“A Gift for Fiction”
story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Content Warning: TRANSPHOBIA
Elisha hunched forward, squinted his eyes. A fine film of sweat formed on his brow.
Focus up, Weyland. Just another half-inch. You got this.
He twiddled his fingers compulsively in the air, coaxing the object of his telekinetic exertions—a three-inch rectangular wooden block—ever so carefully from its nesting place among a rickety stack of its fellows.
Almost … there …
He jammed his tongue in the pocket of his cheek, tensing as the whole column of blocks gave a perilous wobble.
He halted his efforts, remaining disengaged till the stack had stabilized.
“Hoo!” he exhaled in relief, seconds later, as the block under his command finally worked itself free.
With a wave of his hand, he sent it bobbing unevenly up and over the Jenga tower, then lowered it gently, ever so carefully, straight down onto the top.
“Your move, chief.” He sank back in the rolling chair he occupied in Magistrate Noman Kher’s office—which, to his eternal delight, reclined—and rested his chin on his chest, elbows propped on the chair’s padded arms, steepled fingers twiddling at his lips.
Magistrate Kher took a pull from his canned Mountain Dew and scratched one side of his patchy black beard with a gaunt hand. Meanwhile, a block eased itself swiftly and cleanly from the bottom of the stack. It zipped upward and came to rest gently, with impeccable balance, next to Elisha’s, while the Magistrate filled in another square of his Sudoku puzzle.
Elisha’s mouth hinged in a wry grin. “You can’t even pretend this takes effort for you, can you?”
“Would you feel better if I used a handicap again?” asked Noman, with a complete lack of perceptible irony. He rummaged in one of his drawers. “I’ve still got that sleep mask here somewhere in my desk.”
“God and the Christ child, no. You spanking my ass at telekinetic Jenga while blind is still one of the more traumatic memories of my admittedly mostly charmed life.” Elisha sat forward, bit down on his tongue as he set to work teasing out the next block.
Throughout most of their visit so far, during both Elisha’s turns and his own, Noman had divided his time between pawing through the worn copy of Watchmen on his desk and scribbling away at his Sudoku. Now, Elisha could feel the Magistrate’s tranquil dark eyes on his face, studying him keenly.
“You trying to psych me out now?” Elisha immediately regretted his decision to speak as his concentration—and, by extension, the tower—teetered dangerously.
Noman turned his attention back to his puzzle. Elisha, free of his old friend’s uncanny stare, proceeded with a clumsy but passable play. “All you, compadre.” He once more settled back in his chair.
“What’s on your mind, Elisha?” Noman raised his eyes once more to the Prefect’s face as another block migrated swiftly and safely to the top of the pile.
Elisha gave a petulant grunt. “I honestly don’t know what’s freakier, Nome—your all-but-godlike mastery of telekinesis, or your ability to see through my clown paint.”
Noman folded his hands on his desk and surveyed Elisha patiently. Elisha shifted in his seat, sighed.
“Okay. You’re a pacifist,” he began, after a long silence. “Is there ever a time when you feel the use of force is justified? Even nonviolent force?”
Noman was characteristically silent for a moment before he spoke, mildly as always. “There’s no such thing as nonviolent force. Exerting control over an unconsenting sentient being is the definition of violence.”
The renowned sage and gnostician had a way, Elisha felt, of making an Average Joe like himself feel morally bankrupt by comparison. Though not because he ever conveyed a trace of judgment in his manner or tone.
The Prefect worked a bubble of air between his cheeks, expelled it with a sigh. “So how the hell are we supposed to deal with people who are, themselves, brazenly and unrepentantly violent?”
Noman’s thin lips bent in a near-smile. “Isn’t that the question that plagues our short existence?” A rare, pained look came into his eyes. “I, as you know, choose the easy way out, and leave that function to those who have more appetite for it.” His Mountain Dew slid across the desk to his waiting hand. He raised it meditatively to his lips.
Elisha puckered his brow. “Isn’t it better, though, if that work is carried out by people who have no taste for it?”
The gnostician raised an eyebrow, a mournful grin pursing the corners of his eyes. “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my friend.”
