Rondeau wasn’t much of a battle leader, so he was more than happy to follow Lao Tsung’s lead. The team crawled through endless tunnels until finally emerging from a storm drain that flowed into San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz Island, their destination, squatted out in the water like a castle surrounded by the world’s biggest moat. A couple of them, including Beta-B, were armed with what looked like paintball guns, but Rondeau assumed the guns were enchanted – maybe they shot acid balls or something instead.
“Okay, Ryan, Josh, let’s get a boat going,” Lao said. The teenaged cousins climbed out of the drain and stood on a scrap of pebbled concrete that jutted out above the water. Crouching, they plunged their hands into the water and began chanting in unison. Water flowed up out of the bay under their hands, forming into a shape like a viking longboat, glinting and translucent. Lao knelt by them, thumped the water-boat with his knuckles – the resulting thunk was reassuringly solid – and nodded, waving everyone onto the boat.
Rondeau got settled, squeezed in next to Beta-B and Jericho, as they skimmed across the bay toward Alcatraz, their little ship wrapped in look-away spells and cloaking magics. The boat was a tight fit – which was weird, since they could’ve magicked-up a yacht or something as far as Rondeau could tell – and Rondeau ended up knees-to-knees with one of the Camp Kimke Irregulars he hadn’t met before, a woman with a snub nose and short red hair and eyes the color of volcanic glass. “Hey,” he said. “I’m Rondeau.”
She nodded curtly. “I know who you are.”
“Guess that means you’re winning, then.”
“That’s Anna,” Beta-B said. “Anna Enzminger. She’s normally very nice, she’s just a little tense because she’s pretty sure she’s going to die.”
“I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” she said. “Everyone else on this boat is worth something in a fight. I’m just an augur.”
Rondeau blinked. “Like… a drill? You drill things? Like with your mind?”
Beta-B laughed. “That’s an auger with an ‘e.’ She’s an auger with a ‘u.’ Or, another ‘u.’ She interprets signs and omens – taking the auspices from the flight of birds is her specialty, but she’s not half bad at xylomancy either, and she’s a great interpreter of dreams. She was the one who predicted the coming of the Jaguar, and she even warned us the attack we had planned yesterday was too dangerous. Unfortunately we thought it was just normal dangerous, not betrayed-by-Bethany dangerous. Don’t worry, Anna, you’re not storming the castle with us. I wanted you along so you can tell me about this dream I had. I haven’t had a chance to run it by you before now.”
Anna sighed. “Goodie. Another one of those dreams. When did you have it?”
“Right before Marla scooped me up out of my bedroll and dragged me into her world. Here’s what I saw: the woman I now know as Marla Mason, standing in a white cloak, looking into a full-length mirror. But her reflection was wearing a purple cloak instead. Then the mirror opened out into one of those tri-fold mirrors like you used to see in ladies’ dressing rooms, and two of the mirrors were facing each other so you had reflections of reflections, this endless corridor of Marlas stretching for infinity in both directions.”
Rondeau was looking down through the bottom of the boat, which was not so much glass-bottomed as water-bottomed, and he saw an immense shape go gliding by beneath them. “Uh,” he said.
“Half the reflected Marlas were in white cloaks, and half were in purple, alternating colors like squares on a big gay checkerboard,” Beta-B went on. “But then the real original Marla stepped into the mirror, and the Marla in the mirror stepped out, and it was like they melted into and passed through each other, and now the one in the purple cloak was out of the mirror and the one in the white cloak was behind the glass.”
The dark shape passed under them again, closer, close enough for Rondeau to see what appeared to be scales, though what kind of creature had scales but was also as wide as a passenger jet? “Guys, you should, uh –”
“Just a sec Rondeau, this is the freaky part.” Beta-B leaned toward Anna, eyes faraway like the dream was reality and this was the dream. “Next, all the Marlas in white cloaks inside the endless reflections started to flicker, one by one, like fluorescent light bulbs burning out. It was like a wave passing through the curved infinity of reflections, all the white cloaks turning purple. The original Marla, the one now trapped inside the mirror, she was pounding on the glass, like she was trying to break it, but then her cloak turned purple, too – hers was the last white one – and she shattered the glass, and then I woke up. So what’s it mean?”
