Love Rhymes with Hideous Car Wreck

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

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Another fruitless day in the lab.

Another day of burning through his mana, his brainpower, his energy, only to watch the nulla materia gash grow—this time to such a size and density that both the alchemical array and the containment field generator that enclosed it would have to be enlarged and reinforced.

Which would be yet another time drain. Another setback Max maybe couldn’t afford.

Some pernicious little voice in Jules’s head had started to suggest that what he was trying to do was simply beyond the realm of the possible. That a wound in reality could never decrease in size—only grow.

That, in fact, attempts to eliminate it were exactly what it fed on.

Jules refused to hear it. There has to be a way.

“Grand Archivist.” He knocked gently on her open office door, leaned on the doorframe to relieve his bad leg. “I was just on my way to my dad’s campaign meeting. Thought I’d stop in, see if you’ve had any luck with the code.”

“See for yourself.” Draven gestured to the map of Northern Illinois spread out on her desk. “I was planning to send for you in the morning so I could show you what I’ve found.”

Jules felt himself rally, limped over to join her at the desk. Eyed the eight Xs etched on the map in red graphite. “These locations were encoded in the ledgers?”

Draven nodded. “And one of them’s the church you mentioned.”

“Looks like they form a compass rose.”

“Indeed.” Draven picked up her red pencil and a ruler, drew crisscrossing lines through the Xs with flourishing strokes. “North, South, East, West—and then the four intercardinal directions as well. And all eight of these sites are precisely equidistant from this location”—she circled the spot where the lines intersected—“at the center.”

Jules squinted down at the printed words within Draven’s hand-drawn circle. “‘Our Lady of Mercy Medical Center.’” He frowned. “A hospital…because a lot of people suffer and die there? The Nihilites seem to draw on that kind of thing for their rituals.”

“Perhaps. Though a hospital is also the site of a great deal of charity and goodwill. I’m not sure it would serve as an ideal hub for Nihilite ritual practice, based on what admittedly little we know of their magic at this time.”

“I guess I’ll just have to check out this hospital in person. See what I can find out.”

“I’d look for a connection between these eight locations as well.” Draven indicated each of the Xs with her pencil. “Perhaps any notable events that took place simultaneously at each.”

Jules raised his eyebrows. “Like on the night of the gang brawl outside Bethel Lutheran.”

“I should think that would be a very good place to start.”

Whatever does or doesn’t happen in the lab, if I can just hunt down these fucking apostates, there’s hope. “This is really helpful, Grand Archivist. Thank you.”

Draven folded up the map, handed it to Jules. The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes deepened ever so slightly. “You are most welcome, Grand Philosopher.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Jules wracked his overtaxed brain.

… Why a hospital?

It’s dead in the center of the circle. Which would make it the convergence point of all the power they must have generated with the violent acts. Some critical event must have taken place there that night.

But what?

“Are we boring you, Jules?”

Jules snapped his eyes up to his father, who was staring at him expectantly across the small table in the conference room adjacent to his office. Thorsten’s campaign manager, Gaius Flynn, sat beside him, and was also looking toward Jules with thinly veiled impatience.

“This is a topic that’s supposedly of interest to you,” Thorsten added.

“I’m sorry.” Jules blinked, rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It’s been a long day. Could you repeat the question?”

“I’m telling you, Your Honor, this really isn’t necessary,” interrupted Gaius. “Yes, you took a dip in opinion polls following the ‘uncivilized rabble’ remark. And we’ve yet to learn whether your apology reversed the damage. However”—he pulled out today’s issue of The Delphi Oracle and laid it open on the table, pointed at a bar chart—“as you can see here, even in the wake of that faux pas, you’ve maintained a very safe lead over Master-Savant Lockwood. As such, it’s neither necessary nor advisable for you to consider drastic changes to your platform at this point in time.”

“It was Archmagus Weyland’s recommendation that I make more effort to address Rising-House concerns.” Thorsten massaged his temples.

“All due respect to the Archmagus,” Gaius drawled, “but His Honor hadn’t seen these poll numbers at the time. Yes, you took a hit. But you’re still on track to win by a significant margin. Pandering to the Rising Houses is not only unnecessary; it could backfire by alienating your base. I see no point whatsoever in taking that risk.”

Jules leaned in, squinted at the fine print beneath the chart. “Just as I thought. They only polled members who’ve voted in previous elections.”

Gaius swiveled his mutton-chopped head toward Jules blankly, as if he’d forgotten the junior Nimri was there. “‘Likely voters’—that’s right, dear. Which greatly improves the predictive accuracy of the measure. Really, Thorsten, I don’t have time to give your girl a political science lesson.”

“‘Boy,’ Gaius,” Thorsten corrected him, sounding weary.

Gaius appeared to stifle a sigh. “I…do apologize, Your Honor.”

“But suppose first-time Rising-House voters show up to this election in droves,” said Jules.

Gaius again turned to Thorsten. “As you well know, Your Honor, the vast majority of Rising-House magi occupy no higher a rank than Associate. Given how relatively little lower-ranking members’ votes count, fully fifty percent of them would have to vote—all for Lockwood—for them to sway the election against you. That would be unprecedented in the extreme.”

