Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

Archive for the ‘Kickstartin’ my heart’ Category

Manic Nixie Dream Girl

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

As an enticement to get people to contribute to my Kickstarter for Closing Doors, the last Marla Mason novel, here’s a Marla story that has never appeared online before: “Manic Nixie Dream Girl”. If you like it, you can show your appreciation by hurling money at me or encouraging others to do so, or both.

www.kickstarter.com/projects/timpratt/closing-doors-the-last-marla-mason-novel

**************

“We’re looking for a monster,” Marla said. “Except at this point we’re pretty sure it just looks like a person.”

The small, white-whiskered old man sitting in the velvet armchair across from her nodded thoughtfully. “Ah,” he said. “A person. That narrows it down. There are only about eight hundred and twenty-five thousand of those in San Francisco. Closer to seven million if you consider the Bay Area as a whole. Can you be any more specific than ‘a person’?”

Marla shrugged. “We heard it was in a body that appears male, so that cuts the options in half, except it’s clearly a shapeshifter or has the ability to hide itself with illusions, so never mind. It’s not very nice. It seems to literally gain power from killing people and eating them, or consuming them in some way that might as well be eating them.”

Sanford Cole, the legendary and immortal (so far) figure recently awakened (again) from magical slumber to serve as chief sorcerer of San Francisco, stroked his neat little beard. “The city has been troubled by a shapeshifting creature in recent days. I’ve had trouble narrowing down its location through divination – and as you know, that’s one of my strengths – because its form is so malleable. It could be your monster, I suppose. The city is woefully short of battle magicians since our former leader Susan Wellstone’s tragic demise and the defection of many of her people to neighboring organizations, so I haven’t tasked anyone to track the creature down yet.”

Marla smiled. “I’m happy to volunteer my services. Monster hunting is kind of my thing these days.”

“I will give you what information I have on the creature,” Cole said. “But may I have a few moments alone with our mutual apprentice?”

Marla glanced over at Bradley, who was standing in a corner of the suite, in the deepest shadow he could find, as if trying to disappear, or at least go unnoticed. “Sure. But, ah, you know, he’s not exactly our Bradley – ”

“I know,” Cole said. “But he’s close enough.”

#

Marla sat fidgeting in a chair in the hallway outside Cole’s suite, in one of the luxury hotels on Nob Hill, flipping her dagger into the air and catching it by the hilt, over and over. After about fifteen minutes, Bradley – B to his friends – came out, looking visibly pale and shaken, and leaned against the wall beside her. “That was weird,” he said. “Sanford Cole was, like, congratulating me on everything I’ve achieved. Sanford Cole. He was court magician to Emperor Norton! He kept the city from falling into the sea during the 1906 earthquake! And he says he’s proud of me.” B shook his head.

Marla snorted. “B, you’re the defender of the multiverse, a position so badass it even freaks out gods. Of course Cole’s proud of you.”

B winced. “To be fair, I’m just a fragment of a fraction of the defender of the multiverse, an autonomous node budded off from the greater collective over-mind and imbued with all the awesome powers of any ordinary mortal who happens to be a pretty good psychic. This, standing before you, is as human as I get these days, and once we track down the Outsider, I’m not even sure what happens to me – if I get absorbed back into the ur-Bradley or sent to live on a farm upstate or what. It is weird, being locked down in one branch of the multiverse again, in a single isolated version of myself. Like being blind and deaf and tongueless.”

“Yeah, your life is one of interminable suffering, and so on. Let’s maintain focus, B. Did Cole tell you about this shapeshifter thing?”

B nodded. “Something’s going around drowning people in bath tubs, toilets, and swimming pools, mostly young men who just moved to the city. There’s a new tech boom, so lots of new people are moving here, getting high-paying jobs, paying three grand a month for shitty studio apartments, driving up rents, pricing out longtime residents, and so on. Cole figures the shapeshifter is some local sorcerer pissed off about gentrification, striking back at the brogrammers, but maybe it’s our guy.”

“What do you think? Any inspirations fizzing in that psychic brain of yours?”

