story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
VIEW CONTENT WARNING
Rory stirred awake from his nap, popped his neck, switched the track on his MP3 player from “Waiting, Thinking, Giving Up” by Balance and Composure to “I Just Want to Be Pure.” Glanced over from his spot curled up in the armchair at Max, who lay silently in her bed—whether awake or asleep, he could no longer tell.
Jules had paid a visit to the Enclave last night after the incident, spirited a cold-iron-reinforced straitjacket out of the psych ward in Medicinal Magic (“Flashed my Martial Magus seal to the admin on duty. Luckily for me, she didn’t ask questions”). Max had lain here ever since, bound up in the restraint like a mummy.
Her face was still recognizably hers, but so badly marred it made Rory’s skin crawl every time he looked at it. Her flesh was sallow and shot through with inky veins, her eye sockets two large, ghoulish gashes of fathomless black. Several times throughout the day, Rory had caught himself wondering, with a shiver, if she might not still be conscious somewhere—just not here. Trapped on the other side.
He sighed, stretched, popped out his earbuds.
Perked up at the distant sound of Jules’s key in the lock.
Several seconds later, soft footsteps approached in the hall. Jules appeared in the doorway in his sock feet. “Hey.”
“Hey,” said Rory. “You smell like mold and smoke.”
“Thanks.” Jules leaned over Max, laid his hand against the side of her face…what was left of it. “How’s she been?”
“Quiet,” said Rory.
“That’s good, I guess.” Jules sounded unsure. “She eat?”
“I don’t know how to get her to.”
“Let me get a shower. Then I’ll try.”
“Not yet. I will later.”
Jules slipped into the hall, returned ten minutes later with wet hair, in a fresh t-shirt and shorts. He checked Max’s vitals, then tried to coax her into swallowing spoonfuls of a banana mashed in milk. It all kept dribbling out onto her chin, which made Rory want to gag. Jules kept asking Max to nod if she could hear him, but no sign of a response.
“I can probably figure out a way to get nutrients into her bloodstream directly, like an IV,” said Jules. Held up his bandaged wrist. “Just have to fix my tattoos first. Hopefully we can get her to swallow something in the meantime.”
“So the wrist is healing okay?”
“Yeah, it’ll be fine. Your hand?”
“All good. Thank God for panchrest.”
“No fucking joke.” Jules gazed down at Max. His shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. He set the bowl of banana-milk mix on the nightstand, leaned down, cupped her face again. Whispered something to her Rory couldn’t hear.
Rory couldn’t understand how Jules still looked at Max with so much warmth in his eyes. All Rory saw now when he looked at her was an alien. Something in his bones told him the cool, cute, quippy girl he’d met at his show in the rain, in what felt like some way-back lifetime, wasn’t here anymore.
That something else…or maybe just nothing…had taken her place.
“Rory,” said Jules suddenly.
Rory snapped to attention.
Max’s head had begun to move a little. She was murmuring incoherently.
“Max?” Jules stretched out beside her, stroked her hair. She turned her head toward him, stared at him out of those two black gashes in her face. The scene sent a shiver down Rory’s spine.
Max’s whispers evolved into ghostly whimpers and moans. She struggled weakly in her straitjacket.
“Max, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” whispered Jules. “You tried to hurt us. You tried to hurt yourself. I hate doing this to you. I fucking hate it.”
She fell silent a moment, her empty gaze darting this way and that, face slack as if she was trying to listen.
“Can you hear me, love? It’s Jules. I’m right here. Rory’s here too. Rory, say something.”
Rory stared, his voice stuck in his throat.
Jules shot him a stern look. “Say something.”
“H-hi,” Rory croaked.
“See? That was Rory. We’re both here, both with you. Let me know you can hear me, okay, Max? If you can’t speak, just nod.”
Max locked her eyeless gaze on him for a second.
Then, her jaws stretched in an ear-splitting scream.
