Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Archive for July, 2010

Chapter 21

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

“Mmm. Your terms are acceptable. I’ll see you then. I look forward to our conversation. I don’t usually talk to insects before killing them, but I’m curious –” The Mason frowned, held the phone away, and looked at it for a moment. “The woman hung up on me.” She placed the phone back down on Marla’s desk.

“Some people are so rude.” Crapsey sprawled on the couch with his arm thrown over his face. “No wonder you want to exterminate all sentient life.” After they broke into Rondeau’s nightclub – which had pretty insane magical security, but nothing the Mason couldn’t circumvent – he’d taken a shower in Rondeau’s cramped bathroom and scrounged up clean boxers and a comfortably worn bathrobe. Wearing another man’s underpants was kind of weird, but since the other man was just another iteration of himself, Crapsey decided it was okay. The next step in his plan was to curl up in Rondeau’s surprisingly neat bedroom and sleep, but he’d wanted to stay awake for the Mason’s last murder of the day. The phone call from Marla had interrupted the fun. “So Marla’s back in this universe? Is she coming over? If so, I’m gonna need some of those uppers we talked about, because I am beat like a disobedient gimp.”

“No. She wants to meet in the morning, in the conference room downstairs – the one with the anti-magical properties. As if I’d be stupid enough…” The Mason’s mouth quirked slightly in what might have been a smile on another face. “She says they’ll bring the coffee, but we’re in charge of bringing the bagels.”

“Ha,” Crapsey said. “Gotta admire the chutzpah. So what’s the plan?”

“I will speak with her. I am curious about many things – mainly how she resisted the cloak’s power, and how she travels from world to world. If she has the cloak, we will kill her when I’ve finished speaking to her, and take it away. If she does not, we will torture her until she tells me its location.”

“Torture? You know torture’s no good for getting useful intelligence out of people, boss. Besides, you can set up a ritual to rifle through the contents of her mind, right? I mean, I know that can destroy her mind in the process, but I don’t get the sense that’s a problem for you.”

“Of course. All true. But I enjoy torture.” She slid back in her chair. “But executions also have their place.” She began tugging on the drawers in Marla’s desk. “Ah,” the Mason said, sliding out the bottom drawer on the left. “Come look at this.”

Crapsey groaned and pushed himself up off the couch. The Mason had cured his major injuries in the park, but plain old muscle soreness remained, though he knew she could’ve fixed that too if she wanted.

The drawer in Marla’s desk was less a drawer and more a black iron safe on rollers, the lid etched and filigreed with designs that twisted like optical illusions viewed on hallucinogens. “Very potent,” the Mason said. “As well-fortified as Viscarro’s own vaults. In effect, it is his personal vault, rendered in miniature. Beautiful work. Viscarro had a reputation as nothing more than a hoarder, a stealer of magic crafted by more talented hands, but his skills in certain areas were impressive.”

The Mason drew her dagger of office and began cutting into the drawer like she was opening a can of creamed corn. Once she’d sliced through the metal, she prised up the lid and tossed it to the floor with a dull thunk. Crapsey and the Mason peered into the small space revealed.

“That’s disappointing,” the Mason said. “I’d hoped she might keep the cloak here.” She leaned her face close to the drawer, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “And she does, though not now. I suppose she took it with her when she went off to our world. ”

“At least we know she didn’t put it in a box and send it off to get buried at the top of a mountain.” He nodded toward the drawer. “So I figure the wooden box probably has Viscarro’s phylactery in it, right?”


“And what about the little silver bell?”

The Mason shrugged. “There is nothing magical about it at all. It’s just a bell. I can’t imagine why she put it in here, unless it has… what do you people call it? Some kind of value?”

“Sentimental value. And watch the ‘you people’ stuff. I’m an inhuman monstrous parasite too, you know.”

“Noted.” She removed the little teakwood box and set it on the desk, flipped open the lid, and revealed the faintly glowing pebble-sized red gem inside. “There. Just like it was in my world. Viscarro’s life. If an ordinary person touched this object, Viscarro’s personality would rush in and try to take control. Of course, that doesn’t work on me.” The Mason lifted out the gem, and the dim light inside brightened and began to flicker more rapidly. “That’s him trying to take me over. I’ve never been sure whether he can hear me in there, if he’s conscious, but if he is…” She put the gem close to her lips. “Viscarro. I’m killing you. For the second time. But this time, I’m going to devour your soul.”

The Mason dropped the gem on the desk blotter, held her dagger of office like a chef’s knife, and began to dice up the gem as if mincing a clove of garlic. Her hand moved in a blur, and within seconds the gem was reduced to a fine pink powder. The Mason scooped up a pile of the powder on the edge of her knife blade. “Here goes.” She raised the blade to her nose, pressed one nostril shut with her free hand, and snorted the powdered phylactery of Leland Viscarro.

She closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, shivered all over, and released a long, slow sigh.

“Damn, boss. Seems pretty nice. Can I get a hit of that?”

“Your puny mind couldn’t bear it.” The Mason’s voice was serene. “Oh, oh, oh, this is so interesting. Viscarro was always a collector of secrets, and now I know them all. His entire life’s essence is dissolving into my mind like a spoonful of sugar into a cup of hot tea.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Ha. Many things. Most have no bearing on our present situation, but… according to Viscarro’s sources, Marla Mason despises Rondeau for murdering her little friend Bradley Bowman and stealing his body. Apparently she forced Rondeau into exile – he’s been living at the Blackwing Institute. Viscarro was quite confused when Marla and Rondeau – as he believed us to be – attacked him, because he thought they were firmly on the outs.”

Crapsey frowned. “But Hamil said Marla took Rondeau with her to the other world. Sworn enemies don’t usually travel together.”

“Hamil also said he wasn’t sure how Marla managed to go from one world to another… and it stands to reason that Rondeau had something to do with that passage. She’d travel with an enemy if he was the only means of transportation.”

Crapsey grinned. “So you’re saying I’ve got undiscovered badass reality-destroying powers?”

The Mason snorted. “Hardly. Rondeau is in Bradley Bowman’s body, remember, and by all accounts, Bowman is a powerful psychic and oracle generator. Perhaps he can summon some sort of being that opens a passage.” She sighed. “If I’m right, that means I’ll need to procure Rondeau’s services in order to access the multiverse. Once he realizes the alternative is a hell of endless pain, I’m sure he’ll agree to work for me.”

“Cool,” Crapsey said. “Bringing Rondeau over to our side will be sweet. Somebody to play cards with. And, you know, steal bodies with.”

The Mason shook her head. “According to Viscarro, Rondeau can’t possess anyone voluntarily. He’s only done it once that he remembers, quite accidentally, when he murdered Bradley Bowman. What a waste of talent – but Rondeau never had me to teach him, of course.”

Crapsey nodded. “He’s probably a lot less bitter and fucked-up than I am, then. The beatings, and screaming, and being locked in a dark windowless box with no food and water until I managed to leave my body – that stuff left the kind of marks you can’t see by looking.”

“Made you stronger,” the Mason said simply, and then snorted the rest of the powdered Viscarro. “Mmm. He knows a bit about Marla’s history, but not much – he didn’t pay attention to her until after she’d acquired the cloak, when she left her apprenticeship with Artie Mann and began working as a mercenary. How did she end up working for the pornomancer instead of the spider? What single point of divergence could have led to such different outcomes?”

Crapsey yawned. “If you’re going to get all musing and rhetorical, can I go?”

The Mason nodded. “You should sleep. But sleep lightly. It’s possible Marla will stage a surprise attack in the night.”

“As long as she doesn’t interrupt any good sex dreams,” Crapsey said, and shuffled off to bed.


“You sure wearing the cloak is a good idea?” Rondeau climbed out of the car they’d borrowed from Langford, balancing a cardboard tray holding four take-out coffees.

“I need every edge I can get.”

“So do we knock, or…” Rondeau squinted in the bright morning sun as they stood before the door to his club.

“Screw that. It’s your place.” Marla went to the door and pressed her palm against it, disengaging the magical lock –the Mason had circumvented the lock without breaking it, showing an annoyingly deft hand – and pushing it open.

Someone was waiting in the dim club, leaning against one of the load-bearing pillars scattered at irregular intervals around the dance floor. “Good morning,” Crapsey said. He stepped into the illumination of the house lights and grinned. He was wearing one of Rondeau’s purple zoot suits – tight across the shoulders, but it basically fit – and yet, the outfit wasn’t the most striking thing about him.

“Bro, that jaw is sick,” Rondeau said. “When I got my jaw repaired, I just got stupid flesh and bone. What are those, like fangs?”

Crapsey kept grinning, but this time, he looked like he meant it. “I can bite through freaking steel, dude. Steel tastes lousy, but still. How come you still look like me – you – us? Didn’t you steal a new body?”

“Yeah, but I got an illusion to keep my old look, because sure, Bradley Bowman was a movie star, but that doesn’t mean he looked better than me. I’m stuck wearing these boring-ass borrowed clothes, but since you raided my closet, you can see I’ve got better fashion sense than this.”

“Your threads are sweet,” Crapsey said. “You could use a little bulking up, though. Hit the gym every once in a while.”

“Don’t those steroids shrink your balls?” Rondeau said.

Crapsey winked. “They’re still plenty big though. You should know.”

“Two Rondeaus,” Marla muttered. “Gods save me.”

Crapsey looked her up and down. “I’ll never get used to seeing the cloak in white. Just looks wrong to me.”

“Fascinating,” Marla said. “Where’s the purple bitch?”

Crapsey jerked his head toward the stairs. “Up in your office.”

“Not in the conference room?”

Crapsey laughed. “You kidding? She spent the night erecting magical barriers and fields to make entering that room totally impossible.” The conference room was a magical dead-zone, and Marla knew from experience the cloak didn’t work in there – if the Mason stepped inside, the battle would have been over before it began. “I mean, Marla, we are from Felport. We’ve got one of those rooms on our side, too.”

“Worth a try,” Marla said. She’d never expected the Mason to enter the room, but she was hoping the ploy would make them underestimate her. And, hell, it had been worth a try. “Did she at least get bagels?”

