Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Witch Magic

The Elf Whisperer

“Portland. This is Portland. Portland. Local time is 4:45 pm. End of the line. Check with the ticket agent for your bus numbers if you are headed north or south from here,” the bus driver intoned over the loud speaker. Marie Rose woke and raised her head from where it had been resting against the window. She scowled owlishly, confused. What had he said? Portland? Why was she here? She had finally gotten her life together. Why had she left a perfectly good job and an apartment that was not a cock-roach infested hell-hole? Why had she packed what she could into her backpack and left Salt Lake City in such a hurry?

She wrested the heavy backpack out of the overhead rack and trudged sleepily to the front of the bus.

“Thank you,” she said to the bus driver. The man did not look up from his clipboard, merely grunting as she passed him. Marie Rose stepped out onto the wet pavement and took a deep breath. It had rained recently. Shadows ran like water across the pavement and pooled in the puddles of the uneven parking lot. It would rain again sometime in the night. She needed to find somewhere safe and dry to sleep before then. Walking through the bus station, she pulled out her phone. By the time she stood curbside, she had a Lyft ride and the address of a hotel with monthly rates.

The hotel looked promising. Being part youth hostel, it boasted a coffee shop and a restaurant that catered to the less sophisticated tastes of the average college-age summer backpacker. The Lyft driver was personable and chatty. By the time he dropped her off in front of the hotel, she had the names of a half dozen restaurants that were cheap and clean where the locals ate regularly.

On the sidewalk in front of the main doors, Marie Rose paused, heels hanging off the edge of the curb, as she studied the edifice of the five-story hotel. Old. Post WWII, or a little earlier. Ghosts hung inside by the dozens, just off the edge of knowing. She took in a deep breath, pulling light out of the Void and letting it wash through her, cleansing her of any shadow she might have picked up on her journey. As expected, at the flare of light, most of the ghosts took note of her presence and pressed their noses against the windows to stare down at her with hungry longing. Marie Rose shouldered her pack and walked through the front doors.

A ghost of an old man drifted near. Too late, it realized that the storm of light surrounding her was a whirlpool. Caught in its eddies, it was pulled apart and sucked away. Marie Rose pretended not to notice as she crossed the lobby to the front desk. The clerk studied her speculatively. She knew what he was thinking. She was too young to be a derelict. Too old to be a college student on a walkabout. Travel had rumpled but decently dressed and clean. Nondescript in a way that proclaimed her disdain for current fashion trends.

“Can I help you?” the boy behind the counter asked. He was that age that made him unremarkable – young and sheltered. Life had not yet marked his face with the lines of pain and anguish that left their indelible scars on a human soul.

“Your website says you have monthly rates,” Marie Rose said.

“Those rooms are taken. I have a few beds left in the hostel or you can pay the nightly rates for the rooms on the top floors.”

Marie Rose nodded and pulled out a credit card. “Give me a room. As high up as possible. And put my name down for the next monthly-rate room.”

The boy had a couple of guardian ghosts. Older women. They scowled at her from over the boys shoulders. Marie Rose scowled back. They looked surprised as they fled through the front doors and hovered out on the sidewalk. That was fine. She could tolerate them there. They could pick up their boy when he went home.

Marie Rose smiled at the boy as he took her credit card. “What is your name?”

“Ethan,” he said, pointing at his name-tag in annoyance. Ethan Hutchinson. A nice Viking name. She liked how he tasted. His great great grandfather had come over from Scotland back before the turn of the last century. Five generations later, this boy was the same mixed heritage of all white Americans, the magic of the old gods now just a mere whisper running through his veins. She sent a tendril of power into him, and the old magic flared into life, bringing Ethan one more step closer to awareness of his own power. His hand hovered over the keys as he blinked in confusion. Shaking his head, he completed the transaction.

He swiped her card and watched the screen, probably expecting it to be declined.

“Ethan. Will you tell me when you get a vacancy or do I need to come down here everyday to check?”

Ethan handed the card back with a long-suffering sigh. “I will make a note for tomorrow’s shift. The restaurant closes at 7 pm if you are hungry. The coffee shop opens a 6 am.” He took a card blank and ran it through the machine. “Your room is 521. Top floor facing the river.”

