story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Rory tilted his head back, beat-up flip phone in hand, and watched two dark sheets of cloud come together like curtains, blacking out a patch of stars. His sister’s words repeated on a loop in his brain:
Less than an hour ago. Fifty-something people missing. Nineteen confirmed dead.
Anybody I—we know well? he’d asked her, when he’d finally found his voice.
Nobody you were close to, far as I know. But they’re still recovering bodies.
A lone raindrop pelted him in the face.
He stood rooted for a beat, then sprang into action, punching a phone number he’d wrenched from distant memory into his keypad—even though he knew before he heard the telltale tone it would be out of service.
“We’re sorry,” confirmed the faux-contrite automated voice. “You have reached a number that—”
Rory snapped his phone shut, doing his damnedest to crush it in his fist. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“You okay over there, man?”
Rory glanced back at his bandmates, who were unloading gear from the decrepit tour van. “Uh … yeah. I’m fine.” It wasn’t that he didn’t want desperately to tell them the truth—that something terrible had happened, and there wasn’t shit he could do about it, so he was one thin, fraying straw away from freaking the fuck out. But he’d promised himself three years ago, when he’d put his old life behind him, that he would never breathe a word about it to his mundane friends—not because he gave two shits about the Auctoritas Magicae’s arbitrary code of silence, but because he’d turned his back on that world and its ways for a reason. Plus, if his friends ever found out he could do honest-to-God magic, there was a good chance they’d never look at him the same.
At best, it would make things weird.
“I just, um … ” Rory finally bothered to wipe the raindrop from his brow, and ignored another that splattered on his cheek. A downpour had followed the band all the way from Cleveland to Chicago, where it had dwindled to a fitful drizzle. “I’m a little out of it, I guess. Gonna take a quick walk around, get some air … if that’s cool.”
“Go ahead, dude. We got this.” Chillie stepped up to give Kyra a hand with her drum set.
Rory drifted off around the corner of the building, into the alley, and closed his eyes.
Somehow, reflecting on those two words only made his chest grow tighter.
Look out for yourself, Abs, he’d warned his sister on the phone. This is probably just the beginning. Someone out there’s pissed.
Abby was a naïve sixteen, and Rory couldn’t help but love her for it. She still thought life was fair and hard work could get you where you wanted to go, no matter who your parents were … or how many Old-Worlders were standing in line ahead of you.
The Auctoritas Magicae was a devil’s bargain, Rory had tried to explain to her once. The other orders bowed down to the cultural dominance of Arcanus for their own protection. Anyone who refused was exterminated. The Order of Zosimos? Wiped off the face of the Earth.
But the Zosimites were dangerous, she’d recited earnestly in reply—that bullshit Arcanus Academy had fed her with a shovel. The formation of the council brought peace.
At what cost? There was no due process. The Tribunal tranquilized all the dissidents and asked questions later. You do know the only reason Arcanus lets people like you and me join is to compete with Khmun’s recruiting numbers? Otherwise they’d probably just hunt us down like dogs. You want the real truth, Abs? The Old-Worlders are scared to death of us No-Names. Just not as much as they are of their own so-called allies.
Don’t call us “No-Names.” I hate that word. And seriously, Ku, you sound crazy. Where do you even get this stuff?
Rory heard a cough and realized he wasn’t alone in the alley.
He looked up and saw a girl about his age seated on a stoop a little ways down, nursing a menthol and paging through a well-worn paperback. A ribbon of smoke from her cigarette wafted his way.
“Could I, uh, bum a square?” he asked, shuffling over to her, hands in pockets.
She looked up at him with large, uncanny hazel eyes. She was cute, he decided; not in the kind of way you noticed from a distance, but in a plain, nondescript way, with a rabbit-like mouth in a receding wisp of a face, and frumpy, ash-brown hair that just touched her shoulders. “Hard day?” She scanned his features as she rummaged in a pocket of her frayed army jacket.
“Just got a little bad news.” He mustered a smile.
She tapped a menthol loose from her pack and handed it up to him with two fingers. “Wanna talk about it?”
Rory would have taken her up on the offer if he wasn’t a hundred percent sure she’d think he was bananas. “No … but thanks.” He wedged the cigarette between his lips and lit it with the proffered lighter. “What’re you reading?”
She looked sheepish. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” She showed him the cover. “Because, ya know … I never stopped being thirteen.”
Rory grinned wanly and sank down on the step beside her. “You like wizards, huh?”
“Still waiting for my damn Hogwarts letter. Their admissions office for-real needs to get their shit together.”
