Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

Archive for the ‘Kickstartin’ my heart’ Category

Regarding Certain Fictions

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Here are some things:

I sold a story! “Ghostreaper, or, Life after Revenge” will appear in a future issue of Eclipse Online. I’ve admired the stories editor Jonathan Strahan has published in the magazine (and in the anthology series before that), so I’m pleased to be part of it. The story is a novelette about a modern guy who gets a magical spear from a trickster figure of uncertain intentions and proceeds to mess up his life in interesting ways.

I also sold a story, “Secrets in Storage,” co-written with Greg van Eekhout, to a Lovecraftian anthology. About five years ago Greg wrote an opening and asked me if I could do anything with it. I added a bit, and we batted it back and forth, but it stalled out and never came to anything, sitting unloved and unread for years. Then, when I was asked to do a Lovecraftian story, I realize how Greg’s opening could be a launching point for just such a piece, and dragged it out of cold storage, worked on it, made Greg make it better, and sent it off. A dead story, resurrected (but, of course, that is not dead which can eternal lie; that goes for old story fragments as well as elder gods).

We’re down to the last few days for the Glitter and Madness Kickstarter. Take a look! It would be a fun anthology. My story will be set in the abandoned ice skating rink in Berkeley, a bit of decaying real estate called Iceland (which is also a portal to a Hell of ice, a la The Inferno), at a monster skate party, of sorts. Give ’em a little if you can. They’re still a bit short of hitting their goal.

My own Kickstarter, for novel Bride of Death, is going beautifully — it’s nearly 150% funded with 20 days to go. Another $665 and we unlock original cover art by the great Lindsey Look, who did the cover for Grim Tides. And if it goes over that level, I’ll come up with additional incentives. (And, you know, buy my kid extra souvenirs at Disneyland when we go for his spring break.)

I’m reading Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz (one of my favorite writers; hell, one of my favorite people). It’s a serialized novel, and you get all the installments for a mere one-time $1.99 payment. Pretty sweet deal.

Lately I’ve ripped through the Spellman Files series by Lisa Lutz — quirky mysteries (sort of) set in contemporary San Francisco. They’re charming books, driven by a great narrative voice, that of thirtyish former juvenile delinquent Izzy Spellman, who works for the family business as a private investigator. The PI details are pretty realistic, which means the stakes are way lower than you find in most mysteries — in reality, PIs don’t investigate murders; mostly they follow cheating spouses and do background checks. So most of the drama comes from the interpersonal relationships, among a group of chronically nosy, secretive, suspicious people with boundary issues and a willingness to use blackmail and other means to achieve their goals — but who nonetheless love one another very much. Not the sort of thing I usually read (I prefer my mysteries bleak and violent and hardboiled), but great comfort reading.

A Month of Marla: Ill Met in Ulthar

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “Ill Met in Ulthar,” my personal favorite of all the Marla stories (so far). It first appeared in anthology Witches in Spring 2012.

(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.) Here’s the story (and an author’s note at the end)!

ILL MET IN ULTHAR

“His name is Roderick Barrow,” Dr. Husch said. “He’s what we call ‘exothermically delusional.’”

Marla Mason, twenty-two years old and by her own reckoning the deadliest mercenary sorcerer on the east coast, propped her feet up on the doctor’s desk. “Good thing he’s locked up in the nut hutch, then.”

Dr. Husch made a small expression of distaste and shoved Marla’s boots off the desk. The doctor looked like a sculpture of a classical nymph that had been brought to life, her hair bound up in a tight bun, and the whole dressed in an impeccably tailored gray suit: lushness tightly contained. “Alas, that’s where the ‘exothermic’ part comes in — his delusions are becoming more and more… aggressive.”

“Yeah, I don’t know what that means.”

“I’ll show you.” Dr. Husch rose from her desk and led Marla out of the room, down a hospital-clean hallway — which made sense, as they were in a hospital, of sorts. The Blackwing Institute didn’t treat diseases of the body, but it contained the diseased in mind — specifically wielders of magic who became a danger to themselves, and others, and occasionally reality. The Institute was funded by prominent sorcerers, who recognized madness as an occupational hazard, and knew they might find themselves in need of treatment some day too.

The corridor was lined with iron doors, some acid-etched with runes of calming or containment. Dr. Husch stopped about halfway down the passage and slid aside a metal panel covering a square eye-level window in one of the barred doors. Light flared out, like someone had lit a strip of magnesium, and Dr. Husch wordlessly handed Marla a pair of sunglasses. Squinting and cursing, Marla pulled on the shades, then looked into the room.

A shape writhed in the air, sinuous and sparking, like a boa constrictor made of lightning instead of flesh. The serpent hovered in the air, and as its jaws snapped open and shut, Marla tried to count its fangs; she gave up after a dozen. The only part of the serpent that wasn’t made of pure white light was its eyes — they were black pits of absence, but strangely aware. The serpent noticed them, and smashed itself against the door, sparks showering up around it. Marla jumped back, drawing her magical cloak around her. The cloak showed its white side, now, and protected her with healing magics, but with a thought she could reverse it, and make the bruise-purple inner lining switch to the outside. When clothed in the purple, Marla was possessed by vicious battle magics that made her essentially unstoppable — though at the cost of losing some self-control. There were those who said Marla was an amateur, and that only the cloak made her dangerous. The people stupid enough to say that in Marla’s presence got their asses kicked, but only after she removed the cloak first, just to prove them wrong. But she was glad to have the cloak on now; there was no such thing as an unfair advantage when you were dealing with flying electric hover-snakes.

Dr. Husch slid the panel over the window shut as the beast continued battering against the door. “Don’t worry, it can’t get out. The interior of the room is lined with rubber, reinforced by magic. We used to keep a paranoid electrothaumaturge locked up there. There are no electrical outlets or light fixtures, either — when we found the creature in Barrow’s room, it had smashed the light bulbs, and was suckling at the outlets like a hamster at a water bottle.”

Marla took off the glasses and rubbed her eyes. “What is that thing?”

“Barrow calls it an arc-drake. They live in the haunted mountains known as the Lightning Peaks, north of the Sea of Surcease, a vast lake of liquid suffering.”

“You sound like the trailer for a bad fantasy movie,” Marla said.

“Appropriate, as Barrow was a fantasy writer. Though he wasn’t a particularly bad one, especially by the standards of his time. He was a pulp writer, mostly, published alongside the likes of Clifford Simak, Doc Smith, Sprague de Camp, Marsham Craswell — did you ever read much science fiction and fantasy, Marla?”

“Not really. I was too busy smoking and having sex with boys. I was always more interested in this world than in imaginary ones.”

Husch sniffed. “As a sorcerer, you should be ashamed. Magic is the act of imposing your will on reality. But without imagination, what good is even the strongest will? So what if you can do anything, if you can’t think of anything interesting to do?”

“I manage to keep myself entertained,” Marla said. “But I gotta say, I’m getting a little bored right now. So this Barrow, what, wrote about the arc-drakes in a fantasy story, and then somehow brought one to life?”

“Oh, it’s so much worse than that,” Dr. Husch said.

#

“We have won through, Lector,” Barrow muttered, his eyelids twitching rapidly. “Though our allies and retainers fell, you and I have reached this cursed plain, and now we need only — ”

Dr. Husch thumbed off the intercom switch, and Barrow’s voice cut off abruptly. Marla leaned against the window, taking in the view on the other side. Barrow’s room was small, furnished with a hospital bed and not much else, but it didn’t lack for items of interest: A pile of weirdly ridged skulls heaped in one corner. What looked like a lion pelt draped over a chair. Scorch marks on one wall and part of the ceiling. Barrow himself was a white-haired old gent with a wild beard, dressed in a hospital gown, lips moving as he muttered, hands occasionally clenching and unclenching.

“He’s been like this for, oh, twenty years,” Dr. Husch said. “He suffered a nervous breakdown thirty years ago, was comatose for a decade, and then… he began to speak. Since then, he doesn’t eat, drink, or eliminate waste, and he doesn’t age — as best I can tell, he’s sustained by psychic energy. That’s when his regular family doctor made some inquiries and had him transferred here, since we’re better able to care for… unusual cases.”

“So he wasn’t a sorcerer? Just a writer?”

“As far as we know, he was unaware of his own latent psychic abilities, though the uncontrollable power of his mind may have caused his breakdown. His chronic alcoholism might also have been a factor.”

“What’s he babbling about?”

“That’s dialogue,” Dr. Husch said. “He seems to be inhabiting an epic fantasy story of his own creation. The only glimpse we used to have of that story was the bits of dialogue spoken by his — narrator? Character? Avatar? Barrow is playing the part, living the part, of a mighty hero, on a quest to win a great mystical treasure. Delusions of grandeur. But recently he’s been… exothermically delusional. His hallucinations are starting to break through to this world. The skulls of slain goblins, the skinned hide of a manticore — those apports were certainly of clinical interest. But when a live arc-drake appeared in his room yesterday… I grew more concerned. His dialogue indicates that the goal of his quest is to win a magical Key that will allow him to move between worlds at will.”

Marla whistled. “So you think he’s in a real place?”

Dr. Husch shook her head. “I think he’s in an imaginary place, which his psychically powerful mind is making real. And if he completes his quest, and breaches the division between reality and the contents of his own mind…” Dr. Husch shrugged. “Giants. Demons. Monsters. All of them could come pouring through my Institute. What if the triple suns of his fantasy world appeared in our sky? The gravitational consequences alone would be unfathomable.”

“Gotcha,” Marla said. “So you want me to kill him?”

“I am a doctor,” Husch said severely. “I want to cure him. Bring him back to reality.”

“I’m not much good at talk therapy,” Marla said. “I’m more of a punch-therapy girl.”

“My orderlies are capable of checking Mr. Barrow’s vital signs,” Husch said, choosing to ignore Marla. “As you may know, they are not human, but homunculi, artificial beings of limited intelligence.”

“I bet the poor bastards don’t even make minimum wage,” Marla said.

“The sorcerers who fund the Institute don’t pay me enough to hire human employees,” Husch said. “So I have to grow my staff in the basement, in vats. But they get all the lavender seeds and earthworms they can eat. At any rate, the orderlies can go into the room and check on Barrow, being mindless, but no human can go near him, not safely. Anyone who enters that room — who comes into contact with the author’s psychic field — is pulled into Barrow’s delusional world. His brother visited once, and we had to bury the poor man out back. Barrow attempts to incorporate anyone who enters his world into his storyline, and let’s just say he enjoys slaying the villains they become.”

Marla stared at her. “So you want me to go in that room, and get sucked into his fantasy world, and… cure him? Like, make him realize his world is imaginary?”

Husch shook her head. “I doubt you could convince him. He’s been the hero of that world for years. It’s more real to him than this world ever was. No, I want you to go into his fantasy world, and make sure his quest fails. I want you to be a villain he can’t defeat. One theme recurs constantly in his speech — his destiny. He is destined to win the Key of Totality, it seems. His fate has been ordained. He’s been chosen by the gods. He thinks he’s invincible, unstoppable, and right. If you defeat him, I think it might be the shock his system needs — a failure, after years of nothing but success, could force him to question his awful certainty. If you can jostle him out of his comfortable place in that world, I might be able to reach him, and bring him back to this reality.”

