RORY NAVARRETE STARED BLANKLY AT the home screen on his phone for several seconds after hanging up, his sister’s words still bouncing around in his brain.
Thirty-nine dead and counting. Dozens injured.
“You okay, man?”
He glanced over at his bandmates, who were busy unloading their gear from the back of their decrepit tour van.
“Uh … yeah.” He would have liked more than anything to tell them his bad news. To express to them how sad, how conflicted, how sick it made him feel. But he couldn’t. Not because of the law; he didn’t give two shits about the Auctoritas Magicae’s arbitrary code of silence. But for the same reason he’d never revealed to any of his mundane friends he was a mage: They would have looked at him differently. With envy, possibly, and fear. “I just … um … ” He gazed off and rubbed the back of his neck. It was almost dark. What had been a steady downpour during the drive from Cleveland had dwindled to a fitful drizzle. “I’m a little out of it. I’m gonna take a quick walk around, get a little bit of air—okay?”
“Sure, dude, we got this,” said Chillie, stepping up to give Kyra a hand with her drum set.
Rory shuffled off around the corner of the building, into the alley, taking slow, deep breaths. Not all the dead had been identified, Abby had said. Among those who had, there was nobody Rory’d been close to … but there were a handful he remembered from his days as a student in the Arcanus Academy, before he’d turned his back on the mage’s path. Like Moira Romilly, his Elocution for Oral Spellcraft professor, who had mercilessly drilled away his childhood speech impediment. Or Ewan Fairclough, one of Rory’s old classmates. Sure, Ewan had never given Rory the time of day; none of the kids from the “Old World” families had (except Juliana Nimri, who’d been his best friend for almost two years … until that fateful day in ninth-year Magic Theory class that, even all these years later, Rory would have given all four limbs to erase). But Ewan certainly hadn’t been the worst of them. Even if he had, the news of him dying in such a horrific way would have given Rory no pleasure.
I was lucky, Abby had told him. I was in the back with the other peons. I got out before shit really went down.
You fucking be careful, Rory had replied.
Don’t worry, she’d reassured him. There’s no place on Earth safer than the Auctoritas Magicae Enclave right now. They’ve got the place locked down tighter than Gitmo. Ordinators everywhere.
I’m sure this is just the beginning, Rory had warned. Somebody’s pissed.
She never had understood. Abby was just sixteen. She still believed life was fair, and hard work could get you where you wanted to go, no matter who your parents were … and no matter how many Old-Worlders were in line for the job ahead of you. She bought all that crap about fairness and unity that Arcanus Academy had fed all its students with a shovel.
The Auctoritas Magicae was a devil’s bargain, Rory had tried to explain to her once. The other orders bowed down to the cultural dominance of Arcanus for their own protection. Anyone who refused was exterminated. The Order of Zosimos? Wiped off the face of the Earth.
The Zosimites were dangerous, she’d responded. The formation of the council brought peace.
Yeah, at what cost? There was no due process. The Tribunal just tranquilized all the dissidents and asked questions later.
Well, they definitely don’t do that kind of thing these days. Where do you even get this stuff?
Kids from the other orders, he’d told her. They never were forced to drink the Kool-Aid.
Rory heard a cough and realized he wasn’t alone in the alley. He looked up and saw a girl about his age seated on a stoop a little ways down, nursing a menthol and paging through a well-worn paperback. A ribbon of smoke from her cigarette wafted his way.
“Could I, uh, bum a square?” he asked, shuffling over to her, hands in pockets.
She looked up at him with large, uncanny hazel eyes. She was cute, he decided; not in the kind of way you noticed from a distance, but in a plain, nondescript way, with a rabbit-like mouth in a receding wisp of a face, and frumpy, ash-brown hair that just touched her shoulders. “Hard day?” she asked, scanning his features, as she rummaged in a pocket of her frayed army jacket.
“Just got a little bad news,” he explained through a brittle smile.
She tapped a cigarette loose from her pack and handed it up to him, clasped between two fingers. “You wanna talk about it?”
Rory might have taken her up on the offer, if he wasn’t convinced she would think he was crazy. “No … but thanks.” He wedged the square between his lips and lit it with the proffered lighter. “What’re you reading?”
She looked sheepish. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” She showed him the cover. “I’m thirteen years old,” she confessed.
Rory grinned wanly and sank down on the step beside her. “You like wizards, huh?”
“I’m still waiting for my damn Hogwarts letter. Their admissions office seriously needs to get their shit together.”
Rory raised an eyebrow, staring at his hands as he exhaled smoke though his nose. “You ever think maybe the place just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?”
“Blasphemy!” she replied, with mock indignation.
“I’m Max,” she said, stuffing her square between her lips and extending a hand.
“Rory,” said Rory, returning her handshake. Her hand was cold and rough around the knuckles, her grip firm. “I’m … usually not this emo,” he added, suddenly a little self-conscious.
“Well, you said you just got bad news,” she pointed out. “You’re not a robot.”
Rory decided at that moment that he liked Max. Really liked her.
“I, on the other hand, am usually this emo,” she continued. “And I got no excuse. I’m not even ashamed to say it.”
Rory grinned. “Are you here for the show?” he asked, jerking a thumb toward the building behind them.
“I’m here for a guy,” she responded, “who happens to be in the show.”
“Oh,” said Rory, disappointed.
