“The closest hotel is, let’s see.” Jason squinted at the guidebook in his lap and compared it to the sheet of names he’d scribbled down at Marla’s office. He was in the passenger seat, next to Christian, who drove along the dark highway. “A bed-and-breakfast called the Rainbow Plantation. Doesn’t sound much like Marla does it?” He yawned. “Are we really going to try to hit all these hotels tonight? Maybe you people don’t need to sleep, but I do. I’ve been teleported, flown on a plane, and ridden on a stolen boat. I’m exhausted.”
“You can sleep when you’re dead,” Elsie said from the first row of seats in the back, where she sat next to Crapsey, one hand resting companionably on his knee. “Are you sure you’re that sleepy?”
Nicolette’s phone rang, loud in the rented SUV.
“No personal calls!” Elsie snapped, turning to glare at Talion and Nicolette, or “the bad kids,” as she’d started calling them for reasons of her own. Lupo was back there too, still looking like Dr. Husch, all glares and snarls.
“It’s for you,” Nicolette said. “It’s Dr. Husch.” That just made Lupo glare even more ferociously, and bare her teeth. It must really suck, Crapsey thought, to know you aren’t even really real.
Elsie took the phone and put it to her ear. “Doctor Prettyface! Don’t you inhuman homunculi ever take an evening off? Listen, we’re on the case, don’t worry – ” She paused. “Oh, really?” She covered the mouthpiece with one hand and grinned at Crapsey. “Our friend Rondeau called Dr. Husch with another tale of woe.” Back to the call: “Did he tell you anything useful, or just whine some more? Or both? Hmmm. Really? That could be fun. How long ago was this? Thanks, Doc. We’re on it.” She pushed a button on the phone and tossed it over her shoulder, eliciting an “Ow” from Lupo. “Christian!” she shouted. “Fire up that fancy GPS and tell it we’re going to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park.”
“Uh,” Christian said, “I’m going to need you to spell that.”
“Jason, look it up in the book, would you? Starts with a P, as in Place of Refuge, which is what it’s also called. According to Rondeau, Marla’s taking that name literally, and she’s going to hole up there. Let’s go pry her out of that hole, what do you say?”
“What is this place?” Crapsey said.
“You’re right to ask me, since I know everything,” Elsie said. “You know about taboos? They didn’t have those in old Hawai’i, or rather, they did, but they called them kapu – the old Hawai’ian laws. If you commited some terrible crime – like, say, touching a chief’s fingernail clippings, or wearing red and yellow feathers, or casting a shadow on the grounds of the palace, or letting a woman eat a banana – you were breaking a kapu. The punishment was usually, poof, instant death. If only we had a legal system like that now – so simple! But, just like in that great Disney cartoon The Hunchback of Notre Dame, there are places of sanctuary where the authorities can’t get you. If you broke a kapu, you could flee to a place of refuge and throw yourself on the mercy of the priests who lived inside. They could absolve you and set you free, sometimes, or other times they’d just put you to work. People who wanted to avoid battle, or losers in a war who didn’t want to get their brains bashed in, could come take refuge in a pu’uhonua too. The place of refuge was inviolate, nobody was allowed to take anybody out against their will, because the ground is sacred. Isn’t religion grand? You can build stronger walls out of faith than you ever could with steel and concrete. So it makes a certain amount of sense for Marla to go to ground there – I bet there’s still some magic in that place, even though the bones of the chieftains buried there were all stolen or scattered or hidden away, and the snarling tiki statues are all reproductions.”
“You don’t think it’s a bit convenient that one of Marla’s friends told Dr. Husch where she was hiding?” Christian said. “You said her psychic friend Rondeau predicted Marla would be captured – couldn’t she be lucid enough to realize that Dr. Husch is the one coming after her? Or paranoid enough to suspect so?”
Elsie beamed. “You deserve a lollipop! And by ‘lollipop’ I mean ‘head of an enemy on a stick.’ Yes, it’s almost certainly a trap. That makes it more fun. But I’m not a complete maniac. Just a partial one. We’ll deploy our resources strategically and blah, blah, blah.” She clapped her hands together and bounced on the seat. “Finally! Two days I’ve spent planning to catch Marla, and the time has come! I’m so glad. I was getting bored. And when I get bored, Talion could tell you, I get cranky.”
