Marla listened as she walked through the last dregs of the night, moving south and west, toward the city proper. She had no destination in mind, but since the moment she'd run away from home years before she'd associated walking with time alone, time to think, time to make decisions. Engaging her body in movement and motion left her mind free to work over problems.
Or, in this case, to listen to the whispering that filled her head, emanating, it seemed, from somewhere in the vicinity of the base of her skull: as if her brain stem itself were speaking to her.
But Marla knew the half-heard voice belonged to the cloak. Perhaps the garment had once belonged to some other sorcerer, and a bit of that enchanter's personality clung to the fabric, like the scent of nicotine lingering in a dead smoker's drapes. Maybe the words it was whispering were nonsense, or something that would seem nonsensical in the absence of context; a voice saying "Rosebud" or "I wish I'd drunk more champagne."
While she listened, she also thought about the cloak's apparent healing prowess, and so she stopped on the side of the road, among the scraggly pine trees by the shoulder, and drew one of her daggers. She pressed it into the palm of her hand, and the blade – she kept it very sharp – drew a line of blood, but the wound closed along the path of her knife. Near-instantaneous healing, but it hadn't done anything about the pain – she'd felt the cool sting of the blade parting flesh.
The whispering grew louder but no more intelligible.
She wiped the bit of blood from her palm off onto the cloak, but it didn't leave a red splotch – the cloak seemed to absorb the blood into itself without leaving a single spot behind, which brought uncomfortable thoughts of vampiric cursed garments, but maybe it was just magically stain-resistant? The cloak seemed to have healing magic, so how could it be dangerous? And just how good was it at healing? How did she dare test it? If she jumped off the roof of a building, would the cloak keep her alive on impact? It wasn't something she was comfortable trying out. But she was in a dangerous business, and if the cloak's healing prowess could give her an edge in a fight... well, she couldn't think of any reason she'd ever want to take it off.
If only I could hear what it's saying, she thought.
Marla kept walking, most of her attention turned inward, and soon she reached the Balsamo River that bisected the city. The nearest bridge was a good mile upstream, so she mumbled an incantation to activate the surface-tension enchantments on her boots, the so-called Jesus Spell that would let her walk on the river's surface as easily as the little water-skipper insects she'd sacrificed to make the charm. She considered casting a little look-away spell on herself, but to hell with it – if any ordinary out here in the first inklings of dawn saw a woman clad in a pure white cloak walking on the misty surface of the river, what did it matter? They'd be unlikely to believe their eyes, and if they did, she would certainly sound like an apparition to anyone they told.
She saw no one, and on the other side of the broad slow-moving river she walked up the dirty slope of the riverbank, reached a pair of railroad tracks, and paused there in the middle, wondering: If a train came, could I survive the impact?
Another experiment she wasn't willing to try.
The whisper was clearer, though, so she kept going. She walked through the trainyard, slipping through a chained gate, and walked on into the kind of business district that springs up around freight yards: lots of windowless buildings with corrugated steel walls, empty lots surrounded by chain link fences, mountains of shipping containers. If she went east a little distance she'd reach the docks and cranes of the port.
Instead she kept going south, passing soul-food restaurants, aquarium supply stores, boarded-up gas stations with the pumps ripped out, and alleys, alleys, alleys. She could almost make out what the cloak was saying, could nearly hear the word, and she thought it was indeed a single word: Urn? Burn? Spurn?
She stopped in an alley, and closed her eyes, and sat down there on the stained concrete, and drove all thought from her mind. Here, in the heart (or if not the heart than at least the liver or kidney) of the city she loved, totally at home, totally comfortable, she could simply open her mind and let whatever the cloak was broadcasting flow in. She could empty herself, and make a silence, and in that silence, she could hear the word.
When it came again, the word was so clear that she spoke it aloud as it sounded in her head:
And the cloak turned.
First came hyper-awareness. Marla looked around, and the world was subtly changed; except it wasn't the world, but her perception. She could see the weak points in the walls, the stresses in the steel of the dumpsters, the points of maximum breakage. Where to hit things, to make them shatter. Useful knowledge.
