“They Perched on Their Stilts, Pointing and Daring Me to Break Custom”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
As above, so below, was a precept taught to magus children on the first day of Magic Theory class: that heavenly bodies moved in lockstep with earthly ones, and invisible bonds wove together the whole of existence in a rhythmic dance. Jules remembered the day of that lesson clearly, twelve years later. He remembered the simple illustration Professor Vipond had drawn on the chalkboard showing a scatter of five-pointed stars at the top, adjacent hexagons representing the subatomic fabric of everything at the bottom, and dozens of vertical lines connecting the two. That moment had stuck with him clearly through all these years, because he remembered thinking, even at the tender age of six, that some part of the story was being left out. Some things between cosmic intention and material manifestation were demonstrably out of sync.
Like himself. He didn’t belong in his own body.
The Hall of the Tribunal was dark except for the domed ceiling, which shone with the alchemically-lit vastness of the charted night sky. The signs of the zodiac winked down on Jules like co-conspirators as he gazed up at them from the midpoint of the main aisle, beneath the illuminated hub of the dome: a massive fresco of the Passion of the Primordial Man.
A glance at Dad’s pocket watch showed six o’ clock.
Only an hour till the council.
Jules looked up again at the mural: the first Adam ensnared by the tendrils of a writhing triskele, his hermaphroditic form taut with strain, eyes rolling ecstatically as he was torn limb from limb—as stars spilled, spiraled out of his sundered belly, flooding the negative space of the dozen-spoked wheel at whose center he stood.
One measured breath, then another; Jules’s alveoli swelled with oxygen. Mana stirred, accelerated in his channels—vital currents streaming seal to seal, crisscrossing his center, spurring his heart to odd-patterned palpitations. Mandalas bloomed like fireworks before his inner eye. Silent arpeggios soared.
“You see me—don’t you?” he whispered to the stars and their maker, his words drowning in white noise. “Even if they laugh me off the dais tonight…true is true.”
He blinked his vision back into focus, lowered his head. The static roar died out. The charge in his limbs and trunk faded, leaving a faint hum of readiness in his skin.
He heaved a shaky sigh and glanced one more time at the heirloom watch—6:07—then tucked it away in the folds of his ceremonial robes.
A squeaking betrayed the presence of his favorite red Chucks, hidden from view behind his velvet hemline, as he continued on his path down the aisle. The emptiness of his hands bugged him—made him feel like he must have forgotten something. But that was impossible. He’d had his presentation memorized cold for no less than six months. Other than the props the Grand Enchanter was supposed to provide, the only implements he’d need tonight were his hands themselves. He glanced down at them; spread the fingers, turned them back to front. They were long, lean, nimble, not discernibly male or female—a part of his body he liked, that he recognized as his. The finger-pads and palm of the right one were tattooed with copper-hued symbols and line fragments in scattered array. Similar markings peeked out from the edge of his left sleeve.
He arrived at the dais, on which the council table loomed. Climbed the steps and turned, taking in the expanse of the gallery. Pictured the host of magi in their formal colors who would soon pack the chamber.
…I can’t do this.
Jules plopped down on the lip of the stage, legs pretzeled, and draped his wrists over his knees. His eyes again found the stars. He counted his breaths.
But I can’t fucking back down now. If I run and hide this time, I’ll never—
“Ha’iru.” Around the perimeter of the hall, sconces flared to life. “A tad early, aren’tcha, kiddo?”
Jules snapped his gaze studiously frontward, hoped the newcomer hadn’t been watching long enough to see the look of abject terror he’d probably had on his face seconds earlier.
“Getting a feel for the room?” The owner of the jaunty tenor proceeded down the aisle toward Jules, hands jammed in the pockets of his purple-on-gold vestments.
At least Jules’s unexpected company was a friendly face. “Prefect.” Jules got to his feet, paused awkwardly before registering that he’d been asked a question. “Yeah…I suppose so.”
“Managed to totally psych yourself out yet?” Elisha Weyland, Grand Enchanter of the Enclave, Prefect of Ordo Arcanus North America, and the only son of Archmagus Levi Weyland, High Councillor of the Auctoritas Magicae, was a tall and youthful forty-two, clean-shaven, with a neat, short, wheat-gold head of hair. His black-on-black Armani tie played a flirtatious game of peekaboo over the neckline of his ceremonial garment.
“Getting there.” Jules managed a weak grin. “If you’d walked in five minutes later, you probably would’ve found me in a babbling puddle on the floor.”