“That’s perfect, Ethan. Thank you very much,” she said as she took the room key. She turned and scowled at the room full of ghosts that had gathered while her attention was elsewhere. Not all of them belonged to the hotel. Her presence had called them here, clearing the city for blocks around. She took another deep breath and filled the room with white light. The power of it wanted to rage out of her and fill the world. She struggled and managed to contain it to just this building. When the power subsided and she could see again, the room was empty.

“Uh, the elevator is to your left,” Ethan said helpfully, misunderstanding her hesitation.

Marie Rose nodded and turned in that direction. Shadows chittered excitedly from behind the walls. It would take more than a bit of white light to banish them. She needed to get behind walls that kept them at bay.

The elevator was as old as the building and took forever to descend to the lobby. She felt the sweat form on her skin. Damn, damn, damn. New places gave her the heebie jeebies. Hotel rooms especially. Never mind the ghosts. The dark anguish of the past inhabitants clung to everything and no amount of soap and water could wash it away. She need to get up to her room and start cleaning.

The elevator opened to a long hall that smelled of wood rot and mildew. The room, while relatively clean, smelled of harsh cleaning products and old sweat. Marie Rose crossed to the window, threw back the curtains and pushed up on the old style casement. It only rose half a foot before it ran into something that blocked it. The hotel wanted to guard against the random suicide. A cold wind swept down the river and sent eddies into her room. It would have to do. She went to the bathroom and turned the cold water taps on full in the tub and the sink. Water splashed against the porcelain and gurgled down the drain, chasing away the shadows that hid there. She striped naked and hung her clothes on the hook behind the door.

Returning to the room, she unzipped her backpack and dumped its contents on the bed. Finding the incense sticks and the lighter, she put flame to tip until it glowed red then she walked the edges of the room, wafting the sweet smoke into every corner. Between water and smoke and breeze, the stagnate energy began to break apart.

She made a second circle of the room but this time the smoke from her incense stick glowed white and the runes and sigils she inscribed in the air hung stationary where she placed them, glowing softly. Taking a deep breath, she sent power coursing through her body. The spirals and circles and triangles inscribed bone-deep by the old shaman years ago burned brightly through all the layers of muscle and skin, turning their white light golden. The sunlight was disappearing from the sky but she did not need to turn on the lights to see in the growing dusk. Her body was light enough.

Marie Rose pointed two fingers at the wall and a flaming blade sprang into her fist. She made a circle for a third time, the blade of light cutting through the walls and incinerating any shadow that was too slow to get out of the way. She returned to the center of the room and used the blade to inscribe a spiral in the floor and then put an identical spiral in the ceiling above her.

Satisfied, she returned to the mound of belongings on the bed and picked up the rag doll. Propping it against the head board, she pressed her fingers into the crystal in its heart and whispered the words that opened the portal into the other places. A name fell from her lips, spoken in a language had not been heard on this planet for thousands of years.

A creature of light and shadow stepped into the room.

“Killeel,” she murmured with pleasure, throwing her arms around him.

“Ah, my lovely witch, Rose,” Killeel said, burying his fingers in her mass of dark hair as he pressed his forehead against hers.

His pointed ears poked out of the fall of his pale hair as he studied her face with eyes that sparkled like faceted amethyst. He was every bit as naked as she and he was very male. She ran her hands over his hard belly as his lips dropped to nibble on her earlobe.

Maddenly, he stopped and lifted his head to look around. Was it the bright sigils floating in the air or the chitter of shadows beyond the wall of light she had created that disturbed him?

“What is this? Why have you moved?” he asked.

“They were getting too close. People were getting hurt,” she said with a shrug.

“And you do not think they will notice this?” he asked frowning at the magic that laced the room and shown through her skin. “This extravagant display of power will surely be turning heads. They will notice. If not now, soon. You grow in power. It disturbs them.”

“They are busy feeding on a city full of ghosts. The dead and the death at the stadium will keep them happy for months.”

Killeel grunted. “It is getting easier and easier to find a mind open to such possession. It is a wonder that you do not have mass shootings on a daily basis in this country. I cannot tell if it is intrinsic in their nature to kill or if the Dark Lord triggers them on purpose.”

Marie Rose grimaced. “Or maybe it is me and my meddling.”

