Ash

“Valentine”

story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb

Content Warning: CHILD ABUSE, DYSPHORIA, HOMOPHOBIA, MISOGYNY, TRANSPHOBIA

As above, so below, was a precept taught to Mercurii boys on the first day of Magic Theory class: that heavenly bodies moved in lockstep with earthly ones, and invisible bonds wove together the whole of existence in a rhythmic dance. Ash remembered the day of that lesson clearly, twelve years later. He remembered the simple illustration Professor Vipond had drawn on the chalkboard depicting a scatter of five-pointed stars at the top, adjacent hexagons representing the subatomic fabric of everything at the bottom, and dozens of vertical lines connecting the two. That moment had stuck with him clearly all these years, because he remembered thinking, even at the tender age of six, that some part of the story was being left out. Some things between cosmic intention and material manifestation were demonstrably out of sync.

Like himself. Ashton Grenville didn’t belong in his own body.

He measured out the first of the premixed concoctions in a beaker—a half-pint. Portioned and added in thirteen grains of aurichalcum. Two-and-a-half pennyweights of powdered arum-lily.

Exact ratios were key. So was sequence.

You must be ever vigilant against your inborn nature.

It was Dad’s favorite admonishment. One Ash had heard so many times over the years that, in his head, it had become a silent mantra.

You must extinguish all trace of what you innately are.

Three-eighths pint of the second concoction, measured out in a second beaker, then added to the first.

The reaction gave off a pungent cloud.

Three-fourths pennyweight of adamantine. A half-dram of quicksilver.

The liquid started to bubble and froth.

“You’re certain it’s the correct formula?” came Scipio Grenville’s scar-throated voice.

Ash looked up from his task, caught sight of his own face in his dresser mirror: a porcelain mask. Dad behind him, a pile of ravaged flesh in a smoking jacket, occupying his mahogany wheelchair by the towering window, parked in a pillar of harsh orange sunlight. “I researched it thoroughly. You ask me that almost every morning. Why would my answer change?”

“Spare me your lip, child. You know as well as I do it’s not working as it should.”

“I haven’t grown hips or breasts.”

“You’re small and weak. Your voice hasn’t dropped. A few more years without better results and folk are sure to start asking questions.”

“I’m a late bloomer, probably. Some people are.”

Scipio grunted. “I don’t want to have to resort to glamors, illusion. The risk of discovery’s too great.”

“I’ve gotten far enough as I am.”

“The farther you rise, the farther you may fall. This promotion, this assignment to lead a critical investigation—these are opportunities you must not squander.”

Ash’s hand twitched. He set down a vial too hard, clinking it loudly against the tray. “When in my life have I ever squandered an opportunity? I’ve made opportunities where there were none.”

“Yet you remain a humble Frater in the halls of the Black Pyramid. The veils of the deeper mysteries are closed to you. Accomplishments you have; I can hardly deny you’ve exceeded my expectations, despite your disadvantage. But accomplishments, intellect, erudition are not all that’s required. You lack a man’s presence. You lack a man’s cunning. You lack a man’s will to power. Do you think Bram Baptiste lacks those things? Or any of the other young men who are your competitors?”

Ash twirled a glass rod through the finished elixir. Downed it in one gulp. It had a bitter taste. “You measure me by a different standard due to a technicality of my birth.”

“I beg your pardon, child?”

Ash knew by the look in Dad’s eyes he’d strayed onto thin ice. But having come this far for once, he felt too charged to turn back. “I’m the youngest Martial Magus in the history of the order. I’m the first Grenville to achieve recognition from the council in over a century. I’ve brought unprecedented honor to our house. If the Black Pyramid doesn’t value those things—if you don’t value those things—the failure isn’t mine.”

Scipio traced his scarred fingers over a goetian circle engraved on the arm of his chair. Barked an Enochian summons.

The empty beaker hit the floor. Shattered.

Ash’s skull exploded in pain, struck hard by his own hand.

He stumbled, braced himself against the dresser, overturning more labware. Alien laughter ricocheted through his brain—a nonsensical gibbering, too familiar.

“I dislike your implications, child,” Scipio growled.

Ash felt his body straighten. In the mirror, saw his own hands lift to wrap around his throat. His own face, glasses askew, wearing a weird tear-streaked smile.

Burn, boy, burn! cackled the imp—the only human words it knew.

“Beg my forgiveness, now,” his father warned. “Or I’ll have Creuch do worse.”

Ash was too pale—always hated how red his face got.

“Forgive me”—hated the smallness of his voice.

“I said beg.”

Ash’s hands clamped tight, clenching shut his windpipe.

The daemon hadn’t taken control of his legs. Ash staggered over to Scipio’s chair; sank to his knees; blinked through dizzying explosions of stars.

His breathless lips formed the word: Please.

Scipio’s fingers again crossed the circle. Another Enochian phrase.

