Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Table of Contents

March 21st, 2010

Table of Contents:

Complete novel on a single page

Chapter 1 * Chapter 2 * Chapter 3 * Chapter 4 * Chapter 5 * Chapter 6 * Chapter 7 * Chapter 8 * Chapter 9 * Chapter 10 * Chapter 11 * Chapter 12 * Chapter 13 * Chapter 14 * Chapter 15 * Chapter 16 * Chapter 17 * Chapter 18 * Chapter 19 * Chapter 20 * Chapter 21 * Chapter 22 * Chapter 23 * Chapter 24

Mailing Update, Broken Mirrors for iPad

October 7th, 2010

I got copies of Broken Mirrors this week (they look great), and have started mailing them to donors. Almost all the US books have been mailed (I have a handful I still need to drop off), but since I have to to go the post office to mail the international packages, those will go out early next week.

For those who donated enough to get postcards, I decided to include them in the book packages instead of sending them separately, so they don’t get as beat up in the mail, and will look nicer and be more legible. (Warning: Marla’s postcards can be… kinda mean.)

I sent out bookmarks and chapbooks over the past couple of weeks, so most of you should have received those by now.

Finally, you can now buy Broken Mirrors for the iPad!

Broken Mirrors for Sale in the Kindle Store

August 25th, 2010

Broken Mirrors is now on sale for the Kindle! (And all those other devices that can read Kindle books. I’m working on other formats and venues. But it’s a start.)

Postmortem Post

August 23rd, 2010

I thought I’d do a little postmortem post, largely about filthy lucre, since it might be of use to other people considering such online serial projects, and of interest to others. Prepare for some transparency.

I have no idea how many readers I had, but I had 215 readers who liked this project enough to donate. (I’ve heard from several others who plan to buy the print edition or e-book versions rather than donating, too.)

Gross donations came to a bit over $13,700. (For Bone Shop I only made about $4,000 in donations. I think offering fundraiser prizes was a huge help this time.)

The average donation was about $63.86; the median donation was $35; the mode was $10. The donations ranged in amounts from $1 to $2,000. (The latter donor will get a chapbook with a new Marla Mason story written just for them, about a character of their choice. I’m already working on it, and it will either be called “A Void Wrapped in a Smile” or “Thirteen Views of Joshua”.)

A dozen people paid the minimum $300 necessary to have a name of their choice Tuckerized in the text. (And every one gave me a great and interesting name to use!) That option was more popular than I expected.

Paypal’s cut of the transactions worked out to around 4%. Taxes account for another third or so. Sending out fundraiser prizes, including postage, will run me a fair chunk of change, too. I imagine postage alone will run me around $500, and I had to pay for the comic I commissioned, and I have to buy copies to send out (I get a good author discount, but still), and pay to print the chapbook, and etc. But that still leaves a lot of healthy profit.

In total I made about 30% less on this Marla book than I did on the previous volumes, which were purchased by Bantam Spectra. Though since I didn’t have to pay my agent’s (always well-deserved!) commission on this project, it’s really only about 20% less than I got from Bantam, in terms of net income. (My agent will get a piece of the print sales, as she negotiated that contract for me.)

My readers, thus, paid me about 80% of what the world’s largest publisher used to pay me. (Hell, it’s a fair bit more than Bantam paid me for my first novel, The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl.) And based on how well my previous project Bone Shop has done as an e-book, I’ll almost certainly exceed that amount once the Kindle edition of Broken Mirrors starts to sell.

My generous donors paid for my kid’s preschool all year, and health insurance payments, and helped dig us out of the hole left by my wife being laid off for half a year. Their support has made this a financial success… but it’s been an artistic success, too. I found a way to continue telling a story I care about passionately, and to satisfy my fans, in a way that would otherwise have proved impossible.

I’m not planning to become a self-publisher exclusively. I’ve sold four other books in the past year, to publishers large and small, both original and work-for-hire novels. (None of them have been announced, either because they’re pseudonymous work-for-hire or because contracts are now being nailed down.) I’m still happy to work with the industry’s editors and marketing people, who labor greatly for not enough recompense. I hope to sell original books to major publishers again in the future, even if it’s under a new name. My experiences with Bantam Spectra were almost uniformly positive, except for the bit where they dropped me — but they laid off my editor and reorganized the imprint out of existence first (it’s Ballantine Spectra now), so in many ways, I was just an ancillary casualty. Plus, frankly, given the way sales diminished over the course of the series from a pretty healthy book 1 to a pretty lackluster book 4, it didn’t make sense financially for Bantam to keep publishing me… but it turns out it makes sense financially for me to keep publishing myself. (Though I had the advantage of an existing fan base for an ongoing series, which is not to be underestimated. Had I tried to start my career with online serials… I doubt it would have worked out so well.)

Self-publishing has been better to me than I would have imagined possible. Which is why I’m trying it again with my science fantasy adventure The Nex. I hope some of you will check that project out, too.

And next year, assuming I have time, I’d like to write a sixth Marla book, about her life in exile, and a bunch of people trying to kill her.

This has been an amazing experience. I’ll post one more time at least, next week, to point to the Kindle edition when it’s for sale. (I’m trying to get other e-book versions available too, but the Kindle is the easiest, so that’ll be first.)

Thanks again, everyone.

Chapter 24

August 15th, 2010

“You’re fired,” the Chamberlain said. “There. I could have been more diplomatic, and normally I would be, but I know how much you value directness, so there it is. You are no longer chief sorcerer of Felport.”

“Look, I know you’re pissed.” Marla sat back in one of Hamil’s comfy armchairs. “The Mason did some serious damage, I get that, but I did defeat her, you know. My job is protecting the city, and I succeeded.”

“You were the one who put the city in danger.” The Chamberlain was dressed impeccably as always, this time in a midnight blue evening grown, and she was even wearing an understated diamond tiara. As understated as a jewel-studded crown could be, anyway. “Your hubris led to the deaths of Dr. Husch, Viscarro, Ernesto, Granger…” She shook her head. “This isn’t open to discussion. You’re out. Now, the terms of your exile –”

“This is ridiculous. You can’t just unilaterally oust me. Deposing a sitting chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote. Tell her, Hamil.”

“She knows,” Hamil said. “The vote was unanimous.”

Marla stared at him. “Et tu, fat man?”

“I have supported you in almost every endeavor you’ve undertaken,” Hamil said gravely. “But I did not support your violation of the laws of space and time. I know you love Felport, Marla… but it’s clear you loved Bradley Bowman more. You put your feelings for him above the safety of your city. You deserted us, and while you were gone, we were attacked by a monster – a monster that only had access to our world because of the choices you made. Yes, you stopped the Mason. We’re glad. But you started the Mason, too, and we can’t ignore that.”

“Sorry, Marla,” the Bay Witch said. Beautiful, blonde, dripping seawater all over the carpet, just like always – but now she had a deep frown line in her forehead, marring her carefree surfer-girl look. “I like you. I think you have pretty hair and you were pretty nice and good to me, pretty nice and good to the waters, pretty good, but what you did was bad. No pretty, just bad.”

“Okay.” Marla thought frantically. “Okay, I fucked up, totally, but what about my past service? Hell, in the past year I saved the city from the god of death and the king of nightmares and the beast of Felport and the great god Xorgothua and those things that claimed to be elves and –”

“We are aware of your past contributions,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is why you are being offered exile instead of execution. You impossible woman, don’t you understand, you caused the death of half the council! If you’d spent another few hours off on your little otherworldly adventure, Hamil and I would be dead, too, and the city obliterated. You. Must. Go.”

“There aren’t enough of you,” Marla said, though part of her was thinking, If I’m arguing on procedural grounds, I’m screwed. “You three aren’t enough for a quorum, so –”

“We elevated Langford to Ernesto’s position,” Hamil said tiredly. “And Mr. Beadle to Viscarro’s. We were all in agreement. Marla, it’s over.

“But there’s still stuff to do! Crapsey and Nicolette are both running around loose out there, somebody will have to –”

Hamil shook his head. “We can take care of them, Marla. They aren’t your concern anymore. Please hand over your dagger of office.”

Marla stared at him, then stood up, refusing to let herself tremble. How dare they. The first time an atomic monster from the center of the Earth attacked, or a cult devoted to the Bad Old Ones summoned something with more tentacles than brains, the council would beg to take her back, and she’d refuse them. For a little while. Just at first. Then she’d come back and save them. After she was sure they were really sorry. But for now, she’d act with dignity. She drew the Mason’s dagger and offered it hilt-first to Hamil. The other dagger, she intended to keep – what they didn’t know wouldn’t bother them. That knife wasn’t really Felport’s dagger of office, anyway. The original blade had been lost, something the rest of the council didn’t know, and its identical replacement was a personal gift from the god of Death. And, damn it, that belonged to her. Giving them the Mason’s dagger was a lot closer to returning the original weapon anyway.

Hamil shook his head. “Don’t give the dagger to me. The Chamberlain is taking over as chief sorcerer.”

The Chamberlain?” Marla said.

Hamil nodded. “We’re elevating Perren River – the head of the Honeyed Knots – to the Chamberlain’s old spot on the council.”

“Perren’s great, that’s fine, put her on the council, but giving the Chamberlain my job? That’s not the succession plan I worked out –”

“Enough.” The Chamberlain’s voice was sharp enough to slice tendons. “Your plans are irrelevant. I hereby claim the position of chief sorcerer of Felport.”

As soon as the Chamberlain announced her claim, a yawning absence opened in Marla’s center. The part of her that sensed Felport went silent. It was like having a tooth pulled, only instead of a tooth, it was more like her heart.

The Chamberlain snatched the dagger from Marla’s hands. Marla prayed the knife wouldn’t recognize her authority – that it would turn and slice all the Chamberlain’s fingers off – but the dagger recognized its new mistress, and behaved.

“Please,” Marla said, telling herself it wasn’t begging, it was just asking, “Don’t send me away. Felport is my home. I’ve lived here more than half my life. Surely I deserve –”

“You have twenty-four hours to set your affairs in order,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is about twenty-three more hours than I wanted to give you. After that, you leave – via the airport, if you please. I don’t want you squatting on the outskirts of town, moping around. Be gone by this time tomorrow, or I’ll have you removed.”

“I don’t even get a severance package?”

The Chamberlain smiled icily. “We’ve decided not to sever your head from your body. That’s your severance package.”

Marla looked to Hamil for help, but he just shook his head. “Good luck, Marla. I do wish you well, and hope you’ll stay in touch.”

“Yes, don’t forget to write,” the Chamberlain said.

“Fuck you all,” Marla said. “You’ll be sorry.”

“Maybe someday,” the Chamberlain said, “You’ll grow up enough to realize you’re the one who has something to be sorry for.”

#

“Didn’t seem prudent to mention my new status on the council,” Langford said, packing up his doctor’s bag. Beta-Marla was in Bradley’s old room, nestled in the covers, staring at the ceiling. “My elevation to the council was certain to be a sore point, and we were both too busy for, hmm, shouting and recriminations.”

“I can’t believe you voted to throw me out,” Marla said, staring at her doppelganger. She was catatonic, totally checked-out from the world. Lucky bitch.

“Nothing personal. I’ve enjoyed working with you over the years. It was simply the logical decision. The Chamberlain’s arguments were compelling. I’m taking over administration of the Blackwing Institute, by the way, at least until Dr. Husch can be put back together again. Assuming she’s sane once she’s reassembled, she can have the job back.”

“Who’s going to run your lab while you’re off playing councilman and chief head-shrinker?”

“You haven’t met my apprentice, have you? She doesn’t come out of the lab much. Danielle Ching-Yi Kong. She’ll be looking after my interests in the city. Very bright woman. Started out washing retorts and calibrating machinery for me, but she’s developed into a top-notch experimental alchemist. She’s nearly cracked the problem of chrysopoeia and the creation of the Alkahest, and is making great strides toward perfecting the panacea.”

“You lost me at ‘problem,’” Marla said.

Langford blinked. For as long as Marla had known him, he’d had trouble understanding that not everyone had access to the same inner mental landscape he did. “Ah. Suffice to say she’s a young woman who’s going places.”

“Me too. Though I’m not young, and I’m not going anyplace I want to go.” She nodded toward Beta-Marla. “What happens to her?”

“We’ll keep your, ah, interdimensional twin at the Institute, very comfortably. She’ll have the best therapy. Perhaps someday she’ll recover her faculties.”

“Can I visit her?” Marla said.

“The Institute is outside the city limits of Felport, so I believe the terms of your exile will allow that.” Langford glanced at his watch. “You should collect your personal belongings. The Chamberlain will be over soon to take all your files back to her own office.”

Marla nodded and left the room, not bothering to thank him for his years of service, any more than he’d thanked Marla for hers.

Her office door was open, and Rondeau was sitting on her couch. “Is it true?” he said. “Those ingrates are actually throwing you out?”

“Yeah.” She sat in her chair and looked around the room. What should she take with her? The antique chatrang board her predecessor had given her? Her mummified baby alligator, which she had on the theory that every sorcerer’s lair should have a mummified reptile of some kind? Her scythe-shaped letter opener?

In the end, she just took the little silver bell from her cut-open desk drawer, careful not to let it ring. She looked at Rondeau. “Bye,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend. Better than I deserved, maybe. Take care of yourself.”

Rondeau stood up. “Marla, where will you go?”

She didn’t answer him, just shook her head, and went out into the city. Her walk to meet the Mason hadn’t been her last walk in Felport after all.

But this one would be.

#

Marla stood in the airport, staring at the departure boards. Numbness had given way to anger and been replaced by exhaustion. She’d walked all night and into the morning before going to her apartment and packing up her last few things She had her leather shoulder bag with a few clothes and a couple of books, and a rolling suitcase with more clothes and toiletries and other essentials. Her entire life in two bags.

She also had an enchanted boarding pass, courtesy of the Chamberlain, which would allow her onto any plane she wanted to board, and insured her a seat in first class. And if the flight was full, well, the airline would figure it was their screw-up, and somebody would get bumped to make room for her. Marla had enough magic of her own to make that happen.

