Crapsey and Nicolette kept up the chase for a while, but then Ernesto did something funny to the air. His body shimmered, as if viewed through water or bubbled glass, and he vanished from sight. The Mason snarled, crouched, leapt, and similarly shimmered, disappearing without so much as a “pop” of displaced air.
“Huh.” Crapsey stopped running and looked around for something to lean against, to get that nonchalant devil-may-care pose just right, but they were surrounded by towering piles of junked cars, which would give him tetanus if he leaned against them, assuming they didn’t just collapse and avalanche him under. He settled for crossing his arms and looking vaguely skyward. “That didn’t look like teleportation,” he said.
Nicolette was just a shadowy shape in the dimness of the evening, except for her glowing spectral arm, which emitted light but didn’t provide much illumination. “Ernesto’s a master of space. They say this junkyard goes on for hundreds of miles, all squeezed into an area just a few city blocks square. The place is like topographical origami, and sometimes apprentices go in deep, and get lost, and never come out again. He did some space-bending hoodoo to try and escape, and your boss just… followed him. Like it was nothing.”
“Most magic is pretty easy for her,” Crapsey said. “Some of the best sorcerers in the world have thrown their nastiest death magics at her, and she just shrugged them off. She says it’s like… density. And mass. The magic where she’s from is a lot denser than the magic here. Like our magic is spiderwebs and her magic is a bus. A bus can drive through a spiderweb without even noticing it. She says most magic doesn’t hurt her any more than getting hit with a foam pool noodle would.”
“Viscarro zapped her good with that staff of his.”
Crapsey nodded. “Sure. But that’s –” He paused, looked around, and sighed. “This is boring. They’re not coming back soon. Want to go to the front gate? Cover the exit or whatever?”
Nicolette shrugged but started walking, and Crapsey kept talking as they went. “Yeah, Viscarro’s staff knocked her down. And there have been other people – well, not people, things – that gave her some trouble. This scorpion creature in the desert. Reweavers. Some guys called Thrones, though she chased those off eventually. Viscarro’s not that badass, really, but he’s got all those artifacts. ‘Artifact’ is just a fancy word for magical stuff so weird or old or dangerous nobody’s sure who made it or where it came from. Some of those things come from other universes – not like versions of this universe, but whole totally other universes, places where the rules are completely different – places where the magic is a lot denser than it is here, maybe. The Mason says with some artifacts, the visible part of them, the part you touch and pick up and zap people with, is just a tiny portion of some much larger thing poking through, with the rest of it hidden in imperceptible dimensions. So maybe Viscarro’s staff was something like that. She says –”
“The Mason says, the Mason says,” Nicolette said. “Since when does she talk so much?”
“Well. I’m kinda condensing stuff she’s said over, like, a decade.” They reached the front gate – the walk back went a lot quicker, probably a folded-space thing – and Crapsey settled down in one of the metal chairs in front of the little trailer-slash-office just inside the fence. Nicolette hooked another chair with her foot and dragged it close, sitting at an angle, not quite facing him. They both had pretty good sightlines into the scrapyard, just in case something should come rushing out. “She doesn’t –”
When the attack came, it came not from the scrapyard but from inside the silver lozenge-shaped trailer. Crapsey gagged as black smoke poured from the windows and roof vents, an oily mist that seemed thick as syrup. Crapsey dove off the chair as the smoke coalesced into something roughly human-shaped, except ten or twelve feet tall. “Pollution golem!” Nicolette shouted.
Well, that was something new. Crapsey squinted his eyes against the reeking smoke and Cursed, triggering a bit of primal chaos to unsettle the world on a small and local scale.
Blue sparks jumped from Crapsey’s mouth toward the smoke creature. The golem caught fire, so now it was a twelve-foot-tall man-shaped creature made of flame, which was, under the circumstances, not much of an improvement. But as it burned, the golem slumped and diminished in size, and Nicolette whipped some charm out of her bag and dropped it to the ground – it looked like a cheap plastic spinning top from a Cracker Jack box, but when it hit the ground and spun it spawned a miniature tornado that whipped the pollution golem apart, flames shredding into nothing, until all that remained was an oily puddle on the ground and a hovering mist of industrial funk in the air.
“So what’s the Mason’s deal, exactly?” Nicolette said, retaking her seat. “She wants to exterminate all life?”
