Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for June, 2010

Chapter 17

Monday, June 28th, 2010

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.

Chapter 16

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

“Charming city you’ve got here.” Marla stepped over what appeared to be the half-eaten corpse of a frog roughly the size of a car tire.

“It was nicer, once.” Cole’s voice in her ear was as clear as if the man were standing at her shoulder, instead of hiding out safe and sound deep below ground who knew how many miles away. Marla trudged across the San Francisco National Cemetery heading northeast. The graves were all open pits in the earth – the Jaguar had raised the dead, animated them with the souls of deceased Aztec warriors in need of fresh bodies, and set them to doing his dirty work. The sky was blue and the air oppressively humid, which did not match her past experience with San Francisco weather. The Jaguar had brought some of the jungle with him when he arrived. That explained why all the monuments and headstones in the cemetery were wound with vines, their leaves so green the color looked artificial.

Marla had ordered everybody to sleep through the night, because jaguars were largely nocturnal, which meant daylight was their friend. Everybody managed to get some sack time, apart from guard duty shifts, of course – even if Cole said the camp was impregnable, why take chances this close to a big assault? She let Lao Tsung organize the rotation, because the Camp Kimke Irregulars were already irked at taking so much direction from her. This morning Yasuko had taken Marla to a little electric golf cart and driven down miles of tunnel, then led her on foot along less level terrain, including a couple of places where she had to crawl on her belly through old pipes. They’d eventually emerged near the Presidio, the old Spanish fort that had been converted into an American military base until it got decommissioned in the 1990s. Now it was the ugliest part of a national park instead of a fortress. Yasuko told Marla the Palace of Fine Arts was about a mile away as the crow flies, gave her some vague directions, and then scurried back into the tunnels. Once she was gone, Marla put her purple and white cloak on her shoulders, fastening it at the throat with her stag-beetle pin and pulling the hood up over her head. She’d kept the cloak folded up and out of sight on her journey because the artifact clearly freaked Yasuko out, but now that the Jaguar’s spies might see her, it was important to look the part.

Marla wasn’t entirely alone. She had a little enchanted grape seed tucked into her right ear, enabling her to hear and be heard by Cole. When she’d asked why they used a grape seed, Beta-B had started singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” making Marla groan. The connection was only temporary – she’d have to ditch the device before she went in to see the Jaguar, because who knew how perceptive he was? – but if there were any disasters in the next fifteen or twenty minutes, she’d hear about them, at least.

Marla left the cemetery and followed Lincoln Boulevard east for a while. There were a few overturned cars wrapped completely in vines, and the asphalt was cracked and buckled. Bright green lizards scurried past, and obscenely colorful birds flitted by. She saw a group of skeletal figures off in the distance, running in circles in a parking lot kicking what might have been a ball but which her gut told her was a severed head. They didn’t notice her. Just as well. You didn’t want to start an audience with a god by kicking the shit out of his palace guards, if you could avoid it.

She left Lincoln, clambered across the ruins of Highway 101, and walked north past a few buildings that had collapsed in on themselves. A snake thicker than a fire hose slithered by in front of her. She wondered where her old ally – and now sworn enemy – Ch’ang Hao was in this universe. He would’ve liked the snakes, at least. She cut across a couple of parking lots – no games of head-ball here – and then, there it was: Mason Street. Marla smiled. She could have stayed on Highway 101 (that would have been faster) but walking down a street that shared her name seemed right. You took good omens where you could find them.

Though since it was also the name of this world’s greatest despot, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.

Mason Street didn’t go all the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, so she had to veer south after a while. The dome of the Palace appeared before her, and as she drew closer she rolled her eyes at the over-the-top Roman and Greek architecture, the pillars and friezes and carved figures of women all way bigger than life-sized. They were improved by the excessive vegetative growth, in her opinion. “This place looks like crap, Cole. The lagoon would be pretty if it wasn’t all slimed with algae and filled with water snakes. The dome’s pretty impressive, I’ll grant you that, but it’s cracked and covered in vines now.”

“The Jaguar has brought ruin upon the city,” Cole said. “I only hope we have the opportunity to repair the damage.”

“I’ll do my best. Everything going well there?”

“So far. Lao Tsung reported in. They’re on their way to the island.”

“Good. I’d better make with the radio silence, Cole. From here on, we’ll just have to hope our timing works out.” She took the grape seed from her ear and carefully tucked it under a bush. Given the excessive fecundity of this place, it’d probably be a full-grown vine in a couple of days if she didn’t come back for it.