Killeel shrugged. “There is that possibility also. I was not going to say anything. If you have one failing it is that you are too cautious.”

“Cautious? That is not the word I would have used. Sloppy. Haphazard. Careless. I have no problem deciding the fate of the ghosts and shadows but I cannot bring myself to force humans down a path that will save them from their own folly.”

“You wake them but then abandon them to their own resources afterward.” Killeel reminded her as he brushed a stray curl from her shoulder.

“I keep hoping they will use their beloved free will to actually do the right thing,” she said, crossing to the window to stare down at the river. “Ten thousand years of toxic parenting and all the humans have to show for it is books full of lies and no wisdom.”

Killeel shoved her belongings unceremoniously onto the floor and laid down. ”What is that quaint saying your people have? Something about making a horse drink water?”

Marie Rose turned, momentarily puzzled. “You can lead a horse to water . . . Yeah, horses are pretty stupid as my mother used to tell me all the time. Are you going to spout my grandfather’s wisdom back at me all night?” she asked crawling onto the bed to straddle him.

“Grandfather? The one you like or the one you hate?” Killeel asked returning his attention to her earlobe.

She forgot to answer.

Hours later, sometime in the middle of the night, they woke to the angry hiss of a fairy hovering over Killeel’s head. The elf lord sighed as he swatted at it halfheartedly. The fairy dodged his hand with ease and burned a little brighter. Marie Rose moaned as she threw up a hand against the glare.

“Duty calls, my love,” Killeel said, pressing his lips against the line of her jaw. In the next moment, he was gone.

Marie Rose sighed and tried to find sleep again but sleep was far away. She went into the bathroom and took a long hot shower instead. Sex always made her hungry but it would be hours before the coffee shop opened. She filled her belly with light to ease the hunger pains as she pulled on a t-shirt and crossed to the open window to stare out at the city lights.

The fiasco at the University of Utah stadium had not been the result of a random angry human confused by the burden of shadows being lifted from his mind. No. This time it had been different. Three men with a small arsenal of weapons, in a highly organized operation, had sprayed the sold-out stadium with a hail of lead, killing players and audience alike. The death toll was still being counted when she had packer her bag and boarded the next bus out of town. They had found her and the stadium was their way of giving her notice that they would create untold havoc until she showed herself. Not that that was ever going to happen. Maybe they just hoped to catch her in their net of chaos like the random spray of buckshot into a flight of birds.

She thought about that for a long time. What was the point of running? They would find her eventually. They always did. What was the point of her existence, when you got down to the core of her problem? What good came from waking a human to the true nature of the Oneverse if they woke to a world in which Darkness held sway leaving only helpless hopelessness?

The shadows chittered there, behind her walls. What was the point of any of this? This room was one tiny clean spot on a planet mired under layers of filth. Maybe she granted the world too much autonomy. After all, had anyone ever asked her if this was the life she wanted? She had been born awake and aware, seeing everything, feeling everything, overwhelmed by the sea of ghosts and the tides of Darkness. It had taken her this long to beat back those tides and reclaim her sanity. Up until this moment, everything she had done, every spell cast, every wish whispered into the dark cesspool of this place had been an act of survival.

Maybe now it was time to do something more than just survive.

Marie Rose drew in a deep breath and filled her body with light. Golden light washed the walls once more as the magic inscribed in her bones burned hot.

She took another breath and create a bubble of white light and placed it just outside her body. The next breath pushed that bubble to the limits of the room. The shadows in the walls grew silent, breathlessly expectant. There she stopped, panting at the effort it took to control the energy that wanted to come streaming through the Void into her. What if . . . what if she just let it loose? Would it consume her? Would the cleaning staff open the door to her room tomorrow and find only ash? If she were wise, she would do this carefully, erring on the side of caution. It would be kinder for everyone involved. But she was sick and tired of being kind.

“What is the point of being me if I am not true to my nature?” she asked the Oneverse. The Oneverse was surprisingly silent, as if it too were holding its breath waiting for her to act.

