Nicolette loved the Humvee, and gladly took over its operation, shouting “I’m burning dinosaur bones!” as she drove. Freak. Her promotion to driver left Crapsey in the back seat, watching fields and trees spool by. They were still outside Felport. This land was all waste and spoil and smoking holes in the ground where Crapsey was from, ruined in the magical wars fought by the various groups of sorcerers who’d attempted to take down the Mason in her home territory over the years. He couldn’t get over how different things were here. All nature and shit. Bizarre.
Then again, Nicolette was remarkably similar to the version of herself Crapsey knew and loathed, full of biting wit, barbed comments, non-sequiturs, and the random giggles of the deeply unhinged. Apparently they hadn’t gotten very far with her in terms of therapy and rehabilitation at the Blackwing Institute. Or else Nicolette had been even crazier when she went in.
“We need to find Marla,” the Mason was saying. “You will make it happen.”
“Sure thing. Mind if we swing by one of my secret stashes first? Marla impounded most of my toys, but I kept caches hidden around the city, you know, against the eventuality.”
“You will be more useful to me if you are armed.”
“That means yes,” Crapsey said.
“Thanks for the interpretation, Craphole,” Nicolette said. “I swear, it was like she was speaking Martian up here.”
“Why are you a bitch to me?” Crapsey said. “You’ve never even met me.”
Nicolette snorted. “Oh, I’ve met you, or at least your ineffectual twin. You’re hotter than Rondeau, I’ll give you that, you take care of yourself better, but I can tell you’re just the same under those muscles – no mind of your own, pure weaselly follower all the way through, happy to do what you’re told as long as your belly stays full and your dick gets tugged every once in a while. I’m the kind of girl who values initiative, because lockstep yes-men don’t do much to increase chaos in the world, you feel me? And if you don’t nourish me, you annoy me. It’s pathetic, seeing you kowtow to Marla in two universes, you’re like some kind of interdimensional lickspittle –”
“I am not Marla.” The Mason’s voice was quiet, which made Crapsey smile. Maybe she’d kill the bald bitch. “That is a fact you should bear in mind.”
“My bad.” Nicolette’s voice held something that resembled contrition. “Of course you’re not. I wouldn’t be here if you were.”
“What is your plan for locating Marla?” the Mason said.
Nicolette shrugged. “Go to her office. If she’s not there, we go after her consigliere, Hamil, he can always get a message to her.”
Crapsey shuddered. There was a wealth of information in the Mason’s “Hmm,” but only he could hear it. Hamil and Dr. Husch were the only important powers who’d escaped Felport and environs, and they were still active in the east coast resistance. He figured the Mason was trying to decide if murdering Hamil for his doppelganger’s crimes was the right course of action, or if the fat man was better kept alive to use as bait or a bargaining chip or for some other purpose.
“Will Marla have her cloak with her?”
Nicolette shrugged. “I doubt it. She used to wear it a lot, but earlier this year she started treating it like a tactical nuke, keeping it locked down, only breaking it out when serious shit was going down. The word on the street is she sent it away, put it in a magical box and told a guy to go bury it at some unknown end of the earth.”
The Mason grunted, and Crapsey spoke up: “Susan Wellstone said she’d heard that rumor too but didn’t believe it. She didn’t think Marla would give up such a powerful weapon.”
“Does seem a little out of character. Could just be misinformation and misdirection, I guess, keeping an ace in the hole. No way to know for sure.”
“We must know for sure,” the Mason said. “The status of the cloak is very important.”
“We-ell.” Nicolette drummed her fingers against the steering wheel for a moment. “Marla liked to hold the cloak in reserve for major emergencies, you know? When the shit really hit the fan, she’d put it on. So if she does still have it, we could create a sufficiently big emergency to make her put it on. And if she doesn’t still have it… well, without that big mojo it should be a lot easier to pin her to the wall with knives and cut off bits of her until she tells us where it is.” Nicolette flashed a grin. “I mean, I get the sense you care more about the cloak than about Marla herself per se.”
Crapsey had been thinking the same thing, but hadn’t dared voice it, because he was afraid it might be one of those few areas where the Mason wouldn’t tolerate inquiry. He hoped he was right, and that Nicolette was about to get smited. Smote? Whatever. Smushed.
