The Mason bombed along Interstate 80 in their Humvee, which guzzled gas like crazy, necessitating more stops at gas stations, though they didn’t have any more massacre-type situations, maybe because they were getting out into the desert where things were more sparsely populated. The Mason didn’t talk at all, not even when they crossed into Nevada and Crapsey said, “Hey, look, boss, it’s not a sea of fused glass over here. Remember when you conquered the queens and kings of Las Vegas and got all those sweet desert powers?” Usually the Mason liked being reminded of past murders, but she was deep inside her own head, which generally meant bad things would happen outside her head when she emerged.
With no radio to listen to, and no fake lighthearted banter, Crapsey was reduced to looking out the windows at the desert for hours. He wasn’t really a landscapes sort of guy, so it was pretty dull, or rather, pretty but dull. He thought, This is what the Mason wants the whole world to be like. Just one big empty. And she was making that vision of the world come true, one murder at a time, over where they came from. Once they found Marla and forced her to undo… whatever she’d done, and sent them back home, the total purification process would continue. The Mason complained that it was surprisingly difficult to exterminate life on Earth without destroying the planet itself, which she had other uses for. (She didn’t want to destroy all life. Bacteria didn’t bother her. Mostly she was just bothered by life she could see.) But it was a problem she was working on. Crapsey preferred a more populated world, and not for the purely selfish reason that he needed human bodies nearby as back-ups in case his current body failed.
The Mason jerked the wheel hard to the right, slicing across two lanes of traffic and prompting a few angry honks and sudden brakings from their fellow travelers on the interstate, though the Mason was too preoccupied with whatever to kill any of them for daring to blare at her.
“Boss, what the hell!” Crapsey grabbed the handhold over the door as the Mason pulled off the shoulder – not bothering to decelerate – and onto the flat desert sand beyond. The smooth ride got bumpy fast, but the big machine managed the change in terrain without bogging down or flipping over. The Mason stared at some fixed point on the horizon as she ran over scrub brush, proceeding in an unerringly straight line toward nothing in particular that Crapsey could perceive.
He glanced in the side mirrors, but the highway was already invisible behind them, and they were in pure trackless waste territory now; except for the tracks the Mason was leaving in their inelegant progress through the desert. “You know, boss, if you need to pee, you only have to pull a little ways off the highway. I know you’re modest and everything, but, damn.”
Still no response. Crapsey’s voice was apparently no more important to her than the rush of air past the windows. This was a whole lot of suck. Crapsey got that nervous-stomach feeling he always developed when he got too far away from the human population. What if this body had a heart attack and died out here? He couldn’t take over the Mason’s body, he knew that from bitter experience, and he’d had zero luck possessing anything non-human – trying to do so was like trying to put on a little kid’s shoes, they just didn’t fit, not even close. Crapsey had no clue how long he could survive without a human host, or what his effective range was in disembodied form; he’d never jumped to a person he didn’t have line-of-sight on. If he lost his body out here in the middle of nowhere, he thought there was a strong possibility he’d be fucked.
The Mason drove on, still at highway speed, which was insane given the landscape. This was desert, but it wasn’t salt flats; there were, like, dips and holes and ridges, and they bumped hard through several of them. Crapsey made occasional comments, stuff like, “Good thing we stole a Humvee and not a Vespa scooter” and “At least it’s a dry heat” and “Are we there yet, mom?” but the Mason never responded. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of barreling along, something appeared on the horizon. A building.
A house. What might have been a farmhouse, if farming out here had been a possibility. The place was still some distance away, but Crapsey knew perfectly well what it looked like: one story, weathered-gray boards, sagging roof, glassless windows.
He knew, because he’d been here before.
“Oh, hell, boss. What are we doing here?”
No reply, but it wasn’t like he needed one. He knew what they were going to do. Probably pretty much what they’d done in their world, a few years before.
