17. Proverbs of the Obvious

Using some arcane system of her own – or perhaps just acting on information from her spy Gustavus Lupo – Elsie led them to the building that housed Marla’s office. “See, there’s a little bit of folded space here. Plus a few safeguards against unlawful entry, but nothing I can’t unpick… .” A brick wall flickered and revealed a door with a glass window decorated with flaking gold paint. “It’s a used bookstore. How cozy.”

“A store no shopper can find,” Talion said. “It is like a Zen koan.”

“Nobody said ‘speak,’ Talion.” Elsie peered through the window – they could see shelves, and a counter, and a curtained alcove beyond that. “Hmm. It seems like someone’s home – I’m getting a definite sense of habitation – but something’s off. It’s like cherry flavoring instead of actual cherry, if you know what I mean. Christian, why don’t you work your mojo, create a nice…”

“Anti-magic shell,” Nicolette said. At Elsie’s raised eyebrow, Nicolette shrugged. “That’s what they call it in this fantasy computer game I play sometimes.”

Christian muttered, and moved his hands, and, even though nothing seemed to happen, Elsie grunted. “Yes. Nobody’s home. It was a false impression of a person in there, a fake Marla, which means – probably a trap. Clever girl! Nicolette, care to lead the way?”

“So I’m a human mine detector now?” she said.

“Oh, any booby traps are sure to be magical in nature, and Christian has suppressed those. So unless there’s a shotgun pointed at the door, with a string tied to the trigger at one end and the doorknob at the other, you should be fine.”

“It’s not beyond Marla to do something like that.” Nicolette looked through the glass, sighed, and put her hand on the knob. “Uh. It’s locked. And I can pop a lock with magic, but – no magic.”

“Talion?” Elsie said sweetly, and they all jostled around to give him a clear look at the door. He drew a knife almost as long as his forearm from the depths of his leather jacket – good thing Elsie had been able to glamour them past airport security, or that pigsticker would belong to the TSA now, and Talion would probably still be in a holding room – and jammed it between the door and the frame, then twisted, grunted, and shoved. The door popped open with a crack, and he moved aside to let Nicolette in.

She moved fast, checking all the corners, ducking behind the counter, and looking beyond the curtain. She eyed a steep flight of stairs, sighed, and went up, returning a moment later and calling out, “Clear!”

The rest of them entered, and Nicolette walked around the room, picking things up from bookshelves, chairs, and the floor, then dumped the handful of collected objects on the counter: a nail, the skull of a bird, several black jellybeans, a fly strip, and a small glass vial. “Let’s see,” she said. “We’ve got impalement, murderous spirit birds, two kinds of immobilization traps, and, yep, straight-up poison.” She shook her head. “Marla’s a pretty good enchanter, you’ve gotta give her that. We would’ve been inconvenienced to death if Christian hadn’t deactivated all these things.”

“She knew we were coming,” Husch – no, Crapsey reminded himself, Lupo – said. “Or that someone was coming, anyway. According to Rondeau, Death gave her a prophecy, that she would… be captured… on a Maui beach. It seems that, sensibly enough, she has chosen to remove herself from the vicinity of Maui’s beaches.”

“Hmm,” Elsie said. “I’m sure she had the good sense to cover her tracks and frustrate divination. Is it like her, to run away from a fight?”

“Not usually,” Nicolette said. She glanced at Christian. “But she’s never been, ah, in the midst of a nervous breakdown before, so who knows? If I had to guess, I’d say she’s just pulling back to a defensive position.”

Elsie twisted a lock of red hair in her fingers. “I could just ask her where she went, I suppose, but making Lupo turn into Marla could backfire, couldn’t it? Still, it’s tempting, it’s certainly unexpected – ”

“There’s a computer back here.” Jason stepped out from behind the curtain. “Password protected, but they’re idiots when it comes to security. I found the password list taped to the bottom of the keyboard. They cleared the browser history, but they didn’t delete their cookies or their temporary internet files.” Elsie frowned at him, and Crapsey didn’t really follow him either, and Jason sighed. “What I mean is, I can tell what websites they were looking at recently. They booked a flight to the Big Island, and they visited a few websites for hotels on the west coast, but it doesn’t look like they made reservations online, so I can’t be sure which one they picked. But all the hotels are along the same stretch of highway, so we can check them out one by one, or split up and do a bunch at once.” They all stared at him. “What? Not all of us have magic, you freaks. Some of us have to think our way out of problems and into opportunities.”

