Broken Mirrors
a serial novel by TA Pratt

Chapter 9

May 3rd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew, because he’d been here before.

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

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

Which was:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you ready, Crapsey?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we be sneaky, or flank, or –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lights went out.

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

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

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

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

“You don’t trust me, either.”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

“Kill her,” the Mason said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 8

April 26th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 7

April 19th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gas,” Crapsey said.

“Which pump, and how much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will try to do better,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 6

April 12th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I keep a bottle just for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s perfect! Let’s do it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. I need to kill a god.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah. I used to be –”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve been better,” Beta-B said.

Chapter 5

April 5th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you aren’t human.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sicken me,” the Mason said.

“Right back atcha, boss.”

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 4

March 29th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

March 22nd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t get it,” he said.

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

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

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

“I’m called the Warden.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are they now?”

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

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

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

“No, she doesn’t.”

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

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

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

“I’ll need to get my phone.”

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

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

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

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

“Yum,” Crapsey said glumly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“So what now, boss?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table of Contents

March 21st, 2010

Table of Contents:

Complete novel on a single page

Chapter 1 * Chapter 2 * Chapter 3 * Chapter 4 * Chapter 5 * Chapter 6 * Chapter 7 * Chapter 8 * Chapter 9 * Chapter 10 * Chapter 11 * Chapter 12 * Chapter 13 * Chapter 14 * Chapter 15 * Chapter 16 * Chapter 17 * Chapter 18 * Chapter 19 * Chapter 20 * Chapter 21 * Chapter 22 * Chapter 23 * Chapter 24

Chapter 2

March 15th, 2010

Marla had been in this chamber before, once, not even a year ago, and it had been a shifting place even then, but it was different now, damaged in ways it hadn’t been before. The decay in the possible witch’s domain was actually encouraging. The fact that things were falling apart here meant the possible witch was not unassailable. She could be influenced. She could be hurt.

And anything that could be hurt could be threatened.

The room itself was – was –

“I thought it was a hexagon.” Rondeau looked around at the shifting walls, which changed from mirrors spiderwebbed with cracks to sheets of black glass smeared with gore to milky white crystal with clouds of red mist hidden in their depths. There was no ceiling, only endless overhead air suffused with that sickly yellowish light. “But then I thought, no, octagon, and then a shape with ten sides, and then twenty, and then a hundred, but I think… maybe it’s really a circle. I read once, a circle is just a polygon with an infinite number of sides. That kind of infinity seems right for this place.”

“That’s deep.” Marla meant it sincerely, but it came out sarcastically, and Rondeau flinched and looked away. “So where’s the lady of the hour?” Marla gestured to the empty chair in the center of the room, an immense wooden straight-backed thing that exhibited the same fungal blooms of rot evident elsewhere.

“Coming,” Rondeau said. He winced again and rubbed the side of his head. “Tuning in.”

Something whitish flickered in the chair, and flickered again, and there she – it, but might as well say she, it was easier for the mind to cope with – was the possible witch. Her hair was grayer now, her white robe stained and tattered, the flesh of her hands gripping the armrests liver-spotted and withered. Her eyes were the same, though, inhuman clusters of bulging faceted glass that changed from mirror to obsidian to crystal just slightly out of synch with the shifting of the walls. “You.” Her voice was a stone rasping against the razor edge of the world. “Come to kill me again?”

Marla cocked her head. “I’ve killed you before? Huh. Seems like I’d remember that.”

“Don’t pretend to be stupid. Neither of us has the time for that.” The possible witch shook her head in a sharp, querulous gesture. “It wasn’t this you, it was other yous, and other instances of me. I told you last time, I’m dead almost everywhere, but does that stop you? No. Days ago you showed up, versions of you, some with hair dyed red, some with a glass eye, some with your voicebox damaged so you communicate by sign language, but all asking for the same thing. Making impossible demands. Making outrageous threats. And. And.” She twitched. “And following through on them.”

Marla unsheathed her dagger of office, one of the two artifacts she possessed; the other was the white-and-purple cloak on her back, but that was as dangerous as old dynamite sweating nitroglycerin, and she didn’t want to use it. “You see this knife? It was –”

“Forged in the fires of hell by the god of Death himself, yes, I know.” The possible witch flickered, but she grimaced, and her grip on the armrests tightened, and she took on a new weight and solidity. “I’ve heard this, I told you. But the knife doesn’t work. You have to use the… other thing. The thing clinging to your shoulders. That’s how you kill me.”

“The cloak?”

The possible witch shook her head again, more impatiently, her strange eyes glittering. “Why do you pretend to be stupid? It’s not a cloak, it never was a cloak, it’s just something that looks like a cloak, out of convenience.”

