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Poison Sleepby T A Pratt
The Bentley squealed to a halt at the top of the icy horseshoe driveway before the looming brick face of the Blackwing Institute. Marla leapt from the passenger side and rushed for the front doors, purple-and-white cloak billowing after her in the gusty winter wind. The blade of the slim dagger in her hand crackled with blue sparks of paralytic magic, and she held colored pebbles in her left fist, each capable of neutralizing one of the five senses. Even deaf, blind, paralyzed, and unable to smell, taste, or feel, Elsie Jarrow would be lethal, but Marla's charmed weapons would at least level the field.
Marla paused at the entryway. With her hands full she couldn't haul open the heavy wooden double doors, carved all over with symbols of calming and confinement, and she couldn't exactly clench the paralyzing knife in her teeth. Fortunately Rondeau caught up with her then. He had a butterfly knife in one hand, which would be about as useful for fighting Elsie Jarrow as a damp bath towel, but Marla appreciated the effort. Rondeau did have one magical weapon—he could Curse, blaspheming in the primal language that predated the fall of Babel, but the effects of such a Curse, while impressively destructive, were unpredictable, and Elsie Jarrow fed on chaos. Marla had told him to keep his mouth shut. Rondeau tugged open the door with his free hand, and Marla ran in—almost colliding with Dr. Leda Husch in the foyer. Husch's pale, classically beautiful face was soot-smudged, and she clutched one arm, which must have been injured, but she was here, and whole, and wasn't a few shreds of exsanguinated flesh scattered on the floor, as Marla had expected.
"Jarrow has been contained," Husch said.
Marla narrowed her eyes, looking for any telltale signs of mental domination. Husch had been director of the Institute for a long time, since its creation, but that didn't mean she was immune to the powers of her patients. But the woman's eyes were clear, and she had no microfacial tics, so she was probably clean.
"It's all right," Husch said. "Poe wrote on both."
Marla relaxed. She took off her cloak and draped it over her arm. No need to wear that any longer than necessary.
"Poe did what, now?" Rondeau said, flipping his knife closed.
"It's an answer to that Alice in Wonderland riddle, 'Why is a raven like a writing desk?'" Marla said.
"It's also our all-clear code phrase," Husch said. "So Marla knows I'm really me, and that I haven't been coerced or turned into a zombified slave or anything. Jarrow is in the reinforced bunker below the boiler room. It should hold, though I wouldn't mind if you refreshed the binding spirals before you leave."
Marla dropped the sense-nullifying stones into her pocket. She glanced at the still-crackling knife in her hand, then jammed the blade into a wax apple in a fruit bowl on a side table. The energy couldn't be dismissed—it had to be used—but who cared if a wax apple got paralyzed? It was an improvement, even—now the apple would never melt. "Okay. How did you stop Jarrow? When you called, you said she'd escaped her rooms, discorporated two orderlies, and was trying to find a way through the outer walls. We drove about ninety miles an hour down all those icy country roads to get here, and Rondeau's a shitty driver at half that speed. If I hadn't put a no-skid spell on the tires, we'd be upside down in a ditch somewhere. So, what, were things not as bad as you thought?"
"Oh, they were bad," Husch said, still clutching her arm. "But we found Jarrow unconscious in a third-floor hallway. Something knocked her out. One of our other patients did escape, though."
Marla braced herself. Was it Roger Vaughn, the mad sorcerer determined to sacrifice the world to a dark god that didn't actually exist? Norma Nilson, the nihilomancer, who had driven whole towns to suicide? Ayres, the necromancer with the Cotard delusion, who believed he himself was a corpse? None of the other patients in Blackwing was as dangerous as Elsie Jarrow, but they were all confined at the Institute for good reason. "Who got out?"
Marla frowned. "Who the hell's that?"
"One of my lesser-known patients. Not so much notorious as sad. Still, her escape . . . it's troubling. I'll tell you about her on the way to her room. But first, Rondeau, would you be a dear and help me pop my dislocated shoulder back in?"
"Sure thing," he said.
"Wow," Marla said. "That's more action than he got the time you guys went out."
