“Charming city you’ve got here.” Marla stepped over what appeared to be the half-eaten corpse of a frog roughly the size of a car tire.
“It was nicer, once.” Cole’s voice in her ear was as clear as if the man were standing at her shoulder, instead of hiding out safe and sound deep below ground who knew how many miles away. Marla trudged across the San Francisco National Cemetery heading northeast. The graves were all open pits in the earth – the Jaguar had raised the dead, animated them with the souls of deceased Aztec warriors in need of fresh bodies, and set them to doing his dirty work. The sky was blue and the air oppressively humid, which did not match her past experience with San Francisco weather. The Jaguar had brought some of the jungle with him when he arrived. That explained why all the monuments and headstones in the cemetery were wound with vines, their leaves so green the color looked artificial.
Marla had ordered everybody to sleep through the night, because jaguars were largely nocturnal, which meant daylight was their friend. Everybody managed to get some sack time, apart from guard duty shifts, of course – even if Cole said the camp was impregnable, why take chances this close to a big assault? She let Lao Tsung organize the rotation, because the Camp Kimke Irregulars were already irked at taking so much direction from her. This morning Yasuko had taken Marla to a little electric golf cart and driven down miles of tunnel, then led her on foot along less level terrain, including a couple of places where she had to crawl on her belly through old pipes. They’d eventually emerged near the Presidio, the old Spanish fort that had been converted into an American military base until it got decommissioned in the 1990s. Now it was the ugliest part of a national park instead of a fortress. Yasuko told Marla the Palace of Fine Arts was about a mile away as the crow flies, gave her some vague directions, and then scurried back into the tunnels. Once she was gone, Marla put her purple and white cloak on her shoulders, fastening it at the throat with her stag-beetle pin and pulling the hood up over her head. She’d kept the cloak folded up and out of sight on her journey because the artifact clearly freaked Yasuko out, but now that the Jaguar’s spies might see her, it was important to look the part.
Marla wasn’t entirely alone. She had a little enchanted grape seed tucked into her right ear, enabling her to hear and be heard by Cole. When she’d asked why they used a grape seed, Beta-B had started singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” making Marla groan. The connection was only temporary – she’d have to ditch the device before she went in to see the Jaguar, because who knew how perceptive he was? – but if there were any disasters in the next fifteen or twenty minutes, she’d hear about them, at least.
Marla left the cemetery and followed Lincoln Boulevard east for a while. There were a few overturned cars wrapped completely in vines, and the asphalt was cracked and buckled. Bright green lizards scurried past, and obscenely colorful birds flitted by. She saw a group of skeletal figures off in the distance, running in circles in a parking lot kicking what might have been a ball but which her gut told her was a severed head. They didn’t notice her. Just as well. You didn’t want to start an audience with a god by kicking the shit out of his palace guards, if you could avoid it.
She left Lincoln, clambered across the ruins of Highway 101, and walked north past a few buildings that had collapsed in on themselves. A snake thicker than a fire hose slithered by in front of her. She wondered where her old ally – and now sworn enemy – Ch’ang Hao was in this universe. He would’ve liked the snakes, at least. She cut across a couple of parking lots – no games of head-ball here – and then, there it was: Mason Street. Marla smiled. She could have stayed on Highway 101 (that would have been faster) but walking down a street that shared her name seemed right. You took good omens where you could find them.
Though since it was also the name of this world’s greatest despot, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.
Mason Street didn’t go all the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, so she had to veer south after a while. The dome of the Palace appeared before her, and as she drew closer she rolled her eyes at the over-the-top Roman and Greek architecture, the pillars and friezes and carved figures of women all way bigger than life-sized. They were improved by the excessive vegetative growth, in her opinion. “This place looks like crap, Cole. The lagoon would be pretty if it wasn’t all slimed with algae and filled with water snakes. The dome’s pretty impressive, I’ll grant you that, but it’s cracked and covered in vines now.”
“The Jaguar has brought ruin upon the city,” Cole said. “I only hope we have the opportunity to repair the damage.”
“I’ll do my best. Everything going well there?”
“So far. Lao Tsung reported in. They’re on their way to the island.”
