1. Let Me Tell You a Story and 2. Murder by the Sea * 3. A Conversation with Koona * 4. A Visit from Death * 5: The Bad Doctor * 6: A Mother’s Love * 7: Death Makes an Offer * 8: Meet Elsie Jarrow * 9: Seeing the World * 10: Revengers Assemble * 11: The Dead, Walking on the Beach * 12: Brotherly Love * 13: Everyone Is Someone’s Dog * 14: Jaws * 15: In Flight * 16: Things Are Never So Bad They Can’t Be Made Worse * 17: Proverbs of the Obvious * 18: Places of Refuge * 19: There’s Always Someone Better Than You * 20: Claiming Asylum * 21: Captivities * 22: Breaking Bread * 23: An Exchange of Prisoners * 24: Welcome to Death * 25: Such a Full Sea * 26: Walking the Earth
When Marla woke up, her throat felt better. She drank glass after glass of water, then stepped out onto her balcony and looked down on the dolphin lagoon. The animals were beautiful, leaping from the water to the delight of watching vacationers. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, but surely they’d prefer their freedom? Or maybe she was anthropomorphizing. When the sight of dolphins in a resort hotel starts to seem unbearably poignant, maybe it’s time to change your life.
She went back inside to use the bathroom – all those glasses of water took a toll – and saw a slip of paper someone had slid under her door. Only a couple of lines written by hand. She looked at the clock. After hurriedly using the bathroom, she splashed some water on her face, ran her fingers through her hair, and slipped on some comfortable clothes. In a perfect world, she would look cool and poised and powerful for this rendezvous, but she’d just died yesterday, and there was only so much she could do. She cast a brief stealthy-and-silent spell (fresh cat whiskers, harvested humanely, made all the difference) and slipped out of her room. Her friends would probably be feeling overprotective, and this way they wouldn’t hear her leaving and ask where she was going. The spell might not work on Reva, but she hoped that if he noticed, he’d appreciate that she was trying to be private, and leave her alone.
Marla went down the elevator to the ground floor, and strolled to one of the hotel’s little cafes. Now, just past dawn, the place was nearly deserted, except for one man seated at a small round table, his back to a pillar, two cups of coffee before him.
She sat down across from him, and after a moment during which they regarded one another, said, “You’re looking well.” She was alarmed by how raspy her voice still sounded.
“So are you, sis.”
Marla laughed, but it hurt her throat. “You are a good liar, Jason. I look like I’m half-dead – because I am. I notice you didn’t come to our little final party on the beach.”
Jason exhaled. “So there was something final, then? It’s all over?”
She shrugged. “Crapsey is on ice somewhere, but I’m sure we’ll ship him back to the mainland soon, probably tied up with some evidence of a crime in his lap. We’ll see how prison suits him. And Jarrow… well. Someone like her, you can’t really kill. But she’s been neutralized.”
“And the one with the buzzcut?”
“Nicolette… didn’t make it. Not by my hand. Elsie Jarrow killed her.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” Jason said. “I’ve met a lot of dangerous people over the years, and some people so far around the bend they didn’t know right from wrong, and didn’t realize what they were doing… but that woman knew exactly what she was doing, and did it anyway, just because she liked it.”
“Sounds a lot like you, brother.”
“I never wanted to be part of this. I know you’ve got no reason to believe me, but it’s true. Jarrow press-ganged me. She thought it was funny, having your brother along, making me call you on the phone, shit like that. I got away from her as soon as I could.”
Marla nodded toward her coffee cup. “Is this poisoned?”
Jason picked up the cup, took a sip, swallowed, then passed it back. “If it is, we’re all in this together.”
Marla took a sip of her own. “Why did you want to meet me, Jason? You were the only member of the murder squad who got to walk away clean. So what are you doing here?”
“I’ve spent the past few months living in fear of you, Marlita. Afraid you’d hunt me down, or send a gargoyle or a werewolf or something to kill me. I’m sick of the fear. If you’re going to kill me, I’d rather get it over with.”
“Fair enough,” Marla said. “It’s not on my agenda this morning, though.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Jason said. “Why did you try to reach me, a few days ago? I’d never even heard of Elsie Jarrow when I got the call from mom, telling me you’d been in touch. So what did you want?”
“It’s a magic thing. I heard a prophecy, sort of, that said you would try to kill me, and die yourself in the process. I was going to call and tell you not to get involved with Nicolette, and not to come to Hawai’i. That it wouldn’t end well for you. Fortunately, I messed with causality enough to keep you from dying anyway, but I wasn’t sure how things would turn out.”
Jason took a slow sip of coffee, both hands on the mug. “You wanted to warn me? To save my life?”
“All this time I’ve been hiding in shithole towns, trying to avoid detection. Once I heard you survived that… thing that happened between us… in Felport, I figured you’d come gunning for me. I mean, you’re a crime boss. Or you were.”
“Not really. I was a protector, Jason. Any crime that happened was strictly incidental.”
“Funny. You being a protector. I mean…”
“Because you were the one who protected me, when we were kids? From mom’s ten thousand drunken boyfriends and their roaming hands. Yeah.” Marla’s feelings about her brother were complicated. He was probably a psychopath – certainly he’d murdered at least a few times without any hint of regret. But he’d defended her when she was young and vulnerable, turning his cunning and his brutality toward keeping her innocence intact. “Listen, Jason. I know we tried to kill each other a few months back. But something… strange happened to me, not long ago. I know this magic stuff freaks you out, but listen. You know about parallel universes? Worlds like our own, except things are just a little different, and those little differences snowball into big changes?”
“Like places where the South won the Civil War, or Hitler didn’t have a mustache,” Jason said. “Like that?”
Marla nodded. “I met a version of myself from another universe. She was… seriously messed-up. She let herself get pushed around and used by evil forces. She was turned into a monster – basically, she became everything I hate. And it turns out, the thing that was different about that universe, was you. You died as a little kid over there, so you were never around to protect her – this other version of me – from all the things you saved me from in this reality. I know we’re not friends now. I know you don’t consider us family, anymore – that I became dead to you the moment I refused to help you bury a body and ran away from home. But I know that I literally would not be the woman I am without you. You saved me from things you didn’t even know you were saving me from.”
“Magic,” he muttered. “I should think it’s interesting. I should be trying to figure out how to make a profit off it. But really it just makes my fucking skin crawl.”
Marla nodded. “Sometimes? Me too. As far as I’m concerned, this thing between us, the fact that you tried to kill me, the fact that you shot Rondeau, even this bullshit with Jarrow… we’re square. I owe you that much. Go live your life.” She leaned forward, and looked into his eyes, which were so much like the eyes she saw in the mirror every day. “But don’t fuck with me again, Jason. Even alone, without resources, away from home, outnumbered and outgunned, I still won.”
“Of course you did,” Jason said, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “You’re a Mason.”
Marla snorted. “So is mom, and she never won at much of anything.”
“Not true. She still brags about that wet t-shirt contest she won when she was twenty-two.” Jason smiled, more openly this time. “You must have really wanted to protect me, if you called her. I can’t believe it.”
“I can’t believe you’re still in touch with her.”
“She’s always good for an alibi,” Jason said. He dropped a few bills on the table. “I guess that’s it, then. You don’t try to kill me, and I don’t try to kill you.”
“It’s a start. Maybe we can work our way up to Christmas cards.”
“Anything’s possible,” Jason said, and walked out of her life again.
Back in her room, pretending she’d never left, Marla heard a tentative knock on the connecting door. “Come in!” she said, but couldn’t quite shout. Rondeau and Pelham shuffled in, followed by Reva, who looked almost as tired as Marla felt. He was still wearing his filthy clothing. Apparently when he made a body he only conjured one set of clothes, and didn’t think to buy or borrow more. Gods were such morons in some ways.
“I can order us some room service,” Rondeau began, but Marla shook her head.
“Sit with me on the balcony. I’ve figured out some things.” Once they’d joined her, Pelham and Rondeau sitting, and Reva leaning against the balcony, Marla took a deep breath. “I’m leaving Hawai’i. Not immediately – I have a couple of things to settle, we need to catch Lupo, and the surfers still owe me a secret and a trick for solving that murder – but soon.”
“Where to?” Rondeau said. “I hear good things about the Caribbean. Or were you thinking skiing?”
“I’m thinking… no fixed address. With Felport closed to me, I don’t have a home anymore. The home I chose rejected me, and, okay, I can even see why. And when you came back, Pelham… I realized how limited my world has been. I left Indiana and went straight to Felport, and that’s where I stayed. I traveled a little as a mercenary and an apprentice, but they were always missions – I never got to really experience the places I went. Seeing how travel has expanded your horizons got me thinking, Pelham. It used to be, I was the worldly one, and you were the guy who’d never left home. But now, you’ve seen more than I have. I want to get out in the world, too. To stop looking for a fort to defend, or a rock to hide behind.”
“So we’re talking world tour?” Rondeau said.
Marla shook her head. “We’re talking me, going from place to place, either flipping a coin or throwing darts at a map, and just… seeing what I find. Hoping I find something that resonates with me. And, for all that I think Reva is a meddling jackass, the way he lives appeals to me. Go to a place, learn to love it a little, and help the people there who need helping.” She glared at the god as he began to grin. “But only people who want my help. Or who I’m pretty sure would want my help if they were thinking straight.”
Rondeau whistled. “Wow. So you’re just going to… walk the Earth? Like Jules from Pulp Fiction?”
“I think so. I mean… I’m happy when I get in a fight, but only when I’m fighting for something that matters. I’m kind of a crap detective, but I’m a pretty good guardian. I protected Felport, didn’t I? So… maybe I can protect other places, too. Other people. Maybe wherever I am can be the place I protect. It seems like that would keep me occupied.”
“I’m getting the sense I’m not invited,” Rondeau said.
“You want to go? Walking, or hitchhiking, or hopping trains? Never knowing where you’ll be tomorrow? Sleeping rough? No massages? I’d love to have you – apart from just enjoying your company, which I grudgingly admit, you’re a psychic, and you’d be a great asset – but you’ve sacrificed enough for me.”
“Hmm. How about I stay here and provide tactical support,” Rondeau said. “You know. Materiel. Intel. Other things that end in ‘el.’ I can be your wealthy patron.”
“That would be great,” Marla said.
“May I accompany you, Mrs. Mason?” Pelham said.
Marla smiled. “Are you kidding? I need a seasoned traveler to show me the ropes. Otherwise I’ll end up eating with the wrong fork or breaking a local taboo or accidentally marrying a guy I just wanted to sleep with. Plus I’m lousy at languages. I can’t think of a traveling companion I’d rather have.”
“I was really hoping that the occult detective thing would work out,” Rondeau said. “Oh well. Mind if I rent out the bookshop?”
“I was only ever a squatter anyway. Suit yourself, if you can find a deed.”
“Oh, Marla. It’s like you’ve never heard of forgery.”
Marla thought about how to broach the next subject, and finally decided: fuck it. Being direct had occasionally led to disaster, but there was no sense trying to change her nature. “Listen, guys, there’s something you should know. When I was back on that beach, dying – I should have died.”
“I wondered about that,” Rondeau said. “Jarrow’s body did die, and it was a sympathetic magic thing, so it seemed like you would have died, too…”
“Did the god of Death intervene on your behalf, Marla?” Pelham said.
“Ehhh… yes and no. He did restore me to life, but against his wishes, and with a fair number of strings attached. See, he really wants me to join him in the underworld, to reign at his side, but post-exile-angst notwithstanding, I’m not ready to leave this life yet. He was ready to schedule my coronation and polish up my throne, but I let him know that… wouldn’t make me happy.”
“If the goddess of the underworld ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” Reva said, grinning.
“So Death and I sat down and had a pretty hardcore negotiation, and the upshot is… I got him to invoke the Persephone clause.”
Rondeau whistled. “So what? You spend six months in the underworld, and six months on the Earth? Damn, Marla. So you’ll be wintering in Hell? I think that makes you the ultimate snowbird.”
“Ah, but I’m a sharper bargainer than Persephone ever was, or maybe it’s just because I don’t have some goddess-of-the-springtime responsibilities to complicate matters. I got Death to agree that my six months in hell can be non-consecutive. I owe him six months a year, but I can take them whenever I want, so I don’t have to say goodbye to seeing any season on the Earth forever. Plus, while I’m in the underworld, I don’t age. So, you know. Pretty good health-care plan.”
“Congratulation, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said. “And, of course, also my sympathies. I know the arrangement will be difficult for you.”
“First B, now you,” Rondeau said. “My friends keep turning into gods. Why don’t I ever get tapped?”
“I’m sure the first time there’s an opening for the god of hedonistic excess, you’ll make the shortlist,” Marla said.
“You better not change, Marla. Or start putting on airs. I’m not going to address you as ‘Your Divine Shadowhood’ or anything. Does this mean you’re going to go all goth, start dressing in vintage wedding dresses or black lace and spiderwebs?”
“I was thinking a black cloak, maybe with something in a matching scythe, but I’ll have to see what the wardrobe department has in my size.”
“This is good,” Reva said. “For one thing, becoming a god yourself will help you better understand the minds of gods, and perhaps you will stop holding my interventions on your behalf against me – ”
“You, shut it,” Marla said. “And as a part-time goddess in training, I can say that to you without fear of repercussion. What I’m going to do is help Death and you and any other so-called higher powers I run into learn what being human is about. Which means I need to keep my humanity in the forefront for the half a year I’m allowed to be wholly a woman and nothing else. That’s why you’re never going to see me again while I’m up here in the world, understood? Don’t take on any guise, don’t come visit, don’t happen to be on the same hiking trail or tour of the catacombs with me, nothing. You now officially have a restraining order, Reva – so restrain yourself. I’ve had quite enough of your meddling. I don’t care if you meant well. I’ve learned firsthand that good intentions don’t matter much, and my husband tells me we use them for paving stones back home.”
“Marla, you’re one of my people, whether you want to be or – ”
Marla leaned forward. “Reva. You’re a genius loci with no loci, right? And I’m, at least for half the year, part of the double deity that has full power over the entire sphere of death. So correct me if I’m wrong, but: don’t I outrank you?”
“That was very royal, Mrs. Mason,” Pelham said approvingly.
Reva scowled. “It’s not like we have ranks, exactly – ”
Marla gave him her most withering stare. Or, at least, the most withering stare she could muster as a mortal. Apparently as a goddess she’d be able to literally wither things. She still wasn’t sure it was a good idea to let her wield that much power, but given that most stories about gods depicted them behaving like spoiled horny entitled spiteful children, she’d probably be better than most. “Don’t screw around with me, Reva. I’m not condemning what you do. I plan to go into the freelance do-gooding business myself. Just stop doing it to me. Call it a character flaw, but I don’t like people messing around with my life. Understood?”
“Yes, my queen.” Reva gave an over-elaborate bow.
“Good.” She leaned back in her chair. “There’s one favor you can do for me, as my loyal subject. I need you to go see Death, and tell him the same thing I told you. He isn’t to have any contact with me while I’m above ground. He gets me for half the year, and that’s it. I won’t have his long-view tainting my here-and-now. Plus, I’m still pissed at him for… well. I have my reasons, and he knows what they are.”
“I could do that – ”
“But listen, Reva. Take a walk with me. We need to talk. Because even though it’s probably wasted, I want to try to make you understand why I’m doing this – for you to try and see my reasoning from a human point of view. And I want you to tell Death the whole story, try and get him see it from my side, from everybody’s side, so he can understand there’s a whole universe of stories that don’t revolve around him, and a whole lot of things that matter other than his own convenience and contentment. He really needs to understand that people are real, all of us – every one of us – and that we mean more than just what he can use us for. Do you think you can do that for me?”
“You’d better do it, dude,” Rondeau said. “She didn’t say ‘fuck’ once during that whole speech. That’s how you know she’s serious.”
“So that’s why I’m here,” I said, leaning back in the chair Death had grudgingly offered me. I took a sip of water cold and freshly drawn from some sunless lake. Death’s meeting room was paneled in red-tinted wood, and full of heavy furniture and shelves lined with countless books, all black, their spines unmarked.
Death sat in dark leather chair, swirling amber liquid in a glass. “I told Marla she didn’t need to send a messenger anymore. That she could tell me anything she had to say directly.”
I shrugged. “I don’t think she much cares what you want, really. Anyway, she knew I could fill in certain portions of the narrative, tell you about things she didn’t see herself, and details she didn’t know.”
“How do you know all this, Reva? These stories you told, these conversations you recounted?”
“Some of it comes from direct observation – I was there for a lot of this, you know, either openly present or watching in secret. I tried hard to tell the story as objectively as I could, not to editorialize, to make myself just another one of the people in the background. Some of it I got from a little light mind-reading here and there, especially from Rondeau – I promised not to pry into Pelham’s mind anymore, but I never promised that to Rondeau, so I rifled through his perceptions a bit. I also got to know Crapsey fairly well – he’s the ultimate exile, he’s not even in his home universe anymore, and after Marla and company stuck him on a boat back to the mainland I visited him, taking on the form of a crew member, and talked to his deepdown parts. Crapsey’s not a bad sort, apart from being a mass-murderer. I learned a lot about Jarrow from him. Some other things Marla told me, and sometimes I read between the lines of what she told me – though you’ll have to judge whether it’s all true or not.”
I coughed, though of course, I never really need to cough. “And, I’ll admit, sometimes, I was just guessing, and making things up. Maybe I got a little carried away with the story here and there. But the point stands. Marla understands why you did what you did – and she wanted me to tell you this story so you’d understand why she doesn’t want to hear from you during her six months on the Earth. She needs to know you aren’t meddling, that you respect her humanity, even if you don’t understand it. She needs to figure out her life, and what she’s living for, and what’s worth living for, without interference from either of us.”
“Where is she now?”
“Still in Hawai’i. She’s tracking down Gustavus Lupo, because she feels like that’s her responsibility. Once that’s done, though… Who knows? She talked about going to Malaysia with Pelham to cure him of his Nuno infestation. She’s talked about walking through the American West. She’s never been to Europe. She’ll see the world.”
“My Persephone,” Death murmured, swirling the amber-colored liquid in his glass.
“No,” I said. “Not your anything. She’s her own Marla.”
“You told me all this. Do you understand the point she was trying to make?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “And I have to be honest with you… that kind of uncertainty is a new experience for me. Not a terribly pleasant one. Creatures like you, and to a lesser extent I, are used to feeling certainty in all things – aren’t we?”
Death finished his drink, and we sat silently together for a while in his room at the bottom of the end of the world, thinking the thoughts that gods think, which are not entirely like the thoughts of women and men, or so I understand.
Marla hadn’t been entirely sure a blow to the testicles would hurt Death, since even his human form was just a convenience, but all that talk about masculine and feminine made her think it was worth a shot. His eyes crossed and he dropped to his knees, clutching his crotch. After a moment he fell over onto his side, popping several balloons in the process, and began to groan.
The new queen of the dead crouched beside him and whispered in his ear. “You shitty little fuck. You told Rondeau to just let me die. Did you really think he wouldn’t come to me with that information? I told you, let me live my life in my own time, don’t interfere, but you couldn’t do that, could you? Between you and Reva, I’ve had more than enough bullshit and interference from creatures that aren’t even human.”
With his eyes still clenched shut, he said, “I just wanted – ”
“Your queen, your other half, fine, yes, I get it, believe me, I get it better now. But eternity is long, and my lifespan is short. I know time goes slowly in the downbelow, but fuck, Walker, you’re a god, you can create anything you can imagine!”
“You cut that out of me.” Death’s voice was small and cold, and Marla flinched. Once, the Walking Death had been her enemy, a monster, and Marla had stolen his terrible sword – a blade so sharp it could cut through anything, even time, even abstractions – and used it to cut the bad parts out of him: his cruelty, caprice, and sadism. She’d wanted to make him a better god, and more importantly, a better man – and she had. But she’d always worried about the deeper effects. It was hard to cut out a tumor, after all, without cutting out some good tissue, too.
