“The Words ‘Best Friend’ Become Redefined

story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb

Content Warning: DEADNAMING, BODY HORROR, SEXUAL TRAUMA FLASHBACK

Rory wasn’t sure just how long ago hours had bled into days. There were no windows in the Enclave’s maximum-security prison wing, just cold, hard stone and iron bars. And there were no sapient beings to listen to his story, only Ordinators, regular as clockwork, to deliver his meals, refill his tepid bathwater, and replace the rusty bedpan in the corner.

They’d taken his keys, his switchblade—maybe most unfortunately his phone, in spite of the fact that it probably wouldn’t have gotten service anyway, thanks to interference from the Fathoms beneath Delphi. So he’d whiled away the hours pacing like a caged beast and tossing on his too-thin bedroll, and talking to himself, so much that he’d started to go hoarse. It was a habit he’d formed after he’d dropped out of the order, when he’d spent his time alone most days with Mom at work and Abby at school. Rory had never been good with silence or solitude—something that was twice as true when he was feeling anxious.

“Fuck this. Fuck this. Fuck this.” At present he was banging his head against the bars of his cell, glaring down at the snug, thin rings of adamantine that encircled his wrists. “Whatever you fucks are gonna do to me, just do it. I just wanna know she’s okay. Is that so much to ask?”

He sighed, pushed himself off from the bars, circled listlessly around toward the back of his cell. Rapped a few random Tupac lyrics, then launched into an energetic Steve Irwin impression. “Croikey! This one’s a real foightah. Look at ’eem. Look at ’ees oize.”

He spun mid-step at the sound of footfalls approaching. This time, it wasn’t just Ordinators. He could hear the now-familiar clinking of their boots, but there was something else, too—an uneven stumping, like someone walking with a crutch or a cane.

The footsteps paused, and a key turned in the lock of the entrance to the ward. The door swung open on rusty hinges.

“Listen to me, whoever you are!” Rory rushed forward and banged against the bars of his cell. “You have to listen to me for just five seconds. There are violent apostates on the loose in Chicago. The mundane girl who came here with me—she needs help!”

Rory’s hobble-gaited guest moved into view in front of his cell, flanked by two stone-faced guards.

“Julie,” Rory gasped.

“Jules,” his visitor corrected him.

“Oh,” said Rory. Then, “Wait.” He could feel his brain rooting around as if for a missing puzzle piece. His childhood friend looked long and lean as a flute in a men’s suit and glasses. Shorter hair … still long enough to brush the shoulders, but carelessly air-dried instead of straightened sleek. Noticeably fuller eyebrows. No makeup. No visible breasts. The voice, while not manly, had dropped at least half an octave. If it hadn’t been for Rory’s familiarity with a past, more feminine incarnation, he might have read the person standing in front of him as a boy.

“Are you … ?” he ventured finally. “I mean. Did you … ?”

“I’m transgender. Pronouns he/him. Does that answer whatever your question was?”

“Yep.”

“Further questions or comments before we move on?”

Rory hesitated. “You look good.”

Jules tilted his head with an impassive expression Rory remembered well. “You don’t prefer the way I looked before?”

“No! This is … right.” Rory realized he meant it. A lot of things now made sense. Like one conversation in particular, seventh year during their lunch break, when they’d been huddling in their hideout below the atrium stairs …

“If I stopped being pretty, would you still like me?”

Rory masticated an ill-timed and overlarge bite of his turkey-and-mustard sandwich. “You mean, like,” he mused around gulps, “if you got hit by a truck and came out looking like an orc?”

Julie laughed into the back of her hand—that graceless, honking goose-laugh that always seemed to explode out of her against her will. Before he’d gotten to know her, Rory had thought she wasn’t capable of laughter. “No.” She sobered suddenly. “I meant if I … looked more like a boy.”

“Oh.” It seemed like an unusually silly question coming from Julie. Between the two of them, Rory was typically the one tossing out aimless hypotheticals. “As a friend, yeah.” He shrugged. “Of course.”

