The first thing Crapsey heard when he woke up, slumped on the couch in Dr. Husch’s office, was Elsie Jarrow saying, “They’re so adorable when they sleep. Like lobotomized little puppies.”
“Do you mean Crapsey and Nicolette in particular,” Dr. Husch said, “or just… those who require sleep?”
“I know!” Elsie said. “I love unclear antecedents too!”
Crapsey sat up, groaning. His tongue felt like it had been replaced in the night by a mummified rodent – which, given his proximity to Elsie Jarrow, wasn’t an impossibility. “Buh,” he said.
Elsie sat perched on the edge of Dr. Husch’s desk, dressed in a dark green pencil skirt and a white blouse, clearly raided from Husch’s wardrobe. Her lips were heavily lipsticked crimson, and her hair – dry, now – was red as molten rock. Crapsey looked down at his hands, saw the streaks of red on his fingers, and tried to remember if things had gotten that crazy. He sniffed, and was relieved: not blood, just dye from Elsie’s damp hair. Nicolette was sleeping on the floor by a potted ficus, and while she was dressed, her shirt was on inside out. Crapsey had slept with Nicolette a few times before, because even though her weird shoulder-stump-thing freaked him out, she was the only game in town, but he’d never seen her as passionate as she was last night. Probably the way Crapsey would feel if he got to sleep with one of his idols. Except he couldn’t think of any idols he’d want to actually sleep with. He loved the comics of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but…
Nicolette’s eyes opened, she sat up, and grinned. “Today we eat the world, yeah?”
“First we torment and kill Marla,” Dr. Husch said. “After that… what you do is your own business.”
Elsie had an oversized coffee mug in her hands, and she put her nose close to the rim, inhaling deeply. “Did you know, Nicolette, now that the good doctor has unshackled me, I can draw enough power from the Brownian motion of the steam rising from this coffee to light up an entire city? And by ‘light up’ I mean ‘devastate with a relentless storm of fireballs’?”
“That’s badass,” Nicolette said. “You’re badass.”
Crapsey rolled his eyes. One of the few things he liked about Nicolette was her absolute refusal to be impressed – she’d even backtalked the Mason a few times, until she realized one more slip of the tongue would get her turned into a smear on the old monster’s boots. But she was kissing Elsie’s ass. Sometimes literally.
“You’ll learn a lot from me,” Elsie said. “Just be sure you do what I want with that knowledge. You showed me last night you can take direction, so keep that up, and we’ll be fine.”
“What happens now?” Crapsey croaked. “And where can I get some of that coffee?”
Dr. Husch pointed at a large French press on the edge of the desk, and pushed a cup toward him. Crapsey grinned at her, but she looked away, a lock of blonde hair falling across her eyes in a seriously fetching way. She’d declined to take part in the debauchery the night before, withdrawing in disgust – though presumably keeping them under observation and guard – and Crapsey was bummed about that. Elsie still looked pretty much like his old evil boss, and sleeping with Nicolette was always a one-way-ticket to Regretsville, but now that her wounds had been healed, Dr. Husch was irresistible.
“Doctor Prettyface agrees I get to run operations,” Elsie said. “After all, telling me how to kill somebody is like telling a Django Reinhardt how to tune a six-string.”
“What’s a Django?” Crapsey said.
Elsie crossed her legs, gave him a smile patronizing enough to wilt his traditional morning erection completely, and said, “We’ll put our team together, and then we’ll teleport over to Hawai’i, and start making Marla’s life miserable.”
“Uh,” Nicolette said. “I don’t… I mean… I’m not a big fan of teleporting. Last time I did that…” She gestured at her empty sleeve.
Elsie’s look of concern was so convincing Crapsey had to concede it might be real. “You poor thing! One of the nameless many-limbed horrors of the in-between ripped your arm off?”
Nicolette nodded, looking away, clearly embarrassed. Crapsey had only teleported a few times, when the Mason really needed to get somewhere fast, and he’d never had any problems… but ripping holes in space and stepping through to somewhere else was dangerous, and there was a double-digit-percentage chance that some interdimensional predator would try to eat you on the way through. Or maybe not predators, and maybe not eating – the Mason had told him once that teleporting took you through the machine room of the universe, and it was possible Nicolette had lost her arm to the whirring gears of some incomprehensible cosmic engine, like a kid in a factory getting his hand caught in a drill press.
