“It’s time to get ready for war.” Marla leaned against the counter in the bookshop and surveyed her troops, such as they were: Pelham, nervous because of his little betrayal; Rondeau, who was more-or-less paying attention; and Reva, who was here only because he wouldn’t go away. The wave-mages had promised to lend their support when it came to actually apprehending Nicolette, so that was something. Normally, Marla wouldn’t have worried. She could beat Nicolette with one arm tied behind her back (which, given Nicolette’s recent loss of limb, would be only fair), and her brother wouldn’t exactly be able to con her again – she was wise to his deceit now. But Death had seen a likely future where she was dead, so it might be best to proceed with caution. Once upon a time she’d had sufficient self-confidence to believe she could defeat any challenge, but that was before Bradley Bowman got killed, and she got exiled. She was still going to fight… but maybe she wouldn’t charge in with nothing but her knives and a well-honed sense of outrage anymore.
“What do you propose?” Reva said.
“Step one is to get the hell off this island. Death saw me being killed on a beach on Maui – so I might as well change that first. I’m going to stay in Hawai’i – just on a different island. I want to deal with my enemies, not run away, but I’d rather choose my own ground.”
“So you want someplace nice and secluded?” Rondeau said. “Away from the ordinaries? There are some islands that are pretty much uninhabited, actually, we could dig in and – ”
Marla shook her head. “Nope. Flip that 180 degrees. If I’m in some isolated bit of tropical paradise and Nicolette and Jason and some hired thugs come to kill me, nobody local is going to care – it’s just a bunch of haoles killing each other. But if I’m in a nice populated area, and some nasty magic users show up and start behaving in a way that’s threatening to civilians, then the local kahunas are going to take an interest. Just like when I was running Felport – if people came into the city itself and started making noise, I shut that shit down quick. But if people wanted to run wild in the hinterlands outside my area of interest, what did I care? I don’t have the kind of support system I used to have, but if possible, I’m going to piggyback on the local system. I’ll sneak inside the local beehive and let their drones protect me.”
“So… we’re talking about human shields, basically,” Rondeau said.
Marla scowled. “That’s not the way I’d put it. I don’t think Nicolette is going to start lobbing fireballs through a hotel lobby – I know she likes chaos, but there’s a lot of big old magic and tough badass kahunas in these islands, and she knows she wouldn’t get away with that kind of assault, not without dying herself. Besides, I’ll let you pick a nice resort for us to hole up in – how’s that sound?”
“In that case, might I suggest the big island?” Reva said. “The most powerful sorcerers in Hawai’i live there, and the place has certain other properties that might prove useful.”
Marla pointed a finger at him. “Listen, godlet. Just because you’re helping me doesn’t mean I’m going to join up with the Church of You once this is all over. Understood?”
“You are already one of my people, Marla. I don’t demand that you become a follower explicitly. I’m a god who takes care of you even if you’ve never heard of me.”
“I wish I hadn’t,” she muttered. “Rondeau, hop on the computer and make some arrangements, the way we talked about. Someplace on the Big Island, near the water in case we need help from the surfers on short notice, ideally not too close to volcanic activity just to be on the safe side – chaos magicians are fans of fire – but otherwise, please yourself. Pelham, come with me. We’re going shopping.” She cracked her knuckles. “It’s been ages since I did any enchanting. I had people to do that sort of thing for me back in Felport. It’ll be good to get my hands dirty again.”
Rondeau snorted. “Yeah, that was always your problem – your hands were too clean.”
The Marla Mason Revenge Squad breezed them through security with ease, Elsie providing fake IDs made of scrap paper and dead leaves, and cloaking them in an illusion of normalcy so thorough that none of them even got pulled aside for secondary screening. Nicolette, who was pretty good at tricking computers into doing her bidding, had gotten them all first-class tickets on a direct flight to Oahu, so they were the first ones on board, stowing their carry-ons and sinking into the luxurious seats. A couple of other people tried to get seated in the section, but Elsie made them hallucinate emergency phone calls, and they went running off the plane, leaving the whole front cabin to her own people.
