Marla removed her cloak, folded it carefully, and tucked it into her bag. Then she kicked apart the Jaguar’s throne of skulls. The bones didn’t dissolve into dust and slurry like the rest of the Jaguar’s creations, so they weren’t magical, but real skulls and bones from real dead people. That meant somebody had been forced to take the remains of the dead and actually build a big-ass chair out of them, which was a hell of a thing to have on your résumé. The mysterious chairwright had used some kind of epoxy resin to hold things together. Ah, human ingenuity.
Marla had never been very good at remote viewing – she was too firmly in-her-self, and found the notion of mind/body duality so inherently ridiculous, that leaving her body behind was tough. Still, she could imagine what was happening all over the city now. Ordinary citizens emerging from their doubtless well-barricaded apartments, watching the vines and giant snakes and impossible rivers and vicious jungle cats turn to mist and smoke and absence. People lifting their faces up to the sun, and daring to hope their lives would go back to normal again.
Well. “Normal” for a world where the existence of monsters and sorcerers was public knowledge, and where the threat of the Mason loomed just on the other side of the Rockies.
Satisfied with the results of her kicking, Marla went and found the bush where she’d ditched her grape seed and squatted down, running her hands over the soil until she found the little kernel of communication. She blew the dirt off and slipped the seed back into her ear. “Cole, you hear me?”
“Marla!” The old man’s voice was full of undisguised wonder. “You succeeded?”
“I put the cat to sleep,” she said. “How did the Alcatraz assault go?” She asked the question as nonchalantly as she could, but her stomach was a clench of knots. Bradley Bowman had died on her watch once already in one world, and if he died in another…
“Some injuries, but no casualties,” Cole said. “And they killed both Bethany and the Lynx, I’m assured.”
“Good. Saves you having to do too much mopping up, then. With both the biggest bosses dead, the Jaguar’s toadies are probably scared and hopping away as fast as they can. Should I make my way back to the camp?”
“My days of skulking in the sewers are over, Marla dear,” Cole said. “I’ll send someone ’round to pick you up, and we’ll celebrate in greater splendor.”
Yasuko arrived eventually on a motorcycle, and was annoyed when Marla insisted on driving it herself. “You don’t even know where we’re going!” she said.
“I don’t ride bitch even more than I don’t know where we’re going,” Marla replied. “You can give me directions. I’m a quick study.”
The drive was scenic, taking them west and south around the coast of the city along the sea cliffs. The ocean was the same as always, vast and blue and largely indifferent to the acts of people and gods. The motorcycle handled the rough roadway and buckled concrete easily, apparently ‘chanted with spells to prevent crashes, which sort of took the challenge out of things – but Marla decided she’d had enough challenges for the day.
They parked in front of the Cliff House, a multi-story Victorian wedding cake of a building perched on the cliffs above Ocean Beach, with commanding views of the sea. The building, once a restaurant, had become Sanford Cole’s base of operations before his exile. “Doesn’t this place fall down a lot?” Marla said, climbing off the bike.
“It’s burnt or collapsed or been accidentally exploded by dynamite something like five times since 1858,” Yasuko said. “When Cole took power in the city, he had the house restored to something resembling its, hmm, second incarnation, I think? But with modern conveniences inside. It’s not a bad place to work.”
“Sounds like the place is cursed, but hey, it’s your day job, not mine.”
They went through the front doors, into a great room filled with velvet-covered furniture and antique tables and the entire population of Camp Kimke, among others. Everyone cheered when Marla came in, shouting her first name and slapping her on the back as she tried to work her way deeper into the room. She scanned the space for Beta-B or Rondeau or Cole, but didn’t see them. Pie Bob pressed a glass of champagne into her hand, and Marla accepted it gratefully. She didn’t drink much, but one glass wouldn’t hurt, and god-toppling was thirsty work.
The appreciation was nice too. Despite all the times she’d saved Felport, the other sorcerers there had never shouted “Three cheers for Marla!” Mostly they’d just bitched about collateral damage and lost income. Not that she would have enjoyed parties in her honor or anything, but it would’ve been nice to have the chance to fail to enjoy them.
She made chit-chat with people as best she could – she was pretty crap at that sort of thing – until she found an unobstructed window with a good view. She stood looking out at the sea, trying to appear introspective and unapproachable as the sun bled down toward the horizon. Night was falling on the first day after the fall of the Jaguar. It would be a good night, she was sure.
