Saving the world wasn’t a thing Luke Langit would have ever tried to do if she wasn’t in it.
But she was.
So here he was, just minutes from midnight on the longest night of the year, hustling down the wooded trail off Hermit’s Lane, the night-vision agimat behind his left ear amped to full blast as he glanced over his shoulder for the millionth time to make sure he hadn’t been followed.
It was cold, but not nearly cold enough for the middle of the night in late December. Philly had gotten only one real snow so far this season, back in mid-November. Ever since then, it had been too warm for snow.
Fuckin’ global warming. Even if I do stop the apocalypse, damn mundanes are gonna kill us all.
Luke kept his hooded head down, ignored the jeers of a band of drunk frat boys roving past in the opposite direction. Kept his eyes to the trail as a crumpled beer can bounced off his shoulder.
UPenn white legacy sons of bitches…
It was fine. They didn’t matter.
On that one snowy day in November, he hadn’t been able to keep his thoughts from returning to her. To another winter day seven years ago, when he’d implanted the last of her agimat. The soft flakes drifting down outside her bedroom window. Her blood drying on his hands. Her skin bruised, torn, crudely stitched. She hadn’t made a sound while he’d worked, even though he hadn’t been able to get her an elixir for the pain, or even any halfway decent mundane drugs—just a bottle of Extra Strength Advil from Tito Ollie’s medicine cabinet.
Her mom and her mom’s boyfriend had been screaming at the far end of the house that day, almost nonstop. Luke had hardly been able to concentrate enough to finish the ritual. But she, usually high-strung, had been calm, her calligraphed eyes steady on him the whole time, never straying.
Their bullshit always seems far away when you’re here, she’d said.
Luke knew those kind of things weren’t easy for her to say.
Years fanned past in his memory, like pages of an open book struck by a gust of wind. He recalled, like it had been yesterday, a message she’d left in his voicemail last summer:
So Dad just fucking showed up out of nowhere. Doesn’t remember who I am, keeps thinking I’m Mom. Fucking drugs finally cooked his brain or something. I don’t know what to do with him. And Mom’s still fuck knows where, and like…actually, you know what, I don’t know why I even fucking called you, ’cause honestly? Fuck you, Luke. I don’t even want your help at this point. The most you’ll do is give me some schlocky spiel about how you’re here for me always and forever, then stop answering my texts the millisecond the shit hits the fan. So like…fuck you. I hope wherever you are right now you can feel in the marrow of your fucking bones how much I fucking hate you and what a fucking piece-of-shit liar you are.
It took all Luke’s mental effort to slam the book shut.
You may never know the truth, he thought. Took a deep breath. That everything I did was for you. But it doesn’t matter what you think of me, as long as you survive. As long as someday you’re happy…
The currents in his mana veins started thrumming strangely—a sign his destination wasn’t far off. He wondered if the Martial Magus was close enough to feel it too. There’d been a time when Luke never would’ve dreamed of rubbing elbows with one of Ordo Arcanus’s jumped-up magic cops, but you made some pretty strange bedfellows when you were doing everything you could to stop the world from getting hosed more than three hundred years ago.
Luke slowed as he neared the spot. With his enhanced vision, he picked out a tall shape just off the path, beside the stone door embedded in the hillside—a somber statue in the shadows. Polyxena Severin, or Polyxena of the Daemon Blade, as she was known, appeared true to her legendary description: wide-brimmed hat pulled low over her eyes, long trench coat, platinum locks rippling in loose curls to her waist.
Luke flexed his fingers, redirected his mana through the agimat beneath the thin skin on the back of his right hand. So far, all was as it should be. It didn’t look like he’d been followed. Still, there were a million troublesome contingencies he knew he should be ready for. Like if an impostor had come in Severin’s place, disguised in a costume or a powerful glamor. Or if Severin was in fact who she appeared to be, but had laid a trap for him, planning to arrest him, haul him off to Arcadia, and book him for one or more of his many apostasies. That didn’t seem too likely…Philly was neutral turf, so not Ordo Arcanus jurisdiction. But if Severin had hired a “ratcatcher,” one of those factionless class-traitor bounty hunters, to take care of her dirty work for her, there was a very real danger of Luke winding up behind bars. Or something worse.
Finally, there was the possibility Luke didn’t even want to think about…that the Broken had somehow caught on to his plan to rat them out and would make a move to stop him.
In which case, he was fucked.
Though he’d be damned if he wouldn’t go down fighting.
Severin stood facing Luke as he approached, her eyes obscured by the shadow of her hat brim. Luke could barely make out her pointed nose and chin, her thin mouth bent in a slight sober smile.
“Polyxena Severin?” he said softly, once within earshot.
“‘L,’ I presume,” came her low, reverberant alto. “Io Saturnalia.”
“And a holly jolly Christmas to you.” Teaming up with an Arcanus enforcer didn’t mean Luke had to respect their Old World ways. Not that he was loyal to his Catholic upbringing, either. But he sure as hell never forgot where he came from—or that there was a universe of difference between Us and Them.
