“Fucking Hero”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb


Rory had thought his eyes were the darkest color eyes could be, till he’d met Juliana Nimri. Hers were black—not just super dark brown like his, but black like ink. Rory remembered his dad telling him once, in what felt like a long-lost lifetime, that some magic bloodlines had eye colors that didn’t occur in mundanes. Julie’s black eyes seemed like a metaphor for her overall strangeness. They made you feel like you were floating outside space and time when she looked at you.

“Did you do the reading?”

It was the third day in a row she’d spoken to him on the way between third-period Divine Geometry class and fourth-period Esoterica. Things seemed to have changed since that afternoon by the water fountain. The two of them had gone from being enemies to frenemies…maybe even friends.

“What reading?” Rory elbowed his way through a cluster of Old-World girls who were taking up the whole width of the hallway, giggling and gossiping.

“You know why Juliana’s so pale?” Mercy Treloar raised her voice. “’Cause her daddy’s a stiff…’cause her mom is a corpse-lover!”

The girls dissolved in laughter. Rory shot a glare at them, his fingers flexing by his side. Julie was an Old-Worlder, too, by birthright, but her mom was a former necromancer. That plus her general weirdness made her more of an outcast like Rory.

“Don’t,” mumbled Julie, ventriloquist-style, glancing sideways at Rory’s hand. “Not worth it.” She then added, louder, as if nothing had happened, “The one for Esoterica class.”

“Uh…wait. What were we talking about?” It took everything Rory had to sound not-pissed-off. His brain had gone all red and fuzzy.

“Christ, you’re a dip,” said Julie. “I said, did. You. Do. The. Reading. For. Esoterica class?”

“Oh.” Rory shrugged. “I mean…is that a serious question?” Mercy and her crew were far behind them now. He could feel himself starting to cool off. Julie always let things roll off her, which seemed to Rory like some kind of superpower. He’d started to notice it was easier to stay calm himself when he was around her.

“You should have,” she said. “It was interesting.”

“You think everything’s interesting.”

“Yeah, but this was. You want the Cliff’s-Notes version in case we have a pop quiz?”

Rory had never asked Julie to help him with his classwork, but now that they were getting along she kept offering. “Hit me.”

“It was about how you resist a cogimancer’s command.”

“No duh. Just never look them in the eyes, right?”

“Well, yeah. But this was how to resist if they’ve already gotten in your head.”

“Dude, I thought that was impossible.”

Julie arched her long black brows sagely. “That’s what most people think. But there are a few accounts of magi being able to do it, from before the Accords, when cogimancy and other apostasies were still common practice.”

“Okie-dokie. So how?”

“By restoring your ‘system’ from an earlier point, like a hard drive.”

Rory frowned. “Our textbook said that?”

“Of course not. I’m paraphrasing. What you do is meditate on a really vivid memory from before your head got hacked—preferably a recent one in which you felt a strong sense of purpose. You stay focused on that memory long enough, theoretically, your mind will ‘rewind’ to when it happened, giving it a chance to revert to your control.” Her lips bent in her now-familiar muted smile. “See? Knowledge is power. Now, thanks to me, if your delinquent ass ever gets mind-fucked, you might just stand a fighting chance.”

Rory felt like he was imploding, like his skull and throat and lungs were caving in on themselves. It had never crossed his mind how bad not being able to breathe would make your head feel—like a fighter tank was rolling over it in slow motion.

Stay…sharp. Not…much…time.

He called up what recent memories he could from the fog.




It wasn’t hard to reach back to when he’d jumped down from the stage to go after Max; to what had been running through his head at that moment, even if he hadn’t registered it at the time:

Fuck this.

Not one more person’s getting hurt tonight—not on my watch.

He grabbed hold of that thought; echoed it over and over, repeatedly charging after Max and her captors in his mind:

Not one more person’s getting hurt tonight.

Not one more person’s getting hurt tonight.

Not one more person’s getting hurt tonight.

… Not on my motherfucking watch.

His esophagus opened up with a painful shriek. His caved-in belly expanded to make way for an influx of moist night air.

