Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Complete Broken Mirrors

Chapter 1

Marla Mason – called by some the Witch Queen of Felport, though she preferred the more traditional, less sexist, and decidedly lowercase title “chief sorcerer” – stood with her back against a stone wall in a five-by-nine-foot jail cell three thousand miles away from the city she defended and called home.

She was on an errand of mercy, and so, naturally, someone was trying to kill her.

Standing beside her – closer than she liked – was a man who wasn’t really a man, someone who’d been her best friend before he killed her other best friend, an act that hadn’t helped their relationship. This companion – a psychic parasite in a stolen skin who called himself Rondeau – whispered, “I think she’s gone.” His breath came out as little puffs of vapor in the cold air.

Marla bit back her instinctive response – Who cares what you think, you body-stealing shitcake? – and nodded. The chasing footsteps had turned to stealthy footsteps to altogether absent footsteps, which suggested their pursuer was looking for them elsewhere.

The door of the jail cell was open, and the cell hadn’t been used to confine any prisoners in decades, unless you counted tourists who stood inside to have their pictures taken. They were inside an infamous prison that was also a National Park: Alcatraz Island, the Rock, one-time maximum security facility, one-time reclaimed property of American Indian protesters, and current home to – or, more properly, stepping-stone to the home of – the most powerful oracle in this universe or any adjacent.

Also now home, apparently, to a new sorcerer who’d taken up residence since Marla’s last visit. And since Marla hadn’t exactly called ahead to make an appointment before flying across the country to San Francisco, taking a cab to the edge of the bay, stealing a boat, and making her way to the dock at Alcatraz well after midnight, that sorcerer was unlikely to welcome her with open arms. Marla and Rondeau had fled from the dock into the prison ahead of a probing spectral chain of magic that had been as interested in strangling them as identifying them. Sorcerers could be so territorial. Marla had hoped to get in and out unnoticed, but she knew her appearance here could be considered an invasion.

That was okay in theory. Marla was good at invasions. She’d even invaded the land of the dead once. But she didn’t want to waste time bringing overwhelming force to bear when she was basically just passing through. Hence the hiding, the listening, and now, the sneaking.

Except when Marla crept to the opening that led out of the tiny cell and into the corridors of C Block, something impeded her progress. The door was… blocked, by something that felt like iron bars, though there were no bars to be seen.

Marla sighed. “All right!” she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. “You know we’re here, and we know you know, so let’s get to the confrontation part already.”

The sorcerer of Alcatraz stepped into sight from the shadows, which was a pretty easy trick on your home territory, Marla knew. She was black-haired with dusky skin, dressed in a tailored dove-gray business suit. The only outré touch was a mass of feathers (eagle, parrot, who knew what – Marla was no ornithologist) woven into her hair. The magic around her was palpable, the force of her will in her seat of power acting on reality to create a kind of vibration or harmonic or static charge noticeable to the appropriately attuned.

Marla thumped the invisible cell door with the heavy metal ring on her left middle finger. The barrier even rang out like iron. “Sorry I didn’t call ahead. I’m Marla Mason, from Felport, back east. Last time I was out here, Alcatraz didn’t have a resident sorcerer. I wasn’t trying to invade anybody’s space. Care to open up the door so we can work this out?”

“Marla Mason.” The sorcerer’s voice was cool and a little amused. Marla hated people who sounded cool and a little amused. The woman stepped closer, and Marla saw she was older than she seemed at first glance, though with sorcerers, true age could be almost impossible to ascertain. They had the power, and usually pretty good reasons, to extend their lifespans. “Yes, it is you. The ruler of my city has a picture of you in her office.” She paused. “Pinned to a dart board.”

“The ruler? Who, Susan?” Marla’s old rival Susan Wellstone was chief sorcerer of San Francisco, had been for nearly a year – though she probably called herself the Sorcerer Queen of the Barbary Coast or some crap. She was always putting on airs.

The woman nodded. “Yes. I believe Ms. Wellstone will be pleased if I give you to her, especially since you’ve broken our laws by coming here without permission. She is very keen on punishment.”

“Much as I’d love to visit with your boss lady, I’m on an errand. Look, uh – what’s your name, anyway? The Bird Lady of Alcatraz?”

“Maybe she’s called the Rock-Ette,” Rondeau offered, and Marla got halfway to smiling before remembering she was supposed to hate him now, which meant not enjoying his jokes.

“I am the Warden,” the sorcerer said, “and you have transgressed – trespassing in my ruler’s city and on my island – and transgressors fall within the scope of my powers of confinement and control.” She stepped closer to the cell, and her eyes began to glow with a pale yellowish light. Marla didn’t know exactly what the Warden was doing, but it probably wasn’t going to be pleasant.

“Hey, Rondeau,” she said, “Can you jump into this bitch’s body and shove her soul into the outer darkness?”

“No!” He shook his head violently. “How can you even ask? I told you, I can’t do that at will, I can only jump to a new body when my old body is dying, and even then I can’t control which body I take. Even if I could, I wouldn’t, it’s wrong, it’s monstrous, it’s what got me into this mess –”

Rondeau’s outgassing of guilt, dismay, and indignation served nicely to distract the Warden, which was exactly the outcome Marla had hoped for. While the Warden was frowning at Rondeau, doubtless wondering what he was going on about and whether it violated some clause in her imaginary supernatural penal code, Marla made her move.

She snaked her arms between the invisible iron bars, grabbed the Warden by the back of the head, and jerked forward, slamming the Warden’s face into the magical bars. Seeing the Warden’s nose break and her cheekbones shatter against invisible lengths of metal was pretty interesting, and Marla repeatedly slammed the woman’s face into the barrier until the magical bars disappeared. Either the spell broke when the Warden lost consciousness, or she’d used her last lucid moments to magic away the bars and avoid further damage to her face. Marla grabbed the bleeding woman’s wrist and did a sweet little Aikido step, tossing the Warden toward the back of the cell, where she crumpled in an unattractive – but still breathing – heap.

“Traditionalist,” Marla said, shaking her head. “A simple magical door would have worked fine, something solid I couldn’t reach through, but she had to go with the cell door thing, what, because it fit her theme better? Amateur.” Most of the San Francisco’s top-notch magical adepts were dead – there’d been some unpleasantness a while back, which was how Susan became chief sorcerer in the first place – so it made sense that Susan’s lieutenants weren’t as sharp as they could have been. Still, better safe. “Come on, Rondeau, let’s get where we’re going before she wakes up. You can’t usually get the jump on someone that way twice, and if she does specialize in spells of confinement and control, I don’t want to give her a chance to wrap me in a magical straitjacket or something.”

“There’s some of her blood on your face.” Rondeau reached out, as if to wipe it away, or maybe just to show her where the drops had sprayed.

Marla slapped his attempt at touch away. “There’s blood on your hands,” she said, and he hunched his shoulders, shrinking into himself, and she felt a nasty pleasure, accompanied by an unwelcome jolt of guilt. “My friend B’s blood. He was supposed to be your friend, too, so let’s just try to fix what you did to him, okay?”

“It was an accident,” Rondeau said for at least the thousandth time, and for at least the six-hundredth time, Marla thought, I know. But she couldn’t say that. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

A few weeks ago, Rondeau had been gutshot during a con game gone bad. While he was dying of his wounds, Marla’s apprentice Bradley Bowman – known to his friends as B – had tried to save his life, but he’d arrived too late. Rondeau’s body bled out on the floor, but the real Rondeau, the supernatural being of unknown origin that merely inhabited human bodies like Marla might wear a cloak, had panicked, and, like a rat fleeing a burning ship, had leapt from his dying body to the nearest piece of solid ground.

Which meant Rondeau had leapt into Bradley’s body. Forcing Bradley’s mind, his personality – his soul – into oblivion, irretrievable, forever lost.

Rondeau was wracked by guilt, and he’d invested in a permanent personal illusion to retain his old body’s appearance, so at least he didn’t look like B – Marla couldn’t have endured that – but she couldn’t forgive him, accident or not. Maybe, if this errand succeeded, if Rondeau helped her, maybe then….

“Whatever,” she said. “Let’s just go make it right. Let’s bring Bradley back to life.”


“Marla, there are ghosts here.” Rondeau peered into the shadows as she led him down a row of dim gray cells. Smeared partial echoes of people populated some of the cells, moving in repetitive motions, looking not at him but through him – that much was a blessing – and somewhere far off a little girl ghost wailed.

Marla glanced over her shoulder at him, a somewhat spectral presence herself in her white cloak, her face hidden in the hood. Another blessing. The way she’d been looking at him since B died… he didn’t need to see that expression again. It was burned into his brain. “I know,” she said. “You don’t usually notice ghosts, though. Part of being in Bradley’s body, I guess.”

Rondeau just nodded. His mind was still his own, and his memories, so he figured those were bound up in the essential center of… whatever his true nature was. But other aspects of personhood were rooted in the body, and when he’d taken over – no, be honest, when he’d stolen – B’s body, certain aspects of himself had changed. For one thing, his rather broad-ranging personal sexuality had vanished, and now he was as gay as B had been, which would annoy his on-again-off-again girlfriend Lorelei next time he saw her. He’d also inherited B’s extreme sensitivity to caffeine and other substances, which was saving him money on his weekly Starbucks bill at least, but it made getting up in the mornings hell. Well. More of a hell.

But the main thing he’d acquired was B’s psychic abilities. In this new body, Rondeau could see things he’d never imagined, sense the presence of ghosts and spirits and things that you might as well call demons, and if he concentrated he could hear some of the thoughts of people around him (which did appeal to Rondeau’s native nosiness), and pick up impressions from objects he touched to tell him about people who’d once owned them, and, probably, perform other feats he hadn’t yet discovered. He’d always secretly coveted the magic of the sorcerers around him, because despite being an inhuman psychic parasite, he was pretty much crap at magic, and didn’t have the personality for the obsessive study that might have overcome his native lack of talent.

Now that he was suddenly a big bad psychic, though, he didn’t like the power. The dreams were horrible, and he couldn’t tell if they were just guilt nightmares, or profound psychic visions. And there were mindless ghosts and ghost-fragments everywhere, so it was hard to shake the sense that he was being watched. B had spent years learning to control his powers, to filter his perceptions, but Rondeau didn’t have any of those defenses. Marla could have taught him some tricks, but she wasn’t interested in soothing his suffering.

“We’re here.” Marla paused in the open doorway of a dark, narrow cell, one with a solid door in addition to a barred inner gate. “I think, anyway. Hell, these solitary confinement cells all look alike to me.”

“No, this is it.” Rondeau walked into the cell and placed his palm flat against the back wall. “This is… wow. Yeah. There’s something here.” Some force hovered beyond his direct perception, making his teeth ache and his vision blur, and he had the persistent sense that a vast chasm was yawning just past his toes, waiting to swallow him. Funny that the doorway to infinite possibility would be here, in a room where possibilities had once been narrowed almost to nothing. Maybe the universe had a sense of humor. That was a chilling thought. “Uh. What do we do?”

“You open the way,” Marla said.

Rondeau closed his eyes. He had no idea how to do that. Marla had dragged him across the country on a late flight to use the most mysterious and profound power he’d stolen from Bradley: the ability to open doorways and summon oracles, tapping into the deep magic that formed the foundation of this and all other universes. The power to call spirits from the vasty deep, you might say, and yeah, they’d come when you called, but there was no telling whether or not they’d eat you when they got there. You could ask those powers and principalities questions, and they might even answer, for a price, and if you were feeling suicidal you could ask them for favors, and sometimes they’d grant those, too, for an even bigger price. Rondeau wasn’t sure specifically what favor Marla was planning to ask the entity they were going to visit, but he knew the gist: she wanted to bring B back.

Rondeau wanted that too. Enough to come here and risk using a power he’d just acquired and didn’t even remotely understand. Enough to risk being devoured by a being that dwelled in the empty spaces between universes. He’d do anything necessary to undo his crime. Bradley had been his friend. They’d even, briefly, been lovers. Rondeau didn’t like to dwell on the fact that he was now inside a body that he’d previously, well, been inside. It gave new meaning to the phrase “Go fuck yourself,” which, incidentally, was a phrase he’d heard a lot from Marla on this trip, like when he asked her what time it was, or if she could pass the ketchup or, really, anytime he said pretty much anything.

Just give her a little show, a familiar voice whispered in his mind, and he wondered, not for the first time: was it Bradley? There was something immortal inside people, something you might as well call a soul, something Marla called the will, and he’d forced that soul out of Bradley, yes, and taken its place, like a cuckoo tossing the original eggs out of a nest, but damn it, the brain mattered too, it was the house where the soul dwelled, and wasn’t it possible that some echo of his funny wise patient friend Bradley remained inside this brain, in this body, if only in the patterns of well-worn neural paths? There were ghosts everywhere, he could see them, so why not some sort of neurochemical ghost of Bradley?

Maybe Rondeau was imagining it. Certainly he’d never sensed the presence of the original inhabitant of that first body he stole, the maybe eight-year-old street kid Rondeau had ousted into oblivion the same day all his own memories began. Maybe Rondeau was just fooling himself, talking to himself, wanting to believe that some bit of B lived on inside his mind… but if it gave him comfort, he would embrace it. Unlike Marla, Rondeau would never refuse comfort just because it was maybe a little bit delusional.

Do a little twirl, make her close her eyes and turn widdershins – that’s counter-clockwise, it’s totally more mystical – something like that, and then… just step into the chasm, Rondeau.

“Uh, l need to, sorry, I need to hold your hands.” Rondeau expected some withering response, some, “Don’t touch me, killer,” business, but Marla nodded and put her dry cool hands in his. “Close your eyes.” He didn’t look to see if she obeyed, just closed his own and turned in the narrowness of the cell, almost like a slow dance, all the way around, three times, until they were facing the rear wall again, and then they took a step together, and another, and another… well past the point where they should have cracked their heads into stone.

“That’s exactly what B did, when he led me here,” Marla said. “It was while you were off being kidnapped or whatever. This place… it looks a lot worse than it did last time.”

Rondeau opened his eyes, and the cell was gone. They were in a long corridor wide enough to walk three abreast, with a wooden floor, wooden walls, and a wooden ceiling just a couple of feet above his head, all stained and moist and splintered and rotting, stinking like mushrooms and corpse flowers. There were windows like arrowslits at irregular intervals with pale light filtering in, and there was a hole in the floor as big around as a basketball not far from his feet; another couple of steps with his eyes closed and Rondeau might have plunged into it, and he didn’t think there would be any coming back from a fall like that.

Marla stepped forward, still holding one of his hands, and so Rondeau came with her, giving the hole a wide berth, glancing at it as he passed, seeing darkness down there but also faint bluish glimmers, like luminous fish far below the surface of a dying sea. The floor was a little springy and mushy underfoot. Not comforting. He wanted to look back, to confirm that there was a door or something leading out of this place, but wasn’t don’t look back one of those ancient mythic rules, right up there with stay on the path and don’t eat the apple? Rondeau tended to consider most rules distractions at best and bad jokes at worst, but he kept his eyes forward, because some things you didn’t screw around with.

The corridor took some sharp turns, the boards under their feet creaking alarmingly, and it reminded Rondeau of walking down a street where the sidewalk was torn up and a new wooden sidewalk had been erected with scaffolding all around – a temporary, haphazard, this-is-the-best-we-can-do feeling, and it was pretty troubling to have that feeling in a place that was literally where something like a god dwelt.

Sometimes they passed short side hallways that terminated in doors. Just ordinary looking doors, with tarnished brass knobs. Not locked or anything. Rondeau didn’t even think about thinking about what might happen if he tried to open one of those doors.

They came to the ruins of a black iron spiral staircase right in the middle of the walkway, and Rondeau felt an almost indescribable pull: up, up, up. Too bad most of the steps were missing. The staircase looked half-melted where it wasn’t rusted through, and if you tried to climb it, the odds were even whether a broken ankle or tetanus would get you first.

“So, uh –”

“I know,” Marla said. “Up there. Same as last time, but last time, you could just walk up the damn thing.” Marla jumped, grabbing one of the twisted iron steps, and clambered up like she did this every day, little flakes of rust showering down. Rondeau watched her vanish into the darkness above, realized he was alone in-between the cracks of the world, and climbed up after her. Bradley had been in pretty good shape, at least, and Rondeau’s brief period of slovenly self-pity since acquiring the body hadn’t completely wrecked that conditioning.

The top of the staircase was terrifying: basically just a plank jutting out into the void, no railing, no walls, no lights, nothing, just syrupy blackness pressing down. And at the end of the plank, an open doorway, with piss-yellowish light shining beyond. Marla stood before the door, the light turning her into a shadow cutout.

“So this is it,” Rondeau said. Something beyond the door was exerting a terrible force on him. His sinuses hurt, and his ears wanted to pop, but they wouldn’t, like when you first got off a plane, before the pressures equalized. “We’re going to see the, uh, what did you call her?”

“The possible witch,” Marla said. “The gatekeeper of all possible universes. Including universes where Bradley Bowman never died.” She turned toward him, though with the light behind her, he still couldn’t see her face. He hoped – he almost prayed – she was smiling. “Let’s go steal one of those still-alive Bradleys for ourselves, what do you say?”

Together, they walked into the light.

Chapter 2

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 cloak?”

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.”

Well, then.

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?”

“Nuh uh.”

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.

Chapter 3

The Warden, who’d only been granted possession of Alcatraz about six weeks before, watched the point of the intruder’s knife weave back and forth above her eyes, catching little twinkles of ambient light and seeming almost to sparkle in its motion. She’d tried to bind up the man kneeling on her chest, using magic to chain him, drag him away, bury him in tons of invisible stone, but every incantation broke, every charm sputtered out. The woman standing a few feet away murmured whenever the Warden tried to use her magic, so she was the likely source of the counterspells, but that knowledge didn’t help. The Warden was reduced to merely human means for fighting back, and she was not wholly devoid of such skills, but the man holding her down easily deflected her every attempt to thrash, slash, bite, or grab, and now that knife point wandering about just above her eyes, threatening blindness at best and brain-skewering at worst, had forced her into fearful stillness.

The most troubling thing was, the Warden didn’t know who these intruders were. She’d assumed it was Marla Mason and her associate, but now that this man’s face was inches from hers, he was obviously someone else. There was a resemblance, even beyond the fact that both were Hispanic young men dressed in funky old suits with wide lapels – this one might have been the other’s heavier, musclebound, more thuggish brother. The most obvious difference was this man’s prosthetic lower jaw, made of dark polished wood inlaid with metal in sinuous designs that made her eyes blur if she looked directly at them. When he smiled, she saw the polished, white, sharpened artificial teeth jutting up from that wooden jaw. The prosthesis had obviously been created with magic – the surface of the wood moved like skin, flexing as he smiled, and blended seamlessly into flesh where it met the skin of his face, but if you were going to use magic, why not just grow him a new jaw, something any competent sorcerous surgeon could manage?

The answer was obvious. You’d give him an artificial jaw in order to make him look scarier.

“There, there,” the man – what had the woman called him? Crappy? – said in a soothing voice. “Good girl. Just a few questions and we’ll get out of your way. What settlement is this? Whose riding?”

“I – I don’t understand –” The Warden tried to keep her voice level, but being asked incomprehensible questions by a man who used a knife to compel answers was terrifying.

The woman in the deep purple cloak came closer and crouched beside her, laying one cold finger against the side of the Warden’s face. “Forgive my lackey. He’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. He thinks we’ve merely been moved in space, to another part of our world. But this is another world entirely, isn’t it, from the place we come from?”

She was not Marla Mason, but again, there was a resemblance that seemed obviously familial. This could have been Marla’s sister, younger by at least a dozen years, surely no more than twenty, her complexion smooth and her skin wholly unlined, almost mask-like. It was not a beautiful face, no more than Marla’s was, but it was, in a way the Warden found hard to define, an eerily perfect face, like something cast in flawless porcelain.

The Warden swallowed. “I don’t know where you’re from.”

“Of course. Why don’t you just tell us, in your own words, where we are?”

Delighted to have a question she could answer – the knife had never stopped its dance, even when the woman called its wielder a lackey – the Warden said, “Alcatraz prison, on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay.” She paused. “In California. In the United States. On, ah, Earth.” Who knew where these people were from?

“Well, well, Crapsey,” the woman said. “We’re in San Francisco again. And you had so much fun here last time.”

“Do you work for the Jaguar?” Crapsey said.

The woman who wasn’t Marla sighed and rolled her eyes, and the Warden shook her head. “The… I don’t know who that is. My mistress is Susan Wellstone, chief sorcerer of San Francisco.”

The woman whistled, and Crapsey lifted the knife away. “Susan?” His voice was bewildered, which was better than low and threatening. “She’s been dead for more than ten years.”

“Only in our world, Crapsey. This is another world. A parallel dimension.”

“I don’t get it,” he said.

“Let me put it in terms you understand. It’s like in that episode of Star Trek you like, with Evil Spock, from the mirror universe. Remember?”

“Oh right,” Crapsey said. “When Spock has a goatee. That’s how you can tell he’s evil. Huh. So you think there’s another version of me in this place?” He stroked his wooden chin. “I’m obviously not the evil one. I couldn’t grow a goatee if I wanted to.”

“As usual, your logic is unassailable. Hmm.” She looked down again. “What’s your name, little gray dove?”

“I’m called the Warden.”

“Ha. And yet, here you are, a prisoner. I guess irony’s the same in every universe.”

The Warden decided to risk a question of her own. “Who are you?”

“Me?” The woman pressed one hand to her chest. “Why, I don’t have a name for myself. I’m the only being in the universe that actually matters – ha, in any universe, it seems – so why should I need a name? But some people call me the Mason. It’s a little joke, you see, because once, it was my surname, but also, masons build things. And I’m a builder.”

“Be honest, boss,” Crapsey said. “Mostly you build things for the pleasure of knocking them down again when you’re done.”

“Oh, you,” the Mason said, and while the exchange had the shape of playful banter, her words were utterly without emotion. “My lackey is mistaken, there, as he so often is. Some things I build forever. Like empires. Now, my little Warden, my little ward, tell me – did you bring me here? Work some magic, on purpose or by accident, to rip a hole from here to there through which my companion and I… fell?”

The Warden shook her head vigorously. “No! It wasn’t me. But someone was here, a little while ago, someone else, it must have been her!”

“Mmm.” The Mason knelt and touched the Warden’s cheek, gently, and the Warden gasped at pain that felt like an icicle being shoved deep into her brain. “You speak the truth, as you understand it. Can you tell me about this mysterious other person?”

“She said her name was Marla Mason. She… looked like you, but older. There was a man with her, I didn’t get his name, but he might have been that one’s skinnier brother.” She lifted her chin toward Crapsey, who still had her pinned. “I don’t know why they were here, they live across the country in Felport, they’re not welcome here, but –”

“Where are they now?”

The Warden closed her eyes and extended her senses to feel the whole of her island domain… but the earlier intruders were gone. “Not here. It’s like they just vanished.”

“Aw hell boss,” Crapsey said. “It’s your evil twin. And my evil twin! They hang out together too, that’s wild. This’ll be fun.”

“Interesting, at the very least.” The Mason put her finger on the Warden’s cheek again, turning the woman’s face so she could look into her eyes. “Now, my ward, you can do a favor for me. Set up a meeting with Susan Wellstone. Bring her here. I should introduce myself to the local potentate. But, ah, don’t tell her about me. Just say you need to talk to her. Something very urgent. Very mystical. Be vague. I want her to be surprised. Does she like surprises?”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Not so different from the Susan Wellstone I once knew, then. But no matter. We’ll surprise her anyway.”

“You want me to call her now? It’s the middle of the night.”

Crapsey flicked the lobe of her ear with his finger, hard. Though the pain was nothing compared to the throbbing from her broken nose and cheekbone, it was somehow even more humiliating for its casual cruelty. “Sorcerers keep weird hours. If you don’t know that, you must not be much of one.”

“I’ll need to get my phone.”

The Mason nodded. “Let the poor thing up, Crapsey, you’re squishing her boobs.”

“Sure boss.” Crapsey moved aside, and the Warden took her first deep breath in many long minutes. She sat up, reached into her suit jacket’s inner pocket, and removed her smartphone.

“Damn, look at that phone,” Crapsey said. “Shiny! Is this mirror universe also in the future or something?”

“I doubt it,” the Mason said. “They’ve probably just had a working consumer electronics sector for the past half a dozen years. Some technological advancements are to be expected over our world, since our focus has been… different. Maybe they even have flying cars and eat their dinners in pill form by now.”

“Yum,” Crapsey said glumly.

The Warden rang Susan Wellstone’s direct emergency line, which she’d also only had for about six weeks, following her ascension to Susan’s inner circle of lieutenants, an ascension that had involved grueling tests of ability and, even more important, loyalty. She’d passed with flying colors. Especially the tests about her willingness to die for Susan’s cause.

Her mistress picked up on the first ring. “Speak.”

“The moon is beautiful tonight,” the Warden said.

“Code.” Crapsey smashed the phone away from her ear and put the knife back, now at her throat. With his free hand he reached out and honked her broken nose, and she screamed and fell to her knees, but he held onto her nose, still squeezing, and dragged her back to her feet. The agony was extraordinary – her pulped nose felt like a bomb going off – but she didn’t care. She’d given her mistress the code that told her there was a hostile and dangerous force at this location, and nothing else mattered. She’d done her duty.

“Naughty,” the Mason said. “But not unexpected. And what did the treachery achieve? Susan will still come here, won’t she? She’ll be expecting something, but I can guarantee she won’t be expecting me. You have to be punished, though. I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to disobedience. Crapsey? Why don’t you explain what’s going to happen to her?”

Still holding her nose, he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You’re going to be erased, sweetie. Sent to oblivion. You won’t even burn in hell, and you sure as hell won’t frolic in paradise. You’ll just be gone.” He let go of her nose, took a step back, and sat down cross-legged on the floor.

The Warden stepped forward, planning to aim a kick right at the middle of his face, to make him feel a fraction of the pain he’d inflicted on her, but then his body slumped, chin drooping to his chest, and something happened, a jolt like a bucket of ice water hitting her brain, and the Warden gasped, eyes crossing with the effort to hold on… to what, and even with what, she wasn’t sure, but she felt like she was being driven out of herself, her body, her own head, and then she lost her vision, and hearing, and sense of smell, and taste, and touch, and finally – but not soon enough to be merciful – her consciousness.


Crapsey swore when he took up residence in the Warden’s body, because damn, the chick was in pain, her face was totally messed up, and it took him a moment to shut down the pain centers in her brain. Once upon a time, Crapsey wouldn’t have been able to exert such fine control – hell, he hadn’t even been able to switch bodies at will until the Mason taught him, and it hadn’t been a pleasant learning experience – but he’d taken over so many hundreds of people at this point that he could do all sorts of things with the bodily systems he hijacked. They were just machines, after all, nothing but electricity and chemical reactions running on meat hardware. The trick was to remember you were in the body, not of the body, to treat it like a car you were driving. He was only really comfortable in his usual body, though, the one he’d stolen first and lived in the longest. There were preservation spells on that body so it would stay alive indefinitely in his absence, though he didn’t like to leave it for more than a day or two at most, because the dehydration headaches were wicked.

“So what now, boss?”

The Mason pointed at his now-uninhabited body. “Drag that into one of the cells, out of sight. Then we’ll wait for Susan Wellstone and her entourage to show up. You’re wearing the body of one of her lapdogs, so we can mess with her head a bit before I kill her.” She cracked her knuckles. “That’s a rare pleasure, Crapsey, getting to kill one of your enemies twice.”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve done it before. I’ve seen it.”

“Sure, but that usually involves using magic or medicine to revive them, and then they’ve only been dead for a couple of minutes, and when the second death comes so close to the first, it’s only a little thrill. But to kill someone ten years after the first time you did it, that’s enough distance to savor the whole experience over again.”

“Right.” Crapsey had his doubts about whether the Mason really savored anything. She talked about hate and enemies and the joy of crushing people and all that, but her voice was always so cold, and she never actually seemed to take pleasure in any of the things she did – the closest was the occasional look of interest, when she was usually so bored. It was like she was pretending to have human emotions, and if she was pretending with him, her oldest servant, then he was pretty sure nobody saw her true self.

Which was probably for the best. Her untrue self was bad enough. Crapsey did terrible things at her behest on a regular basis, and he’d gotten used to the work, and had an aptitude for it, but if he thought he could leave her without repercussions, find a beach somewhere and live by himself forever in just one body, he’d do it. But he was a useful tool for the Mason, and she’d see him broken before she set him free.

As he dragged his empty body toward one of the jail cells – the Warden had pretty good upper body strength at least, that was good – he thought about the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body. His only act of rebellion had taken place during their early years together, when she was merely the scourge of Felport and not yet the world, and he was just a kid. After his takeover attempt failed and he bounced off her protective magics, she’d spent a week hurting him for his transgression… and then a month nursing his broken body back to health. It was the closest he’d ever seen the Mason come to mercy, and after that experience, he knew he was hers forever, like it or not. Sure, it was Stockholm Syndrome, but you took what you could get in this world.

But then again, if this was a new universe, one where San Francisco hadn’t been taken over by the Jaguar, one where Susan Wellstone still lived, then maybe anything was possible. Maybe this was a wonderful fairy-tale world where the sorcerer known as Marla Mason had never discovered a certain white-and-purple cloak, and put it on, and conquered most of the world.


“She’s here.” The Mason had been standing with her back against a wall, not moving, staring into space, which was the closest she ever came to sleeping, and Crapsey had been dozing himself. He yawned, forced some extra oxygen to the Warden’s brain – which was a nice brain, very zippy, sorcerers tended to have good brains, robust and perfect for fast thinking – and got ready to play his part.

A blonde woman – who looked pretty much like Susan Wellstone, insofar as he remembered, but he’d only met her the once, right before the Mason put a knife into her throat – strode down the middle of the cell block, the lights overhead coming on as she walked. She was flanked by a couple of others who reeked of sorcery: one a burly guy decked out entirely in black leather, complete with a motorcycle cap, and the other a sort of elfin-looking chick in a tie-dyed dress with crystals tinkling in her hair. Crapsey kept his eyes on the hippie. The obvious bruisers were often dangerous, sure, but it was the sparkly types who came out with shit that surprised you.

“Warden.” Susan crossed her arms and made a great show of looking around. “I’m here with my two most deadly guards. I’ve got all the sorcerers in the city surrounding this godsforsaken rock. Where is this deadly incursion? If you mixed up the codes, so help me, I’ll –”

“I believe I’m the incursion.” The Mason stepped out of a cell and gave a little wave.

Susan narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth. “Marla.” She frowned. “I never took you for vain – is that pretty young face an illusion, or did you have that mad doctor Langford douse you with the water of youth? Or is it just plastic surgery? I’d think if it was surgery you’d have done something about that nose.”

“You’re still a bitch.” The Mason stepped closer, bruise-purple cloak swaying as she walked, revealing glimpses of the creamy white lining inside. “Now you’re just an older one.”

“I don’t know why you’re here – if you wanted a meeting with me, there are channels, you didn’t have to beat up one of my lieutenants. I could have your head for trespassing.”

“Crapsey,” the Mason said, “take out the bookends, would you? Then you can go back home.”

Crapsey planted his metaphysical feet on the metaphysical soil of the Warden’s body and pushed off. Leaving a living body brought with it a certain tearing sensation, not pleasant, but no worse than ripping a band-aid off an especially hairy portion of one’s anatomy. He floated in the air for a moment, reveling as always in the full 360-degrees-plus-up-and-down vision the bodiless state afforded him. The Warden had already dropped, still breathing for the moment but brain dead. Crapsey allowed himself to drift onto the face of the nightmare hippie girl. She stiffened, fighting back – she was a better fighter than the Warden, had a stronger will, maybe her boss should have given her an island of her own to play with – but Crapsey had the kung-fu of soul-destroying down to a science. When she was ousted he jumped out of her body, letting it drop, and landed on the bruiser, attacking his soul and throwing its mangled body out of the nest too. For a while he’d tried getting people to call him The Cuckoo – he fucking hated being called Crapsey, it was the Mason’s little joke, and it was a mean joke, as all of hers were – but the nickname hadn’t stuck. The ones you gave yourself never did.

He leapt from the biker and flew across the room toward the cell where his body was stashed, admiring Susan’s cool as he went. She glanced at her fallen bodyguards, sighed, and crossed her arms. Susan had been pretty stoic the first time the Mason killed her, too, but there was a nice soupcon of weary annoyance in the mix now. More life experience suited the woman well.

Once back in his own body, he strolled out of the cell, playing with his butterfly knife, making sure he’d gotten reintegrated properly and that all his reflexes and muscle memory were working right. Sometimes he came in a little crooked, tried to move muscles that belonged to other bodies, and in those cases it took a while to readjust, but this time, he’d stuck the landing.

“Rondeau.” Susan shook her head. “Except… not quite Rondeau. Interesting.”

“Haven’t heard that name in a long time,” the Mason said. “Not since he was just a grubby little street kid – well, in a grubby little street kid’s body, anyway. Once he was able to talk again, after what I did to him, he told me he called himself Rondeau. Because he’d heard it somewhere, thought it sounded nice. Naming himself after a kind of French poetry. I said I had a better name for him, another kind of poem – Crapsey. He’s been Crapsey ever since.”

“The Crapsey Cinquain.” Crapsey didn’t bother to disguise the weariness in his voice. The Mason told the same stories over and over, and she never gave enough context. “Invented by a poet named Adelaide Crapsey. Five lines, 22 syllables – two, four, six, eight, and two again. She was inspired by haiku.” He shrugged. “The name just kinda stuck.”

“I like it because it sounds like a type of shit,” the Mason said.

“This shouldn’t be possible.” Susan stepped over the body of her hippie bodyguard, staring hard at the Mason. “You’re from another universe? Many-worlds theory allows for such things, of course, new universes born every moment to allow every possible quantum outcome to take place, but passage between the worlds should be… Well. I’ve been a sorcerer long enough to know you shouldn’t say ‘impossible.’ But it should be very, very difficult. How did you do it?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the Mason said. “Someone else did it. Brought me here. I thought maybe it was you – I know you used to like the big spells, the complex precise ones that took months to get going. But I see now it wasn’t your doing.”

Susan scowled. “What do you mean I used to like those kind of spells? Why the past tense?”

The Mason waved her hand. “Oh, you’re dead in our world. I killed you, hmm, must be a dozen years ago. But apparently my… counterpart here… never struck you down. Tell me, is the Marla Mason of this world… still active?”

“Last I heard,” Susan said, revealing her ignorance of the fact that Marla had been in her city tonight. Sloppy, Crapsey thought. The Mason never missed an intruder. “So you killed me in your world, did you? Well, I was much younger and less experienced then, I’m sure. But about the Marla of this world – are you interested in killing her? ‘There can be only one,’ that sort of thing? Because if so, we might be able to help each other.”

“Mmm. We’ll see. Another question. An important one. Does she – Marla – have a cloak like mine?”

“She does. Well. It’s white, only the inner lining is purple, so it’s the reverse of the cloak you’re wearing. I know she can reverse the cloak, that when the purple shows she becomes a deadly force of borrowed magic, but I’ve never actually seen her do it.”

“You’ve never seen it in this universe, at least,” the Mason said. “How interesting.” She stepped closer to Susan and linked arms with her. “Let’s take a walk around the island. You can catch me up on the history of this world, and once I figure out where things… diverged… I’ll consider my next course of action.”

She glanced at the bodies on the floor. “Jericho and Raine were good bodyguards. It annoys me that you killed them.”

“You know their names,” the Mason said. “How… cute.”

“I could call down an army to destroy you with a thought,” Susan said. “Why should I take a stroll with you?”

“Because your army would die, not me. But forget the sticks. Let’s talk carrots. I probably do need to kill Marla Mason. As a means to an end, if nothing else. And if you’re willing to help, I can make it worth your while.”

They walked off talking together – Susan still bitching, but not as if she were about to do anything violent – and Crapsey trailed along after them, wondering how long he’d have to listen to the Mason pump this cross-dimensional version of her old rival for information before she let him jump in and toss Susan’s soul out a metaphorical window into a very real darkness.

Or maybe the Mason would kill Susan herself, for old time’s sake. The personal touch meant so much.

Chapter 4

Marla didn’t bother going home to sleep, just curled up on the battered couch in her office. She was loath to go even that far away from B – the new B, the alternate B – but he was a twitching moaning bad-dreaming sweaty wreck, and she was a light sleeper at the best of times, so she’d retreated a couple of rooms away to grab some shuteye.

She could get along fine on about four hours of sleep a night, but after less than half that, not long after dawn, someone pounded on her door.

Marla rolled off the couch, pulled an enchanted Gurkha knife from the concealed sheath underneath the couch, crouched at the ready, and said in a businesslike tone, “Who is it?” The club was relatively well-protected, but she didn’t usually sleep here, so the technological and magical security wasn’t at the same paranoid level she had at home.

“Hamil.” The voice was muffled by the door, but it certainly sounded like her consigliere and closest confidant among the city’s leading sorcerers. She hadn’t talked to him much since he helped clean up after the mess Marla’s con artist brother made in her city recently – a mess that had led to Rondeau’s bodily death and subsequent hijacking of Bradley Bowman’s body, among other casualties.

“Come on in.” She waited until the door swung open and Hamil stepped in before she relaxed, tucking the blade away in its sheath, its enchantments of compulsion unspent. Her dagger of office was very good for killing things, but sometimes you needed to get answers out of an intruder before they died, so she had other tools, too. Mostly knives. She was partial to knives.

Marla went around the desk and dropped into her chair, lack of sleep weighing heavy on her. Normally she could go two or three days without sleeping and suffer no noticeable lapse in her faculties, but she hadn’t slept well since Bradley’s death, and she’d had a hell of a night. Going into inter-dimensional space and confronting personified forces of the universe took a lot out of a person.

Hamil looked perfectly well-rested, though – tall, broad, and the kind of fat that was really just a deceptive layer over a core of muscle, dressed in an impeccable black pinstriped suit, complete with pocket square. The deep brown skin of his shaved head didn’t sport a single bead of sweat, and his face was placid, but she could tell by his eyes that he was anxious. “Good morning, Marla. Did your trip go well?”

“Yeah, it –” She frowned. “How’d you know I left town?”

He sat in one of the two chairs on the visitor’s side of the desk, crossed one leg over the other, and laced his fingers together over his bent knee. “I am one of the ruling council of sorcerers of the city of Felport, Marla. When our chief sorcerer and protector leaves unannounced, giving no notice… I am nevertheless notified. As are the others.”

The others. The handful of people in the city whose opinions she couldn’t simply ignore, the way she could the opinions of, say, the mayor, or the chief of police. Technically she wasn’t in charge of the other sorcerers – she was first among equals, tasked with protecting the city from supernatural and other threats – but she could give orders if the city’s security was at stake, and the others had to obey, though they’d bitch about it.

“I have to get a permission slip before I go on a field trip, now?” She wanted coffee. Where was Rondeau? He usually brought her coffee. He was probably still sleeping. Possibly he was still avoiding her. Now that B was back – some version of B, anyway, even an unconscious version – she found her towering rage at Rondeau shrinking considerably. He’d fucked up, worse than he ever had before in a long history of fuckups, but Bradley’s death had been an accident. There needed to be consequences for the transgression… but he was already suffering, and he’d tried to fix things. Marla decided to put him on friendship probation. Not that she’d tell him that, of course.

“Marla.” Hamil’s tone suggested that it wasn’t the first time he’d said that name, and she shook her head.

“Sorry.” She ran her hand through her hair – greasy, right, when had she last showered? – and sighed. “I haven’t been sleeping. What were you saying?”

“I was saying you don’t need permission, but you do need to let us know if you’re leaving. You must remember, Marla – you serve at the pleasure of the council. They appointed you, and you –”

“Screw that noise. Who saved the city from getting taken over by the king of nightmares this past winter? Who stopped the god of Death from making Felport his own little principality on Earth? Who neutralized the beast of Felport, and stopped Roger Vaughn from sacrificing hundreds of people, and dealt with those things that came crawling out of the ground in Fludd Park calling themselves elves? Me. And every one of those fights cost me something. I’m doing my job. I’m taking care of the city. And what’s the council going to do? It only takes a simple majority to get this job, but getting rid of the chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote of the council.” It was a reasonable provision – the person in charge of the city’s security sometimes had to make unpopular decisions, and the requirement for total agreement to stop her was meant to help weather those periods of unpopularity. Getting a group of sorcerers to all agree on anything was generally about as easy as getting a rhinoceros to play chess. “As long as I’ve got you and Ernesto on my side, who cares what those crybabies and bellyachers say? Hell, I’d lay even odds the Bay Witch would take my side, too, though she’s… unpredictable. Or are you here to tell me you don’t support me?”

Hamil sighed rather dramatically. “I have always supported you, Marla, from the moment I became aware of your talents and your potential. And, no, I don’t think you’re in danger of being ousted, but things do run more smoothly when you make some concessions. For a little while, you seemed to be making great strides in the area of diplomacy, but lately…”

“I’ve been distracted.” She didn’t like making excuses, so when she had to, she tended to spit out the words and make them sound more like accusations instead. “My apprentice died. Like, he just died. And my right-hand man is the one who killed him. Except, if you want to be less direct about apportioning blame, it was really my scumbag liar of a brother who killed him, or at least caused his death. So I’ve had some issues lately.” Her brother Jason had breezed into Felport running a line of bullshit, trading on her familial affection to rope her into a scam he was running, and when things went bad, Jason shot Rondeau and left him for dead, and when Bradley tried to save him, Rondeau stole Bradley’s body. Jason had tried to murder her, too, but she couldn’t blame him for that. She was trying to kill him at the time, after all.

“We appreciate that, and we’ve tried to be understanding. Well, most of us have. Viscarro is still upset, and calling for your resignation – he did lose a leg in all that unpleasantness, you know.”

Marla didn’t answer. Because it was true. The subterranean sorcerer was a nasty underhanded scheming lich, lurking like a spider below the streets of Felport… but she was supposed to protect him, and instead, that crap with her brother had led to Viscarro’s stronghold being invaded. Marla had cleared things up – pretty much – but she was supposed to protect the city from problems, not create problems. “All right. I’ll go see him.” She gritted her teeth. “Apologize. Make restitution. He loves stuff. I’m sure I can give him something to cheer him up.”

