Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for March, 2010

Chapter 4

Monday, March 29th, 2010

Marla didn’t bother going home to sleep, just curled up on the battered couch in her office. She was loath to go even that far away from B – the new B, the alternate B – but he was a twitching moaning bad-dreaming sweaty wreck, and she was a light sleeper at the best of times, so she’d retreated a couple of rooms away to grab some shuteye.

She could get along fine on about four hours of sleep a night, but after less than half that, not long after dawn, someone pounded on her door.

Marla rolled off the couch, pulled an enchanted Gurkha knife from the concealed sheath underneath the couch, crouched at the ready, and said in a businesslike tone, “Who is it?” The club was relatively well-protected, but she didn’t usually sleep here, so the technological and magical security wasn’t at the same paranoid level she had at home.

“Hamil.” The voice was muffled by the door, but it certainly sounded like her consigliere and closest confidant among the city’s leading sorcerers. She hadn’t talked to him much since he helped clean up after the mess Marla’s con artist brother made in her city recently – a mess that had led to Rondeau’s bodily death and subsequent hijacking of Bradley Bowman’s body, among other casualties.

“Come on in.” She waited until the door swung open and Hamil stepped in before she relaxed, tucking the blade away in its sheath, its enchantments of compulsion unspent. Her dagger of office was very good for killing things, but sometimes you needed to get answers out of an intruder before they died, so she had other tools, too. Mostly knives. She was partial to knives.

Marla went around the desk and dropped into her chair, lack of sleep weighing heavy on her. Normally she could go two or three days without sleeping and suffer no noticeable lapse in her faculties, but she hadn’t slept well since Bradley’s death, and she’d had a hell of a night. Going into inter-dimensional space and confronting personified forces of the universe took a lot out of a person.

Hamil looked perfectly well-rested, though – tall, broad, and the kind of fat that was really just a deceptive layer over a core of muscle, dressed in an impeccable black pinstriped suit, complete with pocket square. The deep brown skin of his shaved head didn’t sport a single bead of sweat, and his face was placid, but she could tell by his eyes that he was anxious. “Good morning, Marla. Did your trip go well?”

“Yeah, it –” She frowned. “How’d you know I left town?”

He sat in one of the two chairs on the visitor’s side of the desk, crossed one leg over the other, and laced his fingers together over his bent knee. “I am one of the ruling council of sorcerers of the city of Felport, Marla. When our chief sorcerer and protector leaves unannounced, giving no notice… I am nevertheless notified. As are the others.”

The others. The handful of people in the city whose opinions she couldn’t simply ignore, the way she could the opinions of, say, the mayor, or the chief of police. Technically she wasn’t in charge of the other sorcerers – she was first among equals, tasked with protecting the city from supernatural and other threats – but she could give orders if the city’s security was at stake, and the others had to obey, though they’d bitch about it.

“I have to get a permission slip before I go on a field trip, now?” She wanted coffee. Where was Rondeau? He usually brought her coffee. He was probably still sleeping. Possibly he was still avoiding her. Now that B was back – some version of B, anyway, even an unconscious version – she found her towering rage at Rondeau shrinking considerably. He’d fucked up, worse than he ever had before in a long history of fuckups, but Bradley’s death had been an accident. There needed to be consequences for the transgression… but he was already suffering, and he’d tried to fix things. Marla decided to put him on friendship probation. Not that she’d tell him that, of course.

“Marla.” Hamil’s tone suggested that it wasn’t the first time he’d said that name, and she shook her head.

“Sorry.” She ran her hand through her hair – greasy, right, when had she last showered? – and sighed. “I haven’t been sleeping. What were you saying?”

“I was saying you don’t need permission, but you do need to let us know if you’re leaving. You must remember, Marla – you serve at the pleasure of the council. They appointed you, and you –”

“Screw that noise. Who saved the city from getting taken over by the king of nightmares this past winter? Who stopped the god of Death from making Felport his own little principality on Earth? Who neutralized the beast of Felport, and stopped Roger Vaughn from sacrificing hundreds of people, and dealt with those things that came crawling out of the ground in Fludd Park calling themselves elves? Me. And every one of those fights cost me something. I’m doing my job. I’m taking care of the city. And what’s the council going to do? It only takes a simple majority to get this job, but getting rid of the chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote of the council.” It was a reasonable provision – the person in charge of the city’s security sometimes had to make unpopular decisions, and the requirement for total agreement to stop her was meant to help weather those periods of unpopularity. Getting a group of sorcerers to all agree on anything was generally about as easy as getting a rhinoceros to play chess. “As long as I’ve got you and Ernesto on my side, who cares what those crybabies and bellyachers say? Hell, I’d lay even odds the Bay Witch would take my side, too, though she’s… unpredictable. Or are you here to tell me you don’t support me?”

Hamil sighed rather dramatically. “I have always supported you, Marla, from the moment I became aware of your talents and your potential. And, no, I don’t think you’re in danger of being ousted, but things do run more smoothly when you make some concessions. For a little while, you seemed to be making great strides in the area of diplomacy, but lately…”

“I’ve been distracted.” She didn’t like making excuses, so when she had to, she tended to spit out the words and make them sound more like accusations instead. “My apprentice died. Like, he just died. And my right-hand man is the one who killed him. Except, if you want to be less direct about apportioning blame, it was really my scumbag liar of a brother who killed him, or at least caused his death. So I’ve had some issues lately.” Her brother Jason had breezed into Felport running a line of bullshit, trading on her familial affection to rope her into a scam he was running, and when things went bad, Jason shot Rondeau and left him for dead, and when Bradley tried to save him, Rondeau stole Bradley’s body. Jason had tried to murder her, too, but she couldn’t blame him for that. She was trying to kill him at the time, after all.

“We appreciate that, and we’ve tried to be understanding. Well, most of us have. Viscarro is still upset, and calling for your resignation – he did lose a leg in all that unpleasantness, you know.”

Marla didn’t answer. Because it was true. The subterranean sorcerer was a nasty underhanded scheming lich, lurking like a spider below the streets of Felport… but she was supposed to protect him, and instead, that crap with her brother had led to Viscarro’s stronghold being invaded. Marla had cleared things up – pretty much – but she was supposed to protect the city from problems, not create problems. “All right. I’ll go see him.” She gritted her teeth. “Apologize. Make restitution. He loves stuff. I’m sure I can give him something to cheer him up.”

“No doubt a gift would be appreciated. But the more important thing, Marla, is – are you done? Have you, ah, come to realize that Bradley is gone, and cannot be retrieved? Will you be returning your focus to the city and its interests? If the answer is yes, if I can assure the council that you’re still dedicated to Felport, I’m sure this will all go –”

The door to her office slammed open. B – the new B? Beta-B? – stood swaying in her doorway, naked except for a pair of tattered boxer shorts. His torso was covered in raised scars, but they looked like purposeful designs, not just evidence of past violence. “You.” He raised his hand and pointed his index finger at Marla. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. In my dreams.”

Then he puked on her rug, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed to the carpet in an ungainly heap.

Hamil stared at B’s fallen form, then turned back to Marla, who’d only gotten so far as rising from her chair. “Well,” Hamil said. “You did have a busy night, it seems. You’ll have to tell me exactly how you managed this. But first we should get the poor boy a doctor.”


Langford the biomancer wanted B brought to his lab, but Marla refused to move him, and since Langford made about eighty percent of his income from Marla, he agreed to make a house call. Marla’s office had been transformed into a sort of makeshift examination room, with everything swept off her desk and B laid out on the surface. Langford had an old-fashioned black doctor’s bag, but there was some spatial enchantment on it, judging by the endless array of needles, vials, and diagnostic equipment he pulled from the slim valise, including everything from a stethoscope to some bit of homemade mad-scientist kit that looked enough like a tricorder from Star Trek to make Marla wonder if humorless, rigorous Langford was a closet fan.

Once he was done poking, prodding, and drawing blood from B, Langford took a seat in one of the visitors’ chairs. Marla was on the other side of the desk – which made it look like B’s unconscious body was the work she needed to take care of today, an impression that was not wholly inaccurate – while Hamil and Rondeau sat on the couch sipping coffee.

Langford looked at the ceiling, adjusted his steel-rimmed glasses, and began to speak, though his tone of voice was more like someone reading from a notebook. “I’ll want to run more extensive tests on his blood, but from preliminary examination I can tell you he’s in no immediate danger of death. He suffers from malnutrition, rickets, and scurvy, and has a nasty fungal infection on his skin, more like an exotic jungle rot than athlete’s foot, but as Marla knows I have some rather powerful fungicide at my disposal.” He gave a chilly smile. He’d whipped up a batch of the poison recently to help her deal with a rival sorcerer who had a thing for nasty moist mushroom magics. “He’s also suffering from something like jungle yellow fever, though I don’t know exactly which variety – I don’t think it’s dengue fever, but it’s dengue-like. See the bleeding gums and the jaundice? I can cure that, too. By all appearances, he has been living somewhat rough in a tropical jungle, and there’s nothing a stint of civilization and some of my enhanced medications won’t correct.”