Instead the Mason said, “I care about both Marla and the cloak equally. When I arrived in this horrible universe – or my analogue of this horrible universe – I sought out the most powerful will I could find, the most potent and resilient host, and that was Marla Mason. Neutralizing Marla here is imperative.”
“She ain’t all that.” Nicolette’s tone was petulant.
“There are smarter humans,” the Mason said. “There are physically stronger ones. There are more magically talented ones – in truth, Marla has almost no innate gift for magic, which makes her accomplishments all the more impressive, as if a woman with only seven fingers became a concert violinist. Because Marla has an extraordinary will. Pressures that would crush others serve only to increase her determination. She is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging defeat. A strong will is the most important quality a sorcerer can have, because will fuels all magic – and it’s the most important quality I need in a host, because the stresses of carrying me and being a conduit for my powers are enormous. Taking over a weaker host would have been far easier, but they wouldn’t have lasted. I struggled mightily to dominate the body I use now, and indeed, Marla’s mind still turns over restless within me, watchful for any chance to bring about her own death and my neutralization. Of course, I give her no such opportunities. But I mustn’t give the Marla of this world any opportunities, either.”
Crapsey breathed out. That was the longest speech he’d heard out of the Mason in a long time, though he thought there was at least one lie in it, and certainly a great deal of omission. She’d said why she was interested in Marla, but not a word about the cloak. And why the hell was she explaining herself to Nicolette anyway? Might as well ask: “Why are you explaining yourself to the chauffeur, boss?”
“Nicolette is our native guide in strange territory, Crapsey. Even the geography of this city has changed greatly from our timeline – there are new buildings, even new freeways, and old landmarks are gone. And look, the Whitcroft-Ivory building is finished.” When she pointed at the tallest skyscraper on Felport’s little downtown skyline, still a half-built skeleton of rusting girders in their world, it was the first time Crapsey noticed they’d even entered the city, he’d been so engrossed in listening and speculation. The Mason continued. “We need Nicolette’s guidance, so she is an asset. I am treating her well, and will continue to do so for as long as I need her.”
“Guess I’d better stay useful, then,” Nicolette said.
The Mason ignored her. After a moment, she said, “Your plan has value. We will give up the element of surprise, and will instead cause sufficient mayhem that Marla will have no choice but to don the cloak and face me.”
Nicolette whooped. “Mayhem, I like. What should we smash up first?”
“Who are the sorcerers currently serving on the council?” the Mason asked.
“Let’s see, fat boy Hamil, that idiot Granger, the Bay Witch – she’s a weirdo, but I’d do her if she showered off the brine first – that icy bitch the Chamberlain, greasy Ernesto, and Mr. trapdoor spider himself, Viscarro, down in the catacombs.”
“Very well. We will kill them all.”
Starting with Viscarro, Crapsey thought.
“Starting with Viscarro,” the Mason said. “We will leave some of his apprentices alive to tell the other sorcerers what happened. Marla will be unable to ignore such an attack, and when she hears about me, and my cloak, she will doubtless wear her own. This plan is acceptable.”
“Sure, but why Viscarro first? He’s the best protected and defended of the bunch. Some out-of-town sorcerer got into his catacombs and caused him some trouble earlier this year and I bet he’s quadrupled security since then.”
Viscarro’s first because he was the first sorcerer she killed in our world, Crapsey thought. Because she hates him the most. Because he almost stopped her before she even got started. But it wasn’t his place to say that, and the Mason didn’t speak either.
“Uh, hello?” Nicolette said, and Crapsey winced. It was like seeing a child play in traffic, honestly, the woman had no idea what she was doing. “I said –”
“I heard you.” The Mason’s voice could have sliced titanium. “I hear everything. I did not answer because your question does not interest me.”
“So much for treating me like an asset,” Nicolette muttered.
“She is treating you like an asset,” Crapsey said. “That’s why your head is still on your shoulders even though you pushed her when she didn’t want to be pushed.”
He expected some scathing reply, but instead Nicolette was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Duly noted,” and drove silently from there.
Nicolette stopped in a run-down neighborhood south of the river, where she parked in a driveway behind an old Mustang up on blocks. The chaos witch peered in the house’s dirty windows, then went around behind the detached garage. Crapsey heard the tinkle of breaking glass, faintly, and a few moments later Nicolette returned with a coarsely-woven sack just big enough to carry a bowling ball or a severed head. “Got my party favors,” she said, climbing back behind the wheel and dropping the clinking bag on top of an unused cupholder. “Now we can start having fun.”
