Behold the cover art for my next Marla Mason novel Bride of Death, by artist Lindsey Look. I love it so much.
Archive for the ‘Marlaverse’ Category
First, there is now an audiobook of The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl available for your listenings! Narrated by Marguerite Croft, and with a great cover by Jenn Reese. Go, download, listen, enjoy. (And go ahead and get some of my other audiobooks while you’re at it.)
I have begun a Tumblr to collect all the various Officebaby/Officeboy quotes that have appeared in scattered places online for years: The Officeboy Dialogues. I’ll update it somewhat regularly with new and classic utterances until he stops saying cute things or gets old enough to be annoyed by the site, whichever comes first.
My Pathfinder Tales novel City of the Fallen Sky is a finalist for the Scribe Awards in the Original Novel category. Very cool, especially since I’m writing another book about those characters this summer.
In other news: I’m 65,000 words into Bride of Death, and expect to have a complete first draft by the end of the month. It’s going really well now; I’d rather be writing it than doing most other things, including those actions necessary to maintain life. In June some other deadlines will begin racing rapidly toward me, so it will likely be September before I can revise the novel. Then there’s copyediting and proofreading to do, so I’m planning for publication in November, most likely. The e-book at least will be out by year’s end for sure, barring unforeseen catastrophes. Onward, ever onward!
Each Tuesday for the month of February I’m posting a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “A Cloak of Many Worlds,” written as a Kickstarter reward for one of my previous crowdfunded projects. This one’s a bit unusual, in that Marla doesn’t actually appear in the story, apart from a couple of mentions — but it’s about an old friend of hers dealing with a dangerous entity that used to belong to her.
(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.)
A CLOAK OF MANY WORLDS
Bradley Bowman — known, in most realities, as “B” to his friends — was getting pretty good at being a god. He hadn’t gotten much in the way of training, as his predecessor had died (or, more accurately, committed suicide), but since one of the perks of the position was a vastly enhanced mental capacity and total mastery of time, space, and the multiverse, he’d figured out things pretty well just by muddling along.
He was more than a god, really. Gods feared him — at least, those that believed in him did.
B sat at a small wrought-iron table in a gazebo in an imaginary garden, buttering a real piece of toast. When he took a sounding, he found an amazing 89% of himself was at least content, and 67% would have gone so far as to call it “happy.” A good morning, then. One of the best.
His lover, Henry, sat across from him, reading a French-language newspaper from a world where Napoleon’s empire had spanned the entire globe and persisted for two centuries. Henry had died of a drug overdose in most of the universes B had visited — back in timelines when B was still mortal, and so capable of uncomplicated linear heartbreak. B had taken advantage of his position to scoop one particular instance of his lover from a doomed timeline and taken him here, to the house outside space-time, to live as B’s immortal companion.
He was pretty sure such things were against the rules, except, as far as he could tell, there were very few rules, and no one to enforce them anyway. As long as he didn’t damage the structure of reality itself (an act which would be instantly self-negating, like a fire choosing to extinguish itself) he could do what he liked. There were other Powers his equal or better — he’d met them, he was sure, when he “interviewed” for this job — but thinking about them was like trying to look at the back of his own head.
Once he’d tried to save a few versions of himself who’d died unpleasantly in the past, but without success; he could see them, but trying to touch them was like squeezing smoke. There weren’t many rules… but there were, apparently, a few fundamental laws that couldn’t be worked around.
B’s job was to protect the integrity of the multiverse. To prevent creatures — apart from himself, and he didn’t count — from passing from one reality to another, shredding the fabric of space-time as they went. To guard against incursions from Outside, that mysterious space (or collection of spaces) where other entirely different universes bubbled in the quantum foam, and from In-Between, the dark shadows between the branches of parallel and proliferating realities, where dwelt terrible predators composed of equal parts biology and geometry.
His domain was not infinite, but it was very large, and ever-growing, as with each passing moment, in each universe, new choices were made right down at the quantum level, each choice spawning a new universe, endlessly branching, endlessly diverging. But B could be everywhere at once, if need be; so that was all right. And it wasn’t as if there were many real dangers. Cross-dimensional travel was rare, the dwellers In-Between mostly seemed happy to stay there eating any foolish sorcerers or science-explorers who breached their domains, and as for Outside, well –
“I dreamed about the cloak again,” Henry said, not looking up from the paper. He was blond, young, handsome, a lock of hair falling across his pale green eyes at almost all times, and his voice poured like honey when he said the least little thing.
B frowned. Contentment levels in the collective dropped precipitously. “Shit,” he said.
“Once is happenstance,” Henry said, rustling the paper. “Twice is coincidence. Three times — ”
“Yes, I know,” B said, and put down his toast.
B contained multitudes. He’d once been a mortal man, living a mortal life. He’d existed in tens of thousands of realities — but when he chose to accept this position, the wave-forms had collapsed, and he’d become a single individual, effortlessly containing the memories and experiences of all his counterparts. He thought of himself sometimes as “the collective,” since he was an amalgam of many, acting as one. He could spread out again, near-infinitely, sending versions of himself wherever they were needed in the expanse of time and space, every copy in continuous psychic contact with the main body, but after that breakfast most of him was together, standing on the frozen emptiness of a version of Earth that had drifted a bit farther from the sun than most, becoming a ball of nothing much but dirty ice, utterly lifeless.
There were a pair of cloaks wadded-up at his feet, made of white cloth, lined inside with an ugly bruise-purple, the color even more shocking than usual in this pale wasteland. “You little shits,” he said, kicking one of the cloaks. “How are you getting inside his head? I know you whisper and tempt and wiggle your little psychic fish hooks into people’s brains, but Henry isn’t even in this reality, he’s not in any reality, we’re curled up in a separate dimension. So how the fuck…”
Not for the first time, B considered picking up the cloaks and hurling them into a sun — or a black hole. The problem was, he couldn’t be sure what consequences that might have for the sun, or the singularity.
In many of the universes where B had been mortal, he’d made friends with a sorcerer named Marla Mason, who often possessed a magical purple-and-white cloak, an artifact of great power. In many of those universes, she discovered the cloak was a malign psychic entity bent on the utter domination of the world. Without a host body — a wearer, essentially — the cloak was largely inert, capable only of small telepathic whispers. Once it found a host to wear it, though, the cloak tried to possess the wearer’s body, and from there… onward to conquest, working magics that were unmatched in the multiverse.
On many of the worlds where Marla wore the cloak, she was unable to resist the cloak’s power, and became a genocidal tyrant. Bradley had stepped in on a micro level not long ago, as a favor to a version of Marla he was particularly fond of, and he’d taken a couple of instances of the cloak away, putting them here in this wasteland, where they could do no more harm.
The cloaks worried him, though, because they were from Outside — the only Outsiders he’d ever encountered. They didn’t belong to his multiverse, but came from some other entirely different universe. The physics (and metaphysics) of B’s multiverse didn’t apply to them — in some senses, this place was inimical to them, and the cloaks needed a physical host to support them just like an astronaut needed a space suit to function in the airless depths.
But in other ways, this multiverse was easy pickings for the cloaks; their magics were all but unstoppable here. And of course there were more of them every day, every moment, as the multiverse continued to branch, spawning new copies of the cloak with each variation. Sure, many of them were lost, or locked away, or sleeping and lying dormant without hosts, and they were all stuck in their respective realities, but still — they were wrong, and their existence troubled him.
Clearly, they had powers B didn’t begin to understand, and since he was supposed to understand everything in his multiverse, that was irksome. He needed to know where they’d come from, and what they wanted, and how they were whispering to his boyfriend… and how serious a threat they posed.
Fortunately, he was in a position to find out.
Henry followed him, but just to the top of the basement stairs. “Are you… you really have to go down there?”
B shrugged. “Some of them know things I need to find out.”
Henry blew a mouthful of smoke toward the ceiling — no reason to avoid cigarettes, here; they were beyond things like cancer — and nodded. “Okay. I just know how much they creep you out.”
“The basement’s not my favorite place,” B agreed. “But sooner started, sooner done.” He unhooked the padlock on the door — which was much more than an ordinary padlock, of course — and pulled it open. He descended solid stone stairs to a space so well-lit not a single shadow could collect in the corners. The walls were lined with man-sized glass containers, curved at the top like bell jars, each one holding a different version of B himself, their eyes closed, motionless but dreaming.
One Bradley was so disfigured he was barely recognizable, face a collage of scars, dressed in the shreds of a military uniform that was clearly from the Hugo Boss school of stylish fascism. Another was missing half his head, the damaged parts of brain and skull repaired with shiny metal plates and alien technology. A third had shockingly snow-white hair, and his left arm had been replaced by a long, blue-black tentacle that twitched and writhed even in the depths of suspension.
These were the versions of Bradley Bowman that had been purged from the collective. They were insane, or power-hungry, or otherwise dangerous, all from worlds that had suffered terrible agonies at the hands (or claws, or mandibles) of supernatural or extraterrestrial menaces — since B was a powerful psychic in nearly every reality, he was often dragged into the plots of such creatures, and sometimes terribly changed in the process.
The imprisoned version of himself that B needed to address today was fairly typical in his appearance, but reaching out to him mentally, B felt the void at the center of him, the profoundness of his broken places, the depth of his hunger. His neck was terribly scarred, as if he’d been scourged with a whip of needles; and in a way, he had. That version of B called himself the Host.
There were several realities in which B briefly wore the purple-and-white cloak, taking on the power and burden temporarily from his friend Marla Mason to help save the life of another. But this Bradley, the Host, for whatever reason, had lacked the willpower to resist the cloak’s whispering for even an afternoon. He had submitted to the cloak’s will, slaughtered Marla… and over the course of the next year, combining his own vast psychic gifts with the cloak’s brutal magics, he’d subjugated the entire Earth. He’d lost his empire when all the versions of B combined and ascended to meta-godhood, leaving his government in shambles (and the cloak itself abandoned, and in need of another host).
Most of the cloak’s hosts lost their minds when they were possessed, becoming vestigial things, but because of his psychic powers, the Host had managed to wall off part of his psyche, keeping it whole and intact. Unfortunately… he’d come to love the cloak. To love the power. The ability to do anything, without consequence or hesitation. His presence in the collective had been intolerable, like having a splinter in your eye, so B had sealed him away here… but now he needed the man’s insight.
B touched the glass jar. It shimmered out of existence, and the Host opened his sea-blue eyes.
A conceptual shift later, B sat in a steel chair in an interrogation room that lacked windows or doors. The Host sat across the scarred metal table from him, draped in chains. He smiled, showing teeth sharpened to points, then lashed out psychically, trying to seize control of the collective. It was a hopeless gesture — he was outnumbered literally billions to one — but B still reeled backwards under the ferocity of the assault.
“Well,” the Host said. “Worth a try. I didn’t become ruler of the world by never making an effort.”
“You weren’t the ruler of a world,” B said. “You were just the mount the ruler of a world rode.”
The Host shrugged. “The cloak and I had a more equal partnership than you’d like to admit. She burned the humanity out of me, to let me achieve my true potential, and she accepted my counsel.”
“Oh, I know that,” B said. “Which is why you’re here. I want to know about the cloak. What it is. Where it came from. What it’s doing here.”
The Host raised an eyebrow. “You’re something more than a god, brother. But you are wholly ignorant of the cloak’s true nature. Doesn’t that tell you something? Doesn’t that make you realize the cloak deserves to have dominion over this multiverse?”
“A case could be made,” B said. “Except for the bit where she wants to eradicate all other life.”
The Host shrugged. The scars on his neck where the cloak had clung, sinking the needles of its pseudopods deep into his flesh, were red, as if still infected. “You can’t blame her. Would you want to move into a house infested with roaches and centipedes, the bathtub full of slime eels, spiders in the pillows, slugs in the cupboards? That’s what we are to her — what all life is. She needs to keep a breeding pool of sentient creatures around, of course, to act as hosts, since our reality is unpleasant for her — it makes her very sleepy, like a lack of oxygen does for humans — but otherwise… things are much more beautiful without the slime mold of life everywhere. I came to see things her way.”
“I know all that. Tell me what I don’t know. Where does she — it — come from?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“I’m prepared to bargain,” B said. “I’ll bud you off, and give you your own existence, and put you on an Earth capable of sustaining your life, but one that hasn’t developed any sentient species. You’ll get to live in a natural paradise, which is better than you deserve.”
“A planet teeming with things I can kill? Interesting.” The Host showed his teeth again. This time, he licked them, and the points of his teeth drew blood from his tongue.
Hours later — not that time mattered here, but subjectively, it had been a long day — B sat at the table in the gazebo staring down into a cup of espresso. “The cloak comes from another universe. From Outside. Which, I mean — I figured. But what I didn’t know is, the reason it’s here.”
“Vanguard of an invasion force?” Henry sat with his arms crossed over his chest, frowning. Despite how distracted he was, a good 40% of the collective admired the way Henry’s crossed arms made his biceps bulge.
B shook his head. “No. The cloak was a criminal in its own reality. ‘Criminal’ isn’t exactly the right word, apparently — they don’t make a distinction between natural laws and laws created by sentient beings there, but apparently it’s also possible to break natural laws there, don’t ask me how. The cloak — the thing we call the cloak — did that. Violated something fundamental. And its punishment was being sent to our universe. Banishment. Exile.”
Henry frowned. “Wait. So we’re like… Australia? And the cloak is a British convict? Our multiverse is a penal colony?”
“More or less. With just a single prisoner. Except, of course, this being a multiverse, that prisoner has multiplied, in a way.”
“So… why am I dreaming about it?”
B winced. “This part, I figured out for myself. I fucked up, Henry. I had two cloaks together in one reality, and I took them both to a third reality, one with an uninhabited Earth, making my own attempt at banishing them. The cloaks are Outsiders, so it doesn’t exactly break my rules to put two of them in one reality, even though usually duplicates inhabiting the same reality is a no-no, one of the things I’m meant to guard against. The cloaks are… sort of outside my jurisdiction, so it’s okay. But I think passing through the membranes between realities so many times taught them something. The cloaks have senses I can’t even imagine — and since I’m capable of simultaneously watching everything throughout the past and into possible futures in every reality, those are some badass senses.” He ran a hand through his hair. “The cloaks must have figured out something about reaching through the membranes, even in their dormant state, when they’re just capable of whispering. So they’re whispering to you, Henry. They know they can’t overcome me — I’m billions of powerful psychics rolled into one — but you’re a singular creature, and a potential host.”
Henry whistled. “They’re trying to seduce me? They should work on their technique, because nightmares of utter destruction and choking to death in the gutter and ODing on needles full of junk aren’t really tempting me — ”
Not far away, just down the path, the front door of the house opened. That shouldn’t have been possible, because there was nothing else conscious and alive in this place to open a door.
Another Henry stepped out of the door. Except this Henry was wearing something that looked, at first glance, like a purple cloak, lined inside with white. To Bradley’s more advanced eyes, the cloak was revealed as something else: shaped a bit like a manta ray, but covered in eyes, and fringed all over with long, tentacular pseudopods, many ending in hooks and barbs, which wrapped around that other Henry’s body, and sank into his flesh. He came down the steps, and was followed by a second Henry, wearing another cloak — and finally by the Host, somehow freed from his prison in the basement, cloakless, and gazing at the new Henries with naked lust and hate. Other exiled Bradleys followed — the cyborg, the fascist, the madman with the tentacle, and more.
“Bastard,” the Henry in front shouted. “You saved one of us, but not all of us, so many of us are dead, you could have saved us all, but you let us die!”
“Fuck,” Bradley said, and grabbed his Henry’s hand, and fled.
Henry was barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but Bradley made sure he wasn’t cold, even though they were standing in frozen tundra. Standing in the place where the exiled cloaks should have been, and weren’t.
“They weren’t just whispering to you,” B murmured. “They were somehow whispering to all the versions of you, down the timestream, telling them I was a monster, that I could have saved their lives, and chose to let them die. Which…”
“You could’ve,” Henry said. “I guess. We’d have to put in a whole lot of extra bathrooms, though.”
B laughed, mirthlessly. “Yeah. I didn’t think it was practical — saving even one of you was an indulgence, and an abuse of power. Those visions of death in the gutter weren’t meant for you — they were meant for all the versions of you I didn’t save. And somehow, the cloaks opened doors, passageways, between realities. They shouldn’t be able to do that. They never could before.”
“When one monkey learns to use a stick to get ants out of an anthill, all the other monkeys who see him do it figure out how to imitate the trick,” Henry said. He shivered, despite the envelope of warmth B wove around him. “The cloaks saw you come and go here, checking up on them, and you said it yourself, their magics are way beyond what’s normally possible in our universe. They must have just learned to do what you do. So. What happens now?”
“Now?” B peered forward, into the most likely futures. “They breach the walls between universes,” he said. “Repeatedly. Using Henry — versions of you — as hosts. And once they find more versions of themselves in other realities, locked in boxes or hidden in closets or buried in concrete pits, those new cloaks take over the versions of me they freed from the basement. That merry band continues to breach the walls between realities, looking for more versions of themselves, the cloaks intermingle, the cloaks breed…” He shuddered. “They don’t conquer the multiverse, of course. Our realities can’t sustain that kind of damage, all those holes being torn between them. I’m the only one who can move freely from one place to another without doing damage in the process — I have a special dispensation. In a few months, the structure of the multiverse will be shredded and pierced and as fragile as rotting lace, until… it all falls apart. After that, the things from In-Between can’t tell the difference between our realities and their dark domains, and they surge in, and eat everything alive. ‘Eat’ is the wrong verb, but it’s close enough in terms of effect. Then the cloaks start to use them, the things In-Between, as hosts, and after that… I can’t see what happens after that, because none of me is left in that scenario.”
“So we’re screwed.” Henry sat down on the ice. “Hell, B. I knew you had a lot of responsibilities in your job, but…”
B frowned. “Wait. There’s a thread, a possibility, a vanishingly-small likelihood, a billion-to-one chance…” He whistled. “Billion-to-one. When you’re me, those are actually pretty decent odds.”
“What’s the play?” Henry said.
“We break the rules,” B said. “We go Outside. I can’t see what happens if we do that — it’s like asking a dog to see colors, or a man to see into the infrared, it’s beyond the limit of my senses — but there are futures where I try it, and I don’t see doom in those. I don’t see anything in them. They’re singularities, no information escapes from them. But when your choices are certain death or the great unknown, the only sensible choice is to go with the unknown.”
B squinted at the ice, and scuffed a line on the ground with the heel of his boot. He dragged his foot along, making another line, and a third, and finally a fourth, forming a rectangle about the size of a door. Then he lifted his foot and stomped down, hard, in the middle, causing the ice to crumble into a twinkling darkness.
“Down the hatch,” he said, taking Henry’s hand. His boyfriend didn’t hesitate: they jumped in, feet first, together.
After a dizzying interval of falling, B found himself sitting in a white chair, shaped like an egg, mounted on a pedestal. It was like something from a 1970s vision of the future. He swiveled in the chair, looking around. He was in a small white room, utterly blank, except for a circular red lens mounted in the center of one wall. Henry was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is my — ”
“He is safe,” a booming mechanical voice said, speaking from all directions at once. “Frozen in a moment of falling. Where he lands… that depends on the outcome of this conversation.”
B stared at the glowing red camera eye. “You’re one of the powers. One of the things… like me.”
“I am to you as you are to ordinary gods, and as ordinary gods are to mortals,” the voice said. “You may call me — ”
“HAL-9000?” B said.
“I appear in a form dependent largely on your memory and perceptions,” it said. “Even given your extra-human senses, you do not possess the sensory apparatus necessary to look upon my true form. I gather I appear to you as some sort of… killer robot?”
“Close enough,” B said. “So. Are you God? Not a god, but — the big one? The one at the top? The maker of the makers?”
“Hmm. No. No more than a gardener is God. The plants would grow regardless. The gardener merely encourages some growths, and discourages others, and occasionally resorts to weeding. Or pesticides. Or, in extreme cases, fire and salt. That is my relationship to the great complex of universes. All those universes exist, in their vast numbers, and I do what I can to keep them growing and healthy. And I try to make sure one doesn’t strangle another, or kill its neighbors by stealing all the sunlight. You may think of me as the Gardener, if you like. Such metaphors are limited, but they have their uses.”
“So the way I oversee the multiverse,” B said, “You do that for all the universes?”
“Essentially, yes. You have become a great disappointment to me, Bradley Bowman. You should not have stepped Outside. You have left your territory unprotected. Why?”
“I have a little problem,” B said. “With these cloaks.”
“Those motherfucking cloaks again?” the Gardener said, the profanity shocking B so much it made him flinch backward. “What have they done this time?”
B explained: about putting two of the cloaks in exile on a frozen planet, about Henry’s dreams, about the attack on his home, and about the likely futures he saw if the cloaks weren’t stopped. “Since these monsters came from Outside,” B said, “I couldn’t see any choice but to go Outside myself.”
“I will arrange a meeting,” the Gardener said. “A sit-down. Wait.”
So B waited. He wasn’t sure how long. He didn’t think it was centuries, quite. And he suspected the passage of time in this place — or non-place — had no bearing at all on the passage of time elsewhere. In any elsewhere.
The chair spun around of its own accord. Now there was a door on the wall opposite the Gardener’s red lens. The door slid open, and a tall, thin man walked through, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the jamb. He was dressed in a strange ragtag assortment of clothes — a plaid flannel shirt, a pink Easter bonnet, cutoff denim shorts revealing knees that appeared to be put on backwards, steel sabatons. His face was one only Picasso could have loved.
“Ambassador,” the Gardener said. “Meet the Guardian.”
So that’s what they call me, B thought. I’d wondered.
The Ambassador opened his mouth and spoke, but he didn’t move his lips, or tongue: words just emerged from the gaping mouth, as if from a concealed speaker. “We exiled the — ” a strange clicking noise, then the word “cloak” in a distinctly different voice — “to your universe. We did not realize that place was inhabited. By our standards, it scarcely is — vast empty spaces abound there.”
“True,” B said. “But the cloak has a way of making itself heard, and it found sentient hosts.”
“More than one host?” the Ambassador said, mouth gaping, eyes glazed over.
“Sure,” B said. “Lots of hosts, really. Maybe not billions, but probably millions — ”
“A moment,” the Gardener said, and the room filled with a harsh squealing sound, strangely digital. B understood, without knowing how he understood, that the Gardener was communicating with the Ambassador at a very high informational density and rate of speed.
“This creature oversees a multiverse?” the Ambassador said, its tone incredulous, even as its eyes remained blank. “A complex of branching realities, where every possible quantum outcome actually comes to pass? But — what an absurd way to run a universe! Where does the energy come from? If we’d realized, we never would have sent the — ” click, buzz, “cloak” — “there.”
B shrugged. “It’s just the way we do things back home. The problem is, the cloaks have learned to breach the realities, and they’re joining forces, massing, becoming an army — ”
“We understand,” the Ambassador said. “We… will help correct this. If the Gardener will permit it.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” the machine that wasn’t a machine said.
After much discussion — which happened in mere seconds, and not always audibly — they settled on a plan. “I’ll open the door,” Bradley said when they were done.
“And I will seal it,” the Ambassador said.
“Good,” the Gardener said. “Come back when it’s done, and I’ll let you know if it actually worked.”
B left Henry on the same paradise planet where he’d promised to strand the Host, because that world’s lack of sentient life made it less tempting for the cloaks to invade. Then he went back home, to his house outside reality.
The cloaks had made his beautiful chateau into their base. His gazebo was gone, razed flat, and the house itself had been bizarrely fortified, with a mishmash of medieval battlements and high-tech armor and weaponry. As if anyone would attack them here! The cloak was so dramatic.
He saw the scarred, fascist version of himself, pacing the battlements, but it didn’t notice him. B was pretty good at not being noticed. He wished he’d had that ability back in his mortal life, when he’d been an actor, and entirely too famous for comfort, at least for a while.
B strolled through the remains of the garden, sighing when he saw that all the plants — the most beautiful from all the realities under his care — were trampled flat. At a particular spot he bent down and dug in the soft mud with a spade, until he uncovered a hatch, perhaps four feet across, made of dull gray metal. A circular handle stood in the middle, and B grunted as he turned it, pushing with all his strength, eventually budding off a couple of instantiations of himself to help turn it and add their leverage.
Someone at the house began shouting, and bullets hit the ground all around him and his copies. A few bullets would have struck them, but he just shifted the bullets into timelines where they didn’t touch him instead, so no harm done. B and his buds hauled open the hatch door, and stood back.
There was a peculiar roaring noise, like a waterfall in reverse, and the cloaked fascist fell from the battlements and was dragged along the ground, feet first, toward the hole B had opened. He clawed at the dirt, grasping for purchase, fingers making long furrows in the mud. The cloak was torn from his shoulders by the terrific vacuum — a vacuum that didn’t affect anything else but the cloak. It went flapping past B, its countless red eyes rolling wildly, and then disappeared into the hole.
B waved his hands, opening conduits to the other realities where the cloaks existed. Pinpricks opened in the air around him, widening to the size of hula hoops, each a window into another world. After a few moments, flapping purple and white monsters began flooding in through the holes, some few dragging their hosts with them partway, most coming unattached. The cloaks poured into the hatch he’d opened, streaming in their untold numbers for what would have been a day and a night in a normal place, before the last one passed through, and vanished into the dark.
B closed his eyes and felt for anything wrong — the splinter, the chip of stone, the bit of shrapnel in the body of his multiverse — and found nothing.
He hauled the hatch closed, and spun the handle shut, and re-absorbed his buds. Then he collapsed, and slept in the mud for some time, even though he was meant to be beyond sleep.
“Where are they now?” Henry said. “The cloaks?” They were snuggled up together on the futon, looking up at the stained-glass skylights in the living room. All the other versions of Henry had been put back in their rightful places, and they all probably still hated B, but at least he had this one to hold.
“The farther you get from the center — which is the wrong word, but the right concept — the older the universes get,” B said. “Out on the very edge there are entirely dead universes, ones where heat death happened long ago, where it’s nothing but empty absolute zero. Universes where there’s only expansion, no big crunch, no cycle of creation, just ending and emptiness. The Gardener said we could send the cloaks there, and by combining my powers with those of the Ambassador, we opened a door, and created a sort of… magnet, or vacuum, or irresistible force… that drew things from Outside.”
“So are the cloaks dead?”
“Maybe? I don’t know if they can live in a universe without energy. But there are millions of them now, so maybe they can feed on each other? I don’t even know if they do feed. Maybe they’re breeding merrily, filling up all the available space with copies of themselves. But they’re walled off, is the main thing, in an entirely different universe.”
“They figured out how to pass between realities here,” Henry pointed out.
“Yeah, but that’s different,” B said. “The parallel realities I oversee are all in the same multiverse. This place where we sent the cloaks, it’s way out there, it’s Outside. Traveling between realities in the multiverse is easy compared to traveling between universes. It’s like the difference between walking from one room in your house to another and walking from your front door to another galaxy.”
“I hope you’re right,” Henry said. “But the cloaks can get into dreams, Bradley. How do you lock up something that can find you in your dreams?”
After making sure Henry was settled in at home, and that his own more dangerous alternate selves were recovered and sealed in their bell jars again, and that the holes torn in reality had been stitched up to the best of his ability, B finally returned to the Gardener’s chamber, where the Ambassador was waiting.
“Containment seems to be working, so far,” the Gardener said. “The cloaks are writhing and wriggling and testing the boundaries, but the universe where they’re trapped doesn’t give them much to work with. We seem to have averted disaster. For now.”
“I guess that’ll have to do, then.” B shook hands with the Ambassador, who only had four fingers, like a cartoon character. “Next time, could you not send your criminally insane monsters to my universe?”
“Of course,” the Ambassador said. “It was a regrettable error, and will not be repeated.”
“I appreciate you, ah, taking on a shape that’s familiar to me,” B said, since he assumed that was the point of the Ambassador’s horrible human costume. “But I was wondering. Are you all… like the cloak… in your universe? Your true form, I mean — with the eyes, the barbs, the tentacles…”
“Ah,” the Ambassador said. “You think the — ” click, hiss, “cloak” — “is native to our universe. It is not. It invaded us, or was sent to us, long ago, and caused great destruction before we banished it. Frankly, we do not know what it is, or where it comes from.” The Ambassador turned its head stiffly and looked at the Gardener’s glowing red eye. B looked, too. They waited.
“Don’t ask me where the cloak comes from,” the Gardener said at last. “Or what it is. Really. You wouldn’t like the answer.”
“Is that because the answer would be ‘I have no fucking idea?’” B said.
After a long moment, the Gardener said, “No comment.”
Each Tuesday for the month of February I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “Little Better than a Beast.” It first appeared in anthology Those Who Fight Monsters in 2011, and is available in audio form at Podcastle.
(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.)
Here’s the story! (Some people don’t like this one because they find Marla too vicious and mean and unsympathetic. Which is… exactly the reason I like it.)
LITTLE BETTER THAN A BEAST
“This is for you, Miss Mason.” Granger, the idiot hereditary magician of Fludd Park, handed a crumpled envelope across her desk.
Marla took the envelope, which was smudged from Granger’s mud-streaked hands, and hefted it. It was age-browned and soft, made of some heavy paper with a lot of cloth mixed into the fibers. “And what’s this?”
“It’s been in our house underneath the trees,” Granger said, smiling affably, face as broad and unsubtle as a snowplow blade. “In the safe, with a note, that said, give to the chief sorcerer of Felport on such and such a date.”
Marla frowned. There was nothing written on the envelope, and it was sealed with several blobby hunks of wax. She could make out the barest shape of an impression in the central blob, maybe some kind of bird, a hawk or a crow, like a signet ring had been pressed into the wax when it was soft, a million years ago. “This has been in your family, like for safekeeping? For how long?”
Granger looked at the ceiling and hummed and drummed his blunt fingers on the desk, which was how you could tell he was thinking. Marla didn’t have much use for nature magicians in general, and inbred nature magicians with an inviolate hereditary line of succession and a seat on her highest councils were even worse. “A long time. As many springs as there are days in a year, maybe much.”
Three-hundred-sixty-five years or so, then? That would date this letter from the earliest days of Felport’s founding in the 17th century, back when it was nothing but a few settlers clinging to life. In those days Granger’s great-great-great-great-whatever-grandfather was just the sorcerer in charge of keeping the town commons and farmland healthy and green, long before the village became a thriving shipping and industrial center, and even longer before its recent somewhat rusty decline, an economic slowdown Marla was doing her best to reverse in her capacity as chief sorcerer and protector of the city. None of the city’s population of ordinaries, oblivious to the magic in their midst, would know the new biotech companies and urban renewal projects were Marla’s doing, but that was okay; she wasn’t in this job for the glory. She just loved her city, and wanted it to thrive.
“Any idea what the letter says?” Marla didn’t want to open the thing, particularly. She’d had a bad winter, combating a plague of nightmares, and the interdimensional invaders old Tom O’Bedbug still insisted were fairies from Faeryland, and she’d been hoping for a quiet spring. She didn’t think a letter from the early days of the city would be likely to contain good news.
“No ma’am, we were told to hold it, not read it, just keep it until such and such a date.” His beaming face suddenly closed down, smile gone like the sun slipping behind a mountain. “But I got distracted, spring is coming and times are so busy busy in the park, so such and such a date accidentally passed, some days ago, only as many days as I have fingers, about, not so many as could be, not too late, right?”
Marla picked up a letter opener shaped like the grim reaper’s scythe. “So I was supposed to get this a week or ten days ago?”
“Thereabouts,” Granger said, head bobbing, happy they were in agreement.
If I could fire him, or have him committed… But Granger was a powerful magician, in his way, and even if he wasn’t much use to the city’s secret shadow government of sorcerers, he mostly stayed out of the way in the park, and his elementals had been formidable warriors in last winter’s battle against the nightmare-things. She considered reprimanding him for not bringing the letter on time, but it would be like hitting a puppy fifteen minutes after it pissed on the carpet — the poor thing wouldn’t even understand what it was being disciplined foor.
Marla used the letter opener to pry up the wax blobs and unfolded the envelope, which wasn’t an envelope at all, but just a sheet of paper folded in on itself. The message wasn’t very long, but it said everything it needed to.
She came around the desk, shouting “Rondeau! I need you!” and clutching her dagger of office. This was going to be a bloody afternoon.
“Is everything okay?” Granger said, bewildered by her sudden action.
“Everything’s just beastly,” Marla said.
“The mother-effing beast of Felport,” Rondeau said, long strides matching Marla’s own as they hurried along the sidewalk toward the center of the old city, north of the river. This was a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and quaint crammed-together shops (many spelled “shoppe” on the signs, with the odd “ye olde” as a modifier), a touristy district where you could buy hunks of fudge as big as pillows and stay in a bed-and-breakfast where an early president slept, once, allegedly.
“That’s what the letter says.” Marla frowned at the compass-charm in her hand, ducking into an alleyway that led, she hoped, to the tiny square that was the site of Felport’s founding. There was a fancier more obvious Founder’s Square a few blocks away, with a monument, but she was dealing with magical rather the municipal history, and looking for the spot where Felport’s first chief sorcerer, Everett Malkin, spoke the spells of binding that tied each successive chief sorcerer to the city, ritually entangling the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of Felport itself with its protectors.
“So, uh, what exactly is the beast of Felport? Werewolf, demon, undead mutant water buffalo? My grasp of local history is a little shaky.” Rondeau shifted the heavy shoulder bag Marla’d given him to carry, and things inside clinked ominously.
“Probably because you never went to school,” Marla said. Rondeau was her closest friend and business associate — he owned the nightclub where she kept her office, and they’d saved one another’s lives far more often than they’d endangered them — but he’d had a non-traditional childhood and never saw the inside of a classroom. “Nobody seems to know exactly what the beast was. In the early 17th century, Felport was just a trading post with a nice bit of coastline, good for loading up and emptying boats. People kept trying to settle here in greater numbers… and something kept killing them, even worse than the usual New World problems of defensive natives and disease and bad winters and starvation. Bodies would be found chewed up, missing certain necessary organs, like that, killed by something worse than bears, nobody knew what — some kind of beast. People started calling the place ‘the fell port’ — ‘fell’ as in dangerous, bad, scary — which is where the city got its name. Eventually a sorcerer named Everett Malkin came along, really liked the location, and convinced some settlers to join him, despite the region’s nasty reputation. He said he’d keep the beast of Felport, whatever it was, away. And he did. He was the city’s first chief sorcerer.”
Rondeau yawned. “I’m glad I missed school. That was boring, except for the bit about dead bodies. So if Everett whatever killed the beast hundreds of years ago, how is it supposed to bother us today?”
“I didn’t say he killed it — he kept it away.” Marla stopped walking, looked at her compass charm, which was spinning wildly, and nodded. “This is the spot.” They were in a tiny cobblestoned courtyard, a pocket of forgotten space with only one alley leading in and out, surrounded by the windowless portions of various old brick buildings. A droopy tree grew in an unfenced square of grayish dirt, and a storm drain waited patiently to collect the next spring thunderstorm’s rain, but otherwise, the courtyard was bare.
“So what now?” Rondeau said, flipping open his butterfly knife.
