Consciousness returned like a drunk staggering home after a three-day bender – in unsteady lurches and considerable pain. Marla let her eyes open the barest slit, because there was probably no advantage in letting her captors know she was waking up, but a face waited just inches from her own, dark eyes looking at her attentively, so Marla headbutted.
Still woozy. No leverage or speed behind the strike, probably because she was, what, on her back? The face pulled back, nose un-smashed, blood un-spurting, and Marla groaned. “I know you.” The woman wore a dove-gray suit and had stupid feathers woven into her hair, just like before. “Am I back in Alcatraz?”
“A cell, yes. Alcatraz, no. They call me the Trapper, by the way. I’ll be your guard this evening.”
Trapper. Not Warden. Not the same woman, then, but her parallel-universe counterpart, so Marla hadn’t pulled a “There’s no place like home” and returned to her world somehow. Sense and memory slowly rose in Marla’s brain, like groundwater filling a hole in the earth. Status report, self: alone and unarmed, no Rondeau, no cloak, no dagger. “If you don’t mind me asking, why the fuck am I in a cell?” Marla sat up, slowly, and only then realized her arms were bound at the wrists behind her back. Didn’t feel like rope, or metal, or wire, or plastic zip ties, so… probably magic.
“It’s not really my place to tell you,” the Trapper said. “I’m just babysitting. Sorry. I’m sure somebody higher up the food chain will be along soon to talk to you about the situation.”
They were in a square room made of cinderblocks, with a heavy metal grate for a roof about twenty feet above them, and… no door. “Did you people build this thing around me?” Marla asked. How long had she been out?
“No, no, we’re in a pit. The hole was always here, we don’t know what it was for originally, just more bunker crap. The metal grate on top is just a lid, it comes off – at least, when I’m not making sure it stays closed, it does. After Lao knocked you out, they lowered you in here, though you fell the last few feet. Didn’t even wake you up. I came down after you because they said you’re too dangerous to leave unattended. I descended on a rope ladder, though, because, ow.” She shrugged.
They put one of their own down here with me, Marla thought. These people are hopeless. “Ow. Right. You know, I broke your face pretty good in my home universe recently. Had better luck with my headbutt that time.”
“Bradley said you were from a parallel world.” The Trapper shook her head. “Hard to believe, but… you really met me? Over there?”
“Yup.” Marla yawned. “Damn, I’m stiff. Help me stand up and stretch a little?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, no. Not touching you. You already tried to break my nose with your forehead. Not giving you another chance.”
“You think I’m dangerous? I’m trussed up like a babe in a bondage video, and I can tell you’ve got a heavy magic-nullifying field going here, it’s making my back teeth ache.” The Trapper just stared at her, so Marla sighed, leaned her shoulder against the wall, pushed with her legs, and levered herself to an upright position. Once on her feet, swaying, she made a great show of wincing and bending side-to-side and rolling her neck. Then she took a half-hop, half-dance step forward and hit the Trapper with a front snap-kick to the right knee.
While the Trapper rolled on the ground and clutched her dislocated knee cap and shrieked, Marla dropped to the ground. She rolled back on her shoulders, tucking like she was going to do a back somersault, but instead just held steady with her butt off the ground. She worked her bound hands down the small of her back, past her hips, and over her ass. From there it was easy to lay supine, pull her knees up to her chest, and slip her bound hands over her heels and past her toes, so now her bound hands were in front. Bluish light pulsed around her wrists: magical manacles. At least they didn’t chafe like real cuffs. “Much better.” Marla sprang back to her feet. “This is fun, isn’t it? It was pretty smart of you to damp down magic, making it so I can’t cast any spells, but then, you can’t cast any new spells while the field is on, either, can you? And I’m better at hand-to-hand fighting than you are, I’m guessing. You gotta be careful when you go leveling the playing field.”
The Trapper scurried into a far corner, eyes wide and terrified, so Marla ran at her, making as if to kick her in the face. The Trapper leapt to the side – as best she could from a sitting position with only one working knee, anyway – and that allowed Marla to crouch behind her, slip her cuffed-together hands over the woman’s head and under her chin, and begin strangling the Trapper with the sparking blue chain between her wrists.
“This is a bitch, am I right?” Marla pressed her knees hard into the Trapper’s back, right between the shoulder blades, while she pulled backward with her cuffed hands. The Trapper tried to get her fingers under the magical chain, but Marla’s grip was too tight. After a couple of seconds Marla thought, Slow learner, and said, “Sucks to get strangled to death by your own magic, huh? Bet it makes you rethink the wisdom of cuffing me at all.”
