"So we woke up in the hold of a cargo ship hauling aircraft engines from Britain to Felport, and we were stuck on the ship for the past week," Marla said. "Dunno if Rasmussen magicked us there or just had some goons dump us." She took an enormous bite of her rare roast beef sandwich. They'd stayed hidden on the ship using simple look-away spells, but they'd had to subsist on what they could steal – except Daniel, who'd lived off the life energy of passing dolphins or something – and real food was something she'd missed.
"But you're sure his half of the artifact is gone?" Artie sat on the other side of the table, looking off into the waters of the bay. Marla loved eating out on the deck and watching the ocean, even on cool days like this, but now she sat with her back to the waves. She'd seen enough of the big blue sea in the past few days.
"Yeah," Daniel said. "Crushed to dust and snorted. How fucked-up is that?"
Artie shook his head. "It's crazy, halfway suicidal – artifacts are worse than carcinogenic, they're thaumagenic, you can grow tumors that think – but it will give him power. He must need it for the ritual he has planned."
"What ritual?" Jenny said, and coughed into her fist. She'd picked up a nasty chest cold on the sea crossing, and they'd come straight here to debrief Artie, so she hadn't been to a bruja for healing yet. Marla had offered the use of her cloak, but Jenny said it creeped her out, and didn't want it touching her flesh.
"Pritchard didn't just tell me Rasmussen's household schedule – though that intel wasn't any good, I guess. But he also told me about Rasmussen's new obsession." Artie stood up and went to the railing. "He wants to raise an old god from beneath the waves."
"What, like H.P. Lovecraft?" Marla said. "Motherfucking Cthulhu and shit?"
Artie shrugged. "The right general idea. There are stories about something sleeping, hibernating, dormant, whatever. Something that used to enslave humans to do its bidding, something that built that megalithic city – you remember the book we sold to Rasmussen? The one about the structures in Micronesia? That's where he's going, to try to call up... something."
"I didn't know we believed in gods," Daniel said, frowning.
Artie turned away from the water – maybe he didn't like the look of it either – and leaned back against the deck railing. "We don't. But this thing is so different from us, so much more powerful, we might as well call it a god. Maybe it's from outer space. Maybe it's from the universe next door and it slithered here through a crack in reality. Maybe it's an artificial life form created by an ancient Earthly super-scientific culture that had summer homes on Atlantis. Who knows? There are mysteries even sorcerers can't penetrate."
Marla thought about her cloak.
"Though just knowing the mysteries exist puts us a step ahead," Artie said. "I haven't done the research, but Pritchard says Rasmussen has, and that there definitely is something down deep in a crack at the bottom of the sea, snuggled up in a volcanic vent. Something powerful. Something Rasmussen thinks will reward him if he wakes it up."
"Reward him how?" Jenny said.
"Earthly dominion. Eternal life. Nubile young fuck-slaves. The usual. It probably won't work. Stuff like this almost never does. Best case, usually, is you get a tentacle through the heart." Artie grinned. "But you know what, kids? We're going to step in anyway. Rasmussen's going to fail, but we're going to be the reason why. We're going to fuck him up. And do you know why?"
"Why?" Marla said, though she thought she knew.
"For spite," Artie said. "Because he ate the other half of my artifact, and I'm pissed. So who's up for a trip to the tropics?"
"Count me out," Marla said.
"I'll double your rate," Artie said.
"Nope," she said.
"Because I'm sick of the ocean, Artie. I want to stick to dry land for a while." That was true, but it wasn't the whole truth. She'd hoped the loss of the other half of the artifact would stop Artie's obsession with Rasmussen, but that didn't seem likely. And he hadn't even apologized for getting them stuck in a cargo ship, and that had sucked.
Artie sighed. "Fair enough. Daniel and Jenny can handle it. Rituals like this are delicate. Shouldn't be tough at all for you guys to ruin his plans."
"You're the boss," Daniel said, though he looked at Marla as if – she thought – he were more than a little bit jealous of her freedom.
"We leave tomorrow morning." Daniel nuzzled Marla's neck as a distraction move from stealing the covers.
She stole them back. "Off on Artie's fool's errand?"
