A Month of Marla: Grander than the Sea
Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. I’m starting with “Grander than the Sea,” which first appeared in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (2007) and was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 8.
(This is indeed a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death. But, hey, free stuff.) Here’s the story!
GRANDER THAN THE SEA
“Dr. Husch is here,” Rondeau said, stepping into Marla Mason’s cluttered office, where she sat poring over an eye-watering pile of expense reports from her spies abroad.
“Who’s Elmer Mulligan, and why did our agent Brandywine spend $400 buying him lapdances at a strip bar in Canada?” she said, brandishing a piece of paper.
“I think Mulligan is the one who did that thing for us in Newfoundland,” Rondeau said, shutting the door behind him and knocking over a pile of true-crime paperbacks with the covers ripped off. “You know, with that guy who had the ice palace?”
“Right,” Marla said, rubbing her eyes. “I guess a lapdance is a small price to pay. Grizzly-polar bear hybrids are weird enough without some lunatic uplifting them to human intelligence. And did you see this?” She held up a flattened piece of seaweed, scrawled over with luminous green ink. It dripped briny water on the carpet. “It’s from the Bay Witch. I can’t even read it. Get somebody to go talk to her, will you?”
“Sure,” Rondeau said. “Like I said, Dr. Husch is here, from the Blackwing Institute. She says its urgent. But, ah, if you want me to keep her entertained for a while, I don’t mind — ”
Marla wrinkled her nose. “Rondeau, she must be a hundred and fifty years old.”
He shrugged. “She only looks about thirty. Don’t be ageist. And I’ve heard, when she was younger, she used to be quite the party girl.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.” Rondeau didn’t know a fraction of the weirdness and debauchery in Husch’s past, but Marla did, because the Felport archives went back a long time. “Is she here to beg for money?”
Rondeau shrugged. His attention was already wandering, and he riffled through a pile of back issues of The Instigator, which Marla still needed to comb for secret messages in the personals. On days like this she wondered why she’d ever agreed to become chief sorcerer. She was made for creeping around in shadows and kicking her enemies in the knees, not shuffling paperwork. Maybe she should hire an assistant. Rondeau was useful for many things, but alphabetizing wasn’t one of them.
“Send her in,” Marla said, wishing, not for the first time, that she had a better office for meeting people. When she had advance warning, she used her consigliere Hamil’s office, all sleekness and modernity. But her working office, above Rondeau’s nightclub, was an explosion of unfinished business, furnished with shelves, desks, and chairs scrounged from curbsides.
Rondea went out, and Dr. Husch entered. “Leda,” Marla said, leaning over her desk and extending a hand to shake. “Always a pleasure, assuming you aren’t here to pester me for more funding.”
Dr. Husch was only five and a half feet tall, rather shorter than Marla, but her presence was considerable. She had the body and face of a classical nymph, which she tried to de-emphasize, her curves restrained by a dark tailored suit jacket and skirt, her platinum-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her heels, though, were so high Marla felt unbalanced just looking at them. “The institute could always use more money,” Husch said. “Since we are the only thing preventing the destruction of the world. But, no, that’s not why I’m here. One of our inmates would like to see you.”
Marla raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of visiting criminally insane sorcerers, Leda.”
“It’s Roger Vaughn, and he’s quite insistent. I take him seriously.”
Marla shook her head. “Vaughn? The name doesn’t mean anything to me.”
“He’s the one who sank the ferry in the bay a hundred years ago, killing everyone aboard.”
“Ah.” That was one of the big disasters in Felport’s history, though the details escaped her memory. “He must be getting on in years.”
“Some of us do not age as rapidly as others,” Husch said, without apparent irony. “More importantly, Vaughn has been in total seclusion since the disaster, without any contact with the outside world. I am curious to discover how he knows you exist.”
“Maybe one of the orderlies mentioned my name?”
Husch gave a sniff, contemptuous enough to make Marla blush in embarrassment, which pissed her off. “Sorry, I forgot your staff was all wind-up toys,” she snapped.
The doctor waved her hand. “Mr. Annemann’s creations are tireless and loyal, and I couldn’t afford to hire human staff with the pittance you provide me anyway. No, Roger Vaughn must be acting on other information. He is quite lucid — his delusions only extend to certain, ah, fundamental aspects of worldview — and you would be in no danger. I think you should see him. He says the fate of the city is at stake.”
If Felport was in danger, Marla had to go. Protecting the city was her one and only responsibility. “Crap,” she said. “Okay, fine. I assume you want me to go now?”
Dr. Husch only smiled.
“You could’ve called first,” Marla grumbled, rising from her creaking chair.
“One of our inmates discorporated and attempted to escape into the world via the phone lines last month, prevention of which required ripping out all the wires. I submitted a request for repair to you a week ago — in the meantime, we have no phone service.” Dr. Husch reached down and plucked a sheet of pale green paper, with the raven logo of the Blackwing Institute at the top, from a heap on Marla’s desk. “See?”
Marla groaned. “Fine, I’ll have Hamil write you a check. Why don’t you get a cell phone?”
“Because they’re vulgar,” Dr. Husch said, and Marla didn’t have an answer for that.
