Marla had been in this chamber before, once, not even a year ago, and it had been a shifting place even then, but it was different now, damaged in ways it hadn’t been before. The decay in the possible witch’s domain was actually encouraging. The fact that things were falling apart here meant the possible witch was not unassailable. She could be influenced. She could be hurt.
And anything that could be hurt could be threatened.
The room itself was – was –
“I thought it was a hexagon.” Rondeau looked around at the shifting walls, which changed from mirrors spiderwebbed with cracks to sheets of black glass smeared with gore to milky white crystal with clouds of red mist hidden in their depths. There was no ceiling, only endless overhead air suffused with that sickly yellowish light. “But then I thought, no, octagon, and then a shape with ten sides, and then twenty, and then a hundred, but I think… maybe it’s really a circle. I read once, a circle is just a polygon with an infinite number of sides. That kind of infinity seems right for this place.”
“That’s deep.” Marla meant it sincerely, but it came out sarcastically, and Rondeau flinched and looked away. “So where’s the lady of the hour?” Marla gestured to the empty chair in the center of the room, an immense wooden straight-backed thing that exhibited the same fungal blooms of rot evident elsewhere.
“Coming,” Rondeau said. He winced again and rubbed the side of his head. “Tuning in.”
Something whitish flickered in the chair, and flickered again, and there she – it, but might as well say she, it was easier for the mind to cope with – was the possible witch. Her hair was grayer now, her white robe stained and tattered, the flesh of her hands gripping the armrests liver-spotted and withered. Her eyes were the same, though, inhuman clusters of bulging faceted glass that changed from mirror to obsidian to crystal just slightly out of synch with the shifting of the walls. “You.” Her voice was a stone rasping against the razor edge of the world. “Come to kill me again?”
Marla cocked her head. “I’ve killed you before? Huh. Seems like I’d remember that.”
“Don’t pretend to be stupid. Neither of us has the time for that.” The possible witch shook her head in a sharp, querulous gesture. “It wasn’t this you, it was other yous, and other instances of me. I told you last time, I’m dead almost everywhere, but does that stop you? No. Days ago you showed up, versions of you, some with hair dyed red, some with a glass eye, some with your voicebox damaged so you communicate by sign language, but all asking for the same thing. Making impossible demands. Making outrageous threats. And. And.” She twitched. “And following through on them.”
Marla unsheathed her dagger of office, one of the two artifacts she possessed; the other was the white-and-purple cloak on her back, but that was as dangerous as old dynamite sweating nitroglycerin, and she didn’t want to use it. “You see this knife? It was –”
“Forged in the fires of hell by the god of Death himself, yes, I know.” The possible witch flickered, but she grimaced, and her grip on the armrests tightened, and she took on a new weight and solidity. “I’ve heard this, I told you. But the knife doesn’t work. You have to use the… other thing. The thing clinging to your shoulders. That’s how you kill me.”
The possible witch shook her head again, more impatiently, her strange eyes glittering. “Why do you pretend to be stupid? It’s not a cloak, it never was a cloak, it’s just something that looks like a cloak, out of convenience.”
Marla nodded. She knew. She’d found the cloak hanging in a thrift store when she was a young woman, still an apprentice, and it had called to her. Wearing it with the white side showing protected her from harm, and had saved her life countless times, its magic healing all injuries. But with a simple mental command she could reverse the cloak, make the purple lining switch to the outside, and then… she became a monster. Cold, unfeeling, merciless, interested only in dealing death, her conscious mind reduced to a voice howling in the void. The cloak was a potent power, but increasingly she thought of it as a nuclear option, a weapon of last resort. She’d always been able to drag herself back from the brink, to assert her control and turn the cloak back to white, but she worried that the effects of using the cloak were cumulative, like mercury poison building up in her blood, and that someday, she’d lose control, and the cloak – whatever it really was – would take over.
So Marla wasn’t surprised to hear the cloak could murder something like a god, and she also wasn’t surprised that various versions of herself in what some might call parallel dimensions had committed those murders. “Are you going to do what I want this time? Or am I going to have to kill you here, too?”
“You don’t know what you’re asking,” the witch said.
“Nothing you haven’t done before,” Marla said. “Last time I visited, you chucked me out into a whole succession of alternate realities, flickering by like the world’s worst vacation slideshow.”