"I prefer to think of it as saving the world from a slimy tentacled octopocalypse."
"Whatever gets you through the night, lover boy."
They lay together on Marla's futon and looked up at the waterstained ceiling, and she said, "Going to be gone long?"
He sighed. "Artie says it could be weeks. Jenny and I are going down early to do surveillance and hang around, you know. Rasmussen's waiting for some astronomical alignment, but apparently it's a little unclear when exactly the stars will be right."
"So you're telling me I said no to a tropical vacation of indefinite length? Balls."
"Wouldn't have been much time for fun. But when I get back..."
"We'll have lots of fun," she agreed. Marla reached over and touched his cheek. "I wish you could stay here with me. Every night. And be here every morning."
He rolled over and looked into her eyes. Those long lashes of his still just killed her, and his smile now was a little sly and a little sweet. "That could be arranged. I could be here with you, if you really wanted me to."
"You mean... you'd leave Artie?"
"Not like that. But, you know. Ernesto moved out and got his own place. I feel like maybe it's time for me to do the same. I figured I could get a room over one of the Chinese restaurants downtown –"
"No," Marla said, and kissed him. "No, don't be ridiculous. Stay with me."
"People might find out we're dating if I do that."
"'Dating.' Like you've taken me on a date, ever. Anyway, the whole keeping-things-secret deal was Artie's idea, not mine. I'm not saying we spread our business around, but if people hear we're living together, let them draw whatever conclusions they want."
"Okay," Daniel said. "I'll talk to Artie about it when we finish this thing with Rasmussen."
"Or you could tell him before that, and just not go."
"I have to. It's important to Artie. I owe him. I owe him a lot."
Marla propped herself up on one elbow and looked at him thoughtfully. "I owe him, too. He got me off the street and changed my life. But you owe him more than that, don't you?"
"You've never told me how you and Artie met."
"You never asked."
"So I'm asking," she said.
"Okay." Daniel closed his eyes. "I grew up poor. Picking salad greens out of the ditch by the roadside poor. Lived way in the middle of nowhere down south."
"I thought you had a little accent, sometimes, when you're mad or drunk."
"I left when I was a kid, but I guess the early stuff sticks with you no matter what," he said. "Anyway, I had a lot of brothers and sisters, lots of cousins, daddy who never had any particular job, mom who did whatever she could, which wasn't much. We lived in a trailer that wasn't ever going to move anywhere again, with rooms added onto the original trailer with plywood and sheet metal, so the house was like an oven in the summer and an icebox in winter. What happened was, I got sick. Really sick. Pneumonia. I was, I don't know. I remember going to kindergarten, and this was after that, so maybe I was about six. They thought I was going to die. But then... I started to get better. Only my older sister, who was mostly making sure I got fed and watered, she started to get sick." His eyes were still closed, but his voice began to break. "It was like something out of a Gothic novel. She just got paler and paler, thinner and thinner, like she wasn't there, and me, I got healthier, stronger, before long I was running and whooping and my sister just sat propped up in a chair in the shadows, watching.
"My daddy always had wild ideas. He was the kind of guy who'd listen to radio shows about alien abductions or government mind control rays and nod seriously, you know? So he decided I was... he never said vampire, but that's what he meant. He decided I was stealing my sister's life to make myself better, making her sick to make me healthy."
Marla couldn't help herself: "Were you?"
"Almost certainly. I'm sure I was feeding on her life energy. It's easier to take life from people, from one person, than it is to be careful and take just a little bit from everything around me in nature, tiny quantities that don't do any lasting harm. I had to learn that. The other way came more naturally." He opened his eyes, but didn't look at her. "Just because daddy was crazy doesn't mean he was wrong."
"So what did your father do?"
"He tried to kill me," Daniel said. "Hit me over the head with a shovel, stuffed me in a sack, and drove me to the town dump. I'm lucky he didn't decapitate me and stuff my mouth with garlic. I woke up surrounded by the bodies of dead scavenger birds and rats. I must have sucked the life out of them to heal myself. And when I came stumbling down from the trash heap, there was Artie, leaning against a battered pick-up truck, and he took my hand – like a parent taking a little kid's hand to help him across the street, you know? – and led me to the passenger side, and told me everything was going to be okay." Daniel shrugged. "I've been with him ever since. He raised me."
