The Magician stopped his horse next to the hitching post outside the bedraggled hotel and dismounted. He didn't bother hitching the horse, which was actually a giant, two-headed jaguar named Xochitl, who was currently enchanted to look like a horse. The jaguar was an odd choice for a magical mount: it wasn't as flash as a unicorn or as fearsome as a talking bear, its undulating gait made it difficult to ride if you were prone to sea-sickness (which the Magician was not), and most jaguars were a bit finicky about meals. However, Xochitl and the Magician worked out an agreement when they were both young and had been partners for as long as they could remember.
Xochitl waited by the hitching post, preening her fur while the Magician jogged toward the faded brown doors at the front of the faded blue building. The whole town of Beetle Butte--from the top of the church steeple to the tail of the dog sleeping under the hotel porch--looked faded, like it was slowly evaporating in the desert heat. The Magician high-stepped and jigged his way around piles of horse manure in the road, looking like some kind of twitchy scarecrow. Most of the citizens in the town believed he was one of those Irish dancers, but he didn't care because his boots were still clean, even after his evening romp through that buffalo herd. He had managed to dodge even the puniest buffalo poo, but the smell still lingered and made itself known whenever he stopped moving. Horses smelled bad enough, but buffalo somehow managed to combine the worst scents of cow dung, wet dogs and old spinsters' musty rugs. He would have preferred battling a dragon or two.
“Seriously, who guards a tower with buffalo?” he thought.
He patted the pouch at his side and smirked, imagining the Black brothers falling over each other to get their hands on his latest prize, and no price would be too high! Pretty much every witch and wizard in the world would gladly bid for the chance to possess the purloined particle riding in his pouch. They would offer gold, jewels, political power, even a lifetime supply of sarsaparilla beer (he had developed a fondness for sarsaparilla since he'd been in Beetle Butte). All he had to do was dispatch his messenger pigeons.
Of course, the Magician had no intention of selling the crystal. Even though he didn't mind bending the rules once in a while...well, almost all the time actually, he could never hand over the end of the world to the highest bidder. But he did enjoy watching the Black brothers squirm. He had a plan, and if things went smoothly he would once again save the world, and this time maybe someone would notice. But first, he had to get the crystal to Area 17 where he could work on it properly.
He reached the hotel and twisted the rusty doorknob, which came off in his hand. He shoved the door, and its screeching hinges reminded him that he needed to write to his mother. Inside, a single lantern cast its sputtering glow across a tattered carpet, two wobbly chairs and a clerk who was face-down on the reception desk with an empty whiskey bottle in his hand.
“Just as well,” the Magician thought. “No time for conversation, just need to grab up my pack and my bedroll and get on the road back to Chicago, and this fine gentleman would try to talk me into staying another evening.” Most people thought traveling alone at night through the wilderness around Beetle Butte made as much sense as eating hammers. Apart from the coyotes, snakes, cactus and numerous cliffs, the desert was home to some of the most notorious bandits in the state. But the Magician was far from defenseless, and he needed to get as much distance as possible between himself and that witch with the buffalo fetish.
“Seriously, who wears a buffalo-skin frock?” he thought.
In his room, the Magician gathered his things—basically a leather pack, a rolled blanket, and some props such as toiletries designed to make people believe the Magician was just a normal, everyday mortal. No magician worth his salt would ever need a comb when he can simply enchant his hair into a coif that says, “Perfect? Who, me? Nah, I just woke up this way.”
On the table beside the bed, the Magician found a few things that puzzled him. Most people discovered things missing when they stayed in small-town hotels, but the Magician usually discovered things that he didn't have when he checked in. This time he found a pair of wire spectacles with lenses so dark that they could be used for welding, or perhaps observing solar conjunctions. There was also a small silver case about the size of a matchbox. When he flipped open the hinged lid he saw that it was divided into three shallow sections, each packed with a different hue of very fine, iridescent powder; emerald, turquoise and sapphire. He touched the tip of one long, slender finger to the blue powder, and it left a smudge of color that clung tenaciously to his skin despite his attempts to rub it off on the bed sheet. The inside of the lid had a tiny paintbrush clipped to it and was polished mirror smooth.
He closed the box and tossed it into his pack along with the spectacles; he never left curious objects behind, and his pack was littered with items he discovered during his adventures--brass tubing, a Derringer pistol, copper wire, loaded dice...the list went on. Carrying all this material didn't bother the Magician because his pack was actually the mouth of an inter-dimensional gastropod mollusc that lived between the material planes, which meant that it was much bigger on the inside than the outside and the pack itself weighed almost nothing, no matter what he put into it. The only downside was that anything organic he put in the pack would be slowly digested within a week or so. Most sorcerers disliked inter-dimensional containers because retrieving an item meant sticking your hand into a giant slug's stomach.
The Magician tied the rolled blanket to the top of his pack. He didn't think the pack would devour the blanket because it was actually a portable window woven from skeins of moonlight by Egyptian faeries, but he wasn't certain if moonlight was organic or not, so he didn't take any chances. When angled just right, the portable window could connect to any mirror within a mile or so. He had planned to use it to spy on the Witch's mill tower, but apparently she didn't have any mirrors. Being a clever magician, he managed to connect his magic window to a basin of water, and while he couldn't see anything more than the beamed ceiling (which was covered in cobwebs), he did manage to hear what was going on inside without anyone knowing he was around, and without his having to get close to those nauseating buffalo.
The hotel clerk was still passed out on the desk, so the Magician slid a single Spanish doubloon under his cheek along with his room key, then waved his hand, and the clerk's whiskey bottle refilled...with apple juice. As an afterthought, the Magician touched his smudged finger to the back of the clerk's head, and a bright blue streak sprouted across his hair.
“Now he'll have something to talk about with his friends.” The magician grinned as he left the hotel.
At the outskirts of town--far out of earshot of anyone trying to sleep—he and Xochitl passed the saloon, brightly lit and jangling with the sounds of local cow-hands drinking and gambling their wages while the pianist plinked and plunked an out of tune rendition of “My Darlin' Clementine”, although the men singing mangled the words to the point that the song sounded like it was about a peach flavored mule. Past the saloon, the road meandered into the night, and the Magician could barely make out where it forked in the distance.