“Good. I’d better make with the radio silence, Cole. From here on, we’ll just have to hope our timing works out.” She took the grape seed from her ear and carefully tucked it under a bush. Given the excessive fecundity of this place, it’d probably be a full-grown vine in a couple of days if she didn’t come back for it.
If she failed.
Marla had expected the Jaguar to be inside the exhibition hall, which housed a science museum in less monster-god-oppressed versions of San Francisco, but no, he’d set up his throne room right there under the dome in the central rotunda, surrounded by pillars, but otherwise pretty much in the open air.
There were lots of skeleton types milling around the edges of the dome, armed with obsidian swords and generally looking like rejects from a Ray Harryhausen movie. Marla approached them without hesitation, and they finally noticed her, lurching in her direction and moaning in a decidedly aggressive manner. So much for a peaceful arrival. She drew her dagger of office, and when one of the skeletons lifted his sword, she slashed out, cut the blade in two, and kicked the stunned skeleton’s bony knee, making the corpse collapse.
“Jaguar!” she shouted. “This is the Mason! Call off your goons, unless you want me to chop them all into bone meal!” She kicked and spun, slashing with her dagger to drive back the other skeletons. The vast shape in the gathered shadows beneath the dome shifted. After a moment the remaining skeletal guards drew back, lining up on either side of her to form a corridor that stretched under the dome.
Marla whispered an incantation to improve her vision, and the vague darkness and motion under the dome leapt into well-lit relief.
Good gods, she thought. He actually built a throne of skulls?
The Jaguar was easily three times Marla’s height, maybe even taller – it was hard to tell when he was seated on his ridiculous chair, which was itself bigger than a car. His form was human-ish, just oversized, though his flesh was spotted like a leopard’s and his fingers ended in the claws of a big cat. He was dressed in feathers and gold, and when he showed his teeth, his canines were longer than Marla’s longest knife. “Come forward, Mason,” he said, and the earth literally rumbled when he spoke. Marla wasn’t seriously knowledgeable when it came to Aztec deities, but Cole had given her the crash course: this was Tepeyollotl, “heart of the mountains,” a god of earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars. This particular form was just one aspect of a larger god, of course – that was often the case with such overcrowded pantheons – and one of his other aspects was Tlaltecuhtli, the toad god who’d been brought to life rather more briefly in Marla’s world.
Marla walked to the foot of the throne, which was indeed made entirely of human skulls and bones, some with flesh still clinging to them. The dead flesh should have been the worst stink there, but another smell was stronger: the ammonia of cat piss. Various actual jaguars lay snoozing under the dome, but they didn’t worry Marla. The big guy did. He could probably smush her without much trouble if he wanted, and if he began to suspect she wasn’t really the Mason, he probably would. Marla wasn’t sure how the Mason would act, but based on her encounters with the bleak intelligence that dwelled inside the cloak, she could make some guesses: cold, arrogant, and utterly without mercy or fear.
“Your cloak is white this time.” The Jaguar’s voice was less vast and earth-shaking now. Made sense he could modulate the effect – otherwise every time he asked one of his skeletools to fetch him a beer he’d cause freeways to collapse and buildings to fall down.
“I’m not planning to commit any horrendous acts of violence just now,” she said, not bothering to crane her neck to look at his face, because that would make her look weak. She addressed his knees instead, though she’d gotten a good look at his ugly mug earlier: he had a snout and whiskers, which should have been inhuman and scary, but just made her think of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz instead. That wasn’t a bad association, actually – like the great and powerful Oz, the Jaguar wasn’t exactly as great and powerful as he seemed. “The white is… call it a flag of truce.”
“Ah.” The Jaguar shifted on his throne, leaning forward to look down at her. “Does that mean you’ve come to accept my proposal?”
“Come down here to my level so I don’t have to talk to your loincloth, kitty cat,” she said.
The Jaguar chuckled and stepped off the throne, losing height and breadth as he did so, until he was more-or-less human scale, though he was still a solid eight feet tall. Well, who could blame him; Marla wouldn’t want to give up the psychological advantage of greater height, either, in his place. He frowned at her. “You look different. Older.”
Marla shrugged. “I sold a few years of my life in a dark ritual to destroy one of my enemies. Since I’m immortal anyway, giving up a fraction of my infinite years wasn’t a tough decision. I’m not as pretty now, but I don’t generally get by on my looks.”