“Something tried to tear my leg off once when I teleported,” Elsie was saying. “But I just ripped its arms off instead. Nasty things, they melted into a sort of silvery sludge as soon as I brought them through the portal with me. I dumped the remains in a pond, it killed like a thousand fish, really interesting, they grew extra eyes and then their brains exploded, poof!” She laughed, deeply and genuinely. “Nasty fuckers, those beasties-in-between. I actually learned another way to travel somewhere quickly – a Sufi mystic taught me the secret of Tayy al-Ard, ‘the folding of the Earth.’ Instead of ripping holes in reality and stepping through, you stay in one place, and the Earth moves under you, and puts your destination beneath your feet. Doesn’t work for groups, though, so I couldn’t pull you along. Besides, I prefer the old hole-tearing Western form of teleportation – it comes with a much bigger chance of disaster.”
“You could teach me the… Tayy, whatever,” Nicolette said.
Elsie chuckled. “Oh, that’s cute. No, I couldn’t. No more than I could teach a toddler to fly a fighter jet. Actually, the results would be equally hilarious. If you’re too scared to teleport, you can book a ticket on Hawaiian Airlines or something and catch up with us on your own time.”
Nicolette narrowed her eyes. “No, I want to go, it’s fine, I’ll teleport. I got one arm ripped off already, so what are the odds of it happening again?”
“Exactly the same odds you’d have if you still possessed both arms,” Elsie said kindly. “The fact that it happened once before doesn’t affect the probability of it happening again – not in the slightest. That’s simple statistics. But there’s no reason you should know about statistics or probability, after all. They’re only fundamental underpinnings of chaos magic.”
“I love what a bitch you can be,” Nicolette said, with apparent sincerity. Crapsey looked at Dr. Husch and raised an eyebrow, but there was no making a connection with her – she just turned up her nose and looked away.
“I’m as changeable as the colors in an oil slick all right,” Elsie said. She hopped off the desk and clapped her hands. “Dr. Husch has given us the run of the asylum. I figure we’ll fling a couple of the inmates – sorry, patients – Marla’s way, just to cause trouble. Then we’ll step in more directly and have some fun.”
“Can’t we just kill her?” Crapsey said. “And Rondeau, too. Especially Rondeau.”
“So many vendettas! Who can keep track? No, just killing her is boring, it would not fatten me up or make me drunk with power at all. We will have a plan, and it will be an extremely complicated plan – ”
Nicolette raised her hand. “Not to agree with Crapsey or anything, but… a plan? Really? Shouldn’t we just jump in and make some moves and see what happens, surf the probability waves, stir up some shit and cause a ruckus?”
Suddenly Elsie had a wooden ruler in her hand, and she slammed it down on the desk with a resounding crack. “Nicolette! What is chaos?”
Nicolette blinked. “Disorder?”
“Yes. What necessarily precedes disorder?”
“Good girl! Chaos magicians don’t hate order, silly, we love order. If we were just relentless champions of entropy, you know what we’d get? A static universe, with all the particles evenly distributed, and no heat. Everything still, and unmoving, and dead. That’s the kind of world the Mason, the last inhabitant of this fine body, wanted. It’s not the kind of world I want. I love plans, Nicolette, and the more complicated the better. I want a big crew, and lots of moving parts. A team of criminally insane sorcerers, and assorted other malcontents and grudge holders, all secretly pursuing their own agendas, looking to backstab and scheme and further their own interests, working at cross-purposes and getting into fights and squabbling and storming off in a huff…” Elsie’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she shivered all over.
“Is she… having an orgasm?” Dr. Husch asked. “Because she looks like she’s having an orgasm.”
“Either she is,” Crapsey said, “or she was faking it exactly the same way last night.”
Elsie pushed a hank of hair out of her face, bit her own thumb hard enough to draw blood, then smiled. “Sorry. Just thinking about all that potential disaster gets me… . Ahem. The more complicated the plan, Nicolette, the more possible ways it can fall apart. And that falling apart is basically the kinetic energy that feeds my power – and yours, too, I guess, not that I’ve seen any power out of you yet.”
“I did not release you to grow fat off disaster.” Dr. Husch glared. “I want Marla miserable, and then I want her dead. Your plan is useless to me if it doesn’t achieve those ends. And, much to my surprise, it turns out I have an informant of sorts in Marla’s camp. Rondeau called me last night for a friendly conversation, unaware of how my loyalties have shifted. Marla knows you’re coming.” Husch paused. “Not you, specifically, Jarrow, but her enemies – Rondeau summoned an oracle, which gave Marla a warning, in general terms. You will not be able to take her unawares.”