“Fuck it,” she whispered, opening the door in her mind all the way and letting the energy rush through her. She lost herself in the cataclysmic eruption of white light as it poured out of her and exploded out into the city. She became the bubble of light that spread out into the world. Shadows popped and were consumed in the event horizon of her will. Darkness became fuel to further feed her fires. An atomic bomb was a mere firecracker in comparison to the size of the thing she released into the world. It was still spreading out into the universe when she blacked out.

Killeel found her there, crumpled on the floor in front of the window, shivering. He gathered her up and lifted her onto the bed to cover her with blankets.

“Silly girl. What were you thinking?” he murmured, wiping the cold sweat from her forehead with his fingers.

“Killeel? How? How are you here? I did not open the door into Fairy.”

“Many doors opened with what you did. Opened permanently. This reality has not seen the like in well over ten thousand human years. Not since the Dark Lord sealed them shut.”

“What of the Dark Lord?” she asked from behind heavy lids. “Is he gone?”

“No. But you have him on the run and with the doors open, you have gained a thousand new allies in the fight.”

“I should have done this long ago.”

Killeel lay down beside her and gathered her into his arms, laughing. “You were not ready. It would have destroyed you before now. But I will tell you this. Waking the old gods in the boy, Ethan, did the same for you. Now the Dark Lord has some competition. Your world is about to divide itself in two. Those who wish for the mindless oblivion of the Darkness will clash with those who want to embrace the Light.”

“Fuck,” Marie Rose murmured. “Nothing is ever easy, is it?”

Killeel laughed. “With you? No. Nothing is ever easy. You would not allow it to be otherwise, my love,” he said as she fell asleep.



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The Wanderer walked through the gate and looked around in wonder.

Wonder was what he always felt upon leaving the gates; wonder that he was still alive, wonder at the feeling of being born new and clean into an unknown place, wonder at where he had been and where he was going. The crushing weight of infinite time inside the portals stripped him clean of his past and took away his most recent thoughts, making them a vague and distant memory. He wondered, not for the first time, if he had ever had a name. They said there were a thousand lifetimes between one step and the next as you crossed the threshold of a time portal. Perhaps they were right. Or perhaps the energy of the portals merely scrambled your brains and what he felt as the passing of infinite time was merely the symptoms of irreparable brain damage. Either way, it did not matter.

He stood upon the lintel of the gate, the energy of his passage fading behind him and looked around curiously. He was alone in a dimly lit chamber remarkable in its immense size and by its absolute silence. He was surprised by this. Vague though his memories might be, he was fairly certain that the portals were usually outside, built upon isolated hills just high enough and far enough away from human habitation to keep the energy flares, always a remote possibility, from frying the local population. These peoples had chosen, instead, to seal their portal behind thick stone walls.

The Wanderer cocked his head to listen to the world beyond this strange room. Open sky and sunlight was far away, up above his head. The portal seemed to have been buried in stone. For some reason, he found this profoundly disturbing yet he could not remember why that should be. He worried over that thought for a moment and then shook his head to clear it. What he needed to remember would come to him eventually. All truths did, in the end.

The room was not the only surprising part of his current predicament. He was alone. Up until now his experiences led him to expect that the portals would always be guarded by priests either of the religious bent or as members of the scientific cults. No one stood here to tell him where he was or to give him directions to the nearest monastic institute or traveler’s hostel. Confusion kept him rooted to the spot for a double handful of moments while his brain sorted through the drifts of knowledge laying about in his brain, trying to come up with a logical matrix of cause and effect that best suited this current conundrum.

A number of possible scenarios presented themselves for his consideration. That the planet lay dead under a thinning sky topped that list. He waited, hoping he was in error. His eyes grew accustomed to the perpertual gloom of the room, enough to see that the dim glow came from pinpoints of light set in the high ceiling in a pattern meant to mimic the stars set in the heavens. The stone sense above him put a lie to that electrical illusion. Heartened a bit by this small semblance of technology, he waited, hoping against hope that the presence of electricity might also promise the presence of sensors and security cameras or perhaps a robotic mind left to do the task humans found too tedious.

No one came. He sighed forlornly. He had a memory of cities, centuries dead, still powered by their atomic furnaces. Perhaps this was such a place.

When it became apparent that no one was coming to investigate the gate’s activation, the Wanderer stepped off the altar dais and began walking towards the far wall. Time did not exist in this room except for that measured by the even tread of his feet upon the dusty stone floor. He tried counting his steps but the silence fogged his mind. He lost track after five hundred.