“Ha. You kinda remind me of the boss. Yeah, I fetched bagels, they’re up there, a nice little variety on a tray and everything. She won’t eat any – she barely eats at all, and when she does, she likes meat – but you can help yourself. Is one of those coffees for me?”

“Sure.” Rondeau passed him one of the cups.

Crapsey took it, lifted the lid, and sniffed. “I guess I should ask if it’s poisoned?”

Rondeau didn’t let himself stiffen or grimace or wince. He shrugged instead. “You can ask.”

“But it’s a stupid question,” Crapsey said. “Since poisoning me would just annoy me and make me take over Marla’s body, and neither of you wants that. Is there sugar in this?”

“No.” Marla shook her head. “Rondeau said you’d want like ten sugars, the same way he likes it, but I said you’re from a totally different world –”

Rondeau wordlessly took a wad of sugar packets from his pocket and passed them to Crapsey, who nodded and walked over to the bar and began methodically ripping open the packets and dumping the contents into his cup.

Marla rolled her eyes. Rondeau handed her two of the coffee cups and said, “See you when you get done.”

“If shit gets crazy, you run,” Marla said. “All right?”

“Don’t worry about him,” Crapsey called. “He’s like another me, and I’m a major fan of me, so he’ll be all right. You, though…” He shrugged. “I’m sure you and the boss have lots to talk about. Rondeau, come over here and let’s shoot the shit, what do you say?”

“Planning to pump me for information on behalf of your evil overlord?” Rondeau said, strolling over and taking a bar stool next to him.

“I was thinking more about comparing sexual conquests,” Crapsey replied. Then he took his first sip of the coffee Rondeau had prepared for him, and doomed himself.


Marla stepped into her office and shut the door behind her. The Mason was seated behind her desk, face shaded by the hood of her purple cloak. Marla put the coffee cups down on the desk, slid one toward the Mason, and picked up a plain bagel. She sliced it in half with her dagger of office, glanced around, and sighed. “No shmear? No lox? You world-devouring monsters are cheap.” She sat down in one of the crappy visitor chairs, took a bite of the bagel, chewed for a moment, then decided she’d have to make the opening move, since the Mason wasn’t moving at all. “All right, let’s get a look at you.”

The Mason leaned forward and pushed her hood back, and the face revealed wasn’t much at all like the one Marla saw in the mirror, really, despite certain broad similarities.

“Gods,” Marla said. “Was I ever that young? I know my skin was never that smooth. Don’t you have any pores?”

“I’ve kept this body in the prime of its physical perfection.” The Mason’s voice was curiously flat, but Marla was relieved it didn’t sound like the voice of the cloak in her own head. “You should be jealous.”

“Yeah, because never changing at all is totally awesome. So. You murdered half my council.”

The Mason nodded. “So far.”

“But you wanted to have a little chat with me before taking your punishment? Here I am. What do you want?”

The Mason laced her hands together on the desk. “Tell me, Marla. How did you like my world during your visit?”

Marla shrugged. “Didn’t see much evidence of you there. Looked like a big Jaguar god was in charge to me.” She started to lace her own hands together, caught herself, and settled for cracking her knuckles instead. “Of course, I killed the Jaguar. He was bothering my friends.”

The Mason raised one eyebrow. “You defeated Teyepollotl? My, my. I had that penciled in for the winter. Thank you for sparing me the trouble. Now I only have to roll up Sanford Cole and his ragtag band of rags and tags, which will be much simpler.”

“You’re never going back there. This world is your last stop. Today is your last day.”

“Such confidence! What if I attacked you now? Stabbed you with a knife?”

“I’ve got a knife too, lady. And a cloak, in case you didn’t notice.”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. The cloak. How long have you had it?”

“I’m supposed to answer your questions now?”

“Unless you’d rather begin trying to kill one another.”

“Tempting… but okay. I’ll play.” Marla was curious, too – why had this alternate version of herself been so weak and fucked-up that she’d allowed herself to be dominated by a haunted bit of Renaissance Faire costuming? “I found the cloak in a thrift store on my twentieth birthday. Just felt… drawn to it. So I bought it for myself as a present.” In truth, the memory of that day was kind of vague, like any memory a dozen years old would be – had she been at the store alone, or with a friend? She couldn’t recall, but it didn’t really matter. “I tried it on, and it healed, my, ah…”

“Infected rat bite,” the Mason said. “Yes, I cured the same thing for this version of –”

“Uh. No. I had a urinary tract infection. From too much dirty teenage fucking, I guess. You’re saying Beta-Marla over there got bitten by rats? That’s messed up.”

“The divergence point between our worlds is obviously much earlier,” the Mason said. “You were an apprentice to Artie Mann.”

“You weren’t?”

“Viscarro was my master,” the Mason said. “I was just one of many apprentices. He took no particular notice of me – of Marla, I mean, but for convenience, I will say ‘I.’ It’s easier, since my host’s memories feel like my own.”

Her host. Marla fought back the urge to tear her own cloak off her back. This is what the cloak wanted to do – make her into a conveyance for a pompous alien shitbag. No amount of ass-kicking power was worth that risk.

The Mason went on. “I don’t think Viscarro had any opinion about me, until I found the cloak. I was just part of the scenery, though the way I joined his service was… peculiar. When I first came to Felport, I was hungry – starving – and I saw a young man hurrying alone down an alleyway carrying grocery bags. I struck him over the head with a brick and stole his bags. I expected food. Instead there were golden eggs, nestled in straw. The boy I killed was one of Viscarro’s apprentices, a courier, delivering some magical items. Viscarro’s people found me later, and made me an offer: I could die, or I could take over the route of the courier I’d killed. I got the sense they were terribly overworked, and I never knew if Viscarro had authorized the offer, sensing something formidable in me – or if the apprentices had just decided to spare themselves the trouble of taking over the dead boy’s route and recruited me on their own authority.” She shrugged. “Such was my introduction to the hidden world. I learned what magic I could – apprentices have a great deal of freedom in the Bank of the Catacombs to study ancient texts and explore – and we all taught ourselves a little, and occasionally Viscarro would conduct a lecture or a series of tests to weed out the weak. It was a hard life, but I made friends, of a sort. I did not have any… filthy teenage sex, though. I – this Marla – found the idea of human intimacy almost as repulsive as I do.”

“Okay, table that for a minute.” Marla had taken on the role of interviewer, somehow, but she didn’t mind. Apparently the Mason really wanted to tell her story – or maybe some vestige of Beta-Marla, inside the Mason, did. “What happened when you found the cloak?”

“I put it on, and my rat bite was cured. So I stole the cloak from the shop. I thought the artifact was my ticket to becoming Viscarro’s right hand – that once he saw what I possessed, he would take me seriously, and teach me.” She scowled. “Instead, as soon as he saw the cloak, he said it was his. That as an apprentice, I had no right to property, that I had no self. I was merely an extension of his will, and I would hand over the cloak immediately, and he would have me beaten for daring to suggest I could own such a thing.”

Marla nodded. “And let me guess. A little voice way down inside you whispered the word –”

“‘Turn.’ And the cloak turned. To the purple. I killed Viscarro – well, his body. Truly killing him happened a little later. And then I went out walking, in the flush of my new power, and it was glorious. All fear gone. Never again would I be ordered around. Never again would I be touched against my will. Never again would I suffer any humiliation. Then I saw an interesting little boy, who wasn’t a little boy at all, and ripped off his jaw to use for an oracle. Eventually I renamed that little boy Crapsey, and made him my apprentice, of a sort. I’m not a very nice master, but I’m no worse than Viscarro was.” The Mason shrugged. “From there, I plotted my rise to power, and everything went well until you tried to save your dead friend Bradley Bowman and brought me here.”

“Yeah. I’m starting to think that was a mistake. It’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to make one mistake in a lifetime, right? That was mine. So. Let’s trace this shit back. You ran away from home in Indiana and made your way to Felport, right?”

The Mason nodded.

“But you didn’t get a job working as a topless waitress? That’s how I met Artie Mann.”

The Mason shuddered. “A place where men would… ogle? Grope? No, no, I would never.”

“Okay, but why? What happened to make you so freaked about sex?” Marla had certainly had brushes with creepiness in her youth, including a boy who’d assaulted one of her friends and tried unsuccessfully to come after Marla. And of course her mom’s various drunk boyfriends had made passes at her, at least until her brother Jason had his little talks with them, usually helped by his friend Mr. Baseball Bat.

“You don’t remember uncle Devlin?” the Mason said.

Marla frowned. “My mom didn’t have any brothers, not in this world –”

The Mason shook her head. “Not a real uncle. Mom’s boyfriend. He… did things. To me. To Marla.”

Devlin. Devlin? There’d been a guy, maybe… “Sideburns? Truck driver? Except maybe an out-of-work truck driver?”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. He lived with us for many years, in the trailer, and every night after mom drank herself to sleep…” She shuddered. More and more of the other Marla was showing through. The Mason was having trouble separating herself from her host, it looked like.

“I remember some kind of big fight, I was only maybe eight? My mom and my brother Jason screaming at each other, Jason was only eleven or twelve but he was saying the guy had to go, if he didn’t leave forever Jason was going to burn the whole house down –”

“Your brother?” the Mason said. “Jason?”

“Yeah. He’s an asshole now, sure, but when we were kids he was the great protector, I never found out until later all the stuff he did for me, and he could play mom like a violin, never had any trouble making her do whatever he…” Marla trailed off. The Mason looked stunned.

“In my world,” the Mason said, “Jason was playing in the yard one day when a drunk driver lost control of his car and veered off the road onto the grass. Jason was struck and killed. He was four or five years old. I – Marla – was just an infant.”

Marla stared. Her brother, who’d shot Rondeau in the gut and thus indirectly killed Bradley Bowman; who’d embroiled her in a scam that ended in the death of an innocent, if hapless, millionaire; who’d never forgiven her for refusing to help him cover up a murder he’d committed as a teenager; who’d not so very long ago shot and tried to kill Marla herself, an attempt that would have succeeded if the cloak she was wearing now hadn’t healed her injuries…

Jason was the divergence point. He was the one who’d made all the difference. Because before he’d become a heartless con artist, he’d been a big brother, doing his best to take care of his little sister. He’d taught Marla to fight, and to scam, and to survive, and to be strong in herself. And he’d kept her from being repeatedly molested by a drunk out-of-work trucker, it seemed.