Elisha could still remember the first time he’d visited the Enclave’s Enchantment department as a kid. He’d been in awe of all the hustle and bustle; the magi in their smocks at their worktables, piecing together constructs or carving runes, or hovering over the furnace decked out in goggles and gloves while they smelted aurichalcum and other celestial metals. He’d tugged his dad’s pants leg, all aflutter with childish delight, and demanded to know whether this was Santa’s workshop.
Today, the place looked like it had been wiped out by a pandemic. The main workspace was minimally staffed, and the mood was solemn. Ordinators held silent vigil by the door.
Elisha issued upbeat greetings to the few of his employees he passed on his way to the private workspace just outside his office. His assistant, Duncan, sat inside, right where Elisha had left him pre-lunch, poring over the guts of the dismantled prototype golem.
“Hey, spud,” said Elisha.
Duncan’s gaze drifted up toward him, visibly distracted. He looked even more long-faced and shock-haired than usual.
“Don’t you think you’ve picked over that cursed thing enough?” Elisha ducked into his office long enough to shrug off his jacket and toss it down over a chair, then returned, rolling up his sleeves.
“I kind of wish Enforcement had just kept him.” Duncan gestured limply to the behemoth on the table. “Scrapped him for parts or something. What are we supposed to do with him?”
“Scrap ’im for parts, I guess,” said Elisha lightly. “I mean, hell, should be pretty easy to repurpose all this if we just use our noodles. Take this thingie right here, for instance.” He hefted a pauldron-like shoulder piece, grunting with the effort. “It’d make a nice sort of, uh, plate … bowl thing. A plowl. Which is a whole new type of dinnerware that’s gonna revolutionize the way people eat. It’s flat enough not to jumble all your food together, but deep enough that stuff doesn’t fall out of it. And since it’s adamantine, it’ll keep things nice and cold. So, perfect for eating ice cream. Hot diggity—I think we might be on to something! Ring up the patent office, spud. We’re gonna be millionaires.”
“It’s way too heavy.” Duncan’s voice was flat. “And adamantine items are impossible to mass-produce.”
“No sense of humor today, huh?” Elisha plunked the scrap back down on the table.
“Sorry,” Duncan mumbled.
Elisha pulled up a chair. “Feel like talking about it?”
The younger magus stared at the table.
“Who knows; could help.” Elisha shrugged. “I might even know exactly what you’re going through.”
Duncan eyed him doubtfully, then leaned his folded arms on the workbench in front of him. “I don’t know what to do.” His fingers dug into his biceps till his knuckles paled. “I mean, how do you ever know what choices to make—whether you’re doing the right thing or not—if, even when you have the best intentions, things can still turn out … ?”
When he failed to finish, Elisha gave a knowing nod. “Oh, I feel that, spud. You have no idea how hard.”
Tears shivered in Duncan’s eyes.
“The sick truth,” said Elisha, echoing conclusions he’d come to on his own over the past few days, “is that we’re all fumbling around in the dark. No exceptions. Even the pythias see the future only in vague impressions. The choices we make have unexpected consequences, because we can’t ever possibly be aware of all the factors affecting the outcomes.” He smiled grimly. “It’s a steaming hot pile of bullshit, but it doesn’t make us evil. It just makes us human.”
“Then what makes someone evil?” Duncan raised his brown eyes to Elisha’s.
Elisha considered for a moment. “Intent,” he said, with conviction.
Duncan dropped his gaze, narrowed his eyes. “Seems to me people with good intentions have caused more than their fair share of misery in this world.”
His assistant’s words were still heavy on Elisha’s mind later that afternoon, as he made his way toward the new-christened Office of the Archmagus in the South Wing, far from the ruin of the council hall.
As he arrived at his destination, he heard raised voices from within.
“Whose side are you on, Uncle?” demanded Nigella’s brassy alto.
“The side of Ordo Arcanus,” Levi replied, in a rare fit of pique, “and of the Auctoritas Magicae! The side of peace.”
“Hunter is doing what is best for both institutions!”
One of the Ordinators guarding the office turned its vacuous gaze on Elisha as he leaned his ear close to the door. The Prefect tossed it a sly wink and pressed his forefinger to his lips.
“I vehemently disagree,” the Archmagus replied. “If you won’t urge him to retract his inflammatory statements, I’ll have him in here and reprimand him myself!”
“You have no right or call to discipline Hunter for speaking his mind,” Nigella shot back. “Nor to intimidate him, nor otherwise interfere with his campaign. It’s undemocratic.”