“You took my desire to create baroque punishments for the souls in my realm,” Death said, sitting up now, and staring down at the black balloons surrounding them. “But you also took my capacity to create those things, and with it, the capacity to create… much of anything. In the first days after your… impromptu surgery… I was little more than a shell. Gradually, the parts of my self you cut away have been growing back, the way someone with a damaged brain can develop new pathways to route around the damage or mimic the old functions, but I’m less than I was. I am only meant to be half of a god anyway, Marla – we should be a duality – but I think you’ve cut me down to something like a third. I’d hoped you could be the other two-thirds, and that you could help me be more. I’ll be stronger with you beside me, I’ll be whole. Marla, I never sleep, I never did, but did you know, I used to dream, anyway, sometimes? They were not nice dreams, but they were mine, and now, I have nothing. But with you at my side… .” He met her eyes, and now that she was a creature like him, she could see the anguish in his gaze that no mortal could ever ascertain. “I might be able to dream again. To imagine. I did a bad thing. I know. I’m sorry. But I need you.”
Marla offered him her hand, and he took it, and let her help him to his feet. “I understand all that,” she said. “And, okay – it’s not like you actually killed me, or killed Pelham. You could have done a lot worse.”
“The thought crossed my mind,” he said.
“But the point stands – we’re supposed to be equals, but you thought you knew better than I did, you didn’t listen. I can’t have that. It’s a sore point for me, and not the kind of button you want to push. How are we supposed to have a relationship if we don’t even have that level of trust?”
He shook his head. “My only defense is… I’m new at this. I’ve never had a queen before. I’m sorry?”
She kicked a few balloons aside so she could see her own frozen-on-the-point-of-death body again. “So what happens next?”
“As per our agreement, I step in at the moment before your death – this moment, as it happens, which I’ve stretched out for us subjectively – and take you, living, to the underworld. There, you will ascend to your throne, though to be absolutely technical you’ve already ascended. There is an actual chair, though. Or an abstract representation of a chair that you and I can perceive as actual. It all gets very metaphysical down there. Starting with the fact that I call it ‘down there’ when it’s not actually below anything.”
“So I’m not dead,” Marla said. She nodded toward Jarrow. “How about her?”
“Oh, yes, she’s gone. The body is, anyway. The poor dear expired just before I froze this moment. You lived longer than your twin – but then, your will has always been greater than just about anyone’s.”
“Okay,” Marla said after a moment. “Here’s the thing. I’m not done living yet.”
Death closed his eyes. “Marla. Marla, don’t. Don’t ask me to restore you to life. Because I’ll have to refuse you, and – ”
Marla shook her head. “I’m not that big of a bitch. But listen. There’s actually a mythological precedent for what I’ve got in mind. Let’s take a few minutes and haggle, what do you say? Marriage is about compromise.”
After Crapsey finally managed to overpower Pelham and tossed him in the fish pond, he rushed up the beach, but it was too late: there were two dead bodies under the trees. Holy hell. Marla had gone through with it. She’d enacted what the comic books called the ultimate sacrifice: given up her own life to save the lives of others.
Though when it came to saving the lives of others, a pissed-off, disembodied Elsie was a hell of a lot more dangerous than one with a physical form to keep her contained and distracted. Basically, Marla was a shit tactician. Unless she’d just lost the will to live, and figured unleashing a bodiless Elsie as she died was a nice final “fuck you” to the universe. Crapsey could get his head around that as a motivation, at least.
The air above Jarrow’s bled-out body was shimmering now, and beach sand began to swirl up and around and accrete into the shape of a female form. The whirlwind that was Elsie’s consciousness picked up a quantity of the blood-soaked sand and sculpted that into hair, and a pair of red lips, but still: she was just sand. The beach-golem walked toward Crapsey, and when she spoke, her voice was all rasp and dryness. “I’m hollowed, I’m scooped, I’m uncooped, I’m free as a bird, free as a murder, I’m shadows swallowing the moon, I’m a flock of swallows, I’m starlight, I’m starlings, I’m all out of spoons, I – I – I – I – ”
Crapsey backed away. Being close to Elsie right now was probably like pitching a tent next to Chernobyl. He had enough problems without bone cancer. The sand figure kept walking, leaving bloody footprints. “You, Crapsey, yes, you’ll do… your body, yes, why not, as good as any, oh, the music I could make singing through your throat, the great workings I could work through the workings of your wonderful jaw…”
Crapsey swallowed. To have his own body stolen was a fitting enough fate, but really, as punishments went, it was a litle too on the nose. “Elsie, you’re not thinking straight, it’s because you don’t have a brain anymore to think with. You’d burn through this body in minutes, and then we’d both be shit out of luck, and I wouldn’t be around to help you anymore – ”
“But you can taste things, get down and lick the salt from the sea, roll around in the warm sand, blood is pumping in you, I will take you, I will stretch time like bubblegum, I can live a lifetime before your bones turn to spun glass and black goo, shh, open wide, give us a kiss, kiss me again, kiss me like you did before.” Her red mouth opened, and a tongue made from a fragment of kelp poked out.
Crapsey wanted to run, but it would be like running from the moon crashing into the Earth, wouldn’t it? Maybe it would be better to stand his ground, pretend to be brave, take his last breaths as a man unpossessed by an insane chaos witch, look at the ocean –
The surfers had paddled in closer, and now they were doing something out on the waves, chanting some rhythm, and the waves seemed to be crashing in time with their chant. That couldn’t be true, of course, it had to be the other way around, but it really did seem like the surfers were conducting the symphony of surf and tide…
Elsie reached out with one grainy hand, caressing his cheek, and she had eyes now, made of bits of bright seashell, and those inanimate fragments were somehow still merry. Everything was a lark: life and death and dancing back and forth across the line between the two. She stuffed her fingers in his mouth, sand on his tongue, and when he tried to pull away she seized his jaw and began squeezing. He bit down, but her hand was hard as concrete. There was a trigger word, wasn’t there, something that would make his jaw activate magically, become strong enough to bite through diamonds and mithril and adamantium, but even if he could remember the word, he couldn’t say it, because she was trying to climb into his body through his fucking mouth –
Then her sandy body began to come apart. Her bloody hair streamed away first, and then she lost one of her nacreous eyes. Her grip on his jaw went limp, and suddenly his mouth was just full of sand, instead of a hand, and he stumbled back, spitting, trying to clear his mouth. Elsie swayed in confusion, looking at the hand-less stumps of her arms, as more and more chunks of her body began to blow away – but the grains of sand were flying against the prevailing wind, out toward the ocean, rather than in toward the shore.
Elsie began to laugh, and then to howl, and somehow even that howling was made part of the surfers’ rhythmic chant.
Crapsey didn’t know what the hell was happening, but he supported it whole-heartedly. He spat toward Elsie. “You’re coming apart! You’re going to pieces!”
“I know!” Elsie shouted. “Two-four-six-eight, look at me disintegrate!” She cackled again, and then her red lips blew away, and her face stopped even remotely resembling a face. Her human shape came apart entirely, and she became literally dust in the wind – though it was more like dust being sucked into an industrial fan.
The chanting from the surfers continued for another few minutes as Crapsey stared open-mouthed at the bobbing mages on their boards in the waves, and then their voices stopped abruptly. The waters churned and frothed wildly, great spumes of water shooting up into the air, geyser-like, as if the sea had been brought to a rolling boil and beyond. The wave-mages hung grimly onto their boards, rocking and riding out the fury, some of them leaving the water entirely and flying briefly into the air, but none of them went under. After a few moments, the sea’s fury subsided, and the next few lapping waves left pinkish, blood-tinged foam on the shore. The surfers started to cheer and exchange high-fives.
“What the shit,” Crapsey began, but then someone crashed into him from behind, knocking him facedown in the sand, and a sleep with the familiar cloying stink of magic pulled him down, as surely as an undertow drags unwary swimmers below the waves.
Marla’s eyes opened, and the world was blue; and then the world was Reva, and Pelham, and Rondeau, and – Arachne, of all people, pressing a woven bandage down to Marla’s throat and chanting, though when she did it, it was more like muttered singing. Marla tried to sit up, but Arachne disdainfully pressed a hand to Marla’s chest, and managed to hold her down. After a moment, the kahuna nodded. “I think she will live. Her body needs to be replenished – she will be ravenous, and she should rest, but if she does those things, she will not die.” Arachne stood up, sniffed, and said, “My obligation to you is now fully discharged, Marla Mason.”
“I thought you were done for.” Rondeau squeezed her hand, which no longer felt like a balloon tethered to her by a piece of string.
“Jarrow,” Marla croaked. She didn’t feel as bad as she should have – she also didn’t, apparently, have a slit in her throat anymore – but she still felt like she’d been dragged behind a horse over lava rock for thirty or forty miles. “Elsie Jarrow, is she – ”
“It worked,” a new voice said. Marla turned her head, and there was the kid from the surf shop, what was his name, French-y but not – right, Jon-Luc. He squatted down beside Marla, fastidiously avoiding the drying puddle of blood. “We caught Jarrow in the tidal forces, and pulled her consciousness into the sea.”
“That was the plan?” Rondeau said. “I thought you were going to return as a warrior Death goddess and stomp her into atoms?”
“That was plan B,” Marla croaked. “Plan A was dilution.” She gestured at Jon-Luc, her throat hurting too bad for her to explain.
“Marla talked it over with us,” Jon-Luc said. “And asked if we could make a trap. This woman Jarrow was poisonous, right? She was basically disembodied heavy metals or carcinogens.” He shrugged. “The ocean is big. A woman-sized dose of radiation and crazy magic, when diluted into the entire sea, is nothing. She might make a few fish sick, but her substance will become so watered-down as she spreads through the ocean, she won’t be a conscious entity anymore. Not that we like dumping more poison of any sort into the sea, but at this point, what’s another few parts per trillion?”
“What’s to stop her, like, taking over the body of a shark before she gets too diluted?” Rondeau said.
Jon-Luc looked offended. “We’re good, my crew. And we’ve got our own reasons to want Jarrow eliminated. She killed Glyph. We bound her up in all the orderly magic of the sea when we sprang our trap.”
“The sea is lovely, dark, and deep,” Reva said thoughtfully. “A symbol of order in its tidal regularity and predictable flow of currents…”
Jon-Luc nodded. “The ocean’s full of chaos too, of course, the ocean’s full of everything, but we can focus the sea’s power in a particular way, and we did. Jarrow will be hopelessly diluted before she can undo those bindings.”
“It’s like when she turned Christian Decomain into frogs,” Marla said. “He wasn’t killed, just changed, reduced to individual component parts that don’t communicate anymore, so they no longer add up to a whole. Jarrow’s still down there, she’s just… not Jarrow any more. She’s been reduced to pieces of herself.” She shook her head. “Shit. Where’s Crapsey? Lupo?”
Rondeau pointed to a prone form. “Crapsey’s down. Arachne dropped him when she arrived. He’s alive, but out of it. Lupo… I don’t know. She – he – stopped attacking me and ran away, but he was starting to blur again, he didn’t look like Dr. Husch any more. I think whatever control Jarrow was exerting over Lupo slipped when her body died.”
“Great,” Marla croaked. “Talk about an invasive species. We’ll have to track Lupo down later. We should do something with Nicolette’s body. And we should get Crapsey locked up I guess. Nobody’s using the bathtub anymore – ”
“We’ll take care of it, Marla,” Rondeau said. “Pelham and me. We’ve got this.”
Marla clutched at his arm. “Good. Can you help me back to the hotel? I need to rest. But later on, I need to talk to you. And Pelly. And Reva too. In the morning…” Marla’s eyes drooped. Being on the point of death and besting a chaos witch was exhausting work. She let herself sink into Rondeau’s arms, and allowed sleep to take her.
“I can’t say I’m sorry to see her go,” Rondeau said, staring at the water with his doppelganer. “But: that is kinda murder. It seems more evil than chaotic.”
“Silly,” Jarrow said. “I’m beyond good and evil. Nietzsche wrote a book about me! You should read it.”
“Okay.” Marla looked at the headless not-quite-a-corpse. “Leaving aside the whole fact that you just beheaded Nicolette… do you happen to have a blood-red ram’s horn?”
Jarrow cocked her head. “How did you know about that?”
“You said yourself I have unexpected resources. Tell me about it.”
Jarrow hmmmed. “It’s not a ram’s horn, first of all. It’s the horn of an animal called a slimestrider, actually. Stupid name, I know. I picked it up in a little imaginary fantasy universe I know. The horn was a gift from a certain Dark Lord Barrow – I think you’ve met him?”
“That comatose writer in the Blackwing Institute?” Marla said. That was unexpected, but with Jarrow, that was kind of the point. “You went into his hallucinated fantasy world and brought something out?”
“Oh yes. A great artifact. With another dumb name – the HellHorn, two capital ‘H’s – but Barrow has to name a lot of things, so it’s understandable that he’d run out of ideas. But seriously, how did you know about the horn? I’ve got it all packed up, and I was planning on using it against you if necessary, but, well, it wasn’t.”
“What does it do?” Marla said.
Jarrow grinned. “It’s lovely, actually. Barrow came up with a whole mythology for the horn. It’s a weapon, used by countless gods, monsters, heroes, and villains in his fantasy world. Whoever blows the horn summons up the ferocious spirits of everyone else who’s ever blown the horn, on down through the centuries. It must have been disappointing for the first guy to use it, huh? But at this point, it’s got loads of souls attached to it, demons and giants and war-witches and all manner of nasty things. Nothing without lungs or mouths, of course, because they have to be able to blow the horn to get bound to it. That’s a shame, because Barrow has some beaky tentacled things in the oceans of his world that are really marvelous – ”
“I saw you,” Marla said. “In a vision. Blowing that horn in Felport.”
Jarrow scratched under her armpit and hummed for a moment. Everyone else – well, except Lupo – stood absolutely still, sensing the tension. After a moment, Jarrow said, “So what if I did? Didn’t they fire you? Kick you out? Send you to this hellish – oh, wait, paradisical – island?”
“If someone you love stops loving you,” Marla said, “that doesn’t mean you stop loving them back.”
“A city is not a boyfriend,” Jarrow said. “Are you a crazy stalker?”
“Love is just another kind of obsession. I can accept that.”
Jarrow sighed. “What if I promise, double-dog-swear, not to blow the horn in Felport?”
“You’d just use it somewhere else,” Marla said. “You say your reason for living is to have fun, but you consider destroying people’s lives fun. You’ll unleash hell and laugh. Won’t you?”
“I’m a very naughty girl,” Jarrow said. “I don’t think I ever claimed otherwise. I can see your sense of righteous indignation has been activated. Fine. What are you going to do about it? Sic Pelham on me? Get your little crew of wave-mages out there on the ocean – hi there, I see you! – to summon a blue whale to crush me? I smell that little god of homesickness out there, too, how pitiful. Are you really so lost without a place to call your own? Me, I’m comfortable in any place at all – wherever I hang my severed head is home. Reva can’t get to me. So tell me, then, what can you do? Ultimately, the answer is nothing – ”
Marla pulled out Nicolette’s hatchet from where it was tucked into her waistband and swung it in a flat arc at Jarrow’s face. The blade struck hard enough that it should have lopped off the top of Jarrow’s head, but it barely brushed her cheek, drawing a tiny speck of blood, before it rebounded hard and bounced out of Marla’s hand. Oh well. Marla hadn’t expected it to work, but the axe was an artifact, so it had been worth a try. If it had belonged to the great god of order Urizen or something it might have made more of a dent. At least the axe hadn’t melted or burst into flames – she’d refrained from using her own dagger for fear an attack on Jarrow might destroy the weapon.
Marla’s own cheek stung, of course, but she didn’t let that distract her, or give her pause. She crouched and kicked, sweeping Jarrow’s legs from beneath her, and dropping the witch to the sand. “Rondeau, Pelham, get out of here!” she shouted, and then began running south herself.
She glanced back. Pelham and Rondeau weren’t running – they’d been drawn into the fight. Damn it. She’d wanted them to get away. But Lupo had transformed into Dr. Husch, and she was attacking Rondeau, while Pelham was crouched on top of Crapsey, squeezing his throat as the bigger man scrabbled at him ineffectually. Jarrow just stood up, head cocked, frowning, then touched her cheek and began walking slowly after Marla.
The ground underneath her moved, rising up in answer to some spell of Jarrow’s, and Marla was knocked off her feet. She managed to turn her fall into a roll, not quite crashing into a palm tree. She got to her knees and glanced toward the sea. The wave-mages were there, still bobbing. They knew the time had almost come. Marla just hoped they could do their part.
Marla knelt in the shade of the palm tree and drew her magical dagger. She gently placed the blade, so sharp it could cut through hopes and dreams, a millimeter from her throat. If a powerful artifact like the axe hadn’t hurt Jarrow, there was no reason to think her dagger would, either. But there were other ways to injure the witch.
“I didn’t peg you for the melodramatic teenager type, Marla.” Jarrow approached, moving slowly, like someone trying to avoid startling a deer. “You know I have to kill you, now. Or, I don’t have to – but I’m going to. That axe might have hurt me, if someone stronger had been wielding it. Not very nice. And they say I’m a betrayer! So… what’s the plan? You’ll stop me from killing you, by killing yourself? A ‘you can’t fire me, I quit,’ sort of thing?”
“Not exactly.” Marla shrugged, the blade of her magical knife just kissing the flesh of her throat. “You are wearing my body, you know – or at least, a perfect duplicate of my body from a parallel universe. You put a new roof on it and did a little remodeling – though why you’d choose that nose over mine is beyond me – but the genes don’t lie. I’ve spent the morning setting up a sympathetic magic link between us. We’re identical and entangled, now, magically speaking. If I die, you die.”
Jarrow shook her head. “Bluff, bluff, bluffity bluff. You’re just trying to buy some time, I don’t even know why. Just natural desperation, I guess. You could have done this trick to stop the last person who wore this body, after all, and you didn’t. You let the Mason kill half the sorcerers in your city instead, you were that attached to living. So, no, bzzt, try again.”
“I had a lot more to live for then.” What would it be like, Marla thought, to cut her own throat? She’d been wounded plenty of times, but never in the throat, and never by her own hand. The blade Death had forged for her was so sharp she might not even feel the slice. She couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. “I had a city to protect. I had a reason to live. Now, I’ve got nothing. But killing Elsie Jarrow – that would give my stupid fucked-up life meaning again.”
“Oh, Marla. This is depressing. I thought I was locked in a battle of wills, facing one of the most pigheadedly tough sorcerers of the new generation, but you… you brought a spoon to a gunfight.” Jarrow began piling up sand, the grains heaped and shaped by her hands and her magic into the smooth-sided walls of a sand castle that was more like a squat sand fortress. “They told me you were smart. We considered the suicide-murder-voodoo-hoodoo angle, of course, I mean, we looked at all the contingencies. But when I brought it up, Dr. Husch said, ‘No, of course not, Marla wouldn’t do that, she’s too smart.’ The Doc overestimated you as much as she underestimated me.” Jarrow cupped more sand and let it trickle through her fingers, and it cascaded down to land on top of her squat castle and began to spontaneously form a tall, narrow spire. “Because if you kill this body, Marla, you won’t kill me. You’ll just free me from the bonds of the flesh. Now, it so happens I like the bonds of the flesh, because flesh is full of wonderful nerve endings and exciting hormone-dispensers, and it would be hard for me to replace this body, since most vessels are too weak to contain my awesomeness… but while I’d be sad to lose this body, I’d also be disembodied. And if that happened, oh, I have to tell you, I think I’d probably start going crazy again, and underneath the crazy, there’d be this solid core of pissed-off. This thing, with the knife and the magical link between us and all that, it’s not a viable solution to your problems. Kill my body and I’ll just turn into a whirlwind of black acid and maim everything and everyone you love, or once loved, or might have loved someday. I’d probably destroy a lot of other stuff in the process, too. Have you ever tried to aim a whirlwind of black acid? It’s not a precision instrument.” Jarrow shook her head. “This is the wrong approach. It’s like strapping yourself into a catapult and flinging yourself against a fortress. It squashes you flat, and it doesn’t much bother the fortress.” She picked up a fist-sized stone from the sand and hurled it at her sandcastle, and the stone bounced harmlessly away, without dislodging so much as a single grain of sand.
“So you’re saying killing myself would be an irrational act,” Marla said. “Random, pointless, and bloody. Yeah?”
“As a connoisseur of the random, pointless, and bloody, that is my professional assessment, yes.”
“There’s one thing you don’t know,” Marla said.
Jarrow laughed. “There are billions of things I don’t know! That’s one of the best reasons to live forever – there’s so much to learn!”
“You think you’re cute. You’re not cute. You’re a dead thing wrapped in streamers and sparklers, an emptiness where a person used to be, a howling void in a sparkly dress.”
“Projecting much, Mrs. Misery?”
Marla tightened her grip on her knife. “You aren’t even curious about what I was going to say? About the particular precinct of your ignorance I’m talking about?”