He lay there on the wet pavement, paralyzed and gasping, long enough to watch the clouds roll back from the strip of sky above the alley, unveiling a brilliant patch of stars. 

After what felt like an eternity, he managed to force himself dizzily to his feet.

There was no time for self-congratulation. He propelled himself forward, almost quadrupedally, hurtled headfirst around the corner of the building. 

The only vehicle in sight was Episode Four’s tour van. The people who’d taken Max were nowhere to be found.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Rory slumped against the wall, still sucking down large, painful gulps of air. He dug his phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed his sister.

“Hey, Ror.”

“Listen, I need to c-…contact the Enclave.”

“Kuya, are you okay? What’s going on?”

“Fine…just…I need to talk to them. They ever get a goddamn phone line?”

“You mean did hell freeze over? No. You still gotta do it the old-fashioned way.”

“Dammit.” Rory didn’t carry any magical substances or implements, like sigil paint. He hadn’t touched any of that stuff since he’d left the Academy. He wasn’t sure he remembered the sigils for long-distance communication anyway. “Okay, well…guess I need you to call them for me.”

“What’s going on?”

“Apostates. One of them a cogimancer. At Division and Wolcott in Chicago. They snatched a mundane girl, then tried to fucking kill me.”

“Oh my God. Oh my God, Kuya—are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m all right. But they’re on the loose, and they’ve still got the girl.”

“What the hell is going on? The attack on the council, then this? This is bonkers.”

“Just tell them to get their asses out here. Okay?”

“Will do. Stay safe, Kuya.”

“I’ll try. Bye.”

Rory hung up and glanced around, fingers tapping restlessly against his thigh. He didn’t want to just stand around till the enforcers arrived. He wanted to do something.

On a hunch, he headed back into the venue.

Konami Code had just started their first song. Rory surveyed the area where Max had been standing during Episode Four’s set and, luckily, found what he was looking for—her Harry Potter book, abandoned and trampled on the floor.

He picked it up, praying to anybody who’d listen as he peeled back the front cover.

It was there, just like he’d hoped—her name, in a bubbly, childish script, scrawled in faded purple ink:

Maxine Frankel, 1999.

The I was dotted with a smiley-faced heart.

Basic Spellcraft, fourth year; Professor D’Amato’s dry monotone came ringing back to Rory across the years:

An item of great sentimental significance to a living person, or one which said person has imbued with some form of personal expression—for instance, a handwritten letter—will serve as a highly effective means of evoking a proxy.

Rory clutched the battered paperback like a lifeline and scanned the house for Chillie.

He didn’t have to search long, seeing as the bassist loomed head and shoulders above everyone else. Rory spied him down front in the mosh pit, the crowd around him parting like the Red Sea to avoid being knocked down by one of his overenthusiastic gyrations.

Rory muscled his way through the ocean of concertgoers, grunting loudly as some skinny kid’s shoulder slammed into his ribcage. After a few rounds of back-and-forth—and some fairly comedic mishears (“You want cheese in a can?” Chillie hollered back at him at one point)—Rory surfaced with the van keys in hand and sprinted back outside.

His phone buzzed in his pocket as he pried open the vehicle’s rusty rear doors.


“They coming?” he asked, lifting the phone to his ear.

“I don’t think so.”

Rory sank down on the bumper of the van. “What?”

“They said they can’t spare anyone right now. Enforcement has its hands full dealing with the council room attack, and that’s going to stay the case for the foreseeable future.”

Rory unleashed a string of the foulest epithets he knew. “Well, then,” he muttered finally. “Guess I’m gonna hafta do this on my own.”

“No! God. That’s too dangerous.”

“I need you to talk me through a ritual.” Rory put the phone on speaker and laid it on the floor of the van, then hoisted himself up and cracked open a bottled water from a large flat stowed behind the seats. Alchemically purified it was not, but it would have to do.

“What kind of ritual?”

“Proxy summoning.”

“Jesus, Kuya. You’ve forgotten how to conjure a proxy?”