If she failed.

Marla had expected the Jaguar to be inside the exhibition hall, which housed a science museum in less monster-god-oppressed versions of San Francisco, but no, he’d set up his throne room right there under the dome in the central rotunda, surrounded by pillars, but otherwise pretty much in the open air.

There were lots of skeleton types milling around the edges of the dome, armed with obsidian swords and generally looking like rejects from a Ray Harryhausen movie. Marla approached them without hesitation, and they finally noticed her, lurching in her direction and moaning in a decidedly aggressive manner. So much for a peaceful arrival. She drew her dagger of office, and when one of the skeletons lifted his sword, she slashed out, cut the blade in two, and kicked the stunned skeleton’s bony knee, making the corpse collapse.

“Jaguar!” she shouted. “This is the Mason! Call off your goons, unless you want me to chop them all into bone meal!” She kicked and spun, slashing with her dagger to drive back the other skeletons. The vast shape in the gathered shadows beneath the dome shifted. After a moment the remaining skeletal guards drew back, lining up on either side of her to form a corridor that stretched under the dome.

Marla whispered an incantation to improve her vision, and the vague darkness and motion under the dome leapt into well-lit relief.

Good gods, she thought. He actually built a throne of skulls?

The Jaguar was easily three times Marla’s height, maybe even taller – it was hard to tell when he was seated on his ridiculous chair, which was itself bigger than a car. His form was human-ish, just oversized, though his flesh was spotted like a leopard’s and his fingers ended in the claws of a big cat. He was dressed in feathers and gold, and when he showed his teeth, his canines were longer than Marla’s longest knife. “Come forward, Mason,” he said, and the earth literally rumbled when he spoke. Marla wasn’t seriously knowledgeable when it came to Aztec deities, but Cole had given her the crash course: this was Tepeyollotl, “heart of the mountains,” a god of earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars. This particular form was just one aspect of a larger god, of course – that was often the case with such overcrowded pantheons – and one of his other aspects was Tlaltecuhtli, the toad god who’d been brought to life rather more briefly in Marla’s world.

Marla walked to the foot of the throne, which was indeed made entirely of human skulls and bones, some with flesh still clinging to them. The dead flesh should have been the worst stink there, but another smell was stronger: the ammonia of cat piss. Various actual jaguars lay snoozing under the dome, but they didn’t worry Marla. The big guy did. He could probably smush her without much trouble if he wanted, and if he began to suspect she wasn’t really the Mason, he probably would. Marla wasn’t sure how the Mason would act, but based on her encounters with the bleak intelligence that dwelled inside the cloak, she could make some guesses: cold, arrogant, and utterly without mercy or fear.

“Your cloak is white this time.” The Jaguar’s voice was less vast and earth-shaking now. Made sense he could modulate the effect – otherwise every time he asked one of his skeletools to fetch him a beer he’d cause freeways to collapse and buildings to fall down.

“I’m not planning to commit any horrendous acts of violence just now,” she said, not bothering to crane her neck to look at his face, because that would make her look weak. She addressed his knees instead, though she’d gotten a good look at his ugly mug earlier: he had a snout and whiskers, which should have been inhuman and scary, but just made her think of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz instead. That wasn’t a bad association, actually – like the great and powerful Oz, the Jaguar wasn’t exactly as great and powerful as he seemed. “The white is… call it a flag of truce.”

“Ah.” The Jaguar shifted on his throne, leaning forward to look down at her. “Does that mean you’ve come to accept my proposal?”

“Come down here to my level so I don’t have to talk to your loincloth, kitty cat,” she said.

The Jaguar chuckled and stepped off the throne, losing height and breadth as he did so, until he was more-or-less human scale, though he was still a solid eight feet tall. Well, who could blame him; Marla wouldn’t want to give up the psychological advantage of greater height, either, in his place. He frowned at her. “You look different. Older.”

Marla shrugged. “I sold a few years of my life in a dark ritual to destroy one of my enemies. Since I’m immortal anyway, giving up a fraction of my infinite years wasn’t a tough decision. I’m not as pretty now, but I don’t generally get by on my looks.”

“Mmm. Implausible.” He leaned forward and sniffed her, then nodded again. “But your blood smells the same. You are the Mason. My sentries did not note your arrival in my city.”

“Just goes to show I can get to you anytime I want undetected, doesn’t it?” Marla sat cross-legged on the stone floor, and, after a moment, the Jaguar followed suit.

“You make threats? Against me?”

