Let’s leave Marla and her friends for now, and take a few moments to talk about Dr. Leda Husch.
You don’t know her? There’s no reason you should; she’s not alive, exactly, and will never die, though she often wishes she had. For many years now Dr. Husch has run the Blackwing Institute, a hospital of sorts for mentally ill sorcerers, located a bit outside the city of Felport, Marla Mason’s old holdfast. Marla and Dr. Husch have had their disagreements, but they were essentially allies, and business associates, and occasionally even friends — as two strong women with difficult jobs, they had certain things in common, after all. But shortly before Marla’s exile, something very bad happened to Dr. Husch. Her assailant was a woman from another universe — a woman who was only in this universe because of something Marla did, a certain selfish act that ripped a hole in the fabric of reality and let bad things cross over, specifically a bad thing called the Mason. But you know about her. She sent a lot of people your way, didn’t she?
The Mason did a great deal of damage on her rampage through this reality before Marla stopped her, but the only damage that concerns us just now is what happened to Dr. Husch:
The Mason tore her to pieces. Literally. Small pieces. Hundreds of them.
For most people, being dismembered so thoroughly is fatal, but as I mentioned, Dr. Husch isn’t exactly alive — she’s a fully sentient and self-aware homunculus, created long ago by a powerful sorcerer, and as such, she cannot die. Though she was ripped to shreds, she retained awareness throughout her ordeal and the aftermath. She was later reassembled by a biomancer named Langford, and she — oh, but listen to me, going on and on. Better to show you.
While Marla is investigating a murder in Maui, back on the mainland a pair of people are on their way to meet Dr. Husch, and they should suffice for our introduction to the other side of this story. These two people were never friends of Marla: the first is a one-armed chaos witch named Nicolette, who holds a longstanding grudge against Marla, and the other is Crapsey, the Mason’s old lackey and the dark doppelganger to Rondeau. Crapsey was stranded in this world when Marla killed his mistress the Mason, and after that he began clinging to Nicolette’s coattails, because some people are only happy when they’re being told what to do. Let’s see how things look through Crapsey’s eyes…
“Aren’t you even a little bit afraid Dr. Husch is going to throw you in a cell again?” Crapsey said. “The Mason and I just broke you out of this place not so long ago.”
“I’ve got you to protect me, big boy.” Nicolette kicked at the massive oak doors of the Blackwing Institute, her boot thumping with the regularity of a metronome.
Crapsey winced. “Dr. Husch isn’t going to be too happy to see me, either — I was just following orders, but I did some not-so-nice stuff to her myself, the morning she got all torn up.”
“The divinations say this is the place to begin our campaign,” Nicolette said. “My dice and mouse bones and toad stones don’t lie.”
“I still say we could’ve just done some recruiting,” Crapsey said. “We should be looking for Marla’s enemies, not her allies.”
“There aren’t that many enemies left, ugly. Even though she doesn’t usually kill them herself, Marla’s rivals have pretty lousy life expectancies. There’s me, and there’s you, and maybe her brother, but even though he’s a hell of a con man, he’s not much of a fighter. Mutex is dead, Todd Sweeney is dead, Ayres is dead, Joshua Kindler is dead, Reave might as well be dead. The Mason was exiled from this reality, and you two idiots killed Susan Wellstone and Viscarro on your little cross-country rampage. My old boss Gregor is dead, Bulliard and Marla reached an understanding, I don’t exactly have a phone number for the so-called King of the Fairies, and — ”
“All right, all right!” Crapsey touched the butterfly knife in his pocket. It had seemed so simple, when Nicolette first brought up the idea — Marla was in exile, stripped of her powers, all but friendless. What better time to try and kill her? They’d join forces with some other people who hated Marla, fly down to Hawai’i, and unleash murder most foul. Except they’d had trouble finding anybody to fill out their team, which led Nicolette to cast a divination spell to suggest a course of action, and now, here they were, on the doorstep of one of Marla’s old allies. Maybe not a suicide mission, but probably an imprisonment mission, which was better, but not by much.
The door swung open, and Nicolette squinted inside. “What are you, a beekeeper in mourning now? Part of a Goth hazmat squad?”
The figure in the foyer wore a broad-brimmed black hat with a long black veil, the cloth thick enough to obscure her features entirely. She also wore a floor-length black dress of severe cut, and leather gloves to match. Not an inch of skin showed.
“Nicolette.” The voice that emerged from beneath the veil was cracked, broken, and jagged, but comprehensible. “Have you come to commit yourself?”
“Why, Doc? Do you miss me that much?”