Julie pried a chip of polish from her thumbnail. “That’s all we are anyway, isn’t it? … Friends?”

Rory took a deep breath. “About that day in Magic Theory class—”

“Forget it,” Jules cut him off.

“I need to clear the air.”

“No you don’t.”

Rory gave a small, impatient expulsion of air, something between a laugh and a whimper. Truth be told, he was comforted to see that, even after everything, Jules Nimri remained the proverbial immovable object. “Fine,” he conceded, though every fiber of his being railed against it. “So why are you here?”

“Your sister asked me to help you.”

“My sister? I didn’t know you two talked.”

“Abby and I were apprentices together.”

“Abby’s Alchemy. You’re Daemonology.”

“I switched disciplines.”

In spite of everything, Rory couldn’t help but grin. “Dude. I bet your dad flipped.”

“I spoke to the Master-General about your case. It seems you’re being held till you can be cleared of any connection to the attack on the council chamber … seeing as you defected from the order, cut off all contact, and then, in your eminent good judgment, chose to show up here again for the first time in more than three years in the immediate aftermath of the deadliest mass attack in Enclave history.”

“Ah.” They don’t know about the maleficium, then. At least there’s that. “Well … shit. How long’s that gonna take?”

“Hard to say. Enforcement’s pretty overburdened right now, between security concerns and investigating the attack.”

“So … what? They’re just gonna hold me here indefinitely?”

“Maybe not. I spoke to Master-General Wade just now and suggested another solution.”

“Which is … ?”

“She releases you for the time being … into my custody.” Jules paused. “She’s taking it under consideration and will give me her decision at the end of the day.”

“Your custody?” Rory blinked. “Why would she release me into your custody? No offense, but say I actually was a dangerous renegade. What in the world could you do to keep me contained?”

Jules pushed up his left sleeves, revealing a thick web of coppery tattoos. His face lengthened, bodhisattva-like.

Seconds later, his eyes gave off twin flares of scorching light, as a bright white burst expanded outward from his center, with a rush of hot air. The tattoos began to glow faintly red, then blazed like molten silver in a sequential pattern too rapid for Rory to follow—a pattern Jules matched with seemingly effortless motions of his right fingers and palm.

As his right hand darted along, a chalky white stone materialized just above his left palm. Once it had grown to tennis-ball size, he closed his left hand around it and tossed it straight up in the air. The instant it reached its peak height—Jules’s right hand maintaining its frenetic dance all the while—red liquid spewed upward from his left palm in a focused stream and struck the stone with a deafening thunderclap, engulfing it in blue flame.

The stone burned away as it fell, dwindling to almost nothing in the space of an instant. What remained—a last, flaming sliver of ash—winked out with a schwick before landing harmlessly on the alchemist’s outstretched palm.

“ … Fuck?” said Rory, after an extended silence.

The scarlet gleam of Jules’s tattoos dulled once more to copper as he unrolled his sleeve and shrugged his suit jacket back into place. “In answer to your question, if you try anything funny, you’re that lump of quartz.”

Rory was dumbfounded.

Finally, “You’ve been busy the past few years,” he observed.

“A bit.”

Rory fell silent a moment. “So you’re offering to keep me in your custody … why? I mean … you do realize it means you have to actually hang out with me for however long it takes, right?”

“Keep going if you really want to talk me out of it. For starters, it’s a favor to your sister, who by some fluke of genetics is a good person. It’s also the least I can do to help ease Enforcement’s burden in the wake of the attack. They won’t give me an official assignment till I’ve fully recovered, so.”

“What happened to you?” Rory eyed Jules’s cane.

“Shattered my leg when the rogue golem chucked me at the wall. It’s nothing to be concerned about. Our healers do very good work.” Jules’s lips gave a small, wry upward twitch. “You should’ve seen it right after it happened. It looked like a spaghetti noodle.”

“You were hurt in the attack?” Rory’s throat felt suddenly dry.

“You really have no idea what’s been going on around here, do you?”

“How would I? I’ve been living as a mundane for the past three years. I went and got my GED. I’ve been touring with my band.”