The Trapper started trying to speak, so Marla eased up enough to let her get some air. The Trapper gasped some word of power – Marla’s teeth quit aching – and then spoke another incantatory few syllables, and the magical cuffs vanished. Since Marla had been expecting that, she didn’t fall back on her ass. She just slipped an arm around the gasping woman’s throat and choked her unconscious, much as Lao Tsung had choked her.
Marla eased the still woman down to the floor of the pit and considered. The Trapper had turned off the magic-dampening field with that first word of power – she’d had no choice, since she needed access to magic in order to dispel the cuffs and stop Marla from garroting her – and that meant Marla could use magic now, too. There were a few options open to her, but she felt like showing her captors just how futile their betrayal was, so she settled for whistling, just two low notes.
They’d taken away her dagger of office, which was heartening – that meant one of the bastards up there was short a few fingers now, since her dagger didn’t like being touched by strangers, and tended to bite the hand that grasped. After she whistled, someone up above shouted, and a clattering noise began. Her dagger came sliding into sight on the grille above, drawn to her like a cat to the feeding dish. The mesh of the lid over the pit was too fine for the dagger to fall through, but that was okay – the blade just turned a little, twisted, sliced an opening in the metal big enough to slip through, and then fell, hilt-first, into Marla’s waiting hand.
She kissed the blade (it wouldn’t cut her), and shouted, “Somebody come talk to me or I’ll start cutting pieces off your little Trapper Keeper here. I can’t believe you morons put her in here with me, and then didn’t post another guard up top.”
An anxious-looking face appeared over the grille. Marla tried to remember her name, then did, and didn’t use it. “You. Pie hole. Where’s Bradley? Or your boss?”
Pie Bob swallowed. “They’re not here. It’s just me, and Talion because he got hurt. He’s watching your friend.”
“Where’s everyone else?”
“On… a mission.”
“Trying to kill the Jaguar? Without me? That’s rude.” Pie Bob didn’t answer. “All right. If the cats are away, that makes you the ranking officer, little mouse. Get the lid off this pit and lower a ladder for me.”
Pie Bob blinked. “Um. No?”
“You think I can’t get out of this hole on my own? I’m just giving you a chance to show me you’ll cooperate, candy cane. Be good, and you might get out of this with all your limbs attached. What’s it going to be?”
The face disappeared, and didn’t come back, so Marla sighed. She could fly out, but flying gave her motion sickness. If she had on her magical gecko boots she could walk right up the side of the pit, but the boots were green lizard skin and she found wearing them embarrassing, so she had on her black workboots instead. They were steel-toed, with inertial charms worked into the leather for extra smashy-ness. She kicked the wall, and her boot bashed a handy foothold in the cinderblock, so she jammed her dagger into the wall, giving it the little twist that told the blade not to slice on through the stone but to stick there instead, then kicked another foothold a little higher, and climbed in that fashion all the way to the top. From there she just had to slice a hole in the mesh and hoist herself out.
Pie Bob and the punky-looking guy, Talion, were there. Rondeau was unconscious – and snoring – on the floor, and Talion had a ridiculous-looking rapier in his hand, the point resting just below Rondeau’s Adam’s apple. His other hand was wrapped in a huge bulge of bandages, which meant he’d been the one to try and pick up her dagger, the lucky devil.
“Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head, or I’ll kill your friend,” Talion said. To his credit, his voice didn’t even waver.
Marla snorted. “Go ahead, glam-rock. Didn’t Beta-Bradley tell you? Rondeau is a psychic parasite, just like your bogeyman Crapsey. Kill that body and he’ll just possess one of you two idiots. Then our little situation will still be two-against-one, but my team will be the two and yours will be the one. Plus, right, one of you will have your soul totally annihilated. So, since your only leverage isn’t such a good lever, your only options are surrender, or, if you feel you’ve already lived full and complete lives, a clumsy and ill-coordinated assault against me. What do you say? Sugar? Spice? What’s it going to be?”
They saw reason, which was good, because if they had killed Rondeau, he would have indeed sought a new host – but he might just as easily have possessed Marla’s body instead of one of theirs, since he didn’t have a lot of control over the process, unlike his dark doppelganger Crapsey. After only a little posturing Talion fetched her bag – they hadn’t been able to open it yet, because the wards were too gnarly, which meant the cloak was safe, at least – and then Talion and Pie Bob got into the pit with only a few mutters about how Marla would be sorry. She rooted around in her bag until she found one of the charms she’d brought along, a satchel of lavender and rarer things, then tossed that into the pit with them. A moment later, the sound of snores rose up to meet her. Sleep charms were one of the gentler alternatives at her disposal, and she wasn’t feeling particularly gentle, but there was still some slim chance this was a misunderstanding of some sort, so she didn’t want to burn all her bridges by seriously damaging her captors. The Trapper was the only one really hurt, and she wouldn’t die; if they had a decent battlefield healer she’d probably even walk again.
