story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
“Grenville. Hey, Grenville. Ash.”
It was Navarrete’s voice, low and tense, next to his ear. Her hand took hold of his, the one gripping his fork. He recoiled from the touch.
“Ash,” she said again. “Come on, put this down. Let’s go.” She pried the fork from his grasp.
“Where?” he whispered.
“The fucking drawing room. Come on, get up. We just have to get through this.”
Ash forced himself to raise his head, just in time to see the rasping what-was-left-of-a-man being dragged out of the dining room. His stomach gave a twist.
“Who is he?” he murmured, part of him at the same time really not wanting to know.
“He’s the reason two of Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s top guys are dead,” said Navarrete.
“Are they going to kill him?”
“That’d be the best thing for him at this point, don’t you think? Just…whatever happens in there, just fucking keep it together, okay?”
It floated through the background of Ash’s thoughts that he wasn’t sure if she was talking to him or herself.
She tugged him to his feet. He stumbled after her on autopilot, between the guards at the doorway; became vaguely aware of Betancourt walking beside them, Miles Winter’s crutches thumping behind. Dreyfus-Meillassoux, Ishaan Ram, and “Sicko Mode,” as Navarrete had called him, seemed to have already gone ahead of them.
The drawing room was dark now, except for the blinding blue light of the ever-burning fire (Burn, boy, burn! Creuch heckled whenever Ash looked at it), the alchemical globes illuminating the two shrines, and the faint scarlet glow of the runes on Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s black violin.
Puck took one look at the grisly entourage as they entered, jumped down from his bed, and scurried between their legs out of the room. Ash gazed after him. It took every ounce of his willpower not to follow.
During the dinner, a St. Andrew’s cross had been erected in front of the shrines. Dreyfus-Meillassoux directed the men dragging the wounded man toward the contraption with a wave of his bow. A part of Ash compulsively tuned in to the agonizing sounds of the man being chained up on the cross, even as he kept his eyes intently fixed on Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
With Ram at his elbow, the ganglord approached the massive portrait of the woman in the garden, placed his hand over his heart, and bowed low to it before gesturing with his bow to another servant, who grabbed a rope on a pulley system to draw a pair of huge black velvet curtains over the painting, obscuring it from view.
He then turned. “Maréchal.”
Betancourt bowed low, crossed the room and seated himself at the harpsichord.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux moved to stand in front of the cross, between the two shrines, with Ram close beside. Sicko Mode and Winter positioned themselves ceremoniously some distance from either side of the cross. Winter looked uncomfortable on his crutches; his eyes kept rolling up to rove around the ornamental ceiling. Sicko Mode didn’t look amused like he had earlier. Now there was something intense, almost hungry in the way he stared at the battered man.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux gazed on each of the shrines in turn, lingering especially long on the portrait of the fine-boned man with the warm-yet-close-lipped expression labeled Takayuki Murakami.
“Sylvan Zachry,” he pronounced, turning to face the man on the cross. “For your part in the deaths of these two men who were dear to me, you will pay with your own contemptible life.”
The wounded man moaned something unintelligible. Ash thought it might have been please.
“No amount of recompense will ever fill the vacancy they left behind,” Dreyfus-Meillassoux went on, once more gazing at the portrait of Murakami. “But I swear on my life, everyone who took part in their slaughter will pay. Your life’s blood, Mr. Zachry, is but the first paltry drop in the bottomless well of my just retribution.”
He looked over at Betancourt, inclined his head. The Maréchal began to play a few slow, gentle repeating bars, an accompanist waiting for the soloist to begin.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux closed his eyes, his bow tracing an Aetheric seal in the air. “Awaken, Bolmul, bearer of my soul’s vengeance; let there now be blood for blood.”
He put bow to strings and played.
The daemon seal began to spin in midair, grew brighter, throwing off sparks, while the rest of the room turned dark—except for the blue flames of the ever-burning fire, which seemed to leap even higher. A cold chill gripped Ash, tiptoed icy fingers down his spine.
As Dreyfus-Meillassoux continued to play Corelli’s Violin Sonata Op. 5 No. 3 in C Major, the seal opened up into a portal and grew, larger, and larger still, till its diameter stretched from ceiling to floor. A static charge filled the air, making flyaway strands of Ash’s hair stand on end. He could sense Creuch getting upset—the imp kept gibbering softly in the Aetherite tongue.
Ash heard Dreyfus-Meillassoux’s daemon before he saw it—its roar rattled his bones. Creuch’s agitation mounted to a panic. Bolmul, Bolmul, it kept muttering, between bouts of wailing and manic laughter.