Next came the strength. Power coursed through her. She'd been the recipient of spells to enhance the reflexes before, to alter subjective time sense, to increase reaction time, but they all paled compared to this. She could do anything. She could leap from the ground, to the top of that dumpster, and from there to the hanging metal of that fire escape, and from there propel herself to the roof –
And she did, and she did, and she did.
She crouched on the edge of the roof of a three-story building and saw her own hands and arms had been transformed. Her body was still there, but it seemed faint, a skeleton clothed in translucent new flesh: she was wreathed in a bruise-purple suit of shadow, and when she extended her hand, the shadows extended into claws. She knew without questioning the source of the knowledge that those claws could tear open a bank vault, that she could climb overhand up the side of a skyscraper, that she could punch someone through the ribcage and have her fist emerge from their back, clutching their crushed spine in her first.
The cloak had changed, too, from white to purple, the lining somehow switching places with the exterior, and now the healing white was hidden away on the inside, and Marla was clothed in purple.
The color of bruises, rotten meat, dead flowers; the color of emperors.
None of this surprised her. She felt cool, and utterly in control, and above all observant: looking at the world, and discovering how its pieces fit together, and how to break them, and how to remake them to her own liking.
She ran across the rooftops, leaping from one to another as the first rays of light touched the sky, and she did not stop running and calculating vectors for damage until she saw the boy in the alleyway below.
That's no boy, she thought, and the words did not seem entirely her own. But if her own thoughts were spoken in harmony with the voice of the cloak, what of it? The cloak was older than her – older by far – and surely wiser, and she should heed its counsel. After all, with the cloak, she would own the world, and all would fall before her, and her will would become indistinguishable from the inalterable laws of nature.
The boy was small, perhaps eight years old, but more likely a malnourished ten. He wore a ragged dirty too-big t-shirt doubtless scrounged from some shelter bin, and torn denim shorts, and no shoes. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and brown skin, and he pawed disconsolately through the spillover from the garbage cans behind a restaurant. He tried to eat a paper wrapper, ignoring the bits of sandwich wrapped inside.
He was not a boy. Something about him was wrong, alien, disjointed: the body was human, but what dwelled in it was not.
This thing could be useful to us, Marla thought, or the cloak thought, or they both thought. She dropped from the roof and landed before the boy, who stumbled back against the wall, eyes wide, mouth open.
"What are you?" she asked, and her voice was like the sizzle of flesh burning, the hiss of escaping nerve gas, the growl of a beast.
"I – I don't know," the boy said. "I just... found this. This body. I'm just... here." And then, in a voice of real anguish: "I'm hungry."
Take his jaw, Marla – the cloak – they thought, and they reached out, almost gently, as if to caress the boy's face, but instead their hands closed around his lower jaw, and twisted, and pulled the jawbone away as easily as plucking a leaf from the branch of a tree.
The boy screamed and fell and bled, but Marla paid no mind, squinting at the jaw, and then, with precise talons of shadow, stripping away the skin and blood – the cloak soaked in the blood – and holding the dirty white tiny jaw aloft. This will make a useful oracle, they thought, and already knew how to enchant it the bone to allow it to speak. The jaw would be able to tell them whatever its mysterious supernatural original owner knew, as soon as he knew it. This boy, and whatever strange spirit possessed him, would be their unwilling informant forever. They put the jaw away in one of the cloak's pockets, though it didn't actually have pockets, usually.
It's no good if the boy dies, they thought, and Marla knelt, reaching out to touch him – but stopped. Their touch was good for killing, for death, but not for gentler things, not for salvation.
The part of Marla that was still just Marla thought, The white side of the cloak, it could heal him, and the rest of her thought, No!
But it was too late. Marla thought, "Turn."
And the cloak turned, deadly purple replaced by soothing white, and Marla saw what she'd done to the boy, and she began to wail.
"I found this boy," Marla said, cradling him in her arms, standing in the hallway in front of Hamil's apartment door. He was the sorcerer who lived nearest to the place where she'd encountered the boy, and he had always struck her as a basically kind man, and now he nodded slowly, and ushered her in.
"I know you, ah, hire street kids to be your eyes and ears," she said. "So when I found him, hurt, I thought, maybe you could..." She trailed off. Save him, she thought. Save me.
"What happened to him?" Hamil said.