Rory stared at his hands as he exhaled smoke though his nose. “You ever think maybe the place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?”
He managed a chuckle.
“I’m Max.” She stuffed her square between her lips, extended a hand.
“Rory.” Rory returned the handshake. Max’s hand was cold and rough around the knuckles, her grip firm. “I’m … usually not this emo,” he added, suddenly self-conscious.
“You said you just got bad news. You’re not a frickin’ robot.”
Rory decided at that moment that he liked Max. Really liked her.
“I, on the other hand, am usually this emo,” she continued. “And I got no excuse. I’m not even ashamed to say it.”
Rory grinned. “Are you here for the show?” He jerked a thumb toward the building behind them.
“I’m here for a guy, who happens to be in the show.”
“Oh,” said Rory, hoping the disappointment wasn’t obvious.
“He’s the bassist for Konami Code. I’m actually starting to realize he’s kind of a jerk, but I have no standards.”
Max rolled her eyes upward in thought. “Because … there’s only one Gerard Way, and he’s taken? And Yoite isn’t even real, so.”
“ … Was that an anime reference?”
“I will neither confirm nor deny.”
Rory grinned. “Well, uh … ” He tossed down his cigarette butt and stamped it out. “I actually should probably be going, ’cause … I’m in the show too.”
“Yeah. I’m the frontman for Episode Four.”
“Dude, best band name … ever.”
Rory’s grin widened.
“Maybe I’ll see you in there,” said Max.
“I hope so.” Rory got to his feet. “You should, uh, tell your boy to shape up, or he’ll have some competition.”
A thrill of embarrassment rushed through him. Rory’s mouth always seemed to race miles ahead of his judgment. But he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t bring himself to walk away from her, maybe never to see her again, without at least dropping a hint.
… Especially given the still-too-fresh reminder that life was fucking short.
When he finally got up the nerve to look at her again, she was blinking at him round-eyed, her cigarette burning to ash between her fingers. “Uh … yeah.” She ducked her head and fiddled with her book, then tapped her ash loose and took a final drag. “Yeah … maybe I will.” She stubbed out her butt on the pavement and smiled slightly to herself, then looked up at him again.
“Hey, dude, we gotta do sound check,” came Chillie’s voice from behind him. Rory turned to see the burly bassist’s shaved-bald head sticking out around the corner of the building. “You comin’?”
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry.” Rory turned back to Max with an awkward wave. “Well, um … see ya?”
“Later, gator.” She smiled down at her book.
Chillie ruffled Rory’s shaggy, mahogany-highlighted crop as the two of them filed into the venue through the stage door. “You sure you’re all right there, buddy?”
“Yeah, man. Totally,” Rory lied, with a transparent smile.
He grabbed his guitar from its case and took the stage; plugged in, tuned up, ran sound check. Chillie quietly doodled out the bass solo from “Maxwell Murder,” the way he always did before shows.
The band launched into their opener without preamble. Rory played and sang with raucous abandon, strumming and howling and stomping out his emotions on the stage.
After pounding out the last dissonant chord, he stepped up to the microphone, shaking his sweaty hair out of his eyes. “Uh, hey there, people. Thanks for coming out tonight.” He paused a moment to tune his D string. “We’re Episode Four.”
He looked out and warmed at the sight of Max standing in the back of the house, her book tucked under her arm. She smiled when she saw him looking her way.
“This next song is one some of you might know,” he went on. “It’s off our first EP. It’s called ‘Critical Miss.’”
Chillie launched into the opening riff as a few whoops of recognition rose up from the true-fans in the front of the crowd.
Rory glanced Max’s way and spied her caught up in what looked like a heated conversation with a guy he thought he recognized as Konami Code’s bassist. Seconds later, the couple stormed outside into the vestibule.
Come on. Dump his ass, Rory urged silently.
His gaze kept drifting to the door as the song continued, all the way through the emotional breakdown at the end—during which Chillie, as per tradition, took to bouncing in place so hard his huge frame vibrated the stage.
The band was halfway through the third song of the set, “Weezer Cover Band” (Chillie: “This definitely won’t make the EP, ’cause Rivers Cuomo might sue us”), when Max finally reappeared, alone, and took up her post at the rear of the house.
Rory couldn’t resist raising a quizzical eyebrow at her.
She caught his eye and winked, then mimed dropkicking something before starting to hop around exuberantly in time with the music.
Fuck yes. Rory broke out in his first real smile since his sister’s call. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait for the set to end so he could hang out with Max.