Marla shaded her eyes and looked at the square of sky above. Very nearly noon. “Well, if I’d gotten the letter a week ago like I was supposed to, I’d have this place surrounded with containment teams and every contingency plan imaginable, and I’d feel pretty well prepared after spending a few days reading Malkin’s old enciphered journals, and researching every conceivable theory on the beast of Felport, but since Granger is an idiot and I had no advance notice, we wait for midday, and if something appears, we beat the shit out of it.”
Rondeau put down the shoulder bag and Marla sorted through it, taking out charmed stones, knives crackling with imbued energies, and even an aluminum baseball bat ensorcelled with inertial magic to give it an extra bone-shattering wallop. Finally, she removed her white cloak lined inside with purple, her most potent and dangerous magic, which exacted a terrible price every time she used it. She put on the cloak, fastening it at the throat with a silver pin in the shape of a stag beetle, telling herself she probably wouldn’t need its power. After all, how bad could the beast be? It was a beast. Sure, the stories said it was all kinds of unstoppable, but tales tended to grow in the telling, and four hundred years offered lots of time for embellishment.
After hefting the bat, Rondeau flipped his knife closed and put it away, choosing the blunt object over the razor’s edge. “Okay, you got a letter from Everett whatever saying he sent the beast of Felport umpty-hundred years into the future, and you might want to keep your eyes out for it. This raises a couple of questions for me.”
“Oh, good. I love your questions. They’re always so insightful.” Marla did a few stretches, her joints popping, then checked the knives up her sleeves.
“Number one: I thought time travel was impossible?”
“Traveling backwards in time is. Or, at least, no sorcerer I’ve heard of has ever cracked it. Some people say they figured out how to move forward in time, though it’s more like putting yourself off to the side in an extra-dimensional stasis, set to re-enter normal space-time at a later date, unaffected by the passing time. But not many people try to do it, since there’s no way you can go back again after seeing the wondrous future.” She took a leather pouch toward the alleyway and emptied it, dumping a dozen thumbtacks and pushpins — all augmented with charms of snaring and paralysis — across the courtyard’s only exit, just in case.
“Seems like it could be a good trick for waiting out the statute of limitations,” Rondeau said, in the tone of voice that meant he was contemplating casino robberies.
Marla snorted. “Any sorcerer capable of going forward in time would have more elegant ways to avoid being arrested for something, Rondeau. It’s bigtime mojo. I couldn’t do it, and I can do damn near anything I set my mind to.”
“Too bad. It’d be nice to skip the occasional boring weekend. Okay, so my second question: isn’t sending the beast of Felport to the future kind of a dick move? Getting rid of your current problems and leaving it for your descendants to deal with?”
“Yep,” Marla said. “Everett Malkin was, by most accounts, a nasty piece of work. A badass sorcerer with a knack for violence and the interpersonal warmth of a komodo dragon — ”
“Doesn’t sound like anybody I know,” Rondeau murmured.
” — but, to be fair, the guy was in kind of a bind. The story goes he used charms and protective circles and various kinds of exorcism and banishment and eventually even tried appeasement, by which I mean human sacrifice, to keep the beast of Felport at bay, but it was all just temporary. The thing kept coming back. He couldn’t kill it, couldn’t drive it away, just failed and failed, and his little settlement was on the verge of permanent disintegration. So one day he sucked it up, gave his dagger of office to his apprentice and chosen successor, and went out into the woods to finish things once and for all. And, apparently, left this letter explaining his plan to send the beast into the future, to be delivered to whatever poor sucker happened to be in charge four centuries later.” Marla shrugged. “Malkin never came back, and the beast never troubled anyone again, and now we’re waiting for… whatever.”
“Maybe he didn’t send the beast into the future at all,” Rondeau said. “Maybe they just, like, killed each other.”
“We can hope, Marla said, and then the courtyard got a lot more crowded.
A hard wind blew, making Marla squint, and a brown hairy thing the size of two gorillas fighting over a tractor tire appeared about three feet off the ground, slamming to the ground hard enough to crack the stones. There was an impression of tusks, snout, and hard black eyes, but it was hunched and crouched and twisting and moving too fast for her eyes to encompass it. It stank like the sewers under a slaughterhouse. Marla began speaking words of binding and tossed a handful of charmed stones, but the rocks just bounced off the thing’s matted hide — disappointing, since they should have respectively burned, frozen, and turned it to stone — and then an arm swung out, long as an extension ladder, and knocked Marla against a brick wall. Rondeau went in manfully, baseball bat cocked, but the thing plucked the weapon away and swatted Rondeau aside too.
Marla stood up, about to reverse her cloak, to make the soothing white exterior switch places with the bruise-purple lining and unleash her most deadly battle magic — when the beast flung something slightly larger than Marla herself through the air, straight at her.
That’s a person, Marla realized, and then about two hundred pounds of human body — dead or alive, she wasn’t sure yet — hit her square in the chest and drove her back. She grunted, shoved the guy off her body, and struggled to her feet, all the wind knocked out of her.
The beast of Felport took a moment to consider its handiwork, and Marla thought, Run for the alley, fucker, get caught in my bear traps, and then the beast crouched, leapt about fifteen feet in the air, grabbed a jutting chunk of brick wall, and went up the side of a building and over the rooftop like a gecko climbing a garden wall.
“That’s bad,” Rondeau said, picking himself up and taking out his cell phone. “Guess I should call the Chamberlain.”
“It’s her neighborhood,” Marla said, “and I left her a message before we left telling her there might be some shit hitting her fan this afternoon. Damn it.”
Rondeau looked toward the roof where the beast had escaped. “Yeah. Who knew that thing could jump?”
“I did,” said the body the beast had thrown at Marla, sitting up and rubbing his head. He was a big, broad-shouldered man with a nose like a cowcatcher and bushy eyebrows, dressed in the filthy ragged remains of what might once have been nice old-fashioned clothes. He rose and stalked toward Rondeau. “And so would you if you had read the journals I left behind, detailing everything I knew about the beast! You came here utterly unprepared. What kind of chief sorcerer are you?”
“He’s no kind of chief sorcerer at all,” Marla said, already seeing where this was going. “I’m the chief sorcerer here.”
The man whirled to face her, frowning. “You?” He gestured to Rondeau. “This one is a swarthy immigrant of some kind, that is troubling enough, but you — you are a woman.”
“Yes,” Marla agreed. “That’s true. And you’re Everett Malkin, I presume.”
“Incredible,” Malkin said, staring at the cars going past.
“Yup,” Marla said. “I guess it would be.” The three of them sat on a bus stop bench, waiting for the Chamberlain’s limo to arrive.
“The city itself, though I’m pleased to see its growth, is less astonishing. I have spent time in the capitals of Europe, after all.”
Wait until you see the skyscrapers in the Financial District, Marla thought. Or the clubs and quickie check-cashing joints and bars in my neighborhood. They were still in the old city, which made an attempt to keep a certain vintage feel, but culture shock would hit him eventually.
“You’re calling together the whole council?” Malkin asked. He gnawed at an apple Marla’d bought for him. Rondeau’s joke about how he must be hungry, seeing as how he hadn’t eaten in 400 years, had fallen flat, though, and Rondeau had been quiet and sulky ever since.
“Just the Chamberlain for now. This is her neighborhood, and from what you said you don’t think the beast will go too far. If it’s in her bailiwick, the Chamberlain will find it.”
Malkin grunted. “Another ‘her.’ You’re the chief sorcerer, or so you tell me — shouldn’t the heart of the city be your ‘neighborhood,’ as you say?”
Marla snorted. “This? This is toy-town. A tourist trap. Old-fashioned stuff for history buffs and tourists scared to stay in the real city. The heart of the city nowadays, where the action is, that’s south of the river. That’s where I live.”
Malkin mulled that over, and finally said, “You have told me about the Chamberlain, and the current Granger — sad to hear his lineage has decayed, I would not have entrusted him with the letter had I known his offspring would be ruined — but who are the other sorcerers of note? In my day it was only myself, Granger, and my apprentice, Corbin.”
“There’s a chaos magician named Nicolette, she looks after the financial district. The Bay Witch watches the water and the port. A sympathetic magician named Hamil over by the university. Viscarro, who lives in catacombs beneath the city. A junkyard wizard named Ernesto out in the industrial section. That’s about it for the council, but there are lots of talented apprentices and freelancers in town, too — a mad-scientist technomancer type named Langford, an order-magician named Mr. Beadle — not to mention the usual wannabes and alley wizards.”
“I will need to meet all of them as soon as possible,” Malkin said.
“Oh yeah?” It was rare for all the sorcerers to get together — they usually only had councils when some dire threat menaced the city, something Marla couldn’t handle herself, and she wasn’t sure yet the beast of Felport qualified. “Why’s that?”
“They must meet their new chief sorcerer,” Malkin said. “I will be taking over your position, of course.”
Before Marla could respond to that bit of apocalyptic nonsense, a long black limousine slid along the curb before them, and the back door swung open. The Chamberlain was inside, dressed in her usual impeccable evening-wear finery, this time a silvery-shimmering dress. She beckoned with her elegant hand. “Come on, then. Let’s hear about the latest disaster.”
Malkin leaned forward, squinting. “Is this woman… a Spaniard?”
“I’m black, dear,” she said. “Of West African descent, though my people are from Felport for many generations.”
“This future is a peculiar place,” Malkin said, but he climbed into the limousine after Rondeau, settling himself down on the dark leather seats across from the Chamberlain and Marla. Despite his ragged appearance — and the fact that this was his first time in a car — he looked at ease. “Your carriage is… most pleasant.”
“I understand you brought a monster to my community,” the Chamberlain said, smiling a smile that was not friendly at all.
Malkin frowned. “I expected sorcerous techniques to improve in the intervening centuries, so the current rulers could defeat the beast with ease.”
“Ah, I get it. Like people who die of brain cancer and have their heads frozen so they can be thawed out in the future when there’s a cure for tumors and decapitation,” Rondeau said, apparently trying to be helpful.
Malkin just looked at him blankly and continued. “Instead I find unprepared women playing at sorcery, who let the beast escape.”
“You might want to watch it with the sexist shit,” Marla said. “You’re kind of outnumbered here.”
“Women can excel at erotic magic, and herbwifery, and certain nature magics, but the more intellectual rigors of advanced sorceries are not suitable for the weaker sex.” Malkin shrugged. “I mean no offense. These are merely facts.”
“Are you sure we can’t send him back in time?” the Chamberlain said.
“I don’t even know what he’s doing forward in time,” Marla said. “Your letter said you were setting a time-trap for the beast. Why the hell did you hitch a ride?”
“The beast seized me,” Malkin said, shifting uncomfortably. “We struggled. The beast stepped into the circle of power. We were transported. I… did not intend to join him. I am surprised Felport survived with Corbin as chief sorcerer.”
“Well, now you’re here, and so’s the beast, so tell us what we’re dealing with,” Marla said.
“Obviously you don’t know how to stop it, but you can tell us what we’re dealing with,” the Chamberlain agreed.
Malkin nodded. “The natives said the beast was a dark god, and had roamed the land since the beginning of time. The beast cannot be harmed by iron, or fire, or blades, or charms. Even my dagger of office, which can cut through all things, only scratched the beast, and the wound closed instantly.”
Marla touched the dagger at her waist — it had been Malkin’s dagger, passed down from chief sorcerer to chief sorcerer over the centuries, and it was one of her most potent weapons, capable of slicing through everything from steel cables to ghosts.
“Some magics worked,” Malkin said. “A spell to make it sleep for a thousand years succeeded in making it slumber for half a dozen seasons. Spells of disorientation made it wander, lost, for another year. But it fights, and once it overcomes a particular spell, the spell loses all efficacy. I do not know if it is a demon, a sorcerer from long ago who attained immortality, or, indeed, an ancient god.”
“Okay, but what does it want?” Marla said.
“Want? It is a beast. It wants to kill all who encroach on its territory. It wants to rend flesh. It prefers to sleep in the day, and emerge at night, wandering and howling. Its motives are no more comprehensible than those of any other beasts. I am sure it is disoriented by the changes here, and it will go to ground somewhere, hiding, and wait until dark to emerge. And then…” He shook his head. “The beast will not stop until the city is scoured to dirt. It is clever. It will set fires, build traps. Your people will die.”
Setting arson and building booby traps didn’t sound very beast-like to Marla, but then, Malkin was from another time — he considered Marla and the Chamberlain and even Rondeau, who was Hispanic, basically beasts, too, didn’t he?
“Call together a council,” Malkin said. “I will announce my return to the position of chief sorcerer, and formulate a strategy.”
The Chamberlain looked at Marla, raising an eyebrow, and Marla sighed. “I’m not stepping down, Captain Retro. I’m still in charge here. We honor your past service and all that jazz, but you can’t just come back and — ”
“Silence, woman. Give me my dagger of office, and let me begin my work. Sorcery is no business for you. Despite your mannish affect you are not unattractive, so perhaps you can serve me in some other — ”
Marla punched him in the throat. Malkin gagged, grabbing at his windpipe — Marla hadn’t hit him hard enough to do permanent damage, but he wouldn’t be speaking any spells — and fished a sachet of sleep potion out of her pocket. The Chamberlain and Rondeau both grabbed their noses as Marla slapped the cloth pouch of lavender and stranger herbs into Malkin’s open mouth. He gagged, gasped, and then dropped into a deep supernatural slumber.
“This guy,” Marla said. “This guy is going to be trouble. I don’t think I’ll be able to sucker-charm him again, either.”
“He does need to confront certain new realities,” the Chamberlain said. “But, Marla, that’s Everett Malkin. He’s legendary.” The Chamberlain had a certain reverence for the past — much of her power came from her relationship with the ghosts of Felport’s founding families, including the persistent spirits of many former sorcerers from the early days.
“I liked him better when he was just a legend,” Marla said. “He’ll be asleep for a while, you mind watching him for me?”
“I — I suppose. And if he wakes up, he can speak with the ghosts, his apprentice Corbin is among the residents on my estate. But, Marla, what of the beast?”
“Yeah,” Marla said. “The beast is another problem. I’m gonna have to go see a guy about that.”
Marla wore black, loose-fitting pants and a snug top that kept her arms free, and held a specially modified sniper rifle. Rondeau was dressed like an extra in a movie about a special forces operation, all black padded vest and a helmet and night-vision goggles (which he found more fun than Marla’s more practical magical night vision). He persistently referred to their operation as “playing dress-up,” which was annoying, but Marla knew she could rely on him in a pinch, and he had a backup rifle, albeit less fancy. They were on the dark balcony of a charming little pied-a-terre a few blocks from the place where the beast and Malkin had appeared. The apartment’s rightful residents were off in Aspen or something, wherever rich ordinaries spent early spring.
“What if the dart doesn’t work?” Rondeau said. “We got a plan B?”
“I throw you to the beast, and while he’s dismembering you, I sneak around and hit him on the back of the head with the rifle butt.”
“That’s always your plan B.”
They were watching another uninhabited apartment across the quiet upscale residential street. The Chamberlain’s diviners had tracked the beast to that location, where their best remote-viewer said it was sleeping heavily on a mound of blankets and the shredded remains of a mattress. The beast hadn’t torn the door off its hinges to get inside — it had unobtrusively jimmied a side door with its claws. Smart beast, laying low. Marla wondered if it would be possible to communicate with it… but communication wasn’t part of the plan.
“Something moved there,” Rondeau said, pointing to the front window, where a shadow had shifted. “Poor thing must be scared to death. One minute you’re fighting your mortal enemy in the woods, and the next, poof, you’re in the future and there’s not a tree in sight.”
“Let’s hope it’s still disoriented,” Marla said. She watched through the scope as the side door opened and the beast slouched out, its physiognomy still a mysterious jumble of apelike and boarlike and manlike and, well, beastlike.
She pulled the trigger three times, and three darts flew through the air and struck the beast’s flesh. The darts were each charmed with a different armor-piercing and true-aim spell, and she hoped at least one of them would hit — worst case, all three would hit, and the beast would overdose and die, and wait, that was kind of the best case, too.
The beast lifted its shaggy head, looked straight at Marla, and rushed toward them, loping and leaping and snarling.
“Oh this is fucked,” Rondeau said, and lifted his air rifle, firing another dart at the approaching furry projectile. The beast jumped for the balcony –
– and bounced off the railing, landing on the street, sprawled on its back, unconscious. Maybe it was immune to Malkin’s sleep spells, but times had changed, and Marla had mixed up a potent cocktail of chemical and magical tranq-juice, concentrated enough to make a blue whale yawn. Still, who knew how much time they had to finish the plan?
Rondeau was on his cell calling in Langford and the rest of the team while Marla looked down at the beast. Something about its shape made comprehending its form difficult, as if it had joints and limbs that weren’t entirely in this dimension. Whatever it was, demon or god or refugee from another plane of existence, it didn’t belong here. Maybe it had once, when Felport was just trees and dirt and hills, but this was a human place, now. The beast couldn’t stay, even if it had a prior claim on this land as a home.
“Let’s get it on the truck,” Marla said. “And then go see Malkin.”
“You fool,” Malkin said, stalking into one of the Chamberlain’s many parlors. He was dressed in period finery doubtless dug out of mothballs in some deep basement in the Chamberlain’s estate, and he smelled faintly dusty. “You dare to attack me, and leave the city vulnerable to the beast’s — ”
“Gods, shut up, the beast is taken care of,” Marla said. “Come on, I’ll show you. You coming, Chamberlain?”
“Oh, indeed,” she said brightly. “I haven’t begun to tire of Mr. Malkin’s company at all.”
