story by Mabel Harper & Cassidy Webb
written by Cassidy Webb
Content Warning: GRAPHIC VIOLENCE
The ground fell away beneath Jules as he hurled himself forward off the dais. Toxic smoke flooded the air, blinding him, scalding his lungs. Unable to make out the floor ahead of him, he fumbled his landing and slammed down hard onto his hands and knees.
The thunder of the explosions died down, giving way to a worse sound—agonized screams.
Jules pushed himself to his feet and stumbled forward, eyes burning. He raised his left palm, prepping a transmutation to clear the black cloud from the air in front of him.
The golem’s red-glowing skeleton loomed up out of the mist, its arm reeling toward him in a vicious backhand.
Jules, like most people he knew, had never taken a full-force blow from an adamantine-plated appendage. Most likely no amount of imagination or description could have prepared him for what it felt like. Every joint in his body seemed to grind in a way it shouldn’t. Every organ slammed back against his ribcage—his brain against his skull—as he lifted off his feet and went hurtling like a rag doll into the black.
His feet luckily nicked the floor, breaking his momentum. He spun wildly, slammed down, and bounced, then bounced again, then rolled till he came to a stop.
After a beat of paralysis, he gulped acrid air into his lungs, forcing himself upright.
He didn’t know whether he was injured. There wasn’t time to find out.
He looked back and saw the golem charging the dais, barreling toward Levi Weyland, its massive fist raised.
Jules’s father was up and in motion, helping the High Councillor down from his elevated chair. The tribunes in general were scattering like mice—with the exception of Elisha. The Prefect, having just finished loading his revolver, vaulted over the table, rolled past the construct, and came up on one knee behind it, taking aim at the rune inscribed on its neck. Elisha famously made a hobby of crafting specialty bullets, and these, Jules could only guess, were adamantine. After all, the one thing that could damage cold iron was more cold iron—assuming there was enough force behind it.
The Prefect fired, and again, and again.
No cigar. Elisha Weyland was a renowned sharpshooter, but his was a small and swiftly moving target.
“Dad, get the hell out of here!” Elisha bellowed. “Everybody, run!”
Devisha Wade, Master-General of Enclave Enforcement, leapt to Elisha’s aid, her blazing daemon weapon in hand. A troop of her masked Ordinators swarmed the dais, shielding the tribunes and ushering them from the scene.
“Jules, take care of that fire! You’re the only one who can!” Elisha emptied his revolver, then let Devisha take the lead while he fell back to reload. “The General and I will keep this frigid bastard busy.”
Jules nodded—pointlessly, since no one was looking his way—and pushed himself shakily to his feet.
His limbs felt like rubber bands. It took all his will to keep them from collapsing out from under him. He raised his trembling left palm and, with a darting motion of his right hand, transmuted the smoke in front of him to clear his path. He forced his legs to churn as fast as he could make them, toward the horrible screams—toward the distant, deadly blue glow of the flames.
He arrived at the scene and set to work without preamble, homing in on his task, concentrating, microvisualizing, starving the patches of fire as quickly and efficiently as he could … willing himself not to acknowledge the grisly tableau in front of him, the piles of charred, ravaged things that had been people, probably people he knew, though there was no way of telling, some of them motionless, some stirring and groaning softly, some writhing and screaming in inhuman agony. He tried not to comprehend why the air smelled like cooking meat. He tried not to notice that some of the blackened, bleeding, hairless things were small. He tried not to consider that his mother had been seated not far from this spot. Because if he let any single one of those observations sink in, he might just cave in to the overwhelming compulsion he felt to fall to the floor, puke his guts out, and sob recklessly.
He continued his task like a robot, ignoring the pleas for help from the injured—even when they called him by name. There was no time to help when others were still on fire. When the fires were still progressing.
He soon realized he’d been joined by Ordinators with buckets of sand, all moving as mechanically as himself—though even their highly coordinated efforts were little use against the spread of Greek fire.
This isn’t working.
