“Honey, This Mirror Isn’t Big Enough for the Two of Us”
story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb
Content Warning: SUICIDAL IDEATION, MISGENDERING, ABLEISM, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, GORE
Rory stood side by side with Jules on a busy sidewalk in Lincoln Park, staring up at a stuttering neon replica of the figure the dying sunlight had etched on that fire-blackened wall.
“‘Lit Sister,’” Jules read out loud from the sign.
“That’s our girl, yeah?” Rory grinned.
“Definitely.” Jules started up the steps.
“You have to be twenty-one to get in.”
“I thought you said you’d been here before.”
“They make exceptions for the talent. Also I have a cousin who makes kickass fake IDs, so I can get in anywhere I want. I can have him make you one for cheap if you want. Not sure how we’re gonna get you in tonight though. Maybe I can find a way to let you in the back.”
“I’ll get in.”
Jules slipped two fingers in his wallet, displayed a standard-sized card—each side blank with a pearlescent, holographic surface.
“Glamor card. To mundane eyes it’ll appear to be whatever they most expect to see. Driver’s license. Credit card. Library card. You name it. It’s standard-issue Martial Magus gear.”
Rory scanned Jules’s smooth cheeks and black doe eyes. “Um.”
“Promise you won’t get mad.”
“You know me and my explosive temper.”
“… Aren’t you afraid it might say you’re underage?”
Jules looked expressly unamused.
“You said it’ll show what they expect to see. Just being real here—you’d be lucky to pass for sixteen.”
Jules rolled his eyes. “I have a backup plan,” he confessed.
The alchemist pried open his wallet, displayed a stack of hundred-dollar bills.
Rory gave a low whistle. “That Old World scrilla.”
“Help! Oligarchy! I’m being oppressed,” said Rory to a woman passing on the street.
Jules grabbed his arm, dragged him up the steps.
The inside of the bar was dimly lit. In the vestibule, on a stool about three times too small for him, perched a beefy man with dark glasses and a shaved-bald skull, both muscles and gut on display in a tight-fitting Gorgoroth t-shirt. He looked Jules and Rory up and down as they entered. “IDs?”
Rory went first with a confident flash of his fake driver’s license, courtesy of Cousin Patrick.
The bouncer scanned it, then squinted at him, one furry brow raised. “This for sure you, bruh? You look fuckin’ fifteen years old.”
Rory glanced back at Jules, thought he saw a little smirk on the alchemist’s lips. “It’s the Asian genes,” he shrugged, and faced forward again with his finest shit-eating grin.
The bouncer studied him, then gave a shrug of his own and waved him through.
Rory breathed a sigh of relief, stepped aside to wait for Jules.
The alchemist walked up to the bouncer, his expression characteristically opaque, and presented the glamor card.
The bouncer took the card and studied it, then looked up at Jules sharply.
Here we go. Rory braced himself.
Jules reacted with a bland, cool-customer expression that seemed to say, What? But, thanks to the way his thumb and forefinger were rubbing together at his side, Rory could tell he was nervous.
The bouncer peered at Jules a moment, then handed back the glamor card and shifted on his stool, folding his meaty arms over his chest.
After a beat, he waved the alchemist through.
Rory failed miserably at hiding his shock.
Jules walked visibly taller as the two of them headed into the barroom. “So you know this place well?” He glanced around.
Lit Sister was a pretty typical punk bar, half-lit, cavelike, crudely intimate. Posters, graffiti, and amateur art smothered the walls. The only furnishings were the bar, a few beat-up couches and chairs, some randomly placed stools, and a pair of fraying pool tables.
Rory nodded, a movement that naturally segued into him headbanging to the beat of “Rendez-Voodoo,” which was pulsing through the overhead sound system via the jukebox in the corner. “See that stage in the back? I’ve hit up a few shows here. My own band’s played a couple times. It’s a pretty sweet venue.”
He imagined Jules might look slightly impressed.
The alchemist leaned closer, lowered his voice. “Nobody here you recognize, I take it.”
