Marla hadn’t been entirely sure a blow to the testicles would hurt Death, since even his human form was just a convenience, but all that talk about masculine and feminine made her think it was worth a shot. His eyes crossed and he dropped to his knees, clutching his crotch. After a moment he fell over onto his side, popping several balloons in the process, and began to groan.
The new queen of the dead crouched beside him and whispered in his ear. “You shitty little fuck. You told Rondeau to just let me die. Did you really think he wouldn’t come to me with that information? I told you, let me live my life in my own time, don’t interfere, but you couldn’t do that, could you? Between you and Reva, I’ve had more than enough bullshit and interference from creatures that aren’t even human.”
With his eyes still clenched shut, he said, “I just wanted – ”
“Your queen, your other half, fine, yes, I get it, believe me, I get it better now. But eternity is long, and my lifespan is short. I know time goes slowly in the downbelow, but fuck, Walker, you’re a god, you can create anything you can imagine!”
“You cut that out of me.” Death’s voice was small and cold, and Marla flinched. Once, the Walking Death had been her enemy, a monster, and Marla had stolen his terrible sword – a blade so sharp it could cut through anything, even time, even abstractions – and used it to cut the bad parts out of him: his cruelty, caprice, and sadism. She’d wanted to make him a better god, and more importantly, a better man – and she had. But she’d always worried about the deeper effects. It was hard to cut out a tumor, after all, without cutting out some good tissue, too.
“You took my desire to create baroque punishments for the souls in my realm,” Death said, sitting up now, and staring down at the black balloons surrounding them. “But you also took my capacity to create those things, and with it, the capacity to create… much of anything. In the first days after your… impromptu surgery… I was little more than a shell. Gradually, the parts of my self you cut away have been growing back, the way someone with a damaged brain can develop new pathways to route around the damage or mimic the old functions, but I’m less than I was. I am only meant to be half of a god anyway, Marla – we should be a duality – but I think you’ve cut me down to something like a third. I’d hoped you could be the other two-thirds, and that you could help me be more. I’ll be stronger with you beside me, I’ll be whole. Marla, I never sleep, I never did, but did you know, I used to dream, anyway, sometimes? They were not nice dreams, but they were mine, and now, I have nothing. But with you at my side… .” He met her eyes, and now that she was a creature like him, she could see the anguish in his gaze that no mortal could ever ascertain. “I might be able to dream again. To imagine. I did a bad thing. I know. I’m sorry. But I need you.”
Marla offered him her hand, and he took it, and let her help him to his feet. “I understand all that,” she said. “And, okay – it’s not like you actually killed me, or killed Pelham. You could have done a lot worse.”
“The thought crossed my mind,” he said.
“But the point stands – we’re supposed to be equals, but you thought you knew better than I did, you didn’t listen. I can’t have that. It’s a sore point for me, and not the kind of button you want to push. How are we supposed to have a relationship if we don’t even have that level of trust?”
He shook his head. “My only defense is… I’m new at this. I’ve never had a queen before. I’m sorry?”
She kicked a few balloons aside so she could see her own frozen-on-the-point-of-death body again. “So what happens next?”
“As per our agreement, I step in at the moment before your death – this moment, as it happens, which I’ve stretched out for us subjectively – and take you, living, to the underworld. There, you will ascend to your throne, though to be absolutely technical you’ve already ascended. There is an actual chair, though. Or an abstract representation of a chair that you and I can perceive as actual. It all gets very metaphysical down there. Starting with the fact that I call it ‘down there’ when it’s not actually below anything.”
“So I’m not dead,” Marla said. She nodded toward Jarrow. “How about her?”
“Oh, yes, she’s gone. The body is, anyway. The poor dear expired just before I froze this moment. You lived longer than your twin – but then, your will has always been greater than just about anyone’s.”
“Okay,” Marla said after a moment. “Here’s the thing. I’m not done living yet.”
Death closed his eyes. “Marla. Marla, don’t. Don’t ask me to restore you to life. Because I’ll have to refuse you, and – ”
Marla shook her head. “I’m not that big of a bitch. But listen. There’s actually a mythological precedent for what I’ve got in mind. Let’s take a few minutes and haggle, what do you say? Marriage is about compromise.”
After Crapsey finally managed to overpower Pelham and tossed him in the fish pond, he rushed up the beach, but it was too late: there were two dead bodies under the trees. Holy hell. Marla had gone through with it. She’d enacted what the comic books called the ultimate sacrifice: given up her own life to save the lives of others.