Rory was out the door and halfway across the living room before he even realized he was in motion. His whole body was shaking, ears vibrating like a gong, vision telescoping, the shadows all around him closing in. He fantasized about barreling out of the suite and down the stairs all the way to the lobby, out of the building toward the square, jumping the first bus out of Delphi, never to return.
Instead, he went around turning on every light in the room, and in the vestibule, and in the kitchen. Turned on the TV, not so loud it drowned out the sounds Max made, or even the occasional sound of Jules talking in the moments she fell silent, but loud enough to impart some semblance of normalcy to the space.
He finally sat down in the middle of the couch, hugged himself, shook, sucked in ragged breaths.
Why am I here. I don’t love her. I hardly even know her. She’s a fucking monster.
Once he found an ounce of wherewithal, he jumped up, turned the room upside down for his lighter and Marlboro Smooths, fired up on the spot.
The door to Max’s room closed, and Jules appeared from the hallway. If he noticed Rory was smoking indoors, he gave no reaction. Just stood there, looking ashen and unsteady on his legs.
“I put her out again.” He sounded tired.
“Dude, I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry,” Rory exploded, like a dam had broken. “I tried. I really did. I’m an asshole and a coward and I just—I can’t. I can’t even stand to look at her anymore. Maybe that means I never loved her. Maybe I don’t even know what love is. I don’t know. I’m scum. I’m a shitstain. I’m sorry, and I’m letting you down again, and—I should just go. ’Cause the last thing you need around here is another fucking basket case.”
“Rory,” said Jules, dully.
It wasn’t till Rory stopped talking that he felt the strange, dry sobs raking his lungs.
Jules shuffled over to him, looked him in the face. His lower lip was trembling—which made Rory want to put out his cigarette in his own eye.
“I’m so sorry,” said Rory again. “I can’t help anymore. I can’t handle her like this. I just can’t. Fuck. Fuck. I am such a waste of space.”
Jules inhaled as if to speak a time or two before he finally managed words. Even then, they were little more than voiceless croaks:
“Can you handle me?”
The question bewildered Rory enough that his tears immediately ceased. “I-I don’t—huh?”
Jules swallowed; asked again, more clearly: “Can you handle me?”
Rory felt a stab of fear. “What do you mean? Are you s-sick now too?”
Jules closed his eyes with a little funny smile, shook his head.
“I don’t understand,” said Rory.
Jules looked at him. “I,” he said, pointing toward Max’s bedroom, “will handle her. Can you handle me?”
Rory blinked, breathed heavily through his nose. “You mean…you want me to stay…not for her…for you?”
Rory cleared his throat. Took a drag. “Yeah. I can do that.”
Jules gave another nod, passed a hand over his eyes. “Um…I’ll make sure she’s really well-sedated whenever I’m away. All I’ll ask then is that you check in on her every so often and make sure she’s breathing, call me if you notice changes. I’ll rustle up something more reliable than cell phones so we can keep in touch whenever I’m out.”
Rory nodded, took another drag. “I’m really, really sorry I can’t be more—”
“You’re giving me what I’m asking for,” Jules cut him off. “That’s enough. Honestly, I don’t have enough energy right now to perform some useless effort to relieve your incurable guilt.”
“Fair enough.” Rory stopped himself just short of saying sorry again. Picked up a half-drunk glass of water off the coffee table, dropped his cigarette in it. “Look. When all this is over, I’m getting out of your way. It’s you who should be with Max. I think that’s more obvious now than ever.”
“I’m really not thinking that far ahead at the moment.”
“That just proves my point.”
Jules exhaled through his nose, a little wry puff. “I think all we’ve learned about me from all this is that I have a raging savior complex.”
Rory took a deep breath, studied his old friend. Watched as he gazed off, looking infinitely tired, then closed his eyes; exhaled something like a laugh.
“Rory. Rory. Rory.”
“Jules…Jules…Jules?” Rory tentatively replied.