The next song was a melancholy number, musing and existential. Rory channeled that sick feeling in the pit of his stomach; closed his eyes and screamed his guts out over Kyra’s thrashing drums, Drew’s throbbing rhythm guitar, and Chillie’s pulsing bass, till the song crescendoed to its peak, then croaked out the last few lyrics in a strained voice.
The house was silent for several seconds after the last note died, then broke out in earnest applause.
As the crowd subsided, Rory heaved a shaky sigh, wiped his nose, and started tuning his guitar. “We, uh, have one more song.” He looked up, needing a smile from Max—and faltered when he didn’t find her in the spot where he’d last seen her.
In her place stood four tall men in matching dark jackets with the hoods pulled up, huddled close, their backs turned to the stage.
That’s … weird.
“Thanks again for … coming out tonight,” Rory went on. “And, uh … thanks to Stanley and the Kubricks, and Gut Punch. You guys were great.”
The group of hooded men parted to reveal Max standing in their midst, her eyes aimed listlessly ahead.
“And, uh … Konami Code. For putting this show together,” Rory mumbled, frowning. “I mean, you know … yeah. Thanks.”
One of the men leaned down and whispered something in Max’s ear. She nodded vaguely, once, her gaze unblinking.
“This last song of ours … ” Rory trailed off and stared as the four men moved toward the nearest exit, Max, zombie-like, shuffling in their wake.
“Uhhh … it’s the only song of ours that will ever have a guitar solo,” Chillie chimed in, valiantly taking up Rory’s customary spiel. “We promise! It’s called ‘Trilogy.’”
The song was supposed to start with Rory playing and singing alone, so an awkward silence was all that followed as he stood there speechless, watching Max and the hooded men file out into the alley.
Another several beats of silence followed.
The audience started to murmur.
“Rory?” Chillie asked.
“I, uh … I’m sick,” Rory muttered into the microphone, then laid his guitar down beside him, crouched, and braced a hand against the lip of the stage, vaulting himself down into the audience.
“Dude—what the … ?” said Chillie into his mic.
The sounds of Drew on guitar and Chillie on vocals braving their way awkwardly through the opening of “Trilogy” followed Rory as he weaved his way through the crowd.
He picked up speed as panic set in.
Rory’d always been the kind of guy who always trusted his instincts. And right now, his instincts were screaming at him that if he didn’t catch up to those four men before they left the premises, he’d never see Max again.
He burst through the exit door onto the stoop where he’d first asked Max for a square, and glanced right, then left—and spied the strange assemblage heading around the corner of the building.
“Hey!” He charged after them.
One of the hooded men turned to face him, his eyes two cavernous, hypnotic swirls of black. “Halt,” he said, mildly.
Rory came skidding to a stop as if he’d hit a brick wall.
He’s a mage, he realized, with a stroke of terror.
… A cogimancer.
Max stood behind the men, her gaze empty, her head slumped listlessly to one side. A muffled whimper rose up from the back of her throat.
The cogimancer turned his eyes on her. “Be silent. Take her,” he added to his companions.
Rory hadn’t performed any serious magic in about three years, and he’d never applied himself at Academy. All he’d managed to do was get down the basics, along with a few prank spells of his own devising that he’d used to get revenge on bullies or disrupt class.
Which, at the moment, was something he was regretting—majorly.
The other three men hustled Max off around the corner.
The cogimancer advanced on Rory.
Rory stood, his feet rooted to the spot.
All at once, red rage flooded his vision.
Rory felt his nerves ignite with the static of excitatory gnosis.
He thrust his hand out in a claw.
It might have been a few years, but he was pretty sure he still remembered a few of his old tricks.
“Fall down. Die,” intoned the cogimancer.
Before Rory had a chance to unleash his power, his legs collapsed out from under him.
He wiped out flat on his back on the rain-soaked pavement, croaking voicelessly as his lungs refused to draw air.
No … fuck you … I won’t.
Rory writhed and gaped like a fish, his ribcage burning, as the mind-mage vanished around the corner.
Seconds later came the sound of a car engine starting, followed by a screeching of rubber on asphalt.
Rory’s head was pounding, his vision cluttered with hazy spots. Shadows crept in from the corners like a vignette; the ground, the sky, the walls of the alley receded as he slid deeper and deeper into darkness.
Fuck … no …
Rory ground his teeth, raked his fingers raw against the pavement, fighting with every last ounce of his strength not to go into the dark.
It doesn’t …
… fucking …
… end …
… like …
… this …