“What’re you thinking?” Rondeau said, appearing at her shoulder. “Scenic Newark New Jersey? Or Scranton Pennsylvania? I hear Scranton is beautiful this time of year. By which I mean almost damn winter.” He wore a loud aloha shirt and sunglasses, and had an enormous rolling suitcase of his own, a garment bag slung over his shoulder, and a bulging backpack.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“Heading out of town. I haven’t had a vacation in, well, ever. Though this is less a vacation and more a change of life. I sold the club to Hamil.”

“What are you talking about? You love the club!”

He shrugged. “Bradley’s body isn’t as good at staying up all night. Different circadian rhythms or whatever. And he’s got no tolerance for the drugs I like. Nah, that’s a bad scene for me now. Besides, Hamil offered me, like… obscene amounts of money for the club. I knew the place was valuable, what with the special conference room and all, but damn – I think he paid me double what it’s worth because he felt bad about firing you. The cash I have now, it’s beyond fuck-you money, Marla. It’s fuck everybody money. I can spend the rest of my life drinking rum and coke and getting happy endings from buff Swedish masseurs.”

“Lucky you,” she muttered.

“You mean lucky you. You’re my best friend, Marla. Come with me.”

She frowned. “Really? You don’t think I’m a traitor to the city and a danger to myself and others?”

“My loyalty was never to Felport. My loyalty was to you. You forgave me for killing Bradley – I can forgive you for trying to save him. So what do you say? Sit next to me on my flight? You can always go brood in some horrible coal-mining town if you don’t like my idea, but you should try it first.”

“What’s your idea?”

“Hawaii. Specifically Maui. Specifically a luxury resort in Maui where I’m assured the pina coladas never stop flowing.”

She made a face. “Hawaii? Seriously? Isn’t that kind of a cliché? You really expect me to do the whole tropical paradise thing –”

He shrugged. “Do, or don’t. I wish you would, but my flight’s boarding soon, and I’m the one with the bulging checkbook, so this time, I get to pick the destination.”

Marla laughed. “So this means I won’t get to boss you around any more?”

“You aren’t my employer anymore,” he said. “But I’m sure you can still dominate me through sheer force of personality.”

“That’s something, at least,” Marla said, and followed him toward the security line.

#

Crapsey woke up after dawn under the overpass where he’d spent the night, shivering, with a wicked need to piss. He limped behind a pillar and unzipped, staring up at the underside of a highway as the stream of urine steamed on the ground. How had it come to this? Alone, in the cold, friendless, in the wrong world, trapped in this one lousy body, with nothing but the ill-fitting suit on his back, his butterfly knife, and an enchanted jaw that made him look like something out of a monster movie. Plus, he was hungry. He’d been able to kill and take with impunity when he was the Mason’s right hand, but back then he’d had her support, and he’d been immortal. If he died now, he’d go insane, trapped in a corpse, forever. What the hell was he supposed to do?

“You’re better hung than I thought you’d be.” Nicolette slid down the hill from the freeway above, one arm of her shirt flapping empty, holding the silver hatchet in her remaining hand. “You hear your boss got her ass whipped?”

“What? What do you mean?”

Nicolette shrugged. “Marla beat her. I’m not sure how – my network of spies isn’t what it used to be – but word is, the crisis is over, and the Mason was neutralized.”

“Damn,” Crapsey said. “Damn. That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard.” He zipped up. “But, with Marla still standing, doesn’t that make you a dangerous fugitive? Just like me?”

Nicolette tucked her hatchet into her belt and seesawed her hand. “Sorta kinda. This is the good part – Marla got canned. Because she’s the reason the Mason came to this world, see – the rest of the council fired her ass, and they’re sending her into exile. Poof. She’s gone.”

“Shitty ending for everybody, then.” He looked around for somewhere to sit, thought, Fuck it, and just sat on the dirt.

“Ending? Oh, no. I’m just getting started. What do you say, Jawface – want to conquer the world with me?”

“I’ll pass. World conquering’s not really my thing. Been there, done that.”

“Good. Just checking to make sure you didn’t have crazy ambitions. My real goals are a lot more modest. Marla Mason is alone, friendless, stripped of her artifacts, and without support. She’s never been weaker than this. So I figure… now’s the time to kill her.”

“Knock yourself out,” Crapsey said. “I’ve got no beef with Marla. Rondeau, on the other hand… that’s a guy I’d like to kill. And if he can’t be killed, then I want him to suffer, trapped in a single meatsack like I am, tormented forever.”

“Sure,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I said Marla was friendless, I should have said almost friendless – except for Rondeau. I hear he’s going with her, wherever she’s going. So what do you say? Help me kill Marla, and I’ll help you torture Rondeau?”

Crapsey shook his head. “It’s a good plan in theory, but Marla beat the Mason. How are we going to stand a chance against her? I can’t even jump bodies anymore.”

“Oh, but you’ve got other talents.” Nicolette draped her remaining arm over his shoulders. “As for how to kill her… to kill both of them… Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good ideas.”

Oh well, Crapsey thought. Nicolette’s nuts, and we never did get along. But at least it’s something to live for. “Why the hell not,” he said. “Let’s kill them both.”

#

The next day, Marla sat in a comfortable chair in one of the outdoor restaurants attached to their hotel – which was, indeed, improbably luxurious. The weather wasn’t as hot as she’d expected. This late in the year, Maui didn’t swelter, though it was perfectly pleasant outside. She had a cup of the best coffee she’d ever tasted in front of her, alongside a plate of mostly-demolished macadamia nut pancakes, probably the tastiest breakfast she’d ever had. The view from Kaanapali, here on the island’s western shore, was breathtaking: the deep blue ocean, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai both visible in the distance. Down on the beach there stood a row of white tents, side flaps open to admit the ocean breeze, and in one of them Rondeau was getting the first of what he expected to be many massages. Though presumably of a non-erotic variety; this was a classy joint.

The rest of Marla’s day stretched out before her, vast as the ocean. She thought she might swim in the hotel’s ridiculously huge pool, soon. And then have some lunch. Maybe a walk on the beach after. Thinking beyond that, to what she might do tomorrow, next week, next year… she didn’t dare let her mind go there yet. For the first time in years, she had no purpose, no goal, no center, no services to perform, no responsibilities, no job. The prospect was more terrifying and depressing than refreshing and freeing. She wondered if it always would be.

What she did have, right now, was a nice pen and a thick stack of postcards purchased from the hotel gift shop. The postcards had pictures of the ocean, and palm trees, and islands seen from the sky, and volcanoes, and tropical flowers, and fish, and sea turtles, and birds, and bore legends like “Wish you were here” and “Hello from paradise.” There were enough postcards there for every single person she knew back home, with plenty left over for everyone she knew anywhere else, too.

After the waiter refilled her cup with kona coffee, Marla took the first postcard from the stack – this one had a picture of a grinning shark, appropriately. She took the pen in her hand, thought a moment, and began to write.

“Dear Chamberlain,” she wrote. “I hope wolves eat your guts, sharks bite off your face, and hornets use your asshole for a nest. Also, your fashion sense sucks. Who wears a ball gown to a business meeting? What are you, a Disney princess? Love from the beach, Marla.”

She stuck a stamp on that postcard and placed it face-down on the other side of her plate. One love letter down. A few dozen more to go.

Maybe, she thought, life in exile won’t be so bad.

Chapter 23

August 9th, 2010

“So that’s the succession plan,” Marla said, sipping a cup of coffee on the balcony, doing her best to enjoy what might possibly be her last peaceful view of the city, her city, the home of her heart. She yawned. It was only afternoon, but her body-clock was all screwed up. Inter-dimensional jet lag.

Hamil nodded glumly. “Understood.”

Marla reached across the table and patted her old friend’s hand. “I know you don’t want the job, but you’d be a better interim chief than the Chamberlain. She’d let everything south of the river go to hell.”

“I think you underestimate her,” Hamil said, “but I take your point.” They were at his penthouse, a highly-fortified apartment that wouldn’t withstand an assault by the Mason for more than five minutes. But then, as far as they knew, pretty much no place on Earth was safe from the Mason, so why not spend the time they had left in comfort rather than in a cramped safe house? “I wish I had more confidence in your plan,” he said. “It depends entirely on an assumption of ignorance on the Mason’s part that might be faulty. And even if it works, there’s a good chance you won’t survive. What if the Mason knows –”

Marla put her cup down. “Then we’re fucked. That simple. I could come up with a better plan if I had a week, maybe, but I don’t. This is it. Thanks for letting me grab a nap and shower here. And for not tearing me a new one. I know all this is my fault, but I’m going to fix it. I hope.”

“I thought I’d save the screaming until the immediate crisis was past,” Hamil said. “Seemed more prudent. The other sorcerers in the city are… less patient… but I convinced them now was not the time to air their grievances.”

“It’s a clusterfuck all right. Still, I’d rather fight my evil twin than deal with the council’s bitching.”

Hamil laughed softly, without humor. “What council? The only ones left are me, the Chamberlain, and the Bay Witch, and she barely takes an interest in our landward affairs.”

“I’ll avenge them all, Hamil. I should go.”

Her consigliere looked at the ornate watch on his wrist. “You have a little time yet. I’ll have a car brought around.”

Marla shook her head. “No. I’m walking. It’s not that far. And there’s a chance I might not walk away from this meeting, so…” She shrugged. “Could be my last walk. If I don’t come back… thanks, Hamil. Your support over the years has meant everything.”

“I love you like a daughter, Marla. The sort of daughter who breaks curfew and throws plates against the wall and gets tattoos, perhaps, but still – a daughter.”

Marla pushed back from the table. “Take care, fat man.”

#

The air had a crisp bite that made her glad to be wearing the cloak. The sky was the gray of dirty wool. Dead leaves crunched underfoot, at least until she left the relatively posh neighborhood where Hamil lived and reached the poorer blocks where there were more pawn shops and corner stores than trees. Cabs honked, buses rumbled past spewing exhaust, and half a dozen aggressive homeless men panhandled her – and the one or two who were initiates of the mysteries gave her respectful nods instead. She breathed deep the air of her city, and hoped she’d emerge soon to breathe it again.

She reached Rondeau’s club, pushed open the front door, and stepped inside to strike a bargain with a devil.

#

The Mason was on the far side of the bar, leaning forward like a bartender listening to a regular’s lament, though she was doing most of the talking, to Rondeau’s dismay. When the door creaked open, Rondeau looked up from his stool, spun around, and gave the new arrival a little wave. “Hi, Marla. So it turns out the Mason wants to hire me.”

“You want to work with this treacherous little shit?” Marla said, looking past him to her dark doppelganger.

Rondeau winced. Marla had to be faking that tone of cold hate and contempt, but it still stung – not so long ago, she’d been calling him stuff like that in all sincerity.

Marla approached the bar. “Rondeau can’t control himself. If he stubs his toe or gets a toothache he might decide he’s dying and leap from his body and kill your best general.”

“We both know his lack of control will cease to be a problem soon,” the Mason said.

Marla took a seat next to Rondeau. “Did you tell him what’s going to happen?”

“A horse doesn’t need to know he’s being bought and sold,” the Mason said.

Marla sighed. “Right. You want to do this thing?”

“Wait wait,” Rondeau said. “Do what thing?”

“We are making a trade,” Marla said carefully. “I’m giving the Mason what she wants, and in exchange, she’s going away.”

Rondeau frowned. “What, you’re trading me? But… I already told her I’d work for her. I don’t need your permission.”

“Silly Crap – Rondeau,” the Mason said. “That’s not the trade. We’re trading this body –” she gestured at herself – “For Marla’s cloak.”

Marla nodded. “Yep. I don’t give a shit about the rest of the multiverse. I care about two things: my city, and my body. I’m not letting the Mason walk around wearing another version of me – that Marla deserves freedom, and peace. She’s suffered more than enough.”

“But you, body-thief,” the Mason said, smiling at Rondeau. “You deserve nothing. Or so Marla says. Besides, I want you. As a host, you have definite advantages over this one. Your will is strong enough to sustain me, if not as strong as my Marla’s – but most importantly, that will of yours currently inhabits the body of a psychic powerful enough to rip holes in the skin of reality. So I’m going to take over your body, and take Marla’s cloak, and rip a portal back to my universe, and from there… conquer the multiverse.” She glanced at Marla. “Excepting this world, of course. As agreed.”

Rondeau tried to stand up, but he couldn’t move – the Mason had cast some paralyzing hoodoo on him, but he could still talk, probably because the Mason was the type who liked hearing her victims scream. “This is bullshit. Marla, you can’t trust her! She says she’ll leave this world alone, but how can you know –”

“I can’t know,” Marla said. “Even if we cast a circle of binding, who knows if compulsive magic like that even works on her? But what’s the alternative? The multiverse is vast. I have to believe she’ll be able to keep herself occupied in all those zillions of worlds without coming back here.”

“I don’t usually bother to keep promises,” the Mason said. “But in this case, I’ve made an exception, because you have something of great value to me. In the near-infinity of worlds to conquer, I won’t even notice this one. Besides, once I take the cloak away…” She shrugged. “There’s nothing else here I want. And there are billions of universes with other cloaks I can gather. I’ll leave, and I won’t come back.”

“So how do we do this?” Marla said. “I’m assuming you can’t take yourself off your own shoulders and put you on Rondeau? And I’m also guessing you don’t trust me to do the transfer, since it’s pretty much the only time you’re even remotely vulnerable. I guess that means you need a lapdog to undress you.” She looked around. “So where’s Crapsey?”

The Mason shook her head. “As if I’d trust him not to drop me to the ground and stomp on me. I went out and procured a mind-slave this morning.” She snapped her fingers, and a gray-bearded man dressed in multiple layers of flannel emerged from a utility closet, walking jerkily, eyes glazed over. Rondeau recognized him as one of the local panhandlers. He drooled and stared glassily, stopping near the bar and waiting like a switched-off robot.

The Mason made a vague gesture with her hand, and Marla grunted. Through gritted teeth, she said, “What. The fuck. Is this?”

“You could call it betrayal,” the Mason said. “I just call it a reasonable precaution. I can’t have you killing my mind-slave while I’m vulnerable and interrupting the transfer. And I know you’d be tempted.” She came over to Marla and gently removed the cloak from her shoulders, then draped it over a barstool and gazed down at it lovingly for a moment. Then she looked back up at Marla. “Though it’s a betrayal, too, actually. I’m not planning to give up this body, of course. I’m trading up to the delicious Rondeau/Bradley hybrid over there, but this body is already so beautifully broken-in, I can’t let it go to waste. After I’ve changed hosts, I’m going to take the cloak that once graced your shoulders and place it over this body’s shoulders. And then the two of us – the two of me – will go on our way, to live happily ever after for eternity. Don’t worry. Your paralysis will wear off soon. And I’ll even leave your world behind, as I promised. This place really is irrelevant to me, once I’ve taken what I want.” The Mason snapped her fingers, and her mind-slave shuffled over.