The daemon released Ash.

Ash dropped forward onto his palms, sucked in huge gulps of air. Zoned out on the intricate patterns that formed the edge of the medallion on the Persian rug underneath him.

“Bitch,” Scipio slurred. “Will you never learn respect?”

Ash remained motionless, kept his head down. Waited for the creak-creak, creak-creak of his father’s wheelchair to dwindle in the corridor.

Alone—at last—

His fingers curled. Violently raked the fibers of the rug.

He pressed his forehead hard against the carpet, ground his teeth. Breathed harshly in. Out. In. Out.

Spent all his strength suppressing an urge to scream.

Several seconds later, with effort, relaxed his left hand; laid it flat against the rug.

A soft glow emanated from the sleeve of his sweatshirt.

He tuned his mana channels. Closed his eyes.

Opened his inner eye.

Beneath his palm:

Residues of life.

The rug itself—amino acids of fibroin, the silk of worms; plant dyes, indigo and larkspur; insect resin.

And among the fibers: skin flakes, hairs—yet more proteins, more amino acids.

Carbon; nitrogen; hydrogen; oxygen, in variate combinations.

Ash kept breathing, sank slowly to the depths of inhibitory gnosis; stretched his body flat, rested his cheek against the rug, let patterns flow through him at lightning speed—tallying, mapping. He’d discovered years ago there were decades’ worth of DNA in this rug. His own. Dad’s. Miles the tiger cat’s—Miles who had used to sit on Ash’s shoulders when Ash was a kid. Miles whom Dad had gotten rid of to punish Ash for some transgression Ash could no longer remember. Non-relative human DNA—some visitors’, probably mostly the Ostiaries’ who staffed the manor.

And deep, deep between the fibers, another set of DNA—not Ash’s father’s, but just as similar to Ash’s own.

She was long gone. But her pattern dwelled on in the dust.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

At the age of nine, Ash had started teaching himself piano.

Even though Dad had never allowed him to own a piano. Frivolous, Scipio had declared it. A pointless distraction.

What he had allowed Ash was a good laptop—a device Scipio didn’t at all understand, but which Ash had convinced his father would help the two of them gain the means to maintain their all-important deception, not to mention allow Ash to acquire skills from vast—and, among the magic community, largely untapped—public stores of mundane knowledge, giving him an advantage over the other Mercurii Neophyte boys. The study of alchemy, Ash had explained to Dad, had stagnated for centuries due to lack of input from the mundane sciences. By integrating mundane knowledge with his research and practice, Ash might well become a pioneer in the field.

The Internet wasn’t accessible from within Arcadia’s gates—nexuses, and magic in general, had a way of wreaking havoc with wireless signals—so Ash had convinced Scipio to have the Ostiary chauffeur drop him off at the Rowan University library two days a week, for seven years, till Ash had gotten old enough to drive there himself. At the library, he’d memorized and downloaded as much information as he could, about chemistry and physics and a host of other subjects.

One of which was piano.

Ash had taught himself where on a piano each of its keys was located. The names of the notes they generated, the exact frequencies. How the pedals were used to sustain or soften notes. He had learned the average height and size, the typical material makeup, the pressure required to depress a piano’s keys.

And, when he’d been alone in his room—Dad off napping in his chambers, or in the household library rereading the same anthologized penny dreadfuls over and over—Ash had pulled out the desk chair in his bedroom and sat; spread his hands, plunged himself into a deep inhibitory gnosis, and played.

He had shut out all sensory input from his surroundings. His inner eye open, his channels active, he had simulated the texture, the location, the size, the resistance of the interactive parts of a piano. The frequencies and amplitudes of the sounds it would yield.

When he’d gotten old enough to drive himself—and once Dad had started to slack off on commanding Creuch to monitor Ash every second he spent outside Arcadia’s walls, seeing as controlling the imp sapped a lot of Dad’s mana—Ash had wandered over to the College of Performing Arts one day after an hour or two at the library. Walked into the Wilson Music Hall like he belonged there; located an unoccupied practice room, sat down on the bench in front of the little Yamaha upright, and played “La campanella,” without missing a note.

A passing professor had knocked on the door, asked Ash who his teacher was. Ash had confessed he wasn’t a student. The professor had urged him to apply to the music performance program. Ash had feigned interest—walked away feeling strangely sad, like he’d just parted ways forever with an alternate version of himself bound for another, brighter life.

What Dad had never understood, would, could never understand, was that everything was connected. As above, so below—every educated mage in the West knew the saying by heart. By and large, they all put the emphasis on astrology: the notion that the stars in the heavens governed human fate on Earth below.

It had always struck Ash that the true meaning of the phrase, its full scope, was lost on most.

It wasn’t earth and sky alone.

Everything was connected.

Ash’s study of mundane science had reaffirmed what he’d always known by way of some visceral awareness: that things weren’t things at all. Not on a subatomic level.