Marla nodded. She knew. She’d found the cloak hanging in a thrift store when she was a young woman, still an apprentice, and it had called to her. Wearing it with the white side showing protected her from harm, and had saved her life countless times, its magic healing all injuries. But with a simple mental command she could reverse the cloak, make the purple lining switch to the outside, and then… she became a monster. Cold, unfeeling, merciless, interested only in dealing death, her conscious mind reduced to a voice howling in the void. The cloak was a potent power, but increasingly she thought of it as a nuclear option, a weapon of last resort. She’d always been able to drag herself back from the brink, to assert her control and turn the cloak back to white, but she worried that the effects of using the cloak were cumulative, like mercury poison building up in her blood, and that someday, she’d lose control, and the cloak – whatever it really was – would take over.

So Marla wasn’t surprised to hear the cloak could murder something like a god, and she also wasn’t surprised that various versions of herself in what some might call parallel dimensions had committed those murders. “Are you going to do what I want this time? Or am I going to have to kill you here, too?”

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” the witch said.

“Nothing you haven’t done before,” Marla said. “Last time I visited, you chucked me out into a whole succession of alternate realities, flickering by like the world’s worst vacation slideshow.”

The witch shook her head. “I granted you visions of other worlds, yes, but what you’re asking now is so much more… There are laws against this. Not laws like traffic laws, like laws against stealing, but laws of the universe, laws like gravity. You want me to break them.”

“You’re the only one who can break them. If I could do it myself, I would.”

The witch turned her head and looked at Rondeau. “What do you think, summoner? You opened the doorway to this place. If I do what Marla Mason asks, if I decide I’ve died at her hands often enough in enough different universes – that she’s done enough damage to the integrity of this place, which is only a reflection of myself – then it’s your power I’ll draw on to help me pry open the other door she desires. Will you let Marla Mason use you that way? Even if the strain of what she asks cripples you, or kills you? Would you risk dying for this woman even though, in every universe I’ve seen lately, she seems to hate you profoundly?”

Marla wanted to tell the witch to shut up, to talk to her, she was the one in charge, but she was a little curious to hear what Rondeau would say.

He didn’t run on with any of his usual lines of bullshit, he didn’t make jokes, and he didn’t make excuses. He just said, “I’m with Marla.”

Well, then.

The witch turned back to Marla. “I know what you want. But you must ask me. Request your boon.”

Marla took a breath, let it out, and spoke. “I want Bradley Bowman. That’s all. Find one of the other universes, one where he’s still alive. But listen. I don’t want you bringing me a Bradley who’s happy – I don’t want to ruin his life, if some other version of him found happiness. Find a universe where B and I never met, where he’s still in California, where he’s still unhappy, and bring that Bradley here, to me.” She’d met Bradley not quite a year earlier, when he’d been a totally untrained psychic, tormented by nightmares that came true, plagued by ghosts and demons, and unaware of the extent of his own powers – or of the fact that there were other sorcerers who could teach him how to use his abilities, and who could offer him a place in their world. She wanted to find a version of Bradley she hadn’t saved, and save him.

That seemed like the set-up with the best chance of replicating her relationship with the B she’d lost.

“There will be a price, if I do this for you,” the possible witch said. “A price you cannot know before you pay.”

“Yeah, I know the payment policy. I’ve been here before.”

The possible witch sighed. “I said no to you so many times, and suffered the consequences, and considered it my duty… but you’ve hurt me, Marla Mason. Damaged me perhaps beyond repair. So this time, this one time, in this one place and this one world, I will grant your wish. You deserve it.”

“Good. Always a pleasure doing business with you. So, ah –”

Rondeau dropped to his knees, clutched at his head, and began screaming. Marla spun with her knife, looking for an attack, for treachery, but whatever assailed him did so from within. He fell onto his side, curled into the fetal position, but the screaming didn’t stop, and no matter how pissed she was at Rondeau, she didn’t want this, didn’t want to see him in this kind of pain. She advanced on the chair, knife upraised. “What’s happening? What are you doing?”

“I’m opening a doorway for you, Marla Mason.” The possible witch might have been smiling – except, no, she was biting down, biting through her own lip, and black blood started to run down her chin. It oozed from her ears, too, and ran from the corners of her inhuman eyes like oily tears. “Your friend the summoner is helping me. It’s a very rusty door, and heavily barred, and heavily guarded, so it’s taking some effort, but don’t worry, we’ll get it open. But remember, Marla Mason: When you open a doorway, it opens both ways.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

The witch just shook her head and flickered out of existence, and Rondeau stopped screaming at exactly that instant, but he seemed to be unconscious. “Well this is fucked up –” Marla began, and then the floor beneath her feet vanished, and she fell with Rondeau into a darkness that soon obscured all her senses and, after a long time, blotted out her thoughts too.