Nicolette had booked herself the seat next to Elsie in the left-hand front row, but the older witch shook her head and told her to change places with Crapsey. Nicolette sullenly sat down beside Jason, who did his best to appear engrossed in a SkyMall catalog. Talion sat by himself, obsessively touching the places on his face where his piercings had been. Crapsey sat down beside Elsie – she got the window seat, naturally – and tried not to think about whether she was actively carcinogenic at the moment.
Elsie put a hand on his knee. “Cheer up, evil twin. I have a surprise for you. The Mason enchanted your prosthetic jaw, isn’t that right? So you could bite through steel and eat hot lava and things like that? And there were other spells, too, laid on the jaw, things that could affect your whole body, transform you in various ways.”
Crapsey massaged his chin. The Mason had ripped his jaw off when he was just a little kid, and later fitted him with a magical carved wooden prosthesis, decorated with intricate runes, though just now the jaw was glamoured to look like ordinary flesh. “Yeah, but she was the one who controlled the spells, not me.”
Elsie tapped the side of her head. “The host body still has some memories rolling around in here, and guess what: I made a list for you.” She passed him a slip of paper with a dozen seemingly random words jotted down. “All the controls were attached to this body, too, so: I hereby give you ownership of your own face. Those are the trigger words. Just be careful not to use one of them in casual conversation, or you might end up biting someone’s head off. Literally.”
Crapsey blinked. “That’s… thank you, Elsie, this means a lot. But which keyword does what? There’s no guide here.”
Elsie nodded. “I know! Trial and error is so entertaining! But don’t worry, I didn’t include the keyword that makes your jaw self-destruct, so don’t worry about stumbling across that one. Unless you accidentally just say it, like in the course of ordinary conversation, but it’s a pretty obscure word, I wouldn’t worry. Just don’t go reading the entire dictionary aloud, and maybe refrain from taking up metallurgy as a hobby, or at least talking about the field too much.”
Crapsey winced, nodded, and folded up the paper, slipping it into his pocket. He’d never much liked it when the Mason invoked his jaw’s powers – it just reminded him of how he was damaged and weird and altered – so he was content to put the note away for now.
The flight attendants came by and checked their seat belts, and the plane took off soon after, more or less on time. Soon after they were airborne and settled in for the twelve-hour flight, the attendants took requests, and everyone asked for and received booze.
Crapsey poured his tiny bottle of Scotch over the two ice cubes in his plastic cup. He sighed. “Look, it’s none of my business, but Nicolette made me promise I’d ask you – why don’t you just get rid of Doctor Husch and be on your merry way?”
“I can’t say I like having strings attached to me.” Elsie tipped her head back and loudly gargled the contents of a miniature vodka bottle before continuing. “But it’s not that easy. Husch, while she’s inside the Blackwing Institute, is pretty much unassailable. She’s wrapped in all the same defenses the building is. She’s not an extension of the place, exactly, but she’s definitely sheltering in its protection. A lot of that protection was designed especially to thwart little old me. Now, give me a couple of years to raise hell and get my power levels up – or hand me the right lever to pry Husch out of her fortress, where she’s exposed and vulnerable – and it’ll be a different story, but for now, every chain in the place leads to Husch, and I’m on one of her leashes. Besides, you wouldn’t want me to be free – you want me to kill Marla, right? And I wouldn’t have any reason to bother with some exiled sorcerer if Husch wasn’t making it a condition of my parole.”
“I don’t really mind Marla,” Crapsey admitted. “It’s her friend Rondeau I hate, mostly.”
“Differing agendas are so delicious. I eat them up like tasty tasty cake. There’s nothing I love more than cross-purposes and conflicts of interests, except maybe tornadoes made of screaming glass.” She patted Crapsey’s knee. “You know, you only hate Rondeau because you wish you had his life.”
“And here I thought I hated him because I used to be able to take over anybody at will, until he trapped me in this one body like a bug in a bottle.”
“Nope, it’s that thing I said. But don’t worry, we’ll hurt Rondeau too, I don’t mind. I can do a two-for-one special.”
Crapsey gestured toward Talion. “If you don’t mind me asking, why’d you bring him onto the team? Just to increase complexity? More of those agendas and cross-purposes?”
