“The Longest Night”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Saving the world wasn’t a thing Luke Langit would have ever tried to do if she wasn’t in it.
But she was.
So here he was, just minutes from midnight on the longest night of the year, hustling down the wooded trail off Hermit’s Lane, the night-vision agimat behind his left ear amped to full blast as he glanced over his shoulder for the millionth time to make sure he hadn’t been followed.
It was cold, but not nearly cold enough for the middle of the night in late December. Philly had gotten only one real snow so far this season, back in mid-November. Ever since then, it had been too warm for snow.
Fuckin’ global warming. Even if I do stop the apocalypse, damn mundanes are gonna kill us all.
Luke kept his hooded head down, ignored the jeers of a band of drunk frat boys roving past in the opposite direction. Kept his eyes to the trail as a crumpled beer can bounced off his shoulder.
UPenn white legacy sons of bitches…
It was fine. They didn’t matter.
On that one snowy day in November, he hadn’t been able to keep his thoughts from returning to her. To another winter day eight years ago, when he’d implanted the first of her agimat. The soft flakes drifting down outside her bedroom window. Her blood drying on his hands. Her skin bruised, torn, crudely stitched. She hadn’t made a sound while he’d worked, even though he hadn’t been able to get her an elixir for the pain, or even any halfway decent mundane drugs—just a bottle of Extra Strength Advil from Tito Ollie’s medicine cabinet.
Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend had been screaming at the far end of the house that day, almost nonstop. Luke had hardly been able to concentrate enough to finish the ritual. But she, usually high-strung, had been calm, her calligraphed eyes steady on him the whole time, never straying.
Their bullshit always seems far away when you’re here, she’d said.
Luke knew those kind of things weren’t easy for her to say.
Years fanned past in his memory, like pages of an open book struck by a gust of wind. He recalled, like it had been yesterday, a message she’d left in his voicemail three summers ago:
So Dad just fucking showed up out of nowhere. Doesn’t remember who I am, keeps thinking I’m Mom. Fucking drugs finally cooked his brain or something. I don’t know what to do with him. And Mom’s still fuck knows where, and like…actually, you know what, I don’t know why I even fucking called you, ’cause honestly? Fuck you, Luke. I don’t even want your help at this point. The most you’ll do is give me some schlocky spiel about how you’re here for me always and forever, then stop answering my texts the millisecond the shit hits the fan. So like…fuck you. I hope wherever you are right now you can feel in the marrow of your fucking bones how much I fucking hate you and what a fucking piece-of-shit liar you are.
It took all Luke’s mental effort to slam the book shut.
You may never know the truth, he thought. Took a deep breath. That everything I did was for you. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me, as long as you survive. As long as someday you’re happy…
The currents in his mana veins started thrumming strangely—a sign his destination wasn’t far off. He wondered if the Martial Magus was close enough to feel it too. There’d been a time when Luke never would’ve dreamed of rubbing elbows with one of Ordo Arcanus’s jumped-up magic cops, but you made some pretty strange bedfellows when you were doing everything you could to stop the world from getting hosed more than three hundred years ago.
Luke slowed as he neared the spot. With his enhanced vision, he picked out a tall shape just off the path, beside the stone door embedded in the hillside—a somber statue in the shadows. Polyxena Severin, or Polyxena of the Daemon Blade, as she was known, appeared true to her legendary description: wide-brimmed hat pulled low over her eyes, long trench coat, platinum locks rippling in loose curls to her waist.
Luke flexed his fingers, redirected his mana through the agimat beneath the thin skin on the back of his right hand. So far, all was as it should be. It didn’t look like he’d been followed. Still, there were a million troublesome contingencies he knew he should be ready for. Like if an impostor had come in Severin’s place, disguised in a costume or a powerful glamor. Or if Severin was in fact who she appeared to be, but had laid a trap for him, planning to arrest him, haul him off to Arcadia, and book him for one or more of his many apostasies. That didn’t seem too likely…Philly was neutral turf, so not Ordo Arcanus jurisdiction. But if Severin had hired a “ratcatcher,” one of those factionless class-traitor bounty hunters, to take care of her dirty work for her, there was a very real danger of Luke winding up behind bars. Or something worse.