The man on the cross, despite his ravaged state, seemed to muster some adrenaline in the face of what was clearly coming; stretched his mangled jaws in inaudible screams, strained his broken body against the thick chains that bound him.
None of what came before prepared Ash for what stepped through the portal, with footfalls that vibrated the room.
Bolmul was one of the more humanoid-type daemons, but monstrous, massive—it had to duck not to bash its great head against the domed ceiling. Its muscles bulged; its trunk, its limbs, its gruesome visage were wound throughout with scarlet sinews.
But what truly struck terror into Ash wasn’t Bolmul’s hideous appearance.
It was its inconsolable, world-shattering weeping.
Abject grief contorted the daemon’s face. It howled, roared, tore at the sinews crisscrossing its skull. Clutched its head, doubled over, writhed, grotesquely almost in time with the music.
Creuch’s turmoil by now was like raw static in Ash’s ears—made him wish he could crawl out of his own skin. He wanted desperately to look away—but couldn’t—as Bolmul loomed over the helpless man on the cross.
What happened next happened so fast it didn’t seem real. The wailing daemon’s huge, clawed hand closed around Zachry’s trunk and ripped it loose from its chained limbs. More blood than Ash had ever dreamed a human body could contain sprayed from the four stumps—splattered Dreyfus-Meillassoux and his violin, Ram, the two shrines.
With a mighty howl of anguish, Bolmul hurled the limbless man across the room—into the ever-burning fire.
BURN, BOY, BURN, Creuch started screeching, over and over.
As the inexorable flames began devouring the dismembered Zachry, Ash felt himself snap. Suddenly his own body, too, was on fire, with a spontaneous excitatory gnosis—raw energy rushing between his mana seals, swiftly building power.
He aimed his left palm at the ever-burning fire: killed it. Sucked all its oxygen away with a schwick, leaving the chamber lit only by a dim, eerie red glow.
Spun—shoved up his sleeve to bare his left arm, his tattoos blazing the incandescent scarlet of conductive aurichalcum. Aimed his left palm at Dreyfus-Meillassoux, right hand poised with its tattooed fingertips over the tattoos on his left arm, ready to activate alchemical arrays in a lethal sequence—only distantly aware that he was screaming STOP over and over at the top of his lungs.
All his built-up mana flooded his central seal, transmuted with a flash of heat—turned his whole world, for one second, blinding white.
Out of nowhere, Ash found his arms pinned useless against his body by a powerful arm, a scintillating blade pressed uncomfortably tight to his throat.
As his vision returned, he saw that Ram no longer occupied his place beside Dreyfus-Meillassoux—where he’d been standing just one second ago.
The ganglord himself hadn’t budged, except to lower his violin and aim an inquisitive look at Ash. Betancourt, too, had stopped playing. Bolmul now knelt silent, unmoving, its huge face buried in its hands.
“You realize that in putting out the flame,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux mildly, “you’ve only prolonged his torment?”
The only sound in the room now was the wheezing of the half-melted thing in the fireplace. It grated on Ash’s ears.
All his charge fizzled like his seals had been doused with water. Ash sagged in his captor’s embrace, his refrain of STOP, STOP, STOP replaced by a whimpered no, no, no…
The ganglord banished Bolmul back to the Aether with a flourish of his bow. “Vernon, finish it.”
Sicko Mode snapped his fingers, and Sylvan Zachry became a splatter of gore in the fireplace.
Ash started bawling like a child.
“Release him,” said Dreyfus-Meillassoux.
At first, Ash’s captor didn’t comply.
“Go on, Ishaan,” the ganglord persisted, softly. “It’s all right.”
The viselike grip let go; the blade lifted away from Ash’s neck. Ash sank to the floor, to his hands and knees, his body heaving uncontrollably, sobs searing his throat.
Creuch. Make me stop.
His own right hand lifted and boxed the side of his head, hard, twice.
Stunned into silence, he sat down on the spot, emptiness roaring, the chamber reeling around him.
After a moment, he laid his left palm flat, searched the rug beneath him.
All he could seem to focus on, though, was the many years’ accumulation of dried blood.
… But what is blood?
Amino acids. Proteins. Lipids.
Carbon. Hydrogen. Oxygen. Nitrogen. Sulfur. Phosphorus.
Ash followed the summons back into his body: a constricting sarcophagus. Reluctantly opened his eyes.