“I promised you this would all be over in a week.”
“Yeah. You did.”
Jules looked at him. “I promised it days ago.”
Rory was silent a moment. “You’re not planning to turn her over to the Enclave after all. Are you?”
Jules looked remorseful. “I can’t.”
Rory took a deep breath. Let this sink in.
“You walked away from something for me,” said Jules, “and part of me feels like I owe you the same courtesy. But…I’m so sorry, Rory. This has to be my burden. I don’t even really know why.”
Rory felt a strange smile touch his lips. “You don’t owe me anything. I’m the one who owes you, remember?”
“And if you need to walk away from this, okay,” Jules went on. “’Cause I might be marching off a cliff here. And I don’t want to take you down with me.”
“I admit, Jules, I don’t understand why you can’t just jump off the freaking sinking ship. But if you really can’t…” Rory took a deep breath. “…then…like I said before. I’m here for whatever you need.”
Jules looked at Rory. A ghost of a smile softened his lips. “I think you understand better than you think,” he said, half to himself. Then: “Rory, I know we said all that shit about you owing me, but I want you to know you really don’t—you don’t owe me anything, either.”
Rory lowered his gaze, smiled ruefully. “I can’t agree with that.”
Jules waved him off. “Agree or disagree. I just…” He was silent a moment. “I don’t want anything between us to be based on accounting.”
Rory looked up at Jules, found him gazing steadily back. They looked into each other’s eyes for several seconds.
At last, Rory cleared his throat. “I read you loud and clear.” He paused, held Jules’s gaze. “Still here.”
Jules continued gazing back at him.
He then looked away. Blinked hard. “Cool.” Rubbed his neck, heaved a sigh. “I dunno about you, but God—I could use one fucking night of doing nothing but bullshit.”
“… Dumb TV?”
“I bought longganisa yesterday at the Asian market,” Rory went on. “Could fry some up. Get the rice cooker going.”
Jules perked up ever so faintly. “Longganisa is my favorite Filipino food.”
“I know.” Rory grinned, waved toward the couch. “Go put on TV Land or something. I’ll get dinner started. You want tea, too? Chamomile or something?”
Jules looked at him, exhaled, visibly uncoiled. “Chamomile would be perfect. Thanks.”
Rory went to the kitchen, put on some water, got the rice going and the sausages simmering. Returned to find Jules curled up on the couch, Adam West’s Batman playing on the TV.
“Yoooo,” said Rory.
“I found downloads of the whole series,” said Jules.
“Marathon?” Rory grinned.
Rory grabbed an open bag of Cheddar & Sour Cream Ruffles off the table, plopped down on the couch. Jules scooted closer, squirreled a chip out of the bag.
They both crunched in silence for a few minutes, their collective exhaustion suddenly palpable. Snickered occasionally, feebly, at the show’s dated antics.
“I did have a thing for Dick, you know,” mumbled Jules out of the blue.
Rory felt his eyebrows shoot straight up into his bangs.
“Grayson, that is.” Jules’s lips quirked in a feline grin.
“Word?” said Rory, very casually.
“Yeah, look at him. He’s adorkable. Twinky as fuck.”
An awkward silence followed—or at least Rory found it awkward—as he tried to come up with a non-weird response. “You know, I, uh…I kind of liked some boys, too.”
“… Yeah?” Jules’s eyes remained fixed on the TV.
“Like Gerard Way in the ‘Helena’ video.”
“Oh my God.” Jules rolled his eyes. “I watched that video over and over when it came out on YouTube and felt so many things.”
Jules stuffed another chip in his face. “Haven’t seen it in ages.”
Rory grabbed his laptop off the coffee table, pulled up YouTube. Full-screened the iconic MCR music video, featuring the frontman with his messy dyed-black hair and smudgy eyeshadow howling and hissing and pleading and menacing the camera.