They were vibrations.

And vibrations—like those of the strings of a piano—were music.

Music was literally the thing the universe was made of.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Ash arrived in Philly hours early for his scheduled meeting with Caren Navarrete. All Fraternitas Mercurii activities had been canceled for the day thanks to the tragedy; Arcadia’s Alchemists’ Guild facilities were shuttered, too. On a day like this Ash might normally have immersed himself in his private research in his home lab—the top-secret stuff he couldn’t risk working on in the Guild labs with the likes of Bram Baptiste hovering around. But he hadn’t wanted to stay in the house any longer than he had to after pissing off Dad.

It was a wet, clammy day—the kind that never happened in Arcadia, where the sun always shone by day, the stars by night. Ash liked days like this, he realized. Arcadia’s perpetual brightness was false.

He wandered Center City in the rain for a while. Stopped into a cafe for tea, connected to the Wi-Fi to review mundane media coverage of the so-called Midnight Riots. Skimmed through the case file, zoning out on the gruesome photos, asking himself for the umpteenth time if he shouldn’t be feeling more disturbance at the deaths of his colleagues, and more fear for his own life, given that he was hanging around Philadelphia alone not twenty-four hours after the attacks. Ash had heard the story countless times, since before his brain had learned to make sense of words—how he’d come into the world pried from the smoking womb of a mangled corpse. Death had given birth to him. Death felt, in many ways, more like a parent to him than the man who’d raised him. It was difficult, he supposed, to drum up fear of a thing he’d known so intimately for so long.

He packed up his laptop after a while. Set out for one last stroll before he would have to head to Port Richmond for his meeting with Navarrete.

Walking down Market Street, glanced through the glass-door entrance of The Shops at Liberty Place.

Slowed his steps. Doubled back. Peered in.

In the center of the huge Westin lobby, beneath its opulent chandelier, sat a grand piano.

Indecision gripped him for a moment. There were people around. With the exception of the music professor, Ash had never played in front of an audience.

He checked his heirloom pocket watch.

Should really get going, too…

Peered in again at the piano.

Just a brush of the keys…

He slipped in through the door, shuffled across the marble floor of the lobby, reflexively noting every human who had a clear sightline, feeling as if all eyes were on him.

Arrived at the piano.

Unshouldered his bag and sat.

Inhaled.

Exhaled.

Felt a sudden preternatural calm.

With the piano now in front of him, its keys within easy reach of his fingers, he felt as if he and the instrument were entirely alone.

Ash took a deep breath, felt his mana channels stir to life with thrumming currents. Pushed up his sleeves a bit, closed his eyes, let his inner eye bloom open; his hands drift up to alight gingerly on the keys, a tactile sensation that felt intimately familiar. The instrument like an extension, an appendage of himself.

A gestating silence—

Then, the third movement of Moonlight Sonata came tearing out of him: a coded, calculated madness, rocking, rollicking, tempestuous, broken chords unfurling in tide after frenzied tide.

Almost instantly, he felt all sense of his boundaries dissolve—all demarcation of anatomy, identity, a (non-)essence loosed from the cadaver, from all anchorage in time and place, into a vastness with which it was consummate—one—void of distinction, a landscape spanning perception and beyond—a field, limitless and changeless, traversed by storms.

The performance didn’t come to an end so much as he was born—as the last resounding chord died out, its ghost lingering in the silence.

The sense of his surroundings closed in on him: first, the weight of his own body; then, the weight of others’ eyes.

He felt the stranger before he saw them.

Ash opened his eyes—took in the sight of a kid not much older than himself standing beside the piano, a flair-covered bag slung crosswise over their body. They looked like someone you’d see in a photo tagged #fashion on Tumblr, like a walking Crayola eight-pack: short wavy powder-blue hair, pink lips, a faded purple denim jacket over a yellow t-shirt with a huge blood-red grimacing mouth across the chest. Acid wash jeans flecked with different colors of paint, shredded horizontally across the thighs. White high-tops with rainbow laces.

Somehow, this ensemble worked.

Ash, by contrast, had on his favorite pair of red Chucks Dad hated. Aside from that, his outfit—he was suddenly painfully aware—was boring: his perpetual gray peacoat, dark jeans, black sweater.

“You’re really good. Do you know Kitty-valse?” The stranger’s voice ranged lower than Ash’s, but had a gentle, unaffected, childlike inflection. Nothing most people would have read as male, despite the pitch.

“Yeah, actually.”

The stranger moved to sit down on the bench. Ash scooted to make room.

The stranger cracked their knuckles. Poised graceful fingers over the keys.

Ash hesitated, then positioned his own hands. Met the stranger’s eye briefly.

After a coordinated intake of air, the two of them played.

The notes lilted, skipped, flirted, conversed, melody lines streaming faultlessly back and forth between two pairs of hands.

