Stealing from Wizards

Detritus Lane

Detritus Lane is a very unusual street occupied by very unusual people. It is roughly ten miles long, with one end opening into a used bookstore in Halifax, and the other into a disused public washroom in Vancouver. It also passes through most of the worst parts of Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Edmonton, and half a dozen others. The street is barely wide enough for two people to pass in most parts, and paved with a mix of cracked asphalt, uneven cobblestone, and crumbling concrete. It is crammed with crooked and broken buildings that look like they were dropped out of every era since the Vikings landed. Mud huts, battered brick townhouses, moss-covered limestone churches, rotting wood cottages, and mangled modern monstrosities all fight for space, leaving the road eternally in shadow. The architecture of many of the buildings is so decrepit and precarious that one might think they were held together by magic.

One would be right.

Detritus Lane is a magical street, a faerie road where a single step along it can cover a hundred miles across normal land. Moreover it is a place where the veil between the non-magical world and faerie realm thins and tears. There are places along it where things can pass easily from one to the other. Lost things slip through these tears in the veil from the mundane world into the faerie realm. It is where unattended pens, missing cats, lost socks, and undelivered mail inevitably arrive. It is the place where things that have fallen through the cracks in the world come to rest, and it has been so since before humans set foot in the Americas.

The occupants of Detritus Lane are as strange as the street itself. Some would dwarf the sturdiest of men, others are so small and delicate that they catch on the breeze. Those that one might mistake for ordinary people can often be seen holding conversations with animals, and speaking in strange tongues to nobody at all. Most, though, are not delusional.

The animals are listening. They are familiars, spirit creatures given form and life. The solitary proclamations are magical spells, used to do everything from polish shoes to move mountains. The people of the lane are witches and wizards, elves and fairies, warlocks, sorcerers, ogres and trolls; magical folk.

Nobody lives in Detritus Lane, not really. Many people reside there, but few would call it living. Like everything else in the Lane, its denizens are those that fell through the cracks of magical society and found themselves with nowhere else to be. They are the poor, the lost, the criminal, and the exiled.

If anyone were to truly call the Lane home, it would be Kuro. He was one of the unfortunate few children residing in the perpetual gloom of Detritus. During his short life there, he and the laneway became close partners. He knew every crack and crevice along its length. He knew which shadows he could hide in and which shadows would try to hide in him. He knew which sewer grate led to an alley in Vancouver, and which closet opened into a bus station in Boston. Detritus was his home, his shelter, and his only friend.

While the labyrinthine alleyways and buildings hid Kuro, they provided little to sustain him. In order to eat, he had to scavenge, beg, and as was becoming more and more common, steal. That could not be done within the lane. People, there, guarded what few items of value they had, jealously. There was nothing to be gained begging from beggars, stealing from thieves, or scrounging from piles of refuse already claimed by larger and more dangerous scavengers. To survive in Detritus Lane, Kuro often had to leave it.

Begging was best done in Bytown. It was the largest city behind the veil. It sat at the borders of the three great kingdoms of Alfheim, Acadia, and Tirnanog. Not by coincidence, it was also the meeting point of several faerie roads, including Detritus Lane. It was a city of trade, where magical folk bought and sold all manner of wares, from simple foodstuffs, to enchanted carriages, from kitchen tools to great works of art.

Kuro spent many long days begging in the market. It was dull, and usually cold work. His company was a ragged collection of strays, men and women with just enough connection to magic to pass through the veil between worlds, but not enough to cast any proper magic. Some strays earned a living doing labor that wizards were too lazy to do, themselves. Others simply found their way back into the mundane world and continued with their magic-free lives. Like most things in Detritus lane, though, the strays that ended up there were the discarded and forgotten. Their lives outside the veil were worse than begging in the Bytown market, and the one thing detritus had to spare, it was rent-free places to sleep.

Kuro would sit near the entrance to Detritus Lane along with the other beggars, holding a battered tin cup and doing his best to strike a balance between looking pathetic and hopeful. If he looked too healthy and clean, he would fail to earn the sympathy of the passersby. If he were too filthy and desperate, he would frighten away potential donors.