Marla widened her eyes, and Rondeau tried to nod, and couldn’t. He wasn’t the best strategist, but there was only one thing he could do to stop the Mason from possessing his body. He was very glad he hadn’t revealed his power to jump at will. He’d been tempted, when he thought he might need to prove his value to the Mason to keep her from turning him into pâté, but it was the secret that was going to save their lives.

The Mason unhooked the plain metal clasp that held her cloak fastened, and the mind-slave removed the cloak from her shoulders. When the cloak pulled away, the young-looking version of Marla collapsed, eyes rolling back in her head. The mind-slave shuffled over toward Rondeau, holding the cloak in both hands, and Marla shouted, “Now! Go now!”

Rondeau hadn’t really needed the prompting. He left his body – the trick the Mason didn’t know he could perform – and spiraled up into the air, and then –

Tried to figure out what the fuck to do. He wasn’t sure how long he could survive without a host body, but he didn’t think it was long. Even though he had the panic under control, being out of a body wasn’t a comfortable thing, and the forms down there called to him: Marla Prime on the barstool, Beta-Marla on the floor, the homeless guy who was draping the cloak on the shoulders of Rondeau’s now-empty body, which slumped on the bar as if fallen asleep over a whiskey. The body didn’t move, even after the cloak was fastened. Without Rondeau’s will to animate it, the body might as well have been a mannequin in a department store, and was just as useless to the Mason.

Rondeau tried to sort of tread water up there in the air, but he had to go somewhere, this was like drowning, and he couldn’t hold his metaphysical breath forever. He started toward the fallen Beta-Marla, thinking her body was the best bet, she had to be basically brain dead anyway, but when he tried to take over her body he bounced off, it was just like the time in the pit at Camp Kimke, she was magically impregnable. Then she started crawling away, which meant there was still a mind in there, a version of Marla’s mind, so it was almost lucky he hadn’t been able to –

But that only left the poor homeless guy. He needed to be neutralized anyway, especially since he was in the process of trying to put the other cloak on Beta-Marla, hindered by the fact that she was trying to crawl away. Rondeau had no idea if the mind slave’s consciousness had been totally scoured by the Mason’s magic or if he’d merely been placed under a compulsion, which meant this might be a murder, but there was no choice – if Rondeau didn’t stop the slave, the cloak would take over Beta-Marla and they’d be fucked all over again.

He slid into the mind-slave’s body, and felt the kick and struggle of a soul inside, but Rondeau won. Which brought his tally of annihilated human souls to three. One by accident; one in self-defense; and one… one a simple murder of expediency. Arguably he’d consigned this homeless man’s soul to oblivion in order to save the world – all the worlds – but he wasn’t sure that would help him sleep at night.

Rondeau threw the cloak in his hands down on the ground and knelt beside the crawling Beta-Marla. “Hey,” he said in the new body’s voice, though his lips were parched and his throat dry, and the craving for wine was almost incomprehensibly strong. “Hey, it’s okay, I’m not – no one’s going to hurt you again. Okay?”

Beta Marla just whimpered and kept dragging herself away, as if she’d forgotten how to stand up and use her own legs – which, maybe, she had.

“Leave her for now,” Marla said. “I don’t think she’ll get far.” She rocked a little on her stool, then scowled. “Shit, I’m still paralyzed. It’s wearing off, but not quickly enough. Can you get the cloak off your body’s shoulders? It makes me nervous seeing it on somebody, even an empty somebody.”

Rondeau removed the Mason’s cloak – the Mason – from his body’s shoulders and draped it over a stool. Then he jumped back into his old host, letting the mind slave’s body collapse. The homeless man began convulsing in a seizure, then lay still. Rondeau turned away and vomited up the coffee and stale bagels he’d had for lunch. “Fuck,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fuck, Marla. What if the Mason hadn’t brought in that poor old guy to do the transfer? If it had been Crapsey here instead? What body would I have taken then?”

“I figured you’d take over poor Beta-Marla there. And if you couldn’t, if the Mason had protective magics on her –

“Which she did,” Rondeau said.

“Well, then.” Marla shrugged. “I assumed you’d take over my body. That’s what I was going to tell you on the phone, last night – that if you needed to steal my body to stop the Mason, you had my permission, as long as you promised not to have too much skanky sex with it afterward.” She shivered, and slid off the stool, but the paralysis was fading enough for her to catch herself. “We did it, Rondeau. We won. I figured out what the bitch wanted, and promised to give it to her, and tricked her. Hell, you tricked her. I’m just glad her knowledge was out of date – thinking I hated you, and thinking you hadn’t learned any new tricks.”

“We got lucky, Marla.”

“Some people say it’s better to be lucky than good. I try to be both, whenever possible.”

Rondeau nodded. “I was really expecting more of an epic giant battle, though. The two of you demolishing whole city blocks and knocking over skyscrapers as you raged across Felport.”

Marla laughed. “Would’ve been fun, I guess. But people kept telling me if I tried to fight the Mason, she’d just kill me. I finally started believing them. I like face-punching, but I’m not suicidal. If I’m going to die, it’s going to be for a cause. But godsdamn I’m glad I didn’t have to die this time.”

“That guy did.” Rondeau inclined his head toward the mind-slave.

Marla nodded. “He was dead the minute the Mason decided she had a use for him, Rondeau. She wouldn’t have kept him around afterward. You know that.”

Rondeau didn’t know any such thing – he figured the Mason would have just left the guy with a big hole in his memory, because why bother killing someone so insignificant? – but he appreciated Marla’s effort to make him feel better. “So now what?” he said.

“First, we get the other version of me into bed, preferably sedated, until we can figure out what’s best for her. I’m going to call Langford and get him over here to check her out. After that – we’ll take those two cloaks, stick them in a couple of garbage bags, and take them for a walk in the park.”

#

“So you’re like all the Bradley Bowmans?” Rondeau said, after grabbing the new Alpha-and-Omega B. in his arms for a ribcage-crushing hug.

“All the ones who were alive when I took this job,” he said, grinning. “More than enough, believe me. Gods, Rondeau, the shit you and me got up to in some of those worlds…” He looked past Rondeau at Marla, and his face became serious. “Do you have them?”

“Individually wrapped.” Marla showed him the two green garbage bags. “I didn’t put them together in the same sack, because even if they’re supposedly totally dormant… why risk it? I think they have some power even when they’re inert, that they can woo or whisper or call, because I’ll be damned if I haven’t thought half a dozen times about keeping them, telling myself I’d lock them up and only hold them in reserve as an emergency measure…” She shook her head. “I’d rather believe they’re whispering at my backbrain than believe I’m that addicted to power.”

“We’ll find out when I make them disappear.” B reached out and accepted the bags. He peeked inside them, making a face. “You’re lucky you can’t see what these things really look like. Imagine a squid face-fucking a manta ray while a bunch of slime eels cheer them on. Yick.”

“Thanks for the mental image,” Rondeau said.

“Where are they going?” Marla said. “You said you’d put them somewhere safe, but…”

B bunched the tops of the bags closed. “There’s a universe where our solar system didn’t form quite the same way. Earth is a frozen iceball there, farther away from the sun. Life never developed in that place, not even bacteria, nothing. I’m going to strand one of these nasties at the north pole, and put the other one down south. I’d hurl them into the sun, but I’m afraid they won’t burn. So we’ll freeze them forever. If they can die of natural causes, they’ll have plenty of time to do so. I’ll keep one of my eleventy-billion eyes on them just in case.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Marla said. “So, uh… will we see you again?”

“I’m a busy guy now, but I’ll try to keep in touch. And I’ll be watching you.” He laughed. “Sorry, that sounded creepy – it’s more that watching is my function. Just, Marla… don’t go fucking with the fabric of space-time again, all right? I’ve sewn up all the holes you made, but with Rondeau’s help you could tear more, and… don’t, please? Some things are off limits for a reason.”

“Witch’s honor,” Marla said. She stretched, and yawned. “It’s nice to be home. Now I want to get some sleep.”

“I don’t have to sleep any more,” B said. “And the best part about that is, no more of those dreams filling my head with cryptic nightmares.” He paused. “I will miss the sex dreams, though.”

“You kidding?” Rondeau said. “You can see into every possible universe. It’s like an entire infinite universe of free porn. A voyeur’s dream. You should get a video camera.”

Bradley Bowman, linchpin of the universe, laughed, hugged his friends, and then disappeared, taking the cloaks with him.

“Now you’re down an artifact, Marla. That kinda sucks.”

She grinned. “Not really. See, I have my dagger of office… and now I have the Mason’s, too.” She held up both daggers. “The Mason’s knife didn’t bite me, so I think it can’t tell us apart. I’m looking forward to dual-wielding these little darlings. You would not want to be the next thing to pick a fight with me.” Marla tucked the blades away, took Rondeau’s arm, and strolled out of the park.

They were almost to the gate when her cell phone rang. She sighed and answered. “Yeah?”

“Marla, it’s Hamil. The council has called an emergency session. Come to my penthouse, please.”

“The council? What, you mean you and the Chamberlain? Look, I know she’s pushy, but just tell her I’m pretty exhausted from saving the city, and I’m going to take a nap. We can talk tomorrow –”

“Marla.” Hamil’s voice had steel in it. “This is not a request. The council is meeting. You will be present… or decisions will be made in your absence.”

“What’s this all about –” she began, but Hamil hung up.

“What’s up?” Rondeau said.

“Apparently,” Marla replied, “I’m not done kicking ass for the day.”

Chapter 22

August 2nd, 2010

Rondeau and Crapsey were just about to break out the good Scotch when Marla came stumbling down the stairs in a half-fall, half-run. Her eyes were wide, her cloak white and fluttering behind her as she bent over and vomited onto the club’s shiny floor.

“Crapsey!” the Mason boomed from the top of the stairs. “Take her! Take her now!”

“I’m trying!” Crapsey shouted. “It’s not working!”

“Yeah,” Rondeau said, not getting up from his bar stool. “That’d be the fixative. I slipped it into your coffee. Sorry about that, dude. You’re just too damn scary otherwise. Thanks for being so overconfident that you actually drank the stuff though. Plan B involved me slipping some into a drink you made yourself, and for Plan C? I had to spray some in your eyes or some other mucous membranes.” He placed a glass vial on the bar before him, muttered a command word, and winced while his backup supply of the fixative consumed itself in a white-hot flash, leaving behind a puff of acrid smoke and burn scar on the bartop. “I wasn’t looking forward –”

Crapsey grabbed his lapels. “What? What did you do to me?”

The Mason leapt down the stairs in full fury, shadows writhing around her body like the ghosts of pissed-off snakes, lightning crackling from her fingers, smoke rising from her eyes. Marla looked over her shoulder, cast a glance at Rondeau that could only be called stricken, and then –

Teleported away. Just gouged a hole in the air and stepped through it. Leaving Rondeau here in the belly of the beast.

Insofar as there had been a plan, abandoning him to these monsters had not been part of it. “Oh fuck,” Rondeau said, just as Crapsey shook him again and said, “What. The. Fuck!”

The Mason’s shadows vanished, and though his head was jostling from Crapsey’s assault, Rondeau got his first good look at her. Yee-ow. Beautiful and scary, like the statue of a death goddess come to life. Looked like young Marla if you didn’t know better. “Crapsey, your failures are usually amusing, but in this case, I am annoyed. Why didn’t you take over Marla Mason’s body? You let her get away.”

Crapsey shoved Rondeau, who fell as gracefully as he could – which wasn’t, very – and decided to just stay on the floor for the time being. Maybe these two would have an argument and he could kind of slip out through the back door while they were distracted.

“That little shit did something to me, put something in my coffee, it took my power away for a minute, I’ll be okay –”

“Ah, no,” Rondeau said from the floor. “Sorry to interrupt, but… the fixative is permanent. Guy I know named Langford came up with it, as a way to keep me bottled up and prevent me from killing anybody again by accident. It’s like a magical version of liquid glass, though he says that’s more a metaphor than literal, and… I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. It’s an impermeable whatchamacallit. Keeps your psychic parasite self inside that body. For good. But it’s not so bad, I mean, I never learned how to jump bodies on purpose and my life is still pretty awesome.” He didn’t think revealing his recently-developed ability to leap at will was a good idea. Crapsey wouldn’t take it well, and if Rondeau had learned anything from his long association with sorcerers, it was the fact that secrets are valuable.

“No. No, no, no.” Crapsey started toward him, then stopped. “Mason. Fix me. You gotta fix me. You have to –”

“I don’t think I can.” The Mason circled around him. “How curious. It’s like you’re behind glass now, Crapsey. I could break through the barrier, but… yes, the force required would kill your body, and I believe it would even kill you, the real you. If I unleashed that kind of energy, I might even be damaged, just by the blowback. Langford is very good at making things. That’s why his counterpart back home is in charge of my Wyoming Test Facility. No, I’m afraid your days of leaping from body to body are done, Crapsey.”

“So, what, I’m just stuck here? What am I supposed to –”

“Go away now, worthless thing,” the Mason said, not even looking at him.

“Boss. Come on. After all we’ve been through –”

“It is because of your years of service that I am allowing you to leave, instead of striking your body down, and leaving your consciousness trapped inside a corpse, forever.” The Mason gave a dismissive flick of her fingers. “You no longer have anything to offer me. Rondeau has turned you into nothing more than a man with a knife and a few spells and an ugly jaw. Leave me.”

“I can’t believe you and me were ever the same,” Crapsey said, spitting on Rondeau. “You fucking life-destroying piece of shit.”

“I hear that kind of thing a lot,” Rondeau said. “I’d feel worse about dicking you over this way, except, you know. You’re the evil twin. I like you and all, it was cool meeting you – but you’re a murderous sociopath, and if I hadn’t spiked your coffee, you would have killed my best friend Marla.”

“Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking,” the Mason said. Crapsey cast her a look of pure hate, and bolted from the club.

Rondeau sat up. “So. What now.”