“Having someone who hates me and will betray me at the first opportunity is nice, of course, but there are practical considerations, too. We’ve got yours truly, a master imposter, a confidence man with a personal connection to Marla, a born lackey with a magical jaw and the power to Curse – that’s cute, by the way, little primal burps of chaos, I like it – and a one-armed wannabe chaos magician with an axe she doesn’t know how to use. What we don’t have, or rather didn’t have, is a straight-up fighter, someone who can take the kind of punishment I hear Marla likes to dish out, and give as good as he gets. Magic’s all well and good, but Marla’s a face-puncher, a nose-breaker, a hamstring-cutter, and an ass-kicker by all accounts, so it might come to fisticuffs. Especially since I have another recruit waiting for us in Oahu.”
“Another old friend of yours?” Crapsey said.
Elsie shook her head. “No, actually. Dr. Husch knows him. His name’s Christian Decomain, and he’s an anti-mancer.”
“Which means… what?”
“He negates magic. He’s a counterspell expert with an suppressive aura. Get close to him and spells fizzle, psychics lose their special insight, and levitators fall out of the sky. He’ll be fun to have around. Of course, he thinks of himself as a good guy, so Dr. Husch had to tell him that Marla was having a psychotic break and threatening to destroy the Hawai’ian islands. He thinks we’re just going to take her into custody, for her own good. It’ll be fun to put him next to Marla, then let Talion try to beat the crap out of her.”
“But when this Decomain guy realizes that we’re not just trying to capture Marla…”
Elsie nodded. “Fun, right? He’ll be super pissed. I’m not sure how that’s all going to work out, since I can’t mind-control him, but we’ll improvise. You’ve got a knife, right?”
“Good. If Christian gets out of line, I’ll need you to stab him in the neck. Negating magic means he can’t use magic to protect himself, so unless he’s wearing a suit of armor, he should be vulnerable to a direct attack.” She reclined her seat and closed her eyes. “Don’t let anyone disturb me, Crapsey dear.”
“I thought you didn’t sleep?”
“I don’t. I’m going astral projecting. Who needs an in-flight movie when you can travel invisibly anywhere on Earth?”
“What are you planning on going to see?”
“I’ve been locked in a magical cube for years,” she said. “What do you think? I’m going to go watch famous people have sex.”
Crapsey had no idea whether she was telling the truth or not, and wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He called for another drink.
“I think that’s everything.” Marla slipped Death’s bell into her pocket, careful not to let it ring. “The other things we need we can pick up on the Big Island.” She looked around the suite Rondeau had rented for her, trying to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, though she was less concerned about leaving a hairbrush than leaving, say, a jar of cursed seawater or an enchanted nene feather.
Pelham had emptied his steamer trunk, the glamoured bedsheet now an ordinary piece of fabric again, and Marla had filled the space with those magical and practical supplies she’d managed to scrounge up that afternoon: glass vials full of rarefied airs, a box of precisely shattered pocketwatches, hatpins with blood crusted on the points, and other nice things.
Rondeau let himself in – there was no way to keep him from having a key, despite Marla’s best efforts. “You guys almost ready? I booked us in at a resort on the west coast of the Big Island, and I got us on a plane tonight. It’s only about a twenty-minute flight, and we’re good for late check-in.”
“Three rooms, right?” Marla said.
“Two connecting, one across the hall, though they all have two double beds. I like to have one bed just for jumping up and down on, so – ”
“Not this time. You and Pelham can share a room.”
Rondeau raised an eyebrow. “You need two rooms?”
“I do,” Marla said.
“Then why didn’t you tell me to book four rooms – ”
Marla shook her head. “Three rooms, three people, it makes sense. When Nicolette and company come looking for us, I want them to see exactly what they expect to see. If we had four rooms, they’d wonder what the other one was for. Trust me on this, Rondeau. We’re about to get into a fight. I’m good at those.”
Rondeau raised his hands in mock surrender. “Fine, you’re the boss. Oh, wait, no you’re not, you’re, like, my ward – ”
Marla put her hand on his shoulder. “I know. And I’m sorry if I’m still acting like I have a right to tell you what to do without explanation. So: that extra room is going to be filled with traces of me, my clothes, bits of my hair, a little bit of my blood. I’m going to disguise my presence in the other room, and that fake room is also going to have some really nasty magical traps primed, so if anyone comes in unannounced, following a divination and looking to grab me, they’ll get something more unpleasant instead. Which reminds me, we’d better keep the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on that door at all times. I’d hate to spring a nest of shadow snakes on housekeeping. Okay?”