Malkin didn’t shut up. “You will be flogged in the town square,” he said, following Marla, Rondeau, and the Chamberlain out of the mansion, toward the truck parked in the driveway. “You will be stripped of whatever authority you think you have and banished. I am the chief sorcerer here, and I will not be — ”
Marla pulled open the back of the truck, and Malkin shut up when he saw the beast bound with ‘chanted chains in the back, watched over by the technomancer Langford, who had a tranquilizer pistol in one hand and an overcomplicated cell phone in the other.
“So you rendered it unconscious,” Malkin said. “Very well, but what happens when it wakes?”
“I don’t imagine it will wish to wake,” Langford said mildly. He beckoned, and the others climbed into the back of the truck. “Though I do wish I could be allowed to vivisect it. I’m not fond of mysteries, and this creature is unprecedented in my experience.”
“I’ve got nothing against scientific curiosity,” Marla said, “But I’m a pragmatist, and studying it is too dangerous.”
“Standing here while it slumbers is too dangerous,” Malkin snapped. “You are unfit to lead, and your folly is too great to be borne — ”
“The beast is harmless,” Langford said. He pointed to a silvery mesh net that covered the beast’s lumpy skull. “This device controls the electrical impulses within the beast’s brain. It’s a beautiful place, in there. If you’re a monster.”
“I don’t understand,” Malkin said. “This… hat… does what?”
“We couldn’t beat the thing,” Marla said. “You told us yourself, it’s immune to everything, and what it’s not immune to, it gets immune to. So, if we can’t defeat it, I figured, why not give it what it wants?”
“Think of it like an illusion,” the Chamberlain said, having been briefed on the plan — the whole plan — in a phone call earlier. “The beast believes it is back in Felport in the early days, before there were settlers, alone in the woods.”
“The simulation was easy enough to create,” Langford said. “There are geographical surveys, so reconstructing the landscape wasn’t difficult. Likewise the weather. Woodland creatures are simple to emulate, too, and there are hardly any humans, just the occasional native for the beast to dismember.”
“The beast has been enchanted to believe it dwells in the past?” Malkin blinked, clearly wrongfooted by the whole situation.
“Well, it’s at least a third technology,” Langford said. “Creating false experiences by manipulating electrical impulses in the brain is within the grasp of science, though outside the bounds of most ethical systems. I did use magic to bridge the impossible bits, admittedly.”
“But the beast fights enchantments,” Malkin said. “And when it wakes — ”
“Why would it fight?” Marla said. “It’s got what it wants. If this thing is capable of being happy, it’s going to be happy. But don’t worry. We’re taking it to a little place outside the city, called the Blackwing Institute. It’s where we keep sorcerers who go crazy and pose a danger to themselves, and others, and the substance of reality.”
“And the sorcerer who runs it, Dr. Husch, is totally hot,” Rondeau said.
Marla rolled her eyes. “We’ll keep the beast in a cell deep in the basement, with every kind of technological and magical countermeasure we can think of, in case it ever wakes up. Don’t worry. It’s a secure site.”
“We’re sure you’ll like it there,” Langford said, and shot Malkin with the tranquilizer pistol.
“We could have given Malkin a perfect fantasy life, too,” Langford said. “It would have to be far more complex than the one I created for the beast, but it’s certainly possible.”
“Fuck that,” Marla said. “Why would I want to make him happy? He called me the weaker sex.”
“Carry on, then,” Langford said, and waved as Rondeau drove the truck off into the night.
“His real name is Barry Schmidt,” Marla said, sitting with Dr. Husch before the security monitors. Malkin was on screen, sleeping on a bed in a pleasantly-appointed — but impenetrable — apartment in the Institute’s east wing. “An apprentice from out west. Poor bastard actually thinks he’s Everett Malkin, the first sorcerer of Felport, you believe that? He came to the city and started talking about how he was the rightful ruler, demanding I give him my dagger, crazy stuff like that.”
“Hmm,” Husch said, a vertical worry line marring her smooth pale forehead.
“And then he summoned the beast of Felport from, you know, the primordial whatever,” Rondeau chimed in. “So he’s got some magical chops, no doubt about that. Better to keep him in maximum super-isolation, we figure, with every magic-nullifying countermeasure you’ve got.”
“Heck, keep him sedated forever,” Marla said. “That’d be fine with me.”
“You know I believe in therapy, not mere containment,” Husch said. She looked at the Chamberlain. “Tell me, Chamberlain — do you think there’s any chance he is Everett Malkin? The beast of Felport is bound, dreaming peacefully, in my basement, and if one creature can come from the past, can’t another?”
Marla tried not to tense up. The Chamberlain was the key here. Rondeau was trustworthy, and Langford was both uninterested and trustworthy, but the Chamberlain could change her mind. She had a potent connection to the early days of Felport through her relationship with the ghosts, and she didn’t really like Marla all that much. But, on the other hand, Malkin had ordered her around like a servant, and the Chamberlain said the ghosts who’d known Malkin — especially his apprentice Corbin — had really hated the guy, so maybe she’d stick to the plan.
“Oh, no,” the Chamberlain said, smooth as her own silk gown. “That man is not Everett Malkin. I checked with the ghosts, and they say he’s nothing like Malkin was. He is merely a madman, I’m afraid, a troubled soul who read too many histories. But his delusion is very fixed. He’s clever, too — he might pretend to be cured, even if he isn’t. Be careful.”
“The poor dear. It’s good you brought him to me. At the very least, I’ll make him comfortable.” Husch raised one perfect eyebrow. “He really demanded you relinquish your dagger of office, Marla, and said he was going to take over the city?”
“I suppose he’s lucky you left his head attached, then.”
“Hey,” Marla said. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you I’m not a benevolent and enlightened ruler.”
Here are some things:
I sold a story! “Ghostreaper, or, Life after Revenge” will appear in a future issue of Eclipse Online. I’ve admired the stories editor Jonathan Strahan has published in the magazine (and in the anthology series before that), so I’m pleased to be part of it. The story is a novelette about a modern guy who gets a magical spear from a trickster figure of uncertain intentions and proceeds to mess up his life in interesting ways.
I also sold a story, “Secrets in Storage,” co-written with Greg van Eekhout, to a Lovecraftian anthology. About five years ago Greg wrote an opening and asked me if I could do anything with it. I added a bit, and we batted it back and forth, but it stalled out and never came to anything, sitting unloved and unread for years. Then, when I was asked to do a Lovecraftian story, I realize how Greg’s opening could be a launching point for just such a piece, and dragged it out of cold storage, worked on it, made Greg make it better, and sent it off. A dead story, resurrected (but, of course, that is not dead which can eternal lie; that goes for old story fragments as well as elder gods).
We’re down to the last few days for the Glitter and Madness Kickstarter. Take a look! It would be a fun anthology. My story will be set in the abandoned ice skating rink in Berkeley, a bit of decaying real estate called Iceland (which is also a portal to a Hell of ice, a la The Inferno), at a monster skate party, of sorts. Give ‘em a little if you can. They’re still a bit short of hitting their goal.
My own Kickstarter, for novel Bride of Death, is going beautifully — it’s nearly 150% funded with 20 days to go. Another $665 and we unlock original cover art by the great Lindsey Look, who did the cover for Grim Tides. And if it goes over that level, I’ll come up with additional incentives. (And, you know, buy my kid extra souvenirs at Disneyland when we go for his spring break.)
I’m reading Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz (one of my favorite writers; hell, one of my favorite people). It’s a serialized novel, and you get all the installments for a mere one-time $1.99 payment. Pretty sweet deal.
Lately I’ve ripped through the Spellman Files series by Lisa Lutz — quirky mysteries (sort of) set in contemporary San Francisco. They’re charming books, driven by a great narrative voice, that of thirtyish former juvenile delinquent Izzy Spellman, who works for the family business as a private investigator. The PI details are pretty realistic, which means the stakes are way lower than you find in most mysteries — in reality, PIs don’t investigate murders; mostly they follow cheating spouses and do background checks. So most of the drama comes from the interpersonal relationships, among a group of chronically nosy, secretive, suspicious people with boundary issues and a willingness to use blackmail and other means to achieve their goals — but who nonetheless love one another very much. Not the sort of thing I usually read (I prefer my mysteries bleak and violent and hardboiled), but great comfort reading.
Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “Ill Met in Ulthar,” my personal favorite of all the Marla stories (so far). It first appeared in anthology Witches in Spring 2012.
(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.) Here’s the story (and an author’s note at the end)!
ILL MET IN ULTHAR
“His name is Roderick Barrow,” Dr. Husch said. “He’s what we call ‘exothermically delusional.’”
Marla Mason, twenty-two years old and by her own reckoning the deadliest mercenary sorcerer on the east coast, propped her feet up on the doctor’s desk. “Good thing he’s locked up in the nut hutch, then.”
Dr. Husch made a small expression of distaste and shoved Marla’s boots off the desk. The doctor looked like a sculpture of a classical nymph that had been brought to life, her hair bound up in a tight bun, and the whole dressed in an impeccably tailored gray suit: lushness tightly contained. “Alas, that’s where the ‘exothermic’ part comes in — his delusions are becoming more and more… aggressive.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what that means.”
“I’ll show you.” Dr. Husch rose from her desk and led Marla out of the room, down a hospital-clean hallway — which made sense, as they were in a hospital, of sorts. The Blackwing Institute didn’t treat diseases of the body, but it contained the diseased in mind — specifically wielders of magic who became a danger to themselves, and others, and occasionally reality. The Institute was funded by prominent sorcerers, who recognized madness as an occupational hazard, and knew they might find themselves in need of treatment some day too.
The corridor was lined with iron doors, some acid-etched with runes of calming or containment. Dr. Husch stopped about halfway down the passage and slid aside a metal panel covering a square eye-level window in one of the barred doors. Light flared out, like someone had lit a strip of magnesium, and Dr. Husch wordlessly handed Marla a pair of sunglasses. Squinting and cursing, Marla pulled on the shades, then looked into the room.
A shape writhed in the air, sinuous and sparking, like a boa constrictor made of lightning instead of flesh. The serpent hovered in the air, and as its jaws snapped open and shut, Marla tried to count its fangs; she gave up after a dozen. The only part of the serpent that wasn’t made of pure white light was its eyes — they were black pits of absence, but strangely aware. The serpent noticed them, and smashed itself against the door, sparks showering up around it. Marla jumped back, drawing her magical cloak around her. The cloak showed its white side, now, and protected her with healing magics, but with a thought she could reverse it, and make the bruise-purple inner lining switch to the outside. When clothed in the purple, Marla was possessed by vicious battle magics that made her essentially unstoppable — though at the cost of losing some self-control. There were those who said Marla was an amateur, and that only the cloak made her dangerous. The people stupid enough to say that in Marla’s presence got their asses kicked, but only after she removed the cloak first, just to prove them wrong. But she was glad to have the cloak on now; there was no such thing as an unfair advantage when you were dealing with flying electric hover-snakes.
Dr. Husch slid the panel over the window shut as the beast continued battering against the door. “Don’t worry, it can’t get out. The interior of the room is lined with rubber, reinforced by magic. We used to keep a paranoid electrothaumaturge locked up there. There are no electrical outlets or light fixtures, either — when we found the creature in Barrow’s room, it had smashed the light bulbs, and was suckling at the outlets like a hamster at a water bottle.”
Marla took off the glasses and rubbed her eyes. “What is that thing?”
“Barrow calls it an arc-drake. They live in the haunted mountains known as the Lightning Peaks, north of the Sea of Surcease, a vast lake of liquid suffering.”
“You sound like the trailer for a bad fantasy movie,” Marla said.
“Appropriate, as Barrow was a fantasy writer. Though he wasn’t a particularly bad one, especially by the standards of his time. He was a pulp writer, mostly, published alongside the likes of Clifford Simak, Doc Smith, Sprague de Camp, Marsham Craswell — did you ever read much science fiction and fantasy, Marla?”
“Not really. I was too busy smoking and having sex with boys. I was always more interested in this world than in imaginary ones.”
Husch sniffed. “As a sorcerer, you should be ashamed. Magic is the act of imposing your will on reality. But without imagination, what good is even the strongest will? So what if you can do anything, if you can’t think of anything interesting to do?”
“I manage to keep myself entertained,” Marla said. “But I gotta say, I’m getting a little bored right now. So this Barrow, what, wrote about the arc-drakes in a fantasy story, and then somehow brought one to life?”
“Oh, it’s so much worse than that,” Dr. Husch said.
“We have won through, Lector,” Barrow muttered, his eyelids twitching rapidly. “Though our allies and retainers fell, you and I have reached this cursed plain, and now we need only — ”
Dr. Husch thumbed off the intercom switch, and Barrow’s voice cut off abruptly. Marla leaned against the window, taking in the view on the other side. Barrow’s room was small, furnished with a hospital bed and not much else, but it didn’t lack for items of interest: A pile of weirdly ridged skulls heaped in one corner. What looked like a lion pelt draped over a chair. Scorch marks on one wall and part of the ceiling. Barrow himself was a white-haired old gent with a wild beard, dressed in a hospital gown, lips moving as he muttered, hands occasionally clenching and unclenching.
“He’s been like this for, oh, twenty years,” Dr. Husch said. “He suffered a nervous breakdown thirty years ago, was comatose for a decade, and then… he began to speak. Since then, he doesn’t eat, drink, or eliminate waste, and he doesn’t age — as best I can tell, he’s sustained by psychic energy. That’s when his regular family doctor made some inquiries and had him transferred here, since we’re better able to care for… unusual cases.”
“So he wasn’t a sorcerer? Just a writer?”
“As far as we know, he was unaware of his own latent psychic abilities, though the uncontrollable power of his mind may have caused his breakdown. His chronic alcoholism might also have been a factor.”
“What’s he babbling about?”
“That’s dialogue,” Dr. Husch said. “He seems to be inhabiting an epic fantasy story of his own creation. The only glimpse we used to have of that story was the bits of dialogue spoken by his — narrator? Character? Avatar? Barrow is playing the part, living the part, of a mighty hero, on a quest to win a great mystical treasure. Delusions of grandeur. But recently he’s been… exothermically delusional. His hallucinations are starting to break through to this world. The skulls of slain goblins, the skinned hide of a manticore — those apports were certainly of clinical interest. But when a live arc-drake appeared in his room yesterday… I grew more concerned. His dialogue indicates that the goal of his quest is to win a magical Key that will allow him to move between worlds at will.”
Marla whistled. “So you think he’s in a real place?”
Dr. Husch shook her head. “I think he’s in an imaginary place, which his psychically powerful mind is making real. And if he completes his quest, and breaches the division between reality and the contents of his own mind…” Dr. Husch shrugged. “Giants. Demons. Monsters. All of them could come pouring through my Institute. What if the triple suns of his fantasy world appeared in our sky? The gravitational consequences alone would be unfathomable.”
“Gotcha,” Marla said. “So you want me to kill him?”
“I am a doctor,” Husch said severely. “I want to cure him. Bring him back to reality.”
“I’m not much good at talk therapy,” Marla said. “I’m more of a punch-therapy girl.”
“My orderlies are capable of checking Mr. Barrow’s vital signs,” Husch said, choosing to ignore Marla. “As you may know, they are not human, but homunculi, artificial beings of limited intelligence.”
“I bet the poor bastards don’t even make minimum wage,” Marla said.
“The sorcerers who fund the Institute don’t pay me enough to hire human employees,” Husch said. “So I have to grow my staff in the basement, in vats. But they get all the lavender seeds and earthworms they can eat. At any rate, the orderlies can go into the room and check on Barrow, being mindless, but no human can go near him, not safely. Anyone who enters that room — who comes into contact with the author’s psychic field — is pulled into Barrow’s delusional world. His brother visited once, and we had to bury the poor man out back. Barrow attempts to incorporate anyone who enters his world into his storyline, and let’s just say he enjoys slaying the villains they become.”
Marla stared at her. “So you want me to go in that room, and get sucked into his fantasy world, and… cure him? Like, make him realize his world is imaginary?”
Husch shook her head. “I doubt you could convince him. He’s been the hero of that world for years. It’s more real to him than this world ever was. No, I want you to go into his fantasy world, and make sure his quest fails. I want you to be a villain he can’t defeat. One theme recurs constantly in his speech — his destiny. He is destined to win the Key of Totality, it seems. His fate has been ordained. He’s been chosen by the gods. He thinks he’s invincible, unstoppable, and right. If you defeat him, I think it might be the shock his system needs — a failure, after years of nothing but success, could force him to question his awful certainty. If you can jostle him out of his comfortable place in that world, I might be able to reach him, and bring him back to this reality.”
“Huh,” Marla said. “Why me, though? Why not one of the bigtime psychics?”
“I only know of one psychic more powerful than Barrow,” Husch said. “And she’s comatose, too, mentally traumatized and locked up in another room at the Institute. I don’t need a psychic, I need a pragmatist, a tactician, a fighter — someone who never backs down, never gives up, and never stops. You have a reputation among the sorcerers who fund this Institute. They say you are a formidable operative, and you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘failure.’”
“Yeah, I must’ve skipped school the day they taught us that one. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m an independent operator, and nobody will get too upset if you have to bury me out back, too, huh?”
“It was a factor,” Husch said. “And the fact that you possess a cloak enchanted with battle magics also helps. But mostly, it’s because of your will. Everyone says you’re pigheaded in the extreme — that an almost complete lack of magical aptitude hasn’t stopped you from becoming a formidable sorcerer, because you want it badly enough. That gives me hope that you might be able to stand up to the force of Barrow’s vision.”
“And if I can’t — what, do I get stuck there, in half-assed Narnia?”
“If you have not accomplished your goal by morning, or if you show any signs of distress, I will have one of the orderlies drag you out of Barrow’s sphere of influence. Just be sure to mention if you’re about to be murdered, hmm? I should hear your ‘dialogue’ as well as Barrow’s.”
“All right,” Marla said. “It’s a deal. Assuming you can pay my price?”
