Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for the ‘Chapters’ Category

Chapter 14

Monday, June 7th, 2010

Cole had a private office, or the nearest next best thing: an old store room with an actual working door, a bookshelf on the wall, a scrounged wooden desk, and a few old kitchen chairs. Practically homey compared to the rest of Camp Kimke. Cole took the swivel chair behind his desk regally and motioned Marla, Beta-B, and Rondeau to sit. Lao brought a teapot and a few cups and set them down on the desk. He started to look around for a chair of his own, but Cole said, “That will be all, Lao Tsung. We’ll talk later.”

Lao frowned, glared at Marla a little more than he glared at everyone else, and left, shutting the door.

“We have privacy now,” Cole said. “The room is shielded from surveillance.”

Marla raised an eyebrow. “Worried about your own people spying on you?”

Beta-B laughed, harshly. “We used to think it was just a sensible precaution, but now…” He shook his head.

“Before we get to that,” Cole said, “I’d like to formally apologize for my apprentice’s actions. You came to us offering help, and Bradley responded with treachery. It was ungentlemanly. When he told me what he had planned for you… while I admired the quick thinking behind the idea, I could not accept it morally or ethically. You were in no danger of being used to assassinate the Mason, and I apologize profoundly for the entire situation.”

Beta-B looked at the ceiling, and Marla figured he would’ve pushed for the whole sacrifice-Marla idea harder if they hadn’t gotten their butts whipped by the Jaguar. “Yeah, yeah, apology accepted. I should thank you. The whole attempted-sacrifice thing brought it home for me – deep down, beyond the intellectual level – that, appearances aside, this isn’t my home. It’s a mirror universe, and I need to remember that.”

Rondeau shook his head. “Technically it’s not a mirror universe. In a mirror universe all the good guys are evil and all the bad guys are good. Like, for instance, Superman and Batman are warlords and Lex Luthor and the Joker are superheroes. If Sanford Cole was over here sitting on a chair made of skulls and eating virgin-girl pate, then yeah, this would be a mirror world. But he’s not – Cole’s still a good guy, he’s just a good guy who lives in a sewer. The only real mirror-type situation is you and the Mason – over in our world you’re a hero, more or less, but here, she’s a monster. But mostly this place is more like a ‘dark world,’ which means it’s just like our universe except shit’s all fucked up. Like Superman’s dead and Batman has started murdering criminals and Lex Luthor runs a space casino.”

Marla looked at him for a long moment. “Nerd,” she said. She turned back to Cole. “Listen, you can still use me to kill the Jaguar. You just have to leave out the human sacrifice parts. So, what happened today? You had an awesome plan and it failed, I gather?”

Cole looked down at his hands. “We were betrayed. We intercepted intelligence telling us the Jaguar planned to visit a temple, in person, in the heart of what was once the financial district. There, in a rather pretty plaza, in front of a fountain that flows with blood – magically anti-coagulated, of course – he intended to sacrifice a dozen women and children and feast on their hearts. The Jaguar is the incarnation of a god, but he is therefore self-evidently incarnate, and not beyond harm. If we killed his body the god would continue to dwell wherever dusty old unworshipped gods live, I suppose, but he’d cease to be a problem for us. He seldom leaves his well-guarded imperial palace – which is located in what was once the Palace of Fine Arts, because the Jaguar has a very literal mind – and is fantastically difficult to harm even if he can be reached. But, we thought, while he was distracted, in an open, exposed area, we could make a coordinated attack. We are not warriors, but Lao Tsung helped us come up with a plan of attack.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“We were ssaulted before we’d even taken up our positions. The Jaguar’s spymaster and enforcer ambushed us. This spymaster styles himself the Lynx, in honor of his master’s affinity for jungle cats and because, I imagine, lynxes are known as mysterious keepers of secrets, mythologically. The Lynx is a formidable opponent, supported by the Jaguar’s resurrected undead Aztec warriors and his own squad of deadly ghost-cats. Half our number were killed or captured in a perfectly coordinated attack. The only explanation for such a disaster is that we have a, ah – what’s that charmingly apt term, Bradley?”

“A mole.”

“Yes, a mole.”

“Spies who pretend to be your friends suck,” Marla said. “That’s why I don’t make many friends. But if you’ve got a traitor in your midst, why don’t they lead the Jaguar down here and just wipe you out?”

Cole chuckled. “Marla, I’m told you’re a chief sorcerer in your own world. You have a profound connection to your city, don’t you?”

Marla shrugged. “Sure. I have an affinity with Felport. Took me a while to develop that power, and it doesn’t work when I’m this far away, but when I’m there, I can tell all sorts of things, from where traffic jams are to where pollution’s the worst or business is the best.”

Cole nodded. “You have the city sense, then. That’s valuable… but there’s so much more. You’re young, yet. I’ve been the caretaker of San Francisco since 1848 – though I was admittedly asleep some of the time, with others ruling as my regents, though they didn’t realize it. Once you’ve been watching a city for that long, you can draw power from the place, and the place, in turn, protects you. Bradley tells me you have a low opinion of our security, and I’m sure you’re right – Lao Tsung made similar observations, but he hasn’t been down here with us long enough to correct any of our mistakes. But the security inside Camp Kimke is nothing compared to the security outside. The city hides us, you see, because I asked it to. The Jaguar may rule San Francisco in name and by force, but the city itself is still mine. The entrance to our bunker cannot be found unless I want it found. I would have said the Camp was utterly impregnable – but of course you and Rondeau found your way inside. I gather a force powerful enough to dwarf even the might of gods had a hand in that, however, and such interventions are difficult to guard against. Even then, I knew of your arrival instantly.” He shifted in his chair, which squeaked like a tormented mouse. “The Lynx’s mole had to goad us outside, you see, to make us vulnerable.”

“Any guesses who the bad guy might be?”

“We can rule out the dead,” Cole said, deadpan. He couldn’t, not really, but Marla didn’t argue the point – if the mole was dead, the problem had solved itself. “I can also rule out you two, as you’ve arrived too recently to commit such treachery – which is why I trust you now, and hope you can help me. I also trust my core advisors implicitly. Most were part of my government when I ruled the Free State of Northern California. Only three people have joined us recently, to become part of the resistance, and I suspect the spy must be one of them. First was Chris Decomain, but he died saving me, and is thus beyond suspicion. A shame. He was an antimancer – a master of counter-magic – and his loss is a great blow. Nice fellow, too. Another is Lao Tsung, the sorcerer who cared for Golden Gate Park. He had a relationship with my government, and I’ve known him a long time, if not well. When he joined us, I made him my second-in-command based on his knowledge of combat and defense. I wonder now if I made a mistake.”

“I’d like to say it can’t be Lao,” Marla said. “And in my universe, I’d be sure of it. But here? I don’t know. Who’s the third one?”

“You haven’t met her,” Beta-B said. “She was one of the council of sorcerers in San Francisco in the old days, before magic went public and the Free State was formed, but she didn’t join the government, she went down to South San Francisco and started a machine shop building defenses to help fight against the Mason. When the Jaguar rose, she made her way up here and volunteered to lend a hand. Her name’s Bethany.”

Marla closed her eyes. “Sexy, smart, acid tongue? Lots of body modifications? Tattoos, piercings, metal stuff implanted under her skin? Likes leather? Enjoys building lethal engines?”

“That’s her,” Beta-B said. “Did you know her, on the other side?”

“She’s your spy,” Rondeau said. “Crazy cannibal witch.”

Marla nodded.

“She’s a cannibal?” Cole said. “My word. You know this for a fact?”

“She was working for Mutex when he tried to raise a god in my world,” Marla said. “I mean, you might want to lock her in a room and throw some truth-telling compulsions on her to confirm, but she’s your best bet.”

“Bradley, will you go and see Lao and ask him to bring Bethany in for a chat?”

Beta-B nodded and left the room, carefully shutting the door after him.

“If your allegation proves true, you’ll have done us a great service,” Cole said.

“Awesome,” Marla said. “Let me do you another service. I’ll help you kill the Jaguar.”

“Bradley said you’re quite confident that you can defeat our nemesis, but he also says you’re confident about everything. Do you actually have, ah – a plan?”

Marla didn’t so much grin as show her teeth. “Sure I do. Because I know something about the Jaguar you don’t know. And when the Jaguar finds out I know his secret, he’ll piss his leopardskin pants in terror. Want to hear more?”


Bethany was nowhere to be found – she’d never returned from the failed assault on the Jaguar, but no one had seen her fall, and none of her squad had returned, either, which meant they were probably dead and she was in the wind. After two hours of talking over details with Cole, and another hour talking to Beta-B and Rondeau about their part in the plan, Marla addressed the rest of the team.

The survivors of the failed assault and the other members of the resistance – including wounded Talion, still-yawning Pie Bob, and the Trapper with her knee magically reset but her dignity still bruised – were gathered around Cole and Marla. “So that’s the plan,” she said. “Anybody have any useful criticisms?”

“I’m not thrilled about the fact that half the plan hinges on you,” Lao Tsung said. “And I’m even less happy with the part that hinges on Rondeau there. Then there’s the whole fact that our entire premise is based on the assumption that something that happened in your universe also happened here, which is by no means definite. But otherwise, I guess it’s no stupider than what we tried today.”

“I’ll do my part,” Marla said. “And Rondeau will do his.” Rondeau looked up at her, eyes full of resignation. She was asking a lot of him, but she couldn’t see another way… at least, not without racking up a much higher body count. “You guys just need to remember your lines and blocking. Can you whip up the tincture, Pie Babe?”

Pie Bob, who was the resident alchemist as well as the resident chef, nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem, we’ve got a decent pantry of spell components here. Just something to enhance a sympathetic connection, right?”

“Yep,” Marla said. “Exactly the sort of thing you would have used to strengthen the association between me and the Mason right before lopping my head off.”

Most of the Camp Kimke crew had the good grace to look ashamed, except for Talion and – heartbreakingly – Beta-B. I’m not your B, he’d shouted, and she’d known that, deep down, but she’d hoped he might become her B. Maybe that was a stupid hope. Then again, they were about to risk their lives in a shared enterprise, and if they didn’t die in the process, that could bring them closer.

It wasn’t like she gave a fart in a hurricane about killing the Jaguar. The Mason, sure – that bitch was wearing her skin – but the Jaguar? Not her world, not her problem. She just wanted to save San Francisco so Beta-B would think she was awesome.

“We’ll go in two teams,” Marla said. “One team will be me, led by me, featuring me. The other team will be led by Lao Tsung, with Bradley and Rondeau along as material assets, and Jericho and the cousins and so on providing tactical backup. Cole will stay here with the rest of you in case, you know. Everything goes bad-shaped. You can be the tattered remnants. Now, everybody get some rest. We’ve got a few hours before go-time. Bradley, Rondeau, Trapper, come talk to me – we’ll get you guys set-up for a few practice runs.”


“I can’t believe she’s asking me to do this.” Rondeau sat, miserable, on the edge of the pit where they’d stupidly tried to hold Marla, his legs dangling down inside. “Back home I’ve got a mad scientist type trying to figure out how to make it so I can’t jump bodies at all, and Marla wants me to do it on purpose?”

“The plan can’t work without you.” Beta-B sat beside him. “I don’t think she’d ask you if there was some other way. Besides, being able to jump from body to body at will doesn’t mean you have to. Hell, having some more control would be a benefit. You’re bound to cross the street drunk and get hit by a bus or get shotgunned by a jealous wife someday, and wouldn’t it be better if you could choose your next host instead of leaping blindly? If you had that kind of control, you could have taken over the guy who shot you, maybe, instead of stealing Alpha-Bradley’s body. Right?”

“Stop dazzling me with logic. It’s not like the plan is even going to work. Supposedly it took that guy Crapsey years to learn how to control where he jumped. How am I supposed to figure it out in, what, three hours?”

“Crapsey was stuck with your original body’s brain, which wasn’t psychic at all. Whereas you’re running Bradley Bowman 1.0 in your skull there.” He tapped the side of Rondeau’s head. “That brain is good at disconnecting the personality and letting it fly free. I do it all the time. Astral travel, remote viewing – I can lay back in bed and fly in spirit-form over the city all night, and when I come back, my body’s all warm and waiting for me. With a brain like that and your natural ability to leave your body, this should be pretty easy for you.”

“You don’t know what it’s like, though,” Rondeau said. “The fear, the sense of disconnection, the terror that I might just float away or dissolve or something…” He shuddered.

“I had the same thing the first time I projected my consciousness. You’ve only done it once that you remember – of course it was scary. That’s why we’re going to practice until it stops being scary and starts being cool. So get into the pit, big boy.”

“Okay.” Rondeau didn’t move. “Listen, Bradley. I’m sorry if I, ah, treated you like somebody you aren’t. I know you aren’t my old friend B, you’re a totally different person, and –”

“It’s okay. I’m the one who should apologize. I was a major dick. I do feel bad about what I tried to do to Marla, but it seemed like an act of evil in service of a greater good, and… You have to understand, under this charming exterior, I’m a deeply desperate dude. The fact that you two are still willing to help, despite my betrayal, tells me you’re better people than I am.”

“Well,” Rondeau said, “I mean. We are pretty great.”

The Trapper cleared her throat. “Guys, I’ve got a couple tabs of vicodin waiting for me when we’re done here, so if we can get started?”

Rondeau nodded and went down the rope ladder into the pit. After he reached the bottom, Beta-B pulled the ladder up to the top. At least they didn’t slide the scary metal grate over the top. The Trapper said, “Okay, I’m going to seal you in. The field will be airtight – more than airtight, it’s sound-tight, magic-tight, totally impermeable. So don’t bother screaming. We won’t hear you. You should have enough oxygen for like a day, but we won’t leave you in there that long. We’ll check on you in a few hours, and if you’re ready to come out, just wave your arms over your head in a big X or give us a thumbs-up or something, okay?”

“I’d like to register a formal protest against Marla’s treatment of me,” Rondeau said.

“You and me both, brother,” the Trapper replied. She closed her eyes, moved her hands, hummed – and a rosy hemisphere of pale light appeared as a dome overhead. The dome was really just part of a bubble that surrounded the entire pit. The Trapper and Beta-B waved and walked away.

“Trapped in a snow globe,” Rondeau said. Beta-B had gone over various exercises with him, ways to loosen his mind and project himself outward, and he figured he might as well get started. The sooner he could totally fail at this, the sooner they could come up with a plan that didn’t depend on his ability to do something he couldn’t possibly do.

Rondeau shut his eyes and envisioned dandelion fluff blowing free in the breeze, champagne corks popping, butterflies emerging from chrysali – chrysalises? Chrysalides? What the hell was the plural of chrysalis anyway? He sighed. This is me, failing to clear my mind.

Rondeau tried again, mostly attempting to push down the fear. The last time he’d left his body, he’d accidentally killed one of his best friends, and the idea of doing something similarly horrible here was terrifying. But the Trapper had him in a bubble his essential self could not escape – as far as they knew, anyway, but nobody really knew what Rondeau was, beyond calling him a “psychic parasite,” which sounded good but didn’t mean much. Still, if he got out of the airtight cell and managed to bodysnatch one of the Camp Kimke Irregulars, that was their own fault, wasn’t it?

It’ll be okay, the ghost of B whispered in his head. Just don’t use the power for evil, man, and it’ll be fine. You always had my forgiveness. You’ve also got my permission.

Whether it was really some remnant of B’s thought patterns, or just wishful thinking and talking to himself, Rondeau took comfort.

Deep breaths. A welling spring, water bubbling to the surface. Moths fluttering into the sky, silhouetted against the moon. Being at the bottom of the sea and floating up and up and up until you finally broke the surface and –

His core being tore loose from his body, and the fear set in, the same grasping panicky desperation to find some kind of solid ground that had led him to take over Bradley Bowman’s body when his own original host died. Rondeau flew up, because there were bodies up there, warm human bodies, he could feel them, any of them would do, whichever was closest, but he hit a wall, something glassy and smooth and impossible to penetrate and he howled but there was no sound.

But in that long desperate moment beating against the dome, the fear subsided. Last time, he’d found a new host so quickly, he hadn’t had time to get used to the feeling of weightlessness and disorientation, and he still wasn’t used to it, but the blind unreasoning flight for a new warm body to possess receded, slightly.

His body! It was still at the bottom of the pit! Faster than thought, he settled back into his stolen skin. It was like sliding into a warm bath, and he gasped – he gasped, because he had lungs – and touched himself all over to make sure he was whole. He was kind of sore – he’d banged his elbow – and he was on the floor twisted at an awkward angle because he hadn’t bothered to arrange his body in any kind of sensible fashion before vacating it. That was dumb – he’d have to be smarter about it next time.

Next time. Right. Once could be a fluke. Any good experiment had to be repeatable.

Leaning against the wall of the pit, he went limp, making sure his body wouldn’t fall over and land on one of the chunks of busted cinderblock that littered the floor. Once settled, he closed his eyes, and did circular breathing like Beta-B had taught him, and visualized that rising-from-the-depths image…

Suddenly he could see again, though he hadn’t opened his eyes. And he could see in all directions, not just 360 degree vision, but… however many degrees there were in a sphere. Which was probably not any degrees at all since a sphere was three-dimensional, which meant instead of degrees there’d be some other math thing, and –

Holy hell I’m out of my body again, he thought, and he knew it was true, because his body was lying there on the floor of the pit, empty as a pair of pants left at the foot of a bed. More importantly, he was out of his body and thinking about math (and his own ignorance thereof) instead of just groping around in blind unreasoning panic for a new meat-bag to occupy. He tried to direct his movement and found he could propel himself – though he couldn’t have said how – around the pit, up and down, taking in the sights. Sight, yes, and into spectrums invisible to his human eyes, but he had no sense of smell, or taste, and no sense of touch, though he could hear his body breathing, except it wasn’t so much hearing as interpreting the vibrations in the air. He could also sense the presence of humans, too, sort of like… how a magnet senses north.

What the hell am I? Rondeau thought, and settled back down into his body again.

He stood up, and opened his mouth to yell, but this stupid magic bubble was soundproof. They wouldn’t let him out until it was time to let him out. He had no clue how long he’d been down there, which meant he might have way too much time to brood over what Marla wanted him to do. Knowing he could leave his body at will was one thing – if he could control the panic that came when he first departed the flesh, he wouldn’t necessarily commit any grievous crimes against humanity. After all, knowing how to shoot a gun doesn’t automatically make you a murderer.

But, being told to shoot somebody, and then doing what you were told, did make you a murderer.

Oh well. Screw that noise. Introspection had never gotten him anywhere. He was in a body again, and bodies were glorious things, marvelous engines of pleasure. So while he was stuck in this hole in the ground, bored out of his mind but with a functioning body, he might as well drop his pants and rub one out.

He fantasized about Talion, because even with the missing fingers and all, that guy was still hot.

Chapter 13

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Nicolette loved the Humvee, and gladly took over its operation, shouting “I’m burning dinosaur bones!” as she drove. Freak. Her promotion to driver left Crapsey in the back seat, watching fields and trees spool by. They were still outside Felport. This land was all waste and spoil and smoking holes in the ground where Crapsey was from, ruined in the magical wars fought by the various groups of sorcerers who’d attempted to take down the Mason in her home territory over the years. He couldn’t get over how different things were here. All nature and shit. Bizarre.

Then again, Nicolette was remarkably similar to the version of herself Crapsey knew and loathed, full of biting wit, barbed comments, non-sequiturs, and the random giggles of the deeply unhinged. Apparently they hadn’t gotten very far with her in terms of therapy and rehabilitation at the Blackwing Institute. Or else Nicolette had been even crazier when she went in.

“We need to find Marla,” the Mason was saying. “You will make it happen.”

“Sure thing. Mind if we swing by one of my secret stashes first? Marla impounded most of my toys, but I kept caches hidden around the city, you know, against the eventuality.”

“You will be more useful to me if you are armed.”

“That means yes,” Crapsey said.

“Thanks for the interpretation, Craphole,” Nicolette said. “I swear, it was like she was speaking Martian up here.”

“Why are you a bitch to me?” Crapsey said. “You’ve never even met me.”

Nicolette snorted. “Oh, I’ve met you, or at least your ineffectual twin. You’re hotter than Rondeau, I’ll give you that, you take care of yourself better, but I can tell you’re just the same under those muscles – no mind of your own, pure weaselly follower all the way through, happy to do what you’re told as long as your belly stays full and your dick gets tugged every once in a while. I’m the kind of girl who values initiative, because lockstep yes-men don’t do much to increase chaos in the world, you feel me? And if you don’t nourish me, you annoy me. It’s pathetic, seeing you kowtow to Marla in two universes, you’re like some kind of interdimensional lickspittle –”

“I am not Marla.” The Mason’s voice was quiet, which made Crapsey smile. Maybe she’d kill the bald bitch. “That is a fact you should bear in mind.”

“My bad.” Nicolette’s voice held something that resembled contrition. “Of course you’re not. I wouldn’t be here if you were.”

“What is your plan for locating Marla?” the Mason said.

Nicolette shrugged. “Go to her office. If she’s not there, we go after her consigliere, Hamil, he can always get a message to her.”


Crapsey shuddered. There was a wealth of information in the Mason’s “Hmm,” but only he could hear it. Hamil and Dr. Husch were the only important powers who’d escaped Felport and environs, and they were still active in the east coast resistance. He figured the Mason was trying to decide if murdering Hamil for his doppelganger’s crimes was the right course of action, or if the fat man was better kept alive to use as bait or a bargaining chip or for some other purpose.

“Will Marla have her cloak with her?”

Nicolette shrugged. “I doubt it. She used to wear it a lot, but earlier this year she started treating it like a tactical nuke, keeping it locked down, only breaking it out when serious shit was going down. The word on the street is she sent it away, put it in a magical box and told a guy to go bury it at some unknown end of the earth.”

The Mason grunted, and Crapsey spoke up: “Susan Wellstone said she’d heard that rumor too but didn’t believe it. She didn’t think Marla would give up such a powerful weapon.”

“Does seem a little out of character. Could just be misinformation and misdirection, I guess, keeping an ace in the hole. No way to know for sure.”

“We must know for sure,” the Mason said. “The status of the cloak is very important.”

“We-ell.” Nicolette drummed her fingers against the steering wheel for a moment. “Marla liked to hold the cloak in reserve for major emergencies, you know? When the shit really hit the fan, she’d put it on. So if she does still have it, we could create a sufficiently big emergency to make her put it on. And if she doesn’t still have it… well, without that big mojo it should be a lot easier to pin her to the wall with knives and cut off bits of her until she tells us where it is.” Nicolette flashed a grin. “I mean, I get the sense you care more about the cloak than about Marla herself per se.”

Crapsey had been thinking the same thing, but hadn’t dared voice it, because he was afraid it might be one of those few areas where the Mason wouldn’t tolerate inquiry. He hoped he was right, and that Nicolette was about to get smited. Smote? Whatever. Smushed.

Instead the Mason said, “I care about both Marla and the cloak equally. When I arrived in this horrible universe – or my analogue of this horrible universe – I sought out the most powerful will I could find, the most potent and resilient host, and that was Marla Mason. Neutralizing Marla here is imperative.”