Jules’s stoicism was broken by what Rory knew, coming from him, was more or less a laugh—the sparest quirk of his lips, and a narrowing of his eyes into soft black half-moons. He then seemed to catch himself, sobered up abruptly. “Do you agree to that, then? To remain in my custody till you’ve been cleared?”

“Only if you help me and Max.”

Jules looked taken off guard, another subtle expression only someone as familiar as Rory could have identified. Rory guessed his old schoolmate hadn’t expected to have to bargain. “Help you with what? Who’s Max?”

“She’s the reason I came back. She’s a mundane I met in Chicago. She was kidnapped by apostates, and they stabbed her with a jacked-up athame as part of some ritual. Now she has a cursed wound. I brought her here to try to get her some help, but the Ordinators arrested me the second we set foot in the Enclave and dragged her off. I have no clue what they did with her.”

“Right. That’s what you were babbling about when I came in. It’s been a whole four days since then, hasn’t it?”

“Dude, I don’t even know. It’s not like I have any way to keep up with the passage of time from this medieval fucking dungeon. All I know is you need to help me help this girl, and you need to help me find the people who hurt her. ’Cause with that thing you can do now, with the tattoos and the Greek fire, I bet you could roast the ever-loving shit out of them.”

Jules knitted his brow a moment. “Fine. I’ll help you.”

“Thank you.” Rory was surprised at how easily convinced he had been. “So you said they might let me out of here tonight?”

“I think the Master-General will agree to it. In the meantime, I’ll go ahead and try to track down your mundane friend.”

“Dude, you read my mind. I’ve been out-of-my-mind worried about her. I know she’s got to be scared to death being all by herself in this fucking mausoleum. Her name’s Max Frankel—Maxine, technically. Itty-bitty white girl, brown hair, hazel eyes. About our age.”

Jules knuckled his lips thoughtfully, nodded. “A mundane with a cursed wound shouldn’t be too hard to find around here. I’m sure she’s in Medicinal Magic somewhere, unless it was an easy fix and they’ve already sent her home. I’ll go ask around. See what I can find out.” He turned with the help of his cane and started away.

“Jules.”

Rory’s old classmate stopped and looked back at him.

“I really don’t know why you’re doing this,” said Rory, “but … thank you. It really means a lot. And I meant it when I said you look good, ’cause legit, you look like a fucking G. And you’re a badass now, too, and … you know. I’m just saying, I’m … ” He hesitated, conscious that, as always, he was saying too much. But he could never bring himself to leave important stuff unspoken. “I’m just … glad to have you on my side. Is what I’m trying to say.”

Jules looked tired. “We’re not friends,” he said, almost kindly.

“I know,” Rory mumbled. “Believe me.”

“I’ll be back.” Jules stumped off into the hall, the Ordinators plodding in his wake.

Rory listened till their footfalls faded away, then sighed and slumped against the wall of his cell. He let each groove of the masonry thump against the back of his skull as he sank to the floor.

He’s okay. He draped his arms across his knees. He’s better than okay. He’s killing it. I … 

I didn’t wreck him. Thank God.

Rory rubbed his eyes vigorously with the heels of his hands.

He fucking hates me, though. Not that I can blame him.

He let out a shaky sigh. Remembered again, against his will, that fateful moment four years earlier, when his adolescent temper had gotten the better of him. That one fleeting, damning instant, when he had wanted nothing more in the world than to break his best friend.

“It’s gonna be an awkward few days,” he muttered to no one, with a strained smile.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

“The numinae really are out to get me,” Jules muttered to himself as he stumped down the hall toward Medicinal Magic. “First Hunter, then—God. Fucking Rory Navarrete. Why can’t I just leave you in there to rot?”