Rory scanned the crowd, shook his head. “Not yet. But then, I didn’t get a good look at their faces—except for the one I dusted.” Funny. He felt slightly less raw about having slaughtered another human being every time he mentioned it.
“We should try to blend in, I guess.”
Jules hesitated visibly. “Sure.”
No surprise you’re not a big drinker. Rory kept the thought to himself. He’d learned his lesson at the gyro place, as far as making personal observations and inquiries.
He led the way to the bar and hopped onto a stool, slouching forward with his elbows on the counter, drumming his fingers on his bicep. Jules hooked his cane over the railing at the counter’s edge and hefted his slender frame onto the stool beside Rory’s.
“Rum and Coke,” Rory said to the bartender.
She gave a brusque nod, then raised one pierced eyebrow at Jules. “You?” She was voluptuous and tan, in a skintight tank top, with multicolored hair.
Rory saw Jules’s eyes slide over her, delicately, then dart away. “Vodka Martini.” He cleared his throat. “Purity and Dolin Dry. If you have them.”
She looked him up and down, then perked her plum-painted lips. “Coming right up, sir.”
“Dang, Double-Oh-Seven!” Rory elbowed Jules in the ribs as she walked away.
Jules’s blush was obvious, even in the dim lighting. “What?”
“You totally impressed her, bro. She’s cute as fuck, right?”
Jules’s lips seemed to give the faintest upward twitch. “Is this ‘locker-room talk’ we’re having here?”
“I guess.” Rory grinned, shrugged. “Why not?”
Jules met his eye for a moment, then looked away with a little shake of his head.
Rory fidgeted, sighed.
The Every Time I Die song ended. “Champagne & Reefer” by Bongzilla started playing. “Oh, shit!” hollered Rory. He started rocking back and forth energetically on his stool, singing passionately to his balled fist.
“What kind of music does your band play?” asked Jules.
Rory blinked at the unexpected show of interest. “Oh, man.” He yanked himself back from orbit, pondered for a moment. “I guess you could say it’s a fusion of post-hardcore, shoegaze, and indie rock. Though actually I’m not sure what indie rock even means, so scratch that.” Way to sound like a tool. “There’s a little pop punk in there.” Dumbass. Jules hates pop punk. “But you know, not, like, Fall Out Boy pop punk. Like, the kind of pop punk that makes you really feel something. ’Cause I like my stuff to be authentic, you know?” Cringe. “And…now realizing that just sounded super fucking pretentious.”
Jules shrugged his lips, gave a comprehending nod.
“There’s some math rock influence.” Rory knew this would get a reaction.
Jules raised an eyebrow. “We talking more Tera Melos or American Football?”
Score. “Tera Melos. Definitely, definitely Tera Melos. The first album.”
Jules gave an approving nod. “What’s your band called?”
The alchemist broke into what Rory was pretty sure was his first real smile since the two of them had reconnected. It reminded Rory how Jules’s smiles always had this sheepish suddenness to them, like they’d had to surprise him to get control of his face and hadn’t totally succeeded. “You and your Star Wars, man.”
Rory grinned deliriously. “It’s the monomyth!” He gesticulated grandly. “Joseph motherfucking Campbell!”
Jules raised his eyes to the heavens and shook his head.
“I know, I know,” Rory mock-sighed. “You’re more of a Trek nerd.”
“I never understood the rivalry,” began Jules, launching into a diatribe Rory could have recited with him word for word. “The two franchises are fundamentally dissimilar. Aside from the fact that their titles are close and they’re both set in space, I don’t see how they invite comparison.”
Dude, Rory was one breath from blurting out loud. I fucking missed you.
Jules eyed him sidelong. “What?”
Rory realized he had a giant-doofus grin on his face. “I…dunno.” He shrugged, suddenly shy. “Just kinda thinking how the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Jules looked away. “They change more than they stay the same.”
Rory deflated like a shivved beachball, then felt suddenly angry with himself. It’s not gonna happen, shithead. Got it? Till you can erase what you did, you can fuck right off.
A coaster landed on the bar in front of him, followed by his drink.
“Here you go, doll,” the bartender crooned at Jules, setting his Martini in front of him.