“I was told you don’t want money…”
“Don’t need money. My price is you telling me a secret, and teaching me a trick.”
“That is acceptable,” Dr. Husch said.
“All right,” Marla said, and grinned. “I always wanted to be a villain.”
Barrow of Ulthar wedged the butt of his great spear Ghostreaper into the stony soil of the Plains of Lengue and peered up at the towering heights of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass. He had been born only two leagues from this place, in the kingless kingdom of Ulthar, and his life’s journey had taken him across the great seas of the world, through the haunted forests, beneath the stony earth, only to return him here, to the Citadel that had shadowed his boyhood village — the dread fortress he was finally hero enough to brave. The cyclical nature of his journey was further proof he was walking the inescapable path of fate. “My destiny awaits within, Lector,” Ulthar rumbled. “Do you have any final advice? What dangers will we face within?”
Lector, the Living Book, was bound onto Barrow’s back by chains of silver, iron, and bronze. The mouth gouged into the book’s wooden cover spoke in a voice of riffling pages: “There are three Gates: a Gate of Knives, a Gate of Light, and a Gate of Wind. Pass through those, and you will confront the dread Chasm of Flies, which no living man or woman has ever crossed. The Key of Totality awaits, but first you must confront the guardian — ”
“What, you’re not going to mention me? I’m not enough of a danger for you?”
Barrow crouched, readying his spear. A woman sauntered around one of the skull-shaped boulders — the fossilized remains of giants who’d fallen to the Lengue Fever millennia before — and grinned. She was young, though not especially pretty, and she wore a cloak of rich purple, which shifted like a living shadow around her, as if possessed by its own dark intelligence. “Lector, is this one of the dread witches of the North?”
Before the book could speak, the woman laughed — not a girlish laugh, but a harsh and grating sound. “Nah, I’m from the east coast, Barrow.”
The east coast of the Sea of Surcease was home only to the wretched Mirror City, populated by the living reflections of those poor unfortunates who died and subsequently had their mortal remains reflected in glass, their souls reversed into evil and decadence, trapped in mirrored form on this mortal plane. “Mirror witch,” Barrow said, raising his spear.
“She is no reflected spirit,” Lector said. “She is mortal, but… I do not… she is not in my index. I do not see her among my manifests. I do not understand — ”
“Do you mean to hinder my quest, witch?” Barrow bellowed.
She clapped her hands. “You got it in one, Barrow-boy! Hindering’s my business. Right up there with usurping and frustrating. I have to tell you, you look a lot better on this side. A little rugged for my taste, I mean, your muscles have muscles, and personally, I like my boys a little leaner — but you’re not the dried-up white-haired husk you should be. That’s some sweet black magic you’ve got going on.”
Barrow frowned. “I — I have sipped of the waters of the Vital Sea, but not from vanity. Only to restore my strength. My quest has taken longer than the three score years allotted to every man, but it was no foul magic — the Green Goddess herself blessed my undertaking — ”
“I can hear you capitalizing things. It’s really irritating. So this Key we’re looking for is up there in that ugly castle, huh? Who’d build a fortress out of volcanic glass? I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s not practical. See you inside?”
“The Key is mine to win,” Barrow said. “Be you Mirror Witch or Northern Witch or Graveworm Witch — ”
“Always some kind of witch with you, isn’t it? Maybe I’m a barbarian warrior like you.”
“I am not a barbarian,” Barrow said, with great dignity, “though some call me such. It is only that the customs of my village differ from those elsewhere in the world — ”
“Those fur boots and the snakeskin pants tell a different story, but whatever. There’s a Chasm and a Key and all that good shit waiting for us. Race you.”
“No,” Barrow said. “We will finish this here. I wield the enchanted spear Ghostreaper. It is a fell instrument, but if you do not stand aside, I will have no choice but to turn its dark magics against you.”
“Knock yourself out,” the witch said.
“Tell her what fate awaits her, Lector,” Barrow said. “I do not believe she understands what I hold in my hands.”
“The spear Ghostreaper is tipped with the fang from a murdered god of death,” the book said, voice carrying over the cool stillness of the plain, despite the whispered timbre. “When the spear strikes its victim, it does not pierce flesh — it snags the soul, tearing the spirit loose while leaving the body a mindless, empty husk. The soul dissolves like fog in the sun, denied any afterlife. This spear brings the death of all deaths, and the empty bodies left behind are pressed into service to follow the spear’s wielder, an army of the walking dead.”
“I don’t see any zombie horde here,” the witch said. “Are they hiding behind one of these head-bones?” She kicked the gray stone skull of a giant.
“They were all lost in the crossing through the Lightning Peaks,” Barrow said. “And I was not sorry to see them go — their silent shuffling is a grim reminder of the dark acts even a hero must undertake to meet his destiny. I would not add your body, however comely it might be, to my retinue. Please, stand aside, or I will have no choice but to thrust my spear at you.”
“Ha. Thrust away, then. Good luck ripping out my soul. I think mind-body dualism is bullshit.”
Barrow lowered his head briefly, sorrowful but determined, then stepped forward, driving the hungering spear before him.
The witch moved one way — and her cloak moved the other, lifting from her shoulders and taking wing. It was no cloak at all, but a living thing, a creature of hungry shadow, and from within its shroudlike form a dozen red eyes blinked. The cloak flew at Barrow’s face, and he gasped, trying to turn his spear thrust against it. The witch stepped in close to him and chopped at his arm with her hand, an expert blow that struck his nerves and made the arm go limp. The point of the spear dropped to the ground, and the witch –
The witch stomped on the spear’s shaft, snapping it cleanly down close to the spearhead. The hero stood, stunned, looking at the shattered weapon. “The point might be a god’s tooth,” she whispered in Barrow’s ear, “but the shaft’s just a piece of wood. Shoddy work.”
Barrow knelt to grab the spearhead, but the cloak wrapped its tendrils around his arms and dragged him back. While he struggled against the cloak’s soft but unyielding grip, the witch picked up the spearhead, plucked a feather from a pouch at her belt, and swiftly tied the feather around the spear point with a strand of her own hair. She murmured a brief spell of some kind, opened her hand, and the spearhead rose up, up, up into the sky. “Bye, bye, birdie,” she said. “That’ll just keep flying until it hits the — well, one of the three suns up there. Excessive. You’d think with three suns it’d be warmer.”
Barrow cried out, and called on the might of his totems — the bear who’d given its fur for his boots, the great serpent who’d given him the skin for his leggings, the wolf who’d provided the leather for his chest-harness. The power of the animals surged through him, and he tore the cloak, ripping great shreds in its fabric. The cloak fluttered away from him, the rends in its body healing instantly as it lowered back onto the witch’s shoulders.
“Huh,” she said. “I always thought this cloak had a mind of its own.”
“You consort with demons!” Barrow shouted, still thrumming with animal energies.
“What, you heard about the incubus? I wouldn’t call it ‘consorting,’ exactly, it was one of those things where we were kind of using each other for sex – ”
Barrow roared and lunged for her, but she somersaulted away from him. Such acrobatics should have been impossible in a long trailing cloak, but her demonic garment moved out of her way as she rolled. Instead of turning to face him in battle, she ran, covering ground in great strides, without even looking back.
“Coward!” he bellowed. “Face me!”
“She’s going to the Citadel,” Lector whispered from his back. “She’s going to get there first.”
“Fuck me,” Barrow of Ulthar said, and ran after her.
The highest towers of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass were jagged onyx, their spires piercing the soft blue belly of the great slumbering sky-goddess, her divine blood running down the fortress’s walls to pool on the ground, where malign flowers sprang from the combination of cursed soil watered by divine essence. Barrow thundered up the hill toward the gate, the tall red-petaled flowers turning their heads to watch his approach. Lector jostled hard against his back, and the hero felt every ache and pain of his long journey. The spear Ghostreaper must have lent him magical strength, or else the effects of his last visit to the Vital Sea were beginning to fade — he felt tired, at a time when he should be thrumming with power on the cusp of triumph.
The witch was dozens of yards ahead, and the flowers lifted their viney tendrils to block her approach. She shouted out a strange word, presumably an incantation of power — “Deadhead!” — and fireballs bloomed from her outstretched hands, searing the plants and making them scream. The unique stink of charred goddess blood filled the air: the mingled scents of burning sugar and opened entrails. The witch ran through the arching gateway and into the darkness within. No gate or guards prevented entry to the Citadel, for this place did not discourage visitors: it welcomed them, as the lion welcomes its prey.
Barrow hesitated on the threshold, even his legendarily keen eyes unable to pierce the darkness within. “Lector, you must give me counsel. Who is this new foe, and how may I defeat her?”
The Living Book was Barrow’s greatest weapon, for it knew all the secrets of the world, and would reveal any mystery… if Barrow could only compose the proper question.
“The woman is not mentioned in my codexes or concordances,” Lector said. “I cannot tell you how to defeat her.”
The hero’s heart lurched in his chest. Lector knew the weaknesses of every man and god and beast that had ever lived, or had a semblance of life, and that wisdom had aided most of Barrow’s triumphs. “But… you know all the truths of the world…” Barrow paused. “Do you mean she is… from outside this world? From another place, some realm of demons? That would explain why she, too, seeks the Key of Totality — perhaps she wants only to return to her rightful home. Witch!” he shouted. “We need not fight! I will gladly open the door to your homeworld, once I have recovered the key!”
She did not answer. Barrow steeled himself for further battle, and stepped through the towering arch.
The darkness within the gate was actually solid, a membrane like the scum on pond water, clammy and vile, but he was through in a moment, wiping ectoplasmic residue from his eyes and looking around for the next inevitable threat. He stood in a vast and gloomy hall filled with jagged columns, not unlike the Temple of the Bile-God in far Paradyll, but vaster by magnitudes. The columns glowed with a reddish inner light.
Something fluttered down from the ceiling toward him, and Barrow drew his hand axe. This was no magical weapon — but well-honed steel and a comfortable grip had a magic of its own. The fluttering thing was the witch’s cloak, its red eyes gleaming, its purple-shadowed tendrils reaching out for him. He danced back as it tried to strike him, his axe flashing and tearing a long rent in the cloak’s body. But where was the witch –
Something wrenched at his back, and he howled as the fine chains cut into his flesh, and the weight of Lector left his back. He spun, but the cloak tried to strangle him, and by the time he’d hacked its tendrils free and sent it fluttering back toward the ceiling, the witch was halfway up a column, perched on an outcropping as casually as Barrow might sit on a fallen log, Lector held open in her lap as she flipped the pages. “So what’s the deal with the bleeding sky?” she said.
Before Barrow could curse her, Lector answered — as he would answer any question posed by his holder. “The Citadel is made of eldritch glass, sharp enough to cut even the divine, and so it pierces the belly of the great sky goddess.”
“Wait. The sky is somebody’s stomach? That’s… it’s… what?”
“Everyone knows of the goddess,” Barrow shouted. “The triple suns are the jewels in her navel! The rains are her sweat! She lays close to her lover, the goddess of the Earth, but they can never touch, for the sins of man keep them forever separated!”
“Sorry, I’m not from around here.”
“I know that,” Barrow said, and held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Witch — no, warrior — you have proven yourself my equal.”
“Equal? Don’t flatter yourself. The clothes off my back can kick your ass.”
Barrow pushed down the rage the seethed within him. “Though you cast away my spear, and stole my book and bosom companion, I would still be your friend. We stand a better chance of winning our way through the Citadel together — ”
“You don’t get it, Barrel-of-laughs,” she said. “You’re done. Your part of this story is over. Do I have to take away your snake pants next? Leave you naked and tied up for the flowers outside to eat?”
“I have a destiny,” Barrow began.
“Well I don’t. But I have a job to do, and that job is keeping you from getting the Key. You’re not the hero here. Let me show you something, this chasm thing.”
“The Chasm of Flies? But before we can reach that, there are three gates — ”
“The Gates are no more,” Lector said. “The outsider witch has destroyed them.”
Barrow shook his head. “The Gate of Knives? The Gate of Wind? The Gate of Light?”
“Sure,” the witch said. “Charm of rust, spell of stillness, tincture of darkness. It’s taken me longer to get through airport security than it did for me to rip through those gates. The magic here, seriously, it’s weakass shit, and I beat things up for a living. But, anyway, this chasm.” She dropped from the column, and Barrow roared and lunged at her, axe in hand.
She stepped around him, graceful as a dancer, and hooked her ankle around his foot as he went by, sending him sprawling, his axe skittering across the smooth black floor.
“Are you done?” she said. Her cloak drifted from the ceiling and settled down around her shoulders again. His face burning in shame, Barrow got to his feet. He left his axe on the floor, afraid of what she might do if he tried to retrieve it. If she attacked, he would fight ferociously, but she was just standing there, looking a little impatient, and even a little bored. Barrow had never before doubted his fate — he was a hero, and though the way was long and full of trials, he would win the Key, the greatest magical item in a world full of magic, the item of power no human hand had ever touched before. His allies respected him, and so did his enemies — but this witch from Outside toyed with him and taunted him, and he could not fathom how to strike her down.
So he followed her, through the hall and down a series of winding corridors, past the shattered remnants of the three great Gates, deeper into the red-black heart of the Citadel. Perhaps this is the part of my journey where I am humbled, he mused. Mayhap this witch will show me something important about myself, something to aid me in —
“The Chasm of Flies,” the witch said, shouting to be heard over the horrible buzzing that filled the Citadel, and gesturing at the vast space yawning before them. As wide as the Citadel itself, stretching as far as he could see, the Chasm was a great pit seething and alive with millions upon millions of churning insects, black flies and richly green flies and even the snow-pale flies who carried the Unsleeping Sickness. “Lector,” the witch said, patting the Living Book tucked under her arm. “What are those flies feeding on?”
“Heroes,” Lector replied, and the witch laughed and laughed.
“I had no idea that’s what fly shit smelled like,” she said. “But when you multiply one speck of bug poop by about a trillion, I guess it gets noticeable. Whoo. Anyway, check out this spell. I learned it off a bruja when I was living in a really nasty squat last year, there were bugs everywhere. Normally it just clears a room, but I’m pretty sure I can amplify it…” She took a deep breath, then shouted, “SHOO, FLIES!”
The insects rose up in their millions, a black and green and white cloud, and revealed below them… a mass grave. A great tangle of men and women and the other races capable of heroism — the Grievous Ones with their spiny flesh, the Original Men with their snake’s eyes, the amorphous Unshaped — all broken and bloodied and rotting and emptied of their souls, made into nothing but a feast for flies. “See there?” the witch said. “That’s what happens to heroes. It’s nothing personal. That’s what happens to everyone — no one lives forever, and even the gods can bleed. But heroes tend to die unpleasantly, far from home, without any friends.”
She slid close to Barrow as he gazed at the bodies, wondering how many of them had famous names, how many had been sung about in stories every bit as loudly as Barrow had heard his own name sung — and, worse, how many of them were not remembered in song or story at all anymore. “But you thought you were special?” she said. “You were going to be the one who really made a difference? In your heart of hearts, you thought you were going to be the one that lived forever, didn’t you? You’re all excited about having a destiny. Big deal. So did they. There are enough magical weapons down there to fill a war god’s armory, and enough heroic stories to fill even this weird talking infinite book I stole from you. I’m not saying there’s never a good reason to do great things, Barrow. But doing it for the sake of being a hero is bullshit. I mean, I have just one question — ”
The buzzing of the flies suddenly went silent, though the insects themselves continued to bob in the air, and a new voice spoke: “I will ask the questions here.” That voice was beautiful, cool, and serene, as was the speaker. She walked across the Chasm on the floating cloud of flies as if their hovering bodies were paving stones, a perfect blonde dressed in little more than three clusters of diamonds that did the minimum necessary to protect her modesty, with a diadem of white gold upon her brow.
Barrow’s heart grew lighter when he saw the witch narrow her eyes, her demonic cloak writhing around her body. She didn’t like the look of this woman, which meant Barrow did.
“I am the Mistress of the Key,” the blond enchantress said, standing just a few feet away on a platform of white flies. “You have breached the Gates, and come to the edge of the Chasm, and now, you have the chance to win the Key.” She glanced down at the open grave beneath her feet. “Or to join the others who have tried in the past.”
Barrow went down on one knee and bowed his head in respect. “Mistress,” he said. “I am eager to meet any challenge you care to set.”
“So Keymistress,” the witch said. “You look a lot like this woman I know. Any chance your last name is ‘Husch’? You could be her twin sister.”
“I was not of woman born,” the Mistress said, her voice as clear as fine crystal. “I have no sister, or mother, or father, or daughters. Do you, too, come to try and win the key?”
“Sure,” the witch replied. “So what’s the challenge? Mortal combat with Barrow the Barbarian? Staring competition? Or should I just guess what you have in your pocketses?”
“You need only answer my question,” the Mistress said. “And if your answer satisfies me, the Key is yours.”
The witch snorted. “Let Barrow go first. He’s been waiting for this a long time.”
The Mistress turned her head to Barrow, and bade him rise. He stood perfectly straight. He had supped with kings, seduced queens, and counted gods among his close friends and dire enemies — but the Mistress seemed like something else again, something greater than the gods, or perhaps merely apart from them. “Barrow of Ulthar,” she said, “Tell me: why do you desire the Key?”
Barrow blinked. He wanted the Key because that was his quest; because the swamp witch in his childhood village had seen a vision that he would someday seize it; because the diviner-in-chief for the great Stone King of the Inverted Mountains had declared that Barrow was destined to wield it; because his own dreams were almost nothing anymore but endless wanderings through black hallways filled with locked doors he could not open. He considered coming up with some more elaborate answer, something about breaking the shackles of tyrants, or opening new pathways of opportunity, but he feared the Mistress would sense dissembling or exaggeration. Truth had always served him well, and he would continue to serve truth. “Because it is my destiny,” he said. “Because I am the one who has been fated to win the Key, where all others have failed.”