Marla prodded B’s cheek, which was indeed a little jaundiced, now that she was looking for it. “So why’s he unconscious?”

Langford shrugged. “Nothing physical, as far as I can tell. We’ve seen Mr. Bowman exhibit similar symptoms from the strain of his psychic efforts in the past. But given that this isn’t exactly the Mr. Bowman we know, I’m hesitant to speculate.” He looked at Marla now. “I’d very much like to know how he was brought back from the dead. Especially since he was demonstrably not brought back from the dead, as Rondeau is still wearing the body of the Bradley we knew, albeit draped in a very convincing illusory disguise.” Langford briefly tapped the frames of his eyeglasses. “Of course, I’m wearing my illusion-piercing lenses today. They’re useful for diagnostic work. Since this person on the desk is not, ah – let’s call him Bradley-Prime, for convenience – and shows far too much wear-and-tear to be some sort of accelerated-growth clone, I’m forced to assume you engaged in more mystical attempts at rescue, or rather, recreation. Is he a tulpa? Doppelganger? A dream-figment created by your friend Genevieve? A liberated shadow-self draped in vat-grown flesh? Some sort of, ah, were-actor?”

“Nah. I pulled him in from an alternate dimension. This is parallel-universe Bradley. Apparently he comes from a universe with really shitty hygiene.”

Langford blinked, then opened his mouth, then blinked again, then closed his mouth. This was tantamount to a normal person flinging themselves bodily on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and speaking in tongues. “A parallel… Interesting. Audacious. I’m not even sure where I’d begin to undertake such an endeavour…. did you build a device of some kind? Or, ah, have one built?”

“I’m not cheating on you with another mad scientist, Langford. No device. I didn’t even go to… wherever he’s from. I know somebody – or, well, something – who’s capable of reaching into other universes. And with a little help from Rondeau, using his stolen Bradley-powers, she did a little fishing for us. And this is what she fished out.”

“I daresay this is the first case of interdimensional kidnapping ever committed.” Hamil’s voice was level, but Marla could tell he was pissed. Well, fuck him. Sure, what she’d done was a little crazy, but that’s why she was the boss – she was willing to take the great risks, and to reap the great rewards. “How do you know he wasn’t happy where he was?”

Marla snorted. “Come on, he’s clearly been living under a tree eating bugs or something. What if he’s from a world where, I don’t know, giant sentient larva rule the earth? A world where there was never an industrial revolution? Or –”

“Unlikely,” Langford said. “How old is Bradley, early thirties? He’s almost certainly from a branch universe that diverged from our own world around 30 years ago, then – otherwise the odds of him even existing would be ludicrously small. Do you know how many variables go into the creation of a given human being? It requires more than just his two parents coming together – it’s not as if every child born to a given couple is identical. A different sperm breaching the egg, a different moment in time for the conception – these result in entirely different people being born. Obviously Beta-Bradley’s timeline and our own were identical at least until the moment of his conception, or else, he wouldn’t be here now. Whatever events led to his nearly starving in some jungle are the result of divergences from our own timeline that happened sometime in the past three decades.”

“So… our reality and Beta-B’s reality used to be the same reality until… something made it split off?” Rondeau said. “Sorry, my understanding of this stuff is limited to watching that show Sliders.”

Langford nodded. “It’s a bit more complex than that. My own belief – borne out by experimental data no other scientist could reproduce, and which I won’t attempt to explain to you now – is that new universes are constantly branching from our own. The universe doesn’t like to make choices, not even on the quantum level, so it doesn’t. Everything that can happen, does happen – somewhere. It’s easily illustrated on the macro-level. Look.” He reached down to the litter of Marla’s desk-detritus on the floor, picking up a slender letter opener. “Right now, I could stab myself in the throat with this, or hurl it at Marla’s head, or just do this.” He flipped it over his shoulder, where it clattered against the door. “All three of those things happened. I just birthed three new universes. Except in reality it was countless more, a new universe for every different way I could have moved my arm, a new universe for every possible pattern of breaths I took…” He shook his head. “The variations are not necessarily literally infinite – it’s a debatable point – but at the very least the variations are so large as to be functionally infinite. And every one of those divergent universes can become profoundly different over time, even if their moment of conception involved only the tiniest initial change.”

“Huh.” Rondeau gnawed his thumbnail. “So we’re living in the real universe, and these others ones are just, like, offshoots?”

“Hardly. The only ‘true’ universe existed in the instant of the Big Bang. No, we just live in a particular branch. And while there may be infinitely strange alternate universes out there, with different physical laws, different dominant species on planet Earth, or even larval overlords spreading dengue-fever analogues… this Bradley isn’t from a place that strange. He’s from one that was identical to ours, at least 30 years ago.”

“Then it’s entirely possible he might want to go back,” Hamil said. “And what if he does, Marla?”

She scowled. Hamil didn’t work for her, he advised her, but right now, she wished he was an employee so she could tell him to clean out his locker. “Look, I specifically asked the possible witch to bring me a Bradley with a crappy life, okay? I’ll tell you what, if Beta-B wakes up and starts going ‘There’s no place like home,’ I’ll make sure to get him home. But seriously, the guy has jungle yellow fever, he’s got ulcerated sores on his abdomen, his gums are bleeding, his life obviously sucks, and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to find himself in a world where he can have lobster dinners and all the gay porno he can watch –”

Beta-B sat up on the desk, eyes wide and wild. “I can’t be here!” he shouted. “I have to go back! Whoever did this, whoever brought me here, you have to take me back home!”

This outburst was followed by a moment of silence. And then Marla said, “Oh, fuck me sideways.” And dryly, quietly, Hamil chuckled.

Chapter 3

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

The Warden, who’d only been granted possession of Alcatraz about six weeks before, watched the point of the intruder’s knife weave back and forth above her eyes, catching little twinkles of ambient light and seeming almost to sparkle in its motion. She’d tried to bind up the man kneeling on her chest, using magic to chain him, drag him away, bury him in tons of invisible stone, but every incantation broke, every charm sputtered out. The woman standing a few feet away murmured whenever the Warden tried to use her magic, so she was the likely source of the counterspells, but that knowledge didn’t help. The Warden was reduced to merely human means for fighting back, and she was not wholly devoid of such skills, but the man holding her down easily deflected her every attempt to thrash, slash, bite, or grab, and now that knife point wandering about just above her eyes, threatening blindness at best and brain-skewering at worst, had forced her into fearful stillness.

The most troubling thing was, the Warden didn’t know who these intruders were. She’d assumed it was Marla Mason and her associate, but now that this man’s face was inches from hers, he was obviously someone else. There was a resemblance, even beyond the fact that both were Hispanic young men dressed in funky old suits with wide lapels – this one might have been the other’s heavier, musclebound, more thuggish brother. The most obvious difference was this man’s prosthetic lower jaw, made of dark polished wood inlaid with metal in sinuous designs that made her eyes blur if she looked directly at them. When he smiled, she saw the polished, white, sharpened artificial teeth jutting up from that wooden jaw. The prosthesis had obviously been created with magic – the surface of the wood moved like skin, flexing as he smiled, and blended seamlessly into flesh where it met the skin of his face, but if you were going to use magic, why not just grow him a new jaw, something any competent sorcerous surgeon could manage?

The answer was obvious. You’d give him an artificial jaw in order to make him look scarier.

“There, there,” the man – what had the woman called him? Crappy? – said in a soothing voice. “Good girl. Just a few questions and we’ll get out of your way. What settlement is this? Whose riding?”

“I – I don’t understand –” The Warden tried to keep her voice level, but being asked incomprehensible questions by a man who used a knife to compel answers was terrifying.

The woman in the deep purple cloak came closer and crouched beside her, laying one cold finger against the side of the Warden’s face. “Forgive my lackey. He’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. He thinks we’ve merely been moved in space, to another part of our world. But this is another world entirely, isn’t it, from the place we come from?”

She was not Marla Mason, but again, there was a resemblance that seemed obviously familial. This could have been Marla’s sister, younger by at least a dozen years, surely no more than twenty, her complexion smooth and her skin wholly unlined, almost mask-like. It was not a beautiful face, no more than Marla’s was, but it was, in a way the Warden found hard to define, an eerily perfect face, like something cast in flawless porcelain.