“Marla.” Rondeau stood at her shoulder. “Could you come upstairs with me for a sec? Beta-B and me want you to hear something.”
Marla sighed and knocked back the last of her champagne. “What, is there a new crisis already?”
Rondeau didn’t laugh. His face was so serious it might have been the rehearsal for a death mask. “Yeah. Looks like it.”
She followed him through the crowd and up a narrow staircase to the infinitely quieter second floor, and into a small bedroom, also decorated in High Victorian. A redhead sat on the bed beside Beta-B.
“Marla, this is Anna,” Beta-B said. “She’s a seer, and the best interpreter of dreams I’ve ever met. I told her about this dream I had, and, ah… Can you tell her what you told me, Anna?”
Anna cleared her throat. “In Bradley’s dream, he saw a younger version of you in a purple cloak step out of a mirror and switch places with you, trapping you behind glass. Then all the reflections of you started to change, too, white cloaks going purple, one after another, until your cloak changed as well. It seems clear to me that it means the Mason –”
“Fuck,” Marla said. “She’s in my world?”
“It seems possible.” Cole stepped in from the hallway. “I’ve just been re-establishing contact with my agents back East, and things are chaotic there. The Mason and her lieutenant Crapsey both vanished, apparently around the same time Bradley here left for your world. They haven’t returned, and I gather her lieutenants are assassinating one another and fighting for power – it looks like the chaos witch Nicolette is winning, for now. Since Bradley went to your world, it seems possible the Mason and Crapsey did as well.”
“The possible witch said, ‘When you open a doorway, it opens both ways,'” Rondeau said. “And we never did figure out what the price was, for bringing Beta-B to our world.”
“Now we know,” Marla said, trying to get her mind to spin up to crisis-management speed. Her brain felt dipped in liquid nitrogen, though, frozen and dull. What would the Mason – and Rondeau’s murderous, promiscuously body-jumping counterpart – do, unleashed in her world?
What would they do to her city?
Anna said, “That’s not all. Bradley’s vision suggests… that the Mason is planning to try and go to other worlds. That she’s going to take over other parallel dimensions, and force other versions of you into her service.”
“That won’t happen,” Marla said. “Because I’m going to end the bitch. She does not get to play in my world. No way.”
“I’m going with you,” Beta-B said.
Marla’s numb brain warmed up a fraction. “Are you sure? You said even if we defeated the Jaguar that –”
“I needed to stay to fight the Mason,” Beta-B said. “Now she’s in your world. You came here, at great personal risk, and helped us. So I’m going to go over there and help you. If she’s planning to conquer the whole multiverse, I’ll have to deal with her again sooner or later anyway, so it might as well be now. I’m not planning to stay forever in your world, but –”
Acting on impulse, as she so often did, Marla took Beta-B in her arms and hugged him. “We’ve come a long way,” she said, “from you trying to cut off my head for a dark ritual.”
“Lord, are you ever going to let me live that down?” Beta-B said. “That was, like, a whole day ago.”
“She holds grudges like I hold my liquor,” Rondeau said. “Which is really well, in case you were wondering.”
Marla turned to Cole. “Sorry to save the city and run, but –”
“I’ll arrange our fastest transport to Alcatraz,” Cole said.
“At least we won’t get attacked by giant fucking snakes this time,” Rondeau said.
“Gods, you might have warned me.” Marla stared down at the corpse of the Lynx – known better to her as Joshua Kindler, who’d been her lover, briefly, and then her betrayer, and then a man dead by her hand. She shifted the strap of her shoulder bag, the cloak and dagger nestled securely inside. The man on the ground was one of the many things her artifacts had failed to protect her from.
“Yeah.” Rondeau shuffled his feet. “I, uh, wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. I know he’s kind of a sore point.”
“Just as a reminder of my capacity for stupidity. But are you okay? Having to, you know…”
“Kill somebody?” Rondeau shook his head. “I’m a multiple murderer now, you know that? Alpha-B, and Joshua, and… does the Jaguar god’s mind count?”
“He’s probably fine,” Marla said. “Back upstairs ripping out the hearts of constellations or something by now.”
“Yeah.” Rondeau nodded. “Well, only two, then, and one was an accident, and one was self-defense. I’m not saying I won’t have some fucked-up dreams, but… I’m still a long way from reaching your body count, at least.”
