“Crapsey, take him!” the Mason screamed. She tore at the branches of a tall oak tree, which looped and surrounded her like the bars of an ornate birdcage.
“I can’t!” Crapsey shouted. “He’s not human anymore!” He fell back, avoiding Granger’s inch-long claws.
Granger was the guardian of that bit of green space at the heart of Felport called Fludd Park, and he’d transformed himself into an oversized polar bear, some serious Pleistocene megafauna shit. He had to be thirteen or fourteen feet tall when he was reared back on his hind legs, and probably weighed more than a ton. Crapsey lost his footing in his retreat and went slipping and sliding down the hill toward a duck pond, landing in ankle-deep water. Great. Now he was damp and likely to die soon.
Granger was supposed to be the easy kill. Gentle, easygoing, dumber than a sack full of spoons – he was a joke. The Mason had killed him in their world at the same emergency meeting of the council where she’d offed most of the other major sorcerers in Felport. But this time they’d attacked Granger on his home turf, and apparently, that made all the difference. The whole park had turned against them from the moment they entered – tree branches reaching out for them, spontaneous sinkholes opening under their feet, birds trying to peck out their eyes, vines trying to strangle them. The park was as dark as the Mason’s heart, too, no street lights penetrating this far in, just the faint shine of the moon and stars to combat the looming shadows teeming with bugs and beasts and badness.
Crapsey splashed out of the shallows of the pond, but then the water itself rose up into some kind of pond-scum golem and batted him aside. Rocks and boulders began rolling toward him of their own volition, and he had to dodge and jump and sprint to avoid getting crushed. Meanwhile bear-Granger was advancing, roaring. Crapsey looked up at the Mason in hope of salvation, but she was still stuck in a fucking tree, though sawdust was showering down as she tried to escape.
I wish Nicolette were here, he thought. All this crazy shit happening would be like fuel for her, and she’d twist the chaos to her own purposes. Oh well. He dove into a somersault, wrenching his shoulder pretty badly in the process, and tried to hide behind a wrought-iron bench. The bear approached him steadily, down on all fours now, drool falling from his jaws like a waterfall.
What were you supposed to do with this kind of bear? Play dead? Climb a tree? Playing dead wouldn’t help since this bear had a human mind, and climbing a tree was no good since the trees were trying to kill him too. Death – or at least the death of this, his favorite body – was looking pretty likely.
Well, when you run out of intelligent options, do something crazy.
He vaulted over the bench and charged the bear. A normal bear probably would have just eaten him, but the frontal assault clearly surprised Granger, probably since Crapsey had been more of a panic-and-run opponent previously. Crapsey feinted a punch at one side of the bear’s head – the head was about as big as Crapsey’s whole godsdamn torso – and when the bear snapped his jaws at that side, Crapsey darted around to the other, trusting in speed and agility over sheer mass. He got alongside the bear, jumped onto his back, and did his best to wrap his arms around the bear’s neck. Choking Granger out wasn’t going to work – he might as well have been choking a utility pole for all the bear seemed to notice – so he sighed and muttered one of the magic words the Mason had prepared for him.
They were all stupid-sounding words. Titmouse. Whiffenpoof. Polliwog. Kumquat. The particular word he used this time was “Grommet.”
Like all his magic words, this one made the runes in his jaw glow blue – and then did something horrible. Crapsey screamed as his jaw dislocated and expanded, unhinging like a snake’s, but, he assumed, far more painfully. Needle-sharp fangs bloomed from his wooden jaw in profusion, and Crapsey lowered his face to the bear’s neck and bit down.
Crapsey tore away a mouthful of fur, skin, blood, muscle, and fat, and though he tried to turn his head and spit, his possessed jaw held on and forced him to swallow. The Mason’s spells were just as bitchy as the woman herself. As Granger moaned and thrashed, Crapsey bit down again, teeth gouging and shredding and tearing, jaw grinding and scraping against bone.