The Warden swallowed. “I don’t know where you’re from.”

“Of course. Why don’t you just tell us, in your own words, where we are?”

Delighted to have a question she could answer – the knife had never stopped its dance, even when the woman called its wielder a lackey – the Warden said, “Alcatraz prison, on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay.” She paused. “In California. In the United States. On, ah, Earth.” Who knew where these people were from?

“Well, well, Crapsey,” the woman said. “We’re in San Francisco again. And you had so much fun here last time.”

“Do you work for the Jaguar?” Crapsey said.

The woman who wasn’t Marla sighed and rolled her eyes, and the Warden shook her head. “The… I don’t know who that is. My mistress is Susan Wellstone, chief sorcerer of San Francisco.”

The woman whistled, and Crapsey lifted the knife away. “Susan?” His voice was bewildered, which was better than low and threatening. “She’s been dead for more than ten years.”

“Only in our world, Crapsey. This is another world. A parallel dimension.”

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“Let me put it in terms you understand. It’s like in that episode of Star Trek you like, with Evil Spock, from the mirror universe. Remember?”

“Oh right,” Crapsey said. “When Spock has a goatee. That’s how you can tell he’s evil. Huh. So you think there’s another version of me in this place?” He stroked his wooden chin. “I’m obviously not the evil one. I couldn’t grow a goatee if I wanted to.”

“As usual, your logic is unassailable. Hmm.” She looked down again. “What’s your name, little gray dove?”

“I’m called the Warden.”

“Ha. And yet, here you are, a prisoner. I guess irony’s the same in every universe.”

The Warden decided to risk a question of her own. “Who are you?”

“Me?” The woman pressed one hand to her chest. “Why, I don’t have a name for myself. I’m the only being in the universe that actually matters – ha, in any universe, it seems – so why should I need a name? But some people call me the Mason. It’s a little joke, you see, because once, it was my surname, but also, masons build things. And I’m a builder.”

“Be honest, boss,” Crapsey said. “Mostly you build things for the pleasure of knocking them down again when you’re done.”

“Oh, you,” the Mason said, and while the exchange had the shape of playful banter, her words were utterly without emotion. “My lackey is mistaken, there, as he so often is. Some things I build forever. Like empires. Now, my little Warden, my little ward, tell me – did you bring me here? Work some magic, on purpose or by accident, to rip a hole from here to there through which my companion and I… fell?”

The Warden shook her head vigorously. “No! It wasn’t me. But someone was here, a little while ago, someone else, it must have been her!”

“Mmm.” The Mason knelt and touched the Warden’s cheek, gently, and the Warden gasped at pain that felt like an icicle being shoved deep into her brain. “You speak the truth, as you understand it. Can you tell me about this mysterious other person?”

“She said her name was Marla Mason. She… looked like you, but older. There was a man with her, I didn’t get his name, but he might have been that one’s skinnier brother.” She lifted her chin toward Crapsey, who still had her pinned. “I don’t know why they were here, they live across the country in Felport, they’re not welcome here, but –”

“Where are they now?”

The Warden closed her eyes and extended her senses to feel the whole of her island domain… but the earlier intruders were gone. “Not here. It’s like they just vanished.”

“Aw hell boss,” Crapsey said. “It’s your evil twin. And my evil twin! They hang out together too, that’s wild. This’ll be fun.”

“Interesting, at the very least.” The Mason put her finger on the Warden’s cheek again, turning the woman’s face so she could look into her eyes. “Now, my ward, you can do a favor for me. Set up a meeting with Susan Wellstone. Bring her here. I should introduce myself to the local potentate. But, ah, don’t tell her about me. Just say you need to talk to her. Something very urgent. Very mystical. Be vague. I want her to be surprised. Does she like surprises?”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Not so different from the Susan Wellstone I once knew, then. But no matter. We’ll surprise her anyway.”

“You want me to call her now? It’s the middle of the night.”

Crapsey flicked the lobe of her ear with his finger, hard. Though the pain was nothing compared to the throbbing from her broken nose and cheekbone, it was somehow even more humiliating for its casual cruelty. “Sorcerers keep weird hours. If you don’t know that, you must not be much of one.”

“I’ll need to get my phone.”

The Mason nodded. “Let the poor thing up, Crapsey, you’re squishing her boobs.”

“Sure boss.” Crapsey moved aside, and the Warden took her first deep breath in many long minutes. She sat up, reached into her suit jacket’s inner pocket, and removed her smartphone.

“Damn, look at that phone,” Crapsey said. “Shiny! Is this mirror universe also in the future or something?”

“I doubt it,” the Mason said. “They’ve probably just had a working consumer electronics sector for the past half a dozen years. Some technological advancements are to be expected over our world, since our focus has been… different. Maybe they even have flying cars and eat their dinners in pill form by now.”

“Yum,” Crapsey said glumly.

The Warden rang Susan Wellstone’s direct emergency line, which she’d also only had for about six weeks, following her ascension to Susan’s inner circle of lieutenants, an ascension that had involved grueling tests of ability and, even more important, loyalty. She’d passed with flying colors. Especially the tests about her willingness to die for Susan’s cause.

Her mistress picked up on the first ring. “Speak.”

“The moon is beautiful tonight,” the Warden said.

“Code.” Crapsey smashed the phone away from her ear and put the knife back, now at her throat. With his free hand he reached out and honked her broken nose, and she screamed and fell to her knees, but he held onto her nose, still squeezing, and dragged her back to her feet. The agony was extraordinary – her pulped nose felt like a bomb going off – but she didn’t care. She’d given her mistress the code that told her there was a hostile and dangerous force at this location, and nothing else mattered. She’d done her duty.

“Naughty,” the Mason said. “But not unexpected. And what did the treachery achieve? Susan will still come here, won’t she? She’ll be expecting something, but I can guarantee she won’t be expecting me. You have to be punished, though. I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to disobedience. Crapsey? Why don’t you explain what’s going to happen to her?”

Still holding her nose, he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You’re going to be erased, sweetie. Sent to oblivion. You won’t even burn in hell, and you sure as hell won’t frolic in paradise. You’ll just be gone.” He let go of her nose, took a step back, and sat down cross-legged on the floor.

The Warden stepped forward, planning to aim a kick right at the middle of his face, to make him feel a fraction of the pain he’d inflicted on her, but then his body slumped, chin drooping to his chest, and something happened, a jolt like a bucket of ice water hitting her brain, and the Warden gasped, eyes crossing with the effort to hold on… to what, and even with what, she wasn’t sure, but she felt like she was being driven out of herself, her body, her own head, and then she lost her vision, and hearing, and sense of smell, and taste, and touch, and finally – but not soon enough to be merciful – her consciousness.


Crapsey swore when he took up residence in the Warden’s body, because damn, the chick was in pain, her face was totally messed up, and it took him a moment to shut down the pain centers in her brain. Once upon a time, Crapsey wouldn’t have been able to exert such fine control – hell, he hadn’t even been able to switch bodies at will until the Mason taught him, and it hadn’t been a pleasant learning experience – but he’d taken over so many hundreds of people at this point that he could do all sorts of things with the bodily systems he hijacked. They were just machines, after all, nothing but electricity and chemical reactions running on meat hardware. The trick was to remember you were in the body, not of the body, to treat it like a car you were driving. He was only really comfortable in his usual body, though, the one he’d stolen first and lived in the longest. There were preservation spells on that body so it would stay alive indefinitely in his absence, though he didn’t like to leave it for more than a day or two at most, because the dehydration headaches were wicked.

“So what now, boss?”

The Mason pointed at his now-uninhabited body. “Drag that into one of the cells, out of sight. Then we’ll wait for Susan Wellstone and her entourage to show up. You’re wearing the body of one of her lapdogs, so we can mess with her head a bit before I kill her.” She cracked her knuckles. “That’s a rare pleasure, Crapsey, getting to kill one of your enemies twice.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve done it before. I’ve seen it.”

“Sure, but that usually involves using magic or medicine to revive them, and then they’ve only been dead for a couple of minutes, and when the second death comes so close to the first, it’s only a little thrill. But to kill someone ten years after the first time you did it, that’s enough distance to savor the whole experience over again.”

“Right.” Crapsey had his doubts about whether the Mason really savored anything. She talked about hate and enemies and the joy of crushing people and all that, but her voice was always so cold, and she never actually seemed to take pleasure in any of the things she did – the closest was the occasional look of interest, when she was usually so bored. It was like she was pretending to have human emotions, and if she was pretending with him, her oldest servant, then he was pretty sure nobody saw her true self.