Eventually he spotted a set of doors in the pale light. They opened effortlessly at his touch. Beyond were more rooms. He explored for a bit, until, quite to his surprise, he turned a corner and came face to face with an old woman busy sweeping the dust into random piles on the ancient stone floors. She stared at him, puzzled by his presence in her usually deserted domain and, upon being asked, pointed silently towards the doors that would lead him outside. He thanked her but she remained mute, perhaps not understanding his words. He could not tell for certain.  He had spoken in Universal Pandimensional Basic but playing the lost tourist asking direction was universally understood no matter what the language.

The doors led to a hallway, the hallway to an elevator. He pressed the only button and after a moment the doors hissed open. Entering, he studied the control panel. After a bit of ciphering, he pushed the button that most probably represented zero. The elevator took him down a dozen stories before the doors opened to reveal a great atrium through which scores of people scurried, each intent on their own private purpose, it seemed. He watched the frenetic motion of scores of bodies for a moment. The chaos of their motion sorted itself out in his mind. What appeared disconnected and solitary, when viewed as a whole, took on a pattern and a synchronicity that turned their movements into an intricate dance. The dance hinted at the formation of a hive mind.

The Wanderer had encountered the human hive mind on other planes, on other planets. Its development was always a signal of a species in the midst of an evolutionary leap. This transition was never comfortable. It was akin to a worm destroying itself from the inside out inside its chrysalis so that it might reform its baser nature into something far more wondrous. He wondered vaguely where they stood on the painful and inevitable slide into chaos and whether he might be better served turning around and letting the portal take him somewhere else.

He chewed on his lower lip, a worried frown on his brow. The portals were self directing, bringing him where he was needed most. These people needed him but even now, after all this time, he distrusted the mindless, primordial power that made this true.

The elevator beeped impatiently, interrupting his reverie, reminding him that it had places to go that did not involve ferrying bemused Wanderers about as they looked for a purpose to life. The Wanderer stepped out and the elevator gave him one last annoyed beep before it whisked itself away.

The Wanderer abandoned all thoughts of striking up a conversation with the people around him. He had no desire to talk to the hive mind and humans caught up in its matrixes tended towards the irrational. He decided, instead, to continue playing the lost tourist.

It had been such a long time since he had visited someplace just for the sheer joy of being somewhere different that it took him a few moments to remember what that might feel like. Was there a purpose behind the motions of sightseeing? He rummaged through his head until he settled upon what might be the universal theme of tourism. Curiosity. The Wanderer looked around for some small thing that might peak his curiosity.

He was too old and too jaded to care about the architecture or the art work on the walls. But the quality of the light intrigued him. The atrium had the deep green gloom of a forest floor. This confused his senses as he knew for a fact a densely packed and densely populated city grew towards the skies around him. Curiosity led him to follow a stream of people through a series of doors set in a glass wall. Waves of densely packed air played over his body as he stepped through each doorway. The Wanderer smiled, delighted. The doors were a cleverly disguised air lock. The Wanderer counted himself a connoisseur of cleverness. Perhaps this place was not completely hopeless.

Outside, the air was a living thing that engulfed him and settled wetly into his lungs. He coughed softly, the smell and the weight of it robbing him temporarily of his breath. The people around him crossed the building’s stone apron quickly, hands over their noses, as if finding the noisome damp air unpleasant. Long cars, their windows shuttered against the green light, stopped to catch them up, the doors hissing open with a brisk efficiency, the machines’ chilled breath lingering long after the doors closed and the people had gone. Other cars sped by in a blur of steel and industrious intent. Tourist, the Wanderer decided, would not be so hasty. He chose not to enter the cars but instead wandered down the tree-lined walkway.

This city must have truly loved its trees at one time, though the people around him barely looked up to notice their presence and the windows above his head were shuttered and dark, shielded from the inopportune intrusions of the beauty of golden light, blue sky or green tree. The trees grew all the same, albeit unnoticed, planted at regular intervals in small squares of soil cut into the verge of the walkway and along the median that divided the opposite flows of traffic. These were not the stunted and sickly trees of other cities. No. These trees stood tall and lush, towering over him dozens of stories high, their canopies reaching towards the narrow patches of sky, competing for space with the stone and glass high-rises that formed canyon walls around them.