"How did he come across you in the first place?"
"Artie told me a psychic said he should be on the lookout for a 'rose in a trash heap,' and he had some locative divination done, and when he showed up at the coordinates, there I was. Artie sometimes called me 'Rosie,' until I was about nine – then I got pissed and told him to stop because it sounded like a girl's name. Sometimes I regret that."
"I had no idea you'd been with him so long."
"He was good about not giving me special treatment." Daniel smiled wryly. "I was off at boarding school a lot of the time, though for summers, I did... magic school. And when I was fifteen I told him I'd learned all I ever wanted to in a classroom, and I wanted to be an apprentice, and he said, 'Okay.' You see why I can't bail on him? This Rasmussen thing, it's important to him, and he's important to me."
"I understand," Marla said. "And I like Artie a lot better right now than I have for a long time."
"He's not perfect, but he's family," Daniel said. He kissed her cheek. "As soon as I get back from the crazy cultist command performance of South Pacific, I'll come here first, okay?"
"Go ahead and clean out a couple of drawers in the dresser for me," Daniel said.
About five weeks later Marla came home and saw the runes hacked around her doorway glowing a soft green. She was wearing her cloak, tired from a day guarding a courier van that drove all over hell and gone following a particular ritual path, but her heart leapt. The green meant someone authorized to enter was waiting inside, and that was a list limited to Artie, Jenny... and Daniel. "Are you back?" she called, pushing her way inside, expecting to see Daniel, wondering if he'd be wearing any clothes.
Instead, Jenny Click stood by Marla's window, arms crossed over her chest, eyes puffy with sleeplessness or tears or both. "Marla," she said. "I'm back."
Something inside Marla's chest turned black and curled in on itself. "What happened?"
"Can we go up on the roof? I'm not doing so well with enclosed spaces after.... I didn't even take a plane home. I flew under my own power."
Marla took two plastic cups from her cabinet, a mostly-full bottle of bourbon – she didn't drink much, but it was good to have the stuff on hand – and said, "After you."
Up on the roof, beneath a gray autumnal sky, they sat in a couple of lawn chairs Marla had dragged up there. Marla poured out the liquor and handed Jenny a glass. She held it loosely, but didn't drink, staring off into the distance.
"Daniel's dead, isn't he?" Marla said.
"Then why don't I feel an uncontrollable urge to avenge him? Shouldn't the geas have kicked in?" She was, desperately, hoping that Jenny was wrong. Daniel was hard to kill. His childhood alone was testament to that.
"Daniel was killed when the cavern under the ruins collapsed. You can't get revenge from rocks. But Rasmussen's the one who made the rocks fall. He's beyond our reach, though. He's dead dead, too." Jenny's voice was completely flat.
"Tell me about it," Marla said. Hoping she'd hear a loophole.
Jenny shook her head. "We waited. We watched. Rasmussen was there with a few apprentices. Eventually they took a boat out to the ruins, said some mystical stuff, and a doorway opened. They descended, and we followed, down about a hundred thousand stone steps. I'm not even exaggerating much. I stopped counting stairs after the first fifteen thousand, and that wasn't halfway. My ears popped as the pressure changed. Eventually we reached this giant cavern, who knows how far under the sea. There were torches on the walls, burning funny colors because the air down there was strange. The walls were dripping water, and there were all these paintings in red and vivid blue, primitive-looking pictures of eyes and stars and towers and who knows what all. There was a big pool in the floor, like a moon pool, and all Rasmussen's apprentices stood in a circle around it, pulled out knives, cut their own throats, and tumbled into the water. I don't know if they were willing sacrifices or mind-controlled or what... the water barely rippled when they went in. Barely rippled at all." She fell silent.
"And then?" Marla said.