The chaos witch’s face took on a distant, faraway cast. “Hmm? Sorry, were you talking? I’m trying to untangle your sympathetic link here, so I can kill you before happy hour ends at the bar. Those lava flows are wonderful. This link you made between us, it’s decent work, but sweetie, it’s basically just quantum knotwork, and my specialty is unraveling knots. Or raveling. Did you know ‘ravel’ and ‘unravel’ mean the same thing?”
“You’re ruining the drama of my big reveal here,” Marla said. “The one thing you don’t know is: when I die, I’m going to become a goddess of death. It’s an awesome retirement plan. And it means I’ll have the power to deal with you even in your disembodied cloud-of-cancer form.”
“A goddess of death. Right. Have you always been schizophrenic, or is it a recent development? Maybe we should have checked you into the Blackwing Institute after all. Oh well. Too late now.” Jarrow stuck the corner of her tongue out of her mouth and furrowed her brow in concentration. Time was running out – Marla knew the sympathetic link wouldn’t survive under Jarrow’s attention for long, even with all the orderly magic Marla had woven into the strands.
“Are you ready?” Marla shouted, and the surfers riding silently on the waves raised their clenched fists high in unison. Jarrow didn’t pay any attention, chewing her lip hard enough to make beads of blood appear and drip down her chin. She had to be close to breaking the link.
There was a good chance this was famous last words time – or, at least, her last words as a mortal. What did you say to encapsulate – or put the capstone on – a life? “I did it my way?” True, but trite. “Suck it, fuckers?” Not very classy, and while she’d never been classy, even Marla had her limits. “France, the army, head of the army, Josephine?” The Napoleon comparisons only worked to a point. “I regret nothing?” Ha, no reason to leave this world with everyone thinking you were totally delusional.
She decided to fall back on classic apocrypha, and use the last words attributed to Pancho Villa, even though the poor bastard had died instantly, with no final words at all. But it was a good line, so somebody might as well use it:
“Hey, Elsie. Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
Marla pushed in the blade. The steel was cold and hot all at once, more sensation than pain, at least at first, and then she just felt wetness, as if she’d spilled hot coffee down her front. She went lightheaded, everything going fuzzy. This was a bit like being falling-down drunk, and a bit like almost dying of exposure in the snow (the cocoon of warmth wrapped in the encroaching cold), both things she’d experienced, but not in a while. She kept her head up and her eyes open as long as she could, watching Elsie Jarrow twitch and writhe on the sand, hands clutched to her throat, which had spontaneously started jetting gouts of blood. Ha. The spells of protection wrapped around Jarrow’s stolen body were impressive, but the same protections that kept magic from ripping holes in her flesh kept magic from repairing holes in that flesh. Even Jarrow’s power to impose order and turn back entropy were useless, all her desperate death-knell spells bouncing off the hard shell of her stolen body’s invulnerability. Marla could get to that body despite its safeguards because it was hers, really. And what she owned she could destroy.
Marla slumped, her extremities all numb and faraway, like her hands and feet had become balloons, drifting into the distance. She was fading, her sense of self dissipating, as her blood pressure dropped. No oxygen reached her brain. She felt slow, stupid, and fuzzy, and a fog drifted over her consciousness: but this was a deep blue fog, a fog made of the sky at twilight.
And then… everything was clear. Hyper-clear, like going from crappy low-res security video to high-definition TV. Marla blinked and stood up, looking down at her own body. She looked so small. She – or some part of her, a soul, or an astral body, or a stubborn conceptual persistence of shape with delusions of consciousness – walked around the tableau, which seemed frozen in time, to judge by the seagulls hovering in the air, the surfers unmoving on the waves, and the failure of the twin blood pools around Jarrow and Marla to widen and merge.
An air horn sounded, and a thousand black balloons and a rain of red confetti showered down from the sky. Marla batted aside a drifting balloon, but several others bounced off her head and shoulders. The confetti stuck to her skin, or her imaginary construct of skin, looking uncomfortably like flecks of dried blood. The balloons all settled into a mass covering the beach, jostling slightly and squeaking like well-behaved mice as they rubbed against one another. At least the balloons covered up the bodies. Marla could do without seeing them.
The Walking Death arrived.
“Oh,” Marla said. “That’s where you always walk in from. Why couldn’t I see it before?”
“You could see it, but you couldn’t comprehend it.” He smiled, arms outstretched. The balloons moved aside for him, clearing a spot for his every footstep as he approached. “But you’ve achieved apotheosis, Marla Mason. You are a goddess now.”
“I… I remember. There are things I’m supposed to do, here. Things I’m for.” She licked her lips. “All this time, since my exile, I’ve been wanting a purpose, but being queen of the land of the dead – it’s all purpose, isn’t it?”
“I told you when you married me. It’s not a ceremonial position. The universe needs both of us to run smoothly. There are two sides of death. One of us is annihilation and loss and abnegation and howling emptiness, destroyer of meaning, the great leveler, the despoiler of lives. One of us is the end of suffering, the giver of peace, the easer of burdens, and the necessary pause before rebirth – the fire that clears the fields, allowing them to grow back stronger than before. Both aspects of death are necessary for the workings of the world to go on. I told you about this, when we were first wed, but because such knowledge would be a burden to your mortal mind, we took it away from you when you returned to Earth.” He coughed. “Traditionally, the king of the underworld is the more stark and unpleasant and stereotypically masculine side of death, and the queen is the enfolder into velvety peacefulness and reunion with the great mother and so on, but of course I’m open to non-traditional gender roles, and certainly, if you like, we can both be switch – ”
Marla kicked him in the balls.
“Reva, get out of here,” Marla said, standing in the doorway. “I could have actually used your help last night, but you were nowhere to be seen.” She looked him up and down. “You look like crap.”
The god’s hair was sticking up in all directions, and he was streaked with soot and ashes, his clothes so filthy he looked like he’d gone crawling through a volcano’s cinder cone. “I should,” he said. “I didn’t want to give up my body – I always get so attached to my bodies – so I went to the underworld the hard way. The only local entrance to your boyfriend’s realm is in a cave way too close to a volcano. It’s dark and ugly down there, too, took me forever to find the landlord. Your husband is a pain in the ass, Marla. I just wanted to have a civil conversation with the guy, tell him to lay off with the enthusiasm about you dying, and he threw me out – ”
Marla stepped back. “You what? You went to talk to Death? About me?”
Reva smiled. “No need to thank me. Like I said, you’re one of my people, and I thought, as one god talking to another – admittedly much more powerful – god, I might be able to make an impression.”
Marla gripped the edge of the doorframe to keep from punching him. “Thank you? Who the fuck do you think you are? You went and had a talk with my – whatever he is to me – without asking? You think I can’t take care of myself? You condescending, patronizing shitheap, who the hell appointed you my guardian – ” Reva shrank back under her onslaught, but before she could really work up any steam, Rondeau tapped her on the shoulder.
“In a minute.”
“Rondeau, I’m about to ream out a god, what is it?”
“Pelham. He just called. Jarrow kidnapped him. He tried to escape, but – it sounded like they caught him again.”
Marla turned and stared at him. “What are you talking about? Pelham is next door. He’s been here all morning…” She trailed off. The seventh member of Jarrow’s crew. The one they’d seen in the office video, but hadn’t ever identified. It was Gustavus Lupo. Lupo hadn’t escaped during the raid on the Blackwing Institute. Lupo was here, impersonating –
The connecting door opened, and Pelham stepped in. “Miss Nicolette is clean again. I now have a greater appreciation for the efforts of zookeepers. I do hope we can find a more permanent placement for her soon.” He looked at Rondeau, Marla, and Reva, his amiable expression changing to bafflement. “Is something wrong? Has something happened?”
“Get Jason on the phone, Rondeau,” Marla said. “Now.”
“I was going to let him go,” Elsie said into Pelham’s phone. “Honestly, Marla, I’d forgotten I even had him.”
Crapsey hadn’t hurt Pelham too badly when he chased him down, but the valet had sustained some bruises and scratches, and was currently unconscious, put to sleep by Elsie’s magic. The chaos witch had laughed and laughed when she arrived to find Crapsey carrying Pelham over his shoulder and Jason stomping on the little ant-monsters that came crawling out of the carpet. She’d dispelled the beasts – she called them “Nunus” or something, Crapsey wasn’t sure – with a wave of her hand, knocked Pelham out, and said, “Just hand me the phone when Marla calls, Jason.”
So he had. “I’m absolutely amenable to an exchange of hostages. You bring Nicolette, and I’ll bring the real Pelham. Though, really, Lupo is just as good – better! All the qualities of the actual Pelham, and capable of turning into anyone else you need, too. Admittedly, Lupo’s a bit tricky to control, probably too advanced for you, but – no? The real Pelham? You’re sure? Fine, fine. Where shall we meet? We’ll be there in, say, three hours. I do hope this doesn’t cause any problems with our arrangement, Marla. I had Pelham abducted and replaced last night, when things were still… tense between us. You understand. Kiss kiss. See you soon.” She handed the phone back to Jason. “Your sister gets so exercised about things, doesn’t she? I swear, you’d think she didn’t have any other friends.”
Jason rubbed at a cut on his cheek, from where the Nunus or whatever had attacked him. “I’m out. This is bullshit. Furry ant-creatures? I want to go home. Back to my life.” He was tense, all his usual superficial charm boiled away, clearly on the edge of fight-or-flight.
Elsie hmmed. “Oh, fine. You can leave. Call it a gesture of good faith. You can walk out to the road and get a taxi or something. But listen – no more trying to kill Marla, either, understood? What kind of a brother are you?”
“I’m about to become a long-lost one. You lunatics enjoy the rest of your lives, okay?”
“Have fun scamming little old ladies until you die alone and forgotten,” Crapsey said.
“At least I’m my own boss, lackey.” Jason strode out of the bungalow without a backward glance.
Crapsey sat down. “And then there were two.”
“Three soon, once we get Nicolette back.”
“Do you think it’s a trap?” Crapsey said. “Marla’s going to see this thing with Pelham as a betrayal – ”
“I’m sure she will. And it might be a trap. But so what? Marla can’t hurt me – at least, not without destroying herself in the process. And even then, I’d just be hurt, not stopped. The best she can hope to do is make me mad and lead me to seek vengeance on everything she loves.” She got a faraway look on her face. “You know the funniest thing, Crapsey? I really did forget we had her little man tied up in the closet. My mind has been on other things – what to do with my freedom. The places I’d like to visit. What would happen if I blew up the moon. How fun it would be to do a comparative analysis of the stomach contents of the world’s currently operating serial killers. Whether putting a person’s brain in a robot body would drive them insane. Interesting things.” She sighed. “But I guess we’ll give Pelham back. Maybe Marla will take it in the spirit in which it’s offered.”
“You could just kill her,” Crapsey pointed out.
“You don’t waste perfectly good nightmare fuel,” Elsie said. “Marla’s one of my people, a member in good standing of the Tribe of Discontinuity. She just doesn’t want to admit it. Maybe we can still make nice.”
“And if not?”
“We’ll make nasty. Speaking of nasty, or rather, doing the nasty – we’ve got a few hours before we need to meet Marla for the exchange.” She waggled her eyebrows at him. “Wanna fuck?”
Crapsey laughed. “You’re so romantic, Elsie.”
“Sometimes, when the mood strikes me, but not today. Come to bed. We won’t wake Pelham, he’s way down deep. Oh, and Crapsey – turn yourself into a monster again first. I’m feeling beastly.”
“Of all the dangerous maniacs I’ve worked for, Elsie, I think you’re my favorite.”
“Okay, I’ll tell them,” Reva said. They were out in the hallway in front of her room, talking in low voices. “I think they can work up the kind of spell you’re thinking about, and I’ll make sure they’re in place when the time comes. They don’t go there often – the waves are way too gentle, usually, it’s not very good surf, but they know the spot, because it has some mythic resonances. A chief was assassinated on that beach once.”
Marla laughed, harshly. “Good thing I’m not a chief anymore, or that might worry me.”
Reva looked at her curiously. “So, this errand you’re trusting me with… does this mean you forgive me?”
“It means I need you,” Marla said. “Look, Reva, I know you mean well – but that doesn’t mean you can keep fucking with my life. You really need to stop. I’m starting to run out of patience.”
“I used to have worshippers,” he said. “They welcomed my intervention. Oh, the good old days. We’ll talk about this later, assuming you survive.” He left on his errand, and Marla went back inside the room, where Rondeau and… the guy who looked like Pelham… were waiting. “Pelham, Rondeau, you stay with Nicolette, see if you can get her calmed down. It would be easier if she actually walked with us to the beach when it’s time.”
“We have to walk?” Rondeau said. “Can’t we drive? There’s a beach access like five minutes away.”
Marla shook her head. “Even with spells to keep us from seeming too interesting, it’s dangerous to haul Nicolette through the resort. You want to take her out through the lobby, stand around while the valet gets our car, and give her a chance to work some mischief. I’d rather walk half a mile. Besides, if we arrive at the rendezvous point on foot, it’ll give me a chance to scope things out, and make sure there’s not an ambush in place.”
Lupo/Pelham nodded. “We can convince Nicolette to cooperate, Mrs. Mason, but are you sure handing her over to Crapsey is a good idea?”
“I think getting them both together where we can incapacitate them and stick them on a boat headed somewhere far, far away is a good idea,” Marla said. How could she tell Lupo there was going to be an exchange of hostages, and the real version of himself was one of the hostages? There was no etiquette for this sort of thing. Marla would just have to hope he stayed in Pelham-form, and didn’t morph into Ed Gein or Ted Bundy or something, until they’d finished the exchange. “Listen, I need to prepare some things.” She didn’t want to say too much – it was always possible that Jarrow could listen in on Lupo’s conversations. Who could say? “Just a few precautions, in case Crapsey tries something.”
“You aren’t worried about Ms. Jarrow?” the faux-Pelham said.
Marla shook her head. “Elsie and I have an understanding. I don’t think she’ll be a problem.” Once Rondeau had hustled non-Pelham out of the room, Marla took her brown leather bag from beneath the bed, and began removing some of her instruments: knives, vials, candles. All the trappings of ritual magic. She tried to tell herself this was just a worst-case-scenario contingency plan, that she wouldn’t have to actually go through with any of it… but the fact that Jarrow had kept Pelham hostage was troubling, and Death’s suggestion that Marla look at Jarrow through the ring again was niggling at her. What would she see? What could she see, that would make her take such extreme action?
She’d find out soon enough. Marla cut the meaty part of her left palm with a sharp knife, squeezed the blood into a wooden bowl, and got to work.
Nicolette was being a pain in the ass, wisecracking and walking slow and shouting “Help, help, I’m being oppressed!” before they were even out of the room, so Marla cast a look-away spell over the four of them to keep the hotel staff from getting too interested. Their tower was pretty far away from the path leading to the beach where they were supposed to exchange the hostages – Marla needed a waterfront site for her contingency plan – so they decided to take a shortcut through the service tunnels that ran underneath the vast sixty-some-acre resort. Besides… she just liked tunnels.
The tunnels were surprisingly roomy and well-maintained, and the look-away spell kept the bustling staff from noticing the interlopers in their midst, though they had to step lively to avoid being run down by the tuggers, little electric vehicles like souped-up golf carts designed for hauling luggage. They emerged from a service door near one of the hotel’s myriad pools, this one a confection of waterfalls, rope bridges, multiple hot tubs, and slippery stone steps. The weather was bright, glorious, and just windy enough to take an edge off the heat.
They herded Nicolette up a set of stairs and across a swinging rope bridge that spanned a vast blue pool – that was a treacherous bit, as Nicolette managed to mouth half the syllables in an incantation that would have snapped all the ropes before Pelham stuffed a handkerchief in her mouth. From there they hurried past one of the resort’s higher-end restaurants, one offering outdoor seating with stunning views of the Western sea. Come later afteroon, Marla figured those tables would be full of tourists ignoring their food and gazing at the colors of the setting sun. They could probably get away with sending out woefully sub-par food, given the beauty of the setting. It would be a clever way to economize.
From there it was down a set of steep steps to the shoreline. All beaches in Hawai’i were public land, by state law, and the hotel concierge had told Marla there was a path that would take them all the way to the beach at Anaeho-omalu Bay – better known as “A-Bay,” since that name was a mouthful even for the locals. They passed a place where visitors to the hotel had used small white rocks to spell out their names, declarations of love, and other ephemeral messages on the fields of black lava rock that separated the path from the sea. The path wound along, close to the water, and it was largely a trail of black and white: the black rock of the lava fields, and the white rocks composed mostly of dead coral. Such starkness; such contrast; such clarity. Marla remembered a time when everything had seemed so black-and-white to her, so yes-or-no, so all-or-nothing – when she’d stood for Felport, no matter what. Things were a lot grayer these days, like the salt-and-pepper sand composed of mingled crushed stones of both colors. The time was coming when she’d have to figure out what she stood for now.
The trip would have been pleasant, almost, if not for the moanings of the tied-up chaos witch, and the fact that a tense exchange at best and an all-out war at worst waited at the end of it. The scenery was beautiful, and the trail ran along the backside of various resorts and condos. The lavish buildings were supplanted only by the Anchialine Ponds Preservation area, where signs warned visitors away from disturbing the lava pools, where rare sea life somehow still survived amid the tourism-industrial complex. After a while they crossed a wooden bridge, then passed a small sandy cove where a pair of green sea turtles sprawled on the sand, being photographed by tourists who were far closer to the endangered animals than the twenty feet allowed by law. On another day, Marla might have given them a tongue lashing, but she had bigger problems than haole tourists annoying the local reptiles.
They finally reached the beach, a strip of off-white sand dotted with palm trees, between the ocean on one side and an old royal fish pond the size of a small lake on the other. Marla broke a carefully rotted egg against a palm tree’s trunk as they arrived, casting a psychically-stinky keep-away spell to make the few tourists on the beach decide something unpleasant had died in the vicinity. Marla hoped the impression wouldn’t turn out to be prophetic. There were a couple of boats in the distance, but they were way out, and, Marla hoped, wouldn’t come drifting into a confrontation.
Once the place was deserted, Marla shaded her eyes and looked out to sea. A woman on a surfboard a few dozen yards out raised her hand in greeting, and as the waves moved another half-a-dozen figures sitting on boards were revealed – she spotted Reva among them, as well as the kid from Handsome Bob’s who’d taken them to Jaws beach. They were all in place. Marla hoped devoutly she wouldn’t need to use them.
“Okay, take out her gag,” Marla said. “No reason to make Jarrow think we’re mistreating her protege.”
“I want my axe back,” Nicolette said sullenly, once Pelham pulled the cloth out of her mouth. “You didn’t have any right to take that, I stole it fair and square.”
“I gave it to my boyfriend,” Marla lied. “He lives in hell. He’ll keep it safe. You’re not old enough to be trusted with sharp things, Nicolette.”
“Just because Elsie decided you get to live doesn’t mean I agree,” Nicolette said.
“Seriously, Nicolette, get a hobby,” Rondeau said. “Take up underwater basket weaving, or start crafting detachable steampunk prosthetic arms. Move on with your life. You’re, like, a b-grade villain. If they made a superhero movie out of Marla’s life, you wouldn’t get a role until the fourth movie, and even then, it would be as part of a team of four other minor bad guys.”
“Marla’s my nemesis.”
Marla shook her head. “Not even remotely. I’ve had a few nemeses over the years. They’re all dead now. Why would you want to be one of them?”
Three figures appeared on the far side of the fish pond, following a path from the beach’s parking area. Elsie Jarrow, unmistakable with her red hair, waved, and then began walking across the surface of the pond. What a cliché. Crapsey walked the long way around with a smaller figure – Pelham! – at his side.
“Who… who is that with Crapsey?” the faux-Pelham asked, voice strained.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rondeau murmured. “It’s okay.”
No sign of Jason. Marla couldn’t tell if she was disappointed or glad. He was her brother, but he was also an asshole she barely knew anymore, and what she knew, she didn’t like. Still, she hoped Jarrow hadn’t killed him.
“Marla!” Jarrow called from halfway across the pond. “I said I’d come, and here I am. I kept an appointment for you! You must know how rare that is.”
The ring on Marla’s finger seemed suddenly heavier. Marla slipped it off, held it between her thumb and forefinger, and lifted the ring to her right eye, closing her left.