“Not so much a threat as force of habit. Don’t mind me.”

“Your company disgusts me,” the Jaguar said. “You are an aberration, an outsider, and your very existence poisons the universe. But I acknowledge your power. I am glad you have come to seek an accommodation with me. War would not profit either of us.”

“Who said I was here to seek accommodation?”

He frowned. “When you left after your diplomatic mission, you said you would consider my proposal to divide up the Earth – the Americas for me, Eurasia for you, Africa for me, Australia and the icy north and south and most islands for you. I assume you came to agree, and to make arrangements to remove your influence from this continent.”

“Oh. That.” Marla yawned. “No, I’m not here about that. Here’s my counteroffer: head south, down to Mexico City – that was the seat of your old empire back in the day, right? – and build a very tall, very strong wall. If it’s tall enough and strong enough that none of the people I send to kill you can get inside, then you can live in there… at least until I do manage to knock the walls over. Do we have a deal?”

“You dare speak to me this way?” His voice picked up a subsonic rumble again, the earth quivering. “I am the heart of the mountains, god of beasts and ringing voices and the upheaval of the Earth itself, I am –”

“Cut the crap, Mutex,” she said, and he fell silent.

“I… this Mutex, you refer to the priest who helped open a doorway for me –”

“I refer to you, Mutie, riding around inside the body of a god like a kid trying on his daddy’s rain boots. I know all about it. I know how you raised the Jaguar god, and how you did the thing on the doorstep trick – that’s what we call body-switching around here – to put your mind inside the god’s avatar, and to put the god’s mind inside your stupid, frail human body. You talked a good game about wanting to restore the glory of a fading civilization and to maintain the balance of the universe and make sure the orbits of the sun and stars were well-lubricated with sacrificial heart’s blood, but I know the truth. You just wanted power. That’s okay. I like power too. But, see, I know your secret.” At least, she hoped so. Mutex had switched bodies with the god in her world, and she was betting he’d done the same thing over here. If he hadn’t, and if this really was Tepeyollotl… well, she’d never expected to live forever.

“You know nothing.” The god’s face was hard to read, what with the snout and all, but if Marla had to guess, she’d have guessed “pissed off” and “afraid.” She tried not to smile.

“Right. Because if you were actually Tepeyollotl, you’d totally be squatting under a relic from the 1894 World’s Fair, running the day-to-day business of your empire, instead of, you know, dwelling wherever the gods dwell. Real gods don’t run things directly, Mutex – that’s what priests are for. Gods just sit back and drink the sacrificial blood and occasionally smite somebody for the hell of it. But you’re stuck in this body, this particular instantiation of the god, this one avatar, and sure, you can do some fancy shit: you can make the ground shake and you can control kitty cats and all that, and you’re probably pretty much immortal. But you’re sure as hell no god. If you are, show me one of your other aspects – let froggy come a’courtin’ and show me Tlaltecuhtli. Or how about Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead, that’s one of your other faces too, right?”

“You cannot speak to me this way. I am a god.”

“Ooh, or I know, show me the really scary one, the main man, Tezcatlipoca, the one they call the Smoking Mirror – you’re just an aspect of that guy, right? He’s one of the big deities, the Zeus or Odin or Shiva or Ra of Mesoamerica. Except you’re not him. You’re a little piece broken off of him, and you’re just hoping he never notices and comes to reclaim his big kitty cat aspect, aren’t you? You’re probably safe, since the Aztec gods are all sleeping wherever pretty-much-forgotten gods sleep. Except, you know… I can wake the Smoking Mirror. I can get his attention and point him in your direction. I have that power.”

Marla had no idea how you went about summoning an Aztec deity, especially one of the big ones – it had taken Mutex a hell of a lot of blood and preparation to summon the avatar of one lesser incarnation – but the Mason could probably manage it, or at least plausibly make the threat. “Would you like that?” she said. “Would you like me to call your big sky daddy – or underworld daddy or whatever, I don’t know where the gods live in your mythology, I skimmed that chapter – and let you explain to him how you locked a fragment of his consciousness up in a fragile human body?”

The Jaguar stared at her with unblinking, big cat eyes – vertical pupils would have fit right in with his whiskered face, but of course, big cats had round pupils – and then looked off to the side. “I need more than Mexico City,” he said. “Give me all of Central and South America. And we need a treaty. I will respect your borders and boundaries if you respect mine.”