An inquiry in Medicinal Magic turned up the intel that Maxine Frankel was, as he’d suspected, in quarantine. Ordinators had brought her in while the department had been caught up dealing with the glut of wounded from the attack, and, on cursory inspection, the overburdened staff had been unable to make heads or tails of her injury. So they’d stuck her in quarantine and all but forgotten her till yesterday—at which point the best diagnosticians in the department had looked in on her and, after intensive examinations, confirmed that her affliction was, as one of them had dictated into her record, “both unprecedented and altogether inscrutable.” There had been talk of getting input from the Enchantment department, since her wound had reportedly been dealt by an enchanted blade, but no one in Medicinal Magic seemed to know whether any of their colleagues had yet reached out to Enchantment for a consult.

Having collected all the available information, Jules flashed his Martial Magus seal for the first time ever and requested access to the patient. One of the medicinal assistants on duty equipped him with a Ring of Constitutional Defense (handy things when you were about to come into contact with virulent infections, whether magical or mundane—although to wear one for longer than an hour or two at a time, or more frequently than every three to four days, degraded one’s natural immune defenses, eventually irreparably) and unlocked the door for him to Maxine Frankel’s room.

The alchemist knocked twice, gently, feeling a cool static charge as his knuckles met with the containment field that enclosed the chamber. “May I come in?”

“Sure,” came a small voice from within.

Jules felt a twinge of shyness as he proceeded into the room. He had never been great at talking to girls. Of course, it would be a stretch to say he was great at talking to anyone—unless it was about mathy instrumental prog rock, or the ionizing properties of fulmenine.

“Maxine?” He pulled the door closed behind him.

Rory had called her “itty-bitty.” This seemed exceptionally accurate at the moment, given the way she was huddling on her cot in her white gown, knees hugged close to her chest, her head inclined listlessly against the wall. If the hollows around her eyes were any indication, she probably hadn’t slept in days.

As he proceeded into the room, Jules narrowly avoided stepping on an old Cosmopolitan magazine that lay open in the middle of the floor. Several of its pages had been ripped out, wadded into balls, and scattered around the space. Others had been torn into tiny pieces, most of which had been arranged into mosaics. The three of these that remained intact demonstrated a surprising amount of skill on the part of their creator. One depicted a black-and-white cat with a protruding tongue and sparkly emerald eyes. The second was recognizably Spongebob Squarepants, with some creative license taken in that she’d given him fangs and vicious red eyes. The third was some kind of abstract, Jules supposed, given that it looked intentional, but had no discernible form to it. For reasons he couldn’t identify, he found this one disturbing.

“I did actually read it first,” came the young woman’s muffled voice. She peered at him over the crook of her elbow. “It was the only thing they gave me to read. Not the kind of shit I’m into, to tell you the truth. But I did read it. Like, fifteen times. I read it till it made me sick to even look at it anymore. That’s when I realized I needed to take a different tack.” She studied him a moment from beneath her tousled bangs, then raised her head and rested her chin on her folded arms. “It’s Max, by the way. Not Maxine. Nobody calls me Maxine except my grandma. She says if I go by Max everyone’ll think I’m a dyke.” She paused a moment, then shrugged. “She says it like it’s a bad thing.”

Jules stared at her, then looked down again at the magazine. It was open to a full-page cosmetic ad featuring an extreme close-up of Giselle Bündchen’s face. The supermodel’s eyes had been punched out, and the page had been ripped straight down the center of Bündchen’s improbably symmetrical visage, with an intersecting slash running through her mouth. The jagged corners formed by the crisscrossing tears had been peeled back, giving the impression that her face was exploding.

“I’m not crazy,” Max piped up, as if reading his thoughts. “Promise. I’ve just … been in here by myself for a really long time now. And nobody’ll let me have a damn cigarette.”

“ … Understandable,” ventured Jules.

“So, have you come to poke me and prod me and declare me a hopeless cause just like everyone else?” Max’s lips formed a hollow smile. “I might not mind so much with you. So far, most of the doctors or healers or whatever-you-magicky-people-call-’em that have felt me up in here have been absolute Barneys.”

A flush crept past Jules’s collar.

“Wait. How old are you?” Max cocked her head. “I’m not flirting with an underage boy, am I?”

He started to answer her, then realized there was no point, then decided he ought to respond in some way after all (if only because it would be polite), and finally just shook his head.