Jules’s shoulder touched Rory’s as he leaned in to watch. “God, he’s beautiful. His raw energy.”
“I wanted to date him and be him,” said Rory.
“Same.” Jules crunched another chip, gazed at the screen. “You kinda perform like that.”
Rory blinked. “How would you know…?”
“Told you, dummy. I looked at your band’s MySpace.”
“Your ex-band, I mean. Is it a sore subject?”
Rory sighed. “A little.”
“You and me should start a band.”
“Dude! That would rule. You still play keys?”
“Less these days.” There was regret in Jules’s voice.
“I bet you still got it. You were the best I’ve ever met, even back then. We could do like a math rock/old-school emo thing.”
“Dude, hell yeah.”
Is this really happening? Rory realized he was holding his breath, afraid if he made any sudden moves he would break it.
“When all this shit is over”—Jules’s full weight relaxed against Rory’s side—“we’ll get out there and take the scene by storm.” His hand dove back into the bag of chips.
“When all this is over,” Rory echoed, and nodded. Exhaled. Grinned.
Fabi dragged aside the manhole cover, dropped down, cast an illumination spell. Wandered through the darkened sewer till she found the cramped hidden passage that led to the sealed-off abandoned freight tunnels underneath Chicago. Ducked beneath the mess of hanging red tape.
She hadn’t been down here in a while. Some of the Brothers and Sisters had gotten creative since she’d last seen the place. Old construction debris had been arranged into uncanny sculptures lining the tunnels on either side, decorated with such trash pickings as rotting meat, clothes, dolls, wigs. A grinning, stinking corpse in fetish gear posed in front of a graffitied legend that read, GOLDEN AGE. A collage labeled LEGACY featured a blown-up still from a hardcore porno of three people fucking, their heads replaced with Levi and Elisha Weyland’s and Hunter Lockwood’s.
Oh fuck—Lockwood. Fabi stopped, stared at the image. That’s who that was in Rory’s dream.
She trudged on, past a mural of news clippings about the May 14th attack, past some Brothers in the middle of a violent orgy, past a few more Sisters and Brothers meditating.
The closer she got to Christian’s sanctuary, the more reality seemed to loosen. Electric sensations crawled all over her skin. An unnerving hum grew louder in her ears. Small objects listed off their moorings. Fabi’s clothes got lighter, her hair started to stand on end, her feet to have trouble gripping the Earth.
She stepped into the small, candle-crowded section of tunnel Christian had partitioned off for himself, cast a glance around at all his self-portraits arranged on easels in a series, showing his face becoming gradually more featureless and incoherent. Stopped at the edge of the binding circle that took up most of the floor; found herself swaying like she might lift up off her feet. “Yo, Christian. I like what you’ve done with the place.”
Christian stood on the far side of the binding circle, between two antique full-length mirrors directly facing one another, staring fixedly into one of them. “Fabiana. Good. We need to talk about Navarrete.”
Fabi had always gotten along okay with Christian, but secretly she thought he was one creepy motherfucker—kind of an older dude, absurdly tall, gaunt, with razor-sharp cheekbones and a high forehead. Always immaculately groomed, graying blond hair in a slick ponytail that trailed to his tailbone. Wore a ton of silver rings. He came from one of those magic bloodlines that had weird eyes—in his case, pale, colorless starbursts ringed with black.
“Got nothing new to report, bruh.” She shrugged. “Open to ideas.”
Christian remained motionless. “You need to find him.”
“Dude. I would if I could. Like I told you, he’s got my number blocked. I went to his Mom’s house in Springdale. He hasn’t been staying there. Tried going to one of his band’s shows. They don’t know where he is either…or if they do the fucking pricks won’t tell me.”
“I don’t have time for this, Fabiana. I’ve got a gun-slinging cogimancer with a teenager giving me all the trouble I can handle. Find him.”
“Like I said—trying.”
“And if you can’t get him to swear the oath, kill him.”
