"Let's see," Grammama murmured, somewhat delirious. "I recall the spell, I know I do. 'How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail / and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale.' Is that right?"
"It's perfect," said Mason.
Grammama jumped. "Yah!"
"'How tenderly he seems to grin, how neatly spread his claws,'" Mason finished the doggerel, "'To welcome little fishes in with gently smiling jaws.' Trying a wonderland incantation, are you?"
Grammama squinted. "You're making fun of me," she accused, "all three of you."
Mason nodded. "We're a snarky bunch. Can I have the Tome of Endings, please?"
Grammama sat on it. "Why?" She rocked gently.
"Because Marie says she needs it," Mason explained. "It has something to do with checking if Quentin is really himself."
The old witch glared. She wanted to be mistrustful, but there was nothing for it, really. Ian was out and she was just about to join him. She was about to lose it either way. "Yeah, sure," she said, and fell asleep. She rocked backwards. Ian's butt prevented her from fetching a nasty bruise. He stirred fitfully.
"You two are perfect for each other," said Mason. He picked up the Tome of Endings. The leather was slick, and the grimoire was very heavy. It wanted to fall out of his hands. "What, are you scared, book?"
Mason stepped on a bit of metal scrap. It crunched under his feet, and the crunch sounded – to a suggestible mind – like a yes.
This bothered Mason. He turned around and fished in Ian's pockets. There were a few spare bullets in there, and Ian's gun. He stuck the other revolver in the back of his waistband and loaded some fresh shells, feeling a bit paranoid.
Downstairs, Marie was sitting with Quentin. She'd gotten him away from the dormant incubator and actually had his attention. He was sitting on the bare ground Indian-style. Marie was just across from him, leaning against an old centrifuge.
"There you are," she said. "Do you have the book?"
"Here." Mason passed it to her. The Paginarum, sitting in front of her, trembled. It had a haunted book-friend to play with.
"There's one more thing," said Marie. "Did you reload your gun?"
"Yes," said Mason. A smug little spark lit up inside him.
"Can I see?"
"What, you want to shoot the kid?" Mason asked. "What help will that be?"
Marie shrugged. "Magic reasons. Ones I don't understand myself, yet."
Mason pulled Ian's gun from his waistband. "Here."
Marie pointed it at him. She grinned a sharp and evil grin. "Put your hands behind your head and stand against the wall, please."
"Oh, no," said Mason in a flat voice. "I never expected that, Kalfou of the crossroads."
"Mhm Hmhmhmhmhm," chuckled Kalfou-Marie. "I didn't expect it either. You know," he added, "I have acted in good faith. I've helped you defeat the Star-Spirit, we have. I helped you rescue this child. We have."
"Are you sure?" asked Mason.
"Yeah." Kalfou sneered. "The Herald is a prideful being. He wouldn't let himself be seen to be defeated if he could possibly help it. Not him himself, you see. Hah, but he hasn't moved with the times, has he? Firearms. Tearing washed-up deities new ones."
"That was pretty satisfying," Mