There are things even magicians don’t expect. More than we’d admit, but often less than other people might suspect. You get used to the universe bending events in your favour, and also to pushing you in directions to balance that out. You get used to weird, and even to being weird yourself. But if you can’t be surprised, then you aren’t really a magician any longer. You can’t walk in a world of quiet wonders with blinkers on, not and remain within it.
Which is why I blink and stop as an ATM tears itself loose from its moorings and comes toward me. It’s not a monster under fae glamour, not a creature from Outside the universe. But it is an ATM, and it opens a mouth a jagged teeth to reveal an interior that looks like the backseat of a limousine. People are running away screaming, Jay is asking Charlie what is going on, and I stare up at the sign of the First Bank of the Holbrook before reaching out with the magic. I find the part of the ATM that wishes to rejoin the bank, and it snaps back into place. Need, desire, will.
“How many banks does Holbrook have?” I ask, not turning around.
Jay asks his phone, then announces it as two. Charlie adds one credit union on top of that. “Not enough for this risk, then. Wait here.”
Jay lets out a whine, but Charlie snaps for him to wait. She’s dealt with The Bank before, and knows what they are capable of. God-eater or not, Charlie has a better grasp than I of what her limits are. Jay is eleven, from far Outside the universe, and too curious and friendly for anyone’s good. I don’t want to expose him to the kind of bindings The Bank deals in if I can avoid it.
I walk into the bank to find staff and customers in frantic disarray. I let something of what being a magician means out, enough for them to mistaken magic for power. Enough for them to think me an authority. The manager is a tall, nervously-thin man who looks about to pull his few remaining hairs from his head. Normally, I am at least subtle. But they were not, so I thread power into my voice. “I need to speak to the manager,” I say, and conversation about me skitters like broken records.
The manager jerks to a halt, opens his mouth, and the voice that speaks through him is cold and flat. “Wandering magician. We require your services.”
“You could have simply asked.”
“We could not.”
I don’t press the issue, blood is starting to seep out of the eyes of the bank manager. The Bank exists for many reasons, one of which is supplying magicians with money so they don’t take it from banks. I refused that offer for a variety of reasons, only some of which were the refusal of a father’s barbed gift. I suspect they’re using magicians, and the war they once had against me murdered an entire town. “No, that’s not your style, is it?”
“We had a storage facility breached by a magician; we need the matter investigated.”
“You will owe me. The favour open-ended, of my choosing.”
There is silence, then: “Your terms,” the representative of The Bank says.
“You hold magicians in debt.”
“It is an arrangement –.”
“You will never call it due.”
“It would take at least three recessions to balance that,” the other says, not even pausing.
“No, it wouldn’t. And no, it won’t.”
“We will – we will see what can be done,” and the voice is choral now, bitter and furious and hesitant.
I hadn’t actually expected to succeed even that far. I nod, and walk back outside to the ATM as it opens back up. Jay is crowding close to Charlie and whimpering softly, white cane held tight in his hands. “There’s really bad bindings inside, Honcho,” he gets out in a rush. “And you made them really, really mad!”
“I know. Keep each other safe. Don’t follow me,” I say to Jay, and I’m not making it a request.
The ATM opens itself up and I get in, sit, and the world lurches a moment between one place and the next before it opens back up. I pause a moment before getting out: the air outside has a biting edge, even if artificial heat is keeping the cold away. I’m almost certain I’m still on Earth, and the long hallway I emerge into it well lit, the entire building I’m in both underground and warded by magic and science. I don’t recognize some of the wards at all, but can feel their power humming like live wires.
I close my eyes, feeling out into the world gently. There is too much static for the magic to tell my anything, but I’ve learned a lot from Charlie in how she eats energy, and in how terribly good Jay is at sensing and using bindings. I’m still over a minute, possibly up to two before I hear a cough in front of me. I open my eyes and nod to an employee of The Bank. She is tall and thin, and I only half-imagine the armour shimmering about her and the sword in waiting on her back.
“Magician,” she says, cool and formal.
“Someone broke into this place.”
