Crapsey’s body flew through the air, driven by a wall of green light, and smashed into a much more conventional wall, made of brick. At least, he was pretty sure it was a brick wall. The other possibility was that a truck had crashed into him, and he didn’t remember seeing any trucks rumbling through the catacombs. His body lay crumpled like a pile of dirty laundry at the base of the wall, and the green light faded, though a tinge of the color overlaid his vision, making everything in the dim dank chamber look faintly algae-beslimed.
Viscarro advanced on him, stepping over the Mason and scuttling past one-armed Nicolette without paying them any attention. His robes parted as he walked, and Crapsey noticed he had a false leg, a fancy thing made of brass and carved dark woods, doubtless magically animated. “You must be admiring my prosthesis.” Viscarro’s voice was like coal falling down a metal chute. “It’s an adequate bit of engineering, though nothing like the original. Nicolette would need one of these to replace her missing arm, except she’s going to bleed out and die, making the limb unnecessary. Teleportation is so gauche. Shouldn’t you all know better?”
“Listen!” Crapsey shouted. “I’m on your side! Go over there and take the cloak off that woman before she wakes up! We can end this!”
At least, that’s what he tried to shout, but his jaw stayed firmly closed, and his tongue didn’t so much as wiggle in his mouth. Crapsey tried to get up, but his body didn’t respond. Uh oh. Had the blow snapped his spine somewhere, or had Viscarro’s staff merely paralyzed him? Either way, this body was no good at the moment. There had to be an apprentice lurking around here somewhere he could possess, and with a voice and mobility he could approach Viscarro and make an audible plea for alliance. Or, failing that, go down fighting.
He tried to leave his body, but the zap of green light had shaken up his brain, and it was tough to focus on his visualizations – the image of steam escaping from the mouth of a teakettle usually worked best, but it wasn’t working now, and he couldn’t remember any of his other options, they all tore and blew away. Maybe it was more than the crash-landing. Maybe the nasty green light had done something to his mind.
Viscarro was standing over him, face like old leather stretched on a bone frame, repulsive little teeth bared in a smile of triumph. “I see you lost your jaw again, Rondeau. The new one looks very interesting. What are those runes? They look like Elder Script, but that can’t be, the last known examples were lost, undocumented, when Rasmussen perished in the megalithic temple collapse…” He knelt down, reaching out with his crooked-stick fingers, and Crapsey knew without a whisper of a doubt that he was about to get his wonderful useful jaw ripped right off his face.
Nicolette stood up behind Viscarro, blood still oozing from her shoulder, swaying unsteadily. She had something in her remaining hand, one of her little baubles — Crapsey couldn’t see exactly what. She tossed it underhand toward the back of Viscarro’s head, and then collapsed to the floor.
Crapsey tried to turn his head away, expecting an explosion, but of course his neck wouldn’t cooperate. His eyelids worked, so he just squeezed his eyes shut and hoped for minimal shrapnel. No boom followed, though – all he heard was the thump of Viscarro’s staff hitting the floor and a muffled scream. He opened his eyes, and Viscarro was on the floor, clawing at his face, which had thick tendrils of vegetation – grape vines, maybe? – growing all over it, woody stems twining around his head like a mummy’s cerements, leaves sprouting. Viscarro didn’t need to breathe, and he soon stopped panicking and began groping for his staff, but the vines wound down around his neck and his chest, and bound up his arms against his body. Within half a minute Viscarro was entirely covered in the growths, curled into a fetal lump, and his screams were barely audible under the wooden shell.
A flare of light blazed beyond Viscarro, and Crapsey squinted against it. Nicolette held what looked like an ordinary sparkler, but the head was far brighter than usual, and she gritted her teeth as she pressed the flame against the stump of her shoulder, cauterizing the wound. The white light seemed to burn away the greenish tinge in Crapsey’s vision, and he experimentally twisted around. His body responded, albeit stiffly, and he grabbed Viscarro’s staff – no longer illuminated, it was just a gnarled piece of wood – and used it to lever himself to his feet. He considered giving Viscarro’s vine-twined body a good kick, but it would probably just hurt his foot. The guy was armored.
“You saved my life,” Crapsey said.
Nicolette’s sparkler went dark. Still on the ground, she looked up at him, a lunatic brightness in her eyes. “Damn. I should’ve waited a few more minutes then. Could’ve been rid of you.”
“Don’t make me hit you with this stick when I’m feeling so grateful.”
“Do whatever you like, jawface.” Nicolette winced and looked at the place her left arm should have been. “Damn. Why do I have a sudden urge to go frame Dr. Richard Kimball for a crime he didn’t commit?”
