“You can’t be serious.” Nicolette stared at the immense cube of granite, twenty feet to a side, decorated with inlaid gold in eye-watering patterns and etched with strange runes that seemed to shift and writhe without every losing their essential symmetry. “You’re really going to let her out? I thought you were just screwing with me.”
Dr. Husch walked around the cube, her long black dress rustling. Crapsey wasn’t sure what was going on, but from the way Nicolette was acting, it was pretty major. They stood in a large gray room in the basement of the Blackwing Institute, lit by harsh white overhead lights, looking at the world’s most boring sculpture, as far as he could tell. They were attended by at least a dozen orderlies – a whole harmony of human-looking homunculi – arrayed and waiting in the room’s shadowy corners.
“You don’t think I should release her?” Dr. Husch said.
“No, I think you definitely should. I just can’t believe you will.”
Oh, Crapsey thought. It’s a box. “Who’s in the box? Or, what?”
“Her name is Elsie Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She is easily my most troubled patient.”
Nicolette gave a long raspberry, spraying spittle. “Please. She’s so far beyond ordinary notions of sanity that calling her ‘troubled’ is like calling cancer psychopathic.”
“If cancer were sentient,” Dr. Husch said, “it would be psychopathic. Speaking of cancer… I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Jarrow’s body died some months ago. She was absolutely riddled with tumors – she had been more cancer than clean flesh for years, of course, but her own mastery of chaos magic kept her physical form in more-or-less working order. Unfortunately… she tried to escape, as I think you know, this past winter, and she expended the last reserves of her power when she attempted to break through the wards on the Institute’s walls. She had precious little strength left for life support, and couldn’t control her own decay. I was unable save her physical form.”
Nicolette whistled. “She transcended completely? I mean, I knew she could leave her body behind to cause trouble in disembodied form, but she doesn’t even have a home base made of skin and bone and meat anymore? She must be like a wind made of fire now.”
“The death of her physical form doesn’t seem to have diminished her presence at all, no,” Dr. Husch said. “She had been experimenting with astral projection anyway – she tried to get out of the Institute via the phone lines once, and it almost worked. She’s still trapped in the cube, now, though the bed and the chairs and tables inside don’t do her much good anymore. She is wholly bodiless, and… she doesn’t like it much. She says the pain of the cancer made her crazy, and now that she has no body, and thus no pain, she’s thinking more clearly. It could even be true, I suppose – she was never capable of a ruse before, being far too irrational for deception. But she seems lucid, and wants a new body, and she’s willing to do almost anything if I can get her one.”
“What, you want an organ donation? And my whole body’s the organ? Elsie’s my hero, but I’m not willing to die so that she might live.” She glanced at Crapsey, who swallowed hard.
Shit. How many bodies had he stolen over the years, at the Mason’s orders, or – be honest – at his own whim? How many souls had he consigned to infinite oblivion, how many bodies had he used like puppets? Letting Elsie have his body would probably count as justice. “Fuck that,” he said. “Nobody’s taking my body, you got it?”
“Both your vessels are too weak.” Husch stood staring at a spiral of gold twelve feet high. “When she was free, in those last days before her capture, anyone who came within a dozen yards of her developed tumors. She was chaos walking, and cancer is nothing but cells who have lost all sense of order – she became a living carcinogen, and that poisonous aura was a side effect of her power that she couldn’t turn off. She caused bone marrow cancer, mostly. That’s why some people called her Marrowbones.” Dr. Husch paused. “That, and because in a moment of… I won’t call it clarity, but, maybe, misguided compassion? She had the idea that she could save the people she’d poisoned with her presence by magically removing all their diseased marrow.”
“Human osso bucco,” Nicolette said. “Yum.”
Husch’s dress rustled as she turned toward Crapsey, though with the veil it was impossible to tell if she were really looking at him. “Do you know what happens to a person when all the marrow in their bones instantly vanishes?”
“Bone marrow produces red blood cells, platelets, and white blood cells, and regulates the lymphatic system. Let’s just say the people she ‘cured’ would have preferred the cancer. They at least had a chance of short-term survival with treatment.”
Crapsey furrowed his brow. “So she’s a, what… disease sorcerer? A cancer-mancer?”
“Cancer-mancer!” Nicolette said, and guffawed, actually bending over and slapping her knees. “That’s a little rhymey-wimey, there, Crapsey-wapsey.”