The Mistress inclined her head. “And you, Marla Mason of Felport? Why do you desire the key?”
“Where I come from, there’s a saying,” Marla said. “Anyone who wants to be president should be disqualified.” She nodded at Barrow. “Anyone who thinks he deserves to have the most powerful magical artifact in the world just because it’s his destiny should never be allowed to get his hands on it. I want it to keep it away from him, and people like him, who want power for its own sake.”
Barrow took a step back from the edge of the chasm, suddenly dizzy. “But I don’t — I don’t want it for anything bad, it’s just — ”
“It’s just your MacGuffin,” Marla said, not unkindly. “You didn’t think it through well enough, is all. It’s not your fault. You’ve been telling this story for decades. It’s no wonder it’s starting to run a little thin. That’s always a problem with an ongoing series.”
“You have answered well, Marla Mason,” the Mistress said. “You may have me.”
“What do you mean I may — ”
The Mistress leapt up from the flies, and floated toward them. She began to glow, first faintly, then as brightly as the brightest of the triple suns, and then –
She vanished, and a key of shining diamond fell to the floor. Marla Mason knelt and picked it up. “That wasn’t so hard,” she said. “Then again, I got to skip to the last chapter, which is hardly fair to you.”
Barrow licked his lips, eyes fixed on the key. “What will you do with it?”
Marla shrugged. “Open a door.” She squinted, then stabbed the key at the air, and gave it a twist. A rectangle outlined in white light appeared in the air, and she tugged the door open. Barrow expected to see something amazing — a heavenly universe, perhaps, or whatever dark pit her demonic cloak hailed from.
Instead, the door just showed a room, with an old white-haired man sleeping in a bed. A woman who looked a bit like the witch Marla Mason was stretched out on the floor in one corner, and through a window, another woman was watching — she wore spectacles, and had a tight blond bun, but she looked so much like the Mistress of the Key, who really was the Key –
“Want to come in?” Marla said. “See the world?”
Barrow recoiled. What trickery was this? The witch had stolen his destiny, and now she offered him a dirty room, an ugly bed, a smeared window, a living artifact transformed into a nurse —
“Never!” he shouted, and leapt into the Chasm, to join the other fallen ones. He might die, but he would die a hero, which was better than living as nothing but a man.
Marla stepped through the door, and immediately rolled over on her side and vomited, which was weird, because she hadn’t been lying on her side, she’d been walking through a door, except now she was on the floor, and –
“Oh,” she croaked. “I woke up in my own body, huh?”
Dr. Husch opened the door, and a doughy orderly hurried in and helped Marla to her feet, then pulled her outside, to the safety of the observation room. “In your hand,” Dr. Husch said. “What is that?”
Marla looked down at the crystal key she was holding. “Oh, this, it’s — you, I think, he must have seen you at some point, because he sure as hell fantasized about you, or… wait.” She shook her head. Marla knew she’d just done something, gone into a weird fantasy world and said some cold-hearted shit to a crazy man’s mental barbarian avatar, but the details were fading fast. “Why can’t I remember?”
“It can be difficult to remember dreams,” Husch said, plucking the key from Marla’s hand. “How much more difficult must it be to remember someone else’s dream? But you did what you were sent to do. You showed Barrow he is no hero of destiny. You broke the spine of his story, and you took away this key, which is, I think, a rather potent artifact — either great magic he willed into creation, or some existing magic he managed to grasp with his psychic abilities.”
“Artifact, huh?” Marla said, plucking at her cloak, which was also an artifact — an object of unknowable age and great magic. An object with motivations, however inscrutable they might be to their wielders. For some reason, wearing the cloak was making her skin crawl even more than usual today. Its malign intelligence, always a presence deep in the back of her mind, seemed more active and agitated, now, like a cat who’d spent hours watching squirrels frolic safely behind a pane of glass. “Think we can sell it?”
“I believe I will hold onto this key,” Dr. Husch said. “For the very reasons you so neatly articulated while you were unconscious.”
Marla waved her hand. “I don’t need to know what I say in my sleep. I’m sure it’s embarrassing. But… why isn’t Barrow waking up? Wasn’t busting up his delusion supposed to cure him?”
“I don’t know,” Husch said. “I’d hoped, of course, that he would become lucid when you proved his delusions of grandeur were false — I didn’t expect him to be cured, but if he could hear me, then therapy might be possible. He’s not speaking, though, so I don’t know what he’s experiencing now…”
Barrow did not die in the pit. He lay among the filth for a while, then began to search the corpses. As the witch said, there were magic weapons there, countless ones, and he chose some of the most deadly for himself. He climbed out of the pit, hauling himself and his implements of war to the Citadel’s floor. Lector, the Living Book, rested on the stone, left behind when the witch departed.
“Lector,” Barrow croaked. “Old friend. Tell me. Do you know spells to raise the dead, and send this pit of fallen corpses into battle?”
“I do,” Lector said.
“This Citadel,” Barrow said, licking his lips. “Has it ever been held by a mortal before?”
“It has not,” Lector said. “Only by gods.”
“Ah,” Barrow said, flexing his fingers. “Then I will have to become a god, then.”
Lector seldom spoke unprompted, generally limiting himself to answering questions. But he spoke now. “Barrow of Ulthar… what are your plans?”
“If I am not a hero,” Barrow said, “Then I must be… something else. If I do not have a destiny, then I must make a destiny of my own. If I cannot unlock all the doors in all the worlds… Then I must tear holes in the walls. If I cannot save the world — ”
“Then I must conquer it,” the old writer shouted beyond the glass, and Marla winced. “I will have my revenge!”
“He’s gone all Dark Lord on us, hasn’t he?” Marla said.
Dr. Husch sighed. “It seems so. His story is taking a darker turn. He’s making himself into an anti-hero.”
“I can’t imagine there’s much of a market for stories about those,” Marla said. “So… did we make things worse? Is he going to start trying to reach this world now? Are there going to be, I don’t know, hordes of orcs and black dragons who breathe napalm and dust storms of living anthrax popping randomly into existence? Aren’t you afraid he’s going to find another way in, and that he might bring an army next time?”
“Possibly,” Dr. Husch said. “Loathe as I am to admit defeat, I think it’s time to take extreme measures. When therapy fails, sometimes the only solution… is isolation. Fortunately, you brought me a key, and keys aren’t just used for opening doors — they’re also used for locking them.” She cocked her head, considered the door before her, and slipped the crystal key into the lock. Which was quite a trick, since the key was way too big. Nevertheless, it fit, and Dr. Husch twisted it, resulting in a click as loud as a thundercrack. The door began to change, transforming from beaten-up metal into black volcanic glass. The change crawled up the wall and across the window until the entire room was an unbroken sheet of stone. “There,” Husch said. “Locked away.” She tucked the key into the pocket of her suit.
Marla whistled. “When you do solitary confinement, you don’t fuck around.”
“Your payment is due,” Dr. Husch said. “A trick and a secret, you said?”
Marla, who’d been staring at her reflection in the black glass, blinked. “Uh, yeah, right. The trick — I wanted to know how you managed to bind up some of the most powerful people you’ve got here. Agnes Nilsson, Elsie Jarrow, that caliber. From my researches, they should be impossible to hold. Then again, that was before I saw you do this.”
“It’s a rare patient who provides the key to his own security,” Husch said. “Barrow is a special case. The bindings on Jarrow and Nilsson are a bit involved, and I’ve had a trying day, but come back next week, and I’ll take you through the sigils and incantations.”
“Fair enough. As for the secret — I hear you’ve been running this place for decades, and you don’t look a day over twenty-five, no matter how you try to old yourself up with the dowdy hair and clothes and bondage hair. Even if you have one of those spells where you don’t age when you’re sleeping, that wouldn’t account for this kind of youth. So what’s the deal?”
Dr. Husch patted Marla on the shoulder. “Oh, Marla. Your mistake is in assuming I’m human.”
Marla frowned. “Don’t tell me you’re… an artifact in human form?”
“Of course not,” Dr. Husch said. “I’m a homunculus, just like the orderlies. Except my creator — he’s gone now — made me much smarter than they are, and my tastes go beyond meals of lavender seeds and earthworms. If I were human, I would have been able to go into Barrow’s dreams myself, and seen to his therapy directly. Of course I’m not human. Why else would I have hired you, dear?”
Marla frowned. She had a memory of Husch, telling her this already — “I am not of woman born” — but, no, that wasn’t really her, it was Barrow’s version of her. The old writer was psychic, so maybe he’d seen into Husch’s mind and found her secret, incorporating her true nature as a magical inhuman thing into his fantasy world. If he could see into Husch’s mind, then…
“Next time, hire someone else,” Marla said. “Barrow’s bad for my mental health.”
That night, Marla stopped by a used book store and pawed through a crate of yellowing old magazines. After half an hour of searching she finally found one with a story by Roderick Barrow, called “Shadow of the Conqueror!” — complete with exclamation point. She paid for the magazine with pocket change.
She read it in her tiny studio apartment south of the river. Barrow wrote a lot like he talked. The last two pages were torn out, but it was pretty clear what was going to happen: the hero would thwart the villain, free the slaves, and get the girl, who was dressed in golden chains and not much else. Nothing in the story really rang any bells, and her memories of the experience in Barrow’s mind didn’t come any clearer, the details turning to mist whenever she tried to focus on them. Ah, well, screw it. She tossed the magazine into a corner. Who needed fantasy stories, when she had asses to kick and secrets to learn?
That night, Marla dreamed of a house of endless black hallways. Every corridor was lined by dozens of doors, some marked with numbers, some with letters, some with runes or mystic sigils. She tried all the doorknobs, but none of them opened — none of them so much as turned — and though she pressed her ears to the door, she couldn’t hear anything. She just kept walking, until she reached a door made of black volcanic glass, with no knob at all, but something on the other side was pounding, and pounding, and pounding, as if trying to break through –
Marla woke, sweating, and scrambled to the enchanted wardrobe where she kept her white-and-purple cloak. She pulled the garment down and wrapped it around herself, crawling back into bed. Marla didn’t like wearing the cloak when she slept — she felt like it tried to communicate with her in her dreams — but even the dark whispers of her artifact would be better than the risk of falling prey to Barrow’s psychic grasping. She could all too easily imagine her body left breathing in her bed, but her mind torn out of her body, wriggling on the end of a spear, trapped in a Dark Lord’s realm…
Her dreams that night were horrible, but they were her own.
Note: “Ill Met in Ulthar” is directly inspired by the story “Dreams Are Sacred” by the great (and sadly late) Peter Phillips, about a reporter who goes into the fantasy dreamworld of a pulp writer — though for different reasons, and with radically different results. I made the connection semi-explicit by mentioning the name of the writer from the Phillips story, Marsham Craswell, here. Of course there are homages to Fritz Leiber and even a dash of H.P. Lovecraft in this, too.
I’d like to write more stories set in the fantasy world Barrow inhabits. I recently wrote a story featuring the spear Ghostreaper — transported to our world, and falling into the wrong hands — which I just sold to a publication this morning.
(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)
Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. I’m starting with “Grander than the Sea,” which first appeared in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (2007) and was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 8.
(This is indeed a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death. But, hey, free stuff.) Here’s the story!
GRANDER THAN THE SEA
“Dr. Husch is here,” Rondeau said, stepping into Marla Mason’s cluttered office, where she sat poring over an eye-watering pile of expense reports from her spies abroad.
“Who’s Elmer Mulligan, and why did our agent Brandywine spend $400 buying him lapdances at a strip bar in Canada?” she said, brandishing a piece of paper.
“I think Mulligan is the one who did that thing for us in Newfoundland,” Rondeau said, shutting the door behind him and knocking over a pile of true-crime paperbacks with the covers ripped off. “You know, with that guy who had the ice palace?”
“Right,” Marla said, rubbing her eyes. “I guess a lapdance is a small price to pay. Grizzly-polar bear hybrids are weird enough without some lunatic uplifting them to human intelligence. And did you see this?” She held up a flattened piece of seaweed, scrawled over with luminous green ink. It dripped briny water on the carpet. “It’s from the Bay Witch. I can’t even read it. Get somebody to go talk to her, will you?”
“Sure,” Rondeau said. “Like I said, Dr. Husch is here, from the Blackwing Institute. She says its urgent. But, ah, if you want me to keep her entertained for a while, I don’t mind — ”
Marla wrinkled her nose. “Rondeau, she must be a hundred and fifty years old.”
He shrugged. “She only looks about thirty. Don’t be ageist. And I’ve heard, when she was younger, she used to be quite the party girl.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.” Rondeau didn’t know a fraction of the weirdness and debauchery in Husch’s past, but Marla did, because the Felport archives went back a long time. “Is she here to beg for money?”
Rondeau shrugged. His attention was already wandering, and he riffled through a pile of back issues of The Instigator, which Marla still needed to comb for secret messages in the personals. On days like this she wondered why she’d ever agreed to become chief sorcerer. She was made for creeping around in shadows and kicking her enemies in the knees, not shuffling paperwork. Maybe she should hire an assistant. Rondeau was useful for many things, but alphabetizing wasn’t one of them.
“Send her in,” Marla said, wishing, not for the first time, that she had a better office for meeting people. When she had advance warning, she used her consigliere Hamil’s office, all sleekness and modernity. But her working office, above Rondeau’s nightclub, was an explosion of unfinished business, furnished with shelves, desks, and chairs scrounged from curbsides.
Rondea went out, and Dr. Husch entered. “Leda,” Marla said, leaning over her desk and extending a hand to shake. “Always a pleasure, assuming you aren’t here to pester me for more funding.”
Dr. Husch was only five and a half feet tall, rather shorter than Marla, but her presence was considerable. She had the body and face of a classical nymph, which she tried to de-emphasize, her curves restrained by a dark tailored suit jacket and skirt, her platinum-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her heels, though, were so high Marla felt unbalanced just looking at them. “The institute could always use more money,” Husch said. “Since we are the only thing preventing the destruction of the world. But, no, that’s not why I’m here. One of our inmates would like to see you.”
Marla raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of visiting criminally insane sorcerers, Leda.”
“It’s Roger Vaughn, and he’s quite insistent. I take him seriously.”
Marla shook her head. “Vaughn? The name doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“He’s the one who sank the ferry in the bay a hundred years ago, killing everyone aboard.”
“Ah.” That was one of the big disasters in Felport’s history, though the details escaped her memory. “He must be getting on in years.”
“Some of us do not age as rapidly as others,” Husch said, without apparent irony. “More importantly, Vaughn has been in total seclusion since the disaster, without any contact with the outside world. I am curious to discover how he knows you exist.”
“Maybe one of the orderlies mentioned my name?”
Husch gave a sniff, contemptuous enough to make Marla blush in embarrassment, which pissed her off. “Sorry, I forgot your staff was all wind-up toys,” she snapped.
The doctor waved her hand. “Mr. Annemann’s creations are tireless and loyal, and I couldn’t afford to hire human staff with the pittance you provide me anyway. No, Roger Vaughn must be acting on other information. He is quite lucid — his delusions only extend to certain, ah, fundamental aspects of worldview — and you would be in no danger. I think you should see him. He says the fate of the city is at stake.”
If Felport was in danger, Marla had to go. Protecting the city was her one and only responsibility. “Crap,” she said. “Okay, fine. I assume you want me to go now?”
Dr. Husch only smiled.
“You could’ve called first,” Marla grumbled, rising from her creaking chair.
“One of our inmates discorporated and attempted to escape into the world via the phone lines last month, prevention of which required ripping out all the wires. I submitted a request for repair to you a week ago — in the meantime, we have no phone service.” Dr. Husch reached down and plucked a sheet of pale green paper, with the raven logo of the Blackwing Institute at the top, from a heap on Marla’s desk. “See?”
Marla groaned. “Fine, I’ll have Hamil write you a check. Why don’t you get a cell phone?”
“Because they’re vulgar,” Dr. Husch said, and Marla didn’t have an answer for that.
“Must he come?” Husch said as Rondeau approached.
Marla drummed her fingers on the roof of Husch’s silver Rolls Royce. “Yep, he must. You wouldn’t believe the trouble he gets into if I leave him behind. You know, you could sell this car and get a nice chunk of change to buy extra blankets and Thorazine.”
“The car is not mine to sell. It belongs to Mr. Annemann, and if he ever recovers, he will doubtless wish to have it. He graciously allows me to use it in the meantime.”
“I thought Annemann got half his head blown off. I doubt he’ll be driving anytime soon.”
“His brain is not like that of other men. It has been regenerating steadily for the past several decades, and I expect it will be whole again someday.”
You sound pretty cheerful about that, Marla thought, considering you’re the reason he got his skull broken apart in the first place. She’d read about that in the archives, too.
Rondeau arrived, carrying a plastic bag. “I brought a bunch of leftover Halloween candy for the patients, Doc,” he said. “Hope that’s okay. I know they don’t get many treats or visitors.”
Husch’s aspect softened, and she nodded. “Very thoughtful. Many of them will appreciate the kindness.” She gestured, and Marla and Rondeau climbed into the cavernous back seat. Husch got into the passenger side. One of Annemann’s creations — which seemed human, if you didn’t look closely enough to notice the lack of pores and breathing — was in the front seat, dressed as a chauffeur. It probably wouldn’t even know how to drive if you took off its hat and driving gloves. All Annemann’s creations (with one notable exception) were fundamentally mindless, but acted like whatever you dressed them as.
“What do these guys eat, anyway?” Marla said, leaning forward to poke the chauffeur in the shoulder.
“Lavender seeds and earthworms,” Husch said.
“That’s messed up,” Marla said.