Crapsey rode in the back seat, looking down the neck of his shirt at his – the body’s – boobs, desperate for any kind of entertainment, even self-ogling. The body he’d commandeered was pretty enough, but in a petite-and-delicate way, and it had no tits to speak of. Oh well. They wouldn’t have given him much of a thrill even if they’d been double-Ds. He’d discovered over the years that most of sexual attraction was rooted in the body and the brain, and this chick’s physiology was the opposite of his usual body’s omnivoracious sexuality – she was asexual, as far as he could tell.
That was okay. The body of Genevieve Kelley had other talents, which was why the Mason had forced him to wear her body to this raid. He just hoped he could do what his boss wanted when the time came. Genevieve’s powers didn’t come with an instruction manual, and he hadn’t been given a lot of time to practice before they set out from the ruins of Vegas.
He looked out the window of the racing Jeep at the dark desert passing by. Genevieve’s eyes were crazy perceptive, and he could pick out the faintly glowing lines of geomantic force in the ground, the living sparks of snakes and rabbits out in the night, and on the horizon, a blaze of power that hurt to look upon. Their destination. The light they’d come to snuff out.
They passed a broken abandoned windmill. Crapsey flexed a muscle in Genevieve’s brain, and the windmill exploded into small birds, flying in all directions, scattering in the dark.
Well crap. He’d meant to just make the windmill explode, not turn into animals. Genevieve’s powers were a bitch to control, too prone to subconscious associations and dream-logic, which was no kind of logic at all. Taking possession of Genevieve’s body was like getting into a tank without knowing how to drive it. Sure, in theory he could blow a city into rubble, but in practice, it was a pain in the ass just getting the thing into gear and driving in a straight line. Genevieve was one of the rarest and most powerful forms of psychics, a reweaver, capable of altering reality in profound ways… not that it had done her much good. The stress of her abilities had rendered her catatonic, and Genevieve had languished in a hospital for disturbed sorcerers outside Felport until the Mason realized what they had tucked away in that unassuming little room at the Blackwing Institute. Finding Genevieve there was sort of like discovering a hydrogen bomb in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.
“Stop playing, Crapsey.” The Mason didn’t turn around from her place in the passenger seat, didn’t move her head at all, but she’d obviously seen his little trick with the birds. “Don’t call attention to our presence.”
“Yeah, behave yourself, assbrain.” The Jeep’s driver did turn around, charms in her hair clattering together, and she gave him a nasty grin.
“Go fuck yourself, Nicolette, or I’ll take over your body and do the self-fucking for you.” The threat sounded a lot less threatening than he would have liked, emerging as it did in Genevieve’s vague and spacey-sounding voice.
He couldn’t follow through anyway. Nicolette was useful to the Mason, so she was untouchable, even though she annoyed him like nobody else. She was a chaos magician – lately she called herself the Chaotician-in-Chief for reasons known only to herself – and one of the only sorcerers from Felport to pledge fealty to the Mason and, thus, stay alive. She’d bought her way onto the team by garroting her boss, a prissy little sorcerer named Gregor, when he was holed up in his skyscraper fortress. You couldn’t say Nicolette had “proven her loyalty” because she had no more loyalty than a lightning storm or a snakebite, but she was part of the gang, like it or not. She was also crazier than a cultist of Xorgotthua. Shit, Crapsey had a prosthetic jaw because his original equipment had been ripped off, but Nicolette had amputated her left arm on purpose, and had that… replacement… grafted on willingly. She was bonzo nutso.
“There’s the house.” Nicolette stopped the Jeep about a hundred yards away.
“The queen of the obvious speaks again.” Crapsey squinted against the blaze of power radiating from within the decrepit structure before them. Where’s the damn off switch? He fumbled around in Genevieve’s brain until he found the equivalent of a psychic-vision dimmer switch, and the blaze of white light in the house faded to a sort of bioluminescence-level illumination.
“Are you ready, Crapsey?”
He glanced at the Mason, then quickly away. Being psychic sucked. Seeing what the cloak really looked like was not pleasant. Instead of a hooded purple garment on a woman’s back, Crapsey saw a many-eyed thing that looked like the three-way offspring of a lamprey, a vampire squid, and a manta ray, fangs sunk into flesh and pseudopods twined around the human body of its host: pure parasite. Crapsey hadn’t found a way to turn off that vision yet.