The Mason shrugged. “Now I’m in the market for a new right hand. Are you interested?”

“Uh. What?”

“Viscarro told me that Marla hates you now, because you took the body of her friend Bradley. She forced you to open a pathway to another world, using that body’s powers, didn’t she?”

So close, and yet, so wrong. “That’s exactly right,” Rondeau said, hoping this crazy monster couldn’t read minds. Anything to keep from getting his head ripped off.

“And even after all that, after everything you did for her, Marla abandoned you. She left you here, with me. Knowing what I am. What I might do. Does that anger you?”

“It does kinda piss me off,” Rondeau said. That much was true. But even if the Mason did decapitate him, he wouldn’t die – Rondeau wasn’t pinned in by the fixative like Crapsey was, and Marla knew he was capable of escaping in a pinch, though it might mean leaving his body behind.

“Well,” the Mason said. “Wouldn’t you like to get revenge on her?”

“Tell me more,” Rondeau said.

#

Marla emerged in Fludd Park near the gazebo with a great bloody gash down her back where one of the creatures in-between had raked her with its claw – or some multi-dimensional limb that might as well have been a claw. The cloak’s healing magic began to work on her wound almost instantly, but she tore the cloak off and slung it into the dirt and stomped on it, preferring pain to the touch of the cursed cloth.

“You’re fucked up,” she told the cloak, though she wasn’t sure it could hear her. She thought – she hoped – that when no one was wearing it, the cloak was dormant, but she had her doubts. Sometimes it seemed to exert a subtle influence, even when folded in a drawer… and it had made its way to that thrift store where she found it somehow, after all. Marla looked around. “And why the fuck am I in the park? This isn’t the place I was aiming for.”

“Sorry about that.” Bradley Bowman stood in the entryway to the gazebo and gave a little wave.

Marla’s heart lurched. “Great. Now I’m going crazy. Or am I already dead? No, if I was dead, Death would be here giving me brochures about his new improved underworld. So maybe this is purgatory, or a pre-death hallucination, or what happens when you teleport but never come out the other side.”

“Or,” B said, “It’s real, and you should come sit with me. And maybe bring the cloak. Shouldn’t leave that thing where a kid could trip over it.”

Because she was short on options, Marla picked up the cloak and went up the steps. She peered at Bradley, trying to see which version of him she was hallucinating – her dead apprentice Bradley, the lost Beta-B, some aggregate? But he just looked like B.

He sat on a bench and patted the spot next to him. Marla sat down, still nauseated.

“So tell me what’s got you so upset,” he said.

“I faced the Mason.” Even if this was a hallucination, maybe talking about things would help her process, help her plan…. “She was going to attack me, so I reversed my cloak – I thought it was the only way I had a fighting chance. But the things I felt…” She shuddered. “The cloak tried to take me over, to push me down and steal my body. It always does that, but it really pushed this time. And the things it was feeling, looking across at the Mason, at its counterpart… Bradley, it felt lust. It wanted to fuck that other cloak’s brains out and make little monster parasite babies.”

“I guess that means there’s no incest taboo among the flying tentacle monsters,” B said.

Marla made a gagging motion. “I mean, they’re the same, right? How can they screw? Okay, scratch that, no offense to your gayness, of course they can screw, but how can they make babies? My cloak was sure they could breed – I don’t know if they’re hermaphrodites or if they’re able to change sex at will or if they just mingle DNA or what. Seems like inbreeding would be a bad idea, but maybe their genetics aren’t like ours.”

“They’re not like us at all,” B said. “They’re from a universe with different physical laws, more alien than any mere alien could be. They’re outsiders. I don’t know what they’re doing in this multiverse, if they got lost or exiled or what – I can’t see beyond the branches of this universe. But they’re here, and they’re your problem now… and it would be bad if they bred.”

“I know. Also: gross. The total icky barfiness I felt was what gave me the power to fight the cloak’s influence and reverse it back to white. Just like the first time I used the cloak, after I ripped off Rondeau’s jaw, I was so horrified, I wanted to help the poor kid – that’s how I got out from under its power that time. It’s a good thing the cloak keeps trying to do shit I just can’t allow. But I can’t ever put the cloak on again. I might not be able to fight it next time. The thing was in a mating frenzy, like when Spock goes into Pon Farr –”

Star Trek reference,” B said. “Bonus points.”

“I just like Theodore Sturgeon,” Marla said. “Damn, B. It’s good to see you, even if you are a figment of my distressed mind.”

He rolled his eyes. “Marla. I’m here. And while I’m not exactly the Bradley Bowman you had as an apprentice, there are parts of me that are awfully close to him, from universes that diverged just a little bit from yours – even some universes where Bradley is still your apprentice, where you’re grooming him to take over.” He paused. “Well, except, not anymore. I’m all those Bradleys simultaneously, but that means they all had to be taken out of circulation, poof, so I’m having a lot of these conversations right now, with a lot of versions of you, though you’re the only one facing an interdimensional monster with the potential to conquer the multiverse.”

Marla thought about that. “Okay,” she said. “It’s fine. Hallucinations aren’t supposed to make sense.”

B put his hand on her knee. “Sorry. I’m still getting the hang of multiple simultaneous consciousness. Um. When the possible witch’s world started falling apart, and I stepped through that door, remember that?”

“Yeah. Duh. Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Right. Well, when I stepped through, I met the people – but they’re not people – who run things. Or not exactly run things, but… keep things running? Like, the machinery of the universe? And it turns out they had a job opening. For, well.” He laughed. “For the possible witch. So they gave me her job.”

Marla stared at him. “You’re the possible witch? What?”

“Yeah. See, she has a job. An important job. A job she messed up really badly. And when she messed it up, she got fired, only when things like her get fired, they just cease to exist. But her function didn’t cease to exist, and I stepped into it. And when I did, every other version of Bradley Bowman got the job, too, and we squashed into a sort of composite – uh, not to sound arrogant – a composite superbeing, with all the knowledge of all our various iterations. And I can see into all the worlds, all the parallel universes, simultaneously, and be in them simultaneously, and… Here I am. I can have the opening to my realm anywhere in the universe, and I put it in this gazebo in Fludd Park. I really liked this place, when I was your apprentice.”

“You know, I thought as time went on I would get more and more powerful,” Marla said. “And instead, my friends get all the power. Gods, Bradley – I mean, you are a god, now, pretty much. So, this job – what’s the job?”

He cleared his throat. “That’s a bit of a sore point. My job is maintaining the integrity of the multiverse – which means keeping the various realities separate, among other things. You bullied the possible witch into violating the fundamental purpose of her existence, and once she opened a passageway between worlds…” He shook his head. “Major transgression. I mean, she was the protector of the multiverse the way you’re the protector of Felport. Her opening a rift in reality was like you setting the entire city on fire.

“So it’s… my fault.” Marla looked up at the stars. Every star up there existed in a functionally infinite number of other universes. That was a lot of godsdamned stars. “I made her get disappeared?”

B nodded. “Pretty big mayhem for a girl from Indiana, huh? If it makes you feel better, the possible witch’s bosses said she was getting squirrely anyway, starting to go profoundly weird. Living for countless billions of years and experiencing deep time can do that, apparently. They say I’ll probably burn out eventually, though they figure the heat death of the universes will happen first, so I’ve got time.”

“B, I just want to fix things. Trying to drag you into my world, it was stupid and selfish, I know. I didn’t know how stupid until just now, but… what can I do?”

B shrugged. “Just because I’m all-seeing doesn’t mean I’m all-knowing, Marla. Usually I can look across universes and see how different decisions played out in different places, but this is the one and only branch of the multiverse with the Mason and you inhabiting the same space.”

“What? Really? I thought new universes spawned constantly. She’s been here for days – shouldn’t there be, like, zillions of branch universes now?”

B shook his head. “When the rift happened and the possible witch got ousted, those two universes were… sequestered. Locked down by the admins of the multiverse, like a disputed entry on Wikipedia locked against editing.” Marla looked at him blankly, and he laughed. “Never mind. The point is, no more universes are branching just now. The powers that be can’t keep these worlds locked down for long, because when they do stuff like that, a pretty hellacious strain builds up in the structure of the multiverse. If you don’t stop the Mason soon, she’ll find a way to tear more holes in reality – using Rondeau and his psychic abilities, along with her own terrible power, to do the job. She can accomplish almost anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, and now that she knows there are other worlds, she won’t stop until she’s broken through into them – and if she does that too often, the whole multiverse will fall. Not because she’ll conquer it, but because once the walls start to break down, the structural integrity of reality will falter, and the universes will crash together and try to inhabit the same space. And when billions and billions of stars and planets start trying to inhabit the same space?”

“Big boom,” Marla said.

“Big crunch,” B said. “Now, I can seal up rifts with a little work, it’s part of my gig, but it won’t help if she keeps ripping new ones, which she will. So stop her. Get the cloak off her. Bring the cloaks to me, and I’ll put them someplace they can’t do any harm.”

“But how?” Marla said.

“I know you like brute force, but you taught me, when you can’t punch your way through a problem, you can think your way through it.” He winced. “I really gotta go. There are emergencies I need to tend to that need more than this fragmentary attention. I wish I had time to tell you, like, a billion things, but I can give you a little bit of insight before I take off, since I can spy on anything and everything: the Mason thinks you still hate Rondeau’s guts for stealing my body. She thinks that’s why you teleported away without trying to save him just now – because you don’t care if he dies.”

“Oh,” Marla said. “Oh. I didn’t leave Rondeau because I was pissed at him – I was just freaked out about feeling horny for a space monster, and Rondeau’s an unkillable parasite who can take care of himself. Besides, teleporting is dangerous, I wouldn’t want to drag him with me and risk getting him lost.”

“Well, the Mason’s not killing him – she’s trying to recruit him. She figures, if you hate him, maybe he’ll come work for her.” B shook his head. “The Mason has known Crapsey too long. She doesn’t get that Rondeau’s approach to loyalty is a lot different. Maybe that’ll give you an edge? A secret double agent on the inside?”

“Maybe. Huh. I wonder if the Mason –”

But B was gone, without even the courtesy of a puff of smoke to mark his disappearance. Off preserving the integrity of the multiverse or something, no doubt. “He’s gonna be insufferable,” Marla said. “Bad enough he used to be a movie star, now he has to be master of space-time too?”

She stood up, and lifted the cloak in both her hands. “You and me, cloak. One last play. Let’s go save the stupid universe.”

#

“I’ll teach you to jump bodies,” the Mason was saying, lounging on Marla’s couch. “It’ll be great fun. For me. It will be quite terrible for you.”

Rondeau was spared having to answer when the phone on Marla’s desk rang.

“Answer it, lackey,” the Mason said, and Rondeau picked it up.

“Hey, you,” Marla said. “I’ve got a plan. Doubt I have time to give you the details, but here’s the main thing you need to know –”

“Who is it?” the Mason demanded.

“Uh,” Rondeau said. “It’s Marla.”

The Mason snatched the phone out of his hand. “Marla. Are you willing to come back and face your fate, or will I have to start tearing your city into little pieces?”

Rondeau watched her face, but it didn’t give much away.

“Oh, very well,” the Mason said. “I don’t see the point in anything less than unconditional surrender, but –”

A longer pause this time, and then the Mason smiled. She looked at Rondeau like he was a pork chop on a plate. “That is an intriguing proposal, Marla. I think… yes, certainly. Come over this afternoon. We’ll discuss it further then.”

She hung up the phone and stared at a spot on the wall for about two minutes straight before Rondeau coughed and said, “Uh, so what’s going on?”

“I’m going to get everything I’ve always dreamed of,” the Mason said, still staring at nothing. “I’ve always wanted a big family. Haven’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, the planet’s so overpopulated anyway –”

“It won’t be for much longer,” the Mason said, and Rondeau didn’t really have an answer for that, so he went and made himself a very large drink instead, and tried to imagine what Marla’s plan could possibly be.

Chapter 21

July 23rd, 2010

“Mmm. Your terms are acceptable. I’ll see you then. I look forward to our conversation. I don’t usually talk to insects before killing them, but I’m curious –” The Mason frowned, held the phone away, and looked at it for a moment. “The woman hung up on me.” She placed the phone back down on Marla’s desk.

“Some people are so rude.” Crapsey sprawled on the couch with his arm thrown over his face. “No wonder you want to exterminate all sentient life.” After they broke into Rondeau’s nightclub – which had pretty insane magical security, but nothing the Mason couldn’t circumvent – he’d taken a shower in Rondeau’s cramped bathroom and scrounged up clean boxers and a comfortably worn bathrobe. Wearing another man’s underpants was kind of weird, but since the other man was just another iteration of himself, Crapsey decided it was okay. The next step in his plan was to curl up in Rondeau’s surprisingly neat bedroom and sleep, but he’d wanted to stay awake for the Mason’s last murder of the day. The phone call from Marla had interrupted the fun. “So Marla’s back in this universe? Is she coming over? If so, I’m gonna need some of those uppers we talked about, because I am beat like a disobedient gimp.”

“No. She wants to meet in the morning, in the conference room downstairs – the one with the anti-magical properties. As if I’d be stupid enough…” The Mason’s mouth quirked slightly in what might have been a smile on another face. “She says they’ll bring the coffee, but we’re in charge of bringing the bagels.”

“Ha,” Crapsey said. “Gotta admire the chutzpah. So what’s the plan?”

“I will speak with her. I am curious about many things – mainly how she resisted the cloak’s power, and how she travels from world to world. If she has the cloak, we will kill her when I’ve finished speaking to her, and take it away. If she does not, we will torture her until she tells me its location.”

“Torture? You know torture’s no good for getting useful intelligence out of people, boss. Besides, you can set up a ritual to rifle through the contents of her mind, right? I mean, I know that can destroy her mind in the process, but I don’t get the sense that’s a problem for you.”

“Of course. All true. But I enjoy torture.” She slid back in her chair. “But executions also have their place.” She began tugging on the drawers in Marla’s desk. “Ah,” the Mason said, sliding out the bottom drawer on the left. “Come look at this.”

Crapsey groaned and pushed himself up off the couch. The Mason had cured his major injuries in the park, but plain old muscle soreness remained, though he knew she could’ve fixed that too if she wanted.

