Authors: C.E. Murphy
“Ain’t that the truth.” He prowled forward, never lessening the crush of power directed at Annie. She held her ground like it was nothing, but my head was starting to hurt. I didn’t know how long I could protect her. Something was going to have to change, and fast, or he’d just obliterate me. And then everybody I loved. He stalked around me and I tried not to watch, pretending a cold chill didn’t skitter over my whole body at having him behind me. Gary could be graceful, but he didn’t move like that. I wished he’d stop.
He did stop, right behind me. Close enough that I felt his breath against my neck when he spoke. “Blood. Fear. Pain. Death.”
I shivered like the stereotypical leaf in the wind, but also found a snort of derision brave enough to make itself heard. “Yeah, I know
That’s what you feed on. Death magic, woo woo.” Ah yes, sarcasm, my old friend. The only thing to get me through a lot of stupid, dangerous situations. It never helped, except in making me feel just a tiny bit better. “No, seriously, for a big scary death magic you’re also kind of lame, aren’t you? All these avatars and servants. You don’t
anything yourself. They just feed you from afar, because you can’t even manifest a body. But c’mon, guy like you, what do you even
a body for? They break easily, and it’s not like you can’t get people to do your bidding.”
I carefully didn’t look at Coyote during that last bit, but in not looking at him, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Morrison’s face twitch like he couldn’t believe I was baiting the Master, and also like he couldn’t believe that he couldn’t believe it. It was Schrödinger’s twitch, neither believing nor disbelieving until we got out of here alive. I was glad to provide him with some thread of humor in the midst of this mess, but I also really wished he would just grab Coyote and Annie and run away.
“Gotta have a body to fill up, doll. Can’t get sated if you got no stomach. ’Sides.” Gary came around to face me, eyes glinting black. “You got one thing right. It ain’t this body I want.”
“Then take this one!”
A collective sound of dismay emanated from Morrison, Coyote and Annie. Gary’s attention strayed to them, which was exactly where I didn’t want it, so I shoved him. Put a hand on his shoulder and shoved, which
get his attention, but also shot black pain through my palm and up my arm. It actually had color, that agony: despite my shields it slid right up through my veins, discoloring them. I gasped and knotted my other hand around my forearm, cutting off the sluicing black magic.
When I looked up, Gary’s vicious grin was three inches from my face. “Sweet, darlin’. You’re a better fit, no doubt, but you’re not thinking things through.” He moved that grin even closer, as if he’d kiss me with it, and for a wild moment I wondered if he’d been harboring some secret truth under all the teasing we’d undergone about being a couple. From right there, half an inch from my mouth, he whispered, “I live on pain, babe. You think I’m gonna take you first, when everybody you love is standin’ right here? Don’t be stupid, Jo. We’re just gettin’ started.”
A lot of things happened at once, or close enough to count. I snapped,
to Morrison and the others, then seized Gary’s face and kissed him.
The good news was the only expression of surprise I had to deal with was his, as I couldn’t see Morrison or Annie. The bad news was Gary actually kissed me back, which I really hadn’t been expecting.
And the worst news was that in some awful, hideous way, it was a
kiss. Not so much the brain-spiking agony that came along with it as black power flowed from the Master into me, trying to take my magic, to feed on it like he fed on everything else. That wasn’t great. But this was Gary’s body, and it had been pretty clear from the get-go that if he’d been thirty years younger I’d have been following him around with puppy-dog eyes.
part of him knew how to kiss a girl. The guy with the roguish grin and the twinkle in his eye, the guy who quoted Shakespeare at the drop of a hat and called it like he saw it, well, when he called a kiss like he saw it, it turned out to be toe-curlingly, knee-weakeningly, butterfly-inducingly good. It reminded me of the moments when I’d been allowed to glimpse his garden or see the world he’d once known through his garden self’s eyes, and it told me, all over again, how in almost every way that counted, he’d shown me how to grow up and how to love people. It was a kiss that rushed us through the bad times—heart attacks and demon hunts—and lingered on the good, on the friendship and laughter and adventure.
When, shocked, I let him go, he dropped a wink that was pure Gary, and my heart turned to a cold stone in my chest. If Gary was still in there somewhere, and he had to be, if the Master could kiss me like that, then it made what was almost certainly going to happen much, much harder.
On the plus side, we weren’t in the Space Needle anymore.
Unfortunately, we weren’t in the Lower World, either, and that’s where I’d hoped to bring us. The whole point of kissing him had been a distraction, to haul him into another plane. I wanted this fight to be out of sight and out of reach, especially out of Annie’s sight and reach. Morrison could cope and Coyote wasn’t really in a position to object, but if it came to it, Annie did not need to see me destroy the thing that her husband had become.