“He’s the bassist for Konami Code. I’m actually starting to realize he’s kind of a jerk, but I have no standards.”
“Why not?” asked Rory.
She rolled her eyes briefly upward in thought. “Because … there’s only one Gerard Way, and he’s taken? And Yoite isn’t even real, so.” She shrugged.
“ … Was that an anime reference?” asked Rory.
“I will neither confirm nor deny.”
Rory grinned. “Well, uh … ” He tossed down his cigarette butt and stamped it out. “I actually should be going, ’cause … I’m in the show too.”
“Yeah. I’m the frontman for Episode Four.”
“Dude … best band name … ever.”
Rory’s grin widened.
“Well; maybe I’ll see you in there,” said Max brightly.
“I hope so,” said Rory, getting to his feet. “You know, you should, uh, tell your boy to shape up, or he’s gonna have some competition.”
He felt a chill of embarrassment course through him. His mouth always seemed to race miles ahead of his judgment. But he couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t bring himself to walk away from her, maybe never to see her again, without at least dropping a hint.
When he finally got up the nerve to look at her again, she was blinking at him round-eyed, her cigarette burning to ash between her fingers. “Um, yeah,” she said at last, ducking her head and fiddling with her book, then tapping the ash loose and taking a final drag. “Yeah … maybe I will.” She stubbed out her butt on the pavement and smiled slightly to herself, then looked up at him again.
“Hey, dude, we gotta do sound check,” came Chillie’s voice from behind him. Rory turned to see the burly bassist’s shaved-bald head protruding around the corner of the building. “You comin’?”
“Yeah, yeah. Sorry,” said Rory. He turned back to Max with an awkward wave. “Well, um … see ya?”
“Later, gator,” she replied, and smiled down at her book.
Chillie ruffled Rory’s shaggy, mahogany-highlighted crop as the two of them filed into the venue through the stage door. “You sure you’re all right there, buddy?”
“Yeah, man. Totally,” Rory lied, with a transparent smile.
He grabbed his guitar from its case and took the stage; plugged in, tuned up, ran sound check. Chillie quietly doodled out the bass solo from “Maxwell Murder,” the way he always did before shows.
The band launched into their opener without preamble. Rory played and sang with raucous abandon, strumming and howling and stomping out his emotions on the stage.
After pounding out the last dissonant chord, he stepped up to the microphone, shaking his sweaty hair out of his eyes. “Uh, hey there, people. Thanks for coming out tonight.” He paused a moment to tune his D string. “We’re Episode Four.”
He looked out and warmed at the sight of Max standing in the back of the house, her book tucked under her arm. She smiled when she saw him looking her way.
“This next song is one some of you might know,” he continued. “It’s off our first EP. It’s called ‘Critical Miss.’”
Chillie launched into the opening riff as a few whoops of recognition rose up from the true fans in the front of the crowd. Rory glanced Max’s way and spied her caught up in what looked like a heated conversation with a guy he thought he recognized as Konami Code’s bassist.
Seconds later, the couple stormed outside into the vestibule.
Come on. Dump his ass, Rory urged her silently.
His gaze kept drifting to the door as the song continued, all the way through the emotional breakdown at the end—during which Chillie, in keeping with tradition, took to bouncing in place so hard his large frame vibrated the stage.
The band was halfway through the third song of the set, “Weezer Cover Band” (Chillie: “This definitely won’t make the EP, ’cause Rivers Cuomo might sue us”), when Max finally reappeared, alone, and took up her post at the rear of the house. Rory couldn’t resist raising a quizzical eyebrow at her. She caught his eye and winked, then mimed dropkicking something before starting to hop around exuberantly in time with the music.
Fuck yes, Rory thought, breaking out in a grin. Suddenly, he couldn’t wait for the set to end so he could go talk to her.
The next song was a melancholy number, musing and existential, and brought Rory’s thoughts drifting back to the Enclave tragedy. He gave himself over to the feeling; closed his eyes and screamed his guts out over Kyra’s thrashing drums, Drew’s throbbing rhythm guitar, and Chillie’s pulsing bass, until the song crescendoed to its peak; then croaked out the last few lyrics in a mournful voice. The house was silent for several seconds after the last note died, then broke out in earnest applause.
As the crowd subsided, Rory started tuning his guitar. “We have one more song.” He looked for Max, and faltered when he didn’t find her in the spot where he’d last seen her. In her place stood a group of four tall men in dark jackets with the hoods pulled up, huddled close, their backs turned to the stage.
… That’s weird.
“Thanks again for … for coming out tonight,” Rory continued in a bemused tone. “And, uh … thanks to Stanley and the Kubricks, and Gut Punch. You guys were really great.”
The group of hooded men parted at that moment to reveal Max standing in their midst, her round eyes aimed listlessly ahead.
“And, uh … Konami Code. For putting this show together,” Rory mumbled robotically. “I mean, you know … yeah. Thanks.”
One of the men leaned down and whispered something in Max’s ear. She nodded vaguely, once, her dull gaze unblinking.
“This last song of ours … ” Rory trailed off and simply stared as the four men moved toward the nearest exit, with Max, zombie-like, shuffling in their wake.
“Uhhh … it’s the only song of ours that will ever have a guitar solo,” piped up Chillie, valiantly taking up Rory’s customary spiel. “We promise! It’s called ‘Trilogy.’”
