First Arc - Williston
1: Cherish the Merry-Go-Round
A gaggle of amorphous shapes drifted behind the frost-coated front window of the convenience store. The door opened with a bell and the shapes coalesced into the form of a man, draped in rags and furs, blowing into his hands as he stomped his boots on the welcome mat.
"We close in five," said Sloan Redfearn behind the counter.
"Ayup," said the man. The parts of his face visible behind the beard and trucker cap were beet red. He wiped his nose and shambled into the aisles, fingering each individual item on the shelves. Sloan could do nothing but watch.
Ten minutes later he deposited an armful of snacks and a six-pack of beer onto the counter.
"Howzit, Sloan." The man motioned at the nametag on her apron. His beard parted into an irrepressible smile.
She swiped a bag of chips. "It's good."
The man glanced over his shoulder, although they were and had always been the only two in the store. He leaned over the counter and lifted his eyebrow. "You lookin' for work?"
"I got work." She was at it as they spoke.
"I mean real work. You in school?"
She swiped the last item and punched the numbers. "Twenty thirty-seven, please."
"Ach." The man patted his sides. He opened his patchwork coat and rifled through an interior pocket. His hand emerged with a billfold. "Reason I ask is, there's a demand for girls like you. Out in uh, out in Williston. You know Williston, doll?" He slapped down a ten, a five, and five ones and started scavenging for change.
"I know Wahpeton," she said. Directly south of her present location, Fargo. When prey was scarce she sometimes went down for leavings.
"I'm saying Williston." He fished a quarter and delved for more. "Out west, near Bismarck but not quite. You know Bismarck?"
Who was this guy, asking her about these pointless dead end towns in a pointless dead end state? She curled her hands around the edge of the counter and tapped her nails against the glass, her gaze fixed on his sausage fingers as they dipped in and out of the wallet.
"Point is." He found a dime. "There's oil in Williston, you betcha. Big oil. All em corporations are setting shop for the long haul. We're talking big oil, big big oil." He flapped his hands like a bird to demonstrate the bigness, accidentally launching coins from his open billfold. "And when there's oil, well, then there's men. Men to drill the oil, men to truck the oil, men to watch the men drilling the oil. A whole lotta men and none too many girls, you fish my drift?"
Sloan's eyes narrowed as she fished his drift. "If you continue this line of conversation, mister, it won't be until the snow melts they find you again."
The man blinked, his smile hesitant but extant. Gauging whether to assert dominance or laugh it off and move on. He would choose the latter, eventually. Girls who talked like that weren't the girls he wanted. Sloan corrected her slouch and straightened like a centipede, looming a head taller than him (the counter was elevated) and erasing any conceit of good humor.
"Ayup." The man crouched to retrieve the coins he dropped. The conversation died.
He bid her good-night as he left the store with his bags.
Sloan waited until his truck rumbled away before closing shop. She locked the doors and stepped into the frigid bite of late autumn, temperatures approximating zero. Filthy mounds of week-old slush moldered on the corners of the parking lot. A lone street lamp tilted overhead, blinking.
She shuffled into her long brown overcoat, her most precious possession. She had pilfered it before she left Minneapolis. Trailing down to her boots, the furred interior could stave off freezing even in dead winter. At night it functioned as a blanket and in summer she hung it in her apartment and stored stuff in its innumerable pockets. It gave her a cylindrical, androgynous appearance that minimized unwanted attention. Oh, how she loved her jacket so.
It would still be a dismal night. The jacket could only appease the cold, not erase it entirely. And if the recent weeks were any indication, wraiths would be few and far between. As if even they hated the weather. At least it wasn't snowing.
Fargo by night had a postapocalyptic vibe. Discarded husks of old trucks rusted at the side of dilapidated shacks. Everywhere lights flickered: streetlights, storefront lights, starlights. Nothing had any consistency. If all the lights turned off at once the city itself might vanish from existence. She wrapped a hand around the Soul Gem in her pocket and kept her eyes open. In such a dark place, the black miasma that heralded wraiths could slip past a careless eye.