“No, I’m not ready. But I’ll do my best. I wish you’d taken over this body, if it’s got such awesome powers. You could use them better than me. I mean, you’re the cloak, right? So get a mind-slave to take you off Marla’s body and drape you over Genevieve’s shoulders instead. What’s the problem?”
“Impossible. Genevieve was catatonic. She had no will. She was useless as a host for me.”
Crapsey grunted. The Mason didn’t talk much about her limitations, but he’d gleaned a few things over the years. Unless the cloak was being worn by a human, it was largely inert, dormant, harmless. A human body – and apparently a human will – were necessary to let the cloak think and act and plan and commit horrendous acts of violence. But that human will was a problem, too, because humans could fight the cloak’s influence. The Mason and her host body had struggled mightily over the years, though the Mason had finally subjugated Marla completely. The Mason had once told him, “This whole universe is as hostile to my kind as the depths of the ocean or the void of space are to humans. And Marla Mason’s body… it’s my scuba gear. My spacesuit. A confinement necessary to my survival.”
“All right,” Crapsey said. “Tonight I’ll be playing the role of world-altering reweaver. I guess we should get a move on.”
“Letting you into that body is like giving a loaded gun to a cocker spaniel.” Nicolette smirked at him. “But at least it’ll be certain to add chaos to the world. Tasty, tasty chaos.” She slid out of the Jeep, and Crapsey and the Mason followed suit.
“Should we be sneaky, or flank, or –”
“Silence.” The Mason cut Crapsey off. “Desert spirit!” she shouted. “I am here. Come and face me.”
Nicolette lifted her human hand to her hair, ready to snatch one of the charms woven into her parti-colored braids. Her other hand – not that it was a hand, exactly – writhed and crackled with magics. Nicolette had replaced her left arm with a vat-grown squidlike tentacle about four feet long (the flesh was dark purple, she was such a suck-up) that terminated in a branching profusion of smaller tentacles, at least a dozen, covered in suckers that in turn contained rings of needle-like teeth. As far as Crapsey was concerned a physical alteration like that meant only one thing: Nicolette would never, ever have a consensual sex partner again, because she was totally over-the-top gross.
Not as gross as the thing that came scuttling out of the house, though. Crapsey’s borrowed eyes couldn’t reconcile what he saw emerging from the front door: it was pretty clearly a giant scorpion, easily the size of a dump trunk, crawling toward them rapidly despite having at least two broken legs leaking fluid and dragging in the dirt, its tail a curled question-mark dripping poison that spattered and hissed and boiled on the sand, its eyes a profusion of black-glass hemispheres, its mouth a complex writhing system of mandibles oozing nasty digestive enzymes –
But at the same time it was a little old stick-thin lady, gray hair in a bun, wearing a faded prairie dress, and where she stepped on the sand yellow flowers bloomed for just an instant before withering and turning to dust. Crapsey chose to focus on the old-lady aspect, which was as easy as changing the focus in his eyes, like he was trying to look at something up close instead of something far away. The scorpion was way more disturbing to look at, and since it was obviously way too large physically to actually pass through the perfectly normal human-sized doorway it had passed through, he figured it was more a metaphorical type thing, or an unrealized immanence, or something. He couldn’t quite unsee it, though. The scorpion shape hovered around the old lady like an oversized shadow.
“Why have you come to my domain?” the woman – or the scorpion – or both – said, in a voice that had the tone of a whisper but the volume of a public address system.
“Because it’s my domain,” the Mason said. “Everything is mine, because no other creature in this universe is qualified to have dominion.”
“You wish to erase all life.” The woman shook her head, an expression on her face like that of a mother disappointed in her child. “But I am a spirit of life – of tenacious, poisonous, clever life. Life in the barren spaces, the dangerous places, the inhospitable lands. I am the spirit of rattlensakes and trapdoor spiders. Of worms in vents of lava far beneath the sea. Of jellyfish and crustaceans swimming beneath ice caps. I teem with multitudes. You will find life is not so easy to destroy.”