Crapsey turned his chair upright and sat back down. “Nah. Not all life. Things that aren’t sentient don’t bother her much, though she doesn’t have any particular affection for them. It’s mostly people she can’t stand, and dolphins. Practically speaking, killing everybody is really hard, just in terms of plain logistics – the world’s teeming with people, more born every day, billions of them, and most fight like hell to stay alive. She could drop nukes or something, but she says she has plans for the planet, and doesn’t want to break it.”
“She could go pandemic,” Nicolette said. “Disease. Dead bodies everywhere would be a bitch to clean up, but it would get the job done.”
Crapsey nodded. “Yeah. But, see, her goal’s not total extermination. If all the humans died she’d be pissed. She’s into mass murder, but she’s also into eugenics. Breeding people with natural magical talent together, seeing what kind of kids they have. That’s a pretty long-term thing, obviously. She’s also into experimenting on people to see if she can enhance their abilities – she’s got this facility in what used to be Wyoming. I’m telling you, the noises you can hear from outside the walls would make your balls shrivel up, if you had balls. The Mason says humans are weak genetic stock, and it takes a lot of them to maintain a diverse and healthy breeding population, so she needs to leave tons of them alive, or else risk making them extinct accidentally.”
“Wait, so she’s trying to make better sorcerers? Isn’t that… stupid?”
Crapsey shrugged. “She wants them as slaves, I guess. Or maybe as replacement bodies when her current body wears out, assuming it’s not immortal? She’s never really told me why. She’s not majorly into whys. As long as there are some dispensable spare humans I can take over when my body starts to fall apart, I’m happy.”
An explosion boomed deep in the scrapyard, and they both jumped, watching a plume of flame leap up to skyscraper height and then abruptly vanish. “Big boom,” Nicolette said. “Think your boss needs some help?”
Crapsey shook his head. “By the time we got over there they’d be gone. Besides, you saved the day once already, I think you hit your quota for usefulness.”
“I figured if I wanted to stay on the team, I’d better contribute.”
“You’ve been a lot nicer to me lately. Why’s that? Because you want to be part of the team?”
Nicolette shrugged. “Not really. You just got physical. Threatened me.”
“Ha. So you’re afraid of pissing me off now?”
“Jawface, I could turn you into cole slaw. No, I’m not afraid. But I realized you’re more than just Rondeau with a gym membership and a prosthetic face. Rondeau’s weak, basically, and I can’t stand weakness. But you’ve got some initiative. He’s a lapdog, but you’re, at the very least, an attack dog.”
“Woof, woof,” Crapsey said.
They sat in silence for a while, listening for more dramatic explosions, but the only sound was the wind whispering through the junk and the distant hum of freeway traffic. Crapsey leaned his chair back against the trailer and closed his eyes.
If the three apprentices hadn’t screamed half-assed battle cries as they leapt over a wrecked car and charged, Crapsey might not even have seen them coming. But since they yelled, he opened one eye, and there they were: two young guys and a girl in stained coveralls, wielding wrenches and tire irons crackling with electrical magics. Crapsey closed his eyes again, left his body, took over the guy in the back, and bashed the other two in their heads with the wrench until they stopped moving. He let the stolen body drop, returned to his own body, and yawned.
Nicolette, who hadn’t even bothered getting up, said, “I think you’re wrong about why the Mason wants to keep humans alive.”
“Let’s hear your theory, then.”
“I know she’s an incomprehensible alien from another sphere and all that, but I bet she wants what most living things want, deep down in their genes and instincts.”
“What’s that? Food? Shelter? High-quality drugs?”
“Babies,” Nicolette said. “I think she wants to repopulate the Earth in her own image.”
Crapsey snorted. “I don’t see her getting a lot of action, Nikki. Evil Cursed Cloak Single’s Night down at the Community Center never draws much of a crowd.”
“But she’s alien. You don’t know if she even needs a sexual partner. There are things on this planet that reproduce asexually, and she’s not from this planet, so she could be even weirder. Maybe she splits in half like an amoeba. Maybe she buds off little cloaklets when the stars align just right. She could be hermaphroditic and capable of self-fertilization, or like those frogs that change sex depending on whether there’s a shortage of males or females. Hell, maybe her species has a thousand-year gestation period and she’s full of eggs from when she got impregnated back… wherever the hell she’s from.”
Crapsey shivered. That was a horrible thought. The Mason, pregnant. The Mason, a mother.
“Where is she from, anyway?”
