Sauvage had a penthouse apartment furnished with overstuffed couches, overflowing bookshelves, and oversized works of art, including a Jackson Pollack painting about the size of a garage door. Lots of the furniture had been shoved aside to make room for a large steel cage, which held the Belly Killer, a pile of blankets, and a bucket.
"The Killer's detoxing," Sauvage said. "From being an asshole." He puffed on a fat cigar, which smelled foul, though at least the odor helped cover up the stink of the Belly Killer, who sat tittering and rocking in one corner of the cage. Not for the first time, Marla thought that Sauvage was a lot like Artie, minus the barely-concealed streak of profound insecurity. "Anyway," Sauvage said, "I'll give you some privacy. Just be careful he doesn't throw his poop at you. Yesterday he shoots lightning, today he throws poop. You gotta admire the spirit." He sauntered off deeper into his apartment.
Marla crossed her arms and leaned on the arm of a couch, looking in at the Belly Killer, who was humming to himself. "Speak, freak," she said.
"You did save my life," he said, not looking up. "I told you."
"So now tell me about Daniel."
"Okey dokey doke. Daniel's deep deep in the sea, he was deep deep asleep, hibernating like a bear, dormant like a volcano, but now he's wakey-wakey and on his way."
"What woke him shit. The geas. Artie's death. Of course." She shook her head. "I saved you short-term, Mr. Giggles. Once Daniel gets here, he's going to have to kill you. And I'll help."
"I've seen a lot of ways I might die," the Killer said, shrugging. "We'll see, we'll see, we'll see."
"How long before he gets here?"
"A year, I fear, before he's here. The ocean's a big place. He's got a long walk ahead of him, a lot of water over his head."
Marla frowned. A year? "Maybe I should just kill you now, spare him the agony of Artie's ghost yelling at him."
"And maybe without the geas driving him and riding him and pushing him and pulling him he'll just sink back into the mud asleep." The Killer giggled. "Care to try?"
"I knew you'd say that." He winked, rather grotesquely.
"I can go look for him, though." Marla said. "Find him, help him, give him a ride home."
"The sea is big, and you are small. The future is a messy place, possibles branching out of possibles, but there's no future where you find him in the water. He'll come walking up out of the bay in ten or twelve or fourteen months. You'll just wait."
"Once he gets back here, you're dead."
The Killer giggled again, and picked up his bucket, and Marla managed to dive behind the couch before he could douse her with its contents, though the smell of the spatter was still horrible.
"Promises, promises," the Killer the Giggler, now, more like said.
Working for Sauvage opened up a whole new world for Marla. She was there when the new sorcerer's council was convened, since the Killer had eliminated a few of the previous members. Ernesto was brought in to fill Artie Mann's seat, while Gregor was promoted to take over from his mentor Cochran. They decided to leave Sorenson's seat empty and limit membership to nine people, so they could have an odd number of voting members and actually make decisions by majority rule, instead of getting stuck in deadlock, as had happened so many times before.
The Chamberlain, Viscarro, and Susan Wellstone lorded their seniority over the new members a bit, but Sauvage and Hamil were welcoming. Granger and the Bay Witch retained their positions, but they didn't take part in council meetings much anyway, and abstained from pretty much any vote that didn't impinge directly on their domains of city park and bay respectively.
Marla had entertained some hope of being promoted to the council herself, but her disappointment was short-lived, because it became apparent to her that Sauvage was grooming her for something perhaps to be his successor. Running the city. It was a nice thought. Marla didn't mind hierarchical systems, as long as she was up somewhere near the top of them.
She did her work, she learned from the best, she got to know Sauvage as well as anybody could, probably... but in the back of her head, there was always Daniel.
A few times she went down to Sauvage's basement, where the Giggler had been relocated, trying to get more answers out of him. He always claimed he'd told her all there was to tell, that once Daniel emerged from the water the possibilities became too chaotic and unpredictable to discuss.
Marla didn't tell anyone Daniel was coming back. For the most part, no one would even know who she was talking about some apprentice, dead for over half a decade? and she didn't want to let Ernesto know, in case things didn't work out. Who knew how trustworthy the Giggler was anyway?
About ten months after she took down the Belly Killer, Marla started hanging out by the bay in her spare time, usually very early in the morning, watching the water.
On the third day, as she sat on a low stone wall in the shadow of a nearby crane, Marla noticed a rippling disturbance in the water. She stood up, heart surging... and then a blonde head broke the water.
The Bay Witch said, "Why the sitting and the staring?"
Marla blinked. Talking to the Bay Witch was tricky. The way she related to the world, and other people, was profoundly strange, but she was old, and powerful, and on the council, even if she didn't do much there, so you had to be polite. "I'm just... looking for someone."
The Bay Witch nodded. "Since you're here, come into the water and work while you look. Yes?"
"Ah... what do you want me to do?" Punch squid? Free lobsters from cages? She had no idea what the Bay Witch did under the waves all day.
