SUMMARY: Ethan underground: his time with the Initiative.
SPOILERS: Definitely A New Man, arguably New Moon Rising. Nothing beyond Season Four, and guaranteed free of spoilers from the comics, as I haven't read them.
NOTE: Probably best read after Halfway There, although it precedes it chronologically. RATING: PG.
LENGTH: 3 800 words.
WRITTEN: 30 December 2011 to 9 January 2012.
They've taken away his matches, his candles, the wishing stones and the all of the rest of his kit. They've taken his clothes too, but that's much less important. He's in a blank white cell in prison-issue pyjamas and he keeps checking his non-existent pockets for gear that isn't there.
He has a toilet, a sink, a bunk and a door. It's only a little less furnished than most of the places where he's lived.
He's probably in Nevada. He's never been to Nevada before. He wonders if he's closer to Reno or to Las Vegas. He hopes it's Las Vegas, as that has more of a reputation for demonic activity: there should be a few good magic shops there. Now, if only he had any money, or a way out.
The psychologist is quite young, surely no more than thirty. She has dark hair and a button nose that might make her look younger. The folder on her desk has his name on it, but she keeps it closed. She wants to confirm a few details first, she says. He tells her his middle name is Kafka and she dutifully writes this down. There's nothing obvious in the room that he can use to knock her unconscious.
"I want to speak to the British Embassy," he says. "I'd like my passport back. I'd also like to know what I'm being charged with. Don't you have habeus corpus in this country?"
Neither she nor the soldier behind her reply.
He just needs to get out of the building. He can improvise after that. His room is a five-minute walk down grey corridors and up a concrete stairwell to the psychologist's, but he doesn't know much more about the building layout than that. He's seen no windows and the floors in the stairwell are designated by colour, not number. It's likely he's underground.
He doesn't even need out of the building, really. He needs a candle and a dusting of chalk. Then the doors will fall open and he can get out.
He's only ever studied ritual magic, with its need for spell circles and physical components. This is beginning to seem like a flaw.
In truth, he's been concerned about his magical studies for some time. He fears he's plateaued. He's learnt a wider range of spells, but nothing deeper or more substantial. He is either failing to grasp something fundamental, or has reached an innate, immutable limit. Even before he came here, he'd begun to wake in the night, wondering if this was all he'd ever be.
He hadn't told that to Rupert.
"Tell me about your childhood," the button-nosed woman says, pen in hand.
It's not worth talking about, not his, he thinks; it was unhappy but hardly out of the ordinary. Instead he tells her of the only other childhood he knows much about, which is Randall's. He speaks of his early years near New York, of summers spent at Lake Champlain and winter trips to see art. That's much more interesting than the tedium of prep school and public school, all holidays spent at home. It's easier to wax lyrical about a surgeon and an air hostess than a dead sea captain he can barely remember and a mother too sick to get out of bed.
So he talks in great detail about his high school years in San Francisco and of the move to London to avoid the draft. Ethan is an only child, but he tells her of his troubles with his high-achieving elder brothers. "I simply couldn't compete with them academically, and I didn't want to," Ethan says. " I turned instead to magic and, later, art."
She nods at this, as if he's said something profound.
He says, "It will be my birthday soon. Could I have a cake with a candle?"
The guards are bored and heavily-armed. Ethan can't work out a way to disarm them. He tried to pick-pocket one on his second day there and was slammed against the floor until his tongue bled. He's still looking for another chance.
He doesn't see the other prisoners. He can hear them sometimes on the walk down the corridors. Not many of them sound human.
What if he's stuck here for a while? He's thoroughly bored already. He sits against the wall, reciting magical chants and lists of spell components. As a variation, he will sometimes sit against another wall.
Next time he sees the psychologist, he should try to overpower the guard. Even if he's shot, he'll have to be taken to a hospital, which should be easier to escape.
He's not taken to see the psychologist again.
He starts to hear things through the walls. At first he thinks he's hallucinating, his ears tricking him, frustrated at the long silent stretches when he's too hoarse to chant. Then he taps his foot, metronomic, or walks around his cell to distract himself. How is he going to stay fit here? He can hardly run in circles in a room this size.