Ash kept his eyes open this time, found coaxing the instrument came just as easily. He didn’t look at the stranger while they played, but he was vividly aware of another presence, of an aura of color, and from the corner of his eye he traced the artful motions of the unfamiliar hands skimming and darting in complement to his own.

By the time the duet was done, a small crowd had gathered. A few passers-by laid cash on top of the piano.

The stranger jiggled excitedly. “Thank you! That was really fun! I like your ink.”

Ash glanced down at his tattooed left arm, cleared his throat. “Thanks.”

The stranger put out a hand—their nails were painted in a gradient, navy blue to teal, a rough match to their hair—and stopped just short of tracing the exposed part of Ash’s forearm. “May I?”

Ash stiffened. “Sorry—I don’t like being touched.”

The stranger withdrew the hand, gave a little shrug, smiled. “Neither do I! I like touching other people sometimes, if they’ll let me. But I really don’t like them touching me.” They giggled, bobbed their head, birdlike. “Playing piano’s kind of as close as I get to having sex.”

Ash stared at them. “Yeah…me too.” He hesitated. “Um, I guess it’s…okay, though, if you want to have a closer look?”

“I’d love to!”

Ash shrugged his coat off, pushed his sleeve all the way up to his bicep, held out his arm, displaying the assortment of alchemical circles and symbols linked by labyrinths of aurichalcum channels. The stranger’s starburst-contact-lensed eyes surveyed the tattoos so closely it could have been a touch.

Ash realized he didn’t mind.

“You’re really pale,” said the stranger.

“So are you.”

“Not as pale as you!” They continued studying the web of interlinked tattoos. Pointed to one of them, careful not to make contact. Ash’s skin tingled at the proximity of their fingertip. “What’s that?”

“An alchemical array.”

“That sounds neat! Do you do magic?”

Ash blinked mutely, not sure how to answer. He’d set himself up for this, he realized. He couldn’t very well tell someone who was, as far as he knew, a mundane that he was a literal practitioner of magic. It went against the Occultation Protocols.

“Are you Wiccan?” they went on, with an amiable tilt of their head. “Or some other juicy-fruity flavor of neopagan?”

“Oh,” said Ash. “I’m…yeah, I’m Wiccan. That’s right.”

The stranger smiled. “I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the supernatural.”

I don’t either, Ash wanted badly to say. But real magic’s not hocus pocus. It’s just stuff mundane science hasn’t figured out how to explain yet. “Ah, well…different strokes,” he said instead, feeling stupid.

“Sure. I mean, who’s to say what’s real, right?” The stranger giggled, kicked their legs, rocked around a bit on the bench. “Honestly, I’m jealous of people who believe in things.”

“Yeah…me too.”

“But you just said you believe in Wicca.”

“Oh…right.”

The stranger surveyed Ash, smiling. Something in their expression looked fixed. Something in their eyes didn’t seem to jibe with their sunny affect.

“Well, it was nice to meet you,” they said at last, clambering to their feet. “Have my card!”

“Uh…thanks?” Ash took the proffered rectangle of paper.

He watched the stranger walk away—a kind of shambling gait that would have looked awkward if they hadn’t been so elegantly built—then glanced down at their card.

Valentine, it read, alongside a rainbow heart logo and a stylized neck-up portrait of the stranger. There was an Instagram handle, and, more prominently, an address for a YouTube channel.

Underneath all this, the stranger had drawn something in red ink that made every fine hair on Ash’s body stand on end.

He snapped his head up, glanced around frantically.

But “Valentine” was gone.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Ash arrived early at the address the ratcatcher had written on her card—a little hole-in-the-wall diner on Allegheny. Told the overattentive staff when they asked to take his order that he was waiting for someone, and a glass of water would be all, thanks. He didn’t need to look at the menu to know none of its offerings would meet his nutritional specifications.

Once alone, he got out his iPhone, brought up Valentine’s channel in the YouTube app.

Valentine’s videos were all just a few minutes long. Each had racked up a couple hundred thousand views. They were artfully filmed and edited, almost always against the same background dressed up different ways, and featured alt fashion, hairstyles, sometimes silent cosmetic tutorials, all set to dreamy bedroom pop music. If Valentine had been aesthetically pleasing in person, onscreen they looked barely human. In person, there had been an awkwardness to their speech and mannerisms that Ash had found disarming—and apparently, it had distracted from how striking they were. Onscreen, with all the careful lighting and camera angles, the facial expressions and movements, the editing, no sound escaping their lips, they seemed ethereal…impossible. Ash had to keep reminding himself he’d just sat next to this person. Played piano with them, had a conversation with them. That they’d asked to touch his tattoos.

He looked at the card again. At the symbol Valentine had drawn on it.

“How could you know?” he whispered to himself.

He looked up, startled, as the server delivered his water. Again waved off an exhortation to put in a food order.

