The ritual to break Ernesto's connection to Artie's little family was much the same as the ritual that had included him, only this time, Ernesto stepped out of the chalked circle, and Artie scuffed out the carefully-drawn lines with his heel. The hum of magic fled the room, and Marla stood very still, trying to tell whether or not she felt spiritually diminished, having lost one of the people who'd been sworn to protect and avenge her.
But she didn't feel much of anything, except sad.
Artie spat on the floor near Ernesto's feet. Marla didn't think that was part of the ritual. It seemed more like editorial spittle.
Ernesto walked over to where Jenny, Daniel, and Marla stood together in a hushed and slumped cluster. "Guys," he said. "I hope we can still be friends. My decision isn't any reflection on you. I just..." He glanced over his shoulder at Artie, who was still scuffing away at the chalk, staring furiously at the floor. "I don't agree with the way certain things are going. I decided it wasn't doing anybody any good if "
"Get the fuck out of here," Artie said, looking up. "Don't try to poison their minds against me."
Ernesto sighed and shook his head. "It's not like that, Artie. I owe you, I respect you, and if you ever need me, you can call but I don't want to be pledged to avenge you when you seem determined to launch a suicidal grudge-attack at a guy like Rasmussen. Especially when Rasmussen doesn't pose a threat to us anymore. It's like entrusting my safety to somebody who likes to juggle hand grenades, Artie "
"You think you're so fucking smart," Artie said, closing the distance between himself and Ernesto, standing so close their chests were nearly touching. "You were just a stupid little nothing when I met you. I taught you everything you know, but you think you know better than me?"
"I'll always love you like a father, Artie," Ernesto said, voice touched with sadness. "But it's time for me to leave home."
"Get. The fuck. Out of my house."
"Goodbye, guys," Ernesto said, glancing back over his shoulder at his former-fellow apprentices. "I'll be staying at my cousin's junkyard if you need me."
"Nobody needs you. Go!" Artie drew back his fist, and Ernesto sighed.
"I'm going." And he went.
Artie watched Ernesto tromp up the stairs out of the basement, still with his arm cocked back, as if his former protιgι might return for that punch to the face after all. Then Artie slumped. "I'm going to my office. You three... stay out of trouble." He departed.
Jenny hugged herself. "That was horrible. My family used to fight like that. I thought I was past all that." She looked at Marla. "Do you think... Ernesto's right? I mean, about Artie not being willing to let this thing with Rasmussen go?"
"Doesn't matter," Daniel said. "I owe Artie my life. Literally. I'd follow him to hell's front door and help him bust it down, if he wanted. Ernesto's a fucking ingrate. I'll see you two later. I've got some stuff I'm working on." He reached over and gave Marla's shoulder a squeeze, but his mind was clearly ten million miles away.
"What's he mean?" Marla said. "About owing Artie his life? He's never told me how they met, what happened, not really."
Jenny shook her head. "I'm not sure exactly. Artie's mentioned things, Daniel too, but I've never pieced it all together. And, you know, we all pretend to be people without a past around here. It seems impolite to dig into that old nasty stuff."
Marla nodded. She was certainly happy to leave her past back there behind her. "So what do we do now?"
"I was going to go flying," Jenny said. "Just get away for a while and think, you know?"
"Sure," Marla said. She knew how to fly, in theory, but it wasn't especially pleasant it was more a barely-controlled fall away from conventional gravity than superhero-style soaring. But Jenny's power over flame and heat allowed her to hover and fly in a more elegant way, and a simple look-away spell kept the normals on the ground from noticing her. "I think I'll go see Lao Tsung, try to get a workout in. Beating up on the heavy bag always takes my mind off my problems."
But when she found Lao Tsung in his suite of rooms just off the gym, he was packing a bag. "Hey," she said. "What's up, tough guy?"