“Thanks.” Jules was still staring off. He missed her wink. “We should get to work,” he said after she’d gone.
“Where should we start?” Rory was officially all business.
“I guess the first thing to do would be to have a thorough look around. You can take the back of the room. I’ll take the front.”
Rory thought about asking why they shouldn’t stick together, but ultimately figured he knew why—Jules needed space. Fine. I need space too. “What are we looking for?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Anyone or anything you recognize from the other night. Anything that could be related to apostasy or magic in general. Anything suspicious at all, I guess. Text me if you need me.”
Rory hopped down from his stool, forgetting all about his drink, and made a beeline for the nearest exit, deciding he was deeply in need of a cigarette before he got down to work.
Jules stayed behind as Rory stalked off, eyeing his Martini. He’d ordered it because it was Dad’s drink of choice, so it was the first thing that had popped into his head when he’d been put on the spot. He actually wasn’t in the habit of consuming alcohol or other substances that could compromise his Secret Fire.
Jules wrestled with himself a moment, then grabbed the glass by its stem and downed half its contents in one gulp.
“Fuck.” He grimaced, shot a last glance at Rory’s back as he melted into the crowd. Jules couldn’t help reflecting that his old classmate blended in seamlessly with their surroundings, mop-topped, heroin-chic beanpole that he was, wearing knee-high Chucks and a faux-fur-lined jacket—the kind of peacocky street fads only someone with Rory’s nerve and puckish good looks could pull off. Jules reckoned the two of them must look funny together: the hipster fashion plate and the vaguely girly dork.
It was a lot harder than he’d expected to be around his once-friend without slipping into old familiar rhythms. Even forgetting now and then, for brief flashes, about the big ugly elephant in the room. Jules’s thoughts drifted again to the exchange at the café—to Rory having the nerve to ask a question like that after all this time.
After what he’d done.
Jules’s thoughts jumped channels, straight to white noise.
He threw back the rest of his drink and, for a half-second, thought about ordering another. But then he noticed the sluggishness already settling into his limbs.
One fucking drink, Jesus. I know I’m a lightweight, but this is ridiculous.
Jules tossed a couple twenties on the bar and picked up his cane, shuffled off toward the front of the house. Kept his eyes peeled for glamors or anything else suspicious. Eyed the restrooms as he passed them—made a mental note to search their interiors later. One benefit of looking androgynous: He could probably get away with going into both.
The scant Wednesday night crowd in the barroom was mostly concentrated in the back, where the pool tables were. In the front were a few scattered clusters of patrons: one by the jukebox, a couple more milling around the fucked-up couches. Jules tuned his ears discreetly in passing to their conversations, but he didn’t overhear anything that wasn’t either depressingly banal or nauseatingly pretentious. Sometimes, he sincerely wondered how other human beings tolerated so damn much of each other’s company.
He took to scanning the walls, all the while cursing himself for guzzling that Martini, because his head was starting to wobble on top of his neck. If there was anything of interest here, it didn’t catch his eye. The collage of gig posters and other counterculture imagery was riddled with occult references, but none of them indicated a serious grasp of arcane principles, only mysticism viewed through a mundane lens. Jules snapped pictures with his phone of a poster for a black metal band that featured a couple of more obscure runes, but he doubted even these were actually relevant—just figured better safe than sorry.
As he reached the far front end of the barroom, which at the moment was empty of other patrons, he noticed a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye—swung his head toward it with a startled grunt.
“Oh,” he exhaled—it was his own reflection in a big, shabby, ornate mirror that took up the better part of the wall to his left.
He stared into it and saw a row of himselves, alternately staring back at him and facing away from him, stretching off into infinity, and realized there must be another, almost identical mirror at his back—whose existence was confirmed by a glance back over his shoulder.
He stood for a moment, mesmerized by the sight of all those Jules Nimris in their oversized trench coats, with their wild black hair and their glasses and canes, spanning away into some dark place the light couldn’t touch.
