AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, WAS a precept universally taught to magus children on the first day of Magic Theory class: that heavenly bodies moved in lockstep with earthly ones, and invisible bonds wove together the whole of existence in a rhythmic dance. Jules remembered the day of this lesson clearly, even twelve years later. He recalled the simple illustration Professor Vipond had drawn on the chalkboard, depicting a scatter of five-pointed stars at the top, adjacent hexagons representing the subatomic fabric of everything at the bottom, and dozens of vertical lines connecting the two. That moment had stuck with him clearly for all these years, because he remembered thinking, even at the tender age of six, that some part of the story was being left out. Some things between cosmic intention and material manifestation were demonstrably out of sync. Jules knew this because he himself was one of those things—he didn’t belong in his own body.
He’d made sure to arrive at the Enclave tonight before anyone else, and at first he hadn’t known why. But as he paced through the massive double doors into the council chamber and saw the frescoed ceiling yawn open above him, his answer came. In less than an hour, his fellow magi would crowd the rows of scrolled oak benches that spanned the gallery. Their gazes would converge on him as he took the dais, and, in that moment, he would shoulder the weight of some two hundred people’s preconceived notions—that he was a failure, attention-seeking, crazy, even deviant. Fate willing, he’d dispel some of those notions tonight. But, even if he failed, he could draw strength from this moment: just himself, with the signs of the zodiac charted above him. The stars had always known Jules Nimri as he was. Alone beneath them now, he felt in harmony with himself, away from the eyes of others, which always erased him.
Jules lingered a moment in the entryway, his gaze tracing over the familiar forms of the faux night sky, then ventured on down the central aisle. His beat-up Chucks squeaked muffledly under the hemline of his ceremonial robes. Ahead, the marble council table loomed, its tall chairs vacant beneath the banners of the Six Orders.
He reached the dais, mounted it, and turned, taking in the empty expanse of the gallery. He pictured the host of magi in their formal colors who would soon flood the chamber.
… I can’t do this.
He sank to a seated position, legs pretzeled in front of him, and draped his wrists across his knees. He closed his eyes and tried to steady his breaths.
But I can’t back down now. If I run and hide this time, I might never—
“Just a tad early, aren’tcha, kiddo?”
Jules flinched and raised his head, wondering if the newcomer had been watching long enough to glimpse the expression of pure terror he’d worn just seconds earlier.
“Getting a feel for the room?” continued the jaunty tenor, as its owner proceeded down the aisle toward him, hands buried in the pockets of his purple-on-gold vestments.
Jules was glad to see that at least his unexpected company was a friendly face. “Prefect,” he murmured, getting to his feet. He paused awkwardly before remembering he’d been asked a question. “Yes … I suppose so.”
“Managed to completely psych yourself out yet?” chuckled Elisha Weyland, Grand Enchanter of the Enclave, Prefect of Ordo Arcanus North America, and the only son of Archmagus Levi Weyland, High Councillor of the Auctoritas Magicae. The Prefect was a tall and youthful forty-two, clean-shaven, with a neat, short, flaxen head of hair. His black-on-black Armani tie played a rakish game of peekaboo over the neckline of his ceremonial garments.
“Getting there,” replied Jules, with a muted grin. “If you’d given me, say, another five minutes, you probably would’ve found me in a gibbering puddle on the floor.”
The Prefect emitted another chuckle. “I somehow doubt that. Cool as a cucumber—that’s the Jules Nimri m.o.”
Jules liked this particular perception of himself. He wished he shared it.
Elisha slowed to a halt before the dais. “Well,” he said, hands remaining in pockets as he swayed lazily onto the balls of his feet, “your props are all cued up and ready to roll. I just swung by so I can inspect them one last time before your presentation. Don’t worry, I already had my team take every precaution. Just figured better safe than sorry.”
Jules nodded agreement.
“Anyhoo, when you’re ready for them,” the Prefect continued, “all you gotta do is give the signal.” He paused, sobering slightly. “And remember, these babies aren’t toys. They’re designed to do pretty much one thing: kill and kill hard. If things get out of hand, ‘Dēsiste’ is the command to shut the whole troop down. Got it?”
Jules exhaled through his nose and, once again, nodded.
Elisha flattened his mouth, still swaying on his feet, his sharp gray gaze roving distractibly about the room. “You, uh, told your folks yet what it is you’re gonna be doing up there tonight?” he ventured finally, squinting as his eye returned to Jules.
Jules gnawed his lip and shook his head.
Elisha raised an eyebrow. “Opting for a good old-fashioned ambush?”
The younger magus hesitated. “Mom would’ve chewed her nails to the quick by now if she knew. And Dad probably would have seen to it I got bumped from the agenda.”
“I don’t think Thorsten would do that,” frowned Elisha.
“With all due respect then, Prefect, you don’t know my father.”
The Prefect smiled wryly. “Fair enough.” He looked off and heaved a silent sigh. “Just, uh, try to keep your head attached to your shoulders up there, huh? I don’t want a feud with House Nimri because I assisted their only son and heir in committing gory public suicide.”
Jules eyed him wordlessly for a moment, then perked his lips faintly. “My regrets in advance, Prefect.”
Elisha furrowed his brow. “For what?”
“For the state in which you’ll find your golems at the end of this evening.”
Prefect Weyland grinned, then gave the junior magus a hearty clap on the shoulder as he passed him on his way toward the offices at the rear of the dais. “Do your worst, kid.”
Jules lingered on the lip of the platform as the Prefect vanished from view.
Well, he thought with a sober smile, as he scanned the empty house one final time. Can’t turn back now.