An odd thought bubbled up in his mind. How was it that a rainforest had grown up here, only to have ninety percent of its arboreal giants become stone, he wondered. The Wanderer let this fancy take him further, imagining some troll with an evil eye stomping through the ancient groves, freezing the living, turning wood into stone and leaf into glass with its terrible troll glare.

He laughed out loud as he strode down the avenue filled from cliff face to cliff face with trees. Truth was sometimes more magical than fancy. There was a great river somewhere close by. He could smell it on the wind and feel its water swelling the great sponge of land under this city’s feet. The city was not clean. No city this size ever was. The river and the streets were saturated with the effluvia of the millions of city dwellers and their animal familiars. The ancient pipes meant to carry the waste to some distant treatment plant lay crazed with cracked under the pavement. The trees, opportunistic feeders as were all things that wished to survive and continue existence in the face of unbeatable odds used the city canyons as shelter against the great storms that blew in from the not so distant ocean just as a grove of trees might take shelter from the winds inside the embrace of their kin in a primordial forest. Thus protected, these city born trees sank their toes into the porous gravel under the city’s foundations and drew up the rich nutrients they found there in great thirsty gulps.

The Wanderer, true to his name, wandered as the sun arced slowly across the sky. He could have used a cold drink or a sweet bun but the clerks behind the counters in the shops shooed him away when it became apparent he had none of the local coin. He finally found a cart-man selling stimulating iced teas and another selling bits of spicy sausage encased in crusty buns to queues of street sweepers, delivery men, window washers, and dog walkers. He got what he needed with just a smile and a touch and a look into the deep soul places inside those who would be generous. It was a fair exchange. For the price of a bit of food, he lifted their burden and drove back the shadows in their hearts for a brief moment, giving in a universal currency recognized by all those who lived and worked closest to the earth.

He ate and drank, shaded by the ever present canopy of trees, eating in communion with the day laborers, until his small hungers were satisfied. Then he wandered on. His full belly and the heat of the late afternoon sun made him drowsy. The laborers grew sleepy as well. He could feel them settling all across the city, to doze in out of the way patches of deep shade. It was contagious, this hazy tiredness. Even the workers in the windowless, air conditioned skyscrapers felt it and dozed in front of their flickering screens. He found a sad little patch of grass under a tree with lacy foliage and slept until the sun was low in the sky and the air began to cool.

Sleep led to dreaming, a fools mistake that. Wresting himself from a disturbing dream, he sat up, his heart pounding in his chest. An immense sentience had stalked him in his sleep. He had fled before it but found himself cornered in the tree filled canyons of the city with nowhere to run. It had eaten him whole, that sentience, smothering him with her succulent body, her corpulent breasts pressing against his mouth, cutting off the screams in his throat.

He scrubbed his face roughly with the palms of his hands, trying to erase the feel and the taste of Her from his mind. She rolled restlessly under him even now, whispering lovers endearments into his mind’s ear, entreating him to defend her honor and avenge her defilement. She would have gone on to enumerated her many grievances but he closed his mind to it, having heard them a million times before on a million other planets. She was Maiden, Wife and Mother, this thing, and everything living owed their life to Her and every dead thing embraced Her like a long lost lover as they were absorbed back into Her flesh. He wondered what had offended her sensibilities so much that She had woken from Her dreams of creation to pace the land and harass the living with Her rage.

It was not hard to guess but he let his mind delve into the memories of the city around him anyway, letting his ghoulish curiosity lead him onward. The city held so many secrets, secrets ripe for the picking to any who knew how to find them. Humans might force forgetfulness, to keep their sanity, but the stones remembered.  Night stalkers and rapists the stones wept. Murder, they whispered. Genocide, they moaned.

The Wanderer sighed a tired sigh. Was it part and parcel of a species on the brink of change, that the angst of transition turned humans murderous? Or did self destruction trigger the transformation, like the ill timed contractions of a premature birth? Had the old order, holding tight to their power inside the ossifying body of the old Mother, purge the souls who had been so foolish as to hear the Maiden’s new song that would change them all?