“Mmm. Implausible.” He leaned forward and sniffed her, then nodded again. “But your blood smells the same. You are the Mason. My sentries did not note your arrival in my city.”
“Just goes to show I can get to you anytime I want undetected, doesn’t it?” Marla sat cross-legged on the stone floor, and, after a moment, the Jaguar followed suit.
“You make threats? Against me?”
“Not so much a threat as force of habit. Don’t mind me.”
“Your company disgusts me,” the Jaguar said. “You are an aberration, an outsider, and your very existence poisons the universe. But I acknowledge your power. I am glad you have come to seek an accommodation with me. War would not profit either of us.”
“Who said I was here to seek accommodation?”
He frowned. “When you left after your diplomatic mission, you said you would consider my proposal to divide up the Earth – the Americas for me, Eurasia for you, Africa for me, Australia and the icy north and south and most islands for you. I assume you came to agree, and to make arrangements to remove your influence from this continent.”
“Oh. That.” Marla yawned. “No, I’m not here about that. Here’s my counteroffer: head south, down to Mexico City – that was the seat of your old empire back in the day, right? – and build a very tall, very strong wall. If it’s tall enough and strong enough that none of the people I send to kill you can get inside, then you can live in there… at least until I do manage to knock the walls over. Do we have a deal?”
“You dare speak to me this way?” His voice picked up a subsonic rumble again, the earth quivering. “I am the heart of the mountains, god of beasts and ringing voices and the upheaval of the Earth itself, I am –”
“Cut the crap, Mutex,” she said, and he fell silent.
“I… this Mutex, you refer to the priest who helped open a doorway for me –”
“I refer to you, Mutie, riding around inside the body of a god like a kid trying on his daddy’s rain boots. I know all about it. I know how you raised the Jaguar god, and how you did the thing on the doorstep trick – that’s what we call body-switching around here – to put your mind inside the god’s avatar, and to put the god’s mind inside your stupid, frail human body. You talked a good game about wanting to restore the glory of a fading civilization and to maintain the balance of the universe and make sure the orbits of the sun and stars were well-lubricated with sacrificial heart’s blood, but I know the truth. You just wanted power. That’s okay. I like power too. But, see, I know your secret.” At least, she hoped so. Mutex had switched bodies with the god in her world, and she was betting he’d done the same thing over here. If he hadn’t, and if this really was Tepeyollotl… well, she’d never expected to live forever.
“You know nothing.” The god’s face was hard to read, what with the snout and all, but if Marla had to guess, she’d have guessed “pissed off” and “afraid.” She tried not to smile.
“Right. Because if you were actually Tepeyollotl, you’d totally be squatting under a relic from the 1894 World’s Fair, running the day-to-day business of your empire, instead of, you know, dwelling wherever the gods dwell. Real gods don’t run things directly, Mutex – that’s what priests are for. Gods just sit back and drink the sacrificial blood and occasionally smite somebody for the hell of it. But you’re stuck in this body, this particular instantiation of the god, this one avatar, and sure, you can do some fancy shit: you can make the ground shake and you can control kitty cats and all that, and you’re probably pretty much immortal. But you’re sure as hell no god. If you are, show me one of your other aspects – let froggy come a’courtin’ and show me Tlaltecuhtli. Or how about Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead, that’s one of your other faces too, right?”
“You cannot speak to me this way. I am a god.”
“Ooh, or I know, show me the really scary one, the main man, Tezcatlipoca, the one they call the Smoking Mirror – you’re just an aspect of that guy, right? He’s one of the big deities, the Zeus or Odin or Shiva or Ra of Mesoamerica. Except you’re not him. You’re a little piece broken off of him, and you’re just hoping he never notices and comes to reclaim his big kitty cat aspect, aren’t you? You’re probably safe, since the Aztec gods are all sleeping wherever pretty-much-forgotten gods sleep. Except, you know… I can wake the Smoking Mirror. I can get his attention and point him in your direction. I have that power.”
Marla had no idea how you went about summoning an Aztec deity, especially one of the big ones – it had taken Mutex a hell of a lot of blood and preparation to summon the avatar of one lesser incarnation – but the Mason could probably manage it, or at least plausibly make the threat. “Would you like that?” she said. “Would you like me to call your big sky daddy – or underworld daddy or whatever, I don’t know where the gods live in your mythology, I skimmed that chapter – and let you explain to him how you locked a fragment of his consciousness up in a fragile human body?”