There was one other way, he knew.
It was risky. Even if he pulled it off, he might end up killing as many people as he saved.
But the plain truth was he couldn’t starve a brimstone fire of this magnitude fast enough to stop its spread. More people were guaranteed to die if he didn’t act.
In the end, there was really no decision to be made.
Jules dove clear of the fire and slammed his palm to the floor, plunging himself into a deep state of gnosis, expanding his consciousness into the mana veins that ran through the floor, walls, and ceiling of the chamber. He analyzed the structure, the chemical composition, the resonant frequencies of different parts of the ceiling. Ran some hasty engineering calculations in his head.
He could have used more time.
He also would have liked to turn back time. At least an hour.
He wasn’t a chronomancer. Either was a pipe dream.
Jules took a deep breath and sent a series of timed pulses racing through the veins that wrapped around the room, calculating convergences at a select group of points in the ceiling.
He heard a deafening crack—and braced himself for the worst.
There came a rushing sound, like an ocean wave.
The stars themselves began falling from the sky. Jules ducked as a rain of sand—minute particles of stone shaken loose from the ceiling—spilled over him, accumulating swiftly.
The ground shuddered with the impact of a few larger chunks that broke free and came crashing to the floor. Jules wondered numbly who they might have crushed.
The din of the scene died away as the rising dune enveloped him. He remained still, holding his breath, allowing himself a too-brief respite in the darkness and quiet below.
The instant his air ran out, he summoned his strength and forced his way up into the open.
The fire was gone, smothered beneath the blanket of sand.
Jules allowed himself one lone, racking sob, then looked to the work that remained.
The Ordinators had already switched their task to digging people out of the wreckage. On the dais nearby, the battle with the golem raged on. Elisha’s gun lay discarded on the floor, its bullets seemingly spent. The Prefect was now dedicating himself to trying to keep the behemoth’s attention while Devisha battered it uselessly with Ogo-uire. The Master-General’s daemon weapon was strong—but not strong enough to damage adamantine. The most it could do was hold its own against it.
That’s where I’m needed now, Jules told himself, in spite of the part of him that was desperate to know where his mother was, and another that was berating him to pitch in unearthing the people he’d just buried alive. When—not if—Elisha and the General succumbed to fatigue, and the construct killed them and raged on, there was no telling how or even whether the thing could be stopped. It might go after the wounded. It might pursue the Archmagus. It might rampage through the Enclave, killing indiscriminately. The prototype was designed to be invulnerable, and its failsafe had failed. Either the automaton had spontaneously sprouted a homicidal mind of its own or—way more likely—some malicious actor had hijacked it and imbued it with murderous intent. If it couldn’t be stopped, there was no knowing where the slaughter would end.
I might be the only one who can end this.
Jules waded free of the sand dune and stumbled onto the dais.
“Nice job with the fire, kiddo.” Elisha ducked the golem’s swinging fist. “Now get the flying fuck out of here, before you get your skinny ass killed.”
“I have some tricks I want to try,” rasped Jules. “Get clear!”
He shot out his left palm and launched a stream of liquid saturnine at the golem, same as he’d done earlier with one of its plain-iron cousins.
The substance oozed down and coated the construct’s joints. It faltered under the excess weight, then began to stiffen as the saturnine hardened.
Jules, Elisha, and Devisha all held their breath, waiting to see if the brute would give up the fight.
It wobbled slightly, then came to a standstill.
For a blessed moment, all was quiet.
Then, the golem’s huge hands knotted into fists.
It thrust its arms upward in one swift, powerful motion.
The volatile saturnine rippled away, igniting in its signature light-spectrum flames.
“Fuck,” said Elisha.
Adamantine’s too strong … even for saturnine.
The golem charged at Jules, gold dust sloughing in a shimmering spray from its shoulders as the saturnine burned away.
Jules pitched backward, narrowly avoiding falling off the dais, as the construct drove its fist toward his head.