“You never really belonged here.” Dr. Husch sounded somehow placid despite her shredded voice. Almost peaceful, Crapsey thought, even though she’d been cut to pieces. “I never believed you were mentally ill. You are vile, contemptible, and selfish, but sane. No, you were a political prisoner, kept here because of your repeated treasons against Marla Mason.” The doctor shrugged. “But Marla isn’t in charge anymore, and our new chief sorcerer has no particular interest in you. You’re lucky — you have a chance to start over. You’re just fortunate that Marla chose not to kill you. I used to share her compassion, but no more.” The hat and veil shifted, and Crapsey knew the doctor was looking at him. “And you. The last time you came to my door, I… suffered. I do not like suffering. I abhor it.”
Crapsey took a step back. “Doc, it wasn’t my idea, the Mason made me go after you. I kinda liked you, honestly, and anyway I didn’t catch you, you smacked me on the head — ”
“I know,” Dr. Husch said. “You are a lackey. And I understand your more… promiscuous tendencies… have been curtailed, making you a harmless lackey as well.”
Crapsey winced. Once upon a time, he’d had the power to leave his flesh and take over the bodies of others, overwriting the consciousnesses of the original owners, and tossing their souls into the darkness of oblivion without hope of resurrection or afterlife. He’d murdered hundreds that way, on the Mason’s orders, and changed bodies the way most people changed their shirts… but Marla had cast a spell that trapped his mind in this body, like a fly buzzing around in a glass jar. Worst of all, when this body died, there was no reason to think his consciousness would die too — he might just be trapped in his own rotting corpse forever, awake and aware. Probably justifiable punishment for his crimes, he could see that, but still: fucking harsh, to go from immortality to… well, an entirely more horrible form of immortality.
“Yeah, he’s been neutered,” Nicolette said. “He’s totally housebroken now. I don’t even know why I keep him around. He’s a born lickspittle, and as you can see, I’m in greater-than-usual need of a right-hand man.” She grinned and twitched her stump.
“Yes, I noticed your lack of limb. You should have stayed in the Institute. You had both arms when you were under my care.”
Nicolette ran her remaining hand over her scalp. While she was captive, Crapsey knew, they’d kept her head shaved — Nicolette used to have dreadlocks, with wicked charms woven into the locks. She was letting her hair grow back in, but all she had now was a pale duck-fuzz, which looked even dumber than a bare skull. “Not that I don’t miss your tender ministrations,” Nicolette said, “but I’m here about something else. A certain mutual enemy. Mind if we come inside and talk?”
“If that crosses my threshold — ” she pointed at Crapsey ” — it will be confined, forever, in the blackest cell I have. The one in the basement. The one I used to be too enlightened to keep anyone in. And you aren’t welcome through this door, either, chaos witch.”
“Uh, okay.” Crapsey took another step back. Much farther and he’d be back in the driveway. “We can talk out here. Or we can just… go. Probably it was a mistake to come here — ”
Nicolette interrupted. “The divinations don’t lie, Doc. I did three different readings, with entrails and dice and butterflies, and they all told me — you’re the one we need.”
“And what were you trying to find with this divination? Someone to lock you both up for your own good?”
“Nah.” Nicolette leaned in close, not quite crossing the threshold. “We were looking for somebody else who wanted Marla Mason dead bad enough to do something about it.”
The veil and the hat made reading expressions impossible, so it took a moment for Crapsey to realize that Dr. Husch was shaking with silent laughter, which finally bubbled forth in a harsh little series of caws. “Oh, dear,” she said. “Well, yes, divination doesn’t lie, assuming an augur skilled enough to read the signs correctly, but there’s nothing to stop a witch from asking entirely the wrong question.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nicolette demanded.
“You should have asked, ‘Who would help us kill Marla Mason?’ Because my name would not have appeared in a list of answers to that query. I do mean Marla Mason harm. Her selfishness unleashed the Mason on the world, and that led directly to me becoming… this.” She drew out the last word in a hiss, and Crapsey steeled himself for a dramatic raising of the veil to reveal the horror beneath, but Dr. Husch settled for shuddering and hugging herself. “And Marla doesn’t care. She didn’t even come to see me after her exile, even though my hospital is outside the borders of Felport, and open to her. If she’d come… if she’d apologized… Well. I don’t know that it would have mattered, really. But she didn’t. Exile is far from sufficient punishment for her transgressions, and her selfishness. So, yes, I do mean her harm — but why on Earth do you think I’d need help from you two idiots to kill her?”