“I’m not sure I even remember how to do a cleansing.” He poured the water down the length of his left hand and forearm, then did the same with his right.

“Wow. Yeah…please, please don’t go after those apostates. You are so going to get your ass handed to you.”

“Abs—this girl they took? Her name is Max. And she likes Harry Potter and MCR and anime, and she’s really, really cool.” Rory set his jaw. “Somebody has to help her.”

“Dammit! Okay. God.” Abby sighed loudly into the phone. “Do you remember anything at all?”

“I remember something to do with the Qabalistic Cross. And…oh. Shit. I need an athame, don’t I?”

“I don’t think you’re gonna scare away too many spirits just wagging your finger at them.”

“Fuck.” Rory fumbled in his pockets till he found his keychain. “I have a bottle opener…?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Rory scanned his surroundings, then body-surfed onto the console between the van’s front seats and popped open the glove compartment. “Switchblade,” he hollered back triumphantly, fishing the weapon from under a stack of grimy napkins, a sticky wad of ketchup packets, a shriveled white-rose boutonniere, and someone’s chipped glass pipe.

“Better than nothing, I guess,” Abby drawled. “Lucky for you at least sixty-five percent of goetia is theatrics. Make sure you cleanse it.”

Rory doused the blade with water. “Now what? Invoke the Cross?”

“Are you facing east?”


“Well, you have to face east.”

“It’s night. I have no idea which way I’m facing.”

“Got a GPS?”


“Is it a clear night? Is there a lot of light pollution? You’re in Chicago, so I’m thinking the answer is yes.”

Rory poked his head out of the van. “I can see the stars.”

“You have to find Polaris.”

“Yeah…don’t remember how to do that.”

“Can you see the Big Dipper?”

Rory squinted at the sky. “Uhhhh…yes? Yeah! Definitely.”

“The two stars on the side of the dipper that’s not the handle—follow the line that runs through those two points with your eyes, five times the length between them, and you’ll see a really bright star.”

“Wait, say that a-…? Ohhh, yep, with you now. Really bright star.”

“That’s due north.”

“Okay, so east is on my…?”

“You can’t seriously be that helpless.”

“You know I have mild dyspraxia, you ableist jerk. On my…right?” Rory held up his hands in mirroring L shapes and put down the one that correctly formed an L. “Okay, east. Got it.” He climbed back into the van and sat on the floor, facing that direction. “Now the Cross, right?”

“Right. You do remember how to do that, at least?”


“First the Cross, then clasp your hands…”

“What’s that shit I have to say again?”

“Sweet holy baby Jesus,” Abby sighed.

“That doesn’t sound right.”

“Very funny. Just repeat after me, but remember you have to say it like you mean it. The daemons have to believe you mean business.”

“Okay.” Rory poised the dripping blade against his forehead. He’d always sucked at commanding daemons in school—but then, he’d always felt silly doing it. Now, for the first time, something important was at stake. “Ready.” He put on his game face.

“Mine is the sanctity.”

“Mine is the sanctity,” boomed Rory.

There was silence on the line. “Dang, Kuya.”

“Fuck. That was a good one and you ruined it.”

“Sorry! Won’t happen again. ‘Mine is the sanctity.’”

“Mine is the sanctity.”

“Mine is the sovereignty.”

“Mine is the sovereignty!”

“Mine is—”

“MINE IS THE DOMINION”—Rory felt his mana surge as the words came flowing back to him across the years—“OVER THIS CONSECRATED SPACE!”

The switchblade in his hand sparked to life with a brilliant white light.

“Kinda sounds like you got this, bro,” came Abby’s voice.

Light trailed from the tip of Rory’s blade as he inscribed a pentagram in the air. “I THEREFORE BANISH YOU, MALEFICENT SPIRITS, BY THE POWER OF SOLOMON, PSELLUS, ABRAMELIN, AND AGRIPPA.” 

Specters of the great summoners of old appeared, one by one as they were named, at each of the four cardinal points surrounding him. Each acknowledged Rory with a somber nod; then, together, they lifted their arms and vanished from sight. A host of otherworldly voices cried out, and light rippled outward from the switchblade with a rush of air.

