Once upon a time, a king who thought his touch could turn anything into gold was presented with a boy band and all his talent failed him.
I leave Jay playing games in the back seat of our car and go for a walk. Most people might balk at leaving a ten year old kid in the back of a car at midnight playing games on his phone by himself but Jay is from far Outside the universe and not human at all. So it doesn’t even occur to him to wonder where I am going at midnight. The car is uncomfortable: it has been for two weeks of sleeping and living in it, and even being a magician doesn’t make that better. Every time I do something and get paid, the money vanishes so quickly it’s definitely a curse. That the Bank – the bank that is behind all banks, pays most magicians to leave banks alone. To not break the world they’ve made, to help protect it.
Declaring war on the Bank was never something I intended, but they had an account for me, and I forced it to be changed to someone else. As far as they knew, that was impossible even for a magician to do. So the Bank got scared and sicced other magicians on me, to weave curses and traps and harm. I’ve spent three weeks avoiding traps and defusing them without directly confronting another magician over it. I’m one of the few magicians who travels, and I’ve used that, tricks I’ve learned, favours I’m owed and a lot of luck so far.
Luck doesn’t last forever. Eventually I will be pushed against a wall, and make a choice: change or stay. Be a river or a rock. Particle or wave. To kill another magician in defense of myself or let the Bank win. I’m a magician, the wandering magician of this era, and I’m not going to let them trap me with those choices. So I walk into the town we’re parked outside of, to the largest branch of the largest bank.
Magic answers will, responds to need, is fed by desires. I make wards from wind and wi-fi, draw up the rumble of cars on asphalt as armour, pull the thrum of tensioned-hate from TV screens and out of homes as I walk. The bank is all old brickwork and stone with bonsai trees the size of normal trees and a lawn that could be used for a mini-golf course. I do nothing to that, just walk to the door and hold up a hand.
The door opens. There is a security guard inside, and also a bank manager working the late shift, all dark suit and pasty face like a cliche pulled out of a movie, a weapon he can hide behind. I trip several alarms, but the guard doesn’t come. The manager does, feet striking the floor like tap shoes, his lips thin and tight. A nametag on his crisp suit reads ‘Dowell’ and nothing else at all.
“You are not welcome here.” Each word is cool and flat, a command as much as a statement.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I was. I am here to offer you a ceasefire. I didn’t intend to declare war, as much as the Bank you serve relished the excuse to strike at me. I have, against both my will and judgement, become famous in my own way – and you cannot keep calling in favours like this without cost.”
“You underestimate the amount of people who relish this opportunity, magician.”
“I imagine so, Steve. May I call you Steve?”
Dowell stiffens at that. He is too well-trained to grind his teeth, but pulling his name out of the air around him was clearly not something he expected me to do. He has wards, but they are made of fear and greed and anger, and it’s easy to slip through them for a small thing like a name. Though to him that’s clearly not a small thing at all.
“You may not.” He doesn’t shout; he’s too well-trained for that as well.
“Very well.” I clasp my hands behind my back, looking as calm and relaxed as I can pull off. “The point remains that the Bank can’t afford to have magicians break ties with it. You’ve tried to limit us by making us dependant on your money in the cities we are bound to, making magicians soft and weak. And I understand that. It was well done and the work of a certain kind of genius, but you’re bound to us as well now. You’ve made servants and powers magic cannot work on, and been unable to prevent recessions as a result of that wasted effort.
“Or, at least, that is the story put out. I know a leprechaun, you know. I know a single one can destroy the economy of an entire country if sufficiently pissed off. Imagine what one could do if a magician bound it to act against only the Bank. You’ve made redcaps to try and hunt them to extinction, but they still remain. And all it would take is one suggestion, one whisper of power, and they would be able to obliterate you.”
“This is your idea of a cease fire?”
“No. It’s a warning. There are other magicians who know leprechauns, others who could do the same thing I could if push came to shove.” I smile, a baring of teeth. “Are you sure you want to push us?”
“We have threats we can offer in turn, magician. We can turn a whole world against your kind.”
“I know. But magicians are not concerned about just this world, just this small place, or even our reputations or families. Leprechauns originated in this world, Dowell. There are things far worse from far Outside it that I could call up, make you witness, force your masters to understand. We could destroy each other here, if we desire it. I don’t. So I’m asking you to drop the curses and traps and tricks you’re having other magicians put on me and we will put this behind us.”
