Tag Archives: magic

NPCs

NPCs

By Jason Gibbs

“Sometimes it feels like everyone else is an NPC.”

“What do you mean?”

He sighed, and looked around.  Waving his arms vaguely he said, “All these people, they’re just automatons.  Physical expressions of some simplistic code.  You know like non-player characters in games.”

“Right, or, and this is just a wild suggestion, but you might have been gaming a little too much recently.  You might want to take a break.”

Normally Ray would have laughed at this point, but instead he looked quite grumpy.

“No, Jules, really, I’m serious.”

“OK OK.  Look, I have to go.  I’ll meet you later, right, at the Old Lion?”

“Yeah yeah, I’ll be there.”

He wasn’t, in fact I didn’t see him for a few weeks, which is quite unusual.  Even more strange was that I saw him in the morning at our usual coffee hang out.  Ray was the kind of person to whom mornings were anathema.

“Jules.  How are you?”

“Erm, I’m fine Ray.  What are you doing?  Where’ve you been?”

“Ah, well, just trying a few things out.”

Then he looked at me oddly and leant close and whispered something in my ear.  It sounded a little like ‘shuzz-worzler’ but I didn’t catch it.

“What was that for?”

“Damn, I was worried there for a moment.  I thought you were one of them too.”

He was starting to weird me out.

“What are you talking about?”

“Look, can we grab a coffee, I need to talk to someone real, and you’re the only one I’ve found so far who’s likely to listen to me.”

I wasn’t entirely sure whether to be complimented or not, but I nodded, and we ordered some coffees.  I was going to pay, as Ray is often between jobs, but he said, “Leave it to me.”

The barista rang up the amount, and Ray leant over and said something to him.  The barista looked a bit vacant, and then entered something into the till, and said, “On the house.”

I looked askance at Ray.  He shrugged and said, “They know my face?  I’ll explain.”

Shaking my head I took my coffee and headed for our regular table in the corner.  It gave an excellent view of both doors, and had a comfy feel to it.

“Explain.”

“What?”

“Where you’ve been!  And why you got these coffees free.”

“Right yeah.  Where to begin… so you remember I said it was like everyone was an NPC?”

“Kind of.”

“Well it got me to thinking, so I did a bit of experimentation.  You know how in Dungeons of Trithory you could use special codes to get NPCs to provide information even if you didn’t know the right questions?  It was kind of a hack.”

“Um, I didn’t actually play that one.”

I wasn’t anything like the gamer Ray was.  Not least because I had a job and really didn’t have the time.

“Well take my word for it, there were these special words.  It’s quite common really, most games have some form of them.  The way to find them involves some trial and error, but they follow some common themes, usually a corruption of the title of the game, or some main part of the back history.”

“And this has what to do with free coffee?”

“Well, I did some testing on people who I was convinced were NPCs.  It took me a couple of weeks, and some slightly difficult situations, but I found the codes.  I found the codes!”

I wasn’t quite sure what he was saying.  I must have looked a little confused, because he went on, “Look, all I did to get these coffees was use one of the code words, and then tell him it was on the house.”

“Like a Jedi?”

“Yes, these are the coffees we were looking for.”

“That is BS.  I bet you just promised to pay him later.”

“No, serious.”

“You’re trying to tell me there are some secret words which will make anyone in the world do what you want.”

“Not anyone, just the NPCs, which is most people.  I reckon there’s only a dozen or so of us real people in this part of the city.”

“Ray, you have really lost it.  I am worried about you.  This kind of delusion… you need to give up the gaming.”

“I haven’t played a game for more than a week, other than the game of real life.”

I was getting quite worried.  I’d never seen him like this.  As he saw my face he started to get frustrated.

“Look, give me a challenge.  I can get anyone in this shop to do whatever I want, well except you.  Mores the pity.”

“Not this again.”

“No no, I know, we’re just friends.  But seriously.  Give me a challenge.”

I looked around the shop.  There were a few people sitting enjoying their coffees.  A couple of business men clearly having a gossip about work, their voices were too low and the chuckles too loud for it to be anything else.  An old man, doing the crossword and nursing a small latte.  Next to him was a pretty girl.  Long dark hair, red lipstick.  The coffee in front of her was empty, and she was checking her makeup with her phone, but the frown on her face said she’d been stood up.  I knew Ray was useless with women.  It was painful to watch, and normally I wouldn’t put him through it, but he was irritating me with this NPC thing.

“OK, get that girl’s number.”

“I’ll do better, I’ll get her to kiss me.”

“Right.  But if it doesn’t work I don’t want to hear any more of this MPC rubbish.”

“NPC.”

“Whatever.  Stop stalling.”

He walked over quite calmly and said, “Hello”.  The girl’s face was a picture.  Not only had she been left waiting on her own in a coffee shop for ages, now some geek was hitting on her.  Then he leant over and said something else.  She smiled at him.  They chatted for a couple more minutes and then she kissed him.  Not a peck on the cheek or anything, a full on, tongues and lust, she rose to press her whole body into him.  It went on for a while, and when it finished he stepped back shakily.  They were both breathing quite heavily.  Ray said something else, she laughed, and wrote her number down on a card.  He took it and she reached for him again.  After another kiss which was almost pornographic he managed to disentangle himself and walk back over to me.  The girl still stared at him hungrily, while everyone else in the shop seemed to have missed the show.

“See.”

He sat down with a self-satisfied smile on his face, and a smudge of lipstick.

“That was impressive.  And a little disgusting.”

“Yeah.  I think I’m definitely going to give her a call.”

“I’m sort of believing you, but she might just be madly attracted to the geekier man.”

“Do you want to do it?”

“What?”

“Use one of the words.”

“Yeah, sure.”

“OK, it is…”

He leant over and whispered it.  He had me repeat it back to him several times until he was satisfied I was saying it right.