Which was probably for the best. Her untrue self was bad enough. Crapsey did terrible things at her behest on a regular basis, and he’d gotten used to the work, and had an aptitude for it, but if he thought he could leave her without repercussions, find a beach somewhere and live by himself forever in just one body, he’d do it. But he was a useful tool for the Mason, and she’d see him broken before she set him free.

As he dragged his empty body toward one of the jail cells – the Warden had pretty good upper body strength at least, that was good – he thought about the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body. His only act of rebellion had taken place during their early years together, when she was merely the scourge of Felport and not yet the world, and he was just a kid. After his takeover attempt failed and he bounced off her protective magics, she’d spent a week hurting him for his transgression… and then a month nursing his broken body back to health. It was the closest he’d ever seen the Mason come to mercy, and after that experience, he knew he was hers forever, like it or not. Sure, it was Stockholm Syndrome, but you took what you could get in this world.

But then again, if this was a new universe, one where San Francisco hadn’t been taken over by the Jaguar, one where Susan Wellstone still lived, then maybe anything was possible. Maybe this was a wonderful fairy-tale world where the sorcerer known as Marla Mason had never discovered a certain white-and-purple cloak, and put it on, and conquered most of the world.


“She’s here.” The Mason had been standing with her back against a wall, not moving, staring into space, which was the closest she ever came to sleeping, and Crapsey had been dozing himself. He yawned, forced some extra oxygen to the Warden’s brain – which was a nice brain, very zippy, sorcerers tended to have good brains, robust and perfect for fast thinking – and got ready to play his part.

A blonde woman – who looked pretty much like Susan Wellstone, insofar as he remembered, but he’d only met her the once, right before the Mason put a knife into her throat – strode down the middle of the cell block, the lights overhead coming on as she walked. She was flanked by a couple of others who reeked of sorcery: one a burly guy decked out entirely in black leather, complete with a motorcycle cap, and the other a sort of elfin-looking chick in a tie-dyed dress with crystals tinkling in her hair. Crapsey kept his eyes on the hippie. The obvious bruisers were often dangerous, sure, but it was the sparkly types who came out with shit that surprised you.

“Warden.” Susan crossed her arms and made a great show of looking around. “I’m here with my two most deadly guards. I’ve got all the sorcerers in the city surrounding this godsforsaken rock. Where is this deadly incursion? If you mixed up the codes, so help me, I’ll –”

“I believe I’m the incursion.” The Mason stepped out of a cell and gave a little wave.

Susan narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth. “Marla.” She frowned. “I never took you for vain – is that pretty young face an illusion, or did you have that mad doctor Langford douse you with the water of youth? Or is it just plastic surgery? I’d think if it was surgery you’d have done something about that nose.”

“You’re still a bitch.” The Mason stepped closer, bruise-purple cloak swaying as she walked, revealing glimpses of the creamy white lining inside. “Now you’re just an older one.”

“I don’t know why you’re here – if you wanted a meeting with me, there are channels, you didn’t have to beat up one of my lieutenants. I could have your head for trespassing.”

“Crapsey,” the Mason said, “take out the bookends, would you? Then you can go back home.”

Crapsey planted his metaphysical feet on the metaphysical soil of the Warden’s body and pushed off. Leaving a living body brought with it a certain tearing sensation, not pleasant, but no worse than ripping a band-aid off an especially hairy portion of one’s anatomy. He floated in the air for a moment, reveling as always in the full 360-degrees-plus-up-and-down vision the bodiless state afforded him. The Warden had already dropped, still breathing for the moment but brain dead. Crapsey allowed himself to drift onto the face of the nightmare hippie girl. She stiffened, fighting back – she was a better fighter than the Warden, had a stronger will, maybe her boss should have given her an island of her own to play with – but Crapsey had the kung-fu of soul-destroying down to a science. When she was ousted he jumped out of her body, letting it drop, and landed on the bruiser, attacking his soul and throwing its mangled body out of the nest too. For a while he’d tried getting people to call him The Cuckoo – he fucking hated being called Crapsey, it was the Mason’s little joke, and it was a mean joke, as all of hers were – but the nickname hadn’t stuck. The ones you gave yourself never did.

He leapt from the biker and flew across the room toward the cell where his body was stashed, admiring Susan’s cool as he went. She glanced at her fallen bodyguards, sighed, and crossed her arms. Susan had been pretty stoic the first time the Mason killed her, too, but there was a nice soupcon of weary annoyance in the mix now. More life experience suited the woman well.

Once back in his own body, he strolled out of the cell, playing with his butterfly knife, making sure he’d gotten reintegrated properly and that all his reflexes and muscle memory were working right. Sometimes he came in a little crooked, tried to move muscles that belonged to other bodies, and in those cases it took a while to readjust, but this time, he’d stuck the landing.

“Rondeau.” Susan shook her head. “Except… not quite Rondeau. Interesting.”

“Haven’t heard that name in a long time,” the Mason said. “Not since he was just a grubby little street kid – well, in a grubby little street kid’s body, anyway. Once he was able to talk again, after what I did to him, he told me he called himself Rondeau. Because he’d heard it somewhere, thought it sounded nice. Naming himself after a kind of French poetry. I said I had a better name for him, another kind of poem – Crapsey. He’s been Crapsey ever since.”

“The Crapsey Cinquain.” Crapsey didn’t bother to disguise the weariness in his voice. The Mason told the same stories over and over, and she never gave enough context. “Invented by a poet named Adelaide Crapsey. Five lines, 22 syllables – two, four, six, eight, and two again. She was inspired by haiku.” He shrugged. “The name just kinda stuck.”

“I like it because it sounds like a type of shit,” the Mason said.

“This shouldn’t be possible.” Susan stepped over the body of her hippie bodyguard, staring hard at the Mason. “You’re from another universe? Many-worlds theory allows for such things, of course, new universes born every moment to allow every possible quantum outcome to take place, but passage between the worlds should be… Well. I’ve been a sorcerer long enough to know you shouldn’t say ‘impossible.’ But it should be very, very difficult. How did you do it?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the Mason said. “Someone else did it. Brought me here. I thought maybe it was you – I know you used to like the big spells, the complex precise ones that took months to get going. But I see now it wasn’t your doing.”

Susan scowled. “What do you mean I used to like those kind of spells? Why the past tense?”

The Mason waved her hand. “Oh, you’re dead in our world. I killed you, hmm, must be a dozen years ago. But apparently my… counterpart here… never struck you down. Tell me, is the Marla Mason of this world… still active?”

“Last I heard,” Susan said, revealing her ignorance of the fact that Marla had been in her city tonight. Sloppy, Crapsey thought. The Mason never missed an intruder. “So you killed me in your world, did you? Well, I was much younger and less experienced then, I’m sure. But about the Marla of this world – are you interested in killing her? ‘There can be only one,’ that sort of thing? Because if so, we might be able to help each other.”

“Mmm. We’ll see. Another question. An important one. Does she – Marla – have a cloak like mine?”

“She does. Well. It’s white, only the inner lining is purple, so it’s the reverse of the cloak you’re wearing. I know she can reverse the cloak, that when the purple shows she becomes a deadly force of borrowed magic, but I’ve never actually seen her do it.”

“You’ve never seen it in this universe, at least,” the Mason said. “How interesting.” She stepped closer to Susan and linked arms with her. “Let’s take a walk around the island. You can catch me up on the history of this world, and once I figure out where things… diverged… I’ll consider my next course of action.”

She glanced at the bodies on the floor. “Jericho and Raine were good bodyguards. It annoys me that you killed them.”

“You know their names,” the Mason said. “How… cute.”

“I could call down an army to destroy you with a thought,” Susan said. “Why should I take a stroll with you?”

“Because your army would die, not me. But forget the sticks. Let’s talk carrots. I probably do need to kill Marla Mason. As a means to an end, if nothing else. And if you’re willing to help, I can make it worth your while.”

They walked off talking together – Susan still bitching, but not as if she were about to do anything violent – and Crapsey trailed along after them, wondering how long he’d have to listen to the Mason pump this cross-dimensional version of her old rival for information before she let him jump in and toss Susan’s soul out a metaphorical window into a very real darkness.

Or maybe the Mason would kill Susan herself, for old time’s sake. The personal touch meant so much.

Table of Contents

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

Table of Contents:

Complete novel on a single page

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

Chapter 2

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Marla had been in this chamber before, once, not even a year ago, and it had been a shifting place even then, but it was different now, damaged in ways it hadn’t been before. The decay in the possible witch’s domain was actually encouraging. The fact that things were falling apart here meant the possible witch was not unassailable. She could be influenced. She could be hurt.

And anything that could be hurt could be threatened.