When Sloan reached Fargo's central business district, as transient as the rest of the city, she heard a guttural murmur from behind the decrepit line of storefronts and hesitated. Her auditory senses weren't her most reliable quality, but the sound merited investigation nonetheless. She shuffled along the brick facade of a shop until she found a crevice alleyway and flattened herself sideways to pass through.
By the time she had reached the end of the alley, she knew she had prey. The ghoulish moans were inimitable by anything but a wraith. She grabbed the edge of the wall and peeked out at the trash-strewn lot behind the stores, the kind of place nobody went even during the day, enclosed by barbwire fence and a flurry of NO TRESPASSING signs. In the center of a grainy plume of shadow stood what could be taken as a tall and gray man swaddled in a vaguely buddhist robe. The bald, shriveled head extending from the elongated torso had no real face. A frenzy of static and glitches swallowed its features, a melange of pixelated terror that belied the inhumanity of the otherwise humanoid appearance.
Sloan sighed. A lesser wraith, small potatoes. She didn't have the luxury of complaint given her circumstances.
She unleashed the magic from her Soul Gem to transform into her Magical Girl attire, which meant little aesthetically because she continued to wear her large brown jacket over it. It was too damn cold to traipse in a miniskirt.
The plan: Eliminate the target while expending as little magic as possible. She wasted no time materializing her weapon, a large machine gun with a long, Gatling-style barrel. She held the heavy turret at her hip, although it tipped her somewhat off-balance. With magic she could lighten the gun or have it levitate by her side or something spectacular, but who gave a shit. She took aim and readied to fire as the wraith turned toward her.
Something leapt from the roof of the nearest building and somersaulted at the wraith with superfluous acrobatic pizazz, emerging from its self-indulgence at just the right moment to strike the wraith over the head with a curved scimitar. The wraith reared back as its assailant stuck the landing and readied a quick second strike that would surely finish its intended target.
Sloan rammed the other Magical Girl out of the way and hoisted her machine gun to bludgeon the wraith herself. But it had been a long time since she had been so active in combat and she misjudged the weight of her own weapon, only raising it halfway before losing her balance and tottering forward helplessly.
The wounded wraith fled, oozing through the barbwire fence and into a sprawling snowfield beyond. While Sloan recouped herself, the other Magical Girl took off in hot pursuit. She cleared the fence in a single bound and sprinted atop the snow. Sloan gritted her teeth and swung her turret around, hardly taking time to steady herself as she squeezed the trigger.
The machine gun churned as it loosed thousands of luminescent bolts into the field, blasting the barbwire to smithereens and eviscerating the landscape. The ground spewed puffs of white powder as Sloan planted her back foot and sprayed round after round, indeterminate toward what she aimed for and what she hit.
A spasm of pain stung deep in her forehead. She cut off her magic at once and clutched her skull. Her gun stopped, although the turret continued to spin with a mechanical whirr.
Shit. She had used too much.
Sloan discarded her gun and staggered into the tattered warzone she had created. She had to have hit the wraith. For as much magic as she used, if she didn't hit it...
Four small black cubes sat in the snow, a malevolent aura quickly dissipating around them. Sloan fell to her knees before the spoils and scooped them up with a fistful of snow. For so weak a wraith, it was a decent drop.
The tip of something sharp settled on her shoulder. "I suggest you fork over what I'm due."
Sloan struggled to her feet and faced the other Magical Girl. She was a ragged thing, a valkyrie from a dying empire. Vestiges of a typical Magical Girl costume clung to her, threads frayed at the edges and what looked like handmade stitch-work on the collar. Her gaunt and worn face expelled breath in a pasty cloud.
"You aren't due anything," said Sloan.
"I landed the first strike," said the other. "And I'd've finished it myself if not for you." She wiped her nose with the back of a dainty glove.
"Look kid," said Sloan. "I dunno who you are or where you come from, but Fargo's my territory."
The kid moved the tip of her sword from Sloan's shoulder to her throat. "I ain't fucking around. The cubes, please. You can keep the city, like I'd want this dungheap."
Sloan rehearsed the actions it would take to disarm her opponent. Knock the sword out of the way with one hand and blast her in the face with the other. The kid was an obvious novice, evidenced by everything from her stance to her language. In a fair fight Sloan won every time. But the pain in her skull lingered and a desperate fatigue swept her. Her magic was low. Dangerously low.
