“Are You Okay, Kiddo

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

VIEW CONTENT WARNING

The first lesson young magi learned in Introduction to Goetia was that the denizens of the astral realm were not, and never would be, your friends. They were your tools—maybe even your weapons—if you could control them.

If you couldn’t, they were your worst nightmare.

Jules clutched his skull as if, with only his hands, he could somehow protect it from the psychic assault. Took deep breaths, hummed ascending arpeggios on the exhale, tried to visualize mandalas, webs of light, adjacent hexagons extending into eternity, anything that had form, anything that made sense, anything that might halfway restore his calm—

—because if he couldn’t regain gnosis, he wouldn’t stand a chance in this fight.

His thoughts at last found sanctuary in visions of Max…of those amber starbursts in her eyes.

The cruel presence roared through Jules once more like a harsh wind biting the ends of severed nerves.

PRECIOUS MAX, it half-sobbed, half-cackled into his skull. ROTTING ON HER FEET! A PUPPET MADE OF MEAT!

A new visual penetrated Jules’s mind, of the rift swirling, swallowing, tearing the flesh from Max’s bones.

Jules, came her mournful voice, as her skeleton crumbled and spun away into the void. You promised …

Fresh hot pain seared through his shoulder, snapped him back to reality—a second mana bolt from an apostate’s athame. Daemonic laughter ricocheted in the corners of his mind.

Jules registered the first of the Nihilites closing on him, slashing down toward him with an uncharged blade. He grabbed the man’s wrist in both hands, with a grunt of pain and exertion forced the blow aside. His assailant matched him for height but was at least twice his weight. A swing of the man’s arm sent Jules slamming back against the wall so hard it rattled his teeth.

The man’s other hand closed around his throat. Jules found himself pinned and struggling for air, the athame tip jammed beneath his jaw.

Don’t ever laugh at me, slut! came another familiar voice, with the telltale echo of daemonic mimicry.

And just like that it was Hunter’s hand locked around his throat in a smoke-filled lab, while the other grabbed Jules in places it shouldn’t, in ways that hurt. “I won’t, I won’t, okay?” Jules gasped. “Please—stop!”

LOOK WHO’S THE BITCH—AGAIN! WEAK! SCARED! PATHETIC! LOOKS LIKE YOU GET TO DIE THE WAY YOU LIVED!

A firecracker went off next to Jules’s ear. His vision cleared once more as the Nihilite’s skull blew open in front of his eyes: a cartoonish display. The man’s dead hands trailed down his chest like a lover’s as his body crumpled to the floor.

Caliban appeared in front of Jules, smoking pistol in hand, shouting something at him. But the gunshot had left Jules deaf.

To the material world, that is.

Not to the daemon.

“I banish you, spirit,” Jules stammered, trying to will strength into his own muted voice. “In the name of S-Solomon, Psellus, Abramelin—”

The daemon loosed a howl so loud Jules thought his skull would shatter. He was only distantly aware of Caliban charging down the hall toward their foes, gun barrel blazing.

WAIT, came the daemon’s voice suddenly. A weird calm followed. I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

Lightning licked the air in front of Jules—the first signs of a numen taking material form.

Which required mana.

Which meant its summoner must be nearby, feeding it. Giving it commands.

… YOU’RE JULIANA NIMRI.

“My name. Is Jules,” said Jules, through gritted teeth.

A pinwheel of sparks sputtered in the air. YOU’RE FAMOUS WHERE I COME FROM. THE LITTLE BITCH WHO LAY SCREAMING ON THE FLOOR WHILE IZGETHIL THE WEAK FUCKED HER MIND.

The torches of the Hall of Summoning blazed to life before Jules’s inner eye.

“No. No, no, no.” He shook his head, desperate to jar the memory loose before it took full conscious root.

“To control the daemon, you must bind the daemon!” Master-Savant Padovesi’s voice echoed against the high stone ceiling.