Once she was finally gone, resumed navigating eagerly through Valentine’s videos.

Mentally noted the titles.

Cintamani.

Amrita.

Ambrosia.

“Names of primordial gold,” Ash murmured. “The substance created by the philosopher’s stone…” His heart drummed an ominous beat in his ears. “Who the fuck are you, ‘Valentine’? What do you want from me?”

He set to work cataloging the videos that fit the naming pattern, going through them one at a time. Noting any text in the descriptions and the videos themselves, dates of upload, durations in minutes and seconds of total videos as well as of each individual shot each contained, hex codes of colors prominently used—any and all metadata and data he could glean.

Lapsed into a deep inhibitory gnosis, running analysis after analysis.

You wouldn’t have directed me here if there wasn’t something you wanted me to see…

It wasn’t till the server came around to check on him again—breaking him out of his gnosis, disrupting the analysis—that he realized Navarrete was more than half an hour late, and he didn’t know how to get in touch with her.

But then he saw her approaching through the window and quickly stowed his phone.

Ash went over and over the encounter with Valentine in back of his head during the next few hours, while he and Navarrete reviewed the murder case, first at the diner, then at her apartment. Wondered what the odds were that Valentine was connected to Lex or the killings—but it wasn’t a suspicion he dared share with Navarrete or anyone else. The simple fact that he recognized the symbol the YouTuber had drawn on the card was potentially incriminating. And if Valentine had, as it appeared, specifically targeted Ash to receive the communication, it meant they must somehow know about Ash’s illicit research.

Which meant if Arcanus Enforcement investigated Valentine, they, too, would find out what Valentine knew about Ash.

If that happened, Ash was toast.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

“…This is where you always go when you start hunting a mark?” Ash stared up at the backlit sign over the door of the establishment in front of him, which read Umami Boy. “…A karaoke bar?”

The full moon hung low in the sky. Navarrete stood a few feet away on the rain-slicked Chinatown sidewalk, one hand shoved deep in one of the many pockets of her grungy trench coat. The other clung to a cigarette like it was a lifeline. While she was always trying hard to look cool and in control, Ash couldn’t help but note there was an undercurrent of desperation to everything Navarrete did, even idling. Right now, her eyes were roving around as if questing for something—anything—to latch onto. The leg that bore most of her weight jiggled restlessly underneath her.

“Karaoke bar and Asian fusion restaurant,” she drawled. “Beloved of The Whites; four-point-eight stars on Yelp!” She dropped and stomped out her cigarette on the pavement. Made for the door. “Let’s go, Daddy’s Boy.”

It was rude that she called him that, Ash thought, and he didn’t know why she did it. But she was a pretty rude person in general, so he’d decided not to take it personally.

He followed her inside, observed as she gave the name Mynsicht to the host, who then proceeded to lead them both past rooms full of mundanes warbling off-key renditions of cheesy pop songs, to one empty private room in the back—on the far side of which a hazy glamor-wall masked a curtained passageway from mundane view.

“Oh,” said Ash, as understanding dawned.

There were underground magic venues all over Philadelphia, he’d long been aware. Most of them had mundane fronts. “Umami Boy,” apparently, was one of them.

The host left them. Navarrete ushered Ash through the passageway, into a dim vestibule where the throbbing bass of trap music vibrated the floor beneath their feet. Further down the way loomed a second gossamer curtain, in front of which posed a small, muscular, black-clad woman with dyed-lavender hair cut in blunt bangs framing a round face webbed with mystical tattoos.

At Navarrete’s approach, the woman turned enormous eyes on her—pale green and striated, like twin cross-sections of a frozen grape. They registered recognition; the diminutive bouncer nodded her head, bidding Navarrete pass.

Ash followed—and froze in place as the woman’s eyes caught his. He felt a dull pulse of panic, but couldn’t seem to compel himself to look away or move.

His heart sped up as she took his chin firmly in one hand.

Her eyes probed his for a moment that seemed to yawn into eternity. Everything outside the depths of those celadon orbs came to feel distant. Irrelevant.

Finally she pronounced, in a low, warning tone, “You have no authority here, Martial Magus.”

Ash’s wits took a moment to catch up to him, his tongue a second to break free of some unseen weight bearing down on it. “I’m not here in an official capacity.”

The bouncer looked him up and down, released his chin. Held aside the curtain.

Navarrete grinned her fang-toothed grin before leading the way into the room beyond.

“How did she know…?” Ash began, but trailed off as he took in his surroundings.

The club was dark, crowded, hazy, the odor of cigarettes mingled with aletheia vapors used by pythias in their divinations, smoke from weed strains both magical and mundane, a host of other alchemical odors…nothing unfamiliar, but too many for Ash to distinguish with his nose alone. He covered his nose and mouth with his left hand, activated his tattooed channels as a filter.