The room itself was – was –

“I thought it was a hexagon.” Rondeau looked around at the shifting walls, which changed from mirrors spiderwebbed with cracks to sheets of black glass smeared with gore to milky white crystal with clouds of red mist hidden in their depths. There was no ceiling, only endless overhead air suffused with that sickly yellowish light. “But then I thought, no, octagon, and then a shape with ten sides, and then twenty, and then a hundred, but I think… maybe it’s really a circle. I read once, a circle is just a polygon with an infinite number of sides. That kind of infinity seems right for this place.”

“That’s deep.” Marla meant it sincerely, but it came out sarcastically, and Rondeau flinched and looked away. “So where’s the lady of the hour?” Marla gestured to the empty chair in the center of the room, an immense wooden straight-backed thing that exhibited the same fungal blooms of rot evident elsewhere.

“Coming,” Rondeau said. He winced again and rubbed the side of his head. “Tuning in.”

Something whitish flickered in the chair, and flickered again, and there she – it, but might as well say she, it was easier for the mind to cope with – was the possible witch. Her hair was grayer now, her white robe stained and tattered, the flesh of her hands gripping the armrests liver-spotted and withered. Her eyes were the same, though, inhuman clusters of bulging faceted glass that changed from mirror to obsidian to crystal just slightly out of synch with the shifting of the walls. “You.” Her voice was a stone rasping against the razor edge of the world. “Come to kill me again?”

Marla cocked her head. “I’ve killed you before? Huh. Seems like I’d remember that.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid. Neither of us has the time for that.” The possible witch shook her head in a sharp, querulous gesture. “It wasn’t this you, it was other yous, and other instances of me. I told you last time, I’m dead almost everywhere, but does that stop you? No. Days ago you showed up, versions of you, some with hair dyed red, some with a glass eye, some with your voicebox damaged so you communicate by sign language, but all asking for the same thing. Making impossible demands. Making outrageous threats. And. And.” She twitched. “And following through on them.”

Marla unsheathed her dagger of office, one of the two artifacts she possessed; the other was the white-and-purple cloak on her back, but that was as dangerous as old dynamite sweating nitroglycerin, and she didn’t want to use it. “You see this knife? It was –”

“Forged in the fires of hell by the god of Death himself, yes, I know.” The possible witch flickered, but she grimaced, and her grip on the armrests tightened, and she took on a new weight and solidity. “I’ve heard this, I told you. But the knife doesn’t work. You have to use the… other thing. The thing clinging to your shoulders. That’s how you kill me.”

“The cloak?”

The possible witch shook her head again, more impatiently, her strange eyes glittering. “Why do you pretend to be stupid? It’s not a cloak, it never was a cloak, it’s just something that looks like a cloak, out of convenience.”

Marla nodded. She knew. She’d found the cloak hanging in a thrift store when she was a young woman, still an apprentice, and it had called to her. Wearing it with the white side showing protected her from harm, and had saved her life countless times, its magic healing all injuries. But with a simple mental command she could reverse the cloak, make the purple lining switch to the outside, and then… she became a monster. Cold, unfeeling, merciless, interested only in dealing death, her conscious mind reduced to a voice howling in the void. The cloak was a potent power, but increasingly she thought of it as a nuclear option, a weapon of last resort. She’d always been able to drag herself back from the brink, to assert her control and turn the cloak back to white, but she worried that the effects of using the cloak were cumulative, like mercury poison building up in her blood, and that someday, she’d lose control, and the cloak – whatever it really was – would take over.

So Marla wasn’t surprised to hear the cloak could murder something like a god, and she also wasn’t surprised that various versions of herself in what some might call parallel dimensions had committed those murders. “Are you going to do what I want this time? Or am I going to have to kill you here, too?”

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” the witch said.

“Nothing you haven’t done before,” Marla said. “Last time I visited, you chucked me out into a whole succession of alternate realities, flickering by like the world’s worst vacation slideshow.”

The witch shook her head. “I granted you visions of other worlds, yes, but what you’re asking now is so much more… There are laws against this. Not laws like traffic laws, like laws against stealing, but laws of the universe, laws like gravity. You want me to break them.”

“You’re the only one who can break them. If I could do it myself, I would.”

The witch turned her head and looked at Rondeau. “What do you think, summoner? You opened the doorway to this place. If I do what Marla Mason asks, if I decide I’ve died at her hands often enough in enough different universes – that she’s done enough damage to the integrity of this place, which is only a reflection of myself – then it’s your power I’ll draw on to help me pry open the other door she desires. Will you let Marla Mason use you that way? Even if the strain of what she asks cripples you, or kills you? Would you risk dying for this woman even though, in every universe I’ve seen lately, she seems to hate you profoundly?”

Marla wanted to tell the witch to shut up, to talk to her, she was the one in charge, but she was a little curious to hear what Rondeau would say.

He didn’t run on with any of his usual lines of bullshit, he didn’t make jokes, and he didn’t make excuses. He just said, “I’m with Marla.”

Well, then.

The witch turned back to Marla. “I know what you want. But you must ask me. Request your boon.”

Marla took a breath, let it out, and spoke. “I want Bradley Bowman. That’s all. Find one of the other universes, one where he’s still alive. But listen. I don’t want you bringing me a Bradley who’s happy – I don’t want to ruin his life, if some other version of him found happiness. Find a universe where B and I never met, where he’s still in California, where he’s still unhappy, and bring that Bradley here, to me.” She’d met Bradley not quite a year earlier, when he’d been a totally untrained psychic, tormented by nightmares that came true, plagued by ghosts and demons, and unaware of the extent of his own powers – or of the fact that there were other sorcerers who could teach him how to use his abilities, and who could offer him a place in their world. She wanted to find a version of Bradley she hadn’t saved, and save him.

That seemed like the set-up with the best chance of replicating her relationship with the B she’d lost.

“There will be a price, if I do this for you,” the possible witch said. “A price you cannot know before you pay.”

“Yeah, I know the payment policy. I’ve been here before.”

The possible witch sighed. “I said no to you so many times, and suffered the consequences, and considered it my duty… but you’ve hurt me, Marla Mason. Damaged me perhaps beyond repair. So this time, this one time, in this one place and this one world, I will grant your wish. You deserve it.”

“Good. Always a pleasure doing business with you. So, ah –”

Rondeau dropped to his knees, clutched at his head, and began screaming. Marla spun with her knife, looking for an attack, for treachery, but whatever assailed him did so from within. He fell onto his side, curled into the fetal position, but the screaming didn’t stop, and no matter how pissed she was at Rondeau, she didn’t want this, didn’t want to see him in this kind of pain. She advanced on the chair, knife upraised. “What’s happening? What are you doing?”

“I’m opening a doorway for you, Marla Mason.” The possible witch might have been smiling – except, no, she was biting down, biting through her own lip, and black blood started to run down her chin. It oozed from her ears, too, and ran from the corners of her inhuman eyes like oily tears. “Your friend the summoner is helping me. It’s a very rusty door, and heavily barred, and heavily guarded, so it’s taking some effort, but don’t worry, we’ll get it open. But remember, Marla Mason: When you open a doorway, it opens both ways.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

The witch just shook her head and flickered out of existence, and Rondeau stopped screaming at exactly that instant, but he seemed to be unconscious. “Well this is fucked up –” Marla began, and then the floor beneath her feet vanished, and she fell with Rondeau into a darkness that soon obscured all her senses and, after a long time, blotted out her thoughts too.


Rondeau groaned, and sat up, his head pounding worse than the worst hangover he’d ever had, and that hangover had lasted a full day, and had only been assuaged by getting drunk all over again, which he couldn’t do now that he was in Bradley’s overly-sensitive-to-substances body. Which was too bad, because the bar in his nightclub was right downstairs, and since he owned the place he could pour himself an immense tumbler of Johnny Walker Blue if he wanted, hell, he could drink right from the mouth of the bottle, and –

He lifted his head from the scarred wooden table, blinking. This was his club. Or, more accurately, the floor above the club, where he kept his apartment, and where Marla had her office. This was his crappy little dining area, the table where he’d played solitaire and taken part in councils of war. He was back in Felport, on the East Coast, and not in a strange otherworld accessible only through a solitary confinement cell on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

“Shit, was it all a dream?” He didn’t have the hang of all the gifts he’d inherited with Bradley’s body, and the prophetic dreams – what B always called those dreams – were the weirdest. The dreams could be vivid, sure, but they were usually pretty cryptic and full of more symbolism than a double-deck of Tarot cards, not the linear narrative he’d experienced a moment ago. Had he just fallen asleep here or something? But that didn’t make sense, he’d been hiding out at a friend’s place, avoiding Marla because he was ashamed and she was pissed about what he’d done, he wouldn’t be sleeping here

No dream, that voice said in his head.