Through the ring she saw Jarrow, walking across the pond, just a little closer now. Marla let her eye relax, allowing the background to fade out, until she was focused on Jarrow and nothing else. Time around her seemed to slow and flow like cool syrup as Jarrow’s future unspooled in her view, not so much a fast-forward as a series of snapshot impressions: Jarrow in bed with Crapsey, Jarrow on a plane, Jarrow in snowy mountains, Jarrow in a forest, Jarrow on a city street, Jarrow in –
Wait. She’d recognized a building in that city, the tower of the Whitcroft-Ivory building in downtown Felport. She tried to concentrate her mind and shift her focus, and the view ran backwards, then slowed down. Jarrow standing on a busy sidewalk, face all serenity, with a bundled object under her arm – something wrapped in fur. She unwrapped the object, revealing something like a ram’s horn, but the same red as her hair, and as long as her forearm. Jarrow raised the horn to her mouth and blew. Marla couldn’t hear what it sounded like, of course, but the buildings around Jarrow began to crumble, and the street buckled and cracked. A spidery thing the size of a car pulled itself out of a hole in the street, and dark shapes bigger than any bird swooped across the sky. Something as broad as a garbage truck, but walking on two legs, shouldered its way from an alley, shattering bricks as it came. Jarrow threw back her head, laughing, then brought the horn to her lips again.
Marla slipped the ring back onto her finger. Elsie was approaching, all smiles. She gestured, and the rope fence erected to keep visitors out of the pond fell over with a snapping of fibers and a rapid rotting of wooden posts. Jarrow stepped onto shore, still beaming. Marla forced herself to smile back. Get Pelham first. Then… think about the future.
“I really did forget about him,” Jarrow said. “I know it sounds like a lie, but why would I lie? It’s the truth. Pelham had some fun, too – did you know his little Nuno infestation had a flare-up? That’s why Crapsey’s face is all scratched up.” She stage-whispered, “Don’t say anything about it, he’s sensitive.”
“Elsie!” Nicolette called. “You came back for me?”
“I know! I’m surprised too! But you know what they say about chaos witches – we can’t even be guaranteed to act in our own best interests.”
Crapsey made it around the pond, leading Pelham with a rope tied to the valet’s wrists. “Here you go,” he said, studiously ignoring Rondeau. “Safe and sound.”
“Shall we trade?” Jarrow said.
The faux-Pelham stared open-mouthed at his double, who looked at his own doppelganger with an expression of bemusement. “But… but this… Marla, I don’t understand…” Lupo trailed off.
Jarrow clucked her tongue. “You didn’t tell him, Marla? So cruel! You’re not Pelham, my boy, you’re Lupo, my dear Lupo, here.” She snapped her fingers, and the fake Pelham sort of… blurred out, becoming a human-shaped beige smear, jittering and twitching on the sand, emitting a constant high-frequency mewling sound. “There, he’s in neutral now. Crapsey, let Pelham go to his friends.”
“We should get Nicolette first – ”
“Marla’s honorable,” Jarrow said firmly. “She adheres to her agreements. Doesn’t she?”
“Unless there’s a compelling reason not to,” Marla said.
Crapsey sighed and untied Pelham’s wrists. The valet looked at his captor, sniffed once pointedly, and joined Marla and Rondeau. “I’m pleased to be back, ma’am,” he said.
“Did they hurt you, Pelham?”
“Only incidentally, in the course of apprehending me after my attempted escape.”
“Don’t you want to know if they hurt me?” Nicolette said. “They kept me in a shit-filled bathtub and didn’t feed me and – ”
Rondeau shoved Nicolette toward Jarrow. “Thank you for choosing Hawai’i,” Rondeau said. “We know you have a choice of vacation destinations, and we appreciate your visit.”
“So, Marla,” Jarrow said. “I know I told you we could drug them and put them on a boat – ”
“What?” Crapsey said, alarmed.
Jarrow ignored him. ” – but I’m fond of Crapsey. If I keep him on a leash and make sure he doesn’t bother you or your friends, can I keep him?”
Marla looked at Rondeau, who shrugged. “I don’t see why not. But what about Nicolette?”
“Ah, yes.” Jarrow looked Nicolette up and down, then beckoned. Nicolette approached her, eyes downcast like a penitent. “For all the grief I give you, Nicolette, you really are a fairly promising witch. You have the right instinct for mischievous mayhem, but if you could get over your petty vendettas, you’d go a lot farther – don’t you understand, seeking revenge on someone who’s wronged you is so expected. It’s much better to visit harm on those who have no connection to you. Think random, reject causality, do you understand?”
“So… if I stop trying to go after Marla… you’d respect me more?”
“I think you’d respect yourself more,” Jarrow said. “What do you say?”
Nicolette shot Marla a venomous glare, then shrugged. “Whatever. I’m really a lot more interested in you than I am in Marla – ”
“Good girl.” Jarrow seized Nicolette’s head in both hands and twisted it off. There was some magic in the act, as the head separated cleanly from the neck, with only a little blood, and Nicolette’s eyes rolled in confusion and terror for a moment. Her body fell to the sand, and then Jarrow tossed the head over her shoulder, where it disappeared into the depths of the fish pond. “That’s what we do with Nicolette!” Jarrow said. “Consider that my apology for the misunderstanding with Pelham. I know my girl’s been a thorn in your side, and now she’s gone, with no blood on your hands. Yay!”
“Shit on a biscuit,” Crapsey muttered, staring at the pond, where bubbles rose among the ripples.
“She’ll lose consciousness and truly die in ten or fifteen minutes, don’t worry,” Jarrow said. “I don’t want her to suffer unduly.”
Marla arrived at the hotel’s the open-air breakfast buffet, wondering how often the birds fluttering around shat on people’s omelets. She told the hostess she needed a table for two. Pelham was lurking around somewhere, keeping an eye on things to make sure Jarrow didn’t bring an entourage. Rondeau was on Nicolette duty, and Marla just hoped he’d remembered to put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the doorknob. If some poor housekeeper discovered they had a woman tied up in a bathtub, things could get awkward.
Jarrow breezed in a few minutes after Marla was seated, all smiles and cheerfully waving, dressed like a wealthy tourist from the mainland in a red sundress and lots of chunky gold jewelry and too much lipstick. Marla stood up, and Jarrow embraced her and air-kissed her cheeks. “Darling, you look tired!”
“I didn’t get much sleep last night, Jarrow.”
“Please, call me Elsie! I didn’t sleep, but then, I never do, it cuts into my me-time, you know. I realize we have a lot to talk about, but I’m dying for something to eat. I don’t actually need food, I subsist on other energies, but I love a good buffet – ooh, there’s an omelet station!” She hurried over toward the long tables of savories and sweets.
Marla unobtrusively slipped Death’s ring from her finger and peered through the circle as the witch filled up a plate with eggs and bacon and fruit. The future didn’t appear to hold any surprise attacks, just Jarrow getting food and coming back to the table and talking. The ring didn’t provide audio, and Marla wasn’t much of a lipreader, so she didn’t know what Jarrow was saying. She put the ring away. She’d find out soon enough.
When Jarrow returned, she reached across the table and took Marla’s hand. Looking at her up close, Marla could see the underlying structure of Jarrow’s face, and it was Marla’s own, though it was clearly being altered from the inside. Still, they could have been sisters, once you looked beyond the fiery red hair and make-up on Jarrow. “My dear,” Jarrow said, “let there be no more conflict between us. I was hired to do a distasteful job, and now that my employer is no longer in a position to give me orders, well! Why should I bother you any longer?”
Marla frowned and pulled her hand away. “So you’re just going to let it drop? No more murder or torment?”
“You understand me perfectly.”
“Then why did you even come here? Why not just leave the island?”
Jarrow raised one eyebrow. “Marla Mason. I told you I did a tiny bit of research on you before I came on this mission. You’re a fairly formidable person. In the past few years you’ve vanquished the Beast of Felport, outsmarted the time-traveling first chief sorcerer of the city – don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone it’s really Malkin, it’s cute how you made everyone think he was just some crazy guy – sent the king of elves back to his hideous little dimension, killed a resurrected Aztec god, dispelled the king of nightmares, and fought the incarnation of Death. Am I missing anything?”
“Lots of things, actually,” Marla said. “But I guess those are some of the highlights.”
“And what highlights they are! You don’t look like much, forgive me for saying so, but I think you could make my life unpleasant, if you wanted to. You still have some powerful friends, even if you’re reluctant to call on them. Why didn’t you summon your friend Genevieve, by the way, the reweaver? She would have made this thing between us into a real fight.”
“Against you? Genevieve’s mind isn’t all that stable, and she can alter reality with a thought – she shut herself away in a private bubble-universe because she worried about how she might mess up this world. She contains the potential for incomprehensible chaos. Throwing her at you would be like trying to douse a fire with kerosene – you’d end up using her power to make yourself stronger.”
“Drat,” Jarrow said. “I was afraid you’d actually thought it through. Oh well. You’re a fighter, Marla, and you have a distressing tendency to accomplish things. You’ve got the one quality that’s indispensable to a sorcerer: an iron will. The kind of will that says, ‘I will change the world, and I will not be changed.’ So I thought it best to come visit you, and formally declare an end to hostilities, and break bread together.” Jarrow tore a macadamia nut muffin in half and offered a chunk to Marla, who accepted it, but didn’t eat.
“If you think I could be a threat to you… why not kill me? Just to be on the safe side?”
Jarrow smiled warmly. “Why, what a cold arithmetic, Marla! I want you to live because you make the world a more interesting place. Despite your best efforts to restore things to maintain a status quo and prevent upheaval in Felport, you’re an agent of turmoil. You prompted a regime change in Hell, Marla. You tore a big hole right in the fabric of reality and let terrible things from a dread dimension pour into this world. Thanks for that, by the way – I’m quite fond of Crapsey. You’re a destabilizing force for chaos, and the adorable thing is, you think you’re a force for order.”
Marla shook her head. “Maybe that was true once, Elsie, but I’m not a force for anything anymore.” She sighed. “But… I still try to do the right thing. And my problem is, you did bad stuff, last time you were free. It took a coalition of dozens of sorcerers from up and down the East Coast to contain you. You were a walking, talking cancer cluster. If I don’t try to stop you, what am I unleashing on the world?”
Jarrow put her chin in her hand and regarded Marla seriously. “Is that… altruism? How strange. I keep meaning to try that someday – being a do-gooder for a while. Listen, Marla. Those were dark times. I wasn’t entirely aware of what I was doing. My original body was ravaged by tumors. I held myself together physically through sheer force of will, but I couldn’t shut out the pain without shutting off all sensation, so my options were utter agony or the feeling of floating in a sensory deprivation tank all the time. Neither one was good for my mental health. You have to understand, I’m not really insane – I just had a nervous breakdown, lost my handle on my powers, and… yes, people died. I know that. I’ve been locked in a cube for years, and for some of that time, I didn’t have a body at all, I was so low on power I couldn’t save my physical form from the tumors that consumed it. Being bodiless for long periods of time will mess you up, Marla, especially if you’re a bon vivant like me. But now.” She sat back and gestured at herself modestly. “I’m in a young, strong, incredibly well-safeguarded body. No more bad craziness in my head. Don’t worry about me. Besides, practically speaking, how could you stop me? I mean, yes, theoretically, I won’t discount the possibility – but it wouldn’t be easy for you, and it wouldn’t be quick.”
Marla disagreed. She had a pretty good idea how she could stop Jarrow. She’d figured out the first part last night, and had woken with an inspiration for the second part. But the cost was extreme, and if she didn’t need to do it… maybe Jarrow was lying. But maybe she was telling the truth. She was definitely weird, but she didn’t seem particularly out-of-control now. Last night had been weird and ugly, but it was a duel between sorcerers – those tended to be unpleasant. Jarrow wouldn’t be the only unpredictable, dangerous sorcerer in the world. And why did she have to be Marla’s problem anyway? Jarrow hadn’t escaped from Blackwing under Marla’s watch. Marla didn’t even have a watch anymore. If Jarrow didn’t pose a clear and present danger to Marla herself, or to anyone she cared about… “I guess you have a point,” Marla said.
“Truce, then?” Jarrow said.
“Until you give me a reason to decide otherwise.”
“Then eat your damn muffin,” Jarrow said. “Symbolism is important.”
Marla took a bite, chewed, swallowed. “How’s my brother Jason?”
“Surly. I see a family resemblance.”
“Can you tell him I don’t mean him any harm anymore? I’ll leave him alone if he leaves me alone?”
“Hmm. Maybe? I’ll think about it. Doesn’t sound very interesting, though.”
That was probably the best she could hope for. “You’ve decided not to try and kill me, but what about the rest of your merry band?”
“Oh, the hired guns will wander off. The ones with a personal grudge… well, there’s Crapsey, I would imagine you can handle him if he gets obstreperous. And Nicolette, but you’ve got her, right?”
“Tied up in a bathroom. I’d like to get rid of her, by the way.”
Jarrow gestured vaguely westward. “There’s a whole big ocean out there you could drown her in.”
“I don’t go in for casual murder, or pre-emptive self-defense, either. But it would be nice if she left me alone.”
“Tell you what,” Jarrow said. “I’ll see if Crapsey wants her back. Maybe he’ll trade Nicolette’s freedom for his good behavior? You can’t trust him, and they’ll betray you, but…” She shrugged. “It’s just Nicolette and Crapsey. Knock them out and stick them on a banana boat to the mainland, and they won’t bother you for a while.” Jarrow leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Nicolette’s afraid of teleporting.”
“She did get her arm ripped off that way,” Marla said.
Jarrow rolled her eyes. “Such a little drama queen. She lost one arm. Big deal. She’s got another one.”
“Can I ask you something? What keeps you going? I mean… what’s your purpose?”
Jarrow leaned back and regarded Marla seriously. “Wow. I didn’t have you pegged as the philosopher type. What’s the meaning of life? Whatever meaning you give it, sweetums. I like seeing the world, meeting new people, and feeling the thrum of impossible energies filling my body. I’m basically a proponent of straight-up hedonism.”
“My friend Rondeau’s the same way. But for me… that’s never been enough.”
“Take up knitting, or join the Society for Creative Anachronism, or get into exotic animal rescue. You’re retired now, right? Get a hobby.”
“A hobby? Elsie, I used to have a mission.”
“So find one of those.” Jarrow shrugged. “The world’s full of shit. If that bothers you, don’t just bitch about it. Grab a shovel and get to work.” She grinned. “People like me will help make sure there’s always more poop for you to scoop.”
When Marla got back to her room, Death was waiting for her, sitting in the armchair by the sliding glass door to the balcony.
“You just let yourself in, did you?”
“Death can go anywhere, Marla. That’s sort of the point. I’ve seen the future – and your death is no longer imminent. Neither is Jason’s, or Nicolette’s.”
Marla sat down on the edge of the bed. “You don’t seem too thrilled about that.”
“For obvious reasons. But you don’t seem very happy, either, which surprises me.”
“For a little while there, I had some adrenaline pumping, I was having fun, but… a truce over brunch? It’s kind of anticlimactic. I always hated the diplomacy parts of my job the most.”
“Tell me, Marla – did you discover the secret of the ring?”
“Look through it, see the future. Kind of nifty, I guess. I haven’t told Rondeau about it. He’d beg me to borrow it so he could find a horse race to bet on. Like he doesn’t have enough money already.”
“I’m sure it’s less about the money, and more about the thrill,” Death said. “I’d think you could relate.”
“Did you look at Jarrow through the ring?”
“Sure. I got to see her scoop eggs onto a plate whole seconds before she actually did it.”
Death frowned. “The ring can do rather more than give you glimpses of the immediate, Marla. If you focus on the person you’re watching, and let the surroundings blur, you can see farther – a view of the most likely long-term future for that individual, unfolding in a rapid flow, and by paying attention in just the right way, you can slow down and focus on particular moments. It’s quite a powerful artifact.” That last bit was rather peevish.
“Right. Sorry. It’s a beautiful ring, and… I can see how it would be very useful.”
“Perhaps, if you have the opportunity, you should look at Jarrow through it again.”
Marla didn’t like the sound of that. “Why?”
“You might see something that… makes you rethink your agreement.”
“Shit. You’re saying she’s going to betray me?”
Death shook his head. “Not that, not exactly, but… she is a force for chaos, Marla. She is a carrion beetle that feeds on death.”
“So? It’s none of my business.”
“Really? Well. Sometimes things get big enough that they become your business, whether you like it or not.” He stood up. “I should be off. But one other thing. If, in the future, you have something to say to me – just say it. You don’t need to send a messenger.”
“I have no idea what in the earthly fuck you’re talking about.”
Death’s expression became thoughtful. “Ah. I may have misjudged… if you don’t know what I mean, never mind. I was mistaken.”
“Hold on, what are you – ”
“Marla!” Rondeau burst in through the connecting door. “I offered Nicolette the bathroom like ten times, but she just crapped herself and now she’s laughing and rolling around in the tub – ” He stopped short. “Oh. Uh. Hi, Mr., uh.”
“Rondeau,” Death said, voice chilly. He pulled open a door that shouldn’t have been on the wall and stepped through. The door sort of sidled away and vanished after he closed it.
“What did he want?” Rondeau said. “Did I interrupt a godly booty-call?”
“Not exactly. He’s pretty bummed I’m not going to die anytime soon.”
A look of guilt flashed across Rondeau’s face. Marla had seen that expression on him before lately. She didn’t ask – he probably had lots of things to feel guilty about.
But Rondeau said, “Marla, I should tell you… I mean, it doesn’t matter now, but… Death made me an offer, back in Lahaina.”
“What kind of offer?”
“Everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” Rondeau said. “And all I had to do in return was… stand aside and let you die. He didn’t ask me to kill you, he just said, if it looked like you were about to get killed, if I didn’t do anything, if I didn’t try to save you, he’d reward me. I was never going to do it, but I didn’t want to tell you, didn’t want to distract you when you were in a fight for your life, but if things are cool now – ”
Marla blinked. The bottom had dropped out of her stomach. “Fucking gods,” she said.
That’s when Reva knocked on the door and called, “Anyone home?”
The ropes holding Pelham hostage were unpredictable in nature: they moved, they writhed, they tightened – but they also loosened. And whenever they did loosen, Pelham shifted his body incrementally to take advantage, sliding the ropes down, edging ever closer to freedom… for what it was worth. Escaping from the ropes would take hours – but he seemed to have ample time, as they’d stuck him in a closet in a bungalow overnight and well into the morning. He was one good twist away from being loose, though what he would do after getting loose was an open question.
Elsie Jarrow was gone to some mysterious meeting, and moments ago Crapsey had loudly announced that he was going to take a walk because Jason kept cheating at cards, which Jason denied rather mildly. Pelham wasn’t sure what Jason was doing out there. If he was napping, Pelham could escape. If he was watching the closet diligently… Pelham was fairly sure he had a gun. But two of his three captors were out of the room. When would he get a better opportunity? He –
Something moved by Pelham’s foot. He squinted in the dimness of the closet – the door was slatted, allowing in some light, so it wasn’t entirely black inside – and saw the carpet tear apart as a cone-shaped mound grew up through the floor. From beyond the door, Jason swore, and there was a thump, like a chair falling over.
The Nuno were coming. Pelham’s curse – and, in this case, potentially his salvation. Just then the ropes went briefly slack as they slithered around his body, and Pelham slipped his hands free and tore the ropes from his ankles. Jason shouted outside, and Pelham slid the closet door open just as the first cat-sized, chittering monstrosity emerged from the hole beside his feet. He ran out into the room, where Jason was whirling around, one Nuno clinging to his arm, another trying to climb his pants leg. Pelham quickly scanned the room and caught sight of a cell phone on the bedside table. He leapt over the bed, snatched up the phone, and ran for the door. “No, stop, Goddamnit!” Jason yelled. “What the fuck! I thought you weren’t a sorcerer!”
Pelham didn’t bother to explain the situation. He found Jason Mason a most unpleasant man, and hoped the Nuno would find him sufficiently entertaining to avoid pursuing Pelham. He opened the door, looked out briefly to make sure Crapsey wasn’t in sight, and started running. The bungalow was close to the beach, surrounded by verdant trees, quite idyllic, really, if he wasn’t too busy running for his life to enjoy the view. A dirt track led off to the east, and Pelham ran into the woods parallel to the track, trying to move swiftly but not too loudly. Woodcraft was not one of his greatest strengths; he’d studied the subject, but mostly on the grounds of the Chamberlain’s estate, which were not particularly wild. After he’d gone a few hundred yards from the house, and could no longer hear Jason shouting, he paused briefly in the shadow of a great tree to dial Rondeau’s number.