The next instant, all was dark and quiet, and the air felt clear.

“Did it work?” came Abby’s voice, after several beats of silence.

“Yeah,” said Rory, with certainty.

“Nice job, Kuya. It’s like Mom says—if you’d actually given a shit in school, you probably woulda been top of your class.”


“Okay. Now that you’ve cleared out any mischievous spirits, time for the proxy ritual. It’s pretty easy. I can just go over it with you quickly. I shouldn’t need to walk you through step by step—which is good, seeing as you’ll probably lose signal once the ritual gets going.”

Minutes later, his phone hung up and pocketed, Rory sat in front of a circle he’d created on the floor of the van using salt from old packets he’d salvaged from the many fast food bags that littered the vehicle. Max’s book rested in his hands.

“Sorry, Max.” He ripped off the corner of the cover that bore her signature.

He laid the scrap in the center of the salt circle and stared at it intently, envisioning her face. Her bright, warm, dimpled face, with its haunted hazel eyes.

Once he had her firmly in mind, he picked up the Bic lighter he’d unearthed from the glove compartment and ignited the scrap.

Holding his palm over the flame, Rory began to chant.

It was the cadence that mattered most, Abby had advised. He could take some license with the words themselves, as long as they appealed specifically to Max.

Uncertainly, he began.

“Hey, Max. I barely know you, but I hope you know I care.”

Fuck…really don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

But as he kept his eyes trained on the fire, he imagined he saw it leap.

“Hey, Max.” He pictured himself reaching for her. “I will do anything to help you get home safe.”

The flame, instead of dimming as the scrap turned to ash, began to burn paler and brighter. Rory’s heart skipped a beat as it wrapped long tendrils harmlessly around his hand, spinning out a braid of smoke that billowed and curled in the air above the fire.

“So, Max, I need your help right now. I need you as my guide.”

The pillar of smoke began to take on a humanoid shape. A faraway, childish giggle rippled through the air.

“Now, Max; I swear I’ll come for you. So show yourself to me!”

Rory fell silent, staring.

The ethereal form in front of him was of a bright-eyed child, roughly eight or nine years old, in a turtleneck sweater, Timberlands, and bootleg jeans. She wore a frizzy braid down her back, and large wire-rimmed glasses perched low on the bridge of her nose.

“Max?” he mumbled, confused.

The girl grimaced, shook her head.

Did I somehow summon the wrong proxy?

Then, suddenly, he understood. “Maxine?” he tried, remembering the name as it had been written in the book.

She beamed, bobbed her head.

Max had signed her book in 1999. The proxy Rory had summoned must be the piece of herself she’d imparted to her treasured possession at that moment in time—and therefore appeared to him as Max had then.

Rory stared at the specter. It seemed like a strangely intimate thing, making contact with this little Ghost of Max Past.

… I’ve got to save this girl.

“Thanks for coming, Maxine,” he said gently. “Thanks for trusting me.”

The girl flashed him a corny, tight-lipped smile.

“I need to find you so I can help you. Can you show me the way?”

Maxine grinned, nodded once, and went bounding off, straight through the front of the van.

Rory leapt over the console into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition.

The apparition hovered in midair a few feet in front of the vehicle, her misty legs churning in place as she waited.

Rory shifted into drive and stepped on the gas.

Sorry for stranding you guys, he thought at his bandmates. I’ll come up with a hilarious explanation for this later…

The proxy sailed ahead of Rory, matching the van’s best pace, guiding him through the thick of the Friday night traffic. Bar-hoppers on the sidewalks stopped and stared. It was a blatant breach of the Alliance’s Occultation Protocols, dispatching a specter through a crowded downtown area—but that was the least of Rory’s worries at the moment.

He weaved around other cars at every opportunity, tailing the proxy as she darted this way and that. On occasions when the traffic cleared, he floored it. Together, proxy and automobile reached speeds of up to seventy miles per hour, while the old van rattled and hiccuped in protest.