“Oh, I doubt that.” The Prefect chuckled. “Cool as a cucumber—that’s the Jules Nimri m.o.”
Jules liked that perception of himself. He wished he shared it.
Elisha slowed to a halt in front of the dais, hands still pocketed. Rocked up onto the balls of his feet. “Your props are all cued up and ready to roll. Just swung by so I can inspect them one last time before your presentation. Don’t worry, I already had my team take every precaution. Just figured better safe than sorry.”
Jules nodded agreement.
“Anyhoo, when you’re ready for them”—the Prefect rocked back onto his heels—“all you gotta do is give the signal. Just remember, these babies aren’t toys. They’re designed to do pretty much one thing: kill and kill hard. If things get out of hand, ‘Dēsiste’ is the command to shut the whole troop down. Got it?”
Jules exhaled through his nose and once more nodded.
Elisha’s sharp gray gaze took a restless turn around the room. “You, uh, told your folks yet what it is you’re gonna be doing up there tonight?” He squinted as his eye returned to Jules.
Jules shook his head.
“Opting for a good old-fashioned ambush?”
“Mom would’ve chewed her nails to the quick by now if she knew. And Dad would’ve seen to it I got bumped from the agenda.”
“Oh, I don’t think Thorsten would do that.”
“With all due respect then, Prefect, you don’t know my father.”
The elder grinned, looked off, heaved a silent sigh. “Just, uh, try to keep your head attached to your shoulders up there, huh? I don’t want a feud breaking out between House Weyland and House Nimri ’cause I assisted their only son and heir in committing gory public suicide.”
“Mm. My regrets in advance, Prefect,” said Jules.
Elisha narrowed his eyes. “For what?”
“For the state in which you’ll find your automatons at the end of this evening.”
The Prefect grinned, gave Jules a hearty clap on the shoulder as he passed on his way to the offices at the rear of the dais. “Do your worst, kid.”
Jules lingered on the lip of the platform as the senior magus vanished from view, then stole another glance at the painted stars.
Well. Can’t turn back now, can I?
A low hum of conversation reached his ears—people starting to gather in the vestibule. Jules hurried down off the dais and took his assigned seat at the front of the gallery.
Moments later, it began: the slow but steady trickle of attendees into the hall. Most wore the Ordo Arcanus gold-on-purple, like Jules himself, though the Hermetic Order of Khmun, in white linen tunics with accents of teal and gold, nearly matched their numbers. Fraternitas Mercurii, in habits of unassuming silver on brown, gave a respectable showing, while Hekate Aristokratia in iridescent black and Initiates of the Divine Flame in their signature red-on-white made up a modest portion of the assembly. A lone retinue of La Messe Noire associates, in fashionably tailored modern garb, made their entrance just minutes from the top of the hour, taking up a single row of seats near the back.
As the susurrus of chatter peaked in a dull roar, Jules kept glancing at his pocket watch over and over, counting down the final minutes till the start of the council. When he realized this wasn’t helping his nerves, he put away the timepiece, shifting his focus to gnostic meditation instead. He rested his head against the back of the bench and centered his contemplation on the ceiling once more, tracing Virgo and Leo with his eyes. His heart rate slowed. The voices of the chamber’s occupants dwindled to a distant drone.
His mother’s teachings, wisdom of the necromancers, drifted through his thoughts—
I am dust borne on the winds of the ages; a child of Aether, cloaked in the ashes of stars.
I am nothing. Therefore, I fear nothing.
A smirking face suddenly loomed into view, blocking out the skyscape. “Juliana. What in God’s name are you doing?”
Jules whipped his head upright, his thick black forelock tumbling in his eyes. He didn’t bother sweeping it back—hoped it would hide the sudden heat in his pale cheeks. “Nothing,” he muttered, then kicked himself for answering at all. He had a strict policy against responding to anything that wasn’t his name.
Especially when it was coming from Hunter Lockwood.
“The usual silly daydreaming, I bet. I know that foolish look.” The firstborn son of tribune and magistrate Nigella Lockwood, née Weyland, shared his mother’s milky complexion, sensual features, and aristocratic sneer. But where her gaze was pale and chilly, his was dark and blistering. “What’s this I hear about you presenting tonight?”
Jules kept his words carefully toneless. “What about it, Master-Savant?”
“Ambitious, isn’t it? A second-year apprentice giving a paper before the Tribunal?”
“I think my project will be of great interest to the community.”
Hunter’s chuckle bared his even white teeth—a simian dominance display. “Didn’t take you long to get too big for your knickers, did it? Tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to the entertainment. I always did get off watching you humiliate yourself.” He stopped and squinted at Jules, his grin fading. “What the hell are you smiling about?”
