Archive for May, 2012

23: An Exchange of Prisoners

“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.”

22: Breaking Bread

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.

21. Captivities

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.

“I noticed.”

“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?”

20. Claiming Asylum

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.



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