“So that’s the succession plan,” Marla said, sipping a cup of coffee on the balcony, doing her best to enjoy what might possibly be her last peaceful view of the city, her city, the home of her heart. She yawned. It was only afternoon, but her body-clock was all screwed up. Inter-dimensional jet lag.
Hamil nodded glumly. “Understood.”
Marla reached across the table and patted her old friend’s hand. “I know you don’t want the job, but you’d be a better interim chief than the Chamberlain. She’d let everything south of the river go to hell.”
“I think you underestimate her,” Hamil said, “but I take your point.” They were at his penthouse, a highly-fortified apartment that wouldn’t withstand an assault by the Mason for more than five minutes. But then, as far as they knew, pretty much no place on Earth was safe from the Mason, so why not spend the time they had left in comfort rather than in a cramped safe house? “I wish I had more confidence in your plan,” he said. “It depends entirely on an assumption of ignorance on the Mason’s part that might be faulty. And even if it works, there’s a good chance you won’t survive. What if the Mason knows –”
Marla put her cup down. “Then we’re fucked. That simple. I could come up with a better plan if I had a week, maybe, but I don’t. This is it. Thanks for letting me grab a nap and shower here. And for not tearing me a new one. I know all this is my fault, but I’m going to fix it. I hope.”
“I thought I’d save the screaming until the immediate crisis was past,” Hamil said. “Seemed more prudent. The other sorcerers in the city are… less patient… but I convinced them now was not the time to air their grievances.”
“It’s a clusterfuck all right. Still, I’d rather fight my evil twin than deal with the council’s bitching.”
Hamil laughed softly, without humor. “What council? The only ones left are me, the Chamberlain, and the Bay Witch, and she barely takes an interest in our landward affairs.”
“I’ll avenge them all, Hamil. I should go.”
Her consigliere looked at the ornate watch on his wrist. “You have a little time yet. I’ll have a car brought around.”
Marla shook her head. “No. I’m walking. It’s not that far. And there’s a chance I might not walk away from this meeting, so…” She shrugged. “Could be my last walk. If I don’t come back… thanks, Hamil. Your support over the years has meant everything.”
“I love you like a daughter, Marla. The sort of daughter who breaks curfew and throws plates against the wall and gets tattoos, perhaps, but still – a daughter.”
Marla pushed back from the table. “Take care, fat man.”
The air had a crisp bite that made her glad to be wearing the cloak. The sky was the gray of dirty wool. Dead leaves crunched underfoot, at least until she left the relatively posh neighborhood where Hamil lived and reached the poorer blocks where there were more pawn shops and corner stores than trees. Cabs honked, buses rumbled past spewing exhaust, and half a dozen aggressive homeless men panhandled her – and the one or two who were initiates of the mysteries gave her respectful nods instead. She breathed deep the air of her city, and hoped she’d emerge soon to breathe it again.
She reached Rondeau’s club, pushed open the front door, and stepped inside to strike a bargain with a devil.
The Mason was on the far side of the bar, leaning forward like a bartender listening to a regular’s lament, though she was doing most of the talking, to Rondeau’s dismay. When the door creaked open, Rondeau looked up from his stool, spun around, and gave the new arrival a little wave. “Hi, Marla. So it turns out the Mason wants to hire me.”
“You want to work with this treacherous little shit?” Marla said, looking past him to her dark doppelganger.
Rondeau winced. Marla had to be faking that tone of cold hate and contempt, but it still stung – not so long ago, she’d been calling him stuff like that in all sincerity.
Marla approached the bar. “Rondeau can’t control himself. If he stubs his toe or gets a toothache he might decide he’s dying and leap from his body and kill your best general.”
“We both know his lack of control will cease to be a problem soon,” the Mason said.
Marla took a seat next to Rondeau. “Did you tell him what’s going to happen?”
“A horse doesn’t need to know he’s being bought and sold,” the Mason said.
Marla sighed. “Right. You want to do this thing?”
“Wait wait,” Rondeau said. “Do what thing?”
“We are making a trade,” Marla said carefully. “I’m giving the Mason what she wants, and in exchange, she’s going away.”
Rondeau frowned. “What, you’re trading me? But… I already told her I’d work for her. I don’t need your permission.”
“Silly Crap – Rondeau,” the Mason said. “That’s not the trade. We’re trading this body –” she gestured at herself – “For Marla’s cloak.”
