Maria shakes her head, wincing as she rubs a sore shoulder from her fight with the bullyboy. "I mean, what happened after the accident? You were there for that, right?"
Wheeling down around a low curb, downshifting and then swinging back up into high like Andretti, Mikey nods. "For a while. I bumped my brain -- but I saw the guy going for you. You were out, so I stuffed a knife down your shoe. People never check inside shoes."
"Yeah," she says, then for lack of another coherent answer, "yeah." She's quiet for a moment. "I owe you big for that. Hadn't been for that knife, I woulda--" Stops again, glancing at Jesus. "Well, let's just say without the knife somebody else woulda been doin' the poking."
Jesus looks up at you and makes a face, he wiggles around a little, then leans back against you. With a jaw-stretching yawn he puts a fist against his chin, little Thinker, and goes to sleep.
You drive past a coyote dead on the shoulder, and the roar of your passage makes the birds poking out its eyeballs fly up with frantically beating wings. Mikey asks, like he's not sure he wants to know, "Some kind of Greek cult?"
Maria cradles Jesus close, not answering at first. "Yeah. I think so. Had all kinda weird-ass paintings and women wearing cheesy robes." She looks to make sure that Jesus really is asleep. "Guy that jumped me was dressed up like a bull, with more than just fake horns." She shakes her head in disgust. "They kept callin' Jesus the One Child and thought I was his mom."
"Fuck." Concise, he is. Coming up to the ramp towards the 5 he swings south -- towards the desert. "So what happened?"
Maria shrugs. "You put the knife in my shoe. I put it to good use and the guy decided it was, uh, wiser t' take me to see Jesus instead." She frowns. "That's when it really got weird. One of the cultists started shootin' the rest of 'em when they all tried to jump me. I mean, bam! Blew every damn one of 'em away, didn't miss. So I figure she's on my side, right? I get ready to take Jesus and she turned the gun on me." Her voice quiets. "Thought I was a goner."
Dim in the faint light from the instrument panels and the occasional car you pass, Mikey half glances at you. "They're all dead?"
"Except her, yeah I think so." She looks down at Jesus, brushing his hair back from his sleeping face. Then she gives voice to the suspicions that are starting to grow large. "Jesus stopped her somehow."
"So she blasted the whole fucking group?" He snifs slightly and shakes his head. "Weird ass. I mean cults like that have fucking power-struggles all the time, but blowing them all away... that's fucking weird. Was she like all psycho-bitch?"
"Dead calm," Maria says. "Kept tellin' everybody to hushabye though, or somethin'." Pause. "When she turned the gun on me she told me she was sorry."
Under the green glow of the speedometer Mikey turns a sickly pale. "Hush hush?"
Maria looks at you oddly, but nods. "Yeah. That was it. You know her?"
A small shake of his head, "No... but I know what she was. You just met a Sleeper."
A long few moments pass. "How much do you know? About the game, I mean."
Maria just looks at you, a little blank, a little impatient. "I know about a couple different games. Which one you talkin' about?"
That brings a long sigh. "Pele must be pissed with me. Okay pawn, you just got moved to the back row of the chess board. You know what that means? It means you're a queen now -- and you have to learn some new rules."
Maria just looks at you for a moment, waiting for you to explain further. She smiles faintly, "Why does it sound like being a queen ain't as much fun as I hoped?"
"Cause if you want to win the game, what's the piece you want dead second most?" He rubs his legs with his hands, one at a time, wiping off the sweat. "Okay... lets start here. Magic is real."
"Magic," Maria repeats. "Like waving magic wands or like spells?" It's not that she's skeptical. There's been too much weird shit happening over the past few days. She's just a little incredulous.
That brings a laugh. "Fuck. No. Well, maybe in the old days before that shit got all trite and dried out and blew away like a fart in the wind. No, I'm not talking about dried up old Rabbis or rich-assed Golden Dawn wanna-be Egyptian priest fuckers. I'm talking about real magic, the shit where people use your toenails to graft a demon to your ass, or an incantrix who cuts your dick off and eats it for dinner -- then makes you forget about it."
Maria shudders and makes a face. "You don't think... those cultists, they didn't...?" She tightens her arm around Jesus again, frowning.