But he wasn’t making any progress. Granger’s healing powers were profound, and the open wound filled with new flesh as quickly as Crapsey could bite, skin and fur regenerating as well. The trees around them sagged, branches drooping and flowers wilting, as the nature magician drew life force from the park around him. Crapsey’s magical jaw was clamped on now, though, grinding and biting with a mind of its own, and there was no letting go. I’m going to literally explode from swallowing too much bear meat, Crapsey thought. It was certainly an unusual way to go.
The Mason dropped from the tree and landed before Granger. “You’re killing the park,” she said, conversationally. “We’ll keep attacking you, and you’ll keep stealing life from the birds and bushes and grasses and squirrels until they’re all dead. Eventually we’ll be fighting in a sandy wasteland. And then we’ll kill you anyway.”
Granger roared, though it was more a howl of dismay than rage, and he sank down to his front paws. The Mason knelt and looked into his ursine face. “So you can fight, and kill the park, or die, and we’ll spare the park. I solemnly promise, no harm will come to your domain if you just give in.”
The bear suddenly rolled over, tens of hundreds of pounds pressing against Crapsey and snapping several ribs and squeezing all the air out of his lungs. The roll tore Crapsey loose – mouth still jammed with bleeding bear meat – and he gasped in agony on his back, unable to scream because he was compulsively swallowing.
The bear transformed into Granger, kneeling and bleeding copiously from a wound in his neck. “Why are you doing this, Marla?” he said. “Don’t I do good for you? Fight for you? Help you when helping’s what you need?”
The Mason didn’t say anything to correct the case of mistaken identity. Super cruel. “You’ve never been any use to me, Granger. Now it’s time for you to go away.”
“But the park, I have no apprentice, no successor…”
“I’ll take care of the park.” She reached out to pat his cheek. “Better than you ever did. I swear. Just stop fighting. Lay down and bleed. Return to the soil. Feed the trees. Be a feast for worms. All right? Or else the park will be nothing but spoil and desert and salted earth forever.”
Tears running down his broad face, Granger nodded, and curled up on the ground. He began to sink into the earth, and within moments a light covering of grasses sprang up to cover his body, until nothing remained of him but a hump in the landscape.
“I love it when you can just talk them into dying,” the Mason said. “I wonder if that approach would work on Marla? ‘Surrender and give me your cloak, and I’ll spare Felport’? I suppose it’s possible.” She walked over to Crapsey and looked down at him, hands on hips. “Are you all right?”
Crapsey swallowed the last bit of bear meat, and then screamed as his jaw returned to its original configuration. The pain in his face made his body spasm, jostling his ribs and causing a sensation not unlike multiple stab wounds to the torso.
“Crybaby,” the Mason said, and then her cloak was white again – mercy, twice in one day! – and she bent to touch him.
Cool, numbing magic flowed over his skin and penetrated deeper into his body, pain receding to a distant hum, even when his ribs slid back into place. With his ribs unbroken, he finally let himself roll over and vomit, puking a considerable pool of bear slurry into the grass.
With the healing wave still surging through him, even puking wasn’t too unpleasant. He sat up and scooted away from his reeking puddle. “That’s the stuff, boss. Why haven’t you ever healed me up before? You usually leave me to suffer and heal naturally, like some sort of lousy ordinary.”
Her cloak was purple again. She stared up at the cold dead moon as if into a mirror. “Pain is instructive. It teaches you not to make so many mistakes. But we have too much work to do tonight – I need you functional.”
“I presume you’re going to turn this park into a smoking hole in the ground?”
“Breaking my oath to Granger would be amusing. The fool believed my promise – as if I could enter into a binding contract with vermin. I imagine I’ll cause some fires as we leave, but I don’t have time for proper desertification. The Chamberlain still lives, and the Bay Witch, and of course Hamil, and if I have to kill the entire council to goad Marla Mason into facing me, I will.”
Crapsey got to his feet and started trying to brush mud off his suit, but it was so caked in with the bear’s blood and pond slime and other unmentionables that he soon gave up. “Maybe you scared her off, ever think of that? If Marla has any sense she just left the key to the city in her mailbox and left town.”
“Unlikely. The Marla Mason of this world resisted the lure of the cloak, which means she has a strong will – a stronger will even than the version of Marla I use as my vessel. Still, her failure to arrive is peculiar. We have been causing both covert and public destruction for some hours now.”