The apparition finally slowed her pace as Rory rounded a bend into a rundown commercial neighborhood in South Side. He crawled along behind her as she turned down an alley next to a gutted old office building; switched off his headlights as he finally brought the van to a halt behind a black SUV.

Rory shut off the engine and exited quietly, patting his jeans pocket to make sure his switchblade-cum-athame was still safely tucked inside.

Warily, he approached the SUV; peeked in through one of the windows.

The vehicle was empty.

As he reached the sidewalk where the proxy waited, she turned away from him and vanished through the building’s side door.

Rory took a deep breath, grasped the knob, and turned.

To his surprise, it wasn’t locked. The door didn’t even seem to have a lock. The knob twisted anchorlessly in his hand. He winced at the whining sound the hinges made as he opened it. 

Ahead of him, Maxine hovered at the edge of darkness, her phantom incandescence faintly illumining the dingy hallway around them. From some distance beyond, a disturbing chorus reached Rory’s ears—a tuneless, arrhythmic wailing, underscored by a din of clanking metal.

Fractions of a second later, the odor hit him—a combined stench of death, smoke, and feces so acrid that, if he hadn’t been hell-bent on his mission, he would have turned around on his heel and speedwalked out.

Maxine drifted ahead of him down the hallway, glancing back intermittently. Her sunny smile was gone. She moved with reluctant steps. There was fear in her wide, spectral eyes.

She paused finally before a set of double doors and looked back at Rory one last time, a tear rolling down her cheek. She traced her small finger along the crack between the doors, indicating the way ahead. Her lips formed voiceless words: Help me.

I will, Rory silently replied, as she vanished in a coil of smoke.

He approached the doors, bracing himself for what he might find on the other side. Here, the clashing and ululating sounded very near—and he could now make out another, softer sound as well.

A woman’s stifled weeping and cries of pain.

His mana seals ignited with a flash of red heat.

Rory had been planning to ease the door open a crack and assess whatever he saw in the room beyond. Devise a plan of attack; something involving stealth and his switchblade, and maybe a well-placed prank spell or two, if he could muster them, as timed diversions.

That plan was now forgotten.

Rory flung the doors wide with both hands. He viewed the scene in the large, mostly empty room beyond through a veil of crimson, his heart thrashing a merciless cadence in his ears.

Four men, naked in hoods of black, their bodies smeared with filth, occupied a magic circle—if a circle it could rightly be called, random and meandering as it was—composed of half-burnt spoiled meat and excrement, buzzing with flies. One knelt off to the side alone, feverishly bludgeoning a tin bucket with a long white bone. Like his fellows’, his head was thrown back in a guttural howl.

The other three huddled close by, crouching low…surrounding something Rory could only assume was Max.

It was an image he knew in his soul he would never forget. Like her captors, Max was naked, her body so caked in filth that she hardly looked human. She lay on her side, gagged and hogtied, two of the apostates hoisting her upper body while a third sawed through her breastbone with a violet-black-glowing athame, carving a long, jagged, light-swallowing gash in her flesh.

The hairs on the back of Rory’s neck stood on end as he advanced into the room. He could feel the chill of an ancient malice; the din of a host of murdered souls raging against oblivion. He could see the pale streaks Max’s tears had washed clean on her cheeks, the whites of her eyes rolling wildly in her dark-stained face.

Against all reason, given what was happening—she was alive.

As one, the four apostates’ cowled heads swayed toward Rory.

The one who held the athame rose and ripped off his hood, fixing Rory with the familiar black pools of his eyes.

The smart thing to do would have been to look away. To avoid the mind-mage’s hypnotic stare, preempting the same fate Rory had almost suffered earlier.

Instead, Rory bored his gaze into the cogimancer’s, stretched forth his claw, and unleashed the fury built up in his seals.

What he deployed at that moment was one of his old favorite pranks from school, amped up to eleven. The one that gave his victims the sensation that their skin was crawling with bugs.

Although, based on the cogimancer’s reaction, the effect when Rory cranked up the voltage on this usually-harmless prank was something more like shattering pain.

The mind-mage crumpled to the floor, howling in agony. His accomplices stared at Rory in plain amazement.

