Marla Mason – called by some the Witch Queen of Felport, though she preferred the more traditional, less sexist, and decidedly lowercase title “chief sorcerer” – stood with her back against a stone wall in a five-by-nine-foot jail cell three thousand miles away from the city she defended and called home.
She was on an errand of mercy, and so, naturally, someone was trying to kill her.
Standing beside her – closer than she liked – was a man who wasn’t really a man, someone who’d been her best friend before he killed her other best friend, an act that hadn’t helped their relationship. This companion – a psychic parasite in a stolen skin who called himself Rondeau – whispered, “I think she’s gone.” His breath came out as little puffs of vapor in the cold air.
Marla bit back her instinctive response – Who cares what you think, you body-stealing shitcake? – and nodded. The chasing footsteps had turned to stealthy footsteps to altogether absent footsteps, which suggested their pursuer was looking for them elsewhere.
The door of the jail cell was open, and the cell hadn’t been used to confine any prisoners in decades, unless you counted tourists who stood inside to have their pictures taken. They were inside an infamous prison that was also a National Park: Alcatraz Island, the Rock, one-time maximum security facility, one-time reclaimed property of American Indian protesters, and current home to – or, more properly, stepping-stone to the home of – the most powerful oracle in this universe or any adjacent.
Also now home, apparently, to a new sorcerer who’d taken up residence since Marla’s last visit. And since Marla hadn’t exactly called ahead to make an appointment before flying across the country to San Francisco, taking a cab to the edge of the bay, stealing a boat, and making her way to the dock at Alcatraz well after midnight, that sorcerer was unlikely to welcome her with open arms. Marla and Rondeau had fled from the dock into the prison ahead of a probing spectral chain of magic that had been as interested in strangling them as identifying them. Sorcerers could be so territorial. Marla had hoped to get in and out unnoticed, but she knew her appearance here could be considered an invasion.
That was okay in theory. Marla was good at invasions. She’d even invaded the land of the dead once. But she didn’t want to waste time bringing overwhelming force to bear when she was basically just passing through. Hence the hiding, the listening, and now, the sneaking.
Except when Marla crept to the opening that led out of the tiny cell and into the corridors of C Block, something impeded her progress. The door was… blocked, by something that felt like iron bars, though there were no bars to be seen.
Marla sighed. “All right!” she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. “You know we’re here, and we know you know, so let’s get to the confrontation part already.”
The sorcerer of Alcatraz stepped into sight from the shadows, which was a pretty easy trick on your home territory, Marla knew. She was black-haired with dusky skin, dressed in a tailored dove-gray business suit. The only outré touch was a mass of feathers (eagle, parrot, who knew what – Marla was no ornithologist) woven into her hair. The magic around her was palpable, the force of her will in her seat of power acting on reality to create a kind of vibration or harmonic or static charge noticeable to the appropriately attuned.
Marla thumped the invisible cell door with the heavy metal ring on her left middle finger. The barrier even rang out like iron. “Sorry I didn’t call ahead. I’m Marla Mason, from Felport, back east. Last time I was out here, Alcatraz didn’t have a resident sorcerer. I wasn’t trying to invade anybody’s space. Care to open up the door so we can work this out?”
“Marla Mason.” The sorcerer’s voice was cool and a little amused. Marla hated people who sounded cool and a little amused. The woman stepped closer, and Marla saw she was older than she seemed at first glance, though with sorcerers, true age could be almost impossible to ascertain. They had the power, and usually pretty good reasons, to extend their lifespans. “Yes, it is you. The ruler of my city has a picture of you in her office.” She paused. “Pinned to a dart board.”
“The ruler? Who, Susan?” Marla’s old rival Susan Wellstone was chief sorcerer of San Francisco, had been for nearly a year – though she probably called herself the Sorcerer Queen of the Barbary Coast or some crap. She was always putting on airs.
The woman nodded. “Yes. I believe Ms. Wellstone will be pleased if I give you to her, especially since you’ve broken our laws by coming here without permission. She is very keen on punishment.”
“Much as I’d love to visit with your boss lady, I’m on an errand. Look, uh – what’s your name, anyway? The Bird Lady of Alcatraz?”
“Maybe she’s called the Rock-Ette,” Rondeau offered, and Marla got halfway to smiling before remembering she was supposed to hate him now, which meant not enjoying his jokes.