“Take me to Viscarro now.” The Mason didn’t have a very party-ready tone.
Nicolette drove along more cruddy residential streets for a while until they rumbled over some railroad tracks and the houses gave way to empty lots and industrial buildings. “This is the neighborhood where we put the mass grave in our world,” Crapsey said. He’d never seen so many bulldozers in one place.
“Precious memories,” the Mason replied. “Where are we going, Nicolette? I do not recall an entrance to the catacombs in this area.”
“Viscarro moved ’em around, sealed up a bunch of tunnels, made new ones, a few months back.”
“Why would he go to such trouble?”
Nicolette laughed. “It’s a long-ass story, and I’m not sure how much is true and how much is bullshit, but a guy who claimed to be the incarnation of Death himself came to town and stirred a lot of shit, including busting in on Viscarro in his lair. Now that was chaos times. For a while I thought Mr. Death would get rid of Marla for us, but she came out on top. She’s got a way of doing that.”
“Huh,” Crapsey said. “This Death guy, tall, dark, wore rings on every finger, smirky face?”
“Sounds like the dude,” Nicolette said.
The Mason made a “mmm” sound. “He came to see me as well. Fought his way through the defenses at my headquarters with trivial ease. But when he came face to face with me, he whimpered, said I was beyond his reach, and ran away. I’d wondered who he was.”
Nicolette laughed. “You are badass. Did he have a pet necromancer with him, guy named Ayres?”
The Mason nodded. “Yes. Mad Ayres. I released him from the Blackwing Institute when I needed room for more political prisoners. I never expected him to cause trouble for me later – he was such a nonentity. But he came along with the death man, and was nonplussed when his companion fled.” The Mason stared out the windshield for a moment, then said, “Ayres. Yes. I killed and ate him.”
The silence in the Humvee was deafening.
“Is she… are you kidding?” Nicolette’s voice was caught half between horror and admiration.
“She’s not,” Crapsey said. He hadn’t witnessed the devouring of Ayres, but he’d been in the next room, and he’d heard the sounds, and he’d dispatched the cleaning unit to scrub the gore off the walls afterward. “He was all blustery and ‘You mustn’t’ this and ‘I demand’ that, and the Mason said, ‘Shut up, or I’ll kill you and eat you,’ and he didn’t shut up, so.” Crapsey shrugged. “She follows through on her threats.”
“I thought the story of my actions would create fear among my enemies and vassals,” the Mason said. “The experience was no more or less loathsome than eating anything else. All culinary options are equally repulsive in this universe.”
“You are epic fucked-up, lady,” Nicolette said. “I think I might be in love.”
“She’s just as likely to kill and eat you, if you get on her nerves,” Crapsey said.
“Danger gives our relationship its spice.” Nicolette drove the Humvee down a side street and parked in front of the burned-out shell of a former auto shop. “There’s an entrance to the catacombs in here.” She slipped out and led the Mason and Crapsey into the half-roofed space, all blackened concrete and smoke-stained metal walls, then pointed to the oil-change pit. She dropped down into the dark hole, and Crapsey and the Mason followed. Nicolette kicked aside a scattering of trash and dead leaves and revealed a small metal loop set into the floor. She grabbed, grunted, and pulled, a section of the floor rising up to reveal a trap door.
The opening was filled entirely with bricks and mortar.
Nicolette swore. “This was a working entrance last time I looked, but I’ve been out of the loop for a little while, and –”
The Mason knelt, placed her hands on the bricks, and hummed. “There’s still a space beneath. The tunnel wasn’t collapsed. Only the mouth of the entrance was closed.” Beneath her hands, the bricks began to crack and snap and shift, sublimating into gas. Crapsey turned his face away and closed his airways, but Nicolette wasn’t swift enough on the uptake, and staggered back, gagging and coughing as brick vapor hit her in the face. Crapsey grinned.
Once the hole was pretty well cleared and the gas had dissipated, the Mason stood up, kicked the few remaining bricks down, and stepped into the hole, cloak flying up as she dropped out of sight.
Nicolette, still coughing, eyes streaming with tears, pointed at the hole and said, “Lackeys first.”