“Now you have the power too.  Say that to anyone in here and then give them a command, and they’ll do it.”

The clientele hadn’t changed much in the last few minutes, and I was bereft of ideas.

“No idea what to do.”

A sly smile appeared on Ray’s face.  “Well, you could get the girl to kiss you too…”

“Oh you’d like that, wouldn’t you?  Pervert.  I’m not into that as you know.”

Well, I’d tried it once, and it was strange, and fun, but, well, I wasn’t going to provide Ray with the entertainment.

“OK, I’ve got one.  I’m not going to tell you what it is.”

I got up and walked over to the two men who were still gossiping away.

“Good morning gentlemen.”

“What do you want?”

I leant in and said the word.  Then I said, “Now please give me all the money in your wallets.”

They immediately started emptying their wallets and gave me everything they had, notes and coins.  It was quite a nice haul.

“Thank you gentlemen.”

I walked back.

“Well, it seemed to work.”

“But?”

“Well, these could all be actors you’ve hired, how do I know this isn’t just a huge trick you’re playing on me?”

He was getting frustrated again, “I’ll get that girl over, and she’ll do whatever I tell her.  Or those blokes, or anyone in this coffee shop.  Really.”

“Hmm, no, you could have paid them a lot.  I’ve seen some stuff on the internet which leads me to believe some people will do anything for money.”

“Well…”

“Wait.  I’ll believe you when I’ve tried it out in locations you won’t have had time to prepare.”

“Oh, well I guess.”

“Excellent.”

“Um, but one thing, if you come across a real person, you need to remember one thing.”

“A real person?”

“Like you or me.  Not affected by the words.”

“Right.”

“Well, they might take offence at your suggestion, and it can cause some embarrassment.  So far I’ve only met a few, but, still.”

I wondered what he’d asked them to do.  Knowing him it could be pretty disgusting.

“How do I spot them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brilliant.  That adds a little challenge.  Are these people immune to all your words?”

He looked thoughtful, clearly he hadn’t tested it out.  Suddenly he leant forward and said another strange word in my ear.  I decided to play along.  I made my face go vacant.  His face lit up and a smirk crossed his face.  I nearly laughed at him then, but managed to hold it together.

“Kiss me like that girl just did.”

I reached for him, and just before our lips met I brought my hand round and gave him a slap.

“Ouch!”

“Stop trying your words out on me.  Or at least if you’re going to, ask first.”

“You didn’t have to slap me so hard.”

“Hmm, yes, sorry.”

I wasn’t at all sorry. He rubbed his face.  I really had caught him.  I was a little annoyed with how he was trying to use me too, just like these others, who it would appear might really be mere automatons.

“Anyway, how many words do you have.”

“Just four.”

“OK, well do you want to try the other two on me?”

He looked at me a little shiftily and said, “I thought you didn’t believe in them?”

“Well, I’m becoming convinced.”

“I’ll tell you the others when you really are convinced.”

“That seems fair enough.  Is there any difference with the effect of the words?”

“None that I’ve been able to find out, but I’ve not been using them for long.”

Something occurred to me.

“These other real people, do they now have words too?”

A look of fear crossed his face.

“Maybe, if they remember the word and try and use it.  But, well probably not I would have thought.”

“OK.”

I looked at my watch and realised I was going to be late back to work.

“Sorry Ray, got to run.”

Work is normally a real drag.  I work in an office pushing paper around for a large corporation.  The money is good, the benefits are great and the office politics is vicious.  I try and keep out of it, but that means I’ve watched a continuous stream of snakes get promoted past me.  The work used to be satisfying, if not entirely challenging, but even that has palled.

The first thing I did was visit my boss.  He quickly agreed that I should be promoted, and told me who else had to agree to an out of cycle pay raise.  I spoke with four more people and I had a letter by the end of the day with a whacking great increase, and a guarantee of a promotion and bonus.

While I was organising a better situation for myself I decided some payback was in order.  Michelle had pretended to be my friend, and then used my ideas to get ahead.  I also suspected she’d stolen my last boyfriend, but in all honesty he wasn’t a loss.  It was when she snubbed me once she had the metaphorical key to the executive bathroom that really hurt.

“Hi Michelle.”

“Ah, Jules.  Sorry, but I’m very busy…”

Oh yes, she was always too busy to speak with a mere peon like me.

I leant in and said the second word Ray had told me.  It worked a treat.  Her face went slack.

“So Michelle, did you steal my ideas and Paulo.”

“Yes.”

No hint of apology, but then she was in that suggestive state, so that wasn’t much of a surprise.  Here she was, I could do anything.  I could make her run naked down the halls, make her piss on her boss’ desk, or maybe even jump out a window.  But, the thing was I didn’t want to do any of those things.  Oddly I just wanted my friend back.

“Why?”

“I don’t know, I thought that being a manager is what I wanted.  And I was so jealous of you.  Pretty, clever and with a hunk like Paulo.”

“Do you miss our friendship?”

“I do.  I wanted to apologise, or make it right, but, I just couldn’t.”

She looked upset, but if it hadn’t been for the word then I wouldn’t have believed her.  What should I do?

“OK Michelle, I forgive you.  We are friends again.  Come for coffee with me.  Oh and, tell Paulo you have syphilis and he should get himself checked.”

She smiled at me.  The power of the word always seemed to ebb once instructions had been given.

“Oh Jules, it’s lovely to see you again.  Look, I shouldn’t, but do you want to grab some coffee?  I just need to make a quick call to Paulo…”

She looked embarrassed.

“Michelle don’t worry, I know, and to be honest it was all over for us.”

“I think it might be over for us too, which is a shame… but I have to tell him something.”

“OK, well I’ll see you in thirty minutes at the coffee shop on the corner?”

“Perfect.”

As I walked away I heard her dialling.  I did wonder what Paulo would think, though I didn’t really care.