“Must he come?” Husch said as Rondeau approached.
Marla drummed her fingers on the roof of Husch’s silver Rolls Royce. “Yep, he must. You wouldn’t believe the trouble he gets into if I leave him behind. You know, you could sell this car and get a nice chunk of change to buy extra blankets and Thorazine.”
“The car is not mine to sell. It belongs to Mr. Annemann, and if he ever recovers, he will doubtless wish to have it. He graciously allows me to use it in the meantime.”
“I thought Annemann got half his head blown off. I doubt he’ll be driving anytime soon.”
“His brain is not like that of other men. It has been regenerating steadily for the past several decades, and I expect it will be whole again someday.”
You sound pretty cheerful about that, Marla thought, considering you’re the reason he got his skull broken apart in the first place. She’d read about that in the archives, too.
Rondeau arrived, carrying a plastic bag. “I brought a bunch of leftover Halloween candy for the patients, Doc,” he said. “Hope that’s okay. I know they don’t get many treats or visitors.”
Husch’s aspect softened, and she nodded. “Very thoughtful. Many of them will appreciate the kindness.” She gestured, and Marla and Rondeau climbed into the cavernous back seat. Husch got into the passenger side. One of Annemann’s creations — which seemed human, if you didn’t look closely enough to notice the lack of pores and breathing — was in the front seat, dressed as a chauffeur. It probably wouldn’t even know how to drive if you took off its hat and driving gloves. All Annemann’s creations (with one notable exception) were fundamentally mindless, but acted like whatever you dressed them as.
“What do these guys eat, anyway?” Marla said, leaning forward to poke the chauffeur in the shoulder.
“Lavender seeds and earthworms,” Husch said.
“That’s messed up,” Marla said.
“De gustibus or whatever,” Rondeau said.
“It is the traditional meal,” Husch said. “As you might imagine, it is quite expensive to feed twoscore homonculi a sufficient quantity of lavender seeds and earthworms. Even with the worm farm in the basement and our extensive gardens.”
“I can tell this is going to be a fun drive,” Marla said, sinking back into the leather seat. “You know I’d give you more money if I could, right? But, I mean, it’s not like the mayor can tax ordinary citizens to pay for this stuff, considering most of them have no idea people like us even exist.”
“And it drives Marla nuts,” Rondeau said. “Because nobody ever thanks her for protecting the city from ravaging bands of wendigos or rat people from another star or things like that.”
“I don’t want thanks,” Marla said. “Just… a little help. The mayor knows about us, but he’s an ordinary, and he doesn’t like us. He can’t decide if I’m a mob boss or a vigilante or a superhero. He knows without me the city would have been destroyed a few times, though. Anyway, for something like the Blackwing Institute, I have to tax the other sorcerers… and no offense, Leda, but nobody wants to give money to the place where crazy sorcerers get locked up. It worries them.”
Dr. Husch just sniffed.
The Blackwing Institute was an hour outside the city, and an hour outside Marla’s comfort zone. She resisted the urge to turn around and press her face against the back window, to watch Felport diminish as they passed into the suburbs and then the fields and sleepy little towns beyond. Felport could be a pain in the ass, but it was her pain in the ass. She wasn’t comfortable anywhere else.
Especially places that had cows and trees and shit like that. Fludd Park in the city was enough nature for anybody. It even had a creek and a duck pond and a botanical garden.
“My buddy Paul taught me this road trip game where you take the letters from license plates and make dirty words out of them,” Rondeau said. “Anybody want to play?”
Marla groaned and tried to go to sleep.
“You want me to wear a dress?” Marla said, stepping back to put a chair between Dr. Husch and herself.
Husch held a ghastly long white dress embroidered at the neck and sleeves with lace flowers. “It will save a lot of trouble if you do.”
“I like trouble better than dresses.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Dr. Husch said. “Just put it on. Mr. Vaughn is from a different era. Do you really want to listen to him go on about the evils of women in trousers for an hour?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress,” Rondeau said. “Hmm…”
“Stop imagining it,” she snapped, then sighed. “Yes, fine, all right. But I’m not wearing any of the petticoats or whatever. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“You’ve battled psychopomps and snake gods, but wearing a dress daunts you?” Husch said.
“It doesn’t daunt me. I don’t daunt. It’s just unpleasant. Picking up a big handful of dog crap doesn’t daunt me, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it.” Marla hadn’t worn a dress in almost ten years. Her old mentor, Artie Mann, had made her dress up for a party once, when she’d first met the city’s other sorcerers, but that was the last time. And at least that dress had been short enough to make kicking people easy, when it became necessary.
Dr. Husch and Rondeau left the room, and Marla shed her loose cotton pants and shirt for the dress. It was tight in the waist and bigger on top than she needed, and she wondered if it had been one of Dr. Husch’s — it seemed more suited to her curves. Marla tugged the fabric fruitlessly away from her belly. “All right!” she shouted. “Let’s go see the wizard!”
Husch reappeared with a heavy iron keyring and beckoned. Rondeau tried not to stare at Marla, without much success, and she tried to ignore him, with similar results. “Seeing you like this just isn’t natural,” Rondeau said. “It’s like putting a dress on — ”
“You’d better stop right there,” Marla said. “What have I told you about rehearsing what you’re going to say silently in your head first?”