Rondeau groaned, and sat up, his head pounding worse than the worst hangover he’d ever had, and that hangover had lasted a full day, and had only been assuaged by getting drunk all over again, which he couldn’t do now that he was in Bradley’s overly-sensitive-to-substances body. Which was too bad, because the bar in his nightclub was right downstairs, and since he owned the place he could pour himself an immense tumbler of Johnny Walker Blue if he wanted, hell, he could drink right from the mouth of the bottle, and –

He lifted his head from the scarred wooden table, blinking. This was his club. Or, more accurately, the floor above the club, where he kept his apartment, and where Marla had her office. This was his crappy little dining area, the table where he’d played solitaire and taken part in councils of war. He was back in Felport, on the East Coast, and not in a strange otherworld accessible only through a solitary confinement cell on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay.

“Shit, was it all a dream?” He didn’t have the hang of all the gifts he’d inherited with Bradley’s body, and the prophetic dreams – what B always called those dreams – were the weirdest. The dreams could be vivid, sure, but they were usually pretty cryptic and full of more symbolism than a double-deck of Tarot cards, not the linear narrative he’d experienced a moment ago. Had he just fallen asleep here or something? But that didn’t make sense, he’d been hiding out at a friend’s place, avoiding Marla because he was ashamed and she was pissed about what he’d done, he wouldn’t be sleeping here

No dream, that voice said in his head.

The door to Marla’s office banged open, and Marla ran out, looking around wild-eyed, knife in hand. When all she saw was Rondeau, she lowered the dagger, but didn’t put it away. “You see Bradley anywhere?”

“Nuh uh.”

She nodded, frowning, that I’m-thinking-hard-and-you-won’t-like-what-I’m-thinking-about line wrinkling her forehead. “Think the witch stiffed us? Just flung us back to Felport? I mean, hell, that place we were, her chamber, it’s not like it’s in San Francisco, it’s just accessible from there, it’s probably as close to Felport as it is to anywhere else in the world. But if she could save herself by chucking us out the window, why’d she let me kill her in all those other universes? Or was that just bullshit?”

“She did something, Marla. The way my head feels… she used me the way a plumber uses a pipe wrench. Whatever she did, it was so hard even somebody as powerful as the possible witch couldn’t do it by herself.”

“Huh. Then where the hell is…” She turned toward the hallway, and nodded.

“His… his room?” Rondeau stood up from the table. Bradley had come to Felport to become Marla’s apprentice, and he’d stayed in Rondeau’s spare bedroom while they were working on finding him a place to live. Turns out he didn’t even survive long enough to put down a security deposit on his own apartment. But while he’d lived in Felport, he’d lived in there.

Marla went down the hallway, to the closed door. B’s things were still in there, his bag of clothes and a few mementos from his old life as an actor and not much else. She put her hand against the door as if feeling for heat, then took the flimsy knob in her hand, turned it, and pushed open the door.

“B,” she whispered, rushing inside.

Rondeau followed… and there was Bradley, on the messy unmade futon. Not exactly the same B – his hair was longer, and he was paler, and thinner, but it was still recognizably him, the scruffy psychic with the movie star face, and though his eyelids were closed, Rondeau could perfectly recall the tropical blue of his irises.

Rondeau couldn’t stand up. He sank down to the floor by the door and sat with his back against the wall. His stomach was quivering and his heart was pounding and he couldn’t tell if what he felt was exhilaration or relief or terror or some emotion he’d never been sufficiently moved to experience before. Bradley was back from the dead. Back from oblivion.

Marla knelt on the futon and touched his shoulder, but B didn’t react. She shook him, then touched his face, then put her hands under his nostrils as if checking for breath – though Rondeau could see B’s chest rising and falling even from his vantage. She slapped his face lightly, whispered in his ear, and finally started shaking him by the shoulders, shouting into his face, yelling “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” but Bradley didn’t react beyond a fluttering of the eyes that looked like nothing so much as the rapid eye movement of a dream.

“Let me try.” Rondeau approached cautiously, afraid Marla would lash out at him, but she nodded and moved aside, letting him kneel beside B and put the palm of his hand on the unconscious seer’s forehead.

“If that bitch gave me damaged goods, if she gave me Bradley’s body with no mind inside, if she double crossed me, we’ll go back there and I’ll cut her into pieces, I’ll cut her every way it’s possible for someone to be cut, I’ll –”

“He’s having a vision,” Rondeau said, pulling his hand away. He couldn’t quite penetrate Bradley’s mind, not the way he could the minds of most people these days, but he’d caught the color and the shape, and the form was familiar to him, though the scale dwarfed every vision he’d ever experienced since taking over this body. “It’s a big one. Marla, you dragged B out of some other world, and he’s a psychic, one of the most powerful psychics we’ve ever heard of, you know? I think he’s, like… trying to see everything now. His senses, his special senses, they’re probing the edges of a whole new reality, and I think he’s in sensory overload. He’s, I don’t know, downloading. You know?”