“No doubt a gift would be appreciated. But the more important thing, Marla, is – are you done? Have you, ah, come to realize that Bradley is gone, and cannot be retrieved? Will you be returning your focus to the city and its interests? If the answer is yes, if I can assure the council that you’re still dedicated to Felport, I’m sure this will all go –”

The door to her office slammed open. B – the new B? Beta-B? – stood swaying in her doorway, naked except for a pair of tattered boxer shorts. His torso was covered in raised scars, but they looked like purposeful designs, not just evidence of past violence. “You.” He raised his hand and pointed his index finger at Marla. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. In my dreams.”

Then he puked on her rug, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed to the carpet in an ungainly heap.

Hamil stared at B’s fallen form, then turned back to Marla, who’d only gotten so far as rising from her chair. “Well,” Hamil said. “You did have a busy night, it seems. You’ll have to tell me exactly how you managed this. But first we should get the poor boy a doctor.”


Langford the biomancer wanted B brought to his lab, but Marla refused to move him, and since Langford made about eighty percent of his income from Marla, he agreed to make a house call. Marla’s office had been transformed into a sort of makeshift examination room, with everything swept off her desk and B laid out on the surface. Langford had an old-fashioned black doctor’s bag, but there was some spatial enchantment on it, judging by the endless array of needles, vials, and diagnostic equipment he pulled from the slim valise, including everything from a stethoscope to some bit of homemade mad-scientist kit that looked enough like a tricorder from Star Trek to make Marla wonder if humorless, rigorous Langford was a closet fan.

Once he was done poking, prodding, and drawing blood from B, Langford took a seat in one of the visitors’ chairs. Marla was on the other side of the desk – which made it look like B’s unconscious body was the work she needed to take care of today, an impression that was not wholly inaccurate – while Hamil and Rondeau sat on the couch sipping coffee.

Langford looked at the ceiling, adjusted his steel-rimmed glasses, and began to speak, though his tone of voice was more like someone reading from a notebook. “I’ll want to run more extensive tests on his blood, but from preliminary examination I can tell you he’s in no immediate danger of death. He suffers from malnutrition, rickets, and scurvy, and has a nasty fungal infection on his skin, more like an exotic jungle rot than athlete’s foot, but as Marla knows I have some rather powerful fungicide at my disposal.” He gave a chilly smile. He’d whipped up a batch of the poison recently to help her deal with a rival sorcerer who had a thing for nasty moist mushroom magics. “He’s also suffering from something like jungle yellow fever, though I don’t know exactly which variety – I don’t think it’s dengue fever, but it’s dengue-like. See the bleeding gums and the jaundice? I can cure that, too. By all appearances, he has been living somewhat rough in a tropical jungle, and there’s nothing a stint of civilization and some of my enhanced medications won’t correct.”

Marla prodded B’s cheek, which was indeed a little jaundiced, now that she was looking for it. “So why’s he unconscious?”

Langford shrugged. “Nothing physical, as far as I can tell. We’ve seen Mr. Bowman exhibit similar symptoms from the strain of his psychic efforts in the past. But given that this isn’t exactly the Mr. Bowman we know, I’m hesitant to speculate.” He looked at Marla now. “I’d very much like to know how he was brought back from the dead. Especially since he was demonstrably not brought back from the dead, as Rondeau is still wearing the body of the Bradley we knew, albeit draped in a very convincing illusory disguise.” Langford briefly tapped the frames of his eyeglasses. “Of course, I’m wearing my illusion-piercing lenses today. They’re useful for diagnostic work. Since this person on the desk is not, ah – let’s call him Bradley-Prime, for convenience – and shows far too much wear-and-tear to be some sort of accelerated-growth clone, I’m forced to assume you engaged in more mystical attempts at rescue, or rather, recreation. Is he a tulpa? Doppelganger? A dream-figment created by your friend Genevieve? A liberated shadow-self draped in vat-grown flesh? Some sort of, ah, were-actor?”

“Nah. I pulled him in from an alternate dimension. This is parallel-universe Bradley. Apparently he comes from a universe with really shitty hygiene.”

Langford blinked, then opened his mouth, then blinked again, then closed his mouth. This was tantamount to a normal person flinging themselves bodily on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and speaking in tongues. “A parallel… Interesting. Audacious. I’m not even sure where I’d begin to undertake such an endeavour…. did you build a device of some kind? Or, ah, have one built?”

“I’m not cheating on you with another mad scientist, Langford. No device. I didn’t even go to… wherever he’s from. I know somebody – or, well, something – who’s capable of reaching into other universes. And with a little help from Rondeau, using his stolen Bradley-powers, she did a little fishing for us. And this is what she fished out.”

“I daresay this is the first case of interdimensional kidnapping ever committed.” Hamil’s voice was level, but Marla could tell he was pissed. Well, fuck him. Sure, what she’d done was a little crazy, but that’s why she was the boss – she was willing to take the great risks, and to reap the great rewards. “How do you know he wasn’t happy where he was?”

Marla snorted. “Come on, he’s clearly been living under a tree eating bugs or something. What if he’s from a world where, I don’t know, giant sentient larva rule the earth? A world where there was never an industrial revolution? Or –”

“Unlikely,” Langford said. “How old is Bradley, early thirties? He’s almost certainly from a branch universe that diverged from our own world around 30 years ago, then – otherwise the odds of him even existing would be ludicrously small. Do you know how many variables go into the creation of a given human being? It requires more than just his two parents coming together – it’s not as if every child born to a given couple is identical. A different sperm breaching the egg, a different moment in time for the conception – these result in entirely different people being born. Obviously Beta-Bradley’s timeline and our own were identical at least until the moment of his conception, or else, he wouldn’t be here now. Whatever events led to his nearly starving in some jungle are the result of divergences from our own timeline that happened sometime in the past three decades.”

“So… our reality and Beta-B’s reality used to be the same reality until… something made it split off?” Rondeau said. “Sorry, my understanding of this stuff is limited to watching that show Sliders.”

Langford nodded. “It’s a bit more complex than that. My own belief – borne out by experimental data no other scientist could reproduce, and which I won’t attempt to explain to you now – is that new universes are constantly branching from our own. The universe doesn’t like to make choices, not even on the quantum level, so it doesn’t. Everything that can happen, does happen – somewhere. It’s easily illustrated on the macro-level. Look.” He reached down to the litter of Marla’s desk-detritus on the floor, picking up a slender letter opener. “Right now, I could stab myself in the throat with this, or hurl it at Marla’s head, or just do this.” He flipped it over his shoulder, where it clattered against the door. “All three of those things happened. I just birthed three new universes. Except in reality it was countless more, a new universe for every different way I could have moved my arm, a new universe for every possible pattern of breaths I took…” He shook his head. “The variations are not necessarily literally infinite – it’s a debatable point – but at the very least the variations are so large as to be functionally infinite. And every one of those divergent universes can become profoundly different over time, even if their moment of conception involved only the tiniest initial change.”

“Huh.” Rondeau gnawed his thumbnail. “So we’re living in the real universe, and these others ones are just, like, offshoots?”

“Hardly. The only ‘true’ universe existed in the instant of the Big Bang. No, we just live in a particular branch. And while there may be infinitely strange alternate universes out there, with different physical laws, different dominant species on planet Earth, or even larval overlords spreading dengue-fever analogues… this Bradley isn’t from a place that strange. He’s from one that was identical to ours, at least 30 years ago.”

“Then it’s entirely possible he might want to go back,” Hamil said. “And what if he does, Marla?”

She scowled. Hamil didn’t work for her, he advised her, but right now, she wished he was an employee so she could tell him to clean out his locker. “Look, I specifically asked the possible witch to bring me a Bradley with a crappy life, okay? I’ll tell you what, if Beta-B wakes up and starts going ‘There’s no place like home,’ I’ll make sure to get him home. But seriously, the guy has jungle yellow fever, he’s got ulcerated sores on his abdomen, his gums are bleeding, his life obviously sucks, and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to find himself in a world where he can have lobster dinners and all the gay porno he can watch –”

Beta-B sat up on the desk, eyes wide and wild. “I can’t be here!” he shouted. “I have to go back! Whoever did this, whoever brought me here, you have to take me back home!”

This outburst was followed by a moment of silence. And then Marla said, “Oh, fuck me sideways.” And dryly, quietly, Hamil chuckled.

Chapter 5

“Bagdad Cafe, huh?” Crapsey peered up at the sign. “What’s up with the real Baghdad these days, boss?”

“Here? I have no idea. In our world I think it’s been given over to a legion of djinn.”

Susan Wellstone, who was rather impatiently holding the door to the diner open, raised an eyebrow. “Well? You said you were hungry, so come on.”

The sun wasn’t even up yet, but there were several other people in booths and at tables inside the cheerful diner, mostly young and either tired- or wired-looking. Back home the same sort of people would also be awake at this hour – but they’d be laboring in one of the Mason’s labs or factories or collegiums, depending on their skills and ambitions. Except in San Francisco they’d be doing whatever the subjects of a jaguar god-king did with their mornings. The Mason didn’t run California over there… yet.

Susan led them to a table in the far corner, away from other customers, and sat with her back against the wall. Crapsey was used to that sort of thing from sorcerers – never put your back to the door, protect your flank, go wide when you go around corners in case someone’s lurking there, et cetera et cetera. The Mason took a chair facing the wall without complaint. She wasn’t worried about people sneaking up on her. She literally had eyes in the back of her head. Well, not literally, they weren’t actually eyes with corneas and aqueous humor and all that, but she could see in 360 degrees around her at all times. It was a cloak thing. Crapsey sat down beside her.

He’d never eaten in a restaurant before except maybe when he was a kid, and wasn’t sure how to go about it, and though the Mason had experience in such matters she was just sitting there, so he followed her lead. Susan Wellstone snapped her fingers, and a twenty-something blonde with dark eye shadow and several facial piercings approached. Crapsey gave her a big smile, which she returned perfunctorily. Maybe if he hadn’t put on the glamour that hid his distinctive prosthetic jaw she would have been more interested – she was clearly open to the idea of body modification. Susan ordered coffee and something called a crab benedict, then muttered about how it should really be called “Eggs Chesapeake” and why couldn’t any restaurant in California ever get that right, and Crapsey said, “Make that two,” because he didn’t know how you even found out what food a restaurant served, and the Mason said, “Just water,” which Crapsey knew she probably wouldn’t even drink.

While they waited for the food to arrive, and the Mason stared blankly at a spot on the wall, ignoring Susan despite all the woman’s throat-clearings and finger-tappings, Crapsey took pity on her. “Your, uh, city, it’s really nice. I never saw San Francisco before the coming of the –”

“Shush,” the Mason murmured, and Crapsey’s jaw clamped shut of its own accord – or, rather, of the Mason’s accord. She’d ripped off his original jaw the day they met, and later fit him with the prosthesis, which had certain magical enhancements… but which the Mason could also remotely control.

His jaw unlocked, and the Mason didn’t say anything further, so Crapsey figured she just wanted him to steer clear of talking about the Jaguar. Fair enough. “Um, over in my world, I mean,” he said. “The view from the boat was really something, all those lights. And the car ride over here, it was, wow…. Hills. Buildings. Trees. Really great.” He’d only been to the San Francisco in his world once, on a diplomatic mission, and the city there was mostly being devoured by the jungle of its new god-king.

“Thank you.” Susan looked at him speculatively – probably thinking she could get on his good side and develop some influence with the Mason that way, it was a look Crapsey received a lot – and then the food arrived. Crapsey leaned forward and inhaled the odors from his plate, two puffy white lumps placed on top of two golden brown breaded lumps which were in turn on top of two round pieces of bread all smothered in a yellow sauce, with savory potatoes – potatoes being the only thing he definitively recognized here – on the side. He took a bite, and the creamy-tangy-smooth-salty overwhelmed his senses. Crapsey closed his eyes and just tasted the mouthful for a long time before chewing and swallowing. He was suddenly, specifically grateful that the Mason hadn’t ripped off his tongue along with his jaw.

“Oh, Susan, this is the best food I’ve had in ages. But there’s not any crab on the plate. Or is the name crab benedict like metaphorical? I know this English guy, Rasmussen, he runs things for the Mason in the British Isles, he told me about something he ate when he was a kid called toad-in-the-hole, but it’s not even really made with toads. So is it like that?”

“No…” Susan pointed to the breaded lump. “That. It’s a crab cake.”

“They make cake out of crabs here? This place is wild. And these are, what, eggs? They seem kinda eggy.”

“Yes, poached eggs – you’ve never had a crab cake before? Or poached eggs?”

Crapsey shook his head. “Nah. I mean, I eat pretty well, don’t get me wrong, better than just about everybody else, but since my boss here doesn’t care about food it’s not like we’ve got fancy chefs or anything in our headquarters – some people call it the imperial palace, but come on, it’s a warehouse store in Felport the Mason took over, it’s not palatial. What we’ve got is this huge pantry full of scavenged and hoarded canned goods, and crates of vegetables yanked right out of the ground from the prison farms, and if you’re part of the Mason’s inner circle – not that any of us are all that inner, even me, come on, she’s like an alien or something – you pretty much just root around and fend for yourself at mealtimes. The foot soldiers have cafeterias, but you wouldn’t want to eat what passes for food in those – it’s basically just battle-optimized protein/vitamin mush.” He stopped talking long enough to wolf a few more bites, surprised to see half the food on the plate gone already. He could always order more, he supposed… Susan was staring at him. Oh. Right. Manners.

Resisting his desire to rapidly devour the rest of his food – such wonderful meals were obviously commonplace here, no need to inhale it – he put his fork down, wiped his mouth, sipped his coffee (that, at least, was just as lousy at it was in the Mason’s domain), and said, “So anyway, how’d you end up running San Francisco?”

Susan glanced at the Mason. “It’s a long story.”

Crapsey shrugged. “There’s no place I need to be. I mean, there are places I need to be, but they aren’t in this universe, so I figure I’m not going to make it anyway. So tell.”

Susan arranged her coffee cup just so on the table, then looked into Crapsey’s eyes. She had heterochromia – her left eye was green, her right blue – and it was a pretty intense spooky kind of stare, no doubt practiced for just that effect, but Crapsey spent most of his days with one of history’s top ten greatest despots, so he just smiled blandly and took another sip of his drink.

“I took over San Francisco not quite a year ago. Before that I was in Felport, on the council of sorcerers there. Marla was chief sorcerer, she still is. Marla and I, ah…” Another glance at the Mason.

“It’s okay,” Crapsey said. “Talk all the shit about Marla you want. The Mason isn’t Marla anymore. She’s been wearing that cloak non-stop for over a dozen years. There’s still some Marla in there, sure, her personality has an influence, but mostly, it’s the cloak.”

“Is she not listening? You called her an alien, you…. she doesn’t mind?”

“The Mason doesn’t get offended real easily. I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’ll kill you as soon as look at you, and as for insubordination, forget it, better you don’t even think about it. But she cares about actions and results, pretty much. She’s gotten into the human habit of talking, at least sometimes, she likes a little banter, and she likes saying cruel shit to people before she kills them, but I think that’s like a consequence of the body she’s using, the shape of the brain she’s using to think with. Really she thinks most of the things humans say to each other are so much pointless babble. But, hey, we humans have to pass the time and reinforce the bonds of our social ties and exchange information and all that, so why not chat?”

“But you aren’t human.”

Crapsey picked up his butter knife and pointed it toward Susan. “Hey. That’s rude. True, technically true, but we’re talking semantics. Yes, I’m some kind of psychic parasite who can jump from body to body, but I have no memories of a time when I didn’t inhabit a human body. Whatever my true history is, poof, it’s lost to me. I’ve never known a life where I wasn’t human, with all the hungers and urges and desires a human has. So screw you, you say I’m not human. The Mason, she’s totally different. I mean, she remembers whatever came before she possessed Marla, she knows what she really is – not that she talks about it much. Besides, the Mason doesn’t inhabit that body over there. The Mason is mostly the cloak. You think you’re looking at a woman wearing a cloak, but you’re not – you’re looking at a cloak wearing a woman. Except the cloak is, you know, not a cloak. But that’s killing my metaphor so I’ll shut up. You were saying. You were in Felport…?”

Susan looked like she wanted to ask some follow-up questions, but he saw her decide to let herself be redirected. Good. The Mason didn’t like waiting, and if Crapsey didn’t get the info his boss wanted out of Susan soon, things might get nasty. “Ah. Yes.” Another sideways glance at the Mason, then she focused her attention on Crapsey again, since the Mason was displaying as much affect as a piece of painted wood. “I was living and working in Felport. Marla had been chief sorcerer for a few years. I disapproved of… everything about her. I am a very methodical, organized, patient person. Perhaps because my specialty is large-scale ritual magic, where complex procedures must be performed without the slightest mistake or deviation over long time scales – or perhaps I’m good at such magic because I’m a perfectionist. Marla Mason, however, just… blunders in. If she sees a problem, she attacks it directly, without regard for strategic planning or unintended consequences. She is rash, reckless, and stubborn. The fact that she’s had some degree of success with this approach is even more infuriating. I thought I would make a better chief sorcerer than she, and so, in the traditional manner, I, ah…”

Crapsey nodded encouragingly, eyeing the mostly-uneaten crab benedict on her plate. “Tried to knock her off. Assassination. Oldie but a goodie.”

Susan stirred around her potatoes with her fork. “Indeed. I attempted to cast a spell that would erase her from the very fabric of reality. She found out, and tried to save herself by acquiring a certain artifact that could protect her. The artifact was here, in San Francisco. She failed, I might add, but while she was here she became embroiled in local politics, got into a fight with a mad sorcerer from central America, and when all was said and done, Marla found herself in a position to help decide who the next ruler of San Francisco would be. She made me an offer – if I let her live, and let her have Felport, she’d arrange for me to take over San Francisco. As this city is in every conceivable way – climate, economy, culture – superior to the decaying rust-belt relic that is Felport, I agreed. And here I am still.”

Crapsey leaned forward. “This mad sorcerer you mentioned… Guy named Mutex? Wanted to bring an ancient jaguar god back to life?”

Susan frowned. “His name was Mutex, yes, but he was trying to summon some sort of toad goddess, if I recall, associated with the underworld. He didn’t make it that far. Marla killed him.”

“Toad. Huh.” In Crapsey’s world, Mutex had summoned Tepeyollotl – god of jaguars, earthquakes, and echoes – and the Mason hadn’t even heard about his ascension until the god was already born and consolidating his power. These days the Mason ruled most of Canada and Mexico, chunks of Europe (by proxy), and the continental US from the East Coast to the Rockies. The Jaguar ruled most of the West Coast, except for a chunk of the Pacific Northwest that was presently held by a giant fungal intelligence called the Mycelium. Of course, unless they could make it back to their universe, the balance of power was going to shift over there. Not that Crapsey was in a hurry to leave this universe. The food here alone… “You gonna eat that?” he said, and when Susan shook her head, he brought her plate over and began finishing her food, too. What else had the Mason wanted him to investigate? Oh, right.

“So your version of Marla Mason, you said she’s got a cloak of her own? Purple and white?”

“Oh, yes.” The waitress returned with a coffee refill, and Susan meticulously measured three spoonfuls of sugar into her cup and tinkered with the cream quantity as carefully as an alchemist hot on the trail of the elixir vitae. While she stirred, Susan went on. “The story goes that Marla found the cloak in some thrift store in Felport when she was, hmm, perhaps twenty? A mere apprentice, coming into possession of such a powerful artifact… Well, it gave her ideas, aspirations above her abilities, if you ask me. I daresay the only reason she rose so far and fast in the city’s sorcerous society was because she had the cloak.”

“But she doesn’t wear it all the time?”

“No, no. In the old days she wore it more often, but never constantly. Lately I hear she hardly wears the cloak at all unless going directly into a battle she might not otherwise win, and there was even a rumor that she’d sent the cloak away to be buried in some remote location, but I don’t believe that. You don’t give up a weapon so potent, even if it is, ah…”

“Is what?” Crapsey leaned forward with his chin in his hand, smiling at Susan affably. She was pretty, in a cold way. It would be fun wearing her body. He’d try to loosen her posture up a bit, let her hair down, see if her physiology would allow for the possibility of some fun.

Susan closed her eyes. “Poisonous. Marla contends the cloak is poisonous. That to wear it for too long makes her mind fade away, that she senses some… alien inhabitant… dwelling in the cloth, eager to take over her body, her soul, her life. That the cloak is a powerful artifact, but a cursed one.”

Crapsey looked over at the Mason, who’d moved her gaze up a foot or so, to a completely unremarkable different spot on the wall. “Pretty much true. Wear it all the time, never take it off after the first time you put it on, and you end up like the Mason. Which isn’t so bad if you want to be a conqueror of worlds, but if you want to, I don’t know, go dancing, or see a boxing match, or get drunk with your friends, or even have friends, or have sex, or just have a good time, or maybe have a dream… being the Mason isn’t so good for that.”

The Mason sighed, which meant she was impatient, which meant: “So let’s review,” Crapsey said. He began counting off points on his fingers. “Marla Mason is chief sorcerer of Felport. She has a cloak, the same cloak, but she doesn’t wear it often, only for like emergencies. And there’s no giant Aztec gods lurking around the west coast.”


“Okay, then – oh, hey. What about me? The other me, the alternate me?”

Susan nodded. “I don’t know him well. He calls himself Rondeau. He… doesn’t jump bodies as promiscuously as you do. I don’t think he even knows how. He’s still in that body, his original one, I mean, the first one he stole, the one he grew up in. He doesn’t have a prosthetic jaw, either.”

“Huh. Guess he didn’t meet his Marla on a bad day, then. Lucky bastard.”

Susan shook her head. “No, Marla did rip his jaw off, the first time she wore the cloak, but she regretted it, apologized, and made sure he got a replacement jaw from a psychic surgeon. Over the years the two of them have become close. Now he runs a nightclub in Felport, where Marla keeps her office, and he’s her right-hand man, essentially.”

Crapsey punched the Mason lightly on the shoulder. “You hear that, boss? You and me, inseparable across universes. We’re meant to be. It’s kismet. Destiny.”

“There’s no such thing as destiny,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “There can be no destiny, no ‘meant to be,’ in a multiverse where all possible things happen. There are surely infinitely more universes where we never met, and where neither the body you wear nor the body I use were ever born. But we’ve learned what we need to know. Remove her.”

“Sorry, Suze,” Crapsey said, and leapt from his body into hers.

Except it was like trying to do a cannonball into a frozen lake. The psychic spiderweb that was Crapsey’s consciousness hit a cold icy wall and bounced. He couldn’t fight his way into Susan’s mind, any more than a fly could fight his way through a closed window.

“I said Rondeau doesn’t jump bodies.” Susan’s voice dripped with contempt. “But I was aware of the possibility that he might, and since he works for one of my greatest enemies, I erected these psychic protections against bodily possession ages ago. It’s called being prepared, Mason, and being prepared is what I do –”

The Mason leaned forward and extended her hand faster than Crapsey could see – even while he was disembodied, when his senses were far more acute – and a blade flashed. She withdrew her hand, and Susan stared at her, and then her chin dropped to her chest. A tiny spot of blood began to swell on the fabric of her blouse, just over the heart, but it was a dark blouse, and probably nobody’d notice.

Crapsey slipped back into his body and shook himself. “Sorry, boss, she had a good wall up. No protections against physical attack, though? That’s dumb.”

“No, she was wreathed in protective spells. I had to use my dagger of office.”

“Ahhh.” The Mason possessed the dagger of the chief sorcerer of Felport – to be fair, Felport was the first of the many, many cities she’d conquered, and still her home base – and it was a potent artifact in its own right, if not possessed of intelligence like the cloak was. The dagger could cut through anything: steel, concrete, ghosts, magic, whatever. It was useful, though not the sort of thing you wanted to wave around too much, since you might accidentally end up slicing through all sorts of things inadvertently. “So what now?”

“If you’d been able to possess Susan like I wanted, then we could have used her body to call together a gathering of her sorcerers, killed them all, and made San Francisco our base of operations. But since that didn’t work…” She shrugged. “I say we go to Felport and find Marla.”

“Huh. You think Marla has something to do with us… showing up here, in the mirror universe?”

“It’s possible,” the Mason said. “But mostly, I just want to see her. I’m curious to see how she… developed… without my influence.”

“That’s you, boss. Curious to a fault.” The Mason did indeed enjoy turning over rocks, looking under them, and brutally exterminating the life of anything she found underneath. But Crapsey thought this was more than mere curiosity. The Mason had been very insistent about the need to find out if Marla had a cloak, if it was always in her possession, if she was likely to be wearing it, and so on, hence Crapsey’s morning of eggs and interrogations. He thought Marla herself was maybe kind of an afterthought – the Mason was interested in Marla’s cloak. “Going to Felport sounds good to me. I want to meet myself. Hell, maybe me and him can get a three-way going, show some girl a really good time.”

“You sicken me,” the Mason said.

“Right back atcha, boss.”

She stood. “Come, let’s leave before Susan’s body is noticed. If the police become involved I’ll have to destroy them, and if something too dramatic happens here, word may get back to Marla… I’d hate to spoil the surprise of my appearance.”

“Police, right.” Crapsey vaguely remembered cops, or at least trying to avoid them when he’d been a little kid, living in alleyways, new to being human, before he met the Mason and the world changed.

“Don’t forget to leave money, Crapsey. The waitress will chase us if we stiff her… and she won’t recall your flirting with pleasure if she has to pay for your meal herself.”

“Ah, uh, right, pay, sorry.” Currency didn’t have much to do with his day-to-day life, or anyone’s life where he was from, really – the Mason’s world was less a cash economy and more a beg-barter-steal economy. He picked up Susan’s little black handbag from the chair beside her body, found the billfold, and looked at the green pieces of paper inside, nearly all marked “100.” He took out three of the bills and put them on the table, because there’d been three of them having a meal, even if the Mason only ordered water, so one bill for each of them was probably right, yeah? Then he remembered something from a book he’d read once – you were supposed to leave a tip, for the waitress – so he dropped a fourth hundred on the table. “There,” he said, more confidently than he felt. “We’re all set.”

“Excellent,” the Mason said. “Let’s go steal a car.”

Chapter 6

“Out, everybody out, we’ve got to talk.” Marla made shooing motions at Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford, while Beta-B sat wild-eyed and staring on top of the desk.

Rondeau paused in the doorway. “Should I, uh, bring him some water, or –”

Out,” Marla said, in that I’m-about-to-shove-you tone of voice, so Rondeau went.

Langford immediately walked over to Rondeau’s little kitchenette and began peering into cupboards, looking for who-knows-what, and Rondeau suppressed the urge to snap at him. There were certainly plenty of times Rondeau had poked around the shelves in Langford’s lab without permission, and Langford possessed things a lot more delicate than stale saltines and cans of clam chowder past their sell-by dates.

Hamil considered one of the rickety wooden chairs beside Rondeau’s scarred table, obviously decided they weren’t up to supporting his weight, sighed, and settled for leaning against a wall. From inside Marla’s office came muted voices, punctuated by occasional shouts, but there was a basic privacy spell that kept any of the conversation from being intelligible; it sounded kind of like Klingon.

“You just went along with this?” Hamil scowled at Rondeau. “You didn’t think to… try and talk her out of it?”

Rondeau shrugged and sat in one of the chairs Hamil had spurned. Considering how the chair creaked under him, the big man had probably made a wise choice. “Since when can anybody talk Marla out of anything? Besides, I did a bad thing, and I wanted to make up for it, you know?”

“Last time I checked, kidnapping didn’t cancel out manslaughter,” Hamil said. “Interdimensional kidnapping at that. Who knows what the consequences of such an act will be?”

“You know Marla doesn’t worry about consequences. I mean, she knows there’ll be consequences. She just figures, whatever they are, she can deal with them. She’s usually right.”

Usually,” Hamil said. “I’m going downstairs in search of a bottle of cognac. Might you have such a thing in your bar?”

“I keep a bottle just for you.”

Hamil grunted and went down the stairs, leaving Rondeau alone with Langford, which was kind of good. Langford was fiddling with the hot plate to warm a kettle so he could make tea from a desiccated bag of Earl Grey he’d found someplace.

“So, Langford,” Rondeau said. “Have you had any luck working on that, uh, thing I talked to you about?”

Langford was apparently experimentally testing the assertion that a watched pot never boils, staring intently into the pitted and dinged-up shiny convex surface of the teapot. “Hmm? Oh, you mean the fixative? Yes. Very interesting problem.”

“I’m so glad you find it interesting. Does that mean you have a potion I can take or something?”

Langford looked up now, and his eyes behind his glasses were, as usual, a million miles away. “It’s not that easy. I don’t even understand what you are. We call you a ‘psychic parasite,’ as if that means something, or as if it’s a relevant classification, but you’re unique – as far as we know, anyway. And you want me to create something that negates your essential nature, the ability to move to a new host body when your old host dies. How do you stop a creature from finding a new habitat when its old habitat dies?”

“Cutting its legs off would be a good start,” Rondeau muttered, tracing his fingertip over one of the scarred channels left in the tabletop over the years.

“Yes, but you don’t have legs. I do wish I could have been present when you left your old body and took over Bradley Bowman’s – I’d be curious to see what you really look like, if there’s a physical aspect to you at all, even if it’s just a scattering of weakly-linked molecules, or if you’re a purely energy-based form, or –”

“Sorry I didn’t invite you over. I got gut-shot on short notice.”

“Yes. But it would help me to understand your nature more. And you don’t think you’re capable of, ah, leaping, I suppose you might say, at will?” Langford tapped the side of the teapot, and though it wasn’t whistling yet, apparently deemed it hot enough, and poured some water into a chipped coffee mug that said “The Bitch Is IN” on the side. It actually wasn’t even Marla’s mug. It had been here in the cabinet when Rondeau moved in.

Rondeau shook his head. “Haven’t tried. Don’t want to try. The whole point is I never want to ‘leap’ again! The last time I did I killed one of my two best friends in the world. Worse than killed. Consigned to oblivion. Eradicated his soul. B was just erased. So I want to stay in this body, thanks, forever, and if this body dies, I want to go with it.”

“Hmm. Well. It’s that last part, really, that’s the trouble. How can I link the death of a mysterious, possibly immortal, psychic force to the death of the body that force happens to inhabit? It’s a difficult problem. But if you just wanted to be stuck in that body, well…”

Rondeau looked up. “What? You’ve got something?”

“There’s a Turkish/German company that’s created something they call ‘liquid glass.’ They make many claims, for instance that this glass can be sprayed on clothing to make it permanently stain-resistant and eliminate the need for laundry detergent, that it has antibacterial qualities, that their ‘nano-scale glass coating’ bonds to surfaces through some unspecified ‘quantum forces.’ I don’t know how true any of it is – what I’ve read is PR material, not scientific material – but it did get me thinking about your plight. I think I could create a sort of… sealant, you might say. A magical equivalent of liquid glass I could coat your body with, to make it impossible for you to ‘leap’ to a new host.”

“That’s perfect! Let’s do it!”

Langford stirred his tea and shook his head. “But if your body dies, I have no reason to think your consciousness would end. Instead, I suspect you would be trapped inside the corpse, still aware, unable to communicate, and unable to free yourself – like a moth trapped inside a jar, wings beating furiously against the glass.”

Rondeau slumped in his chair. “You aren’t usually so poetic. That… doesn’t sound ideal.”

“It is certainly not optimal in the long-term, no. But if I can figure out what you are, and how to kill the essential psychic core of you, then perhaps that, combined with a magical sealant, would grant your wish to be, if you’ll forgive me, a ‘real boy.’ One who lives in but a single body and dies at some unspecified time, just like every mortal human on Earth.”

“That’s the goal. Call me Kid Pinocchio. So, what, you want to do some more tests on me?”

“You know I love doing tests, but it’s difficult to test methods for killing you without the risk of, well… killing you. But I’ll continue to study the problem. I remain interested, and anyway, Hamil is paying me well on your behalf.”

“He’s been a good friend to me,” Rondeau agreed. Hamil had taken him in after he killed Bradley, and couldn’t stay with Marla during her rage. Hell, even earlier, Hamil was the one who’d replaced Rondeau’s jaw, which Marla tore off the first time she used her creepy-ass battle cloak, and the one who made sure Rondeau got as much of an education as he had, and the one who’d set Rondeau up with meaningful work before he became Marla’s right-hand guy. And now, by helping Marla kidnap Beta-B, Rondeau had disappointed Hamil. Living in an intricately interconnected social framework sure sucked sometimes.

The office door opened and Marla poked her head out. “Where’s Hamil? He better not have –”

“He’s just boozing it up gentleman-style downstairs,” Rondeau said.

“Well, get him back up here,” Marla said. “I need to borrow his private jet.” Then she slammed the door, disappearing back into her office.


After Marla finally got Rondeau, Hamil, and Langford out – she thought for a minute she was going to have to literally kick them out, they moved so slowly – she turned to Beta-B, who was pulling his stinky button-down shirt back on. Marla went around her desk, dropped into her chair, and said, “Welcome to Felport, B. Do you mind if I call you B? I’m Marla Mason.”

His eyes widened at that, just slightly, but Marla was good at reading faces, and she wondered why her name meant something to him. Maybe he’d heard it in his psychic reverie. “I guess you can call me anything you want,” he said, sitting down in front of her chair. “You’ve brought me… where is this place?”

“A city on the East Coast. Felport.” She coughed. “In, um, another universe. Not your universe, I mean.”

“I know that much. I had some terrible dreams, and I didn’t understand everything I saw, but… I got the idea that I’d been taken from the world I know to another world. I just don’t know how, or why.”

“This isn’t just a different world, it’s a better world.” Marla leaned forward. “For you, anyway. Look, I don’t know exactly what your circumstances were back there, over there, whatever, but there are opportunities for you here.”

Beta-B crossed his arms over his thin chest. “So this is, what, an interdimensional save-the-children type thing?”

“You weren’t chosen at random. In this world I met a man named Bradley Bowman in San Francisco. He was a former actor, a psychic, and he knew he had powers, but he was lost. He didn’t understand about magic, he didn’t know any sorcerers, he’d never been taught anything. We helped each other, became friends, and eventually he became my apprentice. There was… a terrible accident, a few weeks ago… and he died. I thought, if I could find a version of him that I hadn’t met, one who was still lost and confused, I could do the same thing over again – teach him, teach you, about magic, offer you a job.” She sighed. “I didn’t expect miracles, I know you aren’t exactly the same Bradley, I know our relationship will have to develop differently, but, even if you’re from the universe next door… give me a chance?”

He shook his head. “You got the wrong guy, lady. I’m psychic, yeah, and more than that, but I’m not looking for a mentor. I’ve known about magic for a while – where I’m from everybody knows magic is real, the whole world’s divided up into fiefdoms and kingdoms, it’s all witchocracy all the time. The sorcerers went public half a dozen years ago, and took over. I was living in the Free State of Northern California, one of the benevolent countries, though we got taken over by some nasty sorcerous types earlier this year. And besides, I’ve got a mentor. I live with dozens of other sorcerers, everybody I know these days is a sorcerer, practically. And we’re doing important work. We’re in the middle of something. Whatever you did, undo it.”

“This is fucked up,” Marla said. “I told the possible witch to bring me a version of Bradley that was miserable and unhappy, not one that wanted to stay –”

Bradley laughed, and it wasn’t exactly her Bradley’s laugh, it was harsher, more bitter, a lot more dark. “Oh, I’m totally miserable, lady. My life sucks. I wish I could say I can’t remember the last time I ate, but I can – it was a week ago – and worse, I remember what I ate. I sleep in a sewer. Literally. In a sewer. But, see, I’m working hard to be less miserable. The world I’m from is bad, it’s seriously broken, but that doesn’t mean I want to leave it, Miss – Marla. It means I want to fix it. And I’ll be damned if you didn’t choose almost exactly the worst time imaginable to steal me away. You need to get me back. And you need to get me back tonight.”

“Why? What’s so important about tonight?”

“Because tomorrow we’re going to kill the Jaguar,” Beta-B said.

Marla waited a moment, then said, “I kinda feel like you expected there to be some kind of dramatic movie ‘duh Duh DUH!’ music when you said that, but I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have to kill… a car? Or do you mean a big spotted leopard thing? You have to murder a cat?”

“No. I need to kill a god.”

“Oh,” Marla said. “Huh. Okay. I think I can get behind that. Want a hand?”

He blinked. “You’re offering to… help me?”

She shrugged. “I went to epic crazy lengths to have a shot at getting back a relationship that was important to me. Bradley was my friend. You’re Bradley. So, the law of a plus b equals c says you’re my friend. I don’t have many friends. I help the ones I have.”

He stood up, and got shouty. “I’m not this guy, your B, okay? Maybe we look the same, maybe we have some of the same history, but –”

Marla stood up too, but didn’t shout. She said, “Except you are. You are Bradley. Just… a Bradley emerging from different conditions. And I’m not totally clueless about what you’re going through, about your world.” The bit about sorcerers going public and taking over the world, that threw her – whose idiot idea was that, and why hadn’t anybody killed the indiscreet moron? Life was so much easier behind the scenes and in the shadows. Still, she could dazzle this new B with some knowledge, maybe impress him a little. “Let me guess. About a year ago a crazy sorcerer named Mutex summoned the jaguar god to San Francisco and your life went to hell. Or, more to hell. Am I right?”

“Did you read my mind? How can you know about the coming of the Jaguar if it didn’t happen in this world?”

Marla shrugged. “In this world, it wasn’t a jaguar god. It was a toad god. And I killed it. I’m a little curious about why I didn’t kill it in your world, but I guess it was just coincidence that I happened to be in San Francisco in time to stop Mutex anyway, so I can see how it might have happened differently. So anyway. Let’s go kill this god of yours. A jaguar could be tougher than a toad, but whatever.”

Beta-B sat back down. “I’ll take your help. We need it, and I… have reason to believe you’re formidable. But just because you help me, that doesn’t mean I’ll become, whatever, your friend, your apprentice, or that I’ll want to come back to this world with you. I have a life, okay?”

“Understood,” Marla said, but what she thought was, We’ll see. She went to the door and yelled at Rondeau to get Hamil for her, then went back inside to B. “Tell me, you ever fly on a private jet before?”

“Yeah. I used to be –”

“A movie star,” Marla finished, “I know, for a few years, when you were like 20, 24, whatever. Before you started seeing demons everywhere and got kicked off a set for trying to tear an invisible monster off your director’s neck, which looked to the untrained eye like assault and battery. See? I do know you, B. Shame you never met me in your world. I bet we would have hit it off.”

Beta-B stared at her for a moment, and then began to laugh. He laughed so hard he squeezed his eyes shut, and tears rolled from his eyes, and Marla – who got annoyed when she felt left out of something – gritted her teeth and said, “What’s so damn funny?”

“You have no idea, do you?” he said. “I have met you, in my world – well, not met you, but I’ve seen you, from a distance, through a sniper-scope, because over there you’re totally immune to psychic viewing. But yeah, I’ve seen you. There are even rumors that you’re funding the resistance organization I’m part of. But personally, I hope that’s not true.”

Marla frowned. She tried to imagine a situation in which she would fund freedom fighters being oppressed by a jaguar god in California, but it was tricky. “Oh? Why’s that?”

“Because as horrible as the Jaguar is, Marla, there’s someone in my world that’s even worse, even more hated, even more cruel, even more dangerous.” He pointed his index finger at her face. “And that someone is you.”

Before Marla could react to that – and how exactly was she supposed to react? – Hamil rapped at the door and opened it. “What’s this about a jet?”

“Your jet. I need to borrow it. We need to get back to San Francisco ASAP, and one commercial airline flight in twenty-four hours is plenty for me.”

Hamil sat on the couch. “You’re leaving? Again? You just got back! Marla, there are things here that need your attention –”

“Whoa, big man, you’re the one who said I needed to repatriate Beta-B here –”

“Beta-B?” Beta-B said, either horrified or amused or both.

“– if he wanted to go back, and he does want to go back, so what, now you’re arguing with me? The doorway to other worlds isn’t here, it’s in San Francisco, so get that jet of yours gassed up, all right?”

Hamil pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes in the classic “I-have-a-terrible-headache-and-its-name-is-Marla” gesture. “How did you even know I have a jet?”

“I’m the boss of Felport. What I don’t know about the other sorcerers on the council could maybe fit into an acorn.”

“The jet’s not even meant to be used. Do you have any idea how bad private plane travel is for the environment? It’s so wasteful!”

“So… why do you have it then?” Beta-B said.

“He’s a sympathetic magic guy,” Marla said. “So in order to be successful he –”

“Needs to look successful,” Beta-B said, nodding. “Five-thousand dollar suits, fancy apartment, nice cars, private jets, like that. Because in sympathetic magic, you are what you seem to be.”

“Indeed,” Hamil said. “It’s also why my… girth… is so impressive. Magically speaking, fat is a sign of prosperity. I stay prosperous by seeming prosperous. It’s not easy for me, either. Naturally my body leans towards more of a runner’s physique – lean and strong and metabolically overclocked. At least I have magic to regulate my blood pressure, or I wouldn’t risk eating the way I have to.” He looked at Marla. “This isn’t your Bradley – our Bradley – but he’s smart, and I’m willing to concede he’s a Bradley. So, fine, yes, borrow my plane, and take him home, but please, Marla, get back here as soon as you possibly can. The city needs you.”

“I know. And I want to sleep in my own bed sometime soon, really. I just need to take care of this.”

“Can I go with?” Rondeau said, leaning in the doorway.

“We could always use another set of hands,” Marla said.

Beta-B stared at Rondeau. “Wait… wait. I didn’t notice that before, I was distracted, but…” He turned back to Marla. “You said I was dead. But he –” now turning to point an accusing finger at Rondeau – “Looks exactly like me, only a little more well-fed, under that admittedly pretty good illusion he’s wearing. So what the hell is going on here?”

Marla sighed. She’d hoped to avoid this part. “Beta-B, I’d like you to meet Rondeau. Your murderer.”

“Uh.” Rondeau shuffled a little in place, looked like he might bolt, didn’t, cleared his throat, and said, “So, man, how’s it going?”

“I’ve been better,” Beta-B said.

Chapter 7

“We need transportation.” The Mason stood on the corner near the diner with her arms crossed, surveying the traffic as if deciding which of the passing vehicles she wanted to claim as her own.

Turned out that’s exactly what she was doing. She pointed to a machine just turning the corner. The vehicle – car? van? truck? Crapsey didn’t know the right terminology – looked like one of the military Humvees back home, except it was shiny black, completely undented, equipped with spinning silver hubcaps, and didn’t have any war fetishes wired to the front grille. “Get me that one, Crapsey.”