He shakes his head, "No. Probably not. I don't know what kind of magic they did either -- I'd only heard rumors, and all that stuff with bulls isn't anything I've heard of before. Anyway, magic is real -- but it's not the shit like you read about in books. Come on, you're la rasa, you have to have heard about weird assed Santarian priests who could call down bad mojo on people who pissed them off."
Maria considers for a moment. "Yeah... there was a couple old women in the hood everybody stayed on the good side of, too. Bad shit happened if you pissed 'em off. I saw it a couple times."
"Yea, like that. Some of that shit is just luck, but some of it is real. Those old ladies, maybe they knew one curse or a couple, and about a hundred they thought were real but weren't. There are some assholes out there, though, that have a hundred ways to fuck you up, and worse than just bad luck hex playground stuff."
After a moment of silence he adds, "Guys like the Crying Man. He's a fucking living legend, after all."
That gives Maria her opportunity. "Why's he want Jesus? Why's he after us so bad he tore our father in two? What is he, do you know?"
Mikey mutters something at that, swinging between two semis and accelerating up the long roller-coaster style ramp to the 14 exchange. "No fucking clue. There are lots of legends, but none that make any sense. Most of your kind say he's an old Spaniard who was possessed by some Aztec death-god. All I know is he's the reason gang-bangers who wanna be bad tattoo a tear on their face after they kill someone. Fuckers don't have a clue where it came from, or what it really means, and go walking around with dozens of em all down their cheeks, thinking they are the bad-assed masters of the urban jungle."
Maria looks at you for a moment, studying you, but she drops it. "Yeah, I always thought that was a fuckstupid way of tryin' to be bad." She sighs. "Okay, so. Magic is real. What else do I gotta know?"
He chuckles, "I guess you've had a rough couple days -- most people have to have a demon skull-fuck them before they start to accept. Well, first thing is this, you gotta wonder why if magic is real no one knows about it, right? Well, there's a couple reasons. One is people only believe what they want to. Another is that magic isn't an obedient bitch like science is, it acts up. Third is that those in the game, those that know, keep quiet."
Raised in a deeply mystic Catholic tradition, magic isn't so hard to accept, especially after the couple of days Maria's had. "So how come you're tellin' me?"
Mikey says "Cause you're in it now. And cause the kid is loud. He's a fucking walking magical white-noise machine. Anyone who's actually adept will hear him from 1000 yards away. If we're gonna keep him safe, you have to know. Anyway, you were supposed to ask why they keep quiet. Why not become like mage-kings of America?"
Once again, Maria ignores the question she's supposed to ask (for now), and asks the one more important to her. "What /is/ he?" She looks down at Jesus. "What does he do?"
"Shits his pants, from the smell of it. We need to get some diapers." He curls up the edges of his nose. "Other than that I don't know. I'm guessing he's got the talent to be some hot-shit arch mage, and everyone wants a piece -- or wants him out of the competition."
"He died, you know." Maria's voice is almost steady. "Over a year ago. I watched it. Walked away from MS the same fucking day and never looked back." She draws a breath. "Then our dad calls me after not talkin' to me for ten years and tells me he's gotta see me. Somebody else saw him first. Before he died, he told me where to find Jesus."
That brings a silence to the car for a long time. Mikey pulls off about 5 miles later, in Acton, and buys some diapers from a little corner store there. Then it's back to the road. It takes him maybe 20 minutes to think up a response. "I've heard about stuff like that. In the way back, way back days -- arch mages and shit could bring themselves back from the dead. Not like Jesus, but they could like... make themselves reincarnate."
Maria sets about to practical matters, trying to change Jesus's diaper without disturbing him overmuch. "Reincarnate, yeah," she admits quietly. Her relief at being able to talk about this is palpable, strong enough to overpower the odor of baby shit, even. "He was older. Twelve."
Mikey says "That's still young... but he's got power. Reeks of it in fact. However the Crying Man found out about him, it's probably the way that the others found us. I don't know about the Sleepers though -- that almost has to be chance. If only I believed in chance."
Maria smiles a little. "Thought you said everything was random, chaotic shit." The small break in tension helps her remember her line. "Oh yeah, so why does everyone keep quiet about this?"
