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The children of Phobos all had their own animal companions. Cats and dogs mostly, but some had birds, rabbits, and turtles. One girl even had a python.

Each animal was as old as each child, give or take a few days. The child's parents would care for the animal until he or she was old enough, and then the responsibility would pass to him or her.

The Elders called these creatures "familiars." The children called them pets.

Augustus St. John had an old chocolate lab named Larry. He'd given him the name only a few months after having learned to speak, and his parents were kind of dumbfounded about the whole thing. They didn't know anyone named Larry, and the name they'd given the dog had been "Buddy" - a completely conventional dog name for what they assumed was a completely conventional dog.

Because the Elders of The Red Coven encouraged attachment between the children and their familiars, Mr. and Mrs. St. John had allowed the lab to keep his new name.

"You're Larry now," Mrs. St. John had said to him. "Which is okay because I don't think you ever knew your name was Buddy."

Unlike the other animals of Phobos who'd come from the breeding farms, Larry had been found in a bag of refuse outside the city only days before Augustus's birth. Mr. and Mrs. St. John had seen it as a sign, a good omen, and took him home with them to be their son's familiar.

Nearly ten years later, Larry was slow, lumbering, and more than a little overweight. He had a graying muzzle, which seemed to grow grayer with every passing week. He carried around Augustus's old, stuffed teddy bear in his mouth wherever he went; it was covered in saliva and patches and its left eye was dangling. Despite years of training from Mr. and Mrs. St. John, Larry was a terrible listener and couldn't perform a trick to save his life. The only commands he'd ever mastered were "sit," "lie down," and "stay," and only then because they required little effort. Indeed, Larry's laziness was legendary, and if anyone other than Augustus took him for a walk, he would almost immediately become inert and have to be carried back home.

But if you asked Augustus, Larry was perfect. There was nothing and no one in the world he loved as much, and the feeling was mutual. Even if it weren't a rule for the children and their familiars to be inseparable - and it was, with few exceptions - Augustus and Larry still would've been completely inseparable. Larry loved leaning against his human, or lying on top of him with his seventy-pound body, or awkwardly attempting to sit in his lap. Their bond was such that Augustus didn't much mind that it felt like he was being crushed.

Aside from Larry, Augustus didn't have friends his own age, and there wasn't much of an opportunity for him to gain new ones as time went on. Phobos, a.k.a. "the Red City," a.k.a. "the city of dark intentions," was a small town of 400 hidden in the Adirondack mountains. It was exceedingly rare for new members to be inducted into The Coven from other sects, and one of the requirements was that they have no progeny before making the transition. If outsiders somehow stumbled across the town, they were quickly dispatched in ways that were never discussed.

So the town was small, the lone schoolhouse was even smaller, and Augustus's class was a finite number - just fifteen children besides Augustus, all of whom thought he and his dog were unbearably weird. It didn't help that he was the only black child in the class, and one of the few black people in the city. He was already so different from his peers - quiet, chubby, and introverted, among other things. Being black just made him weirder, so the few playdates he'd had over the years didn't have any followups, and he was never invited to sleepovers or birthday parties or things of that nature. That was okay, though, because all Augustus needed was Larry.

On the Tuesday before the Rites, Augustus's classmates were chattering incessantly, waiting for their studies to begin. Each boy in the class wore a little black suit, with suspenders, a black bowtie, black shorts, and long black socks. Each girl wore approximately the same outfit, but with a skirt instead of shorts. They resembled the children of old post-mortem photographs, from their attire down to their sullen, sunken, pale faces.

There came a voice behind Augustus, just a few seats away; nasal and pretentious:

"Hello, Gussy. Mind if I have a word?"

Augustus needn't turn around to know who was speaking to him, and not just because he knew the voice so well. He'd come to expect Bartholomew Oldham's ridicule before the start of every school day. And yet, turn Augustus did. To face his tormentor. To look him square in the eye. Not as an act of defiance or bravery, mind you - he'd just found that if he refused to turn, Bartholomew's taunts would become all the more cruel.