“I’ve the right to my civilian opinion! And I certainly have the right as the boy’s great-uncle to give him a good, round talking-to. I’ve half a mind to demand he answer directly to High Servant of Truth Karamat for the insults he’s heaped on her person, and her noble order.”
“Hunter will treat with Karamat if you so wish. My son is no coward. If you’d ever bothered to give him the time of day—instead of fawning endlessly over that little Nimri freak—you might know that.”
Christ, thought Elisha.
Levi was silent a moment. Elisha could imagine him fuming as he grasped for words. “We owe Jules Nimri our lives,” he intoned at last. “I must say, Niece, I find your intolerance gravely disappointing.”
“And I yours, Uncle.” Nigella’s voice took on an injured tone. “It seems Evander is not the only father-figure who has forsaken my Hunter. If you’ll excuse me.”
Elisha launched himself several strides down the hallway, spinning on his heel the very same instant the door flew open. He re-approached the office at a casual pace, whistling, hands buried deep in his pockets.
Nigella came whipping toward him like a thunderhead, her cool blue eyes throwing off sparks.
“What’s the haps, Coz?” Elisha asked innocently as she blew past him.
“Fine,” came her sullen reply. Her platinum locks streamed behind her as she vanished around the corner.
Elisha poked his head into Levi’s office. He found his father seated at his desk, scowling fixedly down at nothing in particular while he twisted the cap of his fountain pen with white-knuckled hands.
“So,” said Elisha, brightly. “Care to fill me in on what that was about?”
Levi beckoned with an irritable wave of his hand. “Close the door.”
The junior Weyland complied, then plopped down mock-eagerly in the chair in front of his father’s desk. “Gimme the dish.”
“In just one day of campaigning, Hunter has managed to stir the membership into quite the frenzy by casting suspicion on Khmun—and pledging to propose a suspension of their presence in Delphi until they can prove themselves blameless of Thursday’s attack.”
“That little twit. You think he’s just talking out of his ass, or has he really got it in his head that as magistrate he could do a thing like that? Even with Nigella’s backing, his chances of getting majority approval to ban an entire faction would be zip, zilch, nada.”
“I think he’s willing to say anything to get himself elected. And, while you’re correct that he won’t have the means to follow through on his promise, he can do damage enough with words alone. His rhetoric by itself is a threat to the stability of the Alliance.”
“True that. Ugh.” Elisha cracked his knuckles. “Want me to give the little turd-loaf a beatdown?”
“What we must do—” Levi paused, then rose from his desk. He swept over to the door, robes trailing, and erected his shield of silence before continuing. “What we must do,” he repeated, returning to his chair, “is ensure that the sniveling little swine is humiliated utterly in the upcoming election.”
“I like the sound of that. If you ask me, it’s high time we buried Nigella too. Just gotta rustle up someone qualified to run against her.”
“Perhaps. But one battle at a time. Blocking a challenger will be easier by far than unseating a seasoned incumbent. Will you oversee our coordination with the press? You’ve got a talent for ‘spin,’ as they say.”
Elisha gave his father a hearty thumbs-up. “One smear campaign, coming right up.”
“We must also provide whatever aid we can to Thorsten’s reelection campaign. He’s a dismally unexciting candidate—loyal old workhorse though he is. But he can count on the bulk of the First House vote, at least, given Hunter’s shameless pandering to the Rising Houses.”
“Hunter’s courting the Rising Houses?” Elisha raised an eyebrow.
“Indeed; claiming the Interfaction Exchange Program is depriving them of jobs and pledging to end it. He’s brought on that Penn Sawyer lunatic as his campaign manager. Those people worship that man.”
“That is … shockingly sound strategy, considering it’s Hunter. That right there … that actually worries me. It smacks of daemon-counsel.”
“It’s as apt to sink him as it is to float him. First House folk are far more likely to show on election day; and, for all the high talk going around lately, most of them are terrified at the prospect of the Rising Houses achieving genuine parity.”
“Abolishing the IEP doesn’t really give them squat.”
“Having a representative who even pays lip service to their concerns emboldens them greatly.”
Elisha sighed. “Dad … why don’t we just go ahead and push for a serious equal opportunity amendment? It’s a good idea anyway, and it’ll take the wind right out of Hunter’s sails.”