The door to Marla’s office banged open, and Marla ran out, looking around wild-eyed, knife in hand. When all she saw was Rondeau, she lowered the dagger, but didn’t put it away. “You see Bradley anywhere?”

“Nuh uh.”

She nodded, frowning, that I’m-thinking-hard-and-you-won’t-like-what-I’m-thinking-about line wrinkling her forehead. “Think the witch stiffed us? Just flung us back to Felport? I mean, hell, that place we were, her chamber, it’s not like it’s in San Francisco, it’s just accessible from there, it’s probably as close to Felport as it is to anywhere else in the world. But if she could save herself by chucking us out the window, why’d she let me kill her in all those other universes? Or was that just bullshit?”

“She did something, Marla. The way my head feels… she used me the way a plumber uses a pipe wrench. Whatever she did, it was so hard even somebody as powerful as the possible witch couldn’t do it by herself.”

“Huh. Then where the hell is…” She turned toward the hallway, and nodded.

“His… his room?” Rondeau stood up from the table. Bradley had come to Felport to become Marla’s apprentice, and he’d stayed in Rondeau’s spare bedroom while they were working on finding him a place to live. Turns out he didn’t even survive long enough to put down a security deposit on his own apartment. But while he’d lived in Felport, he’d lived in there.

Marla went down the hallway, to the closed door. B’s things were still in there, his bag of clothes and a few mementos from his old life as an actor and not much else. She put her hand against the door as if feeling for heat, then took the flimsy knob in her hand, turned it, and pushed open the door.

“B,” she whispered, rushing inside.

Rondeau followed… and there was Bradley, on the messy unmade futon. Not exactly the same B – his hair was longer, and he was paler, and thinner, but it was still recognizably him, the scruffy psychic with the movie star face, and though his eyelids were closed, Rondeau could perfectly recall the tropical blue of his irises.

Rondeau couldn’t stand up. He sank down to the floor by the door and sat with his back against the wall. His stomach was quivering and his heart was pounding and he couldn’t tell if what he felt was exhilaration or relief or terror or some emotion he’d never been sufficiently moved to experience before. Bradley was back from the dead. Back from oblivion.

Marla knelt on the futon and touched his shoulder, but B didn’t react. She shook him, then touched his face, then put her hands under his nostrils as if checking for breath – though Rondeau could see B’s chest rising and falling even from his vantage. She slapped his face lightly, whispered in his ear, and finally started shaking him by the shoulders, shouting into his face, yelling “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” but Bradley didn’t react beyond a fluttering of the eyes that looked like nothing so much as the rapid eye movement of a dream.

“Let me try.” Rondeau approached cautiously, afraid Marla would lash out at him, but she nodded and moved aside, letting him kneel beside B and put the palm of his hand on the unconscious seer’s forehead.

“If that bitch gave me damaged goods, if she gave me Bradley’s body with no mind inside, if she double crossed me, we’ll go back there and I’ll cut her into pieces, I’ll cut her every way it’s possible for someone to be cut, I’ll –”

“He’s having a vision,” Rondeau said, pulling his hand away. He couldn’t quite penetrate Bradley’s mind, not the way he could the minds of most people these days, but he’d caught the color and the shape, and the form was familiar to him, though the scale dwarfed every vision he’d ever experienced since taking over this body. “It’s a big one. Marla, you dragged B out of some other world, and he’s a psychic, one of the most powerful psychics we’ve ever heard of, you know? I think he’s, like… trying to see everything now. His senses, his special senses, they’re probing the edges of a whole new reality, and I think he’s in sensory overload. He’s, I don’t know, downloading. You know?”

“How long will it take? Before he wakes up?” Marla only had eyes for Bradley.

Rondeau just shook his head. He couldn’t even begin to know.

“He’ll be all right.” Marla’s words were more command than hope. She looked around. “But… the price. There’s always a price, when you deal with things like that possible witch. So what’s the price? Go to my office, would you, and look out the window, see if anything… looks weird.”

Rondeau did, and when he returned, Marla was cradling B’s head in her lap. “Nothing weird. Looks like it’s a little before dawn, so we didn’t even lose much time. Got here lots faster than taking a plane anyway.” He shrugged.

“Huh.” Marla didn’t look up, just kept stroking B’s brow, and, not for the first time, Rondeau thought what a shame it was that B was gay, because he was probably the only man Marla could love. Then again, maybe the fact that B was romantically untouchable was why Marla allowed herself to love him. Seemed plausible, but Rondeau tried to avoid psychoanalyzing his boss. He wasn’t qualified, and she didn’t appreciate it.

She said, “So it’s just our Felport? Doesn’t look like it’s actually ruled by spider-people, or giants, or evolved raccoons? No pyramids or obelisks? It’s not raining doughnuts or anything, you know, parallel-universe-y?”

“Just a street. Kinda dirty. Same old gray van with flat tires and a hundred parking tickets stuck under the windshield wipers right under your window. Nothing weird, no.”

“Because last time, when B and me went to see the witch, that was the price, that we got stuck on Alcatraz flipping through I don’t even know how many alternate realities, a new one every few minutes. We were there all night, and we didn’t have time to be there all night, which was why it counted as a price, I guess. Some of those Californias we saw were practically prehistoric, and some of them were in the middle of ice ages, and some of them had riots, and some of them were on fire, and some of them looked so beautiful, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful, and after a while the spectacle got boring and we talked, that’s when B and me first became tight… but no celestial channel-flipping this time. Which means the price is something different. Damn. I don’t mind paying, not if we get B back, but it’d be nice to know what I’m paying with.”

“Maybe she decided to give it to us as a freebie,” Rondeau said.

Marla snorted, and finally looked up from B. “It cost you something, didn’t it? What the witch did, it hurt you, right?”

Rondeau nodded, but slowly, because just moving his abused head seemed as potentially dangerous as jumping up and down on a land mine.

“Okay,” Marla said. “You did good. You stepped up. I’m not saying we’re square, I’m not saying I can forgive or forget because I’m lousy at both of those, but… I’ll remember you did the good thing, too. That you went into the presence of the possible witch not knowing what it would cost you, not knowing if you’d live through the ordeal, and you said yes anyway.”

Rondeau wanted to say a lot of things – more apologies, more assurances that Bradley’s death had been an accident, more outpouring admissions of guilt – but, maybe because Bradley’s psychically-sophisticated gray matter was better at reading the vibe of a room than Rondeau’s had ever been, he just nodded, and said, “I’ll leave you alone and make sure we weren’t gone more than a day and that nothing important burned down while you were gone.”

He stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him, and thought he heard, faintly, someone singing a lullaby. Rondeau didn’t think he’d ever heard Marla sing a note before.


Back in San Francisco, the sky over the bay crackled with lightning, startling the residents of that city where thunderstorms were rare, especially since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and because no crack of thunder followed – just the fork of jagged light splitting the air silently. On Alcatraz Island, inside the prison, two bodies appeared in mid-air and fell half a dozen feet to the hard floor. One of the figures landed in an ungainly heap, groaned, and cursed – a little lick of bluish flame emerged from his mouth – before sitting up, rubbing his unusual jaw.

The other twisted as she fell and landed in a crouch, as supple and self-assured as a cat, her long dark cloak fluttering as she landed.

“Crapsey.” She prodded her complaining companion with the point of one of her steel-toed boots. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Of course not, boss.” He stood up. “You turned Kansas into a tornado laboratory. No buildings left there. Barely any ground left, even.”

“So that’s one place we’re not. Good. Narrows it down. Though not enough. What the hell is this place?”

A woman stepped forward, dressed in a gray suit, feathers woven into her hair, eyes glowing with spectral light, blood drying on her beat-up face, cold fury in her voice. “This is my place, and it will be your hell.”

“Look, Crapsey.” The cloaked woman nodded. “It’s a local rustic we can question. I wonder if she truly speaks our language, or if she just memorized those words of greeting phonetically, like a parrot?”

“Either way works. I’ve got my universal translator right here.” He flipped open a butterfly knife and advanced, grinning.

Given the nature of his face, it was a very memorable grin.

Chapter 1

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Marla Mason – called by some the Witch Queen of Felport, though she preferred the more traditional, less sexist, and decidedly lowercase title “chief sorcerer” – stood with her back against a stone wall in a five-by-nine-foot jail cell three thousand miles away from the city she defended and called home.

She was on an errand of mercy, and so, naturally, someone was trying to kill her.

Standing beside her – closer than she liked – was a man who wasn’t really a man, someone who’d been her best friend before he killed her other best friend, an act that hadn’t helped their relationship. This companion – a psychic parasite in a stolen skin who called himself Rondeau – whispered, “I think she’s gone.” His breath came out as little puffs of vapor in the cold air.