“Huh,” Marla said. “Why me, though? Why not one of the bigtime psychics?”

“I only know of one psychic more powerful than Barrow,” Husch said. “And she’s comatose, too, mentally traumatized and locked up in another room at the Institute. I don’t need a psychic, I need a pragmatist, a tactician, a fighter — someone who never backs down, never gives up, and never stops. You have a reputation among the sorcerers who fund this Institute. They say you are a formidable operative, and you don’t know the meaning of the word ‘failure.’”

“Yeah, I must’ve skipped school the day they taught us that one. It probably doesn’t hurt that I’m an independent operator, and nobody will get too upset if you have to bury me out back, too, huh?”

“It was a factor,” Husch said. “And the fact that you possess a cloak enchanted with battle magics also helps. But mostly, it’s because of your will. Everyone says you’re pigheaded in the extreme — that an almost complete lack of magical aptitude hasn’t stopped you from becoming a formidable sorcerer, because you want it badly enough. That gives me hope that you might be able to stand up to the force of Barrow’s vision.”

“And if I can’t — what, do I get stuck there, in half-assed Narnia?”

“If you have not accomplished your goal by morning, or if you show any signs of distress, I will have one of the orderlies drag you out of Barrow’s sphere of influence. Just be sure to mention if you’re about to be murdered, hmm? I should hear your ‘dialogue’ as well as Barrow’s.”

“All right,” Marla said. “It’s a deal. Assuming you can pay my price?”

“I was told you don’t want money…”

“Don’t need money. My price is you telling me a secret, and teaching me a trick.”

“That is acceptable,” Dr. Husch said.

“All right,” Marla said, and grinned. “I always wanted to be a villain.”

#

Barrow of Ulthar wedged the butt of his great spear Ghostreaper into the stony soil of the Plains of Lengue and peered up at the towering heights of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass. He had been born only two leagues from this place, in the kingless kingdom of Ulthar, and his life’s journey had taken him across the great seas of the world, through the haunted forests, beneath the stony earth, only to return him here, to the Citadel that had shadowed his boyhood village — the dread fortress he was finally hero enough to brave. The cyclical nature of his journey was further proof he was walking the inescapable path of fate. “My destiny awaits within, Lector,” Ulthar rumbled. “Do you have any final advice? What dangers will we face within?”

Lector, the Living Book, was bound onto Barrow’s back by chains of silver, iron, and bronze. The mouth gouged into the book’s wooden cover spoke in a voice of riffling pages: “There are three Gates: a Gate of Knives, a Gate of Light, and a Gate of Wind. Pass through those, and you will confront the dread Chasm of Flies, which no living man or woman has ever crossed. The Key of Totality awaits, but first you must confront the guardian — ”

“What, you’re not going to mention me? I’m not enough of a danger for you?”

Barrow crouched, readying his spear. A woman sauntered around one of the skull-shaped boulders — the fossilized remains of giants who’d fallen to the Lengue Fever millennia before — and grinned. She was young, though not especially pretty, and she wore a cloak of rich purple, which shifted like a living shadow around her, as if possessed by its own dark intelligence. “Lector, is this one of the dread witches of the North?”

Before the book could speak, the woman laughed — not a girlish laugh, but a harsh and grating sound. “Nah, I’m from the east coast, Barrow.”

The east coast of the Sea of Surcease was home only to the wretched Mirror City, populated by the living reflections of those poor unfortunates who died and subsequently had their mortal remains reflected in glass, their souls reversed into evil and decadence, trapped in mirrored form on this mortal plane. “Mirror witch,” Barrow said, raising his spear.

“She is no reflected spirit,” Lector said. “She is mortal, but… I do not… she is not in my index. I do not see her among my manifests. I do not understand — ”

“Do you mean to hinder my quest, witch?” Barrow bellowed.

She clapped her hands. “You got it in one, Barrow-boy! Hindering’s my business. Right up there with usurping and frustrating. I have to tell you, you look a lot better on this side. A little rugged for my taste, I mean, your muscles have muscles, and personally, I like my boys a little leaner — but you’re not the dried-up white-haired husk you should be. That’s some sweet black magic you’ve got going on.”

Barrow frowned. “I — I have sipped of the waters of the Vital Sea, but not from vanity. Only to restore my strength. My quest has taken longer than the three score years allotted to every man, but it was no foul magic — the Green Goddess herself blessed my undertaking — ”

“I can hear you capitalizing things. It’s really irritating. So this Key we’re looking for is up there in that ugly castle, huh? Who’d build a fortress out of volcanic glass? I mean, it’s impressive, but it’s not practical. See you inside?”

“The Key is mine to win,” Barrow said. “Be you Mirror Witch or Northern Witch or Graveworm Witch — ”

“Always some kind of witch with you, isn’t it? Maybe I’m a barbarian warrior like you.”

“I am not a barbarian,” Barrow said, with great dignity, “though some call me such. It is only that the customs of my village differ from those elsewhere in the world — ”

“Those fur boots and the snakeskin pants tell a different story, but whatever. There’s a Chasm and a Key and all that good shit waiting for us. Race you.”

“No,” Barrow said. “We will finish this here. I wield the enchanted spear Ghostreaper. It is a fell instrument, but if you do not stand aside, I will have no choice but to turn its dark magics against you.”

“Knock yourself out,” the witch said.

“Tell her what fate awaits her, Lector,” Barrow said. “I do not believe she understands what I hold in my hands.”

“The spear Ghostreaper is tipped with the fang from a murdered god of death,” the book said, voice carrying over the cool stillness of the plain, despite the whispered timbre. “When the spear strikes its victim, it does not pierce flesh — it snags the soul, tearing the spirit loose while leaving the body a mindless, empty husk. The soul dissolves like fog in the sun, denied any afterlife. This spear brings the death of all deaths, and the empty bodies left behind are pressed into service to follow the spear’s wielder, an army of the walking dead.”

“I don’t see any zombie horde here,” the witch said. “Are they hiding behind one of these head-bones?” She kicked the gray stone skull of a giant.

“They were all lost in the crossing through the Lightning Peaks,” Barrow said. “And I was not sorry to see them go — their silent shuffling is a grim reminder of the dark acts even a hero must undertake to meet his destiny. I would not add your body, however comely it might be, to my retinue. Please, stand aside, or I will have no choice but to thrust my spear at you.”

“Ha. Thrust away, then. Good luck ripping out my soul. I think mind-body dualism is bullshit.”

Barrow lowered his head briefly, sorrowful but determined, then stepped forward, driving the hungering spear before him.

The witch moved one way — and her cloak moved the other, lifting from her shoulders and taking wing. It was no cloak at all, but a living thing, a creature of hungry shadow, and from within its shroudlike form a dozen red eyes blinked. The cloak flew at Barrow’s face, and he gasped, trying to turn his spear thrust against it. The witch stepped in close to him and chopped at his arm with her hand, an expert blow that struck his nerves and made the arm go limp. The point of the spear dropped to the ground, and the witch —

The witch stomped on the spear’s shaft, snapping it cleanly down close to the spearhead. The hero stood, stunned, looking at the shattered weapon. “The point might be a god’s tooth,” she whispered in Barrow’s ear, “but the shaft’s just a piece of wood. Shoddy work.”

Barrow knelt to grab the spearhead, but the cloak wrapped its tendrils around his arms and dragged him back. While he struggled against the cloak’s soft but unyielding grip, the witch picked up the spearhead, plucked a feather from a pouch at her belt, and swiftly tied the feather around the spear point with a strand of her own hair. She murmured a brief spell of some kind, opened her hand, and the spearhead rose up, up, up into the sky. “Bye, bye, birdie,” she said. “That’ll just keep flying until it hits the — well, one of the three suns up there. Excessive. You’d think with three suns it’d be warmer.”

Barrow cried out, and called on the might of his totems — the bear who’d given its fur for his boots, the great serpent who’d given him the skin for his leggings, the wolf who’d provided the leather for his chest-harness. The power of the animals surged through him, and he tore the cloak, ripping great shreds in its fabric. The cloak fluttered away from him, the rends in its body healing instantly as it lowered back onto the witch’s shoulders.

“Huh,” she said. “I always thought this cloak had a mind of its own.”

“You consort with demons!” Barrow shouted, still thrumming with animal energies.

“What, you heard about the incubus? I wouldn’t call it ‘consorting,’ exactly, it was one of those things where we were kind of using each other for sex

Barrow roared and lunged for her, but she somersaulted away from him. Such acrobatics should have been impossible in a long trailing cloak, but her demonic garment moved out of her way as she rolled. Instead of turning to face him in battle, she ran, covering ground in great strides, without even looking back.

“Coward!” he bellowed. “Face me!”

“She’s going to the Citadel,” Lector whispered from his back. “She’s going to get there first.”

“Fuck me,” Barrow of Ulthar said, and ran after her.

The highest towers of the Citadel of Bleeding Glass were jagged onyx, their spires piercing the soft blue belly of the great slumbering sky-goddess, her divine blood running down the fortress’s walls to pool on the ground, where malign flowers sprang from the combination of cursed soil watered by divine essence. Barrow thundered up the hill toward the gate, the tall red-petaled flowers turning their heads to watch his approach. Lector jostled hard against his back, and the hero felt every ache and pain of his long journey. The spear Ghostreaper must have lent him magical strength, or else the effects of his last visit to the Vital Sea were beginning to fade — he felt tired, at a time when he should be thrumming with power on the cusp of triumph.

The witch was dozens of yards ahead, and the flowers lifted their viney tendrils to block her approach. She shouted out a strange word, presumably an incantation of power — “Deadhead!” — and fireballs bloomed from her outstretched hands, searing the plants and making them scream. The unique stink of charred goddess blood filled the air: the mingled scents of burning sugar and opened entrails. The witch ran through the arching gateway and into the darkness within. No gate or guards prevented entry to the Citadel, for this place did not discourage visitors: it welcomed them, as the lion welcomes its prey.

Barrow hesitated on the threshold, even his legendarily keen eyes unable to pierce the darkness within. “Lector, you must give me counsel. Who is this new foe, and how may I defeat her?”

The Living Book was Barrow’s greatest weapon, for it knew all the secrets of the world, and would reveal any mystery… if Barrow could only compose the proper question.

“The woman is not mentioned in my codexes or concordances,” Lector said. “I cannot tell you how to defeat her.”

The hero’s heart lurched in his chest. Lector knew the weaknesses of every man and god and beast that had ever lived, or had a semblance of life, and that wisdom had aided most of Barrow’s triumphs. “But… you know all the truths of the world…” Barrow paused. “Do you mean she is… from outside this world? From another place, some realm of demons? That would explain why she, too, seeks the Key of Totality — perhaps she wants only to return to her rightful home. Witch!” he shouted. “We need not fight! I will gladly open the door to your homeworld, once I have recovered the key!”