“Thank God. Hey, you’re legit shy, aren’t you? That’s adorable. I can’t remember the last time I met a shy guy. Most of ’em just go for it. They think I’ll be an easy lay, I guess.” She thought for a moment, then shrugged. “They’re not wrong.”

Jules chose to mask his discomfort with a sudden coughing fit.

Get it together, man. You’re a professional.

“I’m Jules Nimri,” he announced finally, managing not to cringe visibly as his voice squeaked on the first syllable. “I’m not another mediciner, actually. I’m an alchemist.” Run the department, as it so happens. But he couldn’t think of a compelling reason to tell her that, unless he was trying to impress her.

… Which he definitely was not.

“An alchemist? Like, philosopher’s stone, lead into gold, Nicholas Flamel—that kind of thing?”

“You’re in the ballpark.” Jules cleared his throat. “It’s, of course, a little more complicated than that.”

“Things always are. What’s up with the cane, by the way? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy our age with a cane. Shit’s mad pimpin’.”

“It’s … utilitarian,” said Jules.

Her grin stretched slowly from ear to ear. “You’re delightful.” She let the words linger on the air a moment before continuing. “What say we stop beating around the bush, Jules Nimri? Did you or did you not come here to see me naked?”

Jules swallowed, way too loudly, he thought. “I had thought I could have a look at your … ” He cringed. “I mean—are you saying your, your wound is … ?” He pointed vaguely to his own torso.

Max silently tapped her heart.

“I could ask a female healer to join us,” offered Jules, “if that would make you feel more … ”

He trailed off as, with one pull, she loosened the ribbons that secured her gown at the base of her neck, letting the top of the garment fall.

In spite of himself, Jules stared.

But not at her pink-tipped breasts.

At the light-devouring rift that marred them.

“It doesn’t hurt.” She stared down at it. “It’s just … empty. And cold. And … indifferent.” She looked up at Jules again with a small, wet laugh. “I’d swear it doesn’t even care enough to hate me.”

Jules saw her smile falter, felt his anxiety subside. “Do you mind?” He rolled up his left sleeve.

Max wiped her nose and stared at his tattoos, which had begun to take on their scarlet glow. She shook her head.

Jules approached her. “Can you describe for me how it happened?”

“Do I … have to?”

“No.” Jules raised his left hand slowly, deliberately, giving her a chance to change her mind if she wanted to, then laid his palm gently, clinically across the rift. “Jesus, it is cold.”

“Told ya.”

He could feel Max’s eyes on his face as he focused his inner gaze through his palm by way of the channels on his arm, narrowing its scope to the microscopic level.

“So are you one of those guys who hates being told he’s pretty?”

That little skip in his pulse again. “Um … depends who’s doing the telling.” Jules frowned, concentrated harder. It was probably because Max was being so distracting, but he was having a hard time getting a read.

“Me. I’m doing the telling.”

This girl, Jules decided, could make a profession out of disrupting gnostic states. “Well, I mean … if it’s coming from an attractive woman … and it’s meant to be a compliment … ”

“ … Then it’s all good?”

Jules shrugged with his eyebrows, nodded slightly.

“Are you saying I’m an ‘attractive woman’?”

“You, um … don’t need me to tell you that.” Jules gave the sparest of smiles.

Good God. Was that actually smooth?

“You’d be surprised.” Max hesitated. “So … you’re telling me you wouldn’t hate it?”

“Hate what?” Jules mumbled, a bit absently now. He was starting to pick up … something. But whatever it was was scrambling his sensory receptors.

What the hell. Are my channels screwed up?

“If I told you you were pretty.” Max’s voice had started to sound canned and far away. “Because, well … you are, you know. Like … really pretty. Like, damn.”

Like … really pretty. Like, damn.

Like … really pretty. Like …

“Damn. You look really pretty today, Juliana.”

Rory stood in front of Jules, in his gray-and-purple Arcanus Academy uniform, his backpack drooping off one bony shoulder. He smiled warmly.

Jules’s heart sank. “I told you it’s Jules.”