He shook his head. “The Outsider is almost impossible for me to sense – it’s from outside the multiverse, so it’s not under my jurisdiction, and it’s really good at cloaking itself from conventional divination. Cole says whenever he attempts to narrow down the location of the thing that’s drowning people, he just gets visions of puddles, fountains, the bay, various bodies of water. Not exactly the same failure mode, you know? And the method of killing is totally different, too, from total devouring to drowning and leaving the bodies… But the Outsider did spend a long time buried beneath the desert in Death Valley, so maybe it’s decided to go with a watery-murder theme now that it’s in wetter territory. Who knows how that thing thinks? Getting inside the Outsider’s head is like trying to figure out the inner life of a virus. Or a prion disease.”

“So Cole’s monster might not be our monster at all. Still, it’s worth checking out. If nothing else, killing something would be good for my morale. Do we have any place to start, or are we just supposed to hang around damp places and hope for the best?”

“There’s a survivor,” Bradley said.

#

Erich Shiriam sat in his tiny one-room apartment in the Mission, jittering in a high-end office chair and intermittently gulping at an energy drink. He was bug-eyed and wild-haired and his shirt was turned inside out, but Marla didn’t know if that was typical of his nature or an expression of his trauma. She did know she was sitting on a dirty futon and there were piles of dirty clothes and take-out boxes everywhere and it was pretty gross.

“Sorry to make you come here, I know it’s, uh, but it’s just, I don’t even like leaving the apartment after what happened, I’m afraid to go out and get… I don’t know… my therapist says I have situational agoraphobia so work is letting me telecommute for a while and I’m hoping – ”

“So you met a girl and she tried to drown you?” Marla interrupted.

Erich blinked at her, then looked at B, who shrugged affably. “That’s right, yeah.” Erich spoke slowly, frowning, and he was probably trying to remember why he’d let these people into his place, and why he was talking to them at all, but before he could go too far down that road Bradley must have given him another little psychic nudge, because he snapped back into focus. “Right. So, look, I went to MIT, I’d never been on the West Coast at all, not even to visit, but I’d heard about San Francisco, how cool it was, how hip, how everything was happening here, you know? Also how it never snows, which after all those years in Boston, that’s pretty great by itself.”

Marla liked a good winter storm, herself, but she nodded agreeably. Bradley could have probably just ripped the knowledge they needed out of the guy’s brain without them having to endure a conversation, but he preferred a more delicate approach.

“So I got here,” Erich went on, “and mostly I just worked a lot, you know, sixty-hour weeks, sometimes eighty-hour weeks during crunch time, the start-up standard. Sometimes I’d go out to clubs and bars and I’d see those San Francisco girls, with the piercings and the straight black bangs and the cool tattoos and the motorcycle boots and the heavy eyeliner, and I tried to make it with a few of them, but mostly they seemed to be laughing at me or bored by me, you know? They’d let me buy them drinks all night but then they’d leave with some hipster wearing tiny pants and giant glasses, or else with another girl. The only real date I had was with another programmer, who also went to MIT, and I mean, I could’ve stayed in Boston, right?” He took a breath. “But then one night, I was sitting in this little hole-in-the-wall burrito joint, and I met her. Llyn.” He spelled the name, and Marla grunted. Was she Welsh, or just pretentious?

Erich went on. “She was… she was just this hurricane of a girl, you know? Tiny, maybe five-foot-one, barefoot, wearing a short skirt and a shiny top and about eighteen hundred scarves in all different colors, bangles on her wrists, ankle bracelets, red and green streaks in her hair, ukulele hanging on a strap on her back, purse made out of a plush toy squid. She ordered a big bowl of jalapenos and then just sat down across from me, looking at me with these huge blue eyes, popping peppers into her mouth and grinning. We ended up walking around and talking all night. She told me she was an art-school drop-out who was into doing sculptures with found objects, and that she spent a lot of time busking on her ukulele for the tourists, and that she liked meeting people who were new to the city because they still had a sense of wonder, and did I want to go back to my place, so, ah…” He blushed, and Marla rolled her eyes. B must have given his sense of propriety a little nudge, because he said, all in a rush, “So we could do some molly and she could suck my cock and then make me pancakes.”