Jules stood at the edge of the massive engraved pentagram, gripped his athame in a trembling fist. He could feel a shadow stirring in the corner of his mind; invisible fingers tracing his neck beneath his long sheet of hair.

PRETTY PUPPET, the numen whispered inside his skull.

“Otherwise, the daemon will bind you!” Padovesi barked. “Now, stand up straight, girl! By all the stars, I never saw such a pitiful creature as you. This is Izgethil you’ve coaxed from the aether—the lowest of the low. If you can’t bring him under your sway, I don’t care whose daughter you are! You’ve no future in the practice of goetia!”

GO ON, Izgethil crowed. COMMAND ME, MISTRESS…IF YOU CAN.

Jules’s chin trembled. He knew the words he was supposed to speak, but didn’t trust himself to say them without faltering.

BA’AL’S BALLS! Izgethil cackled. I’VE NEVER SEEN A MORTAL SO DEFENSELESS AS YOU. IS THIS BODY YOU INHABIT EVEN YOUR OWN? YOUR RAMPARTS ARE UNMANNED, YOUR CITY OVERRUN, AND YOU HIDE YOURSELF IN THE HIGHEST TOWER AND WEEP. OH, IT WILL BE EASY TO CONQUER YOU…

Jules shoved the memory from his mind. “That isn’t who I am anymore. I’m my own master now.”

ARE YOU?

Jules’s hearing had begun to return. More shots rang out from the kitchen nearby, and muffled sounds of struggle.

In the shadows in front of him, a figure had taken shape—an eight-foot-tall wooden marionette, dangling upright by its hinged elbows from invisible strings. It had enormous round breasts and broad, hinged hips, and a face obscured by curtains of hair. “He left you half-alive,” it said, in a small, shy voice. “You are still incomplete.”

“Hunter had my body,” Jules spat. “Never my heart.” His calm was starting to return. He slowed his breathing; sank toward the tranquil depths of inhibitory gnosis. The daemon was corporeal, for now—a thing he could fight.

I’ve got this. He ignited his central seal.

“Not,” the daemon pronounced, with a grin Jules could hear but not see, “Hunter.”

Jules’s concentration faltered. “Shut up!” He thrust forth his left arm.

But his pulse was racing again now. And his mind’s eye couldn’t see. His tattoos, empty of currents, remained copper and dull.

“‘I don’t want anything about this to change, not ever,’” the daemon singsonged, childishly—and Jules realized with a wave of nausea what was so familiar about its voice.

It had once been his own.

“‘Me beside you,’” it chirped, “‘now, and again, and again, for the rest of eternity.’”

“Shut up—!” Jules ground out again, as another memory invaded his mind.

A cold park bench in the wee hours.

Another body warm against his side.

“Traitor!” spat the daemon in a new voice. “Whore!” 

“Fuck you! Fuck you! How could you!” Jules buried his face in his hands, felt his ego start to pull apart like cotton candy. He stumbled back against the wall, sank in a shivering heap to the floor. “How could you—how could you—how—?”

TRAITOR
WHORE
TRAITOR
WHORE

came the daemon’s spirit-voice in his mind.

Jules was distantly aware of hard tile beneath his back and wild, scorching laughter in his throat. Of his own fingernails raking his scalp, shredding his clothes and flesh.

TRAITOR 
WHORE
TRAITOR
WHORE

was the chant spewing from his own lips.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

“You.” Elisha caught one of the apostates’ eyes beneath her hood as she lunged at him. His vision went briefly black. “Cover my back.”

Ink swirled in the woman’s eyes as she stopped short, turned, and slashed at the last of her compatriots with her athame.

Elisha loaded a fresh round into Buffy, picked his way over the bullet-riddled corpses, careful not to slip on the growing pool of blood that was seeping across the tavern’s kitchen floor.

As he hustled back out into the hallway, he saw that the numen he’d glimpsed earlier had disappeared. The only figure left was that of Jules, writhing on the floor, the white sheath he wore torn open in the front, his arms dripping blood. “Traitor! Whore! Traitor! Whore!” he shrieked, again and again, between sobs of laughter.