The song was supposed to begin with Rory playing and singing alone, so an awkward silence was all that ensued as he stood there dumbly, watching Max and the hooded men file out into the alley.
Another several beats of silence followed. The audience started to murmur.
“Rory?” Chillie asked finally.
“I, uh … I’m sick,” Rory muttered into the microphone, and laid his guitar down beside him, then crouched and braced a hand against the lip of the stage, vaulting himself down into the audience.
“Dude—what the … ?” said Chillie into his microphone.
The sounds of Drew on guitar and Chillie on vocals braving their way through the opening of “Trilogy” reached Rory’s ears as he weaved his way through the throng, gradually picking up speed as panic settled in.
Rory was the kind of guy who always trusted his instincts. And right now, his instincts were screaming at him that if he didn’t catch up to those four men before they left the premises, he would never see Max again.
He burst through the exit door onto the stoop where he’d first asked for a square, and glanced right, then left—and spied the strange assemblage rounding the corner of the building.
“Hey!” he yelled, charging after them.
One of the hooded men turned to face him, his eyes two cavernous, hypnotic swirls of black. “Halt,” he said mildly.
Rory came skidding to a stop as if he’d hit a brick wall. He’s a mage, he realized with a stroke of terror.
… A cogimancer.
Max stood behind the men, her gaze empty, her head slumped listlessly to one side. A muffled whimper rose up from the back of her throat.
The cogimancer turned his eyes on her. “Be silent. Take her,” he added to his companions.
Rory hadn’t performed magic in roughly three years, and he’d never exactly applied himself at Academy. All he’d managed to do was get down the basics, along with a few prank spells of his own devising that he’d used to get back at bullies or disrupt class.
At the moment, this was something he was regretting—majorly.
The other three men hustled Max off around the corner. The cogimancer advanced on him. Rory stood, his feet rooted to the spot.
A red rage flooded his vision. Rory felt his nerves ignite with the buzz of excitatory gnosis.
He thrust his hand out in a claw. It might have been a while, but he was pretty sure he still remembered a few of his old tricks.
“Fall down. Die,” intoned the cogimancer.
Before Rory had a chance to unleash his power, his legs collapsed out from under him. He wiped out flat on his back on the rain-soaked pavement, wheezing loudly as his lungs refused to draw air.
No … fuck you … I won’t.
He writhed and croaked, his chest burning, as the mind-mage turned and disappeared around the corner. Rory heard the sound of a car engine starting, followed by a screech of rubber on asphalt.
Fuck this! No! I won’t—!
Mind control was an apostasy—a forbidden art. Needless to say, it wasn’t taught at Arcanus Academy. But it had been briefly covered, along with other rare and apostate magics, in Rory’s Esoterica class. And if he remembered correctly, it was said that, from time to time, strong-willed magi had mustered up the power to resist it.
It was, of course, naked hubris, him thinking there was even a chance he himself could pull it off. But Rory Navarrete never had been one to give up easy when it mattered.
He stared deeply into the glare of a light fixture on the wall overhead, centering all his gnostic focus on a lone, impassioned mantra:
I will live.
I will live.
I WILL LIVE.
His vision had just begun to grow spotty when his esophagus opened up with a painful shriek. His caved-in belly expanded quickly to make way for an influx of moist night air.
He lay there, paralyzed and gasping, for what felt like an age, then forced himself dizzily to his feet. He doddered forward, half-quadrupedally, and propelled himself around the corner of the building.
The only vehicle in sight was Episode Four’s tour van. The people who’d taken Max were nowhere to be seen.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Rory chattered to himself, slumping breathlessly against the wall. He dug his phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed his sister.
“I need to contact the Enclave.”
Abby was silent for a beat. “Really? What’s going on?”
“I just, uh … I want to talk to them. They ever get a damn phone line?”
“Uh, you mean did hell freeze over? No. You still gotta do it the old-fashioned way.”
“Dammit.” Rory didn’t carry any magical substances or implements, such as sigil paint. He hadn’t touched any of that stuff since he’d left school. He wasn’t altogether sure he remembered the proper sigils for long-distance communication anyway. “Okay, well … I guess I need you to call them for me.”
“What? Why? What’s going on?”
“Apostates. One of them a cogimancer. At Division and Wolcott in Chicago. They snatched a mundane girl, then tried to fucking kill me.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God. Kuya, are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m all right. But they’re on the loose, and they’ve still got the girl.”
“What the hell is going on, Rory? The attack on the council, then this? This is crazy.”
“Just tell them to get their asses over here, okay?”
“Yeah … will do. Stay safe, Kuya.”
“I’ll try. Bye.”
Rory hung up and glanced around, tapping his fingers restlessly against his thigh. He didn’t want to just stand around until the enforcers arrived. He wanted to do something.
On a hunch, he hurried back into the venue. Konami Code had just started their first song. Rory surveyed the area where Max had been standing during Episode Four’s set, and fortunately found what he was looking for—her Harry Potter book, abandoned and trampled on the floor.
He picked it up, praying to anybody who’d listen as he peeled back the front cover.
It was there, just as he’d hoped—her name, in a bubbly, childish script, scrawled in faded purple ink:
Maxine Frankel, 1999. The I was dotted with a smiley-faced heart.