Crapsey frowned. Nicolette often made no sense, so he didn’t bother asking what she was talking about. “You lost your arm in my world, too. Had it amputated by choice, and replaced it with this horrible tentacle thing.”
“Nice. I was just thinking about how this little mishap opens up some intriguing prosthetic possibilities, though I was going in more of a sex-toy type direction. Tentacles are cool, too, though. Help a witch up?”
Crapsey, who was feeling marginally steadier on his feet now, held out his hand and pulled Nicolette upright. They both hobbled toward the still unmoving Mason.
“Think she’s dead?” Nicolette said.
“No. My paralysis went away when Viscarro dropped his magic stick, so I bet the Mason’s did, too. My guess? She’s laying there, listening, and waiting to see what we’ll do – whether we’ll try to take the cloak off, or kill her, or whatever.”
The Mason rolled over and gazed up at them from the floor. “You know me so well, Crapsey. If your body hadn’t been so young and undeveloped when I was looking for a host, I might have taken you over. You’re nowhere near as weak or stupid as people suppose, and while your will is not like that of humans, it has a certain… resiliency, a kind of hybrid strength. It’s just as well — I wouldn’t have been able to use your ability to switch bodies, so it would have been a waste of a good tool — but still.”
“That’s simultaneously creepy and flattering, boss. But what if you took me over and I jumped bodies to get away from you? Wouldn’t you be stuck hanging off an empty body, and pretty much totally fucked?”
The Mason rose. “You could not leap voluntarily in those days. And once I was on your shoulders, and in your mind, I could have made sure you never learned how. Many sorcerers have the ability transfer their consciousness to other bodies, too, you know – I just made sure Marla never did.”
Crapsey sniffed. “And here I thought I was special.”
“Oh, you are. Body-swapping requires preparation and ritual for sorcerers, but it comes so naturally to you. And your ability to… displace… other souls and consign them to oblivion is unique in my experience. Sorcerers have no such power. Their most common approach is merely to switch consciousness, trading bodies, and the act is frowned upon by most, considered a crime and violation. As if vermin can even commit crimes against one another.”
“I know that body-switching trick,” Nicolette said. “It’s a bitch to do right, takes forever to work up the ritual. Unless you’re talking about twins or something, where you can set up a sympathetic resonance, then it’s pretty easy. I knew this pair of twins in the Four Tree Gang who switched bodies all the time, mostly just to sleep with each others’ girlfriends. We call it ‘the thing on the doorstep trick.'”
“H.P. Lovecraft reference,” Crapsey said. “Nice. Bonus points.”
“You can read?” Nicolette said.
“Sure. Well. To be honest, it was like an adaptation in a comic book, but I got the general idea.”
Nicolette shook her head. “Anyway. Not that I don’t enjoy talking shop with my colleagues and all, but can we, like, become people of action again? I ate a painkiller charm, but this stump’s going to start bothering me bad pretty soon, and I lost who knows how much blood. I could use some healing magic. There’s a bruja who owes me a favor, maybe we could go see her –”
The Mason sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
And then something happened that Crapsey had never seen before: The Mason’s cloak flashed and changed to white, the purple visible only when her movements revealed the garment’s lining. The Mason suddenly looked a lot less like a menacing witch and a lot more like a tree-loving druid or something. She smiled. “There was a time when Marla struggled mightily whenever my offensive capabilities were reduced this way, but she’s quiet now.” The Mason reached out to touch Nicolette’s wound, ignoring the chaos witch’s gasp, and white light spiraled up the Mason’s fingers and across Nicolette’s charred flesh.
Crapsey watched, mouth hanging open, as the light swirled and dripped and ran, the cauterized stump becoming pink flesh. White light streamed into the shape of bones, growing down from the shoulder, and more light wrapped the bones to form muscle, and Crapsey said, “Holy shit, are you growing her a new arm?”
“Just something temporary,” the Mason murmured, and indeed, the light didn’t turn into flesh, but stayed light – only light hardened, light in the shape of a bicep, an elbow, a forearm, a wrist, a hand.
The Mason stepped away, and Nicolette lifted her new faintly-glowing arm, clenching and unclenching the fingers. “Fucking cool,” she said. “Feels like the whole arm’s dipped in ice water or something, but still, I can feel. How long will it last?”
The Mason shrugged. “Until I stop paying attention to it. So enjoy it while you can.”
Nicolette swung the arm around, made a fist, and otherwise experimented with her new limb. “Can I do anything cool with this? Suck out life force, or turn people to steam, or anything?”
“It’s an artificial limb made of thickened light,” the Mason said. “If that’s not sufficiently magical for you, perhaps you should recalibrate your expectations.”