Devisha danced in from his left, blocking the blow with Ogo-uire and forcing it aside. “Go, kid,” she panted, fighting to keep the golem at bay. “Nice try. But it didn’t work.”
Jules gritted his teeth. “If I can get at his aurichalcum circuit, I’ll have him.”
“Don’t think that’s gonna happen.” Devisha dodged a blow. “It’s embedded too deep.” She moved quickly to fend off a flurry of attacks.
Elisha picked up his gun and hurled it at the automaton’s back. “Over here, fuckface!” he yelled. “High Councillor’s son. Unarmed and helpless. Should make quite the trophy; don’tcha want me?” The golem took the bait, turned, and lunged at him. “Atta boy!” The Prefect dodged out of the way last-minute while Devisha pursued.
“I can do it if I can get at its eyes,” puffed Jules.
“How the hell you plan on doing that?” shouted the Master-General.
“You two just have to keep him busy.” Jules hustled to get behind the golem while Elisha and Devisha had it occupied. “Get it to bend over if you can!” He sank into a lunge, waiting for his chance.
“Roger that, kiddo.” Elisha darted in front of the golem, feinted first one way, then the other, then hurled himself straight toward the construct and dove between its legs.
That old fuck is crazier than I am, thought Jules.
The golem bent over and made a bumbling grab after the Prefect.
Jules seized the moment, took a running leap, and launched himself onto its back.
The construct bolted upright with an unholy screech, nearly bucking him off. Jules clawed his arms around its cold-metal neck and hung on for dear life, keeping his head down while it beat at him over its shoulders, dealing awkward yet still-hazardous blows to his upper back and head.
Devisha reengaged the automaton, drawing its attacks away from Jules.
Jules hauled himself up into a more secure position, then reached his left hand around the construct’s head to feel for one of its eyes.
He gritted his teeth in a hiss as the live aurichalcum singed his fingers. “Got it!” He brought his right hand around to meet his left arm, ready to complete the needed arrays to infuse the aurichalcum channels with aqua fortis, corroding them and thereby disabling the golem, like he’d done with its wooden cousin earlier.
But the golem gave a sudden lurch to the left, dislodging his grip.
Jules grabbed on with his right hand to keep from being thrown, doing his best to keep his left hand in range of its eye.
Devisha moved in for an attack.
The automaton caught her with a vicious parry that sent her skidding across the dais.
“Hurry, Jules!” Elisha rushed in to distract the construct.
But as Jules went in for his second attempt, the golem’s fist closed on the back of his shirt.
The possessed construct ripped Jules loose from his perch and hurled him full-force.
Jules felt weightless, for what seemed like an impossible length of time.
In the end, though, he hit the wall all too soon.
His left leg took the brunt of the impact, crumpling like a tin can.
The next instant, he was on the floor in a heap, his world a blank white fury of pain.
Shit, came his first coherent thought as he surfaced from his daze.
My leg’s wrecked … I’ll never make it back up there now.
… We’re finished.
Jules sank back and let his head rest on the dais, surveying the hellish scene.
Devisha lay where she’d landed on the floor, conscious, but unable to stand. With a furious grunt, she launched her weapon in its ranged form—a spear—to distract the golem as it went hurtling toward Elisha.
The construct turned and charged at her. Elisha pursued it and hammered its back, then ducked, stumbling in exhaustion, as it whirled on him.
In the gallery beyond, the Ordinators, along with some of the healers from Medicinal Magic, were wheeling away the last of the injured people they’d recovered from the wreckage. “Close the doors behind you!” Devisha thundered after them. “Barricade them!”
Her loyal troops obeyed.
There was a dull finality in the sound of the great doors slamming shut.
Jules considered that he was going to lie here and watch two good people die before dying himself. That he was going to die without knowing whether his mother was alive. Without knowing whether anyone in the Enclave would survive this nightmare.
Without even knowing who had done this, or why.