“She ain’t all that.” Nicolette’s tone was petulant.

“There are smarter humans,” the Mason said. “There are physically stronger ones. There are more magically talented ones – in truth, Marla has almost no innate gift for magic, which makes her accomplishments all the more impressive, as if a woman with only seven fingers became a concert violinist. Because Marla has an extraordinary will. Pressures that would crush others serve only to increase her determination. She is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging defeat. A strong will is the most important quality a sorcerer can have, because will fuels all magic – and it’s the most important quality I need in a host, because the stresses of carrying me and being a conduit for my powers are enormous. Taking over a weaker host would have been far easier, but they wouldn’t have lasted. I struggled mightily to dominate the body I use now, and indeed, Marla’s mind still turns over restless within me, watchful for any chance to bring about her own death and my neutralization. Of course, I give her no such opportunities. But I mustn’t give the Marla of this world any opportunities, either.”

Crapsey breathed out. That was the longest speech he’d heard out of the Mason in a long time, though he thought there was at least one lie in it, and certainly a great deal of omission. She’d said why she was interested in Marla, but not a word about the cloak. And why the hell was she explaining herself to Nicolette anyway? Might as well ask: “Why are you explaining yourself to the chauffeur, boss?”

“Nicolette is our native guide in strange territory, Crapsey. Even the geography of this city has changed greatly from our timeline – there are new buildings, even new freeways, and old landmarks are gone. And look, the Whitcroft-Ivory building is finished.” When she pointed at the tallest skyscraper on Felport’s little downtown skyline, still a half-built skeleton of rusting girders in their world, it was the first time Crapsey noticed they’d even entered the city, he’d been so engrossed in listening and speculation. The Mason continued. “We need Nicolette’s guidance, so she is an asset. I am treating her well, and will continue to do so for as long as I need her.”

“Guess I’d better stay useful, then,” Nicolette said.

The Mason ignored her. After a moment, she said, “Your plan has value. We will give up the element of surprise, and will instead cause sufficient mayhem that Marla will have no choice but to don the cloak and face me.”

Nicolette whooped. “Mayhem, I like. What should we smash up first?”

“Who are the sorcerers currently serving on the council?” the Mason asked.

“Let’s see, fat boy Hamil, that idiot Granger, the Bay Witch – she’s a weirdo, but I’d do her if she showered off the brine first – that icy bitch the Chamberlain, greasy Ernesto, and Mr. trapdoor spider himself, Viscarro, down in the catacombs.”

“Very well. We will kill them all.”

Starting with Viscarro, Crapsey thought.

“Starting with Viscarro,” the Mason said. “We will leave some of his apprentices alive to tell the other sorcerers what happened. Marla will be unable to ignore such an attack, and when she hears about me, and my cloak, she will doubtless wear her own. This plan is acceptable.”

“Sure, but why Viscarro first? He’s the best protected and defended of the bunch. Some out-of-town sorcerer got into his catacombs and caused him some trouble earlier this year and I bet he’s quadrupled security since then.”

Viscarro’s first because he was the first sorcerer she killed in our world, Crapsey thought. Because she hates him the most. Because he almost stopped her before she even got started. But it wasn’t his place to say that, and the Mason didn’t speak either.

“Uh, hello?” Nicolette said, and Crapsey winced. It was like seeing a child play in traffic, honestly, the woman had no idea what she was doing. “I said –”

“I heard you.” The Mason’s voice could have sliced titanium. “I hear everything. I did not answer because your question does not interest me.”

“So much for treating me like an asset,” Nicolette muttered.

“She is treating you like an asset,” Crapsey said. “That’s why your head is still on your shoulders even though you pushed her when she didn’t want to be pushed.”

He expected some scathing reply, but instead Nicolette was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Duly noted,” and drove silently from there.


Nicolette stopped in a run-down neighborhood south of the river, where she parked in a driveway behind an old Mustang up on blocks. The chaos witch peered in the house’s dirty windows, then went around behind the detached garage. Crapsey heard the tinkle of breaking glass, faintly, and a few moments later Nicolette returned with a coarsely-woven sack just big enough to carry a bowling ball or a severed head. “Got my party favors,” she said, climbing back behind the wheel and dropping the clinking bag on top of an unused cupholder. “Now we can start having fun.”

“Take me to Viscarro now.” The Mason didn’t have a very party-ready tone.

Nicolette drove along more cruddy residential streets for a while until they rumbled over some railroad tracks and the houses gave way to empty lots and industrial buildings. “This is the neighborhood where we put the mass grave in our world,” Crapsey said. He’d never seen so many bulldozers in one place.

“Precious memories,” the Mason replied. “Where are we going, Nicolette? I do not recall an entrance to the catacombs in this area.”

“Viscarro moved ’em around, sealed up a bunch of tunnels, made new ones, a few months back.”

“Why would he go to such trouble?”

Nicolette laughed. “It’s a long-ass story, and I’m not sure how much is true and how much is bullshit, but a guy who claimed to be the incarnation of Death himself came to town and stirred a lot of shit, including busting in on Viscarro in his lair. Now that was chaos times. For a while I thought Mr. Death would get rid of Marla for us, but she came out on top. She’s got a way of doing that.”

“Huh,” Crapsey said. “This Death guy, tall, dark, wore rings on every finger, smirky face?”

“Sounds like the dude,” Nicolette said.

The Mason made a “mmm” sound. “He came to see me as well. Fought his way through the defenses at my headquarters with trivial ease. But when he came face to face with me, he whimpered, said I was beyond his reach, and ran away. I’d wondered who he was.”

Nicolette laughed. “You are badass. Did he have a pet necromancer with him, guy named Ayres?”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. Mad Ayres. I released him from the Blackwing Institute when I needed room for more political prisoners. I never expected him to cause trouble for me later – he was such a nonentity. But he came along with the death man, and was nonplussed when his companion fled.” The Mason stared out the windshield for a moment, then said, “Ayres. Yes. I killed and ate him.”

The silence in the Humvee was deafening.

“Is she… are you kidding?” Nicolette’s voice was caught half between horror and admiration.

“She’s not,” Crapsey said. He hadn’t witnessed the devouring of Ayres, but he’d been in the next room, and he’d heard the sounds, and he’d dispatched the cleaning unit to scrub the gore off the walls afterward. “He was all blustery and ‘You mustn’t’ this and ‘I demand’ that, and the Mason said, ‘Shut up, or I’ll kill you and eat you,’ and he didn’t shut up, so.” Crapsey shrugged. “She follows through on her threats.”

“I thought the story of my actions would create fear among my enemies and vassals,” the Mason said. “The experience was no more or less loathsome than eating anything else. All culinary options are equally repulsive in this universe.”

“You are epic fucked-up, lady,” Nicolette said. “I think I might be in love.”

“She’s just as likely to kill and eat you, if you get on her nerves,” Crapsey said.

“Danger gives our relationship its spice.” Nicolette drove the Humvee down a side street and parked in front of the burned-out shell of a former auto shop. “There’s an entrance to the catacombs in here.” She slipped out and led the Mason and Crapsey into the half-roofed space, all blackened concrete and smoke-stained metal walls, then pointed to the oil-change pit. She dropped down into the dark hole, and Crapsey and the Mason followed. Nicolette kicked aside a scattering of trash and dead leaves and revealed a small metal loop set into the floor. She grabbed, grunted, and pulled, a section of the floor rising up to reveal a trap door.

The opening was filled entirely with bricks and mortar.

Nicolette swore. “This was a working entrance last time I looked, but I’ve been out of the loop for a little while, and –”

The Mason knelt, placed her hands on the bricks, and hummed. “There’s still a space beneath. The tunnel wasn’t collapsed. Only the mouth of the entrance was closed.” Beneath her hands, the bricks began to crack and snap and shift, sublimating into gas. Crapsey turned his face away and closed his airways, but Nicolette wasn’t swift enough on the uptake, and staggered back, gagging and coughing as brick vapor hit her in the face. Crapsey grinned.

Once the hole was pretty well cleared and the gas had dissipated, the Mason stood up, kicked the few remaining bricks down, and stepped into the hole, cloak flying up as she dropped out of sight.

Nicolette, still coughing, eyes streaming with tears, pointed at the hole and said, “Lackeys first.”

Crapsey stepped close to her, grabbed her by the throat, and said, “You don’t want to push me. We’re about to go into battle, and sure, the Mason can use you, but if you happen to go down in the fight, well… it happens. Maybe your Rondeau is too pussy to kill, but I’ve sent hundreds of souls into the darkness, and I didn’t even have anything against those people. I hate the version of you from my world, and you’re not winning me over in this iteration, either, so watch your step. And in case you get any smart ideas about bushwhacking me, remember: I’m immortal, and I can choose my next host. I’d be happy to ride around in your body for a while, using it for things you’d never approve of. Got it?”

She didn’t fight him, just stared, and when he let go of her throat, she took a long breath, hoisted her bag of charms, and went down the hole without another word.

Either he’d made his point, or he hadn’t. Time would tell. But at least she’d shut up for a moment.

Crapsey lowered himself into Felport’s underworld.


The Mason did her thing. When they encountered a steel door, she melted it. When sirens began whooping in the distance and a portcullis gate slammed down, she bent the bars like pipe cleaners. When a crowd of apprentices in bits of hurriedly-donned medieval armor attempted to ambush them from a side tunnel while another group slipped in from behind to cut off their retreat – as if they’d retreat! – Crapsey joined in, jumping from body to body among the rear attackers until the remaining few broke in terror and ran. He let his survivors get away, which was more than the Mason did. The tunnel was going to be tricky to navigate for a while, because of all the bodies.

Nicolette had her hand in her satchel, eyes wide, but she hadn’t actually contributed anything. “Gods, you two didn’t even give me time to get started.”

“No reason to linger over these,” the Mason said. “They are insignificant. I do recognize some of them – or the remnant of Marla within me recognizes them.” She gestured vaguely at the dead before her. “They are older, of course. Still fetching and carrying for Viscarro, all hoping to be the chosen one someday, to become his lieutenant and successor. But, of course, Viscarro intends to live forever.”

“He is a lich, right?” Nicolette said. “His body’s already dead, he’s basically just a ghost haunting his own preserved corpse. His life force is locked up in a phylactery somewhere, so even killing his body won’t kill him. He’s got a better shot at eternity than the rest of us.”

“Not when I’m through with him. I know where he keeps the gem that holds his life.”

“Oh, hell, then, let’s go.” Nicolette grinned. She didn’t look at Crapsey, and hadn’t even acknowledged his existence since their little one-sided chat in the oil pit, which suited him just fine.

The Mason led them along tunnels, some lined with brick, some ancient stone, some dirt braced with wooden posts, some natural caverns connected by unnatural means. Though they passed more checkpoints and gates, they were unattended, with no more apprentices standing in their way. They paused in a short branch of zigzagging tunnel hacked through rock, the Mason sniffing the air. “There are people nearby,” she said.

“Think the rats are laying traps up ahead?” Crapsey said.

“That is Viscarro’s style. But I’m not easily trapped.” The Mason ducked through a low doorway, but before Nicolette or Crapsey could follow, a bone-vibrating rumble started… and the tunnel beyond the doorway collapsed, the space filling with earth, the Mason vanishing from sight.

“Cave-in,” Crapsey said, his own voice sounding faraway in his abused ears. “That’s a good trap.” Another rumble followed, and he glanced through the doorway behind him, where rocks tumbled, blocking their only path of escape, leaving them in what amounted to a small hallway about ten feet long, six feet high, and four feet wide. He wasn’t good at math and calculations, but he figured the volume of available oxygen in a space this size was: not much.

“Guess we get to see whether my essential self can escape a cave-in.” Crapsey sat down, leaning his back against the wall, glancing at the ceiling, which still looked relatively solid and well-braced by thick wooden beams, but what did he know about mine safety? “If this place is airtight and we both die of suffocation, I might be stuck here until somebody comes along with a shovel and a pickaxe. Bummer.” He glanced at Nicolette. “I did not want to die a slow death in a small room with you.”

“You just give up?” Nicolette said. “That’s it?”

“Oh, you’re talking to me now?” Crapsey shrugged. “I’m not exactly giving up. Hell, I’m probably immortal. I’m just acknowledging the outcome of this situation is out of my hands. We’re, what, fifty feet below the ground or some shit? I can Curse and cause some fires or sinkholes, but that’s a bad idea in this situation. I know you’re chock full of chaos magic, but chaos is not our friend under here. Now, the Mason will be all right – she’s unkillable, and she’s got a knife that cuts through anything, and we already know she can turn stone to smoke. But the question is, will she bother to come back here and save us, or will she just go kill Viscarro? You have to understand, she doesn’t really like us. We’re not people to her. We’re tools. If you lose your tools, maybe you try to find them, or maybe you just get new tools. There’s no way to guess what she’ll do, and there’s no point in praying, so.” He shrugged. “Shut up and conserve your oxygen and hope the old monster still considers us useful.”

Nicolette opened her mouth. Crapsey decided that, when the first word came out of her mouth, he’d jump to her body and shut her up forever. The thought was comforting. Plus, once she was dead, it would double the amount of oxygen down here for him. Win-win.

Before she could speak and seal her fate, a little avalanche started at the far end of the tunnel, and the Mason came slithering out, covered in rock dust – but not entirely covered. Her face and hands were dirty, but the dirt completely failed to stick to the cloak.

“Boss, you came back for us!” Crapsey said.

The Mason cocked her head. “The tunnels ahead are mined. I heard the apprentices talking. Progress through a series of collapsing tunnels would be unpleasantly slow, so I thought it best to backtrack.” She sniffed. “I did not realize they’d also collapsed the tunnels behind us, or I would not have bothered returning this way.”

“See?” Crapsey said. “She loves us. She really loves us. What’s the plan now?”

“I have been to Viscarro’s inner sanctum many times. Not in this universe, true, but unless he has made major changes, it should be similar enough to allow me to teleport.”

Crapsey groaned.

Nicolette blinked. “Teleporting? You mean, ah… ripping a hole in space, stepping into the space between space, and ripping another hole to step out of? That kind of teleporting?”

“Yes. I know no other.”

“There’s, like, a one-in-five chance the stuff living between those portals will tear you to pieces every time you step through. Nobody sane teleports. I mean, apprentices goad each other and the stupid ones learn how, and a whole lot of them die.”

The Mason shrugged. “There are dangers, yes. But I grow impatient.”

Nicolette grinned. “Fucking A. You are crazy. Let’s do it.”

“I do not require your approval or permission.” The Mason held up her knife, and purple light crawled up her hand to lace the dagger. She made a complex sigil in the air, and a shifting oval about man-sized appeared before her. The Mason stepped through, and Nicolette followed.

Crapsey hesitated. If his body got killed in that sparkling darkness between here and their destination, would his essential self be trapped there, in a hell-space filled with monsters the senses couldn’t even comprehend?

The alternative was dying in a hole in the ground and hoping a passing tunnel-digger came along to provide a new body someday. Oh well. He could, at least, hope that something in the in-between would kill Nicolette. Cheered by the thought, he stepped through.

A moment of lurching darkness, the sound of distant scuttles and the wind of something lashing by entirely too close to his head, and then he was through, into Viscarro’s central chamber.

And into disaster. Nicolette was on the ground, gasping, mouth opening and closing like a fish drowning in air, and her left arm was gone at the shoulder, a knob of bone protruding and blood pouring out. The arm itself was nowhere to be seen, which meant her limb had probably been ripped off by one of the things dwelling between the portals – such maimings were rarer than outright disappearances, but not unheard of.

The Mason looked whole – no shock there – but she was face-down and unmoving on the ground. Viscarro himself stood over her, looking like a skeleton made of coat hangers dressed in a brown velvet robe. He held a long, crooked wooden staff with a ball of pale green fire hovering at the top. “Marla Mason,” he said, prodding her prone body with the end of his magical staff, which must be some kind of bad-ass artifact if it had knocked the Mason down. “We never got along, I know, but I didn’t expect a direct attack. I’m disappointed in you.”

I’m free, Crapsey thought. The Mason killed Viscarro in our world, but he’s fifteen years older and smarter and wiser and wilier here, and he beat her, it’s done, it’s finally over –

“And you, her lap-dog,” Viscarro said, raising his staff. “Parasite, body thief. I’m surprised to see you here – I thought you and your mistress had a falling out. But I’ve always wanted to dissect you and find out what you really are. Yours is a form of immortality I wouldn’t mind having for myself.”

Crap, Crapsey thought, and then green fire filled his vision.

Chapter 12

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Consciousness returned like a drunk staggering home after a three-day bender – in unsteady lurches and considerable pain. Marla let her eyes open the barest slit, because there was probably no advantage in letting her captors know she was waking up, but a face waited just inches from her own, dark eyes looking at her attentively, so Marla headbutted.

Still woozy. No leverage or speed behind the strike, probably because she was, what, on her back? The face pulled back, nose un-smashed, blood un-spurting, and Marla groaned. “I know you.” The woman wore a dove-gray suit and had stupid feathers woven into her hair, just like before. “Am I back in Alcatraz?”

“A cell, yes. Alcatraz, no. They call me the Trapper, by the way. I’ll be your guard this evening.”

Trapper. Not Warden. Not the same woman, then, but her parallel-universe counterpart, so Marla hadn’t pulled a “There’s no place like home” and returned to her world somehow. Sense and memory slowly rose in Marla’s brain, like groundwater filling a hole in the earth. Status report, self: alone and unarmed, no Rondeau, no cloak, no dagger. “If you don’t mind me asking, why the fuck am I in a cell?” Marla sat up, slowly, and only then realized her arms were bound at the wrists behind her back. Didn’t feel like rope, or metal, or wire, or plastic zip ties, so… probably magic.

“It’s not really my place to tell you,” the Trapper said. “I’m just babysitting. Sorry. I’m sure somebody higher up the food chain will be along soon to talk to you about the situation.”

They were in a square room made of cinderblocks, with a heavy metal grate for a roof about twenty feet above them, and… no door. “Did you people build this thing around me?” Marla asked. How long had she been out?

“No, no, we’re in a pit. The hole was always here, we don’t know what it was for originally, just more bunker crap. The metal grate on top is just a lid, it comes off – at least, when I’m not making sure it stays closed, it does. After Lao knocked you out, they lowered you in here, though you fell the last few feet. Didn’t even wake you up. I came down after you because they said you’re too dangerous to leave unattended. I descended on a rope ladder, though, because, ow.” She shrugged.

They put one of their own down here with me, Marla thought. These people are hopeless. “Ow. Right. You know, I broke your face pretty good in my home universe recently. Had better luck with my headbutt that time.”

“Bradley said you were from a parallel world.” The Trapper shook her head. “Hard to believe, but… you really met me? Over there?”

“Yup.” Marla yawned. “Damn, I’m stiff. Help me stand up and stretch a little?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, no. Not touching you. You already tried to break my nose with your forehead. Not giving you another chance.”

“You think I’m dangerous? I’m trussed up like a babe in a bondage video, and I can tell you’ve got a heavy magic-nullifying field going here, it’s making my back teeth ache.” The Trapper just stared at her, so Marla sighed, leaned her shoulder against the wall, pushed with her legs, and levered herself to an upright position. Once on her feet, swaying, she made a great show of wincing and bending side-to-side and rolling her neck. Then she took a half-hop, half-dance step forward and hit the Trapper with a front snap-kick to the right knee.

While the Trapper rolled on the ground and clutched her dislocated knee cap and shrieked, Marla dropped to the ground. She rolled back on her shoulders, tucking like she was going to do a back somersault, but instead just held steady with her butt off the ground. She worked her bound hands down the small of her back, past her hips, and over her ass. From there it was easy to lay supine, pull her knees up to her chest, and slip her bound hands over her heels and past her toes, so now her bound hands were in front. Bluish light pulsed around her wrists: magical manacles. At least they didn’t chafe like real cuffs. “Much better.” Marla sprang back to her feet. “This is fun, isn’t it? It was pretty smart of you to damp down magic, making it so I can’t cast any spells, but then, you can’t cast any new spells while the field is on, either, can you? And I’m better at hand-to-hand fighting than you are, I’m guessing. You gotta be careful when you go leveling the playing field.”

The Trapper scurried into a far corner, eyes wide and terrified, so Marla ran at her, making as if to kick her in the face. The Trapper leapt to the side – as best she could from a sitting position with only one working knee, anyway – and that allowed Marla to crouch behind her, slip her cuffed-together hands over the woman’s head and under her chin, and begin strangling the Trapper with the sparking blue chain between her wrists.

“This is a bitch, am I right?” Marla pressed her knees hard into the Trapper’s back, right between the shoulder blades, while she pulled backward with her cuffed hands. The Trapper tried to get her fingers under the magical chain, but Marla’s grip was too tight. After a couple of seconds Marla thought, Slow learner, and said, “Sucks to get strangled to death by your own magic, huh? Bet it makes you rethink the wisdom of cuffing me at all.”

The Trapper started trying to speak, so Marla eased up enough to let her get some air. The Trapper gasped some word of power – Marla’s teeth quit aching – and then spoke another incantatory few syllables, and the magical cuffs vanished. Since Marla had been expecting that, she didn’t fall back on her ass. She just slipped an arm around the gasping woman’s throat and choked her unconscious, much as Lao Tsung had choked her.

Marla eased the still woman down to the floor of the pit and considered. The Trapper had turned off the magic-dampening field with that first word of power – she’d had no choice, since she needed access to magic in order to dispel the cuffs and stop Marla from garroting her – and that meant Marla could use magic now, too. There were a few options open to her, but she felt like showing her captors just how futile their betrayal was, so she settled for whistling, just two low notes.

They’d taken away her dagger of office, which was heartening – that meant one of the bastards up there was short a few fingers now, since her dagger didn’t like being touched by strangers, and tended to bite the hand that grasped. After she whistled, someone up above shouted, and a clattering noise began. Her dagger came sliding into sight on the grille above, drawn to her like a cat to the feeding dish. The mesh of the lid over the pit was too fine for the dagger to fall through, but that was okay – the blade just turned a little, twisted, sliced an opening in the metal big enough to slip through, and then fell, hilt-first, into Marla’s waiting hand.

She kissed the blade (it wouldn’t cut her), and shouted, “Somebody come talk to me or I’ll start cutting pieces off your little Trapper Keeper here. I can’t believe you morons put her in here with me, and then didn’t post another guard up top.”

An anxious-looking face appeared over the grille. Marla tried to remember her name, then did, and didn’t use it. “You. Pie hole. Where’s Bradley? Or your boss?”

Pie Bob swallowed. “They’re not here. It’s just me, and Talion because he got hurt. He’s watching your friend.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“On… a mission.”

“Trying to kill the Jaguar? Without me? That’s rude.” Pie Bob didn’t answer. “All right. If the cats are away, that makes you the ranking officer, little mouse. Get the lid off this pit and lower a ladder for me.”

Pie Bob blinked. “Um. No?”