She did not answer. Barrow steeled himself for further battle, and stepped through the towering arch.

The darkness within the gate was actually solid, a membrane like the scum on pond water, clammy and vile, but he was through in a moment, wiping ectoplasmic residue from his eyes and looking around for the next inevitable threat. He stood in a vast and gloomy hall filled with jagged columns, not unlike the Temple of the Bile-God in far Paradyll, but vaster by magnitudes. The columns glowed with a reddish inner light.

Something fluttered down from the ceiling toward him, and Barrow drew his hand axe. This was no magical weapon — but well-honed steel and a comfortable grip had a magic of its own. The fluttering thing was the witch’s cloak, its red eyes gleaming, its purple-shadowed tendrils reaching out for him. He danced back as it tried to strike him, his axe flashing and tearing a long rent in the cloak’s body. But where was the witch

Something wrenched at his back, and he howled as the fine chains cut into his flesh, and the weight of Lector left his back. He spun, but the cloak tried to strangle him, and by the time he’d hacked its tendrils free and sent it fluttering back toward the ceiling, the witch was halfway up a column, perched on an outcropping as casually as Barrow might sit on a fallen log, Lector held open in her lap as she flipped the pages. “So what’s the deal with the bleeding sky?” she said.

Before Barrow could curse her, Lector answered — as he would answer any question posed by his holder. “The Citadel is made of eldritch glass, sharp enough to cut even the divine, and so it pierces the belly of the great sky goddess.”

“Wait. The sky is somebody’s stomach? That’s… it’s… what?”

“Everyone knows of the goddess,” Barrow shouted. “The triple suns are the jewels in her navel! The rains are her sweat! She lays close to her lover, the goddess of the Earth, but they can never touch, for the sins of man keep them forever separated!”

“Sorry, I’m not from around here.”

“I know that,” Barrow said, and held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Witch — no, warrior — you have proven yourself my equal.”

“Equal? Don’t flatter yourself. The clothes off my back can kick your ass.”

Barrow pushed down the rage the seethed within him. “Though you cast away my spear, and stole my book and bosom companion, I would still be your friend. We stand a better chance of winning our way through the Citadel together — ”

“You don’t get it, Barrel-of-laughs,” she said. “You’re done. Your part of this story is over. Do I have to take away your snake pants next? Leave you naked and tied up for the flowers outside to eat?”

“I have a destiny,” Barrow began.

“Well I don’t. But I have a job to do, and that job is keeping you from getting the Key. You’re not the hero here. Let me show you something, this chasm thing.”

“The Chasm of Flies? But before we can reach that, there are three gates — ”

“The Gates are no more,” Lector said. “The outsider witch has destroyed them.”

Barrow shook his head. “The Gate of Knives? The Gate of Wind? The Gate of Light?”
“Sure,” the witch said. “Charm of rust, spell of stillness, tincture of darkness. It’s taken me longer to get through airport security than it did for me to rip through those gates. The magic here, seriously, it’s weakass shit, and I beat things up for a living. But, anyway, this chasm.” She dropped from the column, and Barrow roared and lunged at her, axe in hand.

She stepped around him, graceful as a dancer, and hooked her ankle around his foot as he went by, sending him sprawling, his axe skittering across the smooth black floor.

“Are you done?” she said. Her cloak drifted from the ceiling and settled down around her shoulders again. His face burning in shame, Barrow got to his feet. He left his axe on the floor, afraid of what she might do if he tried to retrieve it. If she attacked, he would fight ferociously, but she was just standing there, looking a little impatient, and even a little bored. Barrow had never before doubted his fate — he was a hero, and though the way was long and full of trials, he would win the Key, the greatest magical item in a world full of magic, the item of power no human hand had ever touched before. His allies respected him, and so did his enemies — but this witch from Outside toyed with him and taunted him, and he could not fathom how to strike her down.

So he followed her, through the hall and down a series of winding corridors, past the shattered remnants of the three great Gates, deeper into the red-black heart of the Citadel. Perhaps this is the part of my journey where I am humbled, he mused. Mayhap this witch will show me something important about myself, something to aid me in —

“The Chasm of Flies,” the witch said, shouting to be heard over the horrible buzzing that filled the Citadel, and gesturing at the vast space yawning before them. As wide as the Citadel itself, stretching as far as he could see, the Chasm was a great pit seething and alive with millions upon millions of churning insects, black flies and richly green flies and even the snow-pale flies who carried the Unsleeping Sickness. “Lector,” the witch said, patting the Living Book tucked under her arm. “What are those flies feeding on?”

“Heroes,” Lector replied, and the witch laughed and laughed.

“I had no idea that’s what fly shit smelled like,” she said. “But when you multiply one speck of bug poop by about a trillion, I guess it gets noticeable. Whoo. Anyway, check out this spell. I learned it off a bruja when I was living in a really nasty squat last year, there were bugs everywhere. Normally it just clears a room, but I’m pretty sure I can amplify it…” She took a deep breath, then shouted, “SHOO, FLIES!”

The insects rose up in their millions, a black and green and white cloud, and revealed below them… a mass grave. A great tangle of men and women and the other races capable of heroism — the Grievous Ones with their spiny flesh, the Original Men with their snake’s eyes, the amorphous Unshaped — all broken and bloodied and rotting and emptied of their souls, made into nothing but a feast for flies. “See there?” the witch said. “That’s what happens to heroes. It’s nothing personal. That’s what happens to everyone — no one lives forever, and even the gods can bleed. But heroes tend to die unpleasantly, far from home, without any friends.”

She slid close to Barrow as he gazed at the bodies, wondering how many of them had famous names, how many had been sung about in stories every bit as loudly as Barrow had heard his own name sung — and, worse, how many of them were not remembered in song or story at all anymore. “But you thought you were special?” she said. “You were going to be the one who really made a difference? In your heart of hearts, you thought you were going to be the one that lived forever, didn’t you? You’re all excited about having a destiny. Big deal. So did they. There are enough magical weapons down there to fill a war god’s armory, and enough heroic stories to fill even this weird talking infinite book I stole from you. I’m not saying there’s never a good reason to do great things, Barrow. But doing it for the sake of being a hero is bullshit. I mean, I have just one question — ”

The buzzing of the flies suddenly went silent, though the insects themselves continued to bob in the air, and a new voice spoke: “I will ask the questions here.” That voice was beautiful, cool, and serene, as was the speaker. She walked across the Chasm on the floating cloud of flies as if their hovering bodies were paving stones, a perfect blonde dressed in little more than three clusters of diamonds that did the minimum necessary to protect her modesty, with a diadem of white gold upon her brow.

Barrow’s heart grew lighter when he saw the witch narrow her eyes, her demonic cloak writhing around her body. She didn’t like the look of this woman, which meant Barrow did.

“I am the Mistress of the Key,” the blond enchantress said, standing just a few feet away on a platform of white flies. “You have breached the Gates, and come to the edge of the Chasm, and now, you have the chance to win the Key.” She glanced down at the open grave beneath her feet. “Or to join the others who have tried in the past.”

Barrow went down on one knee and bowed his head in respect. “Mistress,” he said. “I am eager to meet any challenge you care to set.”

“So Keymistress,” the witch said. “You look a lot like this woman I know. Any chance your last name is ‘Husch’? You could be her twin sister.”

“I was not of woman born,” the Mistress said, her voice as clear as fine crystal. “I have no sister, or mother, or father, or daughters. Do you, too, come to try and win the key?”

“Sure,” the witch replied. “So what’s the challenge? Mortal combat with Barrow the Barbarian? Staring competition? Or should I just guess what you have in your pocketses?”

“You need only answer my question,” the Mistress said. “And if your answer satisfies me, the Key is yours.”

The witch snorted. “Let Barrow go first. He’s been waiting for this a long time.”

The Mistress turned her head to Barrow, and bade him rise. He stood perfectly straight. He had supped with kings, seduced queens, and counted gods among his close friends and dire enemies — but the Mistress seemed like something else again, something greater than the gods, or perhaps merely apart from them. “Barrow of Ulthar,” she said, “Tell me: why do you desire the Key?”

Barrow blinked. He wanted the Key because that was his quest; because the swamp witch in his childhood village had seen a vision that he would someday seize it; because the diviner-in-chief for the great Stone King of the Inverted Mountains had declared that Barrow was destined to wield it; because his own dreams were almost nothing anymore but endless wanderings through black hallways filled with locked doors he could not open. He considered coming up with some more elaborate answer, something about breaking the shackles of tyrants, or opening new pathways of opportunity, but he feared the Mistress would sense dissembling or exaggeration. Truth had always served him well, and he would continue to serve truth. “Because it is my destiny,” he said. “Because I am the one who has been fated to win the Key, where all others have failed.”

The Mistress inclined her head. “And you, Marla Mason of Felport? Why do you desire the key?”

“Where I come from, there’s a saying,” Marla said. “Anyone who wants to be president should be disqualified.” She nodded at Barrow. “Anyone who thinks he deserves to have the most powerful magical artifact in the world just because it’s his destiny should never be allowed to get his hands on it. I want it to keep it away from him, and people like him, who want power for its own sake.”

Barrow took a step back from the edge of the chasm, suddenly dizzy. “But I don’t — I don’t want it for anything bad, it’s just — ”

“It’s just your MacGuffin,” Marla said, not unkindly. “You didn’t think it through well enough, is all. It’s not your fault. You’ve been telling this story for decades. It’s no wonder it’s starting to run a little thin. That’s always a problem with an ongoing series.”

“You have answered well, Marla Mason,” the Mistress said. “You may have me.”

“What do you mean I may — ”

The Mistress leapt up from the flies, and floated toward them. She began to glow, first faintly, then as brightly as the brightest of the triple suns, and then —

She vanished, and a key of shining diamond fell to the floor. Marla Mason knelt and picked it up. “That wasn’t so hard,” she said. “Then again, I got to skip to the last chapter, which is hardly fair to you.”

Barrow licked his lips, eyes fixed on the key. “What will you do with it?”

Marla shrugged. “Open a door.” She squinted, then stabbed the key at the air, and gave it a twist. A rectangle outlined in white light appeared in the air, and she tugged the door open. Barrow expected to see something amazing — a heavenly universe, perhaps, or whatever dark pit her demonic cloak hailed from.

Instead, the door just showed a room, with an old white-haired man sleeping in a bed. A woman who looked a bit like the witch Marla Mason was stretched out on the floor in one corner, and through a window, another woman was watching — she wore spectacles, and had a tight blond bun, but she looked so much like the Mistress of the Key, who really was the Key —

“Want to come in?” Marla said. “See the world?”

Barrow recoiled. What trickery was this? The witch had stolen his destiny, and now she offered him a dirty room, an ugly bed, a smeared window, a living artifact transformed into a nurse —

“Never!” he shouted, and leapt into the Chasm, to join the other fallen ones. He might die, but he would die a hero, which was better than living as nothing but a man.

#

Marla stepped through the door, and immediately rolled over on her side and vomited, which was weird, because she hadn’t been lying on her side, she’d been walking through a door, except now she was on the floor, and —

“Oh,” she croaked. “I woke up in my own body, huh?”