Max’s captors released her, drew their athames.

Rory lashed out at them, one by one.

The first he struck with the good-old-reliable thunderclap-in-the-ears trick—again, seemingly a more potent version than he’d ever used in his school days, seeing as, this time, it sent blood squirting out of his target’s ears.

The second he dropped with an attack on his motor coordination, which caused him to lose his grip on his blade and collapse to the floor.

The tin-pail drummer stood frozen; cowered when Rory turned on him.

But Rory’s gnostic haze was already starting to clear. His mana reserves were almost dry.

Jesus…that drained me fast.

So he ignored the trembling apostate and instead lunged into the circle after Max.

She was small, thank God, but he himself wasn’t much bigger, and the way she was tied up made her an awkward burden. It took all his effort to heft her slick form in his arms.

Once he had her, he took off out of the room, as fast as his legs could carry them both.

Max’s head bounced against his shoulder as he ran. She stank almost unbearably of shit and piss and rot.

Rory tore all the way into the alley without looking back. Hoisted his precious burden into the back of the van, roaring with the effort.

The cogimancer appeared in the doorway behind him, still doubling over in pain, glowing athame in hand.

Rory leapt into the back of the van after Max and slammed and locked the doors behind him.

He snapped open his switchblade, cut her wrists free of her feet.

There wasn’t time now to sever the rest of her bonds.

With a grunt, he dragged her to one of the back seats and dumped her in it, then sprang into the driver’s seat and wrenched the key in the ignition.

The cogimancer loomed up in his headlights, arms outstretched, black orbs swirling.

“Fuck that!” Rory put pedal to metal.

The resulting bump rocked the van wildly, sent Max reeling to the floor. The jalopy’s undercarriage bobbled and wheezed.

Rory gritted his teeth and shifted into reverse, then slammed on the gas again—then repeated the move once more in drive, back, and forth, back, and forth, wincing at each and every sickening thud.

“I’m sorry, Max,” he choked out, as his wounded charge tumbled helplessly on the floorboard. “I’m so, so sorry. I just—I have to make sure he’s f-fucking dead.”

Finally, Rory pulled the van several lengths forward, steeled himself, and glanced in the rearview mirror at his handiwork.

All that remained in his wake was an indistinct, glistening smear of meat and tire prints.

Beyond, the door to the building flew open.

Rory stood on the gas pedal and didn’t look back.

He wasn’t sure where he was going at first. Just drove and drove, at the highest speed the old van could muster, taking turns at random to put as much distance and as convoluted a path between himself-plus-Max and the apostates as he possibly could.

Finally he pulled into the empty parking lot of some industrial plant, shut off the engine, and dove over the console, dropping to his knees beside Max.

He cut her bonds. Pulled the gag out of her mouth.

She turned her head, spat out a wad of rotten meat, and retched.

“Oh, God,” she croaked, and dissolved in sobs.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Rory babbled. “I’m so sorry I didn’t stop them…before…”

He watched in shock as she started clawing with an animal desperation at her crotch, finally depositing another lump of spoiled meat, stained with feces, on the floor.

“Oh my God.” Rory wept senselessly. 

He composed himself finally enough to grab Drew’s favorite afghan off the seat and wrap her in it, using its folds to scrub clean her face and her hair and her neck.

“I failed, I failed,” he repeated like a mantra.

“No. You stopped them.” Max’s eyes glistened with terror and awe. “How?”

Rory stared at her, chest heaving, and finally forced down the lump in the back of his throat. “Well, I’m…a wizard,” he said hoarsely.

Max nodded acknowledgment, her breaths coming in quiet gasps. She then glanced down at the hole in her chest and winched her eyes shut with a nauseated groan. “What—what is that? It doesn’t hurt. It’s not bleeding.”

“Can I look? Is it okay?”

“Of course,” Max half-laughed, half-sobbed. “You’ve already seen…everything.”

Rory gently parted the blanket in the front.

A black, pulsating void gaped at him from between Max’s breasts. Staring into it, Rory felt like he was gazing past the edge of the world into some realm of monsters.

