Nicolette should not have been corporeal again that quickly – but then, she was strengthened by chaos, too. Or maybe her freedom was just a parting gift from Jarrow.
Nicolette snatched up her silver hatchet with her one hand and snarled. Shit. Leaving a weapon like that in the dirt was an amateur mistake. Marla was off her game tonight. Fighting chaos personified could do that to a person.
Marla drew her knife. That hatchet had the look of an artifact. Was it stronger than her dagger? Would they mutually annihilate one another if they collided? If only she had time to look through her ring and see what the future would bring. She’d have to get that thing fitted into the lens of a pair of glasses or something – she could see the present with one eye and the future with another – but for now, Death’s gift wasn’t doing her much good.
Nicolette raised her axe. “Finally. Just you and me. That’s all I wanted.”
“Then why did you bring fifteen other fucking people?” Marla straightened her spine. She was tired, and worried, and she had a spot of rot at the core of her sense of identity, but she wasn’t going to let Nicolette beat her.
Or so she hoped. Then again, the outlaw Jesse James had been shot in the back by a cowardly nobody. Anybody could kill anybody, if the circumstances were right.
“You didn’t like being a cloud of gas?” Marla said, as they circled one another, weapons raised. “You’re worth more as a fart in the wind than you are as a sorcerer. I can’t believe you’re running with Jarrow. Doesn’t her company just make you realize how much you suck? It’s like seeing a Little League shortstop playing in a game alongside Major Leaguers. It’s not even funny. It’s not even embarrassing. It’s just sad for everybody.”
“I usually like a little banter,” Nicolette said. “But I’m so sick of listening to you, you can’t imagine.”
“Then why the hell did you travel five thousand miles to the island where I live?”
“Because I couldn’t let you – fuck! No! No talking! Murdertime!” Nicolette raised the axe, its eerie silver glow growing brighter, and darted forward.
Marla sidestepped, and Nicolette didn’t even try to correct her course. She just took three more steps, swayed, and fell forward on the sand, dropping her axe. A tiny feathered dart stuck out of the side of her neck.
Pelham came limping into the circle of lights, his houndstooth jacket torn at one sleeve and smudged with dirt. He held the hollow tube of a blowgun in one hand. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Mason. I was nearly captured, and had to conceal myself, but I came as quickly as I could.”
Marla grabbed Pelham and hugged him. “You wonderful Anglophile you.”
“What has become of Rondeau? And of your enemies? Are they thwarted?”
“Thwartish,” Marla said. “Jarrow and Crapsey took off, but they might be back. Some of the others are dead. I don’t even know if my brother or the mystery villain were in the van. Did you get a headcount?”
“It was difficult, in the confusion,” Pelham said. “I disabled their vehicle, but before I could take up a sniper position, Jarrow somehow transported herself behind me. It was not a form of teleportation I’ve seen before – she did not open a portal. She merely took a few steps, vanished, and reappeared. Perhaps she has an affinity for shadows? She put me in the care of that fiend Crapsey, and I escaped. Is Rondeau…”
“I was about to check on him. I think he’s just knocked out. Go into the house and find the rope, the one braided from nine strands. It wouldn’t hold Jarrow any more than a pair of handcuffs would hold me, but it’s good enough to keep Nicolette bound until I figure out what the hell to do with her. Maybe Arachne can tell me what they do with dangerous outlaw sorcerers around here…”
“Of course, Mrs. Mason. If I may ask… what is our next move?”
“Fall back to the hotel,” Marla said. “I’ve got some preparations made there, too. I’m not thinking that far ahead, though, Pelly – honestly, the fact that we’re still alive, and haven’t been turned into beehives or library paste or something, is a major coup.”
While Pelham tied up Nicolette and secured her hatchet, Marla went in search of Rondeau. He was just starting to wake up, groaning, in the dirt. Crapsey hadn’t dared kill him, fortunately – Rondeau was a psychic parasite, and if his body died, he’d just find another host to occupy. “This is the worst hangover, ever,” Rondeau said as she helped him to his feet. “And I didn’t even get to have any fun first.”