Without Jason, she would have had all the same anger, the same hunger for knowledge, the same bull-headednes, the same will she possessed now, but without the skills to cope with those feelings and direct them toward achieving her own ambitions.

Without Jason, Marla would have been the kind of person who put on a magical cloak that made all her decisions for her, and who thought that was a nice change.

If she ever saw her brother again, she might not try to kill him after all.

“I remember hearing about that accident,” Marla said. “Mom told the story, though Jason didn’t remember it, how he almost got killed. If the car had struck just two feet to the right, it would have landed right on top of him…” Marla reached over and touched the Mason’s hand. “You poor thing,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It’s no wonder –”

The Mason – and it was definitely the Mason again now, all hints of humanity in her expression gone – jerked her hand back. “Don’t touch me, vermin,” she said, and drew her dagger.

Here we go, Marla thought, and – because she really didn’t think she had a chance against this psycho alien otherwise – she reversed her cloak to purple.

Less than two seconds later, she reversed it back to white, and ran away as fast as she could.

Chapter 20

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Marla removed her cloak, folded it carefully, and tucked it into her bag. Then she kicked apart the Jaguar’s throne of skulls. The bones didn’t dissolve into dust and slurry like the rest of the Jaguar’s creations, so they weren’t magical, but real skulls and bones from real dead people. That meant somebody had been forced to take the remains of the dead and actually build a big-ass chair out of them, which was a hell of a thing to have on your résumé. The mysterious chairwright had used some kind of epoxy resin to hold things together. Ah, human ingenuity.

Marla had never been very good at remote viewing – she was too firmly in-her-self, and found the notion of mind/body duality so inherently ridiculous, that leaving her body behind was tough. Still, she could imagine what was happening all over the city now. Ordinary citizens emerging from their doubtless well-barricaded apartments, watching the vines and giant snakes and impossible rivers and vicious jungle cats turn to mist and smoke and absence. People lifting their faces up to the sun, and daring to hope their lives would go back to normal again.

Well. “Normal” for a world where the existence of monsters and sorcerers was public knowledge, and where the threat of the Mason loomed just on the other side of the Rockies.

Satisfied with the results of her kicking, Marla went and found the bush where she’d ditched her grape seed and squatted down, running her hands over the soil until she found the little kernel of communication. She blew the dirt off and slipped the seed back into her ear. “Cole, you hear me?”

“Marla!” The old man’s voice was full of undisguised wonder. “You succeeded?”

“I put the cat to sleep,” she said. “How did the Alcatraz assault go?” She asked the question as nonchalantly as she could, but her stomach was a clench of knots. Bradley Bowman had died on her watch once already in one world, and if he died in another…

“Some injuries, but no casualties,” Cole said. “And they killed both Bethany and the Lynx, I’m assured.”

“Good. Saves you having to do too much mopping up, then. With both the biggest bosses dead, the Jaguar’s toadies are probably scared and hopping away as fast as they can. Should I make my way back to the camp?”

“My days of skulking in the sewers are over, Marla dear,” Cole said. “I’ll send someone ’round to pick you up, and we’ll celebrate in greater splendor.”


Yasuko arrived eventually on a motorcycle, and was annoyed when Marla insisted on driving it herself. “You don’t even know where we’re going!” she said.

“I don’t ride bitch even more than I don’t know where we’re going,” Marla replied. “You can give me directions. I’m a quick study.”

The drive was scenic, taking them west and south around the coast of the city along the sea cliffs. The ocean was the same as always, vast and blue and largely indifferent to the acts of people and gods. The motorcycle handled the rough roadway and buckled concrete easily, apparently ‘chanted with spells to prevent crashes, which sort of took the challenge out of things – but Marla decided she’d had enough challenges for the day.

They parked in front of the Cliff House, a multi-story Victorian wedding cake of a building perched on the cliffs above Ocean Beach, with commanding views of the sea. The building, once a restaurant, had become Sanford Cole’s base of operations before his exile. “Doesn’t this place fall down a lot?” Marla said, climbing off the bike.

“It’s burnt or collapsed or been accidentally exploded by dynamite something like five times since 1858,” Yasuko said. “When Cole took power in the city, he had the house restored to something resembling its, hmm, second incarnation, I think? But with modern conveniences inside. It’s not a bad place to work.”

“Sounds like the place is cursed, but hey, it’s your day job, not mine.”

They went through the front doors, into a great room filled with velvet-covered furniture and antique tables and the entire population of Camp Kimke, among others. Everyone cheered when Marla came in, shouting her first name and slapping her on the back as she tried to work her way deeper into the room. She scanned the space for Beta-B or Rondeau or Cole, but didn’t see them. Pie Bob pressed a glass of champagne into her hand, and Marla accepted it gratefully. She didn’t drink much, but one glass wouldn’t hurt, and god-toppling was thirsty work.

The appreciation was nice too. Despite all the times she’d saved Felport, the other sorcerers there had never shouted “Three cheers for Marla!” Mostly they’d just bitched about collateral damage and lost income. Not that she would have enjoyed parties in her honor or anything, but it would’ve been nice to have the chance to fail to enjoy them.

She made chit-chat with people as best she could – she was pretty crap at that sort of thing – until she found an unobstructed window with a good view. She stood looking out at the sea, trying to appear introspective and unapproachable as the sun bled down toward the horizon. Night was falling on the first day after the fall of the Jaguar. It would be a good night, she was sure.

“Marla.” Rondeau stood at her shoulder. “Could you come upstairs with me for a sec? Beta-B and me want you to hear something.”

Marla sighed and knocked back the last of her champagne. “What, is there a new crisis already?”

Rondeau didn’t laugh. His face was so serious it might have been the rehearsal for a death mask. “Yeah. Looks like it.”

She followed him through the crowd and up a narrow staircase to the infinitely quieter second floor, and into a small bedroom, also decorated in High Victorian. A redhead sat on the bed beside Beta-B.

“Marla, this is Anna,” Beta-B said. “She’s a seer, and the best interpreter of dreams I’ve ever met. I told her about this dream I had, and, ah… Can you tell her what you told me, Anna?”

Anna cleared her throat. “In Bradley’s dream, he saw a younger version of you in a purple cloak step out of a mirror and switch places with you, trapping you behind glass. Then all the reflections of you started to change, too, white cloaks going purple, one after another, until your cloak changed as well. It seems clear to me that it means the Mason –”

“Fuck,” Marla said. “She’s in my world?”

“It seems possible.” Cole stepped in from the hallway. “I’ve just been re-establishing contact with my agents back East, and things are chaotic there. The Mason and her lieutenant Crapsey both vanished, apparently around the same time Bradley here left for your world. They haven’t returned, and I gather her lieutenants are assassinating one another and fighting for power – it looks like the chaos witch Nicolette is winning, for now. Since Bradley went to your world, it seems possible the Mason and Crapsey did as well.”

“The possible witch said, ‘When you open a doorway, it opens both ways,'” Rondeau said. “And we never did figure out what the price was, for bringing Beta-B to our world.”

“Now we know,” Marla said, trying to get her mind to spin up to crisis-management speed. Her brain felt dipped in liquid nitrogen, though, frozen and dull. What would the Mason – and Rondeau’s murderous, promiscuously body-jumping counterpart – do, unleashed in her world?

What would they do to her city?

Anna said, “That’s not all. Bradley’s vision suggests… that the Mason is planning to try and go to other worlds. That she’s going to take over other parallel dimensions, and force other versions of you into her service.”

“That won’t happen,” Marla said. “Because I’m going to end the bitch. She does not get to play in my world. No way.”

“I’m going with you,” Beta-B said.

Marla’s numb brain warmed up a fraction. “Are you sure? You said even if we defeated the Jaguar that –”

“I needed to stay to fight the Mason,” Beta-B said. “Now she’s in your world. You came here, at great personal risk, and helped us. So I’m going to go over there and help you. If she’s planning to conquer the whole multiverse, I’ll have to deal with her again sooner or later anyway, so it might as well be now. I’m not planning to stay forever in your world, but –”

Acting on impulse, as she so often did, Marla took Beta-B in her arms and hugged him. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “from you trying to cut off my head for a dark ritual.”

“Lord, are you ever going to let me live that down?” Beta-B said. “That was, like, a whole day ago.”

“She holds grudges like I hold my liquor,” Rondeau said. “Which is really well, in case you were wondering.”

Marla turned to Cole. “Sorry to save the city and run, but –”

“I’ll arrange our fastest transport to Alcatraz,” Cole said.

“At least we won’t get attacked by giant fucking snakes this time,” Rondeau said.


“Gods, you might have warned me.” Marla stared down at the corpse of the Lynx – known better to her as Joshua Kindler, who’d been her lover, briefly, and then her betrayer, and then a man dead by her hand. She shifted the strap of her shoulder bag, the cloak and dagger nestled securely inside. The man on the ground was one of the many things her artifacts had failed to protect her from.

“Yeah.” Rondeau shuffled his feet. “I, uh, wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. I know he’s kind of a sore point.”

“Just as a reminder of my capacity for stupidity. But are you okay? Having to, you know…”

“Kill somebody?” Rondeau shook his head. “I’m a multiple murderer now, you know that? Alpha-B, and Joshua, and… does the Jaguar god’s mind count?”

“He’s probably fine,” Marla said. “Back upstairs ripping out the hearts of constellations or something by now.”

“Yeah.” Rondeau nodded. “Well, only two, then, and one was an accident, and one was self-defense. I’m not saying I won’t have some fucked-up dreams, but… I’m still a long way from reaching your body count, at least.”

“Let’s keep it that way.” She beckoned Beta-B, who’d stood quietly aside during their conversation. “Are you all set?”

“Sure. It’s just passing through a wound gouged in the skin of reality itself. Nothing we haven’t done before.” He offered his hand, and she grasped it. Rondeau took her other hand, and they went into the solitary confinement cell where the opening to the possible witch’s domain was located. Not, Rondeau had assured her, the same solitary cell where the god-haunted body of Mutex had been held captive – that would’ve been a little too much coincidence for comfort.