Being a child gave Kuro a slight advantage over his fellow wretches. He was unusually small for his age. His large ears and nose, along with his mottled brown skin, and tangled mass of dark hair gave him the look of a stray dog. Along with his mismatched and ill-fitting clothing, his appearance gained him more compassion, and therefore coins, than many of the older people that begged near him.

That advantage had been starting to fail him recently. While still pathetically small and scrawny, he was growing older. Where he had once been an adorably pitiable child, he was starting to become a strange-faced and awkward teen. Fewer coins in his cup meant he had to spend more time stealing.

Kuro did most of his stealing out in the Blandlands, the non-magical world outside the veil. Blandland money wasn’t much good for anything, but their food and wine was as good as any wizard’s and they were much easier targets. They were broadly unobservant, and were especially poor at noticing magical things. Or, rather, they were very good at ignoring things that did not make sense to them. So when a ragged boy stole their lunch and disappeared into a mailbox, they often decided that they had imagined the whole thing and went on with their day without a fuss. The few that did try to chase him would typically find that they could not follow.

Sometimes, though, Kuro needed real money. More money than his tin cup would earn him. Those times he needed to steal from magical folk, and that was dangerous. The purses and pockets of Bytown held plenty of coin, but they also held enchantments to keep would-be thieves away. Peacekeepers and Hounds, members of the Royal Guard, roamed the Market protecting the wealthy witches and wizards from scoundrels like Kuro. Beyond that were the familiars, Kuro couldn’t tell which of the pigeons, cats, and crows that fought for scraps of dropped food in the market were simply animals, or the conjured companions of spell-casters watching over their masters.

That was what he had been sent to fetch tonight, money. His master needed ingredients and apparati for his experiments and potions. Those could be neither found nor stolen. Kuro’s master had demanded it, and Kuro dared not disobey.

Kuro wasn’t a familiar, of course. Familiars were always animals, so far as Kuro knew. Also, familiars were not flesh and blood; they were parts of their creators, syphoned off and given form. The master’s familiar was a crow. That crow had been Kuro’s constant minder for the first years of his tenure as a street rat in Detritus. It had followed him on his excursions to ensure that Kuro was staying hidden from the Royal guard, that he was never followed back to his master’s hiding place, and that he never spoke to anyone.

Kuro scanned the eves of the nearby troughs for that crow. It wasn’t around. That was no longer unusual. Kuro could be trusted. There had never been any real question about that. But the clumsiness and inexperience that had caused him to make mistakes earlier in life had long ago been beaten out of him. The master no longer bothered with the effort of conjuring the bird.

Neither was Kuro a stray nor a proper wizard. Kuro was a servant. He was raised entirely for that purpose and he was bound to it. He was largely a failure in that regard, according to his master. He was meant to be magically powerful, clever, attractive, and dangerous. He was none of those. The only trait Kuro possessed that was not offensive to his master was his unwavering obedience.

That obedience brought him to the Bytown market to pick pockets. He was to return with no less than six silver coins.

Kuro watched the bustle of the early evening market from the litter-strewn alleyway that connected Detritus Lane to the market. Late winter snow fell gently on the slanted wooden roofs of the outdoor stalls. Vendors shouted out their wares and deals:

“Five nickels for a fresh trout!” cried a pale fishmonger hocking the day’s catch from the great lakes in Tirnanog. Kuro’s stomach grumbled imagining the feast such a huge fish would provide.

“Three silver crown for a warm winter overcloak,” shouted a woman. She held up a thick fur cape that was big enough for Kuro to get lost in. He dreamed of wrapping himself in those furs to sleep.

Dark-haired wizards of the Spring court of Acadia in fine silks and powdered wigs wandered in and out of the permanent stores that encircled the market square. Prim and proper members of the Summer lands of Tirnanog in their starched wools and linens bartered with vendors. Tall, broad men and women with golden hair and skin, elves from the winter kingdom of Alfheim, laughed at how the other kingdoms hunched against the cold. They mixed and mingled, talked and haggled.