The witch shook her head. “I granted you visions of other worlds, yes, but what you’re asking now is so much more… There are laws against this. Not laws like traffic laws, like laws against stealing, but laws of the universe, laws like gravity. You want me to break them.”
“You’re the only one who can break them. If I could do it myself, I would.”
The witch turned her head and looked at Rondeau. “What do you think, summoner? You opened the doorway to this place. If I do what Marla Mason asks, if I decide I’ve died at her hands often enough in enough different universes – that she’s done enough damage to the integrity of this place, which is only a reflection of myself – then it’s your power I’ll draw on to help me pry open the other door she desires. Will you let Marla Mason use you that way? Even if the strain of what she asks cripples you, or kills you? Would you risk dying for this woman even though, in every universe I’ve seen lately, she seems to hate you profoundly?”
Marla wanted to tell the witch to shut up, to talk to her, she was the one in charge, but she was a little curious to hear what Rondeau would say.
He didn’t run on with any of his usual lines of bullshit, he didn’t make jokes, and he didn’t make excuses. He just said, “I’m with Marla.”
The witch turned back to Marla. “I know what you want. But you must ask me. Request your boon.”
Marla took a breath, let it out, and spoke. “I want Bradley Bowman. That’s all. Find one of the other universes, one where he’s still alive. But listen. I don’t want you bringing me a Bradley who’s happy – I don’t want to ruin his life, if some other version of him found happiness. Find a universe where B and I never met, where he’s still in California, where he’s still unhappy, and bring that Bradley here, to me.” She’d met Bradley not quite a year earlier, when he’d been a totally untrained psychic, tormented by nightmares that came true, plagued by ghosts and demons, and unaware of the extent of his own powers – or of the fact that there were other sorcerers who could teach him how to use his abilities, and who could offer him a place in their world. She wanted to find a version of Bradley she hadn’t saved, and save him.
That seemed like the set-up with the best chance of replicating her relationship with the B she’d lost.
“There will be a price, if I do this for you,” the possible witch said. “A price you cannot know before you pay.”
“Yeah, I know the payment policy. I’ve been here before.”
The possible witch sighed. “I said no to you so many times, and suffered the consequences, and considered it my duty… but you’ve hurt me, Marla Mason. Damaged me perhaps beyond repair. So this time, this one time, in this one place and this one world, I will grant your wish. You deserve it.”
“Good. Always a pleasure doing business with you. So, ah –”
Rondeau dropped to his knees, clutched at his head, and began screaming. Marla spun with her knife, looking for an attack, for treachery, but whatever assailed him did so from within. He fell onto his side, curled into the fetal position, but the screaming didn’t stop, and no matter how pissed she was at Rondeau, she didn’t want this, didn’t want to see him in this kind of pain. She advanced on the chair, knife upraised. “What’s happening? What are you doing?”
“I’m opening a doorway for you, Marla Mason.” The possible witch might have been smiling – except, no, she was biting down, biting through her own lip, and black blood started to run down her chin. It oozed from her ears, too, and ran from the corners of her inhuman eyes like oily tears. “Your friend the summoner is helping me. It’s a very rusty door, and heavily barred, and heavily guarded, so it’s taking some effort, but don’t worry, we’ll get it open. But remember, Marla Mason: When you open a doorway, it opens both ways.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
The witch just shook her head and flickered out of existence, and Rondeau stopped screaming at exactly that instant, but he seemed to be unconscious. “Well this is fucked up –” Marla began, and then the floor beneath her feet vanished, and she fell with Rondeau into a darkness that soon obscured all her senses and, after a long time, blotted out her thoughts too.
Rondeau groaned, and sat up, his head pounding worse than the worst hangover he’d ever had, and that hangover had lasted a full day, and had only been assuaged by getting drunk all over again, which he couldn’t do now that he was in Bradley’s overly-sensitive-to-substances body. Which was too bad, because the bar in his nightclub was right downstairs, and since he owned the place he could pour himself an immense tumbler of Johnny Walker Blue if he wanted, hell, he could drink right from the mouth of the bottle, and –
He lifted his head from the scarred wooden table, blinking. This was his club. Or, more accurately, the floor above the club, where he kept his apartment, and where Marla had her office. This was his crappy little dining area, the table where he’d played solitaire and taken part in councils of war. He was back in Felport, on the East Coast, and not in a strange otherworld accessible only through a solitary confinement cell on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.