“You’re more useful than I thought,” Elsie announced. “Though with this bunch, the bar is set pretty low. Who’s up for another plane trip? Ooh, or maybe this time we can steal a boat!”


After their room service breakfast, Marla, Rondeau, and Pelham all crowded around Rondeau’s laptop, trying to make sense of the milling figures that filled the thirteen-inch screen. “It would be nice if the store was wired for sound,” Marla complained, watching the silent inches-high figures, filmed from a high angle, wander and gesticulate around her office.

“There’s a mike set up behind some books on one of the shelves, but it’s shittier than I thought, and they’re not very close to it.” Rondeau cranked up the volume on his laptop, and they could indeed hear some indistinct murmuring, but nothing of much use. “I didn’t have time to hit a high-end spy shop, you know. I had to make do with the crappy webcam and podcasting equipment I was able to find at the strip mall. But from the tattletale keylogger software I installed, it looks like you were right – Jason went straight to the computer in the office and started rummaging through our internet history. He should be able to figure out where we are, roughly, and they’ll probably expect to surprise us. So we can be ready.”

“I love it when people assume I’m stupid,” Marla said. “That makes it so much easier to get them to follow the trail I want.”

“Like I would use that computer for anything real,” Rondeau said. “It came with the office. It’s like a decade old. Total virus bait.”

“Never underestimate an enemy’s ability to underestimate your intelligence. I wish they were a little stupider themselves, though. It would have solved a lot if they’d just wandered in and set off all those nasty tricks I left them.” She leaned closer, crowding Rondeau and Pelham aside, her nose almost touching the screen, but all that did was make blurry things blurrier. “Who the hell are all those people? Isn’t there some way you can enlarge or enhance this?”

Rondeau snorted. “It doesn’t work the way it does in the movies. I can’t infinitely zoom in – we’ve got a crappy webcam here. This is as good as it gets. Still, that’s obviously Nicolette, and that’s Jason, and that’s Crapsey – I guess he just latched on to Nicolette at some point? But the other three…” He pointed. “That looks almost like Dr. Husch.”

“Insofar as she’s blonde and has big pixellated breasts, I guess,” Marla said. “That’s not how Leda looks now, anyway, not since the Mason tore her to pieces. That one there… could it be Talion?”

Rondeau whistled. “That guy we met in the other universe? Wasn’t he one of the good guys?”

“With ‘good guys’ defined as ‘somebody who hates people we hate’? In that dimension, sure, but if he’s the Talion from this universe, then who knows? I can’t imagine how he got mixed up in this, but I think he was some kind of mercenary on the other side – maybe he’s just hired muscle. That little guy with the hipster glasses, I don’t have a clue who he could be. And that redhead, doesn’t it seem like she‘s the one calling the shots? They all keep looking at her. I’d assumed this was Nicolette’s gig – but what if somebody else is in charge? If so, why? If I mortally offended her, you’d think I’d at least recognize her. My kingdom for a room full of obedient clairvoyants…”

“Maybe we know enough to ask the right questions now,” Rondeau said. “Like, ‘Who the hell are these people?’ We could see about scaring up an oracle.”

“Not a bad idea,” Marla said. “But does that mean you want me to walk around in this ridiculous giant hotel some more?”

Following Rondeau’s peculiar inner compass, they made their way through the hotel, to the artificial lagoon. There was no one else around, just water lapping at fake white sand, the waters populated by real sea creatures. Rondeau, who wore cargo shorts and sandals, strode out into the water, and Marla took off her boots and rolled up her white cotton pants to the knees and followed. Pelham, who was wearing clothing more appropriate for a day’s work in a cubicle farm than a tropical paradise, chose to stay in the sand.