“Uh. You want me to jump into a guy driving a moving car? In traffic? I mean, I’ll do it, of course I’ll do it, you’re the boss, but –”

“No, you’re right, a crash would be counterproductive. There are too many cars here. Because there are too many people. There needs to be a culling.”

Crapsey shivered. Nothing good ever came of it when the Mason started feeling crowded. Wherever the cloak came from, it must have been a much more sparsely-populated place, because she hated the press of living things.

The Mason stepped into the middle of traffic, right in front of the black Humvee, holding up her hand. Fortunately traffic was slow through here – as it was, the driver had to squeal his brakes to keep from hitting her. Not that even a high-speed collision would hurt the Mason, or even move her, but the impact of such a crash would have driven the engine block into the cab and turned the guy driving into reddish pudding. Which would be a much more painful way to die than the way he was about to get.

The driver leaned out the window and honked his horn and cursed while cars edged around him and the Mason simply stood there in his way, like a living statue. Crapsey sat down on the sidewalk, glanced around to make sure there wasn’t any poop or spit or chewing gum around him, and then reclined to lay on his back. For a moment he stared up at the new morning sky. Nice and blue here. No choking black clouds from the factories or weird yellow striations from the Mason’s atmospheric experiments. He’d forgotten how blue an untortured sky could be.

Crapsey closed his eyes and leapt, flying to the vehicle and through the window – he couldn’t pass through solid objects, though he could squeeze through even very tiny holes, which made him think there was some physical component to his true form – and streamed into the driver’s brain. Once he had the body under control he climbed out on the sidewalk, pulled open the back door, and lifted his own supine Crapsey-body under the armpits, easing him into the seat. This was a young, strong body, at least. Very few of the passers-by paid any attention to the manhandling, though there were still cars honking at the traffic obstruction.

The Mason came around the car and climbed into the passenger side, and once Crapsey had his original body inside, he strolled off toward an alley, found a dumpster, crouched behind it, and then shed the driver’s body, leaving it to slump empty and brain-dead in the garbage. Crapsey reclaimed his body and clambered into the driver’s seat. He considered the array of gauges, levers, dials, and knobs before him, cleared his throat, and said, “Uh, boss, the thing is… I don’t know how to drive.”

The Mason stared at him for a moment. She never drove herself anywhere, but Crapsey wasn’t her chauffeur – they had other people for that. Crapsey had been in her service since he (or anyway his body) was a small child, and driving had never come up. His main usefulness to the Mason was his ability to take over other bodies at will, and he couldn’t very well leave his own body if he was driving a car. He’d been in cars, and he had the general idea, but he wasn’t prepared to take on honking cursing city traffic. Unless it looked like the Mason really wanted him to.

“Of course,” she said. “Change places with me.”

Crapsey climbed into the back, let the Mason take the driver’s seat, and then slid into the passenger seat himself. “You know how to drive, boss?”

“Of course not,” the Mason said. “But she does. Let me just… acquire the knowledge.” The Mason leaned back in the seat, eyes closed and lids fluttering, and then trembled all over. When her eyes opened again they were not so much empty as haunted, bleak and hopeless, and in a voice entirely unlike her usual monotone she said, “Please, kill me, just kill me, end this thing,” and if Crapsey thought there was a chance in hell that his butterfly knife could do the job, he would have obliged her with a blade in the neck. For perhaps the fifth time in his life, he was seeing and hearing Marla, or whatever vestige of Marla remained inside the Mason, her original consciousness briefly allowed to rise to the surface, only to have some aspect of her shredded personhood stolen by the cloak, the parasite that controlled her, rode her, fed on her.

Me and the Mason, Crapsey thought. Just a couple of parasites going on a road trip. We’re like some kind of horrible buddy movie.

Then another twitch, almost a seizure, and the Mason’s cool eyes looked at him again. “There. The poor thing still has some usefulness after all. She doesn’t like driving much, but she knows how.” The Mason made a face as she put the Hummer in gear. “Who can blame her? Where’s the joy in operating a large machine? Unless, I suppose, you were running people down with it… but we’ll get to that.” She drove the huge machine expertly, managing to weave around other cars, popping through an intersection just before the light turned red, which Crapsey vaguely recalled meant “stop.” The Mason was capable of obeying rules, though she preferred to be the one making them.

“Put on your seatbelt, Crapsey. It’s against the law even to endanger yourself here. Madness.”

Crapsey pulled on the strap – most of the military trucks didn’t have working seatbelts, but he wasn’t totally unfamiliar with the process – and felt marginally safer once he was clipped in. The Mason could be a little laissez-faire when it came to matters of personal safety. After all, she wasn’t going to get hurt, not even if she was in a plane that fell from the sky. And as far as she was concerned Crapsey wasn’t ever going to get hurt, either, since he could always take a new host body. She didn’t understand that he had an attachment to his current form, that he liked it, felt at home there, and moreover, he really, really hated pain, something the Mason didn’t even seem to feel.

“So why are we driving, anyway?” he said. “Couldn’t we commandeer a plane or something and get to Felport a lot faster?”

“Marla doesn’t know how to fly. And even if you take over the body of a pilot, it’s not like you’ll have access to his memories, the way I would. I’ve always found that limitation of yours most disappointing. In some ways you’re like a horrible parody of me, have you ever considered that?”

Crapsey leaned his head against the window and looked at the row of Victorian houses streaming by. He thought maybe he’d passed this same block when they’d visited San Francisco back in their world, though it was hard to tell; the houses had been so overgrown with twisting vines and lush green leaves they’d barely been recognizable as dwellings. “Yep, I suck, don’t know why you keep me around.” He could access some abilities belonging to the bodies he stole. If he took over a telepath, he was telepathic, though since he lacked their years of practice, he wasn’t very good at it. If he took over an athlete, the muscle memory was still there, and he could hit a baseball or do backflips or what the fuck ever. If he took over a good dancer he could even dance, unless he started to think about the steps he was taking, and then it became too much of the mind and not enough of the body and he screwed up all the steps.

But, it was true, he had no access to the non-physical memories locked up in the brains he possessed. He threw out their mental furniture and moved in his own. Crapsey preferred it that way. Sharing his head with someone else? It would drive him crazy. He didn’t know how the Mason did it, though he gathered the Marla-part of her didn’t make too much of a fuss these days, not like in the early years, when the Mason would sometimes lock herself up in a cell at the Blackwing Institute and scream and rage until she asserted control over the body again. She would have staged her public takeover years earlier if she’d had that shit under better control. Marla must have been one tough broad to resist for so long.

“Still,” he said, “we could glamour our way onto a flight, ride in first class, and –”

When she interrupted him, her tone was amused. “Really, Crapsey? You’d like to be trapped in a metal tube at 30,000 feet with me and, what, at least a couple hundred human beings, for a minimum of five or six hours? Do you think I would cope well in that situation?”

“Ah. Good point. Road trip it is.” The Mason had been known to throw her own lieutenants off planes in mid-air, just because she suddenly felt crowded, and that was on flights with only a handful of people on board, and everyone else keeping as much out of her way as possible. The only person she could stand near her in close proximity for long was Crapsey, maybe because he wasn’t really a human. Crapsey had looked it up once, and he knew the pathological fear of crowds was called demophobia, but that wasn’t exactly right – the Mason wasn’t afraid of crowds, she just hated them.

Which was why she held the cullings. And why the population of the United States had diminished by a quarter under her reign.

The Mason was not a people person. As far as that goes, she wasn’t even a person.


“See, but the thing is, I’ve got to eat. I know you only need to eat adorable puppies and flowers and rainbows and beautiful things that can never be replaced, but I need, like, actual sustenance. Also, and forgive me boss, you have no idea where you’re going.” Crapsey stretched out his legs – at least the Hummer had plenty of legroom – and wiggled around in hopes of getting his numb ass to wake back up.

The Mason was hunched over the wheel, glaring out the windshield at the cars zipping past them on the interstate, and if looks could kill – well, the thing was, her looks could kill, and it was just luck that she hadn’t started giving the old death-gaze to the other drivers on the highway yet. “I know where I’m going. Felport is east. I am going east. Or at least I was, until this stupid road curved. Why can’t humans just build in straight lines?”

That last bit was a common complaint. Making allowances for geography or existing societal infrastructure didn’t occur to the Mason. She was an A-to-B type person.

“So we’ll stop, I’ll get food, I’ll get directions or find a map, we’ll put some gas in this thing, and we’ll be on our way, all right?”

“Gas? Oh. Fuel. Hmm. Of course, this vehicle hasn’t been… improved.” She glared at the fuel gauge now. The cars in her command had been modified to operate by magic instead of burning fossil fuel, though Crapsey was never clear what they ran on instead – the tears of orphan children or the anguish of whipped factory-slaves or something old-school Dark Lord like that, probably.

“Nope. Nothing here but pure human technology. Though you have to admit the power everything and the awesome radio is pretty sweet.”

“Music is noise,” she said, and reached out for the radio, a brief flash of purple light encircling her fingers. She wrenched the whole radio out one-handed, wires dangling from the back, and tossed it out the window, causing some swerving and honking behind them, which she ignored.

“That was bitchy,” Crapsey said. “Super bitchy. Just for that I’m going to sing.”

“Try it and I’ll take off your jaw again,” she said, and Crapsey could almost imagine she said it affectionately, but he knew better. She bantered with him, but he was pretty sure it was all fake. He was useful to her, and she knew if she let her real personality (or lack thereof) show through too clearly, he’d be too freaked out to work with her, and might try to escape. Powerful as she was, she’d still have a hard time holding him if he wanted to leave – being able to jump body to body was ideal for a getaway.

But she kept up the pretense that they were pals, that he was her one friend in all the world, and he kept up the pretense that he believed it, and mostly he liked his life, because unlike most everybody else in the Mason’s world he got plenty to eat, and a nice place to sleep, and sex with servants of any gender whenever he wanted it, and basically, he was a lazy hedonist. Besides, they’d been together for so long, Crapsey couldn’t really imagine life without the Mason.

Plus, of course, he was afraid she would pursue him if he ran, and that she’d be able to find him after all, and that she’d stop pretending to be his friend, and make him pay.

But for now, they had their pretense in place, so he started to sing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” until she cursed at him and took an exit toward something called a “Travel Plaza.”

If Crapsey had realized what was going to happen there, he wouldn’t have urged her to stop, but hell, he wasn’t a seer, he didn’t have the gift of prophecy or precognition, so how was he supposed to know?


The gas station wasn’t too crowded, and there were more pumps than he could count arranged in several rows. The Mason drove the Hummer expertly next to one of the pumps and then just sat there in her usual switched-off way.

“You want anything from inside?” he asked. “Water, protein bars?”

The Mason appeared to consult some inner gauges and dials and said, “Water, yes. And meat.”

Crapsey tried to remind his boss to eat a couple of times a day. The body she was using might not die if she didn’t eat – who knew what the limits of her healing powers were? – but when she forgot for too long the skin got sallow and her reaction time slowed and she was more prone to casual murder than usual. The body wasn’t just a vehicle the Mason drove around in; the condition of the host affected the parasite.

“Okay.” Crapsey hopped out and walked around the back of the Hummer, figuring he’d deal with fuel first. He’d never actually used a gas pump, but he watched what another guy did, and got the nozzle in without much trouble, though the fact that gas was not instantly dispensed annoyed him. He pressed buttons and banged the pump until a twenty-something guy at the next pump, wearing a hat that read “Vicodin Love Confession,” said, “Dude, you have to swipe a credit card, or else go in and give the clerk some cash.”

“Oh,” Crapsey said. “Thanks.” He went to the driver’s window, where the Mason sat staring blankly forward at the white-cinderblock-and-glass structure at the far end of the vast concrete pad. “Be right back boss.” She ignored him.

Crapsey went into the gas station and began salivating pretty much immediately over the rows and rows of junk food, which were rare and precious treats where he was from. He grabbed a basket and started filling it with the most brightly-colored packages he could find, assuming random chance would give him an appropriate mix of sweet and salty. He grabbed a fistful of assorted jerkies for the Mason, and a couple of enormous bottles of startlingly clear water from a row of coolers. He paused near the checkout counter and selected a pair of sunglasses with silver reflective lenses. If he wore those, someone who looked into his eyes would only see their own face, which struck him as funny, so he got those too.

He waited in line – that sucked about this world, he never waited in line back home – and when his turn came dumped everything on the counter. The surly silent clerk zapped his purchases with a scanner like a ray gun and put them into plastic bags, and Crapsey noted the numbers appearing on the cash register’s display. Huh. He’d probably overpaid at the diner. Oh well. Not like it was his money. The clerk said, “Anything else?”

“Gas,” Crapsey said.

“Which pump, and how much?”

Uh… wait, there’d been a number on the pump, he remembered thinking it was weird, why number them? “Number 16? And… enough to fill a big black Humvee?”

The clerk rolled his eyes. “Just tell me how much you want.”

Crapsey passed him three of Susan’s hundred dollar bills. “There, that much. For everything. And whatever’s left over, you just keep.”

The kid glanced at the total on the register, clearly doing some mental calculations, and said, “You got it, sir,” in a much more polite tone than he’d used before, and flicked a button.

Crapsey gathered up his bags and was almost out the door when he heard the screaming. It wasn’t just a lone scream, or even two screams, but a whole choir of screams, and he had a bad feeling he knew who’d caused it.

Once he got outside he saw why, too. The place had gotten a lot more crowded since he went inside, with all the pumps occupied, and people banging their horns. A big gray bus had pulled into the travel plaza, too, parking not far from the Mason, and a crowd of people must have emerged from it, probably jabbering and milling around… One of them must have said something to the Mason, or maybe someone else in line for gas had asked her to hurry up so they could use her pump, or maybe she’d just had one of her periodic too-many-people freak-outs. Either way, Crapsey emerged into a world full of people screaming, though the ones screaming were at least still alive, unlike the, what, twenty? thirty? people sprawled in various states of attempted escape on the ground near the bus. Some of them were smoking faintly, and some of them looked like they’d swallowed sticks of dynamite which subsequently exploded inside them, and some were in the process of transforming into things that were neither human nor suited for life on this planet. The Mason herself was standing in front of the Hummer, sweeping her head to and fro with the steady movement of a security camera, and where her gaze fell… people fell.

Crapsey saw some of the people running were getting close to the highway off-ramp, and – already thinking about containment – he jumped to their bodies, hopscotching from one to another, dropping ten of them in moments before returning to his body. He sat up on the concrete – ow, he’d banged his elbow when he left his body to fall, and probably smashed some of his potato chips when the bags dropped, too, damn it. He shouted, “Boss, bugs in amber! Bugs in amber!”

She glared at him, then nodded curtly, and raised her hands.

Everyone and everything still moving at the travel plaza froze in place, save Crapsey and the Mason. He gathered his bags, tossed them in the back of the Hummer, got the gas pumping, and stood there in silence while the tank filled.

The people frozen by the bugs-in-amber spell were still conscious, and not completely motionless – they could still breathe, their blood circulated, and they could move their eyes (though not close their lids), and they all stared around, wide-eyed.

“Had a little trouble here, huh, boss?” Crapsey said.

“This one.” The Mason pointed to a headless body at her feet. “He came to the window of the car. He said, ‘That’s a lot of truck for a pretty little thing like you.’ So I made his head explode. And then the others, the ones by the bus –” she gestured vaguely “– began screaming. It was loud. I found it unpleasant. I silenced them.” She shrugged.

“Hey, I get that.” Crapsey watched the numbers on the gas pump roll higher and higher, sort of like the Mason’s death toll. “But we were trying to be discreet, right? Element of surprise, creep up on Marla Mason, no news about suspicious bizarre massacres on the highway, right?”

“Right. You are right. I have become accustomed to things being a certain way. Where we are from. Where I made my home.”

Where nobody would be stupid enough to talk to the Mason without permission, and where if she killed a bunch of people, that just meant it was a fairly ordinary day.

“I will try to do better,” she said.

“Cool.” The gas pump shut off, and Crapsey started to put the nozzle away, then just let it drop to the concrete, where it oozed a little. “So we’re going to have to make this look like something other than a magical massacre. You know?”

“I do.” She got into the Hummer, and Crapsey climbed into the passenger seat, slipping on his silver shades. The mess of corpses on the concrete was a little dimmer then, which was a help. He tore the wrapper off a stick of beef jerky and handed it to her, and she ate it mechanically. They pulled away from the pumps, weaving around people frozen in stasis, and drove onto the freeway.

The Mason put a few hundred yards between them and the gas station before she made all the fuel in the underground tanks explode, sending a black fireball high in the sky with a noise like the end of the world; that was a noise Crapsey knew well, as he’d heard it many times before.

“There,” he said. “Now it’s just a terrible accident, not a sorcerer laying waste to the citizenry. No harm, no foul, but let’s try to ease off on the evil witch shenanigans for the rest of the trip, all right?”

“I am not evil.” The Mason continued to drive while other cars pulled off to the side of the road, drivers emerging to look back at the column of smoke. Police cars and ambulances and fire engines streaked by on the other side of the highway, sirens howling like the inmates of the Mason’s Wyoming Test Facility. “The terms good and evil are meaningless. Since I am the only being of any importance in the world, there’s no need for comparative terminology. No one is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than I am, because no one else matters. It would be like saying Napoleon was more evil than an earthworm. The whole conceptual rubric is nonsensical.”

Then the Mason smiled – like someone who’d learned to smile by reading about it in badly translated books – and said, “But I may not be the only being of importance in the world for long.”

Crapsey frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean, boss? Boss?”

But the Mason didn’t speak again for two hundred miles, and the next words out of her mouth weren’t any sort of answer to Crapsey’s question.

What she said was: “Kill her. No, not that way. Use your knife.”

Chapter 8

“So you didn’t mean to kill me.” Beta-B sat in one of the leather seats on Hamil’s private jet, across from Rondeau, but not looking at him – gazing instead out the window at the Earth below, vast stretches of nothing punctuated by occasional marks of human habitation. Marla, who’d made herself thoroughly into a city person, found cross-country flights unnerving. So much of this country was just emptiness. Or farmland, which, though she knew intellectually was a long way from being emptiness, sure felt like emptiness to her. But she looked out her window, too, from her seat behind Beta-B, biting her tongue (literally) to keep from jumping into their conversation.

“Yeah. I mean no.” Rondeau appeared sweaty and miserable, dressed in a scratchy-looking brown suit coat that looked like some kind of hemp hippie cerements. “When my body died, it was just like… instinct. Like how when drowning people grab onto the person trying to rescue them, and panic, and end up dragging them both down.” He took in a deep breath, then let out a big rush of air. “Except in my case I ended up using Bradley as a life raft to get myself to safety.”

“So I’m an inflatable pool toy now? You suck at metaphors.” Beta-B tapped on the glass of the window as if checking a barometer, still staring at the ground, or possibly at his reflection. “But okay. I mean, intellectually, it’s pretty fucked up, but it’s not like I knew the guy, your Bradley, even though he was me. We were the same guy at some point, I get that, but it’s not like we were friends. And frankly, I’ve seen a lot of people I did consider friends die over the past few years, so hearing about an alternate-universe version of myself dying doesn’t even break through into the emotion-wrecking top ten. And, well, I don’t know how much you guys know about the world I come from – I get the sense it’s just about nothing – but there’s a version of you there, Rondeau, and he… from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t take over bodies by accident. He does it whenever his boss tells him to, maybe whenever he feels like it, and when he’s done using the stolen flesh, he jumps back to his old body again, leaving the people he took over as brain-dead vegetables, followed shortly by being totally dead. I guess if you got one of them on a ventilator right away the body might keep living, but what would be the point?”

Marla sat up. Rondeau’s ability to jump bodies could be made voluntary? Rondeau could be… weaponized? Some shit just shouldn’t exist.

Rondeau shook his head, hard. “I can’t jump whenever I feel like it. Not that I ever feel like it. And knowing that’s even possible… I didn’t need to know that. Not something I’d ever care to try.”

“Probably took him a lot of practice,” Beta-B said. “The guy’s been training to be a murder weapon his whole life, I think. His name’s Crapsey, but I’ve seen him, via remote viewing and in person, once, and he’s definitely you, or what the illusion you’re wearing looks like, anyway, except he hits the gym a lot more often and he’s got this creepy wooden prosthetic jaw, all carved up with runes, I’m not even sure what they do. Maybe they help him bite through steel cables or something.”

“Bonus points for the vintage James Bond movie reference. Just call me Jaws.” Rondeau rubbed his chin.

Beta-B looked at him now, and laughed. “Yeah. You know, they were considering me for the lead in a James Bond reboot back when I was still acting. Never went anywhere, the whole project fell apart, and I probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway, too young for the part, but it would’ve been cool to do an action hero thing instead of being soulful moody love-interest guy.”

“Tell me you would’ve played Bond gay,” Rondeau said. “I mean manly gay, you know what I’m saying, but let a little something slip through, get that British-boarding-school vibe in there at least, make some of that buried-deep subtext a little less subby.”

Beta-B laughed again, and something tightened and twisted in Marla’s chest, because that was her B she heard, laughing with Rondeau like he had so often in the past. “You’re all right, man,” Beta-B said. “I can see why Bradley Prime or whatever you call him liked you.”

“Oh, he didn’t just like me,” Rondeau said, raising one eyebrow, and as if that wasn’t enough, winking, and then, for further effect, nudging an invisible companion in the ribs. “He liked me. If you know what I’m saying.”

Beta-B whistled. “You’re saying you and me… you and he…”

“We’d just killed a god, man,” Rondeau said. Marla snorted, and Rondeau shrugged. “Okay, we’d just contributed materially to the killing of a god, and we were in a celebratory mood, and I was always open to whatever, so we gave it a go. Good times.”

“Don’t expect a repeat performance.” Beta-B leaned forward and poked Rondeau in the stomach. “You’ve got an illusion on, but I can see right through it, and you look like me, and I’m not so narcissistic that I want to fuck my double. Especially not with you letting yourself – myself, himself – go like that. What’s with the gut?”

Rondeau sucked in his stomach, Marla guessed, though nothing much changed from her point of view – she couldn’t see through his illusion, not without concentrating hard enough to give herself a splitting headache. She didn’t have Beta-B’s natural gift for clarity. Rondeau said, “It’s been a messed up couple of weeks. Not exactly thinking about working out. And my old body just had that kind of hummingbird metabolism, you know, I could eat whatever I wanted and never gained a pound, but this body, I’ve got to work at it, I guess. I’m still learning the ropes. It’s weird being full-on gay though, I’ll tell you that.”

“Nice to have a definitive answer to the ‘is homosexuality a choice or not’ question,” Beta-B said. “Now we can move on to more pressing issues.”

“Like whether water-based or silicon-based lube is better?” Rondeau said. “Because I’ve got to figure that shit out.”

Beta-B nodded gravely. “A nice thick water-based, always. But I was thinking more like, can you guys get your hands on some rocket launchers and machine guns and grenades and maybe a tank or two, and let me take those back with me when I go? Because it would help a lot.”

“We could get heavy ordnance, maybe, with some notice,” Marla said, and Beta-B swiveled in his chair to include her in the conversation, now that she was doing more than lurking. “Though the boss of San Francisco isn’t a friend of mine, and while I know the lady who runs Oakland, she’s more of a lover than a fighter – sex magic’s her thing, more heavy petting than heavy weapons. But if you want to get back tonight… I don’t think so. Not sure we could take anything we can’t carry with us, anyway, so tanks would be out. But, hey, you’ve got me, and I’ve got a really sharp knife, and I’m good at kicking things over – people, walls, regimes, whatever – and, if shit gets too real, I’ve always got my cloak.” She patted a leather satchel at her side. The cloak was folded away in there, surrounded by runes that blurred remote viewing, dampened magical fields, and generally made the contents seem unremarkable.

“I’ve been meaning to mention that,” Beta-B said. “You… really shouldn’t wear the cloak around my friends.”

“Why’s that?”

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding grossly insensitive, but… it’d be like toting a sniper rifle around a Kennedy family reunion. Like wearing a swastika to a bar mitzvah. The cloak’s a symbol, and it’s not a symbol of something good. Everybody where I’m from hates the Jaguar, it’s barbaric, and I don’t mean white-shoes-after-Labor-Day, serving-red-wine-chilled kind of barbaric, I mean, heads on pikes, hearts cut from chests, mass-murder-human-sacrifice barbaric. But there are people who are happy the Jaguar rules San Francisco, because at least the Jaguar is a big badass, and he keeps us from getting taken over by an even worse tyrant.”

Marla had known they’d get back to this eventually. She was both fascinated and loath to learn more. “That would be me. The tyrant. Your world’s version of me. Yeah?”

“You know how I said sorcerers went public in my world a few years ago? I understand there was basically a secret war for some years before that, with a crazy sorcerer knocking off her enemies, forcing people into alliances, betraying them, consolidating power, ruling with an iron fist, all that. And once this crazy sorcerer got everything lined up just so, she made herself known – she destroyed Washington DC, and Moscow, and London, and Paris, and a major city in every country that has a major city. She didn’t just blow the places up. She drove the inhabitants insane, made them kill each other, and made them destroy their cities. With sledgehammers, and axes, and if all else failed, with their hands. You haven’t seen fucked-up shit until you’ve turned on CNN and watched the entire House of Representatives tearing apart the capitol building with their bare hands, gibbering and screaming while they rip themselves bloody. Then this crazy sorcerer came on TV, and where people didn’t have TV she just appeared like a purple-tinged ghost, and she said, basically: Here’s how it’s gonna be. I’m the new boss. Anyone who fights will die. Anyone who resists will be destroyed. She said, and this isn’t paraphrasing, she said, ‘Your world is now mine.'”

Marla’s mouth was suddenly dry. Must be the pressurized air in the cabin. “That’s… pretty ambitious.”

“Yeah,” Beta-B said. “Some people resisted successfully, other sorcerers, and until the Jaguar came I lived in one of the more benign witchocracies, but everybody knows if your evil twin puts her mind to it, she can topple most any regime. The few holdouts just hope she has bigger problems to deal with, fights that keep her busy elsewhere, you know?” He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “So why isn’t that the situation here, Marla? Are you just not that ambitious on this side of the looking-glass? Maybe you didn’t get the right kind of encouragement when you took Global Tyranny 101 or Brutal Subjugation for Beginners in high school?”

“I cut a lot of classes,” she said. “Must have missed those days. Look, whatever turned this… other version of me into the monster you describe… it didn’t happen to me. Maybe she saw her family get murdered in front of her. Maybe she got one of those head injuries that damages the frontal lobe and alters the whole personality – trauma producing a sociopath. Who knows where our paths diverged? But they did. Hell, ask Rondeau. He might admit I have a flaw or two, but I’m pretty sure he’ll vouch that I’m no destroyer of worlds.”

Rondeau nodded. “It’s true. Marla can be cranky, but she’s no epic supervillain. She did take over the land of the dead one time, but not for keeps. I mean, she gave it back, once she found the right guy to take over.”

“You’ve been to the actual underworld?” Bradley said.

“B, you’re the one who got me a ticket on the train that took me to Hell. I couldn’t have done it without you. Or, not you, but Alpha-B. You know.”

B looked at his hands. “I can do that? Summon a train to hell?”

Marla nodded. “You’ve done it at least twice that I know about. Not sure how it can help you now though. It’s, ah… tricky to bring people back from there, I hear, so even if you’ve lost people…”

“Everyone where I come from has lost people. The Mason kills as casually as you’d blow your nose.”

“‘The Mason’?” Rondeau said. “Seriously? Marla 2.0 calls herself The Mason? Ha. Is that the style where you’re from? So you’d be, what – The Bowman? Actually that’s pretty good. Give you a bow and arrow, let you do some Legolas-style shit.” Rondeau mimed drawing and firing arrows, making little “pew pew” noises as he did so. “And I’d be –”

“We already know what you are,” Marla said. “Your name over there is Crapsey. Which, you know, it fits. You look like a Crapsey. Lot of days, you even smell like a Crapsey.”

Rondeau went “Pfft. I was going to say, since I don’t have a last name, I’d have to be The Nameless One, which is pretty mysterious and badass. Sounds kinda like the name for one of those old alien gods from behind the back of the stars, though, the kind with beards made out of tentacles.”

“Okay,” Beta-B said. “I guess I can see why Alpha-B liked you two. It’s just tough because, where I’m from, a couple of people who look a whole lot like you want to enslave me and everybody I care about.”

“So after we get rid of the Jaguar, we get rid of this Mason broad,” Marla said. “I can’t have some lunatic in a cloak going around smearing my good name, even in another universe. I mean, it probably says something about me psychologically, but the idea of going toe-to-toe in a fight with myself? It’s kind of appealing.”

Beta-B looked back out the window. “You can certainly try. But she’ll kill you. She’s spent years doing nothing but killing, all sorts of people, on a very grand scale. I’m sure you’ve got some blood on your hands, but… I have to think she’s more experienced than you are.”

Marla grinned. A challenge. A fight. After weeks spent grieving, it felt good to be planning an assault again. “Maybe. But the Mason’s not expecting me, is she? Give me the element of surprise and I can tip the world over on its axis, Beta-boy.”


They landed at San Francisco International Airport, and Hamil had a car waiting for them; a limo, of course, since it would go against his fundamental magical underpinnings to have some primer-painted gypsy cab in his employ. Marla resisted the urge to sit in front with the driver – the same ruthlessly egalitarian urge that made her want to eat in the kitchen with the servers at restaurants and encourage maids to rob their rich employers blind – and settled into a seat in the back across from Beta-B and Rondeau.

“This sweet ride give you flashbacks to Oscar night?” Rondeau said. “Oh, wait, you were never up for an Academy Award, were you? You got a Grammy, though, in one of the weirdo categories, for that spoken word drug addiction misery memoir thing you did. I’m sure that’s a comfort.”

“Ironically, I later sold that very Grammy trophy for drugs,” Beta-B deadpanned, and Marla snickered. “How many Grammys have you won, Rondeau?”

“I’m holding out for the Nobel,” Rondeau said. “Not in one of the wussy categories like literature or peace. Give me something hardcore like chemistry or economics or fashion.”

“Be sure to invite me to Stockholm. But, yeah, I went to three or four Academy Awards ceremonies, and we traveled in style. Usually there was more cocaine and less existential terror involved in the ride over though.”

“Speaking of business,” Marla said. “Last night we just took a cab and I used my spell-fu to steal us a boat, which Rondeau sailed out to Alcatraz – I can’t believe you actually learned to sail, by the way.”

“You were off conquering the underworld at the time. Mr. Beadle taught me.”

“I can believe someone taught you, I said I can’t believe you learned. Anyway, that’s not a good plan in broad daylight like this, and I know the Alcatraz tours are usually sold out way in advance, so either we can try to stow away on a tour boat with a look-away spell cast on all three of us, or we can give a few ticketed passengers a really nasty stomach bug, the ‘I-think-I’m-turning-inside-out kind’ –”

“How about you leave that part to me,” Beta-B said. “I’ll get us on a boat.”

Marla raised her eyebrow. “What’s the plan? Look for an admirer and hope she’ll fansquee all over herself giving you tour tickets?”

“Maybe your Bradley was a mess of learned helplessness or something, but I’ve been slugging it out with sorcerers for years now. I’ve got a few tricks your B probably never learned.”


Pier 33 was crowded, with a preponderance of German tourists for some reason, and it was a sunny day, if cold, with breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the headlands of Marin, and in the bay itself, Angel Island and the Rock, though Alcatraz wasn’t so breathtaking, looking rather squat and a barren, a maritime keep for a warlord fallen on hard times.

While Marla and Rondeau did their best to look like tourists – easier for Rondeau than Marla – Beta- B went to work. People were standing around waiting for the next Alcatraz tour boat, and Beta-B approached a family of two parents and one teenager. He chatted at them brightly for a few moments, then waved his hand in front of their faces in a showy, swoopy sort of move. They all smiled widely, and the father handed Beta-B some slips of paper. The family walked off, talking together excitedly, and Beta-B strolled over to Marla and Rondeau.

“There,” he said. “No problem. Three tickets for the launch leaving in 90 minutes. See? And we’ve got time to grab some lunch, too. Which, believe me, you’ll want to do. Take-out options in the city of the Jaguar are not fantastic.”

“What’d you do, mind-control them?” Marla said. She was capable of brute-force persuasion, but it gave her the kind of migraine where you see halos, so she tried to avoid it; when she planned in advance, she could enchant stones or other small charms suitable for one-use compulsions, but she didn’t have any such trinkets on her. Beta-B didn’t appear to feel any strain at all. “And what was the deal with the little stage-magician hand-wave?”

Beta-B passed the palm of his hand before her face. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.”

“Ha,” Rondeau said. “Jedi mind trick, Marla. The hand-swoop is key. Classic Star Wars reference. Bonus points.”

“What exactly are these bonus points redeemable for?” Beta-B said.

“Don’t answer that, Rondeau,” Marla said. “New B, you don’t want to give him openings like that.” She looked at Alcatraz, feeling impatient as always to get started, to move, to do something, but yeah, they should probably eat. “Do you think there’s any place around here that doesn’t serve sea food?”


They found an upscale chain restaurant nearby and sat by big windows looking out toward the Bay. Marla demolished a cheeseburger, Rondeau ate something alarmingly called a “flying tuna platter,” and Beta-B literally ordered one of everything on the menu, only eating a few bites of each, much to the annoyance of the waitress, though Marla left a tip big enough to turn her weird sidelong looks into exhortations to come back again real soon! Then they waited in line (always one of Marla’s least favorite things) and got onto the boat. The ride only took about 15 minutes, during which time Beta-B and Rondeau traded movie and book trivia and Marla mostly paced, watching the island grow slowly larger. She was a little nervous. Not so much about facing the Jaguar – she knew, or was almost certain she knew anyway, an important secret about the risen god, something that would probably give her an edge if whatever Beta-B’s band of revolutionaries had planned didn’t work and she had to take on the big mean kitty cat on her own.

The nervousness was about the likelihood of meeting herself, or a dark mirror image of herself. Marla had no illusions; she could be a bitch, a ball-breaker, and a bad boss, but a tyrannical despot, conqueror of continents, and indiscriminate murderer? Every death she’d ever caused weighed on her mind, and she thought – she needed to think – that such depth of evil didn’t come from the other Marla, but from the constant wearing of the cloak. Marla herself had often felt the seductive allure of wearing the cloak with the lethal purple side showing. The access to destructive power, the complete lack of conscience – it could be exhilarating. If she’d never taken off the cloak after the first time she used it, maybe she would have become the monster Beta-B talked about.

And yet, even knowing how dangerous the thing was, she still had the cloak, right here in her bag, and if she needed to, she’d put it on again, and risk her soul once more, and hope she had the will to take it off and become herself again when she was done.

“We’re there, boss.” Rondeau touched her shoulder, and she didn’t jerk away from his hand. It was nice having him back as a friend. Rondeau was a colossal fuck-up, but he was trying to fix his mistakes, which was pretty much all she had a right to ask. They filed off the boat with the rest of the herd, and while the tour guide addressed the crowd, Marla muttered a little look-away spell to drape herself, Rondeau, and Beta-B in a veil of not-interesting-ness, then set off toward the prison.

“Either of you all-seeing-eye types sense any sorcerers lurking here?” she asked as they entered the first cell block.

“No sign of the Warden,” Rondeau said. “Susan probably reassigned her to Antarctica or something.”

“There’s definitely something here, though,” Beta-B said. “Not human. But… something.”

Rondeau nodded. “The possible witch. She’s something all right. Wait’ll you meet her.”

Marla led the way to the solitary confinement cell, and Rondeau took one of her hands while Beta-B took the other. She closed her eyes. “It’s a little tight for all of us to turn around three times in here,” she began.

“No need,” Beta-B said, and there was a lurch and a cold, biting wind blew past her face.

She opened her eyes, and they were once more in the corridor that led to the possible witch’s throne, a hallway punctuated by short corridors and occasional mercifully-closed doors, but the conditions were even worse now – there were gaping holes in the walls, suffused by sick-looking greenish-yellow light, with howling winds blowing through, and more holes in the floor giving way to darkness. They stepped carefully around the holes, buffeted by the wind, all holding hands, following the bends and curves of the corridor, until they reached the place where the spiral staircase –

– didn’t exist anymore. Not even in half-melted, rusted form. There was no ceiling above them, just darkness, and beyond the darkness, things that looked almost like, but were not quite, stars.

“Shit, Marla, she’s gone,” Rondeau said. “What do we do now?”

Marla didn’t have an answer. But, to her surprise, Beta-B did.

He said, “Let’s you and me tear the fabric of reality a new asshole, Rondeau.”

Chapter 9

The Mason bombed along Interstate 80 in their Humvee, which guzzled gas like crazy, necessitating more stops at gas stations, though they didn’t have any more massacre-type situations, maybe because they were getting out into the desert where things were more sparsely populated. The Mason didn’t talk at all, not even when they crossed into Nevada and Crapsey said, “Hey, look, boss, it’s not a sea of fused glass over here. Remember when you conquered the queens and kings of Las Vegas and got all those sweet desert powers?” Usually the Mason liked being reminded of past murders, but she was deep inside her own head, which generally meant bad things would happen outside her head when she emerged.

With no radio to listen to, and no fake lighthearted banter, Crapsey was reduced to looking out the windows at the desert for hours. He wasn’t really a landscapes sort of guy, so it was pretty dull, or rather, pretty but dull. He thought, This is what the Mason wants the whole world to be like. Just one big empty. And she was making that vision of the world come true, one murder at a time, over where they came from. Once they found Marla and forced her to undo… whatever she’d done, and sent them back home, the total purification process would continue. The Mason complained that it was surprisingly difficult to exterminate life on Earth without destroying the planet itself, which she had other uses for. (She didn’t want to destroy all life. Bacteria didn’t bother her. Mostly she was just bothered by life she could see.) But it was a problem she was working on. Crapsey preferred a more populated world, and not for the purely selfish reason that he needed human bodies nearby as back-ups in case his current body failed.

The Mason jerked the wheel hard to the right, slicing across two lanes of traffic and prompting a few angry honks and sudden brakings from their fellow travelers on the interstate, though the Mason was too preoccupied with whatever to kill any of them for daring to blare at her.

“Boss, what the hell!” Crapsey grabbed the handhold over the door as the Mason pulled off the shoulder – not bothering to decelerate – and onto the flat desert sand beyond. The smooth ride got bumpy fast, but the big machine managed the change in terrain without bogging down or flipping over. The Mason stared at some fixed point on the horizon as she ran over scrub brush, proceeding in an unerringly straight line toward nothing in particular that Crapsey could perceive.

He glanced in the side mirrors, but the highway was already invisible behind them, and they were in pure trackless waste territory now; except for the tracks the Mason was leaving in their inelegant progress through the desert. “You know, boss, if you need to pee, you only have to pull a little ways off the highway. I know you’re modest and everything, but, damn.”

Still no response. Crapsey’s voice was apparently no more important to her than the rush of air past the windows. This was a whole lot of suck. Crapsey got that nervous-stomach feeling he always developed when he got too far away from the human population. What if this body had a heart attack and died out here? He couldn’t take over the Mason’s body, he knew that from bitter experience, and he’d had zero luck possessing anything non-human – trying to do so was like trying to put on a little kid’s shoes, they just didn’t fit, not even close. Crapsey had no clue how long he could survive without a human host, or what his effective range was in disembodied form; he’d never jumped to a person he didn’t have line-of-sight on. If he lost his body out here in the middle of nowhere, he thought there was a strong possibility he’d be fucked.

The Mason drove on, still at highway speed, which was insane given the landscape. This was desert, but it wasn’t salt flats; there were, like, dips and holes and ridges, and they bumped hard through several of them. Crapsey made occasional comments, stuff like, “Good thing we stole a Humvee and not a Vespa scooter” and “At least it’s a dry heat” and “Are we there yet, mom?” but the Mason never responded. Finally, after about fifteen minutes of barreling along, something appeared on the horizon. A building.

A house. What might have been a farmhouse, if farming out here had been a possibility. The place was still some distance away, but Crapsey knew perfectly well what it looked like: one story, weathered-gray boards, sagging roof, glassless windows.

He knew, because he’d been here before.

“Oh, hell, boss. What are we doing here?”

No reply, but it wasn’t like he needed one. He knew what they were going to do. Probably pretty much what they’d done in their world, a few years before.

Which was:


Crapsey rode in the back seat, looking down the neck of his shirt at his – the body’s – boobs, desperate for any kind of entertainment, even self-ogling. The body he’d commandeered was pretty enough, but in a petite-and-delicate way, and it had no tits to speak of. Oh well. They wouldn’t have given him much of a thrill even if they’d been double-Ds. He’d discovered over the years that most of sexual attraction was rooted in the body and the brain, and this chick’s physiology was the opposite of his usual body’s omnivoracious sexuality – she was asexual, as far as he could tell.

That was okay. The body of Genevieve Kelley had other talents, which was why the Mason had forced him to wear her body to this raid. He just hoped he could do what his boss wanted when the time came. Genevieve’s powers didn’t come with an instruction manual, and he hadn’t been given a lot of time to practice before they set out from the ruins of Vegas.

He looked out the window of the racing Jeep at the dark desert passing by. Genevieve’s eyes were crazy perceptive, and he could pick out the faintly glowing lines of geomantic force in the ground, the living sparks of snakes and rabbits out in the night, and on the horizon, a blaze of power that hurt to look upon. Their destination. The light they’d come to snuff out.

They passed a broken abandoned windmill. Crapsey flexed a muscle in Genevieve’s brain, and the windmill exploded into small birds, flying in all directions, scattering in the dark.

Well crap. He’d meant to just make the windmill explode, not turn into animals. Genevieve’s powers were a bitch to control, too prone to subconscious associations and dream-logic, which was no kind of logic at all. Taking possession of Genevieve’s body was like getting into a tank without knowing how to drive it. Sure, in theory he could blow a city into rubble, but in practice, it was a pain in the ass just getting the thing into gear and driving in a straight line. Genevieve was one of the rarest and most powerful forms of psychics, a reweaver, capable of altering reality in profound ways… not that it had done her much good. The stress of her abilities had rendered her catatonic, and Genevieve had languished in a hospital for disturbed sorcerers outside Felport until the Mason realized what they had tucked away in that unassuming little room at the Blackwing Institute. Finding Genevieve there was sort of like discovering a hydrogen bomb in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator.