Crapsey stepped close to her, grabbed her by the throat, and said, “You don’t want to push me. We’re about to go into battle, and sure, the Mason can use you, but if you happen to go down in the fight, well… it happens. Maybe your Rondeau is too pussy to kill, but I’ve sent hundreds of souls into the darkness, and I didn’t even have anything against those people. I hate the version of you from my world, and you’re not winning me over in this iteration, either, so watch your step. And in case you get any smart ideas about bushwhacking me, remember: I’m immortal, and I can choose my next host. I’d be happy to ride around in your body for a while, using it for things you’d never approve of. Got it?”
She didn’t fight him, just stared, and when he let go of her throat, she took a long breath, hoisted her bag of charms, and went down the hole without another word.
Either he’d made his point, or he hadn’t. Time would tell. But at least she’d shut up for a moment.
Crapsey lowered himself into Felport’s underworld.
The Mason did her thing. When they encountered a steel door, she melted it. When sirens began whooping in the distance and a portcullis gate slammed down, she bent the bars like pipe cleaners. When a crowd of apprentices in bits of hurriedly-donned medieval armor attempted to ambush them from a side tunnel while another group slipped in from behind to cut off their retreat – as if they’d retreat! – Crapsey joined in, jumping from body to body among the rear attackers until the remaining few broke in terror and ran. He let his survivors get away, which was more than the Mason did. The tunnel was going to be tricky to navigate for a while, because of all the bodies.
Nicolette had her hand in her satchel, eyes wide, but she hadn’t actually contributed anything. “Gods, you two didn’t even give me time to get started.”
“No reason to linger over these,” the Mason said. “They are insignificant. I do recognize some of them – or the remnant of Marla within me recognizes them.” She gestured vaguely at the dead before her. “They are older, of course. Still fetching and carrying for Viscarro, all hoping to be the chosen one someday, to become his lieutenant and successor. But, of course, Viscarro intends to live forever.”
“He is a lich, right?” Nicolette said. “His body’s already dead, he’s basically just a ghost haunting his own preserved corpse. His life force is locked up in a phylactery somewhere, so even killing his body won’t kill him. He’s got a better shot at eternity than the rest of us.”
“Not when I’m through with him. I know where he keeps the gem that holds his life.”
“Oh, hell, then, let’s go.” Nicolette grinned. She didn’t look at Crapsey, and hadn’t even acknowledged his existence since their little one-sided chat in the oil pit, which suited him just fine.
The Mason led them along tunnels, some lined with brick, some ancient stone, some dirt braced with wooden posts, some natural caverns connected by unnatural means. Though they passed more checkpoints and gates, they were unattended, with no more apprentices standing in their way. They paused in a short branch of zigzagging tunnel hacked through rock, the Mason sniffing the air. “There are people nearby,” she said.
“Think the rats are laying traps up ahead?” Crapsey said.
“That is Viscarro’s style. But I’m not easily trapped.” The Mason ducked through a low doorway, but before Nicolette or Crapsey could follow, a bone-vibrating rumble started… and the tunnel beyond the doorway collapsed, the space filling with earth, the Mason vanishing from sight.
“Cave-in,” Crapsey said, his own voice sounding faraway in his abused ears. “That’s a good trap.” Another rumble followed, and he glanced through the doorway behind him, where rocks tumbled, blocking their only path of escape, leaving them in what amounted to a small hallway about ten feet long, six feet high, and four feet wide. He wasn’t good at math and calculations, but he figured the volume of available oxygen in a space this size was: not much.
“Guess we get to see whether my essential self can escape a cave-in.” Crapsey sat down, leaning his back against the wall, glancing at the ceiling, which still looked relatively solid and well-braced by thick wooden beams, but what did he know about mine safety? “If this place is airtight and we both die of suffocation, I might be stuck here until somebody comes along with a shovel and a pickaxe. Bummer.” He glanced at Nicolette. “I did not want to die a slow death in a small room with you.”
“You just give up?” Nicolette said. “That’s it?”