"Leaving town, killer," Lao Tsung said, crossing the room to his dresser, and pausing to plant a kiss on top of her head. "Going to San Francisco. Picture me with some flowers in my hair, huh?"
Marla frowned. Ernesto abandoning them was one thing, but Lao Tsung was leaving too? It wasn't like they ever had long heart-to-heart talks, but she felt as close to him as she did to Daniel and Jenny. She worked out with Lao almost every day, and they had a deep understanding of one another's capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses they sparred, they conditioned, they learned to work in synch. Marla was pretty good at punching and kicking things, and Lao was the reason why. If she was honest, she was probably better at fighting than she was at magic, which maybe meant Lao was a better teacher than Artie. "Why? When are you coming back?"
"I think my work here is done, Marla. I could keep teaching you, sure the kind of work we do, it's the work of a lifetime but you've got the discipline now, you can study with others and I wouldn't worry about you. And Daniel and Jenny..." He shook his head and smiled. "Well, they do try, I made sure of that, but it's a good thing they can slurp out qi and make stuff explode by looking at it."
"So... that's it? You did your job and now you're leaving?" She sat down on the edge of her bed. Had she become so attached to someone who viewed her as simply a task to finish?
Lao sat down beside her. "Not... entirely. I've got cancer, Marla."
She frowned. "So go see a bruja and get it cured."
He laughed. "I've done that. I've done that many times. I've lived for a long time, Marla not long enough to lose my humanity, but long enough that I worry about it a little, try to police myself, try to pay attention. I never did anything to make myself immortal, no rites or rituals or magic, I just... don't age. Never was sure why. Demi-god in my ancestry somewhere? Exposure to weird radiation when I was a kid? Did a favor for an angel in disguise and got this as a reward? Just got overlooked by death? Couldn't tell you. But the cancer, in my throat... it first popped up about forty years ago. I got it cured by magic, but it came back. Cured it again, came back again. Superficially unaging or not, this body of mine is old. Errors are creeping in. I'm sick of it."
"So you're going to San Francisco? Why? They got good acupuncture there?"
"Heh. Probably. But, no, they've got an artifact. It's called the Cornerstone, and it's supposed to keep the city from getting totally trashed in a big earthquake. The Cornerstone doesn't really do much, not on its own, but it's sort of a... binding agent. Most spells don't last forever, they decay, or fall apart when their creator stops maintaining them. Same goes for healing spells. But if you cast a spell with the help of the Cornerstone... it does last forever. So I'm gonna go and twist some arms and charm some folks until I find the Cornerstone, and I'm gonna get rid of this cancer for good."
Marla nodded. "And then... you'll come back?"
"Nothing I need to come back for, sweetie. And I'll probably owe about ten million favors out on the west coast by the time I'm through. But, I tell you what you come out and visit me sometime, okay? And in the meantime, you can drive me to the airport, after I say goodbye to Artie."
When Marla returned from dropping Lao Tsung off at the airport, she followed the sounds of shouting to Artie's office, where he and Daniel were yelling at each other over Artie's ridiculously big desk. Fuck, she thought. First Ernesto, now Daniel? Is there going to be anybody left? "What are you two screaming about?" she said.
They both turned and looked at her. "I'm trying to solve all Artie's problems, and he's tearing me a new asshole!"
"I like his old asshole just fine, Artie," Marla said. "What's going on?"
"This... this... this moron is messing with knowledge man was not meant to possess!" Artie said.
Marla blinked. "I thought forbidden knowledge was our whole thing?"
"Sure, okay, I phrased that wrong he's messing with shit it's dangerous to know."
"I uncover the secret of immortality, and this is the response I get? I've spent months figuring this out!"
"Both of you, sit down," Marla said. "And tell me what you're talking about. Inside voices, please."
"Wants to play mediator," Artie muttered, but he sat in his executive swivel chair. Daniel, his expression a combination of sullenness and indignation, sat in one of the chairs on this side of the desk, and Marla joined him.