“You again,” Rondeau said. “Not that I don’t love talking to you, Jason, but – ”
“Rondeau! This is Pelham. I was abducted by Jarrow, and replaced with an imposter, a shapechanger named Lupo. This Lupo is wearing my face, but he is not me. I have escaped my captors and stolen their phone, but I am unsure of my location.” It occurred to him that the phone probably had GPS, so he said, “Just a moment, I will try to ascertain my whereabouts.”
“Pelly, wait, what the – ”
“Drop the phone, butler boy.” Crapsey appeared from the direction of the road, his face a welter of red scratches. “Those little shits you summoned were nasty. Elsie would approve. Definitely an eruption of the irrational. But come along home like a good little hostage.”
Pelham slipped the phone into his pocket, cracked his neck, and took a stance. “I look forward to the opportunity to repay you for your impertinence,” he said.
Crapsey cocked his head. “You’re a fighter, footman?”
“I am skilled in many martial arts. I gather you are not.”
“Nah, I usually get by on the strength of my winning personality.” Crapsey grinned, and the illusion that made his grotesque wooden jaw appear normal faded away. The jaw was inlaid with strange traceries of gold. “But I do have some other resources. Now let me see, I was trying some of the trigger words earlier this morning, and I found a really great one I’d never used before – let’s see: ‘dysmenorrhea’.”
Pelham frowned. “A troubling condition, I’m sure, but not one that seems applicable to our current – ”
Crapsey lowered his head, and his whole body trembled. His arms stretched out, growing beyond the ends of his sleeves, and his fingers and nails elongated into oversized claws. His spine curved as he hunched forward, and his wooden jaw swelled, jutting out in a profound underbite, with railroad-spike sized teeth bursting up through the wood. His eyes began to glow green, and in general he took on a profoundly bestial aspect, the stink of sulfur puffing out with his every exhalation. “Gonna – get – you,” the beast growled, and reached out with those impossibly long arms.
Pelham ran. Crapsey ran faster.
The little guy groaned from the back seat, where he was trussed up and covered with a blanket. Jason tried to ignore the noises as he drove along the highway toward the cabin Christian had booked for them to use as a base of operations. The SUV ran more smoothly now than it had before the tires got popped – Jarrow had patched them up magically, somehow. He didn’t trust magic, but they hadn’t given him much choice. He considered cutting the little guy loose and driving to the airport, but Jarrow had found him in his trailer in Mississippi, and he was pretty sure she’d be able to find him anywhere else he ran. Better to play this thing out, and hope he landed on his feet when it was all over.
The guy in the back said, “Hello? Who is driving, please?”
“Keep quiet,” Jason said. “I’m trying to think.”
“My name is Pelham,” the little guy said, like Jason didn’t know that. “May I ask where you’re taking me?” His tone was polite, reasonable, and not even a little bit terrified. Jason had driven a few cars with guys tied up in the back seat, or in the trunk, over the years, and none of them had sounded this cool when they talked. You had to admire the guy’s guts.
“Don’t worry. I’m just supposed to keep you on ice for a little while.”
“You work for Elsie Jarrow, the chaos witch?”
“I don’t work for anybody but me,” Jason said, knowing how hollow that must sound. “I’m working with Jarrow, all right?”
A moment of silence, and then a dry chuckle, muffled by the blanket but still audible. “You are Marla Mason’s brother, aren’t you? Jason.”
Christ. “So what if I am?”
“May I sit up? I promise not to cause you any difficulties. I would not wish to get you in trouble with Ms. Jarrow. She seems a formidable woman.” Without waiting for an answer, Pelham levered himself upright, the blanket half-falling off his body. Jason glanced at him in the rearview. His hair was mussed and sticking up in all directions, making him look like a little boy just awake from a nap. He was handcuffed, and shackled, and tied with a weird rope of Jarrow’s own devising, one that twisted and squirmed like a snake. “You’ve certainly gone to some trouble to tie me up,” Pelham said. “I’m not even a sorcerer, you know.”
“Jarrow said you’re an escape artist, though. She told me you don’t have much in the way of actual magic, but that you know a whole lot about a whole lot of other things.”
“I have some small expertise in escapeology,” Pelham acknowledged. “But my lockpicks have been taken, it seems, and these bonds are ensorcelled. I am amply contained. But Mrs. Mason will be worried about me, you know. She’ll come find me. She – ”
“She doesn’t know you’re gone, Jeeves. We’ve got a guy, Lupo, who can make himself look like anybody. A perfect imposter. God, the scams I could run with a guy like that, too bad he’s batshit crazy… anyway, he’s being you right now. He’s not even faking it, exactly – he thinks he really is you. I was all for putting a bullet in your head and leaving you back there at the park, but Jarrow says Lupo can do a better job imitating you if you’re still alive.”
“A passive psychic link,” Pelham murmured. “How very unpleasant.” He sighed. “At least if Lupo believes his own delusion, he doesn’t pose a threat to Marla.”
“Until Jarrow makes him think he’s the Green River Killer or something, sure. You take comfort in that.”
“If I may ask – why do you harbor such antipathy toward Marla?”
Jason wasn’t in the mood to spill his guts to his sister’s footman, or whatever the fuck this guy was. “We’ve got history. I did everything for her, and when push came to shove, she wasn’t there for me. So I don’t owe her anything anymore.”
“She was very young,” Pelham said, almost gently. “I think you would find her a loyal and indefatigable ally now.”
Jason shook his head. “Too late for that. I tried to kill her. She tried to kill me. I tried to kill her friend Rondeau, though I guess he survived. Fucking magic. She did kill my partner, Danny Two Saints. Jarrow came to me, told me she could give me peace of mind, that I could help her get rid of Marla, so I could stop looking over my shoulder – ”
“Marla wasn’t coming for you, Mr. Mason. She is, I think, more sad than angry, when she thinks about you, and what’s happened between you.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Don’t you think she could have found you easily if she’d tried? Those who understand magic have ways of hiding from one another, but you know nothing of such secrets. She could have traced you, gone after you, with trivial ease. She did not. You should not have become involved in this.”
“Too late to do anything about that now,” Jason said. “I threw the dice. Now I just have to hope it doesn’t come up boxcars.”
“Is it true you’re a confidence trickster, Mr. Mason?”
“I’ve made my living a lot of ways. But sure, I’ve spent some time on the grift.”
“I don’t understand why you would choose a life that revolves around hurting people,” Pelham said. “I am not a religious man – I’ve met too many gods to be comfortable worshipping them – but I do believe there’s truth in the saying that the wages of sin are death.”
Jason snorted. “The wages of sin are death, sure. But so are the wages of everything else, eventually. And in the short run, the wages of grifting are money. Not to mention the pleasure of knowing you put one over on some sucker, or some jerk who thought they were putting one over on you. They say you can’t cheat an honest man. That’s not true, but it’s a lot easier to cheat a dishonest one. The world is shit, Pelham. Most people are just pieces of shit. The best you can hope to be is an insect, feeding off the shit. At least then you can fly.”
“You certainly have a way with colorful metaphor, Mr. Mason.”
“Don’t I know it. I was always the creative one in my family.”
Crapsey and Elsie stepped out of the portal not far from the little beach cottage Christian had reserved for them, back before he got turned into frogs. The rented SUV was parked beside the house, hidden by the shadows of the night, and a light glowed in one of the windows, which meant Jason and his prisoner were probably inside.
Elsie took a deep breath of the warm, flower-scented air. “I love this place. Don’t you?”
Since he was busy trying not to puke again, Crapsey limited himself to a grunt. He bent over and took a few breaths to get his stomach under control before straightening.
Elsie slung her arm around his shoulder. “Maybe you and I should stay here, huh? After all this business is done? Just for a while. I mean, all these volcanoes! Talk about a volatile situation. I mean, they aren’t volatile enough, they’re all pretty dormant except the one on the Big Island, but I could do something about that…”
They were alone together, and Elsie was clearly feeling cheerful, so Crapsey decided to broach a subject he’d been thinking about. “Uh, so, Elsie. I was thinking, you’re probably the most powerful sorcerer I’ve ever met, maybe the most powerful in the world – ”
“Oh, now, that’s sweet of you, but really, I’m probably only in the top ten right now. But since I’m free of Husch’s chains, I can really get to work, stir up some disasters, get my powers back. Check back with me in a few months, though, and I might deserve that compliment.” She spun away from him, doing a little twirl with her arms outstretched and her head thrown back. “Freedom! Freedom, Crapsey! Is there a more beautiful concept?”
“Freedom’s something I’ve been thinking about myself. You know how I got that spell cast on me, trapping me in this body. It’s pretty shitty, boss. Terrifying, even, because if this body dies, there’s no reason to think my consciousness will die with it. I could be stuck inside my own corpse forever…” He shuddered.
“Hardly forever! You’ll rot like anybody, and since the spell is particular to that body you’re wearing, you’ll be free once it’s entirely decomposed. Now, that means you have to avoid being buried in a coffin, because, brother, those things take forever to break down. You want to go all natural, ideally near as many scavenging animals and flesh-devouring insects as possible. You know, I’d say go for cremation, but there are always unburned bone fragments, and you’d have to wait for those to break down entirely too, which is way slower if you’re in an urn somewhere. I mean, we’re talking the rise and fall of civilizations long. No, you want to get buried in a hole, somewhere nice and hot and moist – ha, no dirty jokes now – what I’m saying is, tropical. You’ll be free in a decade or two. Or three or four. I’m not sure how long it takes bones to break down and become basically undifferentiated from minerals. Now, a lot of people hate you, though admittedly most of them don’t live in this universe, but still, someone could really fuck with you, take extraordinary steps to preserve your skeleton, and in that case, you’re in trouble, so I’d advocate dying alone in a jungle – ”
Crapsey cleared his throat. “I could go that way. I mean, that’s good advice. No doubt. Or, maybe, I don’t know, you could… set me free?”
Elsie cocked her head. “Are you asking me for a favor?”
“I guess I am. Is that a bad idea?”
“One of the worst! I’m a genie who just got her bottle broken to bits, Crapsey. I could do just about anything, after all. But, you know… I don’t think so. I think I want you to stay trapped in your own bottle for now.”
Crapsey sighed. Life was disappointment. “Why? I thought you liked me.”
“Oh, I do! I do like you, and usually the kindest feeling I can generate toward anybody is plain old indifference. Consider yourself blessed.”
“Okay, but… think of the chaos I could cause, if I had my old powers back.”
Elsie put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes. He was glad it was dark out here – her eyes could be disconcerting, so bright, so merry, so full of depths. “Your powers, let’s be clear, involve leaving your body and taking over the bodies of others, destroying their souls in the process. Then you abandon their bodies, leaving them brain-dead husks. Right?”
“Pretty much. So you’ve got, like… a moral objection?” Crapsey was aware of right and wrong the way a color-blind person is aware of the full color spectrum: via secondhand explanations. Any conscience he’d once possessed had been utterly burned out of him during his years as the Mason’s lieutenant, when atrocities became casual.
“Heavens, no! Like I said, for most people, I can barely even muster feelings of indifference. No, Crapsey, the problem is, you could be a living genocide if you really got going. You could be a one-man pandemic. And with every soul you destroyed, and every body you dropped, you’d leave the world a little less complicated. Me? I like complicated. I want more people, with all their tiny little drives and urges and strivings crashing up against one another. The brain-dead do nothing for me. So, no, sweetie, you just hang tight. If you get really desperate you can always dunk your body in a big vat of acid until it’s totally dissolved.”
“I hate pain,” Crapsey said morosely. “Like, I hate it a lot.”
“Those who’ve inflicted a lot of pain on others often do.” Elsie patted his cheek. “Don’t be pouty. You could live a long time in that body, and you’ve got that wonderful jaw! You could eat the world with that jaw! And I might change my mind. You never know. I do that. For now, let’s go see how Jason’s doing, shall we? I need him to call his sister for me tomorrow.”
“Yeah. What are you going to do about Marla?”
“I think it would be fun to let Marla decide that,” Elsie said. “But I think I’ll let her get some sleep first, so she’s not too cranky, and the same goes for you and the other remainders of the Marla Mason Revenge Squad. And our hostage. I want everyone well-rested and perky. There’s plenty of time to decide Marla’s fate over brunch.”
“Nicolette tried to bite me,” Rondeau said. “I was just offering her a Danish, you know how great the pastries are in that little cafe downstairs? She nearly took my finger off. So I, uh, psychiced her. Squeezed her brain right to sleep. I didn’t even know I could do that, I just reached into her mind and felt around a little until I found the sleepy bit, and I gave it a little tweak, and, conk. She’s snoring now.” He yawned and poured Marla a cup of coffee from an oversized French press. They were out on Marla’s balcony, overlooking the dolphin lagoon.
“She’s still tied up in the bathtub?” Marla sipped. Kona coffee, black. That was one thing about life on the islands that she couldn’t find even a speck of fault with.
“Yeah, with a bunch of pillows around her because I’m not a dick. Pelly’s watching her. Your soundproofing spell is holding fine. We can’t even hear her yell unless we’re in there with her trying to brush our teeth or whatever, which is why we slipped in to use your shower this morning.
“It’s not like you to sleep later than… well, anybody. Roosters, early birds, worms, guys who work the night shift, you usually beat all of them.”
Marla shrugged. “You’re always telling me I need to learn to relax.”
Rondeau frowned. “True, but maybe not when a crazy chaos magician is trying to kill you?”
“If Jarrow wants me dead, I’m dead. I don’t have any more chance than the dinosaurs did against that asteroid. I can’t even hurt her, let alone fight her.” She took another sip of coffee. Good thing Rondeau had never learned to tell when she was lying. There was a way she could hurt Jarrow, she’d learned that when she talked to Hamil the night before, but it was a case of the cure being worse than the disease, and in the end, it wouldn’t make any difference. Because: “Even if I took Nicolette’s magic axe and put it in the hands of a god like Reva, and he managed to chop Jarrow’s head off, so what? She doesn’t need a body. It’s possible that being in a body is actually making her less crazy. Hamil said she seemed sane, and it’s not like she’s rampaging around turning whole shopping malls into frogs.”
“No, just one guy at a time. That’s super comforting. So we just wait?”
“Traps are laid. Defenses are set. What else can we do?”
“Usually ‘go on the offensive,’ is your answer to that,” Rondeau said. “Aren’t you the woman who literally invaded Hell last summer?”
Marla grimaced. “No, Rondeau. I’m not that woman. That woman was the chief sorcerer of Felport, acting in defense of her city. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a city anymore. There’s not even a reason for me to get out of bed at all these days. Which is why I didn’t get up this morning, until you came and poked me in the arm.”
“Right, no reason at all. Except, oh, what’s it called – self-preservation?”
Marla pushed her cup aside. “I didn’t go to Jarrow with my head bowed and wait for death last night. I am fighting. I just wonder, sometimes, what I’m fighting for.”
“Marla – ” Rondeau’s phone rang. He raised an eyebrow, and Marla nodded. Probably it was just his masseur on Maui calling to ask why he’d missed yesterday’s appointment –
“Wow,” Rondeau said. “I didn’t expect to hear from you. I’m doing fine, thanks, totally recovered from the whole getting-shot-by-you thing. Oh, but you don’t want to walk down memory lane with me. Let me get your sister.” He handed over the phone.”Hello, Jason,” Marla said.
“Marla. I’ve, ah, got a message for you. From Elsie Jarrow.”
“I thought you had bad taste in friends before, but you’ve really outdone yourself this time. You never cease to impress.”
He sounded a little shaky when he replied, but with Jason, no show of emotion was remotely trustworthy. She wasn’t sure he even had emotions, apart from maybe envy and contempt. “Listen, sis, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I wasn’t so much recruited as kidnapped, and I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here with witches and warlocks and guys with creepy wooden jaws. Mostly I’ve just been driving them around and waiting for them to get bored with me.”
“Or kill you,” Marla said. “That’s just as likely. Maybe more so.”
“You sure know how to raise a guy’s spirits. But, look – I’m calling to tell you nobody has to die. Jarrow wants to meet with you, and talk things over. No tricks, no fussing or fighting.”
“Ha. Fine. Where?”
“There’s supposed to be a great buffet in that resort where you’re staying,” Jason said. “How about she meets you there for brunch in an hour?”
“Just me and her, alone?”
“I’m not coming, if that’s what you’re asking. Our tearful reunion will have to wait.” There was some background noise, and then muffled noises as if Jason was covering the phone, and then he returned. “Oh, Jarrow wants to know if you’ve got Nicolette, or if she’s still just a fart in the woods, whatever the fuck that means.”
“I’ve got her,” Marla said. “She’s not hurt.”
Jason relayed that. “Okay,” he said. “Thanks.’
“What, no demands that I release her?”
“Jarrow says if having a hostage makes you feel better, that’s cool. One hour at the buffet. If you get there first, order coffee for her.” He hung up, and Marla handed the phone back to Rondeau, telling him the deal.
“Normally meeting in public is a good idea,” Rondeau said. “It keeps people on good behavior. But this is Jarrow. What if she just, like… kills everybody?”
“Then get a message to Arachne, and mobilize the kahunas against her,” Marla said. “Put her in touch with Hamil, too – he was part of the team that caught Jarrow the first time, though he was nothing but an apprentice at the time. He might have some pointers.”
“How did they catch her?” Rondeau asked.
Marla shrugged. “I was prepubescent at the time, living in Indiana. I don’t know all the details. I just know it took a lot of resources. Ask Pelham – he’s a walking history of Felport.”
“Maybe I’ll get him to tell me for my bedtime story tonight, since you’re making us share a room,” Rondeau said.
“Assuming you’ll live until bedtime,” Marla replied. “Aren’t you the optimist?”
Nicolette should not have been corporeal again that quickly – but then, she was strengthened by chaos, too. Or maybe her freedom was just a parting gift from Jarrow.
Nicolette snatched up her silver hatchet with her one hand and snarled. Shit. Leaving a weapon like that in the dirt was an amateur mistake. Marla was off her game tonight. Fighting chaos personified could do that to a person.
Marla drew her knife. That hatchet had the look of an artifact. Was it stronger than her dagger? Would they mutually annihilate one another if they collided? If only she had time to look through her ring and see what the future would bring. She’d have to get that thing fitted into the lens of a pair of glasses or something – she could see the present with one eye and the future with another – but for now, Death’s gift wasn’t doing her much good.
Nicolette raised her axe. “Finally. Just you and me. That’s all I wanted.”
“Then why did you bring fifteen other fucking people?” Marla straightened her spine. She was tired, and worried, and she had a spot of rot at the core of her sense of identity, but she wasn’t going to let Nicolette beat her.
Or so she hoped. Then again, the outlaw Jesse James had been shot in the back by a cowardly nobody. Anybody could kill anybody, if the circumstances were right.
“You didn’t like being a cloud of gas?” Marla said, as they circled one another, weapons raised. “You’re worth more as a fart in the wind than you are as a sorcerer. I can’t believe you’re running with Jarrow. Doesn’t her company just make you realize how much you suck? It’s like seeing a Little League shortstop playing in a game alongside Major Leaguers. It’s not even funny. It’s not even embarrassing. It’s just sad for everybody.”
“I usually like a little banter,” Nicolette said. “But I’m so sick of listening to you, you can’t imagine.”
“Then why the hell did you travel five thousand miles to the island where I live?”
“Because I couldn’t let you – fuck! No! No talking! Murdertime!” Nicolette raised the axe, its eerie silver glow growing brighter, and darted forward.
Marla sidestepped, and Nicolette didn’t even try to correct her course. She just took three more steps, swayed, and fell forward on the sand, dropping her axe. A tiny feathered dart stuck out of the side of her neck.
Pelham came limping into the circle of lights, his houndstooth jacket torn at one sleeve and smudged with dirt. He held the hollow tube of a blowgun in one hand. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Mason. I was nearly captured, and had to conceal myself, but I came as quickly as I could.”
Marla grabbed Pelham and hugged him. “You wonderful Anglophile you.”
“What has become of Rondeau? And of your enemies? Are they thwarted?”
“Thwartish,” Marla said. “Jarrow and Crapsey took off, but they might be back. Some of the others are dead. I don’t even know if my brother or the mystery villain were in the van. Did you get a headcount?”