Rondeau looked upward, moved his lips briefly, then squeezed his mouth shut. He nodded once, then kept his eyes on his feet.
Husch unlocked a large iron door, incongruous in the wall of a formal sitting room. A wide white hospital corridor waited beyond. “This door divides my apartments from the Institute proper. This whole building used to be a private residence, of course.”
“Mr. Annemann’s mansion,” Marla said.
“Yes,” Husch said.
“Wow, so it wasn’t always a hospital?” Rondeau said. “Huh. Wild. So, before we go into the dark corridors filled with madness and all that, I was wondering, how do you keep sorcerers in here? I mean, are there some kind of magical barriers that prevent them from using their powers, or what?”
Marla snorted. “Magical barriers? Right. Those always work. Nah, the doc just makes sure they don’t get any books or chalk or skulls or bells or potions or whatever they liked to use for making magic when they were sane. A necromancer isn’t much good without corpses to animate, and a pyromancer’s not dangerous if you keep her in a chilled concrete room. It’s like how you’d stop an axe murderer. You just lock them up someplace and make sure they never, ever get their hands on another axe.”
“But sorcerers carry their axes with them inside their heads,” Dr. Husch said, lingering by the door. “And while many of them do depend on props and tools and rituals, some are quite capable of working dangerous magics with only their hands and voices. Those are kept restrained and gagged, as necessary, for their own protection.”
“What about the ones who can just, like, look at you and make you burst into flame?” Rondeau said, glancing at Marla. “The really powerful ones?” Marla wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended. She wasn’t sure she could do something like that — not without preparation, at least — but it was nice to know Rondeau thought she could.
“Ah,” Dr. Husch said. “For those rare few, we keep a great many drugs on hand.” She gestured, and they went past the iron door, which Husch carefully locked behind them. “But the house actually is well protected. The land here is magically neutral.”
“Really?” Marla said. She hadn’t realized that. “No ley lines? No ancient Indian burial grounds? No restless ghosts of past atrocities? No psychic residue left over from epic battles or blood vendettas fought on this spot?”
“No monsters in caverns below ground, no eerie petroglyphs drawn by pre-human civilizations, no local spirits still clinging to sentience,” Dr. Husch confirmed. “Mr. Annemann chose the location very carefully. He didn’t want outside magical influences to affect his experiments. There’s not much inherent magical energy in this area for our patients to draw upon.”
Marla opened up her mind, and it was true, there weren’t that many deep vibrations here. That was rare. Most places had something occultish about them. But… “Of course, now a dozen crazy sorcerers live here, and a couple have died in their rooms.”
Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. It’s true. In another hundred years, this will be a very magically potent location. But for now, the effects haven’t soaked into the earth.”
“Only a dozen patients, huh?” Rondeau said. “In this big old place?”
“Not counting Mr. Annemann. We try to give each of them as much space as possible.”
“Anybody famous locked up here?” Rondeau said.
“Once, Mr. Vaughn was famous, or rather, infamous,” Dr. Husch said. “One of our newest inmates is our escape artist, the one who tried to get out via the phone lines, Elsie Jarrow. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”
“I don’t — ” Rondeau said.
“Marrowbones,” Marla said, shuddering. “That’s what they called her. They still told stories about her, when I first came to Felport. How she’d suck all the fluids out of your body with a kiss.”
“Hyperbole,” Dr. Husch said. “But only just. We have others. Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger, who lost track of his flesh one day and built a new body of the angry dead. A powerful psychic named Genevieve with a mind broken by trauma. Norma Nilson, who did not so much kill her enemies as crush them with despair until they begged permission to take their own lives. Others.” She shrugged. “They all have special needs. I serve them as well as I can.”
“Charming,” Marla said. “Let’s meet Mr. Vaughn. What’s his mental malfunction, anyway?”
“He wants to raise a dark god from the sea and destroy all human life,” Dr. Husch said. “Come along, his rooms are just down here.”
Vaughn’s room was crammed with bookshelves made of driftwood, and dried starfish dangled on strings from the ceiling. Despite the nautical theme, the room smelled of dust, not ocean. “Mr. Vaughn!” Dr. Husch called, and a small old man bustled in from another room. He wore an elegant gray suit, and his eyes were the darkest blue Marla had ever seen. Hands clasped behind his back, he bowed, and said “Thank you for coming to see me, Miss Mason. We have much to discuss.” He nodded curtly to Dr. Husch, and took no notice whatever of Rondeau. “Thank you for bringing her, Doctor. Hail Xorgotthua, and good day.”
“Come, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch said. “We’ll take the candy you brought to some of the other patients.”
Rondeau looked a question at Marla, and she nodded. Little old men who hailed Xorgotthua — whoever or whatever that was — weren’t necessarily harmless, but if he was too dangerous for Marla to handle, Rondeau wouldn’t be much help anyway. They left, and the door shut behind them. Vaughn gestured to an armchair, and Marla sat down, remembering to keep her legs demurely together. Stupid dress. Marla rubbed her hand on the arm of the chair and said “Is this sharkskin?”