“Stop playing, Crapsey.” The Mason didn’t turn around from her place in the passenger seat, didn’t move her head at all, but she’d obviously seen his little trick with the birds. “Don’t call attention to our presence.”

“Yeah, behave yourself, assbrain.” The Jeep’s driver did turn around, charms in her hair clattering together, and she gave him a nasty grin.

“Go fuck yourself, Nicolette, or I’ll take over your body and do the self-fucking for you.” The threat sounded a lot less threatening than he would have liked, emerging as it did in Genevieve’s vague and spacey-sounding voice.

He couldn’t follow through anyway. Nicolette was useful to the Mason, so she was untouchable, even though she annoyed him like nobody else. She was a chaos magician – lately she called herself the Chaotician-in-Chief for reasons known only to herself – and one of the only sorcerers from Felport to pledge fealty to the Mason and, thus, stay alive. She’d bought her way onto the team by garroting her boss, a prissy little sorcerer named Gregor, when he was holed up in his skyscraper fortress. You couldn’t say Nicolette had “proven her loyalty” because she had no more loyalty than a lightning storm or a snakebite, but she was part of the gang, like it or not. She was also crazier than a cultist of Xorgotthua. Shit, Crapsey had a prosthetic jaw because his original equipment had been ripped off, but Nicolette had amputated her left arm on purpose, and had that… replacement… grafted on willingly. She was bonzo nutso.

“There’s the house.” Nicolette stopped the Jeep about a hundred yards away.

“The queen of the obvious speaks again.” Crapsey squinted against the blaze of power radiating from within the decrepit structure before them. Where’s the damn off switch? He fumbled around in Genevieve’s brain until he found the equivalent of a psychic-vision dimmer switch, and the blaze of white light in the house faded to a sort of bioluminescence-level illumination.

“Are you ready, Crapsey?”

He glanced at the Mason, then quickly away. Being psychic sucked. Seeing what the cloak really looked like was not pleasant. Instead of a hooded purple garment on a woman’s back, Crapsey saw a many-eyed thing that looked like the three-way offspring of a lamprey, a vampire squid, and a manta ray, fangs sunk into flesh and pseudopods twined around the human body of its host: pure parasite. Crapsey hadn’t found a way to turn off that vision yet.

“No, I’m not ready. But I’ll do my best. I wish you’d taken over this body, if it’s got such awesome powers. You could use them better than me. I mean, you’re the cloak, right? So get a mind-slave to take you off Marla’s body and drape you over Genevieve’s shoulders instead. What’s the problem?”

“Impossible. Genevieve was catatonic. She had no will. She was useless as a host for me.”

Crapsey grunted. The Mason didn’t talk much about her limitations, but he’d gleaned a few things over the years. Unless the cloak was being worn by a human, it was largely inert, dormant, harmless. A human body – and apparently a human will – were necessary to let the cloak think and act and plan and commit horrendous acts of violence. But that human will was a problem, too, because humans could fight the cloak’s influence. The Mason and her host body had struggled mightily over the years, though the Mason had finally subjugated Marla completely. The Mason had once told him, “This whole universe is as hostile to my kind as the depths of the ocean or the void of space are to humans. And Marla Mason’s body… it’s my scuba gear. My spacesuit. A confinement necessary to my survival.”

“All right,” Crapsey said. “Tonight I’ll be playing the role of world-altering reweaver. I guess we should get a move on.”

“Letting you into that body is like giving a loaded gun to a cocker spaniel.” Nicolette smirked at him. “But at least it’ll be certain to add chaos to the world. Tasty, tasty chaos.” She slid out of the Jeep, and Crapsey and the Mason followed suit.

“Should we be sneaky, or flank, or –”

“Silence.” The Mason cut Crapsey off. “Desert spirit!” she shouted. “I am here. Come and face me.”

Nicolette lifted her human hand to her hair, ready to snatch one of the charms woven into her parti-colored braids. Her other hand – not that it was a hand, exactly – writhed and crackled with magics. Nicolette had replaced her left arm with a vat-grown squidlike tentacle about four feet long (the flesh was dark purple, she was such a suck-up) that terminated in a branching profusion of smaller tentacles, at least a dozen, covered in suckers that in turn contained rings of needle-like teeth. As far as Crapsey was concerned a physical alteration like that meant only one thing: Nicolette would never, ever have a consensual sex partner again, because she was totally over-the-top gross.

Not as gross as the thing that came scuttling out of the house, though. Crapsey’s borrowed eyes couldn’t reconcile what he saw emerging from the front door: it was pretty clearly a giant scorpion, easily the size of a dump trunk, crawling toward them rapidly despite having at least two broken legs leaking fluid and dragging in the dirt, its tail a curled question-mark dripping poison that spattered and hissed and boiled on the sand, its eyes a profusion of black-glass hemispheres, its mouth a complex writhing system of mandibles oozing nasty digestive enzymes –

But at the same time it was a little old stick-thin lady, gray hair in a bun, wearing a faded prairie dress, and where she stepped on the sand yellow flowers bloomed for just an instant before withering and turning to dust. Crapsey chose to focus on the old-lady aspect, which was as easy as changing the focus in his eyes, like he was trying to look at something up close instead of something far away. The scorpion was way more disturbing to look at, and since it was obviously way too large physically to actually pass through the perfectly normal human-sized doorway it had passed through, he figured it was more a metaphorical type thing, or an unrealized immanence, or something. He couldn’t quite unsee it, though. The scorpion shape hovered around the old lady like an oversized shadow.

“Why have you come to my domain?” the woman – or the scorpion – or both – said, in a voice that had the tone of a whisper but the volume of a public address system.

“Because it’s my domain,” the Mason said. “Everything is mine, because no other creature in this universe is qualified to have dominion.”

“You wish to erase all life.” The woman shook her head, an expression on her face like that of a mother disappointed in her child. “But I am a spirit of life – of tenacious, poisonous, clever life. Life in the barren spaces, the dangerous places, the inhospitable lands. I am the spirit of rattlensakes and trapdoor spiders. Of worms in vents of lava far beneath the sea. Of jellyfish and crustaceans swimming beneath ice caps. I teem with multitudes. You will find life is not so easy to destroy.”

“Oh, I don’t want to eradicate all life,” the Mason said. “Just all unworthy life. And since only my kind are worthy, and since I am the only one of my kind stuck in this horrible inhospitable universe, then I am the only one worthy of life. Though I tolerate the existence of a few others who prove useful to me.” She smiled at Crapsey and Nicolette in what she probably thought was a pleasant way. “I’ve come to kill you, though.”

“How do you hope to kill an incarnation of life?” she said, head cocked, by all appearances genuinely curious. “I sense your strengths, and they are profound, but they are not the equal of me.”

“Crapsey?” the Mason said, and that was it, he was on deck.

He closed his eyes and let Genevieve’s multidimensional origami-folded senses open up, tasting the shape of the scorpion spirit before them, trying to find its weaknesses and understand its nature so that he might twist reality to conjure a refutation for the spirit’s very existence. He let Genevieve’s power flow lightly through him, not attempting to consciously shape its effects, because trying to control this power was like trying to steer an avalanche: the best you could hope to do was ride the collapsing probabilities all the way to the bottom without getting buried.

Something clicked, or blossomed, or inflated, or… there was no real physical-sensory cognate for the mental sensation he experienced. But Crapsey knew he’d used Genevieve’s powers to do something.

“Who the fuck is that?” Nicolette said. “This place is awfully crowded for the middle of nowhere.”

Crapsey opened his eyes and saw a figure approaching across the desert, just beyond the house. It was human-shaped, though in the darkness it was difficult to tell more, except… was it wearing a cowboy hat? Crapsey let Genevieve’s profounder vision come online, and looked again… and whimpered.

Where the scorpion god was a shining beacon of brightness, the cowboy striding toward them was a darkness deeper than dark, the black of the moment after the last star winks out, the blackness of a tar pit at the center of a black hole, the cold and empty darkness of the death of heat. Crapsey realized the cowboy wasn’t very close to them at all. He was still quite far away… but he was very, very large.

“What have you summoned here?” the scorpion god whispered, shivering. “Why is it so cold?”

The cowboy walking toward them – now taller than the house, and how big was he, really, and how far away? – had a long shadow stretching before him despite the absence of a light source, and that shadow was a hint of the darkness that was his essence. His face was a swarm of shadows underneath his battered no-color hat, and he wore pistols at his belt, slung low on his hips. This was no sheriff, no marshal – this was a murderer, a bushwhacker, an outlaw. The personification of the deadly aspects of the desert, of ice, of lava; a conjured god of wildfire, mudslides, and earthquakes.

When the outlaw stopped beside them, it stood so tall that Crapsey’s head didn’t even come to the top of its dusty snakeskin boots. “Hello, little bug,” it said, in a dry rattling voice that emerged from the clot of shadows it wore for a face, far overhead.

“You mustn’t –” the scorpion spirit began, but the outlaw lifted one cabin-sized foot and brought its heel down on top of the old woman, and ground the heel into the dirt, leaving nothing but a hideous smear on the sand.

“She’s dead.” Nicolette stared at the fluids oozing from beneath the outlaw’s boot. “She – it – it’s really dead. Crapsey, you did it.”

“Get rid of that thing.” The Mason gestured at the outlaw. “I can tell it doesn’t much like us drawing breath, either.”

Crapsey wasn’t sure he knew how to get rid of it, but there was a definite strain in his mind from pinching off this bit of reality and tearing this other bit open, so he just… stopped making the effort, and the towering giant vanished, leaving only the flattened remains of the woman the scorpion spirit had inhabited. Crapsey swayed a little, woozy, like he’d hiked to a higher elevation and wasn’t getting enough oxygen, and he was more than a little intimidated by the sheer power Genevieve’s body possessed. He glanced at the Mason thoughtfully. Tired or not, he could taste her shape – the shape of the monstrous thing that looked like a cloak – and summon its refutation, too. Did he dare try such a thing? What if he failed? What horrors would she unleash on him if he attempted to destroy her and failed? He –

“I know that look in your eye,” the Mason said. “It certainly took you long enough to make the connection. Now, Nicolette.”

“What?” Crapsey said, but Nicolette had a tiny yellow bead in the palm of her hand, and she flicked it hard with her finger, making the bead fly and bounce off his forehead and then –

The lights went out.

When Crapsey woke he was back in his own body in his little corner of the Felport warehouse the Mason called home, which freaked him out, because he didn’t remember moving, and it wasn’t like anyone else could move him, at least, not from body to body. “What – how –”

The Mason was sitting on a sea chest, looking at him with her customary lack of affect. “I took Genevieve’s body and your body to a sealed room far away from anyone else and cut Genevieve’s throat. You jumped back into your old body by instinct. Of course, no other hosts were available, since you can’t take my body.”

“Right.” Crapsey’s head pounded. He needed a drink of water. He swung his legs off his small bed and groaned. “But why’d you kill her? Why not keep her body on ice so we could use her power in the future?”

“You realized the potential, Crapsey. That you might be stronger than me, in that body. I couldn’t have that. You’re loyal to me, I know, but only because the consequences of disloyalty are too great. You could never be allowed in Genevieve’s body again. She was a useful resource, but the possible rewards didn’t outweigh the possible risks. I could have performed a ritual to swap some other sorcerer’s consciousness into her body, true, but come, Crapsey – you know I don’t trust any of my other lieutenants.”

“You don’t trust me, either.”

“Oh, but I do trust you. I trust you to obey me absolutely, enjoying yourself as much as possible in the meantime, until the moment you think you can kill me without repercussions.” The Mason shrugged. “It’s more trust than I give anyone else in the world. Fortunately, I am extremely hard to kill, so I expect you to be loyal to me for a long time. That’s why you’re my only friend – because we truly understand each other.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said, and the feeling that he’d let a chance at escape slip away was like the moment you realize summer is over and winter is swiftly headed your way.


The Mason pointed to the house, which looked even more run-down in the daylight. Crapsey sighed and climbed out of the cab, not sure what he was supposed to do, exactly. Even if the scorpion thing was around in this universe, his only offensive capabilities were a butterfly knife and his natural and inexplicable ability to curse in a primal incantatory tongue that unleashed little geysers of chaos, but a few spurts of flame or spontaneous sinkholes wouldn’t help him here.

A little old lady – the little old lady – appeared in the doorway, shading her eyes from the sun. “Can I help you?” she called. “Are you lost?”

“Uh,” Crapsey said. “Yeah, lost. What is this place?” He came a little closer, squinting, trying to get a sense of whether there was anything supernatural-ish about her. As far as he could tell, she was just human, but he was no expert, and without Genevieve’s senses, he didn’t have any special insight.

The woman chuckled. “It used to be the edge of a little mining town called Tolerance, but there’s precious little town left. Only a handful of us stayed, and sometimes I wonder why I did.”

“Huh. So you don’t stay because of your devotion to a desert spirit that appears in the form of an enormous scorpion then?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Boss,” Crapsey said, turning back to the now-dusty Humvee, where the Mason still sat. “This is a waste of time. She’s not, I don’t know, inhabited at the moment. I guess we aren’t enough of a threat yet to call the attention of the big scorpion god. So why don’t we –”

“Kill her,” the Mason said.

“What?” the woman squawked, taking a step back.

Crapsey sighed and started to sit down, preparing himself for yet another possession.

“No, not that way,” the Mason said. “Use your knife.”

Swearing softly, Crapsey took the blade from his jacket pocket. His suit already reeked from all the travel, and now he was going to get blood stains on it, there was just no way around it, this was bound to be messy. “I’m sorry, lady. I mean, this sucks, and I don’t want to do it, but your mirror-universe doppelganger made a bad enemy, so here we are.”

The woman ran into the house, and Crapsey swore again, loudly this time, because now, damn it, he had to chase her.

After he was done, and he’d climbed back into the Humvee and slumped against the passenger side door, the Mason reached over and patted his knee. “Good boy,” she said, and started the car.

Chapter 10

“You can feel it, can’t you?” Beta-B’s eyes were half closed, his hands extended, caressing the air tentatively, like a teenaged boy feeling up his very first girlfriend for the very first time.

All Rondeau felt was the willies, the screaming-meemies, and horripilation. A sense of wrongness and weirdness and emptiness and gaping holes. He glanced at Marla, but she just shrugged and crossed her arms. “Not me, guys. I’m about as psychic as your average fire hydrant.”

“Close your eyes, Rondeau,” Beta-B said. “Shutting out the other senses helps, sometimes. If I can feel this, I know you can, too.”

Rondeau obediently closed his eyes and held out his hands, and… there was something, an analogue to touch but not quite touch. The air before him felt… ragged and lumpy, like a rip in a piece of slippery cloth, hastily stitched together with entirely the wrong thread. Only it wasn’t the air. It was…

“When people talk about the fabric of reality,” he said carefully, “how much of a metaphor is that?”

“My power – our power – is largely about making metaphors come true,” Beta-B said. “What I feel, what I think you feel, is a sort of membrane, separating this place from… some other place. And, clearly, it was ripped open recently, and then sewn back up, only not very well. Now, do I think the possible witch literally took a needle and thread and sewed up the fabric of reality? No. But I think she used her power, and yours, to rip an opening that led to my world, and that when she was done, she tried to close it again, and did a half-assed job. Now she’s off to parts unknown, so we won’t have her help in tearing open that hole again… but this time, there are two of us with big psychic mojo, and we’ve already got a seam to rip. What do you think, Rondeau? I’ll grab one edge of the seam, and you grab the other, and we’ll just pull that mofo apart?”

“I guess that’s the thing to do.” Rondeau opened his eyes. He could still sense the ragged space in reality hanging before him – once felt, it couldn’t be unfelt.

Marla cleared her throat. “How sure are you two that this hole you’re about to tear open in space-time actually leads to Beta-B’s world? How do you know it’s not a trap the possible witch left for us, a portal to some nightmarish hell dimension of electrified lava and demons with chainsaws for genitals?”

“We don’t know.” Beta-B tapped his temple. “I’ve got some pretty badass extrasensory business going on up here, but I can’t look wherever this hole leads. You can’t see there from over here. The only way in is through.”

“That’s reassuring,” Marla said.

“Do you want to leave? I have to do this – I need to get back to my world, and my people – but you don’t have to be here.”

Marla laughed. “Beta Boy, if you think I won’t jump through that hole with both feet, you really don’t know me. I only wanted to know if I should have my knife in my hand when we go through.”

“Probably a good idea anyway. I’m not sure where we’ll come out – back where I got snatched from, I hope – but if it drops us in my version of Alcatraz…” He shook his head. “That’s a place we might have to fight our way out of. The Jaguar has something locked up there, nobody’s sure what, but he has his scariest lieutenant guarding the place.”

“Let’s hope for Alcatraz, then. I haven’t had a fight in hours.”

Beta-B snorted. “Okay. Rondeau, you ready?”

“Sure, but, uh… what do we do?”

“Reach out with your hands if you want to. Sometimes grounding the psychic act in a physical act helps externalize the metaphor, makes it easier – makes it seem less impossible, anyway. So find the edge of the tear, and just… grab.”

“You must have a good teacher, Beta-B,” Marla said. “Who is it?” She was pretty sure she knew, probably ninety percent, but this new B was cute when he played coy, just like the old one had been.

“You’ll meet him, unless we end up in that chainsaw-cock hell dimension you mentioned.” Beta-B gave her a lopsided grin. “And I bet you’ll shit yourself when you find out who my teacher is. Rondeau, on the count of three, yank as hard as you can. One – Two – ”

On “three,” Rondeau closed his eyes again – it was too distracting watching his hands touch nothing, even as he felt something – and gripped the ragged edge of the air, slipping his fingers through the gaps in the ugly stitching. His fingertips instantly went numb with cold, and he grunted, then pulled, leaning his weight into it… but not, he realized his physical weight. His body hadn’t moved at all. His mind had, though, and that familiar headache of psychic strain bloomed like a black flower behind his eyes.

“Harder!” Beta-B shouted, and Rondeau grunted, sweat popping out on his forehead, the pain now joined by strobing lights on the insides of his eyelids, but the rip was moving, just a little, and –

Space-time tore open all at once, and Rondeau stumbled backwards and fell, rolling over onto his side and catching himself just on the edge of a hole in the floor. He scrambled up, backing away from the gap in the boards. Sure, he was about to climb through a hole that led to who-knows-for-sure-where, but that was better than falling into the void.

He turned and saw Marla and Beta-B gazing at the air. “I see that, psychic or not,” Marla said, and Rondeau nodded.

He and Beta-B had ripped a seven-foot-high, two-foot-wide slit in the air itself, the edges fluttering raggedly, and inside was darkness shot by lightning, but this was kaleidoscope lightning, bolts of raw scarlet, imperial purple, gem-toned yellow, bile-green.

“Before we jump in,” Marla said, “I’ve got one little question. How do we close it after ourselves?”

Beta-B shrugged. “We don’t. I don’t know where we’d begin to try. Let’s just hope the membrane between worlds is less fabric and more skin – that the tear will heal naturally, like a knife wound.”

“Could leave a scar,” Marla said.

“Should’ve thought about that before you violated several universal laws and kidnapped me from my world, huh? You go first, Marla. I don’t know if Rondeau feels the strain, but me, I can tell I’m holding this thing open wide enough for people to pass through, and if we go first, it might snap shut before you can join us.”

Marla nodded, adjusted the strap on her leather shoulder bag, and stepped into the tear as casually as if she were walking through a door in her own apartment.

“So tell me,” Beta-B said, once she’d vanished. “Do you trust her?”

Rondeau nodded, without hesitation, though the movement made his headache surge back. “Marla’s trustworthy. She does what she says she’ll do. Sometimes she says she’ll do things you wish she wouldn’t, but she comes through.”

Beta-B shook his head impatiently, strain showing on his face. “I don’t mean does she keep her word, I mean, do you think she’s likely to put on her cloak and turn evil and murder all my friends?”

“Um. Likely? No. Not at all.”

“That’ll have to be good enough. I really need to get that dream I had about her interpreted… Anyway. After you, my brother from another version of my mother.”

Rondeau looked into the strobing darkness, said, “Fuck it, then,” and stepped inside, and fell.


Marla landed badly, rolling over her right shoulder onto a hard floor, with only a handy wall stopping her momentum. She’d stepped forward through the portal, but she’d fallen down – a nasty little spatial twist on the way to the universe next door. A look around as she got to her feet revealed nothing threatening or even particularly interesting – a room about twelve feet square, concrete floor and walls, space empty but for a few crates shoved in a haphazard pile into one corner, a single door leading out, and cobwebs in the corners. She crept to the open doorway and peered into the corridor outside. A narrow hallway, decorated with faded graffiti and lit intermittently by dangling bulbs hung inexpertly on drooping wires overhead, with no discernible doorways or branching corridors in either direction. Marla couldn’t be sure, but she had the sense this place was underground – something about the pressure in her ears, maybe, or else a simple sorcerous sense.

She turned after hearing a thump behind her, and Rondeau said, “Ow” and sat up rubbing the side of his face. Beta-B appeared from nowhere at all, about three feet above the ground, and fell straight down to land on top of Rondeau. The two struggled a bit, entangled, while Marla looked on tolerantly. “When you two are done making out? We should figure out where we are. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore, but I also don’t think we’re in Alcatraz.”

“No, we’re not.” Beta-B grinned, rising to his feet. “We’re in my home sweet stinky home. Marla, Rondeau – welcome to Camp Kimke.”

Rondeau adjusted his jacket, which didn’t make it look any better, really. “Tell me that’s more like a summer camp and less like, I don’t know, a forced labor camp.”

“What’s a kimke?” Marla said.

Beta-B shrugged. “Somebody told me it’s an old German dialect word that means ‘wooden bucket.’ But Camp Kimke is just what my mentor calls our little kingdom under the streets, I don’t know why. Though, come to think of it, we do piss in buckets. Come on, I want you to meet the rest of the revolutionary army of the benevolent Free State of Northern California. We’re the government in exile. Insofar as living in storm drains and steam tunnels and Prohibition-era smuggling routes and defunct underground train lines and forgotten basements counts as exile. Our main base of operations, though, is an abandoned underground military bunker, probably built during some world war. We never would have found the place, but one of our group was a member of the San Francisco Suicide Club back in the day – those guys were crazy, they climbed the Golden Gate Bridge to have a picnic, rode trolley cars naked, all kinds of wild shit – and the club knew all about this bunker, had explored it thoroughly. Apparently the possible witch knows the way here, too, because… we’re there.” He poked Rondeau in the belly. “Good thing we got poofed here instead of having to squeeze our way in through the entrance up above, because the opening’s narrow as hell, pudgykins.”

“So you live like rats in a rathole,” Marla said. “No offense. I like rats. They’re survivors.”

Beta-B shrugged. “I was never into urban exploration myself, but I could see the appeal of discovering forgotten parts of the city, places most people don’t know about. But, yeah – not the place I’d choose to live. We’ve spruced it up a little, brought in generators, hung some lights… but when you come down to it, it’s still just a bunch of concrete boxes. Well-hidden and defended, though, magically and otherwise. And we’ll get to leave soon enough – once we take out the Jaguar.”

“And when do I get to hear the plan of attack, anyway?” Marla said.

“That’s up to the leader of the resistance,” Beta-B said. “So let’s go meet him.” He set off down the concrete corridor, and Marla and Rondeau followed. The passageway curved sharply a couple of times before dead-ending in an impressive solid steel door with a yard-long bar of rusty metal leaning against it. “That’s our door knocker,” Beta-B said. “The door’s so thickly reinforced you can’t hear through it unless you really whack away, metal on metal. Care to do the honors, Rondeau?”

“Sure.” Rondeau reached to lift the bar, but it didn’t budge, and he grunted, grabbed it with both hands, and pulled, leaning his whole body into it, but with no effect.

“Don’t give yourself a hernia,” Marla said. “It’s enchanted or something. Right?”

“Right.” Beta-B grinned and picked up the bar one-handed. “Only legitimate denizens of Camp Kimke can lift this, so no bad guys at our door can whack us over the head with it. One of our little security details.”

Marla snorted. “Security theater, anyway.”

Beta-B frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s pretty dumb. Making a piece of metal too heavy to lift? So what? You think some enemy force is going to make it all the way here to your hidden inner sanctum and then realize, oops, they forgot to bring a weapon, so they’ll pick up this length of rebar? Of course not. They’ll come crackling with charms and lashing sorceries. The big metal door is impressive-looking, but it’s pointless too – it won’t keep out a sorcerer, and who else is going to try to break in, morlock burglars? C.H.U.D.s? This… It’s a defense against a threat that doesn’t exist, the kind of thing people do so it looks like they’re doing something. Do you have anybody in your little camp who actually knows about security?”

Beta-B scowled. “We do all right.”

Marla shrugged. “The Jaguar hasn’t killed you all yet, so I’m prepared to believe it, but I’m not seeing any proof so far. And don’t get all huffy and offended. I wouldn’t be pissed if you told me I was a lousy actor – that’s your area of expertise, not mine. So don’t get mad when I say your security, so far as I’ve seen it, sucks. That’s my gig.”

Beta-B nodded, slowly. “All right. Point taken. Maybe the boss man will take your advice.” He pounded on the door, sending a ringing clang rebounding up and down the corridor.

See, we could have taken you hostage and forced you to knock, and how does your system guard against that? Marla thought, but she didn’t say it, because she was still trying to convince Beta-B that she should be one of his favorite people in the world.

The door cracked open, and a pretty female Asian face appeared in the doorway. “Yasuko,” Beta-B said. “The bird of paradise has landed. Want to let us in?”

The face vanished, and a moment later the massive door swung outward, revealing a vast concrete cavern dotted with cots, couches, salvaged car seats, long wooden work tables, big metal drums, and heaps of miscellaneous junk. A few freestanding partitions tried to divide the space in some meaningful way, but it was a hopeless task in such a hangarlike room. There were ten or twelve people milling around, all sorcerers, probably, since half of them were dressed outlandishly and half of them looked like their minds were very far away. “Let me introduce you around,” Beta-B said. “This is Yasuko Shoji, she’s in charge of materiel – anything we need, she gets.”

“By any means necessary,” Yasuko said. “Who are your friends, B? We were getting worried about you.”

“This is, ah –” He paused, and Marla realized he didn’t want to introduce her by name, since it wasn’t a very well-liked name in these parts; it would lead to too many questions right away.

“I’m Jenny,” she said, “Jenny Click.” Jenny was the name of an apprentice Marla had trained with under her mentor Artie Mann, though the girl had burned out – literally, as she was a pyromancer and had immolated herself – when the pressure became too great. On the rare occasions when Marla needed an alias, she tended to default to that one. “And this is Ronnie, who would be my bodyguard, except I’m more dangerous than he is.”

“I’m more a lover than an anything else.” Rondeau offered Yasuko one of his more endearing grins.

“Charmed.” She looked a question at Beta-B.

“Sorcerers from back East. They need to meet with the boss.”

“He’s out right now,” Yasuko said. “Checking the, ah… you know. But in the meantime, show them around, hit the galley and see if Pie Bob has anything ready to eat.”

“Nah, I’m stuffed,” Beta-B said. “Just ate the best meal I’ve had in years, and you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

Yasuko gave him a funny look, shrugged, and wandered off to her own business.

“Come on, meet the gang.” Beta-B led them around, introducing them to his fellow sorcerers: a pair of teenaged cousins, Ryan Rapoport and Joshua Singer, who looked so similar they might have been twins, and who formed a perfect duo of chaos magic and order-sorcery; broody tall Talion, who had enough silver jewelry in his face to kill a dozen werewolves, which had coincidentally been his specialty when he was traveling in Europe (they lost Rondeau there – he apparently saw Talion as a target worthy of his flirtations, and stayed to try his hand); the aforementioned Pie Bob, a scruffy woman in her forties, dressed in a stained chef’s coat, wielding a wooden spoon like a magic wand or possibly a police baton; a leather daddy bruiser type named Jericho with a handshake that could have crushed walnuts; and more.

Marla smiled and nodded and tried to look dangerous and useful. She was never good at names, just assessments, and what she assessed here was a motley crew, a bunch of second- and third-string sorcerers, lieutenants at most, now pressed into positions of greater responsibility. Which made sense. In her world, when Mutex decided to raise a god, he’d murdered the most powerful sorcerers in San Francisco, cutting out their hearts for blood to fuel his ritual, and killing off the best and brightest magic-users in the city. Presumably he’d done the same thing here, even if he was planning to raise a Jaguar instead of a Toad. These sorcerers were the only ones left.

“The boss isn’t around,” Beta-B was saying, “but you can meet our second in command, he’s a great guy.” He led them around a partition, where a man stood at a counter crushing herbs with a mortar and pestle. Even with his back turned to them, Marla recognized him instantly, and her heart did something that was the opposite of breaking.

“This is –” Beta-B began.

“Lao Tsung,” Marla said.

Hearing his name, the man – who’d taught Marla everything worthwhile she knew about fighting, who’d been one of her truest friends when she was a lowly apprentice, and whom she’d seen dead, murdered by Mutex, on her last trip to San Francisco, in another world – turned around, revealing that same half-amused expression, dark eyes, black hair in a ponytail, nasty hand-rolled cigarette dangling unlit from the corner of his mouth.

And then her unbroken heart broke all over again, because he said, “Do I know you, lady?”

Which meant her timeline had diverged from this one at some point before she met Lao. One of her dearest departed friends returned to life, but she was a stranger to him. It was a bitch of a miracle. Though even in her disappointment – hell, be honest, call it grief, or re-grief – she saw the tactical advantage: the Mason hadn’t been trained by Lao Tsung, which meant, by definition, she would not be Marla’s match as a hand-to-hand combatant. Their conflict was unlikely to ever come to mere fisticuffs, but it was nice to know that, if it did, Marla would have the edge.

“This is Jenny Click,” Beta-B said.

“The fuck it is,” Lao Tsung said. “I know Jenny Click, I trained her, and this is no Jenny Click.”

“Uh, well, the thing is,” Marla began, but she didn’t get any farther, because Lao’s eyes widened – just a fraction, but she knew him well, and knew his few and far-between tells. She ducked and spun, sparing her skull, but the blow from behind still hit her shoulder hard enough to make her arm go numb.

Beta-B was armed with a sawed-off broom handle, crackling blue with who-knew-what kind of magics, and he cocked back for another swing. Beyond him, Marla saw Rondeau in a heap on the ground, surrounded by Jericho and Talion and Pie Bob. A spell bubbled to her lips, a nasty one she’d been saving that could take a man apart like a swarm of hide beetles devouring a carcass down to the skeleton. But this was B, and in the fraction of a second before she could choose a more non-lethal attack, Lao Tsung got his arm around her throat from behind and began choking her out.

She didn’t even bother to fight him. Whether she could take him in a real fight – not just sparring – was an open question, one she’d pondered often, but this wasn’t just Lao, it was also Beta-B and the rest of his merry band. Lao was doing a blood choke, not an air choke, so the goal was to make her unconscious, not to kill her or cause her pain, and going gently was better than getting whacked over the head by Beta-B’s glowing blue stick, which she figured was Plan B if she bested Lao Tsung. She’d have to assume they didn’t want her dead, or they’d have tried to kill her already, and she mostly wondered what the betrayal was all about, what she’d overlooked or misunderstood or screwed up, but…

Her thoughts dissolved into a reddish-black buzz, and she was soon engulfed by the dreamless absence of consciousness that was the closest she ever really came to peace.

Chapter 11

The Mason didn’t sleep; the Mason drove. And since going right the hell across the country from the west coast to the east was, for most of the trip, a matter of following one endless freeway through predominantly flat land, there was not a lot to keep Crapsey’s magpie brain interested. The Humvee had big back seats perfect for napping, and he slept a lot, but he didn’t want to sleep too much in case the Mason got annoyed and started vaporizing 18-wheelers and hitchhikers. Insofar as the woman in the cloak was tethered to non-murderous standards of behavior at all, Crapsey was her tether, and without his moderating influence she could get even colder and nastier than usual.

So he sat in the passenger seat, pointing out funny billboards, suggesting an epic side trip to Wall Drug in South Dakota, urging her to stop so he could see various improbable-sounding roadside attractions, and generally trying to make the best of a bad and boring situation. The Mason was even more relentlessly-focused than usual, but at least she didn’t pause to murder any more cross-universe doppelgangers of her old enemies, maybe because they didn’t pass close enough to any of them to trigger her personal proximity alarms.

They drove through desert, and fallow fields, and stands of trees, but mostly they drove through the endless repetitive ecosystem of the Interstate, long stretches of nothing much punctuated by clusters of gas stations and motels and fast-food joints nestled close to the length of the highway like parasites clinging to the body of their host.

Crapsey never actually got tired of drive-through cheeseburgers and french fries – given the way he usually ate, it would take awhile for the novelty of fast food to wear off – but he did get sick of the near-constant confinement in the car, broken only when the Mason consented to pull off to the side of the road long enough for him to piss in a ditch or crap in a rest stop toilet. The only thing resembling a diversion was a lonely gas station they robbed when Susan’s money ran out, but that was a clean, simple bodysnatch-and-drop, hardly more interesting than shaving or changing your socks.

Two days on the road didn’t seem like a long time in theory, but when you spent those two days mostly non-stop driving in a Humvee with no company but the Mason and not a single moment’s privacy and no chance to freshen up other than splashing water on yourself in the sink of a public bathroom, it felt like a long time. Smelled like one, too – the inside of the Hummer was ripe, though Crapsey realized the smell was mostly his own fault. The Mason didn’t seem to sweat much, and while she didn’t eat any better than him on the journey, she didn’t eat as much, so the constant diet of road food didn’t play havoc with her digestive system as much as it did with Crapsey’s; in other words, she didn’t fart nearly as much or as vilely.

When they saw a sign reading “Felport: 200 Miles” – they’d left their old friend Interstate 90 by then, swinging onto a state highway that angled toward the city – Crapsey decided he should get his strength up, and he crawled into the back seat to nap. It seemed like seconds later when the Mason reached back and pinched him viciously on the arm to wake him.

He groaned. “Are we there yet?”

“Annemberg,” she said.

Annemberg. A little one-stoplight town about an hour outside Felport, totally unremarkable except for one thing: it was the secret home of the Blackwing Institute, the place where – in their world, anyway – insane sorcerers were tucked away to keep them out of trouble. The inmates included a handful of dangerous, criminally insane types who were simply too powerful to be executed, and a few others who’d had their brains addled by magic or trauma and posed a danger to themselves and others and the fabric of reality, even though they didn’t necessarily mean any harm.

The Mason had taken over the Institute back home, but she hadn’t changed its essential function: it was still a prison where people too difficult to kill but too dangerous to be set free were warehoused until she found a use for them – or effective means of murdering them. “So what are we doing here?”

“Genevieve Kelley. Her powers could be useful when we meet Marla, assuming Genevieve is institutionalized in this universe as well.”

“Ahhh,” Crapsey said. “But you were pretty clear about that. I thought I wasn’t ever allowed to wear her body again, because you were afraid I’d go all Brutus-vs.-Caesar and try to kill you?”

She turned her terrible face on him, her lack of expression an expression in itself. “Will you?”

Crapsey shrugged. “I’d hate to see what might happen if I tried and failed.”

“Stupid Crapsey. You should worry about what would happen if you succeeded. I implanted a few enchanted beads, courtesy of Nicolette, inside your favorite body there years ago, when you were off in another host. Charms that will destroy that body utterly, beyond reconstruction, if my body should ever die. I believe it’s called a ‘dead man’s switch.'”

Crapsey began groping himself all over, but didn’t encounter any lumps or nodules. “Charms? For real? You messed with my body? That’s cold, boss.”

She shrugged. “You have an unreasonable attachment to that carcass. I thought it was worth exploiting.”

“Yeah, okay, but a deterrent like that only works if I know about it, so I can work up a good head of fear-steam.”

“I do not worry about death by your hand on a regular basis, Crapsey. You are usually harmless. I chose to hold the possibility of your bodily annihilation in reserve until the threat was necessary. That moment has come.”

“Still,” Crapsey said, “give me Genevieve and I could take you out, or try, anyway. I won’t, I mean, I love my body, and basically I’m kind of a coward, but it’s a hell of a risk, isn’t it? You must be really worried about what’ll happen when you face Marla. Like, piss-your-panties afraid.”

The Mason was quiet – terrifyingly so – for a long moment. Then she said, “Shut your mouth, you piece of shit, and do as you’re told.”

Score one for Crapsey, he thought. “Okay, let’s make up and be friends, kissy-face, whatever. So what do we do? Just, like, storm the castle and open cell doors until we find the right one?”

“You know I favor the direct approach.” She guided the Humvee off-road, seemingly into a field, but they passed through a shimmer of illusion and found themselves on a long driveway leading to the slightly run-down, once-stately mansion that housed the Institute.

They parked in the horseshoe drive and got out of the Humvee, Crapsey stretching and working out the kinks in his neck and spine and assorted joints with audible crackles and pops. “After you kill everybody, or whatever, can I take a shower, you think?”

“Your odor is offensive. I insist you wash.” The Mason knocked on the imposing oak doors, rather then merely kicking them to splinters, which suggested she was going to try and take a soft approach. Soft, for her, meant merely granite-hard instead of diamond-hard, but it was something.

The door opened, and a curiously blank-faced, doughy man dressed in green scrubs peered out at them. Oh, right – the place was staffed by homunculi, artificial beings in the shape of humans but with no more inner lives or motivations than inflatable sex dolls.

Crapsey wondered how many of them there were – he couldn’t jump into their bodies, since they weren’t human, which always made him feel oddly powerless. Sure, he had a butterfly knife, but that was messy, and he was still annoyed about having to murder that old woman in the desert so recently. Throwing souls out of the nest was a lot easier.

“Tell your boss Marla Mason is here,” the Mason snapped.

The creature nodded and said, “You will wait.”

“I think I’ll wait inside, worm-eater,” the Mason said. The homunculus didn’t answer or otherwise react, just started to close the door, and the Mason jammed one of her steel-capped workboots in-between the door and the frame. She didn’t want to risk being shut out, Crapsey figured; Blackwing could be a hell of a fortress if the security measures got activated. Kind of spoiled the soft entrance, but that’s the way it goes. The homunculus leaned all his weight into closing the door despite the Mason’s inconvenient foot, its expression blank as a bowl of vanilla pudding, and the Mason got annoyed and reached out to grab the creature’s face with a clawed hand sparking purple light.

Crapsey hadn’t seen a whole lot of movies – he was more a comic book man – but he’d seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there was a bit at the end where a Nazi’s face melted off his skull, and that was pretty much what happened here, except the homunculus’s flesh ran more like candle wax, and there was no real skull underneath, just a blank bulb of bone that looked like the featureless mannequin heads used to display wigs.

Getting de-faced didn’t seem to bother the homunculus any, as he kept right on pushing the door, so the Mason pulled his arm off – it made a pop not unlike a champagne bottle opening – and beat him back from the door with his own limb. The whole thing would have been farcical if it hadn’t been so horrible.

The Mason kicked the man-thing aside and pushed the door open. “Yoo hoo,” she called. “Are visiting hours over yet?” She stepped inside, and Crapsey followed, entering a dark-wood-paneled foyer that held precious little besides a low table and bowl of wax fruit (there was a dagger sticking up out of the apple; that was kind of weird).

A woman appeared at the far end of the entryway, and Crapsey’s heart went pitter-pat. He’d never met Dr. Leda Husch, head of the Institute, back in his world – she’d holed up in the Institute when the Mason first took over Felport, and put up a good fight for a while, but eventually the Mason had breached the walls. She hadn’t captured Husch, though – the good doctor had fled into the hills to join a few other sorcerers in the east coast resistance. Those guys were still around, technically, though they weren’t much of a threat. When the Mason got bored, she went out and hunted resistance fighters the way some people go shoot rats at the dump.

Crapsey was glad he’d never seen Dr. Husch before, because he probably would have done something stupid like pledge his life to defend her. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, though she was that – Helen of Troy beautiful, classical statue beautiful, Emma Frost in a white corset beautiful, the kind of woman who necessitated the invention of painting – it was the fact that her beauty was somehow perfectly calibrated to trip all Crapsey’s switches and levers. If asked, he’d have said he liked girls with lots of piercings and tattoos, so slender their hipbones and ribs showed, though big fake boobs were acceptable additions to the standard template. And yet it turned out his ultimate heart’s delight was platinum blonde hair in a tight bun and va-voom curves barely contained in a severe dark blue suit-with-skirt.

“Leda,” the Mason said, and prodded the dismembered homunculus at her feet. “One of your wind-up toys got a little out of control. Did you accidentally program him to be a homicidal maniac or something?”

“They malfunction occasionally when they aren’t fed properly, and, of course, we can never afford enough provisions, because your government doesn’t give me adequate funding – wait.” Dr. Husch frowned, her lips so red they invited trite but irresistible comparisons to apples and fire engines and hearth fires. “Marla, you look very strange.”

“Yeah, I know. Who says I’m not getting any younger?” The Mason grinned, and Crapsey almost took a step back, because the grin looked genuine – she was a better actor than he’d ever supposed. “It’s a spell, and if I’m not careful it’ll regress me right back to infancy. But I think you’ve got somebody here who can give me a hand, a patient named, what was it, Rondeau?”

Shit, that’s me. “Uh, Kelly something. No, Kelley’s the last name. Genevieve.”

“Right. She up to receiving visitors, doc?”

Dr. Husch nodded briskly. “I’m sure it can be arranged, if it’s necessary, and I trust you’ll keep my assistance in mind next time the council meets to discuss my funding.” She turned toward the door that led deeper into the Institute, then paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, I do have one question, Marla – how is a raven like a writing desk?”

The Mason hesitated, then said, slowly, “I know this one. There’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither.”

The air around them suddenly came alive with blue sparks, twisting like a net of electric lights, and Crapsey swore. He knew better than to reach out and touch the lights. He’d seen magical confinements before.

Dr. Husch approached the cage of lights slowly. “That’s one answer, yes, and good improvisation. But the proper response, in the code I established with Marla, is ‘Poe wrote on both.’ ”

The Mason snorted. “The proper answer is no answer at all. Lewis Carroll meant that riddle to be nonsense, without a solution, but you humans hate an untied bow, so you had to come up with answers anyway, silly word games. You got the riddle wrong, anyway – it should be why is a raven like a writing desk, not how. Typically sloppy.”