Marla prodded Rondeau in the side with her toe. He groaned, smacked his lips, and went back to snoring. Typical. Everybody except her got to take a nap. Oh well. Somebody had to be the responsible grown-up.
Marla didn’t bother with a look-away spell, since it wouldn’t work on Beta-B anyway. Instead, she and a bleary-but-conscious Rondeau sat in the deep shadows on one side of the bunker with a good view of the front door, letting darkness – and the expectations of their captors, who would assume they were still trussed-up – hide them.
“So what do you think all this is about?” Rondeau said while they waited. “Why’d New B turn on us? I thought we were getting along.”
“Can’t say for sure. I hope it’s just some kind of mistake, but… I doubt it. People are motivated by too many things – fear, greed, pride, shame, pure survival instinct – I can’t say for sure why Beta-B jumped us. We’re in unfamiliar territory here. Who knows what life is like for these people? Based on available evidence, it’s pretty shitty, and I’m sure they’re pretty desperate. Well. When they get back, we’ll just ask, and then we’ll know.”
After a while there was a loud clanging sound, and Marla and Rondeau exchanged wide-eyed glances. “Crap,” Marla said. “Here I was feeling all hyper-competent and smug, but I forgot someone in here has to open the door. Should’ve kept a conscious hostage.”
“I’ll do it,” Rondeau said. “I’d rather have you covering me than vice versa.”
“Try not to get knocked unconscious by an iron bar. It’d be humiliating if their door-knocker actually turned out to be a useful weapon.”
Rondeau went to the door, took a deep breath, then pulled the big metal lever that disengaged the locks. Rondeau backed away as the door swung open.
Beta-B, Yasuko, and Jericho came in, limping, shuffling, heads hung low, clothes torn and singed, all talking in voices which were slightly too shrill.
“But what about the cousins?” Yasuko said.
“I think they made it out,” Beta-B said, head down. “I saw them running away.”
“Chris didn’t make it,” Jericho said. “He was covering the boss’s retreat, and…” He shuddered.
“Wait, do you mean Little Chris or –”
“No, Chris Decomain,” Jericho said. “One of the ghost-cats got him, but he bought enough time to cover the retreat, so at least he didn’t die for absolutely nothing, like the rest of them did. I don’t know what happened to Little Chris, but he was with Lao Tsung’s team, so maybe he’s okay.”
Rondeau looked past them at Marla, shrugged, and pulled the door to. The newcomers didn’t even look around, so Rondeau leaned against the wall, took out his butterfly knife, and began flipping it open and closed while whistling.
The whistling was enough to get Jericho to look back, and he said, “Oh, shit,” and that got Beta-B and Yasuko turned around. “How’d he get out? Where’s Talion?”
Marla stepped out of the shadows, though the effect was spoiled because they all had their backs turned to her. She was a striking figure, she knew, with her cloak on her shoulders, the outside so white it almost seemed to glow once the lights hit it. “Talion’s the one who’s short a few fingers, right? Apart from that he’s fine. Taking a little nap, along with Betty Crocker. The one with feathers in her hair could use some medical treatment, but it’s nothing life threatening.”
Beta-B and the others looked back and forth, unwilling to take their eyes off of Marla or Rondeau, though with three of them they could have trivially stood back-to-back-to-back and covered both of them and a hypothetical third opponent as well. Amateurs.
“It’s three against two,” Jericho said, raising his hands, coils of black power curling up his fingers. “We can –”
“She’s wearing the cloak,” Yasuko hissed, and Jericho lowered his hands. That was gratifying. The few people who’d seen Marla’s cloak in action were justly afraid of it, but with these people, fear of the cloak was probably more like a religious belief, faith-based and all-powerful.
Finally Beta-B settled on facing her. “So. What are you going to do now?”
Marla shrugged. “Depends on how you answer my question. Can you guess what the question is?”
“Probably why I had you knocked unconscious and thrown into a hole?”
“Ding ding ding. We have a winner.”
“It was nothing,” Jericho said, “just a routine precaution, to put you on ice for a while, we couldn’t have a stranger running around –”
“Did you know I can smell lies?” Rondeau said conversationally, and it was a nice bit of improvisation on his part, Marla thought, as the color drained from Jericho’s face.