“Nothing good,” Anna said. “I think it means –”
“Guys!” Rondeau said. “There’s a giant fucking snake in the water!”
Everyone went silent. Lao Tsung swore, softly.
Then the boat capsized and they hit the surprisingly warm water and for a while it was all just blood and screaming and trying to get away.
“At least nobody died,” Rondeau said. He, Beta-B, and Lao Tsung sat shivering on the rocks beneath the dock at Alcatraz, dripping water. “And you held onto your toy gun there, B. So that’s a win.”
“It was just a giant fucking reptile,” Lao said. “If a big snake can kill our best battle sorcerers, we don’t deserve to win.” A flap of torn scale floated by on the rippling surface of the bay. The cousins popped up out of the water and dog-paddled over, climbing up onto the rocks. “Everyone make it back okay?” Lao said.
“Anna’s still unconscious,” Ryan – or was it Joshua? – said. “Jericho’s missing a big chunk of his leg. The others are helping them back to camp. We called in to let Cole know. Do you think the five of us are enough to do the job?”
“To invade the Lynx’s fortress?” Lao Tsung said. “Guess we’ll see. We lost a lot of time to that bullshit, though. Threw the whole schedule off. So whatever we’re doing, we’d better do it fast. Bradley, did you get a chance to do any remote viewing?”
Beta-B nodded. “Yeah. Pretty much the same as last time. Lots of ghost cats prowling, and the Lynx is here. Maybe a couple of other people, there were too many shadows for me to make out details, but it’s not like they have hordes of flying monkeys or oompah loompahs or Roman Centurions hanging around. There’s an impenetrable force-field ringing the whole island, and I’m sure they figure that’s enough to keep people out.”
“We penetrated it okay,” Rondeau said. “How’d we manage that?”
Beta-B shrugged. “Sanford Cole. It’s still his city, magically speaking, and he granted us safe passage. Doesn’t mean we can’t get hurt, but it means we can’t be kept out of anyplace. If we get our heads chopped off when we get in there, that’s our problem, though.”
Lao stood. “Let’s go. Boys, you and me are in charge of keeping the big bad guys off our delicate psychic flowers here.” Lao made his way carefully up onto Alcatraz’s dock, and the others followed. The buildings were all covered in twisted green vines and flowers, looking more like an exploded greenhouse than a prison.
Bethany was waiting for them, sitting in the doorway to the cell block. “Hey Lao, kids, Bradley, weird new guy.” She rose from her cross-legged position. Bethany looked pretty much like Rondeau remembered, with horizontal-slit pupils in her eyes like a goat’s, and a fondness for skimpily-applied black leather, and a face that glittered with piercings. Except last time he’d seen her, she was dead. “Saw you had a little trouble with one of the big snakes. Sorry about the whole betrayal thing, really, but I had to side with the winning team. I had fun squatting in a hole in the dirt with all of you, though. Shitting in a bucket is awesome.”
Most of them had stopped when Bethany spoke, but Lao never broke stride, and she took a step toward him, smirking. “Come on, Low Tongue, you think your spells have a chance in hell of hurting me here –”
Lao reached up with both hands, grabbed the rings in Bethany’s nose and lip respectively, and tore the piercings out. Bethany screamed and dropped to her knees, and Lao did something quick and brutal with his hands. Her body fell, head twisted unnaturally, goat-eyes blank. Lao looked back at the others. “If they expect you to attack with magic, don’t. Most sorcerers don’t bother to learn how to be dangerous physically. I did.”
Lao went on into the building, and Rondeau couldn’t help but grin. “Yeah, that’s the guy who taught Marla a good chunk of what she knows, all right. Wish I could’ve met him in my world.”
They followed Lao inside, past cell doors turned into trellises for barbed vines. Half a dozen pale white lynxes sort of… insinuated themselves into the walkway, coming from nowhere in particular, and seeming to pay no attention to the intruders, but Lao stopped anyway. “Are those ghost cats?” he said.