Kuro knew the sounds and movements of the market like a familiar dance. There was a flow and rhythm to it that he could almost sing along to. He slipped into the crowd and allowed himself to be caught in the current. He moved like a leaf on the wind through the crowd, too small and insignificant to be worthy of notice. So long as he kept the rhythm, he was all but invisible.

He observed, and he waited. Picking a pocket was a game of patience and planning. Dipping a hand into a pouch was relatively easy, if eyes and attention were focused elsewhere. He just had to wait for an opportunity to present itself: an argument or an accident that would make his passing go unnoticed. If he could not find one, he would need to manufacture it.

He passed an especially vulnerable woman. She was wealthy and distracted, trying to wrangle too many bags and an uncooperative toddler. She carried a purse in the crook of her arm, its golden clasp not properly fixed closed. She was a fine target, but hers were not the only eyes Kuro needed to be focused elsewhere.

Approaching from behind was a man struggling with an unsteady stack of boxes in his arms.

It didn’t take much to engineer an accident, just a little hiccup in the natural rhythm of the market. Kuro tripped intentionally, throwing the gait and path of the man behind him off and the dominoes began to fall. That man bumped into another, who turned to apologize. The whole flow of human traffic moved to adjust and the ripple became a wave of turbulent humanity that sent the already unsteady man with the boxes careening into a vendor of novelty wands.

The boxes tumbled down, sending their contents of fairylight lanterns tumbling over the table of wands. Sparks flew, flowers bloomed, minor explosions sounded, and a couple of wands shot off like rockets as the magics in the items mixed unpredictably.

While all eyes were on the gently exploding stall, Kuro moved past the distracted woman, casually dipping his hand into her purse. Purses like this were usually enchanted against theft. Most were protected against magical tampering, so that they could not be opened, or moved, or easily cut with spells. Few, though, considered the threat of a small boy just reaching inside with no magic at all. It was the laziness and arrogance of wizards that allowed Kuro to keep stealing from them. They could not imagine doing anything without magic, and so they could not imagine anyone else doing it either.

This evening, that arrogance provided Kuro with a solid fistful of silver coin. Not a bad haul for one dip, and probably enough to satisfy his master.

He wandered back to Detritus Lane casually. It wasn’t that he was so confident in his theft that he was unafraid of notice or capture. It was that moving too quickly, especially in the direction of Detritus Lane, would arouse suspicion.

Once past the threshold of the Laneway, Kuro’s bearing changed. He dashed down the street away from his home and ducked into a shadowy crevice between the abandoned remains of a rotting wooden schoolhouse and a crumbling donut store. He waited, hidden but not entirely safe. This was the worst part of any theft. He could not simply return home, he had to wait. He had to be absolutely certain that he had not been followed. If someone came looking for him, Kuro could not risk leading them back to his home. He would have to sacrifice himself before ever risking exposing the master.

Snow drifted down slowly, melting into grey puddles of slush that soaked through Kuro’s mismatched sneakers, chilling him to the bone. His teeth were rattling by the time he had waited long enough to be confident that he had not been noticed.

He emerged from his hiding spot, checked one more time that there was no sign of anyone following him, and began to run.

Running was the one thing Kuro could do very well and it was the one joy that he was allowed. It probably wouldn’t be allowed if his master knew that Kuro took joy in it. However, the master had never asked Kuro’s feelings on the matter. The master never asked Kuro’s feelings on any matter, actually. The master only cared whether Kuro was useful, and Kuro’s running was indeed useful.

It was Kuro’s only magical talent, much to the chagrin of his master. Kuro’s master had tried for years to pull the tiniest indication of magical talent from Kuro, from training, to beatings, to drownings, to tossing him out the window. All he had ever succeeded in doing was injuring the boy. As it turned out, what Kuro had really needed to draw out his limited talent was fear with some hope of escape, which he found unexpectedly while stealing a tuna sandwich in the Blandlands.

Kuro had only been allowed to make excursions to the Blandlands for a couple of years. The master’s familiar could not follow him there, so it wasn’t until the master was desperate enough for food and drink that he’d sent Kuro through the veil.