“Oh, yes,” Vaughn said, sitting in an identical chair of his own. “Sharks are Xorgotthua’s handmaidens, of course.”
“Right. Why did you want to see me, Mr. Vaughn?”
“I need you to stop me,” he said. “Kill me, probably. Well. Not this me. The other me.”
“You’re going to have to clarify that.”
“Yes, I see.” Vaughn took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at sweat on his forehead, though it was cool in the room. “I assume you know of the sacrifice I made to the great god Xorgotthua a century ago? The ferry I sank, so that the screams of the dying might nourish the lord of all depths?”
Marla suppressed a shiver. So he was a religious fundamentalist. They always creeped her out. “Yeah, I know about that.” Details were slowly coming back to her. “You were trying to conduct some ritual, and raise some ancient god from the sea, right? But it didn’t work?”
“Oh, it worked.” Vaughn fingered a silver chain around his neck. “But it was only the first part of the ritual, you see. To raise Xorgotthua, I made a sacrifice to the waters, to wake the god. Then, a hundred years later, there must be another sacrifice, as large as the first, to entice the god to the surface, and onto the land. It is a long time to wait, but the attention spans of gods are not like those of men, and a hundred years is but a moment to Xorgotthua. The time for the second sacrifice is only a few days away.”
“And you want me to… stop you from making the sacrifice?” Marla said. “Shouldn’t be a problem, with you locked up here.”
“Ah, well, no, not exactly. I want you to stop the other me. My reincarnation.” He looked at her expectantly.
“Ah. So do I ring a bell or something to get Dr. Husch back here?” Marla said.
Vaughn sighed. “I know what you’re thinking. Death is generally a prerequisite to reincarnation.”
“Yeah. That’s part of what I was thinking.”
“I use the word as a convenience. It is not true reincarnation. You know the technique of putting your soul in a stone, to be retrieved later?”
“Sure. It tends to turn the soulless sorcerer into a pretty unsympathetic bastard with no sense of proportion, but it’s a way to preserve your life.” Marla was wary of the word “soul,” but she knew a technomancer who talked about uploading personalities into computers and making backups of your mind, and he said the principle was the same.
“I did… something similar. But then I made a perfect copy of the stone where I kept my soul, through a certain alchemical process. I restored my original soul to this body, and left the copy in a safe place near the docks in Felport, with instructions to activate a few months prior to the centennial of my first sacrifice. It was a backup plan, you see. If I died, or became incapacitated, my backup soul would be there to complete the ritual and raise Xorgotthua.”
Marla frowned. “What do you mean ‘activate’? Souls floating around loose aren’t good for much. They need bodies.”
“Oh, well, of course, the soul had instructions to seize control of the nearest suitable vessel.”
“Vessel. You mean a person.” Marla gripped the arms of the chair. “You made a backup of your soul with instructions for it to possess some random passer-by?”
Mr. Vaughn nodded. “Yes, exactly! Such an honor for the vessel, too, being given the opportunity to help raise Xorgotthua.”
Marla closed her eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again. The urge to strangle Vaughn had not passed, but it was under control. “So this person is wandering around Felport now?”
“Not wandering,” he said, offended. “He is me — or me, as I was a hundred years ago — and he has been learning all he can about the city. That’s how I found out you were the, ah, person in charge.”
“You’re in communication with this double of yours?”
“I see and hear and smell and taste what he does.” Vaughn frowned. “It is a side effect I had not expected, though I admit, it is good to smell the sea again. But I do not think this communication goes both ways. I’ve had no indication he sees what I see.”
“Good. Where can I find him?”
Vaughn wagged his finger. “No, no. I will not help you stop him unless you help me.”
“What, do you want to go on a field trip? Deep-sea fishing or something? I can talk to the doc.”
“No. What I want is for you to stop my reincarnation, so that I can be the one to raise great Xorgotthua. It should have been me. I cannot bear the thought of this copy of myself raising the god while I languish here, to die with everyone else when the waves cover the land. My copy was meant as a last resort, if I was dead or in a coma, but I am aware, and here, and quite capable of completing the ritual on my own.”
“Uh huh,” Marla said, standing. “So you want me to stop your copy from killing lots of innocent people, and help you kill lots of innocent people instead, and either way the result is a risen god who wants to destroy all human life? Sorry, doesn’t sound like something I want to pursue.”
“If you help me, I will intercede on your behalf with Xorgotthua. I can make sure you and your city are spared. My copy will show no such mercy, I assure you. But if you let me be the one who wakes the god, I will use my influence to convince it to spare your home.” Vaughn rose to his feet and stood facing Marla. He extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
Marla contemplated. If a great dark god really was rising from the sea, such bargains might be necessary, but she wasn’t ready to concede defeat yet. “No, thanks. I think I’ll look for your copy on my own.”
Vaughn closed his hands into fists. “Listen, woman. I brought you here to make an arrangement. You’ll never find him without me. If you don’t help me, the death of your city is a foregone conclusion. I offer your only hope. Take it, or face the consequences.”
