The War on Magic continues.
Magicians are branded terrorists.
Government contracted security forces hunt down and execute magicians who don’t submit to repressive controls.
Magic: A Rough Guide
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
It had to be a dream, or maybe she was dead. Lizzy looked down at the grey prison ambulance, covered in brand logos, lumbering off the tarmac road and down a long-neglected track into the forest. She followed, flying high enough to see several yards around it. Sometimes the ambulance would disappear under branches, or she’d fly through treetops like they were shimmering green confetti clouds. The rich, sharp, sights, sounds and smells of the forest seemed more real than her senses thought possible; or maybe she’d been in prison so long she’d just forgotten.
A large black raven also followed the ambulance, the slow flaps of its outstretched wings sliding it left to right in wide swoops.
The vehicle crunched over saplings, broken twigs and branches, the rumbling growl silencing birdsong and the scuttle of creatures across the forest floor. Slowing to enter a large clearing, it grunted down a gear and followed a track round in a circle and past the sharp incline at the end that led down to a dry stream bed.
Lizzy floated above the ambulance as it parked up a few feet from some old oil barrels and a pile of bones and burnt clothes beside the remains of a large fire. The raven glided down across the clearing and settled on a high branch. Something about the creature was wrong, sinister. Its eyes had an intelligent gleam and it seemed to move with a strange purpose. The creature gave a little shudder and tapped a claw impatiently.
Two burly men stepped down from the cabin and headed to the back of the vehicle, undoing their jacket buttons as they went. Lizzy recognised the garish bright comb-over of Mr Terry, the prison guard who took people to and from the laboratory. He and the other guard were both dressed in sharp black uniforms covered in military supplies logos. They walked round to the back of the ambulance with eager steps, trampling over charred fragments of bone and wood.
The driver’s doughy, unshaven face twisted into an ugly sneer as he banged the side of his fist on the back door and a lean man in a sharply ironed, pale grey outfit opened it. He muttered something which made all three men laugh and they disappeared into the vehicle. The metal door clicked shut and silence returned to the forest.
Lizzy floated above the serene, soothing sounds of the forest; the exchange of birdsong rising from the breeze rustling through the treetops. Two small birds chased across the clearing, leaving ripples of ghostly echoes trailing behind them. Then, a surge of terror charged through her, shattering her senses. A scream rang out from inside the ambulance and a wall of flame flashed around her. Then she was gone.
The rear door smashed open with a clang that rang through the forest, scattering a squall of birds through the trees. A cloud of grey smoke and flames bloomed out and cleared to reveal a young woman trembling in the doorway, her face twisted in fear and confusion. She had a shaved head and wore thin, faded pink pyjamas and a T-shirt that hung loosely over her. Coughing, and swaying slowly, she gripped the door frame and steadied herself. She scrunched her face and blinked then stumbled down onto the track, took several steps away from the ambulance and fell to her knees, tearing her flimsy pyjamas.
The door swung back and slammed shut behind her, muffling the screams and frenzied banging of the three men trapped inside. She scrabbled away on all fours to the edge of the clearing and got to her feet. Everything was a blur and she rubbed her eyes with grubby hands. A forest took shape out of the blurry haze then fuzzed out again. Behind her, the ambulance shook for a few seconds then the banging and screaming stopped.
She spun round and almost fell when the ambulance dropped heavily with a tortured metallic groan. The rear tyres had melted and as she watched, one side buckled inwards in slow, jerky movements. Overhead, something dark, a bird with big wings, lifted into the sky and flew off out of sight.
The smell of burnt plastic and flesh, cut with that sharp smell of metal, wafted around her and she threw a hand to her face as she stumbled into the forest. Pushing branches and bushes aside she collapsed behind a tree. Still shaking and breathless, she pulled her knees up to her chest and slapped her hands either side of her face to stare, wide-eyed.
An explosion shook the branches overhead, dropping leaves around her and sweeping litter into the air. She cried out and cowered, throwing her hands over her head.
When the noise died down, she lowered her arms, slowly opening her eyes. The yellow medical wristband caught her attention and she stared at it, wondering who’d clipped it on, and when.
Elizabeth Francis. *(Lizzy) 693082. Secure Accommodation and
Limitation of Enchantment for Magicians.
Lizzy ripped it off and threw it aside before getting unsteadily to her feet to lean against the tree. The hazy forest had come into focus a little more. Was it the smoke? Her sight had always been perfect.
Lizzy headed away from the burning vehicle, gritting her teeth and forcing herself not to cry out whenever she stepped on a sharp twig or stone. After several steps, she growled angrily and stopped, clenching her fists. Colours and shapes sharpened. The energies of the forest ebbed and flowed around her, like the whispered murmuring of a solemn crowd listening to birdsong. Shapes formed in the surrounding haze and became loose tangles of branches stretching into other trees or leaning down into bushes. The ground softened beneath her feet and she set off again and found herself facing a steep incline. Lizzy scrabbled down and followed the gulley’s curve away from the fire.