“I am the Warden,” the sorcerer said, “and you have transgressed – trespassing in my ruler’s city and on my island – and transgressors fall within the scope of my powers of confinement and control.” She stepped closer to the cell, and her eyes began to glow with a pale yellowish light. Marla didn’t know exactly what the Warden was doing, but it probably wasn’t going to be pleasant.
“Hey, Rondeau,” she said, “Can you jump into this bitch’s body and shove her soul into the outer darkness?”
“No!” He shook his head violently. “How can you even ask? I told you, I can’t do that at will, I can only jump to a new body when my old body is dying, and even then I can’t control which body I take. Even if I could, I wouldn’t, it’s wrong, it’s monstrous, it’s what got me into this mess –”
Rondeau’s outgassing of guilt, dismay, and indignation served nicely to distract the Warden, which was exactly the outcome Marla had hoped for. While the Warden was frowning at Rondeau, doubtless wondering what he was going on about and whether it violated some clause in her imaginary supernatural penal code, Marla made her move.
She snaked her arms between the invisible iron bars, grabbed the Warden by the back of the head, and jerked forward, slamming the Warden’s face into the magical bars. Seeing the Warden’s nose break and her cheekbones shatter against invisible lengths of metal was pretty interesting, and Marla repeatedly slammed the woman’s face into the barrier until the magical bars disappeared. Either the spell broke when the Warden lost consciousness, or she’d used her last lucid moments to magic away the bars and avoid further damage to her face. Marla grabbed the bleeding woman’s wrist and did a sweet little Aikido step, tossing the Warden toward the back of the cell, where she crumpled in an unattractive – but still breathing – heap.
“Traditionalist,” Marla said, shaking her head. “A simple magical door would have worked fine, something solid I couldn’t reach through, but she had to go with the cell door thing, what, because it fit her theme better? Amateur.” Most of the San Francisco’s top-notch magical adepts were dead – there’d been some unpleasantness a while back, which was how Susan became chief sorcerer in the first place – so it made sense that Susan’s lieutenants weren’t as sharp as they could have been. Still, better safe. “Come on, Rondeau, let’s get where we’re going before she wakes up. You can’t usually get the jump on someone that way twice, and if she does specialize in spells of confinement and control, I don’t want to give her a chance to wrap me in a magical straitjacket or something.”
“There’s some of her blood on your face.” Rondeau reached out, as if to wipe it away, or maybe just to show her where the drops had sprayed.
Marla slapped his attempt at touch away. “There’s blood on your hands,” she said, and he hunched his shoulders, shrinking into himself, and she felt a nasty pleasure, accompanied by an unwelcome jolt of guilt. “My friend B’s blood. He was supposed to be your friend, too, so let’s just try to fix what you did to him, okay?”
“It was an accident,” Rondeau said for at least the thousandth time, and for at least the six-hundredth time, Marla thought, I know. But she couldn’t say that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
A few weeks ago, Rondeau had been gutshot during a con game gone bad. While he was dying of his wounds, Marla’s apprentice Bradley Bowman – known to his friends as B – had tried to save his life, but he’d arrived too late. Rondeau’s body bled out on the floor, but the real Rondeau, the supernatural being of unknown origin that merely inhabited human bodies like Marla might wear a cloak, had panicked, and, like a rat fleeing a burning ship, had leapt from his dying body to the nearest piece of solid ground.
Which meant Rondeau had leapt into Bradley’s body. Forcing Bradley’s mind, his personality – his soul – into oblivion, irretrievable, forever lost.
Rondeau was wracked by guilt, and he’d invested in a permanent personal illusion to retain his old body’s appearance, so at least he didn’t look like B – Marla couldn’t have endured that – but she couldn’t forgive him, accident or not. Maybe, if this errand succeeded, if Rondeau helped her, maybe then….
“Whatever,” she said. “Let’s just go make it right. Let’s bring Bradley back to life.”
“Marla, there are ghosts here.” Rondeau peered into the shadows as she led him down a row of dim gray cells. Smeared partial echoes of people populated some of the cells, moving in repetitive motions, looking not at him but through him – that much was a blessing – and somewhere far off a little girl ghost wailed.
Marla glanced over her shoulder at him, a somewhat spectral presence herself in her white cloak, her face hidden in the hood. Another blessing. The way she’d been looking at him since B died… he didn’t need to see that expression again. It was burned into his brain. “I know,” she said. “You don’t usually notice ghosts, though. Part of being in Bradley’s body, I guess.”