They both glared at her, but Marla just grinned. She'd expected a fight to the death when she left Felport, and hadn't been sure she'd ever see her city again, but now things weren't so bad. Marla had never heard of Genevieve Kelley, and even though the woman's tenure in the Blackwing Institute meant she was some kind of crazy and some flavor of magical, Genevieve couldn't be too dangerous if her name had never come up before. Marla made a point of educating herself on potential threats. It was all part of her job as Felport's protector, and head of the unruly tangle of sorcerers that lived there.
Rondeau wrenched Husch's arm back into place. The doctor grimaced, then relaxed, and looked up at Rondeau with a radiant smile.
"Okay, you're fixed," Marla said. "Tell me about the runaway, and show me the scene of the crime. I've got an appointment today and I need to get back to the city soon, country mouse."
Marla stood before the gaping hole in the southern wall of Genevieve Kelley's room, arms crossed against the cold, looking down at the snow-covered back lawn. There were no footprints or other marks of passage there, nothing marring the ground but a curved scatter of bricks which had, this morning, been part of the wall. It was too cold in here to talk comfortably, so Marla caressed the edges of the hole, whispering to the bricks and mortar, coaxing them into remembering the bricks that used to touch them, and after a moment a sort of shimmering gray ghost wall shuddered into existence, filling the hole, and the cold wind ceased ripping through the room. The patch wouldn't last for long, but it would do until the tireless orderlies—all homunculi created by the Blackwing Institute's original owner—could close it more permanently.
Marla stepped back and looked around the small room, with its single bed, bare walls, and plain wooden night table and dresser. "How long did Genevieve live here?"
"She's been a patient for fifteen years," Husch said, waiting by the door.
"She must not have much of a personality," Marla said. "Nothing on the walls, no personal effects, no knickknacks? Or did she take it all with her?"
"Genevieve has been catatonic for the duration of her stay. She was brought to me that way. I do have some of her personal items, in a box in the closet, but she was incapable of showing any interest in them."
"Rondeau?" Marla said.
"On it." He opened the closet door.
"Do you think Elsie Jarrow knocked the hole in the wall?" Marla said.
"Wouldn't have helped if she had," Husch said. "There are wards all around the building to keep her in, and they don't depend on physical walls. But she was prowling the building, looking for a weak spot in the binding spell, a crack she could slip through. It's a big building, and it's hard to keep up the protections on our budget." She looked pointedly at Marla, who was in charge of raising money from Felport's sorcerers to fund the Blackwing Institute—a task that was thankless in every direction. "But no, I don't think Jarrow would have bothered knocking over the wall. She can walk through walls."
"So maybe Genevieve did this?" Marla said. Rondeau put a shoebox on the bed—kind of a small box to fit a life in—and she began sifting through the contents. A blurry photograph, showing a smiling woman in a sundress with her arm around an older woman, probably her mother. "Is one of these her?"
"The younger," Husch said. "She hasn't aged a day."
Marla grunted. Lots of sorcerers didn't age when they were sleeping or comatose, or otherwise unconscious. It was one of the little tricks of extending your life, and one Marla had recently taken up herself. In her twenties, she'd felt invincible and eternal, and had scorned such magical life-extension as sops to vanity, but as her thirties unspooled and she took on more responsibility, she began to see the practical benefits. Of course, most nights she managed to sleep only four or five hours anyway, so it wouldn't help her as much as it did those who rested on a more regular schedule. "So she's been unconscious all this time? Why don't I see feeding tubes?"
Dr. Husch shrugged. "We used to try. But her state was almost one of suspended animation. Her body rejected sustenance. She never took in food, or voided her bowels."
"So was it some kind of a sleeping-beauty curse?" Marla sorted through the box. Not much to help her. There was a long yellow silk scarf, a hairbrush with a mother-of-pearl back, a couple of seashells, a book of Robin Hood stories, and that was it. Rondeau scooped up the book, sat down in a corner, and began flipping through it.
"By all accounts, Genevieve put herself to sleep," Husch said. "Though it wasn't voluntary. Fifteen years ago she was a promising psychic, apprenticed to an older sorcerer here in Felport, learning to use her powers. She had a great gift for creating illusions, I'm told. But in the first summer of her apprenticeship, she was attacked, physically assaulted on the street. She didn't know enough yet to protect herself magically, and though she fought back . . ." Husch shrugged. "He was bigger than her. You're a woman, Marla, and you haven't always been as strong as you are now. You know how it can be."
