19. There’s Always Someone Better Than You

The ghost of Captain Cook shouted and fired his pistols at Jarrow, billowing clouds of white smoke rising from the barrels of his guns. Jarrow looked down and patted her chest. “Ghost bullets! Nice, very nice. They would have ripped my soul right out of my body, if I didn’t have supernatural kevlar, but of course, I do.”

The ghost of Cook was trying to reload his pistols, but it was apparently a very involved project. The ghosts of the kahunas rushed toward Jarrow, weapons at the ready. Jarrow took a folded bit of tissue from her pocket, dabbed at the corners of her eyes, and then blew her nose – a great, ferocious, honking blow. The ghosts stopped running and leaned back, as if being pushed by a great wind, and then burst into flower petals, blowing through the City of Refuge and scenting the air with heavy perfumes. The ghost of Captain Cook scattered as well, the last look on his face outraged and disbelieving. He’d probably worn that expression a lot in his last moments of life.

“Shit,” Rondeau said, wobbling a little on his feet, and putting his hand on Marla’s shoulder to steady himself. “Listen, their spirits are still here, but they’re scattered, really tenuous, it’ll take me a while to get them back, but when I do, they’re going to be pissed, they’re going to start calling on shark gods and the god of sorcerers and – ”

“Oh, this will be over before the ghosts and ghoulies pull themselves back together,” Jarrow said. “Are you two done with opening ceremonies yet? Can I start my guest of honor address? Thanks. I’d like you to meet my friend Christian Decomain.” She gestured, and a small, dark-haired man with chunky hipster glasses stepped forward. His clothes were torn, there was a bruise forming on his cheek, and overall, he didn’t look too happy. “Your ghost guards smacked him around a little. Not exactly what I was expecting! Those spectral shark’s tooth clubs pack a pretty good wallop, if you stand around and let them hit you. I think poor Christian lost a tooth.”

“Christian Decomain. That name rings a bell,” Marla said. She turned to Rondeau. “Wasn’t he – ”

Rondeau nodded. “He was one of the freedom fighters in San Francisco – one of Sanford Cole’s men. He got killed in a raid on the Jaguar, we never even met him.”

“What are they talking about?” Christian said, alarmed.

“She’s crazy,” Jarrow said breezily. “Probably just one of her delusions.”

“Wasn’t he some kind of master of counter-magic?” Marla said. “An – ”

“Anti-mancer,” Jarrow said. She frowned. “Christian, you should have turned on your anti-magic shell when I said that, the light from the torches would have gone off, it would have been very dramatic.”

“Ah. Right.” Christian snapped his fingers, and the torches went dark. Marla drew her club. Shit. No magic, which meant her club was just a heavy stick again. The ghosts wouldn’t be coming back while Christian was working his mojo, either. All Marla’s fancy traps and preparations had just been made useless, their enchantments blocked. On the bright side, her enemies couldn’t cast spells, either. Her dagger would probably still work – artifacts were a lot tougher to neutralize than ordinary bits of magic. It was the same difference the honu oracle had mentioned: the difference between something being wet, and something being water.

“Thanks for that, Jarrow.” Marla’s night vision was screwed up from the torches, but the others probably weren’t much better off. “You’ve turned this into a fistfight, and that’s kind of my forte.”

“Ms. Mason, there’s no need for violence.” Christian’s voice was absurdly soothing. “I know it’s hard to believe, but we’re not your enemies. You’re sick, and we want to help you.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Rondeau said, from somewhere off to the left. “You’re here for an assassination, not an intervention.”

“That’s just paranoia talking,” Christian said. “We’re here for your own good.”

“Is that you, Rondeau?” Jarrow said. “I’ve been wanting to meet you! But the grown-ups are busy now, so behave, would you?”

Rondeau squawked, and a moment later, a voice much like his, but rougher, said, “I’ve got the little fucker, boss.” Marla closed her eyes. Crapsey had evaded the ghosts, it seemed, and found Rondeau. “The chloroform worked like a dream. He won’t be stealing anyone’s body for a while.”

“Oh, good,” Jarrow said. “I was worried. Not for myself – nobody could steal my body – but for my associates here. All right, Talion, get in there. Subdue Ms. Mason before she can do any harm to herself. Or others.”

