With a gesture, a looming cyclone of gases and dust whipped up off the ground. In a few seconds it was taller than the clock tower in the town square, which it took no time at all to shatter into fragments which it then spat across the road. Fighting wizards is precisely zero fun. This particular dangerous lunatic had holed up in a charming little American town, Gilmore Girls but with a magical psychopath instead of a heart-warming mother-daughter relationship. He’d suborned the inhabitants and had them mining vitality – magical energy – for his own dubious purposes. Unfortunately, vitality isn’t like coal or tin, except for its appalling side effects on human wellbeing. You harvest it directly from living things. Wizards usually start with pets, their parents’ lovingly tended gardens or just their siblings. The escalation to drawing it straight out of people is often really fast as the wizard gets a taste for it and realises that although there’s a lot of grass, each blade doesn’t have that much vitality. It’s easy to be impressed by the green glow of photosynthesis, but that’s just powering a plant. What you’re looking for are the unique properties that come from the synthesis of all those properties. The good stuff, the real vitality is in humans. Animals have it, but not as much. It’s all about the factors of complexity, and in human beings there’s so much complexity that we develop actual minds – the supervening properties if you will. Harvesting a human soul, all those hopes and dreams and ideas and feelings, that’s basically meth for these wankers. So mining a town for vitality is pretty horrific. First you enslave your miners, that’s brute force charmwork, smashing their minds so thoroughly that they can’t resist you, stealing as much of their vitality as you can without killing them outright. They’re like the undead, but less chatty. Once you’ve got your basic vitality zombies, you get them to do the entrapment and murder for you. That means getting the parents you’ve suborned to abduct their kids and hook them up to the invisible magical web that you – the wizard – have strung up all through the town. Relying on the social and familial networks lets the vitality harvesting spread naturally through an area. There are very few people in any given town who aren’t tied up in some way to the rest. You might immediately think, ah yeah – the child molesters and serial killers, but actually no. Horrifying as it sounds, the former are far better tied into a social network than you’d hope. None of them survive for long if they just hang around playgrounds. People get creeped out and they get reported. No, they’re on the parent teacher association, run a local business, are your parents’ friends. Well embedded. And serial killers are just too rare for this situation. No, what we hope for in these situations is someone totally ostracised, who doesn’t even got to the local grocery store, or has only recently moved to the outskirts of town and knows no one. They’re the only people who aren’t in the social web, unless they get Amazon deliveries, and delivery folks are local, in which case they’re all fucked.
So who are we? We – in this case I – am one of the latest generation of an order with a truly shameful past. Set up by Oliver Cromwell during his ill-fated, ill-planned and downright stupid Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland phase. Lots of innocent dead people because he was a paranoid fuckwit, and quadruply so that of the people who claimed titles like “Witchfinder General”. Still, they were right about magic being a threat, just utterly wrong about how to spot it, what it did, why it was dangerous and so on. Flash forward nearly four hundred years and the Witchfinders are still in business, properly now. Magic started waking up when European imperialists got really stuck into mass murder and genocide, all building up to the big bangs in the twentieth century. Kill a bunch of people and you end up with a lot of vitality sloshing about. Not that the arseholes behind these massacres were wizards. They were depressingly just ordinary monsters. The wizards came later, as all that vitality sank into the soil and into people as they travelled about the globe. It’s not those people’s fault that their kids became wizards because they survived a war, or escaped some awful situation. You want the best for your children, but there are other factors at play here.
So I found myself in a picturesque town in the Midwest, full of dead and dying people that a wizard had sucked dry of vitality. We got a tip off from an utter waste of space crypto-mining kid who lived in his mother’s basement. The mum had died years ago and he was sponging off her benefits having never reported that death. A real charmer, but that’s how far you have to go to drop out entirely. We alas did not save him, as the vitality engine worked through all those lines of association and eventually sent someone from the post office round to check on his mum. We arrived the next day. Tracking the wizard isn’t hard. These aren’t smart people who’ve studied for years and learned spellcraft. They can absorb vitality and direct it wherever their heart desires to the extent that they’re bright enough to imagine it. Sometimes they’re also smart people, but mostly they’ve been trained to learn they can suck whatever they want out of people without any real effort, so they’re lazy, often stupid and still very, very dangerous. For example, since we’ve got a prime case right here, this one, having murdered all his friends, family and town he lived in has transformed himself into a right swole guy, all thick muscle and tight clothes (plus a cape), like he’s either a WWE wrestler or has escaped from a Tom of Finland strip. He’s now too big to get into the ridiculous theme park his developmentally-challenged imagination has twisted the town into. There’s no way he could get into the rollercoaster cars now. Not that he’s want to. Even from the other side of town you can see how the rails go up and down, but just fade away where he’s lost interest. I’m no structural engineer, but I know that you need some supports. Moron.
But that brings me back to where we came in. Raising a cyclone is potentially a cool idea if you know how they work, but this wizard’s running on a memory of news footage or possibly Twister. All he’s doing is shoving a lot of air around, which does quite a lot of damage, but without comprehending the forces involved, he’s got to pay attention to it all the time. And so he is, standing on a bizarre half-throne half-pageant float in the middle of the square, the vitality web so full it’s actually visible in the air like tiny flaring fairy lights strung all through town, all feeding down into him. He’s working so hard at this, hands twisting awkwardly to get the thing spinning, big dumb frown on his face like a clown-sized Colin Farrell. In case it’s not clear, I’m the distraction. All I’m waiting for is for him to get precisely this invested in a stupid way to kill a single person. I might look like more than just one guy, but that’s a bit of magic too, as was my dismantling the awful “world’s strongest man” fairground game he’d created in his own image. Just getting his attention. Meanwhile… on a nearby building my sniper took the shot. Magic, yes. Immortal, no. As the bullet goes straight through one straining eye and out the back, the beefcake wizard topples off the platform. The vitality web drags with him. In a moment it’ll start to decohere and sink back into the world, ready to infect some other sod with wizardry. That’s the other reason I’m here. With my hands and my mind I wind up the dissipating web of vitality, reeling it in like a trawler’s net, packing it down and sealing it up. There’s no way to return the vitality to all the victims – they’re just plain dead, or braindead at least – we’re going to take this vitality back to the Witchfinders and use it to find more wizards. We fight magic with magic… and bullets.