Dr. Husch opened the door, and a doughy orderly hurried in and helped Marla to her feet, then pulled her outside, to the safety of the observation room. “In your hand,” Dr. Husch said. “What is that?”

Marla looked down at the crystal key she was holding. “Oh, this, it’s — you, I think, he must have seen you at some point, because he sure as hell fantasized about you, or… wait.” She shook her head. Marla knew she’d just done something, gone into a weird fantasy world and said some cold-hearted shit to a crazy man’s mental barbarian avatar, but the details were fading fast. “Why can’t I remember?”

“It can be difficult to remember dreams,” Husch said, plucking the key from Marla’s hand. “How much more difficult must it be to remember someone else’s dream? But you did what you were sent to do. You showed Barrow he is no hero of destiny. You broke the spine of his story, and you took away this key, which is, I think, a rather potent artifact — either great magic he willed into creation, or some existing magic he managed to grasp with his psychic abilities.”

“Artifact, huh?” Marla said, plucking at her cloak, which was also an artifact — an object of unknowable age and great magic. An object with motivations, however inscrutable they might be to their wielders. For some reason, wearing the cloak was making her skin crawl even more than usual today. Its malign intelligence, always a presence deep in the back of her mind, seemed more active and agitated, now, like a cat who’d spent hours watching squirrels frolic safely behind a pane of glass. “Think we can sell it?”

“I believe I will hold onto this key,” Dr. Husch said. “For the very reasons you so neatly articulated while you were unconscious.”

Marla waved her hand. “I don’t need to know what I say in my sleep. I’m sure it’s embarrassing. But… why isn’t Barrow waking up? Wasn’t busting up his delusion supposed to cure him?”

“I don’t know,” Husch said. “I’d hoped, of course, that he would become lucid when you proved his delusions of grandeur were false — I didn’t expect him to be cured, but if he could hear me, then therapy might be possible. He’s not speaking, though, so I don’t know what he’s experiencing now…”

#

Barrow did not die in the pit. He lay among the filth for a while, then began to search the corpses. As the witch said, there were magic weapons there, countless ones, and he chose some of the most deadly for himself. He climbed out of the pit, hauling himself and his implements of war to the Citadel’s floor. Lector, the Living Book, rested on the stone, left behind when the witch departed.

“Lector,” Barrow croaked. “Old friend. Tell me. Do you know spells to raise the dead, and send this pit of fallen corpses into battle?”

“I do,” Lector said.

“This Citadel,” Barrow said, licking his lips. “Has it ever been held by a mortal before?”

“It has not,” Lector said. “Only by gods.”

“Ah,” Barrow said, flexing his fingers. “Then I will have to become a god, then.”

Lector seldom spoke unprompted, generally limiting himself to answering questions. But he spoke now. “Barrow of Ulthar… what are your plans?”

“If I am not a hero,” Barrow said, “Then I must be… something else. If I do not have a destiny, then I must make a destiny of my own. If I cannot unlock all the doors in all the worlds… Then I must tear holes in the walls. If I cannot save the world — ”

#

“Then I must conquer it,” the old writer shouted beyond the glass, and Marla winced. “I will have my revenge!”

“He’s gone all Dark Lord on us, hasn’t he?” Marla said.

Dr. Husch sighed. “It seems so. His story is taking a darker turn. He’s making himself into an anti-hero.”

“I can’t imagine there’s much of a market for stories about those,” Marla said. “So… did we make things worse? Is he going to start trying to reach this world now? Are there going to be, I don’t know, hordes of orcs and black dragons who breathe napalm and dust storms of living anthrax popping randomly into existence? Aren’t you afraid he’s going to find another way in, and that he might bring an army next time?”

“Possibly,” Dr. Husch said. “Loathe as I am to admit defeat, I think it’s time to take extreme measures. When therapy fails, sometimes the only solution… is isolation. Fortunately, you brought me a key, and keys aren’t just used for opening doors — they’re also used for locking them.” She cocked her head, considered the door before her, and slipped the crystal key into the lock. Which was quite a trick, since the key was way too big. Nevertheless, it fit, and Dr. Husch twisted it, resulting in a click as loud as a thundercrack. The door began to change, transforming from beaten-up metal into black volcanic glass. The change crawled up the wall and across the window until the entire room was an unbroken sheet of stone. “There,” Husch said. “Locked away.” She tucked the key into the pocket of her suit.

Marla whistled. “When you do solitary confinement, you don’t fuck around.”

“Your payment is due,” Dr. Husch said. “A trick and a secret, you said?”

Marla, who’d been staring at her reflection in the black glass, blinked. “Uh, yeah, right. The trick — I wanted to know how you managed to bind up some of the most powerful people you’ve got here. Agnes Nilsson, Elsie Jarrow, that caliber. From my researches, they should be impossible to hold. Then again, that was before I saw you do this.”

“It’s a rare patient who provides the key to his own security,” Husch said. “Barrow is a special case. The bindings on Jarrow and Nilsson are a bit involved, and I’ve had a trying day, but come back next week, and I’ll take you through the sigils and incantations.”

“Fair enough. As for the secret — I hear you’ve been running this place for decades, and you don’t look a day over twenty-five, no matter how you try to old yourself up with the dowdy hair and clothes and bondage hair. Even if you have one of those spells where you don’t age when you’re sleeping, that wouldn’t account for this kind of youth. So what’s the deal?”

Dr. Husch patted Marla on the shoulder. “Oh, Marla. Your mistake is in assuming I’m human.”

Marla frowned. “Don’t tell me you’re… an artifact in human form?”

“Of course not,” Dr. Husch said. “I’m a homunculus, just like the orderlies. Except my creator — he’s gone now — made me much smarter than they are, and my tastes go beyond meals of lavender seeds and earthworms. If I were human, I would have been able to go into Barrow’s dreams myself, and seen to his therapy directly. Of course I’m not human. Why else would I have hired you, dear?”

Marla frowned. She had a memory of Husch, telling her this already — “I am not of woman born” — but, no, that wasn’t really her, it was Barrow’s version of her. The old writer was psychic, so maybe he’d seen into Husch’s mind and found her secret, incorporating her true nature as a magical inhuman thing into his fantasy world. If he could see into Husch’s mind, then…

“Next time, hire someone else,” Marla said. “Barrow’s bad for my mental health.”

#

That night, Marla stopped by a used book store and pawed through a crate of yellowing old magazines. After half an hour of searching she finally found one with a story by Roderick Barrow, called “Shadow of the Conqueror!” — complete with exclamation point. She paid for the magazine with pocket change.

She read it in her tiny studio apartment south of the river. Barrow wrote a lot like he talked. The last two pages were torn out, but it was pretty clear what was going to happen: the hero would thwart the villain, free the slaves, and get the girl, who was dressed in golden chains and not much else. Nothing in the story really rang any bells, and her memories of the experience in Barrow’s mind didn’t come any clearer, the details turning to mist whenever she tried to focus on them. Ah, well, screw it. She tossed the magazine into a corner. Who needed fantasy stories, when she had asses to kick and secrets to learn?

#

That night, Marla dreamed of a house of endless black hallways. Every corridor was lined by dozens of doors, some marked with numbers, some with letters, some with runes or mystic sigils. She tried all the doorknobs, but none of them opened — none of them so much as turned — and though she pressed her ears to the door, she couldn’t hear anything. She just kept walking, until she reached a door made of black volcanic glass, with no knob at all, but something on the other side was pounding, and pounding, and pounding, as if trying to break through —

Marla woke, sweating, and scrambled to the enchanted wardrobe where she kept her white-and-purple cloak. She pulled the garment down and wrapped it around herself, crawling back into bed. Marla didn’t like wearing the cloak when she slept — she felt like it tried to communicate with her in her dreams — but even the dark whispers of her artifact would be better than the risk of falling prey to Barrow’s psychic grasping. She could all too easily imagine her body left breathing in her bed, but her mind torn out of her body, wriggling on the end of a spear, trapped in a Dark Lord’s realm…

Her dreams that night were horrible, but they were her own.

END

Note: “Ill Met in Ulthar” is directly inspired by the story “Dreams Are Sacred” by the great (and sadly late) Peter Phillips, about a reporter who goes into the fantasy dreamworld of a pulp writer — though for different reasons, and with radically different results. I made the connection semi-explicit by mentioning the name of the writer from the Phillips story, Marsham Craswell, here. Of course there are homages to Fritz Leiber and even a dash of H.P. Lovecraft in this, too.

I’d like to write more stories set in the fantasy world Barrow inhabits. I recently wrote a story featuring the spear Ghostreaper — transported to our world, and falling into the wrong hands — which I just sold to a publication this morning.

(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)

A Month of Marla: Grander than the Sea

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. I’m starting with “Grander than the Sea,” which first appeared in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (2007) and was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 8.

(This is indeed a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death. But, hey, free stuff.) Here’s the story!

 

GRANDER THAN THE SEA

“Dr. Husch is here,” Rondeau said, stepping into Marla Mason’s cluttered office, where she sat poring over an eye-watering pile of expense reports from her spies abroad.

“Who’s Elmer Mulligan, and why did our agent Brandywine spend $400 buying him lapdances at a strip bar in Canada?” she said, brandishing a piece of paper.

“I think Mulligan is the one who did that thing for us in Newfoundland,” Rondeau said, shutting the door behind him and knocking over a pile of true-crime paperbacks with the covers ripped off. “You know, with that guy who had the ice palace?”

“Right,” Marla said, rubbing her eyes. “I guess a lapdance is a small price to pay. Grizzly-polar bear hybrids are weird enough without some lunatic uplifting them to human intelligence. And did you see this?” She held up a flattened piece of seaweed, scrawled over with luminous green ink. It dripped briny water on the carpet. “It’s from the Bay Witch. I can’t even read it. Get somebody to go talk to her, will you?”

“Sure,” Rondeau said. “Like I said, Dr. Husch is here, from the Blackwing Institute. She says its urgent. But, ah, if you want me to keep her entertained for a while, I don’t mind — ”

Marla wrinkled her nose. “Rondeau, she must be a hundred and fifty years old.”

He shrugged. “She only looks about thirty. Don’t be ageist. And I’ve heard, when she was younger, she used to be quite the party girl.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.” Rondeau didn’t know a fraction of the weirdness and debauchery in Husch’s past, but Marla did, because the Felport archives went back a long time. “Is she here to beg for money?”

Rondeau shrugged. His attention was already wandering, and he riffled through a pile of back issues of The Instigator, which Marla still needed to comb for secret messages in the personals. On days like this she wondered why she’d ever agreed to become chief sorcerer. She was made for creeping around in shadows and kicking her enemies in the knees, not shuffling paperwork. Maybe she should hire an assistant. Rondeau was useful for many things, but alphabetizing wasn’t one of them.

“Send her in,” Marla said, wishing, not for the first time, that she had a better office for meeting people. When she had advance warning, she used her consigliere Hamil’s office, all sleekness and modernity. But her working office, above Rondeau’s nightclub, was an explosion of unfinished business, furnished with shelves, desks, and chairs scrounged from curbsides.