Marla’s vision had adjusted enough to recognize the man who approached from the gloom on her right. “Talion,” she said. “The werewolf-hunter, yeah? I knew you – a version of you – in another universe. He had a lot more facial piercings, though. Glad to see you’ve got better taste in this dimension. I see you’ve got all your fingers, too. A lot of those got chopped off when I met the other you, on the other side.” She drew her dagger. “This is the knife that lopped those naughty digits off. And the funny thing is? We were actually on the same side in that universe, united against a common enemy. Imagine what I could do to you now, when you’re on the wrong side?” Talion’s expression was a furious snarl, but Marla had the weirdest feeling his anger wasn’t directed at her. “You can walk away from this,” Marla said, and Jarrow made a loud raspberry.

“No, he can’t. Sic her, boy!”

Talion lowered his head, a mixture of shame and rage flickering across his face, and launched himself toward Marla, knives appearing in his hands.

He was fast, absolutely, but Marla had his number instantly. He was used to fighting werewolves, creatures a lot bigger and stronger than he was, and he expected speed to carry the day. But he had a problem: she was at least as fast as he was. He darted in with a knife, and she dove to one side, aiming a kick at his knee, intending to drop him quickly. But he turned in time, and she just ended up kicking him in the shin. He sucked in a breath but didn’t stop moving, spinning toward her and weaving a net with the points of his knives. Fighting a duel by moonlight. What a bitch this was.

Christian Decomain was yelling something about how this wasn’t right, what were they trying to do, kill her? But Marla couldn’t pay any attention to that. She was too busy trying to figure out what a werewolf would do in this situation so she could do something else. Too bad she’d never actually met a werewolf – they were all but extinct in North America.

She brought up the war club to block one of Talion’s knife strikes, and then bulled toward him, lashing out with her dagger, going for his belly. He managed to parry, but her dagger did its job, slicing cleanly through his blade, leaving an inch of steel sticking up pointlessly just above the hilt. Talion danced back and threw the broken weapon toward her face. Marla had to lift her club to block, and there was Talion, spinning with a kick to sweep her leg. She jumped like a girl skipping rope, but his kick caught her on the instep, sending her stumbling forward into him, both of them piling together on the ground. They rolled, and Talion ended up on top. Marla’d lost the war club, and though she still had the dagger, Talion had her wrist pinned to the ground with one hand, and a knife in the other. Marla tried to get her free thumb in his eye, or to fishhook his cheek, but he hit punched her right in the armpit with a vicious knuckled nerve strike that left her arm numb and unresponsive. She tried to knee him, but he was straddling her too tightly, and her attempts to roll failed – she couldn’t get any leverage on the loose sand. “I’m sorry,” he said, sweat dripping from his nose into her face. “I don’t want to do this.” He closed his free hand around her throat.

“Stop!” Christian screamed, and suddenly the torches flared into life as his anti-magic shell was deactivated. “You’re supposed to be capturing her, I’ve got tranquilizers right here – ”

Marla still had a little breath in her lungs, and Talion loosened his grip on her throat in surprise when the lights came on. She spat, and shouted “Conditus!” as the wad of spittle and phlegm struck Talion in the face. Latin trigger words were silly, but she’d been amusing herself by using them ever since she read the first Harry Potter book. Maybe she should have used “Expelliarmus for a spell that involved hacking up a wad of spit. Next time.

Talion shrieked and fell back as the wad of slime expanded, covering his eyes and mouth, crawling around to encase his head. It wouldn’t suffocate him – the mobile phlegm avoided the nostrils – but he’d be busy trying to peel it off for a while. She got to her feet, one arm still numb.

Crapsey came rushing in from the left, and Nicolette from the right – the latter was wielding a hatchet that glinted with its own inner light, and that couldn’t be good. Before Marla needed to act, they both blundered into traps she’d scattered around the area, covered in loose sand. Crapsey stepped on a ring of shattered pocketwatches and got stuck in a moment of slowed time, his headlong forward movement changed into the merely incremental, an expression of comical surprise and outrage passing over his face in slow motion. Nicolette cracked some vials containing a few select elements – noble gases, mainly – and her body became insubstantial, turned into a misty outline of itself. The hatchet fell through her hand, still shining, and landed in the dirt. Nicolette started to curse furiously, but the words wisped away into nothingness, and she soon faded entirely from sight. She wasn’t dead, or even truly transmuted, just temporarily locked into a sympathetic bond with the gases, and made immaterial. She was essentially another invisible ghost. She would precipitate out of the atmosphere again, whole and unharmed, in an hour or so. By then, whatever was going to happen here would be done.