“The order isn’t ready for that yet. We’ll end up with a revolt on our hands. You know I agree with you that forward progress is called for on the issue, but we must tread carefully—else I’ll find myself edged out next election by a Mounce or a Shakesheave, someone thoroughly regressive. And like as not you will too.”
Elisha gave a tight smile. “Just can’t help thinking we might be on the wrong side of history on this one. And it could come back to bite us.”
“It’s a fine line we walk, as well you know, my boy.”
The junior Weyland only nodded, gnawing the inside of his cheek.
“So,” he said at last, leaning forward and planting his hands on his knees. “The question that remains, then, is how to make Thorsten Nimri exciting.” The Prefect contemplated briefly. “Think I should write him a rap?”
“I had thought we might urge him to make Jules a more visible part of his campaign,” said Levi. “Inject a bit of freshness and youth. The boy happens to be popular at the moment.”
Elisha nodded. “Okay, I’ll write Jules a rap. You think since I’m married to a Black guy I can get away with—?”
“I have another engagement in a quarter-hour,” Levi interrupted, glancing at the grandfather clock on the far side of the room. “So we should table this discussion for now and move on to our original agenda. The Hunter problem, after all, will be moot if we can get to the truth of who perpetrated the attack. Do you have anything to report?”
Elisha sighed. “Nothing solid. But I’ve got a lead I’ll be looking into this afternoon.” As a policy, he never divulged to his father the specifics of his investigation—the idea being to minimize the likelihood the Archmagus would be found complicit if, God forbid, his son’s more unscrupulous doings came to light.
“Would this lead appear to confirm our suspicions?” ventured Levi.
The Prefect gave a silent nod.
The elder Weyland gazed soberly at his desk. “Well, then.” A muscle in his aged temple twitched. “Perhaps my great-nephew will have his accursed war after all.” His raised his eyes to meet his son’s. “Report back to me once you’ve learned anything definite, one way or the other.”
“Of course,” said Elisha.
The Archmagus nodded soberly. “Dismissed.”
Half an hour later, Elisha pulled his Cadillac STS onto the drive of the vacant D.F. Waldney & Sons lumberyard—a property secretly owned by the Weyland family that had been put to use over the years for a range of covert purposes—and climbed out to unlock the giant padlock on the gate.
Once on the other side, he pulled his car into the shed and parked it next to the beat-up black second-gen Dodge Challenger waiting inside.
A full-length mirror, bureau, and clothing rack were positioned against the nearest wall. Elisha locked the Cadillac and approached the mirror, reaching into his suit pocket for the glamor ring he’d spent all of Friday night into Saturday morning crafting—one only a master enchanter such as himself could create, which would cast an illusion powerful enough to fool even magi’s eyes.
“Time to put our face on,” he muttered to his reflection.
Elisha slipped the ring onto his left forefinger and watched himself, in the blink of an eye, transform.
The stranger who stared back at him was the same height and build as Elisha—even the most skillfully woven glamor couldn’t significantly alter its wearer’s silhouette—but was otherwise unrecognizable, his bald head and face disfigured by shiny pink scars. His eye sockets drooped as if melted. His mangled mouth sagged in a garish, tragedy-mask frown. The only vestige of Elisha that remained was his eyes—shrewd and blue as ever—which he had kept unobscured of necessity, to allow for the deployment of his secret weapon.
Several more rune-inscribed rings awaited him in a jewelry box beneath a false bottom in the top bureau drawer. These were protective amulets, also of his own design, wrought from amalgams of mundane metals, aurichalcum, and lunaria, the celestial form of silver, which imbued them with the power to absorb malicious magics directed his way. Elisha slid as many of these onto his fingers as he could wear without sacrificing dexterity.
The rest of his costume was waiting for him on the rack. He swapped out his tailored gray suit for a loose-fitting black one, with a shirt, tie, and gloves to match. He traded out his watch, his socks, his shoes; finally placed a quick kiss on his wedding ring before dropping it into the pocket of his gray suit, which he hung up in the black one’s place.
Standing fully dressed before the mirror once more, he put on the gloves, then plucked a pair of round metal mirror-lens shades from his jacket pocket and slid them into place on his nose.