“Maybe we’re moving too fast. Let’s give her some time to come find us.” Crapsey stripped off his ruined suit jacket and dropped it over the pool of vomit, hiding one bit of hideousness with another. “I need a shower, and new clothes, and booze, and some sleep, and some food –”
The Mason smirked. “You didn’t get your fill of bear meat?”
“It was better than the slop you serve back home, but I don’t much like the aftertaste. I think the meat turned into human when Granger transformed back. Long pig isn’t my thing.”
The Mason shook her head. “No. We will press on –”
“Not in these clothes,” Crapsey said firmly. “Call it weak, call it vain, I don’t give a shit, but I can’t go on like this. I’m wearing a slaughterhouse floor here.”
The Mason made a slight sound of annoyance – enough to chill the blood under other circumstances, but Crapsey had hit his limit for the night, and didn’t much care. He was pretty sure he was still more useful than annoying.
“Fine,” she said. “We will pass a clothing store, I’m sure, and you can break in long enough to change. I will cast a spell of satiation and stimulus on you to assuage your hunger and exhaustion. Then we will go north of the river and kill the Chamberlain and banish her beloved coterie of ghosts, and –”
“Boss, somebody’s coming.” Crapsey squinted into the gloom under the trees, where a tall, broad-shouldered figure approached. “Think it’s a mugger? That would be too, too funny.”
The man came closer, stopping a few yards away. His neatly tailored, conservative suit did nothing to hide the fact that he was big, tall, and tremendously fat. Fat, but not flabby – he had what old crime writers called “hard fat”: a layer of bulk over muscle. The moonlight gleamed on his bald, black head, and his dark eyes were calm. “Hello,” he said, voice simultaneously deep and mild. “My name is Hamil. I represent the interests of the sorcerers in this city – at least, the ones you two haven’t killed. Perhaps you’d care to use your words instead of lashing out physically?”
“Want me to drop him?” Crapsey said.
The Mason shook her head. “No point. You could take over the body, but you wouldn’t hurt the man.” She approached Hamil, who backed away to keep his distance. “You look like Hamil, but you’re not. You’re a sort of… meat robot, aren’t you, operated remotely.”
Hamil – or the Hamil-bot – inclined his head. “It seemed unwise to send my real physical body to meet with you, but I assure you, the voice you hear is my own, transmitted from a safe location. Now: what do you want?”
“Do you know who I am?” the Mason said.
He shrugged. “I can speculate. You look like Marla – or the way she looked as a girl – but you aren’t her. He looks like Rondeau, but isn’t. Obviously you’re some sort of… dark doppelgangers. While I’m sure your origin story is fascinating, I’m more interested in practical matters, like how to stop you from killing everyone.”
“I want Marla,” the Mason said.
Hamil sighed. “You could have called and made an appointment. I’m sure she’d be delighted to meet a murdering lunatic who wears her face.”
“This is my way of making an appointment. Where is she? Why did she send you instead of coming herself? Is she afraid to face me?” Crapsey detected a note of real disappointment in the Mason’s last question.
“Not at all. She’s merely out of town.”
Crapsey laughed. “We came all this way to surprise her, and she’s not even home?”
“Where is she?” the Mason said. “When will she return?”
“I can’t divulge that information. But I’d be happy to see you both installed in a comfortable apartment in my building, where you can await her arrival in –”
“You will tell me,” the Mason said. She crossed the space between them in an instant, grabbing Hamil’s lapels and staring up into his face. He outweighed her by a couple of hundred pounds, probably, but there was no doubt in Crapsey’s mind which one of them was scarier. “Or I will end you.”
“Threatening this body is about as effective as threatening the mouthpiece of a telephone,” the Hamil-bot said dryly.
