The problem with small towns is that they tend to hide their monsters better than larger ones do. They hide them under stories of witches, under euphemisms and whisperings and rough justice meted out in the darkness because there is so much in them that they dare not let come out to light. Sometimes because it would affect tourism; often simply because that’s the way it’s always been done. And the gods such places create tend to be the kind who need a god-eater to come in and straighten them out.
As far as I know, I’m the only god-eater in the world, at least as far as human ones go. Part police force, part migration service. Probably other things, but I’ve yet to find out what they are all. Gods are complicated, sometimes in ways even humans aren’t. I have less trouble dealing with them when I’m on my own; they tend to get confused by Jay. Same with ghosts, really. But the town of New Hubbleford isn’t big on ghosts and the only gods of note are part of the three churches, bound and chained into the structures.
I’m considering finding out who did that, and why – and how, mostly to be able to undo such a thing – when I walk around the wrong corner just after midnight. There is a woman in a nightgown, curled up and sobbing in agony outside the back door of a small office, and standing over her is a hooded figure whose mere presence makes my teeth itch. Something not right about it, in all the bad senses of those words. I can eat gods, if I have to, but I’m good at eating other things. Energy. Emotions. Structure. I’m damn sure this thing is from Outside the universe, and reasonably sure I could banish it.
But I don’t have a normal life; I haven’t in a couple of years. So I pause, and say: “What is going on here?” I’m not a magician, but i have some power to me, and I can put that into my voice when I have to.
The hooded figure starts and turns slowly, carefully keeping its appearance hidden under ragged edges of a cloak. “This one sells drugs to young children; her daughter was lost to drugs, and she believes it is a fitting revenge on the world to get other children hooked, to destroy the lives of other families. Everyone carries the seeds of madness within: this is the form her blooming took,” it says in a low, gurgling hiss of a voice that sets by skin crawling.
“Proof?” I say, awarding myself points at how steady my voice is. I’ve heard worse in my time: I’ve heard magicians swear in terror, and kids that aren’t kids ask me about the rules for Quidditch because they want to play it with Cthulhu’s older siblings.
“I have shattered her mind, but her soul may speak still.” It moves aside.
I walk over, crouch, and ask questions. I’m not a magician, but given what was done to her mind it’s easy to eat the parts of her that could lie, leave her with only the truth as words to tell. I listen to her for a good three minutes, then order her to sleep. The kind that I hope comes with nightmares. I stand and walk to the end of the house, where the creature waits in patient silence. It could have left; it hasn’t yet.
“You’ve done this before, then?”
“I travel, yes. I help where I am.”
“Most Outsiders don’t, or at least don’t go this far.”
“I did not. For many years I broke the minds of the week, fed on their despair. It is an easier meal,” it says, but the statement of fact carries a sorrow under the words. “But in time I was noticed, and I met a boy who told me I was being mean and I might want to consider another way. He came with a magician like a loaded gun that was not fired, and the magician left the boy to speak with me. Trusted him, and the boy grinned and said it would be great if I picked a better way.”
Of course. I sigh. “You met Jay, then.”
“That was his name. You know of him?”
“You could say that.” Less than a month ago, I dumped Jay in the lap of the wandering magician. I know Jay won’t understand why I had to leave him; I also know he’ll forgive me. And never get why that would tick me off. I don’t offer up any of that, just say: “What did you make of him?”
“I am not certain. He went far deeper than I can go. I am certain he could have banished me utterly from this universe, or simply made me better. Instead he asked, and opened paths I did not know I had. I am no Walker of the Far Reaches, but I was made for terrible wars in places far outside your understanding. I was not made to be able to change, not as Jay allowed me to.”
“He does tend to do that.” I sigh. “I have a car just down the road; you want to grab a coffee and talk?”
The creature pauses, considers, then says: “About?”
“Nothing. Everything. You know how it goes.”
“I am afraid I do not. I know you are no magician, but it feels as though you can banish me?”
“Ah. I didn’t – I’m Charlie.”
I blink. “Yes?”
“Your reputation is formidable.” The cloaked creature bows. “I would be willing to accept coffee.”
Part of wonders how bad it must appear under the cloak. I just nod and head toward my car. Jay hasn’t texted me in three days. I can’t stop thinking about him, or the magician, or how easy it is to be wrong when I’m right at the same time. It says a lot that my solution is going to involve a pow-wow with a creature that isn’t remotely human, but I need a fresh perspective.