They stepped into the possible witch’s domain. Beta-B shouted and his grip on her hand tightened, his 150 pounds of weight dragging on her arm suddenly enough to wrench her shoulder painfully. While she and Rondeau were standing on relatively solid boards, Beta-B had stepped into a ragged hole in the floor easily six feet across, and now dangled over an abyss, wind whipping at his hair and clothes. Far below, sparks of dark blue light began to circle like luminous sharks. “Pull!” Marla shouted, and Rondeau grabbed her around the waist and lunged backwards, tugging her back and pulling Beta-B halfway up out of the hole. Marla got her free hand on Beta-B’s collar and hauled him onto the boards, where they both lay gasping. Beta-B trembled. “Fuck,” he said. “It’s cold down there.”

“Guys,” Rondeau said. “Um. The floor. Is melting.”

Marla leapt up. The boards were actually disintegrating – turning to dust and vapor – rather than melting, but this was no time to criticize Rondeau’s choice of words. They all ran, boards creaking and splintering alarmingly beneath them, toward the twisting corridors ahead of them. This is like one of those action movies, Marla thought, where the treasure hunter runs along a stone catwalk through a temple while the walkway collapses right behind him. Except in this case, there wasn’t a neck-breaking fall into a chasm at risk, but a potentially bottomless plummet into the gap between worlds. Marla ran, ignoring the branching tunnels and the doors – some of which were hanging crooked on their oh-so-ordinary brass hinges – and focusing on the way ahead. Great holes gaped in the walls, with that hellish biting wind ripping through, and the ceiling sagged down in places so low she had to duck her head to avoid brushing it, but it was the floor that worried her, as cracks began running in from the sides and holes opened that she had to leap across, Beta-B and Rondeau on her heels.

But then she turned a corner, raced past another of those doors (this one mercifully solid and shut), and there it was: the hole they’d torn in reality, smaller and partially healed-over but still big enough for a person to slip through, kaleidoscope lightning flickering within. “Through there!” she shouted, and was about to throw her bag through the portal and then dive after it when Rondeau bellowed.

She stopped, spun on her heel, looked back, and saw Rondeau standing on her side of a rapidly-widening crack in the floor… with Beta-B standing on the other side. He was tottering, barely keeping his balance, about to pitch into the depths. He recovered, falling back and sitting down on his ass, a look of total incomprehension on his face. The ground was literally disappearing around him, darkness and wind shredding the tunnel behind him to cut off his retreat, bits of the wall and ceiling turning to puffs of dust swallowed by the abyss.

“B, Bradley, man, jump!” Rondeau shouted.

But Marla knew that was hopeless. The crack that separated them from Beta-B was already several feet wide and getting wider, and Beta-B didn’t have any room behind him to back up and get a running start. He was on a melting ice floe in a tropical sea, and he knew it. The stunned look on his face vanished, replaced by a look of resignation. He shrugged, held up the palms of his hands as if to say “What can you do?” and glanced at the closed door on his left.

The very existence of those doors terrified Marla. Who knew what kind of places the possible witch needed easy access to in order to do her inscrutable work? The doors might lead to places where reality had altogether different rules, places where the air was boiling lead, places so dense they’d make black holes look like aerogel. But this wasn’t a case of choosing door number one or door number two. This was door number only. A Hobson’s choice: this, or nothing.

In her world, Bradley Bowman had lost his life and mind and soul and vanished into nothing.

This Bradley, at least, had a door.

He shouted something to Rondeau – Marla, standing farther back, only heard the sound, and the wind tore the sense away. Rondeau shouted something back, ran to Marla, and began pulling her toward the portal. She waited, though, even as the crack in the floor approached her, until she saw Bradley put his hand on the brass knob and open the door. She was hoping for some sign of hope – a radiant white light, maybe, the usual Hollywood visual shorthand for heavenly transcendence.

But the door just opened on more darkness, and Bradley gave her a dramatic, funny grimace – What, I have to go in here? – before stepping through.

“Come on!” Rondeau shouted. He climbed through the portal.

Marla followed, and entered her home universe with tears in her eyes.


Rondeau fell out of a tree, and rolled over in time to keep Marla from landing on top of him. He sat up unsteadily, looking around, trying to get his bearings. The sky was dark, the moon bright, and the only structure nearby was a white-painted gazebo. He groaned. “Marla. I think we lost some hours or something, should it be this dark?”

“We’re in Fludd Park. Back home. It’s later on the east coast.” She sat up, grasping her head. “Fuck. I have to. Turn it off.”

“Turn what off?”

“The city sense. Alarm bells in my head. Felport is screaming. Bad things happened here, Rondeau. They’re still happening.”

“Bad things happened back there, too. Bradley…”

Marla rose, bracing herself against the tree. “What did he say to you?”

“He said, ‘Go, then. There are other worlds than these.'” He shook his head. “Stephen King reference. Bonus points.”

“I don’t get it,” Marla said.

“There’s this King book –”

“No, it’s okay, I don’t need to understand. You guys had your private jokes. I liked that, liked seeing you be friends, you should…” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Rondeau had seen her cry before, but she usually had an arrow sticking out of her thigh or something when it happened. “Fuck. I don’t believe in destiny, Rondeau, you know that, but I’ll be damned if the universe doesn’t have it in for Bradley. Shit. The universe. It’s me. I’m poison to that guy.”

“We don’t know what happened. What he found beyond that door. Maybe it’s the big rock candy mountain over there. Heaven with male strippers. An open-air sex and ice cream pavilion. It’s possible, right?”

Marla shrugged. “I keep you around for your optimism, Rondeau. At least we can imagine some kind of good outcome for him. What harm can it do? Next time I decide to rip apart space-time because I really miss B, just slap me upside the head, would you?”

“Will do. So… what now? I’m guessing we don’t have any time to grieve or process the shit that just happened, right? I mean, what did happen? Why the total collapse?”

“I think when the possible witch went wherever the fuck she went, her home base started to fall apart. It was a little bastion of order in a big chaotic void, and once she wasn’t there to maintain it anymore…” Marla shrugged. “We’re lucky we didn’t get stuck on that side.”

“Lucky. We’re stuck over here with the Mason now, right? And she’s done who knows what?”

“Yeah. We’re gonna have to deal with that.”

Rondeau leaned against the tree and closed his eyes. “Then let’s do what we need to do pretty fast, before the denial and numbness fade, okay?”

Marla rummaged in her bag and found her cell phone. Her sometime employee Langford, a technomancer, had fixed it for her so it could get reception even on the moon, but it hadn’t worked across dimensions. When she turned it on, though, it informed her she’d missed some calls.

About 875 calls in all. And she had voicemail messages aplenty. She pushed buttons at random, cursing, and finally handed it to Rondeau. “Can you work this thing and listen to the last message? Maybe we can hope for an executive summary or something.”

Rondeau nodded, punched the buttons, and held the phone to his ear. Hamil’s voice, hurried and worried and dripping with fear, entered his ear. He listened for a long time, then let the phone drop to the ground, and slid down the tree.

“Tell me,” Marla said.

“Granger dead.” He swallowed. “Viscarro turned to ashes. Doctor Husch – ah, fuck, Marla, Leda, torn to pieces.”

“What about Ernesto?” Marla said.

Rondeau shook his head minutely. “No. He’s… they got him. Dead.”

“Half the council,” Marla murmured. “She killed half my fucking council?”

“She could have killed Hamil, too. She left him alive to give you a message. The Mason says she’s at my club. In your office. She wants to meet with you.”

“I’ll just bet she does,” Marla said.

“If you don’t show up in the next 24 hours – less than that, now – she says she’ll destroy the whole city.”

“She won’t have to wait, we’re going now, we’re going to –”

“Marla.” Rondeau shook his head. “You can’t charge in. Not this time.”

“Bullshit. There’s not a problem I can’t solve with –”

“Didn’t you learn anything?” He didn’t shout, though he felt like shouting. He just didn’t have the energy. “You were sure you could just brute-force your way into bringing Bradley back to life, right? How well did that turn out? You managed to beat the Jaguar, but you did it because you had a good plan, you didn’t go all pissed off and try to beat him to death with a shovel. Like you said. The Mason killed half the council. I don’t think a simple ass-kicking is going to get the job done. I want her dead as bad as you do, but if we’re going to do this, can we do it with a plan? ”

Marla opened her mouth, expression furious, but then her face relaxed and she just sat down. “Thanks,” she said after a moment. “I guess I needed that.” She thought for a moment. “Okay. What did you have in mind?”

“Getting help. You know some serious badasses, Marla. Hell, call Genevieve, let’s get some reweaving going, turn the Mason into a field of cabbages or something.”

Marla shook her head. “Genevieve doesn’t have that kind of fine control. Her powers get away from her. That’s why she took herself out of the game, to her little bubble reality, because the world’s not safe when she uses her powers. Besides, she’s still human, and Crapsey can take control of human bodies at will – what if he jumped into her and took over her body before she had a chance to unleash her mojo? Think of the damage they could do with her abilities. No.”

Rondeau cleared his throat. “Well, what about, you know… The guy. With the rings. Mr., let’s say, Mr. D.”

Marla frowned. “What do you know about him?”

He shrugged. “Your office is right next to my kitchen, boss. I hear you talking sometimes, and even if I can’t make out the words through the privacy wards, I recognize the tone of the guy’s voice – you don’t forget what the lord of the underworld and the incarnation of Death sounds like. The guy did take over the whole city and try to kill me, you know. I know you two are, ah… friends. Or whatever. That you’ve kept in touch. I mean, he’s death. Surely he can go to bat for us.”

“I can’t ask him for help,” Marla said, scowling. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. Besides, he’s not overly concerned with my survival. If I get killed, he figures that means the two of us just get to spend more time together. Which doesn’t sound bad in theory, and after another century or so of life, I might even get to like the idea, but not now.”

“If you asked for help, he wouldn’t kill the Mason?”