“Yeah,” Beta-B said, “Six of them.” He glanced at Rondeau. “You see them, right? You and me are the only ones who can get a clear look at those things. The Lynx’s little handmaidens, a gift from his boss the Jaguar. The ghost cats are just whitish-gray blurs to people who don’t have our psychic mojo. They’re basically just smarter-than-average jungle cats, so they shouldn’t be that hard to fight, but they’re so damn tough to see, they’ve killed lots of us, just circling around and hamstringing. That’s what this is for.” He unslung the paintball gun from his shoulder and fired off a succession of rounds, thwap thwap thwap, and bright blue splats speckled the cats – Beta-B even managed to get one in the eye, half-blinding it. The ghost cats snarled and leapt, but once they were tagged, the twins and Lao could see them well enough to bring their superior fighting skills to bear. Lao used good-old-fashioned brute force to kill one, while the cousins whipped up some order-and-chaos magic, turning two of the cats against one another, while three more simply froze, rigid, transformed into statues of themselves.
“Let’s keep moving,” Lao said. “There are probably a lot more of these kitties around. And their boss is here somewhere. Which way is the cell, Bradley?”
“There was only one spot on the whole island I couldn’t see via remote viewing,” he said. “They might as well have put up a giant glowing sign reading ‘Big secret thing in here! Don’t look!’ It’s in one of the old solitary cells, that way.”
Lao took point again, leading them down the cellblock, stepping over slithering green snakes and brightly colored – and very likely poisonous – frogs. The place was less a prison and more a deep jungle ruin. Rondeau expected to see Indiana Jones walking by with a bullwhip carrying the head of a jeweled idol in his satchel.
Instead, when they rounded the corner, he saw yet another dead man.
“Lynx,” Lao Tsung said. “We’ve come for your prisoner.”
The man leaning by the one closed solitary confinement cell smirked. He was almost painfully attractive, with copper-colored hair mussed artfully, dark eyelashes, pale eyes, a long lean body, slim hips. He wore simple clothes in white, but they were cloud-white, fog white, as difficult to focus on as the fur of a ghost cat, even with Rondeau’s good vision.
“Come now, Lao Tsung,” the man – dead for many months, at least in Rondeau’s world – said. “We don’t need to fight. We can be friends. I’d be honored to have a man like you by my side.”
Lao frowned. “You want me? Beside you?” His frown became a smile. “Really?”
“We’re fucked.” Rondeau grabbed Beta-B by the arm and dragged him back around the corner. The cousins were staring open-mouthed at the Lynx, as if they’d chanced upon a rock star or a lingerie model at the corner store.
“What are you doing?” Beta-B pulled his arm away.
“That guy is a lovetalker, B, a ganconer, he clouds men’s minds and makes women drop their panties!”
Beta-B blinked. “Shit. That explains a lot. Gods, what a perfect power for a spymaster. He can get anyone to tell him anything, recruit spies even from the most loyal – but wait. How do you know what he is?”
“I met him in my world,” Rondeau said. “His real name is Joshua Kindler. He’s the kind of guy who works for whoever pays best and keeps him entertained, and he nearly got Marla killed this past winter. He did kill a friend of mine. Shit.” He frowned. “But, wait, why didn’t he charm us? I mean, he still looks hot, but he didn’t look, you know… irresistible.”
“That kind of crap doesn’t work on us,” Beta-B said. “We see too clearly. He might be a walking talking illusions-and-pheromones factory, but we’re not susceptible. Unfortunately, the people in our group who can fight worth a damn are vulnerable. I don’t think the Lynx can convince them to kill us – lovetalkers are persuasive, but it’s not mind control, it’s just excessive charm. He can probably convince them to capture us for our own good, though, until he can talk us out of our misguided loyalty to Sanford Cole. I’m sure he’s giving them the heavy spiel now. We don’t have much time. Crap.” He took a breath. “Okay. You’re the only really indispensable guy here. I’ll try to draw them off, distract them into chasing me, and you… do your thing.”
“Rondeau. We’re behind schedule already. Marla’s counting on you – if you don’t do your part, she’s going to get her heart torn out and sacrificed on an altar. Right?”
Rondeau closed his eyes. “Right. Crap.”
Beta-B unslung his paintball gun, stepped around the corner, and squeezed off a number of shots, then ran down another corridor. Lao and the cousins pursued him, but the Lynx, of course, didn’t move.