Whatever the source, human genocide wreaked havoc upon the fabric of any world, the killing so pervasive that it left no one behind to say the rites that loosed the hold the dead had upon things and places, no one to say the words that would untie them from their entanglements on this side of the Veil. The dead did not rest easy if they died murdered and unavenged and this place was rife with angry ghosts. He whispered a prayer of singularity and wished them peace, hoping to change the tone of their song and the direction of their focus.

The incantation did not work as well as he hoped. The ghosts sighed, their pain easing. The trees would have none of it. Apparently ghosts were easier to appease than the trees. The Wanderer cocked his head, trying to hear around the moans of the ghosts. The trees would not let him ignore the Maiden’s song. They took it up and added their own harmonies. Theirs was not a song of loss and grief but something far fiercer, having drunk down the rivers of blood this city had fed them over the generations. The Wanderer shuddered and looked up into the canopy above his head, a shiver of fear running down his spine. He had been foolishly mistaken. These were not tame, city bred trees. Oh, no. These were the trees of the primordial forest, having learned the way of the fecundity of life and agony of brutal death, embraced as they were by the towers of man and all his ruthless workings. He tried to close his mind to their rage.

He rose and walked on as the light grew dim, uneasy under the Maiden’s attentions and uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the fierce trees. He longed to climb to the roof of one of the highrises that he might put his nose into the clean wind and listen for the coming storms.

Soon, the office workers descended from their towers to take their mid-workday meal in the shops that lined the streets. He took a sandwich of thin, pink meat and delicate cheese from the offering hands of a woman seated at a sidewalk cafe. He ate as he walked and when he had swallowed the last bite, a stranger handed him a tall glass of beer so cold the humid air made the sides slippery with condensation. He smiled, touching their hands in blessing and walked on.

Yet still people slumbered, behind their closed shades, ignorant of the passing of the light.

The nature of the people populating the street gradually changed as the sun set and the air cooled. The day laborers cast fearful eyes on the dimming sky and scurried to catch the street cars that would take them out of the city. They would not be spending the night in the shadow of the tall buildings and the hungry trees and they would all be gone as the sun touched the horizon, believing in ghosts and the karma of blood debt as they did. He could not blame them, thinking to follow their example himself. The Wanderer turned and retraced his steps back towards the portal.

The portal was always a presence in his mind; a beacon in the darkest of nights. Even in this ghost-ridden city, the sense of its presence was unerring. Night descended like a soft veil upon the city and caught him before he could make good his escape. He could sense the rats stirring cautiously in their warrens. Creatures of the night and travelers in the shadows as they were, they were not the penultimate predator on the nighttime streets. Something far darker woke inside the hollow shells of the stone towers above his head.

Was it fancy or fact, this sudden conviction that for every living soul waking from their day of slumber, dozens of the restless dead woke as well. Was it illusion or real, the sudden belief that not all the apartments above his head had living inhabitants, negating his initial assessment that the city teemed with people. It teemed, but not all of what woke was part of the land of the living.

This was not a healthy line of thinking. The depth and breadth of the illness of this city struck him, all of a sudden, blurring his vision and turning the sidewalk to quicksand under his feet. He staggered, putting out a hand to steady himself. His fingers found old, soot-stained stone and he pressed his face into the bricks of a building whose top ended somewhere in the wispy clouds far above his head. All the while the city whispered awful things, terrible things into his mind.

They did not sleep at night, the people who lived here, in this primordial forest of steel and stone. They worked and played, ate and drank, danced and entertained until the first rays of dawn broke across the sky. Only then did they fall into their beds, to sleep the dreamless sleep of the exhausted. The ghosts were to blame. They owned the darkness, owned the night. One dare not sleep, for sleeping meant dreaming and a hundred murdered souls hung think and heavy in every shadow above every bed, filling the night with their unshriven longings and inserting their pale fingers into the minds of the weak and the unprotected until a sane person could not tell where one’s own thoughts ended and the thoughts of the dead began. It was a city of the possessed.

The Wanderer pressed his teeth together to keep them from chattering. How did one perform an exorcism on an entire city? Could he? Was it even possible? He had called the dead home before but he could not remember if he had ever done so on such a massive scale. He pressed his internal wards against the darkness of the city and stood upright, pushing himself away from the wall to continue on his way. The portal was twenty minutes away. He would give himself that much time to come up with a solution.