"What is it, Bartholomew?"

Bartholomew was tall and broad-shouldered, with strawberry-blond curls, rosy red cheeks, and dimples like you wouldn't believe. His family was quite old - ancient, according to him - and had been part of The Red Coven going back centuries. In fact, his great-great-great grandfather was supposedly one of the founding Elders, an instrumental figure in breaking away from the old denomination.

Bartholomew's familiar, an orange tabby cat with piercing yellow eyes, sat astride his back with her striped tail wrapped caressingly around his neck. Her name was Constance, and she was the most well-trained animal in the class - as well-trained and talented as Larry was not -- a fact that Bartholomew shared at every opportunity.

"It's your dog, Gussy. It's your stupid. Stinking. Dog. He smells - even worse than he usually does. Like cheese and broccoli soup that's been sitting out for far too long. You sure he's not dead, Gussy? You sure he's not dead already?"

The class burst into hysterics. Lydia DeWalt, Bartholomew's best friend, cackled loudest of all right behind him, while her African Gray Parrot chanted "Dead already, dead already" several times over. His name was Zarathustra.

Augustus gritted his teeth and turned to look down at old Larry by his side. Larry just stared back at him blankly, his mouth hanging open, his tongue wagging slightly. He didn't actually stink - at least, not worse than any other animal in the class. That was just Bartholomew being Bartholomew. He used to direct his derision solely at Augustus, but when that stopped having its desired effect - pain and humiliation in the form of wailing and tears - he started taking it out on his dog instead. Augustus just had to keep reminding himself that Larry, obviously, didn't care.

The children were still laughing and chattering when Mrs. Peacock strode into the room in her drab black-and-gray teacher's uniform. "Settle down now, children," she said, tying her silver hair atop her head. "Settle down!"

The class immediately fell silent, straightening up and staring forward at their substitute teacher; their animals did the same, even the python. The only animal who did not straighten up and stare forward was Larry, who instead harrumphed and sort of toppled over onto his side, his face pressed against his teddy bear. For him, nap-time was anytime.

Mrs. Peacock opened a drawer behind her desk and retrieved a lidless mason jar from inside. She placed it dead-center atop the desk. Then she retrieved a pair of clippers and a long sewing needle and laid them down to the right and left of the jar. She spent the next few moments carefully situating each item so they were symmetrically separated.

"Your Rites are nearly upon you now," she said with her aged vibrato. "In just two days' time, you will no longer be necromantic larvae, so to speak, waiting to take your first steps into a much larger world. You will still be students, of course, but you will also be full-fledged witches and warlocks. You'll see things, do things, feel things that you never before thought possible. Isn't it exciting?"

The Rite to which she referred was the children's Rite of Passage, their ascension into adulthood and, more importantly, their introduction to death magic. In just over 24 hours, each child, in recognition of their tenth year on Earth, was to perform actual ritual magic for the first time. Up until now, their studies had revolved entirely around magical theory. Learning but never doing. Seeing and hearing but never making. Now they were old enough to understand, to expand, to become as the ancient ones, for the good of His One True Darkness.

"Mrs. Peacock?"

Mrs. Peacock pushed her cat-eye glasses down her nose as she eyed the minuscule student addressing her. "Yes, young Solomon?"

"It's about Mr. Silas, ma'am."

For a moment, Mrs. Peacock didn't respond. Then: "What of him?"

"I'm just wonderin', uhm, is - is he feelin' any better? Do you know when he intends to return as our teacher, or if indeed he'll be well enough to return in time for the Rites?"

Mr. Silas had been gone from the class for months now, replaced by Mrs. Peacock the Elder, who many years before was a teacher herself.

"Fond of him, are you?" she said.

"Yes'm."

"Want to get rid of me so badly, do you?"

"Oh, uhh - no, not at all, ma'am. I just - what I meant was-"

Mrs. Peacock waved him off, smiling. "Relax, young man. I'm merely teasing you." The smile on her face slowly disappeared, replaced by something approaching a frown. "You see, uhm, Mr. Silas is - well, he's still feeling a bit under the weather, I'm afraid. So alas, he will probably not be able to attend your impending Rites. But I'm certain it's only a matter of time before he's back to his old self and in front of this class once again."

This, Augustus knew, was a lie.

On more than one occasion, he'd overheard his parents whispering about his missing teacher late at night when he was supposed to be sleeping. Apparently, the Elders believed that Mr. Silas had abandoned The Coven; that he was an apostate with plans to expose their Red Ways to the outside world. Or worse - maybe he intended to betray them to one of the other sects, or even the original denomination. The animosity between the two groups had not, in these many years of separation, diminished one bit.

Mr. Silas wasn't the only Witch or Warlock who'd disappeared, either. Several other members of The Coven had gone missing over the past year. Was an insurrection afoot? Or something more insidious?

"Now, if you please, children," Mrs. Peacock said, "open your grimoires to page one-hundred-and-one. We've a lot to get through before your big day, and time is ever ticking onward."

The children quickly retrieved their grimoires from under their seats, placed them upon their desks, and flipped to page 101, chapter 5: "The Basics of Magical Impetus." Usually, at this point in their academic careers, they would be studying more advanced scholarly pursuits like the Four Inherent States of Human Misery (selfishness, cruelty, anger, and deceit), which one might tap into as a means of amplifying dark magical power. But because the Rites were so close, and because of what would be necessary in their execution, Mrs. Peacock thought it might be useful to provide something of a refresher's course on the fundamentals.

"A show of hands - who here knows the single most important ingredient for a Witch or Warlock in the performance of death magic?"

Every student's hand in the class shot up - even Augustus's, though his shot up less quickly than the others. This was Year One stuff; what you learn before you learn to crawl. Everyone knew the answer.

"Yes, Mildred?"

Mildred Sesame, a mousy girl with a bunny rabbit in her lap, lowered her hand and started squeaking: "Uhm, the - the single most important - uhm - "

"Speak up, girl!" shouted Mrs. Peacock. "Good heavens, not all of us have perfect hearing!"

Mildred was twitchy now and quite flustered. "Y-yes'm," she said, though barely louder. "M-my apologies, ma'am. Uhm, as - as I was saying, the m-most important ingredient to performing magic is s-s-sacrifice."

Mrs. Peacock smiled. The plentiful wrinkles at the corners of her mouth bunched together, one atop the other. "Very good, dear. Yes, students, as I'm certain you're all aware, sacrifice is the most essential element to the creation and implementation of death magic. Without it, your potions are just unappetizing recipes; your rituals are bad dance moves with even worse lyrics; and your curses are mere mean words whose effect is, at best, hurtful, but nevertheless, utterly ineffective in their intended capacity." She paused. Licked her dry, old lips. "Without sacrifice, His Darkness will never look upon you and you will never be a Witch, never be a Warlock, never be anything other than a mortal bag of skin and meat and bones made living.

"But with sacrifice, He shall give you powers you couldn't possibly conceive of in your wildest imagination. A gift for a gift. Praise be to Him!"

In unison, the class chanted back to her: "We abase ourselves for His Glory."

Mrs. Peacock nodded. "We abase."

It should be noted that sacrifice was a rather broadly defined term here. Death magic could be performed with all manner of sacrifice. The more meaningful the sacrifice, the more powerful the magic.

"Take this fingernail, for example," Mrs. Peacock said as she held out a single index finger. With her other hand, she grabbed the clippers. "Even removing something so small as a piece of your own fingernail qualifies as a sacrifice." She clipped the nail, then dropped it in the mason jar. Shook the jar around. Closed her eyes and muttered something unintelligible. Opened her eyes.

A small, swirling black cloud formed inside the jar, no bigger than a child's fist. It quickly became apparent that it was a kind of microscopic thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning and water filling up the jar.

The class "ooed" and "awed" at the sight. It was rare for them to see magic performed, and rarer still inside the classroom.

"And then, of course, there is the blood sacrifice," Mrs. Peacock said. "Tried and true. Extremely effective, even in small quantities." She exchanged the clippers for the sewing needle on the table, after which she pressed the sharp end into her finger. Upon placing the needle back down on the table, she held her pricked finger over the mason jar and squeezed it with her thumb so the blood dripped down inside. Then she backed away several steps. All the way to the chalkboard behind her. And again, she muttered something unintelligible.

There was, for a moment, complete silence in the class as the children awaited the results of the curse with rapt attention.

Then, with a deafening CRACK, a lightning bolt shot down from the ceiling toward the mason jar on the desk. When it hit, there was another CRACK, followed by a burst of smoke that filled the room. The smoke didn't fully dissipate for a few minutes, but once it did, it was clear the jar had completely disappeared, replaced by the very sand that had created it.

The children of the class clapped with enthusiasm for Mrs. Peacock. After all, this was the sort of magic every child dreamed of being able to do. Who could stand against them if they had lightning at their fingertips? Nothing and no one, save for perhaps another witch or warlock.

Unfortunately for them, access to that kind of magic was years away. All the spells within their grimoires were fairly basic and unimpressive. Indeed, the more advanced materials and books were located in a dungeon vault deep beneath the Elder House at the center of town.

Augustus wasn't supposed to know that. He wasn't supposed to know a lot of things.

"No need for applause," Mrs. Peacock said. "I didn't do it for your admiration." And yet, the little smile at the corner of her lip seemed to indicate she didn't mind the admiration too much. "A drop of blood, in size, is no different from a clipped fingernail, and yet it is many times more potent a sacrifice.

Anyone care to explain why?"

Once again, hands shot up in the class, though this time far fewer.

"Bartholomew?"

"Thank you, ma'am," Bartholomew said, beaming. "A fingernail is intended to be shed, but blood is a body's lifeforce. It is fuel for our hearts and therefore fuel for our magic."

"Very good, Mr. Oldham, thank you."

Bartholomew beamed even brighter, while Constance nuzzled the back of his head, purring her approval.

Of course, there were many other forms of sacrifice that a witch or warlock had at their disposal, and not all of them were tangible. Some were more ethereal, like breaking up with the love of your life or giving up chocolate or taking a vow of silence. Destroying your own innocence, for example, was a very potent sacrifice that could power some truly dangerous magics.

And the more you sacrificed, the more power you retained. Indeed, had the children of the class successfully performed the curse Mrs. Peacock had just executed, their magic would've been far less effective. That's why witches and warlocks were known to become more formidable with age. The older the deadlier.

The children broke off into pairs to mime-practice whatever rudimentary spells they'd chosen for their Rites, which left Augustus as the odd man out once again. It was rare for the other kids to voluntarily invite Augustus to join their groups, and Mrs. Peacock was too preoccupied with whatever she was reading to notice and rectify the situation. Truthfully, Augustus preferred it this way. Not only was he used to being alone - in school, at home, wherever he went - but he also worked better without interference from others. Besides, he was never truly alone; he had Larry, who was now staring at him dolefully, nudging his teddy bear toward him, almost as a gift.

"Thanks, buddy," Augustus whispered. "'Preciate it."

That evening, a grand feast was held at the Elder House in celebration of the next day's Rites. Each of the fifteen children and their parents were given introduction - alongside each of their familiars - before dinner was served in the form of blood sausage pie, a delicacy going back to the days of the denomination.

"Some traditions deserve to be preserved," said High Elder Barston, the eldest of the elders with an impressive mustache curling out like little wings across his face. "Especially the delicious ones!"