That night I woke up sweating.  I’d had a dream where I was a puppet master, and I’d kept getting caught in my puppets’ strings, and then I’d become one of the marionettes.  It had been unpleasant.

I didn’t sleep at all after that.  My conscience was troubling me.  Sure it was nice to have Michelle as a friend again.  She’d been the same chatty, cheerful person I’d remembered.  Yet, it had lacked substance for me.  Knowing at any moment that I could make her do, well, anything.  I was starting to wish Ray hadn’t told me about them, or even that they worked on me.

It was too late though.  The genie was out of the bottle.  What was I going to do about it?

I met Ray for coffee again, at a different place, one I’d selected at the last minute.  I don’t know why, but I just thought it was safer.  Maybe I still didn’t believe the words worked and wanted a place he couldn’t have set up.

“Jules, you look terrible!”

“Always the charmer.”

“No really, what’s wrong?”

“Ah, I think I’m coming down with something.  But it’s nothing really.  How are you?”

“I am a god!”

He laughed.  I remembered the old saying about power tending to corrupt.

“That’s nice, and you’ve been doing good works?”

He looked at me strangely.

“Good works?”

“To help the unfortunates in the world, the poor, the starving and the destitute.”

“Um, but they’re not real.  They’re just NPCs.  Constructs put here to add colour to the world.”

He actually believed it.  It was worse than I thought.

“Right.  If not good works, what have you been doing?”

He smirked.

“I’m not sure you want to hear about it.  Suffice it to say I’m making up for years of women ignoring me.”

I sighed.  This should not have been a surprise to me.

“You’ve been using all these girls?”

“They have a good time, I tell them to.”

His eyes glittered.  He really was having a good time.  I just wondered about the wreckage he left behind him.  If they really were NPCs, then perhaps it didn’t matter.

Our coffee order was delivered but a petite blonde girl, with a cute shy smile.  Ray did a double take, and said, “Morning lovely, what is your name?”

She stared at him and started to back away, when he leant forward and said a word to her.  I didn’t catch which one it was, though it didn’t seem to matter.

The girl stood still.

“What is your name?”

“Greta.”

“Well Greta, it’s lovely to meet you.  You have an opportunity to join tonight’s harem.  Strip.”

“Ray…”

“Don’t be silly, she’s just a machine.”

The girl started to take her clothes off.  She was quickly down to her bra and panties.  This was enough, I leant forward said a word and told her to stop.  She just carried on.

I turned to Ray in surprise.  He too looked surprised.

“Stop.”

The girl was bending down to pull her panties off, and just stopped in that position.

“What word did you use Jules?”

I told him.

“Hmm, I used another one.”

He told me the word he’d used, which was a new one to me.  I held it in my memory.  I now had three of his four words.  Assuming he hadn’t added any more.  Though given what he’d been doing I somehow doubted that.

“That’s interesting.  So the first word stops the others.  Hmm.”

“Ray…”

Some of the other patrons had noticed the girl.  Her naked bottom was on display to the whole shop.

“Yeah, this sometimes happens.”

He shouted a word, and told everyone to go back to what they were doing.

The waitress stayed where she was.  Ray looked at her appraisingly, then handed her a card.

“Come to this address tonight, at seven thirty.  Bring a friend.  We are going to have a party.  Now get dressed and carry on with your day.”

She quickly put her clothes back on, smiled at us and went back to the tills.

I shook my head at Ray, “You really are a pervert.”

His smile was extra wide.

“You’re welcome to come along… the party starts at around five.  Oh, and I have a new house, more befitting my new stature.  I have a pool and everything.”

“What happened to the people who were living there before?”

“Who cares?”

‘Who indeed?’ I thought to myself.  I answered, “Sorry Ray, I have a few other things I need to do tonight.  Maybe another time.”

He looked disappointed.  “Well, you’re always welcome.”

“So are you going to tell me the other words?”

He was just leaning in to tell me, when he pulled back, I could see him calculating.  “You have two, so why do you need more?”

“No reason I guess, but you said you’d tell me.”

“Well Jules, I think I’ll keep them to myself for the moment.  Unless you’d like to reconsider your plans tonight?”

So that was how it was going to be.

“Ah sorry Ray, but they’ve been in the diary for a while.  As you say, two words are more than enough.”

He just smiled.

We talked a little more about inconsequentials, but he seemed distracted, probably thinking about hunting down more girls to join his party.  He quickly left, and I stayed sitting staring at my coffee.

Greta came over and asked me if I wanted another drink.

“A latte would be lovely, thank you.  One thing Greta.”

“Yes?”

“Do you remember the word that man said to you before you took your clothes off?”

“Oh yes.”

“Can you tell me it?”

She told me.  It was the fourth word.  Ray thought I had only two.  I repeated it back to her, and she went slack again.  The poor girl, she was just a toy in our hands.  I was in a quandary though.  If I told her not to go to Ray’s tonight, he’d know I’d found out the word, and I was starting to think that might be a mistake.  On the other hand sending this poor girl into his nasty mitts was repugnant.  What could I do?

“Greta.  You’re supposed to go to a party tonight.”

“Oh yes.  It will be fun.”

“Unfortunately you won’t be able to go.  At around five o’clock you’re going to start feeling very unwell.  By six o’clock you’re going to feel faint and want to throw up.  At that point call the number and tell the man your symptoms and that you’re going to hospital but will see him afterwards.   He won’t want you to come to his party and will likely tell you not to bother.  As soon as he does you will feel much better, and then you and your friend can stay in and watch movies.”

She just nodded.

“Good, and a latte would be nice.”

She smiled again and headed off.

Saving one girl, two I guess including the friend, wasn’t enough.  I needed to stop Ray before he went completely mad.  Looking at the girl as she had stood in front of me I got the impression that she wasn’t totally happy with what I was saying to her, there was someone inside screaming to get out.  Maybe I was projecting, but I just couldn’t believe that she was an automaton.