Hell, Rondeau thought. I’m about to have to kill a dude.
“Hey, Joshua,” he said. “Come here a minute?”
The Lynx – Joshua – strolled around the corner, moving as effortlessly as a swan gliding over water. “No one’s called me that in a long time. I’ve had a lot of other names – Lynx is only the most recent – but that is the name I was born with. How did you learn a secret like that, friend?”
“How did you go from seducing old ladies for caviar and champagne money to working for a big cat god on the West Coast?”
Joshua raised one delicate eyebrow. “I see my reputation from the days before the Change precedes me. Hmm. I’ve done a lot of jobs for a lot of people since the sorcerers made their powers public. The Jaguar made me the most recent wonderful offer, so here I am. But we haven’t been properly introduced. What’s your name?”
“Rondeau. But you can call me the Avenger. This is for my friend Ted.”
“Ted? I don’t think I know anyone named Ted.”
“You stabbed him in the guts. Or, well, not you, exactly, but – shit. Never mind.” Rondeau made himself into a bubble, rising up from the sea floor to the surface, bursting free of the water, and –
He was free of his bodily form. A bit of dandelion fluff on the wind. Joshua prodded Rondeau’s fallen body – damn, he’d just let himself drop to the floor again. He’d have to be better about that, maybe start carrying a pillow around with him everywhere.
Joshua said, “How odd. Hello? Was the stress just too much for you? Are you narcoleptic? Or like one of those Tennessee fainting goats?”
Those are stupid last words, Rondeau thought, and settled down onto Joshua. There was a shocking moment of resistance – like being stuck in a sack with a wild animal determined to turn you into shreds of confetti – but then the fight was over, and Rondeau was in a body again, looking out through new human eyes.
He exhaled. Now he and Marla had both killed Joshua Kindler. He waited for the guilt – he was a murderer again, and this time it was first-degree, not second-degree – but no flare of regret came, either because Joshua’s brain chemistry was too conscience-less and sociopathic to support guilt, or because he’d deserved to die badly enough that Rondeau didn’t need to feel any regret.
Lao and the cousins returned, the latter two dragging an unresisting Beta-B between them, one holding each arm. “Here!” Rondeua called, and they came around the corner. Beta-B looked at Rondeau’s body on the floor and moaned. “It’s okay,” Rondeau said. “B, it’s me, Rondeau, I… took Joshua.”
Lao and the cousins stared at him like he was a steak and they were starving. “Damn, I wish I knew how to turn this adoration field off.” There was one way: leave the body, let it drop, let it die. But it could be so useful, to have the powers of a lovetalker, to use this body for a while, to make people do whatever he wanted –
Damn. Those were Joshua Kindler-type ideas, the structure of the brain asserting itself, shaping the flow of Rondeau’s own thoughts. If he didn’t get out of here soon he’d be a sociopath. He thought of: bubbles, and rose up, Joshua’s body falling, brain-dead. Rondeau took his own body back, groaning and rubbing the back of his head, which had thumped the floor pretty hard. “Okay. You guys got your brains back yet?”
The cousins released Beta-B sheepishly, and Lao stepped forward and kicked Joshua in the ribs. “I did not enjoy that. I only regret that I didn’t get to kill the Lynx personally – but thank you, Rondeau. Now. Let’s hurry up and do what we came for.”
Lao searched the Lynx’s body until he found a key, and used it to unlock the solitary confinement cell. The hinges squealed horribly, and when light filled the cell, a figure scrambled into the corner, whimpering.
The body belonged to Mutex, but the intelligence behind the eyes was nothing human. When Mutex summoned the avatar of the Jaguar god, he’d performed a body-switch, putting his own mind into the powerful god’s body, and putting the god’s vast mind in his own constrained human brain. But Mutex couldn’t risk killing the body, and the god inside, because deicide had a way of getting noticed in the upper worlds where such powerful entities lived – killing Tepeyollotl could stir the other slumbering, half-forgotten gods into wrathful action. So he’d imprisoned the god instead, keeping it fed and watered and locked away.
The god in the man’s body covered its head with its hands and cowered. The cousins began lighting candles for the ritual and setting them around the room, and sketching designs on the floor with bits of chalk.
