There are magicians for cities, but never enough for the wide spaces between them. Twenty dead people in a month brings news vans hovering at the edges of a swamp, speaking to locals who affect every hillbilly accent they can dream up and spin lies for free minutes of tv fame. No one knows why people came here, what they were seeking. Only that they entered the swamp and never came back out. The world is full of places like that, though most are made rather than born.
Awareness fills the air like fetid smoke, darkness seeping through pores into flesh. This close, the swamp is trying to call everyone nearby into it. Hunger turned into devouring. What the bermuda triangle is, this place wishes to be. And if not for Jay and Charlie catching the news stories, I might have never come this way at all. Magic doesn’t draw magicians to such places: they are wounds in the skin of the world, but not unnatural ones. Sometimes the world shifts with unseen earthquakes and the awareness of a place changes. Charlie is keeping the news crews back, using the gods TV people believe in to aid her, and her nature as a god-eater with a god inside her to intimidate those she can’t trick.
I’m walking into the swamp, because I am the wandering magician. And part of wandering is that few places are closed from me. Jay walks beside me in silence, not even making ripples as he walks through the water. He’s eleven, from far outside the universe and has a mastery over bindings that magicians can barely touch. I doubt he’s even aware he’s not leaving ripples in the water, but Jay not talking is a warning sign akin to every time a politician opens their mouth to speak.
“The swamp is really sad, Honcho!”
“I imagine eating twenty people does cause indigestion.”
As usual, the sarcasm passes clear over his head. “It doesn’t have friends except for the insects and animals and lots of buzzing things, squeaking things, scratching, wriggling and biting things too! But they’re part of the swamp and not really friends and it’s probably really lonely!”
“That excuses nothing, Jay,” I say softly.
“Honcho?” His term for me, from years ago, but one he has never let go of. There is a waiting in the question.
“Why places – or people – become monsters isn’t important, Jay. That they are monsters is: what they were driven to or chose to be means nothing to the victims. A monster is a monster in the end, unless it can learn to be otherwise.”
“Oh! I can totally help with that,” Jay says, and offers up a huge grin of innocent pride.
The trees around us shudder like wounded things, the water frothing wildly for several moments. I feel Jay reach out, his nature overriding the swamp for a moment as he hugs it within and without. Being Jay. Trying to make friends.
I make wards about the both of us as the swamp screams. The sound of fury, loss, rage and many things not human at all. The wards I make hold, because I was expecting this, but Jay only looks lost and confused as the swamp lashes out with its nature, trying to destroy him even though it must know Jay goes deeper than it ever could.
“Honcho?” he says in a small voice. “I did a hugging and it’s gone all kinds of not-jaysome.”
Wind howls about us. I reach out with magic, touching the fear of the creatures of the swamp, unmaking the building storm with their desire. “It thought you were going to eat or replace it, Jay.”
“But I had a big lunch an hour ago,” he says in surprise. “I could even share that as a binding and –.”
“No.” He stops, looks up at me. “The swamp is new to awareness, and to power. It is terrified of losing both.”
“But I’m me, so I’d never be a swamp!”
“It doesn’t know that; explaining would not help. Sometimes places are like people, and they don’t like hugs either, Jay,” I say gently.
“I’m really sorry,” he whispers.
“I know. Go join Charlie: if you leave, the swamp should be nicer. Tell her what happened.”
“But then she’ll yell at me!”
“You think you don’t deserve being yelled at?”
Jay blinks at that, thinks it over, then bites his lower lip and vanishes in an inhuman blur.
I wait until he’s occupied with Charlie and explanations, then use the remains of Jay’s attempted offering of friendship to wrap a binding into the swamp. “You will not drag any creature to their death here,” I say, threading power into my voice. “Human or otherwise: this is the binding I put upon you, and if you break it you will cease to exist.”
The swamp screams, lashing out with power, but I deal with Outsiders often and avoid every strike as I walk out of the swamp, letting it use impotent rage until I’ve had enough. It is the work of a moment to cut through the swamps power with the fear of those it killed, the deeper fear the news vans are creating only adding to that.
“You did what you did without understanding: now you understand, and you will be given no other warnings,” I say, and this time it is entirely silent as I go and join Jay and Charlie. At least Jay learned a lesson, or the start of one: I’ve a feeling I can’t say the same about the swamp at all, at least not for now.