“It just occurred to me.” Jules’s pulse started pounding as he worked up the courage to voice the thought out loud: “After tonight, you’ll never talk to me like that again without fear.”
Hunter narrowed his eyes. Leaned down to whisper in Jules’s ear. “Let’s just hope you don’t have another…episode…like you did that day in your theory class.”
The great gong sounded, announcing the arrival of the tribunes.
The traditional silence that followed all but convinced Jules that Hunter’s comment had struck him deaf.
Hunter straightened, grinning, and swaggered off to find his seat.
Jules took a deep breath, then another, boring his fingernails into the rolled lip of the mahogany bench underneath him.
A second gong-knell sheared the silence as the councillors, in the regalia of their respective orders, filed into the chamber and lined up next to their seats. Among those wearing the purple-on-gold of Arcanus’s eldership were Prefect Weyland; the Prefect’s cousin and Hunter’s mother, Magistrate Lockwood; Magistrate Noman Kher, the famed gnostic sage; and Jules’s own father, Magistrate Thorsten Nimri. They were followed by delegates from the other orders, including High Servant Karamat of the Hermetic Order of Khmun, who was, according to her custom, arrayed in the finery of an ancient Egyptian queen, and stern Seer Oliphas of Fraternitas Mercurii, sheathed in his humble cassock.
Jules closed his eyes.
They popped open again when all he saw in the darkness behind his eyelids was jeering faces.
What was I thinking?
I can’t go up there. Not in front of all these people.
A third time the gong shimmered through the chamber. The High Councillor, Archmagus Levi Weyland of Ordo Arcanus, emerged from his private office, garbed in the resplendent raiments of his supreme rank. He was more or less the spitting image of his son, except for his manicured beard and the stately silver hue of his pate. His shrewd gray gaze was the mirror of Elisha’s, down to the puckish glint.
High Councillor Weyland ascended to the High Seat without ceremony. Only when he had seated himself did the rest of the tribunes follow suit.
An intermural team of goetians took up positions around the perimeter of the chamber, preparing for the opening ritual.
Jules took another deep breath, his heart battering his ribs, then turned to scan the gallery for his mother.
He found her sitting several rows behind him, craning her neck as though she’d been trying to catch his eye. When their gazes met, she tossed him an encouraging wink.
Jules felt himself relax, even rally a little.
But then the sight of her, petite and bright and unsuspecting, struck a spasm of guilt.
I won’t get myself killed up there, Mom. Jules faced forward, gave a little shaky sigh. Promise.
The summoners circumnavigated the chamber, twirling their wands and black-handled athames and chanting in the tongue of the Aetherites.
When they’d completed their rite, the gong sounded a final note, the ceremonial flame was lit, and the High Councillor called the Tribunal to order with a crack of his gilded gavel.
Jules sank into a nervous reverie then and didn’t emerge till almost an hour later, after the Tribunal had discharged all manners of business, when he heard his name spoken from the dais.
“If no one wishes to contribute anything further on this matter,” the High Councillor was saying, “we’ll proceed to the final item on our agenda. Jules Nimri—Apprentice, Alchemy, Ordo Arcanus—has petitioned our distinguished audience for an academic presentation. Apprentice?”
A buzz rippled through the crowd. If a tag cloud had been made from all the babble, the second-largest word after apprentice would have been nerve.
Levi Weyland’s stormy eyes scanned the gallery, settled on Jules. The elder tipped his bearded head in a nod. “The floor is yours, Apprentice.”
Jules sat paralyzed. Hunter’s whispered words had lodged themselves in his brain.
And, with them, a memory that hadn’t been buried as deep as he’d hoped.
Get. Up. He gritted his teeth. Are you really gonna do this—let one shitty thing that happened years ago define you forever?
“Apprentice,” said the High Councillor again. “If you’re unprepared and wish to forfeit your time slot, you may. But be advised that your name will be moved to the bottom of the waiting list.”
The murmuring behind Jules grew louder. More impatient.
One voice reached his ears over the rest—Hunter’s.
“Just proves she really has lost every one of her marbles. As if that wasn’t plain when she started insisting she’s a boy. Sad.”
The cacophony in Jules’s skull went suddenly silent.
There it is…what everyone thinks of me.
Ascended the dais.
Approached the podium.
A hush settled over the chamber.
Jules came to a halt, resting his empty hands on the lectern. Took one slow, deep breath. Then another.
“Apprentice Nimri,” rang Magistrate Lockwood’s imperious alto. “Need I remind you our time is valuable?”
