Today’s sample comes from “No Fear is There for the Wide-Awake,” the introductory fiction to Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition.
If, with perceptions polluted, one speaks or acts,
Thence suffering follows
As a wheel the draught-ox’s foot.
— The Dhammapada, Chapter I: The Pairs, Verse 1
There’s a boy on a boat in a purple sky, where the air flashes like catastrophic dragons and a patch-eyed man lays a heavy hand on that boy’s shoulder and tells him This is where the world dies, son.
…but this isn’t the way it happened at all…
From the edge of the boat, I gaze into the Abyss. I’d like to think it gazes back, but all I feel is vast indifference. This, then, is the legacy of truth: Everything I have known, was a lie.
“Johnny!” cries the Patch-Man, his black boots gleaming with the ending of our world. I refuse to answer him. If this is where it ends, or starts, I want to be alone when it does.
But the Patch-Man grabs me by the arm so hard I feel things break inside. His familiar face ripples in the purple light, contorted to a waxy sheen where falling stars reflect their dying selves.
He shakes me and my left arm stretches in some slow-motion taffy-pull, then pops off suddenly, leaving floating globes of bright red blood behind. I howl butterflies as my jaws stretch out toward the corners of the clouds. The ship veers suddenly at an impossible pitch, tossing us into the flashing purple skies.
“Here,” she says, reaching out her hand – a girl with eyes as old as time.
From horizon to horizon, the sky goes dark, closing like the eye of God.
“You’re still mine, Johnny!” yells the Patch-Eyed Man My Father as he drifts into the dark and is gone.
Fuck, but my head hurts.
All of me hurts, actually. Lee Ann dearest, perhaps you’re finally getting too old for this shit.
That’s ridiculous, of course. You’re only as old as you think you are, the saying goes, and I realized a long time ago that that was true.
Going by the calendar, I look younger than I am, feel older than I am, and stopped aging a long time ago. The play of years on human calendars is a trick of the light – one of the first tricks I’d learned to turn on its back. Like a stranded turtle, Time kicks its legs but goes nowhere unless I choose to pick it up and set it on its expected path again.
Every so often, though, that turtle knocks you down and tramples you ?at with all four feet. I feel like that this morning, and I’m not quite sure why.
It’s not the dancing. I’m used to that. Or the hike – that’s my favorite thing in the world, except maybe dancing. It’s not the sex, though gods know it was passionate enough.
The storm is in my bones. Then, now, and always.
Well, yeah. That would explain a lot.
Lightning ?ickers underneath my skin – needles, tongues, fingers, fists, a rush of stars exploding into nova to blot out the thrusting of my father’s cock – but all those eternal Nows are distant to the person in my skin today. We shed our skins like serpents, washing through the molecules every seven years until only memories hold the energy of what we are together in a construct I call Me. I can choose which Now I live in, and so as much compassion as I hold for the little Me’s that I have been, I’m not that person anymore. Right here – this now, this Me – is the only one I want to be.
Although I could do without the headache…
A mental shrug, and it’s gone.
Still… huh. It was there for a reason, so…
Time to check things out.
Shutting my eyes, I let the pain ease back into my skull, then expand my senses out beyond that pain, beyond my skin, beyond Ryk’s sleeping body and our tent, out into the dirt and trees and coiled power of the forest and the mountaintop. The essence of the breeze and every dancing drop of water in the mist.
What’s HE doing here?
I guess I’ll go find out.
Slipping out from under Ryk, I savor the glide of skin over skin, the little hairs across his arms and chest, the puff of living chemistry in this stranger’s morning-breath. The tent still smells like sex, like us, so powerfully that for an endless instant I fall back into the scratch and push of last night’s rituals. It’d be nice to hang forever in those moments, but I’ve apparently got shit to do outside. So leaving a little bit of dream inside his head, I push Ryk deeper into Maya’s domains. He’s still asleep, so I’ll leave him asleep. If I need Ryk later, I can wake him from a distance without making a sound.
Right now, though, I think this visit’s just about me.
A miserable scrap of smack-addicted wreckage, but the signs are obvious. The smeared remains of what used to be her teacher attest to the efficiency of his methods… and to their results. I had planned to dispose of him myself, but I can’t say I’m sorry to have been saved the trouble. The paperwork, though, will be a pain.
Initial VDAS scans reveal a latticework of minor spells – blood-work, mostly, and a petty example of it too. Rats, a few alley-cats, no sight of the missing children our reports had spoken of. As usual, popular hysteria exaggerates the facts at hand. Still, our sources are expected to be more accurate. I make a mental note to emphasize reliable restrain, with dark skin, cropped hair, and a decidedly feminine build that would have been unthinkable in our ranks during my initial Processing), I scan the occultist trash for signs of children or items of authentic paranormal value.