All those in attendance chuckled politely.

While most of the guests feasted with ravenous abandon, their lips stained red with the pie's crimson innards, Augustus just pushed his food around in circles with his fork.

"Not hungry?" his father said to him. "So unlike you, Augustus."

"Apologies, sir. I - I think it's just nerves, is all."

"Completely understandable! I barely slept a wink myself the night before my own Rite. Don't fret - I'm certain you'll do quite adequately when the time comes."

"Thank you, Father," Augustus said. "I will try."

After dinner, a select number of Elders stood to speak about their own Rites and give words of encouragement to the children. "One day soon, my little larvae," said Mrs. Peacock, "more immediately than perhaps you realize, you will go out into this world to take your place among the cattle, hidden in plain sight. There, you will nurture chaos and suspicion inside their pathetic, purposeless hearts as you weaken every corner of the sniveling mortal realm. And then you will wait for His Darkness to return, for the Final Evisceration to begin, and for the culling of this planet's myriad parasites to make way for a more beautiful plane of existence. I dare say it will be the greatest of honors and the most important of duties. We abase ourselves for Him!"

In return, the Elders, the children, and their parents chanted enthusiastically: "For His glory, we abase!"

Then, at long last, came the grand reveal. The thing that this dinner and its many magniloquent speeches had been building toward all night. As the Elder who knew the children best, Mrs. Peacock broke the news to them.

Tomorrow at the Rites, these 10-year-old Witches and Warlocks would not be able to choose their own sacrifices, as they'd been led to believe. That decision had been made for them almost ten years ago, on the day that they were born. On the day their familiars were chosen.

Performing death magic for the first time requires a powerful sacrifice indeed; something inconsequential just wouldn't do. That being the case, what better choice than a bond so pure and good, than a selfless love built from birth and unparalleled in its perfection? This was the sort of metamorphic sacrifice that would prove the children's worth as lieutenants in the service of All Things Infernal.
Plus, if the Elders had had to do it, surely every subsequent generation should as well?

It took a moment for the children to fully understand what Mrs. Peacock was saying to them, but once they did, they nearly all of them wept to the point of drenching themselves in their own snot and tears. Even Bartholomew could be heard squealing uncontrollably from his chair, in spite of his father's protestations.

The only child who did not cry - who did not, in fact, make any noise whatsoever - was Augustus St. John. He just stared straight ahead at Mrs. Peacock and her bunching wrinkles, stone-faced as could be, as he scratched the spot behind Larry's left ear. It was his favorite scratching spot, and that was saying something.

Beginning at noon the next day, the Rites were to be held at the Elder House in a large operating theater on the main floor. Only the Elders were allowed inside to witness the children ascend.
The order of the Rites was determined by a lottery system. Girls and boys were chosen two at a time, and if you weren't the Witch or Warlock performing, you sat in the hallway outside with your familiar and designated parent, awaiting your turn.

Bartholomew and Augustus were chosen to go fifth and sixth, respectively. Augustus watched as Bartholomew's father whispered words of encouragement to him, after which Bartholomew entered the operating theater with Constance perched atop his shoulder, lovingly pawing at his head. Augustus gulped and took a breath.

"Buck up," Mrs. St. John said, leaning over his shoulder.

"Yes, Mother."

The wait in the hallway was excruciating. It lasted less than five minutes, but felt downright interminable. Near the end, a polite applause could be heard through the door like a muffled pitter-patter, then the door opened and Bartholomew appeared, this time without Constance. His face was distraught and colorless, except for a small speck of red adorning his cheek. His hands were trembling in his pockets as he stared down at the floor, only at the floor, like he was unwilling to meet Augustus's eye.

"It was - it was quite easy," he muttered to no one in particular, his bottom lip quivering. "N-nothing to it, really."

"Thatta boy," his father said with gusto. "Tough, but necessary. That's the Oldham way!" He clapped his son on the back, like a man's man would another man's man, then the two of them walked down the hall and out of sight. For the first time in Augustus's life, he felt sorry for Bartholomew.