Rondeau just nodded. His mind was still his own, and his memories, so he figured those were bound up in the essential center of… whatever his true nature was. But other aspects of personhood were rooted in the body, and when he’d taken over – no, be honest, when he’d stolen – B’s body, certain aspects of himself had changed. For one thing, his rather broad-ranging personal sexuality had vanished, and now he was as gay as B had been, which would annoy his on-again-off-again girlfriend Lorelei next time he saw her. He’d also inherited B’s extreme sensitivity to caffeine and other substances, which was saving him money on his weekly Starbucks bill at least, but it made getting up in the mornings hell. Well. More of a hell.
But the main thing he’d acquired was B’s psychic abilities. In this new body, Rondeau could see things he’d never imagined, sense the presence of ghosts and spirits and things that you might as well call demons, and if he concentrated he could hear some of the thoughts of people around him (which did appeal to Rondeau’s native nosiness), and pick up impressions from objects he touched to tell him about people who’d once owned them, and, probably, perform other feats he hadn’t yet discovered. He’d always secretly coveted the magic of the sorcerers around him, because despite being an inhuman psychic parasite, he was pretty much crap at magic, and didn’t have the personality for the obsessive study that might have overcome his native lack of talent.
Now that he was suddenly a big bad psychic, though, he didn’t like the power. The dreams were horrible, and he couldn’t tell if they were just guilt nightmares, or profound psychic visions. And there were mindless ghosts and ghost-fragments everywhere, so it was hard to shake the sense that he was being watched. B had spent years learning to control his powers, to filter his perceptions, but Rondeau didn’t have any of those defenses. Marla could have taught him some tricks, but she wasn’t interested in soothing his suffering.
“We’re here.” Marla paused in the open doorway of a dark, narrow cell, one with a solid door in addition to a barred inner gate. “I think, anyway. Hell, these solitary confinement cells all look alike to me.”
“No, this is it.” Rondeau walked into the cell and placed his palm flat against the back wall. “This is… wow. Yeah. There’s something here.” Some force hovered beyond his direct perception, making his teeth ache and his vision blur, and he had the persistent sense that a vast chasm was yawning just past his toes, waiting to swallow him. Funny that the doorway to infinite possibility would be here, in a room where possibilities had once been narrowed almost to nothing. Maybe the universe had a sense of humor. That was a chilling thought. “Uh. What do we do?”
“You open the way,” Marla said.
Rondeau closed his eyes. He had no idea how to do that. Marla had dragged him across the country on a late flight to use the most mysterious and profound power he’d stolen from Bradley: the ability to open doorways and summon oracles, tapping into the deep magic that formed the foundation of this and all other universes. The power to call spirits from the vasty deep, you might say, and yeah, they’d come when you called, but there was no telling whether or not they’d eat you when they got there. You could ask those powers and principalities questions, and they might even answer, for a price, and if you were feeling suicidal you could ask them for favors, and sometimes they’d grant those, too, for an even bigger price. Rondeau wasn’t sure specifically what favor Marla was planning to ask the entity they were going to visit, but he knew the gist: she wanted to bring B back.
Rondeau wanted that too. Enough to come here and risk using a power he’d just acquired and didn’t even remotely understand. Enough to risk being devoured by a being that dwelled in the empty spaces between universes. He’d do anything necessary to undo his crime. Bradley had been his friend. They’d even, briefly, been lovers. Rondeau didn’t like to dwell on the fact that he was now inside a body that he’d previously, well, been inside. It gave new meaning to the phrase “Go fuck yourself,” which, incidentally, was a phrase he’d heard a lot from Marla on this trip, like when he asked her what time it was, or if she could pass the ketchup or, really, anytime he said pretty much anything.
Just give her a little show, a familiar voice whispered in his mind, and he wondered, not for the first time: was it Bradley? There was something immortal inside people, something you might as well call a soul, something Marla called the will, and he’d forced that soul out of Bradley, yes, and taken its place, like a cuckoo tossing the original eggs out of a nest, but damn it, the brain mattered too, it was the house where the soul dwelled, and wasn’t it possible that some echo of his funny wise patient friend Bradley remained inside this brain, in this body, if only in the patterns of well-worn neural paths? There were ghosts everywhere, he could see them, so why not some sort of neurochemical ghost of Bradley?