The drawer in Marla’s desk was less a drawer and more a black iron safe on rollers, the lid etched and filigreed with designs that twisted like optical illusions viewed on hallucinogens. “Very potent,” the Mason said. “As well-fortified as Viscarro’s own vaults. In effect, it is his personal vault, rendered in miniature. Beautiful work. Viscarro had a reputation as nothing more than a hoarder, a stealer of magic crafted by more talented hands, but his skills in certain areas were impressive.”

The Mason drew her dagger of office and began cutting into the drawer like she was opening a can of creamed corn. Once she’d sliced through the metal, she prised up the lid and tossed it to the floor with a dull thunk. Crapsey and the Mason peered into the small space revealed.

“That’s disappointing,” the Mason said. “I’d hoped she might keep the cloak here.” She leaned her face close to the drawer, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “And she does, though not now. I suppose she took it with her when she went off to our world. ”

“At least we know she didn’t put it in a box and send it off to get buried at the top of a mountain.” He nodded toward the drawer. “So I figure the wooden box probably has Viscarro’s phylactery in it, right?”

“Yes.”

“And what about the little silver bell?”

The Mason shrugged. “There is nothing magical about it at all. It’s just a bell. I can’t imagine why she put it in here, unless it has… what do you people call it? Some kind of value?”

“Sentimental value. And watch the ‘you people’ stuff. I’m an inhuman monstrous parasite too, you know.”

“Noted.” She removed the little teakwood box and set it on the desk, flipped open the lid, and revealed the faintly glowing pebble-sized red gem inside. “There. Just like it was in my world. Viscarro’s life. If an ordinary person touched this object, Viscarro’s personality would rush in and try to take control. Of course, that doesn’t work on me.” The Mason lifted out the gem, and the dim light inside brightened and began to flicker more rapidly. “That’s him trying to take me over. I’ve never been sure whether he can hear me in there, if he’s conscious, but if he is…” She put the gem close to her lips. “Viscarro. I’m killing you. For the second time. But this time, I’m going to devour your soul.”

The Mason dropped the gem on the desk blotter, held her dagger of office like a chef’s knife, and began to dice up the gem as if mincing a clove of garlic. Her hand moved in a blur, and within seconds the gem was reduced to a fine pink powder. The Mason scooped up a pile of the powder on the edge of her knife blade. “Here goes.” She raised the blade to her nose, pressed one nostril shut with her free hand, and snorted the powdered phylactery of Leland Viscarro.

She closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, shivered all over, and released a long, slow sigh.

“Damn, boss. Seems pretty nice. Can I get a hit of that?”

“Your puny mind couldn’t bear it.” The Mason’s voice was serene. “Oh, oh, oh, this is so interesting. Viscarro was always a collector of secrets, and now I know them all. His entire life’s essence is dissolving into my mind like a spoonful of sugar into a cup of hot tea.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Ha. Many things. Most have no bearing on our present situation, but… according to Viscarro’s sources, Marla Mason despises Rondeau for murdering her little friend Bradley Bowman and stealing his body. Apparently she forced Rondeau into exile – he’s been living at the Blackwing Institute. Viscarro was quite confused when Marla and Rondeau – as he believed us to be – attacked him, because he thought they were firmly on the outs.”

Crapsey frowned. “But Hamil said Marla took Rondeau with her to the other world. Sworn enemies don’t usually travel together.”

“Hamil also said he wasn’t sure how Marla managed to go from one world to another… and it stands to reason that Rondeau had something to do with that passage. She’d travel with an enemy if he was the only means of transportation.”

Crapsey grinned. “So you’re saying I’ve got undiscovered badass reality-destroying powers?”

The Mason snorted. “Hardly. Rondeau is in Bradley Bowman’s body, remember, and by all accounts, Bowman is a powerful psychic and oracle generator. Perhaps he can summon some sort of being that opens a passage.” She sighed. “If I’m right, that means I’ll need to procure Rondeau’s services in order to access the multiverse. Once he realizes the alternative is a hell of endless pain, I’m sure he’ll agree to work for me.”

“Cool,” Crapsey said. “Bringing Rondeau over to our side will be sweet. Somebody to play cards with. And, you know, steal bodies with.”

The Mason shook her head. “According to Viscarro, Rondeau can’t possess anyone voluntarily. He’s only done it once that he remembers, quite accidentally, when he murdered Bradley Bowman. What a waste of talent – but Rondeau never had me to teach him, of course.”

Crapsey nodded. “He’s probably a lot less bitter and fucked-up than I am, then. The beatings, and screaming, and being locked in a dark windowless box with no food and water until I managed to leave my body – that stuff left the kind of marks you can’t see by looking.”

“Made you stronger,” the Mason said simply, and then snorted the rest of the powdered Viscarro. “Mmm. He knows a bit about Marla’s history, but not much – he didn’t pay attention to her until after she’d acquired the cloak, when she left her apprenticeship with Artie Mann and began working as a mercenary. How did she end up working for the pornomancer instead of the spider? What single point of divergence could have led to such different outcomes?”

Crapsey yawned. “If you’re going to get all musing and rhetorical, can I go?”

The Mason nodded. “You should sleep. But sleep lightly. It’s possible Marla will stage a surprise attack in the night.”

“As long as she doesn’t interrupt any good sex dreams,” Crapsey said, and shuffled off to bed.

#

“You sure wearing the cloak is a good idea?” Rondeau climbed out of the car they’d borrowed from Langford, balancing a cardboard tray holding four take-out coffees.

“I need every edge I can get.”

“So do we knock, or…” Rondeau squinted in the bright morning sun as they stood before the door to his club.

“Screw that. It’s your place.” Marla went to the door and pressed her palm against it, disengaging the magical lock –the Mason had circumvented the lock without breaking it, showing an annoyingly deft hand – and pushing it open.

Someone was waiting in the dim club, leaning against one of the load-bearing pillars scattered at irregular intervals around the dance floor. “Good morning,” Crapsey said. He stepped into the illumination of the house lights and grinned. He was wearing one of Rondeau’s purple zoot suits – tight across the shoulders, but it basically fit – and yet, the outfit wasn’t the most striking thing about him.

“Bro, that jaw is sick,” Rondeau said. “When I got my jaw repaired, I just got stupid flesh and bone. What are those, like fangs?”

Crapsey kept grinning, but this time, he looked like he meant it. “I can bite through freaking steel, dude. Steel tastes lousy, but still. How come you still look like me – you – us? Didn’t you steal a new body?”

“Yeah, but I got an illusion to keep my old look, because sure, Bradley Bowman was a movie star, but that doesn’t mean he looked better than me. I’m stuck wearing these boring-ass borrowed clothes, but since you raided my closet, you can see I’ve got better fashion sense than this.”

“Your threads are sweet,” Crapsey said. “You could use a little bulking up, though. Hit the gym every once in a while.”

“Don’t those steroids shrink your balls?” Rondeau said.

Crapsey winked. “They’re still plenty big though. You should know.”

“Two Rondeaus,” Marla muttered. “Gods save me.”

Crapsey looked her up and down. “I’ll never get used to seeing the cloak in white. Just looks wrong to me.”

“Fascinating,” Marla said. “Where’s the purple bitch?”

Crapsey jerked his head toward the stairs. “Up in your office.”

“Not in the conference room?”

Crapsey laughed. “You kidding? She spent the night erecting magical barriers and fields to make entering that room totally impossible.” The conference room was a magical dead-zone, and Marla knew from experience the cloak didn’t work in there – if the Mason stepped inside, the battle would have been over before it began. “I mean, Marla, we are from Felport. We’ve got one of those rooms on our side, too.”

“Worth a try,” Marla said. She’d never expected the Mason to enter the room, but she was hoping the ploy would make them underestimate her. And, hell, it had been worth a try. “Did she at least get bagels?”

“Ha. You kinda remind me of the boss. Yeah, I fetched bagels, they’re up there, a nice little variety on a tray and everything. She won’t eat any – she barely eats at all, and when she does, she likes meat – but you can help yourself. Is one of those coffees for me?”

“Sure.” Rondeau passed him one of the cups.

Crapsey took it, lifted the lid, and sniffed. “I guess I should ask if it’s poisoned?”

Rondeau didn’t let himself stiffen or grimace or wince. He shrugged instead. “You can ask.”

“But it’s a stupid question,” Crapsey said. “Since poisoning me would just annoy me and make me take over Marla’s body, and neither of you wants that. Is there sugar in this?”

“No.” Marla shook her head. “Rondeau said you’d want like ten sugars, the same way he likes it, but I said you’re from a totally different world –”

Rondeau wordlessly took a wad of sugar packets from his pocket and passed them to Crapsey, who nodded and walked over to the bar and began methodically ripping open the packets and dumping the contents into his cup.

Marla rolled her eyes. Rondeau handed her two of the coffee cups and said, “See you when you get done.”

“If shit gets crazy, you run,” Marla said. “All right?”

“Don’t worry about him,” Crapsey called. “He’s like another me, and I’m a major fan of me, so he’ll be all right. You, though…” He shrugged. “I’m sure you and the boss have lots to talk about. Rondeau, come over here and let’s shoot the shit, what do you say?”

“Planning to pump me for information on behalf of your evil overlord?” Rondeau said, strolling over and taking a bar stool next to him.

“I was thinking more about comparing sexual conquests,” Crapsey replied. Then he took his first sip of the coffee Rondeau had prepared for him, and doomed himself.

#

Marla stepped into her office and shut the door behind her. The Mason was seated behind her desk, face shaded by the hood of her purple cloak. Marla put the coffee cups down on the desk, slid one toward the Mason, and picked up a plain bagel. She sliced it in half with her dagger of office, glanced around, and sighed. “No shmear? No lox? You world-devouring monsters are cheap.” She sat down in one of the crappy visitor chairs, took a bite of the bagel, chewed for a moment, then decided she’d have to make the opening move, since the Mason wasn’t moving at all. “All right, let’s get a look at you.”

The Mason leaned forward and pushed her hood back, and the face revealed wasn’t much at all like the one Marla saw in the mirror, really, despite certain broad similarities.

“Gods,” Marla said. “Was I ever that young? I know my skin was never that smooth. Don’t you have any pores?”

“I’ve kept this body in the prime of its physical perfection.” The Mason’s voice was curiously flat, but Marla was relieved it didn’t sound like the voice of the cloak in her own head. “You should be jealous.”

“Yeah, because never changing at all is totally awesome. So. You murdered half my council.”

The Mason nodded. “So far.”

“But you wanted to have a little chat with me before taking your punishment? Here I am. What do you want?”

The Mason laced her hands together on the desk. “Tell me, Marla. How did you like my world during your visit?”

Marla shrugged. “Didn’t see much evidence of you there. Looked like a big Jaguar god was in charge to me.” She started to lace her own hands together, caught herself, and settled for cracking her knuckles instead. “Of course, I killed the Jaguar. He was bothering my friends.”

The Mason raised one eyebrow. “You defeated Teyepollotl? My, my. I had that penciled in for the winter. Thank you for sparing me the trouble. Now I only have to roll up Sanford Cole and his ragtag band of rags and tags, which will be much simpler.”

“You’re never going back there. This world is your last stop. Today is your last day.”

“Such confidence! What if I attacked you now? Stabbed you with a knife?”

“I’ve got a knife too, lady. And a cloak, in case you didn’t notice.”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. The cloak. How long have you had it?”

“I’m supposed to answer your questions now?”

“Unless you’d rather begin trying to kill one another.”

“Tempting… but okay. I’ll play.” Marla was curious, too – why had this alternate version of herself been so weak and fucked-up that she’d allowed herself to be dominated by a haunted bit of Renaissance Faire costuming? “I found the cloak in a thrift store on my twentieth birthday. Just felt… drawn to it. So I bought it for myself as a present.” In truth, the memory of that day was kind of vague, like any memory a dozen years old would be – had she been at the store alone, or with a friend? She couldn’t recall, but it didn’t really matter. “I tried it on, and it healed, my, ah…”

“Infected rat bite,” the Mason said. “Yes, I cured the same thing for this version of –”

“Uh. No. I had a urinary tract infection. From too much dirty teenage fucking, I guess. You’re saying Beta-Marla over there got bitten by rats? That’s messed up.”

“The divergence point between our worlds is obviously much earlier,” the Mason said. “You were an apprentice to Artie Mann.”

“You weren’t?”

“Viscarro was my master,” the Mason said. “I was just one of many apprentices. He took no particular notice of me – of Marla, I mean, but for convenience, I will say ‘I.’ It’s easier, since my host’s memories feel like my own.”

Her host. Marla fought back the urge to tear her own cloak off her back. This is what the cloak wanted to do – make her into a conveyance for a pompous alien shitbag. No amount of ass-kicking power was worth that risk.

The Mason went on. “I don’t think Viscarro had any opinion about me, until I found the cloak. I was just part of the scenery, though the way I joined his service was… peculiar. When I first came to Felport, I was hungry – starving – and I saw a young man hurrying alone down an alleyway carrying grocery bags. I struck him over the head with a brick and stole his bags. I expected food. Instead there were golden eggs, nestled in straw. The boy I killed was one of Viscarro’s apprentices, a courier, delivering some magical items. Viscarro’s people found me later, and made me an offer: I could die, or I could take over the route of the courier I’d killed. I got the sense they were terribly overworked, and I never knew if Viscarro had authorized the offer, sensing something formidable in me – or if the apprentices had just decided to spare themselves the trouble of taking over the dead boy’s route and recruited me on their own authority.” She shrugged. “Such was my introduction to the hidden world. I learned what magic I could – apprentices have a great deal of freedom in the Bank of the Catacombs to study ancient texts and explore – and we all taught ourselves a little, and occasionally Viscarro would conduct a lecture or a series of tests to weed out the weak. It was a hard life, but I made friends, of a sort. I did not have any… filthy teenage sex, though. I – this Marla – found the idea of human intimacy almost as repulsive as I do.”

“Okay, table that for a minute.” Marla had taken on the role of interviewer, somehow, but she didn’t mind. Apparently the Mason really wanted to tell her story – or maybe some vestige of Beta-Marla, inside the Mason, did. “What happened when you found the cloak?”

“I put it on, and my rat bite was cured. So I stole the cloak from the shop. I thought the artifact was my ticket to becoming Viscarro’s right hand – that once he saw what I possessed, he would take me seriously, and teach me.” She scowled. “Instead, as soon as he saw the cloak, he said it was his. That as an apprentice, I had no right to property, that I had no self. I was merely an extension of his will, and I would hand over the cloak immediately, and he would have me beaten for daring to suggest I could own such a thing.”

