You can say words that have no meaning, say them so often that they aren’t prayer, aren’t blessing, aren’t even a curse. Just words, over and over as a talisman, and all you can do is lie and hope they can be more than that.
“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” she whispered as she ran, skidding around the corner. Two blocks. It was two blocks to home, but it was too far, the world – home – nothing fit anymore. Nothing felt right, fit together. She’d turned a corner, and another, and nothing felt right again. No one should turn a corner and have the sky and streets empty around them.
Sixteen, she thought, I’m not even sixteen, but the words meant nothing at all.
They were hungry, edges without form, shapes without definition, hungry and behind her and they – they – her steps flattered as her thoughts skittered, fled from a knowing. She stumbled, raised her head, and almost ran into a man standing in front of her. It was six in the evening, it was midnight, it was three in the morning all at once and there was only her, and shadows, and streetlights that flickered with stuttering black fire.
Ordinary. That was Kate’s first thought. That he was ordinary. Normal. Jeans. t-shirt. Shoes. A plain face. He looked like you could drop him into an office and never see him again. He looked like he fit into the world, but he was casting no shadow and his eyes, his eyes, his eyes. She drew back, not meaning to. His eyes weren’t boring. They were gentle and hard, warn and cold, and the smile he offered her felt like sunlight descending into a nightmare.
“You – you’re alone?” Kate had no idea why she asked that, had no idea how she was sounding calm, but he was solid, real.
“I’m never alone,” he said. “That gift is never one I’ve carried. You should not be here, you know.”
“I don’t know where here is,” she said, and fear cracked through the words, shuddered through her body.
“Sideways. Sometimes we step sideways from the world, never meaning to at all.” He stared over her head. “Some never find their way back, some never wish to. It is an easy thing to be lost, and easier to be afraid. They know this.”
Kate spun, and there were – she had no words. They were slivers, cuts, slices in the air that moved, shapes that were tall, thin, not human at all. Like tears in pages, if the world was a book, only not like that at all.
“She is not yours to take.” The man didn’t move, but the things stopped. Somehow, they stopped, twisted in the air. They had colours, then, that she’d never seen before and knew she never would again.
“We all blunder into stories that are not our own.” The man stepped up beside her. “How do you know you have not stumbled into mine?” he said, and the tears, the shadows, the things, jerked and moved backwards.
There was a sound. Like paper rustling at the edge of hearing, smoke made by something other than fire.
The man let out a sigh. “No. It is not your right to take her; has it been so long since a magician found this place that you think it is so simple, that you can tear a person from the world and claim them as your own?” He paused, then let out a humourless laugh. “No, my kind do not have rights either. We have responsibilities, obligations, duties. But rights? Never that. She called, and I have answered, and you will let her go.” The words were simple, a statement of fact.
Kate had no idea why, but she thought the shadows – the rents in this world without stars or moon – were laughing. She saw more, at the edge of vision, moving around them. “They are behind us.”
The stranger didn’t move, but a rent was in the world beside them, something ugly and hungry twisting toward flesh, only to veer away at the last moment as though stung. “You prevent travel from this place,” he said softly, and was somehow taller a moment later. Each of the streetlights burned white-hot, lights blazed from every empty building around them. Rents followed, the creatures moving, tearing into their own world, houses ripped apart to fall to the ground like cheap paintings, as though even the ground under them was just painted on nothingness.
There was no light, not even the black fire of street lamps, and Kate could not see her home at all.
“My house. It. Everything,” Kate got out.
“You would have run inside, thinking yourself free, and been open to them, to their power. They have never had a prisoner, never had someone fall into your world before. I imagine we confuse them as much as they do us.”
“Do we? Really?”
“If it helps you to think so.” He raised his voice, staring out at the things. “Do you ever know why you keep her here, what you mean to do with her?”
The tear-shapes surrounded them, folding into each other, bruises on the darkness, twistings that hurt to see. Kate flinched back, covering her eyes from a feeling of pressure, but the man didn’t move at all.
“How –.” she whispered.
“Magic,” he said, as quietly. “I could teach you, if you wished. Your potential opened this door to another place, Kate. Why did you not want to go home?”
And Kate, who hadn’t told anyone that she was avoiding being home (who hadn’t even told herself, not until this moment), spoke her secrets without even intending to. About her dad losing his job. That he would be drinking. That she’d seen her uncle Gareth in his face. That Gareth had scared her one night, with stories about the kind of man he was. Truths no child should be witness to, epigraphs to his life before he took his own.
“I didn’t tell you my name,” she said when her voice was wholly her own.
“Magic,” he said, and somehow it sounded like the word was trying to be an apology this time.
“You made me –.”
“I asked; a part of you needed to answer.”
“I don’t want that. That kind of – responsibility,” she whispered.
The rents were closer, pressing, a world of things wanting form held at bay by nothing more than this stranger standing beside her.
“She has decided not to be a magician,” the magician said, and his voice held nothing in it she recognized. “We will leave this place.”
The nothings moved in closer. They almost had voices now.
“I could take her magic for my own, force a way from this place.” The magician laughed, the sound eerily casual. “But then you would be able to leave as well, and that I will not permit. You know of our world: you are finding voices, can touch the edges of true things. Know this, then. I am the wandering magician of the world known as Earth by some, the world you tried to shape in this place. Fae will come find me, and they can unmake all you are before you can do anything at all.”
Kate was certain she heard laughter now. Certain it didn’t sound human, but that the unnoise was that.
“You do not fear them? Truly?” The magican’s voice was soft, but Kate was sure the question was answered, because he could ask questions one had to answer. “Very well.” And then the magician spoke a single word. It was a name. Kate was sure of that much, and that it began with a J, and had syllables, and he said it so very soft, and the rents did not move at all. Lost all colour, became merely odd lines drawn in the air as though frozen, though Kate couldn’t shake the knowing that it was more than being frozen.
“I bind you with that name,” the magician said, and his voice was low and hard, and for the first time Kate was certain she heard anger in it. “You will not leave, not move, not even should the universe end around you. And it will, have no doubt about that, and that even such an ending will not free you.”
He did not take Kate’s hand, but they were in the street a moment later. The real street, a block from her home, in a world of stars and skies and people, as though she’d had only to blink and the world to reappear. He looked the same, the magician, ordinary and plain, though his eyes were tired and he looked older than she thought he was.
“I have taken the magic from you as per your desire,” he said. “Should you ever want it again, you need only ask.”
“I don’t know your name,” she said.
He smiled a kindness, and something of what the other place had been, had done, fell away from her. “If you need to, you will know my name. Until then, I will put your magic somewhere safe.”
“Where?” she asked, not thinking.
“Inside your heart. Hearts do not break as easily as many believe they do.” And he turned away, before she could think to ask about his, before she could ask anything at all, and Kate was alone, standing on a street, huddling under a lamp.
Magic. Responsibility. She shuddered, and began the short walk home, and this time it didn’t feel as long as it had when she left the gym. Not long a walk at all.