“The Created Void”
story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Content Warning: MISGENDERING, SEXUAL ASSAULT, DYSPHORIA, GORE, TORTURE
Fabiana Sosa pounded what was left of her second-in-a-row can of PBR, bobbed arrhythmically on her barstool—a failed attempt to keep time with the beat of “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked,” which was playing from the speakers above the bar, while some local DIY band blasted its bullshit easycore from the dedicated music venue in the back of the dive.
She blew her dyed-lavender forelock out of her eyes, glanced down again at the condensation-ring-stained flyer she’d pulled earlier from the top of the stack on the corner of the bar. It featured a pixelated, black-and-white printed image of the Seinfeld cast, with the name of each band that was playing that night rendered in the style of the nineties sitcom’s iconic logo: Konami Code, Episode Four, Sophomore Slump (aptly named; Fabi was pretty sure it was their shitty cheeseball pop punk perpetrating this frontal assault on her eardrums), The New Violence, and Jenny Gonzalez and the Experience.
Which meant Episode Four should be going on next. Fabi reckoned she’d better get her bony ass back there if she didn’t want to miss her chance to scope out the target before making her move.
She slid off her stool with a little twist, was halfway to the back of the barroom when she felt a vibration against her right boob. It was her beat-up Nokia, growling from the breast pocket of her faux-leather bomber jacket. She dug it out, flipped it open.
A text from Christian: Made contact yet?
c h i l l a x, she texted back. Then, a second message, hastily thumbed: his band hasnt even gone on yet
But you’re at the location?
you know im always on time when it matters, dadoo
:P, he replied. Then, a half-second later, Keep me posted.
Fabi stuffed the phone back in her pocket; whistled to herself as she plodded along toward the concert room in the back. “At last we shall meet, Mr. Navarrete,” she murmured under her breath.
It was a balmy night, but also windy, like a late-spring storm might be brewing. Rory could see thick, red-tinged clouds surging across the swath of open sky between the two buildings that towered above him outside Ricky and Randy’s Tavern in Pilsen. He nursed his cigarette, picked a loose string off the plaid miniskirt he’d grabbed at the thrift store that day to wear over his ripped skinny jeans for tonight’s performance. Mulled the words to the new song he’d written just yesterday, making sure they were committed to memory.
Most of the band’s gear was already inside the venue. Kyra was hoofing it through the stage door with a cymbal stand; Drew trailed after with the last of the amps in tow.
Chillie locked up the van, trudged over to Rory with his bass slung like a greataxe across his meaty shoulder. Stood poking Rory gently in the kidney. “You okay, buddy?”
Everyone knew Rory only smoked cigarettes when he wasn’t.
“Yep,” replied Rory, which everyone furthermore knew should be interpreted as, I don’t want to talk about it.
“Aiight, aiight. Cool.” Chillie assumed a forced-casual posture, free hand in pocket, and bobbed like a parrot, a kind of whole-body nod. “I mean, you haven’t, uh, been using any of the hard stuff again? ’Cause you know if you are you can tell me. I ain’t judgin’. Just wanna help you get the help you need if you’re in trouble.”
Rory fought a smile. “I’m—yeah, no. I’m clean, man. But thanks.”
“Aiight, aiight.” Chillie stared briefly at his shoes, then took a breath and started up again. “’Cause you did kinda disappear with Drew’s van for almost a week there, and then you were pretty sketchy for a few days after that. And now you kinda seem like you’re super bummed out.”
“That was—yeah. It’s kind of a long story. But I’m being straight with you, Chillie-Chill. Nothing harder than weed lately, I swear.”
“Aiight. You know I gotta ask.” Chillie raised his free palm in a hands-off gesture.
“I know, man.” Rory smiled. “I appreciate it.”
The burly bassist ruffled Rory’s hair and walked off—then circled back around, plucked the cigarette out of Rory’s mouth, and stomped it out on the ground before heading inside.
Rory exhaled his last drag with a little chuckle, then turned on his heel and shuffled after.
By the time Jules reached the top of the spiral stair, the hum of music and conversation from the reception room had faded behind him. He breathed a sigh of relief; limped off down Annwyn’s second-floor south-wing corridor, hands buried in the pockets of his tux. Now that he was officially involved in his father’s campaign, he’d been making a genuine effort, for once, to “network” at the Prefect’s birthday soirée—and after almost two hours of fielding breathless questions about the golem attack (which Jules still didn’t particularly like to think about, much less talk about) and feigning interest in topics like Wendell Mounce’s Chow Chow’s feeding regimen and Rowena Shakesheave’s half-dozen chronic illnesses, he’d decided he was badly in need of a breather.
He gazed down the long corridor ahead of him—felt like he was standing once more in front of that mirror at Lit Sister, staring off into the darkness at the end of everything. Allowed himself a lone, small shiver at the thought, then paced on, glancing into open rooms as he passed them:
A ritual space.
A room of unclear purpose that was filled with masks.
He stopped short in front of one doorway with a kind of double-take, having glimpsed what he was pretty sure was a Joy Division poster on the wall in the room beyond.
He stepped over the threshold, switched on the lights—and realized with what might have been an inordinate amount of glee that he must be standing in Prefect Weyland’s childhood bedroom. Comic books, classic sci-fi novels, and enchantment textbooks crowded together in no discernible order on the bookshelves by the desk. Academic award plaques and trophies from Arcanus Academy cluttered the opposite wall. Joy Division had company; there were posters of Hüsker Dü and Miles Davis and The Cure, and movie posters too, including one for Blade Runner and one for The Empire Strikes Back—at the sight of which Jules couldn’t help but smile, just a little. “It’s the fucking monomyth, man,” he murmured under his breath.
Next thing he knew, he had his new phone out of his pocket, staring at the unopened voicemail still sitting in his queue—the one Rory’d left Thursday night after being discharged from Medicinal Magic. Jules’s thumb hovered briefly over the button to play the message…then selected Delete instead…then toggled back over to Play.
After a beat, he exhaled through his nose and stuffed his phone back in his pocket without choosing either.