“You think I can’t get out of this hole on my own? I’m just giving you a chance to show me you’ll cooperate, candy cane. Be good, and you might get out of this with all your limbs attached. What’s it going to be?”

The face disappeared, and didn’t come back, so Marla sighed. She could fly out, but flying gave her motion sickness. If she had on her magical gecko boots she could walk right up the side of the pit, but the boots were green lizard skin and she found wearing them embarrassing, so she had on her black workboots instead. They were steel-toed, with inertial charms worked into the leather for extra smashy-ness. She kicked the wall, and her boot bashed a handy foothold in the cinderblock, so she jammed her dagger into the wall, giving it the little twist that told the blade not to slice on through the stone but to stick there instead, then kicked another foothold a little higher, and climbed in that fashion all the way to the top. From there she just had to slice a hole in the mesh and hoist herself out.

Pie Bob and the punky-looking guy, Talion, were there. Rondeau was unconscious – and snoring – on the floor, and Talion had a ridiculous-looking rapier in his hand, the point resting just below Rondeau’s Adam’s apple. His other hand was wrapped in a huge bulge of bandages, which meant he’d been the one to try and pick up her dagger, the lucky devil.

“Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head, or I’ll kill your friend,” Talion said. To his credit, his voice didn’t even waver.

Marla snorted. “Go ahead, glam-rock. Didn’t Beta-Bradley tell you? Rondeau is a psychic parasite, just like your bogeyman Crapsey. Kill that body and he’ll just possess one of you two idiots. Then our little situation will still be two-against-one, but my team will be the two and yours will be the one. Plus, right, one of you will have your soul totally annihilated. So, since your only leverage isn’t such a good lever, your only options are surrender, or, if you feel you’ve already lived full and complete lives, a clumsy and ill-coordinated assault against me. What do you say? Sugar? Spice? What’s it going to be?”

They saw reason, which was good, because if they had killed Rondeau, he would have indeed sought a new host – but he might just as easily have possessed Marla’s body instead of one of theirs, since he didn’t have a lot of control over the process, unlike his dark doppelganger Crapsey. After only a little posturing Talion fetched her bag – they hadn’t been able to open it yet, because the wards were too gnarly, which meant the cloak was safe, at least – and then Talion and Pie Bob got into the pit with only a few mutters about how Marla would be sorry. She rooted around in her bag until she found one of the charms she’d brought along, a satchel of lavender and rarer things, then tossed that into the pit with them. A moment later, the sound of snores rose up to meet her. Sleep charms were one of the gentler alternatives at her disposal, and she wasn’t feeling particularly gentle, but there was still some slim chance this was a misunderstanding of some sort, so she didn’t want to burn all her bridges by seriously damaging her captors. The Trapper was the only one really hurt, and she wouldn’t die; if they had a decent battlefield healer she’d probably even walk again.

Marla prodded Rondeau in the side with her toe. He groaned, smacked his lips, and went back to snoring. Typical. Everybody except her got to take a nap. Oh well. Somebody had to be the responsible grown-up.


Marla didn’t bother with a look-away spell, since it wouldn’t work on Beta-B anyway. Instead, she and a bleary-but-conscious Rondeau sat in the deep shadows on one side of the bunker with a good view of the front door, letting darkness – and the expectations of their captors, who would assume they were still trussed-up – hide them.

“So what do you think all this is about?” Rondeau said while they waited. “Why’d New B turn on us? I thought we were getting along.”

“Can’t say for sure. I hope it’s just some kind of mistake, but… I doubt it. People are motivated by too many things – fear, greed, pride, shame, pure survival instinct – I can’t say for sure why Beta-B jumped us. We’re in unfamiliar territory here. Who knows what life is like for these people? Based on available evidence, it’s pretty shitty, and I’m sure they’re pretty desperate. Well. When they get back, we’ll just ask, and then we’ll know.”

After a while there was a loud clanging sound, and Marla and Rondeau exchanged wide-eyed glances. “Crap,” Marla said. “Here I was feeling all hyper-competent and smug, but I forgot someone in here has to open the door. Should’ve kept a conscious hostage.”

“I’ll do it,” Rondeau said. “I’d rather have you covering me than vice versa.”

“Try not to get knocked unconscious by an iron bar. It’d be humiliating if their door-knocker actually turned out to be a useful weapon.”

Rondeau went to the door, took a deep breath, then pulled the big metal lever that disengaged the locks. Rondeau backed away as the door swung open.

Beta-B, Yasuko, and Jericho came in, limping, shuffling, heads hung low, clothes torn and singed, all talking in voices which were slightly too shrill.

“But what about the cousins?” Yasuko said.

“I think they made it out,” Beta-B said, head down. “I saw them running away.”

“Chris didn’t make it,” Jericho said. “He was covering the boss’s retreat, and…” He shuddered.

“Wait, do you mean Little Chris or –”

“No, Chris Decomain,” Jericho said. “One of the ghost-cats got him, but he bought enough time to cover the retreat, so at least he didn’t die for absolutely nothing, like the rest of them did. I don’t know what happened to Little Chris, but he was with Lao Tsung’s team, so maybe he’s okay.”

Rondeau looked past them at Marla, shrugged, and pulled the door to. The newcomers didn’t even look around, so Rondeau leaned against the wall, took out his butterfly knife, and began flipping it open and closed while whistling.

The whistling was enough to get Jericho to look back, and he said, “Oh, shit,” and that got Beta-B and Yasuko turned around. “How’d he get out? Where’s Talion?”

Marla stepped out of the shadows, though the effect was spoiled because they all had their backs turned to her. She was a striking figure, she knew, with her cloak on her shoulders, the outside so white it almost seemed to glow once the lights hit it. “Talion’s the one who’s short a few fingers, right? Apart from that he’s fine. Taking a little nap, along with Betty Crocker. The one with feathers in her hair could use some medical treatment, but it’s nothing life threatening.”

Beta-B and the others looked back and forth, unwilling to take their eyes off of Marla or Rondeau, though with three of them they could have trivially stood back-to-back-to-back and covered both of them and a hypothetical third opponent as well. Amateurs.

“It’s three against two,” Jericho said, raising his hands, coils of black power curling up his fingers. “We can –”

“She’s wearing the cloak,” Yasuko hissed, and Jericho lowered his hands. That was gratifying. The few people who’d seen Marla’s cloak in action were justly afraid of it, but with these people, fear of the cloak was probably more like a religious belief, faith-based and all-powerful.

Finally Beta-B settled on facing her. “So. What are you going to do now?”

Marla shrugged. “Depends on how you answer my question. Can you guess what the question is?”

“Probably why I had you knocked unconscious and thrown into a hole?”

“Ding ding ding. We have a winner.”

“It was nothing,” Jericho said, “just a routine precaution, to put you on ice for a while, we couldn’t have a stranger running around –”

“Did you know I can smell lies?” Rondeau said conversationally, and it was a nice bit of improvisation on his part, Marla thought, as the color drained from Jericho’s face.

“It doesn’t matter if we tell her.” Beta-B rubbed the back of his neck, wincing. He met Marla’s eyes. “We needed you for phase two, but since phase one was a total failure, we’ll all probably be dead in a couple of days, so who cares? After we defeated the Jaguar, we were going to use you to kill the Mason.”

Marla frowned. “I’m perfectly happy to kill the Mason. It’s on my to-do list. What do you mean, use me?”

“You have no idea what the Mason’s like.” Beta-B abruptly sat cross-legged on the floor, as if his legs simply couldn’t hold him up anymore. “It’s all well and good to say you’ll fight her, but you. Would. Die. I know you have a cloak, too, but she’s got a lot more practice. I figured out a way you could defeat her, though. I got the idea when you introduced me to your friend Hamil.”

A light in Marla’s head turned on. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Bradley, that’s clever. I mean, obviously you’re an asshole for even thinking it, and I can’t let it happen, but I have to admit, it’s pretty good.”

“Let’s spell it out for the ones sitting in the back of the class, would you?” Rondeau said.

“Sympathetic magic,” Marla said. “We told Beta-B that was Hamil’s specialty.”

Beta-B nodded. “Once I thought about it, the idea was obvious. Since you’re genetically identical to the Mason, it would be trivial to create a sympathetic magical resonance between the two of you, to make you magically identical as well. In effect, we wanted to turn you into a sort of living voodoo doll for the Mason. Once that was arranged, whatever happened to you would happen to her, instantly.” He shrugged. “Which means, when we chopped off your head, she would’ve suffered a case of spontaneous decapitation. I might have asked you to volunteer for the job, but I get more of a warrior-pragmatist than noble-self-sacrificing vibe off you, no offense.”

“You’re right. Good plan otherwise though. You could’ve killed the Mason without getting within a hundred miles. Spooky assassination at a distance.”

“After I got the idea, I was afraid you wouldn’t come back here with me,” Beta-B said. “I get the feeling you’re kind of contrary, so I didn’t push, but you insisted, so that was easy. And when we got here to my front door, I gave a code phrase that meant, ‘Dangerous hostiles are coercing me, subdue them as quickly as possible.’ Not a hundred percent accurate, but it had the desired effect.”

“‘The bird of paradise has landed,'” Rondeau said. “And here I just thought you were being arrogant.” Rondeau walked up to Bradley and whapped him on the back of the head with his open palm, not hard. “You’re a jerk, you know that? Our B would have never –”

“Fuck your B,” he snarled, leaping to his feet and shoving Rondeau back. “I’m not your B, all right? I never will be. Your B is dead, and you’re wearing his corpse, you body-stealing freak. I’m my own man, I’ve got my own life and my own problems, and you can both go to –”

The door, which Rondeau had only pulled to and not actually latched shut, swung open, and a small gray-haired man with a neat beard, dressed in a profoundly stained suit in a long-outdated style, entered, followed by Lao Tsung and a giant of a man Marla hadn’t met before. “Now, Bradley,” the old man said, “there’s no excuse for rudeness.”

Beta-B slumped his shoulders. “Marla. Rondeau. This is my mentor. Meet –”

“Sanford Cole,” Marla said. “Good to see you. I’d say ‘see you again,’ but I guess you never met me in this universe. I figured you must be Bradley’s mysterious mentor, but I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to show up.”

Cole – the wizard of San Francisco, court magician to Emperor Joshua Norton, awakened from his mystical century-long sleep to defend the city in the hour of its greatest need, just like he was when Mutex attacked San Francisco in Marla’s world – inclined his head slightly. “I regret I could not be here earlier. We were engaged in a battle against the great beast we call the Jaguar, and I’m afraid we suffered a rout. Regarding this belated meeting between us, the advantage is entirely yours, madam. You say we’ve met before under other stars – were we friends or rivals in your world?”

“Totally friends,” Rondeau said. “We helped you save San Francisco.”

“Well, Rondeau,” Marla said, “to be strictly accurate, Cole helped us save San Francisco, and to be even more accurate, both of you really just helped me. And I’ll save this stupid city again, even though evil mirror universe Bradley here tried to whack me over the head. That is, if you’ll promise to stop trying to use me in a magical ritual human sacrifice – which, if I can pull out the irony card, is exactly the kind of thing your hated Jaguar does, but at least he doesn’t trick his sacrificial victims into buying him a nice dinner first.” She glared at Beta-B.

“Perhaps we’d better have some tea and chat,” Cole said.

Chapter 11

Monday, May 17th, 2010

The Mason didn’t sleep; the Mason drove. And since going right the hell across the country from the west coast to the east was, for most of the trip, a matter of following one endless freeway through predominantly flat land, there was not a lot to keep Crapsey’s magpie brain interested. The Humvee had big back seats perfect for napping, and he slept a lot, but he didn’t want to sleep too much in case the Mason got annoyed and started vaporizing 18-wheelers and hitchhikers. Insofar as the woman in the cloak was tethered to non-murderous standards of behavior at all, Crapsey was her tether, and without his moderating influence she could get even colder and nastier than usual.

So he sat in the passenger seat, pointing out funny billboards, suggesting an epic side trip to Wall Drug in South Dakota, urging her to stop so he could see various improbable-sounding roadside attractions, and generally trying to make the best of a bad and boring situation. The Mason was even more relentlessly-focused than usual, but at least she didn’t pause to murder any more cross-universe doppelgangers of her old enemies, maybe because they didn’t pass close enough to any of them to trigger her personal proximity alarms.

They drove through desert, and fallow fields, and stands of trees, but mostly they drove through the endless repetitive ecosystem of the Interstate, long stretches of nothing much punctuated by clusters of gas stations and motels and fast-food joints nestled close to the length of the highway like parasites clinging to the body of their host.

Crapsey never actually got tired of drive-through cheeseburgers and french fries – given the way he usually ate, it would take awhile for the novelty of fast food to wear off – but he did get sick of the near-constant confinement in the car, broken only when the Mason consented to pull off to the side of the road long enough for him to piss in a ditch or crap in a rest stop toilet. The only thing resembling a diversion was a lonely gas station they robbed when Susan’s money ran out, but that was a clean, simple bodysnatch-and-drop, hardly more interesting than shaving or changing your socks.

Two days on the road didn’t seem like a long time in theory, but when you spent those two days mostly non-stop driving in a Humvee with no company but the Mason and not a single moment’s privacy and no chance to freshen up other than splashing water on yourself in the sink of a public bathroom, it felt like a long time. Smelled like one, too – the inside of the Hummer was ripe, though Crapsey realized the smell was mostly his own fault. The Mason didn’t seem to sweat much, and while she didn’t eat any better than him on the journey, she didn’t eat as much, so the constant diet of road food didn’t play havoc with her digestive system as much as it did with Crapsey’s; in other words, she didn’t fart nearly as much or as vilely.

When they saw a sign reading “Felport: 200 Miles” – they’d left their old friend Interstate 90 by then, swinging onto a state highway that angled toward the city – Crapsey decided he should get his strength up, and he crawled into the back seat to nap. It seemed like seconds later when the Mason reached back and pinched him viciously on the arm to wake him.

He groaned. “Are we there yet?”

“Annemberg,” she said.

Annemberg. A little one-stoplight town about an hour outside Felport, totally unremarkable except for one thing: it was the secret home of the Blackwing Institute, the place where – in their world, anyway – insane sorcerers were tucked away to keep them out of trouble. The inmates included a handful of dangerous, criminally insane types who were simply too powerful to be executed, and a few others who’d had their brains addled by magic or trauma and posed a danger to themselves and others and the fabric of reality, even though they didn’t necessarily mean any harm.

The Mason had taken over the Institute back home, but she hadn’t changed its essential function: it was still a prison where people too difficult to kill but too dangerous to be set free were warehoused until she found a use for them – or effective means of murdering them. “So what are we doing here?”

“Genevieve Kelley. Her powers could be useful when we meet Marla, assuming Genevieve is institutionalized in this universe as well.”

“Ahhh,” Crapsey said. “But you were pretty clear about that. I thought I wasn’t ever allowed to wear her body again, because you were afraid I’d go all Brutus-vs.-Caesar and try to kill you?”

She turned her terrible face on him, her lack of expression an expression in itself. “Will you?”

Crapsey shrugged. “I’d hate to see what might happen if I tried and failed.”

“Stupid Crapsey. You should worry about what would happen if you succeeded. I implanted a few enchanted beads, courtesy of Nicolette, inside your favorite body there years ago, when you were off in another host. Charms that will destroy that body utterly, beyond reconstruction, if my body should ever die. I believe it’s called a ‘dead man’s switch.'”

Crapsey began groping himself all over, but didn’t encounter any lumps or nodules. “Charms? For real? You messed with my body? That’s cold, boss.”

She shrugged. “You have an unreasonable attachment to that carcass. I thought it was worth exploiting.”

“Yeah, okay, but a deterrent like that only works if I know about it, so I can work up a good head of fear-steam.”

“I do not worry about death by your hand on a regular basis, Crapsey. You are usually harmless. I chose to hold the possibility of your bodily annihilation in reserve until the threat was necessary. That moment has come.”

“Still,” Crapsey said, “give me Genevieve and I could take you out, or try, anyway. I won’t, I mean, I love my body, and basically I’m kind of a coward, but it’s a hell of a risk, isn’t it? You must be really worried about what’ll happen when you face Marla. Like, piss-your-panties afraid.”

The Mason was quiet – terrifyingly so – for a long moment. Then she said, “Shut your mouth, you piece of shit, and do as you’re told.”

Score one for Crapsey, he thought. “Okay, let’s make up and be friends, kissy-face, whatever. So what do we do? Just, like, storm the castle and open cell doors until we find the right one?”

“You know I favor the direct approach.” She guided the Humvee off-road, seemingly into a field, but they passed through a shimmer of illusion and found themselves on a long driveway leading to the slightly run-down, once-stately mansion that housed the Institute.

They parked in the horseshoe drive and got out of the Humvee, Crapsey stretching and working out the kinks in his neck and spine and assorted joints with audible crackles and pops. “After you kill everybody, or whatever, can I take a shower, you think?”

“Your odor is offensive. I insist you wash.” The Mason knocked on the imposing oak doors, rather then merely kicking them to splinters, which suggested she was going to try and take a soft approach. Soft, for her, meant merely granite-hard instead of diamond-hard, but it was something.

The door opened, and a curiously blank-faced, doughy man dressed in green scrubs peered out at them. Oh, right – the place was staffed by homunculi, artificial beings in the shape of humans but with no more inner lives or motivations than inflatable sex dolls.

Crapsey wondered how many of them there were – he couldn’t jump into their bodies, since they weren’t human, which always made him feel oddly powerless. Sure, he had a butterfly knife, but that was messy, and he was still annoyed about having to murder that old woman in the desert so recently. Throwing souls out of the nest was a lot easier.

“Tell your boss Marla Mason is here,” the Mason snapped.

The creature nodded and said, “You will wait.”

“I think I’ll wait inside, worm-eater,” the Mason said. The homunculus didn’t answer or otherwise react, just started to close the door, and the Mason jammed one of her steel-capped workboots in-between the door and the frame. She didn’t want to risk being shut out, Crapsey figured; Blackwing could be a hell of a fortress if the security measures got activated. Kind of spoiled the soft entrance, but that’s the way it goes. The homunculus leaned all his weight into closing the door despite the Mason’s inconvenient foot, its expression blank as a bowl of vanilla pudding, and the Mason got annoyed and reached out to grab the creature’s face with a clawed hand sparking purple light.

Crapsey hadn’t seen a whole lot of movies – he was more a comic book man – but he’d seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there was a bit at the end where a Nazi’s face melted off his skull, and that was pretty much what happened here, except the homunculus’s flesh ran more like candle wax, and there was no real skull underneath, just a blank bulb of bone that looked like the featureless mannequin heads used to display wigs.

Getting de-faced didn’t seem to bother the homunculus any, as he kept right on pushing the door, so the Mason pulled his arm off – it made a pop not unlike a champagne bottle opening – and beat him back from the door with his own limb. The whole thing would have been farcical if it hadn’t been so horrible.

The Mason kicked the man-thing aside and pushed the door open. “Yoo hoo,” she called. “Are visiting hours over yet?” She stepped inside, and Crapsey followed, entering a dark-wood-paneled foyer that held precious little besides a low table and bowl of wax fruit (there was a dagger sticking up out of the apple; that was kind of weird).

A woman appeared at the far end of the entryway, and Crapsey’s heart went pitter-pat. He’d never met Dr. Leda Husch, head of the Institute, back in his world – she’d holed up in the Institute when the Mason first took over Felport, and put up a good fight for a while, but eventually the Mason had breached the walls. She hadn’t captured Husch, though – the good doctor had fled into the hills to join a few other sorcerers in the east coast resistance. Those guys were still around, technically, though they weren’t much of a threat. When the Mason got bored, she went out and hunted resistance fighters the way some people go shoot rats at the dump.

Crapsey was glad he’d never seen Dr. Husch before, because he probably would have done something stupid like pledge his life to defend her. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, though she was that – Helen of Troy beautiful, classical statue beautiful, Emma Frost in a white corset beautiful, the kind of woman who necessitated the invention of painting – it was the fact that her beauty was somehow perfectly calibrated to trip all Crapsey’s switches and levers. If asked, he’d have said he liked girls with lots of piercings and tattoos, so slender their hipbones and ribs showed, though big fake boobs were acceptable additions to the standard template. And yet it turned out his ultimate heart’s delight was platinum blonde hair in a tight bun and va-voom curves barely contained in a severe dark blue suit-with-skirt.

“Leda,” the Mason said, and prodded the dismembered homunculus at her feet. “One of your wind-up toys got a little out of control. Did you accidentally program him to be a homicidal maniac or something?”

“They malfunction occasionally when they aren’t fed properly, and, of course, we can never afford enough provisions, because your government doesn’t give me adequate funding – wait.” Dr. Husch frowned, her lips so red they invited trite but irresistible comparisons to apples and fire engines and hearth fires. “Marla, you look very strange.”

“Yeah, I know. Who says I’m not getting any younger?” The Mason grinned, and Crapsey almost took a step back, because the grin looked genuine – she was a better actor than he’d ever supposed. “It’s a spell, and if I’m not careful it’ll regress me right back to infancy. But I think you’ve got somebody here who can give me a hand, a patient named, what was it, Rondeau?”

Shit, that’s me. “Uh, Kelly something. No, Kelley’s the last name. Genevieve.”

“Right. She up to receiving visitors, doc?”

Dr. Husch nodded briskly. “I’m sure it can be arranged, if it’s necessary, and I trust you’ll keep my assistance in mind next time the council meets to discuss my funding.” She turned toward the door that led deeper into the Institute, then paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, I do have one question, Marla – how is a raven like a writing desk?”

The Mason hesitated, then said, slowly, “I know this one. There’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither.”

The air around them suddenly came alive with blue sparks, twisting like a net of electric lights, and Crapsey swore. He knew better than to reach out and touch the lights. He’d seen magical confinements before.

Dr. Husch approached the cage of lights slowly. “That’s one answer, yes, and good improvisation. But the proper response, in the code I established with Marla, is ‘Poe wrote on both.’ ”

The Mason snorted. “The proper answer is no answer at all. Lewis Carroll meant that riddle to be nonsense, without a solution, but you humans hate an untied bow, so you had to come up with answers anyway, silly word games. You got the riddle wrong, anyway – it should be why is a raven like a writing desk, not how. Typically sloppy.”

“Well, whatever you are, you’ve read Alice in Wonderland,” Dr. Husch said. “That makes you a literate monster. What are you, anyway? Bodysnatcher? Salt vampire? Doppelganger? Kitsune? Noppera-bō? Tanuki? Gods help us, a clone?”

“Maybe I’m a Skrull,” the Mason said, still grinning.

“Hey, nice comic book reference, boss. Bonus points.”

Dr. Husch circled the cage, peering in at Crapsey. “And you aren’t Rondeau, though you’re close – at least you aren’t fifteen years too young, you’re just too bulked-up and strong.”

“You like big and strong? Because for you I’d hit the gym six days a week, doc. I’d make it seven days a week, but I need at least one day devoted entirely to recovering from hangovers.”

“Fine,” Dr. Husch said. “I’ll let Marla sort this out. She hates leaving the city, but to face her imposter, I’m sure she’ll make the journey.”