“What would it be called?” Dr. Husch mused. “An… oncomancer? No, ‘mancer’ is Greek and ‘onco’ is Latin, not that a little thing like that ever stopped people from talking about ‘polyamory’ or ‘genocide’ – ”
“Okay, professor boring,” Nicolette said. She turned to Crapsey. “Nah, cancer’s not Elsie’s thing. I mean, it’s one of her things, but it’s just a side effect. The purpose of a tea kettle isn’t to whistle, that’s just something it does in addition to its purpose. See, Elsie Jarrow is just like me.”
“Elsie Jarrow is to you as the sun is to a forty-watt lightbulb,” Dr. Husch said. “She is a force of unstoppable entropy with a will. But, yes, she is a chaos magician. She gets her power from disorder, and she is excellent at generating disorder as well. So powerful that, after she lost her mind and her self-control, her mere proximity was enough to drive cell division mad in the bodies of any creatures unlucky enough to come within range. And her mortal form was never much good at containing such a force of disaster.”
“Huh,” Crapsey said. “So she’s basically a tsunami made of tumors, but she’s on our side. Okay. What’s the plan?”
“We have to find a body that can withstand the stresses of having a woman who is essentially the living incarnation of chaos bound inside it.”
Nicolette snorted. “What, like a robot body? Sounds like anything fleshy would turn into tumor soup in a few seconds.”
“Elsie is very… sensual. She wants flesh.”
“Flesh is weak, lady,” Nicolette said. “Take it from the chick with one arm. Flesh is grass.”
Crapsey whistled. “Wait. You’re… you’re going to use her, aren’t you? The… the host?”
“Very good.” Dr. Husch might have been praising a bright student. “My orderlies are bringing her down right now.”
“What?” Nicolette was annoyed, and when Nicolette was annoyed, things tended to get broken. “What are you talking about? Crapsey’s not even from this reality, how the hell does he know anybody who could withstand – oh.” The chaos witch blinked, and a smile crept across her face. “No shit. That’s wicked. I like it.”
“I’m so glad you approve.” Dr. Husch spoke with enough condescension to wither even the mightiest egomaniac, though it didn’t dent Nicolette’s sudden good humor.
A few moments later, a pair of orderlies appeared, one pushing a wheelchair that held a slumped, apparently catatonic woman, the other holding a shotgun with the barrel wrapped in copper wire and plastic flowers – some kind of magical ordnance, Crapsey figured. The woman in the chair hardly seemed like a threat, but it was definitely better to be safe. She had once been a destroyer of worlds, an unstoppable conqueror – or, at least, the host for one.
“Evil mirror-universe Marla,” Nicolette said, walking around the chair and shaking her head. “She doesn’t look so scary now.”
“The cloak was the scary thing,” Dr. Husch said. “This poor child was just the host the cloak chose.” She knelt before Beta-Marla, lifting up her chin with two fingers, and looking into her blank-staring eyes. “She’s spoken a few times during her stay here, but just whimpers, really, and mostly, she’s been like this. I don’t think she’s ever going to recover.”
Crapsey just stared at the woman in the wheelchair, awash in memories. This was the Marla Mason from his home universe – the version of Marla that put on the white-and-purple cloak and then never taken it off again, her mind utterly dominated by the cloak’s malevolent intelligence, reduced to a puppet for an alien master. She still looked about twenty, smooth-faced and with the beauty of youth, because the Mason hadn’t seen any incentive in aging, and had woven her defensive magics strongly. The Mason was unmatched as a sorcerer, and claimed it was because magic in her home universe was denser than magic here – she could brush aside spells in this world as easily as a man brushes away cobwebs. But she needed a human host to operate in this reality – said it was like a scuba diver’s air tanks, or an astronaut’s space suit. The Marla from this universe had managed to trick the Mason into temporarily separating from her host, and defeated her that way – but it had left the host an almost-empty shell, with Beta-Marla’s long-dominated mind tattered and shredded and almost entirely gone.
“I just hope she’ll be strong enough to survive possession by Jarrow,” Dr. Husch said. “She looks so frail…”
“Let’s find out.” Nicolette drew her glittering silver hatchet.
“No!” Dr. Husch shouted, but Nicolette stepped past her and swung the weapon down in a smooth, swift arc toward Beta-Marla’s skull.
The blade just barely touched the skull, shearing away a few strands of hair, before rebounding hard enough to rock Nicolette back on her feet. Beta-Marla didn’t react at all.
“Damn,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I stole this hatchet, I thought I might be able to use it to kill the Mason. Guess that wouldn’t have worked.”