With a grudging sigh Sloan opened her hand, all four cubes perched on the upturned palm. The kid ogled them a moment and then carefully picked out two.
"Take them all," said Sloan. "You idiot. Take all four."
"This is fair," said the kid. "You got the finishing shot, after all."
The kid backed away, pointing her sword at Sloan with one hand and clutching the cubes to her chest with the other. "Don't worry about seeing me again. I'm moving up in the world. A landfill like this is no place for me."
She turned and ran into the darkness.
Sloan sagged to her knees and let her Soul Gem roll onto the ground, awash in a putrid splotch of brown. She placed the two cubes beside it and let them do their work. That stupid kid. Only taking two cubes, when she had right to them all. If she didn't learn, she wouldn't last.
Corruption streamed from her Soul Gem and osmosed into the cubes. Only a few seconds and the cubes refused to cleanse any more. Her Soul Gem remained mud brown.
Closing her eyes, she cupped her hands around the Soul Gem and leaned her head close. "It's okay," she said. "You're alive." She spoke as if to the gem rather than herself. Although the gem was herself, technically. Her soul, if you got metaphysical about it. "You had a bad night but tomorrow will be better. You survived worse than this, so you'll survive this too. It's okay."
She kissed her Soul Gem and opened her eyes. It looked slightly less brown, she was sure of it. She tried not to think how frequent her pep talks were getting.
When she recovered enough to look up, she found herself staring into two emotionless red eyes attached to a sickeningly cute cat-thing that blended into the snow perfectly. Its tail flicked back and forth.
The girl who escaped has far less potential than you, said Kyubey, that Mephistopheles of adolescent girls the world round. He spoke via telepathy; his face never moved. I'm surprised you were unable to control the situation.
"I was tired." Sloan pushed herself upright. She kicked the spent cubes at him and let him eat them with the weird alien mouth on his back. Sliding her Soul Gem into a pocket, she wrapped her coat tighter around herself and headed the way she came.
Kyubey trotted alongside her. How unfortunate that such a promising Magical Girl has resolved herself to this fate. At full capacity, your prowess and expertise would allow you to reliably fight wraiths in even a large city.
She climbed through the broken fence. "You have your cubes. Why are you still talking to me?" Her discarded machine gun vanished with a wave of her hand.
It's important I keep an eye on the mental health of promising contractees. It would be inefficient if I let a useful prospect disappear before extracting as much as possible from her.
"You already have a pretty good grasp on my mental health. Gonna ask me about Minneapolis next?"
I didn't plan to bring it up if you didn't first, said Kyubey. But you may find it of interest that your replacement, Miss Ibsen, is managing the city adequately.
Sloan stopped in front of the alley back to the main street of Fargo and sighed. "You're not even trying to be subtle, are you?"
With one deft movement she grabbed Kyubey and drop-kicked him. His ragdoll body soared skyward in a series of midair contortions, the expressionless red eyes betraying no surprise or discomposure as he disappeared over the roof of a building. Sloan clapped her hands and laughed. That felt good. He was normally so surreptitious with her she forgot the catharsis of obliterating his adorable body.
She headed home.
Her second-story apartment overlooked a liquor store and a video rental joint, both advertising their wares with neon signs that pierced her curtains and drove her crazy when she tried to sleep. She closed the door behind her and tromped her boots dry, flopping onto her mattress and pulling them off one after another. She kept her coat on. Heat wasn't cheap.
She shook her cereal boxes to find one that wasn't empty. Corn flakes. It would do. Shoveling handfuls into her mouth, she poured over the nutrition facts on the side of the box.
Kyubey tapped her window. May I come in?
"Are you like a vampire, you can only come in if I let you? Would explain a lot."
The rat bastard pushed open the window and slithered inside. It's merely a formality based on human ideals of etiquette. Speaking of which, it was rude of you to kick me.
"Boo hoo." Sloan's corn flakes went extinct and she tossed the box aside to save the crumbs for later. She had figured she hadn't seen the last of Kyubey after she kicked him. If he wanted to talk, he wanted to talk. And since he had opened their conversation with every obvious way to butter/rile her up, he probably wanted something from her. "Let's cut to the chase, yeah? I could use some shuteye."