“And you said yes,” Marla said. “Hell, who can blame you? A manic pixie dream girl straight out of twentysomething director’s wish-fulfillment indie film offers you a totally San Francisco experience, why wouldn’t you say yes? So what happened?”

He looked down. “This place is pretty tiny, but one of its good qualities where I lucked out is the bathroom.” He rose and went to a door with a crystal knob and opened it up, beckoning them to look inside. The bathroom was almost as big as the rest of the apartment – clearly it had been the master bath, and his “apartment” had been the master bedroom, before this house was chopped up into tiny units. The floor was tiled in honeycombs of white and blue, and there was a pedestal sink and a toilet in a fetching shade of teal porcelain, but the space was dominated by was a huge claw-foot bathtub with a showerhead suspended above it.

“She came in, and we made out for a while, and then she wanted the tour, which was kind a joke, but whatever. She looked at the bathtub and her eyes got real big and she said we had to take a bath together. At that point I still had no idea what she looked like naked, every time I managed to get a scarf off her there were ten more underneath it, so I jumped at the chance. She took my clothes off and put me in the tub and sat on the edge while it filled up, and I mean, she had her hand in the water, and it was pretty nice….” He trailed off. “The tub filled up, and I asked her when she was going to get in with me, and that’s when she pushed me under.”

Marla nodded. Her first thought was: serial killer dresses up like cliché quirky girl to exploit the fantasies of young brogrammers, preying on the tech elite as a symbolic protest against the inevitable horrors of gentrification. But Cole said it was weirder than that, and it got that way.

“She was strong. Crazy strong. Couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but pushed me under like it was nothing, one hand on my forehead, one on my chest. I looked up at her through the water, and I guess it was just the drugs, but… her face changed. Her body, too. Rippled like water, became translucent, it was like, she became water, but her hands were still solid. After a couple of minutes she stopped holding me down and left.” He shrugged.

B frowned. “Wait, so how did you survive? Did someone come resuscitate you?”

He shook his head. “I’m good at holding my breath. Have been since I was a kid, when I went swimming lot with my dad, and I just kept at it. Winning breath-holding contests was my party trick in college. I mean, I’m not like those free divers who can stop breathing for twenty minutes, but two or three minutes? Sure. Once I realized she was trying to drown me I thought I’d better just play dead, and it worked. I think I would have freaked out a lot harder if I hadn’t been on drugs, honestly. Molly saved my life.”

“No sign of her when you got out of the tub?” Marla said.

He shook his head. “No, she was just gone. There were lots of puddles, though, all over the hardwood in the main room, like she’d dripped tons of water around. I called the cops, they took her description and told me not to pick up strange women in burrito shops anymore, that was it.”

Marla nodded. Cole said there’d been half a dozen drownings so far, but he’d managed to keep it out of the news, so Erich didn’t realize he’d narrowly avoided joining an ever-growing body count. “Well, thanks for your – ”

“Wait,” B said. “There’s something you’re not telling us.”

Erich frowned, and B pushed, and Erich moaned. “Okay, fine, she left one of her scarves, it’s under my pillow. I know it’s stupid, it’s sick, but it still smells a little like her, she was so hot, I can’t help it – ”

“Show us,” Marla said.

Erich went to his futon, lifted up a pillow, and picked up a long piece of ragged seaweed. He rubbed it against his cheek, sighed, and handed it to Marla, who took the slimy thing in her hands. “A… scarf,” she said.

He nodded. “Smells like, I don’t know, vanilla and baby powder and the cherry soda I liked when I was a kid…”

The thing in her hands smelled like salt and rotting fish to Marla. “We’ll have to take this, but on the plus side, we won’t tell the cops you withheld evidence, okay?”

#

Once they were outside, Marla handed the seaweed to Bradley. “Well?” she said. “Does this look like a scarf to you?”

“Seaweed. But I looked into Erich’s mind and I could see the psychic tampering. I fixed it while I was in there. Took care of his agoraphobia, too. But I left his caution about picking up ukulele girls in bars.”