Marla surveyed the area and chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. “Okay, let’s gather up the traps that didn’t get set off. We might need them later – and it would probably annoy the local kahunas if we left them here for tourists to stumble across.”
As they carefully disabled the traps, Pelham said, “We did well, didn’t we, Mrs. Mason? The strength of our enemies has been reduced greatly, and surely your old colleagues in Felport are on their way to apprehend Dr. Husch?”
Marla shook her head. “The only enemy that matters is Elsie Jarrow. The rest of them, I can deal with, even my brother. But Jarrow… there’s no stopping her if she decides she wants to kill me. I’m not saying I miss the cloak, but… it would be handy to have right now. It might make the playing field remotely level. Without that… the only reason I’m still alive is because she enjoys playing with me. Maybe she’ll get distracted by something shiny and leave me alone. If not… it doesn’t matter how many of her pawns, confederates, and footsoldiers we put away. We’re all doomed.”
“The reason you’re the leader,” Rondeau said, “is because you give the best pep talks.”
Crapsey puked in the bushes for a while, to Elsie’s amusement. “Teleporting,” he groaned. “I fucking hate it. It’s no way for a man to travel.”
“Luckily, you aren’t a man – just a psychic bug in a man-suit!” Elsie wasn’t even trying to keep a low profile – she was just standing beside a row of ornamental shrubberies, watching the horde of sorcerers, mercenaries, and miscellaneous expendable personnel swarming around the front of the towering edifice of the Blackwing Institute. “Come, Crapsey, I think I see the man in charge.” She pointed to a towering man pacing back and forth in the horseshoe driveway.
“Huh. Is that Hamil?”
“I believe so.” Elsie strolled across the lawn toward the Blackwing Institute, Crapsey at her heels. “Mr. Sorcerer, sir!” she shouted. “Perhaps I can be of some assistance?”
When he turned and saw them, the cigar fell out of his mouth, and he didn’t even notice. He made a small gesture, and a dozen people dressed in everything from white leather jackets to leopardskin coats to red-and-black opera cloaks arrayed themselves behind him in a loose semi-circle. His apprentices or lieutenants, probably. Looked like last call on Halloween. Sorcerers had the weirdest sense of fashion.
Crapsey tried to hunch behind Elsie, which was tricky since he outweighed her by about sixty pounds. If the fireballs started flying, he’d take whatever protection he could get.
“May I help you?” Hamil’s voice was deep, urbane, and so patient there was no indication he was in the midst of running a siege – or that he recognized Jarrow, though from his cigar-dropping reaction, he clearly had.
“Oh, heavens no, but I bet I can help you. You’re trying to crack the uncrackable egg here, aren’t you?” She nodded toward the high walls of Blackwing, a building that had started life as a mansion and become a fortress. “That’s the problem with making a place strong enough to hold in all the naughty sorcerers. When they start running the asylum, it can be tricky to get in. You’re looking at a months-long siege situation here. Those walls are tough, stone and spells in a perfect marriage. Believe me. I battered against them from the inside long enough to know.” She held out her hand. “The name’s Elsie Jarrow. I used to live in there.”
“I won’t shake your hand, if that’s all right,” Hamil said. “You have a reputation for a certain degree of… toxicity. Why have you come here?”
“To help you apprehend the villain, of course.”
Hamil frowned. “Her principle crime was setting you free, Ms. Jarrow.”
“I know! The irony, it burns. All I ask in return is: you take all her toys away and lock her in a deep dark hole somewhere.”
“Something like that may be in order,” Hamil said. “Assuming she was acting of her own free will, and was not magically compelled. Certainly we would be reluctant to let her oversee patients in the future.”
“Oh, this is all Husch’s gig. Her mind is broken like a hand-me-down toy. If I get her out of the building, are you prepared to subdue her? Like, instantly?”