He staggered closer to the first mirror, again cursing himself for drinking as his legs shuddered beneath him. He mused that the endlessly repeating mirror frames looked like archways in some never-ending corridor he might easily just…step into.
On a whim, he poked a finger at the glass.
It didn’t yield.
He locked eyes with his reflection, frowned groggily. Countless times in his life he’d stared into a mirror and felt like it was a stranger staring back at him. It happened less often these days, now that he dressed and styled and carried himself the way he wanted to. But at this moment, that feeling of dissociation was as powerful as—maybe more powerful than—it had ever been. Jules studied the pale countenance of the fine-boned young man in front of him and found it strangely inscrutable, the movements of its large, dark eyes seeming more to imitate his own than to reflect them—though he couldn’t detect a single delay or flaw in their mimicry.
“I’m fucking drunk,” he muttered.
The other Jules lip-synced the words.
Jules shook his head, started to turn away—
—then saw in the mirror, from the corner of his eye, a movement he was one hundred percent sure had not been his own.
He swung his head back. Stared at the other Jules, who gazed at him intently.
As Jules watched, his reflection’s lips curved slowly into a smile.
It mouthed something.
“… What?” Jules croaked.
I said, it mouthed again, run.
Jules backed away slowly, watching his reflection get smaller with the increasing distance, the infinite host of its fellows pacing backward out of their own intimate pairings until they were evenly spaced.
In that blackness in the far distance beyond them all, something stirred.
Jules stood rooted in place, watching as the void at the end of the tunnel of mirror frames advanced, devouring reflection after reflection. The reflected Juleses that saw it coming tried in vain to run, or opened their jaws in screams of silent terror. One Jules went running toward the next Jules in line and yanked it into a passionate kiss. The two of them were swallowed up together.
The last few of his reflected doppelgängers came barreling toward the mirror and crowded up against it, trying without luck to force their way through. The one that had told him to run cracked its nose against the surface, leaving a smear of blood as it fell and was trampled by the others.
Jules turned, took a few wobbly steps. By now, he knew whatever was happening to his body was not due to alcohol consumption. There was something else at work.
Something that was systematically shutting down his gross motor functions.
His head lolled forward, his neck now lacking the strength to support it. His vision doubled. He lifted his hand, with painstaking effort, and braced it against the nearby wall to keep himself from falling.
My drink actually…tasted weird, he realized, his thoughts blurring together. And…familiar.
… Something alchemical?
He attempted gnosis, even though he knew that, without full motor functioning, combat alchemy would be impossible.
With tremendous effort, he rolled his head to the side.
The mirror had gone black.
As Jules watched, a man in a black hoodie stepped out of it, started to move toward him.
He tried to yell for help, but his mouth failed to form words. What came out instead was a senseless grunt that was all but swallowed by the ambient hum of music and conversation.
Jules thrust his left hand in his pocket. Forced it to close around his phone.
He rolled clumsily to prop his back against the wall, letting his cane clatter to the floor, and lifted his right hand as if dragging it through a vat of molasses.
With intense effort, he punched out just three letters before hitting Send.
Jules’s phone slipped from his grip, bounced against the floor as if in slow motion, its frame splitting open, vomiting its guts into the air.
He relieved his legs at last of their effort to keep him upright, allowed his body to crash with startling suddenness to the floor. Pain flooded his previously shattered limb.
Paralytic, he registered finally, as he lay there helpless and waiting. Can’t move…but not passing out.
Which meant, he realized, that—sluggish as his thoughts might be—he would enjoy the privilege of being conscious for whatever happened next.
Rory paced restlessly on the stoop, one hand jammed deep in his pocket, and nursed the Marlboro Light he’d bummed off a stranger in the bar.
He came to a halt at the edge of the landing, bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, exhaled a long plume of smoke into the air.
“Just breathe,” said Julie.
She was right beside him on the moonlit park bench, but she felt a million miles away.
Rory stared down at his phone in his hand, his body tense. His mom’s voice prattled cheerfully on her answering machine, as if taunting him. “I should kill myself,” he whispered.
“Don’t say that.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m telling you what to do.” Julie put her hands on his shoulders, looked him squarely in the eyes. “Just. Breathe.”