Mikey says "Two reasons. One, when people get magic shoved in their face, for real, so they can't run from it -- they freak. You know the witch burnings and the inquistion? That was what happened last time lots of people really found out about magic. The second reason comes out of that -- the Sleepers. They were arch mages back then who got tired of loud amatures getting them killed. So for the last 600 years they've kept their ears open. If any fuckety with too much power and too little brains makes too much noise, they hush them. Forever."
"Wait a minute." Maria thinks about tossing the dirty diaper out the window, then reconsiders, tying it up in the plastic grocery bag the diapers came in instead. "So why was she gonna kill me? She told me she'd bring up Jesus good."
"You were there. You'd seen her maybe, or maybe she was just being careful. They take their work fucking serious. Maybe she wanted to take Jesus to keep him from making too much noise."
"She didn't wanna kill me," Maria says. "Pulled the trigger though. I'm the only one she missed." She dwells on that silently for a moment, reflecting on yet one more brush with death. Finally she looks at you for a long moment. "So how do you fit in?"
That brings another silence, finally, reluctantly, he says, "I already told you. I'm a chaos mage. A real one, not one of the fuckies who write books or try to impress sorority girls."
"That all?" She asks, not in the tone of one who's unimpressed, but in the tone of one who expects that something's been left unsaid.
Mikey glances over at you and laughs, shaking his head. "What the hell else more do you want? No, really, I'm God and just forgot to tell you."
Maria grins. "You kidding? With everything else that's happened? Aside from the fact that you're short and got a fouler mouth'n me, I wouldn't be surprised if you /were/ God."
That just brings a snort, and a shaking of his head.
Another shift of gears. "There's just one thing I don't understand. Well okay. Not just one thing, but you know what I mean." She sighs, watching over the baby as he sleeps. "Why me. How was I supposed to take care of him without knowin' any of this shit? I'm nobody."
"See, that whole thing about me being God? That was a joke. I don't have any clue why you."
Maria grins over at you, the expression not touching her eyes. "I had to try." She looks out the window, watching the world as it passes by. "What else do I need to know?"
He humms softly while he thinks on that one. "Okay, don't talk about it -- that'll get you killed. Keep away from shit that seems weird, cause as long as you've got the kid chances are that it is gonna be more weird than you wanna deal with. Most important though is to pay attention to yourself. If you start acting weird, start feeling weird, start seeing weird, let me know. Most of the time spells won't zap you instantly, and if you pay attention you might be able to stop them. Maybe. Kinda like cancer I guess."
She snorts. "I haven't stopped feeling weird since I got that call from Joe."
Those dark eyes glance over at you, kinda sympathetic like, and he says, "Weirder. Like, wanting to fuck a light-socket, or wanting to pray to bull-headed gods."
"Or wanting to fuck a bull-headed god," she cracks, managing another half-smile that almost looks normal. "I think I understand." She sighs. "Ah well. I was gettin' sick of working in a bookstore anyway."
"Now you see why I was sleeping in a car."
Maria nods. "I'm gonna end up sleepin' in one. If I'm lucky." She's quiet for a long time. "I owe you big, Mikey. Bigger than I wanna think about. Me 'n Jesus would be dead three times over at least if you weren't around."
That makes him shift in his seat, uncomfortable and awkward. He turns on the AC to cover it. "Don't be too happy. You know what other kinds of mages call my kind? Bodybags. Things around a chaos mage aren't happy fun time -- so you may end up regretting the help in the long run."
"They haven't been happy fun time," Maria agrees. "But we're alive. So, for what it's worth, thank you." She gives a shrug, then drops it, a little uncomfortable herself.
You're going up and around a high, curving slope just then, out in the middle of nowhere between LA and nothing. Mikey, alerted by some sixth-sense, slows down just as you come up into a narrow pass where the road was blown out of the shoulder of a mountain. In the middle of the road are three cars, all mangled, all burning. One looks to have jumped the divider from the other side, and hit the other two.
"Shit." Mikey comments. "Oh fuck... there's people still inside those cars."
Just after he says that the flashing lights of a Highway Patrol car pull up right behind you, siren chirping loudly.
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