“That kinda makes sense,” Rondeau said. “But I still don’t see why you get your own room and I have to share.”
“Boys in one room, girls in the other. It’s traditional. Plus, I’m probably going to be doing a lot of enchanting, and that means weird smells and sounds and lights. You don’t want to be in there with me. You’re here as my friend, Rondeau, not a guy on my payroll. I know that, and if I ask too much of you, I’m sorry. I hope you know I’d do the same for you, if you needed it. ”
He sighed. “I know. Just be ready. I’m going to get myself into some hellaciously big trouble and make you bail me out of it pretty soon, just to keep the balance right in our relationship.”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Marla said. “Now help Pelham carry that trunk, would you?”
Reva sat next to Marla on the flight to the Big Island, unpleasantly close due to the narrow seats on the little puddle-jumper aircraft. “I love the windowseat,” Reva said, once they were airborne.
Marla, who was the one actually sitting in the windowseat, grunted. She didn’t offer to switch places. She was over the wing anyway, so it wasn’t like the view was that great, but it was the principle of the thing.
“Looking down on the world, seeing the shape of the land, it’s like being a god.” He chuckled in an extremely annoying fashion. “Trust me. I should know.”
“Water looks like water whether you’re ten feet above it or ten thousand.” Marla looked out at the wing, wishing for a gremlin to appear, “Terror at Forty-Thousand Feet”-style, because hitting something would do her good, and dealing with a supernatural incursion at high-altitude posed some interesting tactical problems. Then again, she shouldn’t make wishes like that – with Pelham on board, there was a non-trivial chance the admittedly gremlin-like Nuno could appear at any moment. With all the chaos of solving a murder and preparing for war, they hadn’t had time to try a ritual cleansing to get rid of his infestation yet.
After a too-brief interval of silence, Reva started up again: “I hope you won’t hold Pelham’s little lie against him. He was just doing what he thought was best – ”
“I don’t hold it against him,” Marla said. “I hold it against you. The whole stupid plan to give me a fake murder investigation was your idea, and I know gods can be convincing. Pelham’s not the most worldly guy, despite all his traveling – he still has a bad habit of taking people at face value and thinking the best of them.”
“I do mean well, Marla – I want to help you find a new home, or adjust to the lack of a home, and at the very least I want to keep your enemies from killing you.”
“That’s why I’m not kicking up a fuss about your company – because I could use some extra firepower. Though I’m wondering what you can do exactly. Why are you even on this plane? Shouldn’t you be able to fly to the Big Island or something?”
“And miss the pleasure of your company?” His quirked smile was almost cute, but only almost. “When I take on a human form, like this one, I take on certain human limitations. Like the inability to fly. I could give up the body, and regain greater powers, but I find it easiest to deal with people when I’m being people. It makes me… think more like a human. When I’m fully a god, not using a human brain to do my thinking, not subject to the glandular passions that govern humankind, everything is a bit… cold. Abstract. Impersonal. The difference between being in the water, or thousands of feet above it. I don’t like that feeling. This is better. Besides, I’m not without resources – I have a certain degree of magical ability, and as Pelham told you, I have the power to… interact at a primal level with the mind of anyone who considers herself out-of-place or away from home. Your assassins aren’t likely to be local, so that could be useful.”
“Mind control, huh? How… godly.”
A flash of irritation crossed his face. “Again. It’s not. Mind control. It just makes people receptive to bargains, and I’m always careful to give more than I get. You have a history of meddling in people’s lives, too.”
“Yeah, but I’m a person, so it’s different.” She yawned. “Anyway, you’re going to have to get your own hotel room. I didn’t book one for you.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I don’t expect you to give me accommodations. All it takes is one clerk or concierge who isn’t a native Hawai’ian, and I’ll be staying in a better room than you are.”
“Sounds like mind control to me,” she said, and put on a pair of headphones before he could object again.