“Nothing. Maybe whatever this town ran into ate everything: gods, people, emotions, memories. But –.” I trail off.
“Yeah. No ghosts, but no sign of exorcisms at all. Even if people die outside the world, their ghosts often show up in it. Or even echoes of the ghost.”
“Ghosts can have ghosts?”
“Sometimes. If it’s bad enough, and this must have been.” Dyer unwraps his arms self-consciously, trying not to look scared. “Someone covered up whatever happened here, Charlie. And they did it so well that the echo of their doing so is all we’re getting. Could a magician do that?”
“I think it might be harder to list stuff a magician couldn’t do.” I’m sure we’re being listened in on, if only by generic means. “Let’s say someone uses magic and sends a town somewhere Other. And come back. If they’re hiding it, why bring the town back with them?”
Dyer scratches his scalp. “So something else did the hiding?”
“Maybe.” I shake my head. “No ghosts, no gods. We got nothing.” We walk a little more, but get nothing at all. I give it half an hour before I turn and walk out of the town.
I pull the god back inside me. The Border Guard let us leave. Things work out.
I wait until we reach the RV and toss Dyer the keys. “Exorcism and drive.”
He nods, whispers an exorcism under his breath: he can take out cameras and spy-wards with an exorcism. I’m pretty sure that isn’t normally possible, but I’m not either so I don’t let it worry me.
“Two,” he says as he pulls onto the highway. “One normal, one not. The Institute tried something as well, but the wards CASPER provided stopped that.”
“Huh.” I spend half an hour browsing the internet. There isn’t even a wikipedia entry on the town, and not a single conspiracy forum has a thread about it, not even one giving it some code name to try and hide what they’re doing from the Authorities. Which is the final clue I need.
I gesture for Dyer to pull over after two state lines, put my phone on speaker and make the call.
“Charlie?” Jay says when he picks up, sounding sleepy.
“Me, and Dyer is with me. No one else. Is this connnection secure?”
The kid pauses, then: “Yup! I got rid of two lithening bugth.”
“Okay. And the magician?”
“Honcho is athleep,” Jay says. “I wath too, you know.”
“Yes. You might want to take this call outside.”
There is a pause. We can hear Jay dressing, grumbling under his breath as he leaves some motel room, and then: “Okay?”
Jay isn’t human, from far Outside the universe and bound into the magician’s service. It’s easy to forget he’s not human, even if you know better. I take a breath, let it out. “Stone Ridge. What did you do?”
“I couldn’t help Honcho. He – he tried to get me to come Outthide the univerthe and it wath –. I couldn’t,” Jay says, his voice cracking wildly.
“Okay. Okay. It’s okay,” I say, threading power from the god inside me into my voice. “We know that and it’s okay, Jay. What I want to know is what you did when the magician got back?”
“I didn’t do anything,” he protests.
Dyer’s eyes widen beside me as he begins to put things together; I’ve told him enough about Jay, and how the kid is better at bindings and unbindings than even magicians are at times.
“Jay. This is me you’re talking to.”
There is a huge sigh. “Fine. Honcho wath thcared a lot and I didn’t know why tho I thought I’d help and no one would blame him if the town wath hidden, okay?”
“You bound the town against being a stain on the world, a hole between here and Outside?”
“And from appearing anywhere on the Internet?”
There is a tapping, then: “Oh,” in a small voice.
“You meant well, but that binding was more than overkill, Jay. People will figure out what we did in time, and those that know about you and the magician will blame him for Raven’s Bluff. So far they don’t have proof. Suspicons, yes, but even secret government agencies don’t act on those alone.”
“I don’t know how to fix thith,” Jay mumbles, his voice indistinct.
He’s probably sucking on his thumb in stress. I take a deep breath, and Dyer touches my hand with his, light and firm.
“You’ll need to talk to him,” Dyer says. “He might know how to alter what you did. You were trying to help, Jay, and that’s admirable. He’ll understand that.”
“I’m thcared,” Jay mumbles.
“Yes. And imagine how people are the world over who can’t find anything out about the town town. Or who might even have trouble thinking about it. You acted; now you need to think about your actions.”
“Oh. Thankth,” he says, sounding a little more clear. “For calling? And thorry?”
“We know you’re sorry,” I said. “Just make it right.”
I end the call and sit back in the seat. Dyer tears his gaze from the phone and up to me. “Did you know Jay could do something like that?”
“I don’t think Jay did. We’ll see what Nathen can do to fix it.” I give him a shove, and he gets out of the driver’s seat and gives me the keys. “You work on the report to CASPER. I’ll wait on a phone call.”
I head north, toward Washington. CASPER is likely going to demand answers and we’ll need to figure out what to tell them. And I can’t help thinking about magic like this, bindings this powerful to hide a place from the world. I wonder if magicians hide smaller things from the world, if there are entire homes that no longer exists, streets people can no longer find just to cover up some mistake or transgression.