“Fuck.” Elisha rushed over to him. “Up-up, kiddo. Let’s go!”

He hauled Jules up by the arm, crouched down, slung the boy’s twiggy frame over his shoulder. Jules didn’t fight, but he wouldn’t stop squirming either, and he was a fair bit heavier than he looked. Elisha had to guess the dozens of hard little objects he felt through the fabric of the alchemist’s trench coat might have something to do with it.

As an afterthought, Elisha scooped up Jules’s black bag from the office floor, slung it over his other shoulder before barreling out the back entrance into the alley.

“There you are,” he hissed, spying the daemonologer, who stood near the window of the office with his hood pulled low over his face, open tome cradled in one arm and athame aloft, chanting, deep in trance.

Elisha raised his weapon, took aim.

Jules gave a sudden, violent lurch just as Elisha was about to pull the trigger. Elisha stayed his finger, narrowly avoided wasting a bullet as Buffy’s barrel swung wide.

The young alchemist sagged then, lifeless, as strands of lightning issued out of his body—formed a swirling, crackling knot in the air in front of Elisha.

Before he had a chance to react, something hard struck Elisha in the chest. Jules went flying off his shoulder, hit the ground with a thud. Elisha regrouped just in time to dodge another blow from the rematerialized daemon’s long, gangling marionette arm.

“Nice try, you sneaky fuck.” He took hasty aim at the summoner; fired.

The man let out a strangled cry as he collapsed. In the darkness, Elisha couldn’t see where on his body the shot had landed—though, going by the growls of agony, he was still alive. The daemon dissolved, so at the very least its master’s gnosis had shattered.

Elisha dropped to a crouch beside Jules, felt the boy’s pulse by way of his shredded wrist.

Still a-pumpin’. Thank fuck.

A clatter of footsteps sounded from around the corner. More hooded figures burst into view. 

“How many of you shitheads are there?” Elisha muttered.

He got off one quick shot, dropping the first of them, then hefted Jules and took off running. He didn’t have enough rounds left in his Colt to deal with all these chuckleheads, and he couldn’t hope to mesmerize all or even half of them at the same time. And it wasn’t like he could scare them just by waving his gun. So far, these people had proven themselves willing and eager redshirts, running headlong into the path of his bullets for even the slimmest chance of sheathing their blades in his hide. It wasn’t worth the risk to an unconscious Jules, or to himself for that matter, to stay in this fight.

Elisha went tearing down the alleyway and out into the open, hoping at the least these nutjobs would have the discretion not to pursue him down a busy public street. Mundanes stared and gasped, went pitching out of his way as he churned down the sidewalk, gun in hand, a lifeless, bloodied teenager slung over his shoulder.

Elisha skidded to a halt nearly a block down, where he’d parked the Challenger, chucked Jules into the back seat. Leapt behind the wheel, turned the key in the ignition, and put pedal to metal, tires screaming as he motored off into the night.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

Jules awoke with a gasp to the dank smell of yeast and old machine oil, his heart drilling like a woodpecker at his ribcage. With effort, he half-sat up, pain needling his chest and shoulder; probed the semidarkness with his gaze, tried to remember where he was and how he’d gotten here…and why he had that queasy, all-too-familiar feeling that something had been done to him that he really didn’t want to remember.

“Whoa, there, kid.” A Freddy-Krueger face loomed out of the shadows. “Take it easy. You had a pretty bad time.”

Lit Sister. The unwelcome memory came flooding back. Jules felt a chill of nausea, followed by a deep flush of embarrassment. “Where am I?” he murmured. Sank back on his pallet.

“A safe place.” Caliban settled down on the floor next to him. The room, by its acoustics, was enormous—probably part of some industrial space, from what little Jules could make out in the dim globe-light. The merc held up Jules’s torn trench coat. “Anything from this travelin’ pharmacy of yours I can give ya to make ya feel better? Didn’t wanna go making guesses and end up poisonin’ ya or somethin’.”