“Shit, was it all a dream?” He didn’t have the hang of all the gifts he’d inherited with Bradley’s body, and the prophetic dreams – what B always called those dreams – were the weirdest. The dreams could be vivid, sure, but they were usually pretty cryptic and full of more symbolism than a double-deck of Tarot cards, not the linear narrative he’d experienced a moment ago. Had he just fallen asleep here or something? But that didn’t make sense, he’d been hiding out at a friend’s place, avoiding Marla because he was ashamed and she was pissed about what he’d done, he wouldn’t be sleeping here –
No dream, that voice said in his head.
The door to Marla’s office banged open, and Marla ran out, looking around wild-eyed, knife in hand. When all she saw was Rondeau, she lowered the dagger, but didn’t put it away. “You see Bradley anywhere?”
She nodded, frowning, that I’m-thinking-hard-and-you-won’t-like-what-I’m-thinking-about line wrinkling her forehead. “Think the witch stiffed us? Just flung us back to Felport? I mean, hell, that place we were, her chamber, it’s not like it’s in San Francisco, it’s just accessible from there, it’s probably as close to Felport as it is to anywhere else in the world. But if she could save herself by chucking us out the window, why’d she let me kill her in all those other universes? Or was that just bullshit?”
“She did something, Marla. The way my head feels… she used me the way a plumber uses a pipe wrench. Whatever she did, it was so hard even somebody as powerful as the possible witch couldn’t do it by herself.”
“Huh. Then where the hell is…” She turned toward the hallway, and nodded.
“His… his room?” Rondeau stood up from the table. Bradley had come to Felport to become Marla’s apprentice, and he’d stayed in Rondeau’s spare bedroom while they were working on finding him a place to live. Turns out he didn’t even survive long enough to put down a security deposit on his own apartment. But while he’d lived in Felport, he’d lived in there.
Marla went down the hallway, to the closed door. B’s things were still in there, his bag of clothes and a few mementos from his old life as an actor and not much else. She put her hand against the door as if feeling for heat, then took the flimsy knob in her hand, turned it, and pushed open the door.
“B,” she whispered, rushing inside.
Rondeau followed… and there was Bradley, on the messy unmade futon. Not exactly the same B – his hair was longer, and he was paler, and thinner, but it was still recognizably him, the scruffy psychic with the movie star face, and though his eyelids were closed, Rondeau could perfectly recall the tropical blue of his irises.
Rondeau couldn’t stand up. He sank down to the floor by the door and sat with his back against the wall. His stomach was quivering and his heart was pounding and he couldn’t tell if what he felt was exhilaration or relief or terror or some emotion he’d never been sufficiently moved to experience before. Bradley was back from the dead. Back from oblivion.
Marla knelt on the futon and touched his shoulder, but B didn’t react. She shook him, then touched his face, then put her hands under his nostrils as if checking for breath – though Rondeau could see B’s chest rising and falling even from his vantage. She slapped his face lightly, whispered in his ear, and finally started shaking him by the shoulders, shouting into his face, yelling “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” but Bradley didn’t react beyond a fluttering of the eyes that looked like nothing so much as the rapid eye movement of a dream.
“Let me try.” Rondeau approached cautiously, afraid Marla would lash out at him, but she nodded and moved aside, letting him kneel beside B and put the palm of his hand on the unconscious seer’s forehead.
“If that bitch gave me damaged goods, if she gave me Bradley’s body with no mind inside, if she double crossed me, we’ll go back there and I’ll cut her into pieces, I’ll cut her every way it’s possible for someone to be cut, I’ll –”
“He’s having a vision,” Rondeau said, pulling his hand away. He couldn’t quite penetrate Bradley’s mind, not the way he could the minds of most people these days, but he’d caught the color and the shape, and the form was familiar to him, though the scale dwarfed every vision he’d ever experienced since taking over this body. “It’s a big one. Marla, you dragged B out of some other world, and he’s a psychic, one of the most powerful psychics we’ve ever heard of, you know? I think he’s, like… trying to see everything now. His senses, his special senses, they’re probing the edges of a whole new reality, and I think he’s in sensory overload. He’s, I don’t know, downloading. You know?”
“How long will it take? Before he wakes up?” Marla only had eyes for Bradley.
Rondeau just shook his head. He couldn’t even begin to know.