"Mother, please, I beg of you. Don't make me do this."

"I refuse to have this conversation again, Augustus." Mrs. St. John knelt down to look him in the eye. "Larry has had a good life. He's lived well and he knows you love him. What he's doing for you...it's a gift. And you'll always remember him for it." She paused. "But don't think for a second you can avoid it. You will not embarrass me. You will not embarrass your father. You will go in there with your head held high and you will do what is required of you. And so, too, will Larry."

"But Mom - "

"Not. Another. Word.

Augustus swallowed, slowly nodding his head. Then he stood from his seat and looked down at Larry, who stared up at him as if waiting for his cue.

"Come, Larry," Augustus said, and Larry rose to follow, holding his teddy bear ever-so-gently in his mouth.

Together, they waited by the door until a bell rang - this was to signify that the sacrificial space had been cleaned - and they entered in lockstep.

The operational theater was quite large, a cold, open space with high ceilings and hardwood floors, surrounded by elevated rows of circular wooden benches for the Elders to sit and see.

In the middle of the space, on the bottom level of the theater, was a podium with The Red Coven's centuries-old First Grimoire on top, bound in the human flesh of their very first sacrifice. Within its pages were the institution's deepest, darkest secrets, and its most powerful magics, heretofore known only to the Elders. At the moment, its purpose was merely that of a ritual prop, as the children were not permitted to open it, let alone utilize its spells.

In front of the podium was a blood-stained pedestal with two hooks underneath. From the left hook hung a forked, sacrificial dagger with a snake engraved into the handle; from the right, a black fabric bag (or "mercy cloth") to place over the face of one's familiar to obstruct his or her view, if so desired.

Augustus looked around the room at all the elderly faces gazing down at him, smiling through their mostly wooden teeth. His eyes eventually found Mrs. Peacock, who pushed her cat-eye glasses down her nose and nodded at him approvingly.

High Elder Barston stood from his seat. "Augustus St. John, I presume?"

"Yes, sir."

"You may proceed when ready."

Augustus nodded his head and walked further into the room. Larry followed slowly, lumberingly, his tail wagging with every step. When Augustus came to a stop mere inches before the pedestal, Larry stopped as well, dropping his teddy bear onto the floor. Without the stuffed animal in his mouth, he panted and appeared to be smiling.

"Sit," Augustus said to him, and Larry sat.

"Lie down," he said, and Larry lay down.

"Now stay," he said, and Larry stayed.

Augustus then took the black fabric bag and carefully, gently placed it over Larry's head. A few seconds later, Larry began to whine. From the way the bag moved, you could tell he was breathing more heavily, either from warmth or anxiety or both.

"It's okay," Augustus whispered to him, stroking the fur on his back. "It's okay. Shhh."

Augustus pushed the teddy bear closer to Larry until it was flush up against his lumpy body.
Then he stood up straight; grabbed the dagger from the pedestal hook; closed his eyes and inhaled; opened his eyes and exhaled; stared down at Larry's barely bobbing head.

"Any time now, boy," said High Elder Barston with an air of impatience. "We're on a bit of a schedule here, you know."

Augustus nodded once more before slyly cutting open the palm of his hand and muttering something unintelligible.

And then he waited.

Within moments, the air in the room turned sour and hot. The men began coughing and loosening their collars. The women fanned their sweating faces with their overlarge hats.

Augustus raised his hand high into the air and squeezed his palm as hard as he could. The blood from the burning wound trickled down his wrist and tickled his little forearm hairs.

High Elder Barston growled: "What in the - in the name of His Darkness are you - what are you doing, boy??" He coughed and tried to cover his mouth, but too late - blood was already spilling out of it.

Augustus's eyes narrowed. "Let's see if you can guess."

The magic being performed here was two-pronged. The first part involved a potion. The second, a curse.

The night before, Augustus had laced the blood sausage pies served at dinner with a special concoction of his own creation. All who had eaten from the pies had been marked by it. The Elders, the children, their parents.

But the potion was harmless on its own. Without a corresponding curse to activate it, those who'd consumed it would go on living their lives completely unaffected.

Hence the two-pronged magic.

Hence Augustus's unintelligible mutterings.

Hence the ever-growing scent of rot hanging on the air.

No two Elders reacted to the curse in precisely the same way. Some bled from every orifice and even projectile vomited blood. Some lost their teeth and then ripped the skin from their meat, which seemed softer and moister, like they'd bathed in acid and were coming apart on a cellular level. Some rapidly decomposed and turned to rot in a matter of moments. Some were eaten from the inside out by innumerable insects - creepy-crawly-pincer things without names in this part of the world. Some, like High Elder Barston, had their stomachs burst open and were strangled to death by their own hyperaggressive intestines.

But all of them, in the end, were cursed into oblivion, gagging and screaming in agony and anger until, just like that, they weren't.

You see, Augustus had been performing death magic for years. In fact, he was something of a magical prodigy.

When he was barely more than seven years old, thanks to a little theft and subterfuge, he'd managed to break into the secret dungeon vault located deep beneath the Elder House. There, he'd navigated its dangerous, booby-trapped corridors and gotten his hands on The Red Coven's most prized literatures, the First Grimoire excluded. That's when he learned the truth about the Warlock's Rite of Passage.

That's when he got to working on a plan.

Augustus was the reason Mr. Silas had gone missing. He'd needed a potent sacrifice, and his beloved teacher - in addition to his own innocence - would have to do. Killing the other missing members of The Coven certainly added to his power, but more than that, their deaths stirred distrust among the rank and file. It made them weaker, more susceptible to a surprise attack.

Larry was his family. Not his mother; not his father. They were genetic donors as far as he was concerned - vessels for delivering him unto the world. They hadn't stayed by Augustus's side while he was sick. They hadn't woken him in the mornings and kissed him goodnight. Theirs was a detached form of parenting, a purposeful removal of emotion and caring. It was Larry, his ten-year-old, overweight lump of a dog, his lazy, loving, perfect best friend, who'd done all those things and more.

Obviously, he wasn't going to sacrifice him. Murder him. The thought was ludicrous. If Augustus's parents had known him - truly known him - they would've known that above all else.

"You thought I would hurt my own dog?" he shouted to the mostly dead Elders before him. "You're all foolish old men. And women."

In a last-ditch effort, a now faceless Mrs. Peacock lurched to what remained of her feet and flung a lightning bolt at Augustus's head. Augustus effortlessly batted it away with his left hand then swung his right hand around like a scythe. Her head was lopped off at the neck and bounced around the benches like a soggy wet basketball.

Finally, all was quiet now save for Larry, still panting, still bobbing. Still being the best dog there ever was.

Augustus unfurled a leash from his back pocket and attached it to Larry's collar, then removed the fabric bag from his head. From his other pocket, he retrieved a treat and fed it to him.

"Good boy," Augustus said, kneeling down to pick up the teddy bear. "Don't forget Larry Jr."

Larry licked the length of Augustus's face and happily took the stuffed animal in his mouth. He didn't seem to mind the gruesomeness that surrounded him one bit.

"One last thing," Augustus said, "and then we can go."

Fabric bag in hand, he grabbed the First Grimoire from the podium and slipped it inside, tossing it over his shoulder like a makeshift knapsack. Where they were going, with all the enemies they'd just made, it would almost certainly come in handy.

Then the young warlock and his beloved dog walked out of the operating theater side-by-side, stepping over Mrs. St. John's foul, festering corpse right outside, before leaving the Elder House and the city of Phobos forever and ever amen.

"I promise you," Augustus whispered to Larry as they walked, "that we'll always be together."

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