The Mason cocked her head, as if listening to distant music. “This body… is a mindless vat-grown clone, accelerated to full growth, operated via sympathetic magic – of course it is, you only have that one hammer in your toolbox, so every problem is a nail – with a potent connection between you and the clone, because you are genetically identical. So since you and the clone are indistinguishable at this moment magically, that means, yes…” She grunted, put her hands on either side of the Hamil-bot’s head, and said, “I can snap this creature’s neck and break yours, too. Or I could cast Garcia’s Torment, and make every cell in your body violently separate from every other cell, but that’s so messy. Perhaps I’ll chant the Razor Song, and give you eternal pain instead of a simple death. Ha, yes, keep throwing up those barriers, try to keep the flow of information one way, that’s funny, that amuses me.” She pressed her thumbs into the Hamil-bot’s eyes, and the big man fell to his knees, gasping. “You feel that, don’t you? I could blind you now. Tell me. Where is Marla. Tell me. Tell me. Tell me. Or I’ll kill you and interrogate your corpse.”
“She went to the other world!” Hamil shouted. “But when she comes back, she will destroy you!”
The Mason removed her thumbs from his eyes and patted his head. “The other world. I see. Oh, yes, I see. Tell me: Why did she go? And tell me: How did she get there?”
Hamil gritted his teeth, and the Mason sighed, and spoke a phrase that made Crapsey want to blurt out his every indiscretion and secret – an incantatory truth-telling compulsion. The spell wasn’t even directed at Crapsey, he’d just caught the edges, and it was all he could do not to start babbling; Hamil didn’t have a chance.
Hamil told what he knew: Marla had kidnapped some dude from another world, thus tearing a gaping hole in the fabric of reality, and then when the kidnapped dude wanted to go home, she took him.
Crapsey said, “Bradley Bowman. Why does that sound familiar?”
“He’s Sanford Cole’s second in command,” the Mason said. “One of the rebels in San Francisco.”
“Huh. So the Jaguar hasn’t eaten him yet? And Marla made a deal with some deep scary power and snatched Bowman here because his dead mirror-world counterpart was her boyfriend or something? And she, what, she missed him?” He could barely comprehend the idea. To go to that much trouble, to unleash that kind of magic, just to get back a dead friend… well, maybe if Crapsey’d ever really had a friend he might have understood it better. He was willing to concede the possibility.
“So it seems. I imagine you and I are the magical consequences of her action – that unleashing us on her world was the price the possible witch forced Marla to pay.” The Mason sniffed. “I dislike being a pawn of the deep powers. But the action alerted me to the existence of the multiverse, and showed me that passage between worlds is possible, which is useful information for me. So I am less angry than I could be.” She stroked the still kneeling, now weeping Hamil under his chin. “Listen, Hamil. I’ll allow you to live for a little while. All right? But you must get a message to Marla. Tell her I’ll be waiting for her in her office. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” Hamil said. “I’ll tell her. But I don’t know when she’s coming back –”
“If she doesn’t face me within 24 hours, I will level this city. And I will begin to conquer this world as I conquered the other.” She paused. “Of course, I’ll probably do that last part anyway. But if she faces me, I’ll spare Felport.”
Hamil didn’t respond. She frowned. “Answer when spoken to.”
The Hamil-bot responded by falling over on its side, completely inert.
The Mason sighed. “Ah. He managed to break the sympathetic connection. Well, it is his magical specialty. I shouldn’t be surprised. He’ll deliver my message, though.”
“And if Marla doesn’t show?”
“Then I’ll have the pleasure of destroying this city, which I was unable to do in our world because I wanted to keep my very useful dagger. Either outcome pleases me. Now. We’ll go to Juliana’s club – Rondeau’s club, here, apparently. Your doppelganger must have more self-control than you, Crapsey. If you owned a bar, you’d drink all the inventory.”
Crapsey shrugged. “I live in a hellish nightmare world, and he doesn’t. Of course I need booze more.” He yawned. “I hope Marla waits until, say, after lunchtime tomorrow to show up. I’m looking forward to a shower, and a bed, and maybe some of Rondeau’s clothes will fit me, even if he is by all accounts a scrawny fuck.”
“Enjoy your naptime,” the Mason said. “I’m more interested in exploring the contents of Marla’s files.”
“There aren’t many people who take equal pleasure in ripping off heads and sorting through papers, boss.”
“I am a highly evolved being,” the Mason replied.