Marla shook her head. “He couldn’t. You remember when he saw my cloak? How it scared him, because it doesn’t come from this universe – from this multiverse? It’s an alien, outside thing, beyond his ability to affect. He can’t kill it. He’s the death of every living thing from this world… but the Mason’s from another world. Outside his jurisdiction.”

“Maybe he could kill the body the Mason’s using, though, I mean –”

“And maybe not,” Marla snapped. “Maybe that body is basically just a zombie now anyway. Look, it’s not a terrible idea, and I’ll take it under advisement. If all else fails, I’ll call him. Assuming I can get the little bell I use to call him, which is presently in a drawer in my office where the Mason is sitting reading my mail. But I’m not used to running for help to some man, even a man who’s not really a man, and I’m not starting now, especially since I don’t think he’d be much use in this situation. I can deal with this on my own. This afternoon I beat a god. I can handle a bitch in a magic cloak, especially when I own exactly the same magic cloak.” She looked at Rondeau as if daring him to challenge her, but he didn’t rise to it. She slumped. “Really, the Mason doesn’t worry me that much. It’s Crapsey. If I show up, what’s to stop him from knocking my soul out and wearing my body like a suit?”

“There are protection spells, right?”

Marla nodded. “Sure. Total psychic armor spells. They protect you from possession, the thing on the doorstep trick, mind reading, and everything else – it turns your mind into a lead-lined box. Which is fine, but it’s serious complex long-term ritual shit. The kind of spell Susan Wellstone likes to do, but I don’t have the months it would take me to prepare or the week to perform the ritual. And even a sniper putting a bullet in Crapsey’s head won’t help, because he’ll just take some other host. No, the Mason I can handle, but your evil twin… He’s the real problem.”

“I might be able to fix that,” Rondeau said. “If you call the Mason and Crapsey and set up a meeting. But not right away. Like, in the morning. We have to run some errands first, get prepared.”

Marla cocked her head. “Yeah? You’ve got a plan?”

Rondeau laughed. “Not even close to a plan. But I’ve got a tactic. I can take care of Crapsey. The rest is up to you.”

“Well all right.” Marla picked up the phone. She poked at the buttons for a moment, then thrust the cell at Rondeau again. “Dial my office number, will you? I can never remember how to get to the stupid contacts list.”

“She can kill gods, but she can’t operate a cell phone,” Rondeau said.

“I can kill annoying employees, too.”

“Then who’d work this thing for you?” He handed her the phone. “There. It’s ringing.”

Marla listened for a moment. Then she said, “Hi, you. It’s me.”

Chapter 19

Monday, July 12th, 2010

“Crapsey, take him!” the Mason screamed. She tore at the branches of a tall oak tree, which looped and surrounded her like the bars of an ornate birdcage.

“I can’t!” Crapsey shouted. “He’s not human anymore!” He fell back, avoiding Granger’s inch-long claws.

Granger was the guardian of that bit of green space at the heart of Felport called Fludd Park, and he’d transformed himself into an oversized polar bear, some serious Pleistocene megafauna shit. He had to be thirteen or fourteen feet tall when he was reared back on his hind legs, and probably weighed more than a ton. Crapsey lost his footing in his retreat and went slipping and sliding down the hill toward a duck pond, landing in ankle-deep water. Great. Now he was damp and likely to die soon.

Granger was supposed to be the easy kill. Gentle, easygoing, dumber than a sack full of spoons – he was a joke. The Mason had killed him in their world at the same emergency meeting of the council where she’d offed most of the other major sorcerers in Felport. But this time they’d attacked Granger on his home turf, and apparently, that made all the difference. The whole park had turned against them from the moment they entered – tree branches reaching out for them, spontaneous sinkholes opening under their feet, birds trying to peck out their eyes, vines trying to strangle them. The park was as dark as the Mason’s heart, too, no street lights penetrating this far in, just the faint shine of the moon and stars to combat the looming shadows teeming with bugs and beasts and badness.

Crapsey splashed out of the shallows of the pond, but then the water itself rose up into some kind of pond-scum golem and batted him aside. Rocks and boulders began rolling toward him of their own volition, and he had to dodge and jump and sprint to avoid getting crushed. Meanwhile bear-Granger was advancing, roaring. Crapsey looked up at the Mason in hope of salvation, but she was still stuck in a fucking tree, though sawdust was showering down as she tried to escape.

I wish Nicolette were here, he thought. All this crazy shit happening would be like fuel for her, and she’d twist the chaos to her own purposes. Oh well. He dove into a somersault, wrenching his shoulder pretty badly in the process, and tried to hide behind a wrought-iron bench. The bear approached him steadily, down on all fours now, drool falling from his jaws like a waterfall.

What were you supposed to do with this kind of bear? Play dead? Climb a tree? Playing dead wouldn’t help since this bear had a human mind, and climbing a tree was no good since the trees were trying to kill him too. Death – or at least the death of this, his favorite body – was looking pretty likely.

Well, when you run out of intelligent options, do something crazy.

He vaulted over the bench and charged the bear. A normal bear probably would have just eaten him, but the frontal assault clearly surprised Granger, probably since Crapsey had been more of a panic-and-run opponent previously. Crapsey feinted a punch at one side of the bear’s head – the head was about as big as Crapsey’s whole godsdamn torso – and when the bear snapped his jaws at that side, Crapsey darted around to the other, trusting in speed and agility over sheer mass. He got alongside the bear, jumped onto his back, and did his best to wrap his arms around the bear’s neck. Choking Granger out wasn’t going to work – he might as well have been choking a utility pole for all the bear seemed to notice – so he sighed and muttered one of the magic words the Mason had prepared for him.

They were all stupid-sounding words. Titmouse. Whiffenpoof. Polliwog. Kumquat. The particular word he used this time was “Grommet.”

Like all his magic words, this one made the runes in his jaw glow blue – and then did something horrible. Crapsey screamed as his jaw dislocated and expanded, unhinging like a snake’s, but, he assumed, far more painfully. Needle-sharp fangs bloomed from his wooden jaw in profusion, and Crapsey lowered his face to the bear’s neck and bit down.

Crapsey tore away a mouthful of fur, skin, blood, muscle, and fat, and though he tried to turn his head and spit, his possessed jaw held on and forced him to swallow. The Mason’s spells were just as bitchy as the woman herself. As Granger moaned and thrashed, Crapsey bit down again, teeth gouging and shredding and tearing, jaw grinding and scraping against bone.

But he wasn’t making any progress. Granger’s healing powers were profound, and the open wound filled with new flesh as quickly as Crapsey could bite, skin and fur regenerating as well. The trees around them sagged, branches drooping and flowers wilting, as the nature magician drew life force from the park around him. Crapsey’s magical jaw was clamped on now, though, grinding and biting with a mind of its own, and there was no letting go. I’m going to literally explode from swallowing too much bear meat, Crapsey thought. It was certainly an unusual way to go.

The Mason dropped from the tree and landed before Granger. “You’re killing the park,” she said, conversationally. “We’ll keep attacking you, and you’ll keep stealing life from the birds and bushes and grasses and squirrels until they’re all dead. Eventually we’ll be fighting in a sandy wasteland. And then we’ll kill you anyway.”

Granger roared, though it was more a howl of dismay than rage, and he sank down to his front paws. The Mason knelt and looked into his ursine face. “So you can fight, and kill the park, or die, and we’ll spare the park. I solemnly promise, no harm will come to your domain if you just give in.”

The bear suddenly rolled over, tens of hundreds of pounds pressing against Crapsey and snapping several ribs and squeezing all the air out of his lungs. The roll tore Crapsey loose – mouth still jammed with bleeding bear meat – and he gasped in agony on his back, unable to scream because he was compulsively swallowing.

The bear transformed into Granger, kneeling and bleeding copiously from a wound in his neck. “Why are you doing this, Marla?” he said. “Don’t I do good for you? Fight for you? Help you when helping’s what you need?”

The Mason didn’t say anything to correct the case of mistaken identity. Super cruel. “You’ve never been any use to me, Granger. Now it’s time for you to go away.”

“But the park, I have no apprentice, no successor…”

“I’ll take care of the park.” She reached out to pat his cheek. “Better than you ever did. I swear. Just stop fighting. Lay down and bleed. Return to the soil. Feed the trees. Be a feast for worms. All right? Or else the park will be nothing but spoil and desert and salted earth forever.”

Tears running down his broad face, Granger nodded, and curled up on the ground. He began to sink into the earth, and within moments a light covering of grasses sprang up to cover his body, until nothing remained of him but a hump in the landscape.

“I love it when you can just talk them into dying,” the Mason said. “I wonder if that approach would work on Marla? ‘Surrender and give me your cloak, and I’ll spare Felport’? I suppose it’s possible.” She walked over to Crapsey and looked down at him, hands on hips. “Are you all right?”

Crapsey swallowed the last bit of bear meat, and then screamed as his jaw returned to its original configuration. The pain in his face made his body spasm, jostling his ribs and causing a sensation not unlike multiple stab wounds to the torso.

“Crybaby,” the Mason said, and then her cloak was white again – mercy, twice in one day! – and she bent to touch him.

Cool, numbing magic flowed over his skin and penetrated deeper into his body, pain receding to a distant hum, even when his ribs slid back into place. With his ribs unbroken, he finally let himself roll over and vomit, puking a considerable pool of bear slurry into the grass.

With the healing wave still surging through him, even puking wasn’t too unpleasant. He sat up and scooted away from his reeking puddle. “That’s the stuff, boss. Why haven’t you ever healed me up before? You usually leave me to suffer and heal naturally, like some sort of lousy ordinary.”

Her cloak was purple again. She stared up at the cold dead moon as if into a mirror. “Pain is instructive. It teaches you not to make so many mistakes. But we have too much work to do tonight – I need you functional.”

“I presume you’re going to turn this park into a smoking hole in the ground?”

“Breaking my oath to Granger would be amusing. The fool believed my promise – as if I could enter into a binding contract with vermin. I imagine I’ll cause some fires as we leave, but I don’t have time for proper desertification. The Chamberlain still lives, and the Bay Witch, and of course Hamil, and if I have to kill the entire council to goad Marla Mason into facing me, I will.”