“That is hardly a deduction worthy of –.”
“They weakened and strengthened every ward as they passed through it, setting off close to zero alarms on entering. On exiting, I imagine they did the same just because Mary Lee can do that.”
She stiffens. “How did you –?”
“Most magicians can’t wander. I think we’re in the Arctic or Antarctic – maybe under mountains and I’m confused by that – but it means most couldn’t easily get here. And certainly not often enough to map up the wards and make an entrance like that. I could, if I was very lucky. At least I think I could, but I’d have to be quite desperate to even try that: she is more than powerful enough and skilled enough to do something like this. Though I have no idea why she would even bother?”
The employee gives me another stare, then: “Follow.”
We walk down a vast hallway. Concrete, or something that looks like it. I can feel wards and technology meshed together, power pulsing through the ground and air. The entrance proper is a thick, solid door leading to a vast vault. There is no lock on the vault, the defence of it being the now very-dead dragon on the other side. That it is big goes without saying. Even in death, scales glimmer a myriad of colours and the smell of fresh-cut grass fills the air.
“Grass?” I ask.
“Dragons decompose with grace. We plan to move the body later.”
I walk closer; I’ve had dealings with dragons, but I’ve never seen one this large. Vast wings curled up about the body, bone pressed down to the ground, scales twisted a little – and oozing whole where the heart was. “This dragon never took on human form.”
My voice is almost steady, but even so I feel the employee stare at me. “That is important?”
“Most do. From what I’ve been told, it weakens them but allows them to hide their nature better. At least a third of the protections on this place would have been preventing the dragon from being noticed. They are said to be the first things magicians made, but I doubt if that’s actually true. Called into being, perhaps, but I don’t know the how or why of it. There hasn’t been a dragon considered new in a very long time: most diminsh, in one way or another.”
I hold out a hand, and my magic shudders a little inside. Even dead, every instinct screams to ward myself against its power. I lower my hand slowly, fingers shaking. I don’t even attempt to hide that: The Bank has to know what it had here.
“Remind me never to look into what guards your other hordes.”
And the woman lets out a small, surprised laugh at that. “I doubt we need to.”
“I imagine Mary Lee took nothing else?”
“Not a thing. We know the dragon moved against her, and her voice drove it to the floor. We don’t know why it tried nothing else.”
“Fear, I imagine. But that is strange: Mary Lee is powerful, but a dragon guarding their hoarde, with wards and protections like this to draw upon? She was taking a big risk, even for her. Which means she knew the dragon wouldn’t strike her. And presumably wouldn’t suspect she’d take their heart. A familiar once, perhaps. Linked together. Though what she needed the heart for, I’ve no idea.”
“We would like you to look into it. Please,” she adds when I say nothing. “For all our sakes. No other magician would dare and our methods are ... not subtle.”
“That is one way of putting it, yes.”
The woman stirs at my tone. For a moment, I think she is going to draw the sword from her sheathe. “You have cause to hate us, but that hate should not blind to to things worse than us.”
I reach through the bindings that link Jay and me, ask him to hide the dragon to be examined later, and snap my fingers. The dragon vanishes. The woman draws her blade. I turn and smile. “The dragon will be examined in depth later.”
“How – how did you?” she demands.
“You wanted the best. Did you expect me to do less than that?” I ask, and walk back toward the ATM that brought me here. “I have a question,” I add into the dangerous silence as she follows me. “When summer ends, what do you do?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“We prepare for winter.”
“Exactly. You hoard things, you bulk up. But there are others who prepare for spring instead. Who see the future as change rather than as death. I invite you to consider the kind of change one could accomplish with the power contained in a dragon’s heart. And what could be done by someone who existed long before banks ever did, if they wanted to change the world in ways that mattered.”
And the employee of The Bank says not a single word to that. I have no idea if they believe me, or if they know I made that up entirely to keep them occupied. I step into the ATM-limo, and The Bank returns me to Holbrook without a single stop elsewhere – or even a bumpy right. Which might, just might, make them a little less cruel than I right now.