Jarrow had knocked Christian to the ground, and had one of her feet on his throat; she was wearing golden strappy sandals. In Marla’s vision, she’d been strangling the man, but any view of the future was necessarily subject to change.

“He really thought this was a mission of mercy,” Elsie said as Christian writhed beneath her. She looked at Marla. “I knew I’d have to kill him eventually, but I’d heard you were a good fighter, and I wanted to see for myself, no magic involved, so I figured I’d keep him around long enough to sic my dog on you. I have to say, I’m disappointed – Talion was better than you.”

“There’s always someone better than you.”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” Jarrow said. “Nighty-night, Christian.” She sang, just a snatch of a schoolyard verse, something about five little pumpkins sitting on a gate, and Christian Decomain screamed for an instant. His clothing collapsed, and scores of tiny golden frogs hopped away from the pile of clothes in all directions.

“You turned him. Into frogs.” Marla stared.

“What? Turning people into frogs is very traditional for witches. You turned Nicolette into gas, although not permanently, I notice. You old softie. I was tempted to turn Christian into a hundred big hairy carnivorous millipedes instead, but I feel like the bug thing is so expected, you know? And you can’t say I killed him! This is just a little transformation, though not as temporary as what you cast on my associates. Nice traps, by the way. Kind of creative.”

“Can he be saved?” Marla said. “Can he be put back together, made human again?”

“Oh, sure, if you could gather all the little froglets – ” She stomped down, hard, squishing a golden poison dart frog beneath her heel, then did a series of tap dance steps across the clothing, doubtless squashing dozens more. “Oops, there went his kidney. Ack, there goes his spleen. Oh, dear, I think I just stomped on his sense of right and wrong, if only he hadn’t been cursed with that thing to begin with! You have a history with frogs, right? You fought a guy who used frogs like these to assassinate people? I researched you, in a kind of a half-assed way, I mean, I asked a few questions, just to get a sense.” She put a finger to her lips. “Hmm. These things are really going to play hell with the local ecosystem, aren’t they?”

Marla backed away from the frogs hopping in her direction. “What are you waiting for, anyway? Why don’t you come for me?” Without Rondeau’s ghosts or Pelham in a sniper position, her only remaining hope against Jarrow was luring her into the field of traps, many of which were designed specifically to combat a chaos witch, and getting in a lucky strike with her dagger. But having seen Crapsey and Nicolette felled by Marla’s magics, she didn’t show any inclination to go charging blindly in. Besides, this was Marrowbones; she didn’t need to be close to Marla to kill her.

Jarrow pouted, but didn’t make any move to approach. “You don’t enjoy my company, Marla? You just want me to turn you into a hundred hairy millipedes? Where’s the fun in that? I haven’t even brought your brother into this yet. Oh, don’t worry, the night is young. We’ll get to the killing-you part.”

“Is there even any point to asking you why you’re doing this?”

Jarrow shrugged. “Actually it’s very rational. I wanted a new body, and I wanted to get out of prison. Dr. Husch said I could have both if I just killed you.” She covered her mouth in mock horror. “Oops! I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that, huh? You’ve got even fewer friends than you thought!”

“I sort of figured she was behind it. But where did she find you a body? Is it a homunculus?” Marla was curious, but more importantly, she wanted to keep Jarrow talking. Marla didn’t think she had much of a chance in a straight fight against Jarrow, especially with one of her arms all fucked up. Jarrow was a whole order of magnitude beyond Marla in power, someone who’d stripped away all the sensible safeguards, who’d gone way past the back of beyond in her quest for knowledge, so who knew what she might be capable of? Marla had to stall her long enough for Rondeau to wake up from his chloroform funk, or for Pelham to come back from wherever he’d run to, or for Reva to pop on by, or for something to happen. It was like that old joke, about the man sentenced to death, who convinced the king to spare his life by promising to teach his majesty’s pet monkey to speak within a year. After all, a lot could happen in a year – the sultan could die. The man could die. Or the monkey could learn to speak.

Marla wasn’t thrilled about staking her life on a talking-monkey longshot, but it was the only chance she had left.