He wrenched his eyes free, closed the folds of the afghan once more. “I don’t know. I don’t know. God.” He pondered for a moment. “There are a lot more like me, you know—wizards. Magi. Way better ones, actually. Me, I’m just a fucking Academy dropout.” He took a shaky breath, then nodded to himself. “If I take you to the Auctoritas Magicae Enclave at Delphi, someone there will probably know what to do.”

“So it’s all real.” Max smiled, a frail, haunted expression. “A secret wizard society. Like in Harry Potter.”

“Not exactly like Harry Potter,” said Rory, regretfully.

“No.” Max glanced down at her chest, her chin quivering. “I’m getting that.”

The forty-something-minute drive to Delphi passed mostly in silence, except for occasional bouts of reckless sobbing from both the van’s occupants. Rory’s mind mercilessly replayed the night’s most traumatic moments on repeat, obsessing over details. Wondering where those apostate sickos had come from. What they were trying to do.

Why the hell they had to choose Max.

It wasn’t long before he found himself musing, reluctantly, over the more extreme potentials of his own power that he hadn’t discovered till now.

“Was it you who did that?” Julie asked.

This was the second time she’d ever talked to Rory, and the first since two weeks earlier, in Divine Geometry class, when she’d critiqued his homework assignment harshly and he’d struck back in classic Rory fashion—by calling her an Old-World preppy bitch.

“Did what?” he cackled in reply. “Made Gov Hassanpour shit his pants?”

“Not so loud.” She dragged him by his arm into the nook next to the water fountain, gripped him by the shoulders, turned him to face her, and bored into him with her weird black eyes. “You can never,” she said, emphatically, “tell anyone you do stuff like that.”

“You’re welcome.” Rory frowned. “I only did it to help you. He was harassing you.”

“I know.” Julie scowled. “It was…cool of you. So keep in mind that when I say this, it’s only because I owe you a favor.” She fell silent as a classmate passed by, remained silent for several seconds after they’d gone, and then pronounced again, “Never. Tell. Anyone.”

“Why not?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Rory shook his head.

Julie laid her hand on Rory’s shoulder, leaned close to his ear. A warm flush bloomed over his neck.

“You’re a maleficer,” she whispered.

Rory’s eyes widened. “No I’m not.”

“Yes.” Julie eased back onto her heels, looked him once more in the eyes. “You are. You need to take this seriously.”

“Making someone shit their pants isn’t ‘direct bodily harm.’”

“It is too. Don’t you get it? You induced gastrointestinal distress and fecal incontinence. That means you made him sick. Just trust me, if anyone ever finds out you can do—and, worse, have done—these things…” She shook her head, her black gaze serious as a heart attack. “You know the penalty for apostasy as well as I do.”

Rory took a few seconds to mull this over. Julie’s conclusion seemed farfetched, and his impression of her so far was that she was kind of a neurotic person, so he wasn’t inclined to put too much stock in her warning.

So the important takeaway, he decided…

“Aww, you’re worried about me,” he chirped, with his finest shit-eating grin.

“You did me a solid,” said Julie, flatly. “I’m just returning the favor. I promise I’ll never tell a soul, as long as you don’t seriously hurt anyone. But I strongly recommend you knock it off with these pranks of yours, before you end up getting caught…and having a stone mask nailed to the front of your head.”

Rory’s mind paged forward, against his will, to a scene two years later, in eighth-year Magic Theory class. Julie stood red-faced and gasping in front of a roomful of her jeering classmates, her eyes burning in wounded accusation.

I’ll never tell a soul, she’d told him the day they’d become friends.

She never had.

Not even when he had, in fact, seriously hurt someone.

Rory thought about the cogimancer, writhing on the ground in pain. The blood gushing from the other apostate’s ears.

Julie was right.

Though tonight, I only used it to save someone. Because I had to. That shouldn’t be a crime.