Basic Spellcraft, fourth year. Professor D’Amato’s dry monotone came ringing back to Rory across the years:
An item of great sentimental significance to a living person, or one which said person has imbued with some form of personal expression—for instance, a handwritten letter—will serve as a highly effective means of evoking a proxy.
Rory clutched the battered paperback like a lifeline and scanned the house for Chillie.
He didn’t have to search long, as the bassist loomed head and shoulders above the rest of the throng. Rory spied him down front, in the mosh pit, the crowd around him parting like the Red Sea to avoid being knocked down by one of his overly enthusiastic gyrations.
Rory muscled his way through the sea of concertgoers, grunting loudly as some skinny kid’s shoulder slammed into his ribcage. After a few rounds of back-and-forth—and some fairly comedic mishears (“You want cheese in a can?” Chillie hollered back at him at one point)—he surfaced with the van keys in hand and sprinted back outside.
His phone buzzed in his pocket as he pried open the vehicle’s rusty rear doors.
“They coming?” he asked, lifting the phone to his ear.
“I don’t think so.”
Rory sank down on the bumper of the van. “What?”
“They said they can’t spare anyone right now. Said Enclave security takes precedence at the moment, and they’ll look into it whenever they can.”
Rory unleashed a string of the foulest epithets he knew. “You better believe they’d be all over this shit if the person in danger was a Weyland or a Lockwood or a Mounce.”
“I’m sorry, Kuya.”
“Whatever. If they won’t help, I’ll do it on my own.”
“No! Oh my God, that’s way too dangerous.”
“I need you to talk me through a ritual.” He put the phone on speaker and laid it on the floor of the van, then hoisted himself up and cracked open a bottled water from a large flat stowed behind the seats. Alchemically purified it was not, but it would have to do.
“What kind of ritual?”
“Jesus, Kuya. You’ve forgotten how to conjure a proxy?”
“I’m not sure I even remember how to do a cleansing.” He poured the water down the length of his left hand and forearm, then did the same with his right.
“Wow. Yeah … please, please don’t go after those apostates. You are so going to get your ass handed to you.”
“Abs—this girl they took? Her name is Max. And she likes Harry Potter and MCR and anime, she’s really, really cool.” Rory set his jaw. “Somebody has to help her.”
“Dammit. Dammit. Okay. God.” Abby sighed loudly into the phone. “Do you remember anything at all?”
“I remember something to do with the Qabalistic Cross. And … oh. Shit. I need an athame, don’t I?”
“I don’t think you’re gonna scare away too many spirits by wagging your finger at them.”
“Fuck.” Rory fumbled in his pockets till he found his keychain. “I have a bottle opener … ?”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Uhhh.” He scanned his surroundings, then body-surfed onto the console between the van’s front seats and popped open the glove compartment. “Switchblade,” he hollered back triumphantly, fishing the weapon from under a stack of grimy napkins, a sticky wad of ketchup packets, a shriveled white-rose boutonniere, and someone’s old chipped glass pipe.
“Better than nothing, I guess,” drawled Abby. “Lucky for you at least sixty-five percent of goetia is theatrics. Make sure you cleanse it.”
Rory doused the blade with water. “Done. Now what? Invoke the Cross?”
“Are you facing east?”
“Uh … IDK.”
“You have to face east.”
“It’s night. I have no idea which way I’m facing.”
“Got a GPS?”
“Is it a clear night? Is there a lot of light pollution? You’re in Chicago, so I’m thinking the answer is yes.”
Rory poked his head out of the van. “I can see some stars.”
“You have to find Polaris.”
“Yeah … I forget how to do that.”
“Can you see the Big Dipper?”
Rory squinted at the sky. “Uhhhh … yes? Yes. Yeah, definitely.”
“The two stars on the side of the dipper that’s not the handle—follow the line that runs through those two points with your eyes, five times the length between them, and you’ll see a really bright star.”
“Wait, say that a- … ? Ohhh, I got you. There it is. Really bright star.”
“That’s due north.”
“Okay, so east is on my … ?”
“You can’t seriously be that helpless.”
“You know I have mild dyspraxia, you ableist jerk. On my … right?” Rory held up his hands in mirroring L shapes and put down the one that correctly formed an L. “Okay. East. Got it.”
He climbed back into the van and sat on the floor, facing that direction. “Now the Cross, right?” he said.
“Right. You do remember how to do that, at least?”
“First the Cross, then clasp your hands … ”
“What’s that shit I have to say again?”
“Sweet holy baby Jesus,” she sighed.
“That doesn’t sound right.”
“Very funny. Just repeat after me, but remember you have to say it like you mean it. The daemons need to believe you mean business.”
“Okay.” Rory poised the dripping-wet blade against his forehead. He’d always sucked at commanding daemons in school—but then, he’d always felt silly doing it. Now, for the first time, something important was at stake. “Ready,” he said, donning his game face.
“Mine is the sanctity.”
“Mine is the sanctity,” boomed Rory.
There was silence on the line. “Dang, Kuya.”
“Fuck. That was a good one and you ruined it.”
“Sorry! Won’t happen again. ‘Mine is the sanctity.’”
“Mine is the sanctity.”
“Mine is the sovereignty.”
“Mine is the sovereignty!”
“MINE IS THE DOMINION,” Rory cut her off, feeling his mana surge as the words came flowing back to him across the years, “OVER THIS CONSECRATED SPACE!”
