“I can’t say I’m sorry to see her go,” Rondeau said, staring at the water with his doppelganer. “But: that is kinda murder. It seems more evil than chaotic.”
“Silly,” Jarrow said. “I’m beyond good and evil. Nietzsche wrote a book about me! You should read it.”
“Okay.” Marla looked at the headless not-quite-a-corpse. “Leaving aside the whole fact that you just beheaded Nicolette… do you happen to have a blood-red ram’s horn?”
Jarrow cocked her head. “How did you know about that?”
“You said yourself I have unexpected resources. Tell me about it.”
Jarrow hmmmed. “It’s not a ram’s horn, first of all. It’s the horn of an animal called a slimestrider, actually. Stupid name, I know. I picked it up in a little imaginary fantasy universe I know. The horn was a gift from a certain Dark Lord Barrow – I think you’ve met him?”
“That comatose writer in the Blackwing Institute?” Marla said. That was unexpected, but with Jarrow, that was kind of the point. “You went into his hallucinated fantasy world and brought something out?”
“Oh yes. A great artifact. With another dumb name – the HellHorn, two capital ‘H’s – but Barrow has to name a lot of things, so it’s understandable that he’d run out of ideas. But seriously, how did you know about the horn? I’ve got it all packed up, and I was planning on using it against you if necessary, but, well, it wasn’t.”
“What does it do?” Marla said.
Jarrow grinned. “It’s lovely, actually. Barrow came up with a whole mythology for the horn. It’s a weapon, used by countless gods, monsters, heroes, and villains in his fantasy world. Whoever blows the horn summons up the ferocious spirits of everyone else who’s ever blown the horn, on down through the centuries. It must have been disappointing for the first guy to use it, huh? But at this point, it’s got loads of souls attached to it, demons and giants and war-witches and all manner of nasty things. Nothing without lungs or mouths, of course, because they have to be able to blow the horn to get bound to it. That’s a shame, because Barrow has some beaky tentacled things in the oceans of his world that are really marvelous – ”
“I saw you,” Marla said. “In a vision. Blowing that horn in Felport.”
Jarrow scratched under her armpit and hummed for a moment. Everyone else – well, except Lupo – stood absolutely still, sensing the tension. After a moment, Jarrow said, “So what if I did? Didn’t they fire you? Kick you out? Send you to this hellish – oh, wait, paradisical – island?”
“If someone you love stops loving you,” Marla said, “that doesn’t mean you stop loving them back.”
“A city is not a boyfriend,” Jarrow said. “Are you a crazy stalker?”
“Love is just another kind of obsession. I can accept that.”
Jarrow sighed. “What if I promise, double-dog-swear, not to blow the horn in Felport?”
“You’d just use it somewhere else,” Marla said. “You say your reason for living is to have fun, but you consider destroying people’s lives fun. You’ll unleash hell and laugh. Won’t you?”
“I’m a very naughty girl,” Jarrow said. “I don’t think I ever claimed otherwise. I can see your sense of righteous indignation has been activated. Fine. What are you going to do about it? Sic Pelham on me? Get your little crew of wave-mages out there on the ocean – hi there, I see you! – to summon a blue whale to crush me? I smell that little god of homesickness out there, too, how pitiful. Are you really so lost without a place to call your own? Me, I’m comfortable in any place at all – wherever I hang my severed head is home. Reva can’t get to me. So tell me, then, what can you do? Ultimately, the answer is nothing – ”
Marla pulled out Nicolette’s hatchet from where it was tucked into her waistband and swung it in a flat arc at Jarrow’s face. The blade struck hard enough that it should have lopped off the top of Jarrow’s head, but it barely brushed her cheek, drawing a tiny speck of blood, before it rebounded hard and bounced out of Marla’s hand. Oh well. Marla hadn’t expected it to work, but the axe was an artifact, so it had been worth a try. If it had belonged to the great god of order Urizen or something it might have made more of a dent. At least the axe hadn’t melted or burst into flames – she’d refrained from using her own dagger for fear an attack on Jarrow might destroy the weapon.
Marla’s own cheek stung, of course, but she didn’t let that distract her, or give her pause. She crouched and kicked, sweeping Jarrow’s legs from beneath her, and dropping the witch to the sand. “Rondeau, Pelham, get out of here!” she shouted, and then began running south herself.
She glanced back. Pelham and Rondeau weren’t running – they’d been drawn into the fight. Damn it. She’d wanted them to get away. But Lupo had transformed into Dr. Husch, and she was attacking Rondeau, while Pelham was crouched on top of Crapsey, squeezing his throat as the bigger man scrabbled at him ineffectually. Jarrow just stood up, head cocked, frowning, then touched her cheek and began walking slowly after Marla.
The ground underneath her moved, rising up in answer to some spell of Jarrow’s, and Marla was knocked off her feet. She managed to turn her fall into a roll, not quite crashing into a palm tree. She got to her knees and glanced toward the sea. The wave-mages were there, still bobbing. They knew the time had almost come. Marla just hoped they could do their part.