Jules gave a weak shake of his head. “Everything in there has potent side effects. It’s all for emergency use only.” He took a reluctant peek beneath the sheet that lay over him. The front of the dress he wore had been ripped open—by his own hands, he remembered too well now—and both it and the plain bra underneath were stained with blood. Caliban had apparently patched the burns on his shoulder and chest with panchrest. His inner arms were crisscrossed with healed-over scratches, the worst of which spelled words, one on each arm:

TRAITOR

WHORE

“Fuck.” He choked a little on the word. Sank back again on the roll of blankets that served as his pillow.

“Them cuts gonna fuck up your tats?” Caliban asked.

“I’ll have to spend a few hours repairing them.” Jules considered how much trust he was placing in Caliban, disclosing to the merc that he was currently defenseless. It was an acceptable risk, he supposed. This gruff character had not only just saved his life but tended his wounds, too. An embarrassing thought.

“Daemons not your forte, huh?” the merc asked, as if reading Jules’s mind. He pronounced it fort, which Jules happened to know was technically correct, given the word’s French derivation—though, in this case, he didn’t take it as a sign of erudition. “Don’t Nimris and daemons go way back? Woulda thought you’d know your way around ’em backwards and forwards.”

“I’ve never been much of a Nimri.” Jules shook his head to banish a fresh flood of dark visions. “Were you hurt?”

“Some bumps and scrapes. Nothin’ serious.”

Jules stared at the far-off, raftered ceiling. “Guess we came away with nothing, even after all that.” 

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Caliban reached behind him, dropped Jules’s black bag on the floor beside the alchemist.

“You grabbed it!” With effort, Jules propped himself up, started rifling through the bag’s contents.

“That’s not all. Got a thing or two out of that prisoner, too, before our uninvited guests showed up.”

“You did?” Jules felt a guilty relief, remembering the cogimantic probe that had begun just before the armed apostates had arrived.

“Sure did. Shit goes deep. Found a memory that guy had went all the way back to the eighties or early nineties, somewhere around there. Didn’t have a lot of time, so I didn’t get much out of ’im—just a place, and somethin’ happened there he feels real bad about. Like maybe the first time he killed someone or somethin’ like that.”

“What makes you think that has anything to do with this case? That would have been like twenty years ago.”

“Hard to explain. You go in someone’s mind, you just kinda know things, same as they know. For this guy, that was the beginnin’ of him bein’ part of all this Nihilite shit. The first night he got in deep.”

“Twenty years ago…Jesus. So these people have been doing what they’re doing longer than I’ve been alive, right under the Auctoritas Magicae’s nose?”

“Seems that way. Which means the May 14th attack may be just the latest phase of some grand plan that was decades in the making.”

Jules stared at the aged, handwritten ledgers he’d pulled from Lit Sister’s file cabinet. “Well, I guess that seriously ups the chances of these old files being relevant. So all you got from the guy was a place and a bad feeling? Was the location at least distinct in some way?”

“Oh, yeah. It was a church. Pretty unique-lookin’ too. I’m betting with a little pokin’ around, we could narrow it down pretty easy.” 

“Then I guess we’ve got our next steps.” Jules sank back on the blankets as a wave of satisfied fatigue rolled over him.

Caliban surveyed him silently. “Listen, kid,” he said, with seeming hesitation. “I…don’t think I took out that daemonologer. Which means we could end up runnin’ into him again. Anything I can do to, Iunno, help you be more prepared for that? Frankly, you end up gettin’ possessed, I’m not sure I can do much for ya. I ain’t tried an exorcism since grade school, and it didn’t go well.”

Jules was silent a moment, staring at the ceiling. “If I ever turn on you, you have my permission to shoot me.”

“Puttin’ bullets in kids ain’t my thing.”

“I’m not a kid.”

“Just sayin’, seems like daemons are especially troublesome for ya. There, uh, any particular reason for that? You know…did somethin’ happen to you in the past? Somethin’ bad?”

“Didn’t take you for a busybody, Caliban.”