Kuro quickly learned that Blandlanders were relatively easy to steal from. It didn’t matter as much if he was seen stealing, because he only needed to make it back through the veil to Detritus, and his targets would be unable to follow. Also, Kuro was quick and nimble and very small, so few could follow the paths he took to escape even if he didn’t pass back into the magical world.

One time, someone had managed to keep up with him, though. Kuro had snatched a lunch bag and its owner turned out to be both persistent and athletic. He had cut off Kuro’s escape through a sewer grate and forced him out into the streets of Windsor. Kuro dove under benches, scrambled over fences, and scurried through gaps too small for a grown man to fit, but the man kept pace and always seemed to be one step ahead. He knew those streets like Kuro knew Detritus. Every time Kuro thought he had escaped, he reappeared ahead of Kuro from around the next corner.

In the heat of the chase, Kuro could feel it. There was a lightness in his feet that lifted him a little higher when he jumped, a wind at his back pushing him forward and kicking dust and sand into his pursuer’s face, and a current in his mind that seemed to make the world slow around him.

It was absurd, Kuro thought, that he would have his first awakening of magic out in the Blandlands. The magic flowed so thick in Detritus that the slime mold that oozed along their rafters could conjure sparks to defend itself and yet he’d never felt so much as a tingle. In the Blandlands, though, where magic was so thin a pixie would suffocate, he’d finally found enough fear to manifest some measure of wizardry. It wasn’t just fear. Kuro was closely acquainted with fear, and had more than enough to spare. This was fear with a direction, with a purpose.

He held tight to that purpose and left the man in the dust. He practically flew to the sewer back to Detritus. Once through the veil, he refused to let go of the feeling. As he pressed through the rushing torrent of magic in the lane, it gave the wind shape: gathering in his feet, pressing at his back, lifting him to bound over rooftops, leap from buildings and dash up and down the street like a leaf in a hurricane.

Kuro no longer needed to be chased to find that magic. Time and practice had made it much easier, and now it only took a strong desire to not be where he currently was. Wanting to be somewhere other than ankle deep in a slush-filled alley was more than enough to make the wind gather around him.

He bounded up the teetering remains of an iron fire escape and began leaping from roof to roof, the wind lifting him high and urging him forward. The chill that had seeped into his bones was driven away by the thrill and exertion of the run, and the wind whipping around him dried his sodden shoes.

As he neared the building in which he resided, Kuro slowed and returned to slinking through the shadows. Residents of the lane were well practiced at ignoring the comings and goings of their neighbors, but calling attention to himself was ill-advised. So far as he knew, nobody was aware of where Kuro lived, or that his master was even a resident of Detritus. It was best if it remained that way.

Kuro slipped into the cover provided by an old phone booth across the street from his building and waited to make sure nobody was around. He watched the doors and alleys beside his building for a few minutes.

From the outside, it was a four story red brick building. It had, at one time, been a hardware store with small apartments above. Now, the store was dark and empty, its windows shattered and everything of value long pillaged. Its foundations were failing and it listed to the left, leaning on a neighboring wooden farmhouse for support.

Using the darkness of the unlit street to cloak his passing, Kuro slid between the two buildings. He pushed open a rusty steel side-door and crept inside.

As with most of the buildings in Detritus Lane, Kuro’s contained far more space than it should. The four story box was a seventeen floor mess within. There were staircases to nowhere, hallways that looped back on themselves without turning, and the size and location of doors gave no indication of what might lie behind them. Some opened into full apartments, others: closets, broken bathrooms, or blank walls. Some would eject you back out into the street.

Kuro made his way to the back staircase, avoiding the creaky floorboards and areas that had broken away due to rot. He clambered up the stairs using only every third step. That was the only way to reach his floor, and it was difficult for his short legs. Thirteen floors up, he left the stairwell and climbed along the slanted hallway, trailing his hand along the wall. The door wasn’t visible if you were looking for it. He had to find it by feel.

His hand found the sharp edges of a cracked cut-glass knob. He gave it a gentle twist, and went inside.

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