His eye landed on a shelf of framed photos, and he muttered a small, “Oh my God,” spying a picture of two gawky boys his own age who could only be Elisha and DeShay. They had their arms wrapped around each other, both grinning at the camera, Elisha looking like a punk version of Rick Astley while DeShay sported a Jheri curl with his Mona-Lisa smile. Jules found himself wondering what it must be like to never have to be alone for as long as these two had been together. He’d spent so much of his own life in solitude that it seemed almost impossible to imagine.
Suddenly Jules’s phone was out again.
Again, he was staring at that unopened voicemail.
After a few seconds, he deleted it.
Jules let out a sigh, tucked his phone back in his pocket. Spared a last smile at the photo of the beaming young couple before turning to leave the room.
A strong hand clamped down suddenly on his left forearm. Jules gave a grunt of surprise, snapped his head up—and found himself face to face with Hunter.
Time seemed to slow. Jules’s pulse surged like a riptide in his ears.
He forced himself to consider the situation calmly:
Everyone else in the house was out of earshot.
Hunter had worked out that Jules was defenseless if he couldn’t connect his tattoos. Which he couldn’t with Hunter’s hand gripping his arm.
Hunter had seen Jules leave the reception room—maybe watched him all night waiting for him to do so—and followed him up here.
… How did I not hear him?
“Not so tough when I’ve got you like this, are you?” Hunter’s dark eyes glittered.
Jules took a deep breath, released it. “I wouldn’t provoke me if I were you”—he raised an eyebrow—“unless you plan on killing me.”
Hunter chuckled. “I’ve thought this through, puss. I don’t have to kill you.” His grip began to tighten. “All I have to do is crush this little arm of yours.” Jules gritted his teeth as his radius and ulna bent in toward each other. “Which makes me glad. It’d be a sin to waste the rest of you.”
Jules made one pointless, painful attempt to jerk free, then hurled his full weight at Hunter’s chest.
The wall of muscle was unyielding. It could have been made of cold iron.
… Was he always this strong?
“It would be so easy,” Hunter mused on, further tightening the vise. “Like snapping a twig.”
He won’t do it. Jules counted his breaths. Nothing that will leave a mark. He just wants me to break down.
“I wouldn’t provoke me if I were you,” he pronounced again, slowly. “Unless. You plan. To kill me.”
Hunter’s smile bared his canines. “Let me let you in on a secret, little girl.” He crushed Jules against him suddenly. A weird, almost inhuman growl rose up in the back of his throat. “Your parlor tricks don’t scare me.”
Hunter’s mouth closed on Jules’s neck. Jules thrashed like an animal, choking on a cry of rage.
“See you on the campaign trail, puss,” Hunter whispered in his ear.
And then he was gone.
Jules stood alone in the middle of the room, clutched his chest, fought to get air into his lungs. A corona of crimson gleamed dully out of his sleeve.
He stumbled over to the door; shut it; locked it; then slumped back against it and sank to the floor.
After a few more ragged breaths, he let out a sudden, sharp shriek, bunched his scarf, and scrubbed furiously at his neck.
He sagged then, closed his eyes; let his head come to rest against the door frame. Outside, the wind seemed to be picking up. Jules’s heart skipped a beat as a tree branch slapped a nearby window.
After a moment of breathless silence, his trembling left hand alighted palm-down on the rug. A calm washed through him as the bounds of his being dissolved; as webs of light bloomed before his inner eye, and arpeggios soared through his brain.
Elisha parked the Challenger a couple of blocks from the West Side address Serafina had given him via mirror and walked the rest of the way. It was a balmy night, and increasingly gusty, signs that a late spring storm might be brewing.
He found his young tipster sitting splay-legged next to a newspaper stand across the street from one of those old, closed-down Polish cathedrals, picking the brown parts off a banana with her callused fingers. Her asymmetric afro drifted, cloudlike, in the wind. She acknowledged him with a subtle nod as he stopped to purchase a copy of the Tribune from the stand.
“She’s in the church?” he asked in his Caliban growl.
Again, the girl nodded.
“And you’re sure it’s her?”
“Spent the last three days tracking that voice you put in my head, all the way from Delphi.”
“Is she alone?”
Serafina gave another nod. “Bitch is in there all by herself, for the past half-hour, yelling up a storm. Barely even sounds human. Shit’s makin’ my skin crawl.” She gave a little shudder. “Care to pay up so I can get the hell outta here?”
Elisha passed a couple of large bills down to her. She took them, hopped up and started down the sidewalk at as a brisk a pace as she could manage while still looking casual.
Elisha waited till she’d vanished around the corner, then fingered Buffy in his jacket as he crossed the street. Before driving into Chicago, he’d stopped at the lumberyard, loaded his trusty sidearm with bullets enchanted to induce paralysis. He wanted to take Amelia alive if at all possible, so he could plunder her brains for every last gory detail of her fucked-up scheme.
I’m bringing your family home, spud, he thought, silently mounting the cathedral’s front steps. Tonight.
A sound reached his ears as he neared the arched double doors, and he began to understand what Serafina had been talking about. The voice echoing through the sanctuary beyond was barely discernible as human, warped as it was by nonsense utterings, wild laughter, shrieks, and what might have been either pained or ecstatic moans. The weirdness of the vocalizations sent a shiver down Elisha’s spine.
He slid Buffy from her holster, cocked her hammer as he held in his stomach and sidestepped through the slightly-open doors.
A putrid odor hit him like a slap in the face as he advanced gingerly through the debris-cluttered vestibule—a smell of death mixed with burning feces. His heart gave a flip-flop in his chest as he braced himself for whatever he might find inside.
Elisha paused with his back to the doorframe, peered past it into the gutted sanctuary. The frescoed ceiling yawned open overhead. The room was mostly cast in dim moonlight, fire-glow dancing on the walls at the far end near the front. A graffiti-covered fluted column blocked his view of the altar—but he could see what could only be a human shadow dancing and stuttering in the glitchy orange light, while the howls and shrieks and laughter carried on.
He proceeded, slowly and with careful steps, across the huge rotting chamber, using the columns and the few remaining pews for cover, until he finally gained a clear vantage point on what was happening up ahead.