Jules’s reply came lightning-quick, before he had time to think better of it. “I waited seven months and six days for this engagement, Your Honor. I’m conscious of the demand for the council’s time.”
A wave of laughter broke over the crowd behind him. Elisha Weyland’s lips perked faintly upward.
“And, out of respect for your time, Councillors”—Jules’s voice gained strength—“I’ll do my best to make my address tonight brief but substantive.” He bent his mouth in the faintest smile. “Maybe even entertaining.”
Magistrate Lockwood leaned back in her seat, fixed him with a predatory stare.
“Alchemy—” Jules began. It was the speech he’d given hundreds of times to his bedroom mirror. “—the ancient tradition that marries natural science and mysticism, has, from its inception, been confined to the laboratory, its practical applications limited to civil domains of magic, such as potion-making, metallurgy, and holistic health.”
He stole a glance at his father, who sat on the High Councillor’s left opposite Prefect Weyland. A scowl puckered the elder Nimri’s Moai-statue visage. Nimris are not tinkerers. We are summoners, his lordly baritone rang in Jules’s head, echoing the perennial lecture he’d delivered that same afternoon. Who are you to thumb your nose at three thousand years of tradition?
The one who’s going to reclaim the glory of our house, Dad, Jules had replied. You know the daemons favor Nigella. We can’t keep relying on them for our strength.
“In his 1999 treatise, Alchemical Science in the Third Millennium,” Jules went on, “Ordo Arcanus’s ninety-seventh Grand Philosopher, Evander Lockwood, speculated regarding the potential for advanced practitioners to apply alchemical principles in a range of non-research settings, through the combined use of inscribed alchemical arrays and gnostic microvisualization. To the current knowledge of the alchemy community”—he switched his gaze briefly to Magistrate Lockwood, and wondered about the unseen reaction of Hunter behind him—“his proposed methods remain untested, as Philosopher Lockwood’s research was cut untimely short by his abrupt and mysterious departure from Delphi that year.”
Magistrate Lockwood’s steely countenance faltered.
Jules cleared his throat. “Two years ago, when I embarked on my own independent study of the alchemical sciences, I found myself fascinated by Philosopher Lockwood’s suggested non-research applications of alchemy, which he referred to collectively as ‘field alchemy.’ Imagine my disappointment when I learned that, in the seven years that had passed since the publication of Alchemical Science in the Third Millennium, no attempts had been made on the part of Lockwood’s peers and/or successors to actualize or build upon the theoretical frameworks put forth in the paper.” Jules paused and took a shaky breath—then summoned a crooked smile. “Largely, perhaps, because I was too young, too inexperienced, and too foolish to recognize my limitations, I took it upon myself at that time to test and further develop Philosopher Lockwood’s hypotheses. And I intend to demonstrate the results of that experimentation tonight.”
His heart stumbled as the audience behind him exploded in incredulous chatter—some of it indignant, some amused, some just plain bemused. Jules’s perpetually stoic father stared at him open-mouthed, as if Jules had just broken out in a soft-shoe and started shouting “Baba Booey.” Even Elisha had a skeptical arch to his brow, while Nigella Lockwood wore an expression that was equal parts contemptuous and homicidal.
Seeing the Magistrate’s expression, Jules couldn’t resist glancing over his shoulder at her son—and ended up wishing he hadn’t. Hunter’s gaze burned with an unfiltered hatred the likes of which he hadn’t aimed at Jules in years.
“First, however…” Jules faced frontward again. His voice was drowned out by the clamor.
High Councillor Weyland slammed his gavel down on its sound block. A shock wave rippled through the hall, snatching the vocalizations from the lips of those assembled.
Finding themselves silenced, the spectators turned as one to face the High Seat.
“Proceed, Apprentice,” intoned the High Councillor.
Jules nodded thanks, forced down the lump in his throat. “First, however, I will elaborate on the modifications and expansions I’ve made to Philosopher Lockwood’s proposed methods.”
Magistrate Lockwood fixed him with an icy stare.
“As I undertook the effort of putting Philosopher Lockwood’s proposals into practice,” said Jules, “it occurred to me that a dedicated practitioner of field alchemy would find it inconvenient, if not altogether prohibitive, taking the time necessary to draw and redraw alchemical arrays whenever they wanted to effect a transmutation. This onerous step would prove an obstacle to the expedient deployment of alchemical processes in high-pressure, time-sensitive situations…for instance, live combat.”
The word combat elicited a quieter, if no less feverish, reaction from the audience.