Crapsey got to his feet and started trying to brush mud off his suit, but it was so caked in with the bear’s blood and pond slime and other unmentionables that he soon gave up. “Maybe you scared her off, ever think of that? If Marla has any sense she just left the key to the city in her mailbox and left town.”

“Unlikely. The Marla Mason of this world resisted the lure of the cloak, which means she has a strong will – a stronger will even than the version of Marla I use as my vessel. Still, her failure to arrive is peculiar. We have been causing both covert and public destruction for some hours now.”

“Maybe we’re moving too fast. Let’s give her some time to come find us.” Crapsey stripped off his ruined suit jacket and dropped it over the pool of vomit, hiding one bit of hideousness with another. “I need a shower, and new clothes, and booze, and some sleep, and some food –”

The Mason smirked. “You didn’t get your fill of bear meat?”

“It was better than the slop you serve back home, but I don’t much like the aftertaste. I think the meat turned into human when Granger transformed back. Long pig isn’t my thing.”

The Mason shook her head. “No. We will press on –”

“Not in these clothes,” Crapsey said firmly. “Call it weak, call it vain, I don’t give a shit, but I can’t go on like this. I’m wearing a slaughterhouse floor here.”

The Mason made a slight sound of annoyance – enough to chill the blood under other circumstances, but Crapsey had hit his limit for the night, and didn’t much care. He was pretty sure he was still more useful than annoying.

“Fine,” she said. “We will pass a clothing store, I’m sure, and you can break in long enough to change. I will cast a spell of satiation and stimulus on you to assuage your hunger and exhaustion. Then we will go north of the river and kill the Chamberlain and banish her beloved coterie of ghosts, and –”

“Boss, somebody’s coming.” Crapsey squinted into the gloom under the trees, where a tall, broad-shouldered figure approached. “Think it’s a mugger? That would be too, too funny.”

The man came closer, stopping a few yards away. His neatly tailored, conservative suit did nothing to hide the fact that he was big, tall, and tremendously fat. Fat, but not flabby – he had what old crime writers called “hard fat”: a layer of bulk over muscle. The moonlight gleamed on his bald, black head, and his dark eyes were calm. “Hello,” he said, voice simultaneously deep and mild. “My name is Hamil. I represent the interests of the sorcerers in this city – at least, the ones you two haven’t killed. Perhaps you’d care to use your words instead of lashing out physically?”

“Want me to drop him?” Crapsey said.

The Mason shook her head. “No point. You could take over the body, but you wouldn’t hurt the man.” She approached Hamil, who backed away to keep his distance. “You look like Hamil, but you’re not. You’re a sort of… meat robot, aren’t you, operated remotely.”

Hamil – or the Hamil-bot – inclined his head. “It seemed unwise to send my real physical body to meet with you, but I assure you, the voice you hear is my own, transmitted from a safe location. Now: what do you want?”

“Do you know who I am?” the Mason said.

He shrugged. “I can speculate. You look like Marla – or the way she looked as a girl – but you aren’t her. He looks like Rondeau, but isn’t. Obviously you’re some sort of… dark doppelgangers. While I’m sure your origin story is fascinating, I’m more interested in practical matters, like how to stop you from killing everyone.”

“I want Marla,” the Mason said.

Hamil sighed. “You could have called and made an appointment. I’m sure she’d be delighted to meet a murdering lunatic who wears her face.”

“This is my way of making an appointment. Where is she? Why did she send you instead of coming herself? Is she afraid to face me?” Crapsey detected a note of real disappointment in the Mason’s last question.

“Not at all. She’s merely out of town.”

Crapsey laughed. “We came all this way to surprise her, and she’s not even home?”

“Where is she?” the Mason said. “When will she return?”

“I can’t divulge that information. But I’d be happy to see you both installed in a comfortable apartment in my building, where you can await her arrival in –”

“You will tell me,” the Mason said. She crossed the space between them in an instant, grabbing Hamil’s lapels and staring up into his face. He outweighed her by a couple of hundred pounds, probably, but there was no doubt in Crapsey’s mind which one of them was scarier. “Or I will end you.”

“Threatening this body is about as effective as threatening the mouthpiece of a telephone,” the Hamil-bot said dryly.

The Mason cocked her head, as if listening to distant music. “This body… is a mindless vat-grown clone, accelerated to full growth, operated via sympathetic magic – of course it is, you only have that one hammer in your toolbox, so every problem is a nail – with a potent connection between you and the clone, because you are genetically identical. So since you and the clone are indistinguishable at this moment magically, that means, yes…” She grunted, put her hands on either side of the Hamil-bot’s head, and said, “I can snap this creature’s neck and break yours, too. Or I could cast Garcia’s Torment, and make every cell in your body violently separate from every other cell, but that’s so messy. Perhaps I’ll chant the Razor Song, and give you eternal pain instead of a simple death. Ha, yes, keep throwing up those barriers, try to keep the flow of information one way, that’s funny, that amuses me.” She pressed her thumbs into the Hamil-bot’s eyes, and the big man fell to his knees, gasping. “You feel that, don’t you? I could blind you now. Tell me. Where is Marla. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Or I’ll kill you and interrogate your corpse.”

“She went to the other world!” Hamil shouted. “But when she comes back, she will destroy you!”

The Mason removed her thumbs from his eyes and patted his head. “The other world. I see. Oh, yes, I see. Tell me: Why did she go? And tell me: How did she get there?”

Hamil gritted his teeth, and the Mason sighed, and spoke a phrase that made Crapsey want to blurt out his every indiscretion and secret – an incantatory truth-telling compulsion. The spell wasn’t even directed at Crapsey, he’d just caught the edges, and it was all he could do not to start babbling; Hamil didn’t have a chance.

Hamil told what he knew: Marla had kidnapped some dude from another world, thus tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of reality, and then when the kidnapped dude wanted to go home, she took him.

Crapsey said, “Bradley Bowman. Why does that sound familiar?”

“He’s Sanford Cole’s second in command,” the Mason said. “One of the rebels in San Francisco.”

“Huh. So the Jaguar hasn’t eaten him yet? And Marla made a deal with some deep scary power and snatched Bowman here because his dead mirror-world counterpart was her boyfriend or something? And she, what, she missed him?” He could barely comprehend the idea. To go to that much trouble, to unleash that kind of magic, just to get back a dead friend… well, maybe if Crapsey’d ever really had a friend he might have understood it better. He was willing to concede the possibility.

“So it seems. I imagine you and I are the magical consequences of her action – that unleashing us on her world was the price the possible witch forced Marla to pay.” The Mason sniffed. “I dislike being a pawn of the deep powers. But the action alerted me to the existence of the multiverse, and showed me that passage between worlds is possible, which is useful information for me. So I am less angry than I could be.” She stroked the still kneeling, now weeping Hamil under his chin. “Listen, Hamil. I’ll allow you to live for a little while. All right? But you must get a message to Marla. Tell her I’ll be waiting for her in her office. Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Hamil said. “I’ll tell her. But I don’t know when she’s coming back –”

“If she doesn’t face me within 24 hours, I will level this city. And I will begin to conquer this world as I conquered the other.” She paused. “Of course, I’ll probably do that last part anyway. But if she faces me, I’ll spare Felport.”

Hamil didn’t respond. She frowned. “Answer when spoken to.”

The Hamil-bot responded by falling over on its side, completely inert.

The Mason sighed. “Ah. He managed to break the sympathetic connection. Well, it is his magical specialty. I shouldn’t be surprised. He’ll deliver my message, though.”

“And if Marla doesn’t show?”

“Then I’ll have the pleasure of destroying this city, which I was unable to do in our world because I wanted to keep my very useful dagger. Either outcome pleases me. Now. We’ll go to Juliana’s club – Rondeau’s club, here, apparently. Your doppelganger must have more self-control than you, Crapsey. If you owned a bar, you’d drink all the inventory.”

Crapsey shrugged. “I live in a hellish nightmare world, and he doesn’t. Of course I need booze more.” He yawned. “I hope Marla waits until, say, after lunchtime tomorrow to show up. I’m looking forward to a shower, and a bed, and maybe some of Rondeau’s clothes will fit me, even if he is by all accounts a scrawny fuck.”

“Enjoy your naptime,” the Mason said. “I’m more interested in exploring the contents of Marla’s files.”

“There aren’t many people who take equal pleasure in ripping off heads and sorting through papers, boss.”

“I am a highly evolved being,” the Mason replied.

Welcome New Readers!

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

Some new readers are arriving today — welcome! You can start reading the novel from the beginning with the table of contents up above, or read about the series and the reason I’m serializing this book via the links on the left.

Donations are especially welcome this month, since an expected (and long overdue) check for some other writing I’ve done is not actually arriving as promised, and I’m not sure when it will show up. This is tricky because I was counting on it to pay for my son’s health insurance and preschool tuition next month, so my financial outlook is suddenly a lot darker and more tempestuous.

I’ve been writing professionally for years — I understand the cash flow issues that publishers sometimes have, and I’m always willing to work with companies that owe me money, and I exhibit great patience. What I can’t stand is being lied to, and promised a check, only to have the promise retracted. That stings a bit.

So, if you find my work worthy, and you can spare a little, do please donate. You get goodies, as detailed in the sidebar!

Edited to add: My agent did some chasing, and got the overdue check overnighted to her… and the publisher even paid another big chunk of money that wasn’t due for a couple more months. So all is well!

Ten More Days for Tuckerizations

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

I got a $300 donation today (which is awesome; I can buy groceries now! yay!), and at that level, donors get to have a mutually agreed-upon name of their choice included in the text of the novel. (Mostly they become character names, but sometimes they become other things.)

But time is running out for that particular prize. I’m planning to send the finished text of the novel to the publisher for the print edition later this month, and after that happens, I can’t put in any more names!

So here’s a deadline: any donations of $300 or more received by July 15 can still get names into the text. (I’ve got a few characters who are unnamed, or who have names I can change, just for that eventuality.) After July 15, I can’t guarantee that any new names will make it into the text. Though, ahem, I’ll still gladly take your money…

Chapter 18

Monday, July 5th, 2010

Rondeau wasn’t much of a battle leader, so he was more than happy to follow Lao Tsung’s lead. The team crawled through endless tunnels until finally emerging from a storm drain that flowed into San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz Island, their destination, squatted out in the water like a castle surrounded by the world’s biggest moat. A couple of them, including Beta-B, were armed with what looked like paintball guns, but Rondeau assumed the guns were enchanted – maybe they shot acid balls or something instead.