Marla grinned. She had a pretty nasty reputation herself, but the Mason’s rep was ferocious enough to move mountains – or at least the heart of the mountains. Now that she knew she was right, that he really was Mutex in a god’s body, she could move on to the real plan. She could have used this line of intimidation to get the Jaguar out of San Francisco and give the city back to Cole, but that would just be shifting the problem to the people in Central America, who probably had enough problems in this wizard-filled world already. He was just too damn powerful and way too fond of eating human flesh and cutting out hearts. Better to get rid of him entirely, which was why she’d sent Beta-B and Rondeau and the others to Alcatraz to help set Mutex/the Jaguar up for a seriously long fall.

She had to assume her friends had actually done what she sent them to do, which was a big assumption, but she couldn’t be everywhere at once, so she’d have to trust they’d stuck to the plan and pulled it off.

“You’re in no position to dictate terms, catface, but sure, I’ll let you have your little piece of the third world. Behave and I won’t come take it away from you. Okay. We have a deal.” She stood up, lightly shaking her right arm as she did so, making the little vial hidden up her sleeve slide down into her waiting hand. Pie Bob assured her the potion was potent enough to forge a sympathetic magic connection between lightning and a lightning bug, between the moon and a piece of green cheese, between a goldfish bowl and the ocean. “Just one other thing,” she said, flipped the cap off the vial, and dashed its contents into the Jaguar’s face.

If everything on Beta-B and Rondeau’s side had gone according to plan, that should be the last necessary act – the avatar of Tepeyollotl should be effectively neutralized in a moment.

Instead the Jaguar merely wiped the glistening fluid, thicker than olive oil, off his face. “What was that supposed to do?” he said. “Did you think I could be poisoned?”

Shit. Worst case, this meant Rondeau and Beta-B had failed utterly and were now dead. Best case, they were just suffering a little delay, in which case, she should try to buy them some more time. If they were dead, she was probably dead, too, but at least she could go down fighting.

“So that’s a no-go on the poison, then,” she said. “Let’s see how you do with plain old horrific trauma.”

The Jaguar began to grow in size, and the big cats under the dome roused themselves and growled, and the warriors in their tatters of quilted armor lifted their black glass blades.

She was outgunned, if not outclassed, so she didn’t have any choice.

With a mental command, Marla reversed her cloak. The cool white vanished, replaced by the purple of old bruises and poisonous berries. The cloak’s malign intelligence – which, in another place in this very world, had overwhelmed its wearer and become the monster called the Mason – woke up and whispered in her mind. Usually the cloak didn’t speak to her – at least, not with words. It just tried to impose its will, to co-opt Marla and use her rage for its own purposes. To seize control of her body forever, something Marla had always been able to fight off, using the cloak instead of letting herself be used. But this time, the cloak did speak, a voice as cold and clear as desert starlight.

It’s been too long, the voice whispered. I’ve missed you. Think of everything we can do together. Just let go. Stop fighting and let go. I’ll handle everything.

This couldn’t be good. The cloak’s whispers had become intelligible. Did that mean it was getting stronger, that she’d used it too often, that the evil magic had built up in her system to toxic levels? She’d tried many times to give up wearing the cloak forever, because she was afraid its effect was cumulative, magical poison building up in her system like mercury or lead. But the cloak’s magic was too profound, too useful, and she’d never been able to completely give it up. Deep down she’d always believed she was strong enough to fight its influence forever… but maybe that was stupid. In this world, at least, she hadn’t been strong enough, and the cloak had won, and the world had suffered as a consequence.

Well? the cloak said.

Marla, deep inside her own mind, thought, We’ll talk about it later. For now, maybe we should kill these things before they kill us?

The cloak wreathed her in purple light, draping her in shadows that sparked and writhed and lashed.

Killing is something we both enjoy, the cloak replied, and they went about their work together.

Chapter 15

Monday, June 14th, 2010

Crapsey’s body flew through the air, driven by a wall of green light, and smashed into a much more conventional wall, made of brick. At least, he was pretty sure it was a brick wall. The other possibility was that a truck had crashed into him, and he didn’t remember seeing any trucks rumbling through the catacombs. His body lay crumpled like a pile of dirty laundry at the base of the wall, and the green light faded, though a tinge of the color overlaid his vision, making everything in the dim dank chamber look faintly algae-beslimed.

Viscarro advanced on him, stepping over the Mason and scuttling past one-armed Nicolette without paying them any attention. His robes parted as he walked, and Crapsey noticed he had a false leg, a fancy thing made of brass and carved dark woods, doubtless magically animated. “You must be admiring my prosthesis.” Viscarro’s voice was like coal falling down a metal chute. “It’s an adequate bit of engineering, though nothing like the original. Nicolette would need one of these to replace her missing arm, except she’s going to bleed out and die, making the limb unnecessary. Teleportation is so gauche. Shouldn’t you all know better?”