“It’ll be way more fun with an informed opposition anyway!” Elsie said. “What’s the point of a war if one side of the conflict thinks it’s a vacation instead?” She leaned over the desk and patted Husch’s folded hands. “It’s okay. If the plan works, misery and death, just like you wanted. If the plan fails spectacularly, I’ll get a nice power surge, and, eh, then I’ll just pop Marla’s head like Nicolette pops her pimples, okay?”
“I care only for results,” Husch said.
“I guess we’d better get started, then! Let’s meet the new recruits.”
“I think these are the best prospects.” Husch pushed over a pile of folders, and Elsie picked them up and flung them at Nicolette, who snatched one out of the air but, lacking a second hand, got smacked in the chest with rest.
“Read!” Elsie barked. “Summarize!”
Nicolette sat down on the floor and scanned through the files. “Uh, Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer. She projects her emotions, making others feel what she feels, and since she thinks life is horrible and meaningless, she’s kind of a bummer to be around. Everybody in her apartment building died of starvation before she was locked up – they just stopped caring enough to eat. All the people who came to check on their friends or family who lived in the apartment got caught in the field of depression, too, until somebody with magical connections figured out what was going on. Ugly stuff.”
“She’s a maybe,” Elsie said. “Nihilism is boring. If we could get her to project, say, Dionysian frenzy, that could be something. Might be possible. Brain chemistry can be hacked.” She sat back down on the desk and turned to Husch. “What about that other psychic, Genevieve? The one who knocked me out last time I tried to escape? She’s got some power we could use.”
“She escaped herself,” Husch said. “Her current whereabouts are unknown.”
“She’s friends with Marla anyway, I hear,” Nicolette chimed in. “Marla helped de-crazy her.”
“Hmm, that could be a real challenge, if she got involved on Marla’s side,” Elsie mused. “It would be nice if this wasn’t a total one-sided blowout. Okay, who’s next?”
“The Beast of Felport.” Nicolette opened a folder and removed a single sheet of paper. “Not a lot of info here. An animal unknown to science. Relentless killing machine, cunning, difficult to contain, apparently immortal, seems to be connected to this area somehow, though nobody’s sure why – maybe a supernatural protector? Ha, kind of like Marla was, except whatever it’s protecting isn’t the populace. Hates people, tries to kill them all, pretty indiscriminately. Wants to wipe the city off the map, it looks like. Maybe it just really like trees and mud. Currently wrapped in a dream that makes it believe it’s running around primal uninhabited Felport, all happy and unconscious.”
“Hmm. No, I don’t think so. I like people I can talk to. Relentless killing machines don’t scheme or plot, anyway. Capital B Boring. Next.”
“This guy calls himself Everett Malkin – claims to be the first chief sorcerer of Felport, from hundreds of years ago.” Nicolette shook her head. “He’s got some kind of magic, but it’s not clear if he’s super-powerful or anything, and apparently Marla tricked him into getting locked up here without much trouble. He really hates her, though, so he’s got that going for him.”
“I think we have enough personal grudges against Marla in this crew already,” Elsie said. “One more and we’ll be in danger of having a quorum, far too much unity of purpose. Next!”
“Roger Vaughn, and his reincarnation, the younger Roger Vaughn – ”
“Vaughn? That idiot?” Elsie blew a raspberry. “He worships an evil sea-god that doesn’t even exist.. Pathetic. If I worshipped an imaginary sea-god, you’d better believe it would start existing, and quick. Next.”
“Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger.” Nicolette looked up from the pages in her lap. “Didn’t he make a giant body out of corpses or something once?”
“That was just a rumor,” Dr. Husch said. “It was an unrelated flesh golem. No, Lupo is…”
“I told Nicolette to summarize,” Elsie said and, amazingly, Husch fell silent – possibly because she was afraid the chaos witch would ugly her up again. Crapsey didn’t like the way the power dynamic was shifting here. It felt kind of like an ocean liner starting to capsize.
“Lupo can… Ha! You ever hear of the Napoleon complex? When a crazy guy thinks he’s Napoleon?”
“Yes. I also know about people trapped on desert islands, men lying on psychiatrist’s couches, people crawling through the desert, and other gag comic-strip clichés.”