Jules once more paused, then worked loose the clasps of his robes. “Allow me to present my solution.”
He shrugged out of the heavy garment, draped it over the podium. Without it, his skinny frame was draped in just his worn-out Tera Melos band shirt, faded jeans, and the perpetual beat-up red Converse.
He’d thought about dressing more professionally for tonight’s presentation, but had decided mobility was paramount.
Jules extended his left arm, presented the trellis of tattoos that adorned it from bicep to wrist: elemental symbols, transmutation circles and arrays, all interconnected by a network of channels. “Symbol segments tattooed on my right palm complete, and thereby activate, these partial symbols on my left arm.” He displayed his tattooed right palm. “Prima materia and other reagents travel along the channels on my arm and are transmuted when they pass through the activated symbols. Gnostic microvisualization shapes and directs the resulting substance as it manifests out of my left palm.”
“I beg your pardon, Apprentice,” interjected the High Councillor.
“Your Honor?” Jules’s voice hitched, an embarrassing half-squeak, his head swiveling to face the High Seat.
Levi Weyland leaned forward and latticed his aged fingers on the arm of his chair. “Where, exactly, does the prima materia come from?”
“That’s an excellent question, Your Honor, and brings me to another key point of my presentation.” Jules took a deep breath. “The common method for producing prima materia is to break down existing compounds into their component elements using alkahest—the so-called ‘universal solvent.’ Subsequently, each element is transmuted by means of a method unique to that element. It’s a difficult and often dangerous process, as many an alchemist can attest, and tends to produce a limited yield. Still, it gets the job done, and I’ve designed my tattoos to be capable of this technique.
“However”—his heart began to drum a little faster—“there is, in fact, a more efficient—if more esoteric—method available for use by any field alchemist who has sufficiently mastered their Secret Fire. It’s based on a theory of my own that I loosely founded on an accepted principle of mundane physics—”
Once again, Jules found himself drowned out by an uproar. Since the divergence of mysticism and natural science in the seventeenth century, when widespread persecution had finally driven the Western magic community underground for good, there had been little respect or attention on the part of most magi for the scholarship and technology of the mainstream world. The Internet seemed to be changing things, at least among more inquisitive types Jules’s age and younger. Still, the vast majority of magi remained stubbornly ignorant of E=mc2.
Another bang of the High Councillor’s gavel restored a tentative silence to the chamber.
“I’ve dubbed this theory the Principle of Mana-Materia Equivalency,” Jules resumed.
The hall was so hushed now that the loudest thing he could hear was the huge clock ticking at the rear of the gallery.
“In essence,” he continued, “it states that mana, the energy contained within all objects possessing magic potential, and prima materia, the primordial substance from which all forms of matter in our universe are derived, are fundamentally interchangeable. In other words, one may be converted to the other.”
Hunter sat forward in his seat, raised his steepled fingers to his lips.
“Magical energy,” Jules went on, “when sufficiently refined, yields pure prima materia. Therefore an alchemist, through rigorous cultivation of their Secret Fire, may develop the ability to transmute their own personal mana into prima materia, using the mana seals within their body as aludel or retort.”
“Have you tested this theory, Apprentice?” interrupted the High Councillor.
Jules felt a little jolt of adrenaline. “Yes.”
This time, the inevitable outcry didn’t rattle him as much as it thrilled him—because, as at long last he spoke in public the paradigm-shattering words he’d rehearsed alone daily for the past seven months, it sank in to him that this was really happening. That he was being heard and, seemingly, understood by the most powerful people in Western magedom. That he hadn’t just lost all his marbles. That his discovery was every bit as revolutionary as he’d known it would be.
And, seeing as he could back up his claims, it now seemed impossible he would fail.
“In combination,” he went on, as an expectant hush settled over the audience, “my expansions on Philosopher Lockwood’s proposals make possible a heretofore-undreamed-of application of alchemical science.” Jules indulged himself with a dramatic pause. “In the field of martial magic.”
No hubbub greeted his pronouncement this time. Only rapt silence.
“I will now demonstrate for you,” Jules continued, taking it on faith he could still be heard over the crescendoing drumroll of his pulse in his ears, “the culmination of two years’ dedicated research and practice: a cutting-edge magic martial art I call ‘combat alchemy.’”
A deep breath, then he gestured to Elisha with a little half-twirl of his forefinger. The Prefect barked a word of command, startling Magistrate Lockwood next to him, then grinned at her discomfiture.