The Mason leaned against the crackling cage, looking quite casual, and Husch’s eyes widened. Crapsey guessed that if he touched the cage he’d get zapped pretty hard, maybe knocked profoundly unconscious, but shit like that didn’t bother the Mason. She might be trapped, since this was probably a badass containment mechanism meant to stop the really nasty inmates from making it past the front door in case of escape, but pain and death magics tended to slide right off her. “If you don’t mind me asking,” the Mason said, “what gave me away? The riddle, I know, but what made you test me? I thought I was doing well.”

“I knew something was wrong the moment you dismembered my orderly,” Husch said blandly. “But you asked after Genevieve Kelley, and she’s been discharged – Marla was instrumental in her recovery, in fact. You should have done a bit more research.”

“Well that’s a wasted trip, then,” Crapsey said. Now he wouldn’t get to possess Genevieve, so he wouldn’t have to decide whether or not to try and eradicate the Mason, which was ultimately kind of a relief.

“Not necessarily,” the Mason said. “This building is full of useful people, things, and ideas. And it’s always pleasurable to kill an enemy who’s escaped you once.”

Crapsey winced. He didn’t want to see the doctor die. And if her death was inevitable, he didn’t want to see her get cut up. She was too pretty. “Should I, ah, you know… commandeer the vessel?” Taking over Doctor Husch’s body would get them out of this cage, and probably make it a breeze to get in to see the other patients, and who knows, maybe he’d have time to find a full-length mirror and a Polaroid camera, get some nude snapshot mementos.

The Mason shook her head. “Wouldn’t work, Crapsey. Appearances aside, Dr. Husch isn’t human. Just a homunculus with delusions of grandeur and a couple of advanced degrees. Her creator shouldn’t have bothered giving her a brain, since I’m just going to stick a knife blade in her eye and wiggle it around.”

Dr. Husch snorted. “Threaten me all you like, please. I look after Norma Nilson and Gustavus Lupo for a living. I’ve been threatened by scarier things than you. I’ll just go call Marla. She enjoys taking out the garbage herself.”

“Think you can make a call before I cut my way out of here?” The Mason had drawn her dagger – her special dagger – and held it idly in her left hand.

Dr. Husch shook her head, as if at the antics of a small, comical dog. “There’s not a blade on Earth that can cut through that containment field. Might as well try to break up the sun with a sledgehammer. I had Mr. Beadle himself set up the spell, and it’s strong enough to hold Elsie Jarrow in check. So feel free to break your knife.”

“Oh, surely there’s one dagger on this Earth that can cut through the net? I bet you can think of one.”

Husch laughed. “Marla Mason’s dagger of office you mean? Yes, I suppose. They say it can cut through anything, even ghosts and astral tethers. And I’m very impressed, your little prop knife looks quite like her dagger, the hilt all wrapped with purple-and-white electrical tape, but it’s not enough to just look the same –”

The Mason lifted the knife high, touched the blade to the net above her head, and swept her arm down in a single graceful gesture. The blue threads of magic parted, sputtered, and drifted toward the floor, vanishing before they touched the surface.

“Boo,” the Mason said, face perfectly blank.

Dr. Husch said “Bugger,” and bolted for the door at the end of the hall, disappearing from sight.

“So should we, uh, give chase?” Crapsey said.

The Mason shrugged. “There’s no defense in here I can’t cut through. We’ll stalk her. A slasher movie haunted house sort of experience. She was entirely too in-control there, don’t you think? Too arrogant by half. Some fear and helplessness will do her good.”

“Sadism, right, I get that, but – she was going to call Marla. Are you ready for her whole cavalry to surround us in a siege-type situation?”

The Mason sighed. “It’s less than ideal. Fine, chase her down and sit on her for me. But don’t do anything violent to her yourself. Her counterpart in our world has annoyed me once or twice. I want to take that out on someone.”

Crapsey went through the doorway, and promptly got smacked across the face with what seemed, against all likelihood, to be a cast iron frying pan. He sprawled on his back, half in the doorway, staring at the ceiling and Dr. Husch’s pretty, determined face, wondering if she’d hit him hard enough to fuck up his brain and kill his body and trigger his flight to a new host, and if so, which crazy human behind locked doors he’d end up possessing.

Then Dr. Husch kicked him in the side of the head with one of her perfect feet and everything got fuzzy and wobbly for a while.


Clarity returned to Crapsey like a dripping faucet slowly filling a basin. He found himself in an office, sitting on a couch, while the Mason methodically sorted through a filing cabinet. “Ungh,” he said, checking his skull for dents and gently rubbing the bruises on his face. The illusion hiding his wooden jaw had come unraveled while he was unconscious, and touching the wood was oddly comforting – at least that part of his face didn’t ache. “You kill the doctor?”

“I did my best,” the Mason said. “No thanks to you. Cut her to bits, along with dozens of her orderlies who got in the way. But they’re homunculi, not animals, so it’s tricky to say whether they’re dead – they might as well be foam rubber and wooden frames, you can disassemble them, but kill? Who knows. I suppose someone could put Husch back together again, if they could find all the pieces and took the time, but I don’t imagine she’d ever be the same. Not very satisfying, ultimately. Like killing talking dolls rather than people.” She flipped open a new folder. “Hmm, this is interesting.”


“The Institute’s newest inmate. Down in a cell in the basement. Let’s go visit, shall we?”

“What, it’s someone we know?”

“Know and love, Crapsey, know and love.”


The cell door was well warded with charms of order and confinement, but the Mason’s knife and boots and cloak-magic burned through the defenses easily, and the door swung open slowly, black smoke curling from the half-melted edges. Inside were only white padded walls, and –

The woman in the cell was dressed in plain white pajamas that might have been made of paper, and her hair was shaved to the scalp. She looked a lot different without her braids, but Crapsey recognized her.

“Oh, fuck me, Nicolette?” Crapsey said. “You have to be shitting me.”

“Huh. This is interesting,” Nicolette said. “What’s the deal?”

“We’re parallel-world versions of Marla and Rondeau, on a mission of murder and destruction,” the Mason said. “Would you care to join us, or should we kill you instead?”

“Parallel world. Huh. How’s that poem go? There’s a hell – of a good universe next door?” Nicolette stood up and sauntered toward them. “Got a quarter, jawface?”

Without speaking – nothing he could say now would be the right thing – Crapsey reached into his pocket and handed her a stolen coin from the gas station robbery.

“Heads, I go with you to kill Marla. Tails, we all try to kill each other right here. Sound good?”

“You’re an idiot,” Crapsey said.

“Hey, random chance is my thing, and a girl’s gotta have her thing. I don’t come down to your work and tell you how to be ugly.” Nicolette flipped the coin and let it fall to the ground. They all looked at it. An eagle, spreading its wings. Tails.

“Hell,” Nicolette said, and grinned. “Fact is, I don’t like how that turned out. How about we make it best two out of three?”

Chapter 10

Monday, May 10th, 2010

“You can feel it, can’t you?” Beta-B’s eyes were half closed, his hands extended, caressing the air tentatively, like a teenaged boy feeling up his very first girlfriend for the very first time.

All Rondeau felt was the willies, the screaming-meemies, and horripilation. A sense of wrongness and weirdness and emptiness and gaping holes. He glanced at Marla, but she just shrugged and crossed her arms. “Not me, guys. I’m about as psychic as your average fire hydrant.”

“Close your eyes, Rondeau,” Beta-B said. “Shutting out the other senses helps, sometimes. If I can feel this, I know you can, too.”

Rondeau obediently closed his eyes and held out his hands, and… there was something, an analogue to touch but not quite touch. The air before him felt… ragged and lumpy, like a rip in a piece of slippery cloth, hastily stitched together with entirely the wrong thread. Only it wasn’t the air. It was…

“When people talk about the fabric of reality,” he said carefully, “how much of a metaphor is that?”

“My power – our power – is largely about making metaphors come true,” Beta-B said. “What I feel, what I think you feel, is a sort of membrane, separating this place from… some other place. And, clearly, it was ripped open recently, and then sewn back up, only not very well. Now, do I think the possible witch literally took a needle and thread and sewed up the fabric of reality? No. But I think she used her power, and yours, to rip an opening that led to my world, and that when she was done, she tried to close it again, and did a half-assed job. Now she’s off to parts unknown, so we won’t have her help in tearing open that hole again… but this time, there are two of us with big psychic mojo, and we’ve already got a seam to rip. What do you think, Rondeau? I’ll grab one edge of the seam, and you grab the other, and we’ll just pull that mofo apart?”

“I guess that’s the thing to do.” Rondeau opened his eyes. He could still sense the ragged space in reality hanging before him – once felt, it couldn’t be unfelt.

Marla cleared her throat. “How sure are you two that this hole you’re about to tear open in space-time actually leads to Beta-B’s world? How do you know it’s not a trap the possible witch left for us, a portal to some nightmarish hell dimension of electrified lava and demons with chainsaws for genitals?”

“We don’t know.” Beta-B tapped his temple. “I’ve got some pretty badass extrasensory business going on up here, but I can’t look wherever this hole leads. You can’t see there from over here. The only way in is through.”

“That’s reassuring,” Marla said.

“Do you want to leave? I have to do this – I need to get back to my world, and my people – but you don’t have to be here.”

Marla laughed. “Beta Boy, if you think I won’t jump through that hole with both feet, you really don’t know me. I only wanted to know if I should have my knife in my hand when we go through.”

“Probably a good idea anyway. I’m not sure where we’ll come out – back where I got snatched from, I hope – but if it drops us in my version of Alcatraz…” He shook his head. “That’s a place we might have to fight our way out of. The Jaguar has something locked up there, nobody’s sure what, but he has his scariest lieutenant guarding the place.”

“Let’s hope for Alcatraz, then. I haven’t had a fight in hours.”

Beta-B snorted. “Okay. Rondeau, you ready?”

“Sure, but, uh… what do we do?”

“Reach out with your hands if you want to. Sometimes grounding the psychic act in a physical act helps externalize the metaphor, makes it easier – makes it seem less impossible, anyway. So find the edge of the tear, and just… grab.”

“You must have a good teacher, Beta-B,” Marla said. “Who is it?” She was pretty sure she knew, probably ninety percent, but this new B was cute when he played coy, just like the old one had been.

“You’ll meet him, unless we end up in that chainsaw-cock hell dimension you mentioned.” Beta-B gave her a lopsided grin. “And I bet you’ll shit yourself when you find out who my teacher is. Rondeau, on the count of three, yank as hard as you can. One – Two – ”

On “three,” Rondeau closed his eyes again – it was too distracting watching his hands touch nothing, even as he felt something – and gripped the ragged edge of the air, slipping his fingers through the gaps in the ugly stitching. His fingertips instantly went numb with cold, and he grunted, then pulled, leaning his weight into it… but not, he realized his physical weight. His body hadn’t moved at all. His mind had, though, and that familiar headache of psychic strain bloomed like a black flower behind his eyes.

“Harder!” Beta-B shouted, and Rondeau grunted, sweat popping out on his forehead, the pain now joined by strobing lights on the insides of his eyelids, but the rip was moving, just a little, and –

Space-time tore open all at once, and Rondeau stumbled backwards and fell, rolling over onto his side and catching himself just on the edge of a hole in the floor. He scrambled up, backing away from the gap in the boards. Sure, he was about to climb through a hole that led to who-knows-for-sure-where, but that was better than falling into the void.

He turned and saw Marla and Beta-B gazing at the air. “I see that, psychic or not,” Marla said, and Rondeau nodded.

He and Beta-B had ripped a seven-foot-high, two-foot-wide slit in the air itself, the edges fluttering raggedly, and inside was darkness shot by lightning, but this was kaleidoscope lightning, bolts of raw scarlet, imperial purple, gem-toned yellow, bile-green.

“Before we jump in,” Marla said, “I’ve got one little question. How do we close it after ourselves?”

Beta-B shrugged. “We don’t. I don’t know where we’d begin to try. Let’s just hope the membrane between worlds is less fabric and more skin – that the tear will heal naturally, like a knife wound.”

“Could leave a scar,” Marla said.

“Should’ve thought about that before you violated several universal laws and kidnapped me from my world, huh? You go first, Marla. I don’t know if Rondeau feels the strain, but me, I can tell I’m holding this thing open wide enough for people to pass through, and if we go first, it might snap shut before you can join us.”

Marla nodded, adjusted the strap on her leather shoulder bag, and stepped into the tear as casually as if she were walking through a door in her own apartment.

“So tell me,” Beta-B said, once she’d vanished. “Do you trust her?”

Rondeau nodded, without hesitation, though the movement made his headache surge back. “Marla’s trustworthy. She does what she says she’ll do. Sometimes she says she’ll do things you wish she wouldn’t, but she comes through.”

Beta-B shook his head impatiently, strain showing on his face. “I don’t mean does she keep her word, I mean, do you think she’s likely to put on her cloak and turn evil and murder all my friends?”

“Um. Likely? No. Not at all.”

“That’ll have to be good enough. I really need to get that dream I had about her interpreted… Anyway. After you, my brother from another version of my mother.”

Rondeau looked into the strobing darkness, said, “Fuck it, then,” and stepped inside, and fell.


Marla landed badly, rolling over her right shoulder onto a hard floor, with only a handy wall stopping her momentum. She’d stepped forward through the portal, but she’d fallen down – a nasty little spatial twist on the way to the universe next door. A look around as she got to her feet revealed nothing threatening or even particularly interesting – a room about twelve feet square, concrete floor and walls, space empty but for a few crates shoved in a haphazard pile into one corner, a single door leading out, and cobwebs in the corners. She crept to the open doorway and peered into the corridor outside. A narrow hallway, decorated with faded graffiti and lit intermittently by dangling bulbs hung inexpertly on drooping wires overhead, with no discernible doorways or branching corridors in either direction. Marla couldn’t be sure, but she had the sense this place was underground – something about the pressure in her ears, maybe, or else a simple sorcerous sense.

She turned after hearing a thump behind her, and Rondeau said, “Ow” and sat up rubbing the side of his face. Beta-B appeared from nowhere at all, about three feet above the ground, and fell straight down to land on top of Rondeau. The two struggled a bit, entangled, while Marla looked on tolerantly. “When you two are done making out? We should figure out where we are. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, but I also don’t think we’re in Alcatraz.”

“No, we’re not.” Beta-B grinned, rising to his feet. “We’re in my home sweet stinky home. Marla, Rondeau – welcome to Camp Kimke.”

Rondeau adjusted his jacket, which didn’t make it look any better, really. “Tell me that’s more like a summer camp and less like, I don’t know, a forced labor camp.”

“What’s a kimke?” Marla said.

Beta-B shrugged. “Somebody told me it’s an old German dialect word that means ‘wooden bucket.’ But Camp Kimke is just what my mentor calls our little kingdom under the streets, I don’t know why. Though, come to think of it, we do piss in buckets. Come on, I want you to meet the rest of the revolutionary army of the benevolent Free State of Northern California. We’re the government in exile. Insofar as living in storm drains and steam tunnels and Prohibition-era smuggling routes and defunct underground train lines and forgotten basements counts as exile. Our main base of operations, though, is an abandoned underground military bunker, probably built during some world war. We never would have found the place, but one of our group was a member of the San Francisco Suicide Club back in the day – those guys were crazy, they climbed the Golden Gate Bridge to have a picnic, rode trolley cars naked, all kinds of wild shit – and the club knew all about this bunker, had explored it thoroughly. Apparently the possible witch knows the way here, too, because… we’re there.” He poked Rondeau in the belly. “Good thing we got poofed here instead of having to squeeze our way in through the entrance up above, because the opening’s narrow as hell, pudgykins.”

“So you live like rats in a rathole,” Marla said. “No offense. I like rats. They’re survivors.”

Beta-B shrugged. “I was never into urban exploration myself, but I could see the appeal of discovering forgotten parts of the city, places most people don’t know about. But, yeah – not the place I’d choose to live. We’ve spruced it up a little, brought in generators, hung some lights… but when you come down to it, it’s still just a bunch of concrete boxes. Well-hidden and defended, though, magically and otherwise. And we’ll get to leave soon enough – once we take out the Jaguar.”

“And when do I get to hear the plan of attack, anyway?” Marla said.

“That’s up to the leader of the resistance,” Beta-B said. “So let’s go meet him.” He set off down the concrete corridor, and Marla and Rondeau followed. The passageway curved sharply a couple of times before dead-ending in an impressive solid steel door with a yard-long bar of rusty metal leaning against it. “That’s our door knocker,” Beta-B said. “The door’s so thickly reinforced you can’t hear through it unless you really whack away, metal on metal. Care to do the honors, Rondeau?”

“Sure.” Rondeau reached to lift the bar, but it didn’t budge, and he grunted, grabbed it with both hands, and pulled, leaning his whole body into it, but with no effect.

“Don’t give yourself a hernia,” Marla said. “It’s enchanted or something. Right?”

“Right.” Beta-B grinned and picked up the bar one-handed. “Only legitimate denizens of Camp Kimke can lift this, so no bad guys at our door can whack us over the head with it. One of our little security details.”

Marla snorted. “Security theater, anyway.”

Beta-B frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s pretty dumb. Making a piece of metal too heavy to lift? So what? You think some enemy force is going to make it all the way here to your hidden inner sanctum and then realize, oops, they forgot to bring a weapon, so they’ll pick up this length of rebar? Of course not. They’ll come crackling with charms and lashing sorceries. The big metal door is impressive-looking, but it’s pointless too – it won’t keep out a sorcerer, and who else is going to try to break in, morlock burglars? C.H.U.D.s? This… It’s a defense against a threat that doesn’t exist, the kind of thing people do so it looks like they’re doing something. Do you have anybody in your little camp who actually knows about security?”

Beta-B scowled. “We do all right.”

Marla shrugged. “The Jaguar hasn’t killed you all yet, so I’m prepared to believe it, but I’m not seeing any proof so far. And don’t get all huffy and offended. I wouldn’t be pissed if you told me I was a lousy actor – that’s your area of expertise, not mine. So don’t get mad when I say your security, so far as I’ve seen it, sucks. That’s my gig.”

Beta-B nodded, slowly. “All right. Point taken. Maybe the boss man will take your advice.” He pounded on the door, sending a ringing clang rebounding up and down the corridor.

See, we could have taken you hostage and forced you to knock, and how does your system guard against that? Marla thought, but she didn’t say it, because she was still trying to convince Beta-B that she should be one of his favorite people in the world.

The door cracked open, and a pretty female Asian face appeared in the doorway. “Yasuko,” Beta-B said. “The bird of paradise has landed. Want to let us in?”

The face vanished, and a moment later the massive door swung outward, revealing a vast concrete cavern dotted with cots, couches, salvaged car seats, long wooden work tables, big metal drums, and heaps of miscellaneous junk. A few freestanding partitions tried to divide the space in some meaningful way, but it was a hopeless task in such a hangarlike room. There were ten or twelve people milling around, all sorcerers, probably, since half of them were dressed outlandishly and half of them looked like their minds were very far away. “Let me introduce you around,” Beta-B said. “This is Yasuko Shoji, she’s in charge of materiel – anything we need, she gets.”

“By any means necessary,” Yasuko said. “Who are your friends, B? We were getting worried about you.”

“This is, ah –” He paused, and Marla realized he didn’t want to introduce her by name, since it wasn’t a very well-liked name in these parts; it would lead to too many questions right away.

“I’m Jenny,” she said, “Jenny Click.” Jenny was the name of an apprentice Marla had trained with under her mentor Artie Mann, though the girl had burned out – literally, as she was a pyromancer and had immolated herself – when the pressure became too great. On the rare occasions when Marla needed an alias, she tended to default to that one. “And this is Ronnie, who would be my bodyguard, except I’m more dangerous than he is.”

“I’m more a lover than an anything else.” Rondeau offered Yasuko one of his more endearing grins.

“Charmed.” She looked a question at Beta-B.

“Sorcerers from back East. They need to meet with the boss.”

“He’s out right now,” Yasuko said. “Checking the, ah… you know. But in the meantime, show them around, hit the galley and see if Pie Bob has anything ready to eat.”

“Nah, I’m stuffed,” Beta-B said. “Just ate the best meal I’ve had in years, and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

Yasuko gave him a funny look, shrugged, and wandered off to her own business.

“Come on, meet the gang.” Beta-B led them around, introducing them to his fellow sorcerers: a pair of teenaged cousins, Ryan Rapoport and Joshua Singer, who looked so similar they might have been twins, and who formed a perfect duo of chaos magic and order-sorcery; broody tall Talion, who had enough silver jewelry in his face to kill a dozen werewolves, which had coincidentally been his specialty when he was traveling in Europe (they lost Rondeau there – he apparently saw Talion as a target worthy of his flirtations, and stayed to try his hand); the aforementioned Pie Bob, a scruffy woman in her forties, dressed in a stained chef’s coat, wielding a wooden spoon like a magic wand or possibly a police baton; a leather daddy bruiser type named Jericho with a handshake that could have crushed walnuts; and more.

Marla smiled and nodded and tried to look dangerous and useful. She was never good at names, just assessments, and what she assessed here was a motley crew, a bunch of second- and third-string sorcerers, lieutenants at most, now pressed into positions of greater responsibility. Which made sense. In her world, when Mutex decided to raise a god, he’d murdered the most powerful sorcerers in San Francisco, cutting out their hearts for blood to fuel his ritual, and killing off the best and brightest magic-users in the city. Presumably he’d done the same thing here, even if he was planning to raise a Jaguar instead of a Toad. These sorcerers were the only ones left.

“The boss isn’t around,” Beta-B was saying, “but you can meet our second in command, he’s a great guy.” He led them around a partition, where a man stood at a counter crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. Even with his back turned to them, Marla recognized him instantly, and her heart did something that was the opposite of breaking.

“This is –” Beta-B began.

“Lao Tsung,” Marla said.

Hearing his name, the man – who’d taught Marla everything worthwhile she knew about fighting, who’d been one of her truest friends when she was a lowly apprentice, and whom she’d seen dead, murdered by Mutex, on her last trip to San Francisco, in another world – turned around, revealing that same half-amused expression, dark eyes, black hair in a ponytail, nasty hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from the corner of his mouth.

And then her unbroken heart broke all over again, because he said, “Do I know you, lady?”

Which meant her timeline had diverged from this one at some point before she met Lao. One of her dearest departed friends returned to life, but she was a stranger to him. It was a bitch of a miracle. Though even in her disappointment – hell, be honest, call it grief, or re-grief – she saw the tactical advantage: the Mason hadn’t been trained by Lao Tsung, which meant, by definition, she would not be Marla’s match as a hand-to-hand combatant. Their conflict was unlikely to ever come to mere fisticuffs, but it was nice to know that, if it did, Marla would have the edge.

“This is Jenny Click,” Beta-B said.

“The fuck it is,” Lao Tsung said. “I know Jenny Click, I trained her, and this is no Jenny Click.”

“Uh, well, the thing is,” Marla began, but she didn’t get any farther, because Lao’s eyes widened – just a fraction, but she knew him well, and knew his few and far-between tells. She ducked and spun, sparing her skull, but the blow from behind still hit her shoulder hard enough to make her arm go numb.