She brought my coffee and I sipped it slowly while I made some plans.  I needed a holiday somewhere outside this city.  I was sure work would agree to a paid sabbatical.

Two months later I returned to the city.  I wondered what Ray had been getting up to, but I was also sure I didn’t really want to know.  I went back to my little house.  It was so welcoming, and cosy.  I’d missed it on my travels.  I was making myself a coffee in my favourite mug when the doorbell went.  I’d wondered how long it would take.

At the door were two large men.

“Miss, you’re to come with us.  Il Capo demands it.”

Il Capo?  I just nodded at them and they escorted me to a limousine with blacked out windows.  I was expecting Ray to be in it, but he wasn’t and it occurred to me that he wouldn’t have been waiting.  He’d have just left these goons.

They didn’t say a word as we drove.  I tried to talk to them, but nothing.  I smiled.

We drove to a big house.  The tyres crunching on the gravel drive.  The two men were very courteous as they helped me out of the car, and then bracketed me as we walked to the front door.

A butler, an honest-to-god butler, answered the door, and led me to the drawing room.

A few minutes later Ray appeared.  He’d put on a lot of weight, and unfortunately I could see it all as he was wearing just a pair of shorts and an open silk dressing gown.  He did not look well.

My expression must have revealed my thoughts as his greeting stumbled.  “Ah hi Jules.”

“Ray.  How are you?”

“Well, very well, I’ve been enjoying life.”

“I can see that.”

“Oh don’t worry, I have an exercise man coming tomorrow, and my doctor is putting me on a new diet tomorrow as well.”

“Does tomorrow ever come?”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“So where’ve you been?  I haven’t seen you since we met in that coffee shop.”

“I needed to get away.  To think about things.”

“Did you think I’d be upset about the girl?”

“What?”

Damn, had he found out?  Had he hurt her?

“Yeah, she phoned up with some cock and bull story about being ill.  I figured you’d somehow turned her, and decided to keep her for yourself.”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Oh Jules, I had so many girls I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if she hadn’t turned up.  It was only when she called that I figured something was up.  But that’s ok, I’m happy to share.  I’m happy to share everything with you.”

“Ah well, that’s nice Ray.”

He was starting to loom over me.

“Now Jules, I’ve decided we need to be together.”

“But Ray…”

“My words don’t work on you, but I think you can be persuaded.”

There was real menace in his eyes now.  He smiled, but there was no warmth in it, just a desperate hunger.

“These two gentlemen will take you downstairs, and make you comfortable.  Then they are going to make you very uncomfortable, until you agree to everything I ask.  Do you understand?”

How could he do this?  My heart was pumping, I looked around.  Was there a way out?  This wasn’t what I’d planned.

“There is no way out Jules.  Not ever.  I have more like these, and they will watch over you, always.”

I looked into his eyes, and saw only a hungry madness.  Fear froze me, I couldn’t say anything.  I tried to hold his eyes, but he looked away as his two goons loomed over to me, and just picked me up, one on each side.

They carried me down to the basement into a room which was part dingy strip club, part Hammer horror.  There was a large bed, a couple of poles on a stage, and a table in the middle, with straps to hold arms and legs, and a mirror above so that the victim could see everything.  There were some unpleasant stains on the table, and the bed.  Next to the table was the obligatory dentist’s trolley with an arsenal of pain-inducing implements.  Looking round I took in the cameras.  Everything could be watched, recorded and if necessary, shared.

I felt my knees go weak.  This place would break me, I knew it.  If I let it.  If I let them.  The two large men seemed like they knew what they were doing as they carried me to the table.

I wondered when Ray would come to see what was happening.  At first I thought he’d be watching, and then I remembered that he had no real stomach for blood or real violence.  He liked it at a cartoon level, but genuine razor blade to the throat stuff really didn’t work for him.  He’d wait until I’d begged, and begged and the men finally believed I was broken.  Then they’d tidy me up and call for him.  That squeamishness would be his undoing.

As they lay me on the table I decided that enough was enough, I said something to the men.  And held my breath.  They both went slack and dropped my hands and I could breathe again.  I hadn’t fully believed it would work.  I’d feared Ray might have learned a new word, or tried something different, but I was lucky.  Then again Ray thought he was already a god, why would he have learned more.

I got off the table, and asked the goon on my left, “What is your name?  And his?”

“I am Tomaso, he is Lars.”

“Nice to meet you I’m sure.”

Under the spell of the word they didn’t answer.

“How long would Ray expect you to take before calling him?”

“Twelve hours usually, maybe a little more.”

I shuddered.  I didn’t want to think about what twelve hours in their tender mercies might have meant.

I considered asking them for more information, how many girls they’d brought down here, what they did, but I just didn’t want to know.  They’d get their just desserts in due course.  I needed to deal with Ray.

“What does he do while you’re busy down here?”

“We don’t know.  But he always answers the house phone.  He might be in his room.”

Excellent.  I’d need to move fast, but I was inside, and he didn’t realise I was loose, or about to be anyway.  I figured I’d take my two new friends, they’d prove useful.  First, I needed to make sure they were entirely under my control.  I said another word to them, and then said, “Punch each other.  Hard.  Tomaso first.”

They really hit each other.  Lars lifted off his feet and fell back at Tomaso’s punch, and Tomaso flew back when Lars returned the favour.  Good, that was a start on their punishment, but I needed them so I had to refrain from anything further.

“Let’s go.  Keep an eye out for anyone threatening me, except Ray, and neutralise them.  Non-lethally.”

They followed me out, flanking me once again, but this time as my guards.