Maybe Rondeau was imagining it. Certainly he’d never sensed the presence of the original inhabitant of that first body he stole, the maybe eight-year-old street kid Rondeau had ousted into oblivion the same day all his own memories began. Maybe Rondeau was just fooling himself, talking to himself, wanting to believe that some bit of B lived on inside his mind… but if it gave him comfort, he would embrace it. Unlike Marla, Rondeau would never refuse comfort just because it was maybe a little bit delusional.
Do a little twirl, make her close her eyes and turn widdershins – that’s counter-clockwise, it’s totally more mystical – something like that, and then… just step into the chasm, Rondeau.
“Uh, l need to, sorry, I need to hold your hands.” Rondeau expected some withering response, some, “Don’t touch me, killer,” business, but Marla nodded and put her dry cool hands in his. “Close your eyes.” He didn’t look to see if she obeyed, just closed his own and turned in the narrowness of the cell, almost like a slow dance, all the way around, three times, until they were facing the rear wall again, and then they took a step together, and another, and another… well past the point where they should have cracked their heads into stone.
“That’s exactly what B did, when he led me here,” Marla said. “It was while you were off being kidnapped or whatever. This place… it looks a lot worse than it did last time.”
Rondeau opened his eyes, and the cell was gone. They were in a long corridor wide enough to walk three abreast, with a wooden floor, wooden walls, and a wooden ceiling just a couple of feet above his head, all stained and moist and splintered and rotting, stinking like mushrooms and corpse flowers. There were windows like arrowslits at irregular intervals with pale light filtering in, and there was a hole in the floor as big around as a basketball not far from his feet; another couple of steps with his eyes closed and Rondeau might have plunged into it, and he didn’t think there would be any coming back from a fall like that.
Marla stepped forward, still holding one of his hands, and so Rondeau came with her, giving the hole a wide berth, glancing at it as he passed, seeing darkness down there but also faint bluish glimmers, like luminous fish far below the surface of a dying sea. The floor was a little springy and mushy underfoot. Not comforting. He wanted to look back, to confirm that there was a door or something leading out of this place, but wasn’t don’t look back one of those ancient mythic rules, right up there with stay on the path and don’t eat the apple? Rondeau tended to consider most rules distractions at best and bad jokes at worst, but he kept his eyes forward, because some things you didn’t screw around with.
The corridor took some sharp turns, the boards under their feet creaking alarmingly, and it reminded Rondeau of walking down a street where the sidewalk was torn up and a new wooden sidewalk had been erected with scaffolding all around – a temporary, haphazard, this-is-the-best-we-can-do feeling, and it was pretty troubling to have that feeling in a place that was literally where something like a god dwelt.
Sometimes they passed short side hallways that terminated in doors. Just ordinary looking doors, with tarnished brass knobs. Not locked or anything. Rondeau didn’t even think about thinking about what might happen if he tried to open one of those doors.
They came to the ruins of a black iron spiral staircase right in the middle of the walkway, and Rondeau felt an almost indescribable pull: up, up, up. Too bad most of the steps were missing. The staircase looked half-melted where it wasn’t rusted through, and if you tried to climb it, the odds were even whether a broken ankle or tetanus would get you first.
“So, uh –”
“I know,” Marla said. “Up there. Same as last time, but last time, you could just walk up the damn thing.” Marla jumped, grabbing one of the twisted iron steps, and clambered up like she did this every day, little flakes of rust showering down. Rondeau watched her vanish into the darkness above, realized he was alone in-between the cracks of the world, and climbed up after her. Bradley had been in pretty good shape, at least, and Rondeau’s brief period of slovenly self-pity since acquiring the body hadn’t completely wrecked that conditioning.
The top of the staircase was terrifying: basically just a plank jutting out into the void, no railing, no walls, no lights, nothing, just syrupy blackness pressing down. And at the end of the plank, an open doorway, with piss-yellowish light shining beyond. Marla stood before the door, the light turning her into a shadow cutout.
“So this is it,” Rondeau said. Something beyond the door was exerting a terrible force on him. His sinuses hurt, and his ears wanted to pop, but they wouldn’t, like when you first got off a plane, before the pressures equalized. “We’re going to see the, uh, what did you call her?”
“The possible witch,” Marla said. “The gatekeeper of all possible universes. Including universes where Bradley Bowman never died.” She turned toward him, though with the light behind her, he still couldn’t see her face. He hoped – he almost prayed – she was smiling. “Let’s go steal one of those still-alive Bradleys for ourselves, what do you say?”
Together, they walked into the light.