Marla nodded. “Yep. I don’t give a shit about the rest of the multiverse. I care about two things: my city, and my body. I’m not letting the Mason walk around wearing another version of me – that Marla deserves freedom, and peace. She’s suffered more than enough.”
“But you, body-thief,” the Mason said, smiling at Rondeau. “You deserve nothing. Or so Marla says. Besides, I want you. As a host, you have definite advantages over this one. Your will is strong enough to sustain me, if not as strong as my Marla’s – but most importantly, that will of yours currently inhabits the body of a psychic powerful enough to rip holes in the skin of reality. So I’m going to take over your body, and take Marla’s cloak, and rip a portal back to my universe, and from there… conquer the multiverse.” She glanced at Marla. “Excepting this world, of course. As agreed.”
Rondeau tried to stand up, but he couldn’t move – the Mason had cast some paralyzing hoodoo on him, but he could still talk, probably because the Mason was the type who liked hearing her victims scream. “This is bullshit. Marla, you can’t trust her! She says she’ll leave this world alone, but how can you know –”
“I can’t know,” Marla said. “Even if we cast a circle of binding, who knows if compulsive magic like that even works on her? But what’s the alternative? The multiverse is vast. I have to believe she’ll be able to keep herself occupied in all those zillions of worlds without coming back here.”
“I don’t usually bother to keep promises,” the Mason said. “But in this case, I’ve made an exception, because you have something of great value to me. In the near-infinity of worlds to conquer, I won’t even notice this one. Besides, once I take the cloak away…” She shrugged. “There’s nothing else here I want. And there are billions of universes with other cloaks I can gather. I’ll leave, and I won’t come back.”
“So how do we do this?” Marla said. “I’m assuming you can’t take yourself off your own shoulders and put you on Rondeau? And I’m also guessing you don’t trust me to do the transfer, since it’s pretty much the only time you’re even remotely vulnerable. I guess that means you need a lapdog to undress you.” She looked around. “So where’s Crapsey?”
The Mason shook her head. “As if I’d trust him not to drop me to the ground and stomp on me. I went out and procured a mind-slave this morning.” She snapped her fingers, and a gray-bearded man dressed in multiple layers of flannel emerged from a utility closet, walking jerkily, eyes glazed over. Rondeau recognized him as one of the local panhandlers. He drooled and stared glassily, stopping near the bar and waiting like a switched-off robot.
The Mason made a vague gesture with her hand, and Marla grunted. Through gritted teeth, she said, “What. The fuck. Is this?”
“You could call it betrayal,” the Mason said. “I just call it a reasonable precaution. I can’t have you killing my mind-slave while I’m vulnerable and interrupting the transfer. And I know you’d be tempted.” She came over to Marla and gently removed the cloak from her shoulders, then draped it over a barstool and gazed down at it lovingly for a moment. Then she looked back up at Marla. “Though it’s a betrayal, too, actually. I’m not planning to give up this body, of course. I’m trading up to the delicious Rondeau/Bradley hybrid over there, but this body is already so beautifully broken-in, I can’t let it go to waste. After I’ve changed hosts, I’m going to take the cloak that once graced your shoulders and place it over this body’s shoulders. And then the two of us – the two of me – will go on our way, to live happily ever after for eternity. Don’t worry. Your paralysis will wear off soon. And I’ll even leave your world behind, as I promised. This place really is irrelevant to me, once I’ve taken what I want.” The Mason snapped her fingers, and her mind-slave shuffled over.
Marla widened her eyes, and Rondeau tried to nod, and couldn’t. He wasn’t the best strategist, but there was only one thing he could do to stop the Mason from possessing his body. He was very glad he hadn’t revealed his power to jump at will. He’d been tempted, when he thought he might need to prove his value to the Mason to keep her from turning him into pâté, but it was the secret that was going to save their lives.
The Mason unhooked the plain metal clasp that held her cloak fastened, and the mind-slave removed the cloak from her shoulders. When the cloak pulled away, the young-looking version of Marla collapsed, eyes rolling back in her head. The mind-slave shuffled over toward Rondeau, holding the cloak in both hands, and Marla shouted, “Now! Go now!”
