Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Ten More Days for Tuckerizations

July 6th, 2010

I got a $300 donation today (which is awesome; I can buy groceries now! yay!), and at that level, donors get to have a mutually agreed-upon name of their choice included in the text of the novel. (Mostly they become character names, but sometimes they become other things.)

But time is running out for that particular prize. I’m planning to send the finished text of the novel to the publisher for the print edition later this month, and after that happens, I can’t put in any more names!

So here’s a deadline: any donations of $300 or more received by July 15 can still get names into the text. (I’ve got a few characters who are unnamed, or who have names I can change, just for that eventuality.) After July 15, I can’t guarantee that any new names will make it into the text. Though, ahem, I’ll still gladly take your money…

Chapter 18

July 5th, 2010

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 17

June 28th, 2010

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 16

June 20th, 2010

“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 15

June 14th, 2010

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 14

June 7th, 2010

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 13

May 27th, 2010

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 12

May 24th, 2010

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 11

May 17th, 2010

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 10

May 10th, 2010

“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.