Kyubey stared at her from the center of the room. I have an opportunity for you, Sloan.
She fell back on her mattress. "Not interested. That was easy."
It's in your best interest to listen to what I have to tell you.
"Yes Kyubey, you sure know what's in my best interest. I believe that. You made a compelling case for yourself with that whole contract bit."
His face remained ever fixed. Are you unhappy with being a Magical Girl, Sloan? Or are you unhappy that you were ousted from Minneapolis?
She counted cracks on the ceiling. "Hurry up and tell me this opportunity of yours, Cueball."
Of course. I am offering you the opportunity to reclaim your territory of Minneapolis.
Wham. If the satanic hamster wanted her attention, he should have opened with that.
Tell him no. It's Kyubey. You can't trust him. Tell him no. She opened her mouth to form the word and closed it without saying a thing. He already had her soul, what more could he steal from her? What did she have to steal that was worth more than a chance to return to Minneapolis and smash Clair Ibsen in her pockmarked face? Was that not the dream that had sustained her through so many frigid Fargo nights?
No, she couldn't trust Kyubey. How could she, he was the one thing in the universe that had screwed her worse than Clair had. But was that even true? His previous question resonated in her mind: Which made her more unhappy? Being a Magical Girl, or eking a miserable existence in godforsaken Fargo?
"You claimed earlier Clair was managing the city fine. Why would you want her terminated?"
I have no particular interest who controls the territory of Minneapolis, Clair Ibsen or Sloan Redfearn. You are both competent Magical Girls suited for a task of that magnitude.
Sloan closed her eyes. "You're being roundabout. I don't like it. What do you want me to do?"
There is a town west of here where your species has discovered a primitive energy source. This discovery has caused a rapid population explosion as workers migrate in search of financial gain.
A town to to the west. Maybe the same town the man at the convenience store had mentioned. "More people means more wraiths."
Not simply more people. Boom towns are rare but remarkable phenomena in human history. They are locations of lawlessness, corruption, and sin. The unrealistic hopes of the migrants, once confronted by the stark realities of the situation, create immense quantities of despair. In effect, a perfect storm of wraith production.
"You must have loved the California Gold Rush," said Sloan. She peeled herself off the mattress and shuffled to her closet-sized bathroom.
No. Historically, these events cannot be properly harvested. Boom regions have low populations of young human females, and thus low supplies of contractees relative to demand. Furthermore, established Magical Girls can rarely be persuaded to abandon their territories for distant prospects. As such, the immense energy potential of these events usually goes to waste.
Sloan ran her toothbrush under the faucet. Her roll of paste was coiled to the cap. "But this time, you happen to have a competent Magical Girl not far from the site. A girl with little attachment to her current territory and who you perceive has nothing to lose from embarking on such a venture."
"How convenient. What's this got to do with Minneapolis?"
The cubes dropped by wraiths are mutually beneficial as an energy source for us both. Your power is limited immensely by your sullied Soul Gem. The sparse drops in Fargo have done nothing to alleviate the despair you've struggled against ever since your duel with Miss Ibsen in Minneapolis. When was that? Seven months ago?
She finished brushing and spat into the sink. "Something like that."
But if you were to acquire a significant quantity of cubes at once, you could restore your Soul Gem to peak condition and then some. You would then be able to contest Miss Ibsen to reclaim control of your home city. You would enjoy that, would you not? I believe that chance is a more than suitable reward for your services in Williston.
Her reflection peered at her from behind a dirty mirror. She ran a hand through her hair, the fingers snagging on knot after knot. "It's a sour deal for me. I risk my life to help you, and in return you merely allow me to try to do something I might possibly want to do. You're not actually giving me anything."
I didn't say it was a trade. I said it was an opportunity.
"A shitty one," said Sloan.
You need to purify your Soul Gem to have any hope of defeating Clair Ibsen in combat. If that isn't your goal, why are you even still alive?
For a time she said nothing and when she finally left the bathroom Kyubey had gone. She didn't trust him, of course. No doubt he had kept cards off the table and his abrupt departure was a tactical move to prevent her from asking too many questions. At least he had been straightforward enough to admit his aim was nothing more than to use her.