Though when it came to saving the lives of others, a pissed-off, disembodied Elsie was a hell of a lot more dangerous than one with a physical form to keep her contained and distracted. Basically, Marla was a shit tactician. Unless she’d just lost the will to live, and figured unleashing a bodiless Elsie as she died was a nice final “fuck you” to the universe. Crapsey could get his head around that as a motivation, at least.
The air above Jarrow’s bled-out body was shimmering now, and beach sand began to swirl up and around and accrete into the shape of a female form. The whirlwind that was Elsie’s consciousness picked up a quantity of the blood-soaked sand and sculpted that into hair, and a pair of red lips, but still: she was just sand. The beach-golem walked toward Crapsey, and when she spoke, her voice was all rasp and dryness. “I’m hollowed, I’m scooped, I’m uncooped, I’m free as a bird, free as a murder, I’m shadows swallowing the moon, I’m a flock of swallows, I’m starlight, I’m starlings, I’m all out of spoons, I – I – I – I – ”
Crapsey backed away. Being close to Elsie right now was probably like pitching a tent next to Chernobyl. He had enough problems without bone cancer. The sand figure kept walking, leaving bloody footprints. “You, Crapsey, yes, you’ll do… your body, yes, why not, as good as any, oh, the music I could make singing through your throat, the great workings I could work through the workings of your wonderful jaw…”
Crapsey swallowed. To have his own body stolen was a fitting enough fate, but really, as punishments went, it was a litle too on the nose. “Elsie, you’re not thinking straight, it’s because you don’t have a brain anymore to think with. You’d burn through this body in minutes, and then we’d both be shit out of luck, and I wouldn’t be around to help you anymore – ”
“But you can taste things, get down and lick the salt from the sea, roll around in the warm sand, blood is pumping in you, I will take you, I will stretch time like bubblegum, I can live a lifetime before your bones turn to spun glass and black goo, shh, open wide, give us a kiss, kiss me again, kiss me like you did before.” Her red mouth opened, and a tongue made from a fragment of kelp poked out.
Crapsey wanted to run, but it would be like running from the moon crashing into the Earth, wouldn’t it? Maybe it would be better to stand his ground, pretend to be brave, take his last breaths as a man unpossessed by an insane chaos witch, look at the ocean –
The surfers had paddled in closer, and now they were doing something out on the waves, chanting some rhythm, and the waves seemed to be crashing in time with their chant. That couldn’t be true, of course, it had to be the other way around, but it really did seem like the surfers were conducting the symphony of surf and tide…
Elsie reached out with one grainy hand, caressing his cheek, and she had eyes now, made of bits of bright seashell, and those inanimate fragments were somehow still merry. Everything was a lark: life and death and dancing back and forth across the line between the two. She stuffed her fingers in his mouth, sand on his tongue, and when he tried to pull away she seized his jaw and began squeezing. He bit down, but her hand was hard as concrete. There was a trigger word, wasn’t there, something that would make his jaw activate magically, become strong enough to bite through diamonds and mithril and adamantium, but even if he could remember the word, he couldn’t say it, because she was trying to climb into his body through his fucking mouth –
Then her sandy body began to come apart. Her bloody hair streamed away first, and then she lost one of her nacreous eyes. Her grip on his jaw went limp, and suddenly his mouth was just full of sand, instead of a hand, and he stumbled back, spitting, trying to clear his mouth. Elsie swayed in confusion, looking at the hand-less stumps of her arms, as more and more chunks of her body began to blow away – but the grains of sand were flying against the prevailing wind, out toward the ocean, rather than in toward the shore.
Elsie began to laugh, and then to howl, and somehow even that howling was made part of the surfers’ rhythmic chant.
Crapsey didn’t know what the hell was happening, but he supported it whole-heartedly. He spat toward Elsie. “You’re coming apart! You’re going to pieces!”
“I know!” Elsie shouted. “Two-four-six-eight, look at me disintegrate!” She cackled again, and then her red lips blew away, and her face stopped even remotely resembling a face. Her human shape came apart entirely, and she became literally dust in the wind – though it was more like dust being sucked into an industrial fan.
The chanting from the surfers continued for another few minutes as Crapsey stared open-mouthed at the bobbing mages on their boards in the waves, and then their voices stopped abruptly. The waters churned and frothed wildly, great spumes of water shooting up into the air, geyser-like, as if the sea had been brought to a rolling boil and beyond. The wave-mages hung grimly onto their boards, rocking and riding out the fury, some of them leaving the water entirely and flying briefly into the air, but none of them went under. After a few moments, the sea’s fury subsided, and the next few lapping waves left pinkish, blood-tinged foam on the shore. The surfers started to cheer and exchange high-fives.
