The street isn’t empty.
It feels like it should be. The surface is a suburban street of transplanted trees, with walls and fences so deliberately not white picket fences and swing sets that the very attempt to be different is a glaring sameness. Under it there are street lights not working right, the gardens choked with weeds despite the lush mowed lawns and clouds that don’t look right. As if they’re avoiding the street, or their colour is somehow off. None of it is anything big, nothing that screams danger, but I’ve been a god-eater for two years and travelled with a magician off and on for over a year.
You learn that real threats wear smiles, and hide themselves inside the lies people tell about the world. The whole street is part of a factory for producing normality, and within it is something not normal. Hidden because everyone wants the street to be normal. Someone told me a saying ones, about truth everyone knows and no one speaks: the whole street feels like this.
The wandering magician looks about calmly, hands in his jacket. Beside him, Jay is pressed tight to the magicians side, sightless eyes wide behind dark glasses. Jay is from far Outside the universe, for all that he looks human, and he’s a barometer for the magician at least sometimes. Sensing with bindings things I’d just catch the echoes of. If Jay is scared, it means we should be going in the direction of get-the-fuck-out-of-here.
“Honcho?” He says softly.
The magician reaches down, squeezes Jay’s hand. “Go back to the RV. Wait.”
Jay vanishes between one moment and the next, hiding from the world itself as easily as he hides his nature from anyone. I catch footsteps for a moment as Jay runs away at inhuman speed and look at the magician. “Talk.”
“Outsiders don’t just enter the universe,” he says quietly. “Sometimes they play games instead. Put some of their nature into people. Offer them power. Someone on this street has been changed and is glorying in those changes.”
“He has trouble when bindings are being obliterated at the best of times. He doesn’t understand why people hurt each other just because the can, cause suffering because it makes them happy to break others. He can understand people who are abused abusing others in turn: this is something else altogether. And nothing you’d want to eat with your power.”
“So you sent Jay away.” I pause. “And I can’t help, so why ...?”
“Jay would have stayed if you had gone. Because no one should face monsters alone. And because Jay has seen what happens when I do.” He walks down the middle of the street, ignoring the sidewalks entirely. There is no traffic; I have no idea if he’s done that with magic, or if whoever is here has done it themselves. “There is light, and there is darkness, but there is also sickness,” he says. “And we can cope with that better than Jay can.”
He turns toward one house no different than the rest, save in colour of siding and trim. “No one has died on this street in three weeks. Because it is more fun if they are alive. Because sometimes the most evil thing you can do is to give someone their heart’s desire.”
“It’s in there?”
“A he, and yes. Can you get a feel for them?”
I reach out. I can eat gods, but any energy is possible. And other things, if I push the talent. I get age, bitterness, a tang like sewage having gone mouldy in a fridge, the smell of something not-rotting like plastic boiling in the sun.
The magician listens, then nods and walks up to the front door. “Edgar Dupree. Come out.”
There was a laugh. Old, crackling, but a laugh. “This is my place of power, magician. Mine!”
“But it’s not. It’s part of a street, which is part of a town,” the wandering magician says calmly. “Or you can truly claim it, and I can banish it from the world.”
“Heh!” The old man opens the door at that. He is tall, and thin, a mixture of wrinkles and liver spots, moving slowly. “I have twenty people in here, magician. You would banish them as well?” He laughs again, the sound like something wet falling on hot pavement.
“Not if I could avoid it,” and the magician’s voice is flat. I can’t see his face, but the old man steps back an uncertain step. “I have done far worse than that before, if it needed to be done. And I will do far worse before I am no longer me. Burn,” he says, and the old man just blinks.
“You think I am so small that fire will hurt me?” Edgar asks. “I walk between Life and Death, and I am master over bo...” And he pauses, reaching up a hand to a forehead gleaming with sweat.
“You do nothing,” the magician says, walking toward him, and the old man stands frozen in place. “What you were given is the doing, and is burnt out of you. Your kind are always arrogant in their borrowed power.”
“And you, magician, you are –.”
“Necessary,” he says, and presses a hand to the old man’s chest. “Go join the entity you talked to, Edgar Dupree. I bind, and I loose,” and the old man was simply gone between one moment and the next.
“You – you banished him?” I manage. I knew magicians did it for Outsiders, but not humans. Not like this.
“He had power enough to heal what he can done; he chose another path.” The magician turns back, and his face is pale and hard, stripped down to a core of will. “Stay outside, Charlie. There is nothing you wish to see in this place.”
And he turns back. And walks inside. And the door closes behind him.
I hear crying, a little. Some screams. Desperate screams, begging voices. I think about keeping peole alive, about what an angry old man could do to those who mocked him for being old. I think the magician should not be alone, but I can’t bring myself to move.
He walks out in less than ten minutes, the door closing behind him. I catch a whiff of smoke, and his steps are almost, almost steady as he walks back toward me. “Thank you for sensing him for me.”
“He would have known your plan, if you had?”
“He would have known enough of me to suspect. Enough to know what I was, and to act from fear rather than arrogance. He had twenty people here; he could have expanded that to more, trying to find a way to survive.” He closes his eyes a moment, opens them. “I’ve done what I can, for memories on this street. It won’t be enough, but I will let others know. The fae, certain Outsiders who can soothe wounds such as this.”
“And your own?” I ask softly.
He just smiles sadly, and begins walking back toward the RV.
“Magician. Nathen.” He actually flinches at his name, and I snag his arm, pulling him toward another street. “We’re going to eat, and have coffee in the mall and watch people who don’t have to fear a mad old man.”
He blinks, then just nods and walks beside him. For a moment, I almost think that is it, but almost means so little too often. He speaks quietly, without power. “He was a magician. That is what Edgar was turned into. A magician without balance, without understanding. A magician who could act without consequence at all, and that is what he did with it.”
“You never would.”
“Oh?” He looks over at that.
“Because if you tried, I’d damn well rip your head off myself.”
And that wins a surprised laugh; it’s not healing, not for what he had to do for the people in the house, but it’s a step, and I take another by turning the conversation to other topics. Which is easy when one of the topics can be Jay. Sometimes the only thing we can do is be a dam, and hope that is enough to help others hold together.
I start crying in the middle of the mall, and he holds me without tears, letting my tears be both of ours, and I hold him in turn until he says I can get go.