“It doesn’t matter if we tell her.” Beta-B rubbed the back of his neck, wincing. He met Marla’s eyes. “We needed you for phase two, but since phase one was a total failure, we’ll all probably be dead in a couple of days, so who cares? After we defeated the Jaguar, we were going to use you to kill the Mason.”
Marla frowned. “I’m perfectly happy to kill the Mason. It’s on my to-do list. What do you mean, use me?”
“You have no idea what the Mason’s like.” Beta-B abruptly sat cross-legged on the floor, as if his legs simply couldn’t hold him up anymore. “It’s all well and good to say you’ll fight her, but you. Would. Die. I know you have a cloak, too, but she’s got a lot more practice. I figured out a way you could defeat her, though. I got the idea when you introduced me to your friend Hamil.”
A light in Marla’s head turned on. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Bradley, that’s clever. I mean, obviously you’re an asshole for even thinking it, and I can’t let it happen, but I have to admit, it’s pretty good.”
“Let’s spell it out for the ones sitting in the back of the class, would you?” Rondeau said.
“Sympathetic magic,” Marla said. “We told Beta-B that was Hamil’s specialty.”
Beta-B nodded. “Once I thought about it, the idea was obvious. Since you’re genetically identical to the Mason, it would be trivial to create a sympathetic magical resonance between the two of you, to make you magically identical as well. In effect, we wanted to turn you into a sort of living voodoo doll for the Mason. Once that was arranged, whatever happened to you would happen to her, instantly.” He shrugged. “Which means, when we chopped off your head, she would’ve suffered a case of spontaneous decapitation. I might have asked you to volunteer for the job, but I get more of a warrior-pragmatist than noble-self-sacrificing vibe off you, no offense.”
“You’re right. Good plan otherwise though. You could’ve killed the Mason without getting within a hundred miles. Spooky assassination at a distance.”
“After I got the idea, I was afraid you wouldn’t come back here with me,” Beta-B said. “I get the feeling you’re kind of contrary, so I didn’t push, but you insisted, so that was easy. And when we got here to my front door, I gave a code phrase that meant, ‘Dangerous hostiles are coercing me, subdue them as quickly as possible.’ Not a hundred percent accurate, but it had the desired effect.”
“‘The bird of paradise has landed,’” Rondeau said. “And here I just thought you were being arrogant.” Rondeau walked up to Bradley and whapped him on the back of the head with his open palm, not hard. “You’re a jerk, you know that? Our B would have never –”
“Fuck your B,” he snarled, leaping to his feet and shoving Rondeau back. “I’m not your B, all right? I never will be. Your B is dead, and you’re wearing his corpse, you body-stealing freak. I’m my own man, I’ve got my own life and my own problems, and you can both go to –”
The door, which Rondeau had only pulled to and not actually latched shut, swung open, and a small gray-haired man with a neat beard, dressed in a profoundly stained suit in a long-outdated style, entered, followed by Lao Tsung and a giant of a man Marla hadn’t met before. “Now, Bradley,” the old man said, “there’s no excuse for rudeness.”
Beta-B slumped his shoulders. “Marla. Rondeau. This is my mentor. Meet –”
“Sanford Cole,” Marla said. “Good to see you. I’d say ’see you again,’ but I guess you never met me in this universe. I figured you must be Bradley’s mysterious mentor, but I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to show up.”
Cole – the wizard of San Francisco, court magician to Emperor Joshua Norton, awakened from his mystical century-long sleep to defend the city in the hour of its greatest need, just like he was when Mutex attacked San Francisco in Marla’s world – inclined his head slightly. “I regret I could not be here earlier. We were engaged in a battle against the great beast we call the Jaguar, and I’m afraid we suffered a rout. Regarding this belated meeting between us, the advantage is entirely yours, madam. You say we’ve met before under other stars – were we friends or rivals in your world?”
“Totally friends,” Rondeau said. “We helped you save San Francisco.”
“Well, Rondeau,” Marla said, “to be strictly accurate, Cole helped us save San Francisco, and to be even more accurate, both of you really just helped me. And I’ll save this stupid city again, even though evil mirror universe Bradley here tried to whack me over the head. That is, if you’ll promise to stop trying to use me in a magical ritual human sacrifice – which, if I can pull out the irony card, is exactly the kind of thing your hated Jaguar does, but at least he doesn’t trick his sacrificial victims into buying him a nice dinner first.” She glared at Beta-B.
“Perhaps we’d better have some tea and chat,” Cole said.