“Have you been to one of Hunter’s rallies?” said Jules. “Those people are energized. And most of them are young. Young enough that they wouldn’t have been eligible to vote in the last election.”

Gaius sighed. “Look, dear—”

“That’s ‘Grand Philosopher’ to you.”

Gaius’s lips became very thin. “Look, Grand Philosopher, I’ve been doing this job for a very long time.”

“That’s exactly what makes you a liability.”

“Jules,” said Thorsten. “You’ve no cause to be rude.”

“I’m not being rude, Dad. I’m being realistic. When the game changes, you don’t keep using the same old playbook. Hunter is polling at forty-three percent in a survey that is, in all likelihood, biased against him. That should scare the ever-loving shit out of you.”

“Jules!” said Thorsten. “Language.”

“If not this election, then the next one will find you vulnerable. Rising-House magi make up more and more of Arcanus’s ranks by the year. At this rate, within the next decade or two, rank-weighted voting won’t be enough to preserve Old-World dominance within the order. Change is needed, and it’s coming, and it’s just a matter of time. You can choose to roll with the current or drown in it.”

“‘Old World’? Where on Earth do you get off using a term like that?”

“Are you even listening to me?”

“Yes, yes, I’m listening.” Thorsten palmed his bald pate in agitation. “You’re telling me that Nameless rabble is set to overrun the order.”

“They’re not a rabble, Dad.”

“I don’t see how you can continue to defend them after the way they behaved toward you.”

“It was only a handful of them who said those things. Believe me, I’ve heard as bad or worse from First-Housers.” His father looked horrified at this, which Jules found oddly touching. “And not all Rising-Housers buy into Hunter’s rhetoric. That’s where you could actually have a freaking shot at winning some of them over, Dad—by offering a rational alternative. Real solutions.”

“Real solutions to what?”

Jules sighed. “I don’t know how many different ways I can explain this to you. It all comes back to employment inequity. The Auctoritas Magicae employs Rising-House magi in disproportionately low numbers compared to First-House magi. Most Rising-Housers are forced to find mundane jobs—generally unskilled ones that pay starvation wages, seeing as their educational backgrounds are in magic and not in any mundane field, and A.M. law forbids unlicensed magical practice. Actually, shocking numbers of Rising-Housers are unemployed right now, and still more underemployed, because the United States at this time is going through a major economic recession.”

“Yes, yes, I’ve heard all this before. It’s very unfortunate. But what do they expect, a handout, at the expense of magi who’ve worked harder and proven themselves eminently better-qualified?”

“I believe in meritocracy as much as you do, Dad, but I know you’re not so naïve as to think nepotism and bias play no part in hiring decisions. Rising-House kids are educated differently, too, which likely results in more of them being underqualified.”

“We haven’t had a separate educational system for Rising-House children since the 1980s.”

“I saw for myself, they got way less attention and encouragement at the Academy. Funny how things tend to shake out that way when it’s not your parents footing the bill.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, Jules! We’re giving these people a handout by educating their children for free in the first place. And once you give people something for free, they only go on to expect more and more.”

“Did you earn your family name and wealth, Dad?” said Jules. “Or were those things given to you for free?”

Thorsten darkened. “The property and rights of my forebears are my birthright.”

“In other words, you had the plain dumb luck to be born to a privileged family, meaning you got the good education and the good job with the free access to medicinal care, while everyone else is out there trying to scrape together the money from two or three minimum-wage mundane jobs to afford visits to Medicinal Magic when their kids get sick because the Occultation Protocols still, incomprehensibly, forbid magi from accessing mundane healthcare.”

“Oh, now I suppose you want to do away with the Occultation Protocols, too!”

“I’m not sure our continued isolationism benefits us or the rest of the world, but that’s a different topic altogether. Either way, I absolutely do favor making the Protocols more specific when it comes to accessing mundane medicine. There would be no conceivable harm in narrowing the ban to diagnostic imaging procedures, since they’re the only mundane medical practice capable of detecting the presence of mana channels. Better still—and ideally we’d do both—make Medicinal Magic accessible at no cost to all magi.”

“It’s Auctoritas Magicae employees who fund the Medicinal Magic system, out of their hard-earned salaries! The expense would become untenable if we started letting every Tom, Dick, and Harry access the facilities for free.”

“Then those of us who have the means should pay higher dues.”

“Higher dues? Our families built this order!”

“Your Honor, it’s absurd to continue this debate,” interrupted Gaius, who, since his withdrawal from the conversation, had looked a lot like he was watching a tennis match. “Your daugh—son, while very accomplished for someone so young, is hardly an expert in these matters.”

“Agreed,” said Thorsten. “You’re simply too young to understand these things, Jules. You still think you can have your pie in the sky and eat it too.”

Jules stared at him. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well.” His father gave a chuckle. “I mean, honestly, do think you’d be where you are today if it weren’t for the very privileges you so righteously rail against?”

“Nothing I have or am is because of you, or the name Nimri.”