The murmur of distant conversation reached him, signaling that folk were beginning to congregate in the vestibule. Jules descended from the dais and took his seat at the front of the gallery, and waited for the council to begin.
The next half-hour saw a slow but steady influx of attendees into the chamber, garbed in the colors of their respective orders: mostly the Arcanus gold-on-purple, like Jules himself, though The Hermetic Order of Khmun, in white linen tunics with accents of teal and gold, and Fraternitas Mercurii, in habits of unassuming silver on brown, also turned out in volume. Hekate Aristokratia in iridescent black and Initiates of the Divine Flame in their signature red-on-white were present in proportionally lesser numbers, and a small retinue of La Messe Noire associates, in fashionably tailored modern garb, made their appearance as well.
Before long, the vast space of the chamber had come alive with the din of bustle and chatter. Jules gave himself over to glancing repeatedly at his pocket watch as it ticked down the minutes toward the top of the hour, when the council was scheduled to begin, but this exercise turned out to be a poor balm for his nerves, so he eventually put away the timepiece and funneled his focus into gnostic meditation instead.
He moved on presently to a mental review of his preparations, pushing up his left sleeve and fingering the tender pink skin between the copper-hued inked designs underneath, from the last-minute modifications he’d made to his tattoos only yesterday. His right hand lilted like a pianist’s in the air above his left forearm, in a practiced sequence of gestures, careful not to make contact. The channels on his arm weren’t yet glowing with currents of mana, prima materia, or other reagents, but—to echo Prefect Weyland’s sentiment—it was better to be safe than sorry.
Jules yanked down his sleeve and looked up reflexively through his curtains of black hair—then kicked himself for it. It was his policy never to answer to anything that wasn’t his name. Especially when it was coming from Hunter Lockwood.
“What’s this I hear about you presenting tonight?”
“What about it, Master-Savant?” Jules returned the senior alchemist’s scrutiny.
Hunter Lockwood, firstborn son of Auctoritas Magicae tribune and Ordo Arcanus Magistrate Nigella Lockwood, née Weyland, shared his mother’s milky complexion, sensual features, and aristocratic sneer; but, where her gaze was pale and chilly, his was dark and blistering. “Awfully ambitious, isn’t it?” he asked with a smirk. “A second-year apprentice, giving a paper before the Tribunal?”
“I’ve completed work on a project I think will be of interest to the community,” Jules replied.
Hunter’s chuckle bared his even white teeth—a simian sort of dominance display. “How quickly you got too big for your knickers, puss,” he remarked with a snort. “Well, I look forward to the entertainment. I always did get off on watching you humiliate yourself.” He peered at Jules then, his grin fading. “What the hell are you smiling about?”
“It just occurred to me,” said Jules, his pulse pounding as he found the courage to voice the thought out loud: “After tonight, you’ll never speak to me that way again without fear.”
Hunter’s mien became dangerous. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
A gong-knell blossomed through the chamber, proclaiming the arrival of the tribunes. A reverential silence settled over the gallery. Hunter glowered down at Jules, his jaw working furiously, then stalked off to find his seat.
Jules closed his eyes, drawing slow, deliberate breaths to soothe the thrumming in his veins. No one excelled at making him feel invisible quite like Hunter Lockwood.
The gong sheared once more through the silence as the councillors, in the regalia of their respective orders, filed into the chamber and lined up next to their seats. Among those garbed in the ostentatious purple-on-gold of Arcanus’s elders were Prefect Weyland, his cousin Magistrate Lockwood, Magistrate Noman Kher, and Jules’s own father, Magistrate Thorsten Nimri. Notable delegates from other orders included High Servant Karamat of The Hermetic Order of Khmun, who was, according to custom, arrayed in the finery of an ancient Egyptian queen, as well as stern Seer Eliphas of Fraternitas Mercurii, sheathed in his humble cassock.
A third time the gong rang out as the High Councillor, Archmagus Levi Weyland of Ordo Arcanus, emerged from his private office, garbed in the resplendent raiments of his rank. The Archmagus favored his son a great deal, the most notable distinctions being the elder Weyland’s manicured beard and the stately silver hue of his pate. His shrewd gray gaze was the mirror of Elisha’s, down to the puckish glint.
Archmagus Weyland ascended to the High Seat without ceremony. Only when he had seated himself did the rest of the tribunes follow suit.
Jules turned and scanned the gallery for his mother, as an intermural team of goetians took up positions around the perimeter of the chamber in preparation for the opening ritual. He spotted her several rows back, to his left. She had already been gazing at him, as doting parents do, in particular parents of only children. As their eyes met, she tossed him an encouraging wink.
The sight of her, petite and bright and unsuspecting, struck a pang of guilt in Jules. You’re about to have one hell of a heart attack, Mom, he thought as he turned to face forward once more. But I won’t get myself killed up there. He took a deep breath. I promise.
The summoners circumnavigated the chamber, twirling their wands and black-handled athames and chanting in the tongue of the numinae. When they had completed their rite, the gong sounded a final, shimmering note, the ceremonial flame was lit, and the Archmagus called the council to order with a crack of his gilded gavel.
Jules didn’t surface from his nervous reverie till nearly an hour later, after the Tribunal had apparently discharged all manners of business, when he finally heard his name.
“If no one wishes to contribute anything further on this matter,” the Archmagus was saying, “then we’ll proceed to the final item on the agenda. Jules Nimri—Apprentice, Alchemy, Ordo Arcanus—has petitioned our distinguished audience for an academic presentation. Apprentice Nimri?” The Archmagus’s stormy eyes scanned the gallery, finally settling on Jules as he rose from his seat. The elder acknowledged the junior magus with a courteous nod. “The floor is yours.”