The moon rose from behind the walls of the city. Its face was the face of the Maiden. The Wanderer stared at her, thinking this a sign but not sure what it meant. He lost her face behind a lacework of tree branches as he walked. The primordial trees whispered their fierce hunger into the night air; hungry, bloodlust thoughts. He dare not listen to them, but he could not help but hear their song. Did not jaguar hunt from the branches of the forest, the trees whispered?

The Wanderer paused mid stride. Why were the city trees remembering jaguar thoughts? What did the Jaguar god know what he did not? Did Jaguar say the words of unmaking over every animal it ate? It would make being Jaguar very tedious indeed, if that were so.

But surely every living thing recognized their own death when the Jaguar’s teeth closed around their throat? There was no need for ceremony and grave words, for all wild things understood this dance. All things except city bred humans who never saw death, except as a tasty meal on a plate with white linen and silver utensils, having never watched the life pass from a twitching body as the blood drain from slit throats.

When he reached the building that contained the portal he had a vague idea of what needed to be done. He paused near the air lock doors, placed his palm flat against its stone wall and began building the framework of the magic in his mind.

“You are earth,” he whispered to the stone. “Stones are bones of the Mother-Maiden. Steel is Her molten blood, congealed into new forms, yet still unchanged. Wood and plaster is the forest remade and reshaped, but still wild. Remember who you are. You are no different than the trees around you. Remember the Mother. Remember the pattern that pulled you out of the Chaos at the beginning of Time.” He stayed there, holding the image of a great tree in his head, pressing his magic into the stone until he felt it shift under his hand.

The Wanderer opened his eyes and looked up. The wall still looked like a wall, the brick still brick. It was not complete, this magic. All he had done was create a longing in the building, a yearning to become what it once was. It was remembering that it was a wild thing standing tall on the world. He blinked the magic out of his eyes. The moon was looking down on him. He pulled her light down and wove it into his magic.

“The moon is your Wife,” he whispered through his fingers into the stone, “caught up in the branches of your hair.” He imagined the stars in the sky beyond the glare of the city lights. “The Jaguar is one of many gods who grace your crown like a diadem full of stars. This is your power, endless and infinite. Remember this and tell it to the shadows that cavort about your trunk that they might join with you in dancing the balance of the pattern back into the world.”

The Wanderer patted the warm stone. It was a small thing, this magic. Not a world changing bit of necromancy, no. Just a wee bit of a change, like a virus setting up shop in a single cell inside a human nose. It would sit and brew and eventually break out to infect the other buildings around it. Slow magic was so much kinder and gentler than unmaking the whole city all at once. The humans would not notice, at first. Eventually, they would reclaim the night for their own, perhaps not this generation but maybe in the next. But the night was now Jaguar’s. The ghosts and the shadows would be consumed and the human dreams would become their own at long last.

The Wanderer passed through the glass doors and found the elevator that would take him up to the twelfth floor. After a bit of confusion, he found his way back through the maze of corridors and empty rooms to a pair of great doors with a red warning sign painted crudely by hand across the height and breadth of the carved wooden panels. The Wanderer laughed, amused that he had not seen this on his way out. He reached out to touch the red paint. It glowed briefly, white hot, then turned to ash, drifting away on an invisible wind.

He pulled the doors open and peered into the gloom. The portal glowed softly, beckoning to him across the immense room. Turned on and open, ready for his next jump. Clever gate, it always knew his needs long before he did. It took less than five hundred paces to reach it.

He paused on the lintel, the power of the event horizon crackling softly over his skin, and closed his eyes. With his mind he reached out and took hold of the magic tree he had built out of city stone and moonlight and fed its roots into the same power source that fueled the gates.

“You are infinite,” the Wanderer whispered. “ and endless is your magic.”

The portal whisked him away to the next place while his mind wandered, random thoughts leading one to the next. The sound of his last words echoed around in his head, nagging at him like the angry harridan Maiden. He was not sure if he had been speaking to the magic or the portal or to himself.

He shrugged between one infinite moment and the next. Did it really matter? It was all one and the same thing, wasn’t it.

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