Ray’s house was big and spacious, and surprisingly empty.  I’d assumed he’d have some staff.  Some girls in French maids’ outfits perhaps.  Apart from the butler I’d already met, and who didn’t show himself while we were looking around, there didn’t seem to be anyone else.  I was going to ask the boys, but thought it best to keep quiet; I didn’t want to alert Ray with some careless talking.

His room was upstairs, at the end of a long hall, every other room being empty.  It was eerie.  As we approached the door I could hear the sounds of people having sex.  On the one hand I don’t like being rude, but on the other hand…  I had one of the boys slam open the door.

I walked in to see Ray lying on his bed, alone.  The projection on the wall in front of him was of some kind of orgy, the figures of almost lifelike size.  I almost started trying to count the participants as it seemed rather busy, but instead concentrated on Ray.  He looked up, and then laughed.

“I misjudged you Jules.  You found the other word.  I was so sure you hadn’t.  A mistake.  I should have watched, but, well I didn’t want to see you hurt.”

I couldn’t believe his nerve.  He didn’t seem at all worried, and I wondered what I didn’t know.  He languidly rose from the bed and then spun round, and I felt something hit me.  Then I was writhing on the floor in agony.  He’d tasered me.

“Pick her up, and take her back downstairs.  First gag her.”  He said to the boys.

The two of them did nothing, just standing there.

He sighed and leant towards them and said a word.  Then he repeated himself.  Still nothing.  He started to rave at them, shouting his word, and demanding they do something.  He was working himself up into a real rage when I managed to choke out, “Grab him, make sure he has no more surprises.”

Suddenly released the two of them grabbed Ray, and patted him down thoroughly.

I got up, still unsteady from the taser.

“Bastard.”

Ray was almost frothing at the mouth with anger.  “How did you do that?  You bitch.”

“Now now Ray, no need for that.  They’re mine now.”

All the energy went out of him, and he slumped down, and if he hadn’t been held then he’d have fallen to the floor.

“What have you been doing Ray?”

“Having fun.  I guess.  It wasn’t the same without you.  I just wanted you to join in the fun.  I love you Jules.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

“I gave you the words!  I thought that would be enough, you’d see what I could do, and then you’d love me too.  But you didn’t and then you ran away.  I couldn’t find you, I went to your office, but they just didn’t know.  Where did you go?”

“I went to find out more about the words.  I met with some people who’ve been studying them, trying to understand them.  They took me in, but interrogated me to make sure I hadn’t misused the words.  I have to make up for the small indiscretions I committed while testing the words, but they felt I was trustworthy.  Then they explained the basics of what they’d learned.”

“Some other reals?  With words?”

“Ray, everyone is real, they aren’t NPCs.  We all just have different levels of susceptibility to the words.  There’s a whole hierarchy.  If you’d spent more time studying them, instead of trying to sleep with every pretty girl you saw, you might have worked a little more out.”

“But we did that test, a second word cannot cancel a first word.”

“A weaker word cannot override a stronger one.  But a stronger one will always override a weaker.  Your words were quite strong.  Too strong, they gave you too much power.”

He stared at me.

I sighed and said a word.  He went limp.

“That’s how it feels Ray.  You’re still in there, trapped, but now you will do whatever I want.”

What did I want?  I wanted him to understand the suffering he’d caused, I wanted him to pay for his crimes.

“This is how it goes Ray.  You will never use a word again.  Every time you try and say one you will instead ask the person to kick you.  You have been stripped of your power.”

He didn’t move.  He couldn’t.  I could see a little of his internal struggle.  He hated it, as his many victims would have.  As I would have if I hadn’t been stronger than his words.

“I will now leave.  You will never see me again, and you will not try to see me.  I have a new mission in life.  To find and stop people like you.”

I turned to the two men holding him.

“You two will hold him until I’ve left.  Then you will go to the police station and admit to all the crimes you committed before you came under Ray’s sway.  Then you will be free of the influence of his words.”

They nodded.

I walked out.  As I left Ray was back in control of himself and shouted, “That’s it?  I already have everything I need, I have all this money.  Girls will flock to me now anyway.  I don’t need you, or the words.”

I shook my head.  He hadn’t learned a thing.

I looked outside to see that a car had turned up; there was a pretty girl in it.  Several more cars followed, each disgorging one or two girls.  They all looked angry, and some of them had weapons.  They all started to head inside with some determination.  I hadn’t told Ray the second half of his sentence.  The organisation I’d joined had found as many of the girls whom Ray had used as they could.  They’d freed them of his grip, and those who’d wanted revenge were told when they would be able to take it.  They were all told that they would forget everything about Ray after they’d exacted their price.  Those who wanted nothing more to do with him were freed of the burden immediately.  They’d still bear some mental, and in some cases physical, scars underneath, but it was the best we could do.

“Well Ray, you were right.  Girls are flocking to you.”

He looked confused as the girls started to stream past me, heading towards him.  The confusion turned to fear and he stared at me.

Before I walked out I winked at him and said, “Thanks for playing.  Game over.”

###

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Magpies

One for sorrow, two for joy,

Three for a girl, four for a boy,

Five for silver, six for gold,

And seven for a secret which can never be told.

 

Boris flew to the meeting tree looking somewhat bedraggled, and down in the feathers.  He’d clearly had a bad day.

“Hey Boris.  Tough day?”

“Oh, hi Tony, you said it.”

Now my job as the Magpie barman is to serve the drinks and listen to the stories.  Occasionally I offer some advice, but my days of flying Informational Magics is long gone, and most of the chicks they send out these days seem to ignore me.

I lined up a stiff drink for Boris and said, “Do you want to talk about it?”

It was clear he didn’t, but then he shrugged his wings and took a long drink of his drink and said, “You know how some days if it can go wrong?”

“Oh yes.  Saw a single one today did you?”

I was joking of course, Magpie magic doesn’t work on Magpies, something I’ve always thought is vaguely ironic.