The switchblade in his hand sparked to life with a brilliant white light.
“Kinda sounds like you got this, bro,” came Abby’s voice over the line.
Light trailed from the tip of Rory’s blade as he inscribed a pentagram in the air. “I THEREFORE BANISH YOU, MALEFICENT SPIRITS, BY THE POWER OF SOLOMON, PSELLUS, ABRAMELIN, AND AGRIPPA.”
Specters of the great summoners of old appeared, one at each of the four cardinal points surrounding him, as they were named. Each acknowledged Rory with a somber nod; then, together, they lifted their arms and vanished from sight. A host of otherworldly voices cried out, and the light rippled outward from the old switchblade with a palpable rush of air.
The next instant, all was dark and quiet, and the air felt clear.
“Did it work?” came Abby’s voice, after a few beats of silence.
“Yeah,” said Rory, with confidence.
“Nice job, Kuya. It’s like Mom says—if you’d actually given a shit in school, you probably woulda been top of your class.”
“Yeah … whatever.”
“Okay. Now that you’ve cleared out any mischievous spirits, time for the proxy ritual. It’s pretty easy. I can just go over it with you quickly. I shouldn’t need to walk you through step by step—which is good, seeing as you’ll probably lose signal once the ritual gets going.”
Minutes later, his phone hung up and pocketed, Rory sat before a circle he’d created on the floor of the van using salt from old packets he’d collected from the discarded fast food bags that littered the vehicle. Max’s book rested in his hands.
“Sorry, Max,” he murmured, as he ripped off the corner of the cover that bore her signature.
He laid the scrap in the center of the salt circle and stared at it intently, envisioning her face. Her bright, warm, dimpled face, with its haunted hazel eyes.
When he had her firmly in mind, Rory picked up the Bic lighter he’d unearthed from the glove compartment and ignited the scrap.
Holding his palm over the flame, Rory began to chant. It was the cadence that mattered most, Abby had advised. He could take some license with the words themselves, as long as they appealed specifically to Max.
A little uncertainly, he began.
“Hey, Max. I barely know you, but I hope you know I care.”
Fuck. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here. But, as he kept his eyes trained on the fire, he imagined he saw it leap.
“Hey, Max.” He tried to envision himself reaching for her. “I will do anything to help you get home safe.”
The flame, instead of dimming as the scrap turned to ash, began to burn paler and brighter. Rory’s heart skipped a beat as it wrapped long tendrils harmlessly around his hand, spinning out a braid of smoke that billowed and curled in the air above the fire.
“So, Max, I need your help right now. I need you as my guide.”
The pillar of smoke began to take on a humanoid shape. A faraway, childish giggle rippled through the air.
“Now, Max; I swear I’ll come for you. So show yourself to me!”
Rory fell silent, staring. The ethereal form in front of him was that of a bright-eyed child, roughly eight or nine years of age, in a turtleneck sweater, Timberlands, and bootleg jeans. She wore a frizzy braid down her back and large wire-rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of her nose.
“Max?” he murmured, confused.
The girl grimaced and shook her head.
Did I somehow summon the wrong proxy?
Then, suddenly, he thought he understood. “Maxine?” he tried, remembering the name as it had been written in the book.
She beamed and bobbed her head.
Max had signed her book in 1999. The proxy Rory had summoned must be the piece of herself she’d imparted to her treasured possession at that moment in time—and, therefore, appeared to him as Max had then.
Rory stared at the specter, fascinated. It felt like a very intimate thing, making contact with this guileless Ghost of Max Past.
I’ve got to save her.
“Thanks for coming, Maxine,” he said gently. “Thank you for trusting me.”
The girl flashed him a corny, tight-lipped smile.
“I need to find you so I can help you. Can you show me the way?”
Maxine grinned, nodded once, and went bounding off, straight through the front of the van. Rory leapt over the console into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition. The apparition hovered in midair a few feet in front of the vehicle, her misty legs churning in place as she waited.
Rory shifted into drive and stepped on the gas.
Sorry for stranding you guys, he thought at his bandmates. I’ll come up with a hilarious explanation for this later …
The proxy sailed ahead of Rory, matching the van’s best pace, guiding him through the thick of the Friday night traffic. Bar-hoppers on the sidewalks stopped and stared. It was a blatant breach of the Alliance’s Occultation Protocols, dispatching a specter through a crowded downtown area—but that was the least of Rory’s worries at the moment.
He weaved around other cars at every opportunity, tailing the proxy as she darted this way and that ahead of him. On occasions when the traffic cleared, he floored it. Together, proxy and automobile reached speeds of up to seventy miles per hour, while the old van rattled and hiccuped in protest.
The apparition finally slowed her pace as Rory rounded a bend into a rundown commercial neighborhood in South Side. He crawled along behind her as she turned down an alley next to a gutted old office building, switching off his headlights as he finally brought the van to a halt behind a black SUV.
Rory shut off the engine and exited quietly, patting his jeans pocket to make sure his switchblade-cum-athame was still tucked safely inside. He approached the SUV warily and peeked in through one of the windows, and found it unoccupied.
As he reached the sidewalk where the proxy waited, she turned away from him and vanished through the building’s side door. Rory took a deep breath, grasped the knob, and turned.
