“I Will Follow You into the Dark

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Jules blinked his eyes open, knew by the high angle of the sunlight from the window that he’d overslept.

Damn it.

A glance at the clock confirmed it—8:27. Somehow, last night, between the hours of desperate, dehydrating lovemaking and passing out curled around Max in a protective embrace, he’d forgotten to set his alarm.

Jules’s hand drifted back, skimmed the mattress behind him—found Max’s side of the bed empty.

He sat up, suddenly wide awake; grabbed his glasses off the nightstand, fumbled them onto his face.

To his relief, a panicked glance behind him revealed the familiar shape of Max standing outside on the balcony, nursing a cigarette.

Jules raked his hands through his hair, let out a sigh. Glanced back at the clock, calculated how quickly he could shower and dress. He’d have to skip breakfast, which was something he always tried to avoid because of the negative effect on his Secret Fire. But at least he could have food brought to his office that morning between sessions in the lab.

He glanced around for his robe, realized he might have left it next-door. Some digging around in Max’s scattered piles of clothes turned up the t-shirt and shorts he’d discarded last night. He tugged them on, not bothering with underwear. Clawed a few knots out of his hair before stepping outside.

It was unseasonably brisk out. Max glanced back at him, smiled, her tangled hair stirring in the breeze. She had on an old t-shirt of his and a pair of denim shorts.

“Aren’t you cold?” he asked.

“No more than usual.” She eyed him. “Aren’t you?”

He gathered her into his arms. There was a strange aura about her now that the rift had grown, a sense that her body was sucking you in if you got too close, imparting a sluggishness, fogging the mind. It made their sex draining, hypnotic and doom-like. But Max could never get enough, and Jules never dreamed of denying her.

“I have ashtray morning mouth,” she murmured through tight lips, and turned her face aside.

“I don’t care.” Jules tipped her face back toward him, kissed her. She clung on, shivering, then made a wet, strangled sound, buried her face in his neck. “What is it?” he murmured into her hair.

“I think it grew again. Overnight.”

Jules felt the cold settle into his bones. “Are you sure?”

He knew perfectly well it was a stupid question.

“You know that one mole?” came her muffled voice. “You liked it.”

Jules expelled the word, hating the taste of it: “Gone?”

Her head nodded against him.

An especially chill gust pierced Jules’s clothes and skin; drilled deep, deeper than the marrow of his bones. For a fleeting instant, some curtain in the innermost chamber of his being blew aside, and he found himself staring into an emptiness so dark, so fathomless he knew it would swallow him. For all the years Jules had suffered alone, for all the times some voice inside had whispered he’d be better off dead, he couldn’t remember ever in his life feeling anything so bleak or crushing as his fear of losing Max.

He hugged her tighter. “I’ll move the stars before I let it take you.”

He felt her tears soaking his shirt; fantasized that they transformed his flesh, and he melted, flowed into her, filled her till no trace of void remained. I could keep you whole. You could carry me around inside you. I’d just hang out there always, tagging along on all your adventures.

“I wish I didn’t have to go.” He sighed, glanced through the door at the clock, as Max’s sobs finally died down to sniffles.

“Me too,” she murmured.

“Hey, remember.” Once more, Jules tilted her face toward his. “Every second I’m not with you, I’m thinking of you. Fighting for you. These little moments we make together—I carry them with me all day. Which means you’re with me, even when you can’t see me or hear my voice.”

Max got a hazy look in her eyes. Lifted her freezing fingers to his lips. “I really like how your brain is as pretty as your face.”

The wind tangled their hair together as she pulled his head down and sealed her lips over his.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

“Grand Philosopher.”

Jules barely registered that he was being addressed. “Set up the same experiment again.” He gave a listless twirl of his forefinger. “Just one more time. Please and thank you. And I’m sorry. I know I’m keeping you all a bit late. I promise this will be the last run for today.”

“Grand Philosopher,” said Nadia again.