Her vision cleared as she splashed along a shallow stream. The sides of the gulley came into sharp focus and the foamy blur retreated to an easily ignored thin line on the edges of her vision. The stream led her further down and deeper into the forest and the ground levelled off. Lizzy clambered out to the banks of a large, dry pond. Thin streaks of sunlight stretched down through branches to form a shimmering mosaic of gold and green around her. Lizzy sat down, breathless, on the trunk of a fallen tree.
The forest seemed to go on forever; so much space, colour. The whistle and chirp of birds, the buzz of insects and a rustling breeze full of warm, soothing odours filled the air. How long had it been? How old was she? After all those years of grey walls and grim faces, the sights and sounds flooded her senses. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees, and closed her eyes.
Something scuttled across the clearing followed by a flash of light that darted away into the undergrowth. She jumped up. She had to get away, far away. The thin slippers she’d been wearing were already gone, lost in the stream. Her flimsy T-shirt and pyjamas were torn in several places and covered in spots of blood.
A distant birdsong changed to a strange, lyrical whistling interspersed with the singing of a gruff voice as it came closer. Lizzy jumped behind the tree trunk and crouched down then inched her head up to look.
A tall misty figure, glowing bright green and blue, slid smoothly across the leaves and litter on the ground. The shape stopped in the centre of the clearing and swirled to form a gnarled old man dressed in a loose-fitting, brown-check suit. A shock of frizzy red hair covered his broad head, and a thick beard hid his jaw. He yawned and stretched and scratched his thin, pointed ears that twitched as if responding to invisible sounds.
He peered at Lizzy and raised a bushy red eyebrow, “Can ye see me, lass?” he said in a gravelly Scots accent.
Lizzy nodded nervously, “Are you real?”
“I better be, otherwise we’re both in serious need of help.” He looked around and saw the line of ashen footprints leading to her, “You escaped from the Secure Unit?”
“Yes,” Lizzy wiped her face roughly with her T-shirt.
The old man crossed to her and sat down, tapping the space beside him, “You look guilty.” He shook his head. “Guilt is good for pretty much nothing, you shouldn’t encourage it.”
“But the fire… I…”
“You? Is that so?” He tilted his head and looked her over.
“Yes, no, I don’t know,” Lizzy stepped over the tree trunk and sat down. “It just happened.”
“A fire, eh?” The old man glanced down at her footprints and scratched behind his ear. “Well,” he said, “that would make sense.” A curved clay pipe appeared in his hand and he tapped it on his knee then leaned down and picked up a handful of dried leaves and moss. Using the palms of his hands, he rolled the litter into a tiny ball then pressed it into the pipe bowl. Pockets began to appear and disappear as his stubby hands darted over his coat, waistcoat and trousers. “Ach, damn these probabilities,” he complained. Then an idea came to him and he looked up at Lizzy. “Would you mind?”
Lizzy followed his beady gaze to the pipe bowl.
“Go on, lass, do your thing.”
Lizzy raised her hand and examined her fingers. “That was such a long time ago.”
“Ach, pish!” the old man said and made a face.
Lizzy curled a dirty, scratched finger, and gasped when a smooth ripple of energy rose up from what felt like spaces inside her arm and flowed down to her hand. The feeling brought back childhood memories: small fires in the garden; playing on a long, isolated beach with her friend Chris.
The old man grinned through his thick beard when a glowing thread of golden light swirled out from Lizzy’s finger and danced round the bowl of the pipe before darting onto the dry contents and setting them aglow.
The man puffed and blew out a bloom of smoke. “There you go,” he said with a small cough. The forest fell still and silent. A trail of leaves carried on a breeze hung motionless in the air and a squirrel stood, statue-like, halfway up a tree.
“Is this really happening?”
“Mm,” the old man nodded once and, clearing his throat, puffed on his pipe as he stared out across the clearing.
“I remember when I was little, I used to see so many strange things; animals, little people. I started to think they were all dreams.”
“Aye,” the old man said, “you’re a big girl now, and we’re all still here.”
They sat for a few moments, gazing out at the motionless forest, while the old man puffed on his pipe. “Well,” the old man slapped his thighs and stood up, “I really should be on my way, that beastly pocket watch isn’t going to find itself, even if everything is connected.”
“Aye, see you efter,” the old man said and with another puff of his pipe, dissolved into a swirl of coloured mist and “Yes,” Lizzy murmured, remembering what Mum had told her about forests. The older they were, the more magic stirred in them: until radio, TV, phone, microwave and satellite signals shredded the natural weave of energies. She took a deep breath that awakened her senses, and set off again.