“It was difficult, in the confusion,” Pelham said. “I disabled their vehicle, but before I could take up a sniper position, Jarrow somehow transported herself behind me. It was not a form of teleportation I’ve seen before – she did not open a portal. She merely took a few steps, vanished, and reappeared. Perhaps she has an affinity for shadows? She put me in the care of that fiend Crapsey, and I escaped. Is Rondeau…”
“I was about to check on him. I think he’s just knocked out. Go into the house and find the rope, the one braided from nine strands. It wouldn’t hold Jarrow any more than a pair of handcuffs would hold me, but it’s good enough to keep Nicolette bound until I figure out what the hell to do with her. Maybe Arachne can tell me what they do with dangerous outlaw sorcerers around here…”
“Of course, Mrs. Mason. If I may ask… what is our next move?”
“Fall back to the hotel,” Marla said. “I’ve got some preparations made there, too. I’m not thinking that far ahead, though, Pelly – honestly, the fact that we’re still alive, and haven’t been turned into beehives or library paste or something, is a major coup.”
While Pelham tied up Nicolette and secured her hatchet, Marla went in search of Rondeau. He was just starting to wake up, groaning, in the dirt. Crapsey hadn’t dared kill him, fortunately – Rondeau was a psychic parasite, and if his body died, he’d just find another host to occupy. “This is the worst hangover, ever,” Rondeau said as she helped him to his feet. “And I didn’t even get to have any fun first.”
Marla surveyed the area and chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. “Okay, let’s gather up the traps that didn’t get set off. We might need them later – and it would probably annoy the local kahunas if we left them here for tourists to stumble across.”
As they carefully disabled the traps, Pelham said, “We did well, didn’t we, Mrs. Mason? The strength of our enemies has been reduced greatly, and surely your old colleagues in Felport are on their way to apprehend Dr. Husch?”
Marla shook her head. “The only enemy that matters is Elsie Jarrow. The rest of them, I can deal with, even my brother. But Jarrow… there’s no stopping her if she decides she wants to kill me. I’m not saying I miss the cloak, but… it would be handy to have right now. It might make the playing field remotely level. Without that… the only reason I’m still alive is because she enjoys playing with me. Maybe she’ll get distracted by something shiny and leave me alone. If not… it doesn’t matter how many of her pawns, confederates, and footsoldiers we put away. We’re all doomed.”
“The reason you’re the leader,” Rondeau said, “is because you give the best pep talks.”
Crapsey puked in the bushes for a while, to Elsie’s amusement. “Teleporting,” he groaned. “I fucking hate it. It’s no way for a man to travel.”
“Luckily, you aren’t a man – just a psychic bug in a man-suit!” Elsie wasn’t even trying to keep a low profile – she was just standing beside a row of ornamental shrubberies, watching the horde of sorcerers, mercenaries, and miscellaneous expendable personnel swarming around the front of the towering edifice of the Blackwing Institute. “Come, Crapsey, I think I see the man in charge.” She pointed to a towering man pacing back and forth in the horseshoe driveway.
“Huh. Is that Hamil?”
“I believe so.” Elsie strolled across the lawn toward the Blackwing Institute, Crapsey at her heels. “Mr. Sorcerer, sir!” she shouted. “Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”
When he turned and saw them, the cigar fell out of his mouth, and he didn’t even notice. He made a small gesture, and a dozen people dressed in everything from white leather jackets to leopardskin coats to red-and-black opera cloaks arrayed themselves behind him in a loose semi-circle. His apprentices or lieutenants, probably. Looked like last call on Halloween. Sorcerers had the weirdest sense of fashion.
Crapsey tried to hunch behind Elsie, which was tricky since he outweighed her by about sixty pounds. If the fireballs started flying, he’d take whatever protection he could get.
“May I help you?” Hamil’s voice was deep, urbane, and so patient there was no indication he was in the midst of running a siege – or that he recognized Jarrow, though from his cigar-dropping reaction, he clearly had.
“Oh, heavens no, but I bet I can help you. You’re trying to crack the uncrackable egg here, aren’t you?” She nodded toward the high walls of Blackwing, a building that had started life as a mansion and become a fortress. “That’s the problem with making a place strong enough to hold in all the naughty sorcerers. When they start running the asylum, it can be tricky to get in. You’re looking at a months-long siege situation here. Those walls are tough, stone and spells in a perfect marriage. Believe me. I battered against them from the inside long enough to know.” She held out her hand. “The name’s Elsie Jarrow. I used to live in there.”
“I won’t shake your hand, if that’s all right,” Hamil said. “You have a reputation for a certain degree of… toxicity. Why have you come here?”
“To help you apprehend the villain, of course.”
Hamil frowned. “Her principle crime was setting you free, Ms. Jarrow.”
“I know! The irony, it burns. All I ask in return is: you take all her toys away and lock her in a deep dark hole somewhere.”
“Something like that may be in order,” Hamil said. “Assuming she was acting of her own free will, and was not magically compelled. Certainly we would be reluctant to let her oversee patients in the future.”
“Oh, this is all Husch’s gig. Her mind is broken like a hand-me-down toy. If I get her out of the building, are you prepared to subdue her? Like, instantly?”
“Oh, yes. We have pacification specialists on hand.”
“Great! This’ll just take a minute. Everybody be quiet, would you?” Elsie waved her hand –
– and the lawn was transformed into a holocaust of flame, smoking corpses strewn everywhere, vehicles overturned, and the stench of charred humanity thick in Crapsey’s nostrils. He would have vomited again if he’d had anything left in his stomach. Fuck. How many times had he seen scenes exactly like this in the Mason’s employ? How had ended up, once again, in the company of a lunatic who preferred to do murder in bulk?
Elsie picked up a smoke-blackened bullhorn from the grass, played with the buttons for a moment, then shouted through it: “Doctor Fugitive, come on out! I’ve gotten rid of the first wave for you, but you know sorcerers, they’ll send another bunch in no time. Come out quick, and we’ll get you to safety. But this is a limited-time offer.” She tossed the megaphone onto a smoldering heap of dead apprentices.
The front door creaked open, and Dr. Husch stepped out. “Jarrow… you killed them.”
“I know! I’m very useful. Now, hurry, before the Chamberlain sends another crew.”
Husch passed through the doors, then came down the steps, shaking her head. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. You were just supposed to kill Marla. And then – ”
“And then go back into my cube like a good little mental patient, and you could pretend all this never happened? No, no, no.”
She snapped her fingers, and the devastation vanished. Hamil, his apprentices, and the miscellaneous others milling on the lawn reappeared, unharmed. Crapsey’s sense of relief was so profound he almost fell over. It was just an illusion, a trick to get Dr. Husch out into the open. Leda looked around in alarm, and started to reach for the chain at her throat, the one that held the golden key.
A woman with blue dreadlocks stepped forward, wielding a plastic toy wand with a star on the end, trailing pale grey streamers. She waved the wand, and Husch swayed, eyes drooping, and fell face-first onto the ground. Elsie crossed to her faster than the eye could follow and snatched the necklace from around her throat. Then she streaked into the building, leaving Hamil, Crapsey, and the rest of the sorcerers staring at the front door.
“I don’t suppose she’s going to check herself back in,” Hamil said.
Crapsey shrugged. “I’d guess no. Dr. Husch had some kind of mojo leash on her, a way to trap her again if she misbehaved, but with Husch down, and her key gone…”
“You’re wanted for high crimes against Felport,” Hamil said. “Perhaps I should have you pacified.”
“You can try, I guess. But Elsie’s kind of fond of me, in a weird way. I’m not sure she’d like it.”
The chaos witch strolled out the front door, smiling. She tossed a chunk of rock up in the air and caught it in the same hand. “This is a little piece of my old cell. I thought I’d keep it as a souvenir, after I destroyed the rest of that stinking cube.”
“The necklace you stole,” Hamil said. “If I may ask – what was it?”
“Oh, just a key,” she said airily. “An artifact. The Doc used it as the central nexus for all her security protocols. She didn’t think I knew about that, but she just doesn’t understand how I see the world – every linkage, every connection, every pattern, they’re all right there for me, clear as the jaw on Crapsey’s face. I could see the chains spiraling out from this key, throughout the hospital, to all the other prisoners, to me…” She smiled widely, crushed the key in her hand, and let sprinkling golden dust shower down. “Oops. I think I just unlocked all the cells in there! And I’m not just talking about the doors. A thousand bindings just went ‘poof,’ and this heap is nothing but a mansion now, just bricks and wood and stone. I guess you’ll be too busy rounding up the all the patients to bother with little old me, huh?”
“You will be captured, or killed, Ms. Jarrow,” Hamil said, as his people raced into the Institute. “You’re too dangerous to be allowed to wander free.”
“Oh, if you bickering old witches and warlocks can team up, you might catch me – it’s happened before. But that’s okay. Think of all the fun I can have in the meantime! I’m chaos, Hamil, I’m change, and the biggest sucker bet in the world is to bet against change.” She paused. “At least until the heat death of the universe. But we’ve got a little while before that happens. And, besides, there are always other universes. Bye bye!” She took Crapsey by the hand, and before he could even groan, pulled him through another ragged portal from here to somewhere else.
“Hamil. Nice to hear your voice.” Marla paused, listening to the air conditioner hum in her quiet hotel room. “I missed you, you fat bastard, even if you did vote me off the island. Or, I guess, on to the island.”
“I voted against having you beheaded,” Hamil said. “Gaining concessions beyond that was too much even for my considerable powers of diplomacy. But the Council of Felport owes you a debt of gratitude for letting us know about Dr. Husch’s betrayal.”
“You pried Leda out of Blackwing already? How is she?”
“She is… unhappy. Vocally. And, no, I didn’t pry her out. We had help. From Elsie Jarrow. We inadvertently helped her escape from Dr. Husch’s control, I’m afraid.”
“That explains why she ran away from me so fast,” Marla said. “When she heard Husch was under seige, she saw an opportunity to free herself. Shit.” She filled Hamil in on the events of her evening.
“Marla, I’m so sorry. I knew you had enemies, of course, but I didn’t expect this, or I would have made sure you were sent into exile with protection – ”
“Like the Polish Lancers who went to Elba with Napoleon, huh? No thanks. I’m my own honor guard, and anyway, I’ve got Rondeau and Pelham watching my back, and at least two gods, though I could live without those last ones. So… what are you going to do about Jarrow? She’s a fugitive from your jurisdiction.”
“I’d like to apprehend her,” Hamil said. “Unfortunately, the Chamberlain disagrees – she thinks that, unless Jarrow menaces Felport, we shouldn’t waste resources trying to catch her.”
“That’s pretty small-minded,” Marla said. “It’s probably the same decision I would have made, though. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Do you think Jarrow will return to Hawai’i?” Hamil asked.
Marla stretched out on the bed, looking up at the white ceiling. “Who can say? If tormenting me amuses her, she might. If she decides she has to save Nicolette from our clutches, ditto. But Jarrow’s a chaos witch. They’re unpredictable. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m preparing myself for bad outcomes. Still – worst case, she kills me. And so what? It’s not like I’m doing anything down here in the islands anyway. Wasting my time, and wasting my life. There’s no shame in being murdered by Jarrow, either. She’s killed better people than me.”
“Marla – ”
“Don’t mind me. I got my ass kicked by a werewolf hunter tonight. I’m just off my game. Is there anything else? I know you must be busy.”
“It might be nothing, but… when we secured the Institute, two of the patients were missing. Besides Jarrow, I mean.”
Marla swore. “You think Husch sicced more of her patients on me? Who is it? Nilson? Vaughn?”
“Gustavus Lupo is missing, but in the confusion, it’s likely Lupo just took on the form of one of the fifty apprentices and mercenaries milling around, and blended in with the confusion. He’ll turn up when his sense of identity begins to fragment. No, the one I’m concerned about… I think you called her ‘Beta-Marla.’ The version of yourself from that other reality, the one who was dominated by the cursed cloak. She’s gone. Husch isn’t very forthcoming about her actions, but, well…”
Marla closed her eyes. “Shit. I thought Jarrow was using a homunculus body or something, grown in a vat in the basement under the Institute, but… she took over that body, didn’t she? The Mason’s body. My body.”
“It’s possible. The magical safeguards on her flesh would make for a very tempting vessel, better than any other I could think of.”
“Huh. This just got personal, didn’t it? That body doesn’t even look like me much anymore. Jarrow’s making my image over into her own. Can’t say I like that. And hasn’t that poor thing suffered enough?”
“Marla, please, be careful – ”
“Goodbye, Hamil. You were a good friend to me, but that was in another life. Take care of yourself.” She ended the call, turned off the phone, threw the phone under the bed, stared at the ceiling, and thought about what could have happened to her, in another life.
The ghost of Captain Cook shouted and fired his pistols at Jarrow, billowing clouds of white smoke rising from the barrels of his guns. Jarrow looked down and patted her chest. “Ghost bullets! Nice, very nice. They would have ripped my soul right out of my body, if I didn’t have supernatural kevlar, but of course, I do.”
The ghost of Cook was trying to reload his pistols, but it was apparently a very involved project. The ghosts of the kahunas rushed toward Jarrow, weapons at the ready. Jarrow took a folded bit of tissue from her pocket, dabbed at the corners of her eyes, and then blew her nose – a great, ferocious, honking blow. The ghosts stopped running and leaned back, as if being pushed by a great wind, and then burst into flower petals, blowing through the City of Refuge and scenting the air with heavy perfumes. The ghost of Captain Cook scattered as well, the last look on his face outraged and disbelieving. He’d probably worn that expression a lot in his last moments of life.
“Shit,” Rondeau said, wobbling a little on his feet, and putting his hand on Marla’s shoulder to steady himself. “Listen, their spirits are still here, but they’re scattered, really tenuous, it’ll take me a while to get them back, but when I do, they’re going to be pissed, they’re going to start calling on shark gods and the god of sorcerers and – ”
“Oh, this will be over before the ghosts and ghoulies pull themselves back together,” Jarrow said. “Are you two done with opening ceremonies yet? Can I start my guest of honor address? Thanks. I’d like you to meet my friend Christian Decomain.” She gestured, and a small, dark-haired man with chunky hipster glasses stepped forward. His clothes were torn, there was a bruise forming on his cheek, and overall, he didn’t look too happy. “Your ghost guards smacked him around a little. Not exactly what I was expecting! Those spectral shark’s tooth clubs pack a pretty good wallop, if you stand around and let them hit you. I think poor Christian lost a tooth.”
“Christian Decomain. That name rings a bell,” Marla said. She turned to Rondeau. “Wasn’t he – ”
Rondeau nodded. “He was one of the freedom fighters in San Francisco – one of Sanford Cole’s men. He got killed in a raid on the Jaguar, we never even met him.”
“What are they talking about?” Christian said, alarmed.
“She’s crazy,” Jarrow said breezily. “Probably just one of her delusions.”
“Wasn’t he some kind of master of counter-magic?” Marla said. “An – ”
“Anti-mancer,” Jarrow said. She frowned. “Christian, you should have turned on your anti-magic shell when I said that, the light from the torches would have gone off, it would have been very dramatic.”
“Ah. Right.” Christian snapped his fingers, and the torches went dark. Marla drew her club. Shit. No magic, which meant her club was just a heavy stick again. The ghosts wouldn’t be coming back while Christian was working his mojo, either. All Marla’s fancy traps and preparations had just been made useless, their enchantments blocked. On the bright side, her enemies couldn’t cast spells, either. Her dagger would probably still work – artifacts were a lot tougher to neutralize than ordinary bits of magic. It was the same difference the honu oracle had mentioned: the difference between something being wet, and something being water.
“Thanks for that, Jarrow.” Marla’s night vision was screwed up from the torches, but the others probably weren’t much better off. “You’ve turned this into a fistfight, and that’s kind of my forte.”
“Ms. Mason, there’s no need for violence.” Christian’s voice was absurdly soothing. “I know it’s hard to believe, but we’re not your enemies. You’re sick, and we want to help you.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Rondeau said, from somewhere off to the left. “You’re here for an assassination, not an intervention.”
“That’s just paranoia talking,” Christian said. “We’re here for your own good.”
“Is that you, Rondeau?” Jarrow said. “I’ve been wanting to meet you! But the grown-ups are busy now, so behave, would you?”
Rondeau squawked, and a moment later, a voice much like his, but rougher, said, “I’ve got the little fucker, boss.” Marla closed her eyes. Crapsey had evaded the ghosts, it seemed, and found Rondeau. “The chloroform worked like a dream. He won’t be stealing anyone’s body for a while.”
“Oh, good,” Jarrow said. “I was worried. Not for myself – nobody could steal my body – but for my associates here. All right, Talion, get in there. Subdue Ms. Mason before she can do any harm to herself. Or others.”
Marla’s vision had adjusted enough to recognize the man who approached from the gloom on her right. “Talion,” she said. “The werewolf-hunter, yeah? I knew you – a version of you – in another universe. He had a lot more facial piercings, though. Glad to see you’ve got better taste in this dimension. I see you’ve got all your fingers, too. A lot of those got chopped off when I met the other you, on the other side.” She drew her dagger. “This is the knife that lopped those naughty digits off. And the funny thing is? We were actually on the same side in that universe, united against a common enemy. Imagine what I could do to you now, when you’re on the wrong side?” Talion’s expression was a furious snarl, but Marla had the weirdest feeling his anger wasn’t directed at her. “You can walk away from this,” Marla said, and Jarrow made a loud raspberry.
“No, he can’t. Sic her, boy!”
Talion lowered his head, a mixture of shame and rage flickering across his face, and launched himself toward Marla, knives appearing in his hands.
He was fast, absolutely, but Marla had his number instantly. He was used to fighting werewolves, creatures a lot bigger and stronger than he was, and he expected speed to carry the day. But he had a problem: she was at least as fast as he was. He darted in with a knife, and she dove to one side, aiming a kick at his knee, intending to drop him quickly. But he turned in time, and she just ended up kicking him in the shin. He sucked in a breath but didn’t stop moving, spinning toward her and weaving a net with the points of his knives. Fighting a duel by moonlight. What a bitch this was.
Christian Decomain was yelling something about how this wasn’t right, what were they trying to do, kill her? But Marla couldn’t pay any attention to that. She was too busy trying to figure out what a werewolf would do in this situation so she could do something else. Too bad she’d never actually met a werewolf – they were all but extinct in North America.
She brought up the war club to block one of Talion’s knife strikes, and then bulled toward him, lashing out with her dagger, going for his belly. He managed to parry, but her dagger did its job, slicing cleanly through his blade, leaving an inch of steel sticking up pointlessly just above the hilt. Talion danced back and threw the broken weapon toward her face. Marla had to lift her club to block, and there was Talion, spinning with a kick to sweep her leg. She jumped like a girl skipping rope, but his kick caught her on the instep, sending her stumbling forward into him, both of them piling together on the ground. They rolled, and Talion ended up on top. Marla’d lost the war club, and though she still had the dagger, Talion had her wrist pinned to the ground with one hand, and a knife in the other. Marla tried to get her free thumb in his eye, or to fishhook his cheek, but he hit punched her right in the armpit with a vicious knuckled nerve strike that left her arm numb and unresponsive. She tried to knee him, but he was straddling her too tightly, and her attempts to roll failed – she couldn’t get any leverage on the loose sand. “I’m sorry,” he said, sweat dripping from his nose into her face. “I don’t want to do this.” He closed his free hand around her throat.
“Stop!” Christian screamed, and suddenly the torches flared into life as his anti-magic shell was deactivated. “You’re supposed to be capturing her, I’ve got tranquilizers right here – ”
Marla still had a little breath in her lungs, and Talion loosened his grip on her throat in surprise when the lights came on. She spat, and shouted “Conditus!” as the wad of spittle and phlegm struck Talion in the face. Latin trigger words were silly, but she’d been amusing herself by using them ever since she read the first Harry Potter book. Maybe she should have used “Expelliarmus“ for a spell that involved hacking up a wad of spit. Next time.
Talion shrieked and fell back as the wad of slime expanded, covering his eyes and mouth, crawling around to encase his head. It wouldn’t suffocate him – the mobile phlegm avoided the nostrils – but he’d be busy trying to peel it off for a while. She got to her feet, one arm still numb.