“Couldn’t say,” Crapsey said. “Outer. Other. Far away. Someplace much better than this place, at least by her standards, and definitely very different. Some place where the fabric of reality isn’t toxic to her the way ours is. Where she can live without glomming onto a human host. Someplace where she’s not a parasite, but the dominant form of life. That’s the gist I get, anyway. It’s not like she gets drunk and sings old marching songs from the homeland. Sometimes I think she didn’t leave her universe voluntarily, though, and she didn’t get lost, either – I get the sense she was thrown out of wherever she comes from.”
“Great. So our universe is old Australia, a place to exile extra-universal criminals?”
“As good a guess as any. Gods. Pregnant, you think? Babies?”
“It would explain why she wants to make a better breed of sorcerer,” Nicolette said. “She needs a host with a strong will. Breed a lot of hosts with strong wills, and her kids will have their pick of good bodies to ride around on.” The chaos witch shuddered. “Her world sounds fucking awful, Crapsey. Humans are engines of chaos and disorder, they’re wonderful unpredictable things, and she wants to kill most of them and enslave the others. To make a world that’s all rigid and locked down.” Nicolette mimed gagging. “Worse than boring. Poisonous, to me. I like possibilities opening up, not closing down.”
Crapsey nodded. He’d heard similar complaints from the Nicolette of his world, and he told this one what his own version of Nicolette had told him: “Sure, it sucks, but you gotta remember, we’re just the ants. The Mason is the little kid with the magnifying glass. Just be glad she’s not currently burning us alive and make the best of life while you’ve got it.”
“You ever see that comic strip,” Nicolette said, “where the little kid with the magnifying glass gets carried off by ants and dragged down into the anthill?”
“I missed that one,” Crapsey said. “But if I see where you’re going, let me just say, don’t go there.”
“Nah. Of course not.” Nicolette flexed her glowing arm. “Your boss gave me a new limb. Why would I try to turn on her? Besides, she may have sucked some of the marrow out of your world, but now she’s stuck here, and she’s got a job of work to do if she wants to turn this place into an arid wasteland. There’s a lot more chaos ahead of us.”
“Yeah. But she will win.”
“You sure about that?”
Crapsey nodded. “She won in our world, didn’t she?”
“Yeah, but in your world, she didn’t have to fight Marla Mason. Steal her body and eat her brain, sure, but not fight. And our Marla is a dozen years older and a hell of a lot meaner than the one your boss possessed.”
“I thought you hated Marla?”
“She can suck shit out of a dying dog’s butthole for all I care,” Nicolette said. “I’ve tried to kill her before and I bet I will again. But that doesn’t mean she’s not badass. Your boss might be in for a surprise.”
“You can think that if you want, but, like I said, with the magical density thing, the Mason won’t even notice most of Marla’s spells –”
Now it was Nicolette’s turn to snort. “That’s the thing. It’s not that Marla’s so great at magic. I’m better at magic than she is, and I wasn’t even good enough to get on the council until a bunch of other people died and left some seats that needed filling. No, Marla’s good at… refusing to quit. And thinking around corners. And just coming at you and coming at you until you’re exhausted. Sometimes, it’s not so much that she wins, it’s more that you lose. She’s good at, like… bitchiness.”
“And you think the Mason’s not good at bitchiness? Nah. It’ll be no contest. Marla’s dead, if she ever bothers to show up.”
Nicolette was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I guess I’m afraid you might be right.”
“What do you mean you’re –”
The air shimmered, and Ernesto appeared. He was a big man – not pollution golem big, but big enough – dressed in the smoking and shredded remains of a tuxedo smeared with grease. His scalp was a mess, chunks of his thick black hair missing, and he was bleeding from numerous cuts all over his face and hands. He ran flat-out for the gate, seemingly oblivious to Nicolette and Crapsey sitting off to the side.
Crapsey stuck out his foot and tripped Ernesto as the scrapyard sorcerer ran by.
Ernesto fell hard, not even lifting his hands to break his fall, and crashed face-first into the gravel ground. Crapsey rose and sauntered over toward him. “Hey, man,” he said. “Just lay down. It’ll go faster that way.”
Ernesto started to lever himself up, gasping, and Crapsey aimed a kick at his head. Ernesto moved with surprising speed, rolling clear of the kick and grabbing Crapsey’s foot. One clean pull sent Crapsey down, but instead of hitting the dirt he fell into a hole…. a hole that hadn’t been there a moment before. More spatial shenanigans. Crapsey flailed wildly as he fell through the hole, which opened up again in midair over a heap of scrap. He shouted one of the handful of spells he knew – a bit of sympathetic magic that temporarily turned his flesh to Kevlar, pretty much – and bounced hard on bits of jagged metal. He didn’t get sliced into deli meat, which was good, but the wind got knocked out of him and he was going to have bruises later. He scrambled out of the junk heap – he was fifty, sixty yards back from the gate now – in time to see the air waver and wobble again, followed by the Mason’s emergence from some fold in space. Ernesto was on his feet by then, but the Mason struck him like he was a log and she was a wood chipper, shredding and slashing and tearing aside his magical protections like they were gossamer, whatever the fuck gossamer was.