“Well, if Lupo thinks he’s Napoleon, he turns into Napoleon. Like, physically, it’s not just an illusory light show, he really changes. And he has the strategic and tactical knowledge that Napoleon had, and he speaks French, and all that.”
“His impersonations are more convincing when the subject is living,” Husch said. “I think he establishes a sort of… psychic link, and mirrors their minds directly. For the dead, he gets the knowledge from somewhere, perhaps the minds of some scholar or relative somewhere, but the artifice is less perfect.”
“What’s Lupo doing in here?” Crapsey said. “Sounds like he’s a crime boss’s dream. Perfect impersonations on demand.”
Husch shrugged. “He lost control. Replicating so many minds grievously damaged his own – when he impersonated someone, he forgot almost entirely about himself and his own identity. He’d turn into people he encountered randomly on the street, sometimes. Then he would become convinced they were doppelgangers, monsters impersonating him, and he would try to murder them. Any actual identity he once had is in shreds and fragments. I’ve tried to coax out the ‘real’ Gustavus, but… it’s been a long time, and we’ve made almost no progress. His rooms are full of mirrors, so he can see his face, and remember who he is, but if he so much as sees a photograph of another person, he takes on their form, and in the absence of external reinforcement or new people to imitate, he just… blurs.”
“So what good is he to us?” Nicolette said. “If he’s too crazy to follow orders?”
“Oh, I can control him,” Elsie said airily. “I can’t heal him, or anyway I won’t, but I can pick a person for him to impersonate and stir in a little compulsion to lock down that shape until we want it to change, not a problem. But who should we turn him in to? Does Marla have any dead lovers? Ooh, maybe her dead apprentice?”
“Her brother,” Nicolette said. “They’ve got some kind of messed-up history. Lupo could impersonate – ”
“No, no, we’re going to recruit her actual brother,” Elsie said. “It’s on my to-do list for later this morning.”
Husch frowned. “Jason Mason is just a criminal – a confidence man. He has no real knowledge of magic. You want to recruit him to your team?”
“Of course!” Elsie said. “It’ll be a disaster. I can’t wait.” She reached out and touched Husch’s cheek. “Your skin, I swear, it’s like porcelain. Which is to say, I could shatter it with a hammer. Now, I’ll do this job for you, I’ve made an agreement, and I’ll stand by it since I haven’t figured out a way to knock down your binding spells yet, but you have to give me the good stuff, quit holding back. Who do you have locked up in here who can do some real damage?”
Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. I thought it might come to that. Let me show you.”
“Elsie Jarrow and Roderick Barrow?” The chaos witch laughed. “I can’t decide if that sounds like a firm of lawyers or a vaudeville duo.” They were in a small room just off a remote hallway of the estate, a space unremarkable in most respects – except for the fact that one wall was an unbroken sheet of black volcanic glass, so imbued with magics that it made Crapsey’s wooden jaw ache.
“He calls himself Barrow of Ulthar now,” Dr. Husch said. “Though his full title is Lord of the Maggotlands, Protector of the Ravenous Dead, Dispenser of Injustice, Bestower of Maladies, Emperor of the Cinderlands and the Megalith Isles… well, I can’t remember the rest of it. He’s a Dark Lord, basically.”
“Of an imaginary fantasy universe,” Elsie said.
“He is very good at imagining. Barrow was a pulp science fiction writer in the 1930s, and after he suffered a mental breakdown, he began to imagine himself living in a sword-and-sorcery world of his own devising.” Husch spread out a few photos on the desk – they showed swords, animal pelts, some kind of giant dead snake, and misshapen skulls. “These are all… imports, you might say, or rather apports, from his fantasy world. He is delusional, but he’s exothermically delusional. I almost tried to recruit him to run this operation, but I was afraid I might accidentally unleash his monstrous horde upon the Earth.”
Elsie smiled. “And, what, you thought I’d be safer? I wonder about your sanity, doctor. Maybe my craziness is contagious. Though I’m feeling much better in this body. Chronic agony tends to distort your worldview.”
“He’s also very resistant to direct communication,” Husch said. “Anyone who enters Barrow’s physical presence is pulled into his fantasy world. The results are seldom pleasant for those so absorbed. He incorporates visitors into his narrative, generally as enemies. And Barrow of Ulthar’s enemies don’t tend to live long. His fantasy alter-ego used to be a hero, actually, with a destiny, on a quest to save the universe. But I sent Marla Mason into his dreamworld in an attempt at therapy, hoping she could thwart his quest, and show him his world was an illusion. This was many years ago, back when she was just a mercenary, really…”
“She fucked it up?” Elsie said.