Rory wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand to keep doing this—having his nose rubbed in his biggest regret. It stung all the worse for how easy he was finding it to slip into old patterns with Jules.
Sometimes even forget.
But there was no way around it, he told himself. He couldn’t go back in that Enforcement cell. Not when those apostates were out here somewhere, and Max was wasting away in quarantine.
She needs me.
He sighed, stamped out the stub of his cigarette.
As he turned to head back inside, Rory’s phone gave a buzz in his pocket.
He stared down at the screen. It was a text from Jules, one word:
Rory went barreling back through the exit door into the bar.
He skidded to a halt as the bald bouncer loomed up in front of him. Standing, the man was at least a head taller than Rory—and two times as wide.
“Pal, you can only enter through the front.”
“You let me in just, like, fifteen minutes ago,” said Rory tersely. “‘Asian genes’ ring a bell?”
The bouncer gave a humorless smile. “I’m afraid I gotta ask you to step back outside.” He removed his dark glasses, slipped them in his pocket. Cracked his knuckles.
Rory stared at the brown mote in one of his grayish-green eyes.
He’s one of them. He was at the ritual site after the fire.
Rory’s mind worked quickly.
Jules’s glamor card…mages can see it for what it is.
He knows we’re mages too.
And he only let us in here to trap us.
Rory’s heartbeat thrashed in his ears. He felt too keenly the cold weight of the dampening bracers on his wrists, holding his mana at bay.
He raised his eyes to meet the bouncer’s, working hard to keep a neutral expression while his thoughts whirred.
Gotta come up with something.
’Cause if this guy gets me alone now, I’m finished.
Jules felt a drop of drool ooze onto his cheek as the hooded figure closed on him.
“Damn, that skinny kid just wiped out hard,” came a voice from nearby.
“What’s he even doing in here? He looks twelve.”
“Pretty sure that’s a chick, yo.”
“Stop laughing, you guys! He’s handicapped. He has a cane.”
A girl’s face hovered over Jules. “Hey, you okay?”
Run, he tried to say, but managed only a gurgle and a wild-eyed stare.
“Ollie, do something,” she called back over her shoulder. “What if it’s alcohol poisoning?”
A guy’s face appeared next to hers, haloed by corkscrew curls. “Hey buddy, you okay?”
From the corner of his eye, Jules saw his stalker withdraw into the shadows. Good…won’t attack in public.
He switched his eyes back to his benefactors. Grunted.
“He should purge,” said the girl.
“I got ’im,” said Ollie. “He can’t weigh more than a feather. Come on bro, let’s go.” He bent his stocky frame, eased Jules’s slim body over his shoulder. “Let’s get you to the boys’ room.”
Jules tried to squirm in protest, but he had almost no mobility left.
“Whoa, settle down there, champ. It’s all good.” Ollie raised his voice. “Man down, folks! Comin’ through!”
Jules dangled limply as he was ferried across the barroom. He used all his effort to roll his head to the side, straining his eyes to see whether the dark figure was following.
All he glimpsed were other patrons, their necks craning curiously after him.
Won’t attack…if I’m with mundanes? An apostate probably wouldn’t care about the Occultation Protocols. But they might well want to avoid trouble with mundane law enforcement.
Ollie carted Jules into the bathroom, set him down with a grunt in front of one of the toilets. “Don’t be embarrassed.” He removed the alchemist’s glasses, opened his mouth. “I student-teach special needs kids, so I deal with puke like every other day. Good news is you’re totally not gonna remember any of this anyway.”
Jules tasted the salt of the stranger’s finger in the back of his throat. His body gave a sudden lurch.
Ollie leaned him forward over the toilet, allowed the contents of his stomach to splatter into the bowl.
Purging…might help, Jules dared to hope. Gag-reflex-triggered tears poured down his nose.
The restroom door swung open. Footsteps entered.
A damp chill curdled Jules’s skin.