Soren Dreyfus-Meillassoux was down on one knee in front of him, gazing intently at his face. Behind him, Ram stood gripping his unsheathed enchanted cane-sword.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux handed Ash his glasses, which must have fallen off when Creuch had struck him. “I hope you’ll forgive the unpleasantness, Mr. Grenville. That man”—he gestured toward the fireplace—“took something very precious from me. In so doing, he sealed his own fate.”
With trembling hands, Ash restored his glasses to his face. Fixed his gaze numbly on the floor.
The ganglord tutted. “Dear boy…the Black Pyramid must be hell for you. Perhaps you’d like something for your nerves?”
“My coat,” said Ash, his voice seeming to belong to someone else. “I have medicines in it.”
“Wilhelm, bring Mr. Grenville’s coat. And a glass of water.”
Ash rubbed away his tears with his sleeve.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux peered at him; lowered his voice so only Ash could hear. “You are no daemonologer, as I understand it. So may I ask who bound the Grenville family imp to you?”
Ash’s eyes snapped up. “You can see it?” he whispered.
“I see the realm of Aether through Bolmul’s eyes.” The ganglord was silent a moment. “Was it your father? Does Scipio Grenville employ the daemon Creuch to monitor and manipulate his own son?”
Ash stared at him hard. “That’s a family matter, Mr. Dreyfus-Meillassoux.”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux simply inclined his head, then waved over a pair of his men. “Escort Mr. Grenville to the Begonia Room, please, and make him comfortable.”
The Begonia Room, predictably enough, was decorated in a begonia theme, its wallpaper and bedspread patterned all over with scarlet blossoms.
Ash had made himself a soothing concoction with the water they’d brought him and the saturnine-chamomile powder mix he’d had in his coat. He’d also changed into an angora sweater they’d loaned him—one of Betancourt’s, who was apparently closest to his size (though it still swallowed Ash)—because his turtleneck had gotten blood on it when Ram had held him.
He’d asked to be left alone; curled up on the huge, canopied bed facing the door, explored the chemical makeup of the bedspread as an escape from the visions of slaughter that otherwise kept strobing in his brain. He’d thought about grabbing the crystal rose, too, when they’d brought him his coat, but he couldn’t shake the notion that touching it right now would sully it.
After a while, there came a knock on the door. Ash’s whole body tensed. “Who is it?”
“Soren. May I come in?”
“Okay,” he mumbled finally. Grabbed his glasses off the nightstand.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux entered. He’d changed into a pair of clean, comfortable clothes: silk pajamas and a crimson velvet smoking jacket. His hair was wet from the shower.
Ash sat up, scooted back a bit as the ganglord approached and sat on the edge of the bed.
“How are you feeling?” asked Dreyfus-Meillassoux. “Has the medicine helped?”
Ash eyed him. “A little.”
The ganglord inclined his head. “Good.” He surveyed Ash’s face. “The imp your father bound to you, my boy…would you like me to remove it?”
Ash stared. White noise hissed in his ears.
“I’m never going to let you fuck me,” he heard himself say.
His body braced itself.
When whatever reaction he was anticipating never came, he had to ask himself for what.
Dreyfus-Meillassoux frowned slightly. “I hope this won’t offend, as you’re a very brilliant and accomplished young man, but to me you’re a child. I’ll never ask nor desire that of you.”
Ash looked at him blankly.
“It would require only a simple detachment ritual, quite painless,” Dreyfus-Meillassoux went on. “It’s entirely up to you.”
Ash continued to stare, trying to drum up the cognitive capacity to properly weigh the offer. At the moment, Creuch’s cackling was all he could seem to hear… If the connection was severed, the little shit would of course go straight to Dad. Ash would never be able to set foot safely in Antioch, his father’s estate, again, or show his face in the Black Pyramid either. In Arcadia—in any Arcanus territory—he’d be forever looking over his shoulder. His career would be as good as dead.
“No,” he said at last. “Thank you.”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux inclined his head. “The offer stands.” He paused, took a deep breath. “Ashton Grenville, I should not like it if my seeking justice for a personal injury has diminished me in your esteem—for otherwise, I believe you and I should make very good friends.”
Ash felt himself turn colder. Averted his eyes. “Getting kicked out of Fraternitas Mercurii didn’t make you any less like the rest of them. Revenge is a sickness.”
Dreyfus-Meillassoux was silent for a long time. “You’re right,” he said at last. “It’s a disease of which I fear I may never be cured. And a highly contagious one… Were you really born to a Mercurii bloodline, brought up in the Brotherhood and managed not to contract it? That would make you rare indeed.”