For a moment, as the scene in its entirety opened up before him, he just crouched there behind the overturned pew that shielded him, staring, dumbfounded. A woman with long auburn hair was frolicking naked at the center of a winding, smoldering circle, parts of which were still ablaze. Her pale body looked slick in the firelight, covered in large streaks of something dark and lumpy and wet. Beyond, above the altar, the life-sized Christ of the crucifix had been divested of its head, in place of which bobbed a yellow mylar happy-face balloon. The INRI inscription above was obscured by a handwritten sign that read, LOL!
For all this, the weirdest part of the scene by miles was Amelia herself. She was cackling one minute, weeping the next, slapping her breasts and clawing her flesh and yanking out fistfuls of her hair. Her babbling cycled between nonsense syllables and animal sounds and intelligible-yet-senseless utterances like, “Right in all its smiling cunts,” and, “Tell you to look above the bottom.” At one point, giggling wildly, she pried her eyes open with her fingers, wide enough that they looked like they might pop out of her head, then fell abruptly to the floor and started masturbating furiously.
Elisha pulled ragged breaths, felt the unique brand of terror that comes with utter incomprehension. He knew there was no rational reason he should feel so afraid. Amelia was unarmed and naked; he had his gun, and his cogimantic powers besides. But watching another human being behave this way struck a chord of fear in his heart the likes of which he hadn’t felt since he was a child, when the world had still seemed uncontrollably vast and full of mysteries.
With a deep sigh he stood, heart bashing against his ribs, and advanced on her, firearm aimed. She was on the move again, humping the filthy floor, crawling around on all fours. He could see the source of that horrible stench now: animal carcasses and raw meat covered in flies, and piles of flaming shit, all of which together made up her erratic circle.
“Don’t move.” Elisha willed power into his voice. Caliban’s snarl resonated through the empty sanctuary.
Amelia looked up at him, still on her hands and knees, chest heaving. “Mr. Caliban,” she panted, and grinned. “You found me.” Her dark green eyes glittered at him from her freckled, filth-stained face. She was average-built, slack-bodied with a girlish cheeks; probably, he guessed, in her early thirties.
“Come quietly,” said Elisha. “I’d rather not have to put a bullet in ya.”
Amelia chuckled, pushed herself to her feet.
“I told you not to move,” Elisha warned.
Amelia’s clawed hand thrust forth with a burst of noxious light. Elisha felt his blood heat as one of his protective amulets—a silver-hued ring on his left pinkie finger—shattered with the force of a powerful hex.
He fired just as she broke into a run. The bullet narrowly missed the back of her knee.
The gig-poster-plastered concert space was small, and was therefore packed to the gills with even this modest crowd of mostly hipsters, some DIY punks, and a few choppy-haired kids who apparently hadn’t gotten the memo that “scene” was over. Fabiana threaded her way through the house, shoulder first; planted her long body against the left wall, in a spot where she would hopefully have a semi-decent view of the stage.
Sophomore Slump wrapped up their set. Fabiana joined in the cheering out of sheer relief. (“Woo! Fuck yeah! Hail Satan! Get off the stage!”)
She settled back against the wall, gnawed on her scraggly, midnight-blue-painted pinkie-nail while the band packed up and headed for the wings, then straightened, craned her neck for a better sightline as Episode Four took the stage.
Rory Navarrete, according to the band’s MySpace page, was the skinny Asian kid in the fraying Dance Gavin Dance tee with the scruffy, auburn-streaked hair drooping over one eye. Fabiana took in his outfit with silent approval: knee-high Converse, black skinny jeans ripped open at the knees, and—yes, the big homemade patch sewn onto his plaid pleated miniskirt confirmed in block letters that the garment was, in fact, NOT A KILT.
The four band members took a moment setting up their instruments, then ran sound check. As the guitarists started tuning, Navarrete stepped up to the microphone. “How’s it going, everybody? As you all know, we are Bon Jovi.”
The crowd lapsed into a baffled silence. Eventually, a few giggles broke out.
“You’re lying! Stoppit!” boomed the big, shaved-bald white dude with the bass, pointing Navarrete down with an emphatic finger. “We are clearly My Chemical Romance.”
The audience, starting to follow the gag, half-laughed, half-groaned.
“Nah, man,” Navarrete replied, “we’re not nearly emo enough to be MCR.”
A disembodied voice joined in the banter, a drawling baritone. It took Fabi and the rest of the spectators a moment to realize it was coming from the sound booth in the back. “Uh, yeah, Rory,” the sound guy mumbled into his microphone. “You are that emo. You definitely, definitely are.”
Navarrete chuckled. “All right, Darius, man, that’s fair. That’s fair.” He doodled a few last notes on his guitar. “Well, folks, you heard the man. I lied.” He shrugged. “We are, in fact, My Chemical Romance.”
“Marry me, Gerard!” came a scream from the back of the house.
Navarrete broke into a shy grin. “And, uh, what we’re about to play for you is a little tune of ours we like to call, ‘You Give Love a Bad Name.’”
Before the audience could react, Episode Four launched into a tight, well-rehearsed cover of the Bon Jovi classic. But, as they reached the final notes of the intro, they began stuttering and start-stopping, math-rock style, and then the brunette on drums broke out in a chaotic fill while the crowd down front erupted in cheers of recognition.
“Oh, shit!” Fabi clamped her skull between her hands as, all around her, concertgoers lurched into motion. “This band is sick!” she squealed to no one in particular. Episode Four’s sound was an infectious, high-energy mashup of pop punk and post-hardcore, and Fabi liked it.
She thrashed her way down front into the mosh pit, positioned herself right in front of Navarrete, who was writhing and headbanging and murdering the shit out of his guitar strings. Fabi couldn’t make out all the lyrics to the opener, but she caught something during the second verse about Old World aristocracy and your democracy’s a mockery and started cackling in glee as she bounced up and down. “Preach!” she roared from her gut, hammering a fist at the air, her black skirt sailing up past her waist with each upward surge. She was totally commando under her shredded black stockings—and she hadn’t even looked at a razor in months—but she could not have cared less.