“You’re such a humanitarian, B. Can you use this scrap of slime to track down our mystery woman?”

“Pretty sure she’s not actually a woman,” Bradley said, “but I’ll do the psychic bloodhound thing, sure.”

“It’s not the Outsider, is it?”

B shook his head. “I don’t think so. We don’t know what forms this nixie or kelpie or whatever has taken in other attacks, but in this one, it showed a pretty sophisticated understanding of human psychology and expectations – more than that, it seems to have a sense of humor, which isn’t a quality we’ve noted in the Outsider. I mean, the ukulele? Infinite scarves? That’s comedy, right?”

“Manic nixie dream girl,” Marla said. “That is pretty funny, except for the death by drowning. Okay, do your thing, and let’s find our monster.”

#

They wound up on the western edge of the city, down by the ruins of the Sutro Baths, the once-vast swimming pool complex on the beach that had been reduced by demolition and fire to concrete foundations and a few vestigial fragments of the old buildings. The place was usually popular with tourists who came to hike, take in the shattered grandeur, and look out at the ocean and the nearby Seal Rocks, but today it reeked of rotting fish, and the wind from the sea was salty and stingy, and it was just generally vile and unpleasant. “This place is awful, let’s go somewhere else,” Marla said, but B grabbed her arm.

“Somebody cast a keep-away spell over here,” B said. “A strong one. Of course, I’m immune, but your puny mortal mind is no match for the magic.”

“Who’re you calling mortal,” Marla muttered, shaking his hand off.

“Well, you’re mortal at the moment. Here, let me clear your head.”

“No thanks.” She ducked her head and stomped down the path toward the ruins, the stink making her eyes water, the wind battering her, the fear that she would slip and fall and be swept away and die (even though lately she couldn’t die) growing ever stronger until –

– she broke through the bubble of the spell and blinked at the calm sea, breathed in the brisk salt air, and didn’t worry about death a bit, as usual. B stepped up beside her. He pressed the rag of seaweed to his face, sniffed, then pointed. “Down there, by the waterline, there’s a cave. I’m pretty sure there’s not supposed to be a cave, but somebody made one.”

“Let’s have ourselves a cave invasion, then.” They picked their way down the rocks to the beach, and Marla saw the shadow in the cliff wall where the cave must be. She drew her dagger – the only possession of value she had at this point, apart from her motorcycle – and stepped carefully, boots sinking into the soft sand, toward the darkness. “Fiat lux,” she muttered, activating her enhanced night vision, but she didn’t need it: the blackness of the cave was an illusion, and once she stepped inside, it was lit by battery-powered camping lanterns resting on rocks and hanging from pitons hammered into the cave walls.

An old man wearing a pair of black swim trunks and nothing else was sleeping in a brightly-colored hammock swaying in a metal stand, next to an iron cauldron that would have done the witches from Macbeth proud.

Marla exchanged a glance with B, who shrugged and leaned against the damp wall of the cave. He generally left the heavy stuff to her, which was the way she liked it.

Marla walked over, put her boot on the hammock, and dumped the old guy out.

He sprang up, sputtering. “What the shit?” His eyes – they were red-rimmed, matching the burst veins in his nose – went wide and he shouted “Llyn!”

The contents of the cauldron bubbled up into a fountain, which turned into the watery semblance of a girl, translucent except for a few scraps of seaweed that sort of looked like hair, and teeth made of shards of shell. The nixie hissed, the water around her mouth boiling in the process, and started to climb out of the cauldron.

Marla lashed out with her dagger, right at the thing’s face. It screamed and fell back when the blade cut across the indentations it had for eyes. Marla slashed down in a looping s-curve through the nixie’s body, and water splashed everywhere, seaweed and shells splattering back down into the cauldron. The old man gaped. “What – what did you do?”

“This knife was made for me by the god of Death,” Marla said. “Forged in an awfully hot hell, a lake of fire conjured by the imagination of a dead guy with a lot of guilt but not much imagination. This blade can cut through anything I want it to. Stone, steel, astral tethers. Water molecules. Don’t worry, your nixie will get her shit back together eventually, but right now a large portion of her anatomy has been reduced to hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and it takes a girl a little time to recover from that.” She held up the knife. “Now, what should I cut you up into?”