“Oh, I don’t want to eradicate all life,” the Mason said. “Just all unworthy life. And since only my kind are worthy, and since I am the only one of my kind stuck in this horrible inhospitable universe, then I am the only one worthy of life. Though I tolerate the existence of a few others who prove useful to me.” She smiled at Crapsey and Nicolette in what she probably thought was a pleasant way. “I’ve come to kill you, though.”
“How do you hope to kill an incarnation of life?” she said, head cocked, by all appearances genuinely curious. “I sense your strengths, and they are profound, but they are not the equal of me.”
“Crapsey?” the Mason said, and that was it, he was on deck.
He closed his eyes and let Genevieve’s multidimensional origami-folded senses open up, tasting the shape of the scorpion spirit before them, trying to find its weaknesses and understand its nature so that he might twist reality to conjure a refutation for the spirit’s very existence. He let Genevieve’s power flow lightly through him, not attempting to consciously shape its effects, because trying to control this power was like trying to steer an avalanche: the best you could hope to do was ride the collapsing probabilities all the way to the bottom without getting buried.
Something clicked, or blossomed, or inflated, or… there was no real physical-sensory cognate for the mental sensation he experienced. But Crapsey knew he’d used Genevieve’s powers to do something.
“Who the fuck is that?” Nicolette said. “This place is awfully crowded for the middle of nowhere.”
Crapsey opened his eyes and saw a figure approaching across the desert, just beyond the house. It was human-shaped, though in the darkness it was difficult to tell more, except… was it wearing a cowboy hat? Crapsey let Genevieve’s profounder vision come online, and looked again… and whimpered.
Where the scorpion god was a shining beacon of brightness, the cowboy striding toward them was a darkness deeper than dark, the black of the moment after the last star winks out, the blackness of a tar pit at the center of a black hole, the cold and empty darkness of the death of heat. Crapsey realized the cowboy wasn’t very close to them at all. He was still quite far away… but he was very, very large.
“What have you summoned here?” the scorpion god whispered, shivering. “Why is it so cold?”
The cowboy walking toward them – now taller than the house, and how big was he, really, and how far away? – had a long shadow stretching before him despite the absence of a light source, and that shadow was a hint of the darkness that was his essence. His face was a swarm of shadows underneath his battered no-color hat, and he wore pistols at his belt, slung low on his hips. This was no sheriff, no marshal – this was a murderer, a bushwhacker, an outlaw. The personification of the deadly aspects of the desert, of ice, of lava; a conjured god of wildfire, mudslides, and earthquakes.
When the outlaw stopped beside them, it stood so tall that Crapsey’s head didn’t even come to the top of its dusty snakeskin boots. “Hello, little bug,” it said, in a dry rattling voice that emerged from the clot of shadows it wore for a face, far overhead.
“You mustn’t –” the scorpion spirit began, but the outlaw lifted one cabin-sized foot and brought its heel down on top of the old woman, and ground the heel into the dirt, leaving nothing but a hideous smear on the sand.
“She’s dead.” Nicolette stared at the fluids oozing from beneath the outlaw’s boot. “She – it – it’s really dead. Crapsey, you did it.”
“Get rid of that thing.” The Mason gestured at the outlaw. “I can tell it doesn’t much like us drawing breath, either.”
Crapsey wasn’t sure he knew how to get rid of it, but there was a definite strain in his mind from pinching off this bit of reality and tearing this other bit open, so he just… stopped making the effort, and the towering giant vanished, leaving only the flattened remains of the woman the scorpion spirit had inhabited. Crapsey swayed a little, woozy, like he’d hiked to a higher elevation and wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and he was more than a little intimidated by the sheer power Genevieve’s body possessed. He glanced at the Mason thoughtfully. Tired or not, he could taste her shape – the shape of the monstrous thing that looked like a cloak – and summon its refutation, too. Did he dare try such a thing? What if he failed? What horrors would she unleash on him if he attempted to destroy her and failed? He –
“I know that look in your eye,” the Mason said. “It certainly took you long enough to make the connection. Now, Nicolette.”