“Yeah, all right.” Nicolette pointed her glowing arm at Viscarro. “So what happens to the green man there?”
The Mason circled Viscarro’s wooden sarcophagus. “What did you do to him?”
”Enchanted grape seed. A hundred year’s growth compacted into something the size of a pea. Pretty sweet, huh?”
“Ingenious,” the Mason said. “I will burn him.” The white cloak flickered and became purple again, and the Mason snapped her fingers. Flames abruptly engulfed the wood, leaves curling and blackening, and Viscarro began screaming again, though not for long. The furious and self-contained fire soon turned the vines and flesh and bone underneath to a heap of ash and fragments, then guttered out, leaving behind an oddly aromatic smoke.
“Viscarro’s dead,” Nicolette said. “Or dead-er. Until someone picks up his phylactery, I guess.”
“So, explain that to me,” Crapsey said. “Since we’re on the subject of body-stealing. Viscarro’s got his soul in some geegaw or another –”
“It’s a gem.”
“Right. And if somebody picks up the gem, he takes over their body, right?”
“Not exactly,” the Mason said. “He enters their body, yes, and can attempt to take control. And being very old, and wily, and powerful, he will probably succeed, pushing the original mind into a corner. Much like I’ve done with Marla. Occasionally the two minds can instead reach an accommodation, a kind of shared custody of the body.”
“Like they gotta negotiate over when to jerk off and when to take a nap?” Crapsey said. “That’s stupid. My way is simplest. Scorched earth all the way.”
“Mmm. Let’s go destroy the gem that holds Viscarro’s soul and make the question moot.”
“You know where he keeps the gem?” Nicolette said. “Really?”
“In a locked box in his personal vault in the most secure part of the Bank of the Catacombs,” the Mason said. “I pried it open and destroyed it in my world, and I shall do so here as well. Come.”
Viscarro’s defenses were legendary, his vaults supposedly unbreachable, but the Mason didn’t appear to have much trouble, slicing through spells and steel alike with clawed fingers rippling with purple magic. They passed through a succession of increasingly well-protected rooms, shelves lined with objects miraculous and merely valuable and utterly useless, arranged by a scheme known only to Viscarro. There were probably artifacts in here, but the subterranean sorcerer was smart enough to disguise them by hiding them among lots of other junk. Crapsey’s untrained eye couldn’t tell the mysterious wonders of the universe from yard sale bric-a-brac, so he stuck with pocketing portable things of obvious secular value. He helped himself to a few gold coins and precious gems as he trailed after the Mason, and when Nicolette gave him a funny look, he shrugged. “What? I’m just looting a little. You don’t loot?”
“I guess there are some nice things here.” She picked up an ornate, silver-inlaid hand axe with a crescent-shaped blade that gleamed like a fragment of moonlight. “This is cool.” She tucked it into her sack of baubles.
The Mason paused at a shiny steel door that resisted her magic, hummed for a moment, and drew her best knife.
“Is that the dagger of office?” Nicolette wrinkled her nose, probably at the smell of steel going molten under the Mason’s blade. “You’re chief sorcerer of Felport on your side, too? Kind of a square job.”
“She challenged and killed the old boss, Sauvage,” Crapsey said. “And the council didn’t have much choice but to give her the top spot, since she murdered the ones who hesitated. She eventually murdered the rest, too – except Hamil, he got away, and the Bay Witch, who stayed underwater and never came back – but they got to live a little longer by being obedient. She only wanted the job to get the dagger, of course.”
The Mason stepped away from the door, and a large section of steel fell inward with a crash. “There are certain drawbacks,” she said. “To keep the dagger I have to protect Felport, so I made it my imperial capitol, though it is not as favorably located as I would like. Some assume I have loyalty to the place. They are fools.” She stepped into the vault, and returned a few moments later, frowning. “The gem is gone. He moved it.”
“Huh,” Nicolette said. “You know, the fact that Viscarro is a lich wasn’t exactly public knowledge around here, but earlier this year some shit went down and he got outed. Marla really hates the undead, and I was kinda surprised when she didn’t have Viscarro destroyed when she found out… but maybe she made a deal with him, you know? Like, she took his phylactery so she could lay the ultimate beat-down on him if he got out of hand?”
The Mason frowned. “Is that simple speculation, or do you have some reason to believe Marla took such action?”
“I used to have spies and sources, and I heard Viscarro made a special magical safe for Marla not long after his secret came out. I figured it was something for her to put her cloak in… but maybe it was something to put his phylactery in, instead.”
“Where might she keep such a thing?”
Nicolette shrugged. “Her apartment or her office, I’d guess. She spends more time at her office, over Rondeau’s club.”