Marla bit back her instinctive response – Who cares what you think, you body-stealing shitcake? – and nodded. The chasing footsteps had turned to stealthy footsteps to altogether absent footsteps, which suggested their pursuer was looking for them elsewhere.

The door of the jail cell was open, and the cell hadn’t been used to confine any prisoners in decades, unless you counted tourists who stood inside to have their pictures taken. They were inside an infamous prison that was also a National Park: Alcatraz Island, the Rock, one-time maximum security facility, one-time reclaimed property of American Indian protesters, and current home to – or, more properly, stepping-stone to the home of – the most powerful oracle in this universe or any adjacent.

Also now home, apparently, to a new sorcerer who’d taken up residence since Marla’s last visit. And since Marla hadn’t exactly called ahead to make an appointment before flying across the country to San Francisco, taking a cab to the edge of the bay, stealing a boat, and making her way to the dock at Alcatraz well after midnight, that sorcerer was unlikely to welcome her with open arms. Marla and Rondeau had fled from the dock into the prison ahead of a probing spectral chain of magic that had been as interested in strangling them as identifying them. Sorcerers could be so territorial. Marla had hoped to get in and out unnoticed, but she knew her appearance here could be considered an invasion.

That was okay in theory. Marla was good at invasions. She’d even invaded the land of the dead once. But she didn’t want to waste time bringing overwhelming force to bear when she was basically just passing through. Hence the hiding, the listening, and now, the sneaking.

Except when Marla crept to the opening that led out of the tiny cell and into the corridors of C Block, something impeded her progress. The door was… blocked, by something that felt like iron bars, though there were no bars to be seen.

Marla sighed. “All right!” she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. “You know we’re here, and we know you know, so let’s get to the confrontation part already.”

The sorcerer of Alcatraz stepped into sight from the shadows, which was a pretty easy trick on your home territory, Marla knew. She was black-haired with dusky skin, dressed in a tailored dove-gray business suit. The only outré touch was a mass of feathers (eagle, parrot, who knew what – Marla was no ornithologist) woven into her hair. The magic around her was palpable, the force of her will in her seat of power acting on reality to create a kind of vibration or harmonic or static charge noticeable to the appropriately attuned.

Marla thumped the invisible cell door with the heavy metal ring on her left middle finger. The barrier even rang out like iron. “Sorry I didn’t call ahead. I’m Marla Mason, from Felport, back east. Last time I was out here, Alcatraz didn’t have a resident sorcerer. I wasn’t trying to invade anybody’s space. Care to open up the door so we can work this out?”

“Marla Mason.” The sorcerer’s voice was cool and a little amused. Marla hated people who sounded cool and a little amused. The woman stepped closer, and Marla saw she was older than she seemed at first glance, though with sorcerers, true age could be almost impossible to ascertain. They had the power, and usually pretty good reasons, to extend their lifespans. “Yes, it is you. The ruler of my city has a picture of you in her office.” She paused. “Pinned to a dart board.”

“The ruler? Who, Susan?” Marla’s old rival Susan Wellstone was chief sorcerer of San Francisco, had been for nearly a year – though she probably called herself the Sorcerer Queen of the Barbary Coast or some crap. She was always putting on airs.

The woman nodded. “Yes. I believe Ms. Wellstone will be pleased if I give you to her, especially since you’ve broken our laws by coming here without permission. She is very keen on punishment.”

“Much as I’d love to visit with your boss lady, I’m on an errand. Look, uh – what’s your name, anyway? The Bird Lady of Alcatraz?”

“Maybe she’s called the Rock-Ette,” Rondeau offered, and Marla got halfway to smiling before remembering she was supposed to hate him now, which meant not enjoying his jokes.

“I am the Warden,” the sorcerer said, “and you have transgressed – trespassing in my ruler’s city and on my island – and transgressors fall within the scope of my powers of confinement and control.” She stepped closer to the cell, and her eyes began to glow with a pale yellowish light. Marla didn’t know exactly what the Warden was doing, but it probably wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Hey, Rondeau,” she said, “Can you jump into this bitch’s body and shove her soul into the outer darkness?”

“No!” He shook his head violently. “How can you even ask? I told you, I can’t do that at will, I can only jump to a new body when my old body is dying, and even then I can’t control which body I take. Even if I could, I wouldn’t, it’s wrong, it’s monstrous, it’s what got me into this mess –”

Rondeau’s outgassing of guilt, dismay, and indignation served nicely to distract the Warden, which was exactly the outcome Marla had hoped for. While the Warden was frowning at Rondeau, doubtless wondering what he was going on about and whether it violated some clause in her imaginary supernatural penal code, Marla made her move.

She snaked her arms between the invisible iron bars, grabbed the Warden by the back of the head, and jerked forward, slamming the Warden’s face into the magical bars. Seeing the Warden’s nose break and her cheekbones shatter against invisible lengths of metal was pretty interesting, and Marla repeatedly slammed the woman’s face into the barrier until the magical bars disappeared. Either the spell broke when the Warden lost consciousness, or she’d used her last lucid moments to magic away the bars and avoid further damage to her face. Marla grabbed the bleeding woman’s wrist and did a sweet little Aikido step, tossing the Warden toward the back of the cell, where she crumpled in an unattractive – but still breathing – heap.

“Traditionalist,” Marla said, shaking her head. “A simple magical door would have worked fine, something solid I couldn’t reach through, but she had to go with the cell door thing, what, because it fit her theme better? Amateur.” Most of the San Francisco’s top-notch magical adepts were dead – there’d been some unpleasantness a while back, which was how Susan became chief sorcerer in the first place – so it made sense that Susan’s lieutenants weren’t as sharp as they could have been. Still, better safe. “Come on, Rondeau, let’s get where we’re going before she wakes up. You can’t usually get the jump on someone that way twice, and if she does specialize in spells of confinement and control, I don’t want to give her a chance to wrap me in a magical straitjacket or something.”

“There’s some of her blood on your face.” Rondeau reached out, as if to wipe it away, or maybe just to show her where the drops had sprayed.

Marla slapped his attempt at touch away. “There’s blood on your hands,” she said, and he hunched his shoulders, shrinking into himself, and she felt a nasty pleasure, accompanied by an unwelcome jolt of guilt. “My friend B’s blood. He was supposed to be your friend, too, so let’s just try to fix what you did to him, okay?”

“It was an accident,” Rondeau said for at least the thousandth time, and for at least the six-hundredth time, Marla thought, I know. But she couldn’t say that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

A few weeks ago, Rondeau had been gutshot during a con game gone bad. While he was dying of his wounds, Marla’s apprentice Bradley Bowman – known to his friends as B – had tried to save his life, but he’d arrived too late. Rondeau’s body bled out on the floor, but the real Rondeau, the supernatural being of unknown origin that merely inhabited human bodies like Marla might wear a cloak, had panicked, and, like a rat fleeing a burning ship, had leapt from his dying body to the nearest piece of solid ground.

Which meant Rondeau had leapt into Bradley’s body. Forcing Bradley’s mind, his personality – his soul – into oblivion, irretrievable, forever lost.

Rondeau was wracked by guilt, and he’d invested in a permanent personal illusion to retain his old body’s appearance, so at least he didn’t look like B – Marla couldn’t have endured that – but she couldn’t forgive him, accident or not. Maybe, if this errand succeeded, if Rondeau helped her, maybe then….

“Whatever,” she said. “Let’s just go make it right. Let’s bring Bradley back to life.”


“Marla, there are ghosts here.” Rondeau peered into the shadows as she led him down a row of dim gray cells. Smeared partial echoes of people populated some of the cells, moving in repetitive motions, looking not at him but through him – that much was a blessing – and somewhere far off a little girl ghost wailed.

Marla glanced over her shoulder at him, a somewhat spectral presence herself in her white cloak, her face hidden in the hood. Another blessing. The way she’d been looking at him since B died… he didn’t need to see that expression again. It was burned into his brain. “I know,” she said. “You don’t usually notice ghosts, though. Part of being in Bradley’s body, I guess.”

Rondeau just nodded. His mind was still his own, and his memories, so he figured those were bound up in the essential center of… whatever his true nature was. But other aspects of personhood were rooted in the body, and when he’d taken over – no, be honest, when he’d stolen – B’s body, certain aspects of himself had changed. For one thing, his rather broad-ranging personal sexuality had vanished, and now he was as gay as B had been, which would annoy his on-again-off-again girlfriend Lorelei next time he saw her. He’d also inherited B’s extreme sensitivity to caffeine and other substances, which was saving him money on his weekly Starbucks bill at least, but it made getting up in the mornings hell. Well. More of a hell.