Rondeau went out about waist deep, and Marla sighed and followed. She hated wading in the surf in Hawai’i, especially in the dark, and even this fake lagoon was connected to the real ocean. Compared to, say, Australia, the waters of Hawai’i were fairly benign, but there were jellyfish, venomous cone snails, poisonous anemones, scorpion fish, barracudas, sharks, Portuguese-man-of-wars (men-of-war?), and –

The water frothed, and a green sea turtle with a shell roughly the diameter of a patio table rose from the water, its nose no more than two feet away. Its head was pure white, its eyes dark and strangely compassionate, and it nodded at them in a disturbingly anthropomorphic way.

“Welcome, oracle.” Rondeau’s voice was strained – summoning this creature had clearly cost him more effort than usual. “We seek your counsel.”

The turtle spoke, the voice feminine and soothing, though its beak of a mouth didn’t move. “I am Honu-po’o-kea, mother of Kailua the turtle-maiden. I will aid you if I can.”

“An enemy is coming for us,” Rondeau said. “She has red hair, and she comes with an army of warriors. Can you tell us her name and her nature?”

The honu bobbed in the water, her flippers moving lazily, creating little wavelets that broke against Marla and Rondeau’s bodies. “She is broken shells and spoiled yolks, that one. She is water that sickens you to drink. Her name is Elsie Jarrow, and she is the fire that cracks the stones.”

Marla closed her eyes. Marrowbones? But Jarrow was supposed to be locked up in the Blackwing Institute. She didn’t even have a body anymore. If she was free… what was she doing here? Marla had seen her once, before becoming chief sorcerer, when Jarrow escaped her prison for one afternoon. The sight of her bloody smile had made a powerful impression on Marla, but it wasn’t like they had history. Though Nicolette worshipped Jarrow the way Rondeau worshipped rum, and the younger chaos witch had tried to break her heroine out of Blackwing at least once before, so it sort of made sense.

“And the others?” Rondeau said. “Can you tell us who she brought with her?”

The turtle lowered her head into the water for a moment, as if thinking, then nodded again. “A one-armed witch, armed with a shard of the moon. My summoner’s false brother, with a jaw of wood and stone and magic, his soul trapped in a bottle of flesh. A killer of wolves, and men who become wolves. A man who soaks up magic as the sand soaks up water. This woman’s true brother, a conniver and a liar, reeking of fear and calculation. And another, a blur, not nameless, but possessed of an ever-changing name.”

“That’s seven,” Marla muttered. “Jarrow, Nicolette, Crapsey, Jason, and we were right about it being Talion. I don’t know who the guy who slurps up magic can be, and this nameless blur, that’s not a lot to go on, but they must be the other two we saw, the little guy and the blonde woman.”

“Do you have any advice for us?” Rondeau said to the honu.

“Do not trust brothers,” the honu replied. “Either false brothers, or true.”

“Thanks.” Marla tried hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, because even a seemingly benevolent oracle like this one could be dangerous if treated with disrespect. But really. Telling her not to trust Jason or Crapsey was right up there with other proverbs of the obvious, like “Don’t eat the rat poison” and “Don’t gargle with gasoline.”

“The sea calls me,” the white-headed honu said, only a trifle impatiently. “Is there anything more?”

“Yes, if you can – this.” Marla took the ring from her pocket and held it out to the honu. “This ring, it’s supposed to be enchanted.”

“It is not enchanted,” the honu said. “It is magic.”

Marla frowned. “What’s the distinction?”

“The difference between something that is enchanted, and something that is magic, is the difference between something that is wet, and something that is water.”

Marla nodded. “So it’s an artifact. My boyfriend’s a generous guy… can you tell me what it does? What happens if I wear it, I mean?”

“If you wear it?” The turtle didn’t quite smile – Marla wasn’t sure turtles could smile – but it somehow contrived to look amused. “It will be very pretty, and sparkle, and make you feel loved, if you are the sort to feel loved. But that is all.”