Behind Jules, his locker sprang open, and roses came gushing out in a scarlet avalanche.

Rory’s face contorted. “Liar!” He thrashed at Jules as the roses started to bury him.

“Don’t do it, Rory! Please!” Jules scrambled in vain to dig him out as the rising dune of stems and petals threatened to drown them both. “I’ve been to the future. What’s done can’t be undone. The true vacuum destroys everything. I’ll say and do and be whatever you want me to—just—don’t!”

Instead of roses, Jules suddenly realized, he was raking through ash and debris.

He glanced up and saw an open sky empty of stars.

He looked down again and saw that his efforts had disinterred the upper half of a charred corpse. “Too late, kiddo!” it chattered up at him, in a voice that was two parts Prefect Weyland, one part Groucho Marx. “Two things we can’t do are turn back time and bring back the dead.”

A host of its fellows sat up from the sea of rubble. Their ruined jaws split in laughter.

Jules hid his face. 

“Spineless idiot girl!” thundered Master-Savant Padovesi.

Jules raised his head again and found himself at the center of the great torchlit circle in the Hall of Summoning. His dress and skin were shredded, all four of his limbs dripping blood.

“To control the daemon, you must bind the daemon!” Padovesi’s voice dripped contempt. “Otherwise, the daemon will bind you!”

“Pretty puppet!” Izgethil dissolved in oily laughter. “Put a hand up her snatch and make her dance!”

Jules felt a hand beneath his skirt. “The guys have been saying I don’t do enough to satisfy you,” came Hunter’s voice.

The council hall gallery yawned in front of them, its occupants’ faces obscured by shadow.

Jules started as a dissonant chord rang out through the chamber. He turned and saw Evander Lockwood sitting on the bench beside him, banging tunelessly on his pipe organ. “Nimris are not tinkererrrrrs!” belted the senior Lockwood blithely. Thorsten looked on from his seat at the council table, arms folded sternly over his chest.

Hunter laid Jules back on Evander’s lap. “I know you’d rather be set on fire than disappoint Daddy.” He opened Jules’s thighs.

A thunderclap ravaged the air. Blue light began to dance on the walls and glare harshly off the pipes.

“Get off me!” Jules writhed desperately. But Hunter had both his arms pinned.

The organ started to warp from the heat, its notes twisting in unnerving feline wails. The shrieks of the dying grated on Jules’s ears.

“Let me fucking go! I have to put out the fire! I’m the only one who can!”

“Jules! Hey—Jules!”

Hunter slapped him across the face. “Enough, Juliana! Haven’t I told you no one likes a know-it-all?”

But as he stared up at him, Jules realized it wasn’t Hunter who was holding him down after all.

It was Rory. It had been Rory all along.

First Thorsten, then Evander burst into flames, their voices rising in alien teakettle shrills. Jules thrashed and wailed uselessly as, one after the other, they twisted and crumbled to ash.

The fire engulfed Rory. Jules looked up and saw his own terror reflected in his once-friend’s eyes. He surrendered; embraced him and clung on tight as their liquefying flesh began to fuse.

“None of it even mattered,” he felt himself sigh, as his eyes and ears melted, leaving him alone in the dark. “ … Did it?”

“JULES!”

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Jules clenched his inner eye shut and felt the press of warm flesh against his palm. His vision rolled slowly back into focus.

“Jules! Can you hear me?” The girl’s face was gray, her eyes frantically searching his. She gripped his left hand tightly between her own.

“Y-yes,” Jules croaked, panting softly. He cleared his throat.

For a moment, he couldn’t remember why he was here.

His gaze latched onto the cinnamon starburst at the center of her right eye. He let himself drift, disembodied, in the comforting truth of its form.

“I’m so sorry I slapped you,” she gasped. “I got scared. I mean—I don’t know shit about magic, so maybe what was happening to you just now was totally normal. But it freaked me the fuck out.”

A shiver coursed through Jules. The thin film of sweat on his skin had already begun to turn cold.

It was coming back to him now, why he was here in this windowless room. What he’d been trying to do. He forced his eyes not to drift back to that black rift in Max’s chest. “That wasn’t normal, no.” He swallowed. “What was I doing?”