“I won’t fight.” He held up his hands. “Did Sanford Cole send you? I – I don’t recognize his authority, you know. I’m a sea witch, my people have been here since the Egg Wars, and – ”

“Hush. The structural hierarchy of the city’s magical community could not interest me less. You were murdering innocent people with your little water goblin there. Why?”

He hugged his arms around his pale pigeon chest. “These new people. They’re destroying the whole culture of the city. Altering the place’s personality. Driving out the artists, the creative people, the ones who make it a world-class place to live. Soon it’s going to be nothing but young technocrats, consuming without creating.”

Marla snorted. “This new wave of people moving in isn’t any different from the old waves of people moving in. The hippies pouring in here in the Sixties changed the whole nature of the city, too. The Beats changed things before that, in the Fifties. The people who came for the gold rush in the 1850s – I assume those were your people, Mr. Egg War – changed the hell out of the place too. Unless you’re Ohlone, bitching about the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the Eighteenth century, I don’t really want to hear it. Some of these new tech people are assholes, I’m sure, but some of them are perfectly nice people who heard San Francisco was a great place to live, and wanted to move here, so they did. Didn’t you just have a tech boom like ten years ago? Gods. You should be used to this. Stop bitching and move to Oakland until the next inevitable bust in the economy drives the technorats out of San Francisco again if you hate it so much. Seriously, it’s gotta be more than that. What made you start murdering people? Did you get kicked out of your apartment so some douche-bros could move in?”

The old man lifted his chin. “I am a sorcerer. I can live wherever I choose.” He sighed. “But my favorite bar, where I went every day for decades, was closed and replaced by an artisanal toast restaurant.”

B whistled. “Damn, dude,” he said. “That is rough. I mean, murder’s still wrong and everything, but… damn.”

“Call Sanford Cole and tell him we caught his murderer,” Marla said. “Tell him if he wants to reward us with riches and resources they’d be welcome.”

#

Marla and Bradley sat on the steps leading down to the beach at Aquatic Park in North Beach, watching the sailboats cruise around the bay, and looking at the fog-shrouded towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. They were eating double-doubles, animal style, they’d picked up from the In-N-Out Burger a few blocks away.

“Wow, I missed cheeseburgers,” B said. “Being an omnicognizant super-god living in a pocket watchtower dimension overseeing the complexity of the multiverse is great, but there’s a real dearth of local restaurants. I should do something about that.”

“Just visit us mortals, and part-time mortals, more often,” Marla said.

“Should’ve gotten sodas,” B said. He reached toward her bag. “Let me get a drink of–”

She slapped his hand away. “That’s not water for drinking.” He raised an eyebrow, so she picked up the plastic liter water bottle and shook it up, stirring the sand, flecks of seaweed, and jagged shards of seashell at the bottom around. “While you were talking to Cole’s people about securing Mr. Sea Witch, I was having a chat in the cave with Llyn, who’d mostly reconstituted herself, and she’s agreed to go traveling with us.”

B laughed. “You’ve got a nixie in a bottle?”

“Well, I’ll have to dump her in a pond, or at least a full bathtub, if I want her to appear in human-sized body again – she needs more volume for that kind of thing – but, yeah.”

“You haven’t had the best luck in the past, taking on murderers as allies. Squat, Nicolette, your brother…”

“Oh, Llyn’s not a murderer, she was a murder weapon. She was under a compulsion to serve old what’s-his-egg. I broke the chains of his spell with my dagger, and she’s promised to repay me with a month of service, then she’ll go jump in a lake somewhere.”

“Mmm. Don’t nixies historically drown people just for fun?”

Marla stashed the bottle back in her bag. “She assures me she’s entirely harmless. You know I’ve got a trusting nature. Besides, some creatures need to be drowned. We need all the allies we can get if we’re going to face the Outsider and deal with my other problems. Me, you, a magical knife, and a motorcycle aren’t going to get the job done.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

Marla’s phone rang. Cole. She handed it to her former apprentice. “You talk to him. I’ve been thanked enough.” She hated talking on the phone, and it was fun to boss her occasionally all-powerful friend around again.