“Okay, Ryan, Josh, let’s get a boat going,” Lao said. The teenaged cousins climbed out of the drain and stood on a scrap of pebbled concrete that jutted out above the water. Crouching, they plunged their hands into the water and began chanting in unison. Water flowed up out of the bay under their hands, forming into a shape like a viking longboat, glinting and translucent. Lao knelt by them, thumped the water-boat with his knuckles – the resulting thunk was reassuringly solid – and nodded, waving everyone onto the boat.

Rondeau got settled, squeezed in next to Beta-B and Jericho, as they skimmed across the bay toward Alcatraz, their little ship wrapped in look-away spells and cloaking magics. The boat was a tight fit – which was weird, since they could’ve magicked-up a yacht or something as far as Rondeau could tell – and Rondeau ended up knees-to-knees with one of the Camp Kimke Irregulars he hadn’t met before, a woman with a snub nose and short red hair and eyes the color of volcanic glass. “Hey,” he said. “I’m Rondeau.”

She nodded curtly. “I know who you are.”

“Guess that means you’re winning, then.”

“That’s Anna,” Beta-B said. “Anna Enzminger. She’s normally very nice, she’s just a little tense because she’s pretty sure she’s going to die.”

“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” she said. “Everyone else on this boat is worth something in a fight. I’m just an augur.”

Rondeau blinked. “Like… a drill? You drill things? Like with your mind?”

Beta-B laughed. “That’s an auger with an ‘e.’ She’s an auger with a ‘u.’ Or, another ‘u.’ She interprets signs and omens – taking the auspices from the flight of birds is her specialty, but she’s not half bad at xylomancy either, and she’s a great interpreter of dreams. She was the one who predicted the coming of the Jaguar, and she even warned us the attack we had planned yesterday was too dangerous. Unfortunately we thought it was just normal dangerous, not betrayed-by-Bethany dangerous. Don’t worry, Anna, you’re not storming the castle with us. I wanted you along so you can tell me about this dream I had. I haven’t had a chance to run it by you before now.”

Anna sighed. “Goodie. Another one of those dreams. When did you have it?”

“Right before Marla scooped me up out of my bedroll and dragged me into her world. Here’s what I saw: the woman I now know as Marla Mason, standing in a white cloak, looking into a full-length mirror. But her reflection was wearing a purple cloak instead. Then the mirror opened out into one of those tri-fold mirrors like you used to see in ladies’ dressing rooms, and two of the mirrors were facing each other so you had reflections of reflections, this endless corridor of Marlas stretching for infinity in both directions.”

Rondeau was looking down through the bottom of the boat, which was not so much glass-bottomed as water-bottomed, and he saw an immense shape go gliding by beneath them. “Uh,” he said.

“Half the reflected Marlas were in white cloaks, and half were in purple, alternating colors like squares on a big gay checkerboard,” Beta-B went on. “But then the real original Marla stepped into the mirror, and the Marla in the mirror stepped out, and it was like they melted into and passed through each other, and now the one in the purple cloak was out of the mirror and the one in the white cloak was behind the glass.”

The dark shape passed under them again, closer, close enough for Rondeau to see what appeared to be scales, though what kind of creature had scales but was also as wide as a passenger jet? “Guys, you should, uh –”

“Just a sec Rondeau, this is the freaky part.” Beta-B leaned toward Anna, eyes faraway like the dream was reality and this was the dream. “Next, all the Marlas in white cloaks inside the endless reflections started to flicker, one by one, like fluorescent light bulbs burning out. It was like a wave passing through the curved infinity of reflections, all the white cloaks turning purple. The original Marla, the one now trapped inside the mirror, she was pounding on the glass, like she was trying to break it, but then her cloak turned purple, too – hers was the last white one – and she shattered the glass, and then I woke up. So what’s it mean?”

“Nothing good,” Anna said. “I think it means –”

“Guys!” Rondeau said. “There’s a giant fucking snake in the water!”

Everyone went silent. Lao Tsung swore, softly.

Then the boat capsized and they hit the surprisingly warm water and for a while it was all just blood and screaming and trying to get away.


“At least nobody died,” Rondeau said. He, Beta-B, and Lao Tsung sat shivering on the rocks beneath the dock at Alcatraz, dripping water. “And you held onto your toy gun there, B. So that’s a win.”

“It was just a giant fucking reptile,” Lao said. “If a big snake can kill our best battle sorcerers, we don’t deserve to win.” A flap of torn scale floated by on the rippling surface of the bay. The cousins popped up out of the water and dog-paddled over, climbing up onto the rocks. “Everyone make it back okay?” Lao said.

“Anna’s still unconscious,” Ryan – or was it Joshua? – said. “Jericho’s missing a big chunk of his leg. The others are helping them back to camp. We called in to let Cole know. Do you think the five of us are enough to do the job?”

“To invade the Lynx’s fortress?” Lao Tsung said. “Guess we’ll see. We lost a lot of time to that bullshit, though. Threw the whole schedule off. So whatever we’re doing, we’d better do it fast. Bradley, did you get a chance to do any remote viewing?”

Beta-B nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much the same as last time. Lots of ghost cats prowling, and the Lynx is here. Maybe a couple of other people, there were too many shadows for me to make out details, but it’s not like they have hordes of flying monkeys or oompah loompahs or Roman Centurions hanging around. There’s an impenetrable force-field ringing the whole island, and I’m sure they figure that’s enough to keep people out.”

“We penetrated it okay,” Rondeau said. “How’d we manage that?”

Beta-B shrugged. “Sanford Cole. It’s still his city, magically speaking, and he granted us safe passage. Doesn’t mean we can’t get hurt, but it means we can’t be kept out of anyplace. If we get our heads chopped off when we get in there, that’s our problem, though.”

Lao stood. “Let’s go. Boys, you and me are in charge of keeping the big bad guys off our delicate psychic flowers here.” Lao made his way carefully up onto Alcatraz’s dock, and the others followed. The buildings were all covered in twisted green vines and flowers, looking more like an exploded greenhouse than a prison.

Bethany was waiting for them, sitting in the doorway to the cell block. “Hey Lao, kids, Bradley, weird new guy.” She rose from her cross-legged position. Bethany looked pretty much like Rondeau remembered, with horizontal-slit pupils in her eyes like a goat’s, and a fondness for skimpily-applied black leather, and a face that glittered with piercings. Except last time he’d seen her, she was dead. “Saw you had a little trouble with one of the big snakes. Sorry about the whole betrayal thing, really, but I had to side with the winning team. I had fun squatting in a hole in the dirt with all of you, though. Shitting in a bucket is awesome.”

Most of them had stopped when Bethany spoke, but Lao never broke stride, and she took a step toward him, smirking. “Come on, Low Tongue, you think your spells have a chance in hell of hurting me here –”

Lao reached up with both hands, grabbed the rings in Bethany’s nose and lip respectively, and tore the piercings out. Bethany screamed and dropped to her knees, and Lao did something quick and brutal with his hands. Her body fell, head twisted unnaturally, goat-eyes blank. Lao looked back at the others. “If they expect you to attack with magic, don’t. Most sorcerers don’t bother to learn how to be dangerous physically. I did.”

Lao went on into the building, and Rondeau couldn’t help but grin. “Yeah, that’s the guy who taught Marla a good chunk of what she knows, all right. Wish I could’ve met him in my world.”

They followed Lao inside, past cell doors turned into trellises for barbed vines. Half a dozen pale white lynxes sort of… insinuated themselves into the walkway, coming from nowhere in particular, and seeming to pay no attention to the intruders, but Lao stopped anyway. “Are those ghost cats?” he said.

“Yeah,” Beta-B said, “Six of them.” He glanced at Rondeau. “You see them, right? You and me are the only ones who can get a clear look at those things. The Lynx’s little handmaidens, a gift from his boss the Jaguar. The ghost cats are just whitish-gray blurs to people who don’t have our psychic mojo. They’re basically just smarter-than-average jungle cats, so they shouldn’t be that hard to fight, but they’re so damn tough to see, they’ve killed lots of us, just circling around and hamstringing. That’s what this is for.” He unslung the paintball gun from his shoulder and fired off a succession of rounds, thwap thwap thwap, and bright blue splats speckled the cats – Beta-B even managed to get one in the eye, half-blinding it. The ghost cats snarled and leapt, but once they were tagged, the twins and Lao could see them well enough to bring their superior fighting skills to bear. Lao used good-old-fashioned brute force to kill one, while the cousins whipped up some order-and-chaos magic, turning two of the cats against one another, while three more simply froze, rigid, transformed into statues of themselves.

“Let’s keep moving,” Lao said. “There are probably a lot more of these kitties around. And their boss is here somewhere. Which way is the cell, Bradley?”

“There was only one spot on the whole island I couldn’t see via remote viewing,” he said. “They might as well have put up a giant glowing sign reading ‘Big secret thing in here! Don’t look!’ It’s in one of the old solitary cells, that way.”

Lao took point again, leading them down the cellblock, stepping over slithering green snakes and brightly colored – and very likely poisonous – frogs. The place was less a prison and more a deep jungle ruin. Rondeau expected to see Indiana Jones walking by with a bullwhip carrying the head of a jeweled idol in his satchel.

Instead, when they rounded the corner, he saw yet another dead man.

“Lynx,” Lao Tsung said. “We’ve come for your prisoner.”

The man leaning by the one closed solitary confinement cell smirked. He was almost painfully attractive, with copper-colored hair mussed artfully, dark eyelashes, pale eyes, a long lean body, slim hips. He wore simple clothes in white, but they were cloud-white, fog white, as difficult to focus on as the fur of a ghost cat, even with Rondeau’s good vision.

“Come now, Lao Tsung,” the man – dead for many months, at least in Rondeau’s world – said. “We don’t need to fight. We can be friends. I’d be honored to have a man like you by my side.”