“De gustibus or whatever,” Rondeau said.
“It is the traditional meal,” Husch said. “As you might imagine, it is quite expensive to feed twoscore homonculi a sufficient quantity of lavender seeds and earthworms. Even with the worm farm in the basement and our extensive gardens.”
“I can tell this is going to be a fun drive,” Marla said, sinking back into the leather seat. “You know I’d give you more money if I could, right? But, I mean, it’s not like the mayor can tax ordinary citizens to pay for this stuff, considering most of them have no idea people like us even exist.”
“And it drives Marla nuts,” Rondeau said. “Because nobody ever thanks her for protecting the city from ravaging bands of wendigos or rat people from another star or things like that.”
“I don’t want thanks,” Marla said. “Just… a little help. The mayor knows about us, but he’s an ordinary, and he doesn’t like us. He can’t decide if I’m a mob boss or a vigilante or a superhero. He knows without me the city would have been destroyed a few times, though. Anyway, for something like the Blackwing Institute, I have to tax the other sorcerers… and no offense, Leda, but nobody wants to give money to the place where crazy sorcerers get locked up. It worries them.”
Dr. Husch just sniffed.
The Blackwing Institute was an hour outside the city, and an hour outside Marla’s comfort zone. She resisted the urge to turn around and press her face against the back window, to watch Felport diminish as they passed into the suburbs and then the fields and sleepy little towns beyond. Felport could be a pain in the ass, but it was her pain in the ass. She wasn’t comfortable anywhere else.
Especially places that had cows and trees and shit like that. Fludd Park in the city was enough nature for anybody. It even had a creek and a duck pond and a botanical garden.
“My buddy Paul taught me this road trip game where you take the letters from license plates and make dirty words out of them,” Rondeau said. “Anybody want to play?”
Marla groaned and tried to go to sleep.
“You want me to wear a dress?” Marla said, stepping back to put a chair between Dr. Husch and herself.
Husch held a ghastly long white dress embroidered at the neck and sleeves with lace flowers. “It will save a lot of trouble if you do.”
“I like trouble better than dresses.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Dr. Husch said. “Just put it on. Mr. Vaughn is from a different era. Do you really want to listen to him go on about the evils of women in trousers for an hour?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress,” Rondeau said. “Hmm…”
“Stop imagining it,” she snapped, then sighed. “Yes, fine, all right. But I’m not wearing any of the petticoats or whatever. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“You’ve battled psychopomps and snake gods, but wearing a dress daunts you?” Husch said.
“It doesn’t daunt me. I don’t daunt. It’s just unpleasant. Picking up a big handful of dog crap doesn’t daunt me, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it.” Marla hadn’t worn a dress in almost ten years. Her old mentor, Artie Mann, had made her dress up for a party once, when she’d first met the city’s other sorcerers, but that was the last time. And at least that dress had been short enough to make kicking people easy, when it became necessary.
Dr. Husch and Rondeau left the room, and Marla shed her loose cotton pants and shirt for the dress. It was tight in the waist and bigger on top than she needed, and she wondered if it had been one of Dr. Husch’s — it seemed more suited to her curves. Marla tugged the fabric fruitlessly away from her belly. “All right!” she shouted. “Let’s go see the wizard!”
Husch reappeared with a heavy iron keyring and beckoned. Rondeau tried not to stare at Marla, without much success, and she tried to ignore him, with similar results. “Seeing you like this just isn’t natural,” Rondeau said. “It’s like putting a dress on — ”
“You’d better stop right there,” Marla said. “What have I told you about rehearsing what you’re going to say silently in your head first?”
Rondeau looked upward, moved his lips briefly, then squeezed his mouth shut. He nodded once, then kept his eyes on his feet.
Husch unlocked a large iron door, incongruous in the wall of a formal sitting room. A wide white hospital corridor waited beyond. “This door divides my apartments from the Institute proper. This whole building used to be a private residence, of course.”
“Mr. Annemann’s mansion,” Marla said.
“Yes,” Husch said.
“Wow, so it wasn’t always a hospital?” Rondeau said. “Huh. Wild. So, before we go into the dark corridors filled with madness and all that, I was wondering, how do you keep sorcerers in here? I mean, are there some kind of magical barriers that prevent them from using their powers, or what?”
Marla snorted. “Magical barriers? Right. Those always work. Nah, the doc just makes sure they don’t get any books or chalk or skulls or bells or potions or whatever they liked to use for making magic when they were sane. A necromancer isn’t much good without corpses to animate, and a pyromancer’s not dangerous if you keep her in a chilled concrete room. It’s like how you’d stop an axe murderer. You just lock them up someplace and make sure they never, ever get their hands on another axe.”
“But sorcerers carry their axes with them inside their heads,” Dr. Husch said, lingering by the door. “And while many of them do depend on props and tools and rituals, some are quite capable of working dangerous magics with only their hands and voices. Those are kept restrained and gagged, as necessary, for their own protection.”
“What about the ones who can just, like, look at you and make you burst into flame?” Rondeau said, glancing at Marla. “The really powerful ones?” Marla wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended. She wasn’t sure she could do something like that — not without preparation, at least — but it was nice to know Rondeau thought she could.
“Ah,” Dr. Husch said. “For those rare few, we keep a great many drugs on hand.” She gestured, and they went past the iron door, which Husch carefully locked behind them. “But the house actually is well protected. The land here is magically neutral.”
“Really?” Marla said. She hadn’t realized that. “No ley lines? No ancient Indian burial grounds? No restless ghosts of past atrocities? No psychic residue left over from epic battles or blood vendettas fought on this spot?”
“No monsters in caverns below ground, no eerie petroglyphs drawn by pre-human civilizations, no local spirits still clinging to sentience,” Dr. Husch confirmed. “Mr. Annemann chose the location very carefully. He didn’t want outside magical influences to affect his experiments. There’s not much inherent magical energy in this area for our patients to draw upon.”
Marla opened up her mind, and it was true, there weren’t that many deep vibrations here. That was rare. Most places had something occultish about them. But… “Of course, now a dozen crazy sorcerers live here, and a couple have died in their rooms.”
Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. It’s true. In another hundred years, this will be a very magically potent location. But for now, the effects haven’t soaked into the earth.”
“Only a dozen patients, huh?” Rondeau said. “In this big old place?”
“Not counting Mr. Annemann. We try to give each of them as much space as possible.”
“Anybody famous locked up here?” Rondeau said.
“Once, Mr. Vaughn was famous, or rather, infamous,” Dr. Husch said. “One of our newest inmates is our escape artist, the one who tried to get out via the phone lines, Elsie Jarrow. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”
“I don’t — ” Rondeau said.
“Marrowbones,” Marla said, shuddering. “That’s what they called her. They still told stories about her, when I first came to Felport. How she’d suck all the fluids out of your body with a kiss.”
“Hyperbole,” Dr. Husch said. “But only just. We have others. Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger, who lost track of his flesh one day and built a new body of the angry dead. A powerful psychic named Genevieve with a mind broken by trauma. Norma Nilson, who did not so much kill her enemies as crush them with despair until they begged permission to take their own lives. Others.” She shrugged. “They all have special needs. I serve them as well as I can.”
“Charming,” Marla said. “Let’s meet Mr. Vaughn. What’s his mental malfunction, anyway?”
“He wants to raise a dark god from the sea and destroy all human life,” Dr. Husch said. “Come along, his rooms are just down here.”
Vaughn’s room was crammed with bookshelves made of driftwood, and dried starfish dangled on strings from the ceiling. Despite the nautical theme, the room smelled of dust, not ocean. “Mr. Vaughn!” Dr. Husch called, and a small old man bustled in from another room. He wore an elegant gray suit, and his eyes were the darkest blue Marla had ever seen. Hands clasped behind his back, he bowed, and said “Thank you for coming to see me, Miss Mason. We have much to discuss.” He nodded curtly to Dr. Husch, and took no notice whatever of Rondeau. “Thank you for bringing her, Doctor. Hail Xorgotthua, and good day.”
“Come, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch said. “We’ll take the candy you brought to some of the other patients.”
Rondeau looked a question at Marla, and she nodded. Little old men who hailed Xorgotthua — whoever or whatever that was — weren’t necessarily harmless, but if he was too dangerous for Marla to handle, Rondeau wouldn’t be much help anyway. They left, and the door shut behind them. Vaughn gestured to an armchair, and Marla sat down, remembering to keep her legs demurely together. Stupid dress. Marla rubbed her hand on the arm of the chair and said “Is this sharkskin?”
“Oh, yes,” Vaughn said, sitting in an identical chair of his own. “Sharks are Xorgotthua’s handmaidens, of course.”
“Right. Why did you want to see me, Mr. Vaughn?”
“I need you to stop me,” he said. “Kill me, probably. Well. Not this me. The other me.”
“You’re going to have to clarify that.”
“Yes, I see.” Vaughn took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at sweat on his forehead, though it was cool in the room. “I assume you know of the sacrifice I made to the great god Xorgotthua a century ago? The ferry I sank, so that the screams of the dying might nourish the lord of all depths?”
Marla suppressed a shiver. So he was a religious fundamentalist. They always creeped her out. “Yeah, I know about that.” Details were slowly coming back to her. “You were trying to conduct some ritual, and raise some ancient god from the sea, right? But it didn’t work?”
“Oh, it worked.” Vaughn fingered a silver chain around his neck. “But it was only the first part of the ritual, you see. To raise Xorgotthua, I made a sacrifice to the waters, to wake the god. Then, a hundred years later, there must be another sacrifice, as large as the first, to entice the god to the surface, and onto the land. It is a long time to wait, but the attention spans of gods are not like those of men, and a hundred years is but a moment to Xorgotthua. The time for the second sacrifice is only a few days away.”
“And you want me to… stop you from making the sacrifice?” Marla said. “Shouldn’t be a problem, with you locked up here.”
“Ah, well, no, not exactly. I want you to stop the other me. My reincarnation.” He looked at her expectantly.
“Ah. So do I ring a bell or something to get Dr. Husch back here?” Marla said.
Vaughn sighed. “I know what you’re thinking. Death is generally a prerequisite to reincarnation.”
“Yeah. That’s part of what I was thinking.”
“I use the word as a convenience. It is not true reincarnation. You know the technique of putting your soul in a stone, to be retrieved later?”
“Sure. It tends to turn the soulless sorcerer into a pretty unsympathetic bastard with no sense of proportion, but it’s a way to preserve your life.” Marla was wary of the word “soul,” but she knew a technomancer who talked about uploading personalities into computers and making backups of your mind, and he said the principle was the same.
“I did… something similar. But then I made a perfect copy of the stone where I kept my soul, through a certain alchemical process. I restored my original soul to this body, and left the copy in a safe place near the docks in Felport, with instructions to activate a few months prior to the centennial of my first sacrifice. It was a backup plan, you see. If I died, or became incapacitated, my backup soul would be there to complete the ritual and raise Xorgotthua.”
Marla frowned. “What do you mean ‘activate’? Souls floating around loose aren’t good for much. They need bodies.”
“Oh, well, of course, the soul had instructions to seize control of the nearest suitable vessel.”
“Vessel. You mean a person.” Marla gripped the arms of the chair. “You made a backup of your soul with instructions for it to possess some random passer-by?”
Mr. Vaughn nodded. “Yes, exactly! Such an honor for the vessel, too, being given the opportunity to help raise Xorgotthua.”
Marla closed her eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again. The urge to strangle Vaughn had not passed, but it was under control. “So this person is wandering around Felport now?”
“Not wandering,” he said, offended. “He is me — or me, as I was a hundred years ago — and he has been learning all he can about the city. That’s how I found out you were the, ah, person in charge.”
“You’re in communication with this double of yours?”
“I see and hear and smell and taste what he does.” Vaughn frowned. “It is a side effect I had not expected, though I admit, it is good to smell the sea again. But I do not think this communication goes both ways. I’ve had no indication he sees what I see.”
“Good. Where can I find him?”
Vaughn wagged his finger. “No, no. I will not help you stop him unless you help me.”
“What, do you want to go on a field trip? Deep-sea fishing or something? I can talk to the doc.”
“No. What I want is for you to stop my reincarnation, so that I can be the one to raise great Xorgotthua. It should have been me. I cannot bear the thought of this copy of myself raising the god while I languish here, to die with everyone else when the waves cover the land. My copy was meant as a last resort, if I was dead or in a coma, but I am aware, and here, and quite capable of completing the ritual on my own.”
“Uh huh,” Marla said, standing. “So you want me to stop your copy from killing lots of innocent people, and help you kill lots of innocent people instead, and either way the result is a risen god who wants to destroy all human life? Sorry, doesn’t sound like something I want to pursue.”
“If you help me, I will intercede on your behalf with Xorgotthua. I can make sure you and your city are spared. My copy will show no such mercy, I assure you. But if you let me be the one who wakes the god, I will use my influence to convince it to spare your home.” Vaughn rose to his feet and stood facing Marla. He extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
Marla contemplated. If a great dark god really was rising from the sea, such bargains might be necessary, but she wasn’t ready to concede defeat yet. “No, thanks. I think I’ll look for your copy on my own.”
Vaughn closed his hands into fists. “Listen, woman. I brought you here to make an arrangement. You’ll never find him without me. If you don’t help me, the death of your city is a foregone conclusion. I offer your only hope. Take it, or face the consequences.”
“Yeah, let me get back to you on that,” she said, opening her cellphone and calling Rondeau. When he picked up, she said “Hey, tell the Doc I’m done here.”
“You can’t ‘get back to me,’” Vaughn said, his face getting red. “You will make this bargain now or — ”
Marla snorted. “Please. Like you won’t jump at the chance if I come back in two days and tell you it’s a deal. What, you’re going to turn up your nose and refuse to help me because I snubbed you today? As if.”
Vaughn sat down. He glowered at her. “You will regret the way you’ve treated me. When you return to beg for my assistance in a day or two days, I will know I have the power, and will drive a much harder bargain.”
“I look forward to negotiating with you,” Marla said. “But don’t expect me to wear a dress again.” The door opened, and Marla slipped out.
“You didn’t tell me he was the priest of a dark god,” Marla said, hurrying down the hallway, with the shorter Husch striding quickly to keep up. “You might’ve mentioned.”
“He’s not,” Husch said. “I told you, his fundamental worldview is delusional. He believes in the great god Xorgothhua, but no such god exists.”
Marla stopped walking. “Are you sure about that?”
“Quite. There is no record of such a creature in any oral or written tradition I have consulted. Vaughn claims the god has inspired countless followers through the ages, and has been worshipped by many societies, but it’s just not true. Vaughn began talking about Xorgotthua after he nearly drowned in the mid-1800s, and his delusion intensified over time, becoming ever more baroque and sophisticated. It was considered a harmless eccentricity, until he arranged the ferry disaster. Then Felport’s elite sorcerers realized he was a danger, and had him put away here.”
“Huh,” Marla said, resuming her walk back to Husch’s apartments. “That’s reassuring. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he told me.”
Husch unlocked the door. Rondeau was on the other side, sitting on a couch, watching a television screen. “We heard it all,” Husch said. “The guest rooms are under surveillance, of course.”
“That dude is batshit,” Rondeau said. “Now he’s walking in circles and talking to himself, and, I shit you not, cackling.”
“So you brought me here to listen to a crazy guy’s pointless babble?” Marla said.
“No. He did know your name, and your position among Felport’s sorcerers, and other details of daily life in the city he should not be privy to. I think he is probably telling the truth about this double of his, and his plans to conduct a sacrifice in a few days.”
“So there’s no giant sea god to worry about,” Rondeau said. “Just the issue of a bunch of innocent people getting killed.”
“Huh,” Marla said. “How many people died in that ferry disaster?”
“Over a hundred, most bound for a family reunion on Bramble Island,” Husch said. “And it sounds like Vaughn wants just as many people to die this time.”
“Crap,” Marla said.
“Indeed,” Husch replied.
“Good morning, Bay Witch,” Marla said, sitting on a bench on the boardwalk with a view of the bay’s gray expanse.
The Bay Witch — who’d once been named Zufi, back when she was a surfer girl, before she became a student of the hidden arts — sat at the other end of the bench. She was blonde and dressed in a black wetsuit, a puddle of sea water spreading all around her.
“Nice of you to visit,” the Bay Witch said. “You got my note?”
“I got an incomprehensible smear of goo on seaweed. But I needed to talk to you anyway. What’s up?”
“Bay’s getting more polluted every year. I’ve sent reports. You don’t answer me.”
Marla nodded. “I’ve been busy, but I’m taking bids to deal with the pollution. Unfortunately the best bid is from Ernesto, who wants to gather all the pollutants to create a filth elemental to smite his enemies. I’m thinking of accepting it, but I need to find out who his enemies are first.”
“Fair enough,” the Bay Witch said. “There’s another thing. Probably nothing, but there’s — ”
“Let me guess. There’s a crazy guy hanging around, talking about raising a dark sea god named Xorgotthua?”
The Bay Witch laughed. “They told me you have tentacles everywhere. Yeah, that’s him.”
“Where might I find this crazy guy?”
She shrugged. “He’s been a regular in some of the bars these past few months, bothering people, but he hasn’t been around lately. He was pretty irritated when nobody wanted to join his cult. He promised they’d all die if they didn’t join him, the usual. Nobody took him seriously. He’s just a kid, can’t be more than seventeen. I felt kind of bad for him, but he was creepy, too.”
Marla nodded. “I’ve got sort of a weird question. Let’s say I needed to get a giant squid in a few days. Just out in the bay, you know. Waving tentacles around, the whole deal. Think you could hook that up?”
“I’m not Aquaman,” she said. “I’m not friends with all the creatures of the sea.”
“Yeah, but I bet you’ve got methods.”