A nest of wraiths in a remote locale. She wondered if at her current strength she could even handle them. Not that things would improve if she stayed in Fargo. Maybe Kyubey's deception was that he had no expectation of her survival. Maybe all he wanted was to squeeze as much energy out of her as possible before her long-awaited and ignominious end. Maybe he should have framed his so-called opportunity as a choice between a slow death in Fargo and a quick one in, what was the name, Williston.
Maybe maybe maybe. She hit the switch and climbed onto her mattress, unbuttoning her coat and draping it over her body like a blanket, folding her knees to keep her toes from poking from the hem. Trying to uncoil the mysteries of Kyubey's freakish multitudinous mind would lead nowhere. She had to reframe his terms in her own language and decide independently of his theoretical posturing.
She slid her Soul Gem out her coat and placed it on the floor beside her. It swallowed the dim light from outside into its filthy core. Kyubey knew his business. He had not appeared exactly when he did by pure chance. Everything about this "opportunity" reeked of his trademark manipulation and half-truths. It wasn't a question of deceiving her. It was a question of whether she were desperate enough to have no choice.
The next morning Sloan found a roadmap and looked up Williston. It was about as far as you could get from Fargo and still be in North Dakota. She would have to hitchhike.
Leaving Fargo for even a week meant abandoning her job, her apartment, her territory. Some kid like the girl she met yesterday would swoop in before she even crossed the city line. Well, whoever it was, they probably deserved it.
Into a backpack that had survived three years of high school and a half-year of destitution she loaded the things she still owned, mostly clothes. She finished off her cereal and left the boxes and the mattress for her landlord to deal with. One way or another, she would never return to this town. At least she had that certainty to nourish a little hope.
Westbound on I-94 she extended an arm and stuck up a thumb, applying her best girlish smile to attract the lampreys. They must have had some instinctual notion of her, because it took thirty-seven passing vehicles in trickle-down traffic before one stopped.
"Where ya headed, miss?" said the featureless man behind the wheel of a no-brand pickup. He tipped his cap and manifested a smile from his doughy face.
"Williston," Sloan said.
"I can take you far as Bismarck. That alright?"
The truck smelled of ash. She stared out the window at the same damn field and the same damn barbwire fence that spanned the entire state and probably a few other states as well. One perfect flat horizon over which hovered a gray sky. The occasional pumpjack loomed in the distance like a discarded brachiosaur.
The driver tried to spark smalltalk but months behind a cash register made her decent enough at dodging it. What's her name? Sloan. Where she from? Minneapolis. She old enough to be on her own? Yep. Could be dangerous, a girl like her out here. Yep.
When the humans went quiet, the radio said: "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me."
She listened an hour before they reached Bismarck, the state capital. She thanked the man and stepped into a city of even more marginal squalor than Fargo. She wondered if any Magical Girl bothered to come here. Surely someone. Those with nowhere else to go.
A sign downtown advertised bus service to Minot, Dickinson, and Williston. A large group of men gathered around the sign, all in the same plaid shirt with the same faded baseball cap, wearing the same pensive expression with their arms folded the same way as they chewed the same tobacco or the same toothpick or the same cigarette. She dawdled behind them as they migrated en masse to the address on the sign.
The address belonged to a bus station. Three or four buses that looked made out of aluminum were bunched under a precarious awning. Into one bus filed a line of plaid-shirted men, heads stooped as one-by-one they vanished through the folding door. A destination was plastered on the side of each bus. An immense crowd had formed around the ticket booth, manned by a sole secretary who pantomimed prices to embittered masses from behind her plate glass.
Sloan gravitated toward the booth, lingering at the outer boundaries of the clot of men jockeying for tickets. It would cost less to hitchhike but given how long it had taken for her to get a ride the first time she didn't trust her odds. If she failed to reach Williston by sundown it would be a damn cold night.
The thicket of plaid and denim refused to part for her so she bumped against it listlessly, muttering excuse me and pardon me every so often only to go unheard by the faceless mob. She was circumnavigating the crowd in search of an entryway when she noticed someone in the crowd who did not fit in.
