Raising the Bar
Vivian’s head throbbed, an unpleasant, ceaseless, repeating sensation that was out-of-sync with the reverberation of the heavy metal that shook the walls and with the singer, Maya’s, voice. Her dancers, muscular, shirtless punks with long blond hair, slammed the stage with their heels, accentuating the already over-the-top music with tiny thuds and enormously exaggerated moves.
If only she were here to actually listen to the music, she thought. Instead, it was a distraction from that deeper, darker throbbing within her, the bloodless pulse of a dark mind drawing her towards all of the hatred, negativity and disbelief it contained. She needed to find the person she was here for.
She scanned the tables. A quiet couple with hoods over their heads, staring down into their drinks. They seemed to have a problem with the clamour, but not with themselves or others. A tight-suited businessman, clad in black, who looked far too drunk to attend even a company social that night, surrounded as he was by empty bottles after the servers had scurried away to let the music take centre-stage. He had the typical grousy edge of a years-long employee with equally long hours, but no true malice. None at the tables were the source of the pounding, nauseating feeling she was getting; even those at the bars, with louder mouths and seedier dispositions, didn’t possess that much negative energy.
The lights shut off over the stage, leaving the entire bar only lit by the white LEDs on its floor until someone turned the ceiling lights on again. Once she was once again visible, Maya bowed, her long, wild tangle of black hair falling over her head and obscuring her face as she shouted a thank you to the crowd. Then she went backstage, her sweating dancers putting their T-shirts back on as they followed her.
Stepping into the shadows left by the patch lighting job, Vivian vanished. She could not see, yet she could find her way as she slithered along the cold floor, her presence writhed underneath the carpet and found its way up a staggered slope. None would notice the subtle dancing of the shadows as the vanished mage travelled through them; their senses, rocked by the evening’s entertainment, had grown too accustomed to more obvious dancing.
“Maya,” Vivan called out, appearing in the dressing room. “Really sorry to bother you, but is there anyone on staff who’s been in a bad mood recently?”
The mirrors all along the wall, each the centrepiece of a booth covered in clothing, accessories and props, practically glittered from the bright fluorescent lighting on the ceiling. It looked completely different from the modestly-lit stage and tables, and starkly highlighted Maya’s features — her great height, her wiry and slightly twisted neck, her long fingers and longer blue claws.
Maya looked up at Vivian, though she did not have to move her head much. “Oh, Vivian. Yeah, the lighting guy’s been pretty miserable lately. What’re you gonna do?”
Though Maya’s words were accusatory to some small extent, her tone was not, and in any case, her question was a good one, Vivian thought. Witches like her weren’t known for asking nicely, a reputation that Eleanor had been all too happy to grow.
The truth was, though, that Vivian herself only took others’ negativity directly from them with consent… with some exceptions. Murderers, relentless white-collar criminals, abusive types. With them, she didn’t ask. And for the rest of the world, well… everyone aired out their dirty laundry, even just a little bit. She’d long since figured out how she felt about using ambient negativity to fuel her powers: pretty good.
“I’m going to ask him if he wants me to help him,” Vivian explained. “He’s probably got a reason to be miserable, but he doesn’t have to keep feeling that way. I hope he’ll see it that way, at least. If he doesn’t, well…” Vivian puffed out one cheek.
Maya nodded. “You’ll leave him alone, right?”
“I’ll have to. The strong feelings I’m getting here, they’re more about feeling underutilized, not making enough progress. Stewing. Normal things, they’re just so persistent he’s starting to get stuck that way. He’s like a big lump of negativity, like a ball of tar just walking down the street. I’ve noticed him, I know I have, I just haven’t picked him out from the crowd. Now I have.”
“So you think he can be saved? Beautiful.” Maya tore a post-it off of the stack she had in her booth and wrote down, in messy handwriting, the lefts and rights Vivian would have to take to get to where the lighting crew worked.
Vivian laughed. “Nothing that grand, I promise. Most people don’t need to be ‘saved.’ But I bet he can be helped. Thanks, Maya.”
“You’re welcome, babe,” Maya said with a smile, “even though sometimes I think everyone in this town should be thanking you.”