Three of the ponderous oak doors at the rear of the dais eased open as one. Ominous whirring and clicking sounds echoed through the chamber. Three pairs of sizzling red orbs sputtered to life in the shadows beyond the archways.
I am out of my goddamned mind, Jules realized.
A thrill of terror coursed through him. A slightly unhinged smile curved his lips as a spontaneous excitatory gnosis melted the psychic boundaries that confined his consciousness to his material being; as his inner eye sprang open, then focused its gaze.
He kept himself stock-still, waiting as the machinae began their march into the chamber, conserving and compressing his energy as it rushed between his mana seals—stockpiling, preparing it for transmutation, the way he’d practiced countless times.
The tribunes moved uncomfortably in their seats as the six-and-a-half-foot machinae rounded the council table, their hinged joints grinding, hard feet pounding the marble of the dais. This first wave, per Jules’s request, was third-generation automatons built from lacquered Brazilian ebony. Their mana circuits and the seals that powered them, elaborate networks of pure aurichalcum, were fully enclosed in the wood of their carcasses, perceptible only by means of a faint glow about their hinges, a distinctive crimson fire in their eyes, and the red-hot gleaming of the activation seals on the backs of their necks. That these were the older wooden models meant they would work best to simulate the effects of Jules’s attacks on a flesh-and-blood opponent.
It also meant he felt slightly less guilty for wasting them.
The first pair of monoliths closed on him.
Jules felt a thrill of fear. He’d forgotten just how tall the damn things were.
He flooded his central mana seal, then ignited it with his Secret Fire. The reaction blinded him with its light, just for an instant, as a rush of heat blazed through his mana channels. In the gallery, someone shrieked, backed up by a chorus of gasps.
Jules had never watched himself generate prima materia. He wondered what it must look like.
The blindness passed, and not a moment too soon, as machinae loomed up on either side of him. A hot lightning burst licked down the red-glowing tattooed channels on Jules’s left arm. His right hand fluttered like a flautist’s to keep pace, completing the necessary symbols and arrays as the primordial substance passed through them.
A stream of orange flame erupted from his left palm, engulfing the first two automatons—a basic elemental attack.
The machinae slowed their pace, twisting in confusion. One made a clumsy grab at Jules, which he easily dodged.
When he turned, his third adversary was waiting. Jules ducked a swing of its massive arm, then spun and grabbed its shoulder, tracing out another pattern on his tattoos. He flooded the joint with alkahest, disintegrating the hard wood, breaking it down into its component elements. This exposed a long thread of the aurichalcum skeleton underneath.
A creaking of wooden joints and crackling of flames alerted Jules to the approach of one of the burning machinae from behind him. He ducked again as its flaming fist flew at his head, then tucked and rolled out from between the pair of them, turning and blasting the flaming one with water. Once its scorched carcass was thoroughly drenched—its lacquer having mostly burned away—Jules grabbed it by the arm, froze it solid, and amplified its resonant frequency till it shattered.
Behind him, the machina with the missing shoulder swung its dangling arm like a flail. Jules dropped to a crouch, letting its attempted strike pass over his head, then lunged to his right with a grunt as the second burning machina’s fist came hurtling down from above. The appendage missed his head but struck his left shoulder a glancing blow, setting his shirt on fire.
Fuck—can’t extinguish it alchemically if it’s on my left arm—
He resorted to a more mundane solution: Stop, drop, and roll.
The impact to his shoulder hurt like hell, given the beating it had just taken. Jules came up on one knee and flexed his left arm, reassuring himself it still worked.
The half-disintegrated machina came at him again and raised its huge leg to stomp him. Jules caught the limb on its way down and hit it with another flood of alkahest, melting away the calf and most of the foot.
The behemoth wobbled and fell.
With careful timing to avoid scalding his hand, Jules grabbed the live aurichalcum of its skeleton and flooded the whole circuit with aqua fortis, inducing corrosion of the metal wires.
The automaton stiffened and rolled onto its side, expiring with a wooden groan.
Jules glanced around, gasping, for the last of his three opponents, but it had crumpled to the dais in a blazing heap. He walked over to it and, with a quick flight of his fingers over his tattoos, sucked the oxygen from the fire, extinguishing it with a whumph.
Jules’s pulse throbbed in his ears. He took a deep breath and examined his tee, blanching as he realized enough of the sleeve had burned away to expose his binder. He hastily arranged and tied the tattered cotton to cover the undergarment, wincing as the singed cloth burned his fingers, as the knot he made rubbed against the angry red welt on his shoulder.