Bradley spoke, listened, grinned, and then handed the phone back to Marla. “Cole gave us a line of credit, so we can afford to sleep in the kind of motels that don’t have bedbugs without having to steal or mind-control people first.”

“Good. Being a wealthy patron is more fun than having one, but I’ll take what I can get.”

“Better news,” Bradley said. “Cole tasked his whole psychic corps over to me, the ones he uses to detect threats to the city, impending earthquakes, stuff like that. I got their brains networked together and made them look for dead spots, places they couldn’t see.”

Marla whistled. “The Outsider blocks divination, but if you can find those blank spaces on the psychic landscape…”

“Yep. They’re pretty sure the Outsider left the city this morning, headed east. Their network only covers part of California, and they lost the bubble of nothing around Lake Tahoe, but…” B shrugged. “It gives us a direction, at least.”

She stood up. “To the Marla-cycle, young Bradley.”

He groaned. “We’ve gotta get a sidecar or something.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “A sidecar is so much cooler than riding bitch.”

“That’s offensive,” Bradley said. “You’re offensive. I’m offended.”

“I do my best,” she said.

 

Kickstarter for the LAST Marla Mason Novel

Thursday, February 18th, 2016

I am currently running a kickstarter campaign to fund the tenth and final full-length Marla Mason urban fantasy novel, Closing Doors.

Marla’s story is coming to an end; help me send her off with style. Check out the campaign page and see how you can get an exclusive coffee mug and other goodies. Also there’s a video with lots of pretty art and, at the end, me wearing a purple-and-white velvet cloak. You know you don’t wanna miss that.

 

Queen of Nothing Kickstarter

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

As springtime grows near, a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of… Kickstarting another Marla Mason fantasy novel.

I just launched the campaign to fund Queen of Nothing, which will be the ninth full-length book in the series (tenth if you count short prequel novel Bone Shop). (At this point, I’ve crowdfunded more of these novels than I published traditionally, which is frankly mind-blowing to me. My readers are amazing.)

If you want to contribute, or learn more, you can check it out here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timpratt/queen-of-nothing-a-marla-mason-novel

QoNimage

It’s going to be a grand blend of mythic fiction and contemporary fantasy, with a lot of evil-god-punching, and all the usual snark and jokes and moral ambiguity and ass-kicking and calamitous mistakes that characterize the rest of the series.

Want to read about Marla? Here are links to some free stories set in her world.

Thanks, as always, for your support.

 

Flytrap 12

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

We’re doing a Kickstarter for issue #12 of our ‘zine Flytrap! The funds will go to paying artists and writers and printing and so on. Prizes include print copies (so pretty) and postcards and prints by our issue #11 artist Aislinn Quicksilver Harvey. If we get funded, we’ll open to fiction submissions in October. (We tend  to solicit non-fiction, poetry, and art.)

The issue is about one-sixth funded with 19 days to go, a rather slower start than we had last time; perhaps our potential backers are wearing body paint and feathers and tripping balls on the playa at Burning Man? If you can help spread the word, or donate, we’d appreciate it. You can read issue #11 online here.

Lady of Misrule Kickstarter

Monday, March 10th, 2014

I’m running a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for my next Marla Mason novel, Lady of Misrule. A $10 donation gets you the e-book, and when you give more, you get… more!

There are nine days left on the campaign as I write this, and it’s already funded, so the book’s definitely going to happen. I’m so close to hitting the stretch goal that will allow me to hire Lindsey Look to paint original cover art!

If you can give, or spread the word, I’d appreciate it greatly. It’s going to be a fun book, full of monsters and violence and banter.

More Flies with Money

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

The headline is: my wife and co-editor Heather Shaw and I are hoping to revive our ‘zine Flytrap, this time paying professional rates, and are running a Kickstarter to raise money.

We’re 41% funded with 24 days to go, so signs are promising, but we’d really love help spreading the word — and, of course, if you’d like to give, we’d appreciate it (and you get magazines! and other goodies). We loved doing the ‘zine, and published a lot of current and rising stars in our previous incarnation, so please help us do it again, and do it right.