But instead of the Lower World’s yellow sky and red earth, we were shrouded in mist and green-gray silence. A sense of eternity and expansion flowed through the soft air, as if our immediate surrounds were solid only out of an obligation to our mortal forms. I had the feeling that if I could only run fast enough I would burst through the physical world here and find myself in a lost expanse of space, looking down at the stars. I pulled a startled breath, tasting the rich rot of dying earth and the cleansing dampness of wet air.
The breath burst out of me in a
and for a moment or two I let myself forget about the problem at hand as I stared around. I knew this place. I’d been here three times: once to see the land Cernunnos called home, once to steal a sleeping half god’s body back from its resting place, and once to heal the dying land. I was pretty certain a fourth visit meant I was going to be stuck here forever, although that was possibly only if I came with Cernunnos.
Which was the only way I knew to
here. Tir na nOg was more than a different plane. It wasn’t like the Lower and Upper Worlds, crooked reflections of the Middle World, the earth I knew. It was a world of its own, somewhere only reachable through the stars. Time travel was appalling enough. I actually turned an eye inward to stare in horror at Renee.
too, do you?
She shook her head no, but I wasn’t really listening, because I didn’t really think she was responsible for our arrival in Cernunnos’s home world. “What, I can’t—how did we get
Cernunnos? Where—what the hell?” I was sure I should be able to do better than that, but my mental faculties were too busy slamming up against walls of impossibility for me to get beyond half sentences and stupid questions. “
Did you—I mean, how could you, you can’t, you’re—but you did ride with him for, like, ever, so did you—?”
A little belatedly, I realized he wasn’t, like, trying to kill me dead, or take over my body, or do any of the other things I might expect the Master to be doing while I stood there flapping my jaw like an idiot, and I finally tore my attention from our bewildering surrounds to look at him.
He wasn’t my Gary anymore. I mean, he was, but he was the Gary of forty years ago, young, strong, in his absolute prime. He was beautiful, broad-shouldered and smiling, wearing the soldier’s uniform I’d seen him wear in his garden. His arms were spread, face uplifted, and every breath he took shifted the mist, pulling it deep into him. It sank into his skin, too, lending it a glow that was more than health: power flowed through him like blood in his veins, strengthening him with every moment.
A penny dropped at the back of my head. A cold penny, dripping all the way down my spine and sending goose bumps over my arms. Mist clung to the lifted hairs while I worked to get a word out. I knew the look on Gary’s face. I’d seen it on Cernunnos’s; I’d felt it on my own. It was a relaxation and relief and gladness and acceptance of familiar problems. It was an expression almost anybody could recognize. It said one thing: it said—
“Home,” breathed the Master, and my vision went white with panic.
Trying for the Lower World had been dangerous enough. It was powerful, full of inherent magic, because even if the power Gary had been infused with tapped out, it was entirely possible the Master could take sustenance from the Lower World itself. I’d figured it was a risk worth taking, because I
he could plug into the Middle World, full as it was of pain and fear and loss, especially in Seattle right now. If I’d been braver, I might’ve tried taking him to the Upper World, which was purely a place of spirits, and somehow seemed less vulnerable, but I wasn’t all that confident of my own skill set there.
Tir na nOg was a freaking
for me, if the Master knew it as home. I mean, it knew me, we’d had some good, world-saving times together, but I wasn’t
Tir na nOg, and it was starting to look like the Master was. He was speaking again, not at all to me, although I was his only audience. “Home. Oh, I knew not how fortunate I was when this body came to me. It knows this world in its old bones, when I have not known it in the flesh at all. I had thought myself thwarted in the pursuit of the old woman, but I see now that it was necessary. This is as it was meant to be, only I could not see clearly enough to know it. For this—” and it suddenly sounded like he was talking to himself “—for this I shall save her for last, that you might eke every moment out of your possible time together. Such is my magnanimity.”
“Wait.” My voice came out as a rasp, hardly a sound to disturb the roaming mist. “Wait, how can it be your home? How can... What? How? I mean... Who are you?” Of all the stupid questions that it had never really occurred to me to ask before, but then, I’d never been given the sense that the Master
a home, not until this very moment, and it suddenly seemed that if he had a home, then maybe he had a name and motivation beyond
kill all the things.
“I have no name.” The answer came like poison through the mist, staining it and corroding the breath in my lungs. “My brother took form and name and would share neither with me, consigning me to endless hunger and emptiness. I have strained and I have struggled to survive. I have eaten the very body of this world and the flesh of men, and I have struck at him time and time again, starved for sustenance, and
finally I am made.
I will not be unmade. This body you so love will be my strength until its inborn power fades. Then I will have each of those you love, until there is nothing left for you but despair, and then you will be mine for eternity. Within you, I will make your world
“Hah!” The sound blurted through my lips, surprising me. “I’ve already been made that offer by somebody a whole lot more appealing than you, and I turned him down.”
Black eyes or not, Gary gave me a very sly, very Gary look, and dropped his Master cadences for Gary’s. “Yeah? Didja kiss him that way, too, sweetheart?”