“Let’s keep it that way.” She beckoned Beta-B, who’d stood quietly aside during their conversation. “Are you all set?”
“Sure. It’s just passing through a wound gouged in the skin of reality itself. Nothing we haven’t done before.” He offered his hand, and she grasped it. Rondeau took her other hand, and they went into the solitary confinement cell where the opening to the possible witch’s domain was located. Not, Rondeau had assured her, the same solitary cell where the god-haunted body of Mutex had been held captive – that would’ve been a little too much coincidence for comfort.
They stepped into the possible witch’s domain. Beta-B shouted and his grip on her hand tightened, his 150 pounds of weight dragging on her arm suddenly enough to wrench her shoulder painfully. While she and Rondeau were standing on relatively solid boards, Beta-B had stepped into a ragged hole in the floor easily six feet across, and now dangled over an abyss, wind whipping at his hair and clothes. Far below, sparks of dark blue light began to circle like luminous sharks. “Pull!” Marla shouted, and Rondeau grabbed her around the waist and lunged backwards, tugging her back and pulling Beta-B halfway up out of the hole. Marla got her free hand on Beta-B’s collar and hauled him onto the boards, where they both lay gasping. Beta-B trembled. “Fuck,” he said. “It’s cold down there.”
“Guys,” Rondeau said. “Um. The floor. Is melting.”
Marla leapt up. The boards were actually disintegrating – turning to dust and vapor – rather than melting, but this was no time to criticize Rondeau’s choice of words. They all ran, boards creaking and splintering alarmingly beneath them, toward the twisting corridors ahead of them. This is like one of those action movies, Marla thought, where the treasure hunter runs along a stone catwalk through a temple while the walkway collapses right behind him. Except in this case, there wasn’t a neck-breaking fall into a chasm at risk, but a potentially bottomless plummet into the gap between worlds. Marla ran, ignoring the branching tunnels and the doors – some of which were hanging crooked on their oh-so-ordinary brass hinges – and focusing on the way ahead. Great holes gaped in the walls, with that hellish biting wind ripping through, and the ceiling sagged down in places so low she had to duck her head to avoid brushing it, but it was the floor that worried her, as cracks began running in from the sides and holes opened that she had to leap across, Beta-B and Rondeau on her heels.
But then she turned a corner, raced past another of those doors (this one mercifully solid and shut), and there it was: the hole they’d torn in reality, smaller and partially healed-over but still big enough for a person to slip through, kaleidoscope lightning flickering within. “Through there!” she shouted, and was about to throw her bag through the portal and then dive after it when Rondeau bellowed.
She stopped, spun on her heel, looked back, and saw Rondeau standing on her side of a rapidly-widening crack in the floor… with Beta-B standing on the other side. He was tottering, barely keeping his balance, about to pitch into the depths. He recovered, falling back and sitting down on his ass, a look of total incomprehension on his face. The ground was literally disappearing around him, darkness and wind shredding the tunnel behind him to cut off his retreat, bits of the wall and ceiling turning to puffs of dust swallowed by the abyss.
“B, Bradley, man, jump!” Rondeau shouted.
But Marla knew that was hopeless. The crack that separated them from Beta-B was already several feet wide and getting wider, and Beta-B didn’t have any room behind him to back up and get a running start. He was on a melting ice floe in a tropical sea, and he knew it. The stunned look on his face vanished, replaced by a look of resignation. He shrugged, held up the palms of his hands as if to say “What can you do?” and glanced at the closed door on his left.
The very existence of those doors terrified Marla. Who knew what kind of places the possible witch needed easy access to in order to do her inscrutable work? The doors might lead to places where reality had altogether different rules, places where the air was boiling lead, places so dense they’d make black holes look like aerogel. But this wasn’t a case of choosing door number one or door number two. This was door number only. A Hobson’s choice: this, or nothing.
In her world, Bradley Bowman had lost his life and mind and soul and vanished into nothing.
This Bradley, at least, had a door.
He shouted something to Rondeau – Marla, standing farther back, only heard the sound, and the wind tore the sense away. Rondeau shouted something back, ran to Marla, and began pulling her toward the portal. She waited, though, even as the crack in the floor approached her, until she saw Bradley put his hand on the brass knob and open the door. She was hoping for some sign of hope – a radiant white light, maybe, the usual Hollywood visual shorthand for heavenly transcendence.
But the door just opened on more darkness, and Bradley gave her a dramatic, funny grimace – What, I have to go in here? – before stepping through.