“Well, whatever you are, you’ve read Alice in Wonderland,” Dr. Husch said. “That makes you a literate monster. What are you, anyway? Bodysnatcher? Salt vampire? Doppelganger? Kitsune? Noppera-bō? Tanuki? Gods help us, a clone?”

“Maybe I’m a Skrull,” the Mason said, still grinning.

“Hey, nice comic book reference, boss. Bonus points.”

Dr. Husch circled the cage, peering in at Crapsey. “And you aren’t Rondeau, though you’re close – at least you aren’t fifteen years too young, you’re just too bulked-up and strong.”

“You like big and strong? Because for you I’d hit the gym six days a week, doc. I’d make it seven days a week, but I need at least one day devoted entirely to recovering from hangovers.”

“Fine,” Dr. Husch said. “I’ll let Marla sort this out. She hates leaving the city, but to face her imposter, I’m sure she’ll make the journey.”

The Mason leaned against the crackling cage, looking quite casual, and Husch’s eyes widened. Crapsey guessed that if he touched the cage he’d get zapped pretty hard, maybe knocked profoundly unconscious, but shit like that didn’t bother the Mason. She might be trapped, since this was probably a badass containment mechanism meant to stop the really nasty inmates from making it past the front door in case of escape, but pain and death magics tended to slide right off her. “If you don’t mind me asking,” the Mason said, “what gave me away? The riddle, I know, but what made you test me? I thought I was doing well.”

“I knew something was wrong the moment you dismembered my orderly,” Husch said blandly. “But you asked after Genevieve Kelley, and she’s been discharged – Marla was instrumental in her recovery, in fact. You should have done a bit more research.”

“Well that’s a wasted trip, then,” Crapsey said. Now he wouldn’t get to possess Genevieve, so he wouldn’t have to decide whether or not to try and eradicate the Mason, which was ultimately kind of a relief.

“Not necessarily,” the Mason said. “This building is full of useful people, things, and ideas. And it’s always pleasurable to kill an enemy who’s escaped you once.”

Crapsey winced. He didn’t want to see the doctor die. And if her death was inevitable, he didn’t want to see her get cut up. She was too pretty. “Should I, ah, you know… commandeer the vessel?” Taking over Doctor Husch’s body would get them out of this cage, and probably make it a breeze to get in to see the other patients, and who knows, maybe he’d have time to find a full-length mirror and a Polaroid camera, get some nude snapshot mementos.

The Mason shook her head. “Wouldn’t work, Crapsey. Appearances aside, Dr. Husch isn’t human. Just a homunculus with delusions of grandeur and a couple of advanced degrees. Her creator shouldn’t have bothered giving her a brain, since I’m just going to stick a knife blade in her eye and wiggle it around.”

Dr. Husch snorted. “Threaten me all you like, please. I look after Norma Nilson and Gustavus Lupo for a living. I’ve been threatened by scarier things than you. I’ll just go call Marla. She enjoys taking out the garbage herself.”

“Think you can make a call before I cut my way out of here?” The Mason had drawn her dagger – her special dagger – and held it idly in her left hand.

Dr. Husch shook her head, as if at the antics of a small, comical dog. “There’s not a blade on Earth that can cut through that containment field. Might as well try to break up the sun with a sledgehammer. I had Mr. Beadle himself set up the spell, and it’s strong enough to hold Elsie Jarrow in check. So feel free to break your knife.”

“Oh, surely there’s one dagger on this Earth that can cut through the net? I bet you can think of one.”

Husch laughed. “Marla Mason’s dagger of office you mean? Yes, I suppose. They say it can cut through anything, even ghosts and astral tethers. And I’m very impressed, your little prop knife looks quite like her dagger, the hilt all wrapped with purple-and-white electrical tape, but it’s not enough to just look the same –”

The Mason lifted the knife high, touched the blade to the net above her head, and swept her arm down in a single graceful gesture. The blue threads of magic parted, sputtered, and drifted toward the floor, vanishing before they touched the surface.

“Boo,” the Mason said, face perfectly blank.

Dr. Husch said “Bugger,” and bolted for the door at the end of the hall, disappearing from sight.

“So should we, uh, give chase?” Crapsey said.

The Mason shrugged. “There’s no defense in here I can’t cut through. We’ll stalk her. A slasher movie haunted house sort of experience. She was entirely too in-control there, don’t you think? Too arrogant by half. Some fear and helplessness will do her good.”

“Sadism, right, I get that, but – she was going to call Marla. Are you ready for her whole cavalry to surround us in a siege-type situation?”

The Mason sighed. “It’s less than ideal. Fine, chase her down and sit on her for me. But don’t do anything violent to her yourself. Her counterpart in our world has annoyed me once or twice. I want to take that out on someone.”

Crapsey went through the doorway, and promptly got smacked across the face with what seemed, against all likelihood, to be a cast iron frying pan. He sprawled on his back, half in the doorway, staring at the ceiling and Dr. Husch’s pretty, determined face, wondering if she’d hit him hard enough to fuck up his brain and kill his body and trigger his flight to a new host, and if so, which crazy human behind locked doors he’d end up possessing.

Then Dr. Husch kicked him in the side of the head with one of her perfect feet and everything got fuzzy and wobbly for a while.


Clarity returned to Crapsey like a dripping faucet slowly filling a basin. He found himself in an office, sitting on a couch, while the Mason methodically sorted through a filing cabinet. “Ungh,” he said, checking his skull for dents and gently rubbing the bruises on his face. The illusion hiding his wooden jaw had come unraveled while he was unconscious, and touching the wood was oddly comforting – at least that part of his face didn’t ache. “You kill the doctor?”

“I did my best,” the Mason said. “No thanks to you. Cut her to bits, along with dozens of her orderlies who got in the way. But they’re homunculi, not animals, so it’s tricky to say whether they’re dead – they might as well be foam rubber and wooden frames, you can disassemble them, but kill? Who knows. I suppose someone could put Husch back together again, if they could find all the pieces and took the time, but I don’t imagine she’d ever be the same. Not very satisfying, ultimately. Like killing talking dolls rather than people.” She flipped open a new folder. “Hmm, this is interesting.”


“The Institute’s newest inmate. Down in a cell in the basement. Let’s go visit, shall we?”

“What, it’s someone we know?”

“Know and love, Crapsey, know and love.”


The cell door was well warded with charms of order and confinement, but the Mason’s knife and boots and cloak-magic burned through the defenses easily, and the door swung open slowly, black smoke curling from the half-melted edges. Inside were only white padded walls, and –

The woman in the cell was dressed in plain white pajamas that might have been made of paper, and her hair was shaved to the scalp. She looked a lot different without her braids, but Crapsey recognized her.

“Oh, fuck me, Nicolette?” Crapsey said. “You have to be shitting me.”

“Huh. This is interesting,” Nicolette said. “What’s the deal?”

“We’re parallel-world versions of Marla and Rondeau, on a mission of murder and destruction,” the Mason said. “Would you care to join us, or should we kill you instead?”

“Parallel world. Huh. How’s that poem go? There’s a hell – of a good universe next door?” Nicolette stood up and sauntered toward them. “Got a quarter, jawface?”

Without speaking – nothing he could say now would be the right thing – Crapsey reached into his pocket and handed her a stolen coin from the gas station robbery.

“Heads, I go with you to kill Marla. Tails, we all try to kill each other right here. Sound good?”

“You’re an idiot,” Crapsey said.

“Hey, random chance is my thing, and a girl’s gotta have her thing. I don’t come down to your work and tell you how to be ugly.” Nicolette flipped the coin and let it fall to the ground. They all looked at it. An eagle, spreading its wings. Tails.

“Hell,” Nicolette said, and grinned. “Fact is, I don’t like how that turned out. How about we make it best two out of three?”

Chapter 12

Consciousness returned like a drunk staggering home after a three-day bender – in unsteady lurches and considerable pain. Marla let her eyes open the barest slit, because there was probably no advantage in letting her captors know she was waking up, but a face waited just inches from her own, dark eyes looking at her attentively, so Marla headbutted.

Still woozy. No leverage or speed behind the strike, probably because she was, what, on her back? The face pulled back, nose un-smashed, blood un-spurting, and Marla groaned. “I know you.” The woman wore a dove-gray suit and had stupid feathers woven into her hair, just like before. “Am I back in Alcatraz?”

“A cell, yes. Alcatraz, no. They call me the Trapper, by the way. I’ll be your guard this evening.”

Trapper. Not Warden. Not the same woman, then, but her parallel-universe counterpart, so Marla hadn’t pulled a “There’s no place like home” and returned to her world somehow. Sense and memory slowly rose in Marla’s brain, like groundwater filling a hole in the earth. Status report, self: alone and unarmed, no Rondeau, no cloak, no dagger. “If you don’t mind me asking, why the fuck am I in a cell?” Marla sat up, slowly, and only then realized her arms were bound at the wrists behind her back. Didn’t feel like rope, or metal, or wire, or plastic zip ties, so… probably magic.

“It’s not really my place to tell you,” the Trapper said. “I’m just babysitting. Sorry. I’m sure somebody higher up the food chain will be along soon to talk to you about the situation.”

They were in a square room made of cinderblocks, with a heavy metal grate for a roof about twenty feet above them, and… no door. “Did you people build this thing around me?” Marla asked. How long had she been out?

“No, no, we’re in a pit. The hole was always here, we don’t know what it was for originally, just more bunker crap. The metal grate on top is just a lid, it comes off – at least, when I’m not making sure it stays closed, it does. After Lao knocked you out, they lowered you in here, though you fell the last few feet. Didn’t even wake you up. I came down after you because they said you’re too dangerous to leave unattended. I descended on a rope ladder, though, because, ow.” She shrugged.

They put one of their own down here with me, Marla thought. These people are hopeless. “Ow. Right. You know, I broke your face pretty good in my home universe recently. Had better luck with my headbutt that time.”

“Bradley said you were from a parallel world.” The Trapper shook her head. “Hard to believe, but… you really met me? Over there?”

“Yup.” Marla yawned. “Damn, I’m stiff. Help me stand up and stretch a little?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, no. Not touching you. You already tried to break my nose with your forehead. Not giving you another chance.”

“You think I’m dangerous? I’m trussed up like a babe in a bondage video, and I can tell you’ve got a heavy magic-nullifying field going here, it’s making my back teeth ache.” The Trapper just stared at her, so Marla sighed, leaned her shoulder against the wall, pushed with her legs, and levered herself to an upright position. Once on her feet, swaying, she made a great show of wincing and bending side-to-side and rolling her neck. Then she took a half-hop, half-dance step forward and hit the Trapper with a front snap-kick to the right knee.

While the Trapper rolled on the ground and clutched her dislocated knee cap and shrieked, Marla dropped to the ground. She rolled back on her shoulders, tucking like she was going to do a back somersault, but instead just held steady with her butt off the ground. She worked her bound hands down the small of her back, past her hips, and over her ass. From there it was easy to lay supine, pull her knees up to her chest, and slip her bound hands over her heels and past her toes, so now her bound hands were in front. Bluish light pulsed around her wrists: magical manacles. At least they didn’t chafe like real cuffs. “Much better.” Marla sprang back to her feet. “This is fun, isn’t it? It was pretty smart of you to damp down magic, making it so I can’t cast any spells, but then, you can’t cast any new spells while the field is on, either, can you? And I’m better at hand-to-hand fighting than you are, I’m guessing. You gotta be careful when you go leveling the playing field.”

The Trapper scurried into a far corner, eyes wide and terrified, so Marla ran at her, making as if to kick her in the face. The Trapper leapt to the side – as best she could from a sitting position with only one working knee, anyway – and that allowed Marla to crouch behind her, slip her cuffed-together hands over the woman’s head and under her chin, and begin strangling the Trapper with the sparking blue chain between her wrists.

“This is a bitch, am I right?” Marla pressed her knees hard into the Trapper’s back, right between the shoulder blades, while she pulled backward with her cuffed hands. The Trapper tried to get her fingers under the magical chain, but Marla’s grip was too tight. After a couple of seconds Marla thought, Slow learner, and said, “Sucks to get strangled to death by your own magic, huh? Bet it makes you rethink the wisdom of cuffing me at all.”

The Trapper started trying to speak, so Marla eased up enough to let her get some air. The Trapper gasped some word of power – Marla’s teeth quit aching – and then spoke another incantatory few syllables, and the magical cuffs vanished. Since Marla had been expecting that, she didn’t fall back on her ass. She just slipped an arm around the gasping woman’s throat and choked her unconscious, much as Lao Tsung had choked her.

Marla eased the still woman down to the floor of the pit and considered. The Trapper had turned off the magic-dampening field with that first word of power – she’d had no choice, since she needed access to magic in order to dispel the cuffs and stop Marla from garroting her – and that meant Marla could use magic now, too. There were a few options open to her, but she felt like showing her captors just how futile their betrayal was, so she settled for whistling, just two low notes.

They’d taken away her dagger of office, which was heartening – that meant one of the bastards up there was short a few fingers now, since her dagger didn’t like being touched by strangers, and tended to bite the hand that grasped. After she whistled, someone up above shouted, and a clattering noise began. Her dagger came sliding into sight on the grille above, drawn to her like a cat to the feeding dish. The mesh of the lid over the pit was too fine for the dagger to fall through, but that was okay – the blade just turned a little, twisted, sliced an opening in the metal big enough to slip through, and then fell, hilt-first, into Marla’s waiting hand.

She kissed the blade (it wouldn’t cut her), and shouted, “Somebody come talk to me or I’ll start cutting pieces off your little Trapper Keeper here. I can’t believe you morons put her in here with me, and then didn’t post another guard up top.”

An anxious-looking face appeared over the grille. Marla tried to remember her name, then did, and didn’t use it. “You. Pie hole. Where’s Bradley? Or your boss?”

Pie Bob swallowed. “They’re not here. It’s just me, and Talion because he got hurt. He’s watching your friend.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“On… a mission.”

“Trying to kill the Jaguar? Without me? That’s rude.” Pie Bob didn’t answer. “All right. If the cats are away, that makes you the ranking officer, little mouse. Get the lid off this pit and lower a ladder for me.”

Pie Bob blinked. “Um. No?”

“You think I can’t get out of this hole on my own? I’m just giving you a chance to show me you’ll cooperate, candy cane. Be good, and you might get out of this with all your limbs attached. What’s it going to be?”

The face disappeared, and didn’t come back, so Marla sighed. She could fly out, but flying gave her motion sickness. If she had on her magical gecko boots she could walk right up the side of the pit, but the boots were green lizard skin and she found wearing them embarrassing, so she had on her black workboots instead. They were steel-toed, with inertial charms worked into the leather for extra smashy-ness. She kicked the wall, and her boot bashed a handy foothold in the cinderblock, so she jammed her dagger into the wall, giving it the little twist that told the blade not to slice on through the stone but to stick there instead, then kicked another foothold a little higher, and climbed in that fashion all the way to the top. From there she just had to slice a hole in the mesh and hoist herself out.

Pie Bob and the punky-looking guy, Talion, were there. Rondeau was unconscious – and snoring – on the floor, and Talion had a ridiculous-looking rapier in his hand, the point resting just below Rondeau’s Adam’s apple. His other hand was wrapped in a huge bulge of bandages, which meant he’d been the one to try and pick up her dagger, the lucky devil.

“Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head, or I’ll kill your friend,” Talion said. To his credit, his voice didn’t even waver.

Marla snorted. “Go ahead, glam-rock. Didn’t Beta-Bradley tell you? Rondeau is a psychic parasite, just like your bogeyman Crapsey. Kill that body and he’ll just possess one of you two idiots. Then our little situation will still be two-against-one, but my team will be the two and yours will be the one. Plus, right, one of you will have your soul totally annihilated. So, since your only leverage isn’t such a good lever, your only options are surrender, or, if you feel you’ve already lived full and complete lives, a clumsy and ill-coordinated assault against me. What do you say? Sugar? Spice? What’s it going to be?”

They saw reason, which was good, because if they had killed Rondeau, he would have indeed sought a new host – but he might just as easily have possessed Marla’s body instead of one of theirs, since he didn’t have a lot of control over the process, unlike his dark doppelganger Crapsey. After only a little posturing Talion fetched her bag – they hadn’t been able to open it yet, because the wards were too gnarly, which meant the cloak was safe, at least – and then Talion and Pie Bob got into the pit with only a few mutters about how Marla would be sorry. She rooted around in her bag until she found one of the charms she’d brought along, a satchel of lavender and rarer things, then tossed that into the pit with them. A moment later, the sound of snores rose up to meet her. Sleep charms were one of the gentler alternatives at her disposal, and she wasn’t feeling particularly gentle, but there was still some slim chance this was a misunderstanding of some sort, so she didn’t want to burn all her bridges by seriously damaging her captors. The Trapper was the only one really hurt, and she wouldn’t die; if they had a decent battlefield healer she’d probably even walk again.

Marla prodded Rondeau in the side with her toe. He groaned, smacked his lips, and went back to snoring. Typical. Everybody except her got to take a nap. Oh well. Somebody had to be the responsible grown-up.


Marla didn’t bother with a look-away spell, since it wouldn’t work on Beta-B anyway. Instead, she and a bleary-but-conscious Rondeau sat in the deep shadows on one side of the bunker with a good view of the front door, letting darkness – and the expectations of their captors, who would assume they were still trussed-up – hide them.

“So what do you think all this is about?” Rondeau said while they waited. “Why’d New B turn on us? I thought we were getting along.”

“Can’t say for sure. I hope it’s just some kind of mistake, but… I doubt it. People are motivated by too many things – fear, greed, pride, shame, pure survival instinct – I can’t say for sure why Beta-B jumped us. We’re in unfamiliar territory here. Who knows what life is like for these people? Based on available evidence, it’s pretty shitty, and I’m sure they’re pretty desperate. Well. When they get back, we’ll just ask, and then we’ll know.”

After a while there was a loud clanging sound, and Marla and Rondeau exchanged wide-eyed glances. “Crap,” Marla said. “Here I was feeling all hyper-competent and smug, but I forgot someone in here has to open the door. Should’ve kept a conscious hostage.”

“I’ll do it,” Rondeau said. “I’d rather have you covering me than vice versa.”

“Try not to get knocked unconscious by an iron bar. It’d be humiliating if their door-knocker actually turned out to be a useful weapon.”

Rondeau went to the door, took a deep breath, then pulled the big metal lever that disengaged the locks. Rondeau backed away as the door swung open.

Beta-B, Yasuko, and Jericho came in, limping, shuffling, heads hung low, clothes torn and singed, all talking in voices which were slightly too shrill.

“But what about the cousins?” Yasuko said.

“I think they made it out,” Beta-B said, head down. “I saw them running away.”

“Chris didn’t make it,” Jericho said. “He was covering the boss’s retreat, and…” He shuddered.

“Wait, do you mean Little Chris or –”

“No, Chris Decomain,” Jericho said. “One of the ghost-cats got him, but he bought enough time to cover the retreat, so at least he didn’t die for absolutely nothing, like the rest of them did. I don’t know what happened to Little Chris, but he was with Lao Tsung’s team, so maybe he’s okay.”

Rondeau looked past them at Marla, shrugged, and pulled the door to. The newcomers didn’t even look around, so Rondeau leaned against the wall, took out his butterfly knife, and began flipping it open and closed while whistling.

The whistling was enough to get Jericho to look back, and he said, “Oh, shit,” and that got Beta-B and Yasuko turned around. “How’d he get out? Where’s Talion?”

Marla stepped out of the shadows, though the effect was spoiled because they all had their backs turned to her. She was a striking figure, she knew, with her cloak on her shoulders, the outside so white it almost seemed to glow once the lights hit it. “Talion’s the one who’s short a few fingers, right? Apart from that he’s fine. Taking a little nap, along with Betty Crocker. The one with feathers in her hair could use some medical treatment, but it’s nothing life threatening.”

Beta-B and the others looked back and forth, unwilling to take their eyes off of Marla or Rondeau, though with three of them they could have trivially stood back-to-back-to-back and covered both of them and a hypothetical third opponent as well. Amateurs.

“It’s three against two,” Jericho said, raising his hands, coils of black power curling up his fingers. “We can –”

“She’s wearing the cloak,” Yasuko hissed, and Jericho lowered his hands. That was gratifying. The few people who’d seen Marla’s cloak in action were justly afraid of it, but with these people, fear of the cloak was probably more like a religious belief, faith-based and all-powerful.

Finally Beta-B settled on facing her. “So. What are you going to do now?”

Marla shrugged. “Depends on how you answer my question. Can you guess what the question is?”

“Probably why I had you knocked unconscious and thrown into a hole?”

“Ding ding ding. We have a winner.”

“It was nothing,” Jericho said, “just a routine precaution, to put you on ice for a while, we couldn’t have a stranger running around –”

“Did you know I can smell lies?” Rondeau said conversationally, and it was a nice bit of improvisation on his part, Marla thought, as the color drained from Jericho’s face.

“It doesn’t matter if we tell her.” Beta-B rubbed the back of his neck, wincing. He met Marla’s eyes. “We needed you for phase two, but since phase one was a total failure, we’ll all probably be dead in a couple of days, so who cares? After we defeated the Jaguar, we were going to use you to kill the Mason.”

Marla frowned. “I’m perfectly happy to kill the Mason. It’s on my to-do list. What do you mean, use me?”

“You have no idea what the Mason’s like.” Beta-B abruptly sat cross-legged on the floor, as if his legs simply couldn’t hold him up anymore. “It’s all well and good to say you’ll fight her, but you. Would. Die. I know you have a cloak, too, but she’s got a lot more practice. I figured out a way you could defeat her, though. I got the idea when you introduced me to your friend Hamil.”

A light in Marla’s head turned on. “Oh, shit,” she said. “Bradley, that’s clever. I mean, obviously you’re an asshole for even thinking it, and I can’t let it happen, but I have to admit, it’s pretty good.”

“Let’s spell it out for the ones sitting in the back of the class, would you?” Rondeau said.

“Sympathetic magic,” Marla said. “We told Beta-B that was Hamil’s specialty.”

Beta-B nodded. “Once I thought about it, the idea was obvious. Since you’re genetically identical to the Mason, it would be trivial to create a sympathetic magical resonance between the two of you, to make you magically identical as well. In effect, we wanted to turn you into a sort of living voodoo doll for the Mason. Once that was arranged, whatever happened to you would happen to her, instantly.” He shrugged. “Which means, when we chopped off your head, she would’ve suffered a case of spontaneous decapitation. I might have asked you to volunteer for the job, but I get more of a warrior-pragmatist than noble-self-sacrificing vibe off you, no offense.”

“You’re right. Good plan otherwise though. You could’ve killed the Mason without getting within a hundred miles. Spooky assassination at a distance.”

“After I got the idea, I was afraid you wouldn’t come back here with me,” Beta-B said. “I get the feeling you’re kind of contrary, so I didn’t push, but you insisted, so that was easy. And when we got here to my front door, I gave a code phrase that meant, ‘Dangerous hostiles are coercing me, subdue them as quickly as possible.’ Not a hundred percent accurate, but it had the desired effect.”

“‘The bird of paradise has landed,'” Rondeau said. “And here I just thought you were being arrogant.” Rondeau walked up to Bradley and whapped him on the back of the head with his open palm, not hard. “You’re a jerk, you know that? Our B would have never –”

“Fuck your B,” he snarled, leaping to his feet and shoving Rondeau back. “I’m not your B, all right? I never will be. Your B is dead, and you’re wearing his corpse, you body-stealing freak. I’m my own man, I’ve got my own life and my own problems, and you can both go to –”

The door, which Rondeau had only pulled to and not actually latched shut, swung open, and a small gray-haired man with a neat beard, dressed in a profoundly stained suit in a long-outdated style, entered, followed by Lao Tsung and a giant of a man Marla hadn’t met before. “Now, Bradley,” the old man said, “there’s no excuse for rudeness.”

Beta-B slumped his shoulders. “Marla. Rondeau. This is my mentor. Meet –”

“Sanford Cole,” Marla said. “Good to see you. I’d say ‘see you again,’ but I guess you never met me in this universe. I figured you must be Bradley’s mysterious mentor, but I was beginning to think you weren’t ever going to show up.”

Cole – the wizard of San Francisco, court magician to Emperor Joshua Norton, awakened from his mystical century-long sleep to defend the city in the hour of its greatest need, just like he was when Mutex attacked San Francisco in Marla’s world – inclined his head slightly. “I regret I could not be here earlier. We were engaged in a battle against the great beast we call the Jaguar, and I’m afraid we suffered a rout. Regarding this belated meeting between us, the advantage is entirely yours, madam. You say we’ve met before under other stars – were we friends or rivals in your world?”

“Totally friends,” Rondeau said. “We helped you save San Francisco.”

“Well, Rondeau,” Marla said, “to be strictly accurate, Cole helped us save San Francisco, and to be even more accurate, both of you really just helped me. And I’ll save this stupid city again, even though evil mirror universe Bradley here tried to whack me over the head. That is, if you’ll promise to stop trying to use me in a magical ritual human sacrifice – which, if I can pull out the irony card, is exactly the kind of thing your hated Jaguar does, but at least he doesn’t trick his sacrificial victims into buying him a nice dinner first.” She glared at Beta-B.

“Perhaps we’d better have some tea and chat,” Cole said.

Chapter 13

Nicolette loved the Humvee, and gladly took over its operation, shouting “I’m burning dinosaur bones!” as she drove. Freak. Her promotion to driver left Crapsey in the back seat, watching fields and trees spool by. They were still outside Felport. This land was all waste and spoil and smoking holes in the ground where Crapsey was from, ruined in the magical wars fought by the various groups of sorcerers who’d attempted to take down the Mason in her home territory over the years. He couldn’t get over how different things were here. All nature and shit. Bizarre.

Then again, Nicolette was remarkably similar to the version of herself Crapsey knew and loathed, full of biting wit, barbed comments, non-sequiturs, and the random giggles of the deeply unhinged. Apparently they hadn’t gotten very far with her in terms of therapy and rehabilitation at the Blackwing Institute. Or else Nicolette had been even crazier when she went in.

“We need to find Marla,” the Mason was saying. “You will make it happen.”

“Sure thing. Mind if we swing by one of my secret stashes first? Marla impounded most of my toys, but I kept caches hidden around the city, you know, against the eventuality.”

“You will be more useful to me if you are armed.”

“That means yes,” Crapsey said.

“Thanks for the interpretation, Craphole,” Nicolette said. “I swear, it was like she was speaking Martian up here.”

“Why are you a bitch to me?” Crapsey said. “You’ve never even met me.”

Nicolette snorted. “Oh, I’ve met you, or at least your ineffectual twin. You’re hotter than Rondeau, I’ll give you that, you take care of yourself better, but I can tell you’re just the same under those muscles – no mind of your own, pure weaselly follower all the way through, happy to do what you’re told as long as your belly stays full and your dick gets tugged every once in a while. I’m the kind of girl who values initiative, because lockstep yes-men don’t do much to increase chaos in the world, you feel me? And if you don’t nourish me, you annoy me. It’s pathetic, seeing you kowtow to Marla in two universes, you’re like some kind of interdimensional lickspittle –”

“I am not Marla.” The Mason’s voice was quiet, which made Crapsey smile. Maybe she’d kill the bald bitch. “That is a fact you should bear in mind.”

“My bad.” Nicolette’s voice held something that resembled contrition. “Of course you’re not. I wouldn’t be here if you were.”

“What is your plan for locating Marla?” the Mason said.

Nicolette shrugged. “Go to her office. If she’s not there, we go after her consigliere, Hamil, he can always get a message to her.”


Crapsey shuddered. There was a wealth of information in the Mason’s “Hmm,” but only he could hear it. Hamil and Dr. Husch were the only important powers who’d escaped Felport and environs, and they were still active in the east coast resistance. He figured the Mason was trying to decide if murdering Hamil for his doppelganger’s crimes was the right course of action, or if the fat man was better kept alive to use as bait or a bargaining chip or for some other purpose.

“Will Marla have her cloak with her?”

Nicolette shrugged. “I doubt it. She used to wear it a lot, but earlier this year she started treating it like a tactical nuke, keeping it locked down, only breaking it out when serious shit was going down. The word on the street is she sent it away, put it in a magical box and told a guy to go bury it at some unknown end of the earth.”

The Mason grunted, and Crapsey spoke up: “Susan Wellstone said she’d heard that rumor too but didn’t believe it. She didn’t think Marla would give up such a powerful weapon.”

“Does seem a little out of character. Could just be misinformation and misdirection, I guess, keeping an ace in the hole. No way to know for sure.”

“We must know for sure,” the Mason said. “The status of the cloak is very important.”

“We-ell.” Nicolette drummed her fingers against the steering wheel for a moment. “Marla liked to hold the cloak in reserve for major emergencies, you know? When the shit really hit the fan, she’d put it on. So if she does still have it, we could create a sufficiently big emergency to make her put it on. And if she doesn’t still have it… well, without that big mojo it should be a lot easier to pin her to the wall with knives and cut off bits of her until she tells us where it is.” Nicolette flashed a grin. “I mean, I get the sense you care more about the cloak than about Marla herself per se.”

Crapsey had been thinking the same thing, but hadn’t dared voice it, because he was afraid it might be one of those few areas where the Mason wouldn’t tolerate inquiry. He hoped he was right, and that Nicolette was about to get smited. Smote? Whatever. Smushed.

Instead the Mason said, “I care about both Marla and the cloak equally. When I arrived in this horrible universe – or my analogue of this horrible universe – I sought out the most powerful will I could find, the most potent and resilient host, and that was Marla Mason. Neutralizing Marla here is imperative.”

“She ain’t all that.” Nicolette’s tone was petulant.

“There are smarter humans,” the Mason said. “There are physically stronger ones. There are more magically talented ones – in truth, Marla has almost no innate gift for magic, which makes her accomplishments all the more impressive, as if a woman with only seven fingers became a concert violinist. Because Marla has an extraordinary will. Pressures that would crush others serve only to increase her determination. She is constitutionally incapable of acknowledging defeat. A strong will is the most important quality a sorcerer can have, because will fuels all magic – and it’s the most important quality I need in a host, because the stresses of carrying me and being a conduit for my powers are enormous. Taking over a weaker host would have been far easier, but they wouldn’t have lasted. I struggled mightily to dominate the body I use now, and indeed, Marla’s mind still turns over restless within me, watchful for any chance to bring about her own death and my neutralization. Of course, I give her no such opportunities. But I mustn’t give the Marla of this world any opportunities, either.”

Crapsey breathed out. That was the longest speech he’d heard out of the Mason in a long time, though he thought there was at least one lie in it, and certainly a great deal of omission. She’d said why she was interested in Marla, but not a word about the cloak. And why the hell was she explaining herself to Nicolette anyway? Might as well ask: “Why are you explaining yourself to the chauffeur, boss?”

“Nicolette is our native guide in strange territory, Crapsey. Even the geography of this city has changed greatly from our timeline – there are new buildings, even new freeways, and old landmarks are gone. And look, the Whitcroft-Ivory building is finished.” When she pointed at the tallest skyscraper on Felport’s little downtown skyline, still a half-built skeleton of rusting girders in their world, it was the first time Crapsey noticed they’d even entered the city, he’d been so engrossed in listening and speculation. The Mason continued. “We need Nicolette’s guidance, so she is an asset. I am treating her well, and will continue to do so for as long as I need her.”

“Guess I’d better stay useful, then,” Nicolette said.

The Mason ignored her. After a moment, she said, “Your plan has value. We will give up the element of surprise, and will instead cause sufficient mayhem that Marla will have no choice but to don the cloak and face me.”

Nicolette whooped. “Mayhem, I like. What should we smash up first?”

“Who are the sorcerers currently serving on the council?” the Mason asked.

“Let’s see, fat boy Hamil, that idiot Granger, the Bay Witch – she’s a weirdo, but I’d do her if she showered off the brine first – that icy bitch the Chamberlain, greasy Ernesto, and Mr. trapdoor spider himself, Viscarro, down in the catacombs.”

“Very well. We will kill them all.”

Starting with Viscarro, Crapsey thought.

“Starting with Viscarro,” the Mason said. “We will leave some of his apprentices alive to tell the other sorcerers what happened. Marla will be unable to ignore such an attack, and when she hears about me, and my cloak, she will doubtless wear her own. This plan is acceptable.”

“Sure, but why Viscarro first? He’s the best protected and defended of the bunch. Some out-of-town sorcerer got into his catacombs and caused him some trouble earlier this year and I bet he’s quadrupled security since then.”

Viscarro’s first because he was the first sorcerer she killed in our world, Crapsey thought. Because she hates him the most. Because he almost stopped her before she even got started. But it wasn’t his place to say that, and the Mason didn’t speak either.

“Uh, hello?” Nicolette said, and Crapsey winced. It was like seeing a child play in traffic, honestly, the woman had no idea what she was doing. “I said –”

“I heard you.” The Mason’s voice could have sliced titanium. “I hear everything. I did not answer because your question does not interest me.”

“So much for treating me like an asset,” Nicolette muttered.

“She is treating you like an asset,” Crapsey said. “That’s why your head is still on your shoulders even though you pushed her when she didn’t want to be pushed.”

He expected some scathing reply, but instead Nicolette was quiet for a moment, and then said, “Duly noted,” and drove silently from there.


Nicolette stopped in a run-down neighborhood south of the river, where she parked in a driveway behind an old Mustang up on blocks. The chaos witch peered in the house’s dirty windows, then went around behind the detached garage. Crapsey heard the tinkle of breaking glass, faintly, and a few moments later Nicolette returned with a coarsely-woven sack just big enough to carry a bowling ball or a severed head. “Got my party favors,” she said, climbing back behind the wheel and dropping the clinking bag on top of an unused cupholder. “Now we can start having fun.”

“Take me to Viscarro now.” The Mason didn’t have a very party-ready tone.

Nicolette drove along more cruddy residential streets for a while until they rumbled over some railroad tracks and the houses gave way to empty lots and industrial buildings. “This is the neighborhood where we put the mass grave in our world,” Crapsey said. He’d never seen so many bulldozers in one place.

“Precious memories,” the Mason replied. “Where are we going, Nicolette? I do not recall an entrance to the catacombs in this area.”

“Viscarro moved ’em around, sealed up a bunch of tunnels, made new ones, a few months back.”

“Why would he go to such trouble?”

Nicolette laughed. “It’s a long-ass story, and I’m not sure how much is true and how much is bullshit, but a guy who claimed to be the incarnation of Death himself came to town and stirred a lot of shit, including busting in on Viscarro in his lair. Now that was chaos times. For a while I thought Mr. Death would get rid of Marla for us, but she came out on top. She’s got a way of doing that.”

“Huh,” Crapsey said. “This Death guy, tall, dark, wore rings on every finger, smirky face?”

“Sounds like the dude,” Nicolette said.

The Mason made a “mmm” sound. “He came to see me as well. Fought his way through the defenses at my headquarters with trivial ease. But when he came face to face with me, he whimpered, said I was beyond his reach, and ran away. I’d wondered who he was.”

Nicolette laughed. “You are badass. Did he have a pet necromancer with him, guy named Ayres?”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. Mad Ayres. I released him from the Blackwing Institute when I needed room for more political prisoners. I never expected him to cause trouble for me later – he was such a nonentity. But he came along with the death man, and was nonplussed when his companion fled.” The Mason stared out the windshield for a moment, then said, “Ayres. Yes. I killed and ate him.”

The silence in the Humvee was deafening.

“Is she… are you kidding?” Nicolette’s voice was caught half between horror and admiration.

“She’s not,” Crapsey said. He hadn’t witnessed the devouring of Ayres, but he’d been in the next room, and he’d heard the sounds, and he’d dispatched the cleaning unit to scrub the gore off the walls afterward. “He was all blustery and ‘You mustn’t’ this and ‘I demand’ that, and the Mason said, ‘Shut up, or I’ll kill you and eat you,’ and he didn’t shut up, so.” Crapsey shrugged. “She follows through on her threats.”

“I thought the story of my actions would create fear among my enemies and vassals,” the Mason said. “The experience was no more or less loathsome than eating anything else. All culinary options are equally repulsive in this universe.”

“You are epic fucked-up, lady,” Nicolette said. “I think I might be in love.”

“She’s just as likely to kill and eat you, if you get on her nerves,” Crapsey said.

“Danger gives our relationship its spice.” Nicolette drove the Humvee down a side street and parked in front of the burned-out shell of a former auto shop. “There’s an entrance to the catacombs in here.” She slipped out and led the Mason and Crapsey into the half-roofed space, all blackened concrete and smoke-stained metal walls, then pointed to the oil-change pit. She dropped down into the dark hole, and Crapsey and the Mason followed. Nicolette kicked aside a scattering of trash and dead leaves and revealed a small metal loop set into the floor. She grabbed, grunted, and pulled, a section of the floor rising up to reveal a trap door.

The opening was filled entirely with bricks and mortar.

Nicolette swore. “This was a working entrance last time I looked, but I’ve been out of the loop for a little while, and –”

The Mason knelt, placed her hands on the bricks, and hummed. “There’s still a space beneath. The tunnel wasn’t collapsed. Only the mouth of the entrance was closed.” Beneath her hands, the bricks began to crack and snap and shift, sublimating into gas. Crapsey turned his face away and closed his airways, but Nicolette wasn’t swift enough on the uptake, and staggered back, gagging and coughing as brick vapor hit her in the face. Crapsey grinned.

Once the hole was pretty well cleared and the gas had dissipated, the Mason stood up, kicked the few remaining bricks down, and stepped into the hole, cloak flying up as she dropped out of sight.

Nicolette, still coughing, eyes streaming with tears, pointed at the hole and said, “Lackeys first.”

Crapsey stepped close to her, grabbed her by the throat, and said, “You don’t want to push me. We’re about to go into battle, and sure, the Mason can use you, but if you happen to go down in the fight, well… it happens. Maybe your Rondeau is too pussy to kill, but I’ve sent hundreds of souls into the darkness, and I didn’t even have anything against those people. I hate the version of you from my world, and you’re not winning me over in this iteration, either, so watch your step. And in case you get any smart ideas about bushwhacking me, remember: I’m immortal, and I can choose my next host. I’d be happy to ride around in your body for a while, using it for things you’d never approve of. Got it?”

She didn’t fight him, just stared, and when he let go of her throat, she took a long breath, hoisted her bag of charms, and went down the hole without another word.

Either he’d made his point, or he hadn’t. Time would tell. But at least she’d shut up for a moment.

Crapsey lowered himself into Felport’s underworld.


The Mason did her thing. When they encountered a steel door, she melted it. When sirens began whooping in the distance and a portcullis gate slammed down, she bent the bars like pipe cleaners. When a crowd of apprentices in bits of hurriedly-donned medieval armor attempted to ambush them from a side tunnel while another group slipped in from behind to cut off their retreat – as if they’d retreat! – Crapsey joined in, jumping from body to body among the rear attackers until the remaining few broke in terror and ran. He let his survivors get away, which was more than the Mason did. The tunnel was going to be tricky to navigate for a while, because of all the bodies.

Nicolette had her hand in her satchel, eyes wide, but she hadn’t actually contributed anything. “Gods, you two didn’t even give me time to get started.”

“No reason to linger over these,” the Mason said. “They are insignificant. I do recognize some of them – or the remnant of Marla within me recognizes them.” She gestured vaguely at the dead before her. “They are older, of course. Still fetching and carrying for Viscarro, all hoping to be the chosen one someday, to become his lieutenant and successor. But, of course, Viscarro intends to live forever.”

“He is a lich, right?” Nicolette said. “His body’s already dead, he’s basically just a ghost haunting his own preserved corpse. His life force is locked up in a phylactery somewhere, so even killing his body won’t kill him. He’s got a better shot at eternity than the rest of us.”

“Not when I’m through with him. I know where he keeps the gem that holds his life.”

“Oh, hell, then, let’s go.” Nicolette grinned. She didn’t look at Crapsey, and hadn’t even acknowledged his existence since their little one-sided chat in the oil pit, which suited him just fine.

The Mason led them along tunnels, some lined with brick, some ancient stone, some dirt braced with wooden posts, some natural caverns connected by unnatural means. Though they passed more checkpoints and gates, they were unattended, with no more apprentices standing in their way. They paused in a short branch of zigzagging tunnel hacked through rock, the Mason sniffing the air. “There are people nearby,” she said.

“Think the rats are laying traps up ahead?” Crapsey said.

“That is Viscarro’s style. But I’m not easily trapped.” The Mason ducked through a low doorway, but before Nicolette or Crapsey could follow, a bone-vibrating rumble started… and the tunnel beyond the doorway collapsed, the space filling with earth, the Mason vanishing from sight.

“Cave-in,” Crapsey said, his own voice sounding faraway in his abused ears. “That’s a good trap.” Another rumble followed, and he glanced through the doorway behind him, where rocks tumbled, blocking their only path of escape, leaving them in what amounted to a small hallway about ten feet long, six feet high, and four feet wide. He wasn’t good at math and calculations, but he figured the volume of available oxygen in a space this size was: not much.

“Guess we get to see whether my essential self can escape a cave-in.” Crapsey sat down, leaning his back against the wall, glancing at the ceiling, which still looked relatively solid and well-braced by thick wooden beams, but what did he know about mine safety? “If this place is airtight and we both die of suffocation, I might be stuck here until somebody comes along with a shovel and a pickaxe. Bummer.” He glanced at Nicolette. “I did not want to die a slow death in a small room with you.”

“You just give up?” Nicolette said. “That’s it?”

“Oh, you’re talking to me now?” Crapsey shrugged. “I’m not exactly giving up. Hell, I’m probably immortal. I’m just acknowledging the outcome of this situation is out of my hands. We’re, what, fifty feet below the ground or some shit? I can Curse and cause some fires or sinkholes, but that’s a bad idea in this situation. I know you’re chock full of chaos magic, but chaos is not our friend under here. Now, the Mason will be all right – she’s unkillable, and she’s got a knife that cuts through anything, and we already know she can turn stone to smoke. But the question is, will she bother to come back here and save us, or will she just go kill Viscarro? You have to understand, she doesn’t really like us. We’re not people to her. We’re tools. If you lose your tools, maybe you try to find them, or maybe you just get new tools. There’s no way to guess what she’ll do, and there’s no point in praying, so.” He shrugged. “Shut up and conserve your oxygen and hope the old monster still considers us useful.”

Nicolette opened her mouth. Crapsey decided that, when the first word came out of her mouth, he’d jump to her body and shut her up forever. The thought was comforting. Plus, once she was dead, it would double the amount of oxygen down here for him. Win-win.