Crapsey came rushing in from the left, and Nicolette from the right – the latter was wielding a hatchet that glinted with its own inner light, and that couldn’t be good. Before Marla needed to act, they both blundered into traps she’d scattered around the area, covered in loose sand. Crapsey stepped on a ring of shattered pocketwatches and got stuck in a moment of slowed time, his headlong forward movement changed into the merely incremental, an expression of comical surprise and outrage passing over his face in slow motion. Nicolette cracked some vials containing a few select elements – noble gases, mainly – and her body became insubstantial, turned into a misty outline of itself. The hatchet fell through her hand, still shining, and landed in the dirt. Nicolette started to curse furiously, but the words wisped away into nothingness, and she soon faded entirely from sight. She wasn’t dead, or even truly transmuted, just temporarily locked into a sympathetic bond with the gases, and made immaterial. She was essentially another invisible ghost. She would precipitate out of the atmosphere again, whole and unharmed, in an hour or so. By then, whatever was going to happen here would be done.
Jarrow had knocked Christian to the ground, and had one of her feet on his throat; she was wearing golden strappy sandals. In Marla’s vision, she’d been strangling the man, but any view of the future was necessarily subject to change.
“He really thought this was a mission of mercy,” Elsie said as Christian writhed beneath her. She looked at Marla. “I knew I’d have to kill him eventually, but I’d heard you were a good fighter, and I wanted to see for myself, no magic involved, so I figured I’d keep him around long enough to sic my dog on you. I have to say, I’m disappointed – Talion was better than you.”
“There’s always someone better than you.”
“Not that I’ve noticed,” Jarrow said. “Nighty-night, Christian.” She sang, just a snatch of a schoolyard verse, something about five little pumpkins sitting on a gate, and Christian Decomain screamed for an instant. His clothing collapsed, and scores of tiny golden frogs hopped away from the pile of clothes in all directions.
“You turned him. Into frogs.” Marla stared.
“What? Turning people into frogs is very traditional for witches. You turned Nicolette into gas, although not permanently, I notice. You old softie. I was tempted to turn Christian into a hundred big hairy carnivorous millipedes instead, but I feel like the bug thing is so expected, you know? And you can’t say I killed him! This is just a little transformation, though not as temporary as what you cast on my associates. Nice traps, by the way. Kind of creative.”
“Can he be saved?” Marla said. “Can he be put back together, made human again?”
“Oh, sure, if you could gather all the little froglets – ” She stomped down, hard, squishing a golden poison dart frog beneath her heel, then did a series of tap dance steps across the clothing, doubtless squashing dozens more. “Oops, there went his kidney. Ack, there goes his spleen. Oh, dear, I think I just stomped on his sense of right and wrong, if only he hadn’t been cursed with that thing to begin with! You have a history with frogs, right? You fought a guy who used frogs like these to assassinate people? I researched you, in a kind of a half-assed way, I mean, I asked a few questions, just to get a sense.” She put a finger to her lips. “Hmm. These things are really going to play hell with the local ecosystem, aren’t they?”
Marla backed away from the frogs hopping in her direction. “What are you waiting for, anyway? Why don’t you come for me?” Without Rondeau’s ghosts or Pelham in a sniper position, her only remaining hope against Jarrow was luring her into the field of traps, many of which were designed specifically to combat a chaos witch, and getting in a lucky strike with her dagger. But having seen Crapsey and Nicolette felled by Marla’s magics, she didn’t show any inclination to go charging blindly in. Besides, this was Marrowbones; she didn’t need to be close to Marla to kill her.
Jarrow pouted, but didn’t make any move to approach. “You don’t enjoy my company, Marla? You just want me to turn you into a hundred hairy millipedes? Where’s the fun in that? I haven’t even brought your brother into this yet. Oh, don’t worry, the night is young. We’ll get to the killing-you part.”
“Is there even any point to asking you why you’re doing this?”
Jarrow shrugged. “Actually it’s very rational. I wanted a new body, and I wanted to get out of prison. Dr. Husch said I could have both if I just killed you.” She covered her mouth in mock horror. “Oops! I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that, huh? You’ve got even fewer friends than you thought!”
“I sort of figured she was behind it. But where did she find you a body? Is it a homunculus?” Marla was curious, but more importantly, she wanted to keep Jarrow talking. Marla didn’t think she had much of a chance in a straight fight against Jarrow, especially with one of her arms all fucked up. Jarrow was a whole order of magnitude beyond Marla in power, someone who’d stripped away all the sensible safeguards, who’d gone way past the back of beyond in her quest for knowledge, so who knew what she might be capable of? Marla had to stall her long enough for Rondeau to wake up from his chloroform funk, or for Pelham to come back from wherever he’d run to, or for Reva to pop on by, or for something to happen. It was like that old joke, about the man sentenced to death, who convinced the king to spare his life by promising to teach his majesty’s pet monkey to speak within a year. After all, a lot could happen in a year – the sultan could die. The man could die. Or the monkey could learn to speak.
Marla wasn’t thrilled about staking her life on a talking-monkey longshot, but it was the only chance she had left.
“Look at Talion wriggling around.” Jarrow didn’t sound amused, or contemptuous – Marla hated to even think it, but the woman sounded aroused. The werewolf-hunter was crawling on all fours, shaking his head back and forth, his senses of sight and hearing neutralized by Marla’s enchanted spit. “He’s a bad dog, isn’t he?” Jarrow took a small brass whistle from her pocket and blew on it, though no audible note sounded. Talion collapsed to the ground and began to twist and howl, fur sprouting on his face through the slime, legs twisting, knees bending in reverse, ears lengthening, clothes shredding as his musculature shifted. After a few moments, the man he’d been was gone, replaced by a dirt-brown mutt of a dog, big as a Great Dane but without that breed’s sense of nobility. The spit on its face blackened and glistened, oozing and changing consistency from gluey paste to something more like congealed gelatin. The dog that had been Talion ran baying across the sand and into the trees.
“Woof, woof,” Jarrow said. “Don’t worry, he won’t suffer long. I gave him that crazy virulent face cancer that Tasmanian Devils get. Did you know those tumors are actually contagious? To catch them you pretty much have to bite someone who’s infected straight up on the face, which isn’t something most species do, except for Tasmanian Devils. Cancer can evolve in all sorts of interesting ways. The contagiousness isn’t even that weird a development – it’s just, most cancers are inside people, so it’s not an adaptation that sees much use. Nobody ever goes gnawing on a guy’s cancerous prostate, right?” The chaos witch sauntered over to the not-quite-freeze-framed Crapsey and thumped him on the side of the head. “Cancer’s kind of hobby of mine.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that. Why did you do that to Talion? Because he failed you?”
Jarrow sighed. “I thought you were smarter than that. I expected him to fail me. He actually did better than I anticipated. I did it because I felt like it. That’s the only reason I do anything, usually. Admittedly, this whole hunt-and-kill-Marla-Mason thing doesn’t interest me particularly. I’m sure you have lots of epic enemies, grr, sworn to see you destroyed and ground into dust, but I’m not one of them. Still, if it’s what I have to do to get Doctor Husch to fulfill her end of the bargain – ”
“I don’t think Husch is going to be in a position to fulfill any bargains.” Marla saw an opportunity to stall – maybe even survive – and seized it. “We called the authorities in Felport once we found out you were involved in this, and told them our suspicions.”
Jarrow picked up a handful of sand and tossed it toward Crapsey’s face. The grains slowed and hung almost motionless as they entered his field of slow time. “I noticed you weren’t all that surprised to see me. I know I’m famous, but I like to think I’m unexpected. You’re in a codependent relationship with a psychic, though, which gives you an unfair advantage when it comes to intelligence gathering. So the jig is up for Dr. Husch, huh?”
“Once the Chamberlain and Hamil get their hands on her, they’ll put her away forever. Whatever she promised you, she won’t be able to deliver.”
“Mmmm. And you don’t think I’m honor-bound to fulfill my contract, even if I lose my employer?” Jarrow grinned. “Ha. Kidding, kidding. It does make things more interesting, though, doesn’t it? Tell you what, I’m going to go check on the Doc, I’ll be back in a little while.” Jarrow touched Crapsey on the shoulder, and he was pulled back into normal time. He stumbled forward a step or two, then turned his head to blink and spit out the sand Jarrow had thrown in his face.
Fuck. Marla was chilled at how easily the woman had broken her spell. Then again, there was a lot of chaos swirling around here tonight. Things going badly for Jarrow could actually make her stronger. “Say good night, Crapsey,” she said.
“What? What are you – ”
Jarrow drew a circle in the air, and a black hole opened in space, the edges curling and appearing to smoke and burn. Marla turned her face away, because looking into the space behind reality was never a good idea. Jarrow stepped backward through the portal, dragging Crapsey with her, and the hole closed after them.
Marla sank to her knees, exhaling hard. That was a close one. What was Jarrow going to do? What if she attacked Hamil, tried to protect Husch? What if –
“You bitch!” Nicolette screamed, solidifying a couple of feet off the ground and landing with a thump in a crouch.
“The closest hotel is, let’s see.” Jason squinted at the guidebook in his lap and compared it to the sheet of names he’d scribbled down at Marla’s office. He was in the passenger seat, next to Christian, who drove along the dark highway. “A bed-and-breakfast called the Rainbow Plantation. Doesn’t sound much like Marla does it?” He yawned. “Are we really going to try to hit all these hotels tonight? Maybe you people don’t need to sleep, but I do. I’ve been teleported, flown on a plane, and ridden on a stolen boat. I’m exhausted.”
“You can sleep when you’re dead,” Elsie said from the first row of seats in the back, where she sat next to Crapsey, one hand resting companionably on his knee. “Are you sure you’re that sleepy?”
Nicolette’s phone rang, loud in the rented SUV.
“No personal calls!” Elsie snapped, turning to glare at Talion and Nicolette, or “the bad kids,” as she’d started calling them for reasons of her own. Lupo was back there too, still looking like Dr. Husch, all glares and snarls.
“It’s for you,” Nicolette said. “It’s Dr. Husch.” That just made Lupo glare even more ferociously, and bare her teeth. It must really suck, Crapsey thought, to know you aren’t even really real.
Elsie took the phone and put it to her ear. “Doctor Prettyface! Don’t you inhuman homunculi ever take an evening off? Listen, we’re on the case, don’t worry – ” She paused. “Oh, really?” She covered the mouthpiece with one hand and grinned at Crapsey. “Our friend Rondeau called Dr. Husch with another tale of woe.” Back to the call: “Did he tell you anything useful, or just whine some more? Or both? Hmmm. Really? That could be fun. How long ago was this? Thanks, Doc. We’re on it.” She pushed a button on the phone and tossed it over her shoulder, eliciting an “Ow” from Lupo. “Christian!” she shouted. “Fire up that fancy GPS and tell it we’re going to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.”
“Uh,” Christian said, “I’m going to need you to spell that.”
“Jason, look it up in the book, would you? Starts with a P, as in Place of Refuge, which is what it’s also called. According to Rondeau, Marla’s taking that name literally, and she’s going to hole up there. Let’s go pry her out of that hole, what do you say?”
“What is this place?” Crapsey said.
“You’re right to ask me, since I know everything,” Elsie said. “You know about taboos? They didn’t have those in old Hawai’i, or rather, they did, but they called them kapu – the old Hawai’ian laws. If you commited some terrible crime – like, say, touching a chief’s fingernail clippings, or wearing red and yellow feathers, or casting a shadow on the grounds of the palace, or letting a woman eat a banana – you were breaking a kapu. The punishment was usually, poof, instant death. If only we had a legal system like that now – so simple! But, just like in that great Disney cartoon The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there are places of sanctuary where the authorities can’t get you. If you broke a kapu, you could flee to a place of refuge and throw yourself on the mercy of the priests who lived inside. They could absolve you and set you free, sometimes, or other times they’d just put you to work. People who wanted to avoid battle, or losers in a war who didn’t want to get their brains bashed in, could come take refuge in a pu’uhonua too. The place of refuge was inviolate, nobody was allowed to take anybody out against their will, because the ground is sacred. Isn’t religion grand? You can build stronger walls out of faith than you ever could with steel and concrete. So it makes a certain amount of sense for Marla to go to ground there – I bet there’s still some magic in that place, even though the bones of the chieftains buried there were all stolen or scattered or hidden away, and the snarling tiki statues are all reproductions.”
“You don’t think it’s a bit convenient that one of Marla’s friends told Dr. Husch where she was hiding?” Christian said. “You said her psychic friend Rondeau predicted Marla would be captured – couldn’t she be lucid enough to realize that Dr. Husch is the one coming after her? Or paranoid enough to suspect so?”
Elsie beamed. “You deserve a lollipop! And by ‘lollipop’ I mean ‘head of an enemy on a stick.’ Yes, it’s almost certainly a trap. That makes it more fun. But I’m not a complete maniac. Just a partial one. We’ll deploy our resources strategically and blah, blah, blah.” She clapped her hands together and bounced on the seat. “Finally! Two days I’ve spent planning to catch Marla, and the time has come! I’m so glad. I was getting bored. And when I get bored, Talion could tell you, I get cranky.”
“Using yourself as bait is a bad idea,” Rondeau said. “Using me as bait is even worse.” They sat together in a grove of palm trees, the ocean at their backs. The night was that rich quality of dark you only get some distance away from cities and their halos of light pollution, the skies clear, the air cool. They were well within the ten-foot-high L-shaped wall of ancient unmortared stone that divided the inside of the Place of Refuge from the old royal grounds and the rest of the national park. The area was guarded by fierce tiki statues, and nominally patrolled by park rangers to keep people out of the historic area after hours, but Marla had cast a little misperception loop that would keep the rangers distracted elsewhere until morning. “I feel way too exposed here.” There were reproductions of traditional Hawai’ian huts on the other side of the wall, but within the sanctuary, there was no shelter of any kind – the closest thing to a structure was a massive platform of stones that had probably once been a foundation for houses.
“Nah, this is a great defensive position,” Marla said. “Anybody who wants to get to us has to pass through the visitor’s center, walk along the trail, either circle around the wall or come through the one opening, and then make their way across all those vicious volcanic rocks without falling in a royal fish pond or falling and getting shredded by cold lava. We’ve got great sightlines. I like it.”
“What if they come in by canoe?”
Marla shrugged. “There’s a plain of black rock between us and the water. There’s no cover there at all – anyone walking in would be totally exposed. It’s a good position.”
“If it’s so good, what do you need me for?”
“Please. Without you, this place is just a historical curiosity. With you, it’s actually a refuge. You’re telling me you can’t sense the ghosts? Even I can.”
Rondeau sighed. “Yeah, there are ghosts. Priests who spent most of their lives here, and some chiefs, but they’re a little more faded – their bones were kept here for a while, but they got moved at some point, so the spirits are sort of doing a time-share thing between locations. There’s one incredibly pissed-off old white dude in some kind of military jacket. I think he’s Captain Cook, the guy who discovered Hawai’i – well, you know, ‘discovered,’ the way white dudes discover all kinds of places that plenty of brown people already know about. When Cook first showed up, the Hawai’ians thought he was their long-lost god Lono. He got a longer welcome than he would have otherwise, but he eventually wore it out. The locals kept some of his bones here like he was a chief, showing him respect even though they killed him themselves. I don’t know how much help Cook’s ghost will be, but the priests seem to accept us as legitimate sanctuary-seekers. They know they’re dead, but they don’t seem to mind much. They should be some help.”
Marla nodded. “Good. We’ve got Pelham out beyond the wall, watching the road, so we should get some advance warning before the bad guys arrive.”
“If they arrive,” Rondeau said. “I’m still hoping we sit out here and nothing happens. We don’t know if Dr. Husch is involved at all. Maybe Nicolette just helped Jarrow escape –” His cell phone vibrated, and Rondeau picked it up, listened, and grimaced. “Thanks, Pelly.” He put the phone away. “There’s an SUV coming down the road, no headlights. Pelham looked through those binoculars you gave him, the ones with the night-vision enchantment, and he says there are at least five people in the thing, and they look enough like the people in the video that he’s ninety-nine percent sure they’re our villains. Do you want him to proceed?”
“I think the odds that they’re just tourists who didn’t check the park’s operating hours are pretty low,” Marla said. “But tell him to stick with the strictly non-lethal measures, just in case. And call Hamil, now, I don’t care if it’s going to wake him up. Tell him… shit. Don’t tell him what we suspect about Dr. Husch, I guess. We could still be wrong. Just tell him that Elsie Jarrow is loose, and that he might want to check on Leda, and make sure the other patients at Blackwing are secure. He’s smart enough to go in on his guard.”
“Fuck,” Rondeau said. “Leda. I liked her. I always did.” He made the call, keeping it short and simple, and disconnecting quickly. “He says he’ll get some of his people and head to Blackwing right away.”
“Good. I helped put some of those people in Blackwing. Somebody needs to make sure the patients stay locked up, if Leda can’t be trusted to do it anymore.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I wish I could be there. I should be there. But instead, I’m here. There’s nothing I can do about what’s happening in Felport. So I’d better be here all the way.” Marla looked around the grove of palm trees. She’d laid out a certain number of weapons, enough to level the playing field, but the only thing that had a chance of hurting Jarrow was the dagger Death had forged for her. The problem would be getting close enough to strike. “I wish Reva hadn’t wandered off,” she said. “He’s a presumptuous annoying little shit, but we could use some god-powers here.” After their plane landed the god had promised to catch up with them later, saying he had errands to run, but he hadn’t been in touch yet. “I also wish to hell this ring did something useful.”
“The oracle said wearing it wouldn’t do anything,” Rondeau said. “But maybe you have to wear it and say a magic word or something? Or twist it around three times? Or stick it on your toe? Maybe there’s an inscription on the inside, like people get for their wedding rings. Something useful like, ‘One ring to bind them all.’ Even ‘insert finger here’ would be helpful at this point.”
Marla grunted, wishing she’d thought of the possibility of an inscription. She held the ring up to the moonlight, squinting. Was that something incised in the metal, or just a glint? She brought the ring close to one eye, closing the other and squinting –
A red-haired woman on the sand raised her arms, mouth moving in silent screams or laughter, and a flock of burning parrots appeared in the air, rushing toward Marla. She leapt to one side, diving and rolling, then bounced up to her feet –
Nothing. No Jarrow, no birds. She looked at the ring, still clutched in her hands, and lifted it to her eye again. Looking through the ring, the empty beach became crowded: there was Crapsey, holding onto Rondeau’s lapels with one hand and punching him in the face with the other, and Jarrow again, now strangling a man Marla had never even seen before. The chaos witch didn’t look exactly as she had the one time Marla had met Jarrow, but she did looked vaguely familiar – Marla couldn’t quite place her. She put the ring down and frowned. “Shit,” she said. “Rondeau. This ring lets you see the future.”
Rondeau leaned in the doorway of the house. “Really? That’s handy.”
“You look through it,” she said. “Gods, it never occurred to me… but that’s one of Death’s powers, to see possible futures, it’s how he knows when people are going to die. Rondeau, stuff’s going to get ugly here, and I’m not sure when, I don’t know what kind of a delay we’re talking about with this ring, how far it can see, but we’d better get ready, we –”
The phone buzzed again, and Rondeau picked it up. “Yeah, Pelly, do you – oh. Uh. Just… just a minute.” He took the phone away from his ear and looked at Marla, eyes wide. “It’s for you. It’s not Pelham. It’s…”
“Jarrow,” she said, taking the phone.
“Crapsey, actually,” Crapsey said. He sounded almost exactly like Rondeau, voice perhaps a bit rougher from decades inhaling the atmosphere of the Mason’s version of North America, polluted as it was by the output of her vile magical engines. “How’s it going, Marla?”
“I’ve been better. How’s Pelham?”
“Little shit got away, actually. He scattered something on the road to pop all our tires, nearly rolled the SUV, but Jarrow kept us upright, and we managed to grab hold of your boy. I had him by the scruff of the neck, and we got the phone off him, but then he did some kind of crazy kung-fu shit and ran off into the dark. He’s going to get himself killed on those black rocks. We could’ve caught him, but Jarrow said leaving him loose was an ‘interesting variable,’ adding some uncertainty to the situation, so we let him go. It’s a chaos witch thing.”
“Makes sense. So what’s the big idea? Kick me while I’m down?”
“Kill you while you’re weak, yeah. I mean, personally, I don’t have a real grudge against you. Rondeau’s the one who tricked me into drinking that potion, and trapped me in this body. He’s the one I’ve got a beef with. Jarrow says she can settle that score for me along the way – she’ll either trap Rondeau the way I’m trapped, or make him suffer some other way.”
“You’re an idiot, Jabberjaw. Rondeau was acting under my orders. If you want to hate someone, hate me.”