Jules made a vain attempt to quell the fluttering in his chest as he ascended the dais. A hum rippled through the crowd behind him. Had a tag cloud been formed from all the babble, the second largest word after “apprentice” probably would have been “nerve.”
He glanced back and witnessed a small, silent exodus from the house of magi who apparently deemed a junior magus’s presentation unworthy of their time. Most of those who remained were shifting impatiently in their seats, while a few wore expressions of curiosity, amusement, or some combination of the two. Jules’s mother continued to beam encouragingly. Hunter Lockwood donned a predatory smirk.
Jules tore his gaze from the throng and approached the small podium that stood facing the council table. As of six months ago, with the exception of some recent edits, he’d had his entire presentation memorized cold; and, when he’d left home two hours ago, in a fit of hubris, he’d left all his notes behind—a decision he was now deeply regretting as, under the expectant gazes of the tribunes, his thoughts went abruptly and utterly blank. The junior alchemist took a deep breath and closed his eyes, arpeggios vaulting silently through his brain.
“Apprentice Nimri,” came the smooth, imperious alto of Magistrate Lockwood, after several seconds of silence had passed. “I’ll remind you our time is valuable.”
Jules opened his eyes and lifted his head. “I waited seven months and six days for this engagement, Magistrate,” he replied, before he had a chance to think better of it. “I am well aware of the demand for the council’s time.”
A titter rose up from the crowd behind him. Prefect Weyland’s lips perked ever so faintly upward.
“And, out of respect for your time, Councillors,” Jules continued, his voice gaining strength as his faculties returned to him, “I will endeavor to make my address tonight brief but substantive.” His mouth bent in the ghost of a smile. “Hopefully even entertaining.”
Magistrate Lockwood leaned back in her chair, eyeing him as a coyote would a gosling.
“Alchemy—,” Jules began, as he’d rehearsed hundreds of times to his bedroom mirror, “the ancient tradition that marries natural science and mysticism—has, from its inception, been confined to the laboratory, its practical applications limited to civil domains of magic such as potion-making, metallurgy, and holistic health.”
He took a deep breath and dared a glance at his father, who sat on the Archmagus’s left opposite the Prefect—and floundered briefly at the sight of the scowl that puckered the elder Nimri’s Moai-statue visage.
Nimris are not tinkerers. We are summoners, Thorsten’s lordly baritone resounded in Jules’s brain, echoing the perennial admonition he’d last delivered that very afternoon. Who are you to thumb your nose at three thousand years of tradition?
The one who’s going to reclaim the glory of our house, Dad, Jules had replied. You know the daemons favor Nigella. We can’t continue to rely on them for our strength.
“In his 1999 treatise, Alchemical Science in the Third Millennium,” Jules resumed, raising his voice, “Ordo Arcanus’s ninety-seventh Grand Philosopher, Evander Lockwood, speculated regarding the potential for advanced practitioners to apply alchemical principles in a range of non-research settings, through the combined use of inscribed alchemical arrays and gnostic microvisualization. To the current knowledge of the alchemy community”—here he dared a glance at Magistrate Lockwood, and wondered about the unseen reaction of Hunter behind him—“his proposed methods remain untested, as Philosopher Lockwood’s research was cut untimely short by his abrupt and mysterious departure from Delphi that year.”
Magistrate Lockwood’s steely countenance faltered.
“Two years ago,” resumed Jules, clearing his throat, “when I embarked on my own independent study of the alchemical sciences, I found myself fascinated by Philosopher Lockwood’s suggested non-research applications of alchemy, which he referred to collectively as ‘field alchemy.’ I was subsequently disappointed to learn that, in the seven years that had passed since the publication of Alchemical Science in the Third Millennium, no attempts had been made on the part of Lockwood’s peers and/or successors either to actualize or build upon the theoretical frameworks put forth in the paper.”
Jules paused and took a shaky breath, then curved his lips in a slight, wry smile. “Largely, perhaps, because I was too young, too inexperienced, and generally too foolish to recognize my limitations, I took it upon myself at that time to test and further develop Philosopher Lockwood’s hypotheses; and I intend to demonstrate the results of that experimentation tonight.”
Jules’s heart missed a beat as the audience behind him exploded in incredulous chatter; some indignant, some amused, some simply bemused. His eternally stoic father stared at him as if he’d broken out in a soft-shoe and started shouting “Baba Booey.” Even Elisha Weyland looked skeptical, while Nigella Lockwood wore a countenance that was equal parts derisive and homicidal.
Seeing the Magistrate’s expression, Jules couldn’t resist sneaking a glance at her son where he sat in the gallery behind him—and instantly wished he hadn’t. Hunter wore a look of pure, undiluted hatred the likes of which he hadn’t aimed at Jules in years.
“First, however … ” croaked Jules, facing frontward again; but his voice was drowned out by the clamor.
Archmagus Weyland slammed his gavel down on its sound block. A shock wave rippled through the hall, snatching the vocalizations from the lips of those assembled.
Finding themselves silenced, the spectators ceased their jabbering and turned as one to face the High Seat. The Archmagus swept a stern glare from one side of the gallery to the other, then returned his keen gaze to Jules. “Proceed, Apprentice.”
Jules nodded his gratitude, then forced down the lump that had risen in the back of his throat. “First, however,” he began again, pausing a moment to gather his bearings, “I will elaborate on the modifications and expansions I’ve made to Philosopher Lockwood’s proposed methods.”
Magistrate Lockwood sat back and fixed him with an icy stare, folding her arms tightly over her chest.