Rondeau hadn’t really needed the prompting. He left his body – the trick the Mason didn’t know he could perform – and spiraled up into the air, and then –
Tried to figure out what the fuck to do. He wasn’t sure how long he could survive without a host body, but he didn’t think it was long. Even though he had the panic under control, being out of a body wasn’t a comfortable thing, and the forms down there called to him: Marla Prime on the barstool, Beta-Marla on the floor, the homeless guy who was draping the cloak on the shoulders of Rondeau’s now-empty body, which slumped on the bar as if fallen asleep over a whiskey. The body didn’t move, even after the cloak was fastened. Without Rondeau’s will to animate it, the body might as well have been a mannequin in a department store, and was just as useless to the Mason.
Rondeau tried to sort of tread water up there in the air, but he had to go somewhere, this was like drowning, and he couldn’t hold his metaphysical breath forever. He started toward the fallen Beta-Marla, thinking her body was the best bet, she had to be basically brain dead anyway, but when he tried to take over her body he bounced off, it was just like the time in the pit at Camp Kimke, she was magically impregnable. Then she started crawling away, which meant there was still a mind in there, a version of Marla’s mind, so it was almost lucky he hadn’t been able to –
But that only left the poor homeless guy. He needed to be neutralized anyway, especially since he was in the process of trying to put the other cloak on Beta-Marla, hindered by the fact that she was trying to crawl away. Rondeau had no idea if the mind slave’s consciousness had been totally scoured by the Mason’s magic or if he’d merely been placed under a compulsion, which meant this might be a murder, but there was no choice – if Rondeau didn’t stop the slave, the cloak would take over Beta-Marla and they’d be fucked all over again.
He slid into the mind-slave’s body, and felt the kick and struggle of a soul inside, but Rondeau won. Which brought his tally of annihilated human souls to three. One by accident; one in self-defense; and one… one a simple murder of expediency. Arguably he’d consigned this homeless man’s soul to oblivion in order to save the world – all the worlds – but he wasn’t sure that would help him sleep at night.
Rondeau threw the cloak in his hands down on the ground and knelt beside the crawling Beta-Marla. “Hey,” he said in the new body’s voice, though his lips were parched and his throat dry, and the craving for wine was almost incomprehensibly strong. “Hey, it’s okay, I’m not – no one’s going to hurt you again. Okay?”
Beta Marla just whimpered and kept dragging herself away, as if she’d forgotten how to stand up and use her own legs – which, maybe, she had.
“Leave her for now,” Marla said. “I don’t think she’ll get far.” She rocked a little on her stool, then scowled. “Shit, I’m still paralyzed. It’s wearing off, but not quickly enough. Can you get the cloak off your body’s shoulders? It makes me nervous seeing it on somebody, even an empty somebody.”
Rondeau removed the Mason’s cloak – the Mason – from his body’s shoulders and draped it over a stool. Then he jumped back into his old host, letting the mind slave’s body collapse. The homeless man began convulsing in a seizure, then lay still. Rondeau turned away and vomited up the coffee and stale bagels he’d had for lunch. “Fuck,” he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Fuck, Marla. What if the Mason hadn’t brought in that poor old guy to do the transfer? If it had been Crapsey here instead? What body would I have taken then?”
“I figured you’d take over poor Beta-Marla there. And if you couldn’t, if the Mason had protective magics on her –
“Which she did,” Rondeau said.
“Well, then.” Marla shrugged. “I assumed you’d take over my body. That’s what I was going to tell you on the phone, last night – that if you needed to steal my body to stop the Mason, you had my permission, as long as you promised not to have too much skanky sex with it afterward.” She shivered, and slid off the stool, but the paralysis was fading enough for her to catch herself. “We did it, Rondeau. We won. I figured out what the bitch wanted, and promised to give it to her, and tricked her. Hell, you tricked her. I’m just glad her knowledge was out of date – thinking I hated you, and thinking you hadn’t learned any new tricks.”
“We got lucky, Marla.”
“Some people say it’s better to be lucky than good. I try to be both, whenever possible.”
Rondeau nodded. “I was really expecting more of an epic giant battle, though. The two of you demolishing whole city blocks and knocking over skyscrapers as you raged across Felport.”
Marla laughed. “Would’ve been fun, I guess. But people kept telling me if I tried to fight the Mason, she’d just kill me. I finally started believing them. I like face-punching, but I’m not suicidal. If I’m going to die, it’s going to be for a cause. But godsdamn I’m glad I didn’t have to die this time.”
“That guy did.” Rondeau inclined his head toward the mind-slave.