"Basically, I figured out how to live forever," Daniel said. "How to hook directly into prana, qi, and let it sustain you, lengthen your telomeres, keep your cells from undergoing screwy mutations and I came to Artie to tell him he can stop worrying about that stupid artifact! I can make him live forever!"
"Living forever was never the problem," Artie said, but his anger had seemingly drained away. Now he just sounded tired. "There are half a dozen ways to extend life. Yeah, I'm impressed that you stumbled on this particular method independently, but it's old, too. Holy men like it. Mystics. But it's got a flaw eventually, divorced from bodily concerns, you stop caring about the body. About the physical world entirely. You melt into qi, lose your sense of individuality, until eventually you drop your body like an old suit and just dissolve your consciousness into the universal life force like a spoonful of sugar dissolving into the ocean."
"Oh," Daniel said. "I... didn't know that."
Artie shrugged. "It's one of the better ways to go crazy by becoming immortal, I'll grant you that. Doesn't lead to psychotic breaks or deep delusions or world-destroying whims. Tell me you haven't done it, Daniel. That you haven't... connected yourself to prana that way."
Daniel shook his head. "I wasn't sure how, I was going to ask for your help... But no, I haven't."
Artie nodded. "Good." He leaned back in his chair, in control again, lacing his fingers across his belly. "The reason I want the other half of my artifact is to live forever without horrible consequences. Without melting into life-force slurry or going crazy. It's not the immortality it's the sanity, the humanity, you see?"
"I don't really get it," Marla said. "The whole I'll-go-crazy-if-I-live-forever thing. I mean, Lao Tsung's been around a long time, and you're saying if he keeps living, he'll just... flip out one day?"
"It can be quick," Artie said. "Or it can be gradual. And, yeah, I hope Lao Tsung just turns out to be really long-lived and not actually immortal, because I don't want to see a friend turn into a monster. There's a place about an hour outside the city called the Blackwing Institute. It's where we put sorcerers who are too dangerous to live but too difficult to kill. There are only about a dozen inmates, some scarier than others, but two of the worst are immortals who have utterly lost their shit. One of them is named Norma Nilson that's not her real name, it's just what she calls herself and her craziness manifested as complete and total nihilism. She realized, after living about two thousand years, that nothing mattered, that the universe was just a blind clashing mechanistic place, and that consciousness in such a pointless world was the only true hell. She didn't even mean anybody harm, that's the funny thing but she was such a powerful projecting empath that her total existential despair infected anyone who came within miles of her. A whole town in New England committed suicide when she passed through. I don't just mean the people. The cows slammed their heads into fencepost until they bashed their brains in. Birds flew as high as they could and then just dropped. Fish jumped out of the water until they drowned in the air. You see what I'm saying? Some sorcerers knocked her unconscious with mortar shells and then we got her locked up in a nice insulated cell, where she can contemplate nothingness. Which is what she'll keep doing. Forever."
"Doesn't make immortality sound so good," Marla said.
Artie shook his head. "And she's not the worst. Like I said, she doesn't have malice. Blackwing's most dangerous inmate is a woman named Elsie Jarrow. She was a chaos magician. She bound herself to the randomness of the universe. As long as chaos exists, she'll live, and since chaos is eternal, she's good until the whole universe cools off to absolute zero. But that chaos infected every part of her. She's only corporeal about one day in ten. Some days she's a cloud of toxic gas. Some days she's typhoid fever. Some days she's just electromagnetism. She's like a cancer with consciousness. It's not even possible to ascribe motivations to her, except for the desire to spread chaos, but the thing is, when she's human-looking, she laughs, and she makes threats. On some level, she knows what she's doing." He shook his head. "We keep her in a special cell deep underground, in steel and concrete, all bound up with magic based on order and math and pure patterns. Pray she never gets out." Artie opened a drawer in his desk and took out a bottle of small-batch bourbon. "And thinking about that dark and dismal shit makes me need a drink."