But when the lights are off, during what he presumes is night, he can hear the sounds more clearly. The walls and floors vibrate through the bunk to his shoulderblades. Demonic screaming.
No-one will come looking for him. He disappears all the time. It's his preferred method of dealing with everything, really. He can start in a new place, turn up the charm, win friends and allies through carefully-chosen favours. But it's tiring, pretending to be likeable, he can't manage it for long, so he has to carefully choose his time of departure. Sometimes he leaves too early, when more information could yet have been obtained, and sometimes he leaves too late, at the point where he is forcibly encouraged. On the rare occasions when he genuinely likes someone, he's learnt to leave as early as he can, before they realise what he actually is underneath.
Disappearances are part of every magician's act. They require only a ticket and a suitcase. If only he could stage one now.
When he closes his eyes, he can still see the confines of his cell, as if he hasn't closed his eyes at all. He tries to remember other places instead.
Too many of the places he remembers most clearly are shabby little bedsits, in Camden or Kreuzberg or Thamel. The curtains are drawn and the air is filled with candlesmoke. They smell of something heated up on the stove or in the microwave, tinned soup or takeaway curry. He can taste the cold tea on his tongue.
They are other places which he recalls as a visitor. Evelyn's bed on Evelyn's boat, Waheed's rooms in New York, a few more. The sexual fantasies are good for a while, but he can't keep it up all the time.
He can remember very clearly the house where he grew up and the dorms at school, but he'd rather be in his cell. He's happiest on the hill near his grandmother's house, stumbling through the trees with the dog, but he but he can't face seeing her in her home. She would have been so very, very disappointed in how he'd turned out.
He's handling it well, the isolation. He thinks he's doing much better than most because he's never cared for people much anyway and they've never much cared for him. He's worried about his health, though, and he's very, very bored, no matter how many exercises he runs through his head or the number of forbidden books he can recite. He's taken to shouting the "Open sesame" spell words at the top of his voice. They still won't work without a candle.
What he misses, what he craves, is the magic itself. It has always made him feel calm and whole. Now it's not there and his head is full of chaotic thoughts. His shouting doesn't keep his head quiet. Evelyn is laughing, Randall remonstrates, his mother says, can't he look after himself?
He wishes he could get a good shave.
Perhaps he should have killed Rupert instead, done what he'd joked about, put poison rather than potion in the beer. That's always been a weakness of Ethan's, his squeamishness. The boys at school -- he only ever made them trip downstairs, with his hexes and spells. They broke their ribs usually, maybe an arm, nothing worse than what they did to him, tit for tat, instant karma. An eye for an eye, if it had ever come to that.
But what would he do to this Initiative facility, if he could? What perfect, poetic justice would he wreak? Open all the doors and seal soldier in with demon, let the monsters battle it out? Chloroform the lot of them, and let the staff wake up in the cells, tended to by some indifferent martial demon species? Surely he can be more inventive than that.
He plays dead, lying as still as he can on the floor for a few hours. No-one comes to check.
How long has he been in here for anyway? Months, certainly, possibly years. He must have turned fifty. He still wants the candle he asked for.
He lies back on the floor. This time he tries to dissolve into it, to thin himself into oblivion, let the magic take him. When it doesn't work, he starts to cry.
For the first time, he realises they might never let him out.
Experimentally, he tries banging his head on the wall, hard enough to bleed.
They come into his room, sedate him, then don't feed him for the next two days. He decides not to try that again.
If he keeps his eyes shut, he can hear the others better. There's a high-pitched keening of something avian and a deep bass growl of packs of radadaemon. Sometimes something knocks, with an irregular rhythm, like Morse code. If only he knew Morse code.
When he opens his eyes, it can be dark or light. There's no pattern to it and no sense of time. He can blink ten times and never know what he'll see.
For two weeks, he doesn't move at all. They have to come into the room to feed and clean him.
One day -- and he can tell that it's day, because his lunch has just been pushed through the slot -- the lights go out. There's a terrible rumbling through the floor, like tyrannosaurs running. The emergency lights come on, but very dimly. Ethan can just manage to see a huge claw ripping through the door, breaking the lock. The thing runs on and now Ethan can hear it ripping open the next door and the next.