“Don’t mind us,” Ollie called back to the newcomer. “My friend here just had a little too—”
He cut off suddenly with a sound Jules knew, if he survived this night, would echo in his ears for decades to come, at night when he closed his eyes to sleep:
An inhuman yelp and a sickening squelch.
Jules’s cheekbone struck the toilet as, beneath the sudden crush of Ollie’s dead weight, he collapsed to the floor. Hot dark liquid gushed over him, pooled below. It smelled sickeningly of copper.
He felt the limp form of his Good Samaritan lift away. Strained his eyes in a vain effort to see over his shoulder. His thoughts were starting to clear up, unmercifully enough, but his body was still all but immobile.
Jules’s shadowy stalker crouched over him, gore-stained athame in hand. Lifted him easily by a fistful of his coat and shirt. Jules glimpsed a triumphant grin underneath the hood.
“You’re who the Auctoritas Magicae sent?” Jules glared at his captor sidelong, his head lolling to one side. He could see Ollie’s Vans-clad feet resting on the floor beneath the door of the stall, at the end of a wide swath of blood. “You’re just a little girl.”
The bouncer reached for Rory’s arm.
Rory twisted suddenly out of range and squirted past him, then walked up to the closest mundane. “Dude, what is up?!” he bellowed, arms wide, attracting stares from the stranger and his friends. “Small fuckin’ world, am I right?!”
The guy blinked at Rory. “Uh, do I know you?”
“It’s me, man! Fuck, don’t tell me you don’t remember.” Out of the corner of his eye, Rory observed the bouncer as he stood there watching, then took a step toward him. “I mean, you were pretty fuckin’ hammered at the time, but—”
Rory moved lightning-fast—yanked the beer bottle out of the guy’s hand, spun, and smashed it full-force against the bouncer’s face.
The big man roared and clawed his eyes, blood streaming between his fingers. The crowd gave a collective gasp, then scrambled over each other for vantage points safely out of the way.
The bouncer’s arm swung wildly. Rory dodged it, then lobbed his foot hard into his opponent’s crotch. The man doubled over with an even louder howl of rage.
Now I’ve just pissed him off. Gotta finish this.
Rory raised his fist and brought down his wrist, with its dampening bracer, squarely on the back of the bouncer’s skull.
Though the restraint was thin, it was made of adamantine—the most unyielding substance in existence. Rory felt the pain streak up his arm as the impact fractured his wrist.
The bouncer’s skull dented inward with a crack. He fell flat to the floor with an impact that rattled the room.
The crowd stared in silent shock—then parted like the Red Sea as Rory turned, eyes blazing, and surged forward into the bar.
He scanned the chaotic scene. People were murmuring as news of the fight made its way across the barroom. Rory cradled his wrist, did his best to melt into the crowd as he weaved his way through, eyes peeled for any sign of Jules or more apostates.
Finally, he spied something that brought his heartbeat screeching to a halt:
A strange girl holding Jules’s cane.
“Where’d you get that?” he demanded.
“I’m holding it for this kid,” she said. “He got really sick, so my boyfriend helped him to the bathroom.”
Rory snatched the cane from her hand, went barreling toward the restrooms.
A pool of blood was seeping out from underneath the men’s room door.
Pain wracked Rory’s body as his mana roiled within him, as it raged uselessly against the unbreakable restraints of his bracers.
He exploded into the bathroom, gripping the cane in both hands, ignoring the pain in his wrist.
A stranger lay facedown on the floor, covered in blood. Jules’s red Chucks protruded from beneath the closest stall. Someone in dark boots was crouching over him—jumped to their feet as Rory entered.
Boots turned. Took a step out of the stall.
Rory swung Jules’s cane with all his might.
The wooden crook met the hooded man, as he emerged from the stall, square in the mouth—sent blood and teeth flying.
A gurgling howl erupted from his throat. His uncharged athame sliced the air. Rory ducked. The blow glanced off his shoulder, splattering his jacket with red.
The mage started whispering through his bloodied teeth, words of evocation—strange ones Rory didn’t know, that sounded a lot like the gibberish the apostates had been spouting at the ritual scene.