“It would make me a failure, according to my father.”
“Our fathers’ paths are not our paths, are they?”
Ash looked up, met the ganglord’s eye.
“Shall we return to the drawing room, join the others?” Soren went on. “By now Nathaniel will have taken care of the mess.”
Ash couldn’t seem to focus much on the discussion happening around him. His eye kept drifting to the black-diamond-patterned depths of the now-empty fireplace—the only remaining visible evidence of what had happened earlier (probably because Greek fire was a rare commodity, not generally easy to obtain or create). Aside from the absence of the fire, the drawing room of Soren’s penthouse now looked exactly like it had before dinner, when Ash had played Bach on the harpsichord to enthusiastic applause. The shrines, the hearth were spotless; even Puck was back in his bed asleep as if he’d never left it.
Ash now knew, of course—which he hadn’t then—that if he bent down and pressed his palm to the rug, he’d find almost a decade’s worth of blood.
Everyone from Soren’s inner circle occupied pretty much the same places they had before—Betancourt by Navarrete on the sofa, Soren in his chair with Ram standing behind him, Winter on the chaise lounge—except for Sicko Mode, who lay stretched out on a sofa by himself, seemingly deeply absorbed in literally twiddling his thumbs. None of them had said anything to Ash when he and Soren had entered. Navarrete had looked at him and quickly looked away; he thought he might have seen something a bit sympathetic in Betancourt’s gaze. Ram and Winter hadn’t paid him much attention. Sicko Mode hadn’t either—much to Ash’s relief.
At some point, Ash got up from his wing-backed chair and went to pay a visit to Puck. Stood stroking the cat’s soft fur, gazed into his striated green eyes while the others talked about the job Soren wanted to give Navarrete.
“Natalya?” Navarrete was saying. “Queen of the Leeches?”
“The very same,” Soren replied. “To propose a temporary alliance. It’s my hope that she’d as much like to be rid of Megyesi and his…abominations…as I would myself.”
“The Leeches are super-weirdos,” said Navarrete. “They’re more sicko mode than Sicko Mode.” Sicko Mode broke his concentration on his twiddling to shoot her a mock-wounded look. “People like that—well, if you can even call them people—they can be kind of, uh…”
“Unpredictable?” suggested Soren.
“Well, I mean…yeah. Still, I can’t say it’s not worth a try. Maybe she’d have insight into Lex, too.”
“My thoughts as well. And not to worry—the Leeches’ unpredictability is precisely why I would want to keep the collaboration circumscribed and temporary.”
“Totally. Well, I do already have a lead on a place some of the Leeches supposedly hang out. Could start there, gather intel, maybe go ahead and make a connection, if the opportunity presents itself.”
“Very good. Nathaniel and Vernon will accompany you.”
“Cool. I love being babysat.”
Soren chuckled. “I confess it’s partly that—and partly also that, if you run into trouble with Leeches, Vernon is someone you’ll want to have nearby.”
“Fair, fair. Why Nathaniel, then?”
Soren arched one eyebrow. “In case you run into trouble with Vernon. Not to mention Nathaniel’s the one with the ‘tricked-out ride.’”
“I’ll enchant a bigger back seat for y’all,” volunteered Betancourt.
“Cool,” said Navarrete. “Meet up tomorrow, then, boys? I’ve got literally nothing better to do.”
After they’d hashed out the details, everyone said their goodnights, and Betancourt got out his car keys. “You ready to go, Caren? Mr. Grenville?”
Ash whispered a goodnight to Puck. Turned and surveyed the chamber, his gaze drifting once more to the darkened fireplace.
He found himself crossing the room toward it, while the others looked on in silence.
He reached it, slowed to a halt. Stared into the gleaming black adamantine maw. Contemplated briefly.
A slow, deep breath sank him to the depths of inhibitory gnosis. His world again turned white, the flash of heat enveloping his body as his mana transmuted in his central seal.
“Vernon, Ishaan—let him be,” came Soren’s voice.
Ash pushed up his left sleeve, aimed his left palm at the fireplace. His dextrous right fingers traced their winding path along his left arm, with lightning quickness, as prima materia raced through his tattooed channels.
Greek fire billowed in a focused stream from his left palm.
The fireplace crackled to life.
“Holy. Fucking. Shit,” came Navarrete’s hushed voice.
Ash stood before the ever-burning fire, bathed in its blue light.