Jules regretted his words almost instantly. But he wasn’t about to eat them. Not in front of Gaius.

His father stared at him hard. Jules matched his gaze, preparing himself for the inevitable outburst.

But it never came. Instead, Thorsten stood. “We’ll continue this at a later time, Gaius,” he muttered. Exited the room.

Gaius eyed Jules with a grim set to his mouth. “All this time,” he murmured, with a shake of his whiskered head, “even with the troubles he faces, he hasn’t uttered a word of blame. Has he?” He gathered his papers, stood. “I swear I’ve never seen a more spoiled, ungrateful child.”

He bustled past, robes trailing. Shut the door sharply after him.

Jules sat in silence, staring at the table.

“I don’t have time for this,” he muttered finally to himself, and swung the strap of his satchel over his head.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Jules breathed a sigh as he limped into Room 808, shrugged off his satchel, and kicked off his Oxfords. He hurried to change into his PJs, brush his teeth, wash his face. He could feel the cares of the day sloughing off his shoulders like piled snow in a heat wave at the thought of finally, finally, finally tumbling into bed with Max.

He paused a moment to fuss with his hair in the mirror—though she’d seen it by now in every possible state of dishevelment—before going to knock on her door. Even after all this time, he always knocked. 

But for the first time ever, he didn’t get an answer.

“Max?”

He knocked again.

Still nothing.

Jules pressed his ear to the crack in the door.

All he could make out was the sounds of Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He knew every one of Max’s shows by now.

“Max!” He knocked again, louder.

A sob reached his ears.

Jules felt a chill of panic.

“I’m coming in!” he hollered, and went barreling through the doors.

He found Max lying in bed, curled up in the fetal position, one arm draped over her eyes. She was half-buried in a litter of wadded-up tissues.

“Baby.” Jules rushed over, sank down on the bed by her side. “What’s wrong?”

She dissolved in a fresh wave of sobs.

“Oh…God. Oh, Max.” Jules leaned down, wrapped his body around hers. “Hey. Hey. I’ve got you. I’m here. Whatever it is, you can tell me. Or not. Whatever helps. I’ve got you. I’m here.”

She went quiet in his arms for a moment, her chest rising and falling haltingly with each breath.

Then she said, in a hushed voice, “Please let go of me.”

Jules went stiff. Scooted away from her. “Sorry.” Wondered what he’d done wrong.

“No, no, don’t you dare be sorry. I just…” She burrowed her face deeper into her bicep. “I just…can’t tell you what I have to tell you when you’re being so sweet to me.”

Jules blinked at her, heard static. “I don’t understand.”

Max inhaled and exhaled three times, silently, then swallowed.

At last she said, in a whisper so soft Jules wasn’t sure he heard right, “I’ve been seeing Rory.”

Jules stared at her, felt a strange urge to laugh. “‘Seeing’? What do you mean—‘seeing’?”

“I mean sleeping with him. Since before you and I first hooked up.”

Jules wondered why he didn’t feel anything. “And you…are still…?”

“No. I think he heard me with you this morning, and now he never wants to see me again.”

“He heard…?” Jules felt suddenly pissed off at himself for asking so many stupid questions.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Max’s eyes were still hidden from view behind her arm. “I’ve always made bad fucking decisions, but this one really takes the cake. I just…I love you so much, Jules Nimri. You have no idea. But you can’t always be here, and I…I feel a lot for Rory, too. And I just…I can’t bear to be alone lately…you know?”

Jules found himself rising to his feet. Drifting toward the door like a ghost. “I understand.”

Max sat up. “Where are you going?”

“I have to go.”

“Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know.”

A note of panic entered her voice. “You don’t know…?”

“I’m sorry.”

Jules crossed into Room 808, shut both doors behind him. From the other side came the sound of Max breaking down in throat-scoring sobs.

Jules stood there in the middle of the room, felt its shadows closing in on him. Wondered what he should do next. He couldn’t stay here, couldn’t listen to this all night. He could go home to Eliyon, he supposed—back under his parents’ roof, till he figured out what to do about Max in general. Or maybe he’d drive up to Chicago. Stay out all night. He was an adult now; he could do things like that. He also had his glamor card. He could go sit at some bar, drink himself into a coma if he wanted. Maybe even try and find someone to fuck. Had that fake ID, too, come to think of it…toyed with the idea of going in drag, playing the part of “Juliana” just for tonight, for some stranger he’d never have to see again, because he kind of wanted to choke on a dick right now, and he figured most gay men would tell him to go fuck himself.

Jules threw on his clothes, grabbed his wallet and keys, made for the door.

Stumbled to a halt as, suddenly, a BOOM shook the room, like the slamming of a colossal fist.

“Max?” His heart pounded.

What he heard next chilled him to the bone: a half-scream, half-roar, inhuman and incomprehensible.

The air felt wrong. Smelled wrong. Every tiny hair on Jules’s body stood on end.

There came another thunderous crash.

Jules’s keys and wallet hit the floor.

The alchemist shoved up his left sleeve, ignited his central mana seal with a whoomph, and took off at a sprint toward Max’s room.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO
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