Beta-B was armed with a sawed-off broom handle, crackling blue with who-knew-what kind of magics, and he cocked back for another swing. Beyond him, Marla saw Rondeau in a heap on the ground, surrounded by Jericho and Talion and Pie Bob. A spell bubbled to her lips, a nasty one she’d been saving that could take a man apart like a swarm of hide beetles devouring a carcass down to the skeleton. But this was B, and in the fraction of a second before she could choose a more non-lethal attack, Lao Tsung got his arm around her throat from behind and began choking her out.

She didn’t even bother to fight him. Whether she could take him in a real fight – not just sparring – was an open question, one she’d pondered often, but this wasn’t just Lao, it was also Beta-B and the rest of his merry band. Lao was doing a blood choke, not an air choke, so the goal was to make her unconscious, not to kill her or cause her pain, and going gently was better than getting whacked over the head by Beta-B’s glowing blue stick, which she figured was Plan B if she bested Lao Tsung. She’d have to assume they didn’t want her dead, or they’d have tried to kill her already, and she mostly wondered what the betrayal was all about, what she’d overlooked or misunderstood or screwed up, but…

Her thoughts dissolved into a reddish-black buzz, and she was soon engulfed by the dreamless absence of consciousness that was the closest she ever really came to peace.

Chapter 9

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The Mason bombed along Interstate 80 in their Humvee, which guzzled gas like crazy, necessitating more stops at gas stations, though they didn’t have any more massacre-type situations, maybe because they were getting out into the desert where things were more sparsely populated. The Mason didn’t talk at all, not even when they crossed into Nevada and Crapsey said, “Hey, look, boss, it’s not a sea of fused glass over here. Remember when you conquered the queens and kings of Las Vegas and got all those sweet desert powers?” Usually the Mason liked being reminded of past murders, but she was deep inside her own head, which generally meant bad things would happen outside her head when she emerged.

With no radio to listen to, and no fake lighthearted banter, Crapsey was reduced to looking out the windows at the desert for hours. He wasn’t really a landscapes sort of guy, so it was pretty dull, or rather, pretty but dull. He thought, This is what the Mason wants the whole world to be like. Just one big empty. And she was making that vision of the world come true, one murder at a time, over where they came from. Once they found Marla and forced her to undo… whatever she’d done, and sent them back home, the total purification process would continue. The Mason complained that it was surprisingly difficult to exterminate life on Earth without destroying the planet itself, which she had other uses for. (She didn’t want to destroy all life. Bacteria didn’t bother her. Mostly she was just bothered by life she could see.) But it was a problem she was working on. Crapsey preferred a more populated world, and not for the purely selfish reason that he needed human bodies nearby as back-ups in case his current body failed.

The Mason jerked the wheel hard to the right, slicing across two lanes of traffic and prompting a few angry honks and sudden brakings from their fellow travelers on the interstate, though the Mason was too preoccupied with whatever to kill any of them for daring to blare at her.

“Boss, what the hell!” Crapsey grabbed the handhold over the door as the Mason pulled off the shoulder – not bothering to decelerate – and onto the flat desert sand beyond. The smooth ride got bumpy fast, but the big machine managed the change in terrain without bogging down or flipping over. The Mason stared at some fixed point on the horizon as she ran over scrub brush, proceeding in an unerringly straight line toward nothing in particular that Crapsey could perceive.

He glanced in the side mirrors, but the highway was already invisible behind them, and they were in pure trackless waste territory now; except for the tracks the Mason was leaving in their inelegant progress through the desert. “You know, boss, if you need to pee, you only have to pull a little ways off the highway. I know you’re modest and everything, but, damn.”

Still no response. Crapsey’s voice was apparently no more important to her than the rush of air past the windows. This was a whole lot of suck. Crapsey got that nervous-stomach feeling he always developed when he got too far away from the human population. What if this body had a heart attack and died out here? He couldn’t take over the Mason’s body, he knew that from bitter experience, and he’d had zero luck possessing anything non-human – trying to do so was like trying to put on a little kid’s shoes, they just didn’t fit, not even close. Crapsey had no clue how long he could survive without a human host, or what his effective range was in disembodied form; he’d never jumped to a person he didn’t have line-of-sight on. If he lost his body out here in the middle of nowhere, he thought there was a strong possibility he’d be fucked.

The Mason drove on, still at highway speed, which was insane given the landscape. This was desert, but it wasn’t salt flats; there were, like, dips and holes and ridges, and they bumped hard through several of them. Crapsey made occasional comments, stuff like, “Good thing we stole a Humvee and not a Vespa scooter” and “At least it’s a dry heat” and “Are we there yet, mom?” but the Mason never responded. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of barreling along, something appeared on the horizon. A building.

A house. What might have been a farmhouse, if farming out here had been a possibility. The place was still some distance away, but Crapsey knew perfectly well what it looked like: one story, weathered-gray boards, sagging roof, glassless windows.

He knew, because he’d been here before.

“Oh, hell, boss. What are we doing here?”

No reply, but it wasn’t like he needed one. He knew what they were going to do. Probably pretty much what they’d done in their world, a few years before.

Which was:


Crapsey rode in the back seat, looking down the neck of his shirt at his – the body’s – boobs, desperate for any kind of entertainment, even self-ogling. The body he’d commandeered was pretty enough, but in a petite-and-delicate way, and it had no tits to speak of. Oh well. They wouldn’t have given him much of a thrill even if they’d been double-Ds. He’d discovered over the years that most of sexual attraction was rooted in the body and the brain, and this chick’s physiology was the opposite of his usual body’s omnivoracious sexuality – she was asexual, as far as he could tell.

That was okay. The body of Genevieve Kelley had other talents, which was why the Mason had forced him to wear her body to this raid. He just hoped he could do what his boss wanted when the time came. Genevieve’s powers didn’t come with an instruction manual, and he hadn’t been given a lot of time to practice before they set out from the ruins of Vegas.

He looked out the window of the racing Jeep at the dark desert passing by. Genevieve’s eyes were crazy perceptive, and he could pick out the faintly glowing lines of geomantic force in the ground, the living sparks of snakes and rabbits out in the night, and on the horizon, a blaze of power that hurt to look upon. Their destination. The light they’d come to snuff out.

They passed a broken abandoned windmill. Crapsey flexed a muscle in Genevieve’s brain, and the windmill exploded into small birds, flying in all directions, scattering in the dark.

Well crap. He’d meant to just make the windmill explode, not turn into animals. Genevieve’s powers were a bitch to control, too prone to subconscious associations and dream-logic, which was no kind of logic at all. Taking possession of Genevieve’s body was like getting into a tank without knowing how to drive it. Sure, in theory he could blow a city into rubble, but in practice, it was a pain in the ass just getting the thing into gear and driving in a straight line. Genevieve was one of the rarest and most powerful forms of psychics, a reweaver, capable of altering reality in profound ways… not that it had done her much good. The stress of her abilities had rendered her catatonic, and Genevieve had languished in a hospital for disturbed sorcerers outside Felport until the Mason realized what they had tucked away in that unassuming little room at the Blackwing Institute. Finding Genevieve there was sort of like discovering a hydrogen bomb in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

“Stop playing, Crapsey.” The Mason didn’t turn around from her place in the passenger seat, didn’t move her head at all, but she’d obviously seen his little trick with the birds. “Don’t call attention to our presence.”

“Yeah, behave yourself, assbrain.” The Jeep’s driver did turn around, charms in her hair clattering together, and she gave him a nasty grin.

“Go fuck yourself, Nicolette, or I’ll take over your body and do the self-fucking for you.” The threat sounded a lot less threatening than he would have liked, emerging as it did in Genevieve’s vague and spacey-sounding voice.

He couldn’t follow through anyway. Nicolette was useful to the Mason, so she was untouchable, even though she annoyed him like nobody else. She was a chaos magician – lately she called herself the Chaotician-in-Chief for reasons known only to herself – and one of the only sorcerers from Felport to pledge fealty to the Mason and, thus, stay alive. She’d bought her way onto the team by garroting her boss, a prissy little sorcerer named Gregor, when he was holed up in his skyscraper fortress. You couldn’t say Nicolette had “proven her loyalty” because she had no more loyalty than a lightning storm or a snakebite, but she was part of the gang, like it or not. She was also crazier than a cultist of Xorgotthua. Shit, Crapsey had a prosthetic jaw because his original equipment had been ripped off, but Nicolette had amputated her left arm on purpose, and had that… replacement… grafted on willingly. She was bonzo nutso.

“There’s the house.” Nicolette stopped the Jeep about a hundred yards away.

“The queen of the obvious speaks again.” Crapsey squinted against the blaze of power radiating from within the decrepit structure before them. Where’s the damn off switch? He fumbled around in Genevieve’s brain until he found the equivalent of a psychic-vision dimmer switch, and the blaze of white light in the house faded to a sort of bioluminescence-level illumination.

“Are you ready, Crapsey?”

He glanced at the Mason, then quickly away. Being psychic sucked. Seeing what the cloak really looked like was not pleasant. Instead of a hooded purple garment on a woman’s back, Crapsey saw a many-eyed thing that looked like the three-way offspring of a lamprey, a vampire squid, and a manta ray, fangs sunk into flesh and pseudopods twined around the human body of its host: pure parasite. Crapsey hadn’t found a way to turn off that vision yet.

“No, I’m not ready. But I’ll do my best. I wish you’d taken over this body, if it’s got such awesome powers. You could use them better than me. I mean, you’re the cloak, right? So get a mind-slave to take you off Marla’s body and drape you over Genevieve’s shoulders instead. What’s the problem?”

“Impossible. Genevieve was catatonic. She had no will. She was useless as a host for me.”

Crapsey grunted. The Mason didn’t talk much about her limitations, but he’d gleaned a few things over the years. Unless the cloak was being worn by a human, it was largely inert, dormant, harmless. A human body – and apparently a human will – were necessary to let the cloak think and act and plan and commit horrendous acts of violence. But that human will was a problem, too, because humans could fight the cloak’s influence. The Mason and her host body had struggled mightily over the years, though the Mason had finally subjugated Marla completely. The Mason had once told him, “This whole universe is as hostile to my kind as the depths of the ocean or the void of space are to humans. And Marla Mason’s body… it’s my scuba gear. My spacesuit. A confinement necessary to my survival.”

“All right,” Crapsey said. “Tonight I’ll be playing the role of world-altering reweaver. I guess we should get a move on.”

“Letting you into that body is like giving a loaded gun to a cocker spaniel.” Nicolette smirked at him. “But at least it’ll be certain to add chaos to the world. Tasty, tasty chaos.” She slid out of the Jeep, and Crapsey and the Mason followed suit.

“Should we be sneaky, or flank, or –”

“Silence.” The Mason cut Crapsey off. “Desert spirit!” she shouted. “I am here. Come and face me.”

Nicolette lifted her human hand to her hair, ready to snatch one of the charms woven into her parti-colored braids. Her other hand – not that it was a hand, exactly – writhed and crackled with magics. Nicolette had replaced her left arm with a vat-grown squidlike tentacle about four feet long (the flesh was dark purple, she was such a suck-up) that terminated in a branching profusion of smaller tentacles, at least a dozen, covered in suckers that in turn contained rings of needle-like teeth. As far as Crapsey was concerned a physical alteration like that meant only one thing: Nicolette would never, ever have a consensual sex partner again, because she was totally over-the-top gross.

Not as gross as the thing that came scuttling out of the house, though. Crapsey’s borrowed eyes couldn’t reconcile what he saw emerging from the front door: it was pretty clearly a giant scorpion, easily the size of a dump trunk, crawling toward them rapidly despite having at least two broken legs leaking fluid and dragging in the dirt, its tail a curled question-mark dripping poison that spattered and hissed and boiled on the sand, its eyes a profusion of black-glass hemispheres, its mouth a complex writhing system of mandibles oozing nasty digestive enzymes –

But at the same time it was a little old stick-thin lady, gray hair in a bun, wearing a faded prairie dress, and where she stepped on the sand yellow flowers bloomed for just an instant before withering and turning to dust. Crapsey chose to focus on the old-lady aspect, which was as easy as changing the focus in his eyes, like he was trying to look at something up close instead of something far away. The scorpion was way more disturbing to look at, and since it was obviously way too large physically to actually pass through the perfectly normal human-sized doorway it had passed through, he figured it was more a metaphorical type thing, or an unrealized immanence, or something. He couldn’t quite unsee it, though. The scorpion shape hovered around the old lady like an oversized shadow.

“Why have you come to my domain?” the woman – or the scorpion – or both – said, in a voice that had the tone of a whisper but the volume of a public address system.

“Because it’s my domain,” the Mason said. “Everything is mine, because no other creature in this universe is qualified to have dominion.”

“You wish to erase all life.” The woman shook her head, an expression on her face like that of a mother disappointed in her child. “But I am a spirit of life – of tenacious, poisonous, clever life. Life in the barren spaces, the dangerous places, the inhospitable lands. I am the spirit of rattlensakes and trapdoor spiders. Of worms in vents of lava far beneath the sea. Of jellyfish and crustaceans swimming beneath ice caps. I teem with multitudes. You will find life is not so easy to destroy.”

“Oh, I don’t want to eradicate all life,” the Mason said. “Just all unworthy life. And since only my kind are worthy, and since I am the only one of my kind stuck in this horrible inhospitable universe, then I am the only one worthy of life. Though I tolerate the existence of a few others who prove useful to me.” She smiled at Crapsey and Nicolette in what she probably thought was a pleasant way. “I’ve come to kill you, though.”

“How do you hope to kill an incarnation of life?” she said, head cocked, by all appearances genuinely curious. “I sense your strengths, and they are profound, but they are not the equal of me.”

“Crapsey?” the Mason said, and that was it, he was on deck.

He closed his eyes and let Genevieve’s multidimensional origami-folded senses open up, tasting the shape of the scorpion spirit before them, trying to find its weaknesses and understand its nature so that he might twist reality to conjure a refutation for the spirit’s very existence. He let Genevieve’s power flow lightly through him, not attempting to consciously shape its effects, because trying to control this power was like trying to steer an avalanche: the best you could hope to do was ride the collapsing probabilities all the way to the bottom without getting buried.

Something clicked, or blossomed, or inflated, or… there was no real physical-sensory cognate for the mental sensation he experienced. But Crapsey knew he’d used Genevieve’s powers to do something.

“Who the fuck is that?” Nicolette said. “This place is awfully crowded for the middle of nowhere.”

Crapsey opened his eyes and saw a figure approaching across the desert, just beyond the house. It was human-shaped, though in the darkness it was difficult to tell more, except… was it wearing a cowboy hat? Crapsey let Genevieve’s profounder vision come online, and looked again… and whimpered.

Where the scorpion god was a shining beacon of brightness, the cowboy striding toward them was a darkness deeper than dark, the black of the moment after the last star winks out, the blackness of a tar pit at the center of a black hole, the cold and empty darkness of the death of heat. Crapsey realized the cowboy wasn’t very close to them at all. He was still quite far away… but he was very, very large.

“What have you summoned here?” the scorpion god whispered, shivering. “Why is it so cold?”

The cowboy walking toward them – now taller than the house, and how big was he, really, and how far away? – had a long shadow stretching before him despite the absence of a light source, and that shadow was a hint of the darkness that was his essence. His face was a swarm of shadows underneath his battered no-color hat, and he wore pistols at his belt, slung low on his hips. This was no sheriff, no marshal – this was a murderer, a bushwhacker, an outlaw. The personification of the deadly aspects of the desert, of ice, of lava; a conjured god of wildfire, mudslides, and earthquakes.

When the outlaw stopped beside them, it stood so tall that Crapsey’s head didn’t even come to the top of its dusty snakeskin boots. “Hello, little bug,” it said, in a dry rattling voice that emerged from the clot of shadows it wore for a face, far overhead.

“You mustn’t –” the scorpion spirit began, but the outlaw lifted one cabin-sized foot and brought its heel down on top of the old woman, and ground the heel into the dirt, leaving nothing but a hideous smear on the sand.

“She’s dead.” Nicolette stared at the fluids oozing from beneath the outlaw’s boot. “She – it – it’s really dead. Crapsey, you did it.”

“Get rid of that thing.” The Mason gestured at the outlaw. “I can tell it doesn’t much like us drawing breath, either.”

Crapsey wasn’t sure he knew how to get rid of it, but there was a definite strain in his mind from pinching off this bit of reality and tearing this other bit open, so he just… stopped making the effort, and the towering giant vanished, leaving only the flattened remains of the woman the scorpion spirit had inhabited. Crapsey swayed a little, woozy, like he’d hiked to a higher elevation and wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and he was more than a little intimidated by the sheer power Genevieve’s body possessed. He glanced at the Mason thoughtfully. Tired or not, he could taste her shape – the shape of the monstrous thing that looked like a cloak – and summon its refutation, too. Did he dare try such a thing? What if he failed? What horrors would she unleash on him if he attempted to destroy her and failed? He –

“I know that look in your eye,” the Mason said. “It certainly took you long enough to make the connection. Now, Nicolette.”

“What?” Crapsey said, but Nicolette had a tiny yellow bead in the palm of her hand, and she flicked it hard with her finger, making the bead fly and bounce off his forehead and then –

The lights went out.

When Crapsey woke he was back in his own body in his little corner of the Felport warehouse the Mason called home, which freaked him out, because he didn’t remember moving, and it wasn’t like anyone else could move him, at least, not from body to body. “What – how –”

The Mason was sitting on a sea chest, looking at him with her customary lack of affect. “I took Genevieve’s body and your body to a sealed room far away from anyone else and cut Genevieve’s throat. You jumped back into your old body by instinct. Of course, no other hosts were available, since you can’t take my body.”

“Right.” Crapsey’s head pounded. He needed a drink of water. He swung his legs off his small bed and groaned. “But why’d you kill her? Why not keep her body on ice so we could use her power in the future?”

“You realized the potential, Crapsey. That you might be stronger than me, in that body. I couldn’t have that. You’re loyal to me, I know, but only because the consequences of disloyalty are too great. You could never be allowed in Genevieve’s body again. She was a useful resource, but the possible rewards didn’t outweigh the possible risks. I could have performed a ritual to swap some other sorcerer’s consciousness into her body, true, but come, Crapsey – you know I don’t trust any of my other lieutenants.”

“You don’t trust me, either.”

“Oh, but I do trust you. I trust you to obey me absolutely, enjoying yourself as much as possible in the meantime, until the moment you think you can kill me without repercussions.” The Mason shrugged. “It’s more trust than I give anyone else in the world. Fortunately, I am extremely hard to kill, so I expect you to be loyal to me for a long time. That’s why you’re my only friend – because we truly understand each other.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, and the feeling that he’d let a chance at escape slip away was like the moment you realize summer is over and winter is swiftly headed your way.


The Mason pointed to the house, which looked even more run-down in the daylight. Crapsey sighed and climbed out of the cab, not sure what he was supposed to do, exactly. Even if the scorpion thing was around in this universe, his only offensive capabilities were a butterfly knife and his natural and inexplicable ability to curse in a primal incantatory tongue that unleashed little geysers of chaos, but a few spurts of flame or spontaneous sinkholes wouldn’t help him here.

A little old lady – the little old lady – appeared in the doorway, shading her eyes from the sun. “Can I help you?” she called. “Are you lost?”

“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Yeah, lost. What is this place?” He came a little closer, squinting, trying to get a sense of whether there was anything supernatural-ish about her. As far as he could tell, she was just human, but he was no expert, and without Genevieve’s senses, he didn’t have any special insight.

The woman chuckled. “It used to be the edge of a little mining town called Tolerance, but there’s precious little town left. Only a handful of us stayed, and sometimes I wonder why I did.”

“Huh. So you don’t stay because of your devotion to a desert spirit that appears in the form of an enormous scorpion then?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Boss,” Crapsey said, turning back to the now-dusty Humvee, where the Mason still sat. “This is a waste of time. She’s not, I don’t know, inhabited at the moment. I guess we aren’t enough of a threat yet to call the attention of the big scorpion god. So why don’t we –”

“Kill her,” the Mason said.

“What?” the woman squawked, taking a step back.

Crapsey sighed and started to sit down, preparing himself for yet another possession.

“No, not that way,” the Mason said. “Use your knife.”

Swearing softly, Crapsey took the blade from his jacket pocket. His suit already reeked from all the travel, and now he was going to get blood stains on it, there was just no way around it, this was bound to be messy. “I’m sorry, lady. I mean, this sucks, and I don’t want to do it, but your mirror-universe doppelganger made a bad enemy, so here we are.”

The woman ran into the house, and Crapsey swore again, loudly this time, because now, damn it, he had to chase her.

After he was done, and he’d climbed back into the Humvee and slumped against the passenger side door, the Mason reached over and patted his knee. “Good boy,” she said, and started the car.

Chapter 8

Monday, April 26th, 2010

“So you didn’t mean to kill me.” Beta-B sat in one of the leather seats on Hamil’s private jet, across from Rondeau, but not looking at him – gazing instead out the window at the Earth below, vast stretches of nothing punctuated by occasional marks of human habitation. Marla, who’d made herself thoroughly into a city person, found cross-country flights unnerving. So much of this country was just emptiness. Or farmland, which, though she knew intellectually was a long way from being emptiness, sure felt like emptiness to her. But she looked out her window, too, from her seat behind Beta-B, biting her tongue (literally) to keep from jumping into their conversation.

“Yeah. I mean no.” Rondeau appeared sweaty and miserable, dressed in a scratchy-looking brown suit coat that looked like some kind of hemp hippie cerements. “When my body died, it was just like… instinct. Like how when drowning people grab onto the person trying to rescue them, and panic, and end up dragging them both down.” He took in a deep breath, then let out a big rush of air. “Except in my case I ended up using Bradley as a life raft to get myself to safety.”

“So I’m an inflatable pool toy now? You suck at metaphors.” Beta-B tapped on the glass of the window as if checking a barometer, still staring at the ground, or possibly at his reflection. “But okay. I mean, intellectually, it’s pretty fucked up, but it’s not like I knew the guy, your Bradley, even though he was me. We were the same guy at some point, I get that, but it’s not like we were friends. And frankly, I’ve seen a lot of people I did consider friends die over the past few years, so hearing about an alternate-universe version of myself dying doesn’t even break through into the emotion-wrecking top ten. And, well, I don’t know how much you guys know about the world I come from – I get the sense it’s just about nothing – but there’s a version of you there, Rondeau, and he… from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t take over bodies by accident. He does it whenever his boss tells him to, maybe whenever he feels like it, and when he’s done using the stolen flesh, he jumps back to his old body again, leaving the people he took over as brain-dead vegetables, followed shortly by being totally dead. I guess if you got one of them on a ventilator right away the body might keep living, but what would be the point?”

Marla sat up. Rondeau’s ability to jump bodies could be made voluntary? Rondeau could be… weaponized? Some shit just shouldn’t exist.