“Listen!” Crapsey shouted. “I’m on your side! Go over there and take the cloak off that woman before she wakes up! We can end this!”

At least, that’s what he tried to shout, but his jaw stayed firmly closed, and his tongue didn’t so much as wiggle in his mouth. Crapsey tried to get up, but his body didn’t respond. Uh oh. Had the blow snapped his spine somewhere, or had Viscarro’s staff merely paralyzed him? Either way, this body was no good at the moment. There had to be an apprentice lurking around here somewhere he could possess, and with a voice and mobility he could approach Viscarro and make an audible plea for alliance. Or, failing that, go down fighting.

He tried to leave his body, but the zap of green light had shaken up his brain, and it was tough to focus on his visualizations – the image of steam escaping from the mouth of a teakettle usually worked best, but it wasn’t working now, and he couldn’t remember any of his other options, they all tore and blew away. Maybe it was more than the crash-landing. Maybe the nasty green light had done something to his mind.

Viscarro was standing over him, face like old leather stretched on a bone frame, repulsive little teeth bared in a smile of triumph. “I see you lost your jaw again, Rondeau. The new one looks very interesting. What are those runes? They look like Elder Script, but that can’t be, the last known examples were lost, undocumented, when Rasmussen perished in the megalithic temple collapse…” He knelt down, reaching out with his crooked-stick fingers, and Crapsey knew without a whisper of a doubt that he was about to get his wonderful useful jaw ripped right off his face.

Nicolette stood up behind Viscarro, blood still oozing from her shoulder, swaying unsteadily. She had something in her remaining hand, one of her little baubles — Crapsey couldn’t see exactly what. She tossed it underhand toward the back of Viscarro’s head, and then collapsed to the floor.

Crapsey tried to turn his head away, expecting an explosion, but of course his neck wouldn’t cooperate. His eyelids worked, so he just squeezed his eyes shut and hoped for minimal shrapnel. No boom followed, though – all he heard was the thump of Viscarro’s staff hitting the floor and a muffled scream. He opened his eyes, and Viscarro was on the floor, clawing at his face, which had thick tendrils of vegetation – grape vines, maybe? – growing all over it, woody stems twining around his head like a mummy’s cerements, leaves sprouting. Viscarro didn’t need to breathe, and he soon stopped panicking and began groping for his staff, but the vines wound down around his neck and his chest, and bound up his arms against his body. Within half a minute Viscarro was entirely covered in the growths, curled into a fetal lump, and his screams were barely audible under the wooden shell.

A flare of light blazed beyond Viscarro, and Crapsey squinted against it. Nicolette held what looked like an ordinary sparkler, but the head was far brighter than usual, and she gritted her teeth as she pressed the flame against the stump of her shoulder, cauterizing the wound. The white light seemed to burn away the greenish tinge in Crapsey’s vision, and he experimentally twisted around. His body responded, albeit stiffly, and he grabbed Viscarro’s staff – no longer illuminated, it was just a gnarled piece of wood – and used it to lever himself to his feet. He considered giving Viscarro’s vine-twined body a good kick, but it would probably just hurt his foot. The guy was armored.

“You saved my life,” Crapsey said.

Nicolette’s sparkler went dark. Still on the ground, she looked up at him, a lunatic brightness in her eyes. “Damn. I should’ve waited a few more minutes then. Could’ve been rid of you.”

“Don’t make me hit you with this stick when I’m feeling so grateful.”

“Do whatever you like, jawface.” Nicolette winced and looked at the place her left arm should have been. “Damn. Why do I have a sudden urge to go frame Dr. Richard Kimball for a crime he didn’t commit?”

Crapsey frowned. Nicolette often made no sense, so he didn’t bother asking what she was talking about. “You lost your arm in my world, too. Had it amputated by choice, and replaced it with this horrible tentacle thing.”

“Nice. I was just thinking about how this little mishap opens up some intriguing prosthetic possibilities, though I was going in more of a sex-toy type direction. Tentacles are cool, too, though. Help a witch up?”

Crapsey, who was feeling marginally steadier on his feet now, held out his hand and pulled Nicolette upright. They both hobbled toward the still unmoving Mason.

“Think she’s dead?” Nicolette said.