"Pour one for me while you're at it," Daniel said.
"You kids are underage," Artie said. "Go out and drink a milkshake or something wholesome instead. Enjoy being young enough that my obsession with immortality doesn't make any sense to you." He snorted. "Neither one of you is even twenty yet. Deep down inside you still think you're immortal anyway. Lucky little bastards." He shooed them away.
The next two years passed with relatively few disasters.
Lao Tsung sent them a postcard from San Francisco with a scrawled note saying, "Found what I needed, feeling fine," but didn't include a return address.
Artie bought a share in a porn video company and took numerous business trips to the west coast, though he didn't bother taking his apprentices with him, saying it was boring "if you aren't a dirty old man like me." If he remained obsessed with Rasmussen, he kept it relatively quiet.
Ernesto visited sometimes while Artie was out of town, bringing tidbits of gossip about the other sorcerers. He was doing a lot of work for Sorenson, the master illusionist, and seemed to be thriving. Marla, Jenny, and Daniel were divided on whether they envied him or not.
They all continued their studies. Jenny had flown as high as the troposphere. Daniel went three months straight without eating food or drinking water, living solely on the life force of the world, and broke his long fast with a feast that had them all sprawled around the house groaning for days. Marla continued to study the ass-kicking arts, and, with Artie's permission, started contracting out occasionally as a bodyguard and general muscle, helping Hamil to crack down on the half-wild gangs of apprentices and alley witches who warred on one another and threatened to reveal the existence of magic to the ordinaries.
Sometimes the Thrones appeared, crackling and making ominous pronouncements, but since they never did anything, most sorcerers started to consider them nothing but a nuisance, the supernatural equivalent of hungry pigeons.
There were occasional other missions and little intrigues, and two incidents where Sauvage, as chief sorcerer, called upon all the city's sorcerers to fight supernatural threats: once when a pack of spectral black dogs appeared in the city, their howls heralding death, and another time when a careless apprentice broke a jar containing a potent potion and hosed the fluid down the drain in hopes his master wouldn't notice. The potion created a self-assembled monster in the sewer, composed of feces, dissolving paper, and live rats, which proved damnably hard to kill, though they managed. Marla was, herself, not especially instrumental in either battle, though she did get to punch a black dog and, the other time, ended up with some sentient crap on her shoes. She didn't mind. Everything was a learning experience, and she'd begun to think about the future. Someday, she was sure, she'd be as important to the city as Artie, and instead of taking orders, she'd be the one giving them.
Jenny started dating various apprentices, though none of the relationships lasted long; her passions were fiery and burned out quickly, and she got a reputation as a heartbreaker. Marla and Daniel and Jenny and her boy-of-the-moment went on double dates in the mundane world and in Artie's London, where the food didn't sustain you but the after-dinner walks were incomparably interesting.
Marla's relationship with Daniel continued, and though the primal passion of their first months faded a bit, they grew ever more comfortable with one another, and if they weren't dependent on each other, they at least knew they could depend on each other. The sex stayed interesting. They were both kinky in mostly congruent ways, and were each willing to try almost anything at least once. There were a lot of things to try.
Life during the last of Marla's teenage years was, by and large, very good.
On her twentieth birthday, Daniel took Marla out for lunch at a great greasy taco joint. She was in a pretty good mood, the only irritant a mild burn in her nethers, which she figured for a urinary tract infection. She could get a curendera to heal it, but she didn't want to owe the favor or pay the money; she figured she'd just slam some cranberry juice and let it run its course.
After lunch, Daniel took Marla to his favorite used clothing store, and said, "I'll buy you anything you want!"
Marla laughed, looking around at the racks of velvet dresses and vintage tuxedos. "Daniel. I wear, like, the same thing every day. Pants loose enough to roundhouse kick, shirt tight enough it doesn't get caught in heavy machinery, and that's good enough for me."