“Listen, could you do me a favor?” He broke the silence at last as he steered the van onto the exit ramp toward Delphi. The hypnotic lights of the city’s many glamors twinkled on the horizon ahead. A city founded by mages centuries before, Delphi had two faces—a true one only magic adepts could see, and a false one that masked its many arcane secrets from mundanes.

“Anything,” said Max.

“If they ask you at the Enclave what I did to fight the apostates…don’t tell them.”

“But you were amazing. You saved my life.”

“They…might not see it that way.”

“Why not?”

“Because, the magic world is run by a bunch of dogmatic old windbags.” Rory turned onto Main Street heading downtown.

“Okay.” Max looked perplexed.

They resumed their silence till Rory pulled the van into the parking lot of the Alfheim Hotel, on the square across from City Hall.

“Why are you taking me to a fancy hotel?” asked Max.

“You trust me?”

She nodded.

Rory drove around back of the gothic-style structure, pulled up by the loading dock outside the kitchen.

He helped Max from the van and hurriedly ushered her inside, first through the empty kitchen, then across a corner of the darkened dining room, into a short hallway lined by elevators.

“Floor Twelve,” he told the elevator attendant.

The Alfheim, famously, had only eleven floors.

The uniformed man eyed them both skeptically, wrinkling his nose. “May I see your hotel key card, sir?”

“I’m a mage,” said Rory.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Cut the bullshit. I know you know what I’m talking about. My name’s Rory Navarrete. I’m former Ordo Arcanus. My sister, Abigail Navarrete, is still a member of the order. This girl here with me needs help. She’s a mundane who was taken by apostates and used in some weird ritual. Max, show him.”

Max parted the afghan just enough to display part of her strange wound.

The attendant surveyed it without any visible reaction, then turned and closed the gold-plated doors behind them. His fingers moved deftly, tracing a series of runes onto the wall above the console, thin trails of light vanishing in their wake.

Rory grabbed Max by the shoulders and made sure both of them were standing well within the bounds of the teleportation circle engraved on the elevator floor.

Within a matter of seconds, both box and attendant had faded from view.

Rory and Max found themselves standing on the marble floor of a vast entry hall, at the center of the massive inlaid symbol of the Auctoritas Magicae. In front of them, on the other side of an Enforcement barrier, loomed what was left of the grand balustrade—a pitiful shambles, one of its twin staircases buckled, half the banners of the Six Orders either hanging askew or toppled altogether from their mounts. The council chamber beyond was hardly more than a pile of rubble, naked beneath the true night sky—because the false one that had sheltered it was gone.

“Christ, I…almost forgot,” gasped Rory. His stomach clenched as two mediciners wheeled by a groaning man on a stretcher. “A fucking machina did all that?”

Suddenly, several pairs of hands closed around his biceps, forcing his arms behind his back. “What the fuck!”

Mana-dampening manacles clicked into place on his wrists. “Come quietly, Rory Navarrete, or we will pacify you.”

Rory twisted his neck to look behind him—and saw no less than five Ordinators at his back.

“Rory! What’s going on?” Max jerked away as one of them reached for her arm.

“What are you arresting me for?” demanded Rory. In the scuffle, Max’s blanket started to slip off. “Hey, fucking be careful with her!”

“Who are these assholes?” Max screamed, as the enforcers started hauling the two of them in opposite directions. “What’s happening? Rory!”

“At least fucking tell me what you want with me!” Rory started thrashing in earnest as Max was dragged farther and farther away.

… Do they somehow know what I did?

“You have to help her,” he begged. “A bunch of apostates—”

“Pacify the prisoner,” said one Stoneface to another.

“No! Fucking listen to me!”

The other guard popped the lid off a tiny glass vial, then held the vial in its palm and clapped its gauntleted hand over Rory’s mouth. One of its fellows braced the back of Rory’s head. Rory struggled, but the two guards at his back made sure he couldn’t wriggle far.

A noxious sweetness flooded his mouth by way of his nasal cavity. There followed a mild burning sensation in his lungs. His vision slowly doubled, then darkened, as molasses seeped into his brain.

“Notify the Master-General,” were the last words he heard, as if played from a melting cassette tape, before he could no longer hear anything at all.


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