“Burn, boy, burn,” he muttered to himself.
After Betancourt dropped them both off at their cars, as the Trans Am drove away, Navarrete turned to Ash—spoke the first words she’d spoken to him since the dining room.
“Hey, Daddy’s B—uh, Ash. You wanna grab a drink?”
“I’m eighteen,” said Ash.
“Right. Uh…a milkshake? Wait, you don’t do sugary shit.”
While she stood there seemingly wracking her brain for other options, Ash considered. He wasn’t about to go home at this hour—it was past his curfew, but still early enough that Dad would be up, which meant he’d probably get his ass kicked if he showed up now. If he waited till just a little later, however, Scipio would be in bed, and chances were he’d be in a more manageable mood in the morning.
“Why don’t we just find some restaurant with a bar,” he said to Navarrete. “I’ll order water.”
Twenty minutes later, they occupied a table together in a Port Richmond sports bar, Ash nursing a glass of water while Navarrete steadily drained a rocks glass of Maker’s Mark.
“Listen, Daddy’s Boy,” she said, after sitting in silence for some time, “you could clearly fuck up someone’s shit with that power of yours, and everybody and their fucking sister keeps telling me how deadly you are, but…you’ve never seriously hurt anyone in your life, have you?”
Ash stared at the ice in his glass. “Just practice automatons.”
Navarrete chuckled, groaned. “Christ, kid…are you sure this line of work is for you? Boy-genius like you, you’d make out like a bandit just nerding it up in the lab. Better yet, say fuck Arcanus, fuck Mercurii, fuck fucking magic, go off and be a concert pianist.”
“You make that sound easy,” murmured Ash.
“It is easy.”
“Then why don’t you just quit and live a mundane life?”
Navarrete laughed. “Bruh. It’s not even the same. You have money.” She rolled her eyes, waved her hand: “And a…you know. Whatever. A clean fucking conscience.”
I’m not clean. I watched them torture that man to death. Did nothing till it was too late.
“If my dad disowns me,” said Ash, “I’ll have nothing.” He paused. “And honestly, he probably wouldn’t disown me. He’d probably just kill me.”
He gazed into his glass. Felt Navarrete eyeing him closely. “You’re not joking, are you?” she said.
The ratcatcher fell to staring at the tabletop in front of her. Stayed silent for a long time.
Finally—“Then kill him first,” she muttered with feeling, and threw back the rest of her bourbon.
As they exited the sports bar to the street, Navarrete waved her hand at him. “Hey. Go stand over there.”
“I’m about to light up.” She waggled her lighter and cigarette pack. “Figured you’d wanna stand upwind.”
“Oh…thanks.” Ash moved into position. Pulled his pea coat tighter around him against the December chill.
Navarrete lit her Marlboro Red, took a drag. “Look, I just—I’m…sorry you had a rough night. I didn’t mean to bring you into that side of it. It’s my job to do the dirty work, yeah? You don’t have to be a part of the Meillassoux’s Boys stuff anymore if you don’t want to.”
Ash was silent a moment. “No…I want to.”
Navarrete frowned. “You sure?”
“Yeah. I can’t…bury my head in the sand forever.”
The ratcatcher looked him over appraisingly, bobbed her head. “Fair enough.”
Ash checked the time on his phone. “I should really be getting home.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Navarrete waved him on. “I’ll shoot you a text tomorrow. Wait, you’ll be in Arcadia…”
“I’ll just come out to Philly and text you when I get here.”
Ash reached in his coat for his keys. “G’night, Navarrete.”
Navarrete exhaled a big puff of smoke. “Yo. Call me fucking Caren.”
“Okay. G’night, Fucking Caren.”
She smirked, tipped her chin. “Seeya tomorrow, Killer.”
Ash slipped behind the wheel of his car, turned on the engine to get the heat going.
Sat there in the dark, shivering, Creuch gibbering softly in the emptiness behind his thoughts…feeling weird and spooky and achy and exhausted and alone, and wishing he had anywhere to go but home.
As he finally breathed a deep sigh and reached for the gearshift, Ash’s phone made a sound he didn’t recognize. He stopped short, got it out of his coat pocket, glanced at the notification:
New video from Your Eternal Valentine
15 secs ago・YouTube
Ash to Gold
“Valentine,” he breathed. The day’s troubles seemed suddenly light-years away.
Ash opened the newly uploaded video.
Sat staring, stunned, at the face that gazed back at him from the screen.
What the hell…?
… Is that me?