Finally, there was the possibility Luke didn’t even want to think about…that the Broken had somehow caught on to his plan to rat them out and would make a move to stop him.
In which case, he was fucked.
Though he’d be damned if he wouldn’t go down fighting.
Severin stood facing Luke as he approached, her eyes obscured by the shadow of her hat brim. Luke could barely make out her pointed nose and chin, her thin mouth bent in a slight sober smile.
“Polyxena Severin?” he said softly, once within earshot.
“‘L,’ I presume,” came her low, reverberant alto. “Io Saturnalia.”
“And a holly jolly Christmas to you.” Teaming up with an Arcanus enforcer didn’t mean Luke had to respect their Old World ways. Not that he was loyal to his Catholic upbringing, either. But he sure as hell never forgot where he came from—or that there was a universe of difference between Us and Them.
If Severin took offense at Luke’s irreverence, she didn’t show it. “I sense the power in this place, as you described.” She glanced around, lifting her chin just enough to permit Luke a glimpse of her eyes beneath her hat brim—twin crescent moons, pale and penetrating. “Strange, that its existence has evaded our notice all these years.”
“Ordo Arcanus’s. Our scholars document nexuses thoroughly, even those that lie outside our territorial bounds.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe your bosses haven’t been telling you everything.”
Her silver stare settled on him. “What are you suggesting?”
“This stuff you’ve been investigating? Runs deeper than you know. There’s powerful mages protecting these secrets. We’re talking cover-ups on cover-ups here.”
Severin paused. “I’ve begun to get an inkling of that. My attempts to dig deeper into these matters keep arriving at dead ends. Relevant texts missing from the Archives. Enforcement files redacted. Key informants dead under mysterious circumstances.” She eyed Luke. “Speaking of which, I hope you’ve taken precautions.”
“I always do my best.”
“Exactly which powerful magi do you allege are complicit in these ‘cover-ups’?”
“Not sure. I just know they’ve got people, if not in all the major factions, in Arcanus at least. One of them pretty high up, from what I’ve heard.”
“That’s what they call themselves. The mages behind the whole thing.”
“Interesting choice of team name.”
“The idea is they’re all ‘broken beyond repair.’ They recruit mages who are so fucked up in the head they don’t care what happens to them. Who have nothing to lose.”
“Ah. The kind of people who might like to see the world end.”
Severin studied him. “I suppose they miscalculated when they chose you.”
Luke thought about snow. “I suppose they did.”
Severin cast a glance around. “What’s the significance of this place?”
Luke jerked his head, indicating the nearby hillside, the dark stone door with the obelisk by its side. “This little cave.” He led the way.
Severin followed. “I looked in there. It’s not a cave, whatever the mundanes may call it. It’s just a crude doorway, leading to a little room dug into the hillside.”
Luke got out his phone. Fired up the flashlight app.
Severin wasn’t wrong. Beyond the humble entryway there was only a simple stone hovel, long abandoned, cluttered with leaves and bracken that crunched beneath their steps.
“But I do sense great power here,” Severin added in a hushed, almost reverent tone. Her moon eyes traced the walls and ceiling. “Though it’s a different sort of vibration from Arcadia or Delphi. This place seems…aberrant, somehow.”
“Yeah,” Luke agreed, half to himself. “And for damn good reason.”
“Why? What is this place?”
“Well, I mean, like most other nexuses, it’s a gateway, or so I’ve heard. Word on the street is it was sealed off both magically and physically by secret order of the Auctoritas Magicae because it was used as a weapon by the Order of Zosimos during the Homunculi War. You won’t find this in any of your Arcanus history books, but after joining forces to bring down the Zosimites, Ordo Arcanus and the Hermetic Order of Khmun almost went to war over who would get control of it. That’s why the Delphi Accords dictated Philadelphia should remain neutral territory.”
“You’re trying to tell me this little ‘cave’ was the entire reason for that?”