Rondeau took a step toward the terrorized creature in the corner. Marla said the god being stuck in Mutex’s body must be like a person getting shoved inside a cigar box: confining, claustrophobic, unbearable. She figured the god fragment was probably totally insane by now, incapable of anything resembling thought, and –
“Kill me,” the god in Mutex said, voice garbled but intelligible. “Kill me. End this. End me.”
“You heard the man,” Beta-B said. “Or god, I mean.”
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” Rondeau said, and – remembering to sit down and lean against the wall first – left his body again, and settled onto Mutex.
The god didn’t fight him at all. It just let itself be consigned to oblivion – or wherever broken pieces of gods went when they de-incarnated. He didn’t stay in Mutex a moment longer than necessary, returning to his own body, leaving the brain-dead shell resting on the floor. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s do the thing on the doorstep trick before Mutex’s body forgets how to breathe.”
The ritual took a while to set up, and required a precise incantation, but Beta-B had practiced, and it went off without a flaw. For sorcerers, leaving your own body and stealing another was hard, but returning a consciousness to its rightful vessel was easier, and if Marla had managed to douse the Jaguar with Pie Bob’s potion as planned, the sympathetic connection would be so strong as to make the distinction between Mutex’s body and the Jaguar’s almost indistinguishable, magically speaking.
The last twisted syllable left Beta-B’s lips, and they all waited, tense, to see if they’d succeeded.
Mutex’s body sat up, eyes wide. “No,” Mutex whispered. “No, I was a god, this can’t be happening, you can’t –”
“Mutex,” Lao Tsung said. “On behalf of the government of the Free State of Northern California, I place you under arrest for crimes against humanity and crimes against the state. Josh, Ryan, tie this asshole up for transport back to Camp Kimke. Though I don’t imagine we’ll be living in that sewer for much longer.” He looked at Rondeau and grinned. “We did it. Later than we liked, but we did it.”
“I just hope we did it before the Jaguar had a chance to kill Marla,” Rondeau said.
The skeletal warriors Marla was attacking turned to dust, which wasn’t unusual in the current situation, but many of them turned to dust before she’d even touched them. The cloak’s alien intelligence was in full target-acquisition mode, and when the cannon fodder began collapsing in heaps of armor and obsidian and bone meal it turned her eyes toward the Jaguar himself, standing at the foot of his massive throne.
But then the Jaguar’s cue-ball-sized eyes rolled back in his head, and he fell face-forward like the toppled statue of a deposed dictator. The crash was followed by an earthquake, big enough to make the Palace of Fine Arts groan as its foundations began to shear, but the tremors ceased with unnatural abruptness a second later.
The cloak, faced with nothing living or even animate to kill, was at a loss for a moment, so Marla took the opportunity to assert her will, thinking, Turn, and making the cursed garment’s killing purple switch to healing white.
In the instant before the cloak’s malign mind became quiescent, it whispered, I’ll get you next time.
Marla took a moment to gather herself and shake off the last icy tendrils of the cloak’s influence, vowing I’ll never use it again – something she’d vowed before, and a vow she knew she’d almost certainly break again.
She approached the Jaguar’s body, which was already dwindling and decaying and slumping-in on itself. She knelt, peering at the wreckage, until she spied the seed at its heart, a carving of a jaguar in black glass, about half life-sized. That had been the focus for Mutex’s spell – the foundation for the god’s body, augmented by dark rituals, blood magic, and the power of an ancient artifact called the Cornerstone that was utterly consumed in the process of luring the god to Earth.
Beta-B and Rondeau had succeeded. Mutex’s mind had been snatched out of the Jaguar and replaced in his own body, and since the god’s mind had been destroyed by Rondeau’s possession, there was nothing left to fill the avatar’s form. And now all the god’s works would disappear.
Marla looked around as vines fell away from the ruins, snakes and frogs slowed and died and began to decompose with stunning rapidity, and jungle birds flew desperately southward in a flock so large it blocked out the sun for a moment, many of them falling from the sky like fragments of a midair collision.
“All right then,” Marla said aloud. “That was a pretty good day’s work.”