Lao frowned. “You want me? Beside you?” His frown became a smile. “Really?”

“We’re fucked.” Rondeau grabbed Beta-B by the arm and dragged him back around the corner. The cousins were staring open-mouthed at the Lynx, as if they’d chanced upon a rock star or a lingerie model at the corner store.

“What are you doing?” Beta-B pulled his arm away.

“That guy is a lovetalker, B, a ganconer, he clouds men’s minds and makes women drop their panties!”

Beta-B blinked. “Shit. That explains a lot. Gods, what a perfect power for a spymaster. He can get anyone to tell him anything, recruit spies even from the most loyal – but wait. How do you know what he is?”

“I met him in my world,” Rondeau said. “His real name is Joshua Kindler. He’s the kind of guy who works for whoever pays best and keeps him entertained, and he nearly got Marla killed this past winter. He did kill a friend of mine. Shit.” He frowned. “But, wait, why didn’t he charm us? I mean, he still looks hot, but he didn’t look, you know… irresistible.”

“That kind of crap doesn’t work on us,” Beta-B said. “We see too clearly. He might be a walking talking illusions-and-pheromones factory, but we’re not susceptible. Unfortunately, the people in our group who can fight worth a damn are vulnerable. I don’t think the Lynx can convince them to kill us – lovetalkers are persuasive, but it’s not mind control, it’s just excessive charm. He can probably convince them to capture us for our own good, though, until he can talk us out of our misguided loyalty to Sanford Cole. I’m sure he’s giving them the heavy spiel now. We don’t have much time. Crap.” He took a breath. “Okay. You’re the only really indispensable guy here. I’ll try to draw them off, distract them into chasing me, and you… do your thing.”

“But –”

“Rondeau. We’re behind schedule already. Marla’s counting on you – if you don’t do your part, she’s going to get her heart torn out and sacrificed on an altar. Right?”

Rondeau closed his eyes. “Right. Crap.”

Beta-B unslung his paintball gun, stepped around the corner, and squeezed off a number of shots, then ran down another corridor. Lao and the cousins pursued him, but the Lynx, of course, didn’t move.

Hell, Rondeau thought. I’m about to have to kill a dude.

“Hey, Joshua,” he said. “Come here a minute?”

The Lynx – Joshua – strolled around the corner, moving as effortlessly as a swan gliding over water. “No one’s called me that in a long time. I’ve had a lot of other names – Lynx is only the most recent – but that is the name I was born with. How did you learn a secret like that, friend?”

“How did you go from seducing old ladies for caviar and champagne money to working for a big cat god on the West Coast?”

Joshua raised one delicate eyebrow. “I see my reputation from the days before the Change precedes me. Hmm. I’ve done a lot of jobs for a lot of people since the sorcerers made their powers public. The Jaguar made me the most recent wonderful offer, so here I am. But we haven’t been properly introduced. What’s your name?”

“Rondeau. But you can call me the Avenger. This is for my friend Ted.”

“Ted? I don’t think I know anyone named Ted.”

“You stabbed him in the guts. Or, well, not you, exactly, but – shit. Never mind.” Rondeau made himself into a bubble, rising up from the sea floor to the surface, bursting free of the water, and –

He was free of his bodily form. A bit of dandelion fluff on the wind. Joshua prodded Rondeau’s fallen body – damn, he’d just let himself drop to the floor again. He’d have to be better about that, maybe start carrying a pillow around with him everywhere.

Joshua said, “How odd. Hello? Was the stress just too much for you? Are you narcoleptic? Or like one of those Tennessee fainting goats?”

Those are stupid last words, Rondeau thought, and settled down onto Joshua. There was a shocking moment of resistance – like being stuck in a sack with a wild animal determined to turn you into shreds of confetti – but then the fight was over, and Rondeau was in a body again, looking out through new human eyes.

He exhaled. Now he and Marla had both killed Joshua Kindler. He waited for the guilt – he was a murderer again, and this time it was first-degree, not second-degree – but no flare of regret came, either because Joshua’s brain chemistry was too conscience-less and sociopathic to support guilt, or because he’d deserved to die badly enough that Rondeau didn’t need to feel any regret.

Lao and the cousins returned, the latter two dragging an unresisting Beta-B between them, one holding each arm. “Here!” Rondeua called, and they came around the corner. Beta-B looked at Rondeau’s body on the floor and moaned. “It’s okay,” Rondeau said. “B, it’s me, Rondeau, I… took Joshua.”

Lao and the cousins stared at him like he was a steak and they were starving. “Damn, I wish I knew how to turn this adoration field off.” There was one way: leave the body, let it drop, let it die. But it could be so useful, to have the powers of a lovetalker, to use this body for a while, to make people do whatever he wanted –

Damn. Those were Joshua Kindler-type ideas, the structure of the brain asserting itself, shaping the flow of Rondeau’s own thoughts. If he didn’t get out of here soon he’d be a sociopath. He thought of: bubbles, and rose up, Joshua’s body falling, brain-dead. Rondeau took his own body back, groaning and rubbing the back of his head, which had thumped the floor pretty hard. “Okay. You guys got your brains back yet?”

The cousins released Beta-B sheepishly, and Lao stepped forward and kicked Joshua in the ribs. “I did not enjoy that. I only regret that I didn’t get to kill the Lynx personally – but thank you, Rondeau. Now. Let’s hurry up and do what we came for.”

Lao searched the Lynx’s body until he found a key, and used it to unlock the solitary confinement cell. The hinges squealed horribly, and when light filled the cell, a figure scrambled into the corner, whimpering.

The body belonged to Mutex, but the intelligence behind the eyes was nothing human. When Mutex summoned the avatar of the Jaguar god, he’d performed a body-switch, putting his own mind into the powerful god’s body, and putting the god’s vast mind in his own constrained human brain. But Mutex couldn’t risk killing the body, and the god inside, because deicide had a way of getting noticed in the upper worlds where such powerful entities lived – killing Tepeyollotl could stir the other slumbering, half-forgotten gods into wrathful action. So he’d imprisoned the god instead, keeping it fed and watered and locked away.

The god in the man’s body covered its head with its hands and cowered. The cousins began lighting candles for the ritual and setting them around the room, and sketching designs on the floor with bits of chalk.

Rondeau took a step toward the terrorized creature in the corner. Marla said the god being stuck in Mutex’s body must be like a person getting shoved inside a cigar box: confining, claustrophobic, unbearable. She figured the god fragment was probably totally insane by now, incapable of anything resembling thought, and –

“Kill me,” the god in Mutex said, voice garbled but intelligible. “Kill me. End this. End me.”

“You heard the man,” Beta-B said. “Or god, I mean.”

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Rondeau said, and – remembering to sit down and lean against the wall first – left his body again, and settled onto Mutex.

The god didn’t fight him at all. It just let itself be consigned to oblivion – or wherever broken pieces of gods went when they de-incarnated. He didn’t stay in Mutex a moment longer than necessary, returning to his own body, leaving the brain-dead shell resting on the floor. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do the thing on the doorstep trick before Mutex’s body forgets how to breathe.”

The ritual took a while to set up, and required a precise incantation, but Beta-B had practiced, and it went off without a flaw. For sorcerers, leaving your own body and stealing another was hard, but returning a consciousness to its rightful vessel was easier, and if Marla had managed to douse the Jaguar with Pie Bob’s potion as planned, the sympathetic connection would be so strong as to make the distinction between Mutex’s body and the Jaguar’s almost indistinguishable, magically speaking.

The last twisted syllable left Beta-B’s lips, and they all waited, tense, to see if they’d succeeded.

Mutex’s body sat up, eyes wide. “No,” Mutex whispered. “No, I was a god, this can’t be happening, you can’t –”

“Mutex,” Lao Tsung said. “On behalf of the government of the Free State of Northern California, I place you under arrest for crimes against humanity and crimes against the state. Josh, Ryan, tie this asshole up for transport back to Camp Kimke. Though I don’t imagine we’ll be living in that sewer for much longer.” He looked at Rondeau and grinned. “We did it. Later than we liked, but we did it.”

“I just hope we did it before the Jaguar had a chance to kill Marla,” Rondeau said.


The skeletal warriors Marla was attacking turned to dust, which wasn’t unusual in the current situation, but many of them turned to dust before she’d even touched them. The cloak’s alien intelligence was in full target-acquisition mode, and when the cannon fodder began collapsing in heaps of armor and obsidian and bone meal it turned her eyes toward the Jaguar himself, standing at the foot of his massive throne.

But then the Jaguar’s cue-ball-sized eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell face-forward like the toppled statue of a deposed dictator. The crash was followed by an earthquake, big enough to make the Palace of Fine Arts groan as its foundations began to shear, but the tremors ceased with unnatural abruptness a second later.

The cloak, faced with nothing living or even animate to kill, was at a loss for a moment, so Marla took the opportunity to assert her will, thinking, Turn, and making the cursed garment’s killing purple switch to healing white.

In the instant before the cloak’s malign mind became quiescent, it whispered, I’ll get you next time.

Marla took a moment to gather herself and shake off the last icy tendrils of the cloak’s influence, vowing I’ll never use it again – something she’d vowed before, and a vow she knew she’d almost certainly break again.

She approached the Jaguar’s body, which was already dwindling and decaying and slumping-in on itself. She knelt, peering at the wreckage, until she spied the seed at its heart, a carving of a jaguar in black glass, about half life-sized. That had been the focus for Mutex’s spell – the foundation for the god’s body, augmented by dark rituals, blood magic, and the power of an ancient artifact called the Cornerstone that was utterly consumed in the process of luring the god to Earth.

Beta-B and Rondeau had succeeded. Mutex’s mind had been snatched out of the Jaguar and replaced in his own body, and since the god’s mind had been destroyed by Rondeau’s possession, there was nothing left to fill the avatar’s form. And now all the god’s works would disappear.

Marla looked around as vines fell away from the ruins, snakes and frogs slowed and died and began to decompose with stunning rapidity, and jungle birds flew desperately southward in a flock so large it blocked out the sun for a moment, many of them falling from the sky like fragments of a midair collision.

“All right then,” Marla said aloud. “That was a pretty good day’s work.”