“Using yourself as bait is a bad idea,” Rondeau said. “Using me as bait is even worse.” They sat together in a grove of palm trees, the ocean at their backs. The night was that rich quality of dark you only get some distance away from cities and their halos of light pollution, the skies clear, the air cool. They were well within the ten-foot-high L-shaped wall of ancient unmortared stone that divided the inside of the Place of Refuge from the old royal grounds and the rest of the national park. The area was guarded by fierce tiki statues, and nominally patrolled by park rangers to keep people out of the historic area after hours, but Marla had cast a little misperception loop that would keep the rangers distracted elsewhere until morning. “I feel way too exposed here.” There were reproductions of traditional Hawai’ian huts on the other side of the wall, but within the sanctuary, there was no shelter of any kind – the closest thing to a structure was a massive platform of stones that had probably once been a foundation for houses.
“Nah, this is a great defensive position,” Marla said. “Anybody who wants to get to us has to pass through the visitor’s center, walk along the trail, either circle around the wall or come through the one opening, and then make their way across all those vicious volcanic rocks without falling in a royal fish pond or falling and getting shredded by cold lava. We’ve got great sightlines. I like it.”
“What if they come in by canoe?”
Marla shrugged. “There’s a plain of black rock between us and the water. There’s no cover there at all – anyone walking in would be totally exposed. It’s a good position.”
“If it’s so good, what do you need me for?”
“Please. Without you, this place is just a historical curiosity. With you, it’s actually a refuge. You’re telling me you can’t sense the ghosts? Even I can.”
Rondeau sighed. “Yeah, there are ghosts. Priests who spent most of their lives here, and some chiefs, but they’re a little more faded – their bones were kept here for a while, but they got moved at some point, so the spirits are sort of doing a time-share thing between locations. There’s one incredibly pissed-off old white dude in some kind of military jacket. I think he’s Captain Cook, the guy who discovered Hawai’i – well, you know, ‘discovered,’ the way white dudes discover all kinds of places that plenty of brown people already know about. When Cook first showed up, the Hawai’ians thought he was their long-lost god Lono. He got a longer welcome than he would have otherwise, but he eventually wore it out. The locals kept some of his bones here like he was a chief, showing him respect even though they killed him themselves. I don’t know how much help Cook’s ghost will be, but the priests seem to accept us as legitimate sanctuary-seekers. They know they’re dead, but they don’t seem to mind much. They should be some help.”
Marla nodded. “Good. We’ve got Pelham out beyond the wall, watching the road, so we should get some advance warning before the bad guys arrive.”
“If they arrive,” Rondeau said. “I’m still hoping we sit out here and nothing happens. We don’t know if Dr. Husch is involved at all. Maybe Nicolette just helped Jarrow escape –” His cell phone vibrated, and Rondeau picked it up, listened, and grimaced. “Thanks, Pelly.” He put the phone away. “There’s an SUV coming down the road, no headlights. Pelham looked through those binoculars you gave him, the ones with the night-vision enchantment, and he says there are at least five people in the thing, and they look enough like the people in the video that he’s ninety-nine percent sure they’re our villains. Do you want him to proceed?”
“I think the odds that they’re just tourists who didn’t check the park’s operating hours are pretty low,” Marla said. “But tell him to stick with the strictly non-lethal measures, just in case. And call Hamil, now, I don’t care if it’s going to wake him up. Tell him… shit. Don’t tell him what we suspect about Dr. Husch, I guess. We could still be wrong. Just tell him that Elsie Jarrow is loose, and that he might want to check on Leda, and make sure the other patients at Blackwing are secure. He’s smart enough to go in on his guard.”
“Fuck,” Rondeau said. “Leda. I liked her. I always did.” He made the call, keeping it short and simple, and disconnecting quickly. “He says he’ll get some of his people and head to Blackwing right away.”
“Good. I helped put some of those people in Blackwing. Somebody needs to make sure the patients stay locked up, if Leda can’t be trusted to do it anymore.” She ran a hand through her hair. “I wish I could be there. I should be there. But instead, I’m here. There’s nothing I can do about what’s happening in Felport. So I’d better be here all the way.” Marla looked around the grove of palm trees. She’d laid out a certain number of weapons, enough to level the playing field, but the only thing that had a chance of hurting Jarrow was the dagger Death had forged for her. The problem would be getting close enough to strike. “I wish Reva hadn’t wandered off,” she said. “He’s a presumptuous annoying little shit, but we could use some god-powers here.” After their plane landed the god had promised to catch up with them later, saying he had errands to run, but he hadn’t been in touch yet. “I also wish to hell this ring did something useful.”