“As I undertook the effort of putting Philosopher Lockwood’s proposals into practice,” said Jules, “it occurred to me that a dedicated practitioner of field alchemy would find it highly inconvenient, if not altogether prohibitive, to take the time to draw and redraw alchemical arrays every time they sought to effect a transmutation. Certainly this onerous step would prove an obstacle to the expedient deployment of alchemical processes in high-pressure, time-sensitive situations.” He paused. “For instance … live combat.”
The word “combat” elicited another, quieter—if no less frenetic—reaction from the chastened audience.
Jules paused a moment, then worked loose the clasps of his robes. “Allow me to present my solution.”
He shrugged out of the heavy garments, leaving them in a crumpled heap on the floor. Underneath, his twiggy frame was garbed simply in a worn Tera Melos band shirt, faded jeans, and his perpetual beat-up red Converse.
He had contemplated dressing more professionally for tonight’s presentation, but he’d concluded mobility was paramount.
The apprentice extended his left arm, presenting the trellis of tattoos that adorned it from bicep to wrist—a tight cluster of painstakingly wrought elemental symbols, transmutation circles, and arrays, connected to one another by dense networks of channels. “Symbol segments tattooed on my right palm complete, and thereby activate, these partial symbols on my left arm,” he explained, displaying his tattooed right palm. “Prima materia travels along the channels on my arm and is transmuted as it passes through the activated symbols. Gnostic microvisualization shapes and directs the resulting substance as it manifests out of my left palm.”
“I beg your pardon, Apprentice,” interjected the Archmagus.
“Your Honor?” Jules murmured in an embarrassing half-squeak, his head swiveling to face the High Seat.
The elder leaned forward, latticing his aged fingers on one arm of his chair. “Where, exactly, does the prima materia come from?”
“That’s an excellent question, Your Honor, and brings me to another key point of my presentation,” said Jules, taking a deep breath. “The common method for producing prima materia is to break down existing compounds into their component elements using alkahest—the so-called ‘universal solvent.’ From there, each element may be transmuted by means of a method unique to that element. It’s a painstaking, difficult, and often dangerous process, as many an alchemist can attest, and tends to have a limited yield. Still, it can do the job, and I’ve designed my tattoos to be capable of this technique.
“However,” he continued, his heart drumming a little faster, “there is, in fact, a more efficient—if more esoteric—method available for use by any field alchemist who has sufficiently mastered their Secret Fire. It’s based on a theory of my own that was loosely founded on an accepted principle of mundane physics—”
Jules once more found himself drowned out by an uproar. Since the divergence of mysticism and natural science around the seventeenth century, when persecution had driven the Western magic community underground once and for all, there had been little respect or attention paid by magi to the scholarship and technology of the mainstream world. Jules felt pretty sure the internet was starting to change this, at least among more inquisitive types his own age. But the vast majority of his fellow magi remained happily and stubbornly ignorant of E=mc2.
Another bang of the Archmagus’s gavel restored a tenuous silence to the chamber.
“I’ve dubbed this theory the Principle of Mana-Materia Equivalency,” Jules resumed. The hall was so hushed now that he could hear nothing but the great clock ticking at the rear of the gallery. “In essence, it states that mana, the energy contained within all objects possessing magic potential, and prima materia, the primordial substance from which all forms of matter in our universe are derived, are fundamentally interchangeable.” He paused. “In other words, one may be converted to the other.”
Master-Savant Lockwood sat forward in his seat, frowning, and raised his steepled fingers to his lips.
“Magical energy,” Jules went on to explain, “when sufficiently refined, yields pure prima materia. Therefore, an alchemist, through rigorous mental and spiritual discipline, may hone their Secret Fire in such a way as to develop the skill of transmuting their own personal mana into prima materia, using the mana seals contained within their body as aludel or retort.”
“Have you tested this theory, Apprentice?” interjected the Archmagus.
Jules looked him in the eye, feeling a sudden surge of adrenaline. “Yes.”
This time, the outcry that followed didn’t nettle Jules so much as thrill him, because, as at long last he spoke out loud the paradigm-shattering words he’d rehearsed alone daily for the past seven months, it finally sank in to him that this was really, truly happening. That he was being heard—and seemingly understood—by the most powerful people in Western magedom. That he wasn’t insane or delusional. That his discovery was every bit as revolutionary as he’d known it would be.
And, given that he knew for a fact he could prove his claims, it now seemed impossible he would fail.
“In combination,” he went on, as an expectant hush descended over the audience, “my expansions on Philosopher Lockwood’s proposals make possible a heretofore undreamed-of application of alchemical science.” Jules indulged himself with a dramatic pause. “In the field of martial magic.”
No hubbub followed his pronouncement this time—only a rapt silence.
“I will now demonstrate for you,” he continued, only hoping he could be heard over the thunder of his pulse in his ears, “the culmination of two years’ dedicated research and practice: a cutting-edge magic martial art I refer to as ‘combat alchemy.’”
Jules took a deep breath, then gestured to Elisha with a subtle half-twirl of his forefinger. The Prefect barked out a word of command, which startled Magistrate Lockwood next to him, then grinned broadly at her discomfiture.
Three of the ponderous oak doors at the rear of the dais eased open in one accord. Ominous whirring and clicking sounds echoed through the chamber. Three pairs of sizzling red orbs sputtered to life in the shadows beyond the archways.
I am out of my goddamned mind, Jules realized.
A thrill of terror coursed through him. A slightly lunatic smile curved his lips as a spontaneous excitatory gnosis melted the psychic boundaries that confined his consciousness to his material being; as his inner eye sprang open, then focused its gaze.