“Yes, Master-Savant.”

“With all due respect, it’s not going to work.” Nadia had a look on her face like she was giving bad news to a cancer patient. They all did—Durand and Almonte, too.

I must reek of desperation.

“Why not?” Jules heard himself ask.

“Same as all the other essentializations we tried,” said Winter. “The created matter can’t even stabilize in there, much less sustain and reproduce itself.”

Jules stared into the loathsome gash of nulla materia that oozed and bled within the field he’d generated from Max’s life force, reinforced by his own mana. The hideous thing gained volume and density by the day, with each and every effort he and his team made to fill it.

“It makes more sense at this point to rethink our whole approach,” Nadia went on. “The generation events aren’t taking. The prima materia always gets gobbled up before it can collapse into a stable state.”

Jules tore his eyes from the void, fixed them on a stain on the warped wood floor. “You’re right. I’m sorry. Everyone go home and enjoy your evening. I look forward to hearing your fresh ideas in the morning.”

He dropped his hazmat gear in the bin, continued into the hall without looking back.

Finding himself alone, closed his eyes, drew a deep breath in through his nose.

Nadia’s right. I’m wasting my time—their time—Max’s time—beating a dead horse.

He swept into his office, shut the door behind him.

Slumped against the door for several seconds, eyes closed, rubbing the bridge of his nose, before a faint squeaking of his desk chair alerted him he wasn’t alone in the room.

Snapped his eyes open, right hand flinching toward his left sleeve.

His mother blinked back at him serenely from behind his desk. Her diminutive frame had been hidden almost entirely by the stacks of files surrounding her. “This desk, Jules Amana. What a disaster!” She rose to her feet, flitted toward him like some kind of dark fey in her gauzy black dress. “It isn’t like you to leave such a mess. And you look absolutely exhausted.” She halted in front of him, listed slightly up onto her tiptoes, aimed a solicitous squint into his face. “You’re working far too hard, my dear, between this job, your father’s silly campaign, and whatever it is you’re up to after hours that has me out playing your Girl Friday.”

“Hey to you too, Mom. Does that mean you did the thing I asked you to?” Jules planted a tired kiss on his mother’s head, proceeded to his desk.

“I did.” She followed, settled into the chair across from him. “But I’ve half a mind to make you tell me why I did it before I tell you what I found out.”

Jules smiled tolerantly. “Mom. You know I can’t discuss Martial Magus business with you.”

“If you’re at liberty to enlist my services, I should think you could at least give me some idea what sort of business you’re involving me in.”

“I wish I could.”

Alexandra eyed him skeptically. Jules maintained the patient smile he knew would win her over.

“Oh, very well,” she caved at last. “Yes, I went to your condemned warehouse in South Side. I spoke with the spirits there. I just hope for both our sakes your father doesn’t find out. You know he doesn’t approve of my necromancy.”

“Mom, this isn’t the fifties. He can’t tell you what to do.”

“Clearly I know that. I did it, didn’t I? I’d just as soon keep peace around the house is all.”

“Were you able to get anything out of them before you put them to rest?”

She hesitated. “I…didn’t put them to rest, dear.”

Jules felt a dull pulse of foreboding. “Why not?”

“I couldn’t. They were far too restless. To be frank, I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it.”

Jules sat absorbing this.

“They’re in a state of collective madness,” his mother went on, “the spirits in that place. All insisting they’ll never rest till the whole of existence is erased, the Book of Days burnt to ash. Ghosts are always mad, but I’ve never heard anything so outrageous.”

“Did they at least tell you where they came from?”

“They died there, or nearby, those that could remember. Mostly by violence. Some of untreated disease. It’s awash in suffering, that place.”

So the Nihilites chose it as their ritual location for a reason. It must fuel their magic—suffering, strife, unjust death.

When he looked up at Alexandra again, she was eyeing him soberly. “Darling, I wish you’d tell me more about this case you’re working on. It seems dreadfully daunting for a beginner.”