Marla nodded. “And let me guess. A little voice way down inside you whispered the word –”

“‘Turn.’ And the cloak turned. To the purple. I killed Viscarro – well, his body. Truly killing him happened a little later. And then I went out walking, in the flush of my new power, and it was glorious. All fear gone. Never again would I be ordered around. Never again would I be touched against my will. Never again would I suffer any humiliation. Then I saw an interesting little boy, who wasn’t a little boy at all, and ripped off his jaw to use for an oracle. Eventually I renamed that little boy Crapsey, and made him my apprentice, of a sort. I’m not a very nice master, but I’m no worse than Viscarro was.” The Mason shrugged. “From there, I plotted my rise to power, and everything went well until you tried to save your dead friend Bradley Bowman and brought me here.”

“Yeah. I’m starting to think that was a mistake. It’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to make one mistake in a lifetime, right? That was mine. So. Let’s trace this shit back. You ran away from home in Indiana and made your way to Felport, right?”

The Mason nodded.

“But you didn’t get a job working as a topless waitress? That’s how I met Artie Mann.”

The Mason shuddered. “A place where men would… ogle? Grope? No, no, I would never.”

“Okay, but why? What happened to make you so freaked about sex?” Marla had certainly had brushes with creepiness in her youth, including a boy who’d assaulted one of her friends and tried unsuccessfully to come after Marla. And of course her mom’s various drunk boyfriends had made passes at her, at least until her brother Jason had his little talks with them, usually helped by his friend Mr. Baseball Bat.

“You don’t remember uncle Devlin?” the Mason said.

Marla frowned. “My mom didn’t have any brothers, not in this world –”

The Mason shook her head. “Not a real uncle. Mom’s boyfriend. He… did things. To me. To Marla.”

Devlin. Devlin? There’d been a guy, maybe… “Sideburns? Truck driver? Except maybe an out-of-work truck driver?”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. He lived with us for many years, in the trailer, and every night after mom drank herself to sleep…” She shuddered. More and more of the other Marla was showing through. The Mason was having trouble separating herself from her host, it looked like.

“I remember some kind of big fight, I was only maybe eight? My mom and my brother Jason screaming at each other, Jason was only eleven or twelve but he was saying the guy had to go, if he didn’t leave forever Jason was going to burn the whole house down –”

“Your brother?” the Mason said. “Jason?”

“Yeah. He’s an asshole now, sure, but when we were kids he was the great protector, I never found out until later all the stuff he did for me, and he could play mom like a violin, never had any trouble making her do whatever he…” Marla trailed off. The Mason looked stunned.

“In my world,” the Mason said, “Jason was playing in the yard one day when a drunk driver lost control of his car and veered off the road onto the grass. Jason was struck and killed. He was four or five years old. I – Marla – was just an infant.”

Marla stared. Her brother, who’d shot Rondeau in the gut and thus indirectly killed Bradley Bowman; who’d embroiled her in a scam that ended in the death of an innocent, if hapless, millionaire; who’d never forgiven her for refusing to help him cover up a murder he’d committed as a teenager; who’d not so very long ago shot and tried to kill Marla herself, an attempt that would have succeeded if the cloak she was wearing now hadn’t healed her injuries…

Jason was the divergence point. He was the one who’d made all the difference. Because before he’d become a heartless con artist, he’d been a big brother, doing his best to take care of his little sister. He’d taught Marla to fight, and to scam, and to survive, and to be strong in herself. And he’d kept her from being repeatedly molested by a drunk out-of-work trucker, it seemed.

Without Jason, she would have had all the same anger, the same hunger for knowledge, the same bull-headednes, the same will she possessed now, but without the skills to cope with those feelings and direct them toward achieving her own ambitions.

Without Jason, Marla would have been the kind of person who put on a magical cloak that made all her decisions for her, and who thought that was a nice change.

If she ever saw her brother again, she might not try to kill him after all.

“I remember hearing about that accident,” Marla said. “Mom told the story, though Jason didn’t remember it, how he almost got killed. If the car had struck just two feet to the right, it would have landed right on top of him…” Marla reached over and touched the Mason’s hand. “You poor thing,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It’s no wonder –”

The Mason – and it was definitely the Mason again now, all hints of humanity in her expression gone – jerked her hand back. “Don’t touch me, vermin,” she said, and drew her dagger.

Here we go, Marla thought, and – because she really didn’t think she had a chance against this psycho alien otherwise – she reversed her cloak to purple.

Less than two seconds later, she reversed it back to white, and ran away as fast as she could.

Chapter 20

July 19th, 2010

Marla removed her cloak, folded it carefully, and tucked it into her bag. Then she kicked apart the Jaguar’s throne of skulls. The bones didn’t dissolve into dust and slurry like the rest of the Jaguar’s creations, so they weren’t magical, but real skulls and bones from real dead people. That meant somebody had been forced to take the remains of the dead and actually build a big-ass chair out of them, which was a hell of a thing to have on your résumé. The mysterious chairwright had used some kind of epoxy resin to hold things together. Ah, human ingenuity.

Marla had never been very good at remote viewing – she was too firmly in-her-self, and found the notion of mind/body duality so inherently ridiculous, that leaving her body behind was tough. Still, she could imagine what was happening all over the city now. Ordinary citizens emerging from their doubtless well-barricaded apartments, watching the vines and giant snakes and impossible rivers and vicious jungle cats turn to mist and smoke and absence. People lifting their faces up to the sun, and daring to hope their lives would go back to normal again.

Well. “Normal” for a world where the existence of monsters and sorcerers was public knowledge, and where the threat of the Mason loomed just on the other side of the Rockies.

Satisfied with the results of her kicking, Marla went and found the bush where she’d ditched her grape seed and squatted down, running her hands over the soil until she found the little kernel of communication. She blew the dirt off and slipped the seed back into her ear. “Cole, you hear me?”

“Marla!” The old man’s voice was full of undisguised wonder. “You succeeded?”

“I put the cat to sleep,” she said. “How did the Alcatraz assault go?” She asked the question as nonchalantly as she could, but her stomach was a clench of knots. Bradley Bowman had died on her watch once already in one world, and if he died in another…

“Some injuries, but no casualties,” Cole said. “And they killed both Bethany and the Lynx, I’m assured.”

“Good. Saves you having to do too much mopping up, then. With both the biggest bosses dead, the Jaguar’s toadies are probably scared and hopping away as fast as they can. Should I make my way back to the camp?”

“My days of skulking in the sewers are over, Marla dear,” Cole said. “I’ll send someone ’round to pick you up, and we’ll celebrate in greater splendor.”

#

Yasuko arrived eventually on a motorcycle, and was annoyed when Marla insisted on driving it herself. “You don’t even know where we’re going!” she said.

“I don’t ride bitch even more than I don’t know where we’re going,” Marla replied. “You can give me directions. I’m a quick study.”

The drive was scenic, taking them west and south around the coast of the city along the sea cliffs. The ocean was the same as always, vast and blue and largely indifferent to the acts of people and gods. The motorcycle handled the rough roadway and buckled concrete easily, apparently ‘chanted with spells to prevent crashes, which sort of took the challenge out of things – but Marla decided she’d had enough challenges for the day.

They parked in front of the Cliff House, a multi-story Victorian wedding cake of a building perched on the cliffs above Ocean Beach, with commanding views of the sea. The building, once a restaurant, had become Sanford Cole’s base of operations before his exile. “Doesn’t this place fall down a lot?” Marla said, climbing off the bike.

“It’s burnt or collapsed or been accidentally exploded by dynamite something like five times since 1858,” Yasuko said. “When Cole took power in the city, he had the house restored to something resembling its, hmm, second incarnation, I think? But with modern conveniences inside. It’s not a bad place to work.”

“Sounds like the place is cursed, but hey, it’s your day job, not mine.”

They went through the front doors, into a great room filled with velvet-covered furniture and antique tables and the entire population of Camp Kimke, among others. Everyone cheered when Marla came in, shouting her first name and slapping her on the back as she tried to work her way deeper into the room. She scanned the space for Beta-B or Rondeau or Cole, but didn’t see them. Pie Bob pressed a glass of champagne into her hand, and Marla accepted it gratefully. She didn’t drink much, but one glass wouldn’t hurt, and god-toppling was thirsty work.

The appreciation was nice too. Despite all the times she’d saved Felport, the other sorcerers there had never shouted “Three cheers for Marla!” Mostly they’d just bitched about collateral damage and lost income. Not that she would have enjoyed parties in her honor or anything, but it would’ve been nice to have the chance to fail to enjoy them.

She made chit-chat with people as best she could – she was pretty crap at that sort of thing – until she found an unobstructed window with a good view. She stood looking out at the sea, trying to appear introspective and unapproachable as the sun bled down toward the horizon. Night was falling on the first day after the fall of the Jaguar. It would be a good night, she was sure.

“Marla.” Rondeau stood at her shoulder. “Could you come upstairs with me for a sec? Beta-B and me want you to hear something.”

Marla sighed and knocked back the last of her champagne. “What, is there a new crisis already?”

Rondeau didn’t laugh. His face was so serious it might have been the rehearsal for a death mask. “Yeah. Looks like it.”

She followed him through the crowd and up a narrow staircase to the infinitely quieter second floor, and into a small bedroom, also decorated in High Victorian. A redhead sat on the bed beside Beta-B.

“Marla, this is Anna,” Beta-B said. “She’s a seer, and the best interpreter of dreams I’ve ever met. I told her about this dream I had, and, ah… Can you tell her what you told me, Anna?”

Anna cleared her throat. “In Bradley’s dream, he saw a younger version of you in a purple cloak step out of a mirror and switch places with you, trapping you behind glass. Then all the reflections of you started to change, too, white cloaks going purple, one after another, until your cloak changed as well. It seems clear to me that it means the Mason –”

“Fuck,” Marla said. “She’s in my world?”

“It seems possible.” Cole stepped in from the hallway. “I’ve just been re-establishing contact with my agents back East, and things are chaotic there. The Mason and her lieutenant Crapsey both vanished, apparently around the same time Bradley here left for your world. They haven’t returned, and I gather her lieutenants are assassinating one another and fighting for power – it looks like the chaos witch Nicolette is winning, for now. Since Bradley went to your world, it seems possible the Mason and Crapsey did as well.”

“The possible witch said, ‘When you open a doorway, it opens both ways,’” Rondeau said. “And we never did figure out what the price was, for bringing Beta-B to our world.”

“Now we know,” Marla said, trying to get her mind to spin up to crisis-management speed. Her brain felt dipped in liquid nitrogen, though, frozen and dull. What would the Mason – and Rondeau’s murderous, promiscuously body-jumping counterpart – do, unleashed in her world?

What would they do to her city?

Anna said, “That’s not all. Bradley’s vision suggests… that the Mason is planning to try and go to other worlds. That she’s going to take over other parallel dimensions, and force other versions of you into her service.”

“That won’t happen,” Marla said. “Because I’m going to end the bitch. She does not get to play in my world. No way.”

“I’m going with you,” Beta-B said.

Marla’s numb brain warmed up a fraction. “Are you sure? You said even if we defeated the Jaguar that –”

“I needed to stay to fight the Mason,” Beta-B said. “Now she’s in your world. You came here, at great personal risk, and helped us. So I’m going to go over there and help you. If she’s planning to conquer the whole multiverse, I’ll have to deal with her again sooner or later anyway, so it might as well be now. I’m not planning to stay forever in your world, but –”

Acting on impulse, as she so often did, Marla took Beta-B in her arms and hugged him. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “from you trying to cut off my head for a dark ritual.”

“Lord, are you ever going to let me live that down?” Beta-B said. “That was, like, a whole day ago.”

“She holds grudges like I hold my liquor,” Rondeau said. “Which is really well, in case you were wondering.”

Marla turned to Cole. “Sorry to save the city and run, but –”

“I’ll arrange our fastest transport to Alcatraz,” Cole said.

“At least we won’t get attacked by giant fucking snakes this time,” Rondeau said.

#

“Gods, you might have warned me.” Marla stared down at the corpse of the Lynx – known better to her as Joshua Kindler, who’d been her lover, briefly, and then her betrayer, and then a man dead by her hand. She shifted the strap of her shoulder bag, the cloak and dagger nestled securely inside. The man on the ground was one of the many things her artifacts had failed to protect her from.

“Yeah.” Rondeau shuffled his feet. “I, uh, wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. I know he’s kind of a sore point.”

“Just as a reminder of my capacity for stupidity. But are you okay? Having to, you know…”

“Kill somebody?” Rondeau shook his head. “I’m a multiple murderer now, you know that? Alpha-B, and Joshua, and… does the Jaguar god’s mind count?”

“He’s probably fine,” Marla said. “Back upstairs ripping out the hearts of constellations or something by now.”

“Yeah.” Rondeau nodded. “Well, only two, then, and one was an accident, and one was self-defense. I’m not saying I won’t have some fucked-up dreams, but… I’m still a long way from reaching your body count, at least.”

“Let’s keep it that way.” She beckoned Beta-B, who’d stood quietly aside during their conversation. “Are you all set?”

“Sure. It’s just passing through a wound gouged in the skin of reality itself. Nothing we haven’t done before.” He offered his hand, and she grasped it. Rondeau took her other hand, and they went into the solitary confinement cell where the opening to the possible witch’s domain was located. Not, Rondeau had assured her, the same solitary cell where the god-haunted body of Mutex had been held captive – that would’ve been a little too much coincidence for comfort.

They stepped into the possible witch’s domain. Beta-B shouted and his grip on her hand tightened, his 150 pounds of weight dragging on her arm suddenly enough to wrench her shoulder painfully. While she and Rondeau were standing on relatively solid boards, Beta-B had stepped into a ragged hole in the floor easily six feet across, and now dangled over an abyss, wind whipping at his hair and clothes. Far below, sparks of dark blue light began to circle like luminous sharks. “Pull!” Marla shouted, and Rondeau grabbed her around the waist and lunged backwards, tugging her back and pulling Beta-B halfway up out of the hole. Marla got her free hand on Beta-B’s collar and hauled him onto the boards, where they both lay gasping. Beta-B trembled. “Fuck,” he said. “It’s cold down there.”