Nothing. All significant risks of Deviance died with the organic finger-painting on the wall.
Agent Briggs glances back to me, her face betraying nothing that an unskilled eye could read. My eyes, of course, are not unskilled. What should we do with her? Briggs asks without making a sound. The “her” in question is obvious.
Reading our silence, the girl goes quiet too.
A blink of my eyes activates a temporal-probabilities scan. Tiny numbers flash near the corner of my left eye. Faint green traceries skim across the shivering girl. The VDAS datacrawl begins:
NAME: LAURIE ANN MILLER-CHASE
DOB: 5/6/1974 CE
MISSING – SUSPECTED RUNAWAY
The datacrawl moves by: Facts, numbers, estimations, probabilities, mechanical prognostications for one scared mess of a girl.
Finally, the one I’m looking for:
There was a time when I would have shot this girl on sight. Under hot lights, I took her kind apart, synapse by synapse. I beat them bloody with skillful fists, sent hot projectiles tearing through their organs and skeletal structures until their vital processes ceased. This was not simply my duty (although it was) or my privilege (which, again, it often was) or my last resort on a menu of less-attractive options. I must confess, if only to my private internal jury, that I enjoyed it.
That has changed.
One simple motion of my chin signals Agent Briggs to my intentions.
An almost imperceptible tilt of her head questions my decision.
The merest tightening of my eyebrows reminds her who among us holds seniority.
Silence in the room, broken only by hissing candle wax and the dripping of a once-human masterpiece.
Finally, the girl speaks up, her voice just above a whisper: “You’re not cops, are you?”
I resist the urge to quote a well-known film. Instead, I simply tell her No.
Sliding from the tent’s warm shelter feels like an act of sacrifice. Throughout the clearing, a cold cloak of early morning mist shimmers with the light of a distant sun. Thunder burns across the break of dark and dawn, the grumpy roll of elements in their beds. Stretching out the morning stiffness, I zip up the tent door, plant my feet in the dirt, shut my eyes, and reach my arms to the hidden sky.
Off to the side, hidden by the mist, he’s there. A dense presence, more solid than the hills. Without turning to look at him, I reach tendrils of perception out across the space between us. He’s alone, as usual. I smile at the thought of the mud on his shoes. My own feet, rich with trail-dirt, pad lightly on the rain-thick soil. Through my soles, the earth welcomes dawn. I’m in my element here. He’s not. Still, it’s never smart to turn your back on his kind.
So, of course, I do.
When people think of “magic,” they envision wands and circles and all that ritual stuff. And they’re not wrong – not all the time. To me, though, magick is the pulse of life. Rain on skin, dirt underfoot, Nature speaking in a storm. It’s not his kind of magic, though. His world doesn’t have magic… until it does… and then, it needs another name.
Well, I’ve certainly been accused of that before.
The creak across my muscles as I stretch reminds me I am mortal. Still, the play of chilled breeze and dew across my skin, the earth-pulse, the wash of possibilities contained in every molecule of mist, help me reach beyond my human frame. I am soil. I am ?ies. I am water trickling in a stream nearby. I’m the trees. I’m even him. He occupies space like a blank block of nothing, but we’re still bonded in the unity of All.
“You can stop pretending you don’t see me,” he says in that bleak monotone of his. “That’s insulting to both of us.”
“You can stop looming, John. It’s not polite.”
In the dark behind my eyes, I feel him frown. “I see you dressed for the occasion.”
“Isn’t it fitting?” I say, opening my eyes at last. “You’ve dressed enough for us both.”
He’s not behind me now. He’s in front of me without having walked across the distance, dew sheened on his trench coat, mud caked on his shoes.
“What are you grinning at, Lee Ann?”
“Me? Just happy to see an old friend.”
His mirrorshades re?ect two Me’s back at myself. He’s not smiling anymore. “Spare me.”
“I knew your shoes would get muddy out here. I find that funny.”
“It doesn’t fit your image.”
I can’t lie – he still scares me. That black solidity with the presence of a mountain and the grace of a greased tiger. If John Courage wanted me dead, though, I’d have never left that loft over 20 years ago. And since then, we’ve both had reasons to be glad I did.
“Do I have an ‘image,’ Ms. Milner?”
I reach out and press my palm against his chest. It’s like touching leather-wrapped ice. He doesn’t move. I get nothing off of him at all. Sigh. Typical. “You’re so much image, John,” I tell him, “that I’m not sure that even you know who’s really you.”
What does Secret Agent John Courage need with Lee Ann Milner? You can read the rest in Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition. Available in PDF and print from DriveThruRPG.
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