“Yeah, let me get back to you on that,” she said, opening her cellphone and calling Rondeau. When he picked up, she said “Hey, tell the Doc I’m done here.”
“You can’t ‘get back to me,'” Vaughn said, his face getting red. “You will make this bargain now or — ”
Marla snorted. “Please. Like you won’t jump at the chance if I come back in two days and tell you it’s a deal. What, you’re going to turn up your nose and refuse to help me because I snubbed you today? As if.”
Vaughn sat down. He glowered at her. “You will regret the way you’ve treated me. When you return to beg for my assistance in a day or two days, I will know I have the power, and will drive a much harder bargain.”
“I look forward to negotiating with you,” Marla said. “But don’t expect me to wear a dress again.” The door opened, and Marla slipped out.
“You didn’t tell me he was the priest of a dark god,” Marla said, hurrying down the hallway, with the shorter Husch striding quickly to keep up. “You might’ve mentioned.”
“He’s not,” Husch said. “I told you, his fundamental worldview is delusional. He believes in the great god Xorgothhua, but no such god exists.”
Marla stopped walking. “Are you sure about that?”
“Quite. There is no record of such a creature in any oral or written tradition I have consulted. Vaughn claims the god has inspired countless followers through the ages, and has been worshipped by many societies, but it’s just not true. Vaughn began talking about Xorgotthua after he nearly drowned in the mid-1800s, and his delusion intensified over time, becoming ever more baroque and sophisticated. It was considered a harmless eccentricity, until he arranged the ferry disaster. Then Felport’s elite sorcerers realized he was a danger, and had him put away here.”
“Huh,” Marla said, resuming her walk back to Husch’s apartments. “That’s reassuring. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he told me.”
Husch unlocked the door. Rondeau was on the other side, sitting on a couch, watching a television screen. “We heard it all,” Husch said. “The guest rooms are under surveillance, of course.”
“That dude is batshit,” Rondeau said. “Now he’s walking in circles and talking to himself, and, I shit you not, cackling.”
“So you brought me here to listen to a crazy guy’s pointless babble?” Marla said.
“No. He did know your name, and your position among Felport’s sorcerers, and other details of daily life in the city he should not be privy to. I think he is probably telling the truth about this double of his, and his plans to conduct a sacrifice in a few days.”
“So there’s no giant sea god to worry about,” Rondeau said. “Just the issue of a bunch of innocent people getting killed.”
“Huh,” Marla said. “How many people died in that ferry disaster?”
“Over a hundred, most bound for a family reunion on Bramble Island,” Husch said. “And it sounds like Vaughn wants just as many people to die this time.”
“Crap,” Marla said.
“Indeed,” Husch replied.
“Good morning, Bay Witch,” Marla said, sitting on a bench on the boardwalk with a view of the bay’s gray expanse.
The Bay Witch — who’d once been named Zufi, back when she was a surfer girl, before she became a student of the hidden arts — sat at the other end of the bench. She was blonde and dressed in a black wetsuit, a puddle of sea water spreading all around her.
“Nice of you to visit,” the Bay Witch said. “You got my note?”
“I got an incomprehensible smear of goo on seaweed. But I needed to talk to you anyway. What’s up?”
“Bay’s getting more polluted every year. I’ve sent reports. You don’t answer me.”
Marla nodded. “I’ve been busy, but I’m taking bids to deal with the pollution. Unfortunately the best bid is from Ernesto, who wants to gather all the pollutants to create a filth elemental to smite his enemies. I’m thinking of accepting it, but I need to find out who his enemies are first.”
“Fair enough,” the Bay Witch said. “There’s another thing. Probably nothing, but there’s — ”
“Let me guess. There’s a crazy guy hanging around, talking about raising a dark sea god named Xorgotthua?”
The Bay Witch laughed. “They told me you have tentacles everywhere. Yeah, that’s him.”
“Where might I find this crazy guy?”
She shrugged. “He’s been a regular in some of the bars these past few months, bothering people, but he hasn’t been around lately. He was pretty irritated when nobody wanted to join his cult. He promised they’d all die if they didn’t join him, the usual. Nobody took him seriously. He’s just a kid, can’t be more than seventeen. I felt kind of bad for him, but he was creepy, too.”
Marla nodded. “I’ve got sort of a weird question. Let’s say I needed to get a giant squid in a few days. Just out in the bay, you know. Waving tentacles around, the whole deal. Think you could hook that up?”
“I’m not Aquaman,” she said. “I’m not friends with all the creatures of the sea.”
“Yeah, but I bet you’ve got methods.”
“A giant squid?” She frowned. “They do like cold water, but they’re not exactly common, and they prefer deep water. If it’s doable — if — I’d need some serious payback. I’d have to burn a lot of power and influence over something like this, and I’m guessing you don’t even want to tell me why.”
“True,” Marla said. “Do it, and you’ll be taken care of.”
“I’d need the bay to be taken care of. You’re the chief sorcerer of Felport, and the way you feel about the city? That’s how I feel about the bay.”
“We’ll work it out,” Marla said. “You know I’m good for it.”