“The oracle said wearing it wouldn’t do anything,” Rondeau said. “But maybe you have to wear it and say a magic word or something? Or twist it around three times? Or stick it on your toe? Maybe there’s an inscription on the inside, like people get for their wedding rings. Something useful like, ‘One ring to bind them all.’ Even ‘insert finger here’ would be helpful at this point.”
Marla grunted, wishing she’d thought of the possibility of an inscription. She held the ring up to the moonlight, squinting. Was that something incised in the metal, or just a glint? She brought the ring close to one eye, closing the other and squinting –
A red-haired woman on the sand raised her arms, mouth moving in silent screams or laughter, and a flock of burning parrots appeared in the air, rushing toward Marla. She leapt to one side, diving and rolling, then bounced up to her feet –
Nothing. No Jarrow, no birds. She looked at the ring, still clutched in her hands, and lifted it to her eye again. Looking through the ring, the empty beach became crowded: there was Crapsey, holding onto Rondeau’s lapels with one hand and punching him in the face with the other, and Jarrow again, now strangling a man Marla had never even seen before. The chaos witch didn’t look exactly as she had the one time Marla had met Jarrow, but she did looked vaguely familiar – Marla couldn’t quite place her. She put the ring down and frowned. “Shit,” she said. “Rondeau. This ring lets you see the future.”
Rondeau leaned in the doorway of the house. “Really? That’s handy.”
“You look through it,” she said. “Gods, it never occurred to me… but that’s one of Death’s powers, to see possible futures, it’s how he knows when people are going to die. Rondeau, stuff’s going to get ugly here, and I’m not sure when, I don’t know what kind of a delay we’re talking about with this ring, how far it can see, but we’d better get ready, we –”
The phone buzzed again, and Rondeau picked it up. “Yeah, Pelly, do you – oh. Uh. Just… just a minute.” He took the phone away from his ear and looked at Marla, eyes wide. “It’s for you. It’s not Pelham. It’s…”
“Jarrow,” she said, taking the phone.
“Crapsey, actually,” Crapsey said. He sounded almost exactly like Rondeau, voice perhaps a bit rougher from decades inhaling the atmosphere of the Mason’s version of North America, polluted as it was by the output of her vile magical engines. “How’s it going, Marla?”
“I’ve been better. How’s Pelham?”
“Little shit got away, actually. He scattered something on the road to pop all our tires, nearly rolled the SUV, but Jarrow kept us upright, and we managed to grab hold of your boy. I had him by the scruff of the neck, and we got the phone off him, but then he did some kind of crazy kung-fu shit and ran off into the dark. He’s going to get himself killed on those black rocks. We could’ve caught him, but Jarrow said leaving him loose was an ‘interesting variable,’ adding some uncertainty to the situation, so we let him go. It’s a chaos witch thing.”
“Makes sense. So what’s the big idea? Kick me while I’m down?”
“Kill you while you’re weak, yeah. I mean, personally, I don’t have a real grudge against you. Rondeau’s the one who tricked me into drinking that potion, and trapped me in this body. He’s the one I’ve got a beef with. Jarrow says she can settle that score for me along the way – she’ll either trap Rondeau the way I’m trapped, or make him suffer some other way.”
“You’re an idiot, Jabberjaw. Rondeau was acting under my orders. If you want to hate someone, hate me.”
“Oh, duly noted, but I was a henchman for a long time, and I believe in taking personal responsibility for your actions, even if your boss told you to do it. I want Rondeau to hurt, and Nicolette wants you to hurt, and since the two of you are hanging out together, hey, we joined forces.”
“And got Elsie Jarrow out of the hospital to use as a weapon. Well, I must say, at least you two morons know your own limitations. If you’d attacked me on your own, I’d be picking bits of you out of my teeth right now. But Jarrow’s a nuke. She’s weaponized anthrax. She’s not a weapon you can unleash without consequences.”
“Eh, it’s all under control.”
“You’ve got Doctor Husch helping you, right?”
Crapsey laughed. “Why should I tell you that?”
“Why shouldn’t you? You’re pretty sure I’ll be dead in a few minutes anyway. Besides, you’re supposed to keep me on the phone and distracted as long as you can so the rest of the idiot patrol can surround me. So answer my question, and truthfully, or I’ll hang up and start loading my rocket launchers.”