Jules forced a little crooked smile, shook his head. “You had to do the most daunting part of it. Trust me.”

Alexandra looked like she didn’t believe him at all.

Jules jumped slightly at a knock on the door. “Come in.”

A round little page in archivist’s robes poked her head in. “Grand Philosopher, Grand Archivist Loris-Beckett has requested to see you, at your convenience.”

“Tell her I’ll be there shortly.”

Jules felt his spirits lift. That means Draven’s found something. She never wastes either of our time.

He stood up from his desk as the page vanished into the hall. “That means I have to go, Mom.” He was glad for the excuse to put an end to her questioning. “I really appreciate you looking into that for me. Really-really.”

“Of course, of course, I am your slave.” His mother stood, let him wrap her up in a hug. “Why not join your father and me for dinner at Eliyon tonight? We haven’t had a proper family meal together since before…” She trailed off. Jules could only imagine she’d been about to say before the attack.

“I can’t,” he said, with real regret. “I don’t know how long the Grand Archivist will keep me in Archives, and then I have a ton of work to do, tomorrow’s stump speech to revise and rehearse…plus there’s that mundane girl I’m looking after. I have to check in on her, see how she’s progressing.”

His mother surveyed him shrewdly. He gazed back at her, careful to maintain a neutral expression. All his life, by no apparent supernatural means, Alexandra had been able to look at Jules and spontaneously intuit the exact things he was trying to keep from her—with a few very notable exceptions.

“You’ve not grown overfond of this mundane girl, have you, darling?”

“What? No,” Jules lied, more easily than he would have expected. “Why would you think that?”

“You haven’t had any girlfriends or boyfriends or whatever-you-please since He Who Shall Not Be Named. You’re not a monk. I remember what it’s like to be eighteen. You should have seen your father and myself at that age. We couldn’t keep our hands off each—”

“Lalalala,” sang Jules.

“Oh, don’t be such a prude, dear. It’s only natural. How do you think you got here? Anyway…I don’t know. Just call it mother’s intuition. You seem a bit…tender lately, in a way I haven’t seen before. I suppose it could just as well be your coming to terms with what you went through in the council chamber, but…I’ve watched you recover from difficult things before. This seems different.”

Jules lacked the energy to outright lie to her again. “Okay, maybe I have—I don’t know—a crush on her or something. She’s cute. And she’s nice. But she’s a mundane, Mom. I’m not stupid. I know the rules. Anyway, I’m sure she’s not attracted to me.”

“You have my famous looks, dear. If this girl doesn’t find you attractive, she must not have eyes.”

“Yeah, well. I’m a little softer than most girls probably like.” The words caught in Jules’s throat. Because, in Max’s case, it actually wasn’t true. And Jules didn’t like to think about the alternate universe where he’d never met Max, or she didn’t want him…

…or the future, all too likely, where he could again end up without her.

His mother frowned, cupped his cheek. “Darling, you have absolutely no idea the way girls look at you. I’m your mother. I see all. If you don’t get as much attention as you deserve, it’s only because you’re always off to yourself. And because you hide your handsome face behind all that hair, and those glasses.”

“It’s my signature look, Mom,” mumbled Jules. “Anyway…I don’t know. Maybe what you’re saying is true when it comes to strangers. But around here, everyone thinks of me a certain way.”

“This mundane girl isn’t from ‘around here.’” Alexandra smiled wryly. “That’s why you ought to be especially careful all this attention she’s getting from you isn’t giving her the wrong impression.”

Jules avoided her gaze. “No, Mom, I know. I will.” He kissed her on the top of her head, saw her off with a little wave.

Once she was gone, gathered up his coat and satchel and began the trek across the Enclave to Archives.

•─────☾ ☽─────•

“‘The Book of Days burnt to ash,’” Draven echoed back to Jules, rubbing her chin. 