“Guys,” Rondeau said. “Um. The floor. Is melting.”

Marla leapt up. The boards were actually disintegrating – turning to dust and vapor – rather than melting, but this was no time to criticize Rondeau’s choice of words. They all ran, boards creaking and splintering alarmingly beneath them, toward the twisting corridors ahead of them. This is like one of those action movies, Marla thought, where the treasure hunter runs along a stone catwalk through a temple while the walkway collapses right behind him. Except in this case, there wasn’t a neck-breaking fall into a chasm at risk, but a potentially bottomless plummet into the gap between worlds. Marla ran, ignoring the branching tunnels and the doors – some of which were hanging crooked on their oh-so-ordinary brass hinges – and focusing on the way ahead. Great holes gaped in the walls, with that hellish biting wind ripping through, and the ceiling sagged down in places so low she had to duck her head to avoid brushing it, but it was the floor that worried her, as cracks began running in from the sides and holes opened that she had to leap across, Beta-B and Rondeau on her heels.

But then she turned a corner, raced past another of those doors (this one mercifully solid and shut), and there it was: the hole they’d torn in reality, smaller and partially healed-over but still big enough for a person to slip through, kaleidoscope lightning flickering within. “Through there!” she shouted, and was about to throw her bag through the portal and then dive after it when Rondeau bellowed.

She stopped, spun on her heel, looked back, and saw Rondeau standing on her side of a rapidly-widening crack in the floor… with Beta-B standing on the other side. He was tottering, barely keeping his balance, about to pitch into the depths. He recovered, falling back and sitting down on his ass, a look of total incomprehension on his face. The ground was literally disappearing around him, darkness and wind shredding the tunnel behind him to cut off his retreat, bits of the wall and ceiling turning to puffs of dust swallowed by the abyss.

“B, Bradley, man, jump!” Rondeau shouted.

But Marla knew that was hopeless. The crack that separated them from Beta-B was already several feet wide and getting wider, and Beta-B didn’t have any room behind him to back up and get a running start. He was on a melting ice floe in a tropical sea, and he knew it. The stunned look on his face vanished, replaced by a look of resignation. He shrugged, held up the palms of his hands as if to say “What can you do?” and glanced at the closed door on his left.

The very existence of those doors terrified Marla. Who knew what kind of places the possible witch needed easy access to in order to do her inscrutable work? The doors might lead to places where reality had altogether different rules, places where the air was boiling lead, places so dense they’d make black holes look like aerogel. But this wasn’t a case of choosing door number one or door number two. This was door number only. A Hobson’s choice: this, or nothing.

In her world, Bradley Bowman had lost his life and mind and soul and vanished into nothing.

This Bradley, at least, had a door.

He shouted something to Rondeau – Marla, standing farther back, only heard the sound, and the wind tore the sense away. Rondeau shouted something back, ran to Marla, and began pulling her toward the portal. She waited, though, even as the crack in the floor approached her, until she saw Bradley put his hand on the brass knob and open the door. She was hoping for some sign of hope – a radiant white light, maybe, the usual Hollywood visual shorthand for heavenly transcendence.

But the door just opened on more darkness, and Bradley gave her a dramatic, funny grimace – What, I have to go in here? – before stepping through.

“Come on!” Rondeau shouted. He climbed through the portal.

Marla followed, and entered her home universe with tears in her eyes.

#

Rondeau fell out of a tree, and rolled over in time to keep Marla from landing on top of him. He sat up unsteadily, looking around, trying to get his bearings. The sky was dark, the moon bright, and the only structure nearby was a white-painted gazebo. He groaned. “Marla. I think we lost some hours or something, should it be this dark?”

“We’re in Fludd Park. Back home. It’s later on the east coast.” She sat up, grasping her head. “Fuck. I have to. Turn it off.”

“Turn what off?”

“The city sense. Alarm bells in my head. Felport is screaming. Bad things happened here, Rondeau. They’re still happening.”

“Bad things happened back there, too. Bradley…”

Marla rose, bracing herself against the tree. “What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘Go, then. There are other worlds than these.’” He shook his head. “Stephen King reference. Bonus points.”

“I don’t get it,” Marla said.

“There’s this King book –”

“No, it’s okay, I don’t need to understand. You guys had your private jokes. I liked that, liked seeing you be friends, you should…” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Rondeau had seen her cry before, but she usually had an arrow sticking out of her thigh or something when it happened. “Fuck. I don’t believe in destiny, Rondeau, you know that, but I’ll be damned if the universe doesn’t have it in for Bradley. Shit. The universe. It’s me. I’m poison to that guy.”

“We don’t know what happened. What he found beyond that door. Maybe it’s the big rock candy mountain over there. Heaven with male strippers. An open-air sex and ice cream pavilion. It’s possible, right?”

Marla shrugged. “I keep you around for your optimism, Rondeau. At least we can imagine some kind of good outcome for him. What harm can it do? Next time I decide to rip apart space-time because I really miss B, just slap me upside the head, would you?”

“Will do. So… what now? I’m guessing we don’t have any time to grieve or process the shit that just happened, right? I mean, what did happen? Why the total collapse?”

“I think when the possible witch went wherever the fuck she went, her home base started to fall apart. It was a little bastion of order in a big chaotic void, and once she wasn’t there to maintain it anymore…” Marla shrugged. “We’re lucky we didn’t get stuck on that side.”

“Lucky. We’re stuck over here with the Mason now, right? And she’s done who knows what?”

“Yeah. We’re gonna have to deal with that.”

Rondeau leaned against the tree and closed his eyes. “Then let’s do what we need to do pretty fast, before the denial and numbness fade, okay?”

Marla rummaged in her bag and found her cell phone. Her sometime employee Langford, a technomancer, had fixed it for her so it could get reception even on the moon, but it hadn’t worked across dimensions. When she turned it on, though, it informed her she’d missed some calls.

About 875 calls in all. And she had voicemail messages aplenty. She pushed buttons at random, cursing, and finally handed it to Rondeau. “Can you work this thing and listen to the last message? Maybe we can hope for an executive summary or something.”

Rondeau nodded, punched the buttons, and held the phone to his ear. Hamil’s voice, hurried and worried and dripping with fear, entered his ear. He listened for a long time, then let the phone drop to the ground, and slid down the tree.

“Tell me,” Marla said.

“Granger dead.” He swallowed. “Viscarro turned to ashes. Doctor Husch – ah, fuck, Marla, Leda, torn to pieces.”

“What about Ernesto?” Marla said.

Rondeau shook his head minutely. “No. He’s… they got him. Dead.”

“Half the council,” Marla murmured. “She killed half my fucking council?”

“She could have killed Hamil, too. She left him alive to give you a message. The Mason says she’s at my club. In your office. She wants to meet with you.”

“I’ll just bet she does,” Marla said.

“If you don’t show up in the next 24 hours – less than that, now – she says she’ll destroy the whole city.”

“She won’t have to wait, we’re going now, we’re going to –”

“Marla.” Rondeau shook his head. “You can’t charge in. Not this time.”

“Bullshit. There’s not a problem I can’t solve with –”

“Didn’t you learn anything?” He didn’t shout, though he felt like shouting. He just didn’t have the energy. “You were sure you could just brute-force your way into bringing Bradley back to life, right? How well did that turn out? You managed to beat the Jaguar, but you did it because you had a good plan, you didn’t go all pissed off and try to beat him to death with a shovel. Like you said. The Mason killed half the council. I don’t think a simple ass-kicking is going to get the job done. I want her dead as bad as you do, but if we’re going to do this, can we do it with a plan? ”

Marla opened her mouth, expression furious, but then her face relaxed and she just sat down. “Thanks,” she said after a moment. “I guess I needed that.” She thought for a moment. “Okay. What did you have in mind?”

“Getting help. You know some serious badasses, Marla. Hell, call Genevieve, let’s get some reweaving going, turn the Mason into a field of cabbages or something.”

Marla shook her head. “Genevieve doesn’t have that kind of fine control. Her powers get away from her. That’s why she took herself out of the game, to her little bubble reality, because the world’s not safe when she uses her powers. Besides, she’s still human, and Crapsey can take control of human bodies at will – what if he jumped into her and took over her body before she had a chance to unleash her mojo? Think of the damage they could do with her abilities. No.”

Rondeau cleared his throat. “Well, what about, you know… The guy. With the rings. Mr., let’s say, Mr. D.”

Marla frowned. “What do you know about him?”

He shrugged. “Your office is right next to my kitchen, boss. I hear you talking sometimes, and even if I can’t make out the words through the privacy wards, I recognize the tone of the guy’s voice – you don’t forget what the lord of the underworld and the incarnation of Death sounds like. The guy did take over the whole city and try to kill me, you know. I know you two are, ah… friends. Or whatever. That you’ve kept in touch. I mean, he’s death. Surely he can go to bat for us.”

“I can’t ask him for help,” Marla said, scowling. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. Besides, he’s not overly concerned with my survival. If I get killed, he figures that means the two of us just get to spend more time together. Which doesn’t sound bad in theory, and after another century or so of life, I might even get to like the idea, but not now.”

“If you asked for help, he wouldn’t kill the Mason?”

Marla shook her head. “He couldn’t. You remember when he saw my cloak? How it scared him, because it doesn’t come from this universe – from this multiverse? It’s an alien, outside thing, beyond his ability to affect. He can’t kill it. He’s the death of every living thing from this world… but the Mason’s from another world. Outside his jurisdiction.”

“Maybe he could kill the body the Mason’s using, though, I mean –”

“And maybe not,” Marla snapped. “Maybe that body is basically just a zombie now anyway. Look, it’s not a terrible idea, and I’ll take it under advisement. If all else fails, I’ll call him. Assuming I can get the little bell I use to call him, which is presently in a drawer in my office where the Mason is sitting reading my mail. But I’m not used to running for help to some man, even a man who’s not really a man, and I’m not starting now, especially since I don’t think he’d be much use in this situation. I can deal with this on my own. This afternoon I beat a god. I can handle a bitch in a magic cloak, especially when I own exactly the same magic cloak.” She looked at Rondeau as if daring him to challenge her, but he didn’t rise to it. She slumped. “Really, the Mason doesn’t worry me that much. It’s Crapsey. If I show up, what’s to stop him from knocking my soul out and wearing my body like a suit?”

“There are protection spells, right?”

Marla nodded. “Sure. Total psychic armor spells. They protect you from possession, the thing on the doorstep trick, mind reading, and everything else – it turns your mind into a lead-lined box. Which is fine, but it’s serious complex long-term ritual shit. The kind of spell Susan Wellstone likes to do, but I don’t have the months it would take me to prepare or the week to perform the ritual. And even a sniper putting a bullet in Crapsey’s head won’t help, because he’ll just take some other host. No, the Mason I can handle, but your evil twin… He’s the real problem.”

“I might be able to fix that,” Rondeau said. “If you call the Mason and Crapsey and set up a meeting. But not right away. Like, in the morning. We have to run some errands first, get prepared.”

Marla cocked her head. “Yeah? You’ve got a plan?”

Rondeau laughed. “Not even close to a plan. But I’ve got a tactic. I can take care of Crapsey. The rest is up to you.”

“Well all right.” Marla picked up the phone. She poked at the buttons for a moment, then thrust the cell at Rondeau again. “Dial my office number, will you? I can never remember how to get to the stupid contacts list.”

“She can kill gods, but she can’t operate a cell phone,” Rondeau said.

“I can kill annoying employees, too.”

“Then who’d work this thing for you?” He handed her the phone. “There. It’s ringing.”

Marla listened for a moment. Then she said, “Hi, you. It’s me.”

Chapter 19

July 12th, 2010

“Crapsey, take him!” the Mason screamed. She tore at the branches of a tall oak tree, which looped and surrounded her like the bars of an ornate birdcage.

“I can’t!” Crapsey shouted. “He’s not human anymore!” He fell back, avoiding Granger’s inch-long claws.

Granger was the guardian of that bit of green space at the heart of Felport called Fludd Park, and he’d transformed himself into an oversized polar bear, some serious Pleistocene megafauna shit. He had to be thirteen or fourteen feet tall when he was reared back on his hind legs, and probably weighed more than a ton. Crapsey lost his footing in his retreat and went slipping and sliding down the hill toward a duck pond, landing in ankle-deep water. Great. Now he was damp and likely to die soon.

Granger was supposed to be the easy kill. Gentle, easygoing, dumber than a sack full of spoons – he was a joke. The Mason had killed him in their world at the same emergency meeting of the council where she’d offed most of the other major sorcerers in Felport. But this time they’d attacked Granger on his home turf, and apparently, that made all the difference. The whole park had turned against them from the moment they entered – tree branches reaching out for them, spontaneous sinkholes opening under their feet, birds trying to peck out their eyes, vines trying to strangle them. The park was as dark as the Mason’s heart, too, no street lights penetrating this far in, just the faint shine of the moon and stars to combat the looming shadows teeming with bugs and beasts and badness.

Crapsey splashed out of the shallows of the pond, but then the water itself rose up into some kind of pond-scum golem and batted him aside. Rocks and boulders began rolling toward him of their own volition, and he had to dodge and jump and sprint to avoid getting crushed. Meanwhile bear-Granger was advancing, roaring. Crapsey looked up at the Mason in hope of salvation, but she was still stuck in a fucking tree, though sawdust was showering down as she tried to escape.

I wish Nicolette were here, he thought. All this crazy shit happening would be like fuel for her, and she’d twist the chaos to her own purposes. Oh well. He dove into a somersault, wrenching his shoulder pretty badly in the process, and tried to hide behind a wrought-iron bench. The bear approached him steadily, down on all fours now, drool falling from his jaws like a waterfall.

What were you supposed to do with this kind of bear? Play dead? Climb a tree? Playing dead wouldn’t help since this bear had a human mind, and climbing a tree was no good since the trees were trying to kill him too. Death – or at least the death of this, his favorite body – was looking pretty likely.

Well, when you run out of intelligent options, do something crazy.