He kept himself stock-still, waiting as the golems commenced their march into the chamber, conserving and compressing his body’s energy as it gushed between his mana seals, stockpiling it, preparing it for transmutation, the way he’d practiced countless times.
The tribunes moved uncomfortably in their seats as the six-and-a-half-foot golems rounded the council table, their hinged joints grinding, hard feet pounding against the marble surface of the dais. This first wave, per Jules’s request, was comprised exclusively of third-generation automatons built from lacquered Brazilian ebony. Their mana circuits and the seals that powered them, elaborate networks of pure aurichalcum, were fully enclosed in the hard wood of their carcasses, perceptible only by way of a faint glowing about their hinges, the distinctive crimson fire in their eyes, and the red-hot gleaming of the activation seals on the backs of their necks. The fact that these were the older wooden models meant that they would serve best to simulate the effects of Jules’s attacks on a flesh-and-blood opponent.
It also meant he felt slightly less guilty about wasting them.
The first pair of monoliths closed on him. Jules felt a thrill of fear. He’d forgotten just how tall the damn things were.
The alchemist flooded his central mana seal, then ignited it with his Secret Fire. The reaction blinded him with its light, just for an instant, as a rush of heat blazed through his mana channels. In the gallery, someone shrieked, backed up by a chorus of gasps. Jules, naturally, had never been able to watch himself generate prima materia. He wondered what it must look like.
The blindness passed, and not a moment too soon, as the golems loomed up on either side of him. A hot lightning burst licked down the red-glowing tattooed channels on his left arm, his right hand fluttering like a flautist’s to keep pace, scrambling to complete the necessary symbols and arrays the instant the prima materia passed through them.
A stream of orange flame erupted from his left palm, engulfing the first two automatons—a basic elemental attack. The golems slowed their pace, twisting in confusion. One peered through the flames and made a clumsy grab at Jules, which he dodged.
When he turned, his third adversary was waiting. Jules ducked a swing of its massive arm, then spun and grabbed its shoulder, tracing out another pattern on his tattoos. He flooded the joint with alkahest, which disintegrated the hard wood as it broke it down into its component elements, exposing a long thread of the aurichalcum skeleton beneath.
A creaking of wooden joints and crackling of flames alerted Jules to the approach of one of the burning golems from behind him. The alchemist ducked as its flaming fist flew at his head. He tucked and rolled out from between the pair of them, then turned and blasted the flaming one with water. Once its scorched carcass was thoroughly drenched—its lacquer having mostly burned away—he grabbed it by the arm, froze it solid, and amplified its resonant frequency till it shattered.
Behind Jules, the golem with the missing shoulder swung its dangling arm at him like a flail. Jules dropped to a crouch, then lunged to his right with a grunt as he saw the second burning golem’s fist come hurtling down toward him from above. The appendage missed his head, but struck his left shoulder a glancing blow, setting his t-shirt ablaze.
Fuck—can’t extinguish it alchemically if it’s on my left arm.
So the alchemist resorted to a more mundane solution: Stop, drop, and roll.
The impact to his shoulder hurt, given the beating it had just taken. Jules came up on one knee and flexed his left arm, reassuring himself it still worked.
The half-disintegrated golem came at him again and raised its huge leg to stomp him. Jules caught the limb on its way down and hit it with another flood of alkahest, melting away its calf and most of its foot. The behemoth wobbled and fell. With careful timing to avoid scalding his hand, Jules grabbed the live aurichalcum of its skeleton and flooded the whole circuit with aqua fortis, corroding the metal wires. The automaton stiffened and rolled over onto its side, expiring with a wooden groan.
Jules glanced around, gasping, for the last of his three opponents, but it had already crumpled to the dais in a blazing heap. The alchemist stood, walked over to it, and, with a quick flight of his fingers over his tattoos, sucked all the oxygen from the fire, extinguishing it with a whumph.
That was … fun.
Jules’s pulse was pounding in his ears. He took a deep breath and examined his tee. It was still intact enough to serve its purpose, but the sleeve was all but scorched away, what remained of it hanging in tatters from his wiry shoulder—on which an angry welt was forming.
… So much for my favorite shirt.
He lifted his eyes to the audience, and saw a sea of faces staring back at him in mute amazement. His mother’s palm was flat to her chest, her other hand cupped white-knuckled over her mouth. Hunter Lockwood’s face was frozen in a dull, empty gape.
Someone finally started to clap, and soon the whole gallery was roaring. Jules glanced back at the tribunes and found his father gawking at him with an expression somewhere between pride and abject horror. Nigella Lockwood’s jaw was on the table, while Elisha was simultaneously grinning like an idiot and pointing vigorously to his own shoulder, mouthing, Are you okay? Even Archmagus Weyland’s inscrutable veneer was broken by the faintest of smiles.
Jules took a deep breath, waved off Elisha’s concern, and gestured for Round Two, musing over how weird it felt to smile so broadly with so many people watching.
Elisha called out a fresh command. The oak doors groaned open once more. This time, three wrought-iron-plated golems emerged; fourth-generation, larger and more skillfully engineered than their wooden predecessors.
They moved considerably faster, too. Jules hardly had time to transmute his mana before they were on him.
For this set, he’d known ahead of time he would have to pull out the big guns—primordial elements. First came saturnine, the celestial form of lead. Jules released the mystical substance in its liquid form, coating the first of the golems. The saturnine seeped into the automaton’s eyeholes and joints, then reverted swiftly to its oppressively dense solid form, toppling the monster to the ground with an impact that cracked the marble floor of the dais.