That they were probably garbled thanks to the man’s wrecked mouth didn’t stop a blacklight glow from gathering around his blade.
Rory swung again with the cane. The apostate dodged, then reared back with his athame.
The man’s eyes flared as his foot suddenly slipped out from under him. He dropped like a rock, bashing his head on one of the sinks, and wiped out flat on the floor.
Rory looked down.
Saw Jules’s foot curled around the apostate’s ankle.
Thank fuck, he’s alive.
Rory swung the cane like a golf club, whacking the athame out of the fallen man’s hand. He stomped the hand, crushing it, then raised the cane high, ready to bring it down hard on the apostate’s skull.
Jules’s voice was a breathless grunt. He stood slumped against the door frame of the stall, looking like he might keel over any second. His face was slack and badly swollen on one side, and he was drenched head to toe in blood. “Should try to take him alive,” he mumbled through stiff lips. “He’s not that dangerous unarmed.”
Rory stared at him, stricken.
Jules dragged a pair of adamantine handcuffs, hooked on one finger, from a pocket of his coat, held them out to Rory. Rory took them, then caught the alchemist as he fell.
“Dumbass. I told you to run,” Jules mumbled to Rory’s chest.
“Where are you hurt?” Rory gasped.
“I’m fine. Just put me down and cuff him.”
Rory eased his old classmate to the floor, did as he was told.
Jules dragged himself over to the curly-haired stranger and gripped his wrist to check his pulse. “No,” he bleated, in as pitiful a voice as Rory had ever heard from him. “God fucking dammit.” He beat his fist weakly against the floor, then slumped back against the stall and bowed his head.
“Dead?” Rory asked, unnecessarily.
Jules shut his eyes, nodded.
“Who was that?”
Jules gave a listless shrug. “Somebody nice.”
Rory heard footfalls in the hallway outside. Heavy ones.
He hurled his full weight against the door just as it started to open, twisted the lock the instant it slammed back shut.
Seconds later, the whole door rattled with the force of a mighty blow.
Is it that bouncer? Could he be back on his feet this soon?
… Or is it more of them?
“You have to get these off me.” Rory held up his wrists.
Jules rummaged once more in his coat, produced a set of small keys. He rifled through them quickly. “I think it was this one.” He handed it up to Rory between his forefinger and thumb. “I fucking hope.”
Rory jammed the key in the lock of the first of the bracers.
The door trembled with the force of another powerful blow.
Jules rolled up his left sleeve, flexed his right fingers sluggishly. His tattoos started to glow.
For a moment, as Rory wrestled with the bracer on his wounded wrist, everything went quiet—except for the faint sound of muttering from outside.
“There’s more than one of them,” observed Jules softly.
Rory nodded. “You’re sure it’s this key?”
“No. Thought I was pretty clear on that.”
“Fuck.” Rory tried a different one.
A key began to rattle in the lock of the door.
Rory jumped as Jules exploded in a wave of light and heat.
Seconds later, a thin stream of dark gray liquid shot across the room from the alchemist’s palm. It hit the door above the lock, oozed down over the lock and hardened rapidly into a solid.
“Nice,” said Rory.
“That wasn’t easy.” A ribbon of sweat sluiced through the blood congealing on Jules’s cheek. “My Secret Fire’s fucked.”
Rory gave up on the second key, moved on to the next.
The apostates’ attempts to break through the door resumed.
The wood around the lock began to buckle.
“Get ready,” warned Jules.
Rory thrust the fourth key in the lock of the bracer and turned.
The thin circle of adamantine popped open, fell free.
There was no time to unlock its fellow. Not with his wrist in its current state.
The door splintered open with so much force it slammed into the stall behind it. The bouncer came charging in, another goon in a hood at his heels.
This new arrival stopped short at the sight of Rory.
That one knows me, Rory registered, in the fractions of a second before the bouncer reached him. He must have been there that night.
He flung out his unfettered hand, ground his teeth at the pain in his wrist as he launched his sensation hex at the bouncer.
The man shot a frantic glance down at his own body, pawing himself, then looked back up at Rory with a pissed-off expression.