“What?” Crapsey said, but Nicolette had a tiny yellow bead in the palm of her hand, and she flicked it hard with her finger, making the bead fly and bounce off his forehead and then –
The lights went out.
When Crapsey woke he was back in his own body in his little corner of the Felport warehouse the Mason called home, which freaked him out, because he didn’t remember moving, and it wasn’t like anyone else could move him, at least, not from body to body. “What – how –”
The Mason was sitting on a sea chest, looking at him with her customary lack of affect. “I took Genevieve’s body and your body to a sealed room far away from anyone else and cut Genevieve’s throat. You jumped back into your old body by instinct. Of course, no other hosts were available, since you can’t take my body.”
“Right.” Crapsey’s head pounded. He needed a drink of water. He swung his legs off his small bed and groaned. “But why’d you kill her? Why not keep her body on ice so we could use her power in the future?”
“You realized the potential, Crapsey. That you might be stronger than me, in that body. I couldn’t have that. You’re loyal to me, I know, but only because the consequences of disloyalty are too great. You could never be allowed in Genevieve’s body again. She was a useful resource, but the possible rewards didn’t outweigh the possible risks. I could have performed a ritual to swap some other sorcerer’s consciousness into her body, true, but come, Crapsey – you know I don’t trust any of my other lieutenants.”
“You don’t trust me, either.”
“Oh, but I do trust you. I trust you to obey me absolutely, enjoying yourself as much as possible in the meantime, until the moment you think you can kill me without repercussions.” The Mason shrugged. “It’s more trust than I give anyone else in the world. Fortunately, I am extremely hard to kill, so I expect you to be loyal to me for a long time. That’s why you’re my only friend – because we truly understand each other.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said, and the feeling that he’d let a chance at escape slip away was like the moment you realize summer is over and winter is swiftly headed your way.
The Mason pointed to the house, which looked even more run-down in the daylight. Crapsey sighed and climbed out of the cab, not sure what he was supposed to do, exactly. Even if the scorpion thing was around in this universe, his only offensive capabilities were a butterfly knife and his natural and inexplicable ability to curse in a primal incantatory tongue that unleashed little geysers of chaos, but a few spurts of flame or spontaneous sinkholes wouldn’t help him here.
A little old lady – the little old lady – appeared in the doorway, shading her eyes from the sun. “Can I help you?” she called. “Are you lost?”
“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Yeah, lost. What is this place?” He came a little closer, squinting, trying to get a sense of whether there was anything supernatural-ish about her. As far as he could tell, she was just human, but he was no expert, and without Genevieve’s senses, he didn’t have any special insight.
The woman chuckled. “It used to be the edge of a little mining town called Tolerance, but there’s precious little town left. Only a handful of us stayed, and sometimes I wonder why I did.”
“Huh. So you don’t stay because of your devotion to a desert spirit that appears in the form of an enormous scorpion then?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Boss,” Crapsey said, turning back to the now-dusty Humvee, where the Mason still sat. “This is a waste of time. She’s not, I don’t know, inhabited at the moment. I guess we aren’t enough of a threat yet to call the attention of the big scorpion god. So why don’t we –”
“Kill her,” the Mason said.
“What?” the woman squawked, taking a step back.
Crapsey sighed and started to sit down, preparing himself for yet another possession.
“No, not that way,” the Mason said. “Use your knife.”
Swearing softly, Crapsey took the blade from his jacket pocket. His suit already reeked from all the travel, and now he was going to get blood stains on it, there was just no way around it, this was bound to be messy. “I’m sorry, lady. I mean, this sucks, and I don’t want to do it, but your mirror-universe doppelganger made a bad enemy, so here we are.”
The woman ran into the house, and Crapsey swore again, loudly this time, because now, damn it, he had to chase her.
After he was done, and he’d climbed back into the Humvee and slumped against the passenger side door, the Mason reached over and patted his knee. “Good boy,” she said, and started the car.