Prefect Elisha Weyland had vanished entirely. In his place stood a man recently introduced to the Delphi underworld as Caliban.
“Ain’t you an ugly sonofabitch,” he pronounced gruffly to the mirror, with an attempt at a smile that came out looking more like a grimace.
He slid behind the wheel of the Challenger. Its engine shuddered to life with a wildcat roar.
The Shells and Bones Tavern (est. 1911) was a mainstay of Delphi’s magic underworld—the kind of shady, smoke-filled speakeasy where, deep within the privacy of high-backed booths, illicit trade deals were forged; whether for black-market goods such as illegal alchemical substances and enchanted weapons, or of the less tangible variety that happened to interest Elisha at the moment: information. The entrance to the establishment, visible only to those who knew where to look for it, was in the basement of the mundane Arcadia Nightclub on Minerva Street in Downtown Delphi, at the back of the storage cellar across from the public restrooms.
Elisha approached discreetly and administered the secret knock, to which a bouncer responded by unbolting and opening the door.
“Got any weapons?” asked the bouncer, as Elisha proceeded into the narrow hall.
The Prefect slipped Buffy from the shoulder holster in his jacket, gave her a spin in his gloved palm, and handed her over. She, like himself, had been enchanted with a glamor—one just complex enough to disguise her serial number and distinguishing modifications.
The bouncer gave Elisha a quick pat-down and waved him ahead through the black curtains into the barroom.
The place was decently crowded for a Tuesday afternoon. A blond man in a tie and trench coat sat alone at the bar, alternating his attentions between a gin and tonic and a Silk Cut cigarette. In a corner booth nearby, a diviner was performing a reading. She was a pythia—apparently unlicensed, seeing as the only licensed pythias were contracted exclusively to the Tribunal—but a young and patently inexperienced one, seeing as she apparently hadn’t built up a very strong tolerance for the aletheia vapors that enabled her communion with the daemonic realm. She was tittering wildly and falling half out of her seat, while her client—a humorless elderly woman with a hairless and equally humorless feline familiar—drummed her fingers impatiently on the table.
The proprietor, “Mama” Zoya Morozova, hovered behind the bar as always, seemingly eternally polishing the same spot on the same glass with the same dirty rag, like an NPC. She never stirred from her post, based on Elisha’s recent observations—and must therefore, he’d concluded, never sleep. During yesterday’s visit, he’d made a point of studying her without interruption for at least two minutes. Not once had he seen her rheumy eyes blink.
Her pale gaze latched on to him as he approached. “Mr. Caliban,” she pronounced, in her brittle, Russian-accented voice.
“Mama Zoya,” Elisha replied in his Caliban growl. He leaned forward on the bar. “Jim Beam Black and water.”
She poured his drink. He left a wad of cash on the bar.
Elisha swept the room with his gaze, taking in more of its occupants. In the far corner, beneath a candle-lit decorative display that paired a taxidermied fox with some very human-looking bones, sat a chubby, middle-aged man, slumped witless in his booth with a half-drunk mug of what could only be black lotus tea on the table in front of him. Dark steam gushed from his eyes. In a few of the other booths, characters ranging from shady to colorful sat conversing quietly over their herbal, alchemical, and/or alcoholic libations. No one seemed inclined to occupy the half-dozen small tables situated throughout the center of the establishment.
“So.” Elisha turned back to Mama Zoya. “Where’s this loose-tongued young lady you told me about?”
The barkeep nodded toward a curtained-off booth in the remotest corner of the tavern, across from the black lotus addict and beneath a hanging star chart. On closer inspection, Elisha saw a pair of black high-heeled boots protruding from under the curtains.
He left more cash on the bar. “You have my gratitude.” He flashed a catastrophe of a smile.
“Your gratitude, you may keep,” replied the withered proprietor, with a leer almost grotesque enough to rival his own, as she scooped up the pile of bills.
Elisha sauntered across the barroom toward the boots, past a pair of illusioners comparing their respective skills via a high-stakes game of glamor cards.
He slid between the curtains without ceremony and took a seat, noting the alarm in the young woman’s eyes as she took in the sight of him. He studied her, making mental notes. She was clumsily disguised in a dark hood and veil; otherwise wore simply a nondescript blouse and skirt. She looked nervous. Out of her element, maybe. Which made sense; she was an informant, not a criminal or a spy. She probably wasn’t used to sneaking around or hanging out in dives. What features of hers he could see, Elisha made a point to remember, for safety’s sake: her manicured eyebrows; the freckles on her skin; her dark green upturned eyes.