“Oh, yes. We have pacification specialists on hand.”
“Great! This’ll just take a minute. Everybody be quiet, would you?” Elsie waved her hand –
– and the lawn was transformed into a holocaust of flame, smoking corpses strewn everywhere, vehicles overturned, and the stench of charred humanity thick in Crapsey’s nostrils. He would have vomited again if he’d had anything left in his stomach. Fuck. How many times had he seen scenes exactly like this in the Mason’s employ? How had ended up, once again, in the company of a lunatic who preferred to do murder in bulk?
Elsie picked up a smoke-blackened bullhorn from the grass, played with the buttons for a moment, then shouted through it: “Doctor Fugitive, come on out! I’ve gotten rid of the first wave for you, but you know sorcerers, they’ll send another bunch in no time. Come out quick, and we’ll get you to safety. But this is a limited-time offer.” She tossed the megaphone onto a smoldering heap of dead apprentices.
The front door creaked open, and Dr. Husch stepped out. “Jarrow… you killed them.”
“I know! I’m very useful. Now, hurry, before the Chamberlain sends another crew.”
Husch passed through the doors, then came down the steps, shaking her head. “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. You were just supposed to kill Marla. And then – ”
“And then go back into my cube like a good little mental patient, and you could pretend all this never happened? No, no, no.”
She snapped her fingers, and the devastation vanished. Hamil, his apprentices, and the miscellaneous others milling on the lawn reappeared, unharmed. Crapsey’s sense of relief was so profound he almost fell over. It was just an illusion, a trick to get Dr. Husch out into the open. Leda looked around in alarm, and started to reach for the chain at her throat, the one that held the golden key.
A woman with blue dreadlocks stepped forward, wielding a plastic toy wand with a star on the end, trailing pale grey streamers. She waved the wand, and Husch swayed, eyes drooping, and fell face-first onto the ground. Elsie crossed to her faster than the eye could follow and snatched the necklace from around her throat. Then she streaked into the building, leaving Hamil, Crapsey, and the rest of the sorcerers staring at the front door.
“I don’t suppose she’s going to check herself back in,” Hamil said.
Crapsey shrugged. “I’d guess no. Dr. Husch had some kind of mojo leash on her, a way to trap her again if she misbehaved, but with Husch down, and her key gone…”
“You’re wanted for high crimes against Felport,” Hamil said. “Perhaps I should have you pacified.”
“You can try, I guess. But Elsie’s kind of fond of me, in a weird way. I’m not sure she’d like it.”
The chaos witch strolled out the front door, smiling. She tossed a chunk of rock up in the air and caught it in the same hand. “This is a little piece of my old cell. I thought I’d keep it as a souvenir, after I destroyed the rest of that stinking cube.”
“The necklace you stole,” Hamil said. “If I may ask – what was it?”
“Oh, just a key,” she said airily. “An artifact. The Doc used it as the central nexus for all her security protocols. She didn’t think I knew about that, but she just doesn’t understand how I see the world – every linkage, every connection, every pattern, they’re all right there for me, clear as the jaw on Crapsey’s face. I could see the chains spiraling out from this key, throughout the hospital, to all the other prisoners, to me…” She smiled widely, crushed the key in her hand, and let sprinkling golden dust shower down. “Oops. I think I just unlocked all the cells in there! And I’m not just talking about the doors. A thousand bindings just went ‘poof,’ and this heap is nothing but a mansion now, just bricks and wood and stone. I guess you’ll be too busy rounding up the all the patients to bother with little old me, huh?”
“You will be captured, or killed, Ms. Jarrow,” Hamil said, as his people raced into the Institute. “You’re too dangerous to be allowed to wander free.”
“Oh, if you bickering old witches and warlocks can team up, you might catch me – it’s happened before. But that’s okay. Think of all the fun I can have in the meantime! I’m chaos, Hamil, I’m change, and the biggest sucker bet in the world is to bet against change.” She paused. “At least until the heat death of the universe. But we’ve got a little while before that happens. And, besides, there are always other universes. Bye bye!” She took Crapsey by the hand, and before he could even groan, pulled him through another ragged portal from here to somewhere else.