“Apparently. This place is dangerous. And the Broken will stop at nothing to get access to it.”
“Dangerous how? You still haven’t explained to me what it does.”
Luke hesitated. “I mean…I actually don’t know for sure what its deal is. I haven’t worked my way in far enough with the Broken to get access to their best-kept secrets. But I have sort of like…a theory, I guess. Based on what I’ve gathered.”
“Which is what?”
Once more, Luke paused. He’d never said any of these things out loud to another person. It felt unnatural—ominous—to give them voice. “Well. I think that maybe, on the other side of that gate, is, like…reality. The way it’s meant to be.”
Severin frowned. “The way it’s meant to be?”
“Like…” Luke’s voice fell to a whisper. “The true universe. A ‘true vacuum.’ Do you know anything about mundane science? Quantum physics?”
Severin gave him an Are you kidding? look and shook her head. Her ignorance didn’t surprise Luke. For all their obsession with arcane academia, Old Worlders famously had little respect for or interest in mundane scholarship.
“Okay, well.” Luke tried to think how to explain it simply, in a way someone with no context would understand. “Basically, some mundane scientists think that the only reason anything exists, and I mean anything at all, is that the state of our universe is a little bit…wrong.”
Severin got a blank look on her face, gazed off over his shoulder.
“Does that make sense?” Luke asked. “Like…there’s a way things are supposed to be, a way that’s settled and stable, but by definition completely empty, and nothing can exist in it—ever. And then there’s the universe we’re living in, which is a result of things at a quantum level being just a little bit…off.”
Severin didn’t stir, not a muscle. If not for the slight breathing motion of her chest, she could have been made of wax.
That’s when it sank in to Luke that her lack of reaction wasn’t lack of comprehension. She was looking at something—behind him, past the entrance of the cave.
…With a look in her eyes he really didn’t like.
“We’re not alone,” Luke murmured. “Are we?”
Her voice came softly. “We are not.”
Luke kept his posture relaxed—even as he pooled all his mana in the agimat in his right hand. “What do you see?”
“Look for yourself,” replied Severin, evenly. “They see us. No point pretending we don’t see them.”
Aimed his phone light.
The scene it revealed made his stomach drop.
A crowd of people stood outside the cave, staring in through the entrance at Severin and himself. Not talking to each other. Not even, as far as Luke could tell, aware of each other. By their appearances, as a whole, they were a ragtag crew, not the kind of people you’d normally see together. Some were well-dressed and groomed. Others wore t-shirts, dirty coveralls, even pajamas. Their ages ranged from well past retirement age to as young as twelve.
“Are they mundanes?” Luke whispered.
“I thought they might be your ‘Broken.’ Don’t you recognize any of them?”
“No, I don’t fucking know them.”
As Luke and Severin watched, more people approached out of the woods from all directions, adding their numbers to the throng. None of them greeted or even looked at each other. The new arrivals simply, wordlessly moved to join the silent mass, their gazes converging with the others’ on the two mages inside the cave.
“Look at their eyes,” Severin whispered. “Empty. This is the work of a cogimancer.”
Luke shook his head. “Can’t be simple mind-control. They’re acting without supervision. They’re straight-up tranquilized. Like your fucking Arcanus Ostiaries. Who the hell could be powerful enough to do that to this many people?”
He jumped at a sudden sound like a gong knell, low and close. Beside him, Severin swore.
“What the fuck was that?” asked Luke.
“Another Martial Magus nearby, calling for backup.” Severin dipped into her coat, unrolled a small parchment—a map of the city. A glowing scarlet symbol marked what Luke assumed was the location of the mage calling for help—North Philly. “I don’t think I can aid you now, Vega,” Severin mumbled to the map. She shot a glance at the growing crowd. “Starting to think I should send out an SOS myself…”
Another low gong knell sheared the air.
“Same thing?” Luke asked, as a second symbol appeared over Chestnut Hill.
“Different Martial Magus.” Severin frowned. “…Completely different part of the city.”
“That’s fucking weird, right?”