“What the shit,” Crapsey began, but then someone crashed into him from behind, knocking him facedown in the sand, and a sleep with the familiar cloying stink of magic pulled him down, as surely as an undertow drags unwary swimmers below the waves.
Marla’s eyes opened, and the world was blue; and then the world was Reva, and Pelham, and Rondeau, and – Arachne, of all people, pressing a woven bandage down to Marla’s throat and chanting, though when she did it, it was more like muttered singing. Marla tried to sit up, but Arachne disdainfully pressed a hand to Marla’s chest, and managed to hold her down. After a moment, the kahuna nodded. “I think she will live. Her body needs to be replenished – she will be ravenous, and she should rest, but if she does those things, she will not die.” Arachne stood up, sniffed, and said, “My obligation to you is now fully discharged, Marla Mason.”
“I thought you were done for.” Rondeau squeezed her hand, which no longer felt like a balloon tethered to her by a piece of string.
“Jarrow,” Marla croaked. She didn’t feel as bad as she should have – she also didn’t, apparently, have a slit in her throat anymore – but she still felt like she’d been dragged behind a horse over lava rock for thirty or forty miles. “Elsie Jarrow, is she – ”
“It worked,” a new voice said. Marla turned her head, and there was the kid from the surf shop, what was his name, French-y but not – right, Jon-Luc. He squatted down beside Marla, fastidiously avoiding the drying puddle of blood. “We caught Jarrow in the tidal forces, and pulled her consciousness into the sea.”
“That was the plan?” Rondeau said. “I thought you were going to return as a warrior Death goddess and stomp her into atoms?”
“That was plan B,” Marla croaked. “Plan A was dilution.” She gestured at Jon-Luc, her throat hurting too bad for her to explain.
“Marla talked it over with us,” Jon-Luc said. “And asked if we could make a trap. This woman Jarrow was poisonous, right? She was basically disembodied heavy metals or carcinogens.” He shrugged. “The ocean is big. A woman-sized dose of radiation and crazy magic, when diluted into the entire sea, is nothing. She might make a few fish sick, but her substance will become so watered-down as she spreads through the ocean, she won’t be a conscious entity anymore. Not that we like dumping more poison of any sort into the sea, but at this point, what’s another few parts per trillion?”
“What’s to stop her, like, taking over the body of a shark before she gets too diluted?” Rondeau said.
Jon-Luc looked offended. “We’re good, my crew. And we’ve got our own reasons to want Jarrow eliminated. She killed Glyph. We bound her up in all the orderly magic of the sea when we sprang our trap.”
“The sea is lovely, dark, and deep,” Reva said thoughtfully. “A symbol of order in its tidal regularity and predictable flow of currents…”
Jon-Luc nodded. “The ocean’s full of chaos too, of course, the ocean’s full of everything, but we can focus the sea’s power in a particular way, and we did. Jarrow will be hopelessly diluted before she can undo those bindings.”
“It’s like when she turned Christian Decomain into frogs,” Marla said. “He wasn’t killed, just changed, reduced to individual component parts that don’t communicate anymore, so they no longer add up to a whole. Jarrow’s still down there, she’s just… not Jarrow any more. She’s been reduced to pieces of herself.” She shook her head. “Shit. Where’s Crapsey? Lupo?”
Rondeau pointed to a prone form. “Crapsey’s down. Arachne dropped him when she arrived. He’s alive, but out of it. Lupo… I don’t know. She – he – stopped attacking me and ran away, but he was starting to blur again, he didn’t look like Dr. Husch any more. I think whatever control Jarrow was exerting over Lupo slipped when her body died.”
“Great,” Marla croaked. “Talk about an invasive species. We’ll have to track Lupo down later. We should do something with Nicolette’s body. And we should get Crapsey locked up I guess. Nobody’s using the bathtub anymore – ”
“We’ll take care of it, Marla,” Rondeau said. “Pelham and me. We’ve got this.”
Marla clutched at his arm. “Good. Can you help me back to the hotel? I need to rest. But later on, I need to talk to you. And Pelly. And Reva too. In the morning…” Marla’s eyes drooped. Being on the point of death and besting a chaos witch was exhausting work. She let herself sink into Rondeau’s arms, and allowed sleep to take her.