“No. My paralysis went away when Viscarro dropped his magic stick, so I bet the Mason’s did, too. My guess? She’s laying there, listening, and waiting to see what we’ll do – whether we’ll try to take the cloak off, or kill her, or whatever.”

The Mason rolled over and gazed up at them from the floor. “You know me so well, Crapsey. If your body hadn’t been so young and undeveloped when I was looking for a host, I might have taken you over. You’re nowhere near as weak or stupid as people suppose, and while your will is not like that of humans, it has a certain… resiliency, a kind of hybrid strength. It’s just as well — I wouldn’t have been able to use your ability to switch bodies, so it would have been a waste of a good tool — but still.”

“That’s simultaneously creepy and flattering, boss. But what if you took me over and I jumped bodies to get away from you? Wouldn’t you be stuck hanging off an empty body, and pretty much totally fucked?”

The Mason rose. “You could not leap voluntarily in those days. And once I was on your shoulders, and in your mind, I could have made sure you never learned how. Many sorcerers have the ability transfer their consciousness to other bodies, too, you know – I just made sure Marla never did.”

Crapsey sniffed. “And here I thought I was special.”

“Oh, you are. Body-swapping requires preparation and ritual for sorcerers, but it comes so naturally to you. And your ability to… displace… other souls and consign them to oblivion is unique in my experience. Sorcerers have no such power. Their most common approach is merely to switch consciousness, trading bodies, and the act is frowned upon by most, considered a crime and violation. As if vermin can even commit crimes against one another.”

“I know that body-switching trick,” Nicolette said. “It’s a bitch to do right, takes forever to work up the ritual. Unless you’re talking about twins or something, where you can set up a sympathetic resonance, then it’s pretty easy. I knew this pair of twins in the Four Tree Gang who switched bodies all the time, mostly just to sleep with each others’ girlfriends. We call it ‘the thing on the doorstep trick.'”

“H.P. Lovecraft reference,” Crapsey said. “Nice. Bonus points.”

“You can read?” Nicolette said.

“Sure. Well. To be honest, it was like an adaptation in a comic book, but I got the general idea.”

Nicolette shook her head. “Anyway. Not that I don’t enjoy talking shop with my colleagues and all, but can we, like, become people of action again? I ate a painkiller charm, but this stump’s going to start bothering me bad pretty soon, and I lost who knows how much blood. I could use some healing magic. There’s a bruja who owes me a favor, maybe we could go see her –”

The Mason sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

And then something happened that Crapsey had never seen before: The Mason’s cloak flashed and changed to white, the purple visible only when her movements revealed the garment’s lining. The Mason suddenly looked a lot less like a menacing witch and a lot more like a tree-loving druid or something. She smiled. “There was a time when Marla struggled mightily whenever my offensive capabilities were reduced this way, but she’s quiet now.” The Mason reached out to touch Nicolette’s wound, ignoring the chaos witch’s gasp, and white light spiraled up the Mason’s fingers and across Nicolette’s charred flesh.

Crapsey watched, mouth hanging open, as the light swirled and dripped and ran, the cauterized stump becoming pink flesh. White light streamed into the shape of bones, growing down from the shoulder, and more light wrapped the bones to form muscle, and Crapsey said, “Holy shit, are you growing her a new arm?”

“Just something temporary,” the Mason murmured, and indeed, the light didn’t turn into flesh, but stayed light – only light hardened, light in the shape of a bicep, an elbow, a forearm, a wrist, a hand.

The Mason stepped away, and Nicolette lifted her new faintly-glowing arm, clenching and unclenching the fingers. “Fucking cool,” she said. “Feels like the whole arm’s dipped in ice water or something, but still, I can feel. How long will it last?”

The Mason shrugged. “Until I stop paying attention to it. So enjoy it while you can.”

Nicolette swung the arm around, made a fist, and otherwise experimented with her new limb. “Can I do anything cool with this? Suck out life force, or turn people to steam, or anything?”

“It’s an artificial limb made of thickened light,” the Mason said. “If that’s not sufficiently magical for you, perhaps you should recalibrate your expectations.”

“Yeah, all right.” Nicolette pointed her glowing arm at Viscarro. “So what happens to the green man there?”

The Mason circled Viscarro’s wooden sarcophagus. “What did you do to him?”

”Enchanted grape seed. A hundred year’s growth compacted into something the size of a pea. Pretty sweet, huh?”