“Hamil. Nice to hear your voice.” Marla paused, listening to the air conditioner hum in her quiet hotel room. “I missed you, you fat bastard, even if you did vote me off the island. Or, I guess, on to the island.”
“I voted against having you beheaded,” Hamil said. “Gaining concessions beyond that was too much even for my considerable powers of diplomacy. But the Council of Felport owes you a debt of gratitude for letting us know about Dr. Husch’s betrayal.”
“You pried Leda out of Blackwing already? How is she?”
“She is… unhappy. Vocally. And, no, I didn’t pry her out. We had help. From Elsie Jarrow. We inadvertently helped her escape from Dr. Husch’s control, I’m afraid.”
“That explains why she ran away from me so fast,” Marla said. “When she heard Husch was under seige, she saw an opportunity to free herself. Shit.” She filled Hamil in on the events of her evening.
“Marla, I’m so sorry. I knew you had enemies, of course, but I didn’t expect this, or I would have made sure you were sent into exile with protection – ”
“Like the Polish Lancers who went to Elba with Napoleon, huh? No thanks. I’m my own honor guard, and anyway, I’ve got Rondeau and Pelham watching my back, and at least two gods, though I could live without those last ones. So… what are you going to do about Jarrow? She’s a fugitive from your jurisdiction.”
“I’d like to apprehend her,” Hamil said. “Unfortunately, the Chamberlain disagrees – she thinks that, unless Jarrow menaces Felport, we shouldn’t waste resources trying to catch her.”
“That’s pretty small-minded,” Marla said. “It’s probably the same decision I would have made, though. Out of sight, out of mind.”
“Do you think Jarrow will return to Hawai’i?” Hamil asked.
Marla stretched out on the bed, looking up at the white ceiling. “Who can say? If tormenting me amuses her, she might. If she decides she has to save Nicolette from our clutches, ditto. But Jarrow’s a chaos witch. They’re unpredictable. I really don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m preparing myself for bad outcomes. Still – worst case, she kills me. And so what? It’s not like I’m doing anything down here in the islands anyway. Wasting my time, and wasting my life. There’s no shame in being murdered by Jarrow, either. She’s killed better people than me.”
“Marla – ”
“Don’t mind me. I got my ass kicked by a werewolf hunter tonight. I’m just off my game. Is there anything else? I know you must be busy.”
“It might be nothing, but… when we secured the Institute, two of the patients were missing. Besides Jarrow, I mean.”
Marla swore. “You think Husch sicced more of her patients on me? Who is it? Nilson? Vaughn?”
“Gustavus Lupo is missing, but in the confusion, it’s likely Lupo just took on the form of one of the fifty apprentices and mercenaries milling around, and blended in with the confusion. He’ll turn up when his sense of identity begins to fragment. No, the one I’m concerned about… I think you called her ‘Beta-Marla.’ The version of yourself from that other reality, the one who was dominated by the cursed cloak. She’s gone. Husch isn’t very forthcoming about her actions, but, well…”
Marla closed her eyes. “Shit. I thought Jarrow was using a homunculus body or something, grown in a vat in the basement under the Institute, but… she took over that body, didn’t she? The Mason’s body. My body.”
“It’s possible. The magical safeguards on her flesh would make for a very tempting vessel, better than any other I could think of.”
“Huh. This just got personal, didn’t it? That body doesn’t even look like me much anymore. Jarrow’s making my image over into her own. Can’t say I like that. And hasn’t that poor thing suffered enough?”
“Marla, please, be careful – ”
“Goodbye, Hamil. You were a good friend to me, but that was in another life. Take care of yourself.” She ended the call, turned off the phone, threw the phone under the bed, stared at the ceiling, and thought about what could have happened to her, in another life.