Nicolette approached the tussling pair, holding that silver hatchet she’d stolen from Viscarro’s vault. Even from this distance, half a football field away, he could see the faint moonlike illumination of the blade, and he wondered if the axe was more than a pretty decorative weapon, if it was something special and dangerous and artifact-y. Maybe Nicolette had recognized it and chosen it on purpose. She raised it up over her head, and he wanted to shout at her – “I think it’s okay, the boss has got it under control, Ernesto’s about two minutes away from being hamburger meat” – but it became apparent that she wasn’t planning to attack Ernesto at all.
She was aiming for the back of the Mason’s head.
He almost shouted “Boss!” but, well, if she managed to kill the Mason, that might not be so bad. If she failed – and she would almost certainly fail – he could always say he hadn’t realized what Nicolette was up to, that the fall into the scrapheap had fucked him up too bad to pay attention, let alone intercede. It wasn’t like he was the guy wielding the axe.
But then Nicolette did something funny. She raised her spectral replacement arm, wrapped her glowing fingers around her own throat, and started to choke herself. Nicolette fell to her knees, struggling against her own new limb, and Crapsey figured now was a good time to get over there. He ran as best he could on bruised legs, and arrived as the Mason stood up from the remnants of Ernesto’s body and flicked the blood off her dagger of office.
“Damn, that’s an ugly mess,” Crapsey said.
“He ran. He shouldn’t have run. Chasing him was boring.” The Mason stepped closer to Nicolette, who was now curled fetal on the ground, still choking herself. “I see Nicolette turned on me. I wondered how long it would take. This was faster than I’d anticipated.”
“Huh.” Crapsey was almost bummed. This Nicolette was less irritating than the one in his world. “So, what, the new arm could sense treachery?”
“If she raised a hand against me, she would also raise a hand against herself, yes. As if I would give her an arm she could strike me with. Hmm. Is that the sacred axe of the moon god Aglibol?”
“Dunno. She snagged it out of Viscarro’s vault.”
“Mmm. She has a good eye. That would have stung a bit, no doubt, though it wouldn’t have killed me – in the hands of a god that weapon would be deadly, perhaps, but not in the hands of a mere woman.” Nicolette’s face was turning blue. “We should be going,” the Mason said. “I think we’ll visit the park next and kill Granger, even if murdering him is a bit like drowning kittens.”
“That’s right in your wheelhouse, then.”
The Mason didn’t move, though. “Why did Nicolette betray me?”
Crapsey shrugged. “She said something about you reducing chaos in the world, making things too orderly. And that she didn’t want to be a slave.” He decided against mentioning her speculation about little baby parasitic cloaks. Not that the Mason was really a cloak, that was just the shape she wore. Would her kids look like cloaks? Or would they look like, maybe, handkerchiefs? Bandanas? Ascots?
“A shame. She was useful. Come.” She turned, stepped over Ernesto’s still form, and walked toward the gate.
Crapsey strolled after her, but stopped when Nicolette screamed behind him. He turned in time to see her running, carrying the axe in her remaining hand, into the depths of the scrapyard. “Shit!” he shouted.
The Mason came back and nudged a chunk of bloody flesh on the ground with her foot. “Hmm. Nicolette chopped off part of her own shoulder with the axe, to get the ghost-arm off. Clever.”
“Do we chase her?”
The Mason shook her head. “She’s made her way into the folded space of the scrapyard now, and those rows go on almost forever. There are places where the paths seem to leave this world entirely, though they don’t seem to lead to parallel universes like our own – more like half-finished universes, mistakes, implausible worlds abandoned half-built, or pocket universes made by long-dead sorcerers. With luck she’ll get disoriented and die of blood loss. And if she comes back…” The Mason shrugged. “She’s already proven herself too incompetent to do me harm. I’ll simply murder her then. Come along. Granger’s not going to kill himself.”
Good luck, Nicolette, you crazy chick, Crapsey thought, and then went with the Mason to murder the most harmless and gentle sorcerer in all of Felport.