If Severin took offense at Luke’s irreverence, she didn’t show it. “I sense the power in this place, as you described.” She glanced around, lifting her chin just enough to permit Luke a glimpse of her eyes beneath her hat brim—twin crescent moons, pale and penetrating. “Strange, that its existence has evaded our notice all these years.”
“Ordo Arcanus’s. Our scholars document nexuses thoroughly, even those that lie outside our territorial bounds.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe your bosses haven’t been telling you everything.”
Her silver stare settled on him. “What are you suggesting?”
“This stuff you’ve been investigating? Runs deeper than you know. There’s powerful mages protecting these secrets. We’re talking cover-ups on cover-ups here.”
Severin paused. “I’ve begun to get an inkling of that. My attempts to dig deeper into these matters keep arriving at dead ends. Relevant texts missing from the Archives. Enforcement files redacted. Key informants dead under mysterious circumstances.” She eyed Luke. “Speaking of which, I hope you’ve taken precautions.”
“I always do my best.”
“Exactly which powerful magi do you allege are complicit in these ‘cover-ups’?”
“Not sure. I just know they’ve got people, if not in all the major factions, in Arcanus at least. One of them pretty high up, from what I’ve heard.”
“That’s what they call themselves. The mages behind the whole thing.”
“Interesting choice of team name.”
“The idea is they’re all ‘broken beyond repair.’ They recruit mages who are so fucked up in the head they don’t care what happens to them. Who have nothing to lose.”
“Ah. The kind of people who might like to see the world end.”
Severin studied him. “I suppose they miscalculated when they chose you.”
Luke thought about snow. “I suppose they did.”
Severin cast a glance around. “What’s the significance of this place?”
Luke jerked his head, indicating the nearby hillside, the dark stone door with the obelisk by its side. “This little cave.” He led the way.
Severin followed. “I looked in there. It’s not a cave, whatever the mundanes may call it. It’s just a crude doorway, leading to a little room dug into the hillside.”
Luke got out his phone. Fired up the flashlight app.
Severin wasn’t wrong. Beyond the humble entryway there was only a simple stone hovel, long abandoned, cluttered with leaves and bracken that crunched beneath their steps.
“But I do sense great power here,” Severin added in a hushed, almost reverent tone. Her moon eyes traced the walls and ceiling. “Though it’s a different sort of vibration from Arcadia or Delphi. This place seems…aberrant, somehow.”
“Yeah,” Luke agreed, half to himself. “And for damn good reason.”
“Why? What is this place?”
“Well, I mean, like most other nexuses, it’s a gateway, or so I’ve heard. Word on the street is it was sealed off both magically and physically by secret order of the Auctoritas Magicae because it was used as a weapon by the Order of Zosimos during the Homunculi War. You won’t find this in any of your Arcanus history books, but after joining forces to bring down the Zosimites, Ordo Arcanus and the Hermetic Order of Khmun almost went to war over who would get control of it. That’s why the Delphi Accords dictated Philadelphia should remain neutral territory.”
“You’re trying to tell me this little ‘cave’ was the entire reason for that?”
“Apparently. This place is dangerous. And the Broken will stop at nothing to get access to it.”
“Dangerous how? You still haven’t explained to me what it does.”
Luke hesitated. “I mean…I actually don’t know for sure what its deal is. I haven’t worked my way in far enough with the Broken to get access to their best-kept secrets. But I have sort of like…a theory, I guess. Based on what I’ve gathered.”
“Which is what?”
Once more, Luke paused. He’d never said any of these things out loud to another person. It felt unnatural—ominous—to give them voice. “Well. I think that maybe, on the other side of that gate, is, like…reality. The way it’s meant to be.”
Severin frowned. “The way it’s meant to be?”
“Like…” Luke’s voice fell to a whisper. “The true universe. A ‘true vacuum.’ Do you know anything about mundane science? Quantum physics?”
Severin gave him an Are you kidding? look and shook her head. Her ignorance didn’t surprise Luke. For all their obsession with arcane academia, Old Worlders famously had little respect for or interest in mundane scholarship.
“Okay, well.” Luke tried to think how to explain it simply, in a way someone with no context would understand. “Basically, some mundane scientists think that the only reason anything exists, and I mean anything at all, is that the state of our universe is a little bit…wrong.”
Severin got a blank look on her face, gazed off over his shoulder.
“Does that make sense?” Luke asked. “Like…there’s a way things are supposed to be, a way that’s settled and stable, but by definition completely empty, and nothing can exist in it—ever. And then there’s the universe we’re living in, which is a result of things at a quantum level being just a little bit…off.”
Severin didn’t stir, not a muscle. If not for the slight breathing motion of her chest, she could have been made of wax.
That’s when it sank in to Luke that her lack of reaction wasn’t lack of comprehension. She was looking at something—behind him, past the entrance of the cave.
…With a look in her eyes he really didn’t like.
“We’re not alone,” Luke murmured. “Are we?”
Her voice came softly. “We are not.”