The mercenary chuckled his gravelly chuckle. “Oh, I’m full a’ surprises.”

Jules’s chest rose and fell, silently, once. “Bad things have happened to me. Same as anyone else.” He switched his gaze to his new ally. “Based on the looks of you, you’d understand.”

“Yeah, yeah. We all got our scars. I read ya loud and clear. Just wanna make sure you’re okay. That you’re gonna be okay, I mean.” Caliban coughed. “Ya know, if we come across that goon again.”

“I’ll be better prepared next time.” Jules returned his gaze to the ceiling. “Don’t worry about me.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

It was dark, and Leshayva was in her PJs, crouching just inside the front door of her dads’ suite, when the faint knock came. She straightened, unlocked the door, eased it open with a slow, silent turn of the knob.

Without a word, waved her cousin inside.

“Shay. Why are you—?” Colin began, in a loud whisper, but she shushed him sharply, then gestured for him to follow her down the hallway.

When they reached her bedroom, she shooed him in, closed and locked the door behind them.

The darkened orbuculum sat in the middle of a sheet on the floor by her bed. Skype was still open on her computer screen from the call she’d made to Colin an hour earlier, urging him to sneak out of his room at Laconia and catch a cab over.

“I can’t get it to work,” she whispered, kneeling beside the lifeless scrying ball. “I’m worried I did the tracking spell wrong.”

“Did you create a strong enough tether?”

“Definitely. I touched the person I want to spy on twice with the runic name of the orb traced in spikenard oil on my hands and whispered the incantation, just like the book said.”

Colin settled on the floor beside the orb. “Why didn’t you call Meagan? She’s the one who enchanted the thing. Or better yet, ask Cousin Elisha. He’s the head of the whole freakin’ Enchantment department.”

“I can’t,” said Shay.

“Why not?”

“’Cause, this is super secret. Even Meagan can’t know.”

“You can’t tell your dad?”

Leshayva hesitated. “Just help me get it working, okay?”

Colin eyed her, peered at the orb. “You got the book?”

Shay dragged her enchantment textbook off the bed, plunked it down in front of him. “Maybe it’s just me,” she sighed. “I’m having a hard time focusing.”

“Yeah, might be your gnosis. You’re always so twitchy.” Colin scanned the page, brought his plump hands to hover on either side of the orb. His rosy cheeks went slack. His blue eyes rolled back beneath their lids, his wheat-colored lashes fluttering strangely.

The faintest glow shivered to life at the center of the orb.

“Tell me who you’re looking for,” Colin murmured, in an eerie drone that sounded nothing like his everyday voice.

Leshayva hesitated. “Elisha Weyland.”

The glow vanished.

Colin focused his eyes, blinked at her. “What?”

“Just do it.”

Colin studied Shay, frowning, then resumed the scrying ritual. Leshayva heard her father’s name among the words of Colin’s Latin incantation, peered breathlessly into the crystal ball as soft light blossomed outward from its center.

The silent moving image she saw in its depths made her heart plunge.

Colin finished his chant. His eyes rolled back into focus.

He leaned forward, squinted into the orb. “Hey. Isn’t that person on the floor Jules Nimri?”

“Yeah,” said Leshayva, dully. “It is.”

“And who’s the big messed-up-looking guy?”

Leshayva swallowed hard. “That’s my dad.”

Colin stared at her.

“He’s been acting weird lately,” Shay went on. “Sneaking off at crazy hours. Putting on this creepy glamor. Talking to strangers in mirrors. And now he’s off in some shady place with Jules Nimri, in the middle of the freakin’ night.” The orbuculum went dark. Shay stared helplessly at her hands. “Colin…” She lifted pleading eyes to her cousin. “You really have to help me. I don’t know what to do.”

“Know what to do about what?”

“Don’t you get it?” Shay hissed, in a trembling whisper. “I think…” She almost couldn’t bring herself to say it. “I think maybe Rupert was right.” She took a deep breath, struggling to stay calm. “Maybe they are in cahoots.”

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX
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