Authors: T.A. Pratt
Tags: #action, #Fantasy, #urban fantasy
Queen of Nothing
A Marla Mason Novel
by T.A. Pratt
Three Days Late
theory didn’t pan out,” Rondeau said.
“I confess I had little faith that it would.” Pelham nudged the undisturbed patch of sand at the back of the cave with his toe. The dusty, cool air smelled of canned beans, and, as an inevitable corollary, farts.
Rondeau sat down on a dusty cooler and leaned his back against the cave wall. “I don’t know, it seemed sort of... mythic. She didn’t come back to life on schedule, so I thought maybe if we waited three days,
she’d resurrect. We’re in a cave. She’s a god who’s also a mortal. I thought that’s how these things were done.”
“We don’t even have a stone to roll back, and I don’t think Mrs. Mason’s godhood is particularly related to Christian mythology.”
“Oh, sure, but the rule of threes, that’s a thing, right?”
“In comedy, as I understand it.”
Rondeau scowled. “In magic too, Pelly. Triple goddess. Three-fold law. Junk like that. We could keep waiting, but I’m not a big fan of desert camping under any circumstances, especially indefinite ones. It looks like Marla isn’t coming back from the underworld to spend a month on Earth as a mortal like she usually does. So... do we have theories? Is her failure to appear more like forgetting to go to the dentist, or like being kidnapped by a murder cult?”
Pelham wandered away from the plot of sand where, in the past, their mutual friend and intermittent employer Marla Mason, part-time goddess of death, had returned to the mortal world, typically rising up naked and sand-caked and cranky. “There could have been some sort of... mythological emergency. Something that required her attention as a god, and delayed her return to mortality?”
Rondeau hrmphed. “You’d think she’d at least answer our calls then.” The underworld didn’t have phones, or eat least not ones mortals could reach, but there were certain procedures in place to send Marla messages: writing notes and burning them on a fire made of rotten wood and animal bones, lighting black candles and chanting in a circle of salt, yelling into open graves, things like that. She very rarely
those messages—when she was in goddess-mode, she paid as little attention to the goings-on of mortals as Rondeau did to insects buzzing around a porch light—but surely if she knew she was going to be late she’d make an exception, and send an apparition of a flaming dog skull to bark her new schedule at them, or something. Rondeau would’ve settled for an entirely non-eldritch email.
Then again, maybe it just hadn’t occurred to her. Even mortal Marla wasn’t the most considerate when it came to valuing other people’s time, and when she was in Bride of Death mode, she was about as warm and thoughtful as a bad case of hypothermia. But.... “It’s possible she’s just being an inconsiderate asshole,” Rondeau said. “Maybe even probable. But we can’t rule out the idea that she’s in trouble.”
Pelham nodded. “Indeed. But what sort of help can we possibly offer, if she is?”
“I could summon an oracle.” Rondeau shuddered at the thought. “There are old wild spirits all over this valley. I could find one and ask it what’s going on.”
“Hmm,” Pelham said. “The last time desperation led you to summon an oracle, we were nearly killed, and we
exiled from Las Vegas. If Marla hadn’t convinced the Pit Boss to let us return, we would still be homeless.”
“There’s that. There’s also the problem that gods don’t usually like people asking questions about them. If I summon an oracle and ask it to reveal secrets about a being of immense power? It would try to answer, because they always do, but the price for that answer could be more than I’m willing or able to pay.”
“It is Mrs. Mason, though,” Pelham said simply.
“Yeah. It’s Marla. I know.” Rondeau suddenly perked up. “Hey, hold up. I’m not the only guy on this side of the Rockies who can summon oracles anymore. Bradley Bowman is in San Francisco now. He’s got all the same powers I do,
he knows a hell of a lot more about how to use them properly. He’s got a lot more experience.”
“He also diligently studies and applies himself.”
“Yeah, I know.” Rondeau shook his head in wonderment. “Some people are so
“Shall we call him?” Pelham said.
“Huh.” Rondeau stood up and began to pace around. “I don’t actually have his number. I mean, B wasn’t even living on this plane of reality until recently. Do autonomous fragments of multiversal collective meta-gods even
phones? I could get in touch with Perren River in Felport, and she could probably find me a number for Sanford Cole in San Francisco—all the chief sorcerers know how to reach each other, more or less—and Cole would know where to find B, they’re working together again....”
“But Perren would ask questions,” Pelham said. “It may be better, perhaps, if people don’t realize Marla Mason has failed to return to Earth.”
Rondeau nodded. “Trouble in the realms of gods is the sort of thing sorcerers are interested in for all kinds of reasons, most of them bad. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but I don’t want Marla getting pissed at me for talking out of turn. Cole’s part of her inner circle, and B’s like a kid brother to her, so they’re safe to loop in on this.... We could just start driving, and we’d get to San Francisco in eight or ten hours, depending on traffic. Once we get there, I know where Cole hangs out, we can do this face-to-face, old school.”
“Do we dare leave this place unattended, though?” Pelham said. “What if Mrs. Mason arrives tomorrow, or the next day, and laments our absence? I would worry less if she had cultists here to greet her....” He trailed off. The existing cult of the Bride of Death had been slaughtered by an ancient otherworldly monster they’d discovered in the caves below Death Valley, and though Rondeau and Pelham had expected more weirdo zealots to drift into the valley, drawn by mysterious compulsions, no one had shown up yet. Which, in retrospect, was kind of ominous in itself.