When the chorus rolled around again, everyone around her joined in. Fabi didn’t know all the words yet, but she chimed in anyway, at the top of her lungs, Frankensteining together some lyrics of her own with the few actual lyrics she’d managed to pick up so far, filling in the gaps with gibberish. She heard a hitch in Navarrete’s callow voice and glanced up at him, and realized he was watching her as he sang, trying his damnedest not to laugh. She grinned and redoubled her efforts, deciding against all odds she was going to drown him out.
Seconds later, she was startled to find a microphone in her face. “Uhhh…monkey-butt hive-mind banana-fart fuck motherfuckerrrr!” she screamed into it tunelessly.
Navarrete brought the mic back to his own lips, but ended up laughing into the back of his hand so hard he missed a whole two measures of the song. The front of the audience kept it going for him till he managed to jump back in. Fabiana could feel other concertgoers staring at her, some of them entertained—others not so much. Either way, she couldn’t have given less shits.
She whipped out her phone to text Christian, still breathlessly hopping up and down. hes oerfect, she dashed off sloppily. im snesing a kindred spieit
Good, came Christian’s reply. He’ll be an asset to the cause.
Fabi shoved her phone back in her jacket pocket, trained her eyes on Navarrete once more. He was still watching her, though his gaze kept darting bashfully away.
It’s gonna be you, isn’t it? She grinned up at him. I’mma have you in me balls-deep when the Void transfigures the Earth.
A gust of wind rattled the window as Jules sank down on the edge of his bed at the Alfheim, staring absently at the empty bed across the way, which remained undisturbed from the last time it had been made by hotel staff the day before. He’d bowed out of the Prefect’s party early, which seemed perfectly okay to do, seeing as the birthday boy himself had apparently left. There’d been no point staying any longer—after his run-in with Hunter, Jules hadn’t been good for much other than doddering around like a zombie.
This is only the beginning. I can’t keep letting him get to me like this.
Jules closed his eyes, breathed a sigh. Reached out and switched on his bedside lamp.
He was a little startled when the light revealed Max’s notebook resting on his pillow. He wondered whether she’d delivered it herself or entrusted it to a hotel employee. He’d more or less clued her in that her quarantine was a formality, and the doors between their rooms were always unlocked, so the former didn’t seem unlikely.
He picked it up, surveyed the front cover. Burt’s Bad Day was scrawled in big cartoonish letters across the top, above a drawn stick figure of a man weeping on his knees.
“Oh—God,” he murmured, with a small, sad smile. “You made it cute.”
Jules braced himself, then opened the book and started to page through.
The story featured more tongue-in-cheek illustrations and was couched in euphemisms and humor, but the tale it told turned his stomach. Jules had reluctantly considered a range of possibilities when it came to things the apostates might have done to Max, and, given his dim view of humanity, he’d imagined some truly awful stuff. While processing his own traumas, Jules had taken pains to teach himself that the darkest potentials he dreamed up rarely came to pass.
But here, his worst speculations weren’t so off the mark.
The sadness and anger crept up on him so insidiously that he surprised himself when he suddenly slammed the book shut with a muttered, “Fuck,” and dissolved in tears.
There was no one to see, so he let his breakdown run its course. It was at times like these that Jules was the tiniest bit grateful he’d been socialized as a girl. As long as no one saw, he could usually cry and not hate himself for it. After the events of the last week and a half, his soul felt in desperate need of purging.
When he was pretty sure there wasn’t a drop of saltwater left in his body, he wiped his face dry with his sleeve, opened the notebook again, and scanned the remaining few pages, summoning up just enough detachment as he absorbed the final details.
At last, with a heavy sigh, he closed the notebook and laid it on the nightstand. He wasn’t sure, after all, that there had been any point to the exercise. Everything about the apostate ritual struck him as sadistic nonsense. He didn’t know how he could begin to reverse a spell he couldn’t make sense of.
He stood, crossed to Max’s door. He could hear the TV as always on the other side, blaring what sounded like some kind of manic cartoon. Max seemed to watch a lot of cartoons. Jules guessed she must find them comforting.
The energy in her voice brought a smile to his lips. There was something tough about Max, something he admired. Maybe even envied, just a little.
He stepped through into all the brightness and noise of her room, and was met by a fervent wolf-whistle. “You, sir, are wearing the hell out of that tux.”
“Oh.” Jules flushed. He’d managed to forget he was still dressed up for the Weylands’ soirée.
“Did you just come from a thing?” asked Max.
“A party.” He hovered stupidly in the doorway. Now he was thinking maybe he should go back and change. Or just go back, period.
“Are you just gonna stand there?” Max was sitting on the bed in her (formerly his) PJs, surrounded by empty and half-empty junk food wrappers, puttering around on his old laptop.
Jules made his decision. Shut the door behind him.
Crossed to the bed. Perched gingerly on the edge of it.
After a moment, turned and looked at her.
“Are you okay?” Max frowned.
Jules assumed his nose and eyes must still be red from crying. The curse of being pale.
He took a deep breath. “You aren’t worthless.”
Max looked at him blankly.
“You didn’t bring it on yourself in any way,” he went on. “And…it doesn’t define you.” He fell silent, held her gaze.
Max lowered her eyes, blinked fiercely. Her mouth gave a small, bitter twist. “I’ll…take your word for it.”
They sat without speaking a moment. Then,
“Can I ask you a question?” Max asked, in a small voice.
“Anything,” said Jules.
Her voice cracked. “After your…what happened to you, um…how…how long did it take for you to feel…human again?” A tear started down her nose. She swatted it away.
“I’m…not sure.” Jules had never talked to anyone out loud about this before. It was like hearing his own voice for the first time. “But it does happen, eventually. If you give yourself space to heal. One day it just dawns on you—you’re looking to the future instead of the past. Not with fear. With hope. You remember you used to have dreams. You start to believe in them again.”