Marla nodded. “He was dead the minute the Mason decided she had a use for him, Rondeau. She wouldn’t have kept him around afterward. You know that.”
Rondeau didn’t know any such thing – he figured the Mason would have just left the guy with a big hole in his memory, because why bother killing someone so insignificant? – but he appreciated Marla’s effort to make him feel better. “So now what?” he said.
“First, we get the other version of me into bed, preferably sedated, until we can figure out what’s best for her. I’m going to call Langford and get him over here to check her out. After that – we’ll take those two cloaks, stick them in a couple of garbage bags, and take them for a walk in the park.”
“So you’re like all the Bradley Bowmans?” Rondeau said, after grabbing the new Alpha-and-Omega B. in his arms for a ribcage-crushing hug.
“All the ones who were alive when I took this job,” he said, grinning. “More than enough, believe me. Gods, Rondeau, the shit you and me got up to in some of those worlds…” He looked past Rondeau at Marla, and his face became serious. “Do you have them?”
“Individually wrapped.” Marla showed him the two green garbage bags. “I didn’t put them together in the same sack, because even if they’re supposedly totally dormant… why risk it? I think they have some power even when they’re inert, that they can woo or whisper or call, because I’ll be damned if I haven’t thought half a dozen times about keeping them, telling myself I’d lock them up and only hold them in reserve as an emergency measure…” She shook her head. “I’d rather believe they’re whispering at my backbrain than believe I’m that addicted to power.”
“We’ll find out when I make them disappear.” B reached out and accepted the bags. He peeked inside them, making a face. “You’re lucky you can’t see what these things really look like. Imagine a squid face-fucking a manta ray while a bunch of slime eels cheer them on. Yick.”
“Thanks for the mental image,” Rondeau said.
“Where are they going?” Marla said. “You said you’d put them somewhere safe, but…”
B bunched the tops of the bags closed. “There’s a universe where our solar system didn’t form quite the same way. Earth is a frozen iceball there, farther away from the sun. Life never developed in that place, not even bacteria, nothing. I’m going to strand one of these nasties at the north pole, and put the other one down south. I’d hurl them into the sun, but I’m afraid they won’t burn. So we’ll freeze them forever. If they can die of natural causes, they’ll have plenty of time to do so. I’ll keep one of my eleventy-billion eyes on them just in case.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Marla said. “So, uh… will we see you again?”
“I’m a busy guy now, but I’ll try to keep in touch. And I’ll be watching you.” He laughed. “Sorry, that sounded creepy – it’s more that watching is my function. Just, Marla… don’t go fucking with the fabric of space-time again, all right? I’ve sewn up all the holes you made, but with Rondeau’s help you could tear more, and… don’t, please? Some things are off limits for a reason.”
“Witch’s honor,” Marla said. She stretched, and yawned. “It’s nice to be home. Now I want to get some sleep.”
“I don’t have to sleep any more,” B said. “And the best part about that is, no more of those dreams filling my head with cryptic nightmares.” He paused. “I will miss the sex dreams, though.”
“You kidding?” Rondeau said. “You can see into every possible universe. It’s like an entire infinite universe of free porn. A voyeur’s dream. You should get a video camera.”
Bradley Bowman, linchpin of the universe, laughed, hugged his friends, and then disappeared, taking the cloaks with him.
“Now you’re down an artifact, Marla. That kinda sucks.”
She grinned. “Not really. See, I have my dagger of office… and now I have the Mason’s, too.” She held up both daggers. “The Mason’s knife didn’t bite me, so I think it can’t tell us apart. I’m looking forward to dual-wielding these little darlings. You would not want to be the next thing to pick a fight with me.” Marla tucked the blades away, took Rondeau’s arm, and strolled out of the park.
They were almost to the gate when her cell phone rang. She sighed and answered. “Yeah?”
“Marla, it’s Hamil. The council has called an emergency session. Come to my penthouse, please.”
“The council? What, you mean you and the Chamberlain? Look, I know she’s pushy, but just tell her I’m pretty exhausted from saving the city, and I’m going to take a nap. We can talk tomorrow –”
“Marla.” Hamil’s voice had steel in it. “This is not a request. The council is meeting. You will be present… or decisions will be made in your absence.”
“What’s this all about –” she began, but Hamil hung up.
“What’s up?” Rondeau said.
“Apparently,” Marla replied, “I’m not done kicking ass for the day.”