Other things: my gonzo SF cross-dimensional story “The Retgun” sold to Unidentified Funny Objects 2. It was exactly the kind of sale I love: I submitted the story Sunday afternoon; it was accepted 50 minutes later; I signed and returned the contract by e-mail that evening; and got payment within minutes after that. (If we manage to revive Flytrap, I hope to pay on acceptance in the same way. I love markets that do that.)

I’ve had a couple of foreign sales finalized, which is always a treat. Feder & Schwert will be publishing a German edition of The Constantine Affliction at some point, and a Spanish language collection of my stories is coming from Fata Libelli. My slow and idiosyncratic plot for world domination continues.

Sold a couple of reprints to the good people at Podcastle, too — they’ll be doing audio versions of my stories “Right Turns” and “Ill Met in Ulthar.”

Otherwise, life is pretty great, thanks. I mean, the IRS sent a letter saying we owe them many thousands of dollars,which is a trifle stressful (since we don’t even have many hundreds of dollars to spare at the moment), but we’re pretty sure we can straighten that out. (The revenuers seem to have misplaced a very large check, but our bank assures us the feds cashed it, so with luck we can explain that easily and they won’t send agents to snatch our paychecks from our hands and confiscate our shoes.)

Kickstarter Wrap-Up and FreemadeSF

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Well. That Kickstarter I did went pretty okay, didn’t it?

Back in the day, Random House paid me $20K for each of the first four Marla Mason books. So… getting pretty close to that here. (Though not as close as it looks, once I deduct my costs for commissioning cover art and illustrations, shipping books to people, etc.) Plus, my single biggest backer (with a pledge that amounted to about 10% of my total) didn’t actually fulfill their pledge, unfortunately, so my actual total is only a bit over $16,000 — which doesn’t change much, really. It just means I’ll have a couple fewer interior illustrations than I’d expected. (The backer is apologetic and says they may be able to pay as promised in the near future; if that happens I’ll add back the illos, but it’s uncertain.) Still, though — I’ve only sold one novel in the past few years that paid me more than this. It is a strange new world and I am living right in the middle of it.

The writing of the book is going well, too, and that’s the best part of this, for me — getting to continue developing this world and these characters at length, in a way that would have been impossible for financial reasons under other circumstances.

My hybrid approach to the business of writing — small presses, big presses, weird passion projects, practical commercial projects, anthologies, short stories, crowdfunding, whatever else seems feasible and fun — is working out. It keeps me busy, and I am seldom bored.

And if you want to stave off your own boredom: I’ll be reading at the FreemadeSF Launch Party tonight in San Francisco, along with Nick Mamatas and Mark Pantoja and Cliff Winnig. There will be music and other delights as well. Should be fun. Come on out.

Take It As Read

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

We’re deep into the last day of my Kickstarter for Bride of Death, so if you were thinking of becoming a backer, now is the time. Every time I look at the Kickstarter page I am filled with joy and delight at the generosity of my readers — and the power of crowdfunding to make art compatible with financial necessities. What I’m trying to say is, thank you, and hurray.

The new issue of Apex Magazine is out today, with my looong story “The Fairy Library” free to read, and an interview with me (mostly about my new collection), and also many good things by people who are not me, like the awesome Rachel Swirsky and the equally but differently awesome Will Alexander.

I am doing another Ask Me Anything at Reddit Fantasy this Thursday, with Richard Lee Byers — we both write Pathfinder Tales fantasy novels, so I imagine there’ll be a lot of questions and answers about those, but as the name implies, we can be Asked Anything. Do drop by. Speaking of Pathfinder Tales, here’s a sample chapter for my new novel Liar’s Blade, with a fantastic illustration of one of my favorite characters from the book.

Life is very very busy, with readings to do and stories to write (with deadlines that are nearly upon me) and Life Stuff and a very full calendar… but it’s good. I am happy and productive.

A Month of Marla: A Cloak of Many Worlds

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

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.”

 

A Month of Marla: Little Better than a Beast

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013

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?”

“He did.”

“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.”