"Clean dirty things," the Bay Witch said. "I'll make you so you can breathe in the water. Okay?"
Marla touched the stag beetle pin at her throat. "What about my cloak?"
"It will drag if you swim wearing it," the Bay Witch said. "But we'll put it safe under a rock down deep okay? I'll make it not get wet."
"Um..." The Bay Witch was looking at her expectantly. And it wasn't like Marla was doing anything useful sitting here anyway. Cultivating goodwill among the powerful couldn't hurt, though who knew if the Bay Witch would even remember Marla's name? "Okay," Marla said. "I'll help."
It was dirty work, scooping up pollutants, sorting through the crap on the floor of the bay, and whispering little death spells at certain invasive species the Bay Witch vigorously despised. Policing an ecosystem wasn't Marla's idea of fun, but it took her mind off other things, and the Bay Witch was pleasant enough company, in that she never much bothered with conversation. The sushi they had at lunch was always impossibly fresh. There were upsides.
And it was nice to be down in the water, because if Daniel did come trudging along the seafloor, she'd be the first to see him.
After a long morning under the waves, about eleven months after the Giggler's prophecy about Daniel, Marla rode the elevator up to Sauvage's penthouse. "Hey boss!" she shouted. "Which skulls need cracking today?"
Sauvage didn't answer, though, because Sauvage was dead.
He lay on his back before the vast unlit fireplace, his front awash in old cold blood, flies buzzing in the vicinity of his eyes. There wasn't much stink, which meant his guts hadn't been perforated. He'd been hit in the heart, maybe? With all that blood, he must have been stabbed with a post-hole digger.
Marla reversed her cloak, and her hyped-up senses assured her the apartment was devoid of other sentient life but she did a quick pass through the other rooms anyway, finding no other signs of mess or theft; not even Sauvage's magical texts or implements were disturbed. She returned to his body, pulsing with the undirected wish to do violence, and the voice of the cloak whispering her toward indiscriminate massacre, but she still hesitated to reverse the color back to white. In the first flash of seeing Sauvage dead, she'd been numbed by shock; now the cold intelligence of the cloak insulated her from feeling grief or dismay. Once she returned to herself fully, she would have to bear those emotions.
But that was better than going out and killing every living thing in the city (to begin with), so she whispered "Turn." And sank to her knees beside her dead friend, trying to retain some shred of objectivity as she surveyed his wounds.
No more father figures, Marla thought. They just die on you. Nobody you can depend on except for yourself.
Sauvage's heart was missing, was the main thing. A messy hole had been torn just left of center in his chest, and while Marla's anatomical knowledge was strictly of the practical and learned-on-the-job variety, she could tell the organ had been completely removed.
She leaned over him, looking for some sign of who might have done this was it too much to hope for a muddy bootprint, a cigarette butt, or some personal possession a forensic magician could use to track down the murderer?
There was a knife, on the far side of Sauvage's body the knife, his dagger of office, a shining length of razored steel with the hilt wrapped in black and red electrical tape. There were all sorts of stories about that knife, which had been held by every chief sorcerer in Felport's history, but most people seemed to agree that it could cut through just about anything.
Sauvage, apparently, had used it to cut through some fingers, because there were a pair of severed digits on the floor next to it. Good for you, boss. The fingers were curiously grayish and withered, with long dirty fingernails, and she wrapped them in a bit of paper and stashed them in her shoulder bag. She looked at the knife for a moment, because the other widely agreed-upon story was that the dagger could defend itself, if anyone tried to take it from the owner without permission. Marla prodded the knife with a pencil, then reached out and tapped the hilt with her finger, and it just lay there, looking knifelike. Finally, knowing she had her cloak to save her if anything nasty happened, she closed her hand on the dagger's hilt.
It didn't bite her, shock her, or explode, so she figured, with its owner being dead, it was less picky about who handled it. She put the dagger away in her bag, too, carefully, where she wouldn't grab the blade by mistake. If she found the person who'd murdered Sauvage, she'd use the blade to dispatch them. Just a little poetry.
Marla fished out her cell phone to call Hamil. He was Sauvage's closest ally on the council, and a few months back, when Sauvage had spent a week vomiting ectoplasm after a botched sιance, Hamil had stepped in to take over temporarily, though he hadn't needed to do much. Hamil was basically vice-president.
"Hamil," she said. "I've got bad news." She told him the situation, then took the elevator down to the basement.
The Giggler was snoring in a corner of his filthy little two-room suite under the water pipes, sitting cross-legged on a dirty blanket, his head resting against the damp brick wall. He wore only a pair of soiled underpants, and dandruff dusted his greasy black hair. Hard to believe he'd been the unstoppable terror of the sorcerous community less than a year ago.
Marla nudged him with her foot. He stirred, squinted, and smiled. "My savior. Feed me."
"In a minute. I have a question."
"I can tell the future," he said. "Or, maybe say, maybe say the future tells me. Things."