Before she could speak and seal her fate, a little avalanche started at the far end of the tunnel, and the Mason came slithering out, covered in rock dust – but not entirely covered. Her face and hands were dirty, but the dirt completely failed to stick to the cloak.

“Boss, you came back for us!” Crapsey said.

The Mason cocked her head. “The tunnels ahead are mined. I heard the apprentices talking. Progress through a series of collapsing tunnels would be unpleasantly slow, so I thought it best to backtrack.” She sniffed. “I did not realize they’d also collapsed the tunnels behind us, or I would not have bothered returning this way.”

“See?” Crapsey said. “She loves us. She really loves us. What’s the plan now?”

“I have been to Viscarro’s inner sanctum many times. Not in this universe, true, but unless he has made major changes, it should be similar enough to allow me to teleport.”

Crapsey groaned.

Nicolette blinked. “Teleporting? You mean, ah… ripping a hole in space, stepping into the space between space, and ripping another hole to step out of? That kind of teleporting?”

“Yes. I know no other.”

“There’s, like, a one-in-five chance the stuff living between those portals will tear you to pieces every time you step through. Nobody sane teleports. I mean, apprentices goad each other and the stupid ones learn how, and a whole lot of them die.”

The Mason shrugged. “There are dangers, yes. But I grow impatient.”

Nicolette grinned. “Fucking A. You are crazy. Let’s do it.”

“I do not require your approval or permission.” The Mason held up her knife, and purple light crawled up her hand to lace the dagger. She made a complex sigil in the air, and a shifting oval about man-sized appeared before her. The Mason stepped through, and Nicolette followed.

Crapsey hesitated. If his body got killed in that sparkling darkness between here and their destination, would his essential self be trapped there, in a hell-space filled with monsters the senses couldn’t even comprehend?

The alternative was dying in a hole in the ground and hoping a passing tunnel-digger came along to provide a new body someday. Oh well. He could, at least, hope that something in the in-between would kill Nicolette. Cheered by the thought, he stepped through.

A moment of lurching darkness, the sound of distant scuttles and the wind of something lashing by entirely too close to his head, and then he was through, into Viscarro’s central chamber.

And into disaster. Nicolette was on the ground, gasping, mouth opening and closing like a fish drowning in air, and her left arm was gone at the shoulder, a knob of bone protruding and blood pouring out. The arm itself was nowhere to be seen, which meant her limb had probably been ripped off by one of the things dwelling between the portals – such maimings were rarer than outright disappearances, but not unheard of.

The Mason looked whole – no shock there – but she was face-down and unmoving on the ground. Viscarro himself stood over her, looking like a skeleton made of coat hangers dressed in a brown velvet robe. He held a long, crooked wooden staff with a ball of pale green fire hovering at the top. “Marla Mason,” he said, prodding her prone body with the end of his magical staff, which must be some kind of bad-ass artifact if it had knocked the Mason down. “We never got along, I know, but I didn’t expect a direct attack. I’m disappointed in you.”

I’m free, Crapsey thought. The Mason killed Viscarro in our world, but he’s fifteen years older and smarter and wiser and wilier here, and he beat her, it’s done, it’s finally over –

“And you, her lap-dog,” Viscarro said, raising his staff. “Parasite, body thief. I’m surprised to see you here – I thought you and your mistress had a falling out. But I’ve always wanted to dissect you and find out what you really are. Yours is a form of immortality I wouldn’t mind having for myself.”

Crap, Crapsey thought, and then green fire filled his vision.

Chapter 14

Cole had a private office, or the nearest next best thing: an old store room with an actual working door, a bookshelf on the wall, a scrounged wooden desk, and a few old kitchen chairs. Practically homey compared to the rest of Camp Kimke. Cole took the swivel chair behind his desk regally and motioned Marla, Beta-B, and Rondeau to sit. Lao brought a teapot and a few cups and set them down on the desk. He started to look around for a chair of his own, but Cole said, “That will be all, Lao Tsung. We’ll talk later.”

Lao frowned, glared at Marla a little more than he glared at everyone else, and left, shutting the door.

“We have privacy now,” Cole said. “The room is shielded from surveillance.”

Marla raised an eyebrow. “Worried about your own people spying on you?”

Beta-B laughed, harshly. “We used to think it was just a sensible precaution, but now…” He shook his head.

“Before we get to that,” Cole said, “I’d like to formally apologize for my apprentice’s actions. You came to us offering help, and Bradley responded with treachery. It was ungentlemanly. When he told me what he had planned for you… while I admired the quick thinking behind the idea, I could not accept it morally or ethically. You were in no danger of being used to assassinate the Mason, and I apologize profoundly for the entire situation.”

Beta-B looked at the ceiling, and Marla figured he would’ve pushed for the whole sacrifice-Marla idea harder if they hadn’t gotten their butts whipped by the Jaguar. “Yeah, yeah, apology accepted. I should thank you. The whole attempted-sacrifice thing brought it home for me – deep down, beyond the intellectual level – that, appearances aside, this isn’t my home. It’s a mirror universe, and I need to remember that.”

Rondeau shook his head. “Technically it’s not a mirror universe. In a mirror universe all the good guys are evil and all the bad guys are good. Like, for instance, Superman and Batman are warlords and Lex Luthor and the Joker are superheroes. If Sanford Cole was over here sitting on a chair made of skulls and eating virgin-girl pate, then yeah, this would be a mirror world. But he’s not – Cole’s still a good guy, he’s just a good guy who lives in a sewer. The only real mirror-type situation is you and the Mason – over in our world you’re a hero, more or less, but here, she’s a monster. But mostly this place is more like a ‘dark world,’ which means it’s just like our universe except shit’s all fucked up. Like Superman’s dead and Batman has started murdering criminals and Lex Luthor runs a space casino.”

Marla looked at him for a long moment. “Nerd,” she said. She turned back to Cole. “Listen, you can still use me to kill the Jaguar. You just have to leave out the human sacrifice parts. So, what happened today? You had an awesome plan and it failed, I gather?”

Cole looked down at his hands. “We were betrayed. We intercepted intelligence telling us the Jaguar planned to visit a temple, in person, in the heart of what was once the financial district. There, in a rather pretty plaza, in front of a fountain that flows with blood – magically anti-coagulated, of course – he intended to sacrifice a dozen women and children and feast on their hearts. The Jaguar is the incarnation of a god, but he is therefore self-evidently incarnate, and not beyond harm. If we killed his body the god would continue to dwell wherever dusty old unworshipped gods live, I suppose, but he’d cease to be a problem for us. He seldom leaves his well-guarded imperial palace – which is located in what was once the Palace of Fine Arts, because the Jaguar has a very literal mind – and is fantastically difficult to harm even if he can be reached. But, we thought, while he was distracted, in an open, exposed area, we could make a coordinated attack. We are not warriors, but Lao Tsung helped us come up with a plan of attack.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“We were ssaulted before we’d even taken up our positions. The Jaguar’s spymaster and enforcer ambushed us. This spymaster styles himself the Lynx, in honor of his master’s affinity for jungle cats and because, I imagine, lynxes are known as mysterious keepers of secrets, mythologically. The Lynx is a formidable opponent, supported by the Jaguar’s resurrected undead Aztec warriors and his own squad of deadly ghost-cats. Half our number were killed or captured in a perfectly coordinated attack. The only explanation for such a disaster is that we have a, ah – what’s that charmingly apt term, Bradley?”

“A mole.”

“Yes, a mole.”

“Spies who pretend to be your friends suck,” Marla said. “That’s why I don’t make many friends. But if you’ve got a traitor in your midst, why don’t they lead the Jaguar down here and just wipe you out?”

Cole chuckled. “Marla, I’m told you’re a chief sorcerer in your own world. You have a profound connection to your city, don’t you?”

Marla shrugged. “Sure. I have an affinity with Felport. Took me a while to develop that power, and it doesn’t work when I’m this far away, but when I’m there, I can tell all sorts of things, from where traffic jams are to where pollution’s the worst or business is the best.”

Cole nodded. “You have the city sense, then. That’s valuable… but there’s so much more. You’re young, yet. I’ve been the caretaker of San Francisco since 1848 – though I was admittedly asleep some of the time, with others ruling as my regents, though they didn’t realize it. Once you’ve been watching a city for that long, you can draw power from the place, and the place, in turn, protects you. Bradley tells me you have a low opinion of our security, and I’m sure you’re right – Lao Tsung made similar observations, but he hasn’t been down here with us long enough to correct any of our mistakes. But the security inside Camp Kimke is nothing compared to the security outside. The city hides us, you see, because I asked it to. The Jaguar may rule San Francisco in name and by force, but the city itself is still mine. The entrance to our bunker cannot be found unless I want it found. I would have said the Camp was utterly impregnable – but of course you and Rondeau found your way inside. I gather a force powerful enough to dwarf even the might of gods had a hand in that, however, and such interventions are difficult to guard against. Even then, I knew of your arrival instantly.” He shifted in his chair, which squeaked like a tormented mouse. “The Lynx’s mole had to goad us outside, you see, to make us vulnerable.”

“Any guesses who the bad guy might be?”

“We can rule out the dead,” Cole said, deadpan. He couldn’t, not really, but Marla didn’t argue the point – if the mole was dead, the problem had solved itself. “I can also rule out you two, as you’ve arrived too recently to commit such treachery – which is why I trust you now, and hope you can help me. I also trust my core advisors implicitly. Most were part of my government when I ruled the Free State of Northern California. Only three people have joined us recently, to become part of the resistance, and I suspect the spy must be one of them. First was Chris Decomain, but he died saving me, and is thus beyond suspicion. A shame. He was an antimancer – a master of counter-magic – and his loss is a great blow. Nice fellow, too. Another is Lao Tsung, the sorcerer who cared for Golden Gate Park. He had a relationship with my government, and I’ve known him a long time, if not well. When he joined us, I made him my second-in-command based on his knowledge of combat and defense. I wonder now if I made a mistake.”

“I’d like to say it can’t be Lao,” Marla said. “And in my universe, I’d be sure of it. But here? I don’t know. Who’s the third one?”

“You haven’t met her,” Beta-B said. “She was one of the council of sorcerers in San Francisco in the old days, before magic went public and the Free State was formed, but she didn’t join the government, she went down to South San Francisco and started a machine shop building defenses to help fight against the Mason. When the Jaguar rose, she made her way up here and volunteered to lend a hand. Her name’s Bethany.”

Marla closed her eyes. “Sexy, smart, acid tongue? Lots of body modifications? Tattoos, piercings, metal stuff implanted under her skin? Likes leather? Enjoys building lethal engines?”

“That’s her,” Beta-B said. “Did you know her, on the other side?”

“She’s your spy,” Rondeau said. “Crazy cannibal witch.”

Marla nodded.

“She’s a cannibal?” Cole said. “My word. You know this for a fact?”

“She was working for Mutex when he tried to raise a god in my world,” Marla said. “I mean, you might want to lock her in a room and throw some truth-telling compulsions on her to confirm, but she’s your best bet.”

“Bradley, will you go and see Lao and ask him to bring Bethany in for a chat?”

Beta-B nodded and left the room, carefully shutting the door after him.

“If your allegation proves true, you’ll have done us a great service,” Cole said.

“Awesome,” Marla said. “Let me do you another service. I’ll help you kill the Jaguar.”

“Bradley said you’re quite confident that you can defeat our nemesis, but he also says you’re confident about everything. Do you actually have, ah – a plan?”

Marla didn’t so much grin as show her teeth. “Sure I do. Because I know something about the Jaguar you don’t know. And when the Jaguar finds out I know his secret, he’ll piss his leopardskin pants in terror. Want to hear more?”


Bethany was nowhere to be found – she’d never returned from the failed assault on the Jaguar, but no one had seen her fall, and none of her squad had returned, either, which meant they were probably dead and she was in the wind. After two hours of talking over details with Cole, and another hour talking to Beta-B and Rondeau about their part in the plan, Marla addressed the rest of the team.

The survivors of the failed assault and the other members of the resistance – including wounded Talion, still-yawning Pie Bob, and the Trapper with her knee magically reset but her dignity still bruised – were gathered around Cole and Marla. “So that’s the plan,” she said. “Anybody have any useful criticisms?”

“I’m not thrilled about the fact that half the plan hinges on you,” Lao Tsung said. “And I’m even less happy with the part that hinges on Rondeau there. Then there’s the whole fact that our entire premise is based on the assumption that something that happened in your universe also happened here, which is by no means definite. But otherwise, I guess it’s no stupider than what we tried today.”

“I’ll do my part,” Marla said. “And Rondeau will do his.” Rondeau looked up at her, eyes full of resignation. She was asking a lot of him, but she couldn’t see another way… at least, not without racking up a much higher body count. “You guys just need to remember your lines and blocking. Can you whip up the tincture, Pie Babe?”

Pie Bob, who was the resident alchemist as well as the resident chef, nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem, we’ve got a decent pantry of spell components here. Just something to enhance a sympathetic connection, right?”

“Yep,” Marla said. “Exactly the sort of thing you would have used to strengthen the association between me and the Mason right before lopping my head off.”

Most of the Camp Kimke crew had the good grace to look ashamed, except for Talion and – heartbreakingly – Beta-B. I’m not your B, he’d shouted, and she’d known that, deep down, but she’d hoped he might become her B. Maybe that was a stupid hope. Then again, they were about to risk their lives in a shared enterprise, and if they didn’t die in the process, that could bring them closer.

It wasn’t like she gave a fart in a hurricane about killing the Jaguar. The Mason, sure – that bitch was wearing her skin – but the Jaguar? Not her world, not her problem. She just wanted to save San Francisco so Beta-B would think she was awesome.

“We’ll go in two teams,” Marla said. “One team will be me, led by me, featuring me. The other team will be led by Lao Tsung, with Bradley and Rondeau along as material assets, and Jericho and the cousins and so on providing tactical backup. Cole will stay here with the rest of you in case, you know. Everything goes bad-shaped. You can be the tattered remnants. Now, everybody get some rest. We’ve got a few hours before go-time. Bradley, Rondeau, Trapper, come talk to me – we’ll get you guys set-up for a few practice runs.”


“I can’t believe she’s asking me to do this.” Rondeau sat, miserable, on the edge of the pit where they’d stupidly tried to hold Marla, his legs dangling down inside. “Back home I’ve got a mad scientist type trying to figure out how to make it so I can’t jump bodies at all, and Marla wants me to do it on purpose?”

“The plan can’t work without you.” Beta-B sat beside him. “I don’t think she’d ask you if there was some other way. Besides, being able to jump from body to body at will doesn’t mean you have to. Hell, having some more control would be a benefit. You’re bound to cross the street drunk and get hit by a bus or get shotgunned by a jealous wife someday, and wouldn’t it be better if you could choose your next host instead of leaping blindly? If you had that kind of control, you could have taken over the guy who shot you, maybe, instead of stealing Alpha-Bradley’s body. Right?”

“Stop dazzling me with logic. It’s not like the plan is even going to work. Supposedly it took that guy Crapsey years to learn how to control where he jumped. How am I supposed to figure it out in, what, three hours?”

“Crapsey was stuck with your original body’s brain, which wasn’t psychic at all. Whereas you’re running Bradley Bowman 1.0 in your skull there.” He tapped the side of Rondeau’s head. “That brain is good at disconnecting the personality and letting it fly free. I do it all the time. Astral travel, remote viewing – I can lay back in bed and fly in spirit-form over the city all night, and when I come back, my body’s all warm and waiting for me. With a brain like that and your natural ability to leave your body, this should be pretty easy for you.”

“You don’t know what it’s like, though,” Rondeau said. “The fear, the sense of disconnection, the terror that I might just float away or dissolve or something…” He shuddered.

“I had the same thing the first time I projected my consciousness. You’ve only done it once that you remember – of course it was scary. That’s why we’re going to practice until it stops being scary and starts being cool. So get into the pit, big boy.”

“Okay.” Rondeau didn’t move. “Listen, Bradley. I’m sorry if I, ah, treated you like somebody you aren’t. I know you aren’t my old friend B, you’re a totally different person, and –”

“It’s okay. I’m the one who should apologize. I was a major dick. I do feel bad about what I tried to do to Marla, but it seemed like an act of evil in service of a greater good, and… You have to understand, under this charming exterior, I’m a deeply desperate dude. The fact that you two are still willing to help, despite my betrayal, tells me you’re better people than I am.”

“Well,” Rondeau said, “I mean. We are pretty great.”

The Trapper cleared her throat. “Guys, I’ve got a couple tabs of vicodin waiting for me when we’re done here, so if we can get started?”

Rondeau nodded and went down the rope ladder into the pit. After he reached the bottom, Beta-B pulled the ladder up to the top. At least they didn’t slide the scary metal grate over the top. The Trapper said, “Okay, I’m going to seal you in. The field will be airtight – more than airtight, it’s sound-tight, magic-tight, totally impermeable. So don’t bother screaming. We won’t hear you. You should have enough oxygen for like a day, but we won’t leave you in there that long. We’ll check on you in a few hours, and if you’re ready to come out, just wave your arms over your head in a big X or give us a thumbs-up or something, okay?”

“I’d like to register a formal protest against Marla’s treatment of me,” Rondeau said.

“You and me both, brother,” the Trapper replied. She closed her eyes, moved her hands, hummed – and a rosy hemisphere of pale light appeared as a dome overhead. The dome was really just part of a bubble that surrounded the entire pit. The Trapper and Beta-B waved and walked away.

“Trapped in a snow globe,” Rondeau said. Beta-B had gone over various exercises with him, ways to loosen his mind and project himself outward, and he figured he might as well get started. The sooner he could totally fail at this, the sooner they could come up with a plan that didn’t depend on his ability to do something he couldn’t possibly do.

Rondeau shut his eyes and envisioned dandelion fluff blowing free in the breeze, champagne corks popping, butterflies emerging from chrysali – chrysalises? Chrysalides? What the hell was the plural of chrysalis anyway? He sighed. This is me, failing to clear my mind.

Rondeau tried again, mostly attempting to push down the fear. The last time he’d left his body, he’d accidentally killed one of his best friends, and the idea of doing something similarly horrible here was terrifying. But the Trapper had him in a bubble his essential self could not escape – as far as they knew, anyway, but nobody really knew what Rondeau was, beyond calling him a “psychic parasite,” which sounded good but didn’t mean much. Still, if he got out of the airtight cell and managed to bodysnatch one of the Camp Kimke Irregulars, that was their own fault, wasn’t it?

It’ll be okay, the ghost of B whispered in his head. Just don’t use the power for evil, man, and it’ll be fine. You always had my forgiveness. You’ve also got my permission.

Whether it was really some remnant of B’s thought patterns, or just wishful thinking and talking to himself, Rondeau took comfort.

Deep breaths. A welling spring, water bubbling to the surface. Moths fluttering into the sky, silhouetted against the moon. Being at the bottom of the sea and floating up and up and up until you finally broke the surface and –

His core being tore loose from his body, and the fear set in, the same grasping panicky desperation to find some kind of solid ground that had led him to take over Bradley Bowman’s body when his own original host died. Rondeau flew up, because there were bodies up there, warm human bodies, he could feel them, any of them would do, whichever was closest, but he hit a wall, something glassy and smooth and impossible to penetrate and he howled but there was no sound.

But in that long desperate moment beating against the dome, the fear subsided. Last time, he’d found a new host so quickly, he hadn’t had time to get used to the feeling of weightlessness and disorientation, and he still wasn’t used to it, but the blind unreasoning flight for a new warm body to possess receded, slightly.

His body! It was still at the bottom of the pit! Faster than thought, he settled back into his stolen skin. It was like sliding into a warm bath, and he gasped – he gasped, because he had lungs – and touched himself all over to make sure he was whole. He was kind of sore – he’d banged his elbow – and he was on the floor twisted at an awkward angle because he hadn’t bothered to arrange his body in any kind of sensible fashion before vacating it. That was dumb – he’d have to be smarter about it next time.

Next time. Right. Once could be a fluke. Any good experiment had to be repeatable.

Leaning against the wall of the pit, he went limp, making sure his body wouldn’t fall over and land on one of the chunks of busted cinderblock that littered the floor. Once settled, he closed his eyes, and did circular breathing like Beta-B had taught him, and visualized that rising-from-the-depths image…

Suddenly he could see again, though he hadn’t opened his eyes. And he could see in all directions, not just 360 degree vision, but… however many degrees there were in a sphere. Which was probably not any degrees at all since a sphere was three-dimensional, which meant instead of degrees there’d be some other math thing, and –

Holy hell I’m out of my body again, he thought, and he knew it was true, because his body was lying there on the floor of the pit, empty as a pair of pants left at the foot of a bed. More importantly, he was out of his body and thinking about math (and his own ignorance thereof) instead of just groping around in blind unreasoning panic for a new meat-bag to occupy. He tried to direct his movement and found he could propel himself – though he couldn’t have said how – around the pit, up and down, taking in the sights. Sight, yes, and into spectrums invisible to his human eyes, but he had no sense of smell, or taste, and no sense of touch, though he could hear his body breathing, except it wasn’t so much hearing as interpreting the vibrations in the air. He could also sense the presence of humans, too, sort of like… how a magnet senses north.

What the hell am I? Rondeau thought, and settled back down into his body again.

He stood up, and opened his mouth to yell, but this stupid magic bubble was soundproof. They wouldn’t let him out until it was time to let him out. He had no clue how long he’d been down there, which meant he might have way too much time to brood over what Marla wanted him to do. Knowing he could leave his body at will was one thing – if he could control the panic that came when he first departed the flesh, he wouldn’t necessarily commit any grievous crimes against humanity. After all, knowing how to shoot a gun doesn’t automatically make you a murderer.

But, being told to shoot somebody, and then doing what you were told, did make you a murderer.

Oh well. Screw that noise. Introspection had never gotten him anywhere. He was in a body again, and bodies were glorious things, marvelous engines of pleasure. So while he was stuck in this hole in the ground, bored out of his mind but with a functioning body, he might as well drop his pants and rub one out.

He fantasized about Talion, because even with the missing fingers and all, that guy was still hot.

Chapter 15

Crapsey’s body flew through the air, driven by a wall of green light, and smashed into a much more conventional wall, made of brick. At least, he was pretty sure it was a brick wall. The other possibility was that a truck had crashed into him, and he didn’t remember seeing any trucks rumbling through the catacombs. His body lay crumpled like a pile of dirty laundry at the base of the wall, and the green light faded, though a tinge of the color overlaid his vision, making everything in the dim dank chamber look faintly algae-beslimed.

Viscarro advanced on him, stepping over the Mason and scuttling past one-armed Nicolette without paying them any attention. His robes parted as he walked, and Crapsey noticed he had a false leg, a fancy thing made of brass and carved dark woods, doubtless magically animated. “You must be admiring my prosthesis.” Viscarro’s voice was like coal falling down a metal chute. “It’s an adequate bit of engineering, though nothing like the original. Nicolette would need one of these to replace her missing arm, except she’s going to bleed out and die, making the limb unnecessary. Teleportation is so gauche. Shouldn’t you all know better?”

“Listen!” Crapsey shouted. “I’m on your side! Go over there and take the cloak off that woman before she wakes up! We can end this!”

At least, that’s what he tried to shout, but his jaw stayed firmly closed, and his tongue didn’t so much as wiggle in his mouth. Crapsey tried to get up, but his body didn’t respond. Uh oh. Had the blow snapped his spine somewhere, or had Viscarro’s staff merely paralyzed him? Either way, this body was no good at the moment. There had to be an apprentice lurking around here somewhere he could possess, and with a voice and mobility he could approach Viscarro and make an audible plea for alliance. Or, failing that, go down fighting.

He tried to leave his body, but the zap of green light had shaken up his brain, and it was tough to focus on his visualizations – the image of steam escaping from the mouth of a teakettle usually worked best, but it wasn’t working now, and he couldn’t remember any of his other options, they all tore and blew away. Maybe it was more than the crash-landing. Maybe the nasty green light had done something to his mind.

Viscarro was standing over him, face like old leather stretched on a bone frame, repulsive little teeth bared in a smile of triumph. “I see you lost your jaw again, Rondeau. The new one looks very interesting. What are those runes? They look like Elder Script, but that can’t be, the last known examples were lost, undocumented, when Rasmussen perished in the megalithic temple collapse…” He knelt down, reaching out with his crooked-stick fingers, and Crapsey knew without a whisper of a doubt that he was about to get his wonderful useful jaw ripped right off his face.

Nicolette stood up behind Viscarro, blood still oozing from her shoulder, swaying unsteadily. She had something in her remaining hand, one of her little baubles — Crapsey couldn’t see exactly what. She tossed it underhand toward the back of Viscarro’s head, and then collapsed to the floor.

Crapsey tried to turn his head away, expecting an explosion, but of course his neck wouldn’t cooperate. His eyelids worked, so he just squeezed his eyes shut and hoped for minimal shrapnel. No boom followed, though – all he heard was the thump of Viscarro’s staff hitting the floor and a muffled scream. He opened his eyes, and Viscarro was on the floor, clawing at his face, which had thick tendrils of vegetation – grape vines, maybe? – growing all over it, woody stems twining around his head like a mummy’s cerements, leaves sprouting. Viscarro didn’t need to breathe, and he soon stopped panicking and began groping for his staff, but the vines wound down around his neck and his chest, and bound up his arms against his body. Within half a minute Viscarro was entirely covered in the growths, curled into a fetal lump, and his screams were barely audible under the wooden shell.

A flare of light blazed beyond Viscarro, and Crapsey squinted against it. Nicolette held what looked like an ordinary sparkler, but the head was far brighter than usual, and she gritted her teeth as she pressed the flame against the stump of her shoulder, cauterizing the wound. The white light seemed to burn away the greenish tinge in Crapsey’s vision, and he experimentally twisted around. His body responded, albeit stiffly, and he grabbed Viscarro’s staff – no longer illuminated, it was just a gnarled piece of wood – and used it to lever himself to his feet. He considered giving Viscarro’s vine-twined body a good kick, but it would probably just hurt his foot. The guy was armored.

“You saved my life,” Crapsey said.

Nicolette’s sparkler went dark. Still on the ground, she looked up at him, a lunatic brightness in her eyes. “Damn. I should’ve waited a few more minutes then. Could’ve been rid of you.”

“Don’t make me hit you with this stick when I’m feeling so grateful.”

“Do whatever you like, jawface.” Nicolette winced and looked at the place her left arm should have been. “Damn. Why do I have a sudden urge to go frame Dr. Richard Kimball for a crime he didn’t commit?”

Crapsey frowned. Nicolette often made no sense, so he didn’t bother asking what she was talking about. “You lost your arm in my world, too. Had it amputated by choice, and replaced it with this horrible tentacle thing.”

“Nice. I was just thinking about how this little mishap opens up some intriguing prosthetic possibilities, though I was going in more of a sex-toy type direction. Tentacles are cool, too, though. Help a witch up?”

Crapsey, who was feeling marginally steadier on his feet now, held out his hand and pulled Nicolette upright. They both hobbled toward the still unmoving Mason.

“Think she’s dead?” Nicolette said.

“No. My paralysis went away when Viscarro dropped his magic stick, so I bet the Mason’s did, too. My guess? She’s laying there, listening, and waiting to see what we’ll do – whether we’ll try to take the cloak off, or kill her, or whatever.”

The Mason rolled over and gazed up at them from the floor. “You know me so well, Crapsey. If your body hadn’t been so young and undeveloped when I was looking for a host, I might have taken you over. You’re nowhere near as weak or stupid as people suppose, and while your will is not like that of humans, it has a certain… resiliency, a kind of hybrid strength. It’s just as well — I wouldn’t have been able to use your ability to switch bodies, so it would have been a waste of a good tool — but still.”

“That’s simultaneously creepy and flattering, boss. But what if you took me over and I jumped bodies to get away from you? Wouldn’t you be stuck hanging off an empty body, and pretty much totally fucked?”

The Mason rose. “You could not leap voluntarily in those days. And once I was on your shoulders, and in your mind, I could have made sure you never learned how. Many sorcerers have the ability transfer their consciousness to other bodies, too, you know – I just made sure Marla never did.”

Crapsey sniffed. “And here I thought I was special.”

“Oh, you are. Body-swapping requires preparation and ritual for sorcerers, but it comes so naturally to you. And your ability to… displace… other souls and consign them to oblivion is unique in my experience. Sorcerers have no such power. Their most common approach is merely to switch consciousness, trading bodies, and the act is frowned upon by most, considered a crime and violation. As if vermin can even commit crimes against one another.”

“I know that body-switching trick,” Nicolette said. “It’s a bitch to do right, takes forever to work up the ritual. Unless you’re talking about twins or something, where you can set up a sympathetic resonance, then it’s pretty easy. I knew this pair of twins in the Four Tree Gang who switched bodies all the time, mostly just to sleep with each others’ girlfriends. We call it ‘the thing on the doorstep trick.'”

“H.P. Lovecraft reference,” Crapsey said. “Nice. Bonus points.”

“You can read?” Nicolette said.

“Sure. Well. To be honest, it was like an adaptation in a comic book, but I got the general idea.”

Nicolette shook her head. “Anyway. Not that I don’t enjoy talking shop with my colleagues and all, but can we, like, become people of action again? I ate a painkiller charm, but this stump’s going to start bothering me bad pretty soon, and I lost who knows how much blood. I could use some healing magic. There’s a bruja who owes me a favor, maybe we could go see her –”

The Mason sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”

And then something happened that Crapsey had never seen before: The Mason’s cloak flashed and changed to white, the purple visible only when her movements revealed the garment’s lining. The Mason suddenly looked a lot less like a menacing witch and a lot more like a tree-loving druid or something. She smiled. “There was a time when Marla struggled mightily whenever my offensive capabilities were reduced this way, but she’s quiet now.” The Mason reached out to touch Nicolette’s wound, ignoring the chaos witch’s gasp, and white light spiraled up the Mason’s fingers and across Nicolette’s charred flesh.

Crapsey watched, mouth hanging open, as the light swirled and dripped and ran, the cauterized stump becoming pink flesh. White light streamed into the shape of bones, growing down from the shoulder, and more light wrapped the bones to form muscle, and Crapsey said, “Holy shit, are you growing her a new arm?”

“Just something temporary,” the Mason murmured, and indeed, the light didn’t turn into flesh, but stayed light – only light hardened, light in the shape of a bicep, an elbow, a forearm, a wrist, a hand.

The Mason stepped away, and Nicolette lifted her new faintly-glowing arm, clenching and unclenching the fingers. “Fucking cool,” she said. “Feels like the whole arm’s dipped in ice water or something, but still, I can feel. How long will it last?”

The Mason shrugged. “Until I stop paying attention to it. So enjoy it while you can.”

Nicolette swung the arm around, made a fist, and otherwise experimented with her new limb. “Can I do anything cool with this? Suck out life force, or turn people to steam, or anything?”

“It’s an artificial limb made of thickened light,” the Mason said. “If that’s not sufficiently magical for you, perhaps you should recalibrate your expectations.”

“Yeah, all right.” Nicolette pointed her glowing arm at Viscarro. “So what happens to the green man there?”

The Mason circled Viscarro’s wooden sarcophagus. “What did you do to him?”

“Enchanted grape seed. A hundred year’s growth compacted into something the size of a pea. Pretty sweet, huh?”

“Ingenious,” the Mason said. “I will burn him.” The white cloak flickered and became purple again, and the Mason snapped her fingers. Flames abruptly engulfed the wood, leaves curling and blackening, and Viscarro began screaming again, though not for long. The furious and self-contained fire soon turned the vines and flesh and bone underneath to a heap of ash and fragments, then guttered out, leaving behind an oddly aromatic smoke.

“Viscarro’s dead,” Nicolette said. “Or dead-er. Until someone picks up his phylactery, I guess.”

“So, explain that to me,” Crapsey said. “Since we’re on the subject of body-stealing. Viscarro’s got his soul in some geegaw or another –”

“It’s a gem.”

“Right. And if somebody picks up the gem, he takes over their body, right?”

“Not exactly,” the Mason said. “He enters their body, yes, and can attempt to take control. And being very old, and wily, and powerful, he will probably succeed, pushing the original mind into a corner. Much like I’ve done with Marla. Occasionally the two minds can instead reach an accommodation, a kind of shared custody of the body.”

“Like they gotta negotiate over when to jerk off and when to take a nap?” Crapsey said. “That’s stupid. My way is simplest. Scorched earth all the way.”

“Mmm. Let’s go destroy the gem that holds Viscarro’s soul and make the question moot.”

“You know where he keeps the gem?” Nicolette said. “Really?”

“In a locked box in his personal vault in the most secure part of the Bank of the Catacombs,” the Mason said. “I pried it open and destroyed it in my world, and I shall do so here as well. Come.”


Viscarro’s defenses were legendary, his vaults supposedly unbreachable, but the Mason didn’t appear to have much trouble, slicing through spells and steel alike with clawed fingers rippling with purple magic. They passed through a succession of increasingly well-protected rooms, shelves lined with objects miraculous and merely valuable and utterly useless, arranged by a scheme known only to Viscarro. There were probably artifacts in here, but the subterranean sorcerer was smart enough to disguise them by hiding them among lots of other junk. Crapsey’s untrained eye couldn’t tell the mysterious wonders of the universe from yard sale bric-a-brac, so he stuck with pocketing portable things of obvious secular value. He helped himself to a few gold coins and precious gems as he trailed after the Mason, and when Nicolette gave him a funny look, he shrugged. “What? I’m just looting a little. You don’t loot?”

“I guess there are some nice things here.” She picked up an ornate, silver-inlaid hand axe with a crescent-shaped blade that gleamed like a fragment of moonlight. “This is cool.” She tucked it into her sack of baubles.

The Mason paused at a shiny steel door that resisted her magic, hummed for a moment, and drew her best knife.

“Is that the dagger of office?” Nicolette wrinkled her nose, probably at the smell of steel going molten under the Mason’s blade. “You’re chief sorcerer of Felport on your side, too? Kind of a square job.”

“She challenged and killed the old boss, Sauvage,” Crapsey said. “And the council didn’t have much choice but to give her the top spot, since she murdered the ones who hesitated. She eventually murdered the rest, too – except Hamil, he got away, and the Bay Witch, who stayed underwater and never came back – but they got to live a little longer by being obedient. She only wanted the job to get the dagger, of course.”

The Mason stepped away from the door, and a large section of steel fell inward with a crash. “There are certain drawbacks,” she said. “To keep the dagger I have to protect Felport, so I made it my imperial capitol, though it is not as favorably located as I would like. Some assume I have loyalty to the place. They are fools.” She stepped into the vault, and returned a few moments later, frowning. “The gem is gone. He moved it.”

“Huh,” Nicolette said. “You know, the fact that Viscarro is a lich wasn’t exactly public knowledge around here, but earlier this year some shit went down and he got outed. Marla really hates the undead, and I was kinda surprised when she didn’t have Viscarro destroyed when she found out… but maybe she made a deal with him, you know? Like, she took his phylactery so she could lay the ultimate beat-down on him if he got out of hand?”

The Mason frowned. “Is that simple speculation, or do you have some reason to believe Marla took such action?”

“I used to have spies and sources, and I heard Viscarro made a special magical safe for Marla not long after his secret came out. I figured it was something for her to put her cloak in… but maybe it was something to put his phylactery in, instead.”

“Where might she keep such a thing?”

Nicolette shrugged. “Her apartment or her office, I’d guess. She spends more time at her office, over Rondeau’s club.”

“Hmm.” The Mason stared at the wall for a moment. “Viscarro is neutralized for now. We will wait. I will kill another sorcerer, perhaps two, before going to Marla’s office. By then she should be sufficiently provoked to put on her cloak and face me, if she still possesses the artifact.”

“Great,” Crapsey said. “Who’s victim number two?”

“There was one name Nicolette mentioned that I did not know. Ernesto?”

“Right,” Nicolette said. “He’s the newest member of the council, took over Artie Mann’s spot when the old perv got murdered by a serial killer targeting sorcerers.”

“Mmm,” the Mason said. “This killer, he sliced open their bellies and spilled out their entrails?”

“That’s the guy. He made trouble on your side too?”

The Mason shrugged. “He killed one of my lieutenants. I faced him and tore him to pieces. He was possessed of strange powers, but nothing I couldn’t handle. This Ernesto, what is his specialty?”

“He does a little of this, a little of that, but mostly he’s good at folding space, you know? Making things bigger on the inside than the outside, that sort of thing. Lives in a big scrapyard in the really ugly part of town. He’s kind of a bruiser, too, not afraid to get into a fight.”

“Are he and Marla allies or rivals?”

“Oh, they’re tight,” Nicolette said. “They were apprentices together, actually.”

The Mason frowned. “Ernesto was one of Viscarro’s apprentices?”

“What? No, he was one of Artie Mann’s apprentices, just like Marla.”

Crapsey whistled. “This parallel dimension shit is weird, isn’t it? Over on our side, Marla was one of Viscarro’s apprentices — before she found the cloak and, you know, became the Mason. Seized her genocidal destiny. All that.”

“I had not expected such a point of divergence,” the Mason said, still staring at the wall. “It would be interesting to speak with the Marla Mason of this world, and find out where else our histories differ. What made Marla in my world put on the cloak that first time and never remove it again, while in this world Marla was able to resist the temptation of ultimate power?”

“Are you displaying curiosity, boss?” Crapsey said. “First you use healing magic, now you’re wondering about psychological motivations and shit. Are you going soft on me?”

“No,” the Mason said. “Insight into such points of divergence may prove useful when I go forth to conquer the other worlds in the multiverse. Come. If Marla Mason likes this Ernesto, then perhaps his death will hasten her appearance. Nicolette, you will take us to him.”

“Wait, what are you talking about, conquering the multiverse?”

The Mason just walked out of the vault without answering him. “I hate it when she does that,” he said.

Nicolette punched him too hard in the shoulder with her glowing fist, and it felt just like getting punched too hard with a real fist. “You gotta admire her, though. She thinks big.”

“Yeah, but if we go around conquering other parallel dimensions, how the fuck many other versions of you am I going to have to put up with?”

“It’s a number best described as ‘bazillions,'” Nicolette said, and left the vault, cackling.


They pulled up in front of Ernesto’s scrapyard as night began to fall. They’d been underground for a long-ass time, and Crapsey yawned. “After we murder this dude, can we go get a hotel room or something?”

“We will continue to sow terror well into the night,” the Mason said. “We will acquire stimulants to keep you awake if necessary.”

“I’ve got some mongoose blood and stuff in my bag here,” Nicolette said. She’d rummaged through the barracks where Viscarro housed his apprentices – who’d all fled – and managed to find clothes that didn’t make her look like an escaped mental patient, and much to Crapsey’s dismay he actually found her kind of sexy, since she was wearing a skimpy blue tank top and jeans that were tight enough to reveal: no underwear. In his world, Nicolette slopped around in paint-stained overalls and she also had that nasty tentacle arm, so his body never betrayed him with attraction. He’d been horny ever since meeting Dr. Husch, though. In addition to a hot meal and a hot shower, he could use a hot girl, or at least some alone time to rub one out solo and clear his mind.

“You’re a slave driver, boss,” Crapsey said. Then, to Nicolette: “Literally. She has slaves. She drives them. It’s messed up.”

“Nah, sounds hot to me.” Nicolette reached back to the rear seat and squeezed Crapsey’s crotch. “Your slip is showing, jawface.” She got out of the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut before he even had time to blush.

“Humans are repulsive,” the Mason said, and left the vehicle as well.

“Gods damn it,” Crapsey said to the empty Humvee. “Am I going to end up fucking Nicolette?” Sleeping with her would be as stupid as screwing a bear trap, but the dick wants what it wants. He sighed. It was a problem for another time. For now, he had to go help kill some dude who’d never wronged him, whom he’d never met before, and whose name he honestly couldn’t even remember at the moment. Again.

But first he’d wait for his erection to subside, because that shit was embarrassing.

Chapter 16

“Charming city you’ve got here.” Marla stepped over what appeared to be the half-eaten corpse of a frog roughly the size of a car tire.

“It was nicer, once.” Cole’s voice in her ear was as clear as if the man were standing at her shoulder, instead of hiding out safe and sound deep below ground who knew how many miles away. Marla trudged across the San Francisco National Cemetery heading northeast. The graves were all open pits in the earth – the Jaguar had raised the dead, animated them with the souls of deceased Aztec warriors in need of fresh bodies, and set them to doing his dirty work. The sky was blue and the air oppressively humid, which did not match her past experience with San Francisco weather. The Jaguar had brought some of the jungle with him when he arrived. That explained why all the monuments and headstones in the cemetery were wound with vines, their leaves so green the color looked artificial.

Marla had ordered everybody to sleep through the night, because jaguars were largely nocturnal, which meant daylight was their friend. Everybody managed to get some sack time, apart from guard duty shifts, of course – even if Cole said the camp was impregnable, why take chances this close to a big assault? She let Lao Tsung organize the rotation, because the Camp Kimke Irregulars were already irked at taking so much direction from her. This morning Yasuko had taken Marla to a little electric golf cart and driven down miles of tunnel, then led her on foot along less level terrain, including a couple of places where she had to crawl on her belly through old pipes. They’d eventually emerged near the Presidio, the old Spanish fort that had been converted into an American military base until it got decommissioned in the 1990s. Now it was the ugliest part of a national park instead of a fortress. Yasuko told Marla the Palace of Fine Arts was about a mile away as the crow flies, gave her some vague directions, and then scurried back into the tunnels. Once she was gone, Marla put her purple and white cloak on her shoulders, fastening it at the throat with her stag-beetle pin and pulling the hood up over her head. She’d kept the cloak folded up and out of sight on her journey because the artifact clearly freaked Yasuko out, but now that the Jaguar’s spies might see her, it was important to look the part.

Marla wasn’t entirely alone. She had a little enchanted grape seed tucked into her right ear, enabling her to hear and be heard by Cole. When she’d asked why they used a grape seed, Beta-B had started singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” making Marla groan. The connection was only temporary – she’d have to ditch the device before she went in to see the Jaguar, because who knew how perceptive he was? – but if there were any disasters in the next fifteen or twenty minutes, she’d hear about them, at least.

Marla left the cemetery and followed Lincoln Boulevard east for a while. There were a few overturned cars wrapped completely in vines, and the asphalt was cracked and buckled. Bright green lizards scurried past, and obscenely colorful birds flitted by. She saw a group of skeletal figures off in the distance, running in circles in a parking lot kicking what might have been a ball but which her gut told her was a severed head. They didn’t notice her. Just as well. You didn’t want to start an audience with a god by kicking the shit out of his palace guards, if you could avoid it.