“Dude, she’s like a Namer lite.” Navarrete raised her voice to be heard over the music. “There aren’t a ton of them, but they’re out there. You should be more careful who you look in the eyes and what you let them see.”

She wended her way across the dance floor. Ash reluctantly trailed after, doing his best to avoid being struck by strangers’ flying limbs. The floor erupted in colorful fireworks beneath each of his steps; diaphanous spheres of light—lesser daemons known as will-o’-the-wisps—darted here and there, glitching in time with the music. One passed straight through him, tickling the inside of his ribcage, an itch he couldn’t scratch.

Navarrete—Ash close behind her—made her way past a group of people in a corner booth all sitting motionless, wearing silver masks; a woman displaying to another an animal hide with sigils etched all over the inside; someone changing hyper-sexualized glamors like hats while a man looked on deliberatively, as if getting ready to order from a menu; straight to a room in the back, one of the few that appeared unguarded—until Ash got close enough to glimpse the floor in front of it.

In a row across the entryway, upright on their hind legs and evenly spaced like small soldiers, stood five knot-furred, cloudy-eyed rats.

Familiars—Ash could tell on sight. Tranquilized beasts, programmed to do their master’s bidding.

Navarrete slipped a couple of bills from her wallet. Rolled them tightly, stooped, and tucked them in the center rat’s mouth.

The rat’s fellows made way, and it led Navarrete and Ash into the room, the air of which was a dense haze of essence of ambergris. Ash again filtered it by covering his nose and mouth with his left hand. Saw Navarrete glance his way, smirk, and shake her head.

It took Ash a moment to distinguish the contents of the room through the fog. Low-slung cushioned seating ran the length of the wall on all sides, surrounding a long table the contents of which included several rolled-up wads of cash, a bowl of mealworms—some of them half-eaten—and a two-thirds-drained cocktail. Every horizontal surface was occupied by more empty-eyed rats, sitting motionless on their haunches as though they’d been taxidermied that way, posing here and there in little clusters, watching. Still other rats were in motion, coming and going in perfect beelines, as if mechanized—programmed for a purpose.

On the far side of the table, dead center and casually splay-limbed, reclined a large-framed woman wearing extravagant jewelry and an oversized Adidas track suit.

“Well, if it isn’t Caren Navarrete,” she proclaimed in a voice like a French horn, baring a mouthful of blinding-white teeth.

“Des.” Navarrete reached across the table, clasped the woman’s hand. “How’s tricks?”

“Okay, okay,” said Des. “How about yourself?”

“You know how it is. Everything’s shit, fuckin’ always.”

Des’s eye fell on Ash, skimmed him over head to toe. Her voluptuous lips curled in a feline grin. “And who have we here?”

“This is my friend, uh…” Navarrete shot Ash a guilty look, which after a moment he decided to interpret as she didn’t think it was a good idea to give this Des woman his family name—probably because they didn’t take kindly to First-Housers around here—but she couldn’t remember his given one.

“Ash,” he supplied.

“…My friend Ash,” Navarrete followed up without missing a beat.

“Ash. My pleasure,” the woman purred, and extended a smooth-skinned hand with long square fake nails in green-and-white zigzag. “Name’s Desdemona. She/her.” She arched one long, thick eyebrow. “Are you old enough to be in here?”

Ash gave her hand a brief, perfunctory shake. It felt freshly lotioned, a texture he didn’t like. “Apparently.”

Desdemona threw her head back, roared with laughter. “I like this little one,” she said to Caren, jabbing her forefinger at Ash. Then, to Ash, “What are your pronouns?”

No one had ever asked Ash this question in his life, except in some online spaces he’d frequented. In person, strangers always just assumed girl or boy. “He/him.”

Desdemona squinted at him. “Ash, he/him, he/him. Okay then. Old enough to be here, okay then. That means you’re legal. God, I hope that means you’re legal.” She winked one false-eyelash-shuttered orb and once more guffawed.

Ash shot Navarrete a helpless glance.

“So, Caren!” Des made a shrill noise with her lips and teeth. A rat familiar scrambled up her arm onto her shoulder, perched with its dead eyes fixed on Ash while Desdemona stroked its matted fur with her fingernails. “My foul-mouthed, hard-fucking, chain-smoking princess! What can I do you for?”

Navarrete pulled up a chair on the exposed side of the table, gestured for Ash to do the same. “Looking for info on Lex.”

“Ooo, you and the Archmagus’s army,” Des crooned. “Literally!” She gestured to a nearby cadre of rats, which stuttered to life and went scurrying around the table, assembling a pitcher and glasses and cups, plates of appetizers, pipes and varieties of magic leaves for tea and smoking, presenting Navarrete and Ash with a smorgasbord of refreshments.

All of which Ash ignored.

“Been getting other inquiries?” Navarrete lit a pipe, tucked into a cheddar biscuit.