But the main thing he’d acquired was B’s psychic abilities. In this new body, Rondeau could see things he’d never imagined, sense the presence of ghosts and spirits and things that you might as well call demons, and if he concentrated he could hear some of the thoughts of people around him (which did appeal to Rondeau’s native nosiness), and pick up impressions from objects he touched to tell him about people who’d once owned them, and, probably, perform other feats he hadn’t yet discovered. He’d always secretly coveted the magic of the sorcerers around him, because despite being an inhuman psychic parasite, he was pretty much crap at magic, and didn’t have the personality for the obsessive study that might have overcome his native lack of talent.

Now that he was suddenly a big bad psychic, though, he didn’t like the power. The dreams were horrible, and he couldn’t tell if they were just guilt nightmares, or profound psychic visions. And there were mindless ghosts and ghost-fragments everywhere, so it was hard to shake the sense that he was being watched. B had spent years learning to control his powers, to filter his perceptions, but Rondeau didn’t have any of those defenses. Marla could have taught him some tricks, but she wasn’t interested in soothing his suffering.

“We’re here.” Marla paused in the open doorway of a dark, narrow cell, one with a solid door in addition to a barred inner gate. “I think, anyway. Hell, these solitary confinement cells all look alike to me.”

“No, this is it.” Rondeau walked into the cell and placed his palm flat against the back wall. “This is… wow. Yeah. There’s something here.” Some force hovered beyond his direct perception, making his teeth ache and his vision blur, and he had the persistent sense that a vast chasm was yawning just past his toes, waiting to swallow him. Funny that the doorway to infinite possibility would be here, in a room where possibilities had once been narrowed almost to nothing. Maybe the universe had a sense of humor. That was a chilling thought. “Uh. What do we do?”

“You open the way,” Marla said.

Rondeau closed his eyes. He had no idea how to do that. Marla had dragged him across the country on a late flight to use the most mysterious and profound power he’d stolen from Bradley: the ability to open doorways and summon oracles, tapping into the deep magic that formed the foundation of this and all other universes. The power to call spirits from the vasty deep, you might say, and yeah, they’d come when you called, but there was no telling whether or not they’d eat you when they got there. You could ask those powers and principalities questions, and they might even answer, for a price, and if you were feeling suicidal you could ask them for favors, and sometimes they’d grant those, too, for an even bigger price. Rondeau wasn’t sure specifically what favor Marla was planning to ask the entity they were going to visit, but he knew the gist: she wanted to bring B back.

Rondeau wanted that too. Enough to come here and risk using a power he’d just acquired and didn’t even remotely understand. Enough to risk being devoured by a being that dwelled in the empty spaces between universes. He’d do anything necessary to undo his crime. Bradley had been his friend. They’d even, briefly, been lovers. Rondeau didn’t like to dwell on the fact that he was now inside a body that he’d previously, well, been inside. It gave new meaning to the phrase “Go fuck yourself,” which, incidentally, was a phrase he’d heard a lot from Marla on this trip, like when he asked her what time it was, or if she could pass the ketchup or, really, anytime he said pretty much anything.

Just give her a little show, a familiar voice whispered in his mind, and he wondered, not for the first time: was it Bradley? There was something immortal inside people, something you might as well call a soul, something Marla called the will, and he’d forced that soul out of Bradley, yes, and taken its place, like a cuckoo tossing the original eggs out of a nest, but damn it, the brain mattered too, it was the house where the soul dwelled, and wasn’t it possible that some echo of his funny wise patient friend Bradley remained inside this brain, in this body, if only in the patterns of well-worn neural paths? There were ghosts everywhere, he could see them, so why not some sort of neurochemical ghost of Bradley?

Maybe Rondeau was imagining it. Certainly he’d never sensed the presence of the original inhabitant of that first body he stole, the maybe eight-year-old street kid Rondeau had ousted into oblivion the same day all his own memories began. Maybe Rondeau was just fooling himself, talking to himself, wanting to believe that some bit of B lived on inside his mind… but if it gave him comfort, he would embrace it. Unlike Marla, Rondeau would never refuse comfort just because it was maybe a little bit delusional.

Do a little twirl, make her close her eyes and turn widdershins – that’s counter-clockwise, it’s totally more mystical – something like that, and then… just step into the chasm, Rondeau.

“Uh, l need to, sorry, I need to hold your hands.” Rondeau expected some withering response, some, “Don’t touch me, killer,” business, but Marla nodded and put her dry cool hands in his. “Close your eyes.” He didn’t look to see if she obeyed, just closed his own and turned in the narrowness of the cell, almost like a slow dance, all the way around, three times, until they were facing the rear wall again, and then they took a step together, and another, and another… well past the point where they should have cracked their heads into stone.

“That’s exactly what B did, when he led me here,” Marla said. “It was while you were off being kidnapped or whatever. This place… it looks a lot worse than it did last time.”

Rondeau opened his eyes, and the cell was gone. They were in a long corridor wide enough to walk three abreast, with a wooden floor, wooden walls, and a wooden ceiling just a couple of feet above his head, all stained and moist and splintered and rotting, stinking like mushrooms and corpse flowers. There were windows like arrowslits at irregular intervals with pale light filtering in, and there was a hole in the floor as big around as a basketball not far from his feet; another couple of steps with his eyes closed and Rondeau might have plunged into it, and he didn’t think there would be any coming back from a fall like that.

Marla stepped forward, still holding one of his hands, and so Rondeau came with her, giving the hole a wide berth, glancing at it as he passed, seeing darkness down there but also faint bluish glimmers, like luminous fish far below the surface of a dying sea. The floor was a little springy and mushy underfoot. Not comforting. He wanted to look back, to confirm that there was a door or something leading out of this place, but wasn’t don’t look back one of those ancient mythic rules, right up there with stay on the path and don’t eat the apple? Rondeau tended to consider most rules distractions at best and bad jokes at worst, but he kept his eyes forward, because some things you didn’t screw around with.

The corridor took some sharp turns, the boards under their feet creaking alarmingly, and it reminded Rondeau of walking down a street where the sidewalk was torn up and a new wooden sidewalk had been erected with scaffolding all around – a temporary, haphazard, this-is-the-best-we-can-do feeling, and it was pretty troubling to have that feeling in a place that was literally where something like a god dwelt.

Sometimes they passed short side hallways that terminated in doors. Just ordinary looking doors, with tarnished brass knobs. Not locked or anything. Rondeau didn’t even think about thinking about what might happen if he tried to open one of those doors.

They came to the ruins of a black iron spiral staircase right in the middle of the walkway, and Rondeau felt an almost indescribable pull: up, up, up. Too bad most of the steps were missing. The staircase looked half-melted where it wasn’t rusted through, and if you tried to climb it, the odds were even whether a broken ankle or tetanus would get you first.

“So, uh –”

“I know,” Marla said. “Up there. Same as last time, but last time, you could just walk up the damn thing.” Marla jumped, grabbing one of the twisted iron steps, and clambered up like she did this every day, little flakes of rust showering down. Rondeau watched her vanish into the darkness above, realized he was alone in-between the cracks of the world, and climbed up after her. Bradley had been in pretty good shape, at least, and Rondeau’s brief period of slovenly self-pity since acquiring the body hadn’t completely wrecked that conditioning.

The top of the staircase was terrifying: basically just a plank jutting out into the void, no railing, no walls, no lights, nothing, just syrupy blackness pressing down. And at the end of the plank, an open doorway, with piss-yellowish light shining beyond. Marla stood before the door, the light turning her into a shadow cutout.

“So this is it,” Rondeau said. Something beyond the door was exerting a terrible force on him. His sinuses hurt, and his ears wanted to pop, but they wouldn’t, like when you first got off a plane, before the pressures equalized. “We’re going to see the, uh, what did you call her?”

“The possible witch,” Marla said. “The gatekeeper of all possible universes. Including universes where Bradley Bowman never died.” She turned toward him, though with the light behind her, he still couldn’t see her face. He hoped – he almost prayed – she was smiling. “Let’s go steal one of those still-alive Bradleys for ourselves, what do you say?”

Together, they walked into the light.

Authorial Blathering Intact

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Many of you seemed to enjoy the “authorial blather” behind-the-scenes musings I included in my serialization of Bone Shop last year, so I’m going to continue the tradition with Broken Mirrors. This time, though, I’m not going to make separate posts for those author notes, which tend to be short, anyway — I’ll just include them in the comment thread for each chapter. Probably as the first comment, unless some of you are REALLY quick to post…

Look for chapter one on Monday, by 9 a.m. Pacific time. It involves jailbreaks, face-punching, verbal cruelty, and Ominous Hints of Things to Come.