“Come on!” Rondeau shouted. He climbed through the portal.
Marla followed, and entered her home universe with tears in her eyes.
Rondeau fell out of a tree, and rolled over in time to keep Marla from landing on top of him. He sat up unsteadily, looking around, trying to get his bearings. The sky was dark, the moon bright, and the only structure nearby was a white-painted gazebo. He groaned. “Marla. I think we lost some hours or something, should it be this dark?”
“We’re in Fludd Park. Back home. It’s later on the east coast.” She sat up, grasping her head. “Fuck. I have to. Turn it off.”
“Turn what off?”
“The city sense. Alarm bells in my head. Felport is screaming. Bad things happened here, Rondeau. They’re still happening.”
“Bad things happened back there, too. Bradley…”
Marla rose, bracing herself against the tree. “What did he say to you?”
“He said, ‘Go, then. There are other worlds than these.'” He shook his head. “Stephen King reference. Bonus points.”
“I don’t get it,” Marla said.
“There’s this King book –”
“No, it’s okay, I don’t need to understand. You guys had your private jokes. I liked that, liked seeing you be friends, you should…” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Rondeau had seen her cry before, but she usually had an arrow sticking out of her thigh or something when it happened. “Fuck. I don’t believe in destiny, Rondeau, you know that, but I’ll be damned if the universe doesn’t have it in for Bradley. Shit. The universe. It’s me. I’m poison to that guy.”
“We don’t know what happened. What he found beyond that door. Maybe it’s the big rock candy mountain over there. Heaven with male strippers. An open-air sex and ice cream pavilion. It’s possible, right?”
Marla shrugged. “I keep you around for your optimism, Rondeau. At least we can imagine some kind of good outcome for him. What harm can it do? Next time I decide to rip apart space-time because I really miss B, just slap me upside the head, would you?”
“Will do. So… what now? I’m guessing we don’t have any time to grieve or process the shit that just happened, right? I mean, what did happen? Why the total collapse?”
“I think when the possible witch went wherever the fuck she went, her home base started to fall apart. It was a little bastion of order in a big chaotic void, and once she wasn’t there to maintain it anymore…” Marla shrugged. “We’re lucky we didn’t get stuck on that side.”
“Lucky. We’re stuck over here with the Mason now, right? And she’s done who knows what?”
“Yeah. We’re gonna have to deal with that.”
Rondeau leaned against the tree and closed his eyes. “Then let’s do what we need to do pretty fast, before the denial and numbness fade, okay?”
Marla rummaged in her bag and found her cell phone. Her sometime employee Langford, a technomancer, had fixed it for her so it could get reception even on the moon, but it hadn’t worked across dimensions. When she turned it on, though, it informed her she’d missed some calls.
About 875 calls in all. And she had voicemail messages aplenty. She pushed buttons at random, cursing, and finally handed it to Rondeau. “Can you work this thing and listen to the last message? Maybe we can hope for an executive summary or something.”
Rondeau nodded, punched the buttons, and held the phone to his ear. Hamil’s voice, hurried and worried and dripping with fear, entered his ear. He listened for a long time, then let the phone drop to the ground, and slid down the tree.
“Tell me,” Marla said.
“Granger dead.” He swallowed. “Viscarro turned to ashes. Doctor Husch – ah, fuck, Marla, Leda, torn to pieces.”
“What about Ernesto?” Marla said.
Rondeau shook his head minutely. “No. He’s… they got him. Dead.”
“Half the council,” Marla murmured. “She killed half my fucking council?”
“She could have killed Hamil, too. She left him alive to give you a message. The Mason says she’s at my club. In your office. She wants to meet with you.”
“I’ll just bet she does,” Marla said.
“If you don’t show up in the next 24 hours – less than that, now – she says she’ll destroy the whole city.”
“She won’t have to wait, we’re going now, we’re going to –”
“Marla.” Rondeau shook his head. “You can’t charge in. Not this time.”
“Bullshit. There’s not a problem I can’t solve with –”
“Didn’t you learn anything?” He didn’t shout, though he felt like shouting. He just didn’t have the energy. “You were sure you could just brute-force your way into bringing Bradley back to life, right? How well did that turn out? You managed to beat the Jaguar, but you did it because you had a good plan, you didn’t go all pissed off and try to beat him to death with a shovel. Like you said. The Mason killed half the council. I don’t think a simple ass-kicking is going to get the job done. I want her dead as bad as you do, but if we’re going to do this, can we do it with a plan? ”
Marla opened her mouth, expression furious, but then her face relaxed and she just sat down. “Thanks,” she said after a moment. “I guess I needed that.” She thought for a moment. “Okay. What did you have in mind?”