To his surprise, it wasn’t locked. The door didn’t even seem to have a lock. The knob twisted anchorlessly in his hand. He winced at the whining sound the hinges made as he eased it open.
Ahead of him, Maxine hovered at the edge of darkness, her phantom luminescence faintly lighting the dingy hallway that surrounded them. From some distance beyond, a disturbing chorus reached Rory’s ears—a tuneless, arrhythmic wailing, underscored by a raucous din of clanking metal.
Fractions of a second later, the odor hit him—a combined stench of death, smoke, and feces so acrid that, if he hadn’t been hell-bent on his mission, he would have turned around on his heel and walked right out.
Maxine drifted ahead of him down the hallway, glancing back periodically. Her sunny smile was gone. She moved with reluctant steps. There was fear in her wide, spectral eyes.
She paused finally before a set of double doors and looked back at Rory one last time, a tear rolling slowly down her cheek. She traced her small finger along the crack between the doors, indicating the way ahead. Her lips formed the silent words, Help me.
I will, Rory silently replied, as she vanished in a coil of smoke.
He approached the doors, bracing himself for what he might find on the other side. Here, the clashing and ululating sounded very near—and he could now make out another, softer sound as well.
A woman’s stifled weeping and cries of pain.
He felt his mana seals ignite with a flash of red heat.
Rory had been planning to ease the door open a crack and assess whatever he saw in the room beyond. Devise a plan of attack; something involving stealth and his switchblade, and maybe a well-placed prank spell or two, if he could muster them, as timed diversions.
That plan was now utterly forgotten.
Rory flung the doors wide with both hands. He viewed the scene in the large, mostly empty room before him through a veil of crimson, his heart thrashing a relentless, deep-bass cadence in his ears.
Four men, naked in hoods of black, their bodies smeared with filth, occupied a magic circle—if a circle it could rightly be called, random and meandering as it was—composed of half-burnt spoiled meat and excrement, buzzing with flies. One knelt off to the side alone, feverishly bludgeoning a tin bucket with a long white bone. Like his fellows’, his head was thrown back in a guttural howl.
The other three huddled close by, crouching low … surrounding something Rory could only assume was Max.
It was an image he knew in his heart he would never forget. Like her captors, she was naked, her body so caked in filth that she hardly looked human. She lay on her side, gagged and hogtied, two of the apostates hoisting her upper body while a third sawed through her breastbone with a violet-black-glowing athame, carving a long, jagged, light-swallowing gash in her flesh.
The hairs on the back of Rory’s neck stood on end as he proceeded into the room. He could feel the chill of an ancient malice; the din of a host of murdered souls raging against oblivion. He could see the pale streaks Max’s tears had washed clean on her cheeks, the whites of her huge, ghostly eyes rolling wildly in her dark-stained face.
Against all reason, given what was happening to her, she was alive.
The apostates’ cowled heads swayed toward him as one. The one who held the athame rose and ripped off his hood, and fixed Rory with the familiar black pools of his eyes.
The smart thing to do would have been to look away. To avoid the mind-mage’s hypnotic stare, averting the fate he had nearly suffered earlier.
Instead, Rory bored his gaze into the cogimancer’s, reached forth his claw, and unleashed the fury built up in his seals.
What he deployed at that moment was one of his old favorite tricks from school, amped up to eleven. The one that gave his victims the sensation that their skin was crawling with bugs.
But, based on the cogimancer’s reaction, the effect when Rory cranked up the voltage on this usually-harmless prank was something more akin to crippling pain.
The mind-mage crumpled to the floor, wailing pitifully. His fellows stared at Rory in bald amazement.
Max’s captors released her and drew their athames. Rory lashed out at them, one by one. The first he struck with the good-old-reliable thunderclap-in-the-ears trick—again, seemingly a more potent version than he’d ever used in his school days, considering that, this time, it sent blood squirting out of his target’s ears. The second he dropped with an attack on his motor coordination, causing him to lose his grip on his blade and collapse to the floor.
The tin-pail drummer stood frozen, and cowered when Rory turned on him. But Rory’s gnostic haze was already beginning to clear. His mana reserves were nearly dry.
Jesus … that shit drained me fast.
So he disregarded the trembling apostate, and instead lunged into the circle after Max. She was small, thank God—but he himself wasn’t that much bigger, and the way she was bound made her an awkward burden. It took all his effort to heft her slick form in his arms.
Once he had her, he took off out of the room, as fast as his legs would carry him.
Max’s head bounced against his shoulder as he ran. She stank almost unbearably of shit and piss and rot.
He tore all the way into the alley without looking back. He hoisted his precious burden into the back of the van, roaring with the effort.
The cogimancer appeared in the doorway behind him, still doubled over in pain, glowing athame in hand.
Rory leapt into the back of the van after Max and slammed and locked the doors behind him. He snapped open his switchblade and cut her wrists free of her feet. There wasn’t time now to sever the rest of her bonds.
With a grunt, he dragged her to one of the back seats and dumped her in it, then sprang into the driver’s seat and turned the key in the ignition.
The cogimancer loomed up in his headlights, arms outstretched, black orbs swirling.
“Fuck that,” said Rory, and put pedal to metal.
The resulting bump rocked the van violently, and sent Max reeling to the floor. The jalopy’s undercarriage bobbled and wheezed.
Hang in there, old buddy. I know you weren’t built to be a killer.