She shook her head. What could she say? "I put on a magical cloak. It hijacked my brain. I ripped this kid's jaw off, and now I don't know where the jaw went?" No. So she said, "I used some healing magic to stop the bleeding, keep him alive, but... fuck, Hamil, his jaw is gone."
Hamil nodded again. "So I see."
Marla hadn't used any healing spells. She'd draped the white cloak across the boy's body, hoping it would heal him, hoping it wouldn't transform him into... whatever she'd been turned into. The cloak's work had begun immediately, with the boy's bloody mess of a wound closing up, blood absorbed into the cloak, and the boy's glassy-eyed shocked stare had vanished as he closed his eyes and fell into deep sleep, breathing slow regular breaths. She'd half-hoped the cloak would heal him sufficiently to make his stolen jaw grow back, but that was either beyond the cloak's capabilities or – and she felt stupid thinking this, though at the same time she thought it was entirely possible – or else the cloak didn't want to grow the boy's jaw back, out of pique, or vindictiveness, or simple expedience. How could she put anything past this garment?
She couldn't believe it had been so easy. That all it had taken to transform the cloak was a single word, and a simple word, at that: "Turn." How could it be that easy to change from a healer to a force of merciless analytical destruction? It was like having a big red button marked "Fire" in a missile silo, so one push would launch all the warheads at once, no double-checking, no failsafes. Who would make a magical device so dangerous and yet so simple to activate?
Nobody would. The cloak wasn't an enchanted piece of cloth, and had likely never been sewn and dyed by human hands. The cloak was an artifact. It was an object with a point-of-view. An object with an agenda.
I'll be more careful next time, Marla had thought, and wrapped up the cloak into a bundle tucked under her arm, and then she'd carried the boy to Hamil's building, using a look-away spell to keep herself unnoticed in the streets and through the lobby and up the elevator.
"What would you like me to do with him?" Hamil said, gesturing to his clean white couch, where Marla put the boy down. "Why not take him to an emergency room?"
"An emergency room can't give him a new jaw," Marla said.
"Ah. I do know a magical surgeon who can take a cadaver's jaw, grow new skin over the bone, and implant it on the boy. It will be as if he'd never lost anything. But such procedures are expensive, Marla."
"I can pay," she said. Marla made money, but she almost never spent any. Her favorite thing was work, and her only hobby was sleeping with Daniel, which, given Artie's inventory, was free no matter how elaborate they got.
Hamil shrugged. "Of course. It's your money. Shall I let you know how he recovers? He should be fine, but there are always risks."
"Sure," Marla said, trying to affect nonchalance, but was it dangerous to let a doctor operate on the kid without giving him all the information he might need? "Ah, I should mention, I... don't think he's human. Entirely."
"Oh?" Hamil looked much more interested now. "Why do you say that?"
"Just, ah... a feeling. I don't know what he is, but..."
"Let's see," Hamil said, and left the room.
Marla shifted her weight from foot to foot, holding the cloak as unobtrusively as possible under her arm, unsure whether she should stay. She looked at the poor mutilated sleeping boy, and hoped he would keep sleeping for a long time, until he was whole again. How had she done such a thing?
She hadn't. The cloak had used her. She'd be more careful next time. Next time, she'd be the one doing the using.
Hamil returned, carrying a pair of eyeglasses with multiple lenses on movable arms. "Modified jeweler's lenses," he said. "They allow me to see evidence of possession, illusion, things like that. Let's see..." He knelt by the boy – lowering his great bulk was quite the production – and adjusted the lenses. He grunted. "Definitely something here. Non-human, but not a ghostly possession like I've ever seen... and it's rare for me to see something totally new. This bears further study." He glanced at Marla. "I'll see he's taken care of. Give Artie my best, would you?"
Marla nodded, and left the boy behind, but took the shame with her.
On the street outside Hamil's apartment, a vagrant in a filthy flannel shirt stumbled toward her. Marla smelled ozone and heard the crackled of static electricity and said "Oh, shit."
The Throne staggered into her path, coughed, and said, "We know what you did. We are watching you. We saw. You will be judged. You will face retribution."
"Fuck off and die," Marla said. "I feel bad enough."