“Very. We don’t even have jurisdiction in Philadelphia. I don’t know why two of my colleagues would be working in the city tonight, much less sending out distress calls at the same time.”
Another gong knell. And another.
“Something is very not right here,” murmured Severin.
“There’s a fucking pattern.” Luke pointed at the map. “These points are equidistant from each other. And if you follow the lines and angles…” As he watched, more symbols blossomed into view, accompanied by the same ominous sounds. “It’s forming…”
“A pentagram,” finished Severin, as the tenth and final symbol materialized.
“And this is us right here—right?” Luke pointed.
“Dead center.” Severin’s breathing was audible. Shallow. “I don’t suppose you know another way out of here.”
Luke looked up from the map.
The mob stood shoulder-to-shoulder, surrounding the doorway, blocking every avenue of escape.
“The nexus.” Luke heard himself give a dry laugh. His heart drummed a strange, slow pulse in his ears.
“You mean our only path of escape is the magically sealed portal you believe leads to a void in which nothing can exist?”
“That’d be the one.”
“Oh. Good.” Severin’s face was expressionless, her pale eyes ticking back and forth in thought. “Well, we can’t use magic to defend ourselves, not against mundanes. The A.M. shows zero tolerance for violations of the Occultation Protocols.”
“I don’t think we have a fucking choice. I don’t know about you, but I can’t jiu-jitsu my way through a crowd that size.”
There came a sound like a ragged exhalation, unnervingly close. Luke whipped his head this way and that, looking for the source of it.
“L,” said Severin, in a ghost of a voice.
He turned back to her. Saw her long forefinger touching the map.
One of the scarlet symbols had given way, to an amorphous black blot that was radiating rapidly over the parchment.
“What the hell is that?” asked Luke.
A second rattling sigh. A second symbol, swallowed by a dark shapeless stain.
Severin stared down at it, blank-faced.
Another. And another.
“Severin. Polyxena,” hissed Luke. “Wake up! Tell me what the fuck this means.”
One by one, all of the symbols went black.
Severin looked up at Luke, her eyes bright.
“Dead,” she pronounced. “All of them.”
Together, the pair of them turned to face the crowd.
The mundanes were on the move, slowly closing in. Many of them, Luke realized, were gripping rocks and large sticks. A few brandished pocket knives.
He thought about snow.
“Fuck the Protocols.” Luke dropped to a defensive crouch, focused all his mana on the agimat in his right hand. “The Auctoritas Magicae can do what they want with me—if they can fucking catch me.” What came next was muttered to himself, like a vow. “I’m getting out of this alive.”
After a beat, Severin closed her eyes. Opened her palms.
Breathed the words of a summons.
There came a sound like a peal of thunder. A blinding light arced forth from the Aether and gathered, sparked around the Martial Magus’s left hand; writhed and swelled, coalescing, unfurling into the shape of Svarog, her famed daemonic greatsword—laser-bright and viciously barbed.
“Back the fuck off,” Luke snarled at the crowd, hoping against hope at least some of them had enough wits left to be scared off by the sight of Severin’s weapon.
No such luck. To the last, they were empty-eyed. Undeterred.
For a moment, stillness weighed on the air. Luke and Severin stood, battle-ready, staring at the mundanes—and the mundanes stared back.
The stasis didn’t last.
A young man in a gray hoodie was first to hurl himself through the door. He clutched a huge rock in both hands and swung it hard toward the top of Luke’s skull.
Luke dodged backward, popped the back of his right hand up in a deflecting move. With a dizzying burst of light, he discharged just enough mana from the agimat in the back of his hand that his attacker’s arm snapped backward, the rock flying from his grip to bounce harmlessly off the wall of the cave.
Luke rebounded with a loose fist and a second, more forceful eruption. His assailant went reeling across the room and slammed into the stone wall, then slumped to the ground.
At her command, Severin’s daemon-sword morphed into a baton. She cracked the mundane on his temple, with just the right amount of force to knock him unconscious.
There was no time to celebrate the victory.
Next came two young women dressed for the club, followed by a middle-aged man in a bathrobe and slippers.
