When he was a boy, the Magician saw the world burn.
A day like any other: spent learning the foundations of earth magic, stuck on a basic healing potion. He knew, deep within his bones, when the fire reared up and consumed the scorched earth. He felt the flames spread from his gut to his heart, blackening the tender parts.
His mother was an air witch, who twisted time. They spent some years travelling in and out of slipstreams, wandering nomads, rootless, out of place. They settled, in a community of outcasts, casting their magic tricks onto dissatisfied humans, looking for diversion and entertainment. He spent many afternoons, when not at his studies, ducking unseen into the tents of the carnival, hiding under chairs, pulling the shadows around him like a velvet blanket.
He saw things, in his dark hiding places. He saw how the thick static of magic coated the fortune tellers, how they suppressed the bad fortunes and told the humans what they wanted to hear. He saw the way magic had two faces. One, the side that stepped into the light, that believed in redemption and hope, the other, a black chasm of despair and agony, that threatened to drown. The humans only wanted to be told that they would find love, that they would prosper, that they would be happy. Not that their love would die, that their fortunes could be lost, that they would never be happy if they constantly looked to the future. Truth was changeable.
The Shifters performed in the gaslight of the big top. His favourite was the enormous Snow Leopard known as Leopold. In performance, fierce, malevolent, beautiful, rippling with controlled power. The man himself was gentle and always had a kind word for him. ‘Boy,’ he would say, ‘a penny for your thoughts,’ and he would tell the leopard all about his mother’s travels. A shiny penny was always deposited into his palm afterwards. He would often find himself with nothing to do in the evenings his mother cast charms and amulets for the humans in her tent, and would wander amongst the wagons behind the Top. He learnt card tricks, tricks of the light, how to tell someone’s past and future by looking into the corona of their auras. In some of the tents, strange sounds murmured, a cross between pleasure and pain. He never went in those tents.
There was an incident, not long before the morning of flames and death. It was an evening saturated with mischief, some of the lion Shifters refused to do a certain trick, one of the acrobats broke her ankle and had to stop her act. Even his mother seemed jumpy, her usually composed demeanour turning to anxiety when he asked her if they were going stay here forever. ‘A change is coming,’ she said. ‘Stay away from the shadows, tonight, my darling.’ She never used ‘darling’.
He wandered from one tent to another, watching the inebriated humans reel and laugh, sizing each other up, groups of men looking with a gleam in their eyes at the women. He didn’t understand it. The air sang with tension, taut as a wire. He passed one of the tents he never went into. A high pitched scream rang through the air, a crescendo, and trailing off into silence. The entire carnival froze. A man ran out of the tent, red spatters covering his white shirt, tweed cap pulled low over his eyes. He ran off into the darkness.
The boy could only stand holding his breath, until the silence broke like a dam and the camp flurried into activity. Humans were ushered away, some told to leave. One of the illusion artists went into the tent, staggering out with another man, carrying a woman between them, her dress ripped down the front, blood staining every part of her. A woman ran up and covered the victims’ modesty with a blanket. ‘Healer!’ the illusion artist yelled. They all vanished into the dark.
His mother would not explain what happened, but his imagination ran riot. He could not get her face out of his mind: young, beautiful, dark haired and bow lipped. Maybe even just a few years older than himself, ten human years. He couldn’t discover the young woman’s name. She appeared to have folded into the darkness, as if imagined. Nobody said anything whilst he was around, but he felt the whispers, the hint of things unsaid hanging in the air. After that, things changed. The white tents no longer seemed a place of balance between light and dark. Even Leopold seemed on edge, urging him to go back to his own tent, to stay away from the humans.
Until the world burned. He ran into the centre of the pitched tents. It was morning, sunlight casting everything into sharp relief. ‘Mother!’ was the only thing he could bear to shout, watching as people ran from tent to tent, screams and yells filling the air, the terrible smell of burning flesh, the pop and crackle.
His hands stung and blistered, and for a moment he could only stare as the palms of his hands leaked the hot blue of a steady flame. He heard a far off scream of anguish and fear, but could only shake his hands. Until he realised the sound, unearthly and all too human, came from his own throat. The volume turned up on the world, and he could sense the fear, the pain, of every creature surrounding him. He bowed to the ground with the weight, crashing down onto his knees. He could do nothing, assailed and paralysed.
Hours later, the camp was ash, only a few survivors remaining. His mother was nowhere. He could only hope – hope! – that she had escaped, had vanished into another time. The burning in his hands had abated, and only two black ragged circles remained in his palms. His face was streaked with ash and dried salt. His nerves sang and chimed, raw and open with the pain of loss and the realisation of an empath. A shadow fell over him, dark against the white sun. ‘Boy,’ Leopold said. ‘It is time to go.’ The boy and leopard left the ashes, walking into the burning world.