Jenny took a small sip of her bourbon. "Rasmussen was chanting, and Daniel and I figured, this is it, right? No longer outnumbered, safe to strike. So we stepped in. I turned up my flame, and Daniel started sucking Rasmussen's life out. We weren't even trying to kill him – we aren't assassins – just distract him, mess up his ritual, ruin his plans like he ruined Artie's. But we were either too late, or the break in the ritual pissed off the creature Rasmussen was trying to summon, but..." She shook her head. "The water started to froth, white. And the dead apprentices climbed out, their robes dripping, and there were... they weren't tentacles, they were... filaments, umbilical cords, I don't know, these slimy ropes, running from the dead apprentices' backs, down into the water. Their eyes were black, their mouths hung open, but they still had their knives, and they were coming for us, and for Rasmussen too. So I started burning them, but they were so drenched it was hard, and Daniel was yelling about how they didn't have any life force, he couldn't do anything to stop them, and then Rasmussen just let out this... wail. The dead apprentices even stopped to look at him. Then Rasmussen said 'Ruined. All is ruined.'"
Jenny lifted her eyes to Marla. "And then Rasmussen raised his arms above his head, and spoke an incantation, and the cavern ceiling started to fall in on us. I grabbed Daniel's hand, and dragged him toward the stairs, but the rocks fell down, the doorway was blocked. The dead apprentices fell onto Rasmussen, hacking at him with their knives, but he caught my eye, and he smiled at me. Like he was glad, if he was going to die, that I was going to die, too."
"But you didn't die."
Jenny shook her head. "After that, everything's confused. The ceiling was falling in. There was no way out, nowhere to go, except the moon pool, even though we knew there was something under there, something that had taken control of the apprentices... but it was a choice between certain death and probable death. So we chose the latter. Daniel and I jumped in. There was a tunnel. We swam past those filaments – I had a spell to let me hold my breath for a long time, and Daniel could live without breathing – and we swam down, down, the pressure building, I thought we'd die. The apprentices were swimming down after us, too, one even touched my ankle. But finally the tunnel opened up, and it was just black water on all sides. And down below us, this red glow, like streaks of lava, and... something. Just the shape of something black, blacker than the deeps of the sea, and those filaments stretching down to the thing. And there were more filaments, loose ones, floating around like a kelp forest, and I knew if one touched me, I'd be dead. Or worse. I lost track of Daniel during the confusion. I swam up, not too fast, because I didn't know if I was deep enough to get the bends. I've never been so scared. Eventually, after a long time, I reached the surface." She shrugged. "Daniel never did."
Marla frowned. "How long did you wait?"
"Two days and two nights," she said. "Sitting in the ruins, just waiting. But he never came up."
"You didn't see him die, though," Marla said.
"You weren't there." Jenny's eyes were faraway again. "There was a god beneath us. An angry one. Rocks falling. The weight of all that water. The darkness. The dead, with knives, pursuing us. There was nothing but death in that place. Sometimes I'm not sure I really survived. Sometimes I think this is a dream."
"More a nightmare," Marla said.
"I was in love with him," Jenny said, her tone not changing at all, and Marla was so startled she almost spilled her drink.
"In love. With Daniel. Always. From the moment I met him. But he never saw it. He thought of me like a sister." She shook her head. "He loved you. Only you." Jenny turned her face to Marla, narrowed her eyes, and said, "What the fuck is so wonderful about you?"
"Jenny, I –"
"No," she said. "I'm done."
And Jenny Click burst into flame.
Marla had seen her friend wrap herself in fire a hundred hundred times before, but this was different. This was no aura. This was all-consuming. Jenny was letting herself burn. Marla reached out to her, shouting a wordless cry of denial, and the flesh of her hand cracked and burned instantly. The cloak healed her, new flesh crawling up to cover the burns, but the pain was unimaginable, as if she'd plunged her arm into the sun. Marla stumbled back, tipping her chair over, the heat almost a wall pushing her back. She thought, If I can get the cloak over Jenny, I can heal her, but of course if Marla removed the cloak, she would be burned to cinders herself. Less than cinders. Just vapor and liberated gases.
Marla had no time to come up with a better idea. The flames flickered, and Jenny was gone, along with the chair she'd been sitting on, and the glass of bourbon she'd held. There was nothing left of Jenny Click but a few pale gray ashes, and when a wind blew, even the ashes floated away. Marla watched them go.
Click here to see trivia and authorial blather about chapter 13.