“‘Amelia,’ is it?” He rested his drink on the table.
She nodded, fingering the stir in her half-drunk Martini. “You must be Caliban.”
Elisha grinned. “I take it the old lady didn’t warn you.”
She hesitated. “Warn me about what?”
He raised a gnarled, hairless eyebrow. “How goddamn ugly I am.” He chuckled, a practiced, scraping rattle. Amelia looked uncomfortable. “Begging your pardon,” he added, taking a pull of his bourbon. “I’m not used to such polite company. But! Enough chitchat.” He traced the grooves of a sigil engraved on the wall between them. A shield of silence descended over the booth with a soft, fleeting glow. “Mama Zoya tells me you’ve got intel about the Enclave attack.”
“I … might.”
“Now, now, Amelia. Don’t be a tease.”
She eyed him, the bridge of her nose wrinkling above her veil. “What are you going to do with the information?”
“Pass it on to my boss.”
“Who’s your boss?”
“Nosy gal, ain’tcha?” Elisha felt more than a little shitty for talking down to her, but he’d resolved to play his role to the hilt—and was determined to maintain the upper hand in the exchange. “All you need to know is it’s somebody with family that got hurt in the attack.” He sobered, toyed with his glass. “Somebody who wants justice.”
She dropped her gaze, nodded slowly. “That’s what I want, too, Mr. Caliban.” She lifted her eyes to him once more, resolute. “Justice.”
“And money, I bet.”
“No. Just justice.”
Elisha raised his eyebrows. “That so?”
“I don’t expect compensation for doing the right thing, Mr. Caliban.”
“Just a Good Samaritan, eh?”
“What my order is doing is wrong. I won’t just stand by and allow it to continue.”
Elisha leaned onto his forearms, searching her eyes from behind his mirror-lens shades. “Then what I’m gonna need is proof, ma’am. Tell me everything you know.”
“I just hope it’s enough.” Her voice trembled. She lifted her veil slightly so she could down the rest of her drink. Elisha caught a quick glimpse of her plush neck and jawline, committed the shape of them to memory.
She rested her glass on the table, heaved a sigh. “I’m a Pais,” she began. “A lower-ranking member of the Hermetic Order of Khmun. My function is basically that of a servant. Therefore, people often talk in front of me as if I’m not there.”
Elisha nodded his head, encouraging her to continue.
“The day of the attack,” she went on, “I was serving lunch to His Holiness Thutmose IX, Right Hand to the High Servant of Truth. His Holiness took his meal in his quarters with a Kyrios-level associate, someone whose name I didn’t catch. I heard them discussing a secret operation that was to be carried out that night; ‘Breath of the Chimera,’ I think they called it. His Holiness spoke of ‘cutting the head off the adder.’” She paused. “I can only assume he was referring to the assassination attempt on Archmagus Weyland.”
A chill ran down Elisha’s spine. “What else? That it?”
She nodded her head.
He grunted impatiently. “That’s all circumstantial. There’s not anything concrete you can give me? Some lead I can follow up on?”
“There was … a name. An operative of our order who’s apparently embedded in Ordo Arcanus. Someone working in the Enclave’s Enchantment department, but who also has daemonology expertise.”
Elisha’s heart began to beat faster. This meant the guilty party had to be someone he knew, someone who worked under him. And Amelia’s claim about the operative’s goetia prowess lent her story credibility. The fact that the golem had been possessed wasn’t yet public knowledge.
“Sounds like a solid lead to me.” He braced himself. “Let’s hear the name.”
“Duncan—if I remember right. Duncan Harper.”
Elisha could only hope he didn’t look as sick as he felt. “Good, good.” He nodded absently, settled back in his seat.
Minutes later, the Prefect stepped out into the wasting late afternoon heat, slipped into the phone booth on the corner, placed the call to the mercenaries in “Caliban’s” employ.
Made clear that under no circumstances were they to touch the wife or child.
“Well, spud,” he muttered wretchedly, as he slid behind the wheel of the Challenger and fired up the engine. “This guy with good intentions is about to cause a whole heap of misery in your world.”