Fabi stared. “Christian…I’m not a fucking fighter. I’m a fucking dreamweaver. Rory Navarrete would wipe the fucking floor with my ass.”
“You’ve gained a measure of his trust. Make a plan. Then, if the necessity arises, strike when he’s vulnerable, and be efficient about it.”
“If I had his trust, he wouldn’t have fucking blocked me.”
“If he’s not on our side, we sure as hell don’t want him on someone else’s. Get his oath, or get rid of him.” Christian stirred to life, drew his athame. Paced crisply to his neatly-organized shelf of daemonology tomes. Plucked a book from the top shelf, opened it. His daemon, currently taking the form of a tall, stringless, featureless wooden marionette, rose from its pages with a whoosh and loomed against the ceiling.
Christian’s tranquil stare settled on Fabi. “Or should I go now and hunt him down myself?”
“No! I’ll fucking handle it. Christ.”
“Good.” Christian snapped the book shut; the daemon vanished.
He sheathed his athame, resumed his mirror vigil. “You may go.”
Fabi stalked back through the freight tunnels, swearing under her breath, clenching her fists till they shook.
Don’t let it come to that, B.
I know it in my gut—you and me are supposed to go out together.
Every morning for the past week, Cyrano had stared at himself in the mirror over the bathroom sink, trying to figure out which he saw:
His father’s son—ambitious, shrewd, set on scheming his way to the top.
Jules Nimri’s friend—vulnerable, empathic, introspective.
Or Hunter Lockwood’s…
“Faggot?” he whispered to his reflection. Felt a shiver run down his spine.
Who am I when no one else sees?
He remembered the look on Hunter’s face that night he’d come to the house, when Cyrano had gone lifeless in his grip. He’d replayed that moment over and over in his head—the only moment in his life he hadn’t felt like he was running away from something.
From being a penniless No-Name.
From being soft, sensitive, weak.
From his father’s disapproval.
From the gaping hole his mother’s death had left through his middle.
You’re smart. You know how to present yourself, Jules had said to him once, during one of their rambling conversations. You really could do or be anything you wanted.
Those words had haunted Cyrano.
Anything I wanted…
Hunter’s face again flashed in front of him. Hunter, his hunger unmasked.
Cyrano closed his eyes. Remembered the men’s room at Lunaria Club, getting down on his hands and knees, licking his own cum off the floor while Hunter stood over him. Going back to the party and acting like his life hadn’t just been shattered in a million pieces. Getting sloppy-drunk and high, laughing and joking with the others while Hunter’s gaze burned a hole in him.
You didn’t have to break me.
But I guess you wanted me broken.
Maybe that’s what I wanted, too.
Cyrano stared at his reflection. Saw someone small and tired, but resolved.
I’m done with running.
Done pretending I’m a strong person, or good.
Done acting like I haven’t known what I wanted from the start.
He wiped his nose on the back of his hand, plopped down on the toilet lid, grabbed his phone off the shelf above the sink.
Hunter’s man was there with the car within the hour. Escorted Cyrano through the vaunted halls of Laconia like an honored guest.
Hunter was waiting for him, pacing like a panther, in an opulent, high-ceilinged parlor. Spoke only to dismiss his servant.
The scarlet barrier erupted from his chest, enveloped the room.
He and Cyrano exchanged no words. Cyrano simply handed over his phone with the photos on the screen.
Hunter stared at them in silence for a time.
“These are dated days ago,” he said at last. “Why didn’t you tell me about them sooner?”
“I was hedging my bets,” said Cyrano. “Playing both you and Jules. Waiting to see how things would shake out.”
Hunter’s smoldering eyes burned into him. “Then you’re confessing outright: You have been disloyal.”
“No,” said Cyrano. “Truth is, I picked my side from the start.”
Hunter stared at him, uncomprehending.
“I like Jules,” Cyrano went on. “He’s a good person and a good friend. He never once asked me to do anything for him. Just wanted to know me.”