“Okay,” the Bay Witch said. She shook her head. “I’ll see what I can do. Meet me back here tomorrow.” She walked to the edge of the boardwalk, climbed over the rail, and leapt gracefully into the sea.
Marla spent the afternoon talking to her various friends and informants by the boardwalk, the docks, and the boat harbor, but no one had seen the crazy guy lately. If Marla was going to find him, she’d have to get more creative.
“One giant squid, coming up,” the Bay Witch said, looking pleased with herself. They sat at an outdoor café a block from the water, enjoying the mild spring air, though the Bay Witch was dripping water, as always. It was an occupational malady. “The thing’s the size of a school bus. Where do you want it?”
“A few hundred yards from shore, two days from now, midnight, waving its tentacles around, splashing a lot, making a spectacle. Can you handle that?”
“I can hijack its brain for a little while,” the Bay Witch said. “Squid are too big, and their anatomy is too weird, for me to control easily, but if all you want is flailing, I can manage that. What, are you trying to scare away a sperm whale or something?”
“Not quite,” Marla said. “I need your help with something else. Where can I get a lot of seashells and other ocean crap like that?”
“You look like a kitschy seafood restaurant exploded all over you,” Rondeau said.
Marla examined herself in one of the long mirrors in the dressing room of Rondeau’s night club. It had been a strip club, once upon a time, and still had all the backstage facilities, though these days the only performers were DJs. She adjusted the bit of fishing net she wore as a cloak, and tugged the cascade of shell necklaces around so they didn’t drag quite so heavily on her neck. “That’s the look I’m going for,” she said. “You have to admit, the sword made from narwhal horn is pretty cool.” It was useless as a weapon, but the long, spiraling horn on a hilt hanging from her belt was a nice bit of flash.
“I still don’t see why I have to go,” Dr. Husch said, emerging from the bathroom. Even dressed in sailcloth, net, and shells, she managed to look regal. She had a wicked whip hanging from her belt, a scourge with ends tipped by fishhooks.
“I might need backup,” Marla said, “and the homunculus orderlies don’t listen to anyone but you.” She picked up two half-masks made of horseshoe crab shells, which, along with some drawn-on abstract tattoos, would serve to disguise their faces. Better if the original Mr. Vaughn didn’t recognize them while looking through his copy’s eyes.
Dr. Husch ran her finger along the top of a vanity, wrinkling her nose at the dust. “I don’t think this place has been cleaned since last time I was here.”
“You’ve been here before?” Rondeau said.
“When it was a burlesque house,” Husch said. “Once upon a time, Mr. Annemann owned this place. I… worked for him.”
Marla didn’t say anything. Husch had worked for him. Sort of.
“Wow, you were a dancer?” Rondeau said.
“It was a long time ago,” Husch said.
“I think we look suitably crazy and ocean-themed,” Marla said. “Let’s hit the bars.”
“Why do you think he’ll come here?” Husch said. They were in the back of an empty dive bar near the docks, sipping drinks and trying to ignore the smell of old beer and fish. Marla felt a little self-conscious in her sea-witch getup, and the mask cut her peripheral vision down more than she liked. The bartender clearly thought they were nuts, too, but image was important in situations like this.
“I started spreading the word that a priestess of Xorgotthua was in the area, planning the ritual that would raise the god, here to replace poor Mr. Vaughn.” She shrugged. “I said this was her hangout. If Vaughn’s copy is paying attention, he’ll hear word. And if he does come in, well, we’re kind of hard to miss.” Marla grinned. “In the meantime, girl talk. You know Rondeau likes you.”
Husch pursed her lips. “You don’t mean to tell me I should be flattered? I doubt he’s very discriminating in his tastes.”
“Rondeau usually likes body-pierced college girls with flexible attitudes toward morality,” Marla said. “You’re not his usual type, so sure, be flattered.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in what men thought of me, Marla,” she said, looking at her levelly. “Given your position, I assume you know the… details of my origin. You can understand why I might be wary of men?”
Marla nodded. “Sure. Just making conversation. But Rondeau doesn’t know your origins — I promise — so you don’t have to worry so much about his expectations.”
“I’ll take that under advisement.”
“Speaking of men,” Marla said.
A young man in a t-shirt and swimming trunks came through the door, sunlight streaming in around him. He saw them in the back of the bar and started coming their way.
The bartender shouted at him. “Hold on, kid, I told you, you’re under age, you can’t come in here!” The kid gestured at the bartender and muttered a guttural incantation, and the bartender fell, eyes rolling back in his head.
“Well, well,” Marla said. “Reckless and unnecessary use of magic. This must be our zealot.”
“You!” he said, striding toward them. “You claim to worship Xorgotthua?” His hair was wet, and he had a large pimple on the side of his nose.
Marla sipped her beer before answering. “I claim nothing. I am the priestess of Xorgotthua, yes. And who are you, child?”
“I am no child. I am the reincarnation of Roger Vaughn himself!”
“Madness,” Marla said. “Vaughn has not been seen in a century. I have come, with my followers, to complete the work he began so long ago.” She gestured at him lazily. “Away with you. Enjoy your last days of life before the waters swallow you.”