He shrugged off his jacket, rolled up his left sleeve. “I used to hate my body.” He fingered his tattoos. “I blamed it for all the times I got hurt. The way people treated me. And I used to think life was just senseless—arbitrary and cruel. Which it is, a lot of times…no point denying.” He paused. “Anyway. I first learned about alchemy from the introductory course all us magi had to take in school. And I remember like it was yesterday the first time the professor told us everything in the universe springs from the same root—prima materia. I was immediately obsessed with that idea, that the forms of this world are all manifestations of the same thing. That, at some level we just can’t see, everything exists in perfect harmony.
“One time, in the middle of”—he swallowed—“everything, you know, I…I really wanted to hurt myself. But I sat down with a blank notebook instead and filled every inch of every page with adjacent hexagons. That’s how they depicted prima materia in our primer. It was kind of what we magi would call a gnostic exercise—a form of meditation. It took me hours to finish it. I felt…bright by the time I was done, like I was filled with fire, like the primal energy of the universe was flowing through me at reckless speed. Another time I drew that same pattern all over my body with a marker, just the parts that would be hidden under my clothes, where no one would see it. It felt like…” He hesitated. “An orgasm. Like an orgasm I’d been having since the beginning of time, and I’d just forgotten I was having it, because you can only remember that feeling when you’re touching everything.” He fell silent for a moment, suddenly embarrassed. “The…marker ended up taking days to wash off my skin. Hunter flipped his shit when he saw: ‘What the hell have you done to yourself, Juliana? This isn’t normal.’” Jules broke out in a laugh, still in disbelief that he was saying all this to another human being. “God, Hunter hated me. He believed he loved me, I really do think he believed that. But all he really loved was the passive little doll he thought I was. Every time I expressed anything true about myself, he felt threatened. Sometimes I actually think we’re…antithetical, he and I. Like we erase each other just by existing. I, um…guess this is kind of a weird, rambling answer to your question.”
“I’m riveted,” said Max, with a look in her eyes that made him believe it.
Jules took a deep breath. “I think what I’m trying to say—in a rambling loony kind of way—is that what it took for me to move on in the end was me finally realizing that this body”—he held out his tattooed arm—“isn’t wrong, and it isn’t foul, and it sure as hell didn’t deserve to be abused. Like everything else, in essence, it’s raw material. And it is, first and foremost, mine—to nurture. To protect. To mold to my purpose.” He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply. Let oxygen expand his cells. “Once I understood that, with conscious intent, I took possession of it.” Light blinded him. Wind roared in his ears. “Made it my instrument,” his voice continued, from someplace far away. “A thing of power. A direct line to the origin of everything…”
In front of his inner eye, forces and particles danced in dazzling array. Jules tuned himself to the vibration of the universe, his essence swelling with the ecstasy of fullness.
The alchemist held a formula, a pattern, a shape in his mind; funneled prima materia into his left arm. His right hand flitted along the tattooed channels, skimming here and there, completing circles in rapid sequence as the celestial substance flowed.
Heat pooled in his palm. Atoms arranged into molecules, linked together in a crystalline pattern, reproduced at accelerated speed.
When his body had cooled, Jules felt a new weight come to rest in his hand.
He opened his eyes.
On his palm sat a shining piece of rose quartz in the rough shape of a blossom.
Max was slack-jawed—and a few feet farther away from him than she’d been before.
“Oh, God—sorry,” said Jules. “I shoulda warned you I was gonna do that.”
“Wow.” Max stared.
Max crawled over, plucked the stone from his hand. “It’s, uh…it’s wet.”
Jules grinned. “That’s only water. It’s a byproduct of the reaction.”
Max cupped the quartz in her palms, gazed down at it. “My body can’t do anything like this,” she said, with a sad little smile.
“That’s not the point, though,” said Jules. “The point is, no matter what anyone tells you, no matter how anyone’s treated it in the past, your body’s yours. It’s a beautiful instrument. And you can use it to do great things.”
“You think my body’s beautiful?” Max smirked.
Jules blushed furiously. “I meant—it’s—you know—it’s—I’m just saying. You clearly have an amazing brain. You’re witty, insightful, artistically gifted.” He took a deep breath. “I know you feel lost right now, but I can tell you care about things a lot. That you have things inside you worth expressing. So please, don’t believe anyone who makes you feel like your life, your body isn’t yours. Fight for your right to be. The world will be better for whatever unique thing you bring to it. If even at your most broken you can shine this much light into other people’s lives, just think what you’ll be able to do when you feel strong again.”
Max turned the quartz absently in her hands. “Whose life have I brought light to?” she mumbled, sounding dubious.
“Mine—for one,” said Jules, shyly. “You…make me smile every time I see you. Anyone who knows me will tell you that’s kind of a feat.”
Max’s lips quirked ever so slightly. “How’d you even do this?” She fingered the quartz. “Just pulled it out of thin air?”
“I converted my own energy.”
“Oh!” She looked up. “So it’s, like, a piece of you.”
“You could say that.”
“Can I keep it?”
Jules smiled, a bit sheepishly. “That was kind of the idea.”
Max gazed at him, bright-eyed. “You know…I’m actually starting to think about the future right now, this minute. With hope. Not fear.”
“Oh yeah?” said Jules curiously.
Max laid the quartz on her nightstand. Edged closer. “Yeah. And what I’m thinking is that you and I”—she wiggled her rump, kitten-like—“should take off all our clothes and draw hexagons all over each other. Then put our bodies together and see if we merge.”
Jules stared at her. “I-I…”
Her hand slipped into his tuxedo jacket, over his breast. His heart thumped faster. He wondered if she could feel his binder through his clothes. He’d assumed she understood he was trans after reading his story, but sometimes people’s obliviousness surprised him.
“Or if you want,” Max went on, with a sly shrug, “we could skip the drawing part. Get right to the merging. We’re made of the same stuff anyway…isn’t that right?”
Jules could feel his pulse deep in his groin. “You’re…sure? I mean—you feel safe?”
Max slipped his jacket off his shoulders. “My body’s mine.” She fondled his hair, traced his cheek. “This is what it wants.”
Jules sighed, kissed each of Max’s fingers, let himself get lost in her mandala eyes. In this moment, he told himself, she saw him—even if, once she knew about them, certain details of his anatomy might cloud her view.