Rondea went out, and Dr. Husch entered. “Leda,” Marla said, leaning over her desk and extending a hand to shake. “Always a pleasure, assuming you aren’t here to pester me for more funding.”

Dr. Husch was only five and a half feet tall, rather shorter than Marla, but her presence was considerable. She had the body and face of a classical nymph, which she tried to de-emphasize, her curves restrained by a dark tailored suit jacket and skirt, her platinum-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her heels, though, were so high Marla felt unbalanced just looking at them. “The institute could always use more money,” Husch said. “Since we are the only thing preventing the destruction of the world. But, no, that’s not why I’m here. One of our inmates would like to see you.”

Marla raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of visiting criminally insane sorcerers, Leda.”

“It’s Roger Vaughn, and he’s quite insistent. I take him seriously.”

Marla shook her head. “Vaughn? The name doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“He’s the one who sank the ferry in the bay a hundred years ago, killing everyone aboard.”

“Ah.” That was one of the big disasters in Felport’s history, though the details escaped her memory. “He must be getting on in years.”

“Some of us do not age as rapidly as others,” Husch said, without apparent irony. “More importantly, Vaughn has been in total seclusion since the disaster, without any contact with the outside world. I am curious to discover how he knows you exist.”

“Maybe one of the orderlies mentioned my name?”

Husch gave a sniff, contemptuous enough to make Marla blush in embarrassment, which pissed her off. “Sorry, I forgot your staff was all wind-up toys,” she snapped.

The doctor waved her hand. “Mr. Annemann’s creations are tireless and loyal, and I couldn’t afford to hire human staff with the pittance you provide me anyway. No, Roger Vaughn must be acting on other information. He is quite lucid — his delusions only extend to certain, ah, fundamental aspects of worldview — and you would be in no danger. I think you should see him. He says the fate of the city is at stake.”

If Felport was in danger, Marla had to go. Protecting the city was her one and only responsibility. “Crap,” she said. “Okay, fine. I assume you want me to go now?”

Dr. Husch only smiled.

“You could’ve called first,” Marla grumbled, rising from her creaking chair.

“One of our inmates discorporated and attempted to escape into the world via the phone lines last month, prevention of which required ripping out all the wires. I submitted a request for repair to you a week ago — in the meantime, we have no phone service.” Dr. Husch reached down and plucked a sheet of pale green paper, with the raven logo of the Blackwing Institute at the top, from a heap on Marla’s desk. “See?”

Marla groaned. “Fine, I’ll have Hamil write you a check. Why don’t you get a cell phone?”

“Because they’re vulgar,” Dr. Husch said, and Marla didn’t have an answer for that.

#

Must he come?” Husch said as Rondeau approached.

Marla drummed her fingers on the roof of Husch’s silver Rolls Royce. “Yep, he must. You wouldn’t believe the trouble he gets into if I leave him behind. You know, you could sell this car and get a nice chunk of change to buy extra blankets and Thorazine.”

“The car is not mine to sell. It belongs to Mr. Annemann, and if he ever recovers, he will doubtless wish to have it. He graciously allows me to use it in the meantime.”

“I thought Annemann got half his head blown off. I doubt he’ll be driving anytime soon.”

“His brain is not like that of other men. It has been regenerating steadily for the past several decades, and I expect it will be whole again someday.”

You sound pretty cheerful about that, Marla thought, considering you’re the reason he got his skull broken apart in the first place. She’d read about that in the archives, too.

Rondeau arrived, carrying a plastic bag. “I brought a bunch of leftover Halloween candy for the patients, Doc,” he said. “Hope that’s okay. I know they don’t get many treats or visitors.”

Husch’s aspect softened, and she nodded. “Very thoughtful. Many of them will appreciate the kindness.” She gestured, and Marla and Rondeau climbed into the cavernous back seat. Husch got into the passenger side. One of Annemann’s creations — which seemed human, if you didn’t look closely enough to notice the lack of pores and breathing — was in the front seat, dressed as a chauffeur. It probably wouldn’t even know how to drive if you took off its hat and driving gloves. All Annemann’s creations (with one notable exception) were fundamentally mindless, but acted like whatever you dressed them as.

“What do these guys eat, anyway?” Marla said, leaning forward to poke the chauffeur in the shoulder.

“Lavender seeds and earthworms,” Husch said.

“That’s messed up,” Marla said.

“De gustibus or whatever,” Rondeau said.

“It is the traditional meal,” Husch said. “As you might imagine, it is quite expensive to feed twoscore homonculi a sufficient quantity of lavender seeds and earthworms. Even with the worm farm in the basement and our extensive gardens.”

“I can tell this is going to be a fun drive,” Marla said, sinking back into the leather seat. “You know I’d give you more money if I could, right? But, I mean, it’s not like the mayor can tax ordinary citizens to pay for this stuff, considering most of them have no idea people like us even exist.”

“And it drives Marla nuts,” Rondeau said. “Because nobody ever thanks her for protecting the city from ravaging bands of wendigos or rat people from another star or things like that.”

“I don’t want thanks,” Marla said. “Just… a little help. The mayor knows about us, but he’s an ordinary, and he doesn’t like us. He can’t decide if I’m a mob boss or a vigilante or a superhero. He knows without me the city would have been destroyed a few times, though. Anyway, for something like the Blackwing Institute, I have to tax the other sorcerers… and no offense, Leda, but nobody wants to give money to the place where crazy sorcerers get locked up. It worries them.”

Dr. Husch just sniffed.

The Blackwing Institute was an hour outside the city, and an hour outside Marla’s comfort zone. She resisted the urge to turn around and press her face against the back window, to watch Felport diminish as they passed into the suburbs and then the fields and sleepy little towns beyond. Felport could be a pain in the ass, but it was her pain in the ass. She wasn’t comfortable anywhere else.

Especially places that had cows and trees and shit like that. Fludd Park in the city was enough nature for anybody. It even had a creek and a duck pond and a botanical garden.

“My buddy Paul taught me this road trip game where you take the letters from license plates and make dirty words out of them,” Rondeau said. “Anybody want to play?”

Marla groaned and tried to go to sleep.

#

“You want me to wear a dress?” Marla said, stepping back to put a chair between Dr. Husch and herself.

Husch held a ghastly long white dress embroidered at the neck and sleeves with lace flowers. “It will save a lot of trouble if you do.”

“I like trouble better than dresses.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Dr. Husch said. “Just put it on. Mr. Vaughn is from a different era. Do you really want to listen to him go on about the evils of women in trousers for an hour?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress,” Rondeau said. “Hmm…”

“Stop imagining it,” she snapped, then sighed. “Yes, fine, all right. But I’m not wearing any of the petticoats or whatever. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You’ve battled psychopomps and snake gods, but wearing a dress daunts you?” Husch said.

“It doesn’t daunt me. I don’t daunt. It’s just unpleasant. Picking up a big handful of dog crap doesn’t daunt me, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it.” Marla hadn’t worn a dress in almost ten years. Her old mentor, Artie Mann, had made her dress up for a party once, when she’d first met the city’s other sorcerers, but that was the last time. And at least that dress had been short enough to make kicking people easy, when it became necessary.

Dr. Husch and Rondeau left the room, and Marla shed her loose cotton pants and shirt for the dress. It was tight in the waist and bigger on top than she needed, and she wondered if it had been one of Dr. Husch’s — it seemed more suited to her curves. Marla tugged the fabric fruitlessly away from her belly. “All right!” she shouted. “Let’s go see the wizard!”

Husch reappeared with a heavy iron keyring and beckoned. Rondeau tried not to stare at Marla, without much success, and she tried to ignore him, with similar results. “Seeing you like this just isn’t natural,” Rondeau said. “It’s like putting a dress on — ”

“You’d better stop right there,” Marla said. “What have I told you about rehearsing what you’re going to say silently in your head first?”

Rondeau looked upward, moved his lips briefly, then squeezed his mouth shut. He nodded once, then kept his eyes on his feet.

Husch unlocked a large iron door, incongruous in the wall of a formal sitting room. A wide white hospital corridor waited beyond. “This door divides my apartments from the Institute proper. This whole building used to be a private residence, of course.”

“Mr. Annemann’s mansion,” Marla said.

“Yes,” Husch said.

“Wow, so it wasn’t always a hospital?” Rondeau said. “Huh. Wild. So, before we go into the dark corridors filled with madness and all that, I was wondering, how do you keep sorcerers in here? I mean, are there some kind of magical barriers that prevent them from using their powers, or what?”

Marla snorted. “Magical barriers? Right. Those always work. Nah, the doc just makes sure they don’t get any books or chalk or skulls or bells or potions or whatever they liked to use for making magic when they were sane. A necromancer isn’t much good without corpses to animate, and a pyromancer’s not dangerous if you keep her in a chilled concrete room. It’s like how you’d stop an axe murderer. You just lock them up someplace and make sure they never, ever get their hands on another axe.”

“But sorcerers carry their axes with them inside their heads,” Dr. Husch said, lingering by the door. “And while many of them do depend on props and tools and rituals, some are quite capable of working dangerous magics with only their hands and voices. Those are kept restrained and gagged, as necessary, for their own protection.”

“What about the ones who can just, like, look at you and make you burst into flame?” Rondeau said, glancing at Marla. “The really powerful ones?” Marla wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended. She wasn’t sure she could do something like that — not without preparation, at least — but it was nice to know Rondeau thought she could.

“Ah,” Dr. Husch said. “For those rare few, we keep a great many drugs on hand.” She gestured, and they went past the iron door, which Husch carefully locked behind them. “But the house actually is well protected. The land here is magically neutral.”

“Really?” Marla said. She hadn’t realized that. “No ley lines? No ancient Indian burial grounds? No restless ghosts of past atrocities? No psychic residue left over from epic battles or blood vendettas fought on this spot?”

“No monsters in caverns below ground, no eerie petroglyphs drawn by pre-human civilizations, no local spirits still clinging to sentience,” Dr. Husch confirmed. “Mr. Annemann chose the location very carefully. He didn’t want outside magical influences to affect his experiments. There’s not much inherent magical energy in this area for our patients to draw upon.”

Marla opened up her mind, and it was true, there weren’t that many deep vibrations here. That was rare. Most places had something occultish about them. But… “Of course, now a dozen crazy sorcerers live here, and a couple have died in their rooms.”

Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. It’s true. In another hundred years, this will be a very magically potent location. But for now, the effects haven’t soaked into the earth.”

“Only a dozen patients, huh?” Rondeau said. “In this big old place?”

“Not counting Mr. Annemann. We try to give each of them as much space as possible.”

“Anybody famous locked up here?” Rondeau said.

“Once, Mr. Vaughn was famous, or rather, infamous,” Dr. Husch said. “One of our newest inmates is our escape artist, the one who tried to get out via the phone lines, Elsie Jarrow. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”

“I don’t — ” Rondeau said.