Heat erupted around my collarbones and swept upward. I had, in fact, kissed—or been kissed by—Cernunnos in a very similar fashion. Gary let go a bark of laughter that, unlike the others before it, sounded real, like he was starting to understand humor. It went flat, though, flat with rage and hate, and though he retained Gary’s manner of speaking, nothing about him was Gary-like. “You’re talkin’ about my brother, doll. You shoulda taken him up on that offer, ’cause on your own, you can’t stand against me. Never could. Never will.”
“Your bro...” The sensation of draining blood, the wash of sudden cold, was so abrupt and real I looked at my feet, expecting to see a seeping red puddle expanding around them. There wasn’t one, but no warmth returned to my body as I wrenched my gaze back to the Master’s. “Cernunn... Oh, my god. Oh, my God. You’re... No, shut up, shut
” I pinched my fingers together as Gary drew breath to speak again, like I could squish his lips shut with the gesture.
Surprise shot his bushy eyebrows upward and he said nothing, which astonished the part of my brain given over to thinking about details like that. Most of me, though, was trying to scramble through the jigsaw pieces and put them together at top speed. “You’re two-spirited,” I said in pure bogglement. “Like Billy and Caroline, or Aidan and Ayita. I mean, aren’t you? Pretty much? Except what, what, you’re—”
I was actually pacing, talking faster and faster, while my mortal enemy stood there watching me and looking increasingly amused. I didn’t think this was any kind of reprieve. I was pretty certain he wanted very much for me to put all the pieces together so I could understand just how badly I was screwed before he got busy with obliterating me. It would be more fun that way. More
that way, and he thrived on pain.
It came together with an audible click in my ears, stopping me in my tracks. I wasn’t even looking at him, only staring blankly at the whispering mist as I spelled it out. “He’s an agent of order. I always knew that. He rides to collect souls, to bring them back into the circle of reincarnation and birth and death. Nobody’s ever going to convince me death is a good thing, but I get what he does and how he fits in. And you’re the other side of it. You’re the chaos aspect. You’re the reveling in pain and killing for the sake of it, no order or sense, just agony. And the thing is that you’re inseparable, aren’t you. I never thought about it, but you don’t just get one without the other, no matter how hard we might try. But, what?”
I turned to him, to Gary, to the Master, whose face was contorted with the hatred of comprehension. “Two spirits, one body. I know what that does in a human, I’ve seen the kind of power, the depth of magic, the resonance and the understanding it creates. Only, what, when you’re god-level magic, there’s only enough room in a body for one spirit? And he won it, back at the beginning of time?”
The question woke a battle in the mist, two vast amorphous creatures locked in a struggle that had the sense of eternity to it. Life sprang into being in Tir na nOg while they fought, and the idea of physical presence drifted into their awareness. They sought form from the world itself, and the world would only give up a certain amount of itself to them. Moons, oceans, continents, living things and dying bodies: they were shaped and shaved and made smaller, the intensity of eternal existence binding itself into a comprehensible form over an impossible amount of time. Pieces were shorn off, aspects that one or the other desired or rejected as they strove to fit into a body too small to contain all of eternity. In the end Cernunnos rose from the battle, so massive that his footsteps left lakes, kicked up mountains, felled species. But each step he took reduced him, not in power but in size, until his form bled with it, until he was more than an archetype. Until he was a god, a thing that could walk among men and awe them with his presence. He was all of the things that he had chosen in his making, all of the things that his other half had rejected: he was an acceptance of life’s circle, a thing that prided itself on smoothing that circle, on offering a kind of raw comfort in the face of oblivion.
He left the Master behind, nameless, formless, enraged and not, in the end, without power. The Master faded into the mist, becoming part of it, carrying hatred and pain into it until those things were invasive, easy to breathe in, impossible to separate from the body when inhaled, able to influence but never able to possess. For time immemorial he had struggled to
in the way that Cernunnos had, and for as long he had been denied.
Until now. Until today, when my best friends and I had brought him into the world.
“Oh, my god,” I said again, much more softly this time, and for the second time I was speaking to someone specific when I said the words. “When we first met, Cernunnos wanted me to ride with him. He almost said it in as many words, that he wanted me to be the other half of his soul. We’d be unstoppable, he’d said. Because if we were one, he’d be complete. There’d be no room left for you. All of this might have been averted. So many people might still be alive.” Frustrated rage suddenly spun me away from the Master, erupting in a useless bellow at the mist, as if Cernunnos would hear it: “You could have fucking
some of this!”
“Have you no pity for me?”
Had he spoken in Gary’s voice, it might have worked. It almost did anyway. I turned back from my flash of fury to gape at the youthful lie that was my friend. He was not only strong and handsome, then. He was alone, hideously alone, a thing that had been abandoned in its making and had never found a place of safety in the world. Shaped into human form, in that moment he looked nearly broken, shoulders sagged and face averted. Anyone could pity something that pathetic.