"I don't need to know the future. I need to know what happened to Sauvage."
The seer flinched at his master's name. "He met a challenger, but he didn't meet the challenge." He giggled. "I read the signs for him, the entrails and the water-spots, I told him no living hand would harm him."
Marla frowned. "You lied?"
He cringed away, hugging himself, and Marla smelled urine more strongly. The thought of lying to Sauvage made him wet himself in fear. "I don't lie. It's not my fault he asked the wrong questions."
"Okay," Marla said. "In that case, I have a question: What's the right question?"
"For you, for now? 'Where is the challenger'?"
Marla shook her head. "I've got his fingers. I'll be able to find him."
"Not this time. He can hide, easy, easy." The Giggler yawned. "So tired. Too many visions. Too many paths, so many end in fire and rubble and birdshit."
"Answer me. Where do I find the murderer?"
"Not murderer. Challenger."
"Find, where do I find him?"
Marla sighed, took a few crumpled power bars from her bag, and tossed them into his lap. The Giggler devoured them, wrappers and all, then leaned back and closed his eyes. "You're up so high."
"You climb among the ribs of the sky," he said dreamily, half a smile on his lips.
"Is that your answer?"
The Giggler belched.
"I could kill you, you know," she said.
"Shan't." He didn't open his eyes.
"Thanks," Marla said. "Helpful as always."
A block from Sauvage's building, as Marla cut through an alley, the birds attacked.
Mostly pigeons, but blackbirds, too, spiraling out of the sky like gray and black confetti. The birds blotted out the thin strip of sky and fell down on her, pecking and clawing and cawing and squawking. Finally, something to hit. She reversed her cloak and attacked them, but it was like trying to beat a feather mattress to death, like trying to dismember a cloud. The purple was nothing if not persistent, though, so she tore at the birds, her fingers sharp as razors, her teeth snapping at tiny feathered throats. The birds clutched at her cloak, hair, arms, and shoulders, trying to tear the cloak from her back.
No, worse trying to carry her away. Her feet lifted an inch off the ground as the grasping birds tried to fly.
She snarled, her own mind a faraway observer seeing through a violet curtain. She fought under the weight of the birds, ripping them away and hurling them against the walls of the alley. She scissored her legs wildly, seeking purchase as she rose a foot, two feet, ten feet off the ground. This was ridiculous, impossible, it was cartoon physics, it was
Well, magic, obviously. Would the birds take her to their master? Were they connected to Sauvage's death? Maybe, but they might just as easily peck out her eyes and drop her from a great height, so better to free herself. Besides, clothed in the purple, she wasn't capable of even strategic capitulation.
With considerable thrashing she managed to jostle the flock close to one side of the alley, where she hooked her feet under the edge of a stone window ledge. Having momentarily stopped her ascent, she opened her mouth to voice a spell and a bird tried to shove itself down her throat.
She bit its body in half and spat out the remainder, then screamed "Incendia!"
The actual incarnation for calling down a storm of fire was rather more complex than a single word in Latin, but Sauvage had taught her a neat trick where she could spend the necessary fifteen minutes on the incantation in advance and create a single word to activate the spell at a later date he called it "chanting a macro," and it saved a lot of time in life-or-death situations.
Marla fell to the floor of the alley, along with the charred and smoking remains of scores of birds. Sensing her grievous bodily harm she wasn't fireproof, just because she'd called down the fire her cloak reversed itself and began healing her wounds. She watched the surviving birds fly away, bumping into one another in their haste.
"Fucking birds," she said, once she could speak again. She sat up and spat blood and feathers out of her mouth. Who the hell in Felport ran a bird show these days? Even an alley witch could take control of a single pigeon, but to take a whole flock, make them work in concert, make them fight even in the face of certain death, and to do it all remotely? That took practice, specialization, and she didn't know any of the current sorcerers who could do that sort of thing, except maybe the idiot nature magician Granger, and he'd kill himself before letting harm come to one of his precious animals. There was nobody
"Nobody alive," she said. What had the Giggler said about Sauvage? "No living hand would harm him." The severed fingers in her bag hadn't looked particularly healthy, even considering their disembodied state. And she could think of somebody who was dead who had a thing for using pigeons, and rats, and roaches, and other vermin to do his dirty work. Marla had heard stories about him. The chief sorcerer before Sauvage. A man who was brutal, ruthless, and universally feared. A man who, when he died, had been cut up into a dozen pieces, his parts scattered, just to forestall any conceivable resurrection.
The man Sauvage had challenged for leadership of the city, and defeated. The stories said, after he won, Sauvage tore open his enemy's chest, removed his heart, and devoured it to gain his strength. And earlier today someone had performed impromptu heart removal surgery on Sauvage himself. It was, at the very least, suggestive.
She opened her phone again. "Hamil," she said when he answered. "I think Somerset has come back from the dead." She looked at the dead birds around her feet and thought about the dagger of office in her bag. "And I'm pretty sure he wants his old job back."
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 16.