Story 228: Both Simpler and More Complicated
Jennie Hollis hated magic. It wasn’t the extra-dimensional monsters that reached out of the shadows to devour her – those she could manage. It was the sloppiness of it all. She could create a ball of fire and hurl it at something without breaking a sweat even though a coherent ball of flame should burn her hand, and should require fuel, and clearly had some sort of solid core but also levitated. These were non-trivial problems in theory, and it just sort of worked. Then she would try to do something simple, like negate the weak nuclear force in a small area, and it was a huge headache – literally and figuratively. There was just no rhyme or reason to it.
“This is bullshit,” she said. Jennie rested her head on her desk and tried to wallow in misery, but her little desk lamp was too bright even with her eyes closed. She thought about making the bulb blow out with magic, then thought about cloaking the whole room in darkness instead, then thought about telekinetically flipping the light switch. Then she thought about how all three of those used about the same amount of energy even though logically they shouldn’t, and she just gave up and turned the light off with her actual finger.
“Bullshit!” chirped a tinny voice from across the room.
“Quiet, Canary.” Canary was a lead sphere about the size of a baseball, painted yellow. Jennie was extremely proud of it, even though it embodied everything that frustrated her about magic. Imbuing the stupid ball with a rudimentary intelligence had been way too easy. Shouldn’t that be one of the hardest things of all? Canary made a loud chirping noise, and a ripple of energy passed through the room. Another extra-dimensional monster toasted. They were easy to kill, barely corporeal shadow fiends that lurched out of the walls blindly groping towards any source of magic. Jennie had spent a few months being terrified of them before she got really good at tearing them apart, and then a few months longer looking over her shoulder all the time until she had made Canary.
Canary could float along behind her, and it gave off an obnoxiously strong magical signal. Most of that magic was a rechargeable spell to kill shadow beasties, with another spell just barely preventing that from going off. Whenever a nightmare came too close it would always go for Canary first, and the second it drained any energy the spell would let loose and kill it. It was like a magical bug zapper. Jennie focused on the ball for a moment, until it made a contented whistling sound. All primed and ready to go again. It was so nice to be able to concentrate on her work without worrying about something coming up behind her. Except for the part where she hated her work. She turned the light back on again, determined to get out of her funk. On the desk in front of her were five old cell phones with dead batteries.
“This is going to work. This is going to work.” Magic was energy, of a sort. It was really good at turning into other kinds of energy, like light or electricity or heat. In theory, then, she should be able to recharge these phones with magic. It just wasn’t working. Concentrating, she gently reached out to the first phone and felt the flow of magical energy surround her. The phone burst into flames.
“Son of a bitch!” She got the fire extinguished, but at the cost of coating the whole top of the desk with frost. Canary giggled.
The workshop – originally something odd that was either a really small barn or a really large garage – was hazy with smoke. Jennie pried open the one window that wasn’t hopelessly painted shut, and propped the side door open. The main double doors weren’t functional, having been nailed together so she could build shelves. Jennie rented the space from her parents, and slept in the tiny loft above her work area. It was cool, and had lots of character, but it was also cold as hell in the winter and just sixty-eight feet from her parent’s house. Not for the first time, Jennie wondered if she could buy a vacant lot and magically transport the workshop there. Probably not, she thought, but for some reason she felt certain she could do it by making the whole structure walk there. Why was she picturing chicken legs? Whatever. That wouldn’t work, as far as she could tell virtually nobody knew magic was real. On the off chance that this was due to some sort of global Illuminati that assassinated magic users to keep it under wraps she wasn’t eager to make a building strut across town. But until she did find a good way to relocate, she also had to hide it from her parents.
Her mother walked in, as if on cue. "Sweetie, are you coming to the house?“
Jennie glanced around for Canary, but it was nowhere to be found. Canary had been acting more and more on its own, which was simultaneously awesome and a little troubling. She had hidden it herself, then she had been able to tell it to hide, and now it appeared to have just figured out that mom = get out of sight.
"Mom, you need to knock. I’m paying rent.”
“Well the door was open, sweetheart. Was… was something burning?”
“One of my inventions.” Jennie cringed internally every time she made that stupid excuse. "Minor electrical problem, nothing to be worried about.“
Her mother nodded, but looked like she planned to worry anyway. "Well. Okay. But are you coming? You know we invited our new neighbors to dinner and you said you’d join us.”