They were meeting in the restricted section as always, because it was a place that was safe from interruptions and where they could freely review and discuss forbidden topics and texts. The Grand Archivist was on her feet—which seemed to be her preference whenever she was thinking—rangy arms folded over her chest.

Jules sat at the little round table under the dim globe. He was more in a pacing than a resting mood right now, but his bum leg was aching too badly after a long day on his feet for him to justify any nonessential use.

“Spirits who no longer seek rest, but instead annihilation,” Draven further reflected. “The erasure of present, past, and future. Seems one needn’t be among the living to become a Nihilic convert.”

“Is that what the Nihility represents?” mused Jules. “I can’t even comprehend that. You and I, for instance, right now, this moment—we’re here. We’re talking to each other. It is what it is; it always will be. An indelible point on the continuity of time. You can’t just erase what’s been, what’s already there.”

“Why not?” Draven clasped her weathered hands behind her back, paced a few steps away. “Wipe out every causal thread that anchors that point to the present—to perception, which defines reality—and it is the same as if it had never been.”

“The tree falling in the forest that nobody heard.” A chill crawled across Jules’s chest. “Is that really even possible, though? Wouldn’t the act of erasure itself be part of a causal chain stemming from the thing that’s being erased? It’s a classic paradox.”

“I respect and, as you know, am inclined to share your reverence for logic, Grand Philosopher.” Draven turned on the heel of her wingtip, once more faced him. “But the cosmos, despite appearances, does not fundamentally operate by logic.”

“What does it operate by?”

“Mystery. Desire. Caprice.”

“That’s…nonsense.”

“Indeed. But do you not sense the truth of it?”

Jules absently skimmed his left palm over the surface of the table, traced its microscopic patterns with his inner eye.

“The great Averil Quire once said, ‘Reality is a war of wills,’” Draven went on. “Perhaps more accurately, it is a tentative negotiation between wills, spawned by common whim—and now, perhaps, doomed to perish by it.”

“As above, so below,” mumbled Jules, with an ironic quirk of his brow.

“A Nihilite would tell you, perhaps rightly, that true order, true harmony, true perfection can only be found in emptiness.”

“A true vacuum.” Jules stared at the lopsided grain of the table, his inner eye now blank. “Then I reject perfection,” he said at last, through gritted teeth.

Draven chuckled. “Imperfection’s certainly more interesting.”

“Why did you send for me, Grand Archivist? Did you find something I might be able to use?”

Draven plucked a small, clean tome from an unlocked cage, tossed it down on the table in front of him.

Faerie Tunnels,” Jules read. “Their Construction, Use, and Navigation.”

“Translated it from the Old Gaelic myself. And I’ve still got the original, so that copy is yours to keep, for as long as you need it.”

Jules eyed the little book. “This is folk magic.”

“Why don’t you take a look inside it, fool boy.”

Jules thumbed through the small tome, scanned the headings. “‘First Technique: Convergences,’” he read out loud under his breath. “‘Second Technique’…” He glanced up at Draven as understanding dawned. “‘Looking-Glasses.’”

“Celtic witches believed what we now call fathoms to be part of the sidhe, or realm of the fae.”

Jules stared at her. “You’re saying the mirror portal at Lit Sister leads to the Fathoms?”

“Not the Fathoms, necessarily, as in the labyrinth of caves below Delphi. Though ostensibly they and your mirror portal would connect to the same greater network. Fathoms, as I’m sure you know, don’t strictly exist in a specific place or time.”

“Travel through the Fathoms is forbidden.”

“I’m not sure the Nihilites care.”

Jules peered at the illustrations. “‘Instructions for use,’” he read aloud.

“Do with that what you will,” Draven advised, with a knowing little smile.

Minutes later Jules was plodding across the Enclave toward the entry hall, the little text tucked safely in his satchel.

Time to head back to Lit Sister and see where those mirrors lead.

But I’m not about to walk into another trap. This time, I’m going in prepared.

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR
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