“And if we say it can’t happen?”
I meet his gaze. There are other forces behind it. Eyes, presences, watchers. Some human, some not remotely human at all. I file that away for later use and just smile easily, keeping silent. Waiting.
Dowell’s answering smile is thinner than before. “We will agree, but a statement must be made. You hurt our reputation, wandering magician. It is only fair that we hurt you in turn.”
I don’t move; Dowell doesn’t either, but there is something in his eyes that isn’t just the Bank watching through them, or anything Other. Glee.
“This is a lesson,” he says.
I don’t point out I know he is the security for the bank since no guard has arrived, or that the lack of wards meant the bank itself is a trap. I know that; I figure the Bank must know as well. I make the wards I’ve drawn up from the town itself visible around me, swirls of energy and ideas, colours and wishes, wills and needs.
“This is the town,” I say, and there is something – something in his smile, in his stance. I almost have it, but almost isn’t enough.
“We know. A sacrifice is necessary to make a statement.” And a word is spoken through Dowell, not of binding but a banishing, and the air is not just air any longer. The world shudders, twists, bends and breaks, and the wards I have drawn up from the town shatter apart like daydreams as the entire town of Raven’s Bluff is banished from the universe to some place far Outside it. Taking me along with two thousand other people, all because I never thought the Bank would do something like this.
Dowell smiles still, despite the fact that he’s doomed everyone here – including himself – to whatever might be in the swirling chaos of the places around us.
I grab the fear of the townsfolk walking up dreams, or waking seeing the sky become something entirtely alien, and slam it all into it. Rip out every bargan and barrier Steven Dowell made against his conscience, against his shared humanity, and leave him to collapse to the ground at the sheet enormity of what he’s done.
I don’t kill him.
I don’t have that much mercy in me right now.
…. to be continued!
Once upon a time, there was a hero who rescued so many damsels in distress that the kingdom plum ran out of them; in order to keep him occupied, the damsels began capturing each other using elaborate disguises to fool him.
"I love you," she said, "but that’s not enough. Can’t you see that? By itself, it’s not enough. It is beautiful, and wonderful, but it isn’t a foundation we can build on. I’m sorry."
Once upon a time, there was a wolf and three little pigs and they made a reality TV show together and lived happily ever after.
Once upon a time, there was a dragon who let himself be slain by the knight in the sure and certain knowledge that his hoard of gold would devastate the local economy.
Ponders a tumblr where I only follow and heart blogs that begin with a specific letter of the alphabet …
I hunt the words I’m seeking
My spear is my thesaurus
Where men of old led hunts
With dogs I have a google
They hunted days for food
I expect to starve this hunt
No one has had a dream since 2046. There’s drugs, and everyone takes them. You sleep, don’t dream and it’s the nearest thing to sanity we have. Once companies charged for TrueSleep, but the governments stepped in. Made it free.
They didn’t have to make it mandatory. Everyone who didn’t take it woke up screaming.
The lucky ones stopped.
The rest bought The Product. Or tried to find it. Or killed themselves. Or other people.
The Product was destroyed, the company dismantled by executive order. That funded TrueSleep, made it free for everyone. If you don’t have it, you dream about The Product. Nothing else. Ads for it churning through the mind, burning pathways through the brain we can’t get rid of. They were the first to consider using the System neural interface for flash-advertising the brain directly. Only there was no way to turn it off.
No one’s done it since. System has been altered. Crippled, some say. The Product is said to have set society back 50 years, we’ll all so scared of neural networks now. We don’t dream, but sometimes I remember the ads we used to watch on the holovids. And I want some of The Product, but it no longer exists.
My therapist tells me it’s displacement, because I want to dream again. She says everyone has it, and everyone wants it, and no one ever can. We get the future we deserve. Someone told me that once. I hope they’re wrong. I can still hope, even if I can’t dream.
Once upon a time, there was a stableboy who was secretly a prince — but no one learned this because the horses were quite unruly and he reasoned that if he could not control a stable of horses he had no right to make a claim for an entire kingdom.
Once upon a time, there was an evil witch who would curse her enemies with tooth rot and let the dentists take care of the rest of her work for her.
We cannot be spontaneous because of iJesus phones
I explained and you threw all our time-keeping away
I wait to see what you’ll do about circadian rhythms