“Ha, almost as if I had done.  My day started with an easy one.  I needed to get a farmer to see me.  He’s going to get some bad news from his girlfriend it seems.  Farmers are easy I thought to myself, wait until they’re out into a field, and then, you know, pop up.  He conveniently headed out, and so I flew along.  Nothing, he was looking at his phone I think.”

“Bloody things have made it harder than in my day, and no mistake.”

“You said it Tony.  You couldn’t line me up another?”

I watched him finish the first as I poured the second.  I hoped he wasn’t going to drink too much, I’d struggle to carry him off this tree at the best of times, but my right wing has been giving me shooting pains when I extend it recently.

“Where was I?”

“Farmer.  Phone.”

“Yeah, so I had to get over the other side of town for my next job, and I was running out of time, so I popped up again.  The farmer looks up.”

“Job done?”

“I hadn’t spotted him, but Douglas was flying across the field, on his way to his first gig of the day.  Blam, we’ve now given the farmer Joy.”

“Oh, well, could be worse.”

“I know, but now I’m the one who has to go and give his girlfriend Sorrow, because her dream job evaporated and she’s staying with her farmer boyfriend.  Sucks for her.”

“Mmm.”

“Now of course, I’m running late, so I wing it straight over.  I reckon I can get away with it, so I cut over the Grey woods.”

“The ones with the footpath?”

“Yeah.”

“Risky.”

“At that time of day I figure it’ll be fine.  I was wrong.  A couple going for a mid-morning walk.  Blam they get some Sorrow.  Their car engine’s blown.  Then a man walking his dog, more Sorrow.  He’s going to get an unexpected, and wrong, gas bill, but it’ll take three months for him to clear it up.”

“Ouch.  You speak to Control about doing some reverse work?”

“You seen them recently?  Something strange is going on, they’re planning a load of Secret raids.”

“Awful tricky to pull off they are.”

It’s difficult to get seven of us in one place where a human can see, and count, all of us before we have to move on.  Anything getting in the way can turn it into something else, and I hated doing them when I was still in the field.

I went on, “I was involved in one of those once, we ended up giving three Silvers and one Gold before we hit it properly.  Control was mighty angry.”

“Well they’re so angry already, I wasn’t going to ask them to allow three Joys just to fix my mess up.”

“Fair.”

“I get to the meeting place, expecting Steph and Jon, and you know what?”

“What?”

“Bloody Yanis turns up.”

“Oh he’s alright…”

“Maybe, but suddenly the Girl we’re announcing turns into a Boy.  Then while I’m remonstrating with him another couple come along.  Now by this point Jon’s off, but they get a Girl, and they weren’t expecting anything if you know what I mean.”

“A bad day and a half.  Have another.”

His second had gone almost as fast as the first, but he sipped the third a bit more cautiously.

“Next few gigs went ok, but I couldn’t help feeling the day wasn’t done with me yet.”

“No?”

“No.  My last couple of gigs were over by Westfield farm, you know at the edge of our territory.”

“Bordering the Greenlark mob?”

“Yeah.  Bloody amateurs.”

“So I hear.”

I didn’t tell him my mother had been a Greenlark.  When I was a chick we’d been on best of terms with them, but last couple of years there’d been some bad blood.  Accusations of stealing of missions and suchlike.

“Well I was there to do a Sorrow and a Joy, with Steph again.  I like her, real professional.  Always on time, flies low, can disappear into anything.  Easy to work with.”

He was smiling in such a way that I imagined he wanted a little more time with Steph.  He was quiet for a bit.

“You were saying…”

“Yeah, sorry.  Steph.  She turns up as expected, and we’re about to do the double.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah, the dossier on these two said they were inseparable, but that the man always looked round to the right when they got into a new field.  Steph and I were prepped.  The humans climbed into the field and we popped up.  At the same time some bloody Greenlarks are having a fight with a murder on the border of the land.  All sorts of squawking and whatnot.”

“Not good.”

“Not good?  Disaster.  She gets the Joy and he gets the Sorrow.  Her premium bond numbers come in and his ankle gives way.  Doesn’t seem fair.”

“It’s not about fair.  At least they didn’t see the Greenlarks.”

“True.  And I think Steph blamed me, though she didn’t say anything.  Just a bit off.”

“I’m sure she understands, we’ve all been there.”

At that point one of Control’s messengers turned up.

“Oi, Boris, get over to Control.  They need you for a Secret.”

“I’ll be there in two ticks.”

The messenger looked like he was going to argue, but then just flapped off, making a deliberate show of his whites.

“Bloody showoffs, think they’re better than us cos they do the planning.”

“It’s a tough job.”

“Yeah, whatever.  Not sure what the point of a Secret is, I mean they never tell us what it is anyway.”

“Um.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know that’s the point.”

Boris slurped the last of his drink and then headed off, waving his wings a little unsteadily.

I watched him depart and thanked my stars I wasn’t out there anymore.  I’d enjoyed spreading Joy and announcing the little ones.  But the Sorrow was always hard.  I polished up the glasses and waited for my next customer.

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Rebalancing

Having young twins can be a lot of fun, but it is also exhausting…

Rebalancing

Isabel rolled over and looked at the clock. It showed the time as 0307, the dull red glow of the digits taunting her. That made, what, eighteen minutes of sleep, or was it fourteen, nearly an hour over the night. Could be worse…?

She wondered which baby it was. Had she put Ruth down last? After giving her some milk. Yes. Probably. So it was likely to be Grace then. The cries continued, and she dragged herself out of bed. Sometimes they stopped before she had to get up, not this time though.

Stepping quietly into the room she could tell it was Grace. Though given the volume emanating from her daughter’s lungs she sometimes wondered why she tiptoed.

“OK Grace, I’m here, just one second.”