“No power to shoot fireballs from my fingertips then? Oh well. I mean, I can do that anyway, it’s just hell on my fingernails.” She sighed. A ring that was magical, but wouldn’t allow her to do any magic, struck her as an especially useless ornament.

“We thank you for your wisdom,” Rondeau said. “What can we offer you in return?”

“The world is dangerous for my children,” the honu said. “We lay our eggs in the sand, and the young hatch and make their way to the surf, but death is all around them: cats, rats, birds, the hated mongoose. Even a hole in the sand, or a bit of wood in the path, can delay their rush to the safety of the waves, and the false lights of humankind confuse them, and send them crawling to their deaths in the streets instead of their lives in the sea. You will go to a certain beach on a certain day next summer – I will send you a dream – and you will see to it that none of the children are lost, and that all reach the water.” The honu bobbed her head again. “This you will do.”

“I will,” Rondeau said solemnly, and the honu vanished beneath the waves. Rondeau let out a long shuddering breath. Then he smacked Marla on the arm. “I have to go save a thousand baby sea turtles from being eaten by rats? That’s a hell of a price to have to pay – it’s because you ask so many questions. And what if one of the turtles gets snatched up by a seagull or whatever?”

“What, you’re afraid of a turtle god now?”

“That wasn’t a turtle god. That was the mother of a turtle god. That’s even worse. You’re not allowed to die in this fight, Marla. I’m making you go with me to that beach.”

“It’s a date.”

As they waded back out, Rondeau said, “So, uh… now what? We know who, but, shit, Marrowbones is after us? How do we fight someone like her?”

“That’s a good question. If she’s here, it means she escaped from Blackwing, and somehow found a body that won’t die of cancer – maybe it’s a robot or something. I’m worried about what she did to Dr. Husch…”

Rondeau stopped walking. “Marla… . I just talked to Dr. Husch. Like, a day ago. I called her, I mean, we were friends, I stayed with her for a while, and… .” He shook his head. “She sounded fine.” His expression became thoughtful. “Better than fine, actually. She sounded like she always does, and I didn’t think about it, but I thought when she got put back together…”

“Her voice was ruined,” Marla said. “That’s what Hamil said, right?”

Rondeau nodded. “Maybe she… got better?”

“Maybe somebody made her better. Maybe somebody made her a deal. And maybe getting torn to pieces tore apart something in her mind, too.”

“Do you really think Dr. Husch is part of this?”

“I don’t want to think so, but she went through a lot… getting ripped into little pieces probably leads to a certain amount of posttraumatic stress disorder, even if you are a homunculus.”

Rondeau closed his eyes. “Shit. Marla, I told her things. I told her about what the eel oracle said, and about Pelham coming back, I don’t remember what all I told her – what if she’s working with Jarrow? What if I told her stuff that’s going to hurt us?”Marla considered. “Well… call her again. If she doesn’t answer, we’ll assume she’s a victim in all this, too. Then we’ll get in touch with Hamil, and tell him Jarrow is loose, and that he might want to send somebody to make sure Dr. Husch is okay, and that the other patients at Blackwing are secure.”

“And if she does answer?”

“Then you tell her more. Give her some juicy disinformation. And if Jarrow and company act on that bad information, we’ll know they got it from Dr. Husch, and… we’ll take appropriate action.”

Rondeau nodded. “Okay. Leda. I can’t believe she’d turn on us. I don’t want to believe it.” They continued on toward the shore. “What should I say to her?”

“Isn’t the Place of Refuge like fifty miles south of here? I’ve got an idea…”

  • Sean

    May 2nd, 2012


    Ok so it makes alot more sense now… So sad though that all the best characters are either dead, crazy or probably going to die in a different novel .

    • admin

      May 2nd, 2012


      Oh, I don’t kill *everybody*. But for me, if nobody ever dies or gets irreparably broken, the fictional world starts to feel too safe, and all the tension drains away.

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