“Shit. I mean shoot. Sorry, mom. Um… yes. Give me ten minutes to get cleaned up, okay?”
The neighbors had moved in a week ago, and looked like something out of a 1950’s Sears catalog. Jennie didn’t really feel like introducing herself to anyone new, but it wasn’t worth saying no to her mom.
“She’s gone, Canary. Come on out.”
Canary floated out from behind a stack of books and drifted to Jennie. "Coming to the house?“ It sounded a little like Jennie’s mom.
"Yes, Canary. I’m going to the house for dinner. Let me look at you.” She took Canary in her hand, and squinted. The spells were there, looking the same as ever. The retaining spell for the shadow zapper, then the zapper, then - woven into the lead ball itself - a complex spell to grant sentience and let Canary talk, float, and perceive the world around it.
“Are you getting smarter, Canary?”
“I’ll take that as a maybe. I just wish I understood how.”
Canary chirped, the same way it did when a beastie grabbed it. But there wasn’t anything in the shadows, or dripping out of the air, or bubbling out of the floorboards or whatever. There was… crunching? Someone was walking up the gravel path.
“Howdy, neighbor!” The he-neighbor. Jennie tried to smile, but was annoyed by the intrusion.
“Oh. Hey, you want the main house. My mom and dad are getting dinner set up for you right now.”
“Sure, sure. Sounds great. I just saw the door open and the light on and thought I’d poke in to say hello.”
“Jake. Jake Price.” He extended his hand to shake hers, and she awkwardly started to reach forward while still holding Canary. He took it from her.
“Oh. Um. If I could just…”
“What do we have here? A heavy little thing! You know, this reminds me…”
Canary chirped, and a ripple of magical energy washed over them. Jake dropped Canary, and stared blankly ahead.
“Oh, shit. Oh shit. Shit shit shit. Canary?”
There was no answer. It was gone, hiding somewhere. Jennie knew the spell should be harmless to humans, but her new neighbor looked catatonic.
He blinked. "Uh… “
"Are you okay?”
“Where am I?” His accent was different, it had a sort of Southern twang it hadn’t before. "I remember… in the root cellar, there was something… something in the walls… and…“ He trailed off, and shook his head.
"Okay. Do you remember your name?” It was the only thing she could think to ask. All she knew about him was his name, where he lived, and that he was married. Should she go and get his wife?“
"Yeah, yeah. Of course. My name is Simon Alexander Granger. What… what day is it?”
Okay, so wrong accent and wrong name. And Canary had gone off. "Stay here. Don’t move. I need to go see something.“
Jennie headed up to the house. She could smell roast beef and baked potatoes and something else. It smelled delicious. She snuck in through the kitchen, and sure enough the she-neighbor was in the living room. Jennie squinted.
There was something there. Something… squirming. She couldn’t get a look at it from the kitchen, it was like a spell but fuzzy somehow. Jennie stepped into the room and waved. "Hey. Hi guys. Um, Mrs. Price? Your husband wanted to talk to you outside for some reason.”
The woman excused herself and walked outside with Jennie. She saw Jake, or Simon, or whatever his name was and stopped dead. "We underestimated you, little witch. You killed my partner.“
"Oh…kay. Sure. Can I ask what the fuck is going on here?”
The spell, or whatever it was, suddenly yanked out of the woman’s body and emerged as a familiar sight. Shadowy tendrils, dripping as they twisted in the air. It was gone before Jennie could react.
“Where am I?”
Later, after the police collected her neighbors while seeming completely at a loss about what to do with them, Jennie collapsed at her workbench. She heard Canary humming something.
“Canary, let me see you again.” As she suspected, the trigger spell was still in place. The zapper shouldn’t have gone off. "I don’t understand. I don’t understand anything. I don’t know why some spells are easy and some are hard. I don’t know what the things that come after me are. I don’t know how you’re learning. I don’t know how you triggered that spell by yourself, or why. This is so frustrating!“
Canary giggled again.
"Oh, is this funny for you? Maybe you’d like to actually answer some of my questions?”
“Wait, really? Do you know the answers?”
“Fine, just one of them. That’s something.” She had never really had a conversation with Canary before.
“All questions. One answer.”
“They all have the same answer?” Canary made its contented whistle in response. "Okay, spit it out. What is it?“
"Magic is alive.”