“What’s the problem, then?”
Terri the Sifter, also known as Terri the Fixer and Terri the Uncouth, looked up from where she stood knee-deep in gray muck. Smudges of dirt covered her gaunt cheekbones; streaks of white lined her thick, curly hair, yet she projected an air of self-assurance as strong as any magic shield.
The imperious, magically-projected face of her employer hovered several feet above her. Despite the severity of the archmage’s malfunctioning magic, he apparently couldn’t be bothered to ask his question in person. Bloody typical.
Terri pointed a calloused hand at a gurgling spout spraying a gray miasma all over the wooden floor and walls.
“Right there, sir. Looks like you got a leak in your reality.”
Her client blinked slowly. Terri got the idea he didn’t get confused very often.
“Planes of existence with inflexible physics are starting to seep through,” Terri explained, pointing at the growing cloud of gray. “Usually happens when thaumic waste isn’t properly disposed. Good thing you called; it could have contaminated your entire operation.”
“That makes no sense,” said the archmage, ignoring the implication that he’d been illegally dumping magical garbage. “Reality doesn’t leak like some kind of… of bathtub. It’s stability itself. Listen young lady, I’ve studied the arcane for hundreds of years and I know what I’m about.”
Another multiverse denialist. Terri resisted the urge to roll her eyes. The worst kind of old-school wizard: they insisted their reality was the only one that mattered and refused to consider evidence to the contrary.
Still, explaining basic multiverse theory would likely be a wasted effort, and the wizard was paying her bill, however grudgingly.
“What I meant to say, sir, is you got imps in your pipes, and they’re eating up your magic.”
“Ah, now you’re finally starting to make sense,” the archmage said. “Yes, yes. Pipe imps. Tricky beasts. I could easily take care of them myself, obviously, but I need to conserve my magic for important work. How much will it cost to exorcise them?”
Terri squinted at the leak. Without her equipment, she couldn’t tell exactly what specimen of reality was coming through the breach. The job could require anything from a minor sealing cantrip to a tenth level banishment. “Hard to say, sir. I’ll need to run some tests before I name my price.”
The archmage scowled. “Do not think to take advantage of me, girl. If I’m not satisfied with your work, I’ll blast you into oblivion. Do I make myself clear?”
Haggling over prices? Really? Terri had never before met an archmage who made magic seem so mundane. “Of course, sir,” she said, not trusting herself to say more.
This seemed to satisfy the man. “Let me know when it’s done. I have pressing experiments that cannot wait. Entire kingdoms hang in the balance, but if I can forge the necessary filament for the Eye of — “
“Understood, sir,” Terri said, and switched his projection off with a wave of her hand. She knew being rude to a customer was bad business, but the last thing she needed to hear was another wizard proclaiming his intention to use the Artifact of Whatever to complete the Ultimate Spell of Who-Gives-a-Shit.
She removed a test tube from her satchel and used a set of iron tongs to dip it into the shimmering gray substance. The solution hissed against the glass, but Terri had crafted the vial from diamond and dream sand, and it stayed intact. She held it up to her goggled eyes, watching the swirling pattern turn in on itself. Before she could cap the sample with a stopper, a gray bubble burst, spattering against her cheek.
Suddenly, Terri became Terrence. He stood in the subbasement of the Fairway Plaza, a new high-rise in downtown Manhattan. He’d just hung up on the building’s super, who’d threatened to destroy him with online reviews if Terrence didn’t quote a price to fix the AC in the next hour.
“White-collar prick,” Terrence muttered, wiping the coolant fluid from his cheek.
Terri gasped. She stood once more in the lower chamber of the archmage’s tower.
“Bloody hell,” Terri whispered. She didn’t need to run any tests. This was no ordinary reality leak. It was strong. Perhaps the strongest she’d ever encountered and so dull she’d do anything to avoid going back to it.
She covered her face with a soma-lacquered mask and ran upstairs. There was only one way to plug a leak this bad.
“Shouldn’t you be fixing the AC?” the archmage asked as Terri barged into his laboratory. “I got too much shit to deal with today — err, rituals to complete before the rite is to move forward.”
He’d already been infected. Terri didn’t have much time.
“Have to show you something,” she said and led him downstairs. The gray muck had solidified into dingy steel machinery filled with monitors and meters. Without her mask, Terri knew she already would have flipped back into Terrence.
“Listen, pal,” said the archmage, who now wore a rumpled and stained business suit. “Why am I here?”
“Because when a reality comes through this strong, it’s not after a new world,” Terri said. “It’s after someone who it thinks belongs there.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” asked the superintendent.
“This,” said Terri and shoved him into the leak. The whole tower rumbled. There was a complicated sucking sound. An instant later, the gray rupture vanished, leaving Terri alone in the chamber.
“Poor bastard,” Terri said. Then she remembered how the archmage had been illegally dumping his magic trash, how he insisted that she fill out all her work orders in triplicate. The reality of her world was stable now, at least. “Maybe he’s better off there. He certainly has the right mind for it.”
Patrick Hurley has had fiction published in Galaxy’s Edge, Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, Abyss & Apex, New Myths, Aurealis, and The Drabblecast. He is a 2017 graduate of the Taos Toolbox Writer’s Workshop. Patrick lives in Seattle and is a member of SFWA and the Dreamcrashers.