Marla knelt in the shade of the palm tree and drew her magical dagger. She gently placed the blade, so sharp it could cut through hopes and dreams, a millimeter from her throat. If a powerful artifact like the axe hadn’t hurt Jarrow, there was no reason to think her dagger would, either. But there were other ways to injure the witch.
“I didn’t peg you for the melodramatic teenager type, Marla.” Jarrow approached, moving slowly, like someone trying to avoid startling a deer. “You know I have to kill you, now. Or, I don’t have to – but I’m going to. That axe might have hurt me, if someone stronger had been wielding it. Not very nice. And they say I’m a betrayer! So… what’s the plan? You’ll stop me from killing you, by killing yourself? A ‘you can’t fire me, I quit,’ sort of thing?”
“Not exactly.” Marla shrugged, the blade of her magical knife just kissing the flesh of her throat. “You are wearing my body, you know – or at least, a perfect duplicate of my body from a parallel universe. You put a new roof on it and did a little remodeling – though why you’d choose that nose over mine is beyond me – but the genes don’t lie. I’ve spent the morning setting up a sympathetic magic link between us. We’re identical and entangled, now, magically speaking. If I die, you die.”
Jarrow shook her head. “Bluff, bluff, bluffity bluff. You’re just trying to buy some time, I don’t even know why. Just natural desperation, I guess. You could have done this trick to stop the last person who wore this body, after all, and you didn’t. You let the Mason kill half the sorcerers in your city instead, you were that attached to living. So, no, bzzt, try again.”
“I had a lot more to live for then.” What would it be like, Marla thought, to cut her own throat? She’d been wounded plenty of times, but never in the throat, and never by her own hand. The blade Death had forged for her was so sharp she might not even feel the slice. She couldn’t decide if that was a good thing or not. “I had a city to protect. I had a reason to live. Now, I’ve got nothing. But killing Elsie Jarrow – that would give my stupid fucked-up life meaning again.”
“Oh, Marla. This is depressing. I thought I was locked in a battle of wills, facing one of the most pigheadedly tough sorcerers of the new generation, but you… you brought a spoon to a gunfight.” Jarrow began piling up sand, the grains heaped and shaped by her hands and her magic into the smooth-sided walls of a sand castle that was more like a squat sand fortress. “They told me you were smart. We considered the suicide-murder-voodoo-hoodoo angle, of course, I mean, we looked at all the contingencies. But when I brought it up, Dr. Husch said, ‘No, of course not, Marla wouldn’t do that, she’s too smart.’ The Doc overestimated you as much as she underestimated me.” Jarrow cupped more sand and let it trickle through her fingers, and it cascaded down to land on top of her squat castle and began to spontaneously form a tall, narrow spire. “Because if you kill this body, Marla, you won’t kill me. You’ll just free me from the bonds of the flesh. Now, it so happens I like the bonds of the flesh, because flesh is full of wonderful nerve endings and exciting hormone-dispensers, and it would be hard for me to replace this body, since most vessels are too weak to contain my awesomeness… but while I’d be sad to lose this body, I’d also be disembodied. And if that happened, oh, I have to tell you, I think I’d probably start going crazy again, and underneath the crazy, there’d be this solid core of pissed-off. This thing, with the knife and the magical link between us and all that, it’s not a viable solution to your problems. Kill my body and I’ll just turn into a whirlwind of black acid and maim everything and everyone you love, or once loved, or might have loved someday. I’d probably destroy a lot of other stuff in the process, too. Have you ever tried to aim a whirlwind of black acid? It’s not a precision instrument.” Jarrow shook her head. “This is the wrong approach. It’s like strapping yourself into a catapult and flinging yourself against a fortress. It squashes you flat, and it doesn’t much bother the fortress.” She picked up a fist-sized stone from the sand and hurled it at her sandcastle, and the stone bounced harmlessly away, without dislodging so much as a single grain of sand.
“So you’re saying killing myself would be an irrational act,” Marla said. “Random, pointless, and bloody. Yeah?”
“As a connoisseur of the random, pointless, and bloody, that is my professional assessment, yes.”
“There’s one thing you don’t know,” Marla said.
Jarrow laughed. “There are billions of things I don’t know! That’s one of the best reasons to live forever – there’s so much to learn!”
“You think you’re cute. You’re not cute. You’re a dead thing wrapped in streamers and sparklers, an emptiness where a person used to be, a howling void in a sparkly dress.”
“Projecting much, Mrs. Misery?”
Marla tightened her grip on her knife. “You aren’t even curious about what I was going to say? About the particular precinct of your ignorance I’m talking about?”
The chaos witch’s face took on a distant, faraway cast. “Hmm? Sorry, were you talking? I’m trying to untangle your sympathetic link here, so I can kill you before happy hour ends at the bar. Those lava flows are wonderful. This link you made between us, it’s decent work, but sweetie, it’s basically just quantum knotwork, and my specialty is unraveling knots. Or raveling. Did you know ‘ravel’ and ‘unravel’ mean the same thing?”
