Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for May, 2010

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.