“I don’t like it,” Jay says for the third time as we descend the last of the stairs.
“It is a subway; you have reasons beyond the word ‘subway’?”
He rolls his eyes and ignores that pointedly. “Becauthe I don’t.”
I let out a sigh and look around; commuters, pan-handlers, worn out signs and scraps of litter. “I’m going to need something more concrete.”
Jay pauses. I feel his grin through the binding between us. “That,” he says slowly, “ith above uth. Lotth of it!”
He ducks my half-hearted swing at the back of his head but his grin doesn’t get rid of the worry under it. Jay is from Outside the universe, which isn’t a safe place at all: a lot of things tried to kill and eat him before he fled into the universe. If he says something is wrong, it often is. Not that it stops me from heading toward the yellow line.
“Honcho,” he hisses, grabbing my left hand in his right and squeezing it. He doesn’t like the word magician, mostly because saying it isn’t easy with a lisp. Entering the universe damaged him; I’ve damaged him worse since, but we don’t talk about that. He’s getting better. Sometimes people do that, even if they travel with me.
I don’t throw my senses too wide, just relax a little and feel the area about me. The underground is dangerous by nature: you don’t build tunnels under the world to travel in and run them 24/7 without making a dangerous place, one linked to old stories of underworlds and the darkness that has never seen light. The subways are old and worn, the tracks the same, the entire place shuddering under entropy. I let my will out, whisper to stone and earth and steel, and give it some strength but it is nothing more than a drop in a bucket; there are at least two magicians who dedicate themselves to helping hold together this subway system alone. It would be easy to hide some terrible creature or power under the darkess and magic and worry, but nothing reveals itself to my gaze as I look about. I follow the thin rush of commuters onto the subway heading toward the park and Jay follows behind because he is bound to me and because he trusts me in this as much as in everything else.
I am a magician, and protected in many ways: most of them aren’t obvious. Jay is tough enough to take little more than bruising from gunshots, but he still plods reluctantly behind me onto the carriage. I don’t dispute his sense of danger being better than mine, but without knowing what it is, I’m not about to leave it alone. One reason why the protections of magicians tend to fail: much does in the face of need and curiosity.
“If there is something dangerous, it needs to be bound or banished,” I murmur.
Jay thumps into the seat beside me with an aggrieved sigh, pressing his body tight against mine, drawing on the binding between us to make himself feel safe. losing himself in playing a game on his cell phone. He passes for ten, or younger at times, and there is a terrible future stretching ahead of him. I still do not know if I am to allow it or prevent it or change it. He trusts me to make the right choices. Nothing human would trust this deeply. He relaxes minutely when I ruffle his hair gently.
The train is old and worn, and I bind strength into it as we hurtle through the dark. A dozen other passengers are scattered down the carriage, half reading papers or computers, the rest looking dazed from late nights or early mornings even at is ten in the morning. Two teenagers giggle at the far end as drugs dance inside them, four business people cluster in the middle of carriage reading newspapers. A husband and wife sit across from us, all stiff and wary, his hand resting inside his coat for a phone rather than a weapon. Just in case. Nothing that screams threat, or even hints at it, but Jay is still nervous, eyes darting about. He hasn’t begun sucking on his right thumb for comfort, but that’s only because he would be noticed and Jay is very, very good at hiding what he is.
“Safe?” I murmur, to distract him.
“No,” he says, softer. “I’m thcared. I don’t know why and that’th thcary, too.”
“I know. Is it like the time Charlie made you read the terms and conditions on your first cell phone?”
He giggles. “Not that bad. But bad.”
The air changes; not a smell, or even a lack of a smell, but the sounds around us stutter in and out of focus and the train seems to be whining and shuddering on the tracks, metal rattling as though someone was pressing against it. Jay ceases giggling and squeezes my right hand with both of his, hard enough to hurt.
I pretend to be surprised when the couple across from us stiffen in unison, eyes empty of everything that matters. Jay lets out a soft whine but says nothing, trying not to tremble. The couple raise their heads slowly in unison, faces empty of expression, the sharp smell of burnt plastic in the air as the hair stands up on the back of my neck. Everyone else in the train is staggering away; some under their own power, the rest without conscious awareness. The two high on drugs will need a change of clothing; I doubt they’re alone.
“Magician.” Their voices are cool and empty, flatter that the voices of the dead. That the hosts are not dead makes this worse. The air is heavy around us, their power causing the world to ripple about them, colours unmaking and remaking themselves in desperate spasms as the world tries to cope with them and fails. This is bad. This is more than Jay being scared bad: their presense alone is unmaking the world.
“Hello.” I pull a bag of birdseed from under my coat with my free hand, moving slow and holding it up to them. “I am heading to the park to feed pigeons. If you want to come with me?”
The entities inside the couple pause, staring at me. I’m scared. I don’t even try to hide it. I know of this kind of power only by reputation as the world itself strains against the pressure they put on it. The Emissaries. The Most Empty. The Lords of the Far Reaches, or the closest thing to them that can enter the universe and not unmake it entirely. The universe is protected against intrusions from Outside. Those protections are nothing to creatures as old as these.