“We could park her motorcycle in the cave,” Rondeau said. “Nobody’s going to wander in here, the place is magically concealed, so it should be safe. We’ll leave the suitcase with her clothes and stuff. There’s food and water. Hell, we’ll even leave a note, and her phone, so she can call us if she
come back. If Marla’s anything at all, she’s self-sufficient.”
“I admit, I grow anxious just waiting, and it would be pleasant to take action, of whatever sort.”
“Yeah,” Rondeau agreed. “Forward motion is a good way to distract yourself from being scared as hell.”
Their RV looked like a battered piece of junk, but it was ensorcelled to run perfectly, and after recent upgrades it could even drive fully autonomously, with an illusory figure—who looked like an old man who got his fashion advice from the golf channel—in the driver’s seat to keep people driving past from freaking out. (They could have cast a look-away spell on the vehicle, of course, to keep people from noticing, but that was a bad idea, unless you
being rear-ended and sideswiped by other drivers who simply didn’t notice you there.)
Rondeau piloted the RV out of Death Valley himself rather than engaging the auto-drive, because even though he loved sloth and indolence almost as much as he loved runny cheese and oral sex (albeit not in combination), at the moment he wanted to feel like he was
something. They rolled down a bumpy dirt road, through the scrub and sand and surprise patches of wildflowers, and as usual didn’t see another living soul... except one.
There was a woman in oversized sunglasses relaxing in one of those folding poolside lounge chairs, improbably sitting in a clear patch of sand, no vehicle or camping gear in sight. She wore a skimpy red bikini that matched her bright red hair so perfectly it was like they’d been dyed to be identical, and she was so pale that Rondeau winced at the thought of what the sun was doing to her: the woman was courting melanoma. She was probably late thirties or early forties, and he vaguely noted that she was pretty, though these days he lusted after boys almost exclusively. What was she
out here, though? Who came to Death Valley to sunbathe?
She raised a hand and waved at him lazily as he went past, and he waved back, out of bewildered politeness. Oh well. People were weird. He didn’t think of the woman much after that... until later, when he had good reason to.
Once they hit the highway Rondeau and Pelham mostly hung out in the RV’s living area and let the vehicle drive itself. They played desultory hands of gin rummy, took naps, and read as they cruised along the freeways. Since they had food in the cupboards and a toilet in the back and enough room to stand up and stretch their legs as required, they didn’t even stop for pee or food breaks. Rondeau had spent most of his life on the East Coast, and it was still strange to him that you could spend so many hours driving and still be in the same state. California had a surpassing bigness about it.
They arrived in San Francisco right in the thickest part of evening rush hour, reduced to crawling through the congested streets. No amount of magic could make their progress any faster, at least not without flinging the obstructing vehicles out of the roadway, which was probably beyond their capabilities anyway, and would in any case get them in trouble with the same local magical authorities they were hoping to ask for help. Eventually they got to the right block and Rondeau took the wheel, then found a nice big stretch of red curb in front of a fire hydrant not far from the tiny bookstore in North Beach where Sanford Cole currently held court.
“I think I have a look-away charm.” Pelham patted the pockets of his jacket. “To keep us from getting a parking ticket.”
The fact that Pelham wasn’t fretting over the unlawful transgression of parking illegally demonstrated real progress in his moral flexibility, something Rondeau appreciated. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m friends with the sorcerer who runs the city. Save the charm for an emergency. It’s not like we can get towed.” The anti-theft charms on the RV were more than sufficient to prevent its removal by legal means, too.
“I feel terribly grubby.” Pelham attempted to smooth out his old-fashioned suit, which to Rondeau’s eye looked not even remotely rumpled. Rondeau grunted. He was dressed in a blue vintage ‘50s bowling shirt and brown corduroy pants. He usually made more of a sartorial effort, but a few days waiting in a cave in the desert had dinged his enthusiasm for fashion.
The used bookstore was a small storefront squeezed between an artisanal toast restaurant on one side and a cell phone store on the other. The glass door had gold leaf lettering that read Singer’s Books. Under hours it just said “Variable,” but the hanging sign in the window read “OPEN.” A bell rang when they pushed their way in. The shop was deep and narrow, or at least it
narrow, with floor-to-ceiling shelves on all the walls and freestanding as well, forming a maze of book-lined aisles that were barely wide enough to squeeze through. The cashier’s nest was practically a fort made of shelves surrounding a beaten-up wooden desk. A young woman with dreadlocks and ostentatiously chunky glasses sat on a stool, marking her place in a trade paperback copy of a volume titled
with her finger. Her smile was distracted but genuine. “Help you?”
“I’m looking for a quaint and curious person of forgotten lore,” Rondeau said. “Sanford Cole?”
She kept frowning, and she was no longer at all distracted. “Sorry, I don’t know who that is.”
“My name’s Rondeau. What’s yours?”
She frowned, and he thought she wouldn’t answer, but she shrugged and said, “Tessa.”
“Good to meet you, Tessa. Cole knows me. I hear these days he’s hanging out in the back room of this shop. If he’s not around, I can wait.” He glanced around. “There’s plenty to read, anyway. Way better than most waiting rooms.”
“You might as well wait for Godot, because I don’t know anybody named Cole. But there’s no law against browsing.” She went back to her book, but the tension in her posture was obvious. Rondeau wondered if she was an apprentice or a full-fledged sorcerer. Maybe a bibliomancer. He hadn’t seen her push a button or send a signal, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t communicated his presence in some way. He could get insistent, but he was tired after the drive, so he figured he’d give it some time.