“You’re a pisser, Marla, I’ll give you that. You remind me of my old boss, only not as pretty, of course. Sure, Husch was in on it. You’re the reason she got torn to pieces, you know – me and the Mason wouldn’t have come to this universe if you hadn’t gone messing around with the fabric of reality. Husch is the one who let Jarrow out, and she’s holding the leash, keeping Elsie on task. Otherwise she’d just wander off and turn the Eiffel Tower into an anthill or something. The truth is, this is Dr. Husch’s operation. Me and Nicolette are just riding on her coattails.” He lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “Though to be totally honest, it’s Elsie’s show, now. And she’s a scary one. At least with the Mason, you knew what you were in for: she was going to try to kill you. With Jarrow? She could make you a palace out of emeralds or turn your liver into a swarm of fire ants, either or both for no particular reason. She’s going to kill you, I guess, but I’m pretty sure she’s going to play with you first, and the only reason is, she likes it.”
“You sure have a way of picking bad company, Crapsey.” Marla was walking around the site now, checking the traps she’d set up earlier, and content that all were primed, she returned to the tree where Rondeau sat cross-legged and muttered to ghosts, an enchanted lei around his neck. “Did you ever think about getting a job working for someone who wasn’t crazy and prone to acts of senseless violence?”
“I’m not sure I’m qualified for a gig like that. Why, are you looking for another guy in your entourage? I’d make a great replacement for Rondeau.”
“I have this policy against employing mass-murderers – sorry. And since you’ve actually lost count of all the people you’ve killed…”
“True. You’ve only killed, what, ten?”
“Seven,” Marla said. “And I regret them all. Every one represents a failure on my part – a failure of diplomacy, or imagination, or preparation, or nerve.”
“Only seven! You’re an amateur.”
“Hey, the night’s young. I could have a few more failures of imagination before the sun comes up. But I never killed on a whim, Crapsey.”
“It’s not like I enjoy killing people – ”
“I know. You just don’t care if you do. And honestly? I think that’s even worse. Okay, Trapjaw, are you people waiting for dawn? Where’s the attack?”
“Be patient, will you? We’ve got a way of doing things – ”
Someone screamed from off to the east, and Marla grinned. “You hear that screaming? Somebody just met one of our defenses.”
“What. The. Fuck,” Crapsey said. “Who are all these – ”
“They’re the ghosts of the priests who protected this place,” Marla said. “I’ve formally claimed sanctuary. And since you guys are marauders, trampling through a sacred space… let’s just say you’re on the wrong side of some big kahunas.”
“Fuck!” Crapsey shouted, and then there was a crackling sound, and nothing more.
Marla handed the phone back to Rondeau. “I think he dropped the phone, in the course of running away from some pissed-off priests.”
The ghosts were becoming visible now. Rondeau’s psychic field had a way of drawing latent supernatural manifestations into active status – faint ghosts became visible and capable of poltergeist activity, while presences that were more powerful to begin with could become corporeal enough to fuck or fight or drive motorcycles. The kahunas here were pretty faint, all things considered – they were from a long time ago, adhering to customs renounced by the later kings of Hawai’i, and some of them were miles and miles away from whatever remained of their mortal remains. Still, there was an impressive array: translucent kahunas in ceremonial feathers, drained of color and rendered white and gray, and furious chiefs with skeletal limbs armed with shark’s-tooth war clubs. Marla had her dagger hanging from her belt, and the massive Samoan war club she’d received from Arachne was in her hand, the latter all tricked out with vicious inertial magics. A love tap from that could cave in a rib cage, and might even knock Elsie Jarrow back a step or two.
And there, stalking up the path from the direction of a reproduction of a traditional temple, dressed in the ragged remnants of a naval jacket, wig askew, was the ghost of Captain James Cook, the accidental reincarnation of the long-lost god Lono, now looking around suspiciously with pistols in each hand, obviously spoiling for a fight.
Suddenly the torches she’d placed around the area to serve as an early-warning intrusion system burst into simultaneous flame. They burned bright green: that meant four people had broken the perimeter.
Marla hefted the war club. She grinned. She still had a lot of personal, philosophical, and existential problems, true, but right now, she also had the one kind of problem she knew exactly how to solve: people who needed a beating.
A red-haired woman dressed in a pale yellow summer dress stepped into the light cast by the torches. “Marla Mason, I presume?” the woman said, then winced. “Shit, that line’s from Africa, isn’t it? All these hot savage places look the same to me.”
“Elsie Jarrow,” Marla said. “Welcome to paradise.”