The Jaguar stared at her with unblinking, big cat eyes – vertical pupils would have fit right in with his whiskered face, but of course, big cats had round pupils – and then looked off to the side. “I need more than Mexico City,” he said. “Give me all of Central and South America. And we need a treaty. I will respect your borders and boundaries if you respect mine.”
Marla grinned. She had a pretty nasty reputation herself, but the Mason’s rep was ferocious enough to move mountains – or at least the heart of the mountains. Now that she knew she was right, that he really was Mutex in a god’s body, she could move on to the real plan. She could have used this line of intimidation to get the Jaguar out of San Francisco and give the city back to Cole, but that would just be shifting the problem to the people in Central America, who probably had enough problems in this wizard-filled world already. He was just too damn powerful and way too fond of eating human flesh and cutting out hearts. Better to get rid of him entirely, which was why she’d sent Beta-B and Rondeau and the others to Alcatraz to help set Mutex/the Jaguar up for a seriously long fall.
She had to assume her friends had actually done what she sent them to do, which was a big assumption, but she couldn’t be everywhere at once, so she’d have to trust they’d stuck to the plan and pulled it off.
“You’re in no position to dictate terms, catface, but sure, I’ll let you have your little piece of the third world. Behave and I won’t come take it away from you. Okay. We have a deal.” She stood up, lightly shaking her right arm as she did so, making the little vial hidden up her sleeve slide down into her waiting hand. Pie Bob assured her the potion was potent enough to forge a sympathetic magic connection between lightning and a lightning bug, between the moon and a piece of green cheese, between a goldfish bowl and the ocean. “Just one other thing,” she said, flipped the cap off the vial, and dashed its contents into the Jaguar’s face.
If everything on Beta-B and Rondeau’s side had gone according to plan, that should be the last necessary act – the avatar of Tepeyollotl should be effectively neutralized in a moment.
Instead the Jaguar merely wiped the glistening fluid, thicker than olive oil, off his face. “What was that supposed to do?” he said. “Did you think I could be poisoned?”
Shit. Worst case, this meant Rondeau and Beta-B had failed utterly and were now dead. Best case, they were just suffering a little delay, in which case, she should try to buy them some more time. If they were dead, she was probably dead, too, but at least she could go down fighting.
“So that’s a no-go on the poison, then,” she said. “Let’s see how you do with plain old horrific trauma.”
The Jaguar began to grow in size, and the big cats under the dome roused themselves and growled, and the warriors in their tatters of quilted armor lifted their black glass blades.
She was outgunned, if not outclassed, so she didn’t have any choice.
With a mental command, Marla reversed her cloak. The cool white vanished, replaced by the purple of old bruises and poisonous berries. The cloak’s malign intelligence – which, in another place in this very world, had overwhelmed its wearer and become the monster called the Mason – woke up and whispered in her mind. Usually the cloak didn’t speak to her – at least, not with words. It just tried to impose its will, to co-opt Marla and use her rage for its own purposes. To seize control of her body forever, something Marla had always been able to fight off, using the cloak instead of letting herself be used. But this time, the cloak did speak, a voice as cold and clear as desert starlight.
It’s been too long, the voice whispered. I’ve missed you. Think of everything we can do together. Just let go. Stop fighting and let go. I’ll handle everything.
This couldn’t be good. The cloak’s whispers had become intelligible. Did that mean it was getting stronger, that she’d used it too often, that the evil magic had built up in her system to toxic levels? She’d tried many times to give up wearing the cloak forever, because she was afraid its effect was cumulative, magical poison building up in her system like mercury or lead. But the cloak’s magic was too profound, too useful, and she’d never been able to completely give it up. Deep down she’d always believed she was strong enough to fight its influence forever… but maybe that was stupid. In this world, at least, she hadn’t been strong enough, and the cloak had won, and the world had suffered as a consequence.
Well? the cloak said.
Marla, deep inside her own mind, thought, We’ll talk about it later. For now, maybe we should kill these things before they kill us?
The cloak wreathed her in purple light, draping her in shadows that sparked and writhed and lashed.
Killing is something we both enjoy, the cloak replied, and they went about their work together.