She has wandered off to do fae things on her own; I am walking through what is left of the small city of Sugarhills, which at least does boast hills though the factories are all empty and gutted by time and nature. At least half the city is abandoned, the remaining parts of it scattered about and linked together by poor roads and utilities that only work because the magician who lives in the city helps coax life out of them each day.
Cities fail; even magicians who have claimed and been claimed by them cannot prevent this. This does not stop them from trying, which is why I’ve made wards from the cold hills about this place and the deep silences of winter as I walk through Sugarhills. People remain, grimly eking out livings in the ruin of their dreams, terrified to move and try to take their dreams elsewhere. Others have invested so much of themselves into this place they can’t bring themselves to leave. There are as many reasons as their are people, all holding out against the dark in their own ways.
I do nothing to harm the city as I walk, but also nothing to aid it. I’m wondering if what is left of the city would be here at all if a magician wasn’t holding it together with need and desire. Wondering at what point the desire to save a thing destroys it even worse. Wondering if thoughts like this are why it is best I travel with others.
The girl who steps out of a formerly empty house can’t be more than thirteen. She is barefoot in winter, clothing hanging off her emaciated body, her eyes burning with terrible strength.
“You are not welcome here,” she hisses.
I turn slowly. She threads no power into her voice, speaks no words of power that could cause the world to shudder. Holding what is left of the city together is taking so much of her strength, but even so she has come out to defend it.
“I find I am seldom welcome anywhere. Generally if I am, situations have deteriorated badly and the result is nightmares I would rather not have and memories I cannot give away.” I say things like this without even trying. Sometimes they even work.
“This is my city. Go,” she says, and this time a hint of power creeps into the words.
I sigh; it is not hard to pull the magicians name from out of the body they are wearing. “You died, Kevin.”
“I am not –.”
“You died, and moving yourself from body to body and burning them up one after another isn’t going to save this place.”
“You think I wanted this? You think that? There was no one else,” the magician screams, and the girl’s voice is no longer a hers but that of an older man, rough and hard-used. “This is still a city. People are still here. Cities need magicians and there was no one else when the darkness fell, when the wider world tore away from here and took jobs and factories. I died of a heart attack and the city still needed me!”
“Or you needed it.”
The girl stiffens and the street under us shudders slightly at the magician’s fury. He is the city, the city is him. “Do not patronize me.”
A small part of notes that Charlie would have congratulated Kevin on knowing such a big word. I just keep calm, hands in pockets. “I’m not trying to. It’s only that being a magician is about more than power. What you refrain from doing says much about you: you haven’t tried to stop anyone leaving the city, only helped those who remain. Otherwise we would be having a very different conversation.
“There are many magicians who let go of their magic for one reason or another, and then there are those of us who cannot. We are needed, we have duties, we would be too little without the magic. There are many reasons, but often – often it is hard to let go of power when you could use it to help others, when they need help and you can offer it. Sometimes we can be very selfish for all the best reasons, but we are still selfish and that changes the magic. What we do, how we do. How many people have you burned through leaping from body to body?” I say, and Kevin jerks backwards at the force of the question.
“Seven,” he says, unable to not answer.
“At some point we learn that we can’t save anyone, Kevin. We can help them, but that is all. We can be catalysts for people to save themselves, and that is all a magician is for others at the core of it. We open doors for people to walk through, we let them see the walls of the cells they build about each other, we give them ways to take the walls down. But we cannot do it for them, not in the way that you mean.”
“This is my city.”
“I could destroy you here.”
“You could try. But I am travelling with a fae at present, and they could be right behind me for all I know and I’d never be able to tell.” I smile. “Having a fae with you is like having a weapon of mass destruction that actually exists.”
And because of the way my magic works, the other magician knows there is no lie to the words.
Kevin looks away. “I’m not scared of dying.”
“You would be a poor magician if you were,” I say gently.
“Can you –?”
“I can tell people who knew of you. And help this city a little. Perhaps find someone to be a new magician.” I take a deep breath. “Let go. The burden is no longer yours.”
The girl collapses onto the pavement. I reach out with magic, gently healing what I can and putting her to sleep. She is painfully light when I pick her up, and I let the magic touch her and find a way to her home, taking her to the door. Her older brother answers, all scared and tough at once, but he doesn’t even question a complete stranger bringing his sister home. He doesn’t even ask where she has been.
And he is scared of me. He knows what I am without needing to know; knows what he saw looking out of his sister’s eyes that wasn’t her at all and sees something of that in me as well.
I say nothing. I walk away.
“Burden was a curious choice of words,” Dana says beside me, simply there between one moment and the next.
I shrug, not looking over at her. “It was what he needed to hear. He was trying to help them and terrified everyone in the city. There are limits to what even magicians should do.”
“The fae have no such limits.” And I think she is going to leave it there until she adds: “I suspect it is why we do so little.”
I glance over, return her smile. “Might be. You followed me?”
“I was curious what you do when you are alone.”
“Offer help.” I shrug. “Sometimes I don’t screw it up too badly.”
“Now I find his family, explain that he is gone, and see where it goes. The city might not want a magician after what he did, no matter how noble his goals. And then I move onward, because it is never safe to stay too long in one place and see how badly even the best intentions in the world can go wrong.”
And Dana merely nods to that and says nothing else as I walk through the city. I shore up some of the magic Kevin did to help hold the infrastructure of the city together. It won’t last, but I don’t let that worry me; I can’t let it. Nothing lasts. Sometimes the best we can do is to ensure that things end as gently as they can.