“How long will it take? Before he wakes up?” Marla only had eyes for Bradley.

Rondeau just shook his head. He couldn’t even begin to know.

“He’ll be all right.” Marla’s words were more command than hope. She looked around. “But… the price. There’s always a price, when you deal with things like that possible witch. So what’s the price? Go to my office, would you, and look out the window, see if anything… looks weird.”

Rondeau did, and when he returned, Marla was cradling B’s head in her lap. “Nothing weird. Looks like it’s a little before dawn, so we didn’t even lose much time. Got here lots faster than taking a plane anyway.” He shrugged.

“Huh.” Marla didn’t look up, just kept stroking B’s brow, and, not for the first time, Rondeau thought what a shame it was that B was gay, because he was probably the only man Marla could love. Then again, maybe the fact that B was romantically untouchable was why Marla allowed herself to love him. Seemed plausible, but Rondeau tried to avoid psychoanalyzing his boss. He wasn’t qualified, and she didn’t appreciate it.

She said, “So it’s just our Felport? Doesn’t look like it’s actually ruled by spider-people, or giants, or evolved raccoons? No pyramids or obelisks? It’s not raining doughnuts or anything, you know, parallel-universe-y?”

“Just a street. Kinda dirty. Same old gray van with flat tires and a hundred parking tickets stuck under the windshield wipers right under your window. Nothing weird, no.”

“Because last time, when B and me went to see the witch, that was the price, that we got stuck on Alcatraz flipping through I don’t even know how many alternate realities, a new one every few minutes. We were there all night, and we didn’t have time to be there all night, which was why it counted as a price, I guess. Some of those Californias we saw were practically prehistoric, and some of them were in the middle of ice ages, and some of them had riots, and some of them were on fire, and some of them looked so beautiful, you wouldn’t believe how beautiful, and after a while the spectacle got boring and we talked, that’s when B and me first became tight… but no celestial channel-flipping this time. Which means the price is something different. Damn. I don’t mind paying, not if we get B back, but it’d be nice to know what I’m paying with.”

“Maybe she decided to give it to us as a freebie,” Rondeau said.

Marla snorted, and finally looked up from B. “It cost you something, didn’t it? What the witch did, it hurt you, right?”

Rondeau nodded, but slowly, because just moving his abused head seemed as potentially dangerous as jumping up and down on a land mine.

“Okay,” Marla said. “You did good. You stepped up. I’m not saying we’re square, I’m not saying I can forgive or forget because I’m lousy at both of those, but… I’ll remember you did the good thing, too. That you went into the presence of the possible witch not knowing what it would cost you, not knowing if you’d live through the ordeal, and you said yes anyway.”

Rondeau wanted to say a lot of things – more apologies, more assurances that Bradley’s death had been an accident, more outpouring admissions of guilt – but, maybe because Bradley’s psychically-sophisticated gray matter was better at reading the vibe of a room than Rondeau’s had ever been, he just nodded, and said, “I’ll leave you alone and make sure we weren’t gone more than a day and that nothing important burned down while you were gone.”

He stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him, and thought he heard, faintly, someone singing a lullaby. Rondeau didn’t think he’d ever heard Marla sing a note before.


Back in San Francisco, the sky over the bay crackled with lightning, startling the residents of that city where thunderstorms were rare, especially since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and because no crack of thunder followed – just the fork of jagged light splitting the air silently. On Alcatraz Island, inside the prison, two bodies appeared in mid-air and fell half a dozen feet to the hard floor. One of the figures landed in an ungainly heap, groaned, and cursed – a little lick of bluish flame emerged from his mouth – before sitting up, rubbing his unusual jaw.

The other twisted as she fell and landed in a crouch, as supple and self-assured as a cat, her long dark cloak fluttering as she landed.

“Crapsey.” She prodded her complaining companion with the point of one of her steel-toed boots. “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

“Of course not, boss.” He stood up. “You turned Kansas into a tornado laboratory. No buildings left there. Barely any ground left, even.”

“So that’s one place we’re not. Good. Narrows it down. Though not enough. What the hell is this place?”

A woman stepped forward, dressed in a gray suit, feathers woven into her hair, eyes glowing with spectral light, blood drying on her beat-up face, cold fury in her voice. “This is my place, and it will be your hell.”

“Look, Crapsey.” The cloaked woman nodded. “It’s a local rustic we can question. I wonder if she truly speaks our language, or if she just memorized those words of greeting phonetically, like a parrot?”

“Either way works. I’ve got my universal translator right here.” He flipped open a butterfly knife and advanced, grinning.

Given the nature of his face, it was a very memorable grin.

Chapter 1

March 8th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You open the way,” Marla said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, uh –”

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

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

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

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

Together, they walked into the light.