“Ingenious,” the Mason said. “I will burn him.” The white cloak flickered and became purple again, and the Mason snapped her fingers. Flames abruptly engulfed the wood, leaves curling and blackening, and Viscarro began screaming again, though not for long. The furious and self-contained fire soon turned the vines and flesh and bone underneath to a heap of ash and fragments, then guttered out, leaving behind an oddly aromatic smoke.

“Viscarro’s dead,” Nicolette said. “Or dead-er. Until someone picks up his phylactery, I guess.”

“So, explain that to me,” Crapsey said. “Since we’re on the subject of body-stealing. Viscarro’s got his soul in some geegaw or another –”

“It’s a gem.”

“Right. And if somebody picks up the gem, he takes over their body, right?”

“Not exactly,” the Mason said. “He enters their body, yes, and can attempt to take control. And being very old, and wily, and powerful, he will probably succeed, pushing the original mind into a corner. Much like I’ve done with Marla. Occasionally the two minds can instead reach an accommodation, a kind of shared custody of the body.”

“Like they gotta negotiate over when to jerk off and when to take a nap?” Crapsey said. “That’s stupid. My way is simplest. Scorched earth all the way.”

“Mmm. Let’s go destroy the gem that holds Viscarro’s soul and make the question moot.”

“You know where he keeps the gem?” Nicolette said. “Really?”

“In a locked box in his personal vault in the most secure part of the Bank of the Catacombs,” the Mason said. “I pried it open and destroyed it in my world, and I shall do so here as well. Come.”


Viscarro’s defenses were legendary, his vaults supposedly unbreachable, but the Mason didn’t appear to have much trouble, slicing through spells and steel alike with clawed fingers rippling with purple magic. They passed through a succession of increasingly well-protected rooms, shelves lined with objects miraculous and merely valuable and utterly useless, arranged by a scheme known only to Viscarro. There were probably artifacts in here, but the subterranean sorcerer was smart enough to disguise them by hiding them among lots of other junk. Crapsey’s untrained eye couldn’t tell the mysterious wonders of the universe from yard sale bric-a-brac, so he stuck with pocketing portable things of obvious secular value. He helped himself to a few gold coins and precious gems as he trailed after the Mason, and when Nicolette gave him a funny look, he shrugged. “What? I’m just looting a little. You don’t loot?”

“I guess there are some nice things here.” She picked up an ornate, silver-inlaid hand axe with a crescent-shaped blade that gleamed like a fragment of moonlight. “This is cool.” She tucked it into her sack of baubles.

The Mason paused at a shiny steel door that resisted her magic, hummed for a moment, and drew her best knife.

“Is that the dagger of office?” Nicolette wrinkled her nose, probably at the smell of steel going molten under the Mason’s blade. “You’re chief sorcerer of Felport on your side, too? Kind of a square job.”

“She challenged and killed the old boss, Sauvage,” Crapsey said. “And the council didn’t have much choice but to give her the top spot, since she murdered the ones who hesitated. She eventually murdered the rest, too – except Hamil, he got away, and the Bay Witch, who stayed underwater and never came back – but they got to live a little longer by being obedient. She only wanted the job to get the dagger, of course.”

The Mason stepped away from the door, and a large section of steel fell inward with a crash. “There are certain drawbacks,” she said. “To keep the dagger I have to protect Felport, so I made it my imperial capitol, though it is not as favorably located as I would like. Some assume I have loyalty to the place. They are fools.” She stepped into the vault, and returned a few moments later, frowning. “The gem is gone. He moved it.”

“Huh,” Nicolette said. “You know, the fact that Viscarro is a lich wasn’t exactly public knowledge around here, but earlier this year some shit went down and he got outed. Marla really hates the undead, and I was kinda surprised when she didn’t have Viscarro destroyed when she found out… but maybe she made a deal with him, you know? Like, she took his phylactery so she could lay the ultimate beat-down on him if he got out of hand?”

The Mason frowned. “Is that simple speculation, or do you have some reason to believe Marla took such action?”

“I used to have spies and sources, and I heard Viscarro made a special magical safe for Marla not long after his secret came out. I figured it was something for her to put her cloak in… but maybe it was something to put his phylactery in, instead.”

“Where might she keep such a thing?”

Nicolette shrugged. “Her apartment or her office, I’d guess. She spends more time at her office, over Rondeau’s club.”

“Hmm.” The Mason stared at the wall for a moment. “Viscarro is neutralized for now. We will wait. I will kill another sorcerer, perhaps two, before going to Marla’s office. By then she should be sufficiently provoked to put on her cloak and face me, if she still possesses the artifact.”

“Great,” Crapsey said. “Who’s victim number two?”