Rondeau shook his head, hard. “I can’t jump whenever I feel like it. Not that I ever feel like it. And knowing that’s even possible… I didn’t need to know that. Not something I’d ever care to try.”

“Probably took him a lot of practice,” Beta-B said. “The guy’s been training to be a murder weapon his whole life, I think. His name’s Crapsey, but I’ve seen him, via remote viewing and in person, once, and he’s definitely you, or what the illusion you’re wearing looks like, anyway, except he hits the gym a lot more often and he’s got this creepy wooden prosthetic jaw, all carved up with runes, I’m not even sure what they do. Maybe they help him bite through steel cables or something.”

“Bonus points for the vintage James Bond movie reference. Just call me Jaws.” Rondeau rubbed his chin.

Beta-B looked at him now, and laughed. “Yeah. You know, they were considering me for the lead in a James Bond reboot back when I was still acting. Never went anywhere, the whole project fell apart, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, too young for the part, but it would’ve been cool to do an action hero thing instead of being soulful moody love-interest guy.”

“Tell me you would’ve played Bond gay,” Rondeau said. “I mean manly gay, you know what I’m saying, but let a little something slip through, get that British-boarding-school vibe in there at least, make some of that buried-deep subtext a little less subby.”

Beta-B laughed again, and something tightened and twisted in Marla’s chest, because that was her B she heard, laughing with Rondeau like he had so often in the past. “You’re all right, man,” Beta-B said. “I can see why Bradley Prime or whatever you call him liked you.”

“Oh, he didn’t just like me,” Rondeau said, raising one eyebrow, and as if that wasn’t enough, winking, and then, for further effect, nudging an invisible companion in the ribs. “He liked me. If you know what I’m saying.”

Beta-B whistled. “You’re saying you and me… you and he…”

“We’d just killed a god, man,” Rondeau said. Marla snorted, and Rondeau shrugged. “Okay, we’d just contributed materially to the killing of a god, and we were in a celebratory mood, and I was always open to whatever, so we gave it a go. Good times.”

“Don’t expect a repeat performance.” Beta-B leaned forward and poked Rondeau in the stomach. “You’ve got an illusion on, but I can see right through it, and you look like me, and I’m not so narcissistic that I want to fuck my double. Especially not with you letting yourself – myself, himself – go like that. What’s with the gut?”

Rondeau sucked in his stomach, Marla guessed, though nothing much changed from her point of view – she couldn’t see through his illusion, not without concentrating hard enough to give herself a splitting headache. She didn’t have Beta-B’s natural gift for clarity. Rondeau said, “It’s been a messed up couple of weeks. Not exactly thinking about working out. And my old body just had that kind of hummingbird metabolism, you know, I could eat whatever I wanted and never gained a pound, but this body, I’ve got to work at it, I guess. I’m still learning the ropes. It’s weird being full-on gay though, I’ll tell you that.”

“Nice to have a definitive answer to the ‘is homosexuality a choice or not’ question,” Beta-B said. “Now we can move on to more pressing issues.”

“Like whether water-based or silicon-based lube is better?” Rondeau said. “Because I’ve got to figure that shit out.”

Beta-B nodded gravely. “A nice thick water-based, always. But I was thinking more like, can you guys get your hands on some rocket launchers and machine guns and grenades and maybe a tank or two, and let me take those back with me when I go? Because it would help a lot.”

“We could get heavy ordnance, maybe, with some notice,” Marla said, and Beta-B swiveled in his chair to include her in the conversation, now that she was doing more than lurking. “Though the boss of San Francisco isn’t a friend of mine, and while I know the lady who runs Oakland, she’s more of a lover than a fighter – sex magic’s her thing, more heavy petting than heavy weapons. But if you want to get back tonight… I don’t think so. Not sure we could take anything we can’t carry with us, anyway, so tanks would be out. But, hey, you’ve got me, and I’ve got a really sharp knife, and I’m good at kicking things over – people, walls, regimes, whatever – and, if shit gets too real, I’ve always got my cloak.” She patted a leather satchel at her side. The cloak was folded away in there, surrounded by runes that blurred remote viewing, dampened magical fields, and generally made the contents seem unremarkable.

“I’ve been meaning to mention that,” Beta-B said. “You… really shouldn’t wear the cloak around my friends.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding grossly insensitive, but… it’d be like toting a sniper rifle around a Kennedy family reunion. Like wearing a swastika to a bar mitzvah. The cloak’s a symbol, and it’s not a symbol of something good. Everybody where I’m from hates the Jaguar, it’s barbaric, and I don’t mean white-shoes-after-Labor-Day, serving-red-wine-chilled kind of barbaric, I mean, heads on pikes, hearts cut from chests, mass-murder-human-sacrifice barbaric. But there are people who are happy the Jaguar rules San Francisco, because at least the Jaguar is a big badass, and he keeps us from getting taken over by an even worse tyrant.”

Marla had known they’d get back to this eventually. She was both fascinated and loath to learn more. “That would be me. The tyrant. Your world’s version of me. Yeah?”

“You know how I said sorcerers went public in my world a few years ago? I understand there was basically a secret war for some years before that, with a crazy sorcerer knocking off her enemies, forcing people into alliances, betraying them, consolidating power, ruling with an iron fist, all that. And once this crazy sorcerer got everything lined up just so, she made herself known – she destroyed Washington DC, and Moscow, and London, and Paris, and a major city in every country that has a major city. She didn’t just blow the places up. She drove the inhabitants insane, made them kill each other, and made them destroy their cities. With sledgehammers, and axes, and if all else failed, with their hands. You haven’t seen fucked-up shit until you’ve turned on CNN and watched the entire House of Representatives tearing apart the capitol building with their bare hands, gibbering and screaming while they rip themselves bloody. Then this crazy sorcerer came on TV, and where people didn’t have TV she just appeared like a purple-tinged ghost, and she said, basically: Here’s how it’s gonna be. I’m the new boss. Anyone who fights will die. Anyone who resists will be destroyed. She said, and this isn’t paraphrasing, she said, ‘Your world is now mine.'”

Marla’s mouth was suddenly dry. Must be the pressurized air in the cabin. “That’s… pretty ambitious.”

“Yeah,” Beta-B said. “Some people resisted successfully, other sorcerers, and until the Jaguar came I lived in one of the more benign witchocracies, but everybody knows if your evil twin puts her mind to it, she can topple most any regime. The few holdouts just hope she has bigger problems to deal with, fights that keep her busy elsewhere, you know?” He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “So why isn’t that the situation here, Marla? Are you just not that ambitious on this side of the looking-glass? Maybe you didn’t get the right kind of encouragement when you took Global Tyranny 101 or Brutal Subjugation for Beginners in high school?”

“I cut a lot of classes,” she said. “Must have missed those days. Look, whatever turned this… other version of me into the monster you describe… it didn’t happen to me. Maybe she saw her family get murdered in front of her. Maybe she got one of those head injuries that damages the frontal lobe and alters the whole personality – trauma producing a sociopath. Who knows where our paths diverged? But they did. Hell, ask Rondeau. He might admit I have a flaw or two, but I’m pretty sure he’ll vouch that I’m no destroyer of worlds.”

Rondeau nodded. “It’s true. Marla can be cranky, but she’s no epic supervillain. She did take over the land of the dead one time, but not for keeps. I mean, she gave it back, once she found the right guy to take over.”

“You’ve been to the actual underworld?” Bradley said.

“B, you’re the one who got me a ticket on the train that took me to Hell. I couldn’t have done it without you. Or, not you, but Alpha-B. You know.”

B looked at his hands. “I can do that? Summon a train to hell?”

Marla nodded. “You’ve done it at least twice that I know about. Not sure how it can help you now though. It’s, ah… tricky to bring people back from there, I hear, so even if you’ve lost people…”

“Everyone where I come from has lost people. The Mason kills as casually as you’d blow your nose.”

“‘The Mason’?” Rondeau said. “Seriously? Marla 2.0 calls herself The Mason? Ha. Is that the style where you’re from? So you’d be, what – The Bowman? Actually that’s pretty good. Give you a bow and arrow, let you do some Legolas-style shit.” Rondeau mimed drawing and firing arrows, making little “pew pew” noises as he did so. “And I’d be –”

“We already know what you are,” Marla said. “Your name over there is Crapsey. Which, you know, it fits. You look like a Crapsey. Lot of days, you even smell like a Crapsey.”

Rondeau went “Pfft. I was going to say, since I don’t have a last name, I’d have to be The Nameless One, which is pretty mysterious and badass. Sounds kinda like the name for one of those old alien gods from behind the back of the stars, though, the kind with beards made out of tentacles.”

“Okay,” Beta-B said. “I guess I can see why Alpha-B liked you two. It’s just tough because, where I’m from, a couple of people who look a whole lot like you want to enslave me and everybody I care about.”

“So after we get rid of the Jaguar, we get rid of this Mason broad,” Marla said. “I can’t have some lunatic in a cloak going around smearing my good name, even in another universe. I mean, it probably says something about me psychologically, but the idea of going toe-to-toe in a fight with myself? It’s kind of appealing.”

Beta-B looked back out the window. “You can certainly try. But she’ll kill you. She’s spent years doing nothing but killing, all sorts of people, on a very grand scale. I’m sure you’ve got some blood on your hands, but… I have to think she’s more experienced than you are.”

Marla grinned. A challenge. A fight. After weeks spent grieving, it felt good to be planning an assault again. “Maybe. But the Mason’s not expecting me, is she? Give me the element of surprise and I can tip the world over on its axis, Beta-boy.”


They landed at San Francisco International Airport, and Hamil had a car waiting for them; a limo, of course, since it would go against his fundamental magical underpinnings to have some primer-painted gypsy cab in his employ. Marla resisted the urge to sit in front with the driver – the same ruthlessly egalitarian urge that made her want to eat in the kitchen with the servers at restaurants and encourage maids to rob their rich employers blind – and settled into a seat in the back across from Beta-B and Rondeau.

“This sweet ride give you flashbacks to Oscar night?” Rondeau said. “Oh, wait, you were never up for an Academy Award, were you? You got a Grammy, though, in one of the weirdo categories, for that spoken word drug addiction misery memoir thing you did. I’m sure that’s a comfort.”

“Ironically, I later sold that very Grammy trophy for drugs,” Beta-B deadpanned, and Marla snickered. “How many Grammys have you won, Rondeau?”

“I’m holding out for the Nobel,” Rondeau said. “Not in one of the wussy categories like literature or peace. Give me something hardcore like chemistry or economics or fashion.”

“Be sure to invite me to Stockholm. But, yeah, I went to three or four Academy Awards ceremonies, and we traveled in style. Usually there was more cocaine and less existential terror involved in the ride over though.”

“Speaking of business,” Marla said. “Last night we just took a cab and I used my spell-fu to steal us a boat, which Rondeau sailed out to Alcatraz – I can’t believe you actually learned to sail, by the way.”

“You were off conquering the underworld at the time. Mr. Beadle taught me.”

“I can believe someone taught you, I said I can’t believe you learned. Anyway, that’s not a good plan in broad daylight like this, and I know the Alcatraz tours are usually sold out way in advance, so either we can try to stow away on a tour boat with a look-away spell cast on all three of us, or we can give a few ticketed passengers a really nasty stomach bug, the ‘I-think-I’m-turning-inside-out kind’ –”

“How about you leave that part to me,” Beta-B said. “I’ll get us on a boat.”

Marla raised her eyebrow. “What’s the plan? Look for an admirer and hope she’ll fansquee all over herself giving you tour tickets?”

“Maybe your Bradley was a mess of learned helplessness or something, but I’ve been slugging it out with sorcerers for years now. I’ve got a few tricks your B probably never learned.”


Pier 33 was crowded, with a preponderance of German tourists for some reason, and it was a sunny day, if cold, with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the headlands of Marin, and in the bay itself, Angel Island and the Rock, though Alcatraz wasn’t so breathtaking, looking rather squat and a barren, a maritime keep for a warlord fallen on hard times.

While Marla and Rondeau did their best to look like tourists – easier for Rondeau than Marla – Beta- B went to work. People were standing around waiting for the next Alcatraz tour boat, and Beta-B approached a family of two parents and one teenager. He chatted at them brightly for a few moments, then waved his hand in front of their faces in a showy, swoopy sort of move. They all smiled widely, and the father handed Beta-B some slips of paper. The family walked off, talking together excitedly, and Beta-B strolled over to Marla and Rondeau.

“There,” he said. “No problem. Three tickets for the launch leaving in 90 minutes. See? And we’ve got time to grab some lunch, too. Which, believe me, you’ll want to do. Take-out options in the city of the Jaguar are not fantastic.”

“What’d you do, mind-control them?” Marla said. She was capable of brute-force persuasion, but it gave her the kind of migraine where you see halos, so she tried to avoid it; when she planned in advance, she could enchant stones or other small charms suitable for one-use compulsions, but she didn’t have any such trinkets on her. Beta-B didn’t appear to feel any strain at all. “And what was the deal with the little stage-magician hand-wave?”

Beta-B passed the palm of his hand before her face. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”

“Ha,” Rondeau said. “Jedi mind trick, Marla. The hand-swoop is key. Classic Star Wars reference. Bonus points.”

“What exactly are these bonus points redeemable for?” Beta-B said.

“Don’t answer that, Rondeau,” Marla said. “New B, you don’t want to give him openings like that.” She looked at Alcatraz, feeling impatient as always to get started, to move, to do something, but yeah, they should probably eat. “Do you think there’s any place around here that doesn’t serve sea food?”


They found an upscale chain restaurant nearby and sat by big windows looking out toward the Bay. Marla demolished a cheeseburger, Rondeau ate something alarmingly called a “flying tuna platter,” and Beta-B literally ordered one of everything on the menu, only eating a few bites of each, much to the annoyance of the waitress, though Marla left a tip big enough to turn her weird sidelong looks into exhortations to come back again real soon! Then they waited in line (always one of Marla’s least favorite things) and got onto the boat. The ride only took about 15 minutes, during which time Beta-B and Rondeau traded movie and book trivia and Marla mostly paced, watching the island grow slowly larger. She was a little nervous. Not so much about facing the Jaguar – she knew, or was almost certain she knew anyway, an important secret about the risen god, something that would probably give her an edge if whatever Beta-B’s band of revolutionaries had planned didn’t work and she had to take on the big mean kitty cat on her own.

The nervousness was about the likelihood of meeting herself, or a dark mirror image of herself. Marla had no illusions; she could be a bitch, a ball-breaker, and a bad boss, but a tyrannical despot, conqueror of continents, and indiscriminate murderer? Every death she’d ever caused weighed on her mind, and she thought – she needed to think – that such depth of evil didn’t come from the other Marla, but from the constant wearing of the cloak. Marla herself had often felt the seductive allure of wearing the cloak with the lethal purple side showing. The access to destructive power, the complete lack of conscience – it could be exhilarating. If she’d never taken off the cloak after the first time she used it, maybe she would have become the monster Beta-B talked about.

And yet, even knowing how dangerous the thing was, she still had the cloak, right here in her bag, and if she needed to, she’d put it on again, and risk her soul once more, and hope she had the will to take it off and become herself again when she was done.

“We’re there, boss.” Rondeau touched her shoulder, and she didn’t jerk away from his hand. It was nice having him back as a friend. Rondeau was a colossal fuck-up, but he was trying to fix his mistakes, which was pretty much all she had a right to ask. They filed off the boat with the rest of the herd, and while the tour guide addressed the crowd, Marla muttered a little look-away spell to drape herself, Rondeau, and Beta-B in a veil of not-interesting-ness, then set off toward the prison.

“Either of you all-seeing-eye types sense any sorcerers lurking here?” she asked as they entered the first cell block.

“No sign of the Warden,” Rondeau said. “Susan probably reassigned her to Antarctica or something.”

“There’s definitely something here, though,” Beta-B said. “Not human. But… something.”

Rondeau nodded. “The possible witch. She’s something all right. Wait’ll you meet her.”

Marla led the way to the solitary confinement cell, and Rondeau took one of her hands while Beta-B took the other. She closed her eyes. “It’s a little tight for all of us to turn around three times in here,” she began.

“No need,” Beta-B said, and there was a lurch and a cold, biting wind blew past her face.

She opened her eyes, and they were once more in the corridor that led to the possible witch’s throne, a hallway punctuated by short corridors and occasional mercifully-closed doors, but the conditions were even worse now – there were gaping holes in the walls, suffused by sick-looking greenish-yellow light, with howling winds blowing through, and more holes in the floor giving way to darkness. They stepped carefully around the holes, buffeted by the wind, all holding hands, following the bends and curves of the corridor, until they reached the place where the spiral staircase –

– didn’t exist anymore. Not even in half-melted, rusted form. There was no ceiling above them, just darkness, and beyond the darkness, things that looked almost like, but were not quite, stars.

“Shit, Marla, she’s gone,” Rondeau said. “What do we do now?”

Marla didn’t have an answer. But, to her surprise, Beta-B did.

He said, “Let’s you and me tear the fabric of reality a new asshole, Rondeau.”

Chapter 7

Monday, April 19th, 2010

“We need transportation.” The Mason stood on the corner near the diner with her arms crossed, surveying the traffic as if deciding which of the passing vehicles she wanted to claim as her own.

Turned out that’s exactly what she was doing. She pointed to a machine just turning the corner. The vehicle – car? van? truck? Crapsey didn’t know the right terminology – looked like one of the military Humvees back home, except it was shiny black, completely undented, equipped with spinning silver hubcaps, and didn’t have any war fetishes wired to the front grille. “Get me that one, Crapsey.”

“Uh. You want me to jump into a guy driving a moving car? In traffic? I mean, I’ll do it, of course I’ll do it, you’re the boss, but –”

“No, you’re right, a crash would be counterproductive. There are too many cars here. Because there are too many people. There needs to be a culling.”

Crapsey shivered. Nothing good ever came of it when the Mason started feeling crowded. Wherever the cloak came from, it must have been a much more sparsely-populated place, because she hated the press of living things.

The Mason stepped into the middle of traffic, right in front of the black Humvee, holding up her hand. Fortunately traffic was slow through here – as it was, the driver had to squeal his brakes to keep from hitting her. Not that even a high-speed collision would hurt the Mason, or even move her, but the impact of such a crash would have driven the engine block into the cab and turned the guy driving into reddish pudding. Which would be a much more painful way to die than the way he was about to get.

The driver leaned out the window and honked his horn and cursed while cars edged around him and the Mason simply stood there in his way, like a living statue. Crapsey sat down on the sidewalk, glanced around to make sure there wasn’t any poop or spit or chewing gum around him, and then reclined to lay on his back. For a moment he stared up at the new morning sky. Nice and blue here. No choking black clouds from the factories or weird yellow striations from the Mason’s atmospheric experiments. He’d forgotten how blue an untortured sky could be.

Crapsey closed his eyes and leapt, flying to the vehicle and through the window – he couldn’t pass through solid objects, though he could squeeze through even very tiny holes, which made him think there was some physical component to his true form – and streamed into the driver’s brain. Once he had the body under control he climbed out on the sidewalk, pulled open the back door, and lifted his own supine Crapsey-body under the armpits, easing him into the seat. This was a young, strong body, at least. Very few of the passers-by paid any attention to the manhandling, though there were still cars honking at the traffic obstruction.

The Mason came around the car and climbed into the passenger side, and once Crapsey had his original body inside, he strolled off toward an alley, found a dumpster, crouched behind it, and then shed the driver’s body, leaving it to slump empty and brain-dead in the garbage. Crapsey reclaimed his body and clambered into the driver’s seat. He considered the array of gauges, levers, dials, and knobs before him, cleared his throat, and said, “Uh, boss, the thing is… I don’t know how to drive.”

The Mason stared at him for a moment. She never drove herself anywhere, but Crapsey wasn’t her chauffeur – they had other people for that. Crapsey had been in her service since he (or anyway his body) was a small child, and driving had never come up. His main usefulness to the Mason was his ability to take over other bodies at will, and he couldn’t very well leave his own body if he was driving a car. He’d been in cars, and he had the general idea, but he wasn’t prepared to take on honking cursing city traffic. Unless it looked like the Mason really wanted him to.

“Of course,” she said. “Change places with me.”

Crapsey climbed into the back, let the Mason take the driver’s seat, and then slid into the passenger seat himself. “You know how to drive, boss?”

“Of course not,” the Mason said. “But she does. Let me just… acquire the knowledge.” The Mason leaned back in the seat, eyes closed and lids fluttering, and then trembled all over. When her eyes opened again they were not so much empty as haunted, bleak and hopeless, and in a voice entirely unlike her usual monotone she said, “Please, kill me, just kill me, end this thing,” and if Crapsey thought there was a chance in hell that his butterfly knife could do the job, he would have obliged her with a blade in the neck. For perhaps the fifth time in his life, he was seeing and hearing Marla, or whatever vestige of Marla remained inside the Mason, her original consciousness briefly allowed to rise to the surface, only to have some aspect of her shredded personhood stolen by the cloak, the parasite that controlled her, rode her, fed on her.

Me and the Mason, Crapsey thought. Just a couple of parasites going on a road trip. We’re like some kind of horrible buddy movie.

Then another twitch, almost a seizure, and the Mason’s cool eyes looked at him again. “There. The poor thing still has some usefulness after all. She doesn’t like driving much, but she knows how.” The Mason made a face as she put the Hummer in gear. “Who can blame her? Where’s the joy in operating a large machine? Unless, I suppose, you were running people down with it… but we’ll get to that.” She drove the huge machine expertly, managing to weave around other cars, popping through an intersection just before the light turned red, which Crapsey vaguely recalled meant “stop.” The Mason was capable of obeying rules, though she preferred to be the one making them.

“Put on your seatbelt, Crapsey. It’s against the law even to endanger yourself here. Madness.”

Crapsey pulled on the strap – most of the military trucks didn’t have working seatbelts, but he wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the process – and felt marginally safer once he was clipped in. The Mason could be a little laissez-faire when it came to matters of personal safety. After all, she wasn’t going to get hurt, not even if she was in a plane that fell from the sky. And as far as she was concerned Crapsey wasn’t ever going to get hurt, either, since he could always take a new host body. She didn’t understand that he had an attachment to his current form, that he liked it, felt at home there, and moreover, he really, really hated pain, something the Mason didn’t even seem to feel.

“So why are we driving, anyway?” he said. “Couldn’t we commandeer a plane or something and get to Felport a lot faster?”

“Marla doesn’t know how to fly. And even if you take over the body of a pilot, it’s not like you’ll have access to his memories, the way I would. I’ve always found that limitation of yours most disappointing. In some ways you’re like a horrible parody of me, have you ever considered that?”

Crapsey leaned his head against the window and looked at the row of Victorian houses streaming by. He thought maybe he’d passed this same block when they’d visited San Francisco back in their world, though it was hard to tell; the houses had been so overgrown with twisting vines and lush green leaves they’d barely been recognizable as dwellings. “Yep, I suck, don’t know why you keep me around.” He could access some abilities belonging to the bodies he stole. If he took over a telepath, he was telepathic, though since he lacked their years of practice, he wasn’t very good at it. If he took over an athlete, the muscle memory was still there, and he could hit a baseball or do backflips or what the fuck ever. If he took over a good dancer he could even dance, unless he started to think about the steps he was taking, and then it became too much of the mind and not enough of the body and he screwed up all the steps.