Hunter’s expression turned fierce.
“And I would kill him if you asked me to,” added Cyrano, softly.
The anger drained out of Hunter’s expression. He stood there, blinking at Cyrano. Cyrano gazed back. Waiting.
Hunter took Cyrano’s nose between his knuckles, pinched it shut. Cyrano didn’t move, didn’t open his mouth to breathe. Just continued gazing into Hunter’s eyes.
Just as his head started to throb and his vision turned spotty, Hunter let go.
Cyrano was still gulping air into his lungs when Hunter’s mouth closed over his.
His head reeled from the lack of oxygen. Hunter’s hands were under his clothes, Hunter’s tongue in his throat. The urgent breath Cyrano sucked through his nose made him dizzy with Hunter’s scent.
“I’d do anything for you,” he gasped as Hunter pulled away, and felt ecstatic instead of embarrassed or afraid.
Hunter was shaking. He traced the side of Cyrano’s face, his expression strangely soft. “I have something to show you.” He cleared his throat. “You must tell no one.”
“I swear,” Cyrano said.
Hunter doffed his suit jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned his shirt. Began discarding his clothes on a nearby chair.
When he peeled off his undershirt, Cyrano saw it—the advanced goetian circle scarified onto his sculpted chest. It could only be Magistrate Lockwood’s work. The symbol at its center tugged at Cyrano’s memory, like it was something he should remember from school.
The Master-Savant went on to disrobe completely. Cyrano’s eye trailed down to his hard, heavy shaft in its nest of gold curls.
Hunter closed his eyes, arranged his hands in intricate positions over his chest, began muttering an incantation in Enochian. The scarified circle took on a crimson glow.
The air bristled with charge. Red tongues of lightning arced out from the circle. Hunter’s voice, as he repeated his chant, grew deeper, seemed to resonate from all directions, like a shifting of the earth.
At last he ceased his chant. Its echoes lingered on the air. Cyrano held his breath. Every hair on his body stood erect.
Hunter’s eyes sprang open, blazing like live coals. A low rumble erupted from his throat.
His body began to expand, heels rising off the ground into digitigrade joints. The hair on his head and pubis blackened, spread over his legs, face, neck. Claws sprouted from his fingernail beds. Toes merged to form cloven hooves. Bony points erupted from his skull, curled upward, extended into fearsome horns.
Cyrano trembled, sank to his knees, sensing the power of the ancient being that stood before him—and having heard its name all his life spoken with reverence and fear.
“Ba’al,” he breathed. “Lord of Aether.”
The King of Daemons grinned down on him with its massive bull-snout, its hairless torso writhing with muscle. Black feathered wings unfurled from its back, snapped to their full, daunting span, sending a gust through the room that almost knocked Cyrano flat. Cyrano craned his neck to look up at its face, quaking in awe.
“The Lord of Aether,” replied a voice that, though octaves deeper, was discernibly Hunter’s, “has become my slave, sworn to do my bidding. With this assurance, none of my aims can fail.”
Cyrano prostrated himself, tears streaming down his face. “I knew—I knew you were a god. I knew I was made to serve you.”
Hunter’s hooves moved to stand in front of him, their weight sending tremors through the floor. Cyrano raised his head, convulsing with sobs of rapture.
Above him, the hairy sheath between Hunter’s thighs had risen like a mast. A pink shaft protruded from its tip, extended an arm’s length from his massive pelvis.
“My Lord—yes,” Cyrano breathed. “I will serve you forever.”
He pushed himself up onto his knees, took the bovine cock in both hands, and brought it to his lips.
PART THREE, THE STUNNING CONCLUSION, COMING THIS SPRING
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER FORTY-SIX
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Follow us on Twitter or Mastodon for updates, and join our Patreon for behind-the-scenes glimpses and extended content.
Want to start back at the beginning?
Download the complete Part One for free in ebook format.