She left Lincoln, clambered across the ruins of Highway 101, and walked north past a few buildings that had collapsed in on themselves. A snake thicker than a fire hose slithered by in front of her. She wondered where her old ally – and now sworn enemy – Ch’ang Hao was in this universe. He would’ve liked the snakes, at least. She cut across a couple of parking lots – no games of head-ball here – and then, there it was: Mason Street. Marla smiled. She could have stayed on Highway 101 (that would have been faster) but walking down a street that shared her name seemed right. You took good omens where you could find them.

Though since it was also the name of this world’s greatest despot, maybe it wasn’t such a great idea.

Mason Street didn’t go all the way to the Palace of Fine Arts, so she had to veer south after a while. The dome of the Palace appeared before her, and as she drew closer she rolled her eyes at the over-the-top Roman and Greek architecture, the pillars and friezes and carved figures of women all way bigger than life-sized. They were improved by the excessive vegetative growth, in her opinion. “This place looks like crap, Cole. The lagoon would be pretty if it wasn’t all slimed with algae and filled with water snakes. The dome’s pretty impressive, I’ll grant you that, but it’s cracked and covered in vines now.”

“The Jaguar has brought ruin upon the city,” Cole said. “I only hope we have the opportunity to repair the damage.”

“I’ll do my best. Everything going well there?”

“So far. Lao Tsung reported in. They’re on their way to the island.”

“Good. I’d better make with the radio silence, Cole. From here on, we’ll just have to hope our timing works out.” She took the grape seed from her ear and carefully tucked it under a bush. Given the excessive fecundity of this place, it’d probably be a full-grown vine in a couple of days if she didn’t come back for it.

If she failed.

Marla had expected the Jaguar to be inside the exhibition hall, which housed a science museum in less monster-god-oppressed versions of San Francisco, but no, he’d set up his throne room right there under the dome in the central rotunda, surrounded by pillars, but otherwise pretty much in the open air.

There were lots of skeleton types milling around the edges of the dome, armed with obsidian swords and generally looking like rejects from a Ray Harryhausen movie. Marla approached them without hesitation, and they finally noticed her, lurching in her direction and moaning in a decidedly aggressive manner. So much for a peaceful arrival. She drew her dagger of office, and when one of the skeletons lifted his sword, she slashed out, cut the blade in two, and kicked the stunned skeleton’s bony knee, making the corpse collapse.

“Jaguar!” she shouted. “This is the Mason! Call off your goons, unless you want me to chop them all into bone meal!” She kicked and spun, slashing with her dagger to drive back the other skeletons. The vast shape in the gathered shadows beneath the dome shifted. After a moment the remaining skeletal guards drew back, lining up on either side of her to form a corridor that stretched under the dome.

Marla whispered an incantation to improve her vision, and the vague darkness and motion under the dome leapt into well-lit relief.

Good gods, she thought. He actually built a throne of skulls?

The Jaguar was easily three times Marla’s height, maybe even taller – it was hard to tell when he was seated on his ridiculous chair, which was itself bigger than a car. His form was human-ish, just oversized, though his flesh was spotted like a leopard’s and his fingers ended in the claws of a big cat. He was dressed in feathers and gold, and when he showed his teeth, his canines were longer than Marla’s longest knife. “Come forward, Mason,” he said, and the earth literally rumbled when he spoke. Marla wasn’t seriously knowledgeable when it came to Aztec deities, but Cole had given her the crash course: this was Tepeyollotl, “heart of the mountains,” a god of earthquakes, echoes, and jaguars. This particular form was just one aspect of a larger god, of course – that was often the case with such overcrowded pantheons – and one of his other aspects was Tlaltecuhtli, the toad god who’d been brought to life rather more briefly in Marla’s world.

Marla walked to the foot of the throne, which was indeed made entirely of human skulls and bones, some with flesh still clinging to them. The dead flesh should have been the worst stink there, but another smell was stronger: the ammonia of cat piss. Various actual jaguars lay snoozing under the dome, but they didn’t worry Marla. The big guy did. He could probably smush her without much trouble if he wanted, and if he began to suspect she wasn’t really the Mason, he probably would. Marla wasn’t sure how the Mason would act, but based on her encounters with the bleak intelligence that dwelled inside the cloak, she could make some guesses: cold, arrogant, and utterly without mercy or fear.

“Your cloak is white this time.” The Jaguar’s voice was less vast and earth-shaking now. Made sense he could modulate the effect – otherwise every time he asked one of his skeletools to fetch him a beer he’d cause freeways to collapse and buildings to fall down.

“I’m not planning to commit any horrendous acts of violence just now,” she said, not bothering to crane her neck to look at his face, because that would make her look weak. She addressed his knees instead, though she’d gotten a good look at his ugly mug earlier: he had a snout and whiskers, which should have been inhuman and scary, but just made her think of the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz instead. That wasn’t a bad association, actually – like the great and powerful Oz, the Jaguar wasn’t exactly as great and powerful as he seemed. “The white is… call it a flag of truce.”

“Ah.” The Jaguar shifted on his throne, leaning forward to look down at her. “Does that mean you’ve come to accept my proposal?”

“Come down here to my level so I don’t have to talk to your loincloth, kitty cat,” she said.

The Jaguar chuckled and stepped off the throne, losing height and breadth as he did so, until he was more-or-less human scale, though he was still a solid eight feet tall. Well, who could blame him; Marla wouldn’t want to give up the psychological advantage of greater height, either, in his place. He frowned at her. “You look different. Older.”

Marla shrugged. “I sold a few years of my life in a dark ritual to destroy one of my enemies. Since I’m immortal anyway, giving up a fraction of my infinite years wasn’t a tough decision. I’m not as pretty now, but I don’t generally get by on my looks.”

“Mmm. Implausible.” He leaned forward and sniffed her, then nodded again. “But your blood smells the same. You are the Mason. My sentries did not note your arrival in my city.”

“Just goes to show I can get to you anytime I want undetected, doesn’t it?” Marla sat cross-legged on the stone floor, and, after a moment, the Jaguar followed suit.

“You make threats? Against me?”

“Not so much a threat as force of habit. Don’t mind me.”

“Your company disgusts me,” the Jaguar said. “You are an aberration, an outsider, and your very existence poisons the universe. But I acknowledge your power. I am glad you have come to seek an accommodation with me. War would not profit either of us.”

“Who said I was here to seek accommodation?”

He frowned. “When you left after your diplomatic mission, you said you would consider my proposal to divide up the Earth – the Americas for me, Eurasia for you, Africa for me, Australia and the icy north and south and most islands for you. I assume you came to agree, and to make arrangements to remove your influence from this continent.”

“Oh. That.” Marla yawned. “No, I’m not here about that. Here’s my counteroffer: head south, down to Mexico City – that was the seat of your old empire back in the day, right? – and build a very tall, very strong wall. If it’s tall enough and strong enough that none of the people I send to kill you can get inside, then you can live in there… at least until I do manage to knock the walls over. Do we have a deal?”

“You dare speak to me this way?” His voice picked up a subsonic rumble again, the earth quivering. “I am the heart of the mountains, god of beasts and ringing voices and the upheaval of the Earth itself, I am –”

“Cut the crap, Mutex,” she said, and he fell silent.

“I… this Mutex, you refer to the priest who helped open a doorway for me –”

“I refer to you, Mutie, riding around inside the body of a god like a kid trying on his daddy’s rain boots. I know all about it. I know how you raised the Jaguar god, and how you did the thing on the doorstep trick – that’s what we call body-switching around here – to put your mind inside the god’s avatar, and to put the god’s mind inside your stupid, frail human body. You talked a good game about wanting to restore the glory of a fading civilization and to maintain the balance of the universe and make sure the orbits of the sun and stars were well-lubricated with sacrificial heart’s blood, but I know the truth. You just wanted power. That’s okay. I like power too. But, see, I know your secret.” At least, she hoped so. Mutex had switched bodies with the god in her world, and she was betting he’d done the same thing over here. If he hadn’t, and if this really was Tepeyollotl… well, she’d never expected to live forever.

“You know nothing.” The god’s face was hard to read, what with the snout and all, but if Marla had to guess, she’d have guessed “pissed off” and “afraid.” She tried not to smile.

“Right. Because if you were actually Tepeyollotl, you’d totally be squatting under a relic from the 1894 World’s Fair, running the day-to-day business of your empire, instead of, you know, dwelling wherever the gods dwell. Real gods don’t run things directly, Mutex – that’s what priests are for. Gods just sit back and drink the sacrificial blood and occasionally smite somebody for the hell of it. But you’re stuck in this body, this particular instantiation of the god, this one avatar, and sure, you can do some fancy shit: you can make the ground shake and you can control kitty cats and all that, and you’re probably pretty much immortal. But you’re sure as hell no god. If you are, show me one of your other aspects – let froggy come a’courtin’ and show me Tlaltecuhtli. Or how about Mictlantecuhtli, the god of the dead, that’s one of your other faces too, right?”

“You cannot speak to me this way. I am a god.”

“Ooh, or I know, show me the really scary one, the main man, Tezcatlipoca, the one they call the Smoking Mirror – you’re just an aspect of that guy, right? He’s one of the big deities, the Zeus or Odin or Shiva or Ra of Mesoamerica. Except you’re not him. You’re a little piece broken off of him, and you’re just hoping he never notices and comes to reclaim his big kitty cat aspect, aren’t you? You’re probably safe, since the Aztec gods are all sleeping wherever pretty-much-forgotten gods sleep. Except, you know… I can wake the Smoking Mirror. I can get his attention and point him in your direction. I have that power.”

Marla had no idea how you went about summoning an Aztec deity, especially one of the big ones – it had taken Mutex a hell of a lot of blood and preparation to summon the avatar of one lesser incarnation – but the Mason could probably manage it, or at least plausibly make the threat. “Would you like that?” she said. “Would you like me to call your big sky daddy – or underworld daddy or whatever, I don’t know where the gods live in your mythology, I skimmed that chapter – and let you explain to him how you locked a fragment of his consciousness up in a fragile human body?”

The Jaguar stared at her with unblinking, big cat eyes – vertical pupils would have fit right in with his whiskered face, but of course, big cats had round pupils – and then looked off to the side. “I need more than Mexico City,” he said. “Give me all of Central and South America. And we need a treaty. I will respect your borders and boundaries if you respect mine.”

Marla grinned. She had a pretty nasty reputation herself, but the Mason’s rep was ferocious enough to move mountains – or at least the heart of the mountains. Now that she knew she was right, that he really was Mutex in a god’s body, she could move on to the real plan. She could have used this line of intimidation to get the Jaguar out of San Francisco and give the city back to Cole, but that would just be shifting the problem to the people in Central America, who probably had enough problems in this wizard-filled world already. He was just too damn powerful and way too fond of eating human flesh and cutting out hearts. Better to get rid of him entirely, which was why she’d sent Beta-B and Rondeau and the others to Alcatraz to help set Mutex/the Jaguar up for a seriously long fall.

She had to assume her friends had actually done what she sent them to do, which was a big assumption, but she couldn’t be everywhere at once, so she’d have to trust they’d stuck to the plan and pulled it off.

“You’re in no position to dictate terms, catface, but sure, I’ll let you have your little piece of the third world. Behave and I won’t come take it away from you. Okay. We have a deal.” She stood up, lightly shaking her right arm as she did so, making the little vial hidden up her sleeve slide down into her waiting hand. Pie Bob assured her the potion was potent enough to forge a sympathetic magic connection between lightning and a lightning bug, between the moon and a piece of green cheese, between a goldfish bowl and the ocean. “Just one other thing,” she said, flipped the cap off the vial, and dashed its contents into the Jaguar’s face.

If everything on Beta-B and Rondeau’s side had gone according to plan, that should be the last necessary act – the avatar of Tepeyollotl should be effectively neutralized in a moment.

Instead the Jaguar merely wiped the glistening fluid, thicker than olive oil, off his face. “What was that supposed to do?” he said. “Did you think I could be poisoned?”

Shit. Worst case, this meant Rondeau and Beta-B had failed utterly and were now dead. Best case, they were just suffering a little delay, in which case, she should try to buy them some more time. If they were dead, she was probably dead, too, but at least she could go down fighting.

“So that’s a no-go on the poison, then,” she said. “Let’s see how you do with plain old horrific trauma.”

The Jaguar began to grow in size, and the big cats under the dome roused themselves and growled, and the warriors in their tatters of quilted armor lifted their black glass blades.

She was outgunned, if not outclassed, so she didn’t have any choice.

With a mental command, Marla reversed her cloak. The cool white vanished, replaced by the purple of old bruises and poisonous berries. The cloak’s malign intelligence – which, in another place in this very world, had overwhelmed its wearer and become the monster called the Mason – woke up and whispered in her mind. Usually the cloak didn’t speak to her – at least, not with words. It just tried to impose its will, to co-opt Marla and use her rage for its own purposes. To seize control of her body forever, something Marla had always been able to fight off, using the cloak instead of letting herself be used. But this time, the cloak did speak, a voice as cold and clear as desert starlight.

It’s been too long, the voice whispered. I’ve missed you. Think of everything we can do together. Just let go. Stop fighting and let go. I’ll handle everything.

This couldn’t be good. The cloak’s whispers had become intelligible. Did that mean it was getting stronger, that she’d used it too often, that the evil magic had built up in her system to toxic levels? She’d tried many times to give up wearing the cloak forever, because she was afraid its effect was cumulative, magical poison building up in her system like mercury or lead. But the cloak’s magic was too profound, too useful, and she’d never been able to completely give it up. Deep down she’d always believed she was strong enough to fight its influence forever… but maybe that was stupid. In this world, at least, she hadn’t been strong enough, and the cloak had won, and the world had suffered as a consequence.

Well? the cloak said.

Marla, deep inside her own mind, thought, We’ll talk about it later. For now, maybe we should kill these things before they kill us?

The cloak wreathed her in purple light, draping her in shadows that sparked and writhed and lashed.

Killing is something we both enjoy, the cloak replied, and they went about their work together.

Chapter 17

Crapsey and Nicolette kept up the chase for a while, but then Ernesto did something funny to the air. His body shimmered, as if viewed through water or bubbled glass, and he vanished from sight. The Mason snarled, crouched, leapt, and similarly shimmered, disappearing without so much as a “pop” of displaced air.

“Huh.” Crapsey stopped running and looked around for something to lean against, to get that nonchalant devil-may-care pose just right, but they were surrounded by towering piles of junked cars, which would give him tetanus if he leaned against them, assuming they didn’t just collapse and avalanche him under. He settled for crossing his arms and looking vaguely skyward. “That didn’t look like teleportation,” he said.

Nicolette was just a shadowy shape in the dimness of the evening, except for her glowing spectral arm, which emitted light but didn’t provide much illumination. “Ernesto’s a master of space. They say this junkyard goes on for hundreds of miles, all squeezed into an area just a few city blocks square. The place is like topographical origami, and sometimes apprentices go in deep, and get lost, and never come out again. He did some space-bending hoodoo to try and escape, and your boss just… followed him. Like it was nothing.”

“Most magic is pretty easy for her,” Crapsey said. “Some of the best sorcerers in the world have thrown their nastiest death magics at her, and she just shrugged them off. She says it’s like… density. And mass. The magic where she’s from is a lot denser than the magic here. Like our magic is spiderwebs and her magic is a bus. A bus can drive through a spiderweb without even noticing it. She says most magic doesn’t hurt her any more than getting hit with a foam pool noodle would.”

“Viscarro zapped her good with that staff of his.”

Crapsey nodded. “Sure. But that’s –” He paused, looked around, and sighed. “This is boring. They’re not coming back soon. Want to go to the front gate? Cover the exit or whatever?”

Nicolette shrugged but started walking, and Crapsey kept talking as they went. “Yeah, Viscarro’s staff knocked her down. And there have been other people – well, not people, things – that gave her some trouble. This scorpion creature in the desert. Reweavers. Some guys called Thrones, though she chased those off eventually. Viscarro’s not that badass, really, but he’s got all those artifacts. ‘Artifact’ is just a fancy word for magical stuff so weird or old or dangerous nobody’s sure who made it or where it came from. Some of those things come from other universes – not like versions of this universe, but whole totally other universes, places where the rules are completely different – places where the magic is a lot denser than it is here, maybe. The Mason says with some artifacts, the visible part of them, the part you touch and pick up and zap people with, is just a tiny portion of some much larger thing poking through, with the rest of it hidden in imperceptible dimensions. So maybe Viscarro’s staff was something like that. She says –”

“The Mason says, the Mason says,” Nicolette said. “Since when does she talk so much?”

“Well. I’m kinda condensing stuff she’s said over, like, a decade.” They reached the front gate – the walk back went a lot quicker, probably a folded-space thing – and Crapsey settled down in one of the metal chairs in front of the little trailer-slash-office just inside the fence. Nicolette hooked another chair with her foot and dragged it close, sitting at an angle, not quite facing him. They both had pretty good sightlines into the scrapyard, just in case something should come rushing out. “She doesn’t –”

When the attack came, it came not from the scrapyard but from inside the silver lozenge-shaped trailer. Crapsey gagged as black smoke poured from the windows and roof vents, an oily mist that seemed thick as syrup. Crapsey dove off the chair as the smoke coalesced into something roughly human-shaped, except ten or twelve feet tall. “Pollution golem!” Nicolette shouted.

Well, that was something new. Crapsey squinted his eyes against the reeking smoke and Cursed, triggering a bit of primal chaos to unsettle the world on a small and local scale.

Blue sparks jumped from Crapsey’s mouth toward the smoke creature. The golem caught fire, so now it was a twelve-foot-tall man-shaped creature made of flame, which was, under the circumstances, not much of an improvement. But as it burned, the golem slumped and diminished in size, and Nicolette whipped some charm out of her bag and dropped it to the ground – it looked like a cheap plastic spinning top from a Cracker Jack box, but when it hit the ground and spun it spawned a miniature tornado that whipped the pollution golem apart, flames shredding into nothing, until all that remained was an oily puddle on the ground and a hovering mist of industrial funk in the air.

“So what’s the Mason’s deal, exactly?” Nicolette said, retaking her seat. “She wants to exterminate all life?”

Crapsey turned his chair upright and sat back down. “Nah. Not all life. Things that aren’t sentient don’t bother her much, though she doesn’t have any particular affection for them. It’s mostly people she can’t stand, and dolphins. Practically speaking, killing everybody is really hard, just in terms of plain logistics – the world’s teeming with people, more born every day, billions of them, and most fight like hell to stay alive. She could drop nukes or something, but she says she has plans for the planet, and doesn’t want to break it.”

“She could go pandemic,” Nicolette said. “Disease. Dead bodies everywhere would be a bitch to clean up, but it would get the job done.”

Crapsey nodded. “Yeah. But, see, her goal’s not total extermination. If all the humans died she’d be pissed. She’s into mass murder, but she’s also into eugenics. Breeding people with natural magical talent together, seeing what kind of kids they have. That’s a pretty long-term thing, obviously. She’s also into experimenting on people to see if she can enhance their abilities – she’s got this facility in what used to be Wyoming. I’m telling you, the noises you can hear from outside the walls would make your balls shrivel up, if you had balls. The Mason says humans are weak genetic stock, and it takes a lot of them to maintain a diverse and healthy breeding population, so she needs to leave tons of them alive, or else risk making them extinct accidentally.”

“Wait, so she’s trying to make better sorcerers? Isn’t that… stupid?”

Crapsey shrugged. “She wants them as slaves, I guess. Or maybe as replacement bodies when her current body wears out, assuming it’s not immortal? She’s never really told me why. She’s not majorly into whys. As long as there are some dispensable spare humans I can take over when my body starts to fall apart, I’m happy.”

An explosion boomed deep in the scrapyard, and they both jumped, watching a plume of flame leap up to skyscraper height and then abruptly vanish. “Big boom,” Nicolette said. “Think your boss needs some help?”

Crapsey shook his head. “By the time we got over there they’d be gone. Besides, you saved the day once already, I think you hit your quota for usefulness.”

“I figured if I wanted to stay on the team, I’d better contribute.”

“You’ve been a lot nicer to me lately. Why’s that? Because you want to be part of the team?”

Nicolette shrugged. “Not really. You just got physical. Threatened me.”

“Ha. So you’re afraid of pissing me off now?”

“Jawface, I could turn you into cole slaw. No, I’m not afraid. But I realized you’re more than just Rondeau with a gym membership and a prosthetic face. Rondeau’s weak, basically, and I can’t stand weakness. But you’ve got some initiative. He’s a lapdog, but you’re, at the very least, an attack dog.”

“Woof, woof,” Crapsey said.

They sat in silence for a while, listening for more dramatic explosions, but the only sound was the wind whispering through the junk and the distant hum of freeway traffic. Crapsey leaned his chair back against the trailer and closed his eyes.

If the three apprentices hadn’t screamed half-assed battle cries as they leapt over a wrecked car and charged, Crapsey might not even have seen them coming. But since they yelled, he opened one eye, and there they were: two young guys and a girl in stained coveralls, wielding wrenches and tire irons crackling with electrical magics. Crapsey closed his eyes again, left his body, took over the guy in the back, and bashed the other two in their heads with the wrench until they stopped moving. He let the stolen body drop, returned to his own body, and yawned.

Nicolette, who hadn’t even bothered getting up, said, “I think you’re wrong about why the Mason wants to keep humans alive.”

“Let’s hear your theory, then.”

“I know she’s an incomprehensible alien from another sphere and all that, but I bet she wants what most living things want, deep down in their genes and instincts.”

“What’s that? Food? Shelter? High-quality drugs?”

“Babies,” Nicolette said. “I think she wants to repopulate the Earth in her own image.”

Crapsey snorted. “I don’t see her getting a lot of action, Nikki. Evil Cursed Cloak Single’s Night down at the Community Center never draws much of a crowd.”

“But she’s alien. You don’t know if she even needs a sexual partner. There are things on this planet that reproduce asexually, and she’s not from this planet, so she could be even weirder. Maybe she splits in half like an amoeba. Maybe she buds off little cloaklets when the stars align just right. She could be hermaphroditic and capable of self-fertilization, or like those frogs that change sex depending on whether there’s a shortage of males or females. Hell, maybe her species has a thousand-year gestation period and she’s full of eggs from when she got impregnated back… wherever the hell she’s from.”

Crapsey shivered. That was a horrible thought. The Mason, pregnant. The Mason, a mother.

“Where is she from, anyway?”

“Couldn’t say,” Crapsey said. “Outer. Other. Far away. Someplace much better than this place, at least by her standards, and definitely very different. Some place where the fabric of reality isn’t toxic to her the way ours is. Where she can live without glomming onto a human host. Someplace where she’s not a parasite, but the dominant form of life. That’s the gist I get, anyway. It’s not like she gets drunk and sings old marching songs from the homeland. Sometimes I think she didn’t leave her universe voluntarily, though, and she didn’t get lost, either – I get the sense she was thrown out of wherever she comes from.”

“Great. So our universe is old Australia, a place to exile extra-universal criminals?”

“As good a guess as any. Gods. Pregnant, you think? Babies?”

“It would explain why she wants to make a better breed of sorcerer,” Nicolette said. “She needs a host with a strong will. Breed a lot of hosts with strong wills, and her kids will have their pick of good bodies to ride around on.” The chaos witch shuddered. “Her world sounds fucking awful, Crapsey. Humans are engines of chaos and disorder, they’re wonderful unpredictable things, and she wants to kill most of them and enslave the others. To make a world that’s all rigid and locked down.” Nicolette mimed gagging. “Worse than boring. Poisonous, to me. I like possibilities opening up, not closing down.”

Crapsey nodded. He’d heard similar complaints from the Nicolette of his world, and he told this one what his own version of Nicolette had told him: “Sure, it sucks, but you gotta remember, we’re just the ants. The Mason is the little kid with the magnifying glass. Just be glad she’s not currently burning us alive and make the best of life while you’ve got it.”

“You ever see that comic strip,” Nicolette said, “where the little kid with the magnifying glass gets carried off by ants and dragged down into the anthill?”

“I missed that one,” Crapsey said. “But if I see where you’re going, let me just say, don’t go there.”

“Nah. Of course not.” Nicolette flexed her glowing arm. “Your boss gave me a new limb. Why would I try to turn on her? Besides, she may have sucked some of the marrow out of your world, but now she’s stuck here, and she’s got a job of work to do if she wants to turn this place into an arid wasteland. There’s a lot more chaos ahead of us.”

“Yeah. But she will win.”

“You sure about that?”

Crapsey nodded. “She won in our world, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, but in your world, she didn’t have to fight Marla Mason. Steal her body and eat her brain, sure, but not fight. And our Marla is a dozen years older and a hell of a lot meaner than the one your boss possessed.”

“I thought you hated Marla?”

“She can suck shit out of a dying dog’s butthole for all I care,” Nicolette said. “I’ve tried to kill her before and I bet I will again. But that doesn’t mean she’s not badass. Your boss might be in for a surprise.”

“You can think that if you want, but, like I said, with the magical density thing, the Mason won’t even notice most of Marla’s spells –”

Now it was Nicolette’s turn to snort. “That’s the thing. It’s not that Marla’s so great at magic. I’m better at magic than she is, and I wasn’t even good enough to get on the council until a bunch of other people died and left some seats that needed filling. No, Marla’s good at… refusing to quit. And thinking around corners. And just coming at you and coming at you until you’re exhausted. Sometimes, it’s not so much that she wins, it’s more that you lose. She’s good at, like… bitchiness.”

“And you think the Mason’s not good at bitchiness? Nah. It’ll be no contest. Marla’s dead, if she ever bothers to show up.”

Nicolette was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I guess I’m afraid you might be right.”

“What do you mean you’re –”

The air shimmered, and Ernesto appeared. He was a big man – not pollution golem big, but big enough – dressed in the smoking and shredded remains of a tuxedo smeared with grease. His scalp was a mess, chunks of his thick black hair missing, and he was bleeding from numerous cuts all over his face and hands. He ran flat-out for the gate, seemingly oblivious to Nicolette and Crapsey sitting off to the side.

Crapsey stuck out his foot and tripped Ernesto as the scrapyard sorcerer ran by.

Ernesto fell hard, not even lifting his hands to break his fall, and crashed face-first into the gravel ground. Crapsey rose and sauntered over toward him. “Hey, man,” he said. “Just lay down. It’ll go faster that way.”

Ernesto started to lever himself up, gasping, and Crapsey aimed a kick at his head. Ernesto moved with surprising speed, rolling clear of the kick and grabbing Crapsey’s foot. One clean pull sent Crapsey down, but instead of hitting the dirt he fell into a hole…. a hole that hadn’t been there a moment before. More spatial shenanigans. Crapsey flailed wildly as he fell through the hole, which opened up again in midair over a heap of scrap. He shouted one of the handful of spells he knew – a bit of sympathetic magic that temporarily turned his flesh to Kevlar, pretty much – and bounced hard on bits of jagged metal. He didn’t get sliced into deli meat, which was good, but the wind got knocked out of him and he was going to have bruises later. He scrambled out of the junk heap – he was fifty, sixty yards back from the gate now – in time to see the air waver and wobble again, followed by the Mason’s emergence from some fold in space. Ernesto was on his feet by then, but the Mason struck him like he was a log and she was a wood chipper, shredding and slashing and tearing aside his magical protections like they were gossamer, whatever the fuck gossamer was.

Nicolette approached the tussling pair, holding that silver hatchet she’d stolen from Viscarro’s vault. Even from this distance, half a football field away, he could see the faint moonlike illumination of the blade, and he wondered if the axe was more than a pretty decorative weapon, if it was something special and dangerous and artifact-y. Maybe Nicolette had recognized it and chosen it on purpose. She raised it up over her head, and he wanted to shout at her – “I think it’s okay, the boss has got it under control, Ernesto’s about two minutes away from being hamburger meat” – but it became apparent that she wasn’t planning to attack Ernesto at all.

She was aiming for the back of the Mason’s head.

He almost shouted “Boss!” but, well, if she managed to kill the Mason, that might not be so bad. If she failed – and she would almost certainly fail – he could always say he hadn’t realized what Nicolette was up to, that the fall into the scrapheap had fucked him up too bad to pay attention, let alone intercede. It wasn’t like he was the guy wielding the axe.

But then Nicolette did something funny. She raised her spectral replacement arm, wrapped her glowing fingers around her own throat, and started to choke herself. Nicolette fell to her knees, struggling against her own new limb, and Crapsey figured now was a good time to get over there. He ran as best he could on bruised legs, and arrived as the Mason stood up from the remnants of Ernesto’s body and flicked the blood off her dagger of office.

“Damn, that’s an ugly mess,” Crapsey said.

“He ran. He shouldn’t have run. Chasing him was boring.” The Mason stepped closer to Nicolette, who was now curled fetal on the ground, still choking herself. “I see Nicolette turned on me. I wondered how long it would take. This was faster than I’d anticipated.”

“Huh.” Crapsey was almost bummed. This Nicolette was less irritating than the one in his world. “So, what, the new arm could sense treachery?”

“If she raised a hand against me, she would also raise a hand against herself, yes. As if I would give her an arm she could strike me with. Hmm. Is that the sacred axe of the moon god Aglibol?”

“Dunno. She snagged it out of Viscarro’s vault.”

“Mmm. She has a good eye. That would have stung a bit, no doubt, though it wouldn’t have killed me – in the hands of a god that weapon would be deadly, perhaps, but not in the hands of a mere woman.” Nicolette’s face was turning blue. “We should be going,” the Mason said. “I think we’ll visit the park next and kill Granger, even if murdering him is a bit like drowning kittens.”

“That’s right in your wheelhouse, then.”

The Mason didn’t move, though. “Why did Nicolette betray me?”

Crapsey shrugged. “She said something about you reducing chaos in the world, making things too orderly. And that she didn’t want to be a slave.” He decided against mentioning her speculation about little baby parasitic cloaks. Not that the Mason was really a cloak, that was just the shape she wore. Would her kids look like cloaks? Or would they look like, maybe, handkerchiefs? Bandanas? Ascots?

“A shame. She was useful. Come.” She turned, stepped over Ernesto’s still form, and walked toward the gate.

Crapsey strolled after her, but stopped when Nicolette screamed behind him. He turned in time to see her running, carrying the axe in her remaining hand, into the depths of the scrapyard. “Shit!” he shouted.

The Mason came back and nudged a chunk of bloody flesh on the ground with her foot. “Hmm. Nicolette chopped off part of her own shoulder with the axe, to get the ghost-arm off. Clever.”

“Do we chase her?”

The Mason shook her head. “She’s made her way into the folded space of the scrapyard now, and those rows go on almost forever. There are places where the paths seem to leave this world entirely, though they don’t seem to lead to parallel universes like our own – more like half-finished universes, mistakes, implausible worlds abandoned half-built, or pocket universes made by long-dead sorcerers. With luck she’ll get disoriented and die of blood loss. And if she comes back…” The Mason shrugged. “She’s already proven herself too incompetent to do me harm. I’ll simply murder her then. Come along. Granger’s not going to kill himself.”

Good luck, Nicolette, you crazy chick, Crapsey thought, and then went with the Mason to murder the most harmless and gentle sorcerer in all of Felport.

Chapter 18

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.”

“But –”

“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.”

Chapter 19

“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.

Chapter 20

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.”

Chapter 21

“Mmm. Your terms are acceptable. I’ll see you then. I look forward to our conversation. I don’t usually talk to insects before killing them, but I’m curious –” The Mason frowned, held the phone away, and looked at it for a moment. “The woman hung up on me.” She placed the phone back down on Marla’s desk.

“Some people are so rude.” Crapsey sprawled on the couch with his arm thrown over his face. “No wonder you want to exterminate all sentient life.” After they broke into Rondeau’s nightclub – which had pretty insane magical security, but nothing the Mason couldn’t circumvent – he’d taken a shower in Rondeau’s cramped bathroom and scrounged up clean boxers and a comfortably worn bathrobe. Wearing another man’s underpants was kind of weird, but since the other man was just another iteration of himself, Crapsey decided it was okay. The next step in his plan was to curl up in Rondeau’s surprisingly neat bedroom and sleep, but he’d wanted to stay awake for the Mason’s last murder of the day. The phone call from Marla had interrupted the fun. “So Marla’s back in this universe? Is she coming over? If so, I’m gonna need some of those uppers we talked about, because I am beat like a disobedient gimp.”

“No. She wants to meet in the morning, in the conference room downstairs – the one with the anti-magical properties. As if I’d be stupid enough…” The Mason’s mouth quirked slightly in what might have been a smile on another face. “She says they’ll bring the coffee, but we’re in charge of bringing the bagels.”

“Ha,” Crapsey said. “Gotta admire the chutzpah. So what’s the plan?”

“I will speak with her. I am curious about many things – mainly how she resisted the cloak’s power, and how she travels from world to world. If she has the cloak, we will kill her when I’ve finished speaking to her, and take it away. If she does not, we will torture her until she tells me its location.”

“Torture? You know torture’s no good for getting useful intelligence out of people, boss. Besides, you can set up a ritual to rifle through the contents of her mind, right? I mean, I know that can destroy her mind in the process, but I don’t get the sense that’s a problem for you.”

“Of course. All true. But I enjoy torture.” She slid back in her chair. “But executions also have their place.” She began tugging on the drawers in Marla’s desk. “Ah,” the Mason said, sliding out the bottom drawer on the left. “Come look at this.”

Crapsey groaned and pushed himself up off the couch. The Mason had cured his major injuries in the park, but plain old muscle soreness remained, though he knew she could’ve fixed that too if she wanted.

The drawer in Marla’s desk was less a drawer and more a black iron safe on rollers, the lid etched and filigreed with designs that twisted like optical illusions viewed on hallucinogens. “Very potent,” the Mason said. “As well-fortified as Viscarro’s own vaults. In effect, it is his personal vault, rendered in miniature. Beautiful work. Viscarro had a reputation as nothing more than a hoarder, a stealer of magic crafted by more talented hands, but his skills in certain areas were impressive.”

The Mason drew her dagger of office and began cutting into the drawer like she was opening a can of creamed corn. Once she’d sliced through the metal, she prised up the lid and tossed it to the floor with a dull thunk. Crapsey and the Mason peered into the small space revealed.

“That’s disappointing,” the Mason said. “I’d hoped she might keep the cloak here.” She leaned her face close to the drawer, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “And she does, though not now. I suppose she took it with her when she went off to our world. ”

“At least we know she didn’t put it in a box and send it off to get buried at the top of a mountain.” He nodded toward the drawer. “So I figure the wooden box probably has Viscarro’s phylactery in it, right?”


“And what about the little silver bell?”

The Mason shrugged. “There is nothing magical about it at all. It’s just a bell. I can’t imagine why she put it in here, unless it has… what do you people call it? Some kind of value?”

“Sentimental value. And watch the ‘you people’ stuff. I’m an inhuman monstrous parasite too, you know.”

“Noted.” She removed the little teakwood box and set it on the desk, flipped open the lid, and revealed the faintly glowing pebble-sized red gem inside. “There. Just like it was in my world. Viscarro’s life. If an ordinary person touched this object, Viscarro’s personality would rush in and try to take control. Of course, that doesn’t work on me.” The Mason lifted out the gem, and the dim light inside brightened and began to flicker more rapidly. “That’s him trying to take me over. I’ve never been sure whether he can hear me in there, if he’s conscious, but if he is…” She put the gem close to her lips. “Viscarro. I’m killing you. For the second time. But this time, I’m going to devour your soul.”

The Mason dropped the gem on the desk blotter, held her dagger of office like a chef’s knife, and began to dice up the gem as if mincing a clove of garlic. Her hand moved in a blur, and within seconds the gem was reduced to a fine pink powder. The Mason scooped up a pile of the powder on the edge of her knife blade. “Here goes.” She raised the blade to her nose, pressed one nostril shut with her free hand, and snorted the powdered phylactery of Leland Viscarro.

She closed her eyes, leaned back in the chair, shivered all over, and released a long, slow sigh.

“Damn, boss. Seems pretty nice. Can I get a hit of that?”

“Your puny mind couldn’t bear it.” The Mason’s voice was serene. “Oh, oh, oh, this is so interesting. Viscarro was always a collector of secrets, and now I know them all. His entire life’s essence is dissolving into my mind like a spoonful of sugar into a cup of hot tea.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Ha. Many things. Most have no bearing on our present situation, but… according to Viscarro’s sources, Marla Mason despises Rondeau for murdering her little friend Bradley Bowman and stealing his body. Apparently she forced Rondeau into exile – he’s been living at the Blackwing Institute. Viscarro was quite confused when Marla and Rondeau – as he believed us to be – attacked him, because he thought they were firmly on the outs.”

Crapsey frowned. “But Hamil said Marla took Rondeau with her to the other world. Sworn enemies don’t usually travel together.”

“Hamil also said he wasn’t sure how Marla managed to go from one world to another… and it stands to reason that Rondeau had something to do with that passage. She’d travel with an enemy if he was the only means of transportation.”

Crapsey grinned. “So you’re saying I’ve got undiscovered badass reality-destroying powers?”

The Mason snorted. “Hardly. Rondeau is in Bradley Bowman’s body, remember, and by all accounts, Bowman is a powerful psychic and oracle generator. Perhaps he can summon some sort of being that opens a passage.” She sighed. “If I’m right, that means I’ll need to procure Rondeau’s services in order to access the multiverse. Once he realizes the alternative is a hell of endless pain, I’m sure he’ll agree to work for me.”

“Cool,” Crapsey said. “Bringing Rondeau over to our side will be sweet. Somebody to play cards with. And, you know, steal bodies with.”

The Mason shook her head. “According to Viscarro, Rondeau can’t possess anyone voluntarily. He’s only done it once that he remembers, quite accidentally, when he murdered Bradley Bowman. What a waste of talent – but Rondeau never had me to teach him, of course.”

Crapsey nodded. “He’s probably a lot less bitter and fucked-up than I am, then. The beatings, and screaming, and being locked in a dark windowless box with no food and water until I managed to leave my body – that stuff left the kind of marks you can’t see by looking.”

“Made you stronger,” the Mason said simply, and then snorted the rest of the powdered Viscarro. “Mmm. He knows a bit about Marla’s history, but not much – he didn’t pay attention to her until after she’d acquired the cloak, when she left her apprenticeship with Artie Mann and began working as a mercenary. How did she end up working for the pornomancer instead of the spider? What single point of divergence could have led to such different outcomes?”

Crapsey yawned. “If you’re going to get all musing and rhetorical, can I go?”

The Mason nodded. “You should sleep. But sleep lightly. It’s possible Marla will stage a surprise attack in the night.”

“As long as she doesn’t interrupt any good sex dreams,” Crapsey said, and shuffled off to bed.


“You sure wearing the cloak is a good idea?” Rondeau climbed out of the car they’d borrowed from Langford, balancing a cardboard tray holding four take-out coffees.

“I need every edge I can get.”

“So do we knock, or…” Rondeau squinted in the bright morning sun as they stood before the door to his club.

“Screw that. It’s your place.” Marla went to the door and pressed her palm against it, disengaging the magical lock –the Mason had circumvented the lock without breaking it, showing an annoyingly deft hand – and pushing it open.

Someone was waiting in the dim club, leaning against one of the load-bearing pillars scattered at irregular intervals around the dance floor. “Good morning,” Crapsey said. He stepped into the illumination of the house lights and grinned. He was wearing one of Rondeau’s purple zoot suits – tight across the shoulders, but it basically fit – and yet, the outfit wasn’t the most striking thing about him.

“Bro, that jaw is sick,” Rondeau said. “When I got my jaw repaired, I just got stupid flesh and bone. What are those, like fangs?”

Crapsey kept grinning, but this time, he looked like he meant it. “I can bite through freaking steel, dude. Steel tastes lousy, but still. How come you still look like me – you – us? Didn’t you steal a new body?”

“Yeah, but I got an illusion to keep my old look, because sure, Bradley Bowman was a movie star, but that doesn’t mean he looked better than me. I’m stuck wearing these boring-ass borrowed clothes, but since you raided my closet, you can see I’ve got better fashion sense than this.”

“Your threads are sweet,” Crapsey said. “You could use a little bulking up, though. Hit the gym every once in a while.”

“Don’t those steroids shrink your balls?” Rondeau said.

Crapsey winked. “They’re still plenty big though. You should know.”

“Two Rondeaus,” Marla muttered. “Gods save me.”

Crapsey looked her up and down. “I’ll never get used to seeing the cloak in white. Just looks wrong to me.”

“Fascinating,” Marla said. “Where’s the purple bitch?”

Crapsey jerked his head toward the stairs. “Up in your office.”

“Not in the conference room?”

Crapsey laughed. “You kidding? She spent the night erecting magical barriers and fields to make entering that room totally impossible.” The conference room was a magical dead-zone, and Marla knew from experience the cloak didn’t work in there – if the Mason stepped inside, the battle would have been over before it began. “I mean, Marla, we are from Felport. We’ve got one of those rooms on our side, too.”

“Worth a try,” Marla said. She’d never expected the Mason to enter the room, but she was hoping the ploy would make them underestimate her. And, hell, it had been worth a try. “Did she at least get bagels?”

“Ha. You kinda remind me of the boss. Yeah, I fetched bagels, they’re up there, a nice little variety on a tray and everything. She won’t eat any – she barely eats at all, and when she does, she likes meat – but you can help yourself. Is one of those coffees for me?”

“Sure.” Rondeau passed him one of the cups.

Crapsey took it, lifted the lid, and sniffed. “I guess I should ask if it’s poisoned?”

Rondeau didn’t let himself stiffen or grimace or wince. He shrugged instead. “You can ask.”

“But it’s a stupid question,” Crapsey said. “Since poisoning me would just annoy me and make me take over Marla’s body, and neither of you wants that. Is there sugar in this?”

“No.” Marla shook her head. “Rondeau said you’d want like ten sugars, the same way he likes it, but I said you’re from a totally different world –”

Rondeau wordlessly took a wad of sugar packets from his pocket and passed them to Crapsey, who nodded and walked over to the bar and began methodically ripping open the packets and dumping the contents into his cup.

Marla rolled her eyes. Rondeau handed her two of the coffee cups and said, “See you when you get done.”

“If shit gets crazy, you run,” Marla said. “All right?”