But, it was true, he had no access to the non-physical memories locked up in the brains he possessed. He threw out their mental furniture and moved in his own. Crapsey preferred it that way. Sharing his head with someone else? It would drive him crazy. He didn’t know how the Mason did it, though he gathered the Marla-part of her didn’t make too much of a fuss these days, not like in the early years, when the Mason would sometimes lock herself up in a cell at the Blackwing Institute and scream and rage until she asserted control over the body again. She would have staged her public takeover years earlier if she’d had that shit under better control. Marla must have been one tough broad to resist for so long.

“Still,” he said, “we could glamour our way onto a flight, ride in first class, and –”

When she interrupted him, her tone was amused. “Really, Crapsey? You’d like to be trapped in a metal tube at 30,000 feet with me and, what, at least a couple hundred human beings, for a minimum of five or six hours? Do you think I would cope well in that situation?”

“Ah. Good point. Road trip it is.” The Mason had been known to throw her own lieutenants off planes in mid-air, just because she suddenly felt crowded, and that was on flights with only a handful of people on board, and everyone else keeping as much out of her way as possible. The only person she could stand near her in close proximity for long was Crapsey, maybe because he wasn’t really a human. Crapsey had looked it up once, and he knew the pathological fear of crowds was called demophobia, but that wasn’t exactly right – the Mason wasn’t afraid of crowds, she just hated them.

Which was why she held the cullings. And why the population of the United States had diminished by a quarter under her reign.

The Mason was not a people person. As far as that goes, she wasn’t even a person.


“See, but the thing is, I’ve got to eat. I know you only need to eat adorable puppies and flowers and rainbows and beautiful things that can never be replaced, but I need, like, actual sustenance. Also, and forgive me boss, you have no idea where you’re going.” Crapsey stretched out his legs – at least the Hummer had plenty of legroom – and wiggled around in hopes of getting his numb ass to wake back up.

The Mason was hunched over the wheel, glaring out the windshield at the cars zipping past them on the interstate, and if looks could kill – well, the thing was, her looks could kill, and it was just luck that she hadn’t started giving the old death-gaze to the other drivers on the highway yet. “I know where I’m going. Felport is east. I am going east. Or at least I was, until this stupid road curved. Why can’t humans just build in straight lines?”

That last bit was a common complaint. Making allowances for geography or existing societal infrastructure didn’t occur to the Mason. She was an A-to-B type person.

“So we’ll stop, I’ll get food, I’ll get directions or find a map, we’ll put some gas in this thing, and we’ll be on our way, all right?”

“Gas? Oh. Fuel. Hmm. Of course, this vehicle hasn’t been… improved.” She glared at the fuel gauge now. The cars in her command had been modified to operate by magic instead of burning fossil fuel, though Crapsey was never clear what they ran on instead – the tears of orphan children or the anguish of whipped factory-slaves or something old-school Dark Lord like that, probably.

“Nope. Nothing here but pure human technology. Though you have to admit the power everything and the awesome radio is pretty sweet.”

“Music is noise,” she said, and reached out for the radio, a brief flash of purple light encircling her fingers. She wrenched the whole radio out one-handed, wires dangling from the back, and tossed it out the window, causing some swerving and honking behind them, which she ignored.

“That was bitchy,” Crapsey said. “Super bitchy. Just for that I’m going to sing.”

“Try it and I’ll take off your jaw again,” she said, and Crapsey could almost imagine she said it affectionately, but he knew better. She bantered with him, but he was pretty sure it was all fake. He was useful to her, and she knew if she let her real personality (or lack thereof) show through too clearly, he’d be too freaked out to work with her, and might try to escape. Powerful as she was, she’d still have a hard time holding him if he wanted to leave – being able to jump body to body was ideal for a getaway.

But she kept up the pretense that they were pals, that he was her one friend in all the world, and he kept up the pretense that he believed it, and mostly he liked his life, because unlike most everybody else in the Mason’s world he got plenty to eat, and a nice place to sleep, and sex with servants of any gender whenever he wanted it, and basically, he was a lazy hedonist. Besides, they’d been together for so long, Crapsey couldn’t really imagine life without the Mason.

Plus, of course, he was afraid she would pursue him if he ran, and that she’d be able to find him after all, and that she’d stop pretending to be his friend, and make him pay.

But for now, they had their pretense in place, so he started to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until she cursed at him and took an exit toward something called a “Travel Plaza.”

If Crapsey had realized what was going to happen there, he wouldn’t have urged her to stop, but hell, he wasn’t a seer, he didn’t have the gift of prophecy or precognition, so how was he supposed to know?


The gas station wasn’t too crowded, and there were more pumps than he could count arranged in several rows. The Mason drove the Hummer expertly next to one of the pumps and then just sat there in her usual switched-off way.

“You want anything from inside?” he asked. “Water, protein bars?”

The Mason appeared to consult some inner gauges and dials and said, “Water, yes. And meat.”

Crapsey tried to remind his boss to eat a couple of times a day. The body she was using might not die if she didn’t eat – who knew what the limits of her healing powers were? – but when she forgot for too long the skin got sallow and her reaction time slowed and she was more prone to casual murder than usual. The body wasn’t just a vehicle the Mason drove around in; the condition of the host affected the parasite.

“Okay.” Crapsey hopped out and walked around the back of the Hummer, figuring he’d deal with fuel first. He’d never actually used a gas pump, but he watched what another guy did, and got the nozzle in without much trouble, though the fact that gas was not instantly dispensed annoyed him. He pressed buttons and banged the pump until a twenty-something guy at the next pump, wearing a hat that read “Vicodin Love Confession,” said, “Dude, you have to swipe a credit card, or else go in and give the clerk some cash.”

“Oh,” Crapsey said. “Thanks.” He went to the driver’s window, where the Mason sat staring blankly forward at the white-cinderblock-and-glass structure at the far end of the vast concrete pad. “Be right back boss.” She ignored him.

Crapsey went into the gas station and began salivating pretty much immediately over the rows and rows of junk food, which were rare and precious treats where he was from. He grabbed a basket and started filling it with the most brightly-colored packages he could find, assuming random chance would give him an appropriate mix of sweet and salty. He grabbed a fistful of assorted jerkies for the Mason, and a couple of enormous bottles of startlingly clear water from a row of coolers. He paused near the checkout counter and selected a pair of sunglasses with silver reflective lenses. If he wore those, someone who looked into his eyes would only see their own face, which struck him as funny, so he got those too.

He waited in line – that sucked about this world, he never waited in line back home – and when his turn came dumped everything on the counter. The surly silent clerk zapped his purchases with a scanner like a ray gun and put them into plastic bags, and Crapsey noted the numbers appearing on the cash register’s display. Huh. He’d probably overpaid at the diner. Oh well. Not like it was his money. The clerk said, “Anything else?”

“Gas,” Crapsey said.

“Which pump, and how much?”

Uh… wait, there’d been a number on the pump, he remembered thinking it was weird, why number them? “Number 16? And… enough to fill a big black Humvee?”

The clerk rolled his eyes. “Just tell me how much you want.”

Crapsey passed him three of Susan’s hundred dollar bills. “There, that much. For everything. And whatever’s left over, you just keep.”

The kid glanced at the total on the register, clearly doing some mental calculations, and said, “You got it, sir,” in a much more polite tone than he’d used before, and flicked a button.

Crapsey gathered up his bags and was almost out the door when he heard the screaming. It wasn’t just a lone scream, or even two screams, but a whole choir of screams, and he had a bad feeling he knew who’d caused it.

Once he got outside he saw why, too. The place had gotten a lot more crowded since he went inside, with all the pumps occupied, and people banging their horns. A big gray bus had pulled into the travel plaza, too, parking not far from the Mason, and a crowd of people must have emerged from it, probably jabbering and milling around… One of them must have said something to the Mason, or maybe someone else in line for gas had asked her to hurry up so they could use her pump, or maybe she’d just had one of her periodic too-many-people freak-outs. Either way, Crapsey emerged into a world full of people screaming, though the ones screaming were at least still alive, unlike the, what, twenty? thirty? people sprawled in various states of attempted escape on the ground near the bus. Some of them were smoking faintly, and some of them looked like they’d swallowed sticks of dynamite which subsequently exploded inside them, and some were in the process of transforming into things that were neither human nor suited for life on this planet. The Mason herself was standing in front of the Hummer, sweeping her head to and fro with the steady movement of a security camera, and where her gaze fell… people fell.

Crapsey saw some of the people running were getting close to the highway off-ramp, and – already thinking about containment – he jumped to their bodies, hopscotching from one to another, dropping ten of them in moments before returning to his body. He sat up on the concrete – ow, he’d banged his elbow when he left his body to fall, and probably smashed some of his potato chips when the bags dropped, too, damn it. He shouted, “Boss, bugs in amber! Bugs in amber!”

She glared at him, then nodded curtly, and raised her hands.

Everyone and everything still moving at the travel plaza froze in place, save Crapsey and the Mason. He gathered his bags, tossed them in the back of the Hummer, got the gas pumping, and stood there in silence while the tank filled.

The people frozen by the bugs-in-amber spell were still conscious, and not completely motionless – they could still breathe, their blood circulated, and they could move their eyes (though not close their lids), and they all stared around, wide-eyed.

“Had a little trouble here, huh, boss?” Crapsey said.

“This one.” The Mason pointed to a headless body at her feet. “He came to the window of the car. He said, ‘That’s a lot of truck for a pretty little thing like you.’ So I made his head explode. And then the others, the ones by the bus –” she gestured vaguely “– began screaming. It was loud. I found it unpleasant. I silenced them.” She shrugged.

“Hey, I get that.” Crapsey watched the numbers on the gas pump roll higher and higher, sort of like the Mason’s death toll. “But we were trying to be discreet, right? Element of surprise, creep up on Marla Mason, no news about suspicious bizarre massacres on the highway, right?”

“Right. You are right. I have become accustomed to things being a certain way. Where we are from. Where I made my home.”

Where nobody would be stupid enough to talk to the Mason without permission, and where if she killed a bunch of people, that just meant it was a fairly ordinary day.

“I will try to do better,” she said.

“Cool.” The gas pump shut off, and Crapsey started to put the nozzle away, then just let it drop to the concrete, where it oozed a little. “So we’re going to have to make this look like something other than a magical massacre. You know?”

“I do.” She got into the Hummer, and Crapsey climbed into the passenger seat, slipping on his silver shades. The mess of corpses on the concrete was a little dimmer then, which was a help. He tore the wrapper off a stick of beef jerky and handed it to her, and she ate it mechanically. They pulled away from the pumps, weaving around people frozen in stasis, and drove onto the freeway.

The Mason put a few hundred yards between them and the gas station before she made all the fuel in the underground tanks explode, sending a black fireball high in the sky with a noise like the end of the world; that was a noise Crapsey knew well, as he’d heard it many times before.

“There,” he said. “Now it’s just a terrible accident, not a sorcerer laying waste to the citizenry. No harm, no foul, but let’s try to ease off on the evil witch shenanigans for the rest of the trip, all right?”

“I am not evil.” The Mason continued to drive while other cars pulled off to the side of the road, drivers emerging to look back at the column of smoke. Police cars and ambulances and fire engines streaked by on the other side of the highway, sirens howling like the inmates of the Mason’s Wyoming Test Facility. “The terms good and evil are meaningless. Since I am the only being of any importance in the world, there’s no need for comparative terminology. No one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than I am, because no one else matters. It would be like saying Napoleon was more evil than an earthworm. The whole conceptual rubric is nonsensical.”

Then the Mason smiled – like someone who’d learned to smile by reading about it in badly translated books – and said, “But I may not be the only being of importance in the world for long.”

Crapsey frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean, boss? Boss?”

But the Mason didn’t speak again for two hundred miles, and the next words out of her mouth weren’t any sort of answer to Crapsey’s question.

What she said was: “Kill her. No, not that way. Use your knife.”

Chapter 6

Monday, April 12th, 2010

“Out, everybody out, we’ve got to talk.” Marla made shooing motions at Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford, while Beta-B sat wild-eyed and staring on top of the desk.

Rondeau paused in the doorway. “Should I, uh, bring him some water, or –”

Out,” Marla said, in that I’m-about-to-shove-you tone of voice, so Rondeau went.

Langford immediately walked over to Rondeau’s little kitchenette and began peering into cupboards, looking for who-knows-what, and Rondeau suppressed the urge to snap at him. There were certainly plenty of times Rondeau had poked around the shelves in Langford’s lab without permission, and Langford possessed things a lot more delicate than stale saltines and cans of clam chowder past their sell-by dates.

Hamil considered one of the rickety wooden chairs beside Rondeau’s scarred table, obviously decided they weren’t up to supporting his weight, sighed, and settled for leaning against a wall. From inside Marla’s office came muted voices, punctuated by occasional shouts, but there was a basic privacy spell that kept any of the conversation from being intelligible; it sounded kind of like Klingon.

“You just went along with this?” Hamil scowled at Rondeau. “You didn’t think to… try and talk her out of it?”

Rondeau shrugged and sat in one of the chairs Hamil had spurned. Considering how the chair creaked under him, the big man had probably made a wise choice. “Since when can anybody talk Marla out of anything? Besides, I did a bad thing, and I wanted to make up for it, you know?”

“Last time I checked, kidnapping didn’t cancel out manslaughter,” Hamil said. “Interdimensional kidnapping at that. Who knows what the consequences of such an act will be?”

“You know Marla doesn’t worry about consequences. I mean, she knows there’ll be consequences. She just figures, whatever they are, she can deal with them. She’s usually right.”

Usually,” Hamil said. “I’m going downstairs in search of a bottle of cognac. Might you have such a thing in your bar?”

“I keep a bottle just for you.”

Hamil grunted and went down the stairs, leaving Rondeau alone with Langford, which was kind of good. Langford was fiddling with the hot plate to warm a kettle so he could make tea from a desiccated bag of Earl Grey he’d found someplace.

“So, Langford,” Rondeau said. “Have you had any luck working on that, uh, thing I talked to you about?”

Langford was apparently experimentally testing the assertion that a watched pot never boils, staring intently into the pitted and dinged-up shiny convex surface of the teapot. “Hmm? Oh, you mean the fixative? Yes. Very interesting problem.”

“I’m so glad you find it interesting. Does that mean you have a potion I can take or something?”

Langford looked up now, and his eyes behind his glasses were, as usual, a million miles away. “It’s not that easy. I don’t even understand what you are. We call you a ‘psychic parasite,’ as if that means something, or as if it’s a relevant classification, but you’re unique – as far as we know, anyway. And you want me to create something that negates your essential nature, the ability to move to a new host body when your old host dies. How do you stop a creature from finding a new habitat when its old habitat dies?”

“Cutting its legs off would be a good start,” Rondeau muttered, tracing his fingertip over one of the scarred channels left in the tabletop over the years.

“Yes, but you don’t have legs. I do wish I could have been present when you left your old body and took over Bradley Bowman’s – I’d be curious to see what you really look like, if there’s a physical aspect to you at all, even if it’s just a scattering of weakly-linked molecules, or if you’re a purely energy-based form, or –”

“Sorry I didn’t invite you over. I got gut-shot on short notice.”

“Yes. But it would help me to understand your nature more. And you don’t think you’re capable of, ah, leaping, I suppose you might say, at will?” Langford tapped the side of the teapot, and though it wasn’t whistling yet, apparently deemed it hot enough, and poured some water into a chipped coffee mug that said “The Bitch Is IN” on the side. It actually wasn’t even Marla’s mug. It had been here in the cabinet when Rondeau moved in.

Rondeau shook his head. “Haven’t tried. Don’t want to try. The whole point is I never want to ‘leap’ again! The last time I did I killed one of my two best friends in the world. Worse than killed. Consigned to oblivion. Eradicated his soul. B was just erased. So I want to stay in this body, thanks, forever, and if this body dies, I want to go with it.”

“Hmm. Well. It’s that last part, really, that’s the trouble. How can I link the death of a mysterious, possibly immortal, psychic force to the death of the body that force happens to inhabit? It’s a difficult problem. But if you just wanted to be stuck in that body, well…”

Rondeau looked up. “What? You’ve got something?”

“There’s a Turkish/German company that’s created something they call ‘liquid glass.’ They make many claims, for instance that this glass can be sprayed on clothing to make it permanently stain-resistant and eliminate the need for laundry detergent, that it has antibacterial qualities, that their ‘nano-scale glass coating’ bonds to surfaces through some unspecified ‘quantum forces.’ I don’t know how true any of it is – what I’ve read is PR material, not scientific material – but it did get me thinking about your plight. I think I could create a sort of… sealant, you might say. A magical equivalent of liquid glass I could coat your body with, to make it impossible for you to ‘leap’ to a new host.”

“That’s perfect! Let’s do it!”

Langford stirred his tea and shook his head. “But if your body dies, I have no reason to think your consciousness would end. Instead, I suspect you would be trapped inside the corpse, still aware, unable to communicate, and unable to free yourself – like a moth trapped inside a jar, wings beating furiously against the glass.”

Rondeau slumped in his chair. “You aren’t usually so poetic. That… doesn’t sound ideal.”

“It is certainly not optimal in the long-term, no. But if I can figure out what you are, and how to kill the essential psychic core of you, then perhaps that, combined with a magical sealant, would grant your wish to be, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘real boy.’ One who lives in but a single body and dies at some unspecified time, just like every mortal human on Earth.”

“That’s the goal. Call me Kid Pinocchio. So, what, you want to do some more tests on me?”

“You know I love doing tests, but it’s difficult to test methods for killing you without the risk of, well… killing you. But I’ll continue to study the problem. I remain interested, and anyway, Hamil is paying me well on your behalf.”

“He’s been a good friend to me,” Rondeau agreed. Hamil had taken him in after he killed Bradley, and couldn’t stay with Marla during her rage. Hell, even earlier, Hamil was the one who’d replaced Rondeau’s jaw, which Marla tore off the first time she used her creepy-ass battle cloak, and the one who made sure Rondeau got as much of an education as he had, and the one who’d set Rondeau up with meaningful work before he became Marla’s right-hand guy. And now, by helping Marla kidnap Beta-B, Rondeau had disappointed Hamil. Living in an intricately interconnected social framework sure sucked sometimes.

The office door opened and Marla poked her head out. “Where’s Hamil? He better not have –”

“He’s just boozing it up gentleman-style downstairs,” Rondeau said.

“Well, get him back up here,” Marla said. “I need to borrow his private jet.” Then she slammed the door, disappearing back into her office.


After Marla finally got Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford out – she thought for a minute she was going to have to literally kick them out, they moved so slowly – she turned to Beta-B, who was pulling his stinky button-down shirt back on. Marla went around her desk, dropped into her chair, and said, “Welcome to Felport, B. Do you mind if I call you B? I’m Marla Mason.”

His eyes widened at that, just slightly, but Marla was good at reading faces, and she wondered why her name meant something to him. Maybe he’d heard it in his psychic reverie. “I guess you can call me anything you want,” he said, sitting down in front of her chair. “You’ve brought me… where is this place?”

“A city on the East Coast. Felport.” She coughed. “In, um, another universe. Not your universe, I mean.”

“I know that much. I had some terrible dreams, and I didn’t understand everything I saw, but… I got the idea that I’d been taken from the world I know to another world. I just don’t know how, or why.”

“This isn’t just a different world, it’s a better world.” Marla leaned forward. “For you, anyway. Look, I don’t know exactly what your circumstances were back there, over there, whatever, but there are opportunities for you here.”

Beta-B crossed his arms over his thin chest. “So this is, what, an interdimensional save-the-children type thing?”

“You weren’t chosen at random. In this world I met a man named Bradley Bowman in San Francisco. He was a former actor, a psychic, and he knew he had powers, but he was lost. He didn’t understand about magic, he didn’t know any sorcerers, he’d never been taught anything. We helped each other, became friends, and eventually he became my apprentice. There was… a terrible accident, a few weeks ago… and he died. I thought, if I could find a version of him that I hadn’t met, one who was still lost and confused, I could do the same thing over again – teach him, teach you, about magic, offer you a job.” She sighed. “I didn’t expect miracles, I know you aren’t exactly the same Bradley, I know our relationship will have to develop differently, but, even if you’re from the universe next door… give me a chance?”

He shook his head. “You got the wrong guy, lady. I’m psychic, yeah, and more than that, but I’m not looking for a mentor. I’ve known about magic for a while – where I’m from everybody knows magic is real, the whole world’s divided up into fiefdoms and kingdoms, it’s all witchocracy all the time. The sorcerers went public half a dozen years ago, and took over. I was living in the Free State of Northern California, one of the benevolent countries, though we got taken over by some nasty sorcerous types earlier this year. And besides, I’ve got a mentor. I live with dozens of other sorcerers, everybody I know these days is a sorcerer, practically. And we’re doing important work. We’re in the middle of something. Whatever you did, undo it.”

“This is fucked up,” Marla said. “I told the possible witch to bring me a version of Bradley that was miserable and unhappy, not one that wanted to stay –”

Bradley laughed, and it wasn’t exactly her Bradley’s laugh, it was harsher, more bitter, a lot more dark. “Oh, I’m totally miserable, lady. My life sucks. I wish I could say I can’t remember the last time I ate, but I can – it was a week ago – and worse, I remember what I ate. I sleep in a sewer. Literally. In a sewer. But, see, I’m working hard to be less miserable. The world I’m from is bad, it’s seriously broken, but that doesn’t mean I want to leave it, Miss – Marla. It means I want to fix it. And I’ll be damned if you didn’t choose almost exactly the worst time imaginable to steal me away. You need to get me back. And you need to get me back tonight.”

“Why? What’s so important about tonight?”

“Because tomorrow we’re going to kill the Jaguar,” Beta-B said.

Marla waited a moment, then said, “I kinda feel like you expected there to be some kind of dramatic movie ‘duh Duh DUH!’ music when you said that, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have to kill… a car? Or do you mean a big spotted leopard thing? You have to murder a cat?”

“No. I need to kill a god.”

“Oh,” Marla said. “Huh. Okay. I think I can get behind that. Want a hand?”

He blinked. “You’re offering to… help me?”

She shrugged. “I went to epic crazy lengths to have a shot at getting back a relationship that was important to me. Bradley was my friend. You’re Bradley. So, the law of a plus b equals c says you’re my friend. I don’t have many friends. I help the ones I have.”

He stood up, and got shouty. “I’m not this guy, your B, okay? Maybe we look the same, maybe we have some of the same history, but –”

Marla stood up too, but didn’t shout. She said, “Except you are. You are Bradley. Just… a Bradley emerging from different conditions. And I’m not totally clueless about what you’re going through, about your world.” The bit about sorcerers going public and taking over the world, that threw her – whose idiot idea was that, and why hadn’t anybody killed the indiscreet moron? Life was so much easier behind the scenes and in the shadows. Still, she could dazzle this new B with some knowledge, maybe impress him a little. “Let me guess. About a year ago a crazy sorcerer named Mutex summoned the jaguar god to San Francisco and your life went to hell. Or, more to hell. Am I right?”