Jules realized then that the gallery was deathly silent. He turned reluctant eyes toward his audience, bracing himself for the snickers and sneers—for just one asshole to have the nerve to laugh, and everyone else to follow.
What he saw instead was a sea of faces staring in speechless amazement. His mother’s palm was flat to her chest, her other hand cupped white-knuckled over her mouth. Hunter’s face was frozen in a dull, empty gape.
Someone finally started to clap, and soon the whole gallery was roaring.
Jules glanced back at the tribunes and found his father gawking at him, his expression somewhere between pride and abject horror. Nigella Lockwood, like her son, was collecting her jaw off the table. Elisha was simultaneously grinning like an idiot and pointing at his own shoulder, mouthing, Are you okay?
Even High Councillor Weyland’s inscrutable veneer had been broken by the faintest of smiles.
Jules took a deep breath, then another, then waved off Elisha’s concern and gestured for Round Two.
A smile tugged at his lips.
Don’t let it go to your head, dummy. Two more rounds. Stay focused.
Elisha issued a fresh command.
The oak doors groaned open once more.
This time, three wrought-iron-plated machinae emerged, fourth-generation, larger and more skillfully engineered than their wooden predecessors.
They moved faster than their predecessors, too. Jules hardly had time to transmute his mana before they were on him.
For this set, he’d known ahead of time he would have to pull out the big guns—primordial elements.
First came saturnine, the celestial form of lead. Jules released the mystical substance in its liquid form, coating the first of the machinae. The saturnine seeped into the automaton’s eyeholes and joints, then reverted to its ultra-dense solid form, toppling the monster with an impact that cracked the marble of the dais.
The construct’s fellows were quick to flank Jules.
He ducked as the first launched its fist at his head, then sprang upright and grabbed it by its shoulder. Alkahest wasn’t an option here; thanks to wrought iron’s low carbon content, the universal solvent would only purify the iron, weakening instead of dissolving the metal. Instead, Jules ratcheted up the plating’s resonant frequency, shattering the shoulder, then yanked loose the arm and swung it wide toward the other machina that was coming up behind him.
In midair, he transmuted the iron of the severed arm to its unbreakable primordial form—“cold iron,” or adamantine. What resulted was a misshapen, oily-black, diamond-crystal-patterned bludgeon—one that was frigid to the touch and almost impossibly heavy.
The business end of it drove mercilessly through the other machina’s head, smashing it clean off.
The decapitated construct faltered and sank to its knees. Jules reeled with the centrifugal force of the appendage in his grasp, clinging to it for dear life, knowing that, if he let go, it was sure to go careening into the gallery and kill someone.
There are about a million less-crazy ways I could have demonstrated this—
I’ve lost my fucking mind.
The improvised adamantine bludgeon slammed into the ground—decimating yet more priceless antique marble—and sent Jules’s feather-light frame skittering end-over-end across the floor.
The apprentice landed hard and rolled out flat on his back, gasping for air.
Not being overly accustomed to severe physical injury, he was wrongly convinced for about five seconds that he had pulverized every bone in his body.
Much-needed air finally poured into his lungs, burning like fire.
He sat up, head spinning, only to drop back flat as a massive iron toe came hurtling toward his face.
‘Dēsiste’ is the command to shut the whole troop down, Elisha’s voice echoed in his head.
But Jules wasn’t about to take the easy way out. Not with everybody watching.
Besides, he had one more really cool trick up his sleeve.
He rolled clumsily, pushed himself upright, took aim.
Brimstone—also known as Greek fire. The celestial version of sulphur. The dreaded unquenchable flame. It could burn through any substance in the universe except for adamantine.
The jet stream looked like viscous blood wrapped in blue flame. It engulfed both remaining machinae with a peal of deafening thunder and began to consume their iron hides—fast.
Jules heard a chorus of terrified cries from the onlookers. But how will he put it out? he could imagine them saying. It’ll devour the whole room!
“Unquenchable” though it was by means of water or any chemical firefighting agent, there was one known way to to extinguish a brimstone fire—by starving it.
Jules waited till the machinae were immobile and crumbling to ash, then extended his palm and sucked the oxygen from the flames with a whumph, leaving the automatons to crumple, lifeless, to the floor.
All was quiet.
Jules took a deep breath. Then another. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist.
Turned and faced the council.
“Sorry about the floor,” he said, between gulps of air. “And…of course your machinae too, Prefect. Though in my defense, I did…I did say that to you in advance.”
The tribunes blinked at him.
“Do you, uh, still want to do the finale, Apprentice?” Elisha asked finally, breaking the silence. “’Cause that…got a little intense.”