“He’ll be all right.” Marla’s words were more command than hope. She looked around. “But… the price. There’s always a price, when you deal with things like that possible witch. So what’s the price? Go to my office, would you, and look out the window, see if anything… looks weird.”
Rondeau did, and when he returned, Marla was cradling B’s head in her lap. “Nothing weird. Looks like it’s a little before dawn, so we didn’t even lose much time. Got here lots faster than taking a plane anyway.” He shrugged.
“Huh.” Marla didn’t look up, just kept stroking B’s brow, and, not for the first time, Rondeau thought what a shame it was that B was gay, because he was probably the only man Marla could love. Then again, maybe the fact that B was romantically untouchable was why Marla allowed herself to love him. Seemed plausible, but Rondeau tried to avoid psychoanalyzing his boss. He wasn’t qualified, and she didn’t appreciate it.
She said, “So it’s just our Felport? Doesn’t look like it’s actually ruled by spider-people, or giants, or evolved raccoons? No pyramids or obelisks? It’s not raining doughnuts or anything, you know, parallel-universe-y?”
“Just a street. Kinda dirty. Same old gray van with flat tires and a hundred parking tickets stuck under the windshield wipers right under your window. Nothing weird, no.”
“Because last time, when B and me went to see the witch, that was the price, that we got stuck on Alcatraz flipping through I don’t even know how many alternate realities, a new one every few minutes. We were there all night, and we didn’t have time to be there all night, which was why it counted as a price, I guess. Some of those Californias we saw were practically prehistoric, and some of them were in the middle of ice ages, and some of them had riots, and some of them were on fire, and some of them looked so beautiful, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful, and after a while the spectacle got boring and we talked, that’s when B and me first became tight… but no celestial channel-flipping this time. Which means the price is something different. Damn. I don’t mind paying, not if we get B back, but it’d be nice to know what I’m paying with.”
“Maybe she decided to give it to us as a freebie,” Rondeau said.
Marla snorted, and finally looked up from B. “It cost you something, didn’t it? What the witch did, it hurt you, right?”
Rondeau nodded, but slowly, because just moving his abused head seemed as potentially dangerous as jumping up and down on a land mine.
“Okay,” Marla said. “You did good. You stepped up. I’m not saying we’re square, I’m not saying I can forgive or forget because I’m lousy at both of those, but… I’ll remember you did the good thing, too. That you went into the presence of the possible witch not knowing what it would cost you, not knowing if you’d live through the ordeal, and you said yes anyway.”
Rondeau wanted to say a lot of things – more apologies, more assurances that Bradley’s death had been an accident, more outpouring admissions of guilt – but, maybe because Bradley’s psychically-sophisticated gray matter was better at reading the vibe of a room than Rondeau’s had ever been, he just nodded, and said, “I’ll leave you alone and make sure we weren’t gone more than a day and that nothing important burned down while you were gone.”
He stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him, and thought he heard, faintly, someone singing a lullaby. Rondeau didn’t think he’d ever heard Marla sing a note before.
Back in San Francisco, the sky over the bay crackled with lightning, startling the residents of that city where thunderstorms were rare, especially since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and because no crack of thunder followed – just the fork of jagged light splitting the air silently. On Alcatraz Island, inside the prison, two bodies appeared in mid-air and fell half a dozen feet to the hard floor. One of the figures landed in an ungainly heap, groaned, and cursed – a little lick of bluish flame emerged from his mouth – before sitting up, rubbing his unusual jaw.
The other twisted as she fell and landed in a crouch, as supple and self-assured as a cat, her long dark cloak fluttering as she landed.
“Crapsey.” She prodded her complaining companion with the point of one of her steel-toed boots. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”
“Of course not, boss.” He stood up. “You turned Kansas into a tornado laboratory. No buildings left there. Barely any ground left, even.”
“So that’s one place we’re not. Good. Narrows it down. Though not enough. What the hell is this place?”
A woman stepped forward, dressed in a gray suit, feathers woven into her hair, eyes glowing with spectral light, blood drying on her beat-up face, cold fury in her voice. “This is my place, and it will be your hell.”
“Look, Crapsey.” The cloaked woman nodded. “It’s a local rustic we can question. I wonder if she truly speaks our language, or if she just memorized those words of greeting phonetically, like a parrot?”
“Either way works. I’ve got my universal translator right here.” He flipped open a butterfly knife and advanced, grinning.
Given the nature of his face, it was a very memorable grin.