She lowered him slowly onto his back. He stirred beneath her warm weight; caught his breath as her lips touched his.
“Max,” he whispered, swallowing a lump in his throat.
“Mm—Jules.” She kissed him again, started fumbling at the buttons on his vest.
“No…I…I meant…Max.” He caught her hands in his.
She blinked down at him questioningly.
“I need to make sure that you…that you…understand that…that I’m…that I’m…that I’m, uh…”
“… Not like other boys?”
He stared up at her, deafened by the silence, and nodded.
He tensed as her fingers tiptoed down his belly. She worked free his cummerbund, unbuttoned his trousers, tugged up his shirttail—slipped her hand into his boxer briefs.
Jules inhaled sharply as Max’s fingers grazed his swollen sex.
Her lips again closed over his. He groaned, wrapped his arms around her neck, gathered her closer, kissed her more and more deeply. His hands ranged in her hair, beneath her shirt.
“You’re perfect,” she murmured, gazing into his eyes.
He beamed at her, a dewy-eyed dumbshit smile. Every verbal response he could think of was way too embarrassing to speak out loud.
Max trailed slow kisses down his neck, teased his clit with soft strokes. “Tell me how you like to get off, beautiful boy,” she whispered. “I want to see your face when you’re ‘touching everything.’”
Elisha crouched behind a column, struggled to keep his breaths quiet as he loaded more rounds into Buffy’s cylinder. Amelia was still somewhere in the sanctuary—where, he had no idea. And, thanks to her potent maleficium, he was down to the last of his protective amulets; his bone marrows ached like fire; and his brains and guts felt like they’d been pulsed a few times in a blender. As his fingers flew, he felt a gobbet of blood ooze from his nose onto his upper lip.
“Don’t you think this is pretty pointless, Mr. Caliban?” came Amelia’s voice. The echoes in the massive chamber made it all but impossible to locate her by sound alone. “What are you even doing this for? Money? Loyalty? Revenge?”
“One or two of those things,” replied Elisha, his senses on high alert as he snapped shut Buffy’s loading gate, cocked her hammer. Each of his bullets so far had narrowly missed their mark, some by no more than a hair’s breadth. He was determined not to kill Amelia—if he did, all the info he so desperately needed would die with her—so her limbs were his only acceptable targets; and they were tough as hell to hit. With eye contact, he might have subdued her mentally; but that was proving almost harder at this point than getting the shot. “My motives aren’t so hard to understand,” he added. “It’s yours I’m betting would raise a few eyebrows.”
“You’re a fool,” she replied. “And a hypocrite.”
“You don’t know me.” Elisha gave a raspy chuckle.
“I know your type. And I know who you work for. And let me tell you something about the Auctoritas Magicae, Mr. Caliban: It’s a wall built around a garden of poisonous weeds.”
“You’re talking nonsense again, m’dear,” Elisha drawled. “Listen, why don’t you come on out and give yourself up? I just reloaded my gun—and, if I’m not wrong, you’re almost out of mana.”
“Don’t embarrass yourself. It’s clearly you who’ll die tonight.”A smile crept into her voice. “All that’s up for debate is whether or not you’ll take me with you.”
“Sure, sure, whatever.” Elisha felt exhausted, and sick, and sweaty, and he hated this woman for making him even think about things like the effect it would have on DeShay if he had to ID his corpse. “If you’re so sure you’re about to kill me, why not tell me what the hell it is you think you’re accomplishing with all this black-metal bullshit—not to even mention the whole torching a bunch of innocent fucking people and framing a kid?”
“There’s no such thing,” she responded, “as innocent people.”
“Oh, spare me.” Elisha gave a chuckle.
Amelia joined in. “Laugh all you want; might as well. The world is sick, Mr. Caliban. If you can’t see that, it’s because you’re blind.”
“You really need a man, don’t you, honey? Let me fix you up.”
“You’re funny,” she replied, with a note of approval in her voice. “I’ve had more men than I can stomach, trust me.”
“Is that why you’re trapped in your whiny teenage goth phase? How sad.”
“The world is sick, Mr. Caliban,” she pronounced again. “It’s been wracked with disease since the genesis. Deep down, every living thing knows this. Most are just too weak to accept the truth—clinging to their corrupted half-lives because they’re terrified of facing the dark.”
“Isn’t that line straight out of a Cradle of Filth song?”
“You obscure it with humor.”
For once, Elisha couldn’t come up with a witty reply.
A few seconds of silence followed.
“Well, fun as this little chat’s been,” the Prefect said at last, taking a deep breath, “what say on the count of three we end this?”
“I’m right in front of you, Mr. Caliban.” Amelia loomed out of the shadows. “Come and get me.”
Elisha’s body lurched as a fresh hex seized him. He felt his skeleton begin to strain and warp as his last protective ring fell in shards from his hand.
But the next shot he fired struck true, and not a moment too soon. The maleficer’s knee exploded out from under her in a splatter of blood and bone. She collapsed, howling in agony, then raised her head, teeth viciously bared, and reached out to unleash another hex.
It was at that moment that Elisha’s eyes finally caught hers. The blackness swirled in front of his gaze.
Cruelty everywhere. Hypocrisy everywhere. The wheel turns, and slowly, one by one, we are crushed.
In a torchlit clearing under shadow of night, a small throng of people in black hoodies gathered around a masked man wearing a cowled robe of murky dark gray. They strained for a touch of his hand. Elisha felt a swell of love and gratitude.
Who is he?
The Patient Father. The Almost-Holy. He is the purest of all beings, but he does not deny his own impurity. He claims the sins the rest of the world disowns.
“The dogs will devour one another,” the Patient Father said, in a voice like a whispering choir. “Then, at last, our way forward will be clear. Will you stand with me, my brave and broken ones, to greet the blessing of the dark?”
Who are “the dogs”? A spike of anger. The Auctoritas Magicae? Let’s see how you fucking freaks did it—the May 14th attack.
A jolt of pain. Amelia gave a feeble laugh. Oh, justice-seeker. Look how eagerly you spread your disease.