“Getting help. You know some serious badasses, Marla. Hell, call Genevieve, let’s get some reweaving going, turn the Mason into a field of cabbages or something.”
Marla shook her head. “Genevieve doesn’t have that kind of fine control. Her powers get away from her. That’s why she took herself out of the game, to her little bubble reality, because the world’s not safe when she uses her powers. Besides, she’s still human, and Crapsey can take control of human bodies at will – what if he jumped into her and took over her body before she had a chance to unleash her mojo? Think of the damage they could do with her abilities. No.”
Rondeau cleared his throat. “Well, what about, you know… The guy. With the rings. Mr., let’s say, Mr. D.”
Marla frowned. “What do you know about him?”
He shrugged. “Your office is right next to my kitchen, boss. I hear you talking sometimes, and even if I can’t make out the words through the privacy wards, I recognize the tone of the guy’s voice – you don’t forget what the lord of the underworld and the incarnation of Death sounds like. The guy did take over the whole city and try to kill me, you know. I know you two are, ah… friends. Or whatever. That you’ve kept in touch. I mean, he’s death. Surely he can go to bat for us.”
“I can’t ask him for help,” Marla said, scowling. “We don’t have that kind of relationship. Besides, he’s not overly concerned with my survival. If I get killed, he figures that means the two of us just get to spend more time together. Which doesn’t sound bad in theory, and after another century or so of life, I might even get to like the idea, but not now.”
“If you asked for help, he wouldn’t kill the Mason?”
Marla shook her head. “He couldn’t. You remember when he saw my cloak? How it scared him, because it doesn’t come from this universe – from this multiverse? It’s an alien, outside thing, beyond his ability to affect. He can’t kill it. He’s the death of every living thing from this world… but the Mason’s from another world. Outside his jurisdiction.”
“Maybe he could kill the body the Mason’s using, though, I mean –”
“And maybe not,” Marla snapped. “Maybe that body is basically just a zombie now anyway. Look, it’s not a terrible idea, and I’ll take it under advisement. If all else fails, I’ll call him. Assuming I can get the little bell I use to call him, which is presently in a drawer in my office where the Mason is sitting reading my mail. But I’m not used to running for help to some man, even a man who’s not really a man, and I’m not starting now, especially since I don’t think he’d be much use in this situation. I can deal with this on my own. This afternoon I beat a god. I can handle a bitch in a magic cloak, especially when I own exactly the same magic cloak.” She looked at Rondeau as if daring him to challenge her, but he didn’t rise to it. She slumped. “Really, the Mason doesn’t worry me that much. It’s Crapsey. If I show up, what’s to stop him from knocking my soul out and wearing my body like a suit?”
“There are protection spells, right?”
Marla nodded. “Sure. Total psychic armor spells. They protect you from possession, the thing on the doorstep trick, mind reading, and everything else – it turns your mind into a lead-lined box. Which is fine, but it’s serious complex long-term ritual shit. The kind of spell Susan Wellstone likes to do, but I don’t have the months it would take me to prepare or the week to perform the ritual. And even a sniper putting a bullet in Crapsey’s head won’t help, because he’ll just take some other host. No, the Mason I can handle, but your evil twin… He’s the real problem.”
“I might be able to fix that,” Rondeau said. “If you call the Mason and Crapsey and set up a meeting. But not right away. Like, in the morning. We have to run some errands first, get prepared.”
Marla cocked her head. “Yeah? You’ve got a plan?”
Rondeau laughed. “Not even close to a plan. But I’ve got a tactic. I can take care of Crapsey. The rest is up to you.”
“Well all right.” Marla picked up the phone. She poked at the buttons for a moment, then thrust the cell at Rondeau again. “Dial my office number, will you? I can never remember how to get to the stupid contacts list.”
“She can kill gods, but she can’t operate a cell phone,” Rondeau said.
“I can kill annoying employees, too.”
“Then who’d work this thing for you?” He handed her the phone. “There. It’s ringing.”
Marla listened for a moment. Then she said, “Hi, you. It’s me.”