The room is dark, lit only by candles on the…altar on the far end. It looks old that way, the sort of old that LA isn’t, and it sets the hairs on the back of Alonna’s neck on end. LA-old comes with cracked pavement and the smell of old grime. This is too different for her liking, but there has to be some way to keep her fool brother and the children who rely on them safe so she cautiously approaches the altar.
“Hello? Anyone here?” The sorcerer who resides here – as of last week, apparently, so he must’ve brought the old with him – comes recommended in whispers from people who know too much about LA’s darkness. They say there’s nothing he can’t do, that he lives outside the rules of the world, that he can bend reality, and all that’s gotta be good enough because Alonna knows she can’t save them herself. “Hello?”
“Was not expecting visitors,” says a pleasant voice from somewhere to her left, and she turns sharply but there’s only darkness there. “Do give me a moment, Miss.” And the shadows move, shift, and a tall man in a red cloak materializes from them to stand before her. The old clings to him like a second skin.
“You the guy in charge?” she asks, and thinks her brother would have shot him on the spot. Or tried to. You probably can’t put a bullet or a crossbow bolt in a sorcerer, can you?
“Only one here,” says the sorcerer. Good enough.
“I need your help. People say you’ve got some sort of weird magic.” He’s silent for a moment, then pulls off his red hood. Under it’s just a face—sort of pointy middle-aged white guy face, only with eyes like a bottomless pit. She’s not scared, her life’s left her way past being scared of strange men, but she doesn’t like his eyes or his smile.
“Weird magic? I suppose that’s not wrong,” he says. “And if you’re here for business, I’ll take it. What do you need?”
“I need my brother not to die,” she says, because that’s the sum total of the whole mess, that her brother’s gonna run into danger one of these days with an army of kids their age and none of them are gonna come back. Or they’re gonna come back wrong and changed and dead, and she’s not sure which is really worse. Dead kids either way. “I need them not to die.” The sorcerer eyes her curiously, and she holds out her bag hesitantly. “I can pay, you don’t need to worry about that.”
“That isn’t my concern,” says the sorcerer quietly. “How old are you, Miss?” His manner is the weird kind of formal that she’s only ever seen on people and creatures with something to hide, and every instinct she has is telling her to run for the door. One wrong move on his part and she will, she decides.
“Nineteen.” It’s a lie. She’s barely seventeen, and her brother is turning twenty.
“No parents?” the sorcerer asks. She grits her teeth.
“What’s it to you?” She knows what it is to people like that, she’s not stupid. Girls without parents and without papers and without anything at all disappear easily through the cracks in the pavement outside.
“Me neither,” the sorcerer says by way of explanation. “Mine died when I was a kid. Spent my formative years living out of condemned buildings and the like.” He grins slightly at the memory. She thinks it’s a lie. Do they even condemn buildings in England? “Anyway, if it is just you and your brother out there, no parents to get in the way, then the spell is simple enough. I can tie it to blood, you see.”
He has a bag with sealed hypodermic needles in it, and as though to emphasize his point he tosses two out on his altar. They roll, briefly, before coming to a stop before a statue of two-headed something. She tears her eyes away.
“But that’s not what you want, is it?” the sorcerer asks. “Not just for your brother?” And she shakes her head.
“If I’m dabbling in weird magic, I’m gonna protect all of them,” she says. “They’re kids. They don’t need to die like this.” A scene flashes before her eyes—vampires bearing down on a twelve-year-old while her brother and two of his lieutenants charge armed with broken wood and garbage can lids, blood and dust and screaming while the rest of the world keeps turning. “They deserve better.”
“Sure,” says the sorcerer. “But that’s more complicated than a protection spell.”
“More expensive,” she says. The sorcerer hums.
“Staying in the badlands, are you? I’ve been through there—lots of places to hide.” His disconcerting gaze shifts to a point above her head. “People are scared of it, you see. Scared of a name and a place. I think I can make you a very nice deal, Miss… what did you say your name was?”
“Alonna,” she says, unwillingly.
“Miss Alonna.” She doesn’t like the way her name sounds in his voice, and that’s enough to make her take several steps away from him. “I won’t hurt you, you know,” he says. “Nothing in it for me, after all, if we add another lost girl to the city’s tally.” He smiles, and the expression is equal parts catching and cruel. “Plenty in it for me if you live, though, I believe. And, yes, plenty of people who will cover the payment for this spell—suits me just fine, their money is no worse than yours.”
“I don’t like debts,” says Alonna. The sorcerer laughs.
“Nor do I, Miss Alonna, but so long as someone pays the piper, I’d say he’s paid, no?” And he sweeps his cloak off his shoulders and starts plucking things from his altar seemingly at random. The needles stay behind. The statue with two heads doesn’t. “Now, why don’t you take me to your … family? I do like to see what I’m working with.”
Her brother pulls a sword on the sorcerer, because her brother has never met a problem he hasn’t tried to fight. The sorcerer shirks back, and on some level that’s a comfort that he’s human enough to be scared of angry young men with pointy objects.