Fuck. It’s not as powerful as last time.
Was it because one arm was still restrained? Because the free one was injured?
… Or because Rory didn’t feel the same blind rage he’d felt at seeing Max’s fate?
The bouncer grabbed Rory’s head in one meaty hand.
The next thing Rory knew, his world had upended. His skull exploded in pain as it slammed into the sink.
He slumped dizzily. Croaked as a huge fist bored into his side.
Rory struggled without luck to straighten himself. Braced himself for another blow.
But it never came.
He heard a shriek of rage and exertion. A stream of liquid hit the bouncer in the side of the face. The man screamed like a baby, clawing the affected skin as it erupted in angry blisters. “You think that hurts, shit-stain? Stand down or I’ll burn the motherfucking life out of you.” Rory turned—saw Jules on his feet now, left arm outstretched, his body propped against the stall behind him. His expression was terrifying, but his hand was shaking, fatigue plain to see behind the wrath in his eyes.
The hooded stranger lifted his hands in surrender. The injured bouncer eyed Jules with loathing, breathing hard through his nose like a bull, and moved to do the same.
… Then lashed out, grabbed Jules’s tattoo arm in a viselike fist, and backhanded the alchemist across the face.
Rory straightened, his blood pounding.
The bouncer snatched Jules up by the front of his shirt and hurled him like a rag doll toward the other apostate, who was ready in a flash with an athame at his throat.
“You want your friend to stay alive?” said the bouncer to Rory. “You surrender and come with us.”
“You want to stay alive,” replied Rory, seeing red, “you get that fucking knife away from his throat.” His gaze switched to the apostate holding Jules. “You know who I am. You know what I can do. Don’t you.”
The man’s expression was inscrutable within his hood.
“No more games, smartass,” said the bouncer. “I’m not falling for another trick.”
“It’s not a trick this time.” Rory felt his lips curve in a very uncharitable smile. “Release him. Or I’m done playing nice.”
“You’re weaker than you were last time,” spoke up the hooded man finally. “You tried just now and failed.”
“Look me in the eyes,” said Rory. The scene before him was filtering now through a film of pulsating red. “I won’t fail again.”
Jules caught Rory’s eye and flashed his own meaningfully toward the bouncer, then switched it very deliberately toward his own left hand, which hung unobtrusively at his side. Rory trailed the direction of his gaze and saw three of Jules’s long fingers extend subtly.
Jules blinked slowly at Rory as he withdrew the first finger, then again as he did the same with the second.
On the count of three, they both flung up their arms.
Rory unleashed his rage on the hooded man, funneling every ounce of his will into breaking him.
A bolt of light lanced down Jules’s left arm, his right fingers deftly keeping pace. Red brimstone spewed over the bouncer, engulfing him in rampant blue flame.
Rory panicked—and grew more furious—as the hooded apostate jabbed his blade at Jules’s throat, drawing fresh blood.
But the next instant, the weapon fell from his hand as he crumpled to the ground, wailing, blood bubbling out of every orifice.
“Bitch,” snarled Rory.
I’m tapped, he realized. So’s Jules.
We have to get the fuck out of here.
The bouncer, howling and doddering in animal agony, lashed out at Rory with a blue-flame-wrapped arm.
Rory’s shirt caught. The Greek fire started eating away his shoulder instantly, transforming his world to an inferno of crippling pain.
The whole fire winked out a split second later with a schwick.
Jules stood palm outstretched, a horrified look on his face.
Rory doubled over against the nearest stall, grinding his teeth, a guttural whine clawing its way out of his chest.
“Rory!” Jules stumbled over to him, past the gurgling hunk of charred meat that had been the bouncer as it collapsed writhing on the floor.
Jules clumsily gathered up his cane. Together, he and Rory staggered out of the restroom and through the nearest exit, into the open night air, moving at the best speed the pair of them could manage.
As soon as they got to the Volvo, Jules peeled out and drove, without a word, pedal to metal, ignoring stop signs and red lights.
They were on the highway careening toward Delphi at a hundred-thirty-plus miles per hour by the time Rory passed out from the pain.