He vaulted over the bench and charged the bear. A normal bear probably would have just eaten him, but the frontal assault clearly surprised Granger, probably since Crapsey had been more of a panic-and-run opponent previously. Crapsey feinted a punch at one side of the bear’s head – the head was about as big as Crapsey’s whole godsdamn torso – and when the bear snapped his jaws at that side, Crapsey darted around to the other, trusting in speed and agility over sheer mass. He got alongside the bear, jumped onto his back, and did his best to wrap his arms around the bear’s neck. Choking Granger out wasn’t going to work – he might as well have been choking a utility pole for all the bear seemed to notice – so he sighed and muttered one of the magic words the Mason had prepared for him.

They were all stupid-sounding words. Titmouse. Whiffenpoof. Polliwog. Kumquat. The particular word he used this time was “Grommet.”

Like all his magic words, this one made the runes in his jaw glow blue – and then did something horrible. Crapsey screamed as his jaw dislocated and expanded, unhinging like a snake’s, but, he assumed, far more painfully. Needle-sharp fangs bloomed from his wooden jaw in profusion, and Crapsey lowered his face to the bear’s neck and bit down.

Crapsey tore away a mouthful of fur, skin, blood, muscle, and fat, and though he tried to turn his head and spit, his possessed jaw held on and forced him to swallow. The Mason’s spells were just as bitchy as the woman herself. As Granger moaned and thrashed, Crapsey bit down again, teeth gouging and shredding and tearing, jaw grinding and scraping against bone.

But he wasn’t making any progress. Granger’s healing powers were profound, and the open wound filled with new flesh as quickly as Crapsey could bite, skin and fur regenerating as well. The trees around them sagged, branches drooping and flowers wilting, as the nature magician drew life force from the park around him. Crapsey’s magical jaw was clamped on now, though, grinding and biting with a mind of its own, and there was no letting go. I’m going to literally explode from swallowing too much bear meat, Crapsey thought. It was certainly an unusual way to go.

The Mason dropped from the tree and landed before Granger. “You’re killing the park,” she said, conversationally. “We’ll keep attacking you, and you’ll keep stealing life from the birds and bushes and grasses and squirrels until they’re all dead. Eventually we’ll be fighting in a sandy wasteland. And then we’ll kill you anyway.”

Granger roared, though it was more a howl of dismay than rage, and he sank down to his front paws. The Mason knelt and looked into his ursine face. “So you can fight, and kill the park, or die, and we’ll spare the park. I solemnly promise, no harm will come to your domain if you just give in.”

The bear suddenly rolled over, tens of hundreds of pounds pressing against Crapsey and snapping several ribs and squeezing all the air out of his lungs. The roll tore Crapsey loose – mouth still jammed with bleeding bear meat – and he gasped in agony on his back, unable to scream because he was compulsively swallowing.

The bear transformed into Granger, kneeling and bleeding copiously from a wound in his neck. “Why are you doing this, Marla?” he said. “Don’t I do good for you? Fight for you? Help you when helping’s what you need?”

The Mason didn’t say anything to correct the case of mistaken identity. Super cruel. “You’ve never been any use to me, Granger. Now it’s time for you to go away.”

“But the park, I have no apprentice, no successor…”

“I’ll take care of the park.” She reached out to pat his cheek. “Better than you ever did. I swear. Just stop fighting. Lay down and bleed. Return to the soil. Feed the trees. Be a feast for worms. All right? Or else the park will be nothing but spoil and desert and salted earth forever.”

Tears running down his broad face, Granger nodded, and curled up on the ground. He began to sink into the earth, and within moments a light covering of grasses sprang up to cover his body, until nothing remained of him but a hump in the landscape.

“I love it when you can just talk them into dying,” the Mason said. “I wonder if that approach would work on Marla? ‘Surrender and give me your cloak, and I’ll spare Felport’? I suppose it’s possible.” She walked over to Crapsey and looked down at him, hands on hips. “Are you all right?”

Crapsey swallowed the last bit of bear meat, and then screamed as his jaw returned to its original configuration. The pain in his face made his body spasm, jostling his ribs and causing a sensation not unlike multiple stab wounds to the torso.

“Crybaby,” the Mason said, and then her cloak was white again – mercy, twice in one day! – and she bent to touch him.

Cool, numbing magic flowed over his skin and penetrated deeper into his body, pain receding to a distant hum, even when his ribs slid back into place. With his ribs unbroken, he finally let himself roll over and vomit, puking a considerable pool of bear slurry into the grass.

With the healing wave still surging through him, even puking wasn’t too unpleasant. He sat up and scooted away from his reeking puddle. “That’s the stuff, boss. Why haven’t you ever healed me up before? You usually leave me to suffer and heal naturally, like some sort of lousy ordinary.”

Her cloak was purple again. She stared up at the cold dead moon as if into a mirror. “Pain is instructive. It teaches you not to make so many mistakes. But we have too much work to do tonight – I need you functional.”

“I presume you’re going to turn this park into a smoking hole in the ground?”

“Breaking my oath to Granger would be amusing. The fool believed my promise – as if I could enter into a binding contract with vermin. I imagine I’ll cause some fires as we leave, but I don’t have time for proper desertification. The Chamberlain still lives, and the Bay Witch, and of course Hamil, and if I have to kill the entire council to goad Marla Mason into facing me, I will.”

Crapsey got to his feet and started trying to brush mud off his suit, but it was so caked in with the bear’s blood and pond slime and other unmentionables that he soon gave up. “Maybe you scared her off, ever think of that? If Marla has any sense she just left the key to the city in her mailbox and left town.”

“Unlikely. The Marla Mason of this world resisted the lure of the cloak, which means she has a strong will – a stronger will even than the version of Marla I use as my vessel. Still, her failure to arrive is peculiar. We have been causing both covert and public destruction for some hours now.”

“Maybe we’re moving too fast. Let’s give her some time to come find us.” Crapsey stripped off his ruined suit jacket and dropped it over the pool of vomit, hiding one bit of hideousness with another. “I need a shower, and new clothes, and booze, and some sleep, and some food –”

The Mason smirked. “You didn’t get your fill of bear meat?”

“It was better than the slop you serve back home, but I don’t much like the aftertaste. I think the meat turned into human when Granger transformed back. Long pig isn’t my thing.”

The Mason shook her head. “No. We will press on –”

“Not in these clothes,” Crapsey said firmly. “Call it weak, call it vain, I don’t give a shit, but I can’t go on like this. I’m wearing a slaughterhouse floor here.”

The Mason made a slight sound of annoyance – enough to chill the blood under other circumstances, but Crapsey had hit his limit for the night, and didn’t much care. He was pretty sure he was still more useful than annoying.

“Fine,” she said. “We will pass a clothing store, I’m sure, and you can break in long enough to change. I will cast a spell of satiation and stimulus on you to assuage your hunger and exhaustion. Then we will go north of the river and kill the Chamberlain and banish her beloved coterie of ghosts, and –”

“Boss, somebody’s coming.” Crapsey squinted into the gloom under the trees, where a tall, broad-shouldered figure approached. “Think it’s a mugger? That would be too, too funny.”

The man came closer, stopping a few yards away. His neatly tailored, conservative suit did nothing to hide the fact that he was big, tall, and tremendously fat. Fat, but not flabby – he had what old crime writers called “hard fat”: a layer of bulk over muscle. The moonlight gleamed on his bald, black head, and his dark eyes were calm. “Hello,” he said, voice simultaneously deep and mild. “My name is Hamil. I represent the interests of the sorcerers in this city – at least, the ones you two haven’t killed. Perhaps you’d care to use your words instead of lashing out physically?”

“Want me to drop him?” Crapsey said.

The Mason shook her head. “No point. You could take over the body, but you wouldn’t hurt the man.” She approached Hamil, who backed away to keep his distance. “You look like Hamil, but you’re not. You’re a sort of… meat robot, aren’t you, operated remotely.”

Hamil – or the Hamil-bot – inclined his head. “It seemed unwise to send my real physical body to meet with you, but I assure you, the voice you hear is my own, transmitted from a safe location. Now: what do you want?”

“Do you know who I am?” the Mason said.

He shrugged. “I can speculate. You look like Marla – or the way she looked as a girl – but you aren’t her. He looks like Rondeau, but isn’t. Obviously you’re some sort of… dark doppelgangers. While I’m sure your origin story is fascinating, I’m more interested in practical matters, like how to stop you from killing everyone.”

“I want Marla,” the Mason said.

Hamil sighed. “You could have called and made an appointment. I’m sure she’d be delighted to meet a murdering lunatic who wears her face.”

“This is my way of making an appointment. Where is she? Why did she send you instead of coming herself? Is she afraid to face me?” Crapsey detected a note of real disappointment in the Mason’s last question.

“Not at all. She’s merely out of town.”

Crapsey laughed. “We came all this way to surprise her, and she’s not even home?”

“Where is she?” the Mason said. “When will she return?”

“I can’t divulge that information. But I’d be happy to see you both installed in a comfortable apartment in my building, where you can await her arrival in –”

“You will tell me,” the Mason said. She crossed the space between them in an instant, grabbing Hamil’s lapels and staring up into his face. He outweighed her by a couple of hundred pounds, probably, but there was no doubt in Crapsey’s mind which one of them was scarier. “Or I will end you.”

“Threatening this body is about as effective as threatening the mouthpiece of a telephone,” the Hamil-bot said dryly.

The Mason cocked her head, as if listening to distant music. “This body… is a mindless vat-grown clone, accelerated to full growth, operated via sympathetic magic – of course it is, you only have that one hammer in your toolbox, so every problem is a nail – with a potent connection between you and the clone, because you are genetically identical. So since you and the clone are indistinguishable at this moment magically, that means, yes…” She grunted, put her hands on either side of the Hamil-bot’s head, and said, “I can snap this creature’s neck and break yours, too. Or I could cast Garcia’s Torment, and make every cell in your body violently separate from every other cell, but that’s so messy. Perhaps I’ll chant the Razor Song, and give you eternal pain instead of a simple death. Ha, yes, keep throwing up those barriers, try to keep the flow of information one way, that’s funny, that amuses me.” She pressed her thumbs into the Hamil-bot’s eyes, and the big man fell to his knees, gasping. “You feel that, don’t you? I could blind you now. Tell me. Where is Marla. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Or I’ll kill you and interrogate your corpse.”

“She went to the other world!” Hamil shouted. “But when she comes back, she will destroy you!”

The Mason removed her thumbs from his eyes and patted his head. “The other world. I see. Oh, yes, I see. Tell me: Why did she go? And tell me: How did she get there?”

Hamil gritted his teeth, and the Mason sighed, and spoke a phrase that made Crapsey want to blurt out his every indiscretion and secret – an incantatory truth-telling compulsion. The spell wasn’t even directed at Crapsey, he’d just caught the edges, and it was all he could do not to start babbling; Hamil didn’t have a chance.

Hamil told what he knew: Marla had kidnapped some dude from another world, thus tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of reality, and then when the kidnapped dude wanted to go home, she took him.

Crapsey said, “Bradley Bowman. Why does that sound familiar?”

“He’s Sanford Cole’s second in command,” the Mason said. “One of the rebels in San Francisco.”

“Huh. So the Jaguar hasn’t eaten him yet? And Marla made a deal with some deep scary power and snatched Bowman here because his dead mirror-world counterpart was her boyfriend or something? And she, what, she missed him?” He could barely comprehend the idea. To go to that much trouble, to unleash that kind of magic, just to get back a dead friend… well, maybe if Crapsey’d ever really had a friend he might have understood it better. He was willing to concede the possibility.

“So it seems. I imagine you and I are the magical consequences of her action – that unleashing us on her world was the price the possible witch forced Marla to pay.” The Mason sniffed. “I dislike being a pawn of the deep powers. But the action alerted me to the existence of the multiverse, and showed me that passage between worlds is possible, which is useful information for me. So I am less angry than I could be.” She stroked the still kneeling, now weeping Hamil under his chin. “Listen, Hamil. I’ll allow you to live for a little while. All right? But you must get a message to Marla. Tell her I’ll be waiting for her in her office. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Hamil said. “I’ll tell her. But I don’t know when she’s coming back –”

“If she doesn’t face me within 24 hours, I will level this city. And I will begin to conquer this world as I conquered the other.” She paused. “Of course, I’ll probably do that last part anyway. But if she faces me, I’ll spare Felport.”

Hamil didn’t respond. She frowned. “Answer when spoken to.”

The Hamil-bot responded by falling over on its side, completely inert.

The Mason sighed. “Ah. He managed to break the sympathetic connection. Well, it is his magical specialty. I shouldn’t be surprised. He’ll deliver my message, though.”

“And if Marla doesn’t show?”

“Then I’ll have the pleasure of destroying this city, which I was unable to do in our world because I wanted to keep my very useful dagger. Either outcome pleases me. Now. We’ll go to Juliana’s club – Rondeau’s club, here, apparently. Your doppelganger must have more self-control than you, Crapsey. If you owned a bar, you’d drink all the inventory.”

Crapsey shrugged. “I live in a hellish nightmare world, and he doesn’t. Of course I need booze more.” He yawned. “I hope Marla waits until, say, after lunchtime tomorrow to show up. I’m looking forward to a shower, and a bed, and maybe some of Rondeau’s clothes will fit me, even if he is by all accounts a scrawny fuck.”

“Enjoy your naptime,” the Mason said. “I’m more interested in exploring the contents of Marla’s files.”

“There aren’t many people who take equal pleasure in ripping off heads and sorting through papers, boss.”

“I am a highly evolved being,” the Mason replied.

Welcome New Readers!

July 7th, 2010

Some new readers are arriving today — welcome! You can start reading the novel from the beginning with the table of contents up above, or read about the series and the reason I’m serializing this book via the links on the left.

Donations are especially welcome this month, since an expected (and long overdue) check for some other writing I’ve done is not actually arriving as promised, and I’m not sure when it will show up. This is tricky because I was counting on it to pay for my son’s health insurance and preschool tuition next month, so my financial outlook is suddenly a lot darker and more tempestuous.

I’ve been writing professionally for years — I understand the cash flow issues that publishers sometimes have, and I’m always willing to work with companies that owe me money, and I exhibit great patience. What I can’t stand is being lied to, and promised a check, only to have the promise retracted. That stings a bit.

So, if you find my work worthy, and you can spare a little, do please donate. You get goodies, as detailed in the sidebar!

Edited to add: My agent did some chasing, and got the overdue check overnighted to her… and the publisher even paid another big chunk of money that wasn’t due for a couple more months. So all is well!