“The Mason told me it’s an impressive weapon,” Crapsey said. “But she said unless it was wielded by a god, it wouldn’t be able to hurt her, not really.”
“Huh. Well, apotheosis is on my to-do list anyway.”
“Please refrain from swinging axes at my patients,” Dr. Husch said wearily.
Nicolette shrugged, a strange-looking gesture from a one-armed, hatchet-wielding woman. “Whatever. If this axe had hurt her, there wouldn’t be much point in giving her body to Elsie anyway. I don’t really understand why she’s still invincible though – the cloak is gone, Marla sent it off to a whole other universe, supposedly. This thing in the chair is just a husk.”
“The host body was soaked in the Mason’s magic for over a decade,” Crapsey said. “Marinated in it. Irradiated. Whatever. And the Mason wrapped that body in every kind of protective spell she knew – and she knew a lot. You could drop an atom bomb on this body and it would come walking out again without a scratch – assuming it has a mind to tell it to walk.”
“So it’s safe to say she would be immune to cancer? And… other stresses?” Dr. Husch said. “I have speculated, but…”
“I’m not a doctor, or even really a sorcerer, but, shit, yeah. The Mason thought bodies were disgusting, so she made this flesh as unchanging and impregnable as possible.”
“Then let’s give Jarrow her new vessel,” Husch said.
“Uh.” Nicolette cleared her throat. “I’m all for unleashing devastating horrors on the world, but… Elsie’s just gonna eat us, then take this body, and leave. This is Marrowbones we’re talking about. She’s not trustworthy.”
“Nicolette, shut up, please. I have access to objects of power that make your little hatchet look like a fingernail clipper. Precautions have been taken. If Jarrow doesn’t do what I want, she’ll be back in this cube in moments. I do not need your advice on how to contain my patients. I am a professional.”
Professionals don’t let dangerous prisoners loose on murder-for-hire gigs, Crapsey thought, but didn’t figure that was a productive line of argument, so he kept his mouth shut.
“Now then,” Husch said. “Let’s crack open the seals.” One of the orderlies handed her a hammer and chisel, and Nicolette took out her hatchet again.
Beta-Marla moaned, and whispered something. Crapsey knelt down beside her, and her vague eyes seemed to fix on him. He should look familiar to her, at least, assuming she’d had some degree of consciousness during her long years of being dominated by the Mason. “What is it, sweetie?” he said, though looking at her face reminded him of his old boss and tormentor.
“Kill me,” she whispered, eyes fixed on his.
“What did she say?” Dr. Husch demanded.
“She wants us to kill her,” Crapsey said.
Dr. Husch clucked her tongue. “Can’t be done, dear. I’m sorry. But this should be oblivion, which is the next best thing.” She placed the chisel at a seemingly arbitrary point on the face of the cube, and struck it with the hammer.
The face of the cube split open, dividing one of the spirals of inlaid gold into asymmetrical not-quite-halves. White light poured from the inside, which was furnished like a rather Spartan dorm room or an upscale prison cell – single bed, sink, toilet, shower stall, desk, chair, polished steel plate for a mirror. There was nobody inside, but there was a sort of disturbance in the air, something like a heat shimmer, but streaked with colors… the most beautiful colors –
“Avert your eyes,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey wrenched his gaze away to stare at his feet. “There’s a force field preventing her from getting out, but it’s permeable from this direction – there’s nothing to stop you from going inside if you’re entranced. As homunculi, my staff and I are immune to her charms, but the two of you aren’t, probably. Orderlies, wheel in the new vessel.”
Beta-Marla reached out as if to clutch Crapsey’s sleeve when the orderlies pushed her wheelchair toward the cube, but she either didn’t have the strength, or didn’t have the strength of will. Poor thing. She’d just escaped from hosting one malevolent parasitic entity, and here she was, about to be enslaved by another. The kid never had a chance.
Then again, if she hadn’t been possessed by the cloak, she probably would have turned out a lot like the Marla Mason from this universe, and she was pretty much a total bitch, so whatever.
Crapsey risked a glance at the cube. The orderlies pushed the chair inside and stepped back, but they couldn’t get out, of course, because of the force field – theirs was a suicide mission. Good thing they were mindless man-things and not actual people. That close to Jarrow’s essence, the orderlies slumped like melting snowmen in hospital scrubs, their flesh liquefying into a slurry that stank like rising bread mingled with melted plastic.
“Does the vessel suit you?” Dr. Husch called.
The shimmer in the air vanished, and then Beta-Marla began to glow, a bright green aura enveloping her, and sparks started to fly up in the air.
“Shit,” Dr. Husch said, and Crapsey was actually surprised to hear such a basic profanity from her. “I was afraid the Mason might have made her host impregnable to possession.” Crapsey nodded, because the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body himself, he’d bounced off her protective barriers like a handball hitting a stone wall –
The green shimmer vanished, and Beta-Marla stood up from the chair, her back to Dr. Husch and the others. She stretched her hands up in the air, rolled her head around on her neck, then did a few toe-touches and deep knee bends before turning to face them.
Crapsey was astonished. He was used to seeing this woman’s face, of course, but while in the Mason’s control, it had almost always been blank and expressionless, more masklike than animated flesh. As the semi-catatonic Beta-Marla, her face had been slack and empty of everything but flashes of despair. But this –
This woman looked happy. More than happy. Joyful, all twinkling eyes and dazzling smiles.
“I like it!” she shouted, and did a little pirouette, twirling on one foot. “Wowza! This body is cherry, Dr. Jigsaw, truly fine, damnfine, really fine. I had a little trouble getting in, I couldn’t pop the locks with any finesse, so I had to break a window with a brick, more or less, but that’s okay, I didn’t mess up any of the optional extras.” She pressed her hands against the invisible barrier keeping her inside the cube and grinned, so widely it looked like her face might split apart. “Knock, knock? Who’s there? Let me. Let me who? Let me OUT!”
“You have… control of yourself?” Dr. Husch said. “You know if I suffer injury, or lose consciousness, you’ll be snatched out of that body and back into the cube – ”
Elsie Jarrow rolled her eyes, then flopped onto her back on the floor dramatically. “It’s okay, Doctor Mom, I know, if I melt you I’m totally grounded, the deal is done, lemme free, lemme free!”
Dr. Husch made a series of arcane gestures – she looked like a guy on a runway waving in three or four planes at once – and Elsie did a little somersaulting roll out of the cube, springing to her feet. “New friends!” she shouted at Crapsey and Nicolette, then whirled toward Dr. Husch. “First thing’s first! Give me the stuff! The stuff the stuff the stuff!”
Dr. Husch summoned another orderly who’d been lurking in the shadows, and he came forward carrying a bottle of dark red fluid.
“Is that blood?” Crapsey said. “Is this some blood magic thing?”
“Ha,” Elsie Jarrow said. “You ever try dyeing your hair with blood? It’s total crap! Gets all crusty and when it dries it ends up looking brown.”
“It’s hair dye,” Dr. Husch said as Elsie snatched the bottle and a proffered comb and went back into the cube, to the sink.
“If I can’t be a redhead, I’d rather be dead,” Elsie said. “Help a girl out, would you, baldie?”
Nicolette, who’d been uncharacteristically speechless during this whole exchange, smirked, then stepped over a melted orderly to help the most deadly chaos magician in the world dye her hair.
“Is she for real?” Crapsey said. “She’s, like… not what I expected. I mean, she’s not… all supervillainous and everything.”
“She’s always tended toward the manic,” Dr. Husch said. “It would not be correct to call her bipolar – she is monopolar. Elsie Jarrow can be warm, and vivacious, and even fun… but she’s responsible for rivers of blood. Half the time she doesn’t even mean to cause the damage she does. The other half of the time… she does mean it. And it’s a lot worse when she means it.” She sighed. “This is going to take a while. We’d best make ourselves comfortable.” She summoned an orderly, who carried over a couple of plastic lawn chairs.
After nearly an hour of hair ministrations, Elsie declared herself satisfied with the dye and stripped off the red-stained shirt she’d been wearing, dropping it on the floor. Crapsey found himself getting a little aroused at the sight of her in just a bra, even if it was boring hospital-issue underwear – hell, it wasn’t like he’d had much experience with fancy lingerie in the nightmarish dystopian world he’d called home. A girl with no festering sores on her body had been a big treat over there, and he hadn’t exactly been rolling in willing scantily-clad women since he crossed over to this universe.
“Husch. Lipstick me. I know you like to wear that red red red. Or you did before your lips got torn into little pieces. Which means you don’t need it anymore. Give.”
Husch handed her a tube, and Elsie lavished her lips in scarlet, then took the hem of Husch’s veil and used it to blot. “Perfecto.” She turned to Crapsey and gave him a dazzling smile. “You. Want to have sex with me right here on this concrete floor? I’ve got this body! Gotta use it!”