“Like … tripping out. In a bad way. Something about a vacuum … ?”

Jules tried to remember. Tried to understand.

He started to push himself to his feet, but only ended up sinking back down on the cot. He’d forgotten he had a bad leg. His head was still reeling.

“Talk to me, please,” said Max. “I’m scared.”

Jules sat there, still struggling to make sense of what had happened. He’d been able to read the air in the room once Max had pried his palm free of her chest. He’d been able to read her skin cells when she’d clasped his hand in hers.

That meant there was nothing wrong with his channels.

“It’s … empty,” he choked out finally. “It has to be.”

“What is?” whispered Max, sounding like she didn’t like the sound of that at all.

“Your chest.” Jules’s thoughts finally started clicking again at something like their usual pace. “My hallucinogenic state while attempting to read your wound was more than likely the result of my brain’s efforts to generate meaningful patterns from unstructured input. It seems your body has become host to a void, containing no form—no structure—no prima materia, in any of its possible emanations. I guess you could call it a … gash … in reality. I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Max stared off blankly.

“Can it be fixed?” she whispered at last.

Her audible anguish made Jules wish more than anything he could say yes. “I don’t know. I need to do research. To be honest with you, I’ve never heard of a thing like this. It …might help if you could tell me anything at all about the ritual that created it. Whatever magic brought it into being might be the key to controlling it—even reversing it.”

What’s done can’t be undone, whispered a voice in the back of his head.

Fuck off, he replied.

“Ugh.” Max bowed her head. “I just … there’s this block whenever I try to even think about it. I swear, I almost think it would be easier to peel my own face off.”

“I understand,” said Jules.

Max eyed him as if she very much doubted that.

“And I … might have an idea that will help you,” he went on, undeterred. “But it can wait. For now, I’ll just learn as much as I can from Rory and the crime scene.”

Max blinked at him. “You know Rory?”

Jules nodded, wondering why this should be surprising to her. “He’s the reason I’m here.”

“Oh my God. I kept asking everyone who came in here what happened to him, and they all acted like he didn’t exist. Nobody knew who he was. I started thinking I dreamed him.”

“Believe me, he’s very real.”

Max smiled a little, for the first time since Jules had read her wound. “Is he okay? Did he get in trouble for bringing me here?”

“He’s fine. And no, he’s not in trouble because of you.”

“But he is in trouble … ?”

“I don’t think so. It’s kind of a long story.”

Max nodded to herself. “Can I see him?”

“That can probably be arranged.”

Her smile appeared again. “He saved my life, you know. He was amazing.”

Jules didn’t comment. After all, Rory was a Good Samaritan. The Best Samaritan. It was the truth. It wasn’t sarcasm.

He picked up his cane and stood. “Sometime today or tomorrow I’ll bring instruments; take some measurements, so I can monitor any developments in the rift over time.” He glanced around the room. “And I’m going to see if I can’t work out nicer accommodations for you. Something that’ll make it easier for you to entertain yourself. Move around. Get fresh air. Have company.”

“Fuck, Jules. You’re an angel, inside and out.” There was her smile again. “I … don’t suppose you’d also be willing to pick me up a pack of menthols? I could really use something to take the edge off.” She shrugged her gown back into place and retied the ribbon. Jules felt his muscles uncoil as the rift disappeared from view.

“I will.” He started toward the door.

“Hey, wait,” Max piped up.

Jules turned.

“Are … you okay? That trip you had seemed pretty rough.”

“None of it was real,” said Jules.

Max looked unsatisfied by this answer, but nodded.

The alchemist exited the chamber. Kept moving till he reached his office. Locked himself inside and sat down at his desk.

He laid his palms flat on the mahogany surface and gazed up at the Adam Kadmon. He measured his breaths; felt a bracing tension in the front of his skull and the back of his throat.

Was that what annihilation feels like?

A shiver wracked him to the bone.

If so … it’s worse than I could have imagined.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER EIGHT
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER SIX

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