“The Mother of Abominations has claimed a vessel in this world: a mundane girl,” the Patient Father proclaimed. “She comes at last, in her boundless mercy, to devour the blighted fruit of her womb.”
“Praise to the Holy Mother,” his followers intoned.
Let me in, dammit. Show me where your whack-job friends are. And show me the Harpers; the hostages. The woman and the boy.
More pain. Amelia wailed and wept. Elisha ground his teeth, pushed through it; drove barbed tentacles into the remotest shuttered corners of her mind.
A medley of nonsense flowed into his consciousness—random words, phrases, syllables; a glut of images that made him feel like his sanity was coming apart at the seams:
Chipped human teeth trailed by coils of blood, sinking through standing water in a grimy sink.
The lipless grimace of a dead dog on a bustling boardwalk, crawling with flies.
A wad of spittle exploding against a homeless man’s cheek.
The hideous display began to jumble and swirl, like vomit circling a drain, as a vortex coalesced from the shadows—a point of darkness, cold and infinite.
Amelia shuddered with relief and awe, and a worshipful fear. Come, Holy Mother. Purge me. Let me be the first of your faithful to return to your embrace.
The emptiness began to close in. Elisha felt the kind of all-consuming terror that makes beasts in traps chew off their limbs. He fought recklessly to untangle himself from Amelia’s mind as she pitched toward the heart of that ceaseless void; as her identity unraveled, thread by thread.
Her life flitted past him like a series of silent home movies playing backwards while the filmstrip melted. Stuttering snapshots streamed before his inner eye: moments of joy, pain, curiosity, kindness, hope, betrayal, futility, restlessness, laughter, brokenness, listlessness, questing, rejection, mania, transcendence, comfort, confusion, despair—each forgotten the very instant it touched his awareness. Forever erased.
The vortex stretched its arms toward him, beckoned him. Elisha felt at last, keenly, the depth of his own weariness, his anxiety, his bitterness, his loneliness—all those neglected parts of himself he’d so expertly bundled up and locked away in some dark basement closet of his soul, where they silently festered.
Here was his chance to let it all go. To lay down his burdens and rest.
“Where you going, honey?”
It was earlier that day at the flat, before they’d left for the big party at Dad’s. DeShay stood there cutting the little cake Leshayva had baked. He was looking at Elisha with worry in his gaze. Shay hovered at his elbow, her uncommonly savvy brown eyes darting between her two fathers.
Dark tendrils slithered along the edges of the scene.
“I’ll be back, babe.” Elisha mustered a grin. “I promise.”
DeShay’s and Leshayva’s faces began to blur.
Elisha felt parts of himself rip loose as he wrenched himself from the death-grip of Amelia’s crumbling consciousness—bits of knowledge and memory lost to the void forever.
In control of his body once more, he dove. A strange force like static electricity tickled his skin. An absence of all sound roared with more violence than a rocket engine in his ears. For what felt like eons, he hung suspended in the air as he hurled his body away from the grisly circle—
—then, to his horror, he started reeling backwards, toward the very unseen thing he sought to escape. Debris flew past him, pelted his body, slashed the skin of his face. He grabbed desperately onto the back of a still-nailed-down pew, felt it rock on its moorings. His hands started to slip. He dug in with his fingernails, clung for dear life.
And then, as suddenly as it had started, it ended.
Earth’s gravity was once more the dominant force acting on his body. His legs hit the floor hard, went sliding. The sudden change in direction flipped him over and tore his hands free at last, leaving shards of fingernail embedded in the wood.
He ended up on his back half-under the pew, eyes closed, panting heavily.
Seconds later, a large drop of water hit him in the face. Then another.
Elisha opened his eyes.
Along with his adversary, half the church was gone, and a large swath of the earth below it, as if a colossus had leaned down from the heavens and taken a bite.
The Prefect closed his eyes again, his cheeks splitting in a chuckle as lightning cracked the sky and a dingy urban rain came hammering down.
Episode Four had agreed they’d do a heavier set than usual tonight—even Kyra, though she wasn’t all that into the heavier stuff. Like Chillie and Drew, she’d seemed to understand that Rory was having that kind of a week, where he really needed to stand in front of blazing hot lights and scream his guts out at a dark room full of strangers.
At the end of the set came the new song Rory’d asked to add—the one he’d hammered out yesterday on a burst of inspiration, for just himself and his guitar. After the last whomping power chord of “Trilogy,” the band’s customary closer, Rory’s bandmates dropped out while he played on, plucked out the broken chords that made up the opening of the new untitled composition.
Rain drummed on the roof of the venue, underscored by a low roll of thunder, as Kyra and Drew slipped silently offstage. Chillie dragged over a stool for Rory to sit on, adjusted his mic for him; planted a kiss on top of his head before shambling after them. Rory broke into a grin in spite of himself as the audience let out a collective awww.
He heaved a silent sigh as the stage lights dimmed; let himself drift on the reverb-y, stumbling rhythms of his untitled tune.
He glanced up, spotted that spindly sprite with the lavender hair draped over the lip of the stage, effecting an Audrey-Hepburn chin-on-fists pose, blinking up at him with big Bambi eyes. He smiled faintly, recalling her enthusiasm as she’d belted out her made-up lyrics to “Second Breakfast.” Apparently, he’d found himself a new number-one fan.
You’re adorkable, he thought at her, with just a hint of regret. But I’m taken. He recalled that melancholy Thursday afternoon with Max. Started to strum with more intensity.
The true fans in the front of the house gazed up at him curiously, probably wondering where this new song had come from that they’d never heard before. Several people in the crowd began to sway.
As weighty, soulful chords gave way to gentle fingerpicking, Rory closed his eyes and began to sing.
Someone as weak as me could hardly shake you
You’re adamantine, I’m glad I didn’t break you
So I crack my own bones and make my own way
I keep you in my heart, myself willfully chained
Fucked up and ’fessed up
But before, I always mess up
Hit rewind in my mind, but I’m shit in every timeline
They say you can’t bring back the dead, but I try
while I lie, I say this time everything’ll be fine
But I guess I should just fuck off and get free
’cause I know you can’t stand the sight of me
A heavy rain pelted the wide hotel window. Jules and Max lay together in a clammy tangle, trading pussy-flavored kisses with worn-out tongues. At some point, cartoons had given way to infomercials. To Jules, it was all the same far-off, incomprehensible babble: transmissions from some civilization long-dead and light-years away.