“You’re ruining the drama of my big reveal here,” Marla said. “The one thing you don’t know is: when I die, I’m going to become a goddess of death. It’s an awesome retirement plan. And it means I’ll have the power to deal with you even in your disembodied cloud-of-cancer form.”
“A goddess of death. Right. Have you always been schizophrenic, or is it a recent development? Maybe we should have checked you into the Blackwing Institute after all. Oh well. Too late now.” Jarrow stuck the corner of her tongue out of her mouth and furrowed her brow in concentration. Time was running out – Marla knew the sympathetic link wouldn’t survive under Jarrow’s attention for long, even with all the orderly magic Marla had woven into the strands.
“Are you ready?” Marla shouted, and the surfers riding silently on the waves raised their clenched fists high in unison. Jarrow didn’t pay any attention, chewing her lip hard enough to make beads of blood appear and drip down her chin. She had to be close to breaking the link.
There was a good chance this was famous last words time – or, at least, her last words as a mortal. What did you say to encapsulate – or put the capstone on – a life? “I did it my way?” True, but trite. “Suck it, fuckers?” Not very classy, and while she’d never been classy, even Marla had her limits. “France, the army, head of the army, Josephine?” The Napoleon comparisons only worked to a point. “I regret nothing?” Ha, no reason to leave this world with everyone thinking you were totally delusional.
She decided to fall back on classic apocrypha, and use the last words attributed to Pancho Villa, even though the poor bastard had died instantly, with no final words at all. But it was a good line, so somebody might as well use it:
“Hey, Elsie. Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”
Marla pushed in the blade. The steel was cold and hot all at once, more sensation than pain, at least at first, and then she just felt wetness, as if she’d spilled hot coffee down her front. She went lightheaded, everything going fuzzy. This was a bit like being falling-down drunk, and a bit like almost dying of exposure in the snow (the cocoon of warmth wrapped in the encroaching cold), both things she’d experienced, but not in a while. She kept her head up and her eyes open as long as she could, watching Elsie Jarrow twitch and writhe on the sand, hands clutched to her throat, which had spontaneously started jetting gouts of blood. Ha. The spells of protection wrapped around Jarrow’s stolen body were impressive, but the same protections that kept magic from ripping holes in her flesh kept magic from repairing holes in that flesh. Even Jarrow’s power to impose order and turn back entropy were useless, all her desperate death-knell spells bouncing off the hard shell of her stolen body’s invulnerability. Marla could get to that body despite its safeguards because it was hers, really. And what she owned she could destroy.
Marla slumped, her extremities all numb and faraway, like her hands and feet had become balloons, drifting into the distance. She was fading, her sense of self dissipating, as her blood pressure dropped. No oxygen reached her brain. She felt slow, stupid, and fuzzy, and a fog drifted over her consciousness: but this was a deep blue fog, a fog made of the sky at twilight.
And then… everything was clear. Hyper-clear, like going from crappy low-res security video to high-definition TV. Marla blinked and stood up, looking down at her own body. She looked so small. She – or some part of her, a soul, or an astral body, or a stubborn conceptual persistence of shape with delusions of consciousness – walked around the tableau, which seemed frozen in time, to judge by the seagulls hovering in the air, the surfers unmoving on the waves, and the failure of the twin blood pools around Jarrow and Marla to widen and merge.
An air horn sounded, and a thousand black balloons and a rain of red confetti showered down from the sky. Marla batted aside a drifting balloon, but several others bounced off her head and shoulders. The confetti stuck to her skin, or her imaginary construct of skin, looking uncomfortably like flecks of dried blood. The balloons all settled into a mass covering the beach, jostling slightly and squeaking like well-behaved mice as they rubbed against one another. At least the balloons covered up the bodies. Marla could do without seeing them.
The Walking Death arrived.
“Oh,” Marla said. “That’s where you always walk in from. Why couldn’t I see it before?”
“You could see it, but you couldn’t comprehend it.” He smiled, arms outstretched. The balloons moved aside for him, clearing a spot for his every footstep as he approached. “But you’ve achieved apotheosis, Marla Mason. You are a goddess now.”
“I… I remember. There are things I’m supposed to do, here. Things I’m for.” She licked her lips. “All this time, since my exile, I’ve been wanting a purpose, but being queen of the land of the dead – it’s all purpose, isn’t it?”
“I told you when you married me. It’s not a ceremonial position. The universe needs both of us to run smoothly. There are two sides of death. One of us is annihilation and loss and abnegation and howling emptiness, destroyer of meaning, the great leveler, the despoiler of lives. One of us is the end of suffering, the giver of peace, the easer of burdens, and the necessary pause before rebirth – the fire that clears the fields, allowing them to grow back stronger than before. Both aspects of death are necessary for the workings of the world to go on. I told you about this, when we were first wed, but because such knowledge would be a burden to your mortal mind, we took it away from you when you returned to Earth.” He coughed. “Traditionally, the king of the underworld is the more stark and unpleasant and stereotypically masculine side of death, and the queen is the enfolder into velvety peacefulness and reunion with the great mother and so on, but of course I’m open to non-traditional gender roles, and certainly, if you like, we can both be switch – ”
Marla kicked him in the balls.