He pauses at the doorway. He sees a few demons as they emerge from their cells and, distantly, another man. A herd of Fyarl-like olenors stamp on something at the end of the corridor.
He runs the other way, towards the stairs. At the very least he might learn a little of the layout or find a match.
He takes the stairs two at a time and is exhausted after the very first flight. He's never been this unfit. He wheezes, feeling faint already. But he has to keep going, so up he goes, flight after flight, until he's dizzy. Still he keeps going, slower and slower, until at last he collapses on a landing.
Three Hellions and a man armed with a knife step into the stairwell. They head towards him.
"Wait!" he says, "I'm a prisoner," but they don't seem to care.
He thinks he hears gunfire in the distance.
He wakes with a shock. This may be literal: there's a white-masked man holding what might be a defibrillator above him. Ethan glimpses other faces, mere eyes between hair-nets and face-masks. Steel cabinets stand against white walls.
He falls unconscious again.
When he next wakes, he's in a great deal of pain. He finds that much of him is bandaged. Once again, he's in some sort of medical facility. He can hear grunting and mewling nearby.
He washes in and out of consciousness for a long time. Then, one day, he's back in a cell and his body is now covered in thick, spreading pink scars.
There's not much left of him now, he thinks. This is what he is without magic: a mind and body to be ripped apart and put clumsily back together. Magic was the glue that held the bits of him in place.
He stares at the floor as if his heart and limbs lie there like puzzle pieces. There's that geometric puzzle that you put together into a square and find you have bits left over. If he tries to reassemble his mind, will pieces of it get left behind?
There are others, of course, who can cast magic at will. One has to be taught how in one's adolescence, apart from those freaks amongst freaks, the poltergeist-psychic-Carrie-teens, and Ethan never learnt how. He realises now he missed all sorts of important childhood lessons: how to like people, telekinesis, and the inevitability of corruption when power is granted without oversight to a state apparatus.
After five decades, he should know his limits. He should have a clear understanding of what is possible, of what can and can't be done. Of what he, personally, can and can't do. What he's capable of. He's been trapped in this cell for a long time now. He's been trapped inside himself for much longer.
He dreams that he's invisible.
He dreams that he can fly through walls.
He dreams that he's sinking, millimetre by millimetre, into the floor.
A calm comes over him. Perhaps it's exhaustion. He spends hour after hour doing nothing at all. He sits cross-legged on the floor, barefoot, his eyes closed, with his long hair hanging back and his beard brushing his chest.
His mind's a blank. He's an empty vessel, tied together with surgical string.
He feels it first in his stomach, a small butterfly flutter. Then he hears the faintest sound and sees the faintest glow. It leaves quickly, but he's left with an echo of a whisper in his mind. Muscles relax that he hadn't realised he'd been holding taught.
It's there, the magic, if he can only let it in.
The next time he dreams, he sees himself floating through the corridors and up through the stairwell, past all the floors he ran through, and further beyond. He finds a door of institutional green. He steps through it, into a heavily-fortified hallway, then past an office, and out into sunshine. He turns his face to the warmth of the desert light.
Every day, the magic returns to him more strongly. He doesn't try to use it, he wills only to hear more of it, to hear the rushing sound in his ears, a welcome waterfall.
He dreams of all sorts of things now. He dreams of the intricate orbits of stars and the atomic dances of air. He's a man playing chess in a park and a woman cycling through a third-world town.
He floats bodiless through the prison complex, past men and women and demons who sit in stupor or shout in anger. He hears people talking, and it's been so long since he heard speech that it's like translating from a esoteric tongue.
"--national emergency," says a man in a dark suit and tie to an older man in uniform. "We need all the patriots we can get. Skeleton staff here only from hereon. Or we might close the whole place down."
In one of the cells, he finds the snub-nosed psychologist. She shouts, banging her fists against the door, "You have to let us out!"