The Throne stared at her for a moment, light leaking from the corners of his eyes, and then shrugged as if to say, I tried, and walked in a drunkard's weave around her and away.
Back home, she avoided everyone, slipping up to her room unbothered. She shook out the cloak, and the jawbone fell out of the folds as if she'd just tucked it there, as if she hadn't turned the cloak upside down and shaken it earlier trying to find the bone. Maybe she should give the jaw to Hamil, for the boy... but then he'd want to know how she got it, and anyway, it was just bone and teeth now, no better than the jawbone of some corpse a psychic surgeon could procure. She put it on a shelf in her closet. Might as well enchant it, she thought, and though she felt another stab of guilt, she knew herself well enough to know she'd follow through on making the jawbone into an oracle. The terrible act had been committed, and couldn't be taken back, and she'd made amends as best she could; she may as well get some use from it. The boy was supernatural, perhaps in an unprecedented way, and there was no telling what she might be able to learn from him.
Marla put the cloak in her closet on a hanger, where it hung looking entirely harmless. She couldn't bear being in the same room with it. Not now.
She went down to the basement and worked out, and shooed Daniel away when he checked on her, and didn't go up to dinner, and fell asleep at about eight p.m., entirely exhausted, and dreamed of a bruise-colored thing crouching in her closet, whispering to her; which was really, she thought, just a bit too on-the-nose.
"Marla!" Jenny called, and she swam up into consciousness. "Huh?"
"Phone," Jenny said from the doorway, and tossed the cordless across to her.
Even half-asleep Marla's reflexes were good, so she caught the phone out of the air, put it to her ear, and said, "Yeah?"
"It's Hamil. I thought you'd like to know the boy – or whatever he is – is fine. His new jaw works well, and he's lucid, talking, and eating all the food I put in front of him. I gather he's been living on the street for a while... and, further, that he wasn't entirely sure what objects around him were edible, or even exactly how to eat. He claims not to know his true nature or origins, and while it may be an elaborate subterfuge on the part of some extra-dimensional monster, I tend to believe him. He seems essentially childlike. He's agreed to let me study him and run some tests, in exchange for food and a place to sleep. I won't charge you for the surgery, by the way. He's a fascinating subject, and has quite the sense of humor for someone who was, almost literally, born yesterday. I'm glad to have him."
"That's good," Marla said. "Thanks. Does he, ah, remember what happened to him?" Hoping, not. Hoping the cloak could heal bad memories too.
"Not very clearly. He says he was attacked by a horrible shadowy monster, and then he says a pretty lady – that's you – came and helped him."
"Ah," Marla said. "That's... Ah."
"Mmm," Hamil said. "Tell me, Marla – should I organize a force to scour the city for this alleged monster?"
Her throat went dry. Hamil was at least as badass as Artie, possibly more so, and thus not a guy to be fucked with. "I don't think that'll be necessary."
"I wondered," Hamil said. "Care to tell me what happened?"
"You know I do battle magics," she said, telling a lie that happened to be true, just irrelevant. "Things got out of hand. I lost control."
"I thought it might be something like that. Thank you for telling me the truth. You might want to talk to Artie about it. He could give you some advice, I think, and as your mentor, it's his duty."
"I'll do that," Marla said, miserable, but knowing he was right. Worse, she'd have to tell Artie the real truth about the cloak. It was too big a secret to try to hide.
"See that you do," Hamil said. "Oh, by the way, the boy's name – he says we should call him Rondeau."
"Ron Doe? What, like John Doe's brother?"
"No," Hamil said, and spelled it. "It's a kind of poem, a form, like a sonnet or a villanelle. He says he heard someone say it – I can't imagine where, perhaps near the University – and thought it would make a good name. Isn't that, I don't know, cute?"
"Yeah," Marla said. "Tell Rondeau the pretty lady is glad to hear he's okay."
"I'll do more than that. I'll tell him the pretty lady who saved him was also the terrible creature who maimed him."
Marla sucked in a hard breath. "What – why would you do that?"
"Because you did a monstrous thing," Hamil said, voice terrible and mild. "And he should not feel grateful to you. Don't you agree?"
"When you put it that way," Marla said, and Hamil hung up the phone.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 11.