“I’ll say. My fur-babies are already hot on the trail. Aren’t you, Sugarpuss?” Desdemona made a kissy face at the tranquilized rodent on her shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll have something good and juicy for you kids in a day or two.”

Navarrete leaned forward intently. “Who else has been asking? Anyone besides the bloodhounds?”

Desdemona fixed her with a feline grin. “Princess. You know I take client confidentiality seriously.”

Navarrete pulled a familiar fat white envelope out of her coat. Laid it on the table.

Ash stared at it. “Isn’t that your…?”

“More seriously than six-fifty cash?” said Navarrete.

Desdemona raised her eyebrows. Picked up the envelope, peeled it gingerly open with a fingernail, pawed through its contents.

“It’s all yours, up front, if you tell me who else has been asking,” Navarrete went on. “And agree to keep whatever you find out about Lex between you, me, and Ash here.”

Desdemona smirked, handed the envelope off to one of her rats, which scurried under the table with it, vanished from view. “Okay, okay then. I mean, hell, you two are a damn sight sexier than the competition.” Her eye drifted to Ash, and she winked before turning her gaze back to Navarrete. “For starters, like you guessed, quite a few bloodhounds comin’ through here lately. No surprises there. Of course Big Man Sauvage is gonna be gunning hard for Lex, seeing as Lex just took down twelve of Arcanus’s finest.”

“Eleven,” said Navarrete, a bit sharply.

Des surveyed her curiously. “Oh?”

Navarrete scowled at the table, not seeming to hear.

“The twelfth victim was factionless,” Ash explained to Desdemona.

“Oh.” Des frowned. “Is that the truth?”

“That’s what we’ve heard,” Ash followed up quickly.

“Okay, okay then. Well.” Des glanced at Navarrete again, furrowed her brow. “Bloodhounds aside—I’ve had agents of every major player in town in here. Which, hell, only stands to reason they’d wanna take Lex down.”

“‘Major player’?” Ash noticed Navarrete still staring at the table like a powered-down robot. “Meaning…?”

“The other gang bosses, honey.”

“What’s the reason they all want to take Lex down?”

Desdemona chuckled as if to say, It’s obvious. “He’s a threat.”

“Wait—so Lex is a ‘he’?”

“By all accounts, yes.”

“And how is he a threat to these other gang bosses?”

“For starters, the boy’s a damn prodigy. Self-made man. Young. Hardly older than Princess Caren here, if at all. Burst onto the scene just a few months ago, and already he’s got most of Northeast Philly under his thumb. Been rounding up junkies in Kensington for chrissakes, turning ’em into goddamn super-soldiers. Defectors flocking to him in droves. Wyrms, Leeches, Meillassoux’s boys…Lex is siphoning their people off in fucking numbers. Rumor is he offers unconditional protection to any mage who wants it, regardless of skills or qualifications, or lack thereof. And once he’s got his hooks in ’em, well, hell. What they lack in ability, they make up in sheer dumb determination. Way I hear it told, they’d light themselves on Greek fire for him, every last one. Once a mage goes over to Lex’s team, they don’t look back.”

“Any word on what Lex’s specialization is?”

Des settled back in her booth, gave a silky shake of her head. “All I keep hearing is he’s got a lot of goddamn people. And anybody who wants to go up against him has to get through his people first.” She raised an eyebrow. “Word is no one ever has.”

Navarrete seemed to wake up from a nap. “Any word on who any of these ‘people’ of his are?”

Des raised her eyebrows. “That’s one thing my little fur-babies are hard at work trying to find out. Aren’t you, pretty-pretty?” She beamed at the familiar on her shoulder, planted a peck on its indifferent nose.

“So that’s everyone who’s been asking?” said Navarrete. “Arcanus agents, the big-time magic gangs—Wyrms, Leeches, Meillassoux’s boys?”

“Actually, there was one other girl. Spooky little quiet thing, big eyes. Never seen her before and she didn’t give a name. No idea what her affiliation might be. She’ll be back, though. Let your girl Des do her work, okay, okay?” Desdemona caught Ash’s eye and winked. “I’ll be sure to find out somethin’ spicy for ya.”

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

“Pretty sure Des wants to throw you down,” said Navarrete, as she and Ash moved through the vestibule, past the purple-haired bouncer, back out into the private room at Umami Boy. “I can hook it up if you want.”

“…Throw me down?”

“You know. Fuck.”

Ash felt the heat start at his neck and wipe straight up to his hairline. “Uhhhh…”

“Des not your type, Daddy’s Boy?”

“How old is she, thirty?”

Navarrete chuckled.

“I don’t…” said Ash. “I’m not…”

“You ’bout to tell me you’re a virgin?”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

Navarrete shrugged. “Just not much of a plot twist.”

“I’m asexual. I think.” Ash remembered Valentine almost touching his arm.