“Oh, duly noted, but I was a henchman for a long time, and I believe in taking personal responsibility for your actions, even if your boss told you to do it. I want Rondeau to hurt, and Nicolette wants you to hurt, and since the two of you are hanging out together, hey, we joined forces.”
“And got Elsie Jarrow out of the hospital to use as a weapon. Well, I must say, at least you two morons know your own limitations. If you’d attacked me on your own, I’d be picking bits of you out of my teeth right now. But Jarrow’s a nuke. She’s weaponized anthrax. She’s not a weapon you can unleash without consequences.”
“Eh, it’s all under control.”
“You’ve got Doctor Husch helping you, right?”
Crapsey laughed. “Why should I tell you that?”
“Why shouldn’t you? You’re pretty sure I’ll be dead in a few minutes anyway. Besides, you’re supposed to keep me on the phone and distracted as long as you can so the rest of the idiot patrol can surround me. So answer my question, and truthfully, or I’ll hang up and start loading my rocket launchers.”
“You’re a pisser, Marla, I’ll give you that. You remind me of my old boss, only not as pretty, of course. Sure, Husch was in on it. You’re the reason she got torn to pieces, you know – me and the Mason wouldn’t have come to this universe if you hadn’t gone messing around with the fabric of reality. Husch is the one who let Jarrow out, and she’s holding the leash, keeping Elsie on task. Otherwise she’d just wander off and turn the Eiffel Tower into an anthill or something. The truth is, this is Dr. Husch’s operation. Me and Nicolette are just riding on her coattails.” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Though to be totally honest, it’s Elsie’s show, now. And she’s a scary one. At least with the Mason, you knew what you were in for: she was going to try to kill you. With Jarrow? She could make you a palace out of emeralds or turn your liver into a swarm of fire ants, either or both for no particular reason. She’s going to kill you, I guess, but I’m pretty sure she’s going to play with you first, and the only reason is, she likes it.”
“You sure have a way of picking bad company, Crapsey.” Marla was walking around the site now, checking the traps she’d set up earlier, and content that all were primed, she returned to the tree where Rondeau sat cross-legged and muttered to ghosts, an enchanted lei around his neck. “Did you ever think about getting a job working for someone who wasn’t crazy and prone to acts of senseless violence?”
“I’m not sure I’m qualified for a gig like that. Why, are you looking for another guy in your entourage? I’d make a great replacement for Rondeau.”
“I have this policy against employing mass-murderers – sorry. And since you’ve actually lost count of all the people you’ve killed…”
“True. You’ve only killed, what, ten?”
“Seven,” Marla said. “And I regret them all. Every one represents a failure on my part – a failure of diplomacy, or imagination, or preparation, or nerve.”
“Only seven! You’re an amateur.”
“Hey, the night’s young. I could have a few more failures of imagination before the sun comes up. But I never killed on a whim, Crapsey.”
“It’s not like I enjoy killing people – ”
“I know. You just don’t care if you do. And honestly? I think that’s even worse. Okay, Trapjaw, are you people waiting for dawn? Where’s the attack?”
“Be patient, will you? We’ve got a way of doing things – ”
Someone screamed from off to the east, and Marla grinned. “You hear that screaming? Somebody just met one of our defenses.”
“What. The. Fuck,” Crapsey said. “Who are all these – ”
“They’re the ghosts of the priests who protected this place,” Marla said. “I’ve formally claimed sanctuary. And since you guys are marauders, trampling through a sacred space… let’s just say you’re on the wrong side of some big kahunas.”
“Fuck!” Crapsey shouted, and then there was a crackling sound, and nothing more.
Marla handed the phone back to Rondeau. “I think he dropped the phone, in the course of running away from some pissed-off priests.”
The ghosts were becoming visible now. Rondeau’s psychic field had a way of drawing latent supernatural manifestations into active status – faint ghosts became visible and capable of poltergeist activity, while presences that were more powerful to begin with could become corporeal enough to fuck or fight or drive motorcycles. The kahunas here were pretty faint, all things considered – they were from a long time ago, adhering to customs renounced by the later kings of Hawai’i, and some of them were miles and miles away from whatever remained of their mortal remains. Still, there was an impressive array: translucent kahunas in ceremonial feathers, drained of color and rendered white and gray, and furious chiefs with skeletal limbs armed with shark’s-tooth war clubs. Marla had her dagger hanging from her belt, and the massive Samoan war club she’d received from Arachne was in her hand, the latter all tricked out with vicious inertial magics. A love tap from that could cave in a rib cage, and might even knock Elsie Jarrow back a step or two.
And there, stalking up the path from the direction of a reproduction of a traditional temple, dressed in the ragged remnants of a naval jacket, wig askew, was the ghost of Captain James Cook, the accidental reincarnation of the long-lost god Lono, now looking around suspiciously with pistols in each hand, obviously spoiling for a fight.
Suddenly the torches she’d placed around the area to serve as an early-warning intrusion system burst into simultaneous flame. They burned bright green: that meant four people had broken the perimeter.
Marla hefted the war club. She grinned. She still had a lot of personal, philosophical, and existential problems, true, but right now, she also had the one kind of problem she knew exactly how to solve: people who needed a beating.
A red-haired woman dressed in a pale yellow summer dress stepped into the light cast by the torches. “Marla Mason, I presume?” the woman said, then winced. “Shit, that line’s from Africa, isn’t it? All these hot savage places look the same to me.”
“Elsie Jarrow,” Marla said. “Welcome to paradise.”
Using some arcane system of her own – or perhaps just acting on information from her spy Gustavus Lupo – Elsie led them to the building that housed Marla’s office. “See, there’s a little bit of folded space here. Plus a few safeguards against unlawful entry, but nothing I can’t unpick… .” A brick wall flickered and revealed a door with a glass window decorated with flaking gold paint. “It’s a used bookstore. How cozy.”
“A store no shopper can find,” Talion said. “It is like a Zen koan.”
“Nobody said ‘speak,’ Talion.” Elsie peered through the window – they could see shelves, and a counter, and a curtained alcove beyond that. “Hmm. It seems like someone’s home – I’m getting a definite sense of habitation – but something’s off. It’s like cherry flavoring instead of actual cherry, if you know what I mean. Christian, why don’t you work your mojo, create a nice…”
“Anti-magic shell,” Nicolette said. At Elsie’s raised eyebrow, Nicolette shrugged. “That’s what they call it in this fantasy computer game I play sometimes.”
Christian muttered, and moved his hands, and, even though nothing seemed to happen, Elsie grunted. “Yes. Nobody’s home. It was a false impression of a person in there, a fake Marla, which means – probably a trap. Clever girl! Nicolette, care to lead the way?”
“So I’m a human mine detector now?” she said.
“Oh, any booby traps are sure to be magical in nature, and Christian has suppressed those. So unless there’s a shotgun pointed at the door, with a string tied to the trigger at one end and the doorknob at the other, you should be fine.”
“It’s not beyond Marla to do something like that.” Nicolette looked through the glass, sighed, and put her hand on the knob. “Uh. It’s locked. And I can pop a lock with magic, but – no magic.”
“Talion?” Elsie said sweetly, and they all jostled around to give him a clear look at the door. He drew a knife almost as long as his forearm from the depths of his leather jacket – good thing Elsie had been able to glamour them past airport security, or that pigsticker would belong to the TSA now, and Talion would probably still be in a holding room – and jammed it between the door and the frame, then twisted, grunted, and shoved. The door popped open with a crack, and he moved aside to let Nicolette in.
She moved fast, checking all the corners, ducking behind the counter, and looking beyond the curtain. She eyed a steep flight of stairs, sighed, and went up, returning a moment later and calling out, “Clear!”
The rest of them entered, and Nicolette walked around the room, picking things up from bookshelves, chairs, and the floor, then dumped the handful of collected objects on the counter: a nail, the skull of a bird, several black jellybeans, a fly strip, and a small glass vial. “Let’s see,” she said. “We’ve got impalement, murderous spirit birds, two kinds of immobilization traps, and, yep, straight-up poison.” She shook her head. “Marla’s a pretty good enchanter, you’ve gotta give her that. We would’ve been inconvenienced to death if Christian hadn’t deactivated all these things.”
“She knew we were coming,” Husch – no, Crapsey reminded himself, Lupo – said. “Or that someone was coming, anyway. According to Rondeau, Death gave her a prophecy, that she would… be captured… on a Maui beach. It seems that, sensibly enough, she has chosen to remove herself from the vicinity of Maui’s beaches.”
“Hmm,” Elsie said. “I’m sure she had the good sense to cover her tracks and frustrate divination. Is it like her, to run away from a fight?”
“Not usually,” Nicolette said. She glanced at Christian. “But she’s never been, ah, in the midst of a nervous breakdown before, so who knows? If I had to guess, I’d say she’s just pulling back to a defensive position.”
Elsie twisted a lock of red hair in her fingers. “I could just ask her where she went, I suppose, but making Lupo turn into Marla could backfire, couldn’t it? Still, it’s tempting, it’s certainly unexpected – ”
“There’s a computer back here.” Jason stepped out from behind the curtain. “Password protected, but they’re idiots when it comes to security. I found the password list taped to the bottom of the keyboard. They cleared the browser history, but they didn’t delete their cookies or their temporary internet files.” Elsie frowned at him, and Crapsey didn’t really follow him either, and Jason sighed. “What I mean is, I can tell what websites they were looking at recently. They booked a flight to the Big Island, and they visited a few websites for hotels on the west coast, but it doesn’t look like they made reservations online, so I can’t be sure which one they picked. But all the hotels are along the same stretch of highway, so we can check them out one by one, or split up and do a bunch at once.” They all stared at him. “What? Not all of us have magic, you freaks. Some of us have to think our way out of problems and into opportunities.”
“You’re more useful than I thought,” Elsie announced. “Though with this bunch, the bar is set pretty low. Who’s up for another plane trip? Ooh, or maybe this time we can steal a boat!”
After their room service breakfast, Marla, Rondeau, and Pelham all crowded around Rondeau’s laptop, trying to make sense of the milling figures that filled the thirteen-inch screen. “It would be nice if the store was wired for sound,” Marla complained, watching the silent inches-high figures, filmed from a high angle, wander and gesticulate around her office.
“There’s a mike set up behind some books on one of the shelves, but it’s shittier than I thought, and they’re not very close to it.” Rondeau cranked up the volume on his laptop, and they could indeed hear some indistinct murmuring, but nothing of much use. “I didn’t have time to hit a high-end spy shop, you know. I had to make do with the crappy webcam and podcasting equipment I was able to find at the strip mall. But from the tattletale keylogger software I installed, it looks like you were right – Jason went straight to the computer in the office and started rummaging through our internet history. He should be able to figure out where we are, roughly, and they’ll probably expect to surprise us. So we can be ready.”
“I love it when people assume I’m stupid,” Marla said. “That makes it so much easier to get them to follow the trail I want.”
“Like I would use that computer for anything real,” Rondeau said. “It came with the office. It’s like a decade old. Total virus bait.”
“Never underestimate an enemy’s ability to underestimate your intelligence. I wish they were a little stupider themselves, though. It would have solved a lot if they’d just wandered in and set off all those nasty tricks I left them.” She leaned closer, crowding Rondeau and Pelham aside, her nose almost touching the screen, but all that did was make blurry things blurrier. “Who the hell are all those people? Isn’t there some way you can enlarge or enhance this?”
Rondeau snorted. “It doesn’t work the way it does in the movies. I can’t infinitely zoom in – we’ve got a crappy webcam here. This is as good as it gets. Still, that’s obviously Nicolette, and that’s Jason, and that’s Crapsey – I guess he just latched on to Nicolette at some point? But the other three…” He pointed. “That looks almost like Dr. Husch.”
“Insofar as she’s blonde and has big pixellated breasts, I guess,” Marla said. “That’s not how Leda looks now, anyway, not since the Mason tore her to pieces. That one there… could it be Talion?”
Rondeau whistled. “That guy we met in the other universe? Wasn’t he one of the good guys?”
“With ‘good guys’ defined as ‘somebody who hates people we hate’? In that dimension, sure, but if he’s the Talion from this universe, then who knows? I can’t imagine how he got mixed up in this, but I think he was some kind of mercenary on the other side – maybe he’s just hired muscle. That little guy with the hipster glasses, I don’t have a clue who he could be. And that redhead, doesn’t it seem like she‘s the one calling the shots? They all keep looking at her. I’d assumed this was Nicolette’s gig – but what if somebody else is in charge? If so, why? If I mortally offended her, you’d think I’d at least recognize her. My kingdom for a room full of obedient clairvoyants…”
“Maybe we know enough to ask the right questions now,” Rondeau said. “Like, ‘Who the hell are these people?’ We could see about scaring up an oracle.”
“Not a bad idea,” Marla said. “But does that mean you want me to walk around in this ridiculous giant hotel some more?”
Following Rondeau’s peculiar inner compass, they made their way through the hotel, to the artificial lagoon. There was no one else around, just water lapping at fake white sand, the waters populated by real sea creatures. Rondeau, who wore cargo shorts and sandals, strode out into the water, and Marla took off her boots and rolled up her white cotton pants to the knees and followed. Pelham, who was wearing clothing more appropriate for a day’s work in a cubicle farm than a tropical paradise, chose to stay in the sand.
Rondeau went out about waist deep, and Marla sighed and followed. She hated wading in the surf in Hawai’i, especially in the dark, and even this fake lagoon was connected to the real ocean. Compared to, say, Australia, the waters of Hawai’i were fairly benign, but there were jellyfish, venomous cone snails, poisonous anemones, scorpion fish, barracudas, sharks, Portuguese-man-of-wars (men-of-war?), and –
The water frothed, and a green sea turtle with a shell roughly the diameter of a patio table rose from the water, its nose no more than two feet away. Its head was pure white, its eyes dark and strangely compassionate, and it nodded at them in a disturbingly anthropomorphic way.
“Welcome, oracle.” Rondeau’s voice was strained – summoning this creature had clearly cost him more effort than usual. “We seek your counsel.”
The turtle spoke, the voice feminine and soothing, though its beak of a mouth didn’t move. “I am Honu-po’o-kea, mother of Kailua the turtle-maiden. I will aid you if I can.”
“An enemy is coming for us,” Rondeau said. “She has red hair, and she comes with an army of warriors. Can you tell us her name and her nature?”
The honu bobbed in the water, her flippers moving lazily, creating little wavelets that broke against Marla and Rondeau’s bodies. “She is broken shells and spoiled yolks, that one. She is water that sickens you to drink. Her name is Elsie Jarrow, and she is the fire that cracks the stones.”
Marla closed her eyes. Marrowbones? But Jarrow was supposed to be locked up in the Blackwing Institute. She didn’t even have a body anymore. If she was free… what was she doing here? Marla had seen her once, before becoming chief sorcerer, when Jarrow escaped her prison for one afternoon. The sight of her bloody smile had made a powerful impression on Marla, but it wasn’t like they had history. Though Nicolette worshipped Jarrow the way Rondeau worshipped rum, and the younger chaos witch had tried to break her heroine out of Blackwing at least once before, so it sort of made sense.
“And the others?” Rondeau said. “Can you tell us who she brought with her?”
The turtle lowered her head into the water for a moment, as if thinking, then nodded again. “A one-armed witch, armed with a shard of the moon. My summoner’s false brother, with a jaw of wood and stone and magic, his soul trapped in a bottle of flesh. A killer of wolves, and men who become wolves. A man who soaks up magic as the sand soaks up water. This woman’s true brother, a conniver and a liar, reeking of fear and calculation. And another, a blur, not nameless, but possessed of an ever-changing name.”
“That’s seven,” Marla muttered. “Jarrow, Nicolette, Crapsey, Jason, and we were right about it being Talion. I don’t know who the guy who slurps up magic can be, and this nameless blur, that’s not a lot to go on, but they must be the other two we saw, the little guy and the blonde woman.”
“Do you have any advice for us?” Rondeau said to the honu.
“Do not trust brothers,” the honu replied. “Either false brothers, or true.”
“Thanks.” Marla tried hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, because even a seemingly benevolent oracle like this one could be dangerous if treated with disrespect. But really. Telling her not to trust Jason or Crapsey was right up there with other proverbs of the obvious, like “Don’t eat the rat poison” and “Don’t gargle with gasoline.”
“The sea calls me,” the white-headed honu said, only a trifle impatiently. “Is there anything more?”
“Yes, if you can – this.” Marla took the ring from her pocket and held it out to the honu. “This ring, it’s supposed to be enchanted.”
“It is not enchanted,” the honu said. “It is magic.”
Marla frowned. “What’s the distinction?”
“The difference between something that is enchanted, and something that is magic, is the difference between something that is wet, and something that is water.”
Marla nodded. “So it’s an artifact. My boyfriend’s a generous guy… can you tell me what it does? What happens if I wear it, I mean?”
“If you wear it?” The turtle didn’t quite smile – Marla wasn’t sure turtles could smile – but it somehow contrived to look amused. “It will be very pretty, and sparkle, and make you feel loved, if you are the sort to feel loved. But that is all.”
“No power to shoot fireballs from my fingertips then? Oh well. I mean, I can do that anyway, it’s just hell on my fingernails.” She sighed. A ring that was magical, but wouldn’t allow her to do any magic, struck her as an especially useless ornament.
“We thank you for your wisdom,” Rondeau said. “What can we offer you in return?”
“The world is dangerous for my children,” the honu said. “We lay our eggs in the sand, and the young hatch and make their way to the surf, but death is all around them: cats, rats, birds, the hated mongoose. Even a hole in the sand, or a bit of wood in the path, can delay their rush to the safety of the waves, and the false lights of humankind confuse them, and send them crawling to their deaths in the streets instead of their lives in the sea. You will go to a certain beach on a certain day next summer – I will send you a dream – and you will see to it that none of the children are lost, and that all reach the water.” The honu bobbed her head again. “This you will do.”
“I will,” Rondeau said solemnly, and the honu vanished beneath the waves. Rondeau let out a long shuddering breath. Then he smacked Marla on the arm. “I have to go save a thousand baby sea turtles from being eaten by rats? That’s a hell of a price to have to pay – it’s because you ask so many questions. And what if one of the turtles gets snatched up by a seagull or whatever?”
“What, you’re afraid of a turtle god now?”
“That wasn’t a turtle god. That was the mother of a turtle god. That’s even worse. You’re not allowed to die in this fight, Marla. I’m making you go with me to that beach.”
“It’s a date.”
As they waded back out, Rondeau said, “So, uh… now what? We know who, but, shit, Marrowbones is after us? How do we fight someone like her?”
“That’s a good question. If she’s here, it means she escaped from Blackwing, and somehow found a body that won’t die of cancer – maybe it’s a robot or something. I’m worried about what she did to Dr. Husch…”
Rondeau stopped walking. “Marla… . I just talked to Dr. Husch. Like, a day ago. I called her, I mean, we were friends, I stayed with her for a while, and… .” He shook his head. “She sounded fine.” His expression became thoughtful. “Better than fine, actually. She sounded like she always does, and I didn’t think about it, but I thought when she got put back together…”
“Her voice was ruined,” Marla said. “That’s what Hamil said, right?”
Rondeau nodded. “Maybe she… got better?”
“Maybe somebody made her better. Maybe somebody made her a deal. And maybe getting torn to pieces tore apart something in her mind, too.”
“Do you really think Dr. Husch is part of this?”
“I don’t want to think so, but she went through a lot… getting ripped into little pieces probably leads to a certain amount of posttraumatic stress disorder, even if you are a homunculus.”
Rondeau closed his eyes. “Shit. Marla, I told her things. I told her about what the eel oracle said, and about Pelham coming back, I don’t remember what all I told her – what if she’s working with Jarrow? What if I told her stuff that’s going to hurt us?”Marla considered. “Well… call her again. If she doesn’t answer, we’ll assume she’s a victim in all this, too. Then we’ll get in touch with Hamil, and tell him Jarrow is loose, and that he might want to send somebody to make sure Dr. Husch is okay, and that the other patients at Blackwing are secure.”
“And if she does answer?”
“Then you tell her more. Give her some juicy disinformation. And if Jarrow and company act on that bad information, we’ll know they got it from Dr. Husch, and… we’ll take appropriate action.”
Rondeau nodded. “Okay. Leda. I can’t believe she’d turn on us. I don’t want to believe it.” They continued on toward the shore. “What should I say to her?”
“Isn’t the Place of Refuge like fifty miles south of here? I’ve got an idea…”