The two women made for Severin, who converted her weapon to a longstaff and swept it, whacking their feet out from under them.
Luke thrust out his hands and sent the man reeling back into the crowd that pressed at his heels, knocking several of them like bowling pins to the ground.
More mind-wiped mundanes swarmed over their fallen comrades, trampling them underfoot. Some part of Luke flinched at the sight and sound of the robed man’s nose shattering under the heel of an Oxford, of one of the young women retching when a larger woman used her gut as a springboard. But his horror was distant. Irrelevant. His mind and body synchronized, one churning machine. Luke was a fighter. He had trained his whole life. Even before there’d been any battles to fight.
He felt the mana coursing through his channels—the heat, the friction—stoked to a frenzy by the undulations of the nexus at his back. A more typical power source would have done him more good; he could have synced his strikes with the rhythm of the pulses given off by the portal. But the pattern of the nexus at Hermit’s Cave wasn’t a pattern at all. It was raw, stuttering static, the rage-scream of some tortured abomination.
…Still a thing he could use.
Luke called on his own inner dissonance, joined it with the cacophony. Brought his hands down, clawing, contorting with energy.
The concussion wall struck his oncoming attackers with furious force, again slamming several of them back into the wall, sending still others reeling into each other. A few fell, dizzy or unconscious.
Among the chaos, Luke glimpsed a boy no older than four outside the cave’s entrance, sitting confused and in tears with a rock in his small fist.
The next instant, a fresh wave of assailants mowed over the child.
Luke turned his focus to his task, thrust the image from his mind.
Against the combined efforts of Luke and Severin, the small army of mundanes didn’t stand a chance. Whoever had sent them, Luke thought, must have been banking that he and/or Severin—whichever of them was the target—wouldn’t violate the Protocols.
It was a stupid assumption.
The Broken wouldn’t make that mistake.
Luke sent attacker after attacker flying with the agimat-enhanced telekinetic force from his hurtling right fist. Severin moved with the precision of the trained soldier she was, her daemon weapon one with her intent, changing length, shape, thickness to suit her needs moment to moment.
It was a rout. All they had to do was outlast the rapidly thinning crowd.
But then, it happened.
Luke saw it from the corner of his eye: Severin spinning balletically, bringing her weapon—currently a longstaff—sharply around and down to crack against the skull of an approaching mundane.
Her target—she seemed to realize too late—was the crying little boy Luke had glimpsed seconds earlier.
Severin went rigid, her stunned eyes fixed to the child as he crumpled, bloody, to the ground.
From behind her, a shaved-bald man’s jackknife drove toward her throat.
“Severin!” Luke bellowed.
Her moon eyes snapped to him the same instant the blade punched beneath her jaw, with an eruption of slick dark red.
“Fucking hell!” Luke roared.
He launched his fist, bashing several more mundanes against the wall.
Luke lost sight of Severin as she fell. As more attackers came pouring into the cave.
He kept his focus, swept every last one of them from his path. Readied himself to face the next wave.
In Luke’s experience, time always crawled by in a fight. Every second seemed to take years. So, while it felt like epochs, he knew it couldn’t have been more than a minute, at most two, before the daemon Svarog—a spinning wheel of every-color light with seventeen serpentine limbs, each of which terminated in a face with three grinning mouths and a dozen eyes—came tearing through the melee with a succession of mangled alien shrieks, wheeling and cavorting and slamming back and forth against the walls and floor and ceiling, manic at having been freed from its enslavement for the first time in decades, till the Aether opened with a thunderous crack and inhaled it in.
It was the only sign Luke needed that its master, Polyxena of the Daemon Blade, was dead.
Luke could feel his mana reserves waning. His body starting to give in to fatigue.
He rallied himself. Lashed out at the next round of attackers. Sent a woman in a business suit spinning into a teen with a septum piercing.
A few of the mundanes he’d taken down earlier were starting to rouse themselves, gearing up for a fresh attack.
Luke marshaled his mana. Dropped a branch-wielding man with an agimat-enhanced blow. Dodged a thrown rock so narrowly it grazed his ear.