Its fellows were quick to flank Jules. The alchemist ducked as the first launched its fist at his head, then sprang upright and grabbed it by its shoulder. Alkahest wasn’t his best option here; thanks to wrought iron’s low carbon content, the universal solvent would most likely only purify the iron, causing it to weaken, rather than break the metal down altogether. Instead, Jules ratcheted up the plating’s resonant frequency, shattering the shoulder, then yanked loose the arm and swung it wide toward the other golem that was coming up behind him. In midair, he transmuted the iron of the severed arm to its unbreakable primordial form—so-called “cold iron,” or adamantine. Once converted, the arm became a misshapen, oily-black, diamond-crystal-patterned bludgeon—one that was frigid to the touch, and almost impossibly heavy. The business end of it drove mercilessly through the other golem’s head, smashing it clean away.
The decapitated construct faltered and sank to its knees as Jules reeled with the centrifugal force of the appendage in his grasp, clinging to it for dear life—seeing as, if he let go, it was sure to go careening off into the gallery and kill someone. Hard.
Yep … there are about a million less-crazy ways I could have demonstrated this stuff. I have truly lost my mind.
The adamantine bludgeon slammed into the ground—decimating yet more priceless antique marble—and sent Jules’s feather-light frame skittering end-over-end across the floor. The alchemist landed hard and rolled out flat on his back, gasping for air.
Not being overly accustomed to physical injury, he was wrongly convinced for about five seconds that he had pulverized every bone in his body.
Much-needed air finally flooded his lungs—and burned like fire. He sat up, head spinning … only to drop back flat as a massive iron toe came hurtling toward his face.
‘Dēsiste’ is the command to shut the whole troop down, Elisha’s voice echoed in his brain.
But Jules wasn’t about to take the easy way out. Not with everyone watching. Besides, he had one more really cool trick up his sleeve.
The alchemist rolled clumsily, pushed himself upright, and took aim.
Brimstone—also known as Greek fire. The celestial version of sulphur. The dreaded unquenchable flame. It could burn through any substance in the universe except for invulnerable adamantine.
The jet stream looked like viscous blood wrapped in blue flame. It engulfed both remaining golems with a peal of deafening thunder and began to consume their iron hides, swiftly.
Jules heard a chorus of terrified cries from the onlookers. How will he put it out? he could almost hear them saying. Before it devours the whole room!
“Unquenchable” though it might be by means of water or any chemical firefighting agent, there was one known way to to extinguish a brimstone fire—and that was by starving it. Jules waited till the golems were immobile and crumbling to ash, then extended his palm and sucked the oxygen from the flames with a whumph, leaving the automatons to crumple, lifeless, to the floor.
All was quiet. Jules took a deep breath. Then another. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist, then finally turned to face the council.
“Sorry about the floor,” he said earnestly, and more than a little breathlessly. “And … and of course your golems, Prefect. Though in my defense, I did … I did say that to you in advance.”
The tribunes blinked at him dumbly.
“Do you, uh, still want to do the finale, Apprentice?” asked Elisha finally, breaking the silence. “’Cause that … got a little intense.”
“I’m willing,” puffed Jules. “But I’ll leave it to the council’s discretion whether they want to risk further, uh”—he gestured stupidly to the floor, still trying to catch his breath, and to remember what words were—“you know, uh … uh … property damage.”
“What is the ‘finale’?” inquired the Archmagus.
“Latest-gen prototype,” said Elisha. “Adamantine. The big guy.”
His father raised an eyebrow, then turned his keen gaze on Jules. “Yes, I’d be interested in seeing that.”
“Your Honor,” objected Thorsten.
“The automaton can be shut down easily enough if things go awry—is that not right?” Archmagus Weyland asked his son.
“Absolutely,” confirmed Elisha.
“Well, then, Apprentice; if you’re still feeling up to the challenge.” The Archmagus gave a permissive wave of his jeweled hand. “I’d hate to force an untimely end to the best show I’ve seen in years.”
Jules grinned and wiped his nose. “Uh … yeah, then. Let’s do it.”
The audience gave a nervous but enthusiastic laugh. Jules turned, found his mother shrinking in her seat, and spontaneously blew her a kiss, eliciting a collective awww.
I’ve got this, Mom. Really. Everything’s fine.
Jules paced around the dais and took a deep breath, focusing inward, assessing his mana reserves. He had just enough energy in him, he reckoned, for this final round. After that, he would be pretty well spent until he’d had a couple of days to rest. Mana-materia transmutation was tremendously draining, and he’d been relying on self-generated prima materia heavily for this demonstration. It wouldn’t have been the wisest approach in real combat, he knew, but it had seemed worthwhile in this controlled setting for the purpose of maximizing his long-awaited opportunity to show off what combat alchemy could do.
The hall was quiet as Elisha awaited Jules’s signal. The apprentice sighed; cracked his neck, his knuckles. He was more than a little banged up, and he felt it, but nothing seemed to be broken. There was something he liked about this feeling—the sweat, the tiredness, the all-over deep-bone ache. Jules had long been a self-professed ascetic, but for the first time now he considered that he might actually be some kind of masochist.
The alchemist gave himself a head-start this time and transmuted his mana before giving the signal. This last conversion left him in a strange euphoric state, the kind of endorphin high that just precedes the tipping point into exhaustion. He’d conquered wood, then iron. Now it was on to adamantine, the indestructible, untransmutable metal. Jules wouldn’t be able to eliminate this construct, but, fortunately, he wouldn’t have to. All he had to do was disable it before it smashed him to a pulp—ideally without having to cry uncle.
He drew a breath and gave the signal. The Prefect spoke the command.