He crouched by the table. “You don’t understand. I am Vaughn. I have pledge my life to Xorgotthua! How have I never heard of you and your followers?”
“We have lived in seclusion on an island,” Marla said. “Waiting for the stars to come right. That time is now. The sacrifices are prepared, and the god will rise tomorrow night.”
He frowned. “I’ve arranged a sacrifice. There are bombs, on a ferry bound for Bramble Island, and tomorrow — ”
Marla snorted. “The bombs were discovered, you fool, and removed. Did you think the secret ruler of this city would fail to check the ferries, so close to the centennial of Vaughn’s first sacrifice?”
The kid grimaced. “Marla Mason. Yes. I did not realize… I had heard she was effective. I should have been more careful. But surely I can still be of service — ”
Marla waved her hands. “It’s all arranged. The orphans have already been prepared.”
Dr. Husch’s eyes went wide, and she made a snorting noise, and after a moment Marla realized she was trying not to laugh. Dr. Husch, laughing — that would be something to see.
“Orphans?” the kid said.
Marla nodded. “Yes. Xorgotthua enjoys the taste of orphans. Something Vaughn would know very well.”
“Of course I know,” he said quickly. “I just… where did you get orphans?”
Marla turned her most withering glare on him, hoping the half-mask didn’t dim its power. “They’re orphans. The essential fact of orphans is that no one much misses them. Now, please, be gone. We are discussing preparations for the ceremony.”
Vaughn stood up. “I… please, Xorgotthua is my life… how can I serve?”
Marla sighed theatrically. “Very well. Vaughn, if that is your name. Come to the boardwalk tomorrow, before midnight. You may watch the great god rise with the rest of my followers. Perhaps Xorgotthua will choose to spare your life.”
“Thank you,” Vaughn’s copy said, and left the bar, looking punch-drunk and dazed.
“You’d better go check on the bartender, Doc, and make sure the kid didn’t kill him.” Marla cracked her knuckles. “We’re on for tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t you just have me summon the orderlies?” Husch said. “They could have seized him, and he would have been safely housed in the Blackwing Institute before nightfall!”
Marla shook her head. “Then him and the other Vaughn would just keep plotting and planning and probably causing me more trouble in ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred years, gods forbid I’m still around then. No, we need to put an end to this, or at least build in a long delay.” She opened her cell phone and called Rondeau. “Hey,” she said. “Send some of our pet policemen to check the Bramble Island ferries for bombs. Yes, I know, I don’t know why I didn’t think to check there. I guess I expected Vaughn’s copy to be more original. Make sure our people keep an eye on the copy, too, in case he decides to cover his bets by throwing firebombs at a yacht or something.” She closed the phone. “When they find the bombs, we can say it was terrorists, and get some of that sweet Homeland Security money. The mayor would totally owe me for that.”
“How nice for you. So what happens now?”
“Squid happens,” Marla said.
“Are the orderlies in place, Rondeau” Marla spoke into her phone.
“And you talked to the Bay Witch?”
“Zufi says we’re good to go,” Rondeau replied.
“Good.” She hung up. Dr. Husch and a handful of Annemann’s homonculi — dressed in their own seashell-and-face-tattoo cultist disguises — stood on the boardwalk, by the railing, looking at the moonlit water. The air was cool, the tang of salt strong in the air. A good night for a ritual.
“The bay is really very pretty,” Dr. Husch said.
“It’s a good deep-water port,” Marla said, with her usual civic pride.
“I hope we aren’t mistaken about Mr. Vaughn, and the accuracy of his ideas,” Husch said. She swung her fishhook-tipped scourge idly over the railing. “I’d be very upset if a great sea god did rise tonight.”
“Eh,” Marla said. “The bombs were disabled, and I didn’t actually sacrifice any orphans. I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if Xorgotthua does exist, which he doesn’t, he’ll just slumber on.” She glanced at her cell phone. Five minutes to midnight. “I hope he shows.”
“I am here, priestess.”
Marla and Dr. Husch turned and saw Vaughn’s copy. He wore his own cape of net, woven with seaweed, and a ridiculous profusion of shell necklaces. His face had markings just like Marla’s… only his were real tattoos. Marla winced under her mask. Damn. That must have hurt. She felt bad for the kid who’d been possessed. He’d probably never get his body back, and if he did, he’d have to walk around with that stuff on his face.
“Good,” Marla said. “Then observe the water, where Xorgothhua will rise.”
They all bellied up to the rail. Nothing much happened; moonlight, wind, waves. Then, slowly, the sea began to bubble and roil, and after a moment something vast broke the surface out in the water, and great flailing tentacles, each over fifteen feet long, whipped into the air, flinging water. The “cultists” dropped to their knees, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Vaughn’s copy.
“Great Xorgotthua!” Marla shouted, still standing, raising her arms overhead. “We come to welcome you!”
The squid rolled, revealing an eye the size of a dinner plate for a moment before slipping back under the water.
“Yes!” Marla shouted. “I understand, great one! We live to serve you!”
The squid sank beneath the waves, and the cultists rose.