You survive in the wide expanse of the Outside by being vastly more powerful and dangerous than anything else, and nothing is more dangerous than the Lords of the Far Reaches. No one knows how many exist, or why they permit the universe to keep existing. I had no idea and less desire to find out. There are some questions you never go seeking the answer to if you want to survive in any way at all.
“You are not alone.” Their gazes turn as one to Jay, who is pressed tight against me side, his eyes wide in terror. Even I sometimes can’t tell Jay is from Outside the universe and we’re bound to each other. I’ve never encountered anything from Outside as good at hiding as Jay.
They speak Jay’s real name as one and he whimpers piteously, clinging to me with everything he is and whining in terror, unable to stop. Nothing has ever done this before. I don’t say it’s okay, just wrap my will about him, let the magic flow into him, giving him something to hold onto that isn’t terror.
“You play a dangerous game,” they say, turning their gazes on me.
“I have no idea what game you think I’m playing,” I say. Because I don’t.
“We could destroy this one now. It could well benefit us, but this is not certain. Few things are not certain to us,” they say, and there is a regard, a weighing behind their emptiness that leaves me cold. “You have called us here. You will explain why.”
“I am the wandering magician,” I say, and my name as well. Nothing can be hidden from the Emissaries; I don’t even try. “This city is not mine to draw on, nor do I know what magicians call it their home. I have no called you; there are no circumstances under which I would.”
“Not to save this creature?” They don’t ask about my own life; I am not sure if that is a sign of respect.
“Jay would hate me if I did such a thing, and hatred of me would not come easily to him.”
They pause, stare at each other, and then back at us. “Until,” and the couple cease to exist as the Emissaries depart, the host bodies dissolving at some level far below the cellular, or even the magical, and the place where they existed will forever be bruised. I don’t even attempt to heal the bruise, being in no shape to consider it.
Everyone has fled the carriage except us. I stand, pretend my legs shaking are from the movement of the train. The train shudders to a halt without us having to ring a bell, doors snapping open at the closest stop. We get off; it’s a ten minute walk to the park according to a sign. The air is normal, the people normal, the rush of humanity about us sane and ordered. We take the elevator up and begin to walk. The Emissaries were tricked. Or used. Somehow. That such a thing is possible is definitely not safe to know.
I sit on the first bench I find outside the subway station and Jay crowds onto it beside me, thumb shoved in his mouth as he sucks on it in terror, making scared sounds. I wrap my arms around him and hold him, letting silence speak for words. It takes almost an hour before he stops whimpering, longer before he ceases sucking his thumb and then wraps his arms tight about me, hugging in turn and making distressed noises.
He pulls away finally as the sun begins to set. I don’t ask if he’s okay; I’m not. I raise his chin gently. “The park?”
He blinks wide eyes, stares at the bag of seed and manages a jerky nod. We walk the ten minutes in twenty and he clings to my hand the entire time, only relaxing at all once we’ve thrown all the seed away and found another bench to sit at. No Emissary has acted, nothing terrible happened.
He looks up at me. “I didn’t thenthe them. They’re too big, too huge. Too much,” he says, voice shuddering, but manages to add: “I’ve never been tho thcared ever, not onthe,” and his lisp is thick and heavy, slurring into other words. “They thaw me,” he finishes, and bursts into tears.
“Everything has limits, Jay. Even magic and magicians. Even Outsiders named Jay.”
He flings his thumb into his mouth and his head into my chest, sucking and rocking wordlessly. I wait. Time passes and he finally pulls back, pulls himself together a little, using the bond between us to draw deeply on my strength. He’s never done it before without asking; I don’t react. “Better?”
He shakes his head.
“Me neither.” I stand. He manages it without clinging to my hand, though it’s a close thing. “You’ve never been on a plane before; we’ll catch one somewhere new.”
We walk to the airport in silence and Jay uses his nature to get us both past security, relaxing visibly once he does that, stopping his thumb sucking as something goes right. I get tickets, abusing magic a little to push computers and people, but I’m not in the mood to care at the cost of this. We get onto a plane without incident, and Jay hides his nature the entire way, looking like an ordinary kid with his uncle who is a little afraid of their first flight. Jay listens to the entire flight announcement raptly, eyes widening as he realizes we’re doing across the world, but doesn’t ask a single question.
I get us both water after the plane levels off and food and drink is brought around. He drinks and then relaxes slowly, resting his head against my shoulder and closing his eyes. I let him try and be strong for almost ten minutes before placing his thumb in his mouth. He relaxes at that, whispers a thank you around it and falls asleep. I don’t want it to become a crutch again, but right now I wish I had one of my own.
I don’t sleep.
I stare into empty space a long time and hope nothing is staring back and try, so very hard, to not think about what could have manipulated Emissaries and set them against us. We’d survived, and I was certain this was the source of the nightmares Jay had been having for weeks, but all it left behind was fear and questions and not a single answer at all.