“Pity’s sake, child,” he snaps. “Your sister asked for my help!”
“I’m not a child,” Alonna’s brother shoots back, keeping the man at sword-point. The sorcerer rolls his eyes.
“No, of course not, you’re a big man who fights monster and isn’t scared of anything. Regular Sir Gawain, you are. Now put that thing down before you hurt me.” Sir Gawain? Alonna can vaguely remember a story to do with that name, but the details are foggy and far away. Her brother scowls but lowers his sword, pointing it at the sorcerer’s stomach rather than his neck.
“You don’t have to give him anything, Alonna,” he says. The sorcerer edges backwards as best he can with the tripwires and the wall.
“Don’t worry,” the sorcerer replies. “She’s not the one paying my fees today.”
“Oh yeah? What, this is pro-bono dark magic you’re working?” Yeah, alright, her brother has a point there. Even the sorcerer laughs at the idea.
“No, no. What a concept! No, it’s simply that another client of mine doesn’t want all the bad things held in here—“ He spins a finger as if to indicate the badlands, or maybe the entire city “—spilling out into where decent, tax-paying folk could get hurt, you see. They’d salt the earth, if they could, but they can’t.”
“Why not?” Alonna asks suddenly. “I mean, why can’t they?”
“Because nothing grows in salted earth, you see, not for love or money,” the sorcerer explains. It isn’t much of an explanation. “This place will suffice. I need a week—can you all manage not to get grievously injured or do anything incredibly stupid for a week?”
“Yes,” says Alonna before her brother can open his mouth. “We’ll lay low. It’s just a week. What then?”
“Then, dear Miss Alonna, we turn the city on its head.” He smiles and places the two-headed statue atop a stack of empty crates. Beneath it, he sets a pair of cards—a swordsman and a girl with a staff. As she looks, the faces on the cards blur and change until she’s looking at little colorful images of herself and her brother. “There,” says the sorcerer. “Just like that. I’ll be back in a week.”
She doesn’t feel different in a week, not besides the expected tension that comes with having to keep everyone from doing something anything incredibly stupid, but the sorcerer returns with a spring in his step so something must have happened. Something must have changed.
“Are they safe now?” she asks, very aware of the fact that she’d begged protection for her brother, for her gang, not for herself. The sorcerer’s grin is too wide and too bright.
“Yes,” he says. “You deserve better, and you will have it. You have my word.” And he takes his statue but hands her the two cards. “They’re just paper now, but aren’t they such pretty things? Do what you like with them. They’re my parting gift to you, Miss Alonna. If we meet again, I don’t doubt our circumstances will be vastly different. Until then, farewell.”
And he bows, with a gesture like he’s tipping his hat, then walks out of her life.
The next day, her idiot brother gets into a fistfight with a street preacher and comes away with a handful of face because the street preacher isn’t human. The whole gang comes together to chase him to his lair and free his captives, and Alonna’s brother leads the charge with a sword in hand.
“Big damn hero,” she teases, but only afterwards when there’s a dead demon and more mouths to feed and an unexpected monetary reward for the return of one and another missing kid. She and Poe crunch the numbers, and it’s payout enough to keep them fed for a while. Small mercies.
“Big damn hero,” her brother agrees, grinning as he washes slimy blood off of his sword. “I kinda like the sound of that, don’t you?” She’s not sure she does, not sure this qualifies as safe, but there’s one less monster in the world.
But her brother’s heroics are contagious. A few days after that, she stakes a vampire that’s got her and some of the younger kids cornered in the dark—he’s twice her size and leers down at her as her shaking fingers close on a broken board behind her, and then there’s another monster less and she locks eyes with a startled white guy on the other side of the alleyway.
“You took him down!” The guy seems midway between congratulatory and confused.
“Years of practice,” Alonna says, pretending her arms aren’t shaking from the effort. God, she hates vampires. “Do you want something?”
“I was, uh, I wanted to try and stop him, actually. You beat me to it.” Then he frowns. “…I didn’t see you,” he adds, like that means something. Maybe it does.
“Now you see me, though,” she says, and the guy nods.
“Yeah. Now I see you, kid. What’s your name?”
“Alonna Gunn.” She dusts off her hand and holds it out to shake, because he seems harmless. She really wants him to be harmless. “Who’re you?”
“Call me Doyle,” says the guy. “Gunn—you’re one of the kids who broke up the demon kidnapping ring, aren’t you?”
“Didn’t see you then, either,” says Doyle. “That’s alright. Always a bit foggy, the future.” He doesn’t sound sure, and she thinks of the sorcerer and Sir Gawain and the little painted cards in her jacket pocket.
“Even more when you turn the city on its head,” she says, and a slight grin spreads over Doyle’s face.
“Guess not,” he says, and bids her good night.
Him, she’ll see again, Alonna thinks, and she’s more right than she knows.