Rory gritted his teeth and shifted into reverse, then slammed on the gas again; then repeated the move once more in drive, back, and forth, back, and forth, wincing at each and every sickening thud.
“Sorry, Max,” he breathed, hearing tears in his voice, as his wounded charge tumbled helplessly around the floorboard. “I’m so, so sorry. I just—I have to make sure he’s f-fucking dead.”
Finally, he pulled the van several lengths forward, steeled himself, and glanced in the rearview mirror at his handiwork.
All that remained in his wake was an indistinct, glistening smear of meat and tire prints.
Beyond, the door to the building flew open.
Rory stood on the gas pedal and didn’t look back.
He wasn’t sure where he was going at first. He just drove and drove, at the highest speed the old van could manage, taking random turns to put as much distance and as convoluted a path between himself and Max and the apostates as he possibly could.
Finally, he pulled into the empty parking lot of some industrial plant, shut off the engine, and dove over the console, dropping to his knees beside Max.
He cut her bonds and pulled the gag out of her mouth. She turned her head, spat out a wad of rotten meat, and retched.
“Oh, God,” she croaked, sobbing.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” babbled Rory tearfully. “I’m sorry I didn’t stop them … before … ”
He watched in shock as she started clawing with an animal desperation at her crotch, and finally deposited another lump of spoiled meat, stained with feces, on the floor.
“Oh my God,” he wept senselessly.
He composed himself finally enough to grab Drew’s favorite afghan off the seat and wrap her in it, using its folds to scrub clean her face and her hair and her neck.
“I failed, I failed,” he repeated like a mantra.
“No, you stopped them,” whispered Max, her eyes glistening with terror and awe. “How?”
Rory fell silent and stared at her, chest heaving, and finally forced down the lump in the back of his throat. “I’m … a wizard,” he said, hoarsely.
She nodded dumb acknowledgment, her breaths coming in quiet gasps. She then glanced down at the hole in her chest, and winched her eyes shut with a nauseated groan. “What—what is that?” she whimpered. “It doesn’t hurt. It’s not bleeding.”
“Can I look? Is it okay?”
“Of course,” she half-laughed, half-sobbed. “You’ve already seen … everything.”
Rory gently parted the blanket in the front.
A black, pulsating void gaped at him from between Max’s breasts. Staring into it, Rory felt as if he were gazing past the edge of the world, into some realm of monsters.
He tore his eyes free and closed the folds of the afghan once more. “I don’t know,” he admitted breathlessly. “I don’t know. God.” He pondered for a moment. “There are a lot more like me, you know. Wizards; magi. Way better ones, actually. I’m just a fucking dropout.” He drew a shuddering breath, then nodded to himself. “If I take you to the Auctoritas Magicae Enclave at Delphi, someone there will probably know what to do.”
“So it’s all real,” murmured Max with a weak smile. “A secret wizard society. Like in Harry Potter.”
“Not exactly like Harry Potter,” said Rory ruefully.
“No,” said Max, and looked down at herself, her chin quivering. “I’m getting that.”
The forty-minute drive to Delphi passed mostly in silence, except for occasional bouts of childlike sobbing from both of the van’s occupants. Rory’s mind ruthlessly replayed the night’s more traumatic moments on repeat, obsessing over the details. Wondering where those apostate sickos had come from. What they were trying to do.
Why the hell they had to choose Max.
It wasn’t long before he fell to musing over the more extreme potentials of his power that he hadn’t discovered till now.
“Was it you who did that?” asked Juliana Nimri.
She was an odd-looking but very pretty girl, both angular and delicate at the same time, like a cat. Everything about her seemed long: her limbs, her neck; even her hands and feet. This was the second time she’d ever spoken to Rory—and the first since two weeks earlier, in Divine Geometry class, when she’d critiqued his homework assignment harshly and he’d fired back by calling her an Old World preppy bitch.
“Did what?” Rory cackled in reply. “You mean made Gov Hassanpour shit his pants?”
“Not so loud,” she hissed, pulling him by his arm into the nook next to the water fountain. She took him by his shoulders, turned him squarely to face her, and bored into him with her sober dark eyes. “You can never,” she pronounced emphatically, “tell anyone you do stuff like that.”
“You’re welcome,” frowned Rory. “I only did it to help you. Dude wouldn’t quit harassing you.”
“I know,” admitted Julie. “It was … cool of you. So keep in mind that when I say this, it’s only because I’m trying to help you.” She fell briefly silent while a classmate passed by them, then pronounced again, “Never. Tell. Anyone.”
She blinked at him. “Isn’t it obvious?”
Rory shook his head.
She laid her hand on his shoulder and leaned close to his ear. A warm flush bloomed over his neck. “You’re a maleficer,” she said, in the sparest of whispers.
Rory’s eyes widened. “What? No I’m not.”
“Yes,” she said, easing back onto her heels and looking him once more in the eyes. “You are. You have to take this seriously.”
“Making someone shit their pants isn’t exactly ‘direct bodily harm.’”
“Yes, it is,” said Julie, growing exasperated. “Can’t you see that? You induced gastrointestinal distress and fecal incontinence. In other words, you made him sick. Just believe me. If anyone ever finds out you can do—and, worse, have done—these things … ” She trailed off and shook her head gravely. “You know the penalty for apostasy as well as I do.”