“On the contrary, she did just as I hoped. She showed Barrow he was not a hero fated to save a world – that he was just a man, fragile and flawed and entirely capable of being defeated. Alas, he did not respond by becoming lucid and returning to this reality. Instead he decided that, if he didn’t have a destiny, he would make his own destiny, and that if he couldn’t be a hero, he would become a conqueror.”
“I’m so over conquerors,” Crapsey muttered, running his fingers along the wall of obsidian glass that separated Barrow’s room from the rest of the Institute.
“We could still use him,” Elsie said. “Or his power, anyway. Let me in to see him.”
“He’ll think you’re a rival sorcerer,” Husch warned. “He’ll try to kill you.”
“Many have tried,” Elsie said. “Few have triumphed.”
Few? Crapsey thought. Then again, how surprising was it that Elsie had died already, and more than once?
Husch removed her necklace, revealing the small golden key that had been hanging between her breasts all this time. Lucky key, Crapsey thought.
“Ooh, there’s power there.” Elsie leaned forward and sniffed. “You’ve got yourself an artifact, don’t you?”
“This object maintains Barrow’s captivity,” Husch said. “Among other things. It’s called the Key of Totality. An item of power that comes from Barrow’s own imaginary universe, actually, which might be why it’s so effective against him.” She put the key into a small hole in the black glass wall – though Crapsey wasn’t entirely convinced the hole had been there a moment ago – and gave it a twist. A rectangular section of rock slid away, revealing darkness inside. “It’s basically an airlock,” Husch said. “The door to his room will open after this door closes behind you. Are you sure you want to do this? Our Dark Lord is more powerful than you realize.”
“I love meeting new people.” Elsie stepped into the wall of black glass, and the door slid closed after her, the whole becoming seamless and solid again.
“I hope she doesn’t die,” Husch said. “Or… I don’t suppose she’s solipsistic enough to want to usurp Barrow’s power?”
“Elsie’s not really a builder,” Nicolette said. “Or, if she builds something, it’s just for the joy of demolishing it later. I’ve been spending my whole life kicking over sandcastles, but Elsie likes to build the sandcastles herself and then kick them over – probably because she makes better sandcastle than your average asshole with a pail and shovel does. But she’s been trapped in a box for a long time. I doubt she’d want to be stuck in another box, even one made of imagination.”
“Uh. How will you know when she wants to come out?” Crapsey said.
Husch shrugged. “The spells of binding here are meant to keep Barrow and his various emanations in captivity. It should be possible for Jarrow to get out – assuming she isn’t murdered in my patient’s dreamworld. But either way, we should – ”
A knocking sound came from beyond the obsidian wall. “Yoo hoo!” Elsie called, voice muffled but cheerful. “Open, says me!”
Husch touched the key, which pulsed golden light, and twisted it again in the keyhole, making the door in the wall slide open again. Elsie came out, hair mussed but otherwise unchanged. She had an object the size of a soccer ball, wrapped in a brown fur, tucked under her arm. “Okay,” Elsie said, “Barrow and I made an arrangement. I’m done.”
“You were there only moments!” Husch said.
Elsie waved a hand. “Messing with time is a specialty of mine, and in a fantasy world? Please. The rules are so much more elastic there, you don’t even really have to break them, just stretch them a little. I spent a couple of weeks with the Dark Lord, and helped him deal with some rebellions in the provinces – I think he’s killing externalized representations of inconvenient parts of his psyche, like guilt and empathy, in the form of peasants and revolutionaries, it’s pretty interesting – and this is my payment.” She patted the object under her arm. “It should come in handy.”
“What is it?” Husch said.
“I know!” Elsie said. “I love surprises too! All right, it’s time to get things going. I know not much time passed here, but subjectively it feels to me like we’re running late, so you’re all on Jarrow time now. We’ve got a bit more work to do on the mainland, but there’s no reason we can’t start softening Marla up now. The road to hell wasn’t built in a day. Let’s go see Gustavus Lupo, teleport him over to Maui, and put him to work.” Elsie draped her free arm around Nicolette’s shoulder. “What were you saying before, about how most of Marla’s enemies were dead? What are their names? And do you think we could get some pictures of them?”