“A giant squid?” She frowned. “They do like cold water, but they’re not exactly common, and they prefer deep water. If it’s doable — if — I’d need some serious payback. I’d have to burn a lot of power and influence over something like this, and I’m guessing you don’t even want to tell me why.”
“True,” Marla said. “Do it, and you’ll be taken care of.”
“I’d need the bay to be taken care of. You’re the chief sorcerer of Felport, and the way you feel about the city? That’s how I feel about the bay.”
“We’ll work it out,” Marla said. “You know I’m good for it.”
“Okay,” the Bay Witch said. She shook her head. “I’ll see what I can do. Meet me back here tomorrow.” She walked to the edge of the boardwalk, climbed over the rail, and leapt gracefully into the sea.
Marla spent the afternoon talking to her various friends and informants by the boardwalk, the docks, and the boat harbor, but no one had seen the crazy guy lately. If Marla was going to find him, she’d have to get more creative.
“One giant squid, coming up,” the Bay Witch said, looking pleased with herself. They sat at an outdoor café a block from the water, enjoying the mild spring air, though the Bay Witch was dripping water, as always. It was an occupational malady. “The thing’s the size of a school bus. Where do you want it?”
“A few hundred yards from shore, two days from now, midnight, waving its tentacles around, splashing a lot, making a spectacle. Can you handle that?”
“I can hijack its brain for a little while,” the Bay Witch said. “Squid are too big, and their anatomy is too weird, for me to control easily, but if all you want is flailing, I can manage that. What, are you trying to scare away a sperm whale or something?”
“Not quite,” Marla said. “I need your help with something else. Where can I get a lot of seashells and other ocean crap like that?”
“You look like a kitschy seafood restaurant exploded all over you,” Rondeau said.
Marla examined herself in one of the long mirrors in the dressing room of Rondeau’s night club. It had been a strip club, once upon a time, and still had all the backstage facilities, though these days the only performers were DJs. She adjusted the bit of fishing net she wore as a cloak, and tugged the cascade of shell necklaces around so they didn’t drag quite so heavily on her neck. “That’s the look I’m going for,” she said. “You have to admit, the sword made from narwhal horn is pretty cool.” It was useless as a weapon, but the long, spiraling horn on a hilt hanging from her belt was a nice bit of flash.
“I still don’t see why I have to go,” Dr. Husch said, emerging from the bathroom. Even dressed in sailcloth, net, and shells, she managed to look regal. She had a wicked whip hanging from her belt, a scourge with ends tipped by fishhooks.
“I might need backup,” Marla said, “and the homunculus orderlies don’t listen to anyone but you.” She picked up two half-masks made of horseshoe crab shells, which, along with some drawn-on abstract tattoos, would serve to disguise their faces. Better if the original Mr. Vaughn didn’t recognize them while looking through his copy’s eyes.
Dr. Husch ran her finger along the top of a vanity, wrinkling her nose at the dust. “I don’t think this place has been cleaned since last time I was here.”
“You’ve been here before?” Rondeau said.
“When it was a burlesque house,” Husch said. “Once upon a time, Mr. Annemann owned this place. I… worked for him.”
Marla didn’t say anything. Husch had worked for him. Sort of.
“Wow, you were a dancer?” Rondeau said.
“It was a long time ago,” Husch said.
“I think we look suitably crazy and ocean-themed,” Marla said. “Let’s hit the bars.”
“Why do you think he’ll come here?” Husch said. They were in the back of an empty dive bar near the docks, sipping drinks and trying to ignore the smell of old beer and fish. Marla felt a little self-conscious in her sea-witch getup, and the mask cut her peripheral vision down more than she liked. The bartender clearly thought they were nuts, too, but image was important in situations like this.
“I started spreading the word that a priestess of Xorgotthua was in the area, planning the ritual that would raise the god, here to replace poor Mr. Vaughn.” She shrugged. “I said this was her hangout. If Vaughn’s copy is paying attention, he’ll hear word. And if he does come in, well, we’re kind of hard to miss.” Marla grinned. “In the meantime, girl talk. You know Rondeau likes you.”
Husch pursed her lips. “You don’t mean to tell me I should be flattered? I doubt he’s very discriminating in his tastes.”
“Rondeau usually likes body-pierced college girls with flexible attitudes toward morality,” Marla said. “You’re not his usual type, so sure, be flattered.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in what men thought of me, Marla,” she said, looking at her levelly. “Given your position, I assume you know the… details of my origin. You can understand why I might be wary of men?”
Marla nodded. “Sure. Just making conversation. But Rondeau doesn’t know your origins — I promise — so you don’t have to worry so much about his expectations.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.”
“Speaking of men,” Marla said.
A young man in a t-shirt and swimming trunks came through the door, sunlight streaming in around him. He saw them in the back of the bar and started coming their way.
The bartender shouted at him. “Hold on, kid, I told you, you’re under age, you can’t come in here!” The kid gestured at the bartender and muttered a guttural incantation, and the bartender fell, eyes rolling back in his head.
“Well, well,” Marla said. “Reckless and unnecessary use of magic. This must be our zealot.”
“You!” he said, striding toward them. “You claim to worship Xorgotthua?” His hair was wet, and he had a large pimple on the side of his nose.
Marla sipped her beer before answering. “I claim nothing. I am the priestess of Xorgotthua, yes. And who are you, child?”
“I am no child. I am the reincarnation of Roger Vaughn himself!”
“Madness,” Marla said. “Vaughn has not been seen in a century. I have come, with my followers, to complete the work he began so long ago.” She gestured at him lazily. “Away with you. Enjoy your last days of life before the waters swallow you.”
He crouched by the table. “You don’t understand. I am Vaughn. I have pledge my life to Xorgotthua! How have I never heard of you and your followers?”
“We have lived in seclusion on an island,” Marla said. “Waiting for the stars to come right. That time is now. The sacrifices are prepared, and the god will rise tomorrow night.”
He frowned. “I’ve arranged a sacrifice. There are bombs, on a ferry bound for Bramble Island, and tomorrow — ”
Marla snorted. “The bombs were discovered, you fool, and removed. Did you think the secret ruler of this city would fail to check the ferries, so close to the centennial of Vaughn’s first sacrifice?”
The kid grimaced. “Marla Mason. Yes. I did not realize… I had heard she was effective. I should have been more careful. But surely I can still be of service — ”
Marla waved her hands. “It’s all arranged. The orphans have already been prepared.”
Dr. Husch’s eyes went wide, and she made a snorting noise, and after a moment Marla realized she was trying not to laugh. Dr. Husch, laughing — that would be something to see.
“Orphans?” the kid said.
Marla nodded. “Yes. Xorgotthua enjoys the taste of orphans. Something Vaughn would know very well.”
“Of course I know,” he said quickly. “I just… where did you get orphans?”
Marla turned her most withering glare on him, hoping the half-mask didn’t dim its power. “They’re orphans. The essential fact of orphans is that no one much misses them. Now, please, be gone. We are discussing preparations for the ceremony.”
Vaughn stood up. “I… please, Xorgotthua is my life… how can I serve?”
Marla sighed theatrically. “Very well. Vaughn, if that is your name. Come to the boardwalk tomorrow, before midnight. You may watch the great god rise with the rest of my followers. Perhaps Xorgotthua will choose to spare your life.”
“Thank you,” Vaughn’s copy said, and left the bar, looking punch-drunk and dazed.
“You’d better go check on the bartender, Doc, and make sure the kid didn’t kill him.” Marla cracked her knuckles. “We’re on for tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t you just have me summon the orderlies?” Husch said. “They could have seized him, and he would have been safely housed in the Blackwing Institute before nightfall!”
Marla shook her head. “Then him and the other Vaughn would just keep plotting and planning and probably causing me more trouble in ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred years, gods forbid I’m still around then. No, we need to put an end to this, or at least build in a long delay.” She opened her cell phone and called Rondeau. “Hey,” she said. “Send some of our pet policemen to check the Bramble Island ferries for bombs. Yes, I know, I don’t know why I didn’t think to check there. I guess I expected Vaughn’s copy to be more original. Make sure our people keep an eye on the copy, too, in case he decides to cover his bets by throwing firebombs at a yacht or something.” She closed the phone. “When they find the bombs, we can say it was terrorists, and get some of that sweet Homeland Security money. The mayor would totally owe me for that.”
“How nice for you. So what happens now?”
“Squid happens,” Marla said.
“Are the orderlies in place, Rondeau” Marla spoke into her phone.
“And you talked to the Bay Witch?”
“Zufi says we’re good to go,” Rondeau replied.
“Good.” She hung up. Dr. Husch and a handful of Annemann’s homonculi — dressed in their own seashell-and-face-tattoo cultist disguises — stood on the boardwalk, by the railing, looking at the moonlit water. The air was cool, the tang of salt strong in the air. A good night for a ritual.
“The bay is really very pretty,” Dr. Husch said.
“It’s a good deep-water port,” Marla said, with her usual civic pride.
“I hope we aren’t mistaken about Mr. Vaughn, and the accuracy of his ideas,” Husch said. She swung her fishhook-tipped scourge idly over the railing. “I’d be very upset if a great sea god did rise tonight.”
“Eh,” Marla said. “The bombs were disabled, and I didn’t actually sacrifice any orphans. I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if Xorgotthua does exist, which he doesn’t, he’ll just slumber on.” She glanced at her cell phone. Five minutes to midnight. “I hope he shows.”
“I am here, priestess.”
Marla and Dr. Husch turned and saw Vaughn’s copy. He wore his own cape of net, woven with seaweed, and a ridiculous profusion of shell necklaces. His face had markings just like Marla’s… only his were real tattoos. Marla winced under her mask. Damn. That must have hurt. She felt bad for the kid who’d been possessed. He’d probably never get his body back, and if he did, he’d have to walk around with that stuff on his face.
“Good,” Marla said. “Then observe the water, where Xorgothhua will rise.”
They all bellied up to the rail. Nothing much happened; moonlight, wind, waves. Then, slowly, the sea began to bubble and roil, and after a moment something vast broke the surface out in the water, and great flailing tentacles, each over fifteen feet long, whipped into the air, flinging water. The “cultists” dropped to their knees, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Vaughn’s copy.
“Great Xorgotthua!” Marla shouted, still standing, raising her arms overhead. “We come to welcome you!”
The squid rolled, revealing an eye the size of a dinner plate for a moment before slipping back under the water.
“Yes!” Marla shouted. “I understand, great one! We live to serve you!”
The squid sank beneath the waves, and the cultists rose.
“My people,” Marla said, her voice appropriately bleak. “Great Xorgotthua thanks us for the sacrifice, but says it is not yet time to rise. Xorgotthua wishes to wait until the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen to swallow the coastal lands. We are not to disturb its slumber until that time. We must keep the god’s sacraments and teach the next generation of followers.” She shook her head. “Our time will come. It only seems long, to our pitiful human minds. Another few centuries are but moments to great Xorgotthua.”
Vaughn’s copy remained kneeling when the others rose. He looked up at Marla, stricken. “I can wait,” he said. “I have no choice. I will wait. That glimpse of the god will sustain me through the centuries.”
Show ‘em a few tentacles and they see a squamous god of the outer darkness, Marla though. “I have discovered something,” she said, placing a hand on the copy’s shoulder. “It seems Roger Vaughn did not die, as we all assumed. He is resting in a hospital, where all his needs are looked after. Would you like to meet him?”
“He — I — he lives? When I woke, I thought he must have died, but…” The copy stood up. “Yes. I’d like to see him very much. I wish to know what happened to my life in the past hundred years.”
“Perhaps you and the older Mr. Vaughn can await the return of Xorgotthua together,” Marla said. She nodded to Dr. Husch, who summoned her orderlies to lead Vaughn’s copy to the car.
“They bicker like an old couple,” Rondeau said, watching Vaughn — both Vaughns — on Dr. Husch’s closed-circuit television. The two mad sorcerers shared a new, larger suite of rooms in the Blackwing Institute, and spent most of their time arguing over fine points of Xorgotthuan theology. They might have had the same mind, once, but you can’t put one soul in two bodies without a little divergence.
“I’m just glad they’re locked up,” Marla said.
Rondeau nodded. “It was nice of you to bring all this stuff,” he said. Marla had loaded a truck with blankets, drugs, and food, donations from the sorcerers of the city. Marla had told the other sorcerers that Dr. Husch was the one who saved the city from destruction by a great ocean-dwelling deity inimical to human life, and had encouraged them to show their appreciation with material goods. They had. No one liked to contemplate the coming of great indifferent gods, and Marla hadn’t bothered to tell the sorcerers that Xorgotthua was imaginary.
“Where is Leda, anyway?” Marla said. “I thought she was coming back to the city with us.”
“Yep. I’m taking her to see one of those homemade robot demolition derbies,” Rondeau said. “It’s going to be awesome. She said she had to take care of something before we go, though.”
Marla rolled her eyes. She’d done her part to encourage Dr. Husch, but she doubted Rondeau would make it past one date with her.
Rondeau went back to watching the screen, snorting laughter as the two Vaughns argued about whose turn it was to clean the toilet. Marla went looking for Dr. Husch, and found her in a room at the end of a short hallway, sitting beside a hospital bed.
Marla stood in the doorway for a moment, then said “I don’t understand why you still tend him.”
Dr. Husch adjusted Mr. Annemann’s catheter. He was hooked up to a number of machines, his head wrapped almost entirely in a thick padding of bandages.
Marla cleared her throat. “I mean, when you consider…”
“The fact that he created me?” Dr. Husch said. “You might expect me to be grateful for that.”
Marla shifted uncomfortably. “But he created you to be his, well, his concubine, right?”
“I was created as his living sexual fantasy,” she said, covering Mr. Annemann with a blanket. “Yes. And he used me as such. I was the most sophisticated of his many homonculi, the only one capable of independent thought. At first, I appreciated his attention. Even when he sold me to the highest bidder as a courtesan, and later, when he had me dance in a burlesque house and sold me more prosaically in the alley behind the club, I felt he deserved to treat me any way he wished. But as time passed, I began to resent him, and to wish for my own life. The worst part was, I still loved him. He could be very kind, you know, and he loved discovery and knowledge more than anything, something I respected very much. And then one day, I began to wonder if perhaps Mr. Annemann made me love him. What if loving him was not a choice, but merely a spell he’d cast on me?” She stroked Annemann’s hand.
“That’s why you shot him?” Marla said. “Because you thought he’d cast a love spell on you?” The Felport archives had reports about the shooting, but not about the motives.
Dr. Husch bowed her head. “Yes. I thought he must be a monster, to cast such a spell. I thought I would kill him, and free myself. He did not die, but his brain was… severely harmed. Any spell he cast on me would have failed, then, after the damage I inflicted.” She looked up. “But I didn’t stop loving him. I realized the love was not the result of a spell at all, but a true feeling. And so I have been caring for him ever since. Someday, he will wake, and I will tell him I’m sorry. Perhaps then he will realize I am more than his creation, and he will see me as a woman, and his equal.”
Wishful thinking, Marla thought. “I’m not saying it was right to shoot him. But you probably never would have had your own life otherwise.”
“No one’s life is solely their own,” Dr. Husch said. “We are all bound by our devotions. Mr. Vaughn would understand that. I’m sure you do, too.”
Marla thought of her own tangled allegiances, the web of obligations that made protecting the city possible… but that was the point, wasn’t it? To protect Felport. She had devotions of her own, and couldn’t fault Dr. Husch for hers, however misguided they might be in Marla’s eyes.
“Thanks for all your help, Leda.”
“You can thank me by doubling my annual budget.”
Marla laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)
The time has come! I have launched a Kickstarter for my new Marla Mason novel, Bride of Death. Please support it if you can, or spread the word, or both. All the details are at the link below. (Short form: a book of monsters, heads in birdcages, motorcycles, violence, botched redemption, etc.)
I really want to write this one. (In fact I’ve already written about 10,000 words, because I couldn’t help myself. I hope I get to finish it.)
Hey, the Antiquities and Tangibles e-book is available for sale! There are links in the sidebar over there on the left to a couple of popular online bookstores. The print version will be along soon, from Merry Blacksmith Press. (Actually it seems it’s already available from Amazon. I haven’t gotten my copies yet, but I’ll send ‘em out to Kickstarter backers as soon as I do.)
Big excitement in the PrattShaw household. My wife Heather Shaw, who has been working 44 hours a week for the past couple of years (one full-time job and one part-time, which is brutal to sustain — I don’t know how she did it on top of her freelance writing/editing), has quit her part-time job. That will give her one free day a week, which she’s going to use to focus on writing fiction. (Those of you who’ve read her fiction know that’s reason to rejoice.)
Of course, this does mean our income is taking a bit of a hit; it was a part-time job, but a well-paying one. So I’ll be hustling up some extra writing work — and I hope you’ll all help me spread the word when I launch my Kickstarter for the next Marla Mason novel, Bride of Death, next month. (Speaking of: very exciting. I am doing research and writing notes and jotting down scene fragments and bits of dialogue. It’ll be fun.)
Here are some things that are somewhat me-related:
I’ve put a Tuckerization in my next Marla Mason novel up for auction to support Patrick Rothfuss’s Worldbuilders fundraiser, which supports Heifer International, helping people in need build better lives for themselves. You can bid on the Tuckerization here, and have your name (or a name of our mutual agreement) appear in the next novel, Bride of Death. (I usually offer Tuckerizations for $300 or so when I do a crowdfunded book. Surely we can get to that amount at least, for charity?)
In more me-centric news, the first part of a long interview with me is up at Sense of Wonder.
And in half-about-me news: my wife Heather Shaw and I collaborated on a holiday story, “Catching the Spirit,” for Podcastle. Go listen! It’s about weaponized generosity and viral good cheer.