"Live a little, Marla. Don't you ever want to dress up?"
"I dressed up for you just last Saturday night. Though it definitely wasn't my style."
"You look good in lace. Better out of it, but good in it. But, come on, you were just saying the other day how a lot of the sorcerers have such specific style the Chamberlain in her evening gowns, the Bay Witch in her wetsuit "
"I think that's just practical," Marla said.
" Artie in his Aloha shirts, Ernesto with his tuxedo... I figured you could pick something out for yourself. A signature, you know? A badass trenchcoat." He pulled a long black duster down from a hanger.
"Clichι," Marla said.
"Maybe an aviator scarf." He pointed.
"Might as well wear a sign that says 'strangle me.'"
"Okay, then a "
"Hey," Marla said. "What's this?"
In the back of the store, on a rack marked "Clearance," there was something white, the white of freshly-exposed bone, the white of milk poured out over new snow. She took the cloth from the rack, and it fluttered open, revealing a purple lining. Not bright purple, but darker, bruise-purple, rotten-meat-purple, a crushed-flower color. Marla was never much for colors of any kind her wardrobe tended to white and black but something about that purple appealed to her.
"Is it like a cape, or..." Daniel said.
"A cloak," Marla said. "See, it has a hood? Wow." The cloth was almost warm in her hands, incredibly soft, incredibly beautiful, just... incredible. "This," she said. "I want this." The want was physical. Like hunger, the need for air, the need she felt sometimes for Daniel.
"My treat, then. How much is it? Huh, there's no price tag." Daniel called over the clerk, but Marla didn't stop staring at the cloak. The clerk and Daniel haggled, and Marla didn't even hear the number they settled on, didn't snap out of her contemplation of the cloth until Daniel patted her shoulder. "It's all yours, Marla. You'll definitely stand out wearing that thing. All in white, you'll look like the good witch of the very far North."
"Nothing good about me," Marla said, but her heart wasn't in the banter; her mind was on the cloak. They walked out of the shop, Marla still stroking the fabric, and they'd gone a few blocks when Daniel said, "Well, are you going to try it on?"
Marla nodded. She pulled the cloak on over her shoulders, clasping it together at the throat she didn't have a cloak pin and felt... strange. She realized, after a moment, that the discomfort from her UTI was simply gone, that it had vanished as soon as she put on the cloak.
"We'll have to get you something to fasten that on," Daniel said. "Looks pretty awesome though. You've got a whole superhero vibe going."
"Yeah," Marla said, thoughtfully, taking off the cloak. Had it... healed her? But how would it do that? Was it enchanted? If so, what was it doing in a used clothing store? Had some sorcerer made it, then died, and his kids inherited it and sold it? Or...
"Some pawn shops with good jewelry down this way," Daniel said. "Let's check it out."
She followed him, still thinking, but looked up when she heard him say " got the feeling the clerk had never even seen the cloak before, seemed totally mystified by it. Just made up a price. I think we got a pretty good deal though. Weird, huh? I mean, it's a pretty memorable-looking item."
"Huh," Marla said. "Yeah. Weird."
Daniel bought her a silver pin in the shape of a stag beetle to fasten the cloak, but Marla didn't put the white-and-purple back on. She wasn't afraid of it, exactly. But she wanted to be cautious.
That night, when she slept alone, telling Daniel she had a headache, which was true but not the whole truth she dreamed of wearing the cloak, and nothing else, but instead of the white side, the purple lining was on the outside, and there were shadowy crowds around her, bowing their heads, and whispering her name.
When she woke up, she was wearing the cloak, though she had no memory of getting up in the night to put it on. Somehow, though, it felt right, against her bare skin. She took it off long enough to get dressed, then fastened the cloak back around her throat, bunching the fabric in her fingers. She felt as if a voice were whispering, just beyond the limit of her hearing. She listened harder.
It was not yet dawn.
Marla went out walking, with whispers in her head.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 10.