He long ago lost track of how long he's been imprisoned. He loses track now of how long it's been since the magic came back, since its whispers started in his waking hours and its visions began filling his nights.
It's time for him to leave, he thinks. It's time to go.
He stands, stiffly. Then he breaks himself apart.
It is not just him that is held together by magic: the whole world is. He sees the world finally for what it is, and not just what he thought it was. Indifferent, yes, chaotic truly, but limned with light. Suffused with hope and tragedy and grace.
All physical objects are composed of molecules holding hands. He has only to ask them to let go for a moment.
He walks through the wall of his cell. He follows the corridor to take the hidden lift to the ground floor. He has only to keep walking to get outside.
The colours of the world are blinding him; its sounds are deafening him. He's fairly certain that his heart has ceased to beat.
He walks through wall after wall, past weeping demons and snarling men, past soldiers who will later swear at court martials that they saw nothing and no-one.
The last wall is breached and he steps into the evening air. He pulls himself into the back of a cargo truck that he knows is going to Reno.
Then his vision dims and the world goes quiet and he's gulping for air. His chest and left shoulder sear with pain. He can't do anything other than collapse on top of the truckbed's rubber matting, gasping.
Night has fallen when they park outside a truck stop. Ethan climbs out of the back, barely able to stand.
It only takes a little magic to unlock the driver-side door of a long-haul truck. Inside, Ethan finds what he needs: a change of clothes, some cash and a pair of scissors. He cuts his hair and trims his beard with the aid of a rear-view mirror. It's the first time he's seen his own reflection in years. His skin is vampire-pale but blotching red with exertion, and his body is emaciated in places and blubber-like elsewhere. His teeth are loose from malnutrition. The jeans and shirt he pulls on are too short for his frame but so loose that they hang like batwings from him.
The car park is beautiful. The stars are spread brightly across the sky above. He looks up at them for a long time.
When a truck engine starts, he clambers into its back next to empty egg boxes, and rides as far as Reno, where he steals some better-fitting clothes from a K-mart. Then he catches the first bus out of Nevada.
The Greyhound's last stop is in San Francisco, near Embarcadero. He steps off the bus and everything is too loud: the gulls, the voices, the traffic, and the music spilling from tiny white ear-buds that everyone now seems to wear.
He finds a cafe overlooking the Bay. He orders coffee and the plainest-looking food on the menu. He's assaulted by smells. He tries to ignore them and to think instead of the practicalities to come. He needs a passport, a plane ticket, a haircut and a dentist. Should he risk flying out of SFO, or head north to the Canadian border? Where should he go?
His hand shakes as he tries the coffee, which is too strong for him anyway. The bruschetta's inedible: the toast scrapes at the top of his mouth and he gags at the scent of the garlic and basil. But none of this matters, as he is looking out at the waters of the Bay. He is no longer confined. He's not sure yet what that might mean, in the long run.
He takes a passing bus to the Haight. He's not been there before, but he remembers Randall's stories of magic and the Summer of Love back in the day.
The Haight has pastel-painted Victorian terraces and main streets full of hippie tat and tourists. Ethan tries to imagine what it must have been like, three decades ago, when it was still poor and naive. He finds a magic shop there, not far from a Ben and Jerry's, just as the sun begins to set.
The man behind the counter is Ethan's age, with a long grey ponytail and trimmed beard. It's easily possible that he once knew Randall. He takes one look at Ethan and swallows. Ethan's surprised to realise that the man is instantly scared of him. He's doubly surprised to discover that this doesn't please.
The shopkeeper says, "There's not much here that you'll want. We cater more for the tourist trade these days. You'll want the places down in Mission. I'll give you an address."
And it's true: there's nothing much here, only gew-gaws and a weak wishing-stone or two. And yet the air crackles -- as it crackles everywhere, and always has, if only Ethan had been able to see it -- with raw magic, running through everything, lit to bursting with it, when Ethan adjusts his sight to look. He could take handfuls from the air or blow it into rings. He could pull it like taffy or make it drop like a stone.
The man-who-is-not-Randall waits to see what he does next.
The Sorcerer Ethan Rayne considers. He buys a candle and some
matches, for old times' sake.