“No offense,” Nicolette said, “but every time one of the more dangerous loonies in this bin of yours got loose, you always went crying to Marla, and before her, you went crying to Sauvage, and I’m sure before that, you went crying to whoever was chief sorcerer before him. You’re a healer, right, and a jailer, and when it comes to fixing broken things and locking up the things that can’t be fixed, you’re pretty badass, and I’m full of respect for that. But killing Marla Mason? Doc, you just don’t have the chops. Neither do I, and neither does Crapsey, not alone. But together? Striking now, when she’s weak and friendless? We can all get revenge. Crapsey for getting stranded in this stupid universe he hates, all his powers stolen, his boss sent away to another universe. And me? She locked me up here. Before that she backed me into a corner so tight I had no choice but to kill my own mentor Gregor just to stay alive myself. Hell, indirectly, she’s the reason I lost my arm. What do you say? You, me, Crapsey, maybe we round up a few others, and go all legion of supervillains on her ass?”
“Not really legion of supervillains.” Crapsey flinched away when they both swiveled their heads toward him. He couldn’t help it — he’d read a lot of comic books in his home universe, and he wanted to get the metaphor right. “More like the… Marla Mason Revenge Squad. ”
“I am well aware of my limitations,” Dr. Husch said. “I do not intend to attack Marla personally. But as you pointed out, I am a jailer. This is the foremost magical containment facility on the East Coast, and I have in my care some of the most lethal sorcerers to ever grace this continent. Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer. Gustavus Lupo, the skinshifter. Roderick Barrow, who rules a dark realm of his own imagination, and yearns to loose his armies into this reality. Roger Vaughn — both Roger Vaughns, the original and his young reincarnation — and their terrible oceanic magics. The nameless madman who calls himself Everett Malkin, and claims to be Felport’s first chief sorcerer, displaced in time. The immortal Beast of Felport itself. And, of course, I have your hero, Nicolette, locked in the most potent cell I possess, at the center of a cube wrapped in bindings of order — the witch Elsie Jarrow. You would be amazed at what some of these people are willing to do when you dangle the prospect of freedom before them. So, no — I won’t be needing your services. Good luck with the rest of your miserable, pointless lives.” The doctor started to close the door.
Nicolette stuck a boot in the way, and Dr. Husch made a noise of distaste and opened it again. “Do you want to lose a foot along with your arm, woman?”
“We want in,” Nicolette said. “If nothing else, we can help wrangle the crazies. Besides, don’t bullshit me, there’s no way you can let Elsie Jarrow out, you’d never be able to control her, she’s too — ”
“I am well aware of her condition — indeed, as her doctor, I know far more about her situation than you do. As I said, your services will not be needed. Why hire Vasari when you can work with Michelangelo?”
“I’m going to assume that’s an insult,” Nicolette said. “Like ‘why listen to Rush when you can listen to Led Zeppelin?’ But I don’t mind — I’m not fit to touch the hem of Elsie Jarrow’s garment. But that just means I’m even more eager to lend a hand. Let us join in. What could it hurt?”
“My chances of success,” Dr. Husch said.
Nicolette laughed. “Not bad, Doc. Being disfigured has given you a sense of humor. But what’ll really hurt your chances of success is me going to Marla and telling her what you have planned. And sending word to a few of the reigning sorcerers — I don’t think the Chamberlain or Hamil would be happy to hear you’ve decided to switch your patients from art therapy to murder-for-hire. That’s the kind of thing that could seriously impact your funding at the next meeting of the council, don’t you think? Or maybe you want to get locked up in one of your own cells?”
“You would help Marla? Protect her from me? Even though you want her dead?”
“Doc,” Crapsey said. “This is Nicolette. You can’t trust her to do anything. Messy unexpected stuff just makes her more powerful. She’s got a roulette wheel instead of a soul, you know?”
“Hmm. What makes you think you can escape the grounds of this estate?”
Nicolette drew a small hatchet with a curved blade the color of the moon from behind her back, and held it up to catch the light. “I did a little looting while I was running around with Crapsey and the Mason. I found this beauty in one of Viscarro’s vaults. It’s sacred to some moon god, I forget his name, but the point is — it is awesome. All those years I was jealous of Marla’s cloak, and her dagger of office, and now I’ve got an artifact of my own, and Marla doesn’t have any. Anyway, sure, sic your orderlies on me, whatever — if you feel like getting chopped into fucking little bits again.”
Dr. Husch didn’t move. You could have cut the tension with a knife. Or a really terrifying axe.
“Look, we want the same thing,” Crapsey said, holding up his hands in a gesture he hoped was soothing. “There’s no reason for us to fight. Just let us help. We can lend a hand.”
“Three hands, even,” Nicolette said.
To Crapsey’s surprise, Dr. Husch snorted with laughter. “Fine. I can see you won’t go away. I suppose I could use people to carry boxes and fetch coffee. But you take orders from me, understood?” She turned and started into the Institute, then paused, and called back over her shoulder, “You can come inside now.”
“No trying to lock us up, Doc,” Nicolette said, stepping in.
“I wouldn’t worry,” Dr. Husch said. “Haven’t you heard? Nowadays, it’s fashionable to let the inmates run the asylum.”