Archive for June, 2012

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?”

Marla nodded.

“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.

25: Such a Full Sea

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.

24: Welcome to Death

“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.



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