It was a young girl, teenage. Short, dark-haired, mousey, a conservative little-house-on-the-prairie outfit buttoned up her neck. Anxious pupils flickered behind round glasses. She stood at the periphery of the crowd, cowering in the shadow of the awning like a refugee from a bygone century. Sloan scanned the girl's hands.
A plain metal ring on the middle finger: the telltale sign of a Magical Girl.
So Sloan wasn't the only girl the rat bastard had finagled into his get rich quick scheme. He should know by now she didn't play well with others.
Quiet and inconspicuous, Sloan approached the girl. She weaved between the men with her hands in her pockets, although she didn't wear her own Soul Gem as a ring since jewelry tended to inspire burglaries. The dark-haired girl didn't notice her, didn't seem to notice much at all as she stared at a Great Beyond, her mouth slightly agape and murmuring to herself.
Sloan slinked into striking distance and lashed out her hand, seizing the other girl's and shaking it voraciously. "Hey kid you look a little lost where you from?"
The girl gasped. Mortification spread over her face. She reared back, banging into a metal buttress and jerking her hand away although Sloan kept her grip firmly rooted. Sloan was at least a head taller than the other Magical Girl and if she could make an impression she might scare her off without resorting to fisticuffs.
"You from here? Bismarck?" said Sloan. "What's your name?"
The girl disappeared. Sloan blinked and released her handshake, realizing she was holding nothing at all. She looked around but there was no sign of the girl anywhere. She had completely vanished, like a mirage or an illusion.
Well shit. That complicated matters somewhat.
It cost more than she expected for a ticket but she had already wasted too much time so she succumbed to sunk-cost fallacy and coughed up a good chunk of her savings. It was mid-afternoon by the time she filed into line for the bus, managing to shoulder her way near the front so she could get prime seating. The sole female in a line of stooped-shouldered men, she flashed her ticket at the driver, who ushered her onward with an ambivalent nod.
She pulled her way through the rows toward the back. Everything in the bus was metal and glass, no cushions, no carpet. Those who had entered before her sat with eyes fixed between feet, iron titans in exodus from the city of the iron chancellor.
In the very back seat was the dark-haired girl, her forehead pressed against the window. Sloan didn't hesitate. She clomped forward and slid onto the seat next to her.
The girl saw her coming and disappeared like before, but Sloan was prepared. She leaned aggressively at the spot the girl had occupied moments before and planted a hand against the window, sealing her into the corner. Yes, she was still there. Invisible but still there, Sloan could feel the tiny heartbeat quicken its pace as she pressed against her prey.
Sloan spoke telepathically. Nice houdini trick, kid. Where'd you learn it?
Aw come on, don't be shy. I ain't gonna hurt you. Now come on and reappear so I don't look like an asshole, yeah?
The line of men sluiced in behind her, taking seats around them. They did not seem to notice Sloan's odd position around what to them must look like empty space.
Come on kid, gimme something. A name at least?
O, Omaha. Even via telepathy it came out as a stammered whisper.
Omaha, eh? Well, I'm Fargo. Nice to meet you. Now let's get friendly because it's gonna be a long ride.
She held her hand to shake, making her appearance to the casual onlooker even more awkward. The girl called Omaha said nothing and did not reappear. Sloan's hand hung idly.
Something clamped down between the thumb and pointer. Sloan's flesh ripped open as a ring of shark teeth tore through the skin, causing a bloody red mark to manifest as if by demonic possession. Sloan gritted her teeth to stop from shouting the immense fuck building on the tip of her tongue and pulled back to break the bite.
The teeth left her skin. An instant later the bus window flew open. Sloan swept her good hand only to swat harmlessly against a leg as the invisible Omaha flung herself out the window. Omaha plopped onto the tarmac and clip-clopped away, small footprints emerging from the dust in her wake.
Sloan pressed her bleeding hand into her coat. Where the fuck even was Omaha, wasn't that Kansas or some shit? No, Nebraska. That really was a long way away, but of course Kyubey probably had to search far and wide to scrounge up a loony of such premium caliber.
Speaking of the devil. As she lost sight of Omaha's footprints exiting stage left, she caught a glimpse of the rat bastard himself watching her from a bench near the end of the station, as motionless as a small statue.
Fuck you, she said with matching hand gesture. The bus pulled out the station.