“Yo, dude. That’s all chill.” Again, Navarrete shrugged.

They arrived at the glistening sidewalk out front. Navarrete lit a cigarette.

Ash took up a position upwind. “Why did you pay Desdemona your uncle’s whole bounty to tell us who else has been asking about Lex, and keep all the info exclusive?”

“Listen and learn, rookie.” Navarrete took a drag, stashed her lighter in her coat. “We find other people trying to take down Lex, if we’re lucky, we make powerful allies against him. Especially good chance of that if we corner the market on critical info they need. It’s a bargaining chip.” She exhaled a plume of smoke; it was instantly shredded by drizzle. “Worst-case scenario, we learn stuff about Lex we didn’t know before. You can tell a lot about a person by their enemies. You said you’re doing crime scene shit tomorrow, right? At sunrise?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll take a pass on that. Shit’s fuckin’ boring. Really not my forte.”

“Uh.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t be idle. I mean, I will, but only till like noon when I roll out of bed. Then I’m gonna go talk to some people.”

“What people?”

“People who can put me in touch with other people. Who can put me in touch with other-other people. Scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine kinda thing. You gotta grease more than a few palms to get in striking distance of a ganglord.” She tapped off her ash, thought for a moment. “What say we start with Meillassoux? I might have an in with him already. Don’t worry though, if I get a meeting with the man himself I’ll make sure to take you along.”

“Why? I mean…I agree I should go. Just, why did you assume it would be important to me?”

“Dude.” Navarrete grinned her fang-toothed grin. “You two will have so much to talk about.”

“We will?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him. Soren Dreyfus-Meillassoux?”

Ash blinked. “Oh…Soren Dreyfus-Meillassoux? The guy who…”

“…got kicked out of Fraternitas Mercurii for ‘buggery’?” Navarrete made exaggerated air quotes. “That’d be the one. Ended up working out okay for him, I guess. He’s now heading up his own motherfuckin’ criminal empire.” She surveyed Ash sidelong. “Like I said earlier: Y’all are fucked up.”

Ash hesitated. “I didn’t choose to be born into the order, okay? I obviously don’t agree with all its policies.”

“I don’t see you rebelling or walking away.”

“Fraternitas Mercurii offers a unique path to power. I’m one of the fortunate few to have access to that path. I’d be stupid to throw away that opportunity. Once I reach the deeper mysteries, I’ll be in a position to change things.”

Navarrete laugh-coughed a big cloud of cigarette smoke. “Last night I beat the shit out of my uncle and handed him over to you Arcanus goons for six fiddy. You don’t need to make excuses to me.” She flicked her butt in the gutter, started off down the sidewalk, bidding Ash farewell with a lazy salute. “My take? Do whatever you can get away with and still sleep at night.”

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Ash did his best not to make noise as he let himself into the house—seeing as waking Dad at this hour was a distinctly unpleasant prospect.

Took off his Chucks and, in his sock feet, padded through the darkened parlor, along the wainscoted corridors to his bedroom.

There, undressed and stared at his body in the mirror.

At the V-shaped void between his upper thighs.

Youre wrong, Navarrete.

My existence is rebellion.

He threw on a t-shirt and shorts, dug Valentine’s card out of his wallet. Slipped into the lab next to his room, bolted and sealed the door behind him—both mundanely and magically.

It was small, Ash’s private lab, but well-optimized for space. Alchemically lit, every wall floor-to-ceiling cabinets and shelves.

Ash opened a cabinet, removed a tray of flasks. Traced his fingertip over a tiny carved symbol on the back panel; waited for a flash of light to lick around said panel before jimmying it loose and setting it aside.

Behind that panel was another panel—this one made of metal.

Ash pressed his left palm against the metal surface; inhaled, exhaled to descend into inhibitory gnosis. Lightly tapped, with the fingers of his right hand, a specific sequential selection of the tattooed arrays on his left arm, each of which blazed scarlet at his touch, as did the channels that linked them—bright energy racing down his forearm toward his hand.

A burst of light from his palm.

The metal panel disintegrated into dust.

Ash thrust both hands into the compartment beyond, carefully lifted out a ponderous skin-bound text.

Lugged the tome to the lab bench, laid it flat with a whumph.

Placed Valentine’s card next to it.

Seeing the symbol on the forbidden book’s cover and the one drawn on the card side-by-side only confirmed what Ash had already known beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“Perfection is possible,” he whispered.

He closed his eyes, fluttered his fingers deftly over the part of his tattoo Valentine had so nearly touched—a motion like caressing the keys of a piano. The aurichalcum channels sizzled to life in response.

“Valentine,” Ash murmured, as a crystal rose, bedewed by byproduct oxidane, blossomed into being in his open palm. “Who the living fuck are you?”

NEXT EPISODE: CAREN – “FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS”
PREVIOUS EPISODE: CAREN – “DETACHMENT”

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