The final golem—there was just one this time, and that would be more than enough—was too large to enter the chamber from the offices, as its predecessors had done. It appeared instead in the tall, arched double-doorways at the rear of the gallery. An onerous creaking-open of the twin oak panels heralded its arrival.
It stood motionless, framed within the ten-foot archway, its skull mere inches from the top. From Jules’s vantage point, it looked to be a mountain of blackest black, framed in a weird, pale blue light, the source of which was unknown. Its anthropomorphic outline was articulated by its red-glowing aurichalcum skeleton, which, while embedded deeply for its own protection, was not enclosed by its plating as its fellows’ had been. Among adamantine’s many properties was its ability to dampen mana flow. To enclose the mana-conducting aurichalcum veins fully within the celestial metal would have cut off the force that animated the golem.
The automaton commenced its approach, its heavy steps vibrating the floor of the chamber. Its movements were surprisingly organic, not stilted and robotic like those of the ebony or iron constructs. As it strode down the center aisle toward the dais, the distinctive, diamond-patterned iridescence of its adamantine plating caught the light. It walked with its huge arms tucked out of sight behind its back, and the enigmatic blue glow followed.
That’s when it hit Jules that something wasn’t right.
Chaos erupted in the rear of the house. Spectators seated in the last few rows screamed and went bolting for the exit as they glimpsed what the golem held behind its back.
The automaton’s steps quickened as it finally brought its hands into view.
Time felt as if it slowed to a crawl. Dread sank its icy coils deep into Jules’s heart as a low-throbbing, ominous static flooded his ears.
“Dēsiste!” he howled from the pit of his belly, his voice sounding small and far away. Behind him, Elisha echoed the cry, once, then once more, and again. Jules rejoined the chorus repeatedly, with mounting desperation.
The golem, indifferent to their pleas, marched on, loosing a disturbingly un-golem-like snarl as it hurled the contents of its hands—two bright-glowing Greek-fire grenades—into the thick of the panicked gallery.
Jules only knew he was screaming by the tearing sensation in his throat. The sound itself was lost in the deafening thunder of the explosions.
The ground fell away beneath him 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 forward, hard, onto his hands and knees.
The thunder died down, giving way to a worse sound—agonized screams.
Jules pushed himself painfully to his feet and stumbled forward, eyes burning, raising his hand to clear the dense black cloud from in front of him.
Out of nowhere, the automaton’s glowing-red skeleton loomed up from 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 that 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 finally nicked the floor, breaking his momentum. He spun wildly, slammed down, and bounced, then bounced again, then rolled till he came to a stop.
He gulped acrid air into his lungs, forcing himself upright, despite the invisible weight on his chest. He didn’t know if he was injured. There wasn’t time to find out.
He looked back and saw the golem charging the dais, barreling straight toward Levi Weyland, its massive fist raised. Jules’s father was up and in motion, helping the Archmagus 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. Jules knew Elisha made a hobby of crafting specialty bullets, and these, he 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!” the Prefect bellowed. “Everybody out! 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 bastard busy.”
Jules nodded—stupidly, as it was obvious no one was looking his way—and pushed himself shakily to his feet.
His limbs felt like jointless rubber. It took all his will to keep them from collapsing out from under him. He lifted his trembling left palm and, with a darting motion of his right hand, transmuted the smoke before him to clear a path. He forced his legs to churn as fast as he could drive them, toward the horrible screams; toward the distant, deadly blue glow of the raging flames.
He came upon 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 these blackened, bleeding, hairless things were small. He tried not to consider that his mother had been seated not too far from here. Because, if he let any single one of these 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 helplessly.
He continued his task, robotically, ignoring the pleas for help from the injured, even when they called him by name, because there was no time to help, because others were still on fire, because 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 organized efforts were little use against the relentless spread of Greek fire.
This isn’t working, thought Jules, as the horror of it all closed in on him, threatening to drive him to his knees, where the flames could wash over him, so he could be doomed and hopeless alongside these poor wretches he was failing to save.
There was one other way, he knew. But it was risky. Even if he pulled it off, he might end up killing as many of them as he saved.
But the facts were staring him in the face. He couldn’t starve a brimstone fire of this magnitude fast enough to stop its spread. More people were sure to die if he didn’t act.
In the end, there wasn’t really a decision to be made. Jules hustled clear of the fire and dropped to his knees, slamming 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 and the walls and the ceiling of the chamber. He analyzed the structure, the chemical composition, the resonant frequencies of different parts of the ceiling. He ran some hasty engineering calculations in his head.
He really could have used more time.
He also would have liked to turn back time, at least an hour.
He wasn’t a chronomancer. Either one 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 overhead.
He heard a deafening crack—and braced himself for the worst.
There came a rushing sound, like an ocean wave. The stars themselves began to fall from the sky. Jules ducked his head as a rain of sand—minute particles of stone shaken loose from the ceiling—spilled over him and began to accumulate swiftly.
The ground shuddered with the impact of a few larger chunks that broke free and came crashing to the floor. Jules wondered with a necessary detachment whom 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 from the wreckage. On the dais nearby, the battle with the golem raged on. Elisha’s gun lay discarded on the floor, its bullets ostensibly spent. The Prefect had now dedicated himself to trying to keep the behemoth’s attention while Devisha battered it uselessly with Ogo-uire. The daemon weapon was strong, but not strong enough to damage adamantine. It could do no more than hold its own against it.