Marla nodded, then put the lid back on the box. Something like that had happened to her, too, when she was barely a teenager. Her brother—back when he was a good guy, or at least a bad guy who was on her side—had offered to kill the boy, but she'd asked him to teach her how to defend herself instead. She sometimes thought of that as the real beginning of her life; it had certainly placed her on a particular path. "Yeah. I do know. Did they catch the guy?"
Husch shook her head. "Genevieve was in no state to give a description. Her mind was already under a tremendous strain, as she was learning to use and control her psychic powers, and the trauma must have been even more horrible than usual. Can you imagine how much more terrible a rape would be if you could hear your rapist's thoughts, feel his feelings? If his senses became mixed up with your own?"
"Shit," Marla said. "I didn't even think about that." She sat down on the edge of the bed. "And after that, Genevieve just . . . shut down?"
"I see." But the Blackwing Institute wasn't a long-term-care facility or an old sorcerer's home. It was a prison for criminally insane sorcerers. "So what horrible thing did Genevieve do, to get locked up with the psycho killers and would-be world-destroyers you keep in here?"
"After her attack, she apparently wandered the streets in a daze until someone who recognized her guided her home. Her master—a reasonably accomplished old probability-shifter named St. John Austen—opened his door to her and brought her inside. And that was the last anyone saw of him. Or his house. Or the rest of that block. Sometime that night, Austen and his property vanished, replaced by an orange-tree grove. Genevieve was found sleeping in the branches of one of the trees, and one of Austen's associates brought her here, in terror the whole time that he and his car would be transformed into a piece of tropical fruit. Apparently the attack . . . tipped something over in Genevieve. Her power changed. In addition to creating illusions, she developed the power to reweave physical reality as well."
Marla whistled. Reweavers were rare as hell and more dangerous, and it was a blessing that most of them killed themselves by accident sooner rather than later. They could get right down to the atoms and move stuff around, change the face of the physical world, often with catastrophic unintended consequences. Some said the greatest reweavers were capable of changing even people's memories, but that was a tough hypothesis to prove, for obvious reasons. "Why an orange grove?"
Husch shrugged. "I don't know. There's an orange tree in that photo of her. Perhaps it represented a safe place. The orange trees died soon after anyway. The climate was all wrong for them.
Genevieve never woke up. She retreated into herself, away from the trauma of the attack, perhaps, or from the enormity of the ability she found inside herself. I've kept her here because she's too dangerous to house elsewhere. I knew the binding spells wouldn't stop a determined reweaver, but, well . . . I didn't worry about Genevieve much. It's a bit like having a nuclear bomb tucked away in some corner of your house. Terrifying, yes, but over time, you get used to it. And she was asleep, after all."
"Something woke her up today," Marla said. "Probably Elsie Jarrow, shoving at every magical wall she could find, knocking down Genevieve's mental defenses in the process, freaking her out. But where the hell did she go? And why didn't she leave any footprints?"
"Ah," Husch said. "As to the latter, I have . . . a hypothesis. Come to my rooms. I want to show you some of the security tapes. They're frightfully boring, for the most part, as you'd expect from footage of a catatonic. But there are some interesting moments."
"Okay," Marla said. "Rondeau, bring the box. Some of that stuff might be useful."
Images flickered on the old television as Husch fast-forwarded through a few hours of surveillance tape. "We don't keep all the footage, of course. And we have to re-use the same tapes over and over, because we can't afford new ones every day, but I check them daily for warning signs. And I keep any recordings that seem noteworthy. Like this one." She stabbed the "Play" button.
Marla leaned in close. On-screen, grainy sunlight streamed into the room from the windows in the southern wall—the wall Genevieve had blasted apart that morning. Genevieve herself lay sleeping in her narrow bed, hands at her sides, and then she was gone, like a jump-cut in the tape. Marla grunted, noting the time stamp, which rolled on at one second per second. The tape hadn't been spliced. Genevieve had just disappeared. "Does she—" Marla began, but then Genevieve reappeared, curled in the fetal position. A scatter of small objects appeared with her, drifting down from a spot midway up in the air, like torn pieces of paper, maybe, or—
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