Rory paused to let this sink in. Her conclusion seemed farfetched, and his impression of Julie so far was that she was generally kind of a neurotic person, so he wasn’t inclined to put too much stock in her warning.
But the important takeaway, he decided …
“You’re worried about me,” he chirped, with his finest shit-eating grin.
“You did me a solid,” she said flatly. “I’m just returning the favor. I promise I’ll never tell a soul, as long as you don’t seriously hurt anyone. But I strongly recommend you knock it off with these pranks of yours, before you end up getting caught … and having a stone mask nailed to the front of your head.”
Rory’s mind paged forward, against his will, to a scene two years later, in ninth-year Magic Theory class. Julie stood red-faced and gasping in front of a roomful of her jeering classmates, her eyes burning in wounded accusation.
I’ll never tell a soul, she’d told him the day they’d become friends.
She never had. Not even when he had, in fact, seriously hurt someone.
He thought about the cogimancer, writhing on the ground in pain. The blood gushing from the other apostate’s ears.
Julie was right, he acknowledged grimly. Though tonight, I only used it to save someone. Because I had to. That shouldn’t be a crime.
“Listen, could you do me a favor?” he broke the silence finally, as he steered the van onto the exit ramp toward Delphi. The hypnotic lights of the city’s many glamors twinkled on the horizon ahead. As a city founded by mages centuries before, Delphi had two faces: a true one only magic adepts could see, and a false one that masked its many arcane secrets from mundanes.
“Anything,” said Max softly.
“If they ask you at the Enclave what I did to fight the apostates … don’t tell them.”
“But you were amazing,” she said. “You saved my life.”
“They … might not see it that way.”
“Because, the magic world is run by a bunch of dogmatic old windbags.” Rory turned onto Main Street heading downtown.
“Okay,” said Max, with a perplexed frown.
They resumed their silence, until Rory pulled the van into the parking lot of the Alfheim Hotel, on the square across from City Hall.
“What? Why are you taking me to a fancy hotel?” asked Max.
“You trust me?” said Rory.
He drove around back of the looming gothic-style structure and pulled up by the loading dock outside the kitchen. He helped Max from the van and hurriedly ushered her inside, first through the empty kitchen, then through a corner of the darkened dining room, into a short hallway lined by elevators.
“Floor Twelve,” he told the attendant of the first elevator to arrive.
The Alfheim only had eleven floors.
The man eyed them both skeptically, wrinkling his nose. “May I see your hotel key card, sir?”
“I’m a mage,” said Rory.
“Cut the bullshit. I know you know what I’m talking about. My name’s Rory Navarrete. I’m former Ordo Arcanus. My sister, Abigail Navarrete, is still a member of the order. This girl here with me needs help. She’s a mundane who was taken by apostates and used in some weird ritual. Max, show him.”
Max parted the afghan just enough to display part of her strange wound.
The attendant surveyed it without any visible reaction, then turned and closed the gold-plated doors behind them. His fingers moved deftly, tracing a series of runes onto the wall above the console, thin trails of light vanishing in their wake. Rory grabbed Max by the shoulders and made sure both of them were standing well within the bounds of the teleportation circle engraved on the elevator floor.
Within a matter of seconds, both box and attendant had faded from view. Rory and Max found themselves standing on the marble floor of a vast entry hall, at the center of the massive inlaid symbol of the Auctoritas Magicae.
Behind an Enforcement barrier in front of them loomed what was left of the grand balustrade—a pitiful shambles, one of its twin staircases buckled, half the banners of the Six Orders either hanging askew or toppled altogether from their mounts. The council chamber beyond was little more than a pile of rubble, naked beneath the true night sky—because the false one that had sheltered it was gone.
“Jesus … I almost forgot,” gasped Rory. “A golem did all that?”
Suddenly, multiple pairs of hands closed around his biceps and forced his arms behind his back. “Hey! What the fuck!”
Mana-dampening manacles clicked into place on his wrists. “Come quietly, Rory Navarrete, or we will be forced to pacify you.”
Rory twisted his neck to look behind him—and found no less than five Ordinators clustered at his back.
“Rory! What’s going on?” cried Max, jerking away as one of them reached out to take her arm.
“What are you arresting me for?” demanded Rory.
His question went ignored.
“Hey, be careful with her!” he warned, as in the scuffle Max’s blanket started to fall away.
“Who are these assholes?” she shouted, as the enforcers began to drag the two of them in opposite directions. “What’s happening? Rory!”
“At least fucking tell me what you want with me!” bellowed Rory, beginning to thrash in earnest as Max was borne farther and farther away.
… Did they somehow know what he had done?
“Listen, you have to help her,” he begged. “A bunch of apostates—”
“Pacify the prisoner,” said one Stoneface to another.
“No! Just fucking listen to me!”
Its fellow popped the lid off a tiny glass vial, then held the vial in its palm and clapped its gauntleted hand over Rory’s mouth. Another braced the back of his head. Rory struggled, but the two guards at his back ensured he couldn’t wriggle far.
A noxious sweetness flooded his mouth by way of his nasal cavity. There followed a mild burning in his lungs. His vision slowly doubled, then darkened, as the molasses crept into his brain.
“Notify the Master-General,” was the last thing he heard, as if played from a melting cassette tape, before he could no longer hear anything at all.