“Marrowbones,” Marla said, shuddering. “That’s what they called her. They still told stories about her, when I first came to Felport. How she’d suck all the fluids out of your body with a kiss.”

“Hyperbole,” Dr. Husch said. “But only just. We have others. Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger, who lost track of his flesh one day and built a new body of the angry dead. A powerful psychic named Genevieve with a mind broken by trauma. Norma Nilson, who did not so much kill her enemies as crush them with despair until they begged permission to take their own lives. Others.” She shrugged. “They all have special needs. I serve them as well as I can.”

“Charming,” Marla said. “Let’s meet Mr. Vaughn. What’s his mental malfunction, anyway?”

“He wants to raise a dark god from the sea and destroy all human life,” Dr. Husch said. “Come along, his rooms are just down here.”

#

Vaughn’s room was crammed with bookshelves made of driftwood, and dried starfish dangled on strings from the ceiling. Despite the nautical theme, the room smelled of dust, not ocean. “Mr. Vaughn!” Dr. Husch called, and a small old man bustled in from another room. He wore an elegant gray suit, and his eyes were the darkest blue Marla had ever seen. Hands clasped behind his back, he bowed, and said “Thank you for coming to see me, Miss Mason. We have much to discuss.” He nodded curtly to Dr. Husch, and took no notice whatever of Rondeau. “Thank you for bringing her, Doctor. Hail Xorgotthua, and good day.”

“Come, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch said. “We’ll take the candy you brought to some of the other patients.”

Rondeau looked a question at Marla, and she nodded. Little old men who hailed Xorgotthua — whoever or whatever that was — weren’t necessarily harmless, but if he was too dangerous for Marla to handle, Rondeau wouldn’t be much help anyway. They left, and the door shut behind them. Vaughn gestured to an armchair, and Marla sat down, remembering to keep her legs demurely together. Stupid dress. Marla rubbed her hand on the arm of the chair and said “Is this sharkskin?”

“Oh, yes,” Vaughn said, sitting in an identical chair of his own. “Sharks are Xorgotthua’s handmaidens, of course.”

“Right. Why did you want to see me, Mr. Vaughn?”

“I need you to stop me,” he said. “Kill me, probably. Well. Not this me. The other me.”

“You’re going to have to clarify that.”

“Yes, I see.” Vaughn took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at sweat on his forehead, though it was cool in the room. “I assume you know of the sacrifice I made to the great god Xorgotthua a century ago? The ferry I sank, so that the screams of the dying might nourish the lord of all depths?”

Marla suppressed a shiver. So he was a religious fundamentalist. They always creeped her out. “Yeah, I know about that.” Details were slowly coming back to her. “You were trying to conduct some ritual, and raise some ancient god from the sea, right? But it didn’t work?”

“Oh, it worked.” Vaughn fingered a silver chain around his neck. “But it was only the first part of the ritual, you see. To raise Xorgotthua, I made a sacrifice to the waters, to wake the god. Then, a hundred years later, there must be another sacrifice, as large as the first, to entice the god to the surface, and onto the land. It is a long time to wait, but the attention spans of gods are not like those of men, and a hundred years is but a moment to Xorgotthua. The time for the second sacrifice is only a few days away.”

“And you want me to… stop you from making the sacrifice?” Marla said. “Shouldn’t be a problem, with you locked up here.”

“Ah, well, no, not exactly. I want you to stop the other me. My reincarnation.” He looked at her expectantly.

“Ah. So do I ring a bell or something to get Dr. Husch back here?” Marla said.

Vaughn sighed. “I know what you’re thinking. Death is generally a prerequisite to reincarnation.”

“Yeah. That’s part of what I was thinking.”

“I use the word as a convenience. It is not true reincarnation. You know the technique of putting your soul in a stone, to be retrieved later?”

“Sure. It tends to turn the soulless sorcerer into a pretty unsympathetic bastard with no sense of proportion, but it’s a way to preserve your life.” Marla was wary of the word “soul,” but she knew a technomancer who talked about uploading personalities into computers and making backups of your mind, and he said the principle was the same.

“I did… something similar. But then I made a perfect copy of the stone where I kept my soul, through a certain alchemical process. I restored my original soul to this body, and left the copy in a safe place near the docks in Felport, with instructions to activate a few months prior to the centennial of my first sacrifice. It was a backup plan, you see. If I died, or became incapacitated, my backup soul would be there to complete the ritual and raise Xorgotthua.”

Marla frowned. “What do you mean ‘activate’? Souls floating around loose aren’t good for much. They need bodies.”

“Oh, well, of course, the soul had instructions to seize control of the nearest suitable vessel.”

“Vessel. You mean a person.” Marla gripped the arms of the chair. “You made a backup of your soul with instructions for it to possess some random passer-by?”

Mr. Vaughn nodded. “Yes, exactly! Such an honor for the vessel, too, being given the opportunity to help raise Xorgotthua.”

Marla closed her eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again. The urge to strangle Vaughn had not passed, but it was under control. “So this person is wandering around Felport now?”

“Not wandering,” he said, offended. “He is me — or me, as I was a hundred years ago — and he has been learning all he can about the city. That’s how I found out you were the, ah, person in charge.”

“You’re in communication with this double of yours?”

“I see and hear and smell and taste what he does.” Vaughn frowned. “It is a side effect I had not expected, though I admit, it is good to smell the sea again. But I do not think this communication goes both ways. I’ve had no indication he sees what I see.”

“Good. Where can I find him?”

Vaughn wagged his finger. “No, no. I will not help you stop him unless you help me.”

“What, do you want to go on a field trip? Deep-sea fishing or something? I can talk to the doc.”

“No. What I want is for you to stop my reincarnation, so that I can be the one to raise great Xorgotthua. It should have been me. I cannot bear the thought of this copy of myself raising the god while I languish here, to die with everyone else when the waves cover the land. My copy was meant as a last resort, if I was dead or in a coma, but I am aware, and here, and quite capable of completing the ritual on my own.”

“Uh huh,” Marla said, standing. “So you want me to stop your copy from killing lots of innocent people, and help you kill lots of innocent people instead, and either way the result is a risen god who wants to destroy all human life? Sorry, doesn’t sound like something I want to pursue.”

“If you help me, I will intercede on your behalf with Xorgotthua. I can make sure you and your city are spared. My copy will show no such mercy, I assure you. But if you let me be the one who wakes the god, I will use my influence to convince it to spare your home.” Vaughn rose to his feet and stood facing Marla. He extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”

Marla contemplated. If a great dark god really was rising from the sea, such bargains might be necessary, but she wasn’t ready to concede defeat yet. “No, thanks. I think I’ll look for your copy on my own.”

Vaughn closed his hands into fists. “Listen, woman. I brought you here to make an arrangement. You’ll never find him without me. If you don’t help me, the death of your city is a foregone conclusion. I offer your only hope. Take it, or face the consequences.”

“Yeah, let me get back to you on that,” she said, opening her cellphone and calling Rondeau. When he picked up, she said “Hey, tell the Doc I’m done here.”

“You can’t ‘get back to me,'” Vaughn said, his face getting red. “You will make this bargain now or — ”

Marla snorted. “Please. Like you won’t jump at the chance if I come back in two days and tell you it’s a deal. What, you’re going to turn up your nose and refuse to help me because I snubbed you today? As if.”

Vaughn sat down. He glowered at her. “You will regret the way you’ve treated me. When you return to beg for my assistance in a day or two days, I will know I have the power, and will drive a much harder bargain.”

“I look forward to negotiating with you,” Marla said. “But don’t expect me to wear a dress again.” The door opened, and Marla slipped out.

#

“You didn’t tell me he was the priest of a dark god,” Marla said, hurrying down the hallway, with the shorter Husch striding quickly to keep up. “You might’ve mentioned.”

“He’s not,” Husch said. “I told you, his fundamental worldview is delusional. He believes in the great god Xorgothhua, but no such god exists.”

Marla stopped walking. “Are you sure about that?”

“Quite. There is no record of such a creature in any oral or written tradition I have consulted. Vaughn claims the god has inspired countless followers through the ages, and has been worshipped by many societies, but it’s just not true. Vaughn began talking about Xorgotthua after he nearly drowned in the mid-1800s, and his delusion intensified over time, becoming ever more baroque and sophisticated. It was considered a harmless eccentricity, until he arranged the ferry disaster. Then Felport’s elite sorcerers realized he was a danger, and had him put away here.”

“Huh,” Marla said, resuming her walk back to Husch’s apartments. “That’s reassuring. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he told me.”

Husch unlocked the door. Rondeau was on the other side, sitting on a couch, watching a television screen. “We heard it all,” Husch said. “The guest rooms are under surveillance, of course.”

“That dude is batshit,” Rondeau said. “Now he’s walking in circles and talking to himself, and, I shit you not, cackling.”

“So you brought me here to listen to a crazy guy’s pointless babble?” Marla said.

“No. He did know your name, and your position among Felport’s sorcerers, and other details of daily life in the city he should not be privy to. I think he is probably telling the truth about this double of his, and his plans to conduct a sacrifice in a few days.”

“So there’s no giant sea god to worry about,” Rondeau said. “Just the issue of a bunch of innocent people getting killed.”

“Huh,” Marla said. “How many people died in that ferry disaster?”

“Over a hundred, most bound for a family reunion on Bramble Island,” Husch said. “And it sounds like Vaughn wants just as many people to die this time.”

“Crap,” Marla said.

“Indeed,” Husch replied.

#

“Good morning, Bay Witch,” Marla said, sitting on a bench on the boardwalk with a view of the bay’s gray expanse.

The Bay Witch — who’d once been named Zufi, back when she was a surfer girl, before she became a student of the hidden arts — sat at the other end of the bench. She was blonde and dressed in a black wetsuit, a puddle of sea water spreading all around her.

“Nice of you to visit,” the Bay Witch said. “You got my note?”

“I got an incomprehensible smear of goo on seaweed. But I needed to talk to you anyway. What’s up?”

“Bay’s getting more polluted every year. I’ve sent reports. You don’t answer me.”

Marla nodded. “I’ve been busy, but I’m taking bids to deal with the pollution. Unfortunately the best bid is from Ernesto, who wants to gather all the pollutants to create a filth elemental to smite his enemies. I’m thinking of accepting it, but I need to find out who his enemies are first.”

“Fair enough,” the Bay Witch said. “There’s another thing. Probably nothing, but there’s — ”

“Let me guess. There’s a crazy guy hanging around, talking about raising a dark sea god named Xorgotthua?”

The Bay Witch laughed. “They told me you have tentacles everywhere. Yeah, that’s him.”

“Where might I find this crazy guy?”

She shrugged. “He’s been a regular in some of the bars these past few months, bothering people, but he hasn’t been around lately. He was pretty irritated when nobody wanted to join his cult. He promised they’d all die if they didn’t join him, the usual. Nobody took him seriously. He’s just a kid, can’t be more than seventeen. I felt kind of bad for him, but he was creepy, too.”

Marla nodded. “I’ve got sort of a weird question. Let’s say I needed to get a giant squid in a few days. Just out in the bay, you know. Waving tentacles around, the whole deal. Think you could hook that up?”