“Did you read my mind? How can you know about the coming of the Jaguar if it didn’t happen in this world?”

Marla shrugged. “In this world, it wasn’t a jaguar god. It was a toad god. And I killed it. I’m a little curious about why I didn’t kill it in your world, but I guess it was just coincidence that I happened to be in San Francisco in time to stop Mutex anyway, so I can see how it might have happened differently. So anyway. Let’s go kill this god of yours. A jaguar could be tougher than a toad, but whatever.”

Beta-B sat back down. “I’ll take your help. We need it, and I… have reason to believe you’re formidable. But just because you help me, that doesn’t mean I’ll become, whatever, your friend, your apprentice, or that I’ll want to come back to this world with you. I have a life, okay?”

“Understood,” Marla said, but what she thought was, We’ll see. She went to the door and yelled at Rondeau to get Hamil for her, then went back inside to B. “Tell me, you ever fly on a private jet before?”

“Yeah. I used to be –”

“A movie star,” Marla finished, “I know, for a few years, when you were like 20, 24, whatever. Before you started seeing demons everywhere and got kicked off a set for trying to tear an invisible monster off your director’s neck, which looked to the untrained eye like assault and battery. See? I do know you, B. Shame you never met me in your world. I bet we would have hit it off.”

Beta-B stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh. He laughed so hard he squeezed his eyes shut, and tears rolled from his eyes, and Marla – who got annoyed when she felt left out of something – gritted her teeth and said, “What’s so damn funny?”

“You have no idea, do you?” he said. “I have met you, in my world – well, not met you, but I’ve seen you, from a distance, through a sniper-scope, because over there you’re totally immune to psychic viewing. But yeah, I’ve seen you. There are even rumors that you’re funding the resistance organization I’m part of. But personally, I hope that’s not true.”

Marla frowned. She tried to imagine a situation in which she would fund freedom fighters being oppressed by a jaguar god in California, but it was tricky. “Oh? Why’s that?”

“Because as horrible as the Jaguar is, Marla, there’s someone in my world that’s even worse, even more hated, even more cruel, even more dangerous.” He pointed his index finger at her face. “And that someone is you.”

Before Marla could react to that – and how exactly was she supposed to react? – Hamil rapped at the door and opened it. “What’s this about a jet?”

“Your jet. I need to borrow it. We need to get back to San Francisco ASAP, and one commercial airline flight in twenty-four hours is plenty for me.”

Hamil sat on the couch. “You’re leaving? Again? You just got back! Marla, there are things here that need your attention –”

“Whoa, big man, you’re the one who said I needed to repatriate Beta-B here –”

“Beta-B?” Beta-B said, either horrified or amused or both.

“– if he wanted to go back, and he does want to go back, so what, now you’re arguing with me? The doorway to other worlds isn’t here, it’s in San Francisco, so get that jet of yours gassed up, all right?”

Hamil pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes in the classic “I-have-a-terrible-headache-and-its-name-is-Marla” gesture. “How did you even know I have a jet?”

“I’m the boss of Felport. What I don’t know about the other sorcerers on the council could maybe fit into an acorn.”

“The jet’s not even meant to be used. Do you have any idea how bad private plane travel is for the environment? It’s so wasteful!”

“So… why do you have it then?” Beta-B said.

“He’s a sympathetic magic guy,” Marla said. “So in order to be successful he –”

“Needs to look successful,” Beta-B said, nodding. “Five-thousand dollar suits, fancy apartment, nice cars, private jets, like that. Because in sympathetic magic, you are what you seem to be.”

“Indeed,” Hamil said. “It’s also why my… girth… is so impressive. Magically speaking, fat is a sign of prosperity. I stay prosperous by seeming prosperous. It’s not easy for me, either. Naturally my body leans towards more of a runner’s physique – lean and strong and metabolically overclocked. At least I have magic to regulate my blood pressure, or I wouldn’t risk eating the way I have to.” He looked at Marla. “This isn’t your Bradley – our Bradley – but he’s smart, and I’m willing to concede he’s a Bradley. So, fine, yes, borrow my plane, and take him home, but please, Marla, get back here as soon as you possibly can. The city needs you.”

“I know. And I want to sleep in my own bed sometime soon, really. I just need to take care of this.”

“Can I go with?” Rondeau said, leaning in the doorway.

“We could always use another set of hands,” Marla said.

Beta-B stared at Rondeau. “Wait… wait. I didn’t notice that before, I was distracted, but…” He turned back to Marla. “You said I was dead. But he –” now turning to point an accusing finger at Rondeau – “Looks exactly like me, only a little more well-fed, under that admittedly pretty good illusion he’s wearing. So what the hell is going on here?”

Marla sighed. She’d hoped to avoid this part. “Beta-B, I’d like you to meet Rondeau. Your murderer.”

“Uh.” Rondeau shuffled a little in place, looked like he might bolt, didn’t, cleared his throat, and said, “So, man, how’s it going?”

“I’ve been better,” Beta-B said.

Chapter 5

Monday, April 5th, 2010

“Bagdad Cafe, huh?” Crapsey peered up at the sign. “What’s up with the real Baghdad these days, boss?”

“Here? I have no idea. In our world I think it’s been given over to a legion of djinn.”

Susan Wellstone, who was rather impatiently holding the door to the diner open, raised an eyebrow. “Well? You said you were hungry, so come on.”

The sun wasn’t even up yet, but there were several other people in booths and at tables inside the cheerful diner, mostly young and either tired- or wired-looking. Back home the same sort of people would also be awake at this hour – but they’d be laboring in one of the Mason’s labs or factories or collegiums, depending on their skills and ambitions. Except in San Francisco they’d be doing whatever the subjects of a jaguar god-king did with their mornings. The Mason didn’t run California over there… yet.

Susan led them to a table in the far corner, away from other customers, and sat with her back against the wall. Crapsey was used to that sort of thing from sorcerers – never put your back to the door, protect your flank, go wide when you go around corners in case someone’s lurking there, et cetera et cetera. The Mason took a chair facing the wall without complaint. She wasn’t worried about people sneaking up on her. She literally had eyes in the back of her head. Well, not literally, they weren’t actually eyes with corneas and aqueous humor and all that, but she could see in 360 degrees around her at all times. It was a cloak thing. Crapsey sat down beside her.

He’d never eaten in a restaurant before except maybe when he was a kid, and wasn’t sure how to go about it, and though the Mason had experience in such matters she was just sitting there, so he followed her lead. Susan Wellstone snapped her fingers, and a twenty-something blonde with dark eye shadow and several facial piercings approached. Crapsey gave her a big smile, which she returned perfunctorily. Maybe if he hadn’t put on the glamour that hid his distinctive prosthetic jaw she would have been more interested – she was clearly open to the idea of body modification. Susan ordered coffee and something called a crab benedict, then muttered about how it should really be called “Eggs Chesapeake” and why couldn’t any restaurant in California ever get that right, and Crapsey said, “Make that two,” because he didn’t know how you even found out what food a restaurant served, and the Mason said, “Just water,” which Crapsey knew she probably wouldn’t even drink.

While they waited for the food to arrive, and the Mason stared blankly at a spot on the wall, ignoring Susan despite all the woman’s throat-clearings and finger-tappings, Crapsey took pity on her. “Your, uh, city, it’s really nice. I never saw San Francisco before the coming of the –”

“Shush,” the Mason murmured, and Crapsey’s jaw clamped shut of its own accord – or, rather, of the Mason’s accord. She’d ripped off his original jaw the day they met, and later fit him with the prosthesis, which had certain magical enhancements… but which the Mason could also remotely control.

His jaw unlocked, and the Mason didn’t say anything further, so Crapsey figured she just wanted him to steer clear of talking about the Jaguar. Fair enough. “Um, over in my world, I mean,” he said. “The view from the boat was really something, all those lights. And the car ride over here, it was, wow…. Hills. Buildings. Trees. Really great.” He’d only been to the San Francisco in his world once, on a diplomatic mission, and the city there was mostly being devoured by the jungle of its new god-king.

“Thank you.” Susan looked at him speculatively – probably thinking she could get on his good side and develop some influence with the Mason that way, it was a look Crapsey received a lot – and then the food arrived. Crapsey leaned forward and inhaled the odors from his plate, two puffy white lumps placed on top of two golden brown breaded lumps which were in turn on top of two round pieces of bread all smothered in a yellow sauce, with savory potatoes – potatoes being the only thing he definitively recognized here – on the side. He took a bite, and the creamy-tangy-smooth-salty overwhelmed his senses. Crapsey closed his eyes and just tasted the mouthful for a long time before chewing and swallowing. He was suddenly, specifically grateful that the Mason hadn’t ripped off his tongue along with his jaw.

“Oh, Susan, this is the best food I’ve had in ages. But there’s not any crab on the plate. Or is the name crab benedict like metaphorical? I know this English guy, Rasmussen, he runs things for the Mason in the British Isles, he told me about something he ate when he was a kid called toad-in-the-hole, but it’s not even really made with toads. So is it like that?”

“No…” Susan pointed to the breaded lump. “That. It’s a crab cake.”

“They make cake out of crabs here? This place is wild. And these are, what, eggs? They seem kinda eggy.”

“Yes, poached eggs – you’ve never had a crab cake before? Or poached eggs?”

Crapsey shook his head. “Nah. I mean, I eat pretty well, don’t get me wrong, better than just about everybody else, but since my boss here doesn’t care about food it’s not like we’ve got fancy chefs or anything in our headquarters – some people call it the imperial palace, but come on, it’s a warehouse store in Felport the Mason took over, it’s not palatial. What we’ve got is this huge pantry full of scavenged and hoarded canned goods, and crates of vegetables yanked right out of the ground from the prison farms, and if you’re part of the Mason’s inner circle – not that any of us are all that inner, even me, come on, she’s like an alien or something – you pretty much just root around and fend for yourself at mealtimes. The foot soldiers have cafeterias, but you wouldn’t want to eat what passes for food in those – it’s basically just battle-optimized protein/vitamin mush.” He stopped talking long enough to wolf a few more bites, surprised to see half the food on the plate gone already. He could always order more, he supposed… Susan was staring at him. Oh. Right. Manners.

Resisting his desire to rapidly devour the rest of his food – such wonderful meals were obviously commonplace here, no need to inhale it – he put his fork down, wiped his mouth, sipped his coffee (that, at least, was just as lousy at it was in the Mason’s domain), and said, “So anyway, how’d you end up running San Francisco?”

Susan glanced at the Mason. “It’s a long story.”

Crapsey shrugged. “There’s no place I need to be. I mean, there are places I need to be, but they aren’t in this universe, so I figure I’m not going to make it anyway. So tell.”

Susan arranged her coffee cup just so on the table, then looked into Crapsey’s eyes. She had heterochromia – her left eye was green, her right blue – and it was a pretty intense spooky kind of stare, no doubt practiced for just that effect, but Crapsey spent most of his days with one of history’s top ten greatest despots, so he just smiled blandly and took another sip of his drink.

“I took over San Francisco not quite a year ago. Before that I was in Felport, on the council of sorcerers there. Marla was chief sorcerer, she still is. Marla and I, ah…” Another glance at the Mason.

“It’s okay,” Crapsey said. “Talk all the shit about Marla you want. The Mason isn’t Marla anymore. She’s been wearing that cloak non-stop for over a dozen years. There’s still some Marla in there, sure, her personality has an influence, but mostly, it’s the cloak.”

“Is she not listening? You called her an alien, you…. she doesn’t mind?”

“The Mason doesn’t get offended real easily. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, and as for insubordination, forget it, better you don’t even think about it. But she cares about actions and results, pretty much. She’s gotten into the human habit of talking, at least sometimes, she likes a little banter, and she likes saying cruel shit to people before she kills them, but I think that’s like a consequence of the body she’s using, the shape of the brain she’s using to think with. Really she thinks most of the things humans say to each other are so much pointless babble. But, hey, we humans have to pass the time and reinforce the bonds of our social ties and exchange information and all that, so why not chat?”

“But you aren’t human.”

Crapsey picked up his butter knife and pointed it toward Susan. “Hey. That’s rude. True, technically true, but we’re talking semantics. Yes, I’m some kind of psychic parasite who can jump from body to body, but I have no memories of a time when I didn’t inhabit a human body. Whatever my true history is, poof, it’s lost to me. I’ve never known a life where I wasn’t human, with all the hungers and urges and desires a human has. So screw you, you say I’m not human. The Mason, she’s totally different. I mean, she remembers whatever came before she possessed Marla, she knows what she really is – not that she talks about it much. Besides, the Mason doesn’t inhabit that body over there. The Mason is mostly the cloak. You think you’re looking at a woman wearing a cloak, but you’re not – you’re looking at a cloak wearing a woman. Except the cloak is, you know, not a cloak. But that’s killing my metaphor so I’ll shut up. You were saying. You were in Felport…?”

Susan looked like she wanted to ask some follow-up questions, but he saw her decide to let herself be redirected. Good. The Mason didn’t like waiting, and if Crapsey didn’t get the info his boss wanted out of Susan soon, things might get nasty. “Ah. Yes.” Another sideways glance at the Mason, then she focused her attention on Crapsey again, since the Mason was displaying as much affect as a piece of painted wood. “I was living and working in Felport. Marla had been chief sorcerer for a few years. I disapproved of… everything about her. I am a very methodical, organized, patient person. Perhaps because my specialty is large-scale ritual magic, where complex procedures must be performed without the slightest mistake or deviation over long time scales – or perhaps I’m good at such magic because I’m a perfectionist. Marla Mason, however, just… blunders in. If she sees a problem, she attacks it directly, without regard for strategic planning or unintended consequences. She is rash, reckless, and stubborn. The fact that she’s had some degree of success with this approach is even more infuriating. I thought I would make a better chief sorcerer than she, and so, in the traditional manner, I, ah…”

Crapsey nodded encouragingly, eyeing the mostly-uneaten crab benedict on her plate. “Tried to knock her off. Assassination. Oldie but a goodie.”

Susan stirred around her potatoes with her fork. “Indeed. I attempted to cast a spell that would erase her from the very fabric of reality. She found out, and tried to save herself by acquiring a certain artifact that could protect her. The artifact was here, in San Francisco. She failed, I might add, but while she was here she became embroiled in local politics, got into a fight with a mad sorcerer from central America, and when all was said and done, Marla found herself in a position to help decide who the next ruler of San Francisco would be. She made me an offer – if I let her live, and let her have Felport, she’d arrange for me to take over San Francisco. As this city is in every conceivable way – climate, economy, culture – superior to the decaying rust-belt relic that is Felport, I agreed. And here I am still.”

Crapsey leaned forward. “This mad sorcerer you mentioned… Guy named Mutex? Wanted to bring an ancient jaguar god back to life?”

Susan frowned. “His name was Mutex, yes, but he was trying to summon some sort of toad goddess, if I recall, associated with the underworld. He didn’t make it that far. Marla killed him.”

“Toad. Huh.” In Crapsey’s world, Mutex had summoned Tepeyollotl – god of jaguars, earthquakes, and echoes – and the Mason hadn’t even heard about his ascension until the god was already born and consolidating his power. These days the Mason ruled most of Canada and Mexico, chunks of Europe (by proxy), and the continental US from the East Coast to the Rockies. The Jaguar ruled most of the West Coast, except for a chunk of the Pacific Northwest that was presently held by a giant fungal intelligence called the Mycelium. Of course, unless they could make it back to their universe, the balance of power was going to shift over there. Not that Crapsey was in a hurry to leave this universe. The food here alone… “You gonna eat that?” he said, and when Susan shook her head, he brought her plate over and began finishing her food, too. What else had the Mason wanted him to investigate? Oh, right.

“So your version of Marla Mason, you said she’s got a cloak of her own? Purple and white?”

“Oh, yes.” The waitress returned with a coffee refill, and Susan meticulously measured three spoonfuls of sugar into her cup and tinkered with the cream quantity as carefully as an alchemist hot on the trail of the elixir vitae. While she stirred, Susan went on. “The story goes that Marla found the cloak in some thrift store in Felport when she was, hmm, perhaps twenty? A mere apprentice, coming into possession of such a powerful artifact… Well, it gave her ideas, aspirations above her abilities, if you ask me. I daresay the only reason she rose so far and fast in the city’s sorcerous society was because she had the cloak.”

“But she doesn’t wear it all the time?”

“No, no. In the old days she wore it more often, but never constantly. Lately I hear she hardly wears the cloak at all unless going directly into a battle she might not otherwise win, and there was even a rumor that she’d sent the cloak away to be buried in some remote location, but I don’t believe that. You don’t give up a weapon so potent, even if it is, ah…”

“Is what?” Crapsey leaned forward with his chin in his hand, smiling at Susan affably. She was pretty, in a cold way. It would be fun wearing her body. He’d try to loosen her posture up a bit, let her hair down, see if her physiology would allow for the possibility of some fun.

Susan closed her eyes. “Poisonous. Marla contends the cloak is poisonous. That to wear it for too long makes her mind fade away, that she senses some… alien inhabitant… dwelling in the cloth, eager to take over her body, her soul, her life. That the cloak is a powerful artifact, but a cursed one.”

Crapsey looked over at the Mason, who’d moved her gaze up a foot or so, to a completely unremarkable different spot on the wall. “Pretty much true. Wear it all the time, never take it off after the first time you put it on, and you end up like the Mason. Which isn’t so bad if you want to be a conqueror of worlds, but if you want to, I don’t know, go dancing, or see a boxing match, or get drunk with your friends, or even have friends, or have sex, or just have a good time, or maybe have a dream… being the Mason isn’t so good for that.”

The Mason sighed, which meant she was impatient, which meant: “So let’s review,” Crapsey said. He began counting off points on his fingers. “Marla Mason is chief sorcerer of Felport. She has a cloak, the same cloak, but she doesn’t wear it often, only for like emergencies. And there’s no giant Aztec gods lurking around the west coast.”


“Okay, then – oh, hey. What about me? The other me, the alternate me?”

Susan nodded. “I don’t know him well. He calls himself Rondeau. He… doesn’t jump bodies as promiscuously as you do. I don’t think he even knows how. He’s still in that body, his original one, I mean, the first one he stole, the one he grew up in. He doesn’t have a prosthetic jaw, either.”

“Huh. Guess he didn’t meet his Marla on a bad day, then. Lucky bastard.”

Susan shook her head. “No, Marla did rip his jaw off, the first time she wore the cloak, but she regretted it, apologized, and made sure he got a replacement jaw from a psychic surgeon. Over the years the two of them have become close. Now he runs a nightclub in Felport, where Marla keeps her office, and he’s her right-hand man, essentially.”

Crapsey punched the Mason lightly on the shoulder. “You hear that, boss? You and me, inseparable across universes. We’re meant to be. It’s kismet. Destiny.”

“There’s no such thing as destiny,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “There can be no destiny, no ‘meant to be,’ in a multiverse where all possible things happen. There are surely infinitely more universes where we never met, and where neither the body you wear nor the body I use were ever born. But we’ve learned what we need to know. Remove her.”

“Sorry, Suze,” Crapsey said, and leapt from his body into hers.

Except it was like trying to do a cannonball into a frozen lake. The psychic spiderweb that was Crapsey’s consciousness hit a cold icy wall and bounced. He couldn’t fight his way into Susan’s mind, any more than a fly could fight his way through a closed window.

 “I said Rondeau doesn’t jump bodies.” Susan’s voice dripped with contempt. “But I was aware of the possibility that he might, and since he works for one of my greatest enemies, I erected these psychic protections against bodily possession ages ago. It’s called being prepared, Mason, and being prepared is what I do –”

The Mason leaned forward and extended her hand faster than Crapsey could see – even while he was disembodied, when his senses were far more acute – and a blade flashed. She withdrew her hand, and Susan stared at her, and then her chin dropped to her chest. A tiny spot of blood began to swell on the fabric of her blouse, just over the heart, but it was a dark blouse, and probably nobody’d notice.

Crapsey slipped back into his body and shook himself. “Sorry, boss, she had a good wall up. No protections against physical attack, though? That’s dumb.”

“No, she was wreathed in protective spells. I had to use my dagger of office.”

“Ahhh.” The Mason possessed the dagger of the chief sorcerer of Felport – to be fair, Felport was the first of the many, many cities she’d conquered, and still her home base – and it was a potent artifact in its own right, if not possessed of intelligence like the cloak was. The dagger could cut through anything: steel, concrete, ghosts, magic, whatever. It was useful, though not the sort of thing you wanted to wave around too much, since you might accidentally end up slicing through all sorts of things inadvertently. “So what now?”

“If you’d been able to possess Susan like I wanted, then we could have used her body to call together a gathering of her sorcerers, killed them all, and made San Francisco our base of operations. But since that didn’t work…” She shrugged. “I say we go to Felport and find Marla.”

“Huh. You think Marla has something to do with us… showing up here, in the mirror universe?”

“It’s possible,” the Mason said. “But mostly, I just want to see her. I’m curious to see how she… developed… without my influence.”

“That’s you, boss. Curious to a fault.” The Mason did indeed enjoy turning over rocks, looking under them, and brutally exterminating the life of anything she found underneath. But Crapsey thought this was more than mere curiosity. The Mason had been very insistent about the need to find out if Marla had a cloak, if it was always in her possession, if she was likely to be wearing it, and so on, hence Crapsey’s morning of eggs and interrogations. He thought Marla herself was maybe kind of an afterthought – the Mason was interested in Marla’s cloak. “Going to Felport sounds good to me. I want to meet myself. Hell, maybe me and him can get a three-way going, show some girl a really good time.”

“You sicken me,” the Mason said.

“Right back atcha, boss.”

She stood. “Come, let’s leave before Susan’s body is noticed. If the police become involved I’ll have to destroy them, and if something too dramatic happens here, word may get back to Marla… I’d hate to spoil the surprise of my appearance.”

“Police, right.” Crapsey vaguely remembered cops, or at least trying to avoid them when he’d been a little kid, living in alleyways, new to being human, before he met the Mason and the world changed.

“Don’t forget to leave money, Crapsey. The waitress will chase us if we stiff her… and she won’t recall your flirting with pleasure if she has to pay for your meal herself.”

“Ah, uh, right, pay, sorry.” Currency didn’t have much to do with his day-to-day life, or anyone’s life where he was from, really – the Mason’s world was less a cash economy and more a beg-barter-steal economy. He picked up Susan’s little black handbag from the chair beside her body, found the billfold, and looked at the green pieces of paper inside, nearly all marked “100.” He took out three of the bills and put them on the table, because there’d been three of them having a meal, even if the Mason only ordered water, so one bill for each of them was probably right, yeah? Then he remembered something from a book he’d read once – you were supposed to leave a tip, for the waitress – so he dropped a fourth hundred on the table. “There,” he said, more confidently than he felt. “We’re all set.”

“Excellent,” the Mason said. “Let’s go steal a car.”