There’s a chance I don’t win this…
Luke glimpsed the shadows beyond the cave’s entrance. Bare branches dancing in a deep December draft, on a night too warm for snow.
He recalled flakes like crystalline mandalas, alighting gently on the window-glass before melting away. Infinitesimal disks of intricate form, gifting him with glimpses of faultless beauty before fading to nothing.
He recalled her, rangy and restless. Her heart-shaped face framed by short black hair. Her smile, cockeyed and impish. The crooked tooth he’d always called her “anime fang.”
No. Fucking. Way.
A rage against the darkness rose up within him, matching its fever-pitch with the scream of the nexus at his back. Excitatory gnosis flooded his circuits, filling him with the frenetic hum of arcane energy.
No more mercy.
Luke charged his agimat, lashed out with the fullness of his power. The unlucky mundane who took the brunt of the attack went reeling away with his skull caved in, eyeball bulging. The woman behind him whipped around violently and smashed into the stone wall, leaving a streak of blood behind when she dropped.
By twos, by threes, by fours, Luke mowed down his remaining assailants, with a bright hot fury. Saw in his mind’s eye mandalas, infinite in number, scintillating on a field of black.
For you, I will live to tell the story.
I may have lost Severin, but I’ll find someone else who can help.
For you, Caren, I will stop the Broken, before—
There came a crunch. A shriek of agony he took what felt like years to register as his own.
A strange sensation…a different balance of weight in his shoulder. His right arm hanging strangely.
Luke felt a bland curiosity as he turned his head and examined it—his own limb, at the end of which his agimat was implanted, bent backward at least forty-five degrees at the elbow, blood-soaked, gray bone protruding.
The large mundane man Luke had dropped first out of all of them was up again, standing close behind him, his gray hoodie, his blank-eyed face spattered with Luke’s blood.
Luke ground his teeth. The mana channels in his arm remained—twisted, but not severed.
Luke swung his arm hard from the shoulder, sharply turned his body. Lobbed his lifeless agimat hand toward the man’s head, unleashing a charge.
Pain radiated as the limb struck.
The man’s jaw unhinged as he went reeling.
Luke doubled over, cradling his arm, tears streaming down his face.
There were four mundanes left standing.
Two inside the cave.
One with a branch. One with a knife.
…I just have to make a run for it.
Luke sent his dead arm swinging again with a weak strike, his mana now all but drained. Knocked the two women in the cave to the ground.
His path clear now—ran.
The wet chill of the night embraced him. He hugged his arm and barreled past the two mundanes outside, dodging just out of range of the sweep of a knife. Careened toward the cover of trees.
Not fucking today, he thought again, feet pounding earth. Caren—I’m—
A projectile—something heavy—hit him hard from behind.
He stumbled. Caught a root with his foot.
The ground reeled upward.
Without his arms to stop his fall, Luke’s head hit hard.
Nude whirling tree branches webbed the night. Raindrops pelted his face.
The scene blurred.
He couldn’t move.
The mundane woman straddled him. Dragged his head up by the hair.
The knife drove toward his left eye.
In two dim dimensions, another mundane loomed behind the first, thick branch gripped in both hands.
Pain and nonsense.
Another blow, this one to the ear.
Mandalas, melting against the black.
Their bullshit always seems far away when you’re here…
Luke had always told himself he wouldn’t survive this war. And that it didn’t matter if he didn’t, because it was all for her.
Right eye blind now.
Vague sensations of impact.
One, after another, after another.
Cruel, that it was only now he understood…
…Some part of him had never let go of the hope that he would make it through. That, after his long fight had ended, he’d go and find her. That she’d still be single somehow. That she’d listen and understand when he finally got his chance to explain.
Her image, fading.
Luke grew sick with fear before the infinite.
I gave…everything I had…
I wish I’d just…told you…
…so you’d be ready…
He clung to the impression of her face, fast retreating into blackness.
I hope you see it coming…
…before it’s too late.
The nexus roared; welcomed him in.
The darkness at the end of the dream.