“I’m not Aquaman,” she said. “I’m not friends with all the creatures of the sea.”

“Yeah, but I bet you’ve got methods.”

“A giant squid?” She frowned. “They do like cold water, but they’re not exactly common, and they prefer deep water. If it’s doable — if — I’d need some serious payback. I’d have to burn a lot of power and influence over something like this, and I’m guessing you don’t even want to tell me why.”

“True,” Marla said. “Do it, and you’ll be taken care of.”

“I’d need the bay to be taken care of. You’re the chief sorcerer of Felport, and the way you feel about the city? That’s how I feel about the bay.”

“We’ll work it out,” Marla said. “You know I’m good for it.”

“Okay,” the Bay Witch said. She shook her head. “I’ll see what I can do. Meet me back here tomorrow.” She walked to the edge of the boardwalk, climbed over the rail, and leapt gracefully into the sea.

Marla spent the afternoon talking to her various friends and informants by the boardwalk, the docks, and the boat harbor, but no one had seen the crazy guy lately. If Marla was going to find him, she’d have to get more creative.

#

“One giant squid, coming up,” the Bay Witch said, looking pleased with herself. They sat at an outdoor café a block from the water, enjoying the mild spring air, though the Bay Witch was dripping water, as always. It was an occupational malady. “The thing’s the size of a school bus. Where do you want it?”

“A few hundred yards from shore, two days from now, midnight, waving its tentacles around, splashing a lot, making a spectacle. Can you handle that?”

“I can hijack its brain for a little while,” the Bay Witch said. “Squid are too big, and their anatomy is too weird, for me to control easily, but if all you want is flailing, I can manage that. What, are you trying to scare away a sperm whale or something?”

“Not quite,” Marla said. “I need your help with something else. Where can I get a lot of seashells and other ocean crap like that?”

#

“You look like a kitschy seafood restaurant exploded all over you,” Rondeau said.

Marla examined herself in one of the long mirrors in the dressing room of Rondeau’s night club. It had been a strip club, once upon a time, and still had all the backstage facilities, though these days the only performers were DJs. She adjusted the bit of fishing net she wore as a cloak, and tugged the cascade of shell necklaces around so they didn’t drag quite so heavily on her neck. “That’s the look I’m going for,” she said. “You have to admit, the sword made from narwhal horn is pretty cool.” It was useless as a weapon, but the long, spiraling horn on a hilt hanging from her belt was a nice bit of flash.

“I still don’t see why I have to go,” Dr. Husch said, emerging from the bathroom. Even dressed in sailcloth, net, and shells, she managed to look regal. She had a wicked whip hanging from her belt, a scourge with ends tipped by fishhooks.

“I might need backup,” Marla said, “and the homunculus orderlies don’t listen to anyone but you.” She picked up two half-masks made of horseshoe crab shells, which, along with some drawn-on abstract tattoos, would serve to disguise their faces. Better if the original Mr. Vaughn didn’t recognize them while looking through his copy’s eyes.

Dr. Husch ran her finger along the top of a vanity, wrinkling her nose at the dust. “I don’t think this place has been cleaned since last time I was here.”

“You’ve been here before?” Rondeau said.

“When it was a burlesque house,” Husch said. “Once upon a time, Mr. Annemann owned this place. I… worked for him.”

Marla didn’t say anything. Husch had worked for him. Sort of.

“Wow, you were a dancer?” Rondeau said.

“It was a long time ago,” Husch said.

“I think we look suitably crazy and ocean-themed,” Marla said. “Let’s hit the bars.”

#

“Why do you think he’ll come here?” Husch said. They were in the back of an empty dive bar near the docks, sipping drinks and trying to ignore the smell of old beer and fish. Marla felt a little self-conscious in her sea-witch getup, and the mask cut her peripheral vision down more than she liked. The bartender clearly thought they were nuts, too, but image was important in situations like this.

“I started spreading the word that a priestess of Xorgotthua was in the area, planning the ritual that would raise the god, here to replace poor Mr. Vaughn.” She shrugged. “I said this was her hangout. If Vaughn’s copy is paying attention, he’ll hear word. And if he does come in, well, we’re kind of hard to miss.” Marla grinned. “In the meantime, girl talk. You know Rondeau likes you.”

Husch pursed her lips. “You don’t mean to tell me I should be flattered? I doubt he’s very discriminating in his tastes.”

“Rondeau usually likes body-pierced college girls with flexible attitudes toward morality,” Marla said. “You’re not his usual type, so sure, be flattered.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in what men thought of me, Marla,” she said, looking at her levelly. “Given your position, I assume you know the… details of my origin. You can understand why I might be wary of men?”

Marla nodded. “Sure. Just making conversation. But Rondeau doesn’t know your origins — I promise — so you don’t have to worry so much about his expectations.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Speaking of men,” Marla said.

A young man in a t-shirt and swimming trunks came through the door, sunlight streaming in around him. He saw them in the back of the bar and started coming their way.

The bartender shouted at him. “Hold on, kid, I told you, you’re under age, you can’t come in here!” The kid gestured at the bartender and muttered a guttural incantation, and the bartender fell, eyes rolling back in his head.

“Well, well,” Marla said. “Reckless and unnecessary use of magic. This must be our zealot.”

“You!” he said, striding toward them. “You claim to worship Xorgotthua?” His hair was wet, and he had a large pimple on the side of his nose.

Marla sipped her beer before answering. “I claim nothing. I am the priestess of Xorgotthua, yes. And who are you, child?”
“I am no child. I am the reincarnation of Roger Vaughn himself!”

“Madness,” Marla said. “Vaughn has not been seen in a century. I have come, with my followers, to complete the work he began so long ago.” She gestured at him lazily. “Away with you. Enjoy your last days of life before the waters swallow you.”

He crouched by the table. “You don’t understand. I am Vaughn. I have pledge my life to Xorgotthua! How have I never heard of you and your followers?”

“We have lived in seclusion on an island,” Marla said. “Waiting for the stars to come right. That time is now. The sacrifices are prepared, and the god will rise tomorrow night.”

He frowned. “I’ve arranged a sacrifice. There are bombs, on a ferry bound for Bramble Island, and tomorrow — ”

Marla snorted. “The bombs were discovered, you fool, and removed. Did you think the secret ruler of this city would fail to check the ferries, so close to the centennial of Vaughn’s first sacrifice?”

The kid grimaced. “Marla Mason. Yes. I did not realize… I had heard she was effective. I should have been more careful. But surely I can still be of service — ”

Marla waved her hands. “It’s all arranged. The orphans have already been prepared.”

Dr. Husch’s eyes went wide, and she made a snorting noise, and after a moment Marla realized she was trying not to laugh. Dr. Husch, laughing — that would be something to see.

“Orphans?” the kid said.

Marla nodded. “Yes. Xorgotthua enjoys the taste of orphans. Something Vaughn would know very well.”

“Of course I know,” he said quickly. “I just… where did you get orphans?”

Marla turned her most withering glare on him, hoping the half-mask didn’t dim its power. “They’re orphans. The essential fact of orphans is that no one much misses them. Now, please, be gone. We are discussing preparations for the ceremony.”

Vaughn stood up. “I… please, Xorgotthua is my life… how can I serve?”

Marla sighed theatrically. “Very well. Vaughn, if that is your name. Come to the boardwalk tomorrow, before midnight. You may watch the great god rise with the rest of my followers. Perhaps Xorgotthua will choose to spare your life.”

“Thank you,” Vaughn’s copy said, and left the bar, looking punch-drunk and dazed.

“You’d better go check on the bartender, Doc, and make sure the kid didn’t kill him.” Marla cracked her knuckles. “We’re on for tomorrow.”

“Why didn’t you just have me summon the orderlies?” Husch said. “They could have seized him, and he would have been safely housed in the Blackwing Institute before nightfall!”

Marla shook her head. “Then him and the other Vaughn would just keep plotting and planning and probably causing me more trouble in ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred years, gods forbid I’m still around then. No, we need to put an end to this, or at least build in a long delay.” She opened her cell phone and called Rondeau. “Hey,” she said. “Send some of our pet policemen to check the Bramble Island ferries for bombs. Yes, I know, I don’t know why I didn’t think to check there. I guess I expected Vaughn’s copy to be more original. Make sure our people keep an eye on the copy, too, in case he decides to cover his bets by throwing firebombs at a yacht or something.” She closed the phone. “When they find the bombs, we can say it was terrorists, and get some of that sweet Homeland Security money. The mayor would totally owe me for that.”

“How nice for you. So what happens now?”

“Squid happens,” Marla said.

#

“Are the orderlies in place, Rondeau” Marla spoke into her phone.

“Yep.”

“And you talked to the Bay Witch?”

“Zufi says we’re good to go,” Rondeau replied.

“Good.” She hung up. Dr. Husch and a handful of Annemann’s homonculi — dressed in their own seashell-and-face-tattoo cultist disguises — stood on the boardwalk, by the railing, looking at the moonlit water. The air was cool, the tang of salt strong in the air. A good night for a ritual.

“The bay is really very pretty,” Dr. Husch said.

“It’s a good deep-water port,” Marla said, with her usual civic pride.

“I hope we aren’t mistaken about Mr. Vaughn, and the accuracy of his ideas,” Husch said. She swung her fishhook-tipped scourge idly over the railing. “I’d be very upset if a great sea god did rise tonight.”

“Eh,” Marla said. “The bombs were disabled, and I didn’t actually sacrifice any orphans. I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if Xorgotthua does exist, which he doesn’t, he’ll just slumber on.” She glanced at her cell phone. Five minutes to midnight. “I hope he shows.”

“I am here, priestess.”

Marla and Dr. Husch turned and saw Vaughn’s copy. He wore his own cape of net, woven with seaweed, and a ridiculous profusion of shell necklaces. His face had markings just like Marla’s… only his were real tattoos. Marla winced under her mask. Damn. That must have hurt. She felt bad for the kid who’d been possessed. He’d probably never get his body back, and if he did, he’d have to walk around with that stuff on his face.

“Good,” Marla said. “Then observe the water, where Xorgothhua will rise.”

They all bellied up to the rail. Nothing much happened; moonlight, wind, waves. Then, slowly, the sea began to bubble and roil, and after a moment something vast broke the surface out in the water, and great flailing tentacles, each over fifteen feet long, whipped into the air, flinging water. The “cultists” dropped to their knees, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Vaughn’s copy.

“Great Xorgotthua!” Marla shouted, still standing, raising her arms overhead. “We come to welcome you!”

The squid rolled, revealing an eye the size of a dinner plate for a moment before slipping back under the water.

“Yes!” Marla shouted. “I understand, great one! We live to serve you!”

The squid sank beneath the waves, and the cultists rose.

“My people,” Marla said, her voice appropriately bleak. “Great Xorgotthua thanks us for the sacrifice, but says it is not yet time to rise. Xorgotthua wishes to wait until the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen to swallow the coastal lands. We are not to disturb its slumber until that time. We must keep the god’s sacraments and teach the next generation of followers.” She shook her head. “Our time will come. It only seems long, to our pitiful human minds. Another few centuries are but moments to great Xorgotthua.”