“My people,” Marla said, her voice appropriately bleak. “Great Xorgotthua thanks us for the sacrifice, but says it is not yet time to rise. Xorgotthua wishes to wait until the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen to swallow the coastal lands. We are not to disturb its slumber until that time. We must keep the god’s sacraments and teach the next generation of followers.” She shook her head. “Our time will come. It only seems long, to our pitiful human minds. Another few centuries are but moments to great Xorgotthua.”
Vaughn’s copy remained kneeling when the others rose. He looked up at Marla, stricken. “I can wait,” he said. “I have no choice. I will wait. That glimpse of the god will sustain me through the centuries.”
Show ’em a few tentacles and they see a squamous god of the outer darkness, Marla though. “I have discovered something,” she said, placing a hand on the copy’s shoulder. “It seems Roger Vaughn did not die, as we all assumed. He is resting in a hospital, where all his needs are looked after. Would you like to meet him?”
“He — I — he lives? When I woke, I thought he must have died, but…” The copy stood up. “Yes. I’d like to see him very much. I wish to know what happened to my life in the past hundred years.”
“Perhaps you and the older Mr. Vaughn can await the return of Xorgotthua together,” Marla said. She nodded to Dr. Husch, who summoned her orderlies to lead Vaughn’s copy to the car.
“They bicker like an old couple,” Rondeau said, watching Vaughn — both Vaughns — on Dr. Husch’s closed-circuit television. The two mad sorcerers shared a new, larger suite of rooms in the Blackwing Institute, and spent most of their time arguing over fine points of Xorgotthuan theology. They might have had the same mind, once, but you can’t put one soul in two bodies without a little divergence.
“I’m just glad they’re locked up,” Marla said.
Rondeau nodded. “It was nice of you to bring all this stuff,” he said. Marla had loaded a truck with blankets, drugs, and food, donations from the sorcerers of the city. Marla had told the other sorcerers that Dr. Husch was the one who saved the city from destruction by a great ocean-dwelling deity inimical to human life, and had encouraged them to show their appreciation with material goods. They had. No one liked to contemplate the coming of great indifferent gods, and Marla hadn’t bothered to tell the sorcerers that Xorgotthua was imaginary.
“Where is Leda, anyway?” Marla said. “I thought she was coming back to the city with us.”
“Yep. I’m taking her to see one of those homemade robot demolition derbies,” Rondeau said. “It’s going to be awesome. She said she had to take care of something before we go, though.”
Marla rolled her eyes. She’d done her part to encourage Dr. Husch, but she doubted Rondeau would make it past one date with her.
Rondeau went back to watching the screen, snorting laughter as the two Vaughns argued about whose turn it was to clean the toilet. Marla went looking for Dr. Husch, and found her in a room at the end of a short hallway, sitting beside a hospital bed.
Marla stood in the doorway for a moment, then said “I don’t understand why you still tend him.”
Dr. Husch adjusted Mr. Annemann’s catheter. He was hooked up to a number of machines, his head wrapped almost entirely in a thick padding of bandages.
Marla cleared her throat. “I mean, when you consider…”
“The fact that he created me?” Dr. Husch said. “You might expect me to be grateful for that.”
Marla shifted uncomfortably. “But he created you to be his, well, his concubine, right?”
“I was created as his living sexual fantasy,” she said, covering Mr. Annemann with a blanket. “Yes. And he used me as such. I was the most sophisticated of his many homonculi, the only one capable of independent thought. At first, I appreciated his attention. Even when he sold me to the highest bidder as a courtesan, and later, when he had me dance in a burlesque house and sold me more prosaically in the alley behind the club, I felt he deserved to treat me any way he wished. But as time passed, I began to resent him, and to wish for my own life. The worst part was, I still loved him. He could be very kind, you know, and he loved discovery and knowledge more than anything, something I respected very much. And then one day, I began to wonder if perhaps Mr. Annemann made me love him. What if loving him was not a choice, but merely a spell he’d cast on me?” She stroked Annemann’s hand.
“That’s why you shot him?” Marla said. “Because you thought he’d cast a love spell on you?” The Felport archives had reports about the shooting, but not about the motives.
Dr. Husch bowed her head. “Yes. I thought he must be a monster, to cast such a spell. I thought I would kill him, and free myself. He did not die, but his brain was… severely harmed. Any spell he cast on me would have failed, then, after the damage I inflicted.” She looked up. “But I didn’t stop loving him. I realized the love was not the result of a spell at all, but a true feeling. And so I have been caring for him ever since. Someday, he will wake, and I will tell him I’m sorry. Perhaps then he will realize I am more than his creation, and he will see me as a woman, and his equal.”
Wishful thinking, Marla thought. “I’m not saying it was right to shoot him. But you probably never would have had your own life otherwise.”
“No one’s life is solely their own,” Dr. Husch said. “We are all bound by our devotions. Mr. Vaughn would understand that. I’m sure you do, too.”
Marla thought of her own tangled allegiances, the web of obligations that made protecting the city possible… but that was the point, wasn’t it? To protect Felport. She had devotions of her own, and couldn’t fault Dr. Husch for hers, however misguided they might be in Marla’s eyes.
“Thanks for all your help, Leda.”
“You can thank me by doubling my annual budget.”
Marla laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”
(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)