“Oh, you’re talking to me now?” Crapsey shrugged. “I’m not exactly giving up. Hell, I’m probably immortal. I’m just acknowledging the outcome of this situation is out of my hands. We’re, what, fifty feet below the ground or some shit? I can Curse and cause some fires or sinkholes, but that’s a bad idea in this situation. I know you’re chock full of chaos magic, but chaos is not our friend under here. Now, the Mason will be all right – she’s unkillable, and she’s got a knife that cuts through anything, and we already know she can turn stone to smoke. But the question is, will she bother to come back here and save us, or will she just go kill Viscarro? You have to understand, she doesn’t really like us. We’re not people to her. We’re tools. If you lose your tools, maybe you try to find them, or maybe you just get new tools. There’s no way to guess what she’ll do, and there’s no point in praying, so.” He shrugged. “Shut up and conserve your oxygen and hope the old monster still considers us useful.”
Nicolette opened her mouth. Crapsey decided that, when the first word came out of her mouth, he’d jump to her body and shut her up forever. The thought was comforting. Plus, once she was dead, it would double the amount of oxygen down here for him. Win-win.
Before she could speak and seal her fate, a little avalanche started at the far end of the tunnel, and the Mason came slithering out, covered in rock dust – but not entirely covered. Her face and hands were dirty, but the dirt completely failed to stick to the cloak.
“Boss, you came back for us!” Crapsey said.
The Mason cocked her head. “The tunnels ahead are mined. I heard the apprentices talking. Progress through a series of collapsing tunnels would be unpleasantly slow, so I thought it best to backtrack.” She sniffed. “I did not realize they’d also collapsed the tunnels behind us, or I would not have bothered returning this way.”
“See?” Crapsey said. “She loves us. She really loves us. What’s the plan now?”
“I have been to Viscarro’s inner sanctum many times. Not in this universe, true, but unless he has made major changes, it should be similar enough to allow me to teleport.”
Nicolette blinked. “Teleporting? You mean, ah… ripping a hole in space, stepping into the space between space, and ripping another hole to step out of? That kind of teleporting?”
“Yes. I know no other.”
“There’s, like, a one-in-five chance the stuff living between those portals will tear you to pieces every time you step through. Nobody sane teleports. I mean, apprentices goad each other and the stupid ones learn how, and a whole lot of them die.”
The Mason shrugged. “There are dangers, yes. But I grow impatient.”
Nicolette grinned. “Fucking A. You are crazy. Let’s do it.”
“I do not require your approval or permission.” The Mason held up her knife, and purple light crawled up her hand to lace the dagger. She made a complex sigil in the air, and a shifting oval about man-sized appeared before her. The Mason stepped through, and Nicolette followed.
Crapsey hesitated. If his body got killed in that sparkling darkness between here and their destination, would his essential self be trapped there, in a hell-space filled with monsters the senses couldn’t even comprehend?
The alternative was dying in a hole in the ground and hoping a passing tunnel-digger came along to provide a new body someday. Oh well. He could, at least, hope that something in the in-between would kill Nicolette. Cheered by the thought, he stepped through.
A moment of lurching darkness, the sound of distant scuttles and the wind of something lashing by entirely too close to his head, and then he was through, into Viscarro’s central chamber.
And into disaster. Nicolette was on the ground, gasping, mouth opening and closing like a fish drowning in air, and her left arm was gone at the shoulder, a knob of bone protruding and blood pouring out. The arm itself was nowhere to be seen, which meant her limb had probably been ripped off by one of the things dwelling between the portals – such maimings were rarer than outright disappearances, but not unheard of.
The Mason looked whole – no shock there – but she was face-down and unmoving on the ground. Viscarro himself stood over her, looking like a skeleton made of coat hangers dressed in a brown velvet robe. He held a long, crooked wooden staff with a ball of pale green fire hovering at the top. “Marla Mason,” he said, prodding her prone body with the end of his magical staff, which must be some kind of bad-ass artifact if it had knocked the Mason down. “We never got along, I know, but I didn’t expect a direct attack. I’m disappointed in you.”
I’m free, Crapsey thought. The Mason killed Viscarro in our world, but he’s fifteen years older and smarter and wiser and wilier here, and he beat her, it’s done, it’s finally over –
“And you, her lap-dog,” Viscarro said, raising his staff. “Parasite, body thief. I’m surprised to see you here – I thought you and your mistress had a falling out. But I’ve always wanted to dissect you and find out what you really are. Yours is a form of immortality I wouldn’t mind having for myself.”
Crap, Crapsey thought, and then green fire filled his vision.