Vaughn’s copy remained kneeling when the others rose. He looked up at Marla, stricken. “I can wait,” he said. “I have no choice. I will wait. That glimpse of the god will sustain me through the centuries.”

Show ’em a few tentacles and they see a squamous god of the outer darkness, Marla though. “I have discovered something,” she said, placing a hand on the copy’s shoulder. “It seems Roger Vaughn did not die, as we all assumed. He is resting in a hospital, where all his needs are looked after. Would you like to meet him?”

“He — I — he lives? When I woke, I thought he must have died, but…” The copy stood up. “Yes. I’d like to see him very much. I wish to know what happened to my life in the past hundred years.”

“Perhaps you and the older Mr. Vaughn can await the return of Xorgotthua together,” Marla said. She nodded to Dr. Husch, who summoned her orderlies to lead Vaughn’s copy to the car.

#

“They bicker like an old couple,” Rondeau said, watching Vaughn — both Vaughns — on Dr. Husch’s closed-circuit television. The two mad sorcerers shared a new, larger suite of rooms in the Blackwing Institute, and spent most of their time arguing over fine points of Xorgotthuan theology. They might have had the same mind, once, but you can’t put one soul in two bodies without a little divergence.

“I’m just glad they’re locked up,” Marla said.

Rondeau nodded. “It was nice of you to bring all this stuff,” he said. Marla had loaded a truck with blankets, drugs, and food, donations from the sorcerers of the city. Marla had told the other sorcerers that Dr. Husch was the one who saved the city from destruction by a great ocean-dwelling deity inimical to human life, and had encouraged them to show their appreciation with material goods. They had. No one liked to contemplate the coming of great indifferent gods, and Marla hadn’t bothered to tell the sorcerers that Xorgotthua was imaginary.

“Where is Leda, anyway?” Marla said. “I thought she was coming back to the city with us.”

“Yep. I’m taking her to see one of those homemade robot demolition derbies,” Rondeau said. “It’s going to be awesome. She said she had to take care of something before we go, though.”

Marla rolled her eyes. She’d done her part to encourage Dr. Husch, but she doubted Rondeau would make it past one date with her.

Rondeau went back to watching the screen, snorting laughter as the two Vaughns argued about whose turn it was to clean the toilet. Marla went looking for Dr. Husch, and found her in a room at the end of a short hallway, sitting beside a hospital bed.

Marla stood in the doorway for a moment, then said “I don’t understand why you still tend him.”

Dr. Husch adjusted Mr. Annemann’s catheter. He was hooked up to a number of machines, his head wrapped almost entirely in a thick padding of bandages.

Marla cleared her throat. “I mean, when you consider…”

“The fact that he created me?” Dr. Husch said. “You might expect me to be grateful for that.”

Marla shifted uncomfortably. “But he created you to be his, well, his concubine, right?”

“I was created as his living sexual fantasy,” she said, covering Mr. Annemann with a blanket. “Yes. And he used me as such. I was the most sophisticated of his many homonculi, the only one capable of independent thought. At first, I appreciated his attention. Even when he sold me to the highest bidder as a courtesan, and later, when he had me dance in a burlesque house and sold me more prosaically in the alley behind the club, I felt he deserved to treat me any way he wished. But as time passed, I began to resent him, and to wish for my own life. The worst part was, I still loved him. He could be very kind, you know, and he loved discovery and knowledge more than anything, something I respected very much. And then one day, I began to wonder if perhaps Mr. Annemann made me love him. What if loving him was not a choice, but merely a spell he’d cast on me?” She stroked Annemann’s hand.

“That’s why you shot him?” Marla said. “Because you thought he’d cast a love spell on you?” The Felport archives had reports about the shooting, but not about the motives.

Dr. Husch bowed her head. “Yes. I thought he must be a monster, to cast such a spell. I thought I would kill him, and free myself. He did not die, but his brain was… severely harmed. Any spell he cast on me would have failed, then, after the damage I inflicted.” She looked up. “But I didn’t stop loving him. I realized the love was not the result of a spell at all, but a true feeling. And so I have been caring for him ever since. Someday, he will wake, and I will tell him I’m sorry. Perhaps then he will realize I am more than his creation, and he will see me as a woman, and his equal.”

Wishful thinking, Marla thought. “I’m not saying it was right to shoot him. But you probably never would have had your own life otherwise.”
“No one’s life is solely their own,” Dr. Husch said. “We are all bound by our devotions. Mr. Vaughn would understand that. I’m sure you do, too.”

Marla thought of her own tangled allegiances, the web of obligations that made protecting the city possible… but that was the point, wasn’t it? To protect Felport. She had devotions of her own, and couldn’t fault Dr. Husch for hers, however misguided they might be in Marla’s eyes.

“Thanks for all your help, Leda.”

“You can thank me by doubling my annual budget.”

Marla laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

————————-

(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)

Bride of Death Kickstarter

Monday, February 4th, 2013

The time has come! I have launched a Kickstarter for my new Marla Mason novel, Bride of Death. Please support it if you can, or spread the word, or both. All the details are at the link below. (Short form: a book of monsters, heads in birdcages, motorcycles, violence, botched redemption, etc.)

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timpratt/bride-of-death-a-marla-mason-novel

I really want to write this one. (In fact I’ve already written about 10,000 words, because I couldn’t help myself. I hope I get to finish it.)

Kickstarter funded!

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

My kickstarter for collection Antiquities and Tangibles has funded! (Not shocking, I know; it hit the goal a while back. But still, reasons for yay!)

I had 273 backers, plus two more who sent checks, for 275 total. By contrast, my kickstarter for Grim Tides last year had only 182 backers, plus five who sent checks, for a total of 187. Nearly 90 more this time!

Why? I suspect having a relatively low buy-in to get the e-book helped. For only $10, you actually get something useful and interesting! I personally don’t often have a ton of money to give to kickstarters, usually only $10-$20, so I like projects where I get something cool for not much money.

Then, once I hit the funding goal to do the Complete Stories e-book, I got a lot more $10 donors, presumably because that sounded like a pretty good deal to people.

I made more money from the Grim Tides kickstarter, but then, I asked for a lot more, too; I didn’t quite double my funding goal for that project, while this one got 442% funded. I also offered a lot more high-end backer rewards for Grim Tides, which was great — but which was also a lot more work on the fulfillment end. This project, by contrast, will be a lot less work to fulfill, since it doesn’t have limited editions and chapbooks and bookmarks and postcards and artwork and all the other stuff I had to create/commission/send out for Grim Tides: just books! (And a couple poems and one little single-copy story chapbook.)

So: I’d call this a success. Now I just have to write new stories and put the book(s) together.

Briarpatch Audiobook for Your Listenings!

Monday, August 27th, 2012

The audiobook of my novel Briarpatch is now available at Audible, read by the inimitable Dave Thompson of Podcastle fame. Yay!

This has been in the works for a while. Much thanks to Dave for his excellent voice work, and to my agent Ginger Clark for getting things rolling and then shepherding the whole process along. (There are plans to do a Rangergirl audiobook in the not-too-distant future, too.)

I’m down to 48 hours remaining in my collection Kickstarter for Antiquities and Tangibles. Pay $10 and you get the new collection e-book — and a special backers-only exclusive, my Complete Stories, which will be a pretty prodigious hunk of electronic wordage. (Pay more and get that stuff, and other stuff too.)

A Secret Beach

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012

Podcastle has an audio version of my story “The Secret Beach” up this week, read by the inimitable Dave Thompson. It’s one of my favorite stories to perform at readings, since it’s basically a monologue, so I think it lends itself to listening.

The Kickstarter for my new collection, Antiquities and Tangibles, sailed past $7,000 over the weekend, which means I’m doing the Complete Stories e-book, too. I’ll also write some story notes, because I am incapable of doing any collection without adding a certain amount of authorial blathering. Anyone who kicks in at least $10 gets the new collection and the complete stories. About a week left to go.

The Couch of Transition

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

After much thought I figured out a new stretch goal for my collection Kickstarter: if I hit $7,000, I will create a Complete Stories e-book, containing all my published short fiction (minus a couple of work-for-hire things; but if I own the rights, it’ll be in the book). Everyone who donates enough to get the collection e-book (a mere $10) will also get the Complete Stories. And at least for the foreseeable future, the Complete Stories will be available only to Kickstarter backers. It would be a ton of work, but I think the end result — more than 100 stories! — would be pretty cool, so I hope it happens.

***

This is my son’s last week at his preschool. In a mere two weeks, he starts his new life at public school. It’s kind of mind-blowing. He’s super excited, though. He doesn’t quite grasp the melancholy aspects, yet.

We bought a new couch this weekend (our old one had busted springs for two-thirds of its width, so using it was like sitting on a melting marshmallow), and it came disassembled in several enormous boxes, so I created a vast outdoor box palace for the kid, dubbed his “houseroom.” It’s so nice to make that kid happy.

***

I haven’t quite finished all my work for the year. I’ve got a short story to write, and an anthology to finish up, and a review I promised to write, all due on September 1 — but after that, I don’t have any particular writing responsibilities (besides putting together the new collection), so I might start writing a new book, Heirs of Grace, just for my own enjoyment. I’ll have my Thursdays free, now, with the kid in school, and I can’t spend all those hours napping or getting daytime drunk. (Or rather, I could, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much after the first few times.) I even came up with a name for my main character, so, hell, that’s the hard part taken care of.

Secret No More

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Today, I get to reveal a pseudonym!

I wrote a book called The Constantine Affliction, under the name T. Aaron Payton. Ta da!

I’ve been dying to talk about that book for ages, but had to wait until it was actually available for sale. Later today I’ll point you to a blog post over at The Night Bazaar, the Night Shade Books blog, where I talk a bit about the book and the pseudonym and such.

In other excitement, the Kickstarter for my collection Antiquities and Tangibles passed $5K yesterday, which means I get to commission some interior art! Still 20 days to go, too.

 

 

Impossible Dreams Film Live

Monday, August 6th, 2012

The short film adaptation of my story “Impossible Dreams,” directed by Shir Comay, is now available to view in its entirety! (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.) Take 22 minutes and enjoy. Previously seen only at film festivals, a couple of small screenings, and in my living room a few times.

Shir took my basic story and very much made it his own, but if you want to read my original version, it’s online at Wired.com.

Speaking of short stories, we now enter week two of the Kickstarter fundraiser for my next collection, Antiquities and Tangibles, which is doing better than I’d hoped. If you’d like to read the book when it comes out, $10 gets you the e-book.

I’ve finished writing a couple of stories in the past few weeks — “Snake and Mongoose” and “A Cloak of Many Worlds,” both related to the Marla Mason series. (The first is set immediately after Grim Tides, and the second is about some secondary characters in the series.) They were both written as prizes for Grim Tides Kickstarter donors, but fear not, they’ll be available in a future collection of Marla Mason stories. Which I’ve got nearly enough stories to fill, now.