The kisses grew fewer and further between as the two of them slowly succumbed to exhaustion. But they kept starting up again, usually at Jules’s insistence, after a bolt of unnameable fear struck at his heart. Each questing lip-lock formed a silent query: Are you still there? To which her answer was always, Yes, yes, yes; but his disquiet lingered, an emptiness that gnawed the edges of his mind, while a chill rippled his flesh thanks to that cold, vacant chasm beneath the fabric of her shirt, which kept rudely reminding him that he was falling in love with a girl who was on the edge of oblivion.
Sleep had finally, inevitably settled into his eye sockets and bones, bringing with it the promise of troubled dreams, when Max spoke for the first time in what felt like hours, stirring him back to wakefulness.
“Can I ask you something random?”
Jules pried open his eyes; exhumed his voice. “Anything,” he whispered.
“Why aren’t you and Rory friends?”
He gazed at her from under heavy eyelids: her heart-shaped face, sweet and raw and pale, lips blanched, the skin all puffy around her eyes. “That is random,” he observed, with a drowsy smile. He fell silent a moment, took a deep breath. “We…used to be. I guess I’d even say he was my best friend in school.”
“But something happened?”
“We fought. And I was pretty cold to him. We were kids, you know. I was going through something really hard at the time, and he couldn’t understand. He had issues of his own. So he came back at me swinging, below the belt, like usual. He always knew how to say the most hurtful shit. But before, whenever he really went over the edge, he was only a danger to himself. This time, it was different. I guess he really just snapped. He did something to me you just don’t do to a friend…ideally not to anyone.”
Max frowned. “What was it?”
“I’d…rather not say. And honestly I hope you won’t give it too much thought.” Jules found her hand beneath the sheets, threaded his fingers through hers. “Rory’s not a bad person. He suffered over what happened and still does. I know he wouldn’t do it again.” He took a deep breath, released it. “And I know you two are friends, so…I don’t want to make you look at him differently. I don’t think a thing someone did when they were fourteen and really traumatized should follow them the rest of their life.”
“So then…is the issue just that you can’t bring yourself to forgive him?”
Jules’s lips curved in a sad smile. “Actually, I forgave him almost instantly. It was easy. I know how much he suffers.”
Max furrowed her brow. “Then why…?”
“…Can’t we be friends?” Jules finished for her.
Jules sighed through his nose. “Yes—I forgave Rory. The thing is, I can’t forget. It was…really hard having him around these past few days, because it almost felt like things could go back to the way they used to be between us. Like we could just pretend the bad thing never happened. But then it would all come flooding back to me, because of some little unrelated thing he said or did, and all of a sudden I could feel myself closing down. Shutting him out.” Absently, he traced the skin of her palm. “Which just confirmed my belief that any ‘friendship’ he and I could have now would be just this sad, fucked-up ghost of something that used to be…I don’t know…beautiful.” He managed a small smile. “My mom’s a necromancer—meaning she talks to the dead. And she always says the only way you can comfort a ghost is to put it out of its misery. You don’t keep it here. And you sure as hell don’t try to bring it back to life.” He closed his eyes; drew a deep, even breath. “My friendship with Rory Navarrete died four years ago. And what’s dead and gone has got to stay that way.”
Fucked up and ’fessed up
But before, I always mess up
Hit rewind in my mind, but I’m shit in every timeline
And I know I can’t bring back the dead, but I try
I try and I try and I try
’cause it’s gonna be different this time
Yeah, I swear that it’s different this time
Oh, I need to atone
(I hurt myself)
I wake up alone
(I hurt myself)
You said you’ll never hurt me
(so I hurt myself)
Now you’re not here to stop me
And I don’t trust myself
I deserve so much worse
Than this nothing you’ve given me
So I’ll fuck off and get free
Since you won’t be the one to kick the shit out of me
Fabiana had stayed hunched over the lip of the stage through the whole song, gazing up at Rory Navarrete as he sang.
But now she was standing upright, staring down at her latest text from Christian:
Amy has ascended.
Navarrete let his last chord fade. The audience broke out in sober applause, punctuated by a few fervent whistles and shouts.
The maleficer sat for a long moment with his head bowed over his guitar, his face hidden from view by his long shaggy forelock, then looked up at last with a tight smile, raised his hand in a wave, unplugged his guitar, and shuffled offstage.
Thought you deserved to know, came another text from Christian. But remember to stay focused on your task.
praise the mother, Fabi texted back at last, feeling numb. Then she added, will do
She hadn’t liked Amy all that much, so at least she wouldn’t miss her. Still, it was hard not to have some weird feelings about this news. One of their coven had finally, actually done it—gone ahead into the dark.
The next band started to set up. Fabiana weaved her way back through the crowd, craned her neck so as not to miss Navarrete emerging from the wings. She found herself humming the melody of that final song of his, which was lilting and lovely with an edge—a hint of something offbeat, dissonant, dark. Something that spoke of the disease within the seed of the universe. Navarrete felt that sickness, it was plain to see. He felt it in himself—a good sign that he would come around to the cause, given time.
She spotted Episode Four moving together toward the bar and followed. Rory’s bandmates surrounded him, seemed to be touching him a lot, patting him on the back, mussing his hair. The four of them reached the bar and claimed a row of stools. The bassist ordered up a round of shots. Navarrete downed his two ounces of Redbreast with all the desperation of a drowning man clinging to a raft.
Fabiana felt her lips curl in a sympathetic smile. I so feel you, sweetheart. Life is a cunt.
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, marched over. Dragged up an empty bar-height stool from a table nearby, planted it right behind him. “Hey,” she said with a grunt as she hopped up on the seat.
Rory Navarrete turned and saw her there, and got a look in his eyes that said he knew his fate was sealed.