The whispering seemed foolish too, but she really didn’t want to wake Ruth up again. She picked Grace up and carried her out of her room and into the kitchen. Having initially stopped crying Grace decided to start up again. Each scream ripped through her, leaving her nerves tender and, worse, anticipating the next wave of sonic pain.

“Oh darling, what’s wrong? Is it your toothy-pegs?”

Screams.

Isabel grabbed some gel and rubbed it on her daughter’s gums. Grace stopped for a few seconds, and then carried on. Then she heard an answering cry from the nursery. Ruth was awake too. Putting Grace down only increased the volume of the already intolerable screeching.

“I’m just getting your sister, and then I’ll sing to you.”

Screams.

She shuffled back quickly to the nursery, running being beyond her at this point of tiredness. Ruth was standing up and howling at the world. Isabel picked her up.

“Don’t worry Ruth, we’ll go to the kitchen, and then we’ll have a sing song.”

She knew she’d have to give them milk, but she was trying to get them out of the habit of thinking it was always going to happen. Even if she could delay it for ten minutes that would help.

Two minutes later, having tried and failed to pacify them with her rendition of the greatest hits of Boney M, she capitulated and gave them milk. They were onto bottles now, she just wasn’t able to provide enough milk herself for the two of them, and as much as that hurt, she was happy that she could sit and watch while they drank. The day they’d been able to hold their own bottles had been one of the few good ones recently.

“Girls, I’m not sure how much of this I can take. Please, please start sleeping. If only your father was here…”

She started to sob. She missed him, how could he do this to her? How dare he die. How dare he leave her, alone, with no one to help her in this strange town. The insurance company were still deciding whether they could pay out, and in the meantime she was eking out her meagre savings. Another worry she couldn’t cope with any more.

The two girls started crying in unison, joining her in misery. They hadn’t finished their milk though, which was unusual. What was the problem? Isabel spotted one of the signs just as the stench hit her. Liquid brown was escaping from Ruth’s nappy. From the way Grace was wriggling she was in much the same position. She really hoped it was just the teething and not another bug.

“Now darling, let me change you and you can get back to your milk. In the meantime Grace, perhaps you could try your milk again? Or at least tone the volume down. Please…”

Ruth’s nappy was a mess, and it had crept up her back, Isabel would need to change the baby-grow as well. Ruth also hated it when Isabel laid her on her back, and was making her upset very clear. In fact she was so loud Isabel could barely hear her sister, who was doing her best to join the chorus. Eventually she managed to get Ruth out of her stinking clothes and wiped up. As she was about to put the nappy on Ruth started to pee, and it went everywhere. All over the mat, all over Isabel. Ruth didn’t stop screaming.

It was the final straw. She could take no more, they’d broken her, she sank to the floor, holding her naked squealing daughter and just started to cry.

It didn’t help. The girls didn’t understand, all they knew was that they were uncomfortable, and hungry, and had sore teeth and…

She couldn’t help it, her anger at the loss of her husband, the lack of money, the lack of sleep and the constant crying boiled over. She knew what she had to do.

“Enough is enough, I didn’t want to do this, but I have no choice. I’m sorry girls.”

Putting Ruth down firmly, she stalked from the room. Darkness seemed to gather, and even the twin girls realised something was happening and quietened. The silence was only momentary though, and they began again with full force.

Isabel returned to the room, filling it with her presence. In her hand she held a short stick, about eighteen inches long, and a thumb’s breadth.

“I hate to do this; it’s your own faults.” Her voice was filled with energy, and pain.

She waved the wand left, and right, and then made complex sigils in the air. She could see the shapes as the wand had started to leave a glowing path. The girls stopped screaming long enough to stare bemusedly at the pretty lights. They’d never seen their mother do this before.

Both babies started to rise into the air, the clothes came off, they were wiped clean and new nappies put on. All by invisible hands. They were placed back in their chairs and the milk handed back to them. They drank happily, but their eyes were on the scary woman who’d replaced their mother.

“Good. Drink well my little ones. After this you are going to sleep. And sleep well. Do you understand me?”

The two little girls shouldn’t have understood, but they did. They realised that they didn’t want to find out what would happen if they didn’t sleep.

Once they finished their milk they were burped and carried into the nursery, where they were gently rocked to sleep.

Meanwhile Isabel, barely standing with fatigue, stumbled to her bedroom and fell into bed. She was asleep before her head hit the pillow. She was finally getting some proper rest and she slept the sleep of the truly exhausted.

The babies woke up again at 0715, and were changed and fed again. Some soothing gel was applied to their gums. They made almost no sound, apart from the occasional happy gurgle. They were then placed carefully in their pen – the cage as their mother called it – where they played happily, watched over by an invisible force.

At just after noon Isabel woke up, feeling so much better. She would have been happier with another twenty hours of sleep, but even so she felt almost human again. Stretching she got out of bed and went to her bathroom, where she enjoyed a long hot shower. The first time in a long time that she truly relaxed.

She knew she didn’t have to worry about the girls. They were just fine. Then the horror hit her. She’d performed magic.

“What have I done?”

She had to find out what had happened, still naked from her shower she ran to the back window and looked out. The neighbourhood looked fine, nothing untoward. She looked left and right and could see nothing. She started to relax. Perhaps she’d avoided anything major happening. Quickly getting dressed she hurried to the nursery.

She approached the cage warily, but the little girls were playing nicely, even sharing toys for a change. It would be so nice if she could live like this all the time, but she feared the consequences.

Isabel waved her hands to dispel the magic nanny, and sighed.

“No my girls, we can’t have that again. As you will learn when you are old enough, and can control it, there is always a danger with magic. It is capricious, and insists on a form of balance. This time I think we’ve been lucky…”

That’s when she heard the fire engine.