“Don’t worry about him,” Crapsey called. “He’s like another me, and I’m a major fan of me, so he’ll be all right. You, though…” He shrugged. “I’m sure you and the boss have lots to talk about. Rondeau, come over here and let’s shoot the shit, what do you say?”

“Planning to pump me for information on behalf of your evil overlord?” Rondeau said, strolling over and taking a bar stool next to him.

“I was thinking more about comparing sexual conquests,” Crapsey replied. Then he took his first sip of the coffee Rondeau had prepared for him, and doomed himself.


Marla stepped into her office and shut the door behind her. The Mason was seated behind her desk, face shaded by the hood of her purple cloak. Marla put the coffee cups down on the desk, slid one toward the Mason, and picked up a plain bagel. She sliced it in half with her dagger of office, glanced around, and sighed. “No shmear? No lox? You world-devouring monsters are cheap.” She sat down in one of the crappy visitor chairs, took a bite of the bagel, chewed for a moment, then decided she’d have to make the opening move, since the Mason wasn’t moving at all. “All right, let’s get a look at you.”

The Mason leaned forward and pushed her hood back, and the face revealed wasn’t much at all like the one Marla saw in the mirror, really, despite certain broad similarities.

“Gods,” Marla said. “Was I ever that young? I know my skin was never that smooth. Don’t you have any pores?”

“I’ve kept this body in the prime of its physical perfection.” The Mason’s voice was curiously flat, but Marla was relieved it didn’t sound like the voice of the cloak in her own head. “You should be jealous.”

“Yeah, because never changing at all is totally awesome. So. You murdered half my council.”

The Mason nodded. “So far.”

“But you wanted to have a little chat with me before taking your punishment? Here I am. What do you want?”

The Mason laced her hands together on the desk. “Tell me, Marla. How did you like my world during your visit?”

Marla shrugged. “Didn’t see much evidence of you there. Looked like a big Jaguar god was in charge to me.” She started to lace her own hands together, caught herself, and settled for cracking her knuckles instead. “Of course, I killed the Jaguar. He was bothering my friends.”

The Mason raised one eyebrow. “You defeated Teyepollotl? My, my. I had that penciled in for the winter. Thank you for sparing me the trouble. Now I only have to roll up Sanford Cole and his ragtag band of rags and tags, which will be much simpler.”

“You’re never going back there. This world is your last stop. Today is your last day.”

“Such confidence! What if I attacked you now? Stabbed you with a knife?”

“I’ve got a knife too, lady. And a cloak, in case you didn’t notice.”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. The cloak. How long have you had it?”

“I’m supposed to answer your questions now?”

“Unless you’d rather begin trying to kill one another.”

“Tempting… but okay. I’ll play.” Marla was curious, too – why had this alternate version of herself been so weak and fucked-up that she’d allowed herself to be dominated by a haunted bit of Renaissance Faire costuming? “I found the cloak in a thrift store on my twentieth birthday. Just felt… drawn to it. So I bought it for myself as a present.” In truth, the memory of that day was kind of vague, like any memory a dozen years old would be – had she been at the store alone, or with a friend? She couldn’t recall, but it didn’t really matter. “I tried it on, and it healed, my, ah…”

“Infected rat bite,” the Mason said. “Yes, I cured the same thing for this version of –”

“Uh. No. I had a urinary tract infection. From too much dirty teenage fucking, I guess. You’re saying Beta-Marla over there got bitten by rats? That’s messed up.”

“The divergence point between our worlds is obviously much earlier,” the Mason said. “You were an apprentice to Artie Mann.”

“You weren’t?”

“Viscarro was my master,” the Mason said. “I was just one of many apprentices. He took no particular notice of me – of Marla, I mean, but for convenience, I will say ‘I.’ It’s easier, since my host’s memories feel like my own.”

Her host. Marla fought back the urge to tear her own cloak off her back. This is what the cloak wanted to do – make her into a conveyance for a pompous alien shitbag. No amount of ass-kicking power was worth that risk.

The Mason went on. “I don’t think Viscarro had any opinion about me, until I found the cloak. I was just part of the scenery, though the way I joined his service was… peculiar. When I first came to Felport, I was hungry – starving – and I saw a young man hurrying alone down an alleyway carrying grocery bags. I struck him over the head with a brick and stole his bags. I expected food. Instead there were golden eggs, nestled in straw. The boy I killed was one of Viscarro’s apprentices, a courier, delivering some magical items. Viscarro’s people found me later, and made me an offer: I could die, or I could take over the route of the courier I’d killed. I got the sense they were terribly overworked, and I never knew if Viscarro had authorized the offer, sensing something formidable in me – or if the apprentices had just decided to spare themselves the trouble of taking over the dead boy’s route and recruited me on their own authority.” She shrugged. “Such was my introduction to the hidden world. I learned what magic I could – apprentices have a great deal of freedom in the Bank of the Catacombs to study ancient texts and explore – and we all taught ourselves a little, and occasionally Viscarro would conduct a lecture or a series of tests to weed out the weak. It was a hard life, but I made friends, of a sort. I did not have any… filthy teenage sex, though. I – this Marla – found the idea of human intimacy almost as repulsive as I do.”

“Okay, table that for a minute.” Marla had taken on the role of interviewer, somehow, but she didn’t mind. Apparently the Mason really wanted to tell her story – or maybe some vestige of Beta-Marla, inside the Mason, did. “What happened when you found the cloak?”

“I put it on, and my rat bite was cured. So I stole the cloak from the shop. I thought the artifact was my ticket to becoming Viscarro’s right hand – that once he saw what I possessed, he would take me seriously, and teach me.” She scowled. “Instead, as soon as he saw the cloak, he said it was his. That as an apprentice, I had no right to property, that I had no self. I was merely an extension of his will, and I would hand over the cloak immediately, and he would have me beaten for daring to suggest I could own such a thing.”

Marla nodded. “And let me guess. A little voice way down inside you whispered the word –”

“‘Turn.’ And the cloak turned. To the purple. I killed Viscarro – well, his body. Truly killing him happened a little later. And then I went out walking, in the flush of my new power, and it was glorious. All fear gone. Never again would I be ordered around. Never again would I be touched against my will. Never again would I suffer any humiliation. Then I saw an interesting little boy, who wasn’t a little boy at all, and ripped off his jaw to use for an oracle. Eventually I renamed that little boy Crapsey, and made him my apprentice, of a sort. I’m not a very nice master, but I’m no worse than Viscarro was.” The Mason shrugged. “From there, I plotted my rise to power, and everything went well until you tried to save your dead friend Bradley Bowman and brought me here.”

“Yeah. I’m starting to think that was a mistake. It’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to make one mistake in a lifetime, right? That was mine. So. Let’s trace this shit back. You ran away from home in Indiana and made your way to Felport, right?”

The Mason nodded.

“But you didn’t get a job working as a topless waitress? That’s how I met Artie Mann.”

The Mason shuddered. “A place where men would… ogle? Grope? No, no, I would never.”

“Okay, but why? What happened to make you so freaked about sex?” Marla had certainly had brushes with creepiness in her youth, including a boy who’d assaulted one of her friends and tried unsuccessfully to come after Marla. And of course her mom’s various drunk boyfriends had made passes at her, at least until her brother Jason had his little talks with them, usually helped by his friend Mr. Baseball Bat.

“You don’t remember uncle Devlin?” the Mason said.

Marla frowned. “My mom didn’t have any brothers, not in this world –”

The Mason shook her head. “Not a real uncle. Mom’s boyfriend. He… did things. To me. To Marla.”

Devlin. Devlin? There’d been a guy, maybe… “Sideburns? Truck driver? Except maybe an out-of-work truck driver?”

The Mason nodded. “Yes. He lived with us for many years, in the trailer, and every night after mom drank herself to sleep…” She shuddered. More and more of the other Marla was showing through. The Mason was having trouble separating herself from her host, it looked like.

“I remember some kind of big fight, I was only maybe eight? My mom and my brother Jason screaming at each other, Jason was only eleven or twelve but he was saying the guy had to go, if he didn’t leave forever Jason was going to burn the whole house down –”

“Your brother?” the Mason said. “Jason?”

“Yeah. He’s an asshole now, sure, but when we were kids he was the great protector, I never found out until later all the stuff he did for me, and he could play mom like a violin, never had any trouble making her do whatever he…” Marla trailed off. The Mason looked stunned.

“In my world,” the Mason said, “Jason was playing in the yard one day when a drunk driver lost control of his car and veered off the road onto the grass. Jason was struck and killed. He was four or five years old. I – Marla – was just an infant.”

Marla stared. Her brother, who’d shot Rondeau in the gut and thus indirectly killed Bradley Bowman; who’d embroiled her in a scam that ended in the death of an innocent, if hapless, millionaire; who’d never forgiven her for refusing to help him cover up a murder he’d committed as a teenager; who’d not so very long ago shot and tried to kill Marla herself, an attempt that would have succeeded if the cloak she was wearing now hadn’t healed her injuries…

Jason was the divergence point. He was the one who’d made all the difference. Because before he’d become a heartless con artist, he’d been a big brother, doing his best to take care of his little sister. He’d taught Marla to fight, and to scam, and to survive, and to be strong in herself. And he’d kept her from being repeatedly molested by a drunk out-of-work trucker, it seemed.

Without Jason, she would have had all the same anger, the same hunger for knowledge, the same bull-headednes, the same will she possessed now, but without the skills to cope with those feelings and direct them toward achieving her own ambitions.

Without Jason, Marla would have been the kind of person who put on a magical cloak that made all her decisions for her, and who thought that was a nice change.

If she ever saw her brother again, she might not try to kill him after all.

“I remember hearing about that accident,” Marla said. “Mom told the story, though Jason didn’t remember it, how he almost got killed. If the car had struck just two feet to the right, it would have landed right on top of him…” Marla reached over and touched the Mason’s hand. “You poor thing,” she said. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It’s no wonder –”

The Mason – and it was definitely the Mason again now, all hints of humanity in her expression gone – jerked her hand back. “Don’t touch me, vermin,” she said, and drew her dagger.

Here we go, Marla thought, and – because she really didn’t think she had a chance against this psycho alien otherwise – she reversed her cloak to purple.

Less than two seconds later, she reversed it back to white, and ran away as fast as she could.

Chapter 22

Rondeau and Crapsey were just about to break out the good Scotch when Marla came stumbling down the stairs in a half-fall, half-run. Her eyes were wide, her cloak white and fluttering behind her as she bent over and vomited onto the club’s shiny floor.

“Crapsey!” the Mason boomed from the top of the stairs. “Take her! Take her now!”

“I’m trying!” Crapsey shouted. “It’s not working!”

“Yeah,” Rondeau said, not getting up from his bar stool. “That’d be the fixative. I slipped it into your coffee. Sorry about that, dude. You’re just too damn scary otherwise. Thanks for being so overconfident that you actually drank the stuff though. Plan B involved me slipping some into a drink you made yourself, and for Plan C? I had to spray some in your eyes or some other mucous membranes.” He placed a glass vial on the bar before him, muttered a command word, and winced while his backup supply of the fixative consumed itself in a white-hot flash, leaving behind a puff of acrid smoke and burn scar on the bartop. “I wasn’t looking forward –”

Crapsey grabbed his lapels. “What? What did you do to me?”

The Mason leapt down the stairs in full fury, shadows writhing around her body like the ghosts of pissed-off snakes, lightning crackling from her fingers, smoke rising from her eyes. Marla looked over her shoulder, cast a glance at Rondeau that could only be called stricken, and then –

Teleported away. Just gouged a hole in the air and stepped through it. Leaving Rondeau here in the belly of the beast.

Insofar as there had been a plan, abandoning him to these monsters had not been part of it. “Oh fuck,” Rondeau said, just as Crapsey shook him again and said, “What. The. Fuck!”

The Mason’s shadows vanished, and though his head was jostling from Crapsey’s assault, Rondeau got his first good look at her. Yee-ow. Beautiful and scary, like the statue of a death goddess come to life. Looked like young Marla if you didn’t know better. “Crapsey, your failures are usually amusing, but in this case, I am annoyed. Why didn’t you take over Marla Mason’s body? You let her get away.”

Crapsey shoved Rondeau, who fell as gracefully as he could – which wasn’t, very – and decided to just stay on the floor for the time being. Maybe these two would have an argument and he could kind of slip out through the back door while they were distracted.

“That little shit did something to me, put something in my coffee, it took my power away for a minute, I’ll be okay –”

“Ah, no,” Rondeau said from the floor. “Sorry to interrupt, but… the fixative is permanent. Guy I know named Langford came up with it, as a way to keep me bottled up and prevent me from killing anybody again by accident. It’s like a magical version of liquid glass, though he says that’s more a metaphor than literal, and… I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. It’s an impermeable whatchamacallit. Keeps your psychic parasite self inside that body. For good. But it’s not so bad, I mean, I never learned how to jump bodies on purpose and my life is still pretty awesome.” He didn’t think revealing his recently-developed ability to leap at will was a good idea. Crapsey wouldn’t take it well, and if Rondeau had learned anything from his long association with sorcerers, it was the fact that secrets are valuable.

“No. No, no, no.” Crapsey started toward him, then stopped. “Mason. Fix me. You gotta fix me. You have to –”

“I don’t think I can.” The Mason circled around him. “How curious. It’s like you’re behind glass now, Crapsey. I could break through the barrier, but… yes, the force required would kill your body, and I believe it would even kill you, the real you. If I unleashed that kind of energy, I might even be damaged, just by the blowback. Langford is very good at making things. That’s why his counterpart back home is in charge of my Wyoming Test Facility. No, I’m afraid your days of leaping from body to body are done, Crapsey.”

“So, what, I’m just stuck here? What am I supposed to –”

“Go away now, worthless thing,” the Mason said, not even looking at him.

“Boss. Come on. After all we’ve been through –”

“It is because of your years of service that I am allowing you to leave, instead of striking your body down, and leaving your consciousness trapped inside a corpse, forever.” The Mason gave a dismissive flick of her fingers. “You no longer have anything to offer me. Rondeau has turned you into nothing more than a man with a knife and a few spells and an ugly jaw. Leave me.”

“I can’t believe you and me were ever the same,” Crapsey said, spitting on Rondeau. “You fucking life-destroying piece of shit.”

“I hear that kind of thing a lot,” Rondeau said. “I’d feel worse about dicking you over this way, except, you know. You’re the evil twin. I like you and all, it was cool meeting you – but you’re a murderous sociopath, and if I hadn’t spiked your coffee, you would have killed my best friend Marla.”

“Stop talking, stop talking, stop talking,” the Mason said. Crapsey cast her a look of pure hate, and bolted from the club.

Rondeau sat up. “So. What now.”

The Mason shrugged. “Now I’m in the market for a new right hand. Are you interested?”

“Uh. What?”

“Viscarro told me that Marla hates you now, because you took the body of her friend Bradley. She forced you to open a pathway to another world, using that body’s powers, didn’t she?”

So close, and yet, so wrong. “That’s exactly right,” Rondeau said, hoping this crazy monster couldn’t read minds. Anything to keep from getting his head ripped off.

“And even after all that, after everything you did for her, Marla abandoned you. She left you here, with me. Knowing what I am. What I might do. Does that anger you?”

“It does kinda piss me off,” Rondeau said. That much was true. But even if the Mason did decapitate him, he wouldn’t die – Rondeau wasn’t pinned in by the fixative like Crapsey was, and Marla knew he was capable of escaping in a pinch, though it might mean leaving his body behind.

“Well,” the Mason said. “Wouldn’t you like to get revenge on her?”

“Tell me more,” Rondeau said.


Marla emerged in Fludd Park near the gazebo with a great bloody gash down her back where one of the creatures in-between had raked her with its claw – or some multi-dimensional limb that might as well have been a claw. The cloak’s healing magic began to work on her wound almost instantly, but she tore the cloak off and slung it into the dirt and stomped on it, preferring pain to the touch of the cursed cloth.

“You’re fucked up,” she told the cloak, though she wasn’t sure it could hear her. She thought – she hoped – that when no one was wearing it, the cloak was dormant, but she had her doubts. Sometimes it seemed to exert a subtle influence, even when folded in a drawer… and it had made its way to that thrift store where she found it somehow, after all. Marla looked around. “And why the fuck am I in the park? This isn’t the place I was aiming for.”

“Sorry about that.” Bradley Bowman stood in the entryway to the gazebo and gave a little wave.

Marla’s heart lurched. “Great. Now I’m going crazy. Or am I already dead? No, if I was dead, Death would be here giving me brochures about his new improved underworld. So maybe this is purgatory, or a pre-death hallucination, or what happens when you teleport but never come out the other side.”

“Or,” B said, “It’s real, and you should come sit with me. And maybe bring the cloak. Shouldn’t leave that thing where a kid could trip over it.”

Because she was short on options, Marla picked up the cloak and went up the steps. She peered at Bradley, trying to see which version of him she was hallucinating – her dead apprentice Bradley, the lost Beta-B, some aggregate? But he just looked like B.

He sat on a bench and patted the spot next to him. Marla sat down, still nauseated.

“So tell me what’s got you so upset,” he said.

“I faced the Mason.” Even if this was a hallucination, maybe talking about things would help her process, help her plan…. “She was going to attack me, so I reversed my cloak – I thought it was the only way I had a fighting chance. But the things I felt…” She shuddered. “The cloak tried to take me over, to push me down and steal my body. It always does that, but it really pushed this time. And the things it was feeling, looking across at the Mason, at its counterpart… Bradley, it felt lust. It wanted to fuck that other cloak’s brains out and make little monster parasite babies.”

“I guess that means there’s no incest taboo among the flying tentacle monsters,” B said.

Marla made a gagging motion. “I mean, they’re the same, right? How can they screw? Okay, scratch that, no offense to your gayness, of course they can screw, but how can they make babies? My cloak was sure they could breed – I don’t know if they’re hermaphrodites or if they’re able to change sex at will or if they just mingle DNA or what. Seems like inbreeding would be a bad idea, but maybe their genetics aren’t like ours.”

“They’re not like us at all,” B said. “They’re from a universe with different physical laws, more alien than any mere alien could be. They’re outsiders. I don’t know what they’re doing in this multiverse, if they got lost or exiled or what – I can’t see beyond the branches of this universe. But they’re here, and they’re your problem now… and it would be bad if they bred.”

“I know. Also: gross. The total icky barfiness I felt was what gave me the power to fight the cloak’s influence and reverse it back to white. Just like the first time I used the cloak, after I ripped off Rondeau’s jaw, I was so horrified, I wanted to help the poor kid – that’s how I got out from under its power that time. It’s a good thing the cloak keeps trying to do shit I just can’t allow. But I can’t ever put the cloak on again. I might not be able to fight it next time. The thing was in a mating frenzy, like when Spock goes into Pon Farr –”

Star Trek reference,” B said. “Bonus points.”

“I just like Theodore Sturgeon,” Marla said. “Damn, B. It’s good to see you, even if you are a figment of my distressed mind.”

He rolled his eyes. “Marla. I’m here. And while I’m not exactly the Bradley Bowman you had as an apprentice, there are parts of me that are awfully close to him, from universes that diverged just a little bit from yours – even some universes where Bradley is still your apprentice, where you’re grooming him to take over.” He paused. “Well, except, not anymore. I’m all those Bradleys simultaneously, but that means they all had to be taken out of circulation, poof, so I’m having a lot of these conversations right now, with a lot of versions of you, though you’re the only one facing an interdimensional monster with the potential to conquer the multiverse.”

Marla thought about that. “Okay,” she said. “It’s fine. Hallucinations aren’t supposed to make sense.”

B put his hand on her knee. “Sorry. I’m still getting the hang of multiple simultaneous consciousness. Um. When the possible witch’s world started falling apart, and I stepped through that door, remember that?”

“Yeah. Duh. Not something I’m likely to forget.”

“Right. Well, when I stepped through, I met the people – but they’re not people – who run things. Or not exactly run things, but… keep things running? Like, the machinery of the universe? And it turns out they had a job opening. For, well.” He laughed. “For the possible witch. So they gave me her job.”

Marla stared at him. “You’re the possible witch? What?”

“Yeah. See, she has a job. An important job. A job she messed up really badly. And when she messed it up, she got fired, only when things like her get fired, they just cease to exist. But her function didn’t cease to exist, and I stepped into it. And when I did, every other version of Bradley Bowman got the job, too, and we squashed into a sort of composite – uh, not to sound arrogant – a composite superbeing, with all the knowledge of all our various iterations. And I can see into all the worlds, all the parallel universes, simultaneously, and be in them simultaneously, and… Here I am. I can have the opening to my realm anywhere in the universe, and I put it in this gazebo in Fludd Park. I really liked this place, when I was your apprentice.”

“You know, I thought as time went on I would get more and more powerful,” Marla said. “And instead, my friends get all the power. Gods, Bradley – I mean, you are a god, now, pretty much. So, this job – what’s the job?”

He cleared his throat. “That’s a bit of a sore point. My job is maintaining the integrity of the multiverse – which means keeping the various realities separate, among other things. You bullied the possible witch into violating the fundamental purpose of her existence, and once she opened a passageway between worlds…” He shook his head. “Major transgression. I mean, she was the protector of the multiverse the way you’re the protector of Felport. Her opening a rift in reality was like you setting the entire city on fire.

“So it’s… my fault.” Marla looked up at the stars. Every star up there existed in a functionally infinite number of other universes. That was a lot of godsdamned stars. “I made her get disappeared?”

B nodded. “Pretty big mayhem for a girl from Indiana, huh? If it makes you feel better, the possible witch’s bosses said she was getting squirrely anyway, starting to go profoundly weird. Living for countless billions of years and experiencing deep time can do that, apparently. They say I’ll probably burn out eventually, though they figure the heat death of the universes will happen first, so I’ve got time.”

“B, I just want to fix things. Trying to drag you into my world, it was stupid and selfish, I know. I didn’t know how stupid until just now, but… what can I do?”

B shrugged. “Just because I’m all-seeing doesn’t mean I’m all-knowing, Marla. Usually I can look across universes and see how different decisions played out in different places, but this is the one and only branch of the multiverse with the Mason and you inhabiting the same space.”

“What? Really? I thought new universes spawned constantly. She’s been here for days – shouldn’t there be, like, zillions of branch universes now?”

B shook his head. “When the rift happened and the possible witch got ousted, those two universes were… sequestered. Locked down by the admins of the multiverse, like a disputed entry on Wikipedia locked against editing.” Marla looked at him blankly, and he laughed. “Never mind. The point is, no more universes are branching just now. The powers that be can’t keep these worlds locked down for long, because when they do stuff like that, a pretty hellacious strain builds up in the structure of the multiverse. If you don’t stop the Mason soon, she’ll find a way to tear more holes in reality – using Rondeau and his psychic abilities, along with her own terrible power, to do the job. She can accomplish almost anything she sets her mind to, magically speaking, and now that she knows there are other worlds, she won’t stop until she’s broken through into them – and if she does that too often, the whole multiverse will fall. Not because she’ll conquer it, but because once the walls start to break down, the structural integrity of reality will falter, and the universes will crash together and try to inhabit the same space. And when billions and billions of stars and planets start trying to inhabit the same space?”

“Big boom,” Marla said.

“Big crunch,” B said. “Now, I can seal up rifts with a little work, it’s part of my gig, but it won’t help if she keeps ripping new ones, which she will. So stop her. Get the cloak off her. Bring the cloaks to me, and I’ll put them someplace they can’t do any harm.”

“But how?” Marla said.

“I know you like brute force, but you taught me, when you can’t punch your way through a problem, you can think your way through it.” He winced. “I really gotta go. There are emergencies I need to tend to that need more than this fragmentary attention. I wish I had time to tell you, like, a billion things, but I can give you a little bit of insight before I take off, since I can spy on anything and everything: the Mason thinks you still hate Rondeau’s guts for stealing my body. She thinks that’s why you teleported away without trying to save him just now – because you don’t care if he dies.”

“Oh,” Marla said. “Oh. I didn’t leave Rondeau because I was pissed at him – I was just freaked out about feeling horny for a space monster, and Rondeau’s an unkillable parasite who can take care of himself. Besides, teleporting is dangerous, I wouldn’t want to drag him with me and risk getting him lost.”

“Well, the Mason’s not killing him – she’s trying to recruit him. She figures, if you hate him, maybe he’ll come work for her.” B shook his head. “The Mason has known Crapsey too long. She doesn’t get that Rondeau’s approach to loyalty is a lot different. Maybe that’ll give you an edge? A secret double agent on the inside?”

“Maybe. Huh. I wonder if the Mason –”

But B was gone, without even the courtesy of a puff of smoke to mark his disappearance. Off preserving the integrity of the multiverse or something, no doubt. “He’s gonna be insufferable,” Marla said. “Bad enough he used to be a movie star, now he has to be master of space-time too?”

She stood up, and lifted the cloak in both her hands. “You and me, cloak. One last play. Let’s go save the stupid universe.”


“I’ll teach you to jump bodies,” the Mason was saying, lounging on Marla’s couch. “It’ll be great fun. For me. It will be quite terrible for you.”

Rondeau was spared having to answer when the phone on Marla’s desk rang.

“Answer it, lackey,” the Mason said, and Rondeau picked it up.

“Hey, you,” Marla said. “I’ve got a plan. Doubt I have time to give you the details, but here’s the main thing you need to know –”

“Who is it?” the Mason demanded.

“Uh,” Rondeau said. “It’s Marla.”

The Mason snatched the phone out of his hand. “Marla. Are you willing to come back and face your fate, or will I have to start tearing your city into little pieces?”

Rondeau watched her face, but it didn’t give much away.

“Oh, very well,” the Mason said. “I don’t see the point in anything less than unconditional surrender, but –”

A longer pause this time, and then the Mason smiled. She looked at Rondeau like he was a pork chop on a plate. “That is an intriguing proposal, Marla. I think… yes, certainly. Come over this afternoon. We’ll discuss it further then.”

She hung up the phone and stared at a spot on the wall for about two minutes straight before Rondeau coughed and said, “Uh, so what’s going on?”

“I’m going to get everything I’ve always dreamed of,” the Mason said, still staring at nothing. “I’ve always wanted a big family. Haven’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t know, I mean, the planet’s so overpopulated anyway –”

“It won’t be for much longer,” the Mason said, and Rondeau didn’t really have an answer for that, so he went and made himself a very large drink instead, and tried to imagine what Marla’s plan could possibly be.

Chapter 23

“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.”

Chapter 24

“You’re fired,” the Chamberlain said. “There. I could have been more diplomatic, and normally I would be, but I know how much you value directness, so there it is. You are no longer chief sorcerer of Felport.”

“Look, I know you’re pissed.” Marla sat back in one of Hamil’s comfy armchairs. “The Mason did some serious damage, I get that, but I did defeat her, you know. My job is protecting the city, and I succeeded.”

“You were the one who put the city in danger.” The Chamberlain was dressed impeccably as always, this time in a midnight blue evening grown, and she was even wearing an understated diamond tiara. As understated as a jewel-studded crown could be, anyway. “Your hubris led to the deaths of Dr. Husch, Viscarro, Ernesto, Granger…” She shook her head. “This isn’t open to discussion. You’re out. Now, the terms of your exile –”

“This is ridiculous. You can’t just unilaterally oust me. Deposing a sitting chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote. Tell her, Hamil.”

“She knows,” Hamil said. “The vote was unanimous.”

Marla stared at him. “Et tu, fat man?”

“I have supported you in almost every endeavor you’ve undertaken,” Hamil said gravely. “But I did not support your violation of the laws of space and time. I know you love Felport, Marla… but it’s clear you loved Bradley Bowman more. You put your feelings for him above the safety of your city. You deserted us, and while you were gone, we were attacked by a monster – a monster that only had access to our world because of the choices you made. Yes, you stopped the Mason. We’re glad. But you started the Mason, too, and we can’t ignore that.”

“Sorry, Marla,” the Bay Witch said. Beautiful, blonde, dripping seawater all over the carpet, just like always – but now she had a deep frown line in her forehead, marring her carefree surfer-girl look. “I like you. I think you have pretty hair and you were pretty nice and good to me, pretty nice and good to the waters, pretty good, but what you did was bad. No pretty, just bad.”

“Okay.” Marla thought frantically. “Okay, I fucked up, totally, but what about my past service? Hell, in the past year I saved the city from the god of death and the king of nightmares and the beast of Felport and the great god Xorgothua and those things that claimed to be elves and –”

“We are aware of your past contributions,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is why you are being offered exile instead of execution. You impossible woman, don’t you understand, you caused the death of half the council! If you’d spent another few hours off on your little otherworldly adventure, Hamil and I would be dead, too, and the city obliterated. You. Must. Go.”

“There aren’t enough of you,” Marla said, though part of her was thinking, If I’m arguing on procedural grounds, I’m screwed. “You three aren’t enough for a quorum, so –”

“We elevated Langford to Ernesto’s position,” Hamil said tiredly. “And Mr. Beadle to Viscarro’s. We were all in agreement. Marla, it’s over.

“But there’s still stuff to do! Crapsey and Nicolette are both running around loose out there, somebody will have to –”

Hamil shook his head. “We can take care of them, Marla. They aren’t your concern anymore. Please hand over your dagger of office.”

Marla stared at him, then stood up, refusing to let herself tremble. How dare they. The first time an atomic monster from the center of the Earth attacked, or a cult devoted to the Bad Old Ones summoned something with more tentacles than brains, the council would beg to take her back, and she’d refuse them. For a little while. Just at first. Then she’d come back and save them. After she was sure they were really sorry. But for now, she’d act with dignity. She drew the Mason’s dagger and offered it hilt-first to Hamil. The other dagger, she intended to keep – what they didn’t know wouldn’t bother them. That knife wasn’t really Felport’s dagger of office, anyway. The original blade had been lost, something the rest of the council didn’t know, and its identical replacement was a personal gift from the god of Death. And, damn it, that belonged to her. Giving them the Mason’s dagger was a lot closer to returning the original weapon anyway.

Hamil shook his head. “Don’t give the dagger to me. The Chamberlain is taking over as chief sorcerer.”

The Chamberlain?” Marla said.

Hamil nodded. “We’re elevating Perren River – the head of the Honeyed Knots – to the Chamberlain’s old spot on the council.”

“Perren’s great, that’s fine, put her on the council, but giving the Chamberlain my job? That’s not the succession plan I worked out –”

“Enough.” The Chamberlain’s voice was sharp enough to slice tendons. “Your plans are irrelevant. I hereby claim the position of chief sorcerer of Felport.”

As soon as the Chamberlain announced her claim, a yawning absence opened in Marla’s center. The part of her that sensed Felport went silent. It was like having a tooth pulled, only instead of a tooth, it was more like her heart.

The Chamberlain snatched the dagger from Marla’s hands. Marla prayed the knife wouldn’t recognize her authority – that it would turn and slice all the Chamberlain’s fingers off – but the dagger recognized its new mistress, and behaved.

“Please,” Marla said, telling herself it wasn’t begging, it was just asking, “Don’t send me away. Felport is my home. I’ve lived here more than half my life. Surely I deserve –”

“You have twenty-four hours to set your affairs in order,” the Chamberlain said. “Which is about twenty-three more hours than I wanted to give you. After that, you leave – via the airport, if you please. I don’t want you squatting on the outskirts of town, moping around. Be gone by this time tomorrow, or I’ll have you removed.”

“I don’t even get a severance package?”

The Chamberlain smiled icily. “We’ve decided not to sever your head from your body. That’s your severance package.”

Marla looked to Hamil for help, but he just shook his head. “Good luck, Marla. I do wish you well, and hope you’ll stay in touch.”

“Yes, don’t forget to write,” the Chamberlain said.

“Fuck you all,” Marla said. “You’ll be sorry.”

“Maybe someday,” the Chamberlain said, “You’ll grow up enough to realize you’re the one who has something to be sorry for.”


“Didn’t seem prudent to mention my new status on the council,” Langford said, packing up his doctor’s bag. Beta-Marla was in Bradley’s old room, nestled in the covers, staring at the ceiling. “My elevation to the council was certain to be a sore point, and we were both too busy for, hmm, shouting and recriminations.”

“I can’t believe you voted to throw me out,” Marla said, staring at her doppelganger. She was catatonic, totally checked-out from the world. Lucky bitch.

“Nothing personal. I’ve enjoyed working with you over the years. It was simply the logical decision. The Chamberlain’s arguments were compelling. I’m taking over administration of the Blackwing Institute, by the way, at least until Dr. Husch can be put back together again. Assuming she’s sane once she’s reassembled, she can have the job back.”

“Who’s going to run your lab while you’re off playing councilman and chief head-shrinker?”

“You haven’t met my apprentice, have you? She doesn’t come out of the lab much. Danielle Ching-Yi Kong. She’ll be looking after my interests in the city. Very bright woman. Started out washing retorts and calibrating machinery for me, but she’s developed into a top-notch experimental alchemist. She’s nearly cracked the problem of chrysopoeia and the creation of the Alkahest, and is making great strides toward perfecting the panacea.”

“You lost me at ‘problem,'” Marla said.

Langford blinked. For as long as Marla had known him, he’d had trouble understanding that not everyone had access to the same inner mental landscape he did. “Ah. Suffice to say she’s a young woman who’s going places.”

“Me too. Though I’m not young, and I’m not going anyplace I want to go.” She nodded toward Beta-Marla. “What happens to her?”

“We’ll keep your, ah, interdimensional twin at the Institute, very comfortably. She’ll have the best therapy. Perhaps someday she’ll recover her faculties.”

“Can I visit her?” Marla said.

“The Institute is outside the city limits of Felport, so I believe the terms of your exile will allow that.” Langford glanced at his watch. “You should collect your personal belongings. The Chamberlain will be over soon to take all your files back to her own office.”

Marla nodded and left the room, not bothering to thank him for his years of service, any more than he’d thanked Marla for hers.

Her office door was open, and Rondeau was sitting on her couch. “Is it true?” he said. “Those ingrates are actually throwing you out?”

“Yeah.” She sat in her chair and looked around the room. What should she take with her? The antique chatrang board her predecessor had given her? Her mummified baby alligator, which she had on the theory that every sorcerer’s lair should have a mummified reptile of some kind? Her scythe-shaped letter opener?

In the end, she just took the little silver bell from her cut-open desk drawer, careful not to let it ring. She looked at Rondeau. “Bye,” she said. “You’ve been a good friend. Better than I deserved, maybe. Take care of yourself.”

Rondeau stood up. “Marla, where will you go?”

She didn’t answer him, just shook her head, and went out into the city. Her walk to meet the Mason hadn’t been her last walk in Felport after all.

But this one would be.


Marla stood in the airport, staring at the departure boards. Numbness had given way to anger and been replaced by exhaustion. She’d walked all night and into the morning before going to her apartment and packing up her last few things She had her leather shoulder bag with a few clothes and a couple of books, and a rolling suitcase with more clothes and toiletries and other essentials. Her entire life in two bags.

She also had an enchanted boarding pass, courtesy of the Chamberlain, which would allow her onto any plane she wanted to board, and insured her a seat in first class. And if the flight was full, well, the airline would figure it was their screw-up, and somebody would get bumped to make room for her. Marla had enough magic of her own to make that happen.

“What’re you thinking?” Rondeau said, appearing at her shoulder. “Scenic Newark New Jersey? Or Scranton Pennsylvania? I hear Scranton is beautiful this time of year. By which I mean almost damn winter.” He wore a loud aloha shirt and sunglasses, and had an enormous rolling suitcase of his own, a garment bag slung over his shoulder, and a bulging backpack.

“What are you doing here?” she said.

“Heading out of town. I haven’t had a vacation in, well, ever. Though this is less a vacation and more a change of life. I sold the club to Hamil.”

“What are you talking about? You love the club!”

He shrugged. “Bradley’s body isn’t as good at staying up all night. Different circadian rhythms or whatever. And he’s got no tolerance for the drugs I like. Nah, that’s a bad scene for me now. Besides, Hamil offered me, like… obscene amounts of money for the club. I knew the place was valuable, what with the special conference room and all, but damn – I think he paid me double what it’s worth because he felt bad about firing you. The cash I have now, it’s beyond fuck-you money, Marla. It’s fuck everybody money. I can spend the rest of my life drinking rum and coke and getting happy endings from buff Swedish masseurs.”

“Lucky you,” she muttered.

“You mean lucky you. You’re my best friend, Marla. Come with me.”

She frowned. “Really? You don’t think I’m a traitor to the city and a danger to myself and others?”

“My loyalty was never to Felport. My loyalty was to you. You forgave me for killing Bradley – I can forgive you for trying to save him. So what do you say? Sit next to me on my flight? You can always go brood in some horrible coal-mining town if you don’t like my idea, but you should try it first.”

“What’s your idea?”

“Hawaii. Specifically Maui. Specifically a luxury resort in Maui where I’m assured the pina coladas never stop flowing.”

She made a face. “Hawaii? Seriously? Isn’t that kind of a cliché? You really expect me to do the whole tropical paradise thing –”

He shrugged. “Do, or don’t. I wish you would, but my flight’s boarding soon, and I’m the one with the bulging checkbook, so this time, I get to pick the destination.”

Marla laughed. “So this means I won’t get to boss you around any more?”

“You aren’t my employer anymore,” he said. “But I’m sure you can still dominate me through sheer force of personality.”

“That’s something, at least,” Marla said, and followed him toward the security line.


Crapsey woke up after dawn under the overpass where he’d spent the night, shivering, with a wicked need to piss. He limped behind a pillar and unzipped, staring up at the underside of a highway as the stream of urine steamed on the ground. How had it come to this? Alone, in the cold, friendless, in the wrong world, trapped in this one lousy body, with nothing but the ill-fitting suit on his back, his butterfly knife, and an enchanted jaw that made him look like something out of a monster movie. Plus, he was hungry. He’d been able to kill and take with impunity when he was the Mason’s right hand, but back then he’d had her support, and he’d been immortal. If he died now, he’d go insane, trapped in a corpse, forever. What the hell was he supposed to do?

“You’re better hung than I thought you’d be.” Nicolette slid down the hill from the freeway above, one arm of her shirt flapping empty, holding the silver hatchet in her remaining hand. “You hear your boss got her ass whipped?”

“What? What do you mean?”

Nicolette shrugged. “Marla beat her. I’m not sure how – my network of spies isn’t what it used to be – but word is, the crisis is over, and the Mason was neutralized.”

“Damn,” Crapsey said. “Damn. That’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard.” He zipped up. “But, with Marla still standing, doesn’t that make you a dangerous fugitive? Just like me?”

Nicolette tucked her hatchet into her belt and seesawed her hand. “Sorta kinda. This is the good part – Marla got canned. Because she’s the reason the Mason came to this world, see – the rest of the council fired her ass, and they’re sending her into exile. Poof. She’s gone.”

“Shitty ending for everybody, then.” He looked around for somewhere to sit, thought, Fuck it, and just sat on the dirt.

“Ending? Oh, no. I’m just getting started. What do you say, Jawface – want to conquer the world with me?”

“I’ll pass. World conquering’s not really my thing. Been there, done that.”

“Good. Just checking to make sure you didn’t have crazy ambitions. My real goals are a lot more modest. Marla Mason is alone, friendless, stripped of her artifacts, and without support. She’s never been weaker than this. So I figure… now’s the time to kill her.”

“Knock yourself out,” Crapsey said. “I’ve got no beef with Marla. Rondeau, on the other hand… that’s a guy I’d like to kill. And if he can’t be killed, then I want him to suffer, trapped in a single meatsack like I am, tormented forever.”

“Sure,” Nicolette said. “You know, when I said Marla was friendless, I should have said almost friendless – except for Rondeau. I hear he’s going with her, wherever she’s going. So what do you say? Help me kill Marla, and I’ll help you torture Rondeau?”

Crapsey shook his head. “It’s a good plan in theory, but Marla beat the Mason. How are we going to stand a chance against her? I can’t even jump bodies anymore.”

“Oh, but you’ve got other talents.” Nicolette draped her remaining arm over his shoulders. “As for how to kill her… to kill both of them… Don’t worry about that. I’ve got some good ideas.”

Oh well, Crapsey thought. Nicolette’s nuts, and we never did get along. But at least it’s something to live for. “Why the hell not,” he said. “Let’s kill them both.”


The next day, Marla sat in a comfortable chair in one of the outdoor restaurants attached to their hotel – which was, indeed, improbably luxurious. The weather wasn’t as hot as she’d expected. This late in the year, Maui didn’t swelter, though it was perfectly pleasant outside. She had a cup of the best coffee she’d ever tasted in front of her, alongside a plate of mostly-demolished macadamia nut pancakes, probably the tastiest breakfast she’d ever had. The view from Kaanapali, here on the island’s western shore, was breathtaking: the deep blue ocean, and the islands of Lanai and Molokai both visible in the distance. Down on the beach there stood a row of white tents, side flaps open to admit the ocean breeze, and in one of them Rondeau was getting the first of what he expected to be many massages. Though presumably of a non-erotic variety; this was a classy joint.

The rest of Marla’s day stretched out before her, vast as the ocean. She thought she might swim in the hotel’s ridiculously huge pool, soon. And then have some lunch. Maybe a walk on the beach after. Thinking beyond that, to what she might do tomorrow, next week, next year… she didn’t dare let her mind go there yet. For the first time in years, she had no purpose, no goal, no center, no services to perform, no responsibilities, no job. The prospect was more terrifying and depressing than refreshing and freeing. She wondered if it always would be.

What she did have, right now, was a nice pen and a thick stack of postcards purchased from the hotel gift shop. The postcards had pictures of the ocean, and palm trees, and islands seen from the sky, and volcanoes, and tropical flowers, and fish, and sea turtles, and birds, and bore legends like “Wish you were here” and “Hello from paradise.” There were enough postcards there for every single person she knew back home, with plenty left over for everyone she knew anywhere else, too.

After the waiter refilled her cup with kona coffee, Marla took the first postcard from the stack – this one had a picture of a grinning shark, appropriately. She took the pen in her hand, thought a moment, and began to write.

“Dear Chamberlain,” she wrote. “I hope wolves eat your guts, sharks bite off your face, and hornets use your asshole for a nest. Also, your fashion sense sucks. Who wears a ball gown to a business meeting? What are you, a Disney princess? Love from the beach, Marla.”

She stuck a stamp on that postcard and placed it face-down on the other side of her plate. One love letter down. A few dozen more to go.

Maybe, she thought, life in exile won’t be so bad.