Crapsey winced. “I would, I mean, but that body used to belong to my monster-boss – ”
“Okay, too much talking, you missed your window, big boy.” She turned to Nicolette. “You? And me? And the floor? I like the one-armed thing, I bet only having five fingers makes you work a lot harder, am I right?”
“I’m not into girls, and I hate both the people you look like in that body, but you are Elsie Jarrow, and I will so absolutely fuck you,” Nicolette said.
“Stop!” Dr. Husch said. “We have work to do, things to discuss, plans to make.”
“Dr. Jigsaw is a buzzkill,” Elsie Jarrow said. “Lift that veil, pretty lady. ”
“I am not sleeping with you.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not in the mood anymore, but you’re pretty prudish for a sexbot, even one with a PhD.” She glanced at Nicolette. “The doctor here was invented as a sex homunculus for her creator, did you guys know that? He gave her all those smarts so she could read the Kama Sutra or recite lyric poetry while she gave him handjobs or whatever, and then she goes to college and gets advanced degrees, just like she’s people. Her maker wouldn’t like banging her now, though, she’s all damaged. The veil. Up.”
Husch backed away, arms crossed, the faint blot of scarlet lipstick on her veil reminding Crapsey of a spreading bloodstain. “You don’t give me orders – ”
“I’ll kill Marla for you, okay? And anybody else who annoys you. Don’t get all unyielding, it makes me cranky. Just. Lift. The. Veil. Let me get a look at what they did to you.”
With trembling hands, Dr. Husch raised the black netting and revealed her face. She was worse than Crapsey had expected. He hadn’t been the one to cut her up, but only because she brained him with a blunt object before he could carry out his boss’s orders. The Mason had done the deed, tearing her into pieces. She’d been stitched back together… but her face was a nightmare of bright red lines, a map of scars so pronounced they looked drawn on with red Sharpie. Her face was like a photo shredded and taped back together, with none of the edges quite lining up anymore.
“They sure did a number on you, didn’t they?” Elsie said. “These hands, right here, they ripped you up, didn’t they?” She wiggled her fingers. “Well, let me fix you up, then.”
Husch tried to jerk away when Elsie reached out for her, but some magic snared her, and the chaos witch pressed her palms against the doctor’s face. Husch twitched and writhed and moaned for a moment, battering uselessly at Elsie, then tore free and fell to her knees. The doctor looked up.
“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Doc. Maybe look in that mirror over there?”
“What have you done to me?” Dr. Husch said, her voice no longer rough and shredded. She rushed to the mirror, and looked at herself – at her smooth face, restored to its original classical perfection.
“Fixed you.” Elsie sat down in the middle of the floor, pulled one of her feet up close to her face, and sniffed her own toes. “Not just your face, either. The whole caboodle. Boobies and nethers and all. Did you guys know she’s hairless as a hypoallergenic cat from the neck down? Her maker was a perv.”
Husch paid no attention, just staring at her own face, touching her cheeks with her fingertips. “The biomancer, Langford, he said there was no hope, that my skin couldn’t heal like a human’s, that it lacked the elasticity – ”
“Eh, all true, but broken things are my whole, um. Thing. I can increase disorder, but you know how double-edged magic is, I can run the progression back the other way, too, and create order. There, poof, you’re pretty again, yay.” Elsie seemed bored with the whole situation now – she was chewing on her big toenail – and Crapsey got a sense of just how unsettling it could be to work with her. She was changeable as the moon, as the sea, as…
Well, the whim of a lunatic devoted to chaos.
“No offense, but what the fuck?” Nicolette said. “You fixed something? Increased order? That just… isn’t something I’d expect the great Elsie Jarrow to do.”
“That’s exactly the point.” Elsie spat out a toenail. “Half my power comes from doing the unexpected. A lot of the time even I don’t know what I’m going to do. That approach has worked out for me so far. Except for killing everyone I ever knew and loved or even liked, and being imprisoned for all those years, and everything. Otherwise it’s been a rock-solid strategy. Besides, I don’t mind creating order. I like it! Build those towers high! The more complex you make something, the bigger the mess it makes when it collapses.”
Crapsey was mulling that over when Dr. Husch’s cell phone rang. She looked at the screen and said, “What in the world…” She put the phone to her ear. “I didn’t expect to hear from you,” she said, walking toward a corner of the basement, presumably for privacy.
“We’re gonna have fun,” Elsie said, standing up, and walking toward Crapsey and Nicolette with her arms outstretched. “I’m in the mood again. What do you say? Three-way, right now? We’ve only five hands among us, but we can make do, right?”