“No no no…”

She ran to the front door, and flung it open. Across the road her neighbour’s house was in flames. She stopped, should she go out? Should she instead duck back inside? She didn’t want anyone to connect her with the fire. No, she realised she had to know. Rushing across the road she saw her neighbours were still alive. She was relieved, but, she still had to confirm what had caused the fire. The husband, Tom, seemed to be talking to a policeman, while Pauline was sitting on the grass, just staring at their once lovely home.

As she approached she heard Tom trying his best to explain what had happened to the obviously sceptical policeman.

“…was like lightning or something. Suddenly there was a crack, and then flames. Flames everywhere. We don’t have gas, or anything. And I haven’t smoked in, what, twenty years now. I don’t know what it could have been.”

“Wiring sir?”

“Oh I don’t see how, this house is very new. We have it inspected regularly. Maybe it was…”

He looked up, as if he was hoping to see a storm cloud.

Isabel knew there would be no storm cloud; she knew what had caused the crack. It was the magic discharging to balance what she’d done the night before. Guilt hit her, and unable to face her neighbours, she slunk back home.

Re-entering the nursery she thought she’d caught a whiff of dirty nappy, but leaning over it was gone. She tried explaining to the little girls what had happened, though they were oblivious.

“For every act of goodness you do, there must be an act of badness, or chaos. As you learn about your powers you will find ways to channel them and control the chaos so it causes minimal harm to people. You should always do your best to control it, as the effects can be fatal. I failed last night…”

Despite the sleep she was still exhausted, and the emotional stress was too much. She started sobbing again knowing what might have happened, and yet guiltily grateful for the small rest she’d had. Even at the cost of her neighbours’ house.

She stood there bent over, crying freely now, when she felt a hand inexpertly stroking her head. Surprised she looked up, there was no one there. No one except the twins, and little Grace was staring at her with concern. Isabel smiled tentatively and Grace responded, then lost interest and looked around her pen.

Perhaps she’d just imagined it? They’d only been exposed to magic for half a day. It shouldn’t have awakened within them yet. Isabel watched her little ones carefully, but they seemed to be behaving quite normally. She was about to go and prepare their lunch when Ruth started to fuss. She was looking around her pen grumpily. Then she saw what she wanted, her favourite toy, the tiger teddy bear, was on the other side of the pen. She reached out her hand to it, and it lifted up and headed unsteadily towards her.

“Oh no…” wailed Isabel.

Her worst fear was realised. It appeared that last night’s incident had been too much and the girls, having been exposed to all that active magic, were now starting to manifest some of their powers. They wouldn’t know they needed to be careful, or what might happen, and the consequences could be horrendous.

She’d have to train them, but in a place where she could limit the damage which might happen while she did so.

If they stayed where they were she could see a future in which theirs was the only house standing in the neighbourhood.   Her neighbours, lovely people, would find their houses burned. Their pets dead. Some houses might fall into suddenly appearing sinkholes or collapse with rot. People might die.

In the past that would be the cue for the locals to rise up and burn her. Some witches had thought that if they did good that would protect them, but it had only made the whole situation worse as the magic forced balance. Ironically they’d only started to realise the truth during the Enlightenment.

These days, well, she could imagine the news frenzy it might become. She’d be hounded and wouldn’t be able to get away, and the girls, how would they cope? There’d be police, and social workers and psychiatrists. Scientists would be asked to ponder what was happening. They’d become freaks at the centre of their own circus. Other witches wouldn’t thank her; in fact they might decide that the best way to deal with her would be for an accident to occur. That had certainly happened a few times over the centuries.

No, they couldn’t stay here. Even though it contained the last connections to their father, she had to take the girls away. They needed to go somewhere remote, miles from anywhere. In the modern world it was ever harder to secure such places, but she’d find somewhere. She waved the magic over the girls again, after all she was already in such trouble she might as well get the benefit. She also concentrated to ensure she was controlling the build up of negative energy. It would get hard to hold after a while, but she’d be ready to go before it was a real struggle.

As she thought of options, she realised she only had one left. It was the one she’d been hoping to avoid. She called her mother.

“Hello?”

“Hello Mother.”

“Darling, such a surprise to hear your voice!”

“I doubt that.”

“OK, I could feel the magic. Do you admit now you need my help?”

“Yes. Please.”

“See, it wasn’t that bad.”

“You have no idea.”

“Anyway, you’ll have to appear to leave normally. How soon can you be here?”

“In a few hours.”

“Oh, that is excellent. It’ll be so good to see you, and there are a few awkward characters we’ll need you to deal with.”

“Mother…”

“You can’t come back unless you’re willing to work. You know that.”

“I know. I was just hoping…”

“For a break? What do you think you’ve been enjoying. Now get back here, and bring my lovely granddaughters with you. I am so looking forward to meeting them.”

There was little point arguing with her mother. She said, “I’ll see you soon mother.”

“Looking forward to it darling.”

Her heart was lighter, at least she’d be getting help, and rest, and it would be nice to be among other witches again. It was also weighed down; as she knew the kind of work she’d have to do. She shuddered.

One of her skills was controlling the negative energy produced by good work. She could harness and direct it. Perform targeted acts of evil. As much as she understood the necessity, she’d never enjoyed it, and the images had started to plague her. That’s why she’d run away.

Sighing she started to collect her things. The girls, still behaving impeccably, were quickly loaded up in their carry seats, and the basics for the trip were ready. She was tempted to use magic to load the seats into the car, but if anyone saw them it would cause real issues. She lugged them over, strapped them in and made sure they were safe.

As she was about to get into the car she took one last look at her home, and said a final goodbye to her husband.   She got in and drove off.

She was half way along the block when she let the magic go. It blew the walls of her house down, and the roof collapsed. She didn’t look back.

 

The neighbourhood was surprised by three unusual happenings that day. There was the lightning strike, the collapsed house and the strange disappearance of the nice young widow and her twins. People gossiped, as they do, but they couldn’t see a connection, which was perhaps fortunate for everyone.

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