“Hmm.” The Mason stared at the wall for a moment. “Viscarro is neutralized for now. We will wait. I will kill another sorcerer, perhaps two, before going to Marla’s office. By then she should be sufficiently provoked to put on her cloak and face me, if she still possesses the artifact.”
“Great,” Crapsey said. “Who’s victim number two?”
“There was one name Nicolette mentioned that I did not know. Ernesto?”
“Right,” Nicolette said. “He’s the newest member of the council, took over Artie Mann’s spot when the old perv got murdered by a serial killer targeting sorcerers.”
“Mmm,” the Mason said. “This killer, he sliced open their bellies and spilled out their entrails?”
“That’s the guy. He made trouble on your side too?”
The Mason shrugged. “He killed one of my lieutenants. I faced him and tore him to pieces. He was possessed of strange powers, but nothing I couldn’t handle. This Ernesto, what is his specialty?”
“He does a little of this, a little of that, but mostly he’s good at folding space, you know? Making things bigger on the inside than the outside, that sort of thing. Lives in a big scrapyard in the really ugly part of town. He’s kind of a bruiser, too, not afraid to get into a fight.”
“Are he and Marla allies or rivals?”
“Oh, they’re tight,” Nicolette said. “They were apprentices together, actually.”
The Mason frowned. “Ernesto was one of Viscarro’s apprentices?”
“What? No, he was one of Artie Mann’s apprentices, just like Marla.”
Crapsey whistled. “This parallel dimension shit is weird, isn’t it? Over on our side, Marla was one of Viscarro’s apprentices — before she found the cloak and, you know, became the Mason. Seized her genocidal destiny. All that.”
“I had not expected such a point of divergence,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “It would be interesting to speak with the Marla Mason of this world, and find out where else our histories differ. What made Marla in my world put on the cloak that first time and never remove it again, while in this world Marla was able to resist the temptation of ultimate power?”
“Are you displaying curiosity, boss?” Crapsey said. “First you use healing magic, now you’re wondering about psychological motivations and shit. Are you going soft on me?”
“No,” the Mason said. “Insight into such points of divergence may prove useful when I go forth to conquer the other worlds in the multiverse. Come. If Marla Mason likes this Ernesto, then perhaps his death will hasten her appearance. Nicolette, you will take us to him.”
“Wait, what are you talking about, conquering the multiverse?”
The Mason just walked out of the vault without answering him. “I hate it when she does that,” he said.
Nicolette punched him too hard in the shoulder with her glowing fist, and it felt just like getting punched too hard with a real fist. “You gotta admire her, though. She thinks big.”
“Yeah, but if we go around conquering other parallel dimensions, how the fuck many other versions of you am I going to have to put up with?”
“It’s a number best described as ‘bazillions,'” Nicolette said, and left the vault, cackling.
They pulled up in front of Ernesto’s scrapyard as night began to fall. They’d been underground for a long-ass time, and Crapsey yawned. “After we murder this dude, can we go get a hotel room or something?”
“We will continue to sow terror well into the night,” the Mason said. “We will acquire stimulants to keep you awake if necessary.”
“I’ve got some mongoose blood and stuff in my bag here,” Nicolette said. She’d rummaged through the barracks where Viscarro housed his apprentices – who’d all fled – and managed to find clothes that didn’t make her look like an escaped mental patient, and much to Crapsey’s dismay he actually found her kind of sexy, since she was wearing a skimpy blue tank top and jeans that were tight enough to reveal: no underwear. In his world, Nicolette slopped around in paint-stained overalls and she also had that nasty tentacle arm, so his body never betrayed him with attraction. He’d been horny ever since meeting Dr. Husch, though. In addition to a hot meal and a hot shower, he could use a hot girl, or at least some alone time to rub one out solo and clear his mind.
“You’re a slave driver, boss,” Crapsey said. Then, to Nicolette: “Literally. She has slaves. She drives them. It’s messed up.”
“Nah, sounds hot to me.” Nicolette reached back to the rear seat and squeezed Crapsey’s crotch. “Your slip is showing, jawface.” She got out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut before he even had time to blush.
“Humans are repulsive,” the Mason said, and left the vehicle as well.
“Gods damn it,” Crapsey said to the empty Humvee. “Am I going to end up fucking Nicolette?” Sleeping with her would be as stupid as screwing a bear trap, but the dick wants what it wants. He sighed. It was a problem for another time. For now, he had to go help kill some dude who’d never wronged him, whom he’d never met before, and whose name he honestly couldn’t even remember at the moment. Again.
But first he’d wait for his erection to subside, because that shit was embarrassing.