That’s where I’m needed now, Jules decided, despite the ache at the pit of his being that was desperate to know where his mother was, the guilt that admonished 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 slew them and raged on, there was no telling how or even whether it could be stopped. It might go after the wounded. It might pursue the Archmagus. It might rampage through the Enclave, killing indiscriminately. The thing was designed to be invulnerable, and its failsafe had failed. The Prefect’s sharpshooting hadn’t made its mark. Either the automaton had spontaneously sprouted a psychotic mind of its own, or—far 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 stop it.
Jules waded free of the sand dune and stumbled onto the dais.
“Nice job with the fire, kiddo,” puffed Elisha, as he ducked the golem’s swinging fist. “Now get the flying fuck out of here, before you get your scrawny ass killed.”
“I have some tricks I want to try on this guy,” coughed Jules. “Get clear!”
He shot forth his palm and launched a stream of liquid saturnine at the golem, just as he’d done earlier to disable 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, and the volatile saturnine rippled away, igniting in its signature light-spectrum flames.
“Fuck,” said Elisha, with feeling.
Adamantine’s too strong, despaired Jules. Even for saturnine.
The golem charged at him, gold dust sloughing in a shimmering spray from its shoulders as the saturnine burned away. Jules pitched backward and nearly fell 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. “You should go now, kid,” she advised him, panting, as she fought to keep the golem at bay. “It was a good effort. But it didn’t work, and you can barely stand.”
“I’m not done yet,” said Jules, gritting his teeth. “If I can just get at his aurichalcum circuit, I’ll have him.”
“I don’t think that’s gonna happen,” she grunted, dodging 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. “Archmagus’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 croaked, dodging out of the way last-minute while Devisha pursued.
“The eyes,” Jules puffed as the elders fought on. “I can do it if I can get at its eyes.”
“And just how the hell you plan on doing that?” asked the General.
“I can do it, trust me,” said Jules. “You two just have to keep him busy.” He quickened his steps to get behind the golem while Elisha and Devisha kept it occupied. “Get it to bend over if you can,” he shouted, sinking into a lunge, waiting for his chance.
“I’m pickin’ up what you’re layin’ down, kiddo,” said Elisha. He 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.
Briefly stymied, 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, very nearly bucking him off. Jules clawed his arms around its cold-metal neck and clung on for dear life, keeping his head down while it beat at him awkwardly over its shoulders, dealing relatively weak yet still-painful blows to his upper back and head.
Devisha appeared and 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 yelled triumphantly, bringing 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.
The golem gave a sudden lurch to the left. 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, sending her skidding across the dais.
“Hurry, Jules!” bellowed Elisha, rushing 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, dragged him forcibly from his perch, and hurled him full-force at the wall.
Jules felt weightless for what seemed an impossible length of time—though in the end, he struck 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 mad white fury of pain.
Shit, came his first coherent thought as he surfaced from his daze. My leg is wrecked. I’ll never make it back up there now.
… We’re finished.
Jules rested his head on the dais, surveying the scene before him. Devisha lay where she’d landed on the floor, alive and 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 the last of the injured people they’d recovered away from the wreckage. “Close the doors behind you!” Devisha thundered after them. “Barricade them!”
Her loyal troops obeyed. There was a dull finality to the sound of the great doors slamming shut.
Jules processed the fact 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 had lived—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.
He had wanted so badly to prove himself. To be seen and—he now acknowledged bitterly—admired. And his reckless means of going about it had set the stage for the most devastating attack against civilians in the modern history of the Auctoritas Magicae.
Jules stared off despondently at 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 blurred. Why didn’t I just stay invisible?
That was when epiphany dawned.
“Prefect!” he shouted, lifting his head.
“Good, you’re alive,” puffed Elisha, stumbling just wide 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?”
“Take the General and go,” said Jules. “I’m going to end this.”
“How the hell you plan to do that, Gimpy?” asked Elisha, grunting as the golem’s fist barely grazed his skull.
“I’ll bring down the whole ceiling.” Jules heaved himself partially upright. “It won’t destroy the golem, but it willstop it—enough that you can come back after and deactivate it.”
“You’ll never make it out, kiddo,” protested Elisha. He 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 anyway, I’m the only one who can do it. And you have to be here after ’cause you’re the only one who’ll know how to take the fucker apart.” Jules took a deep breath. “So you should grab the General, now, Prefect, and go.”
Elisha looked suddenly, hopelessly tired. “All right,” he said, his brave face finally gone. “Anything at all I can do to help?”
“Just get out of here alive.”
The Prefect smiled bitterly. “I’m 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 others to make their escape.
“Tell my mom and dad … ” Jules croaked after Elisha, as he and the General made their way back toward the offices.
“You love ’em?” finished Elisha, glancing back with a cheerless smile. “I surely will, kiddo.”
The golem burst free of the saturnine, erupting in rainbow flames. Elisha and Devisha hustled 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, it wouldn’t matter how well they barricaded it. It would manage to pound its way through eventually—sooner more likely than later.
The alchemist 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, gritted his teeth, and gathered his mangled leg up to his chest. He dragged the iron plate over top of him, then pressed his palm to the bottom of it and transmuted 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 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. No calculations were needed this time. He simply gathered what was left of his mana and sent forth one lone, devastating pulse.
The chamber gave an ominous shudder. The floor underneath Jules buckled in a web of cracks that rippled outward and surged up the walls.
As above, so below, drifted through his ebbing thoughts, as what remained of the painted stars began to fall.
I’m not ready …
Massive hunks of debris smashed into the dais. Weight after crushing weight piled on top of Jules’s makeshift shield, shrouding him in suffocating darkness.
A last strange, dreamlike musing bubbled up from some timeless place within him, as fatigue mercifully dragged him away to the depths:
I remember again … the stars always fall … but not like this …
I’m not supposed to be alone … you were with me …