“Look at Talion wriggling around.” Jarrow didn’t sound amused, or contemptuous – Marla hated to even think it, but the woman sounded aroused. The werewolf-hunter was crawling on all fours, shaking his head back and forth, his senses of sight and hearing neutralized by Marla’s enchanted spit. “He’s a bad dog, isn’t he?” Jarrow took a small brass whistle from her pocket and blew on it, though no audible note sounded. Talion collapsed to the ground and began to twist and howl, fur sprouting on his face through the slime, legs twisting, knees bending in reverse, ears lengthening, clothes shredding as his musculature shifted. After a few moments, the man he’d been was gone, replaced by a dirt-brown mutt of a dog, big as a Great Dane but without that breed’s sense of nobility. The spit on its face blackened and glistened, oozing and changing consistency from gluey paste to something more like congealed gelatin. The dog that had been Talion ran baying across the sand and into the trees.

“Woof, woof,” Jarrow said. “Don’t worry, he won’t suffer long. I gave him that crazy virulent face cancer that Tasmanian Devils get. Did you know those tumors are actually contagious? To catch them you pretty much have to bite someone who’s infected straight up on the face, which isn’t something most species do, except for Tasmanian Devils. Cancer can evolve in all sorts of interesting ways. The contagiousness isn’t even that weird a development – it’s just, most cancers are inside people, so it’s not an adaptation that sees much use. Nobody ever goes gnawing on a guy’s cancerous prostate, right?” The chaos witch sauntered over to the not-quite-freeze-framed Crapsey and thumped him on the side of the head. “Cancer’s kind of hobby of mine.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that. Why did you do that to Talion? Because he failed you?”

Jarrow sighed. “I thought you were smarter than that. I expected him to fail me. He actually did better than I anticipated. I did it because I felt like it. That’s the only reason I do anything, usually. Admittedly, this whole hunt-and-kill-Marla-Mason thing doesn’t interest me particularly. I’m sure you have lots of epic enemies, grr, sworn to see you destroyed and ground into dust, but I’m not one of them. Still, if it’s what I have to do to get Doctor Husch to fulfill her end of the bargain – ”

“I don’t think Husch is going to be in a position to fulfill any bargains.” Marla saw an opportunity to stall – maybe even survive – and seized it. “We called the authorities in Felport once we found out you were involved in this, and told them our suspicions.”

Jarrow picked up a handful of sand and tossed it toward Crapsey’s face. The grains slowed and hung almost motionless as they entered his field of slow time. “I noticed you weren’t all that surprised to see me. I know I’m famous, but I like to think I’m unexpected. You’re in a codependent relationship with a psychic, though, which gives you an unfair advantage when it comes to intelligence gathering. So the jig is up for Dr. Husch, huh?”

“Once the Chamberlain and Hamil get their hands on her, they’ll put her away forever. Whatever she promised you, she won’t be able to deliver.”

“Mmmm. And you don’t think I’m honor-bound to fulfill my contract, even if I lose my employer?” Jarrow grinned. “Ha. Kidding, kidding. It does make things more interesting, though, doesn’t it? Tell you what, I’m going to go check on the Doc, I’ll be back in a little while.” Jarrow touched Crapsey on the shoulder, and he was pulled back into normal time. He stumbled forward a step or two, then turned his head to blink and spit out the sand Jarrow had thrown in his face.

Fuck. Marla was chilled at how easily the woman had broken her spell. Then again, there was a lot of chaos swirling around here tonight. Things going badly for Jarrow could actually make her stronger. “Say good night, Crapsey,” she said.

“What? What are you – ”

Jarrow drew a circle in the air, and a black hole opened in space, the edges curling and appearing to smoke and burn. Marla turned her face away, because looking into the space behind reality was never a good idea. Jarrow stepped backward through the portal, dragging Crapsey with her, and the hole closed after them.

Marla sank to her knees, exhaling hard. That was a close one. What was Jarrow going to do? What if she attacked Hamil, tried to protect Husch? What if –

“You bitch!” Nicolette screamed, solidifying a couple of feet off the ground and landing with a thump in a crouch.

  • Lars

    April 30th, 2012


    Awesome! Magic fight scenes are always the best! I like how each attack was described, the HP reference was cool too. It is nice to see Marla on the ropes a bit instead of just outsmarting everyone as she is wont to do, we’ve all been in situations where our plans were negated and things quickly went over our heads!

  • Mike

    May 5th, 2012


    That was awesome I do agree with Lars it also just struck me how many gods Marla ends up dealing with.

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