Jules nodded, cleared his throat. “Yeah, I’m willing,” he puffed. “But I’ll leave it to the council’s discretion whether they want to risk further, uh”—he gestured stupidly to the floor, still trying to catch his breath, and to remember what words were—“you know, uh…uh…property damage.”
“What is the ‘finale’?” asked the High Councillor.
“Latest-gen prototype,” said Elisha. “Adamantine. The big guy.”
Levi raised an eyebrow, then turned his keen gaze on Jules. “Yes, I’d be interested in seeing that.”
“Your Honor,” objected Jules’s father.
“The automaton can be shut down easily enough if things go awry—is that not right?” High Councillor Weyland asked his son.
“Well, then, Apprentice; if you’re still feeling up to the challenge.” The High Councillor gave a permissive wave of his jeweled hand. “I’d hate to force an untimely end to the best show I’ve seen in years.”
Jules grinned, wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “Uh…yeah, then. Let’s do it.”
The audience gave a nervous but eager laugh. Jules turned, saw his mother shrinking in her seat, and spontaneously blew her a kiss, eliciting a collective awww.
I’ve got this, Mom. Really. Everything’ll be fine.
Jules paced around the dais, took a deep breath, focusing inward, assessing his mana reserves. He had just enough energy left in him, he reckoned, for this final round. After that, he’d be pretty well spent till he’d had a couple of days’ rest. Mana-materia transmutation was draining, and Jules had been relying heavily on self-generated prima materia for this demonstration. It wouldn’t have been the wisest approach in real combat, but it seemed worthwhile in this controlled setting, to maximize his opportunity to show what combat alchemy could do.
The hall was quiet while Elisha waited for Jules’s signal. The apprentice sighed; cracked his neck, his knuckles. He was more than a little banged up, and he felt it, but nothing seemed to be broken. There was something he liked about this feeling—the sweat, the tiredness, the all-over deep-bone ache. Jules had been a self-identified ascetic for years. Now, for the first time, he considered that he might be some kind of masochist.
He gave himself a head-start this time and transmuted his mana before giving the signal. This last conversion left him feeling euphoric, a little lightheaded—the endorphin high that precedes the tipping point into exhaustion.
He had conquered wood and iron. Now it was on to adamantine, the indestructible, untransmutable metal. Jules wouldn’t be able to eliminate this construct—but he wouldn’t have to. All he needed to do was disable it before it smashed him to a pulp—ideally without being forced to cry uncle.
He took a deep breath. Gave the signal.
The Prefect spoke the command.
The final machina—there was just one this time, and that would be more than enough—was too large to enter the chamber from the offices like its predecessors had done. It appeared instead in the tall, arched double-doorways at the rear of the gallery. An onerous creaking-open of the twin oak panels heralded its arrival.
It stood motionless, framed within the ten-foot archway, its skull mere inches from the top. From Jules’s vantage point, it looked like a mountain of blackest black, framed in a weird blue light whose source was unclear. Its anthropomorphic outline was articulated by its red-glowing aurichalcum skeleton, which, while embedded deeply for its own protection, wasn’t enclosed by its plating like its fellows’ had been. Among adamantine’s many properties was its ability to dampen mana flow. To enclose the mana-conducting aurichalcum veins fully within the celestial metal would have cut off the force that animated the machina.
The automaton began its approach, its heavy steps vibrating the floor of the chamber. Its movements were surprisingly organic, not stilted and robotic like those of the ebony or iron constructs.
As it strode down the center aisle toward the dais, the distinctive, diamond-patterned iridescence of its plating caught the light. It walked with its enormous arms tucked out of sight behind its back—and the enigmatic blue glow followed.
That’s when it struck Jules that something wasn’t right.
Chaos erupted in the rear of the house. Spectators seated in the last few rows began screaming and bolting for the exit as the machina passed.
The automaton’s steps picked up speed as it brought its massive hands into view.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Dread sank icy coils deep into Jules’s heart. A low-throbbing, ominous static flooded his ears.
“Dēsiste!” he howled from the pit of his belly, his voice sounding small and far away.
Behind him, Elisha echoed the cry—“Dēsiste!”—once, then once more, and again. Jules rejoined the chorus repeatedly, with growing desperation.
The machina, indifferent to their pleas, marched on, loosing a disturbingly un-automaton-like snarl as it hurled the contents of its hands—two bright-glowing Greek-fire grenades—into the thick of the panicked gallery.
Jules only knew he was screaming by the tearing sensation in his throat. The sound itself was lost in the deafening thunder of the explosions.