This is all my fault …
He eyed the wreckage of the other golems strewn across the dais. An iron one lay close by, the one he’d decapitated with its fellow’s transmuted arm. Only slightly farther off sprawled its shattered ebony cousin, its aurichalcum circuit exposed and ruined the way he’d tried to do with the adamantine golem’s.
Tried … and failed.
I so wanted to prove myself. To be seen and …
He ground his teeth.
Jules stared out over the ruin of the council chamber. At the scorched rows of antique benches, buried in sand. At the once-breathtaking vaulted ceiling, three-fourths of its frescoed surface eroded away.
His vision went blurry.
None of this would have happened if I’d just stayed invisible.
“Prefect!” Jules raised his head.
“Good, you’re alive.” Elisha stumbled just clear of a blow. “If you and the General drag yourselves over to each other, you think together you can get yourselves up and hop on out of here, three-legged-race-style?”
“Take the General and go,” said Jules. “I’m gonna end this.”
“How the hell you plan to do that, Peg Leg Pete?” Elisha grunted as the golem’s fist grazed his skull.
Jules heaved himself partially upright. “I’ll bring down the whole ceiling. It won’t destroy the golem, but it will stop it—enough that you can come back after and deactivate it.”
“Fuck that, kiddo. You’ll never make it out.” Elisha wavered on his feet as the golem lunged at him. Devisha again sent her daemon spear winging toward the construct’s back to draw it off.
“At least this way it’s just me. And I’m the only one who can do it. Plus you have to be here after ’cause you’re the only one who’ll know how to take the fucker apart. Come on, think about it, Prefect, for one goddamn second—you know I’m right.” Jules took a deep breath. “You have to grab the General, now, Prefect, and go.”
Elisha’s brave face vanished. “Fine.” He sounded exhausted. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Just get out of here alive.”
The Prefect smiled bitterly. “On it, chief.”
He tap-danced his way past the golem and made a beeline for Devisha. Jules sent a fresh jet of liquid saturnine flying toward the automaton, to incapacitate it long enough for the other two to make their escape.
“Tell my mom and dad … ” Jules croaked after Elisha, as he and the Master-General made their way back toward the offices.
“You love ’em?” Elisha glanced back with a cheerless smile. “I surely will, kiddo.”
The golem burst free of the saturnine, erupting in rainbow flames. Elisha and Devisha hurried out the back, slamming the door behind them.
The automaton went charging after.
If it tried to beat the door down in pursuit of them, Jules knew it wouldn’t matter how well they barricaded it. It would pound its way through, sooner more likely than later.
He eyed the felled iron golem that lay nearby, then reached out and grabbed its breastplate, cracking it loose with a directed boost to its resonant frequency.
He curled up, gritting his teeth, and gathered his mangled leg up to his chest, then dragged the iron plate over top of him and pressed his palm to the bottom of it, transmuting it irreversibly to adamantine.
Its increased weight pinned him in place, removing whatever slim hope he’d had of escaping.
The golem arrived at the door through which Elisha and Devisha had just fled and hauled back its fist.
“Hey! I’m still here!” belted Jules. “Don’t you wanna finish me off first?”
For a moment, there was silence.
Then, the golem’s footsteps came thundering toward him.
Jules closed his eyes and pressed his palm to the floor, once more locating the chamber’s mana veins.
He didn’t need to run calculations this time. He just gathered what was left of his mana and sent out one lone devastating pulse.
The chamber gave an ominous shudder.
The floor buckled in a web of cracks that spread and surged up the walls.
As above, so below …
What remained of the painted stars began to fall.
Hunks of debris smashed into the dais. Weight upon crushing weight piled onto Jules’s makeshift shield, interring him, stone after stone, in an airless tomb.
A last series of dreamlike musings bubbled up from the darkness as fatigue from mana loss dragged him down to the depths:
I know the stars … fall …
… but not like this.
You were there …
… at the beginning … and at the …
In some boundless place where he didn’t have a name, he shivered with regret.
The part in the middle got …
Doesn’t matter, though.
I know you were …
… supposed to …
… be here with me …
… at the …