“There was one name Nicolette mentioned that I did not know. Ernesto?”

“Right,” Nicolette said. “He’s the newest member of the council, took over Artie Mann’s spot when the old perv got murdered by a serial killer targeting sorcerers.”

“Mmm,” the Mason said. “This killer, he sliced open their bellies and spilled out their entrails?”

“That’s the guy. He made trouble on your side too?”

The Mason shrugged. “He killed one of my lieutenants. I faced him and tore him to pieces. He was possessed of strange powers, but nothing I couldn’t handle. This Ernesto, what is his specialty?”

“He does a little of this, a little of that, but mostly he’s good at folding space, you know? Making things bigger on the inside than the outside, that sort of thing. Lives in a big scrapyard in the really ugly part of town. He’s kind of a bruiser, too, not afraid to get into a fight.”

“Are he and Marla allies or rivals?”

“Oh, they’re tight,” Nicolette said. “They were apprentices together, actually.”

The Mason frowned. “Ernesto was one of Viscarro’s apprentices?”

“What? No, he was one of Artie Mann’s apprentices, just like Marla.”

Crapsey whistled. “This parallel dimension shit is weird, isn’t it? Over on our side, Marla was one of Viscarro’s apprentices — before she found the cloak and, you know, became the Mason. Seized her genocidal destiny. All that.”

“I had not expected such a point of divergence,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “It would be interesting to speak with the Marla Mason of this world, and find out where else our histories differ. What made Marla in my world put on the cloak that first time and never remove it again, while in this world Marla was able to resist the temptation of ultimate power?”

“Are you displaying curiosity, boss?” Crapsey said. “First you use healing magic, now you’re wondering about psychological motivations and shit. Are you going soft on me?”

“No,” the Mason said. “Insight into such points of divergence may prove useful when I go forth to conquer the other worlds in the multiverse. Come. If Marla Mason likes this Ernesto, then perhaps his death will hasten her appearance. Nicolette, you will take us to him.”

“Wait, what are you talking about, conquering the multiverse?”

The Mason just walked out of the vault without answering him. “I hate it when she does that,” he said.

Nicolette punched him too hard in the shoulder with her glowing fist, and it felt just like getting punched too hard with a real fist. “You gotta admire her, though. She thinks big.”

“Yeah, but if we go around conquering other parallel dimensions, how the fuck many other versions of you am I going to have to put up with?”

“It’s a number best described as ‘bazillions,'” Nicolette said, and left the vault, cackling.


They pulled up in front of Ernesto’s scrapyard as night began to fall. They’d been underground for a long-ass time, and Crapsey yawned. “After we murder this dude, can we go get a hotel room or something?”

“We will continue to sow terror well into the night,” the Mason said. “We will acquire stimulants to keep you awake if necessary.”

“I’ve got some mongoose blood and stuff in my bag here,” Nicolette said. She’d rummaged through the barracks where Viscarro housed his apprentices – who’d all fled – and managed to find clothes that didn’t make her look like an escaped mental patient, and much to Crapsey’s dismay he actually found her kind of sexy, since she was wearing a skimpy blue tank top and jeans that were tight enough to reveal: no underwear. In his world, Nicolette slopped around in paint-stained overalls and she also had that nasty tentacle arm, so his body never betrayed him with attraction. He’d been horny ever since meeting Dr. Husch, though. In addition to a hot meal and a hot shower, he could use a hot girl, or at least some alone time to rub one out solo and clear his mind.

“You’re a slave driver, boss,” Crapsey said. Then, to Nicolette: “Literally. She has slaves. She drives them. It’s messed up.”

“Nah, sounds hot to me.” Nicolette reached back to the rear seat and squeezed Crapsey’s crotch. “Your slip is showing, jawface.” She got out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut before he even had time to blush.

“Humans are repulsive,” the Mason said, and left the vehicle as well.

“Gods damn it,” Crapsey said to the empty Humvee. “Am I going to end up fucking Nicolette?” Sleeping with her would be as stupid as screwing a bear trap, but the dick wants what it wants. He sighed. It was a problem for another time. For now, he had to go help kill some dude who’d never wronged him, whom he’d never met before, and whose name he honestly couldn’t even remember at the moment. Again.

But first he’d wait for his erection to subside, because that shit was embarrassing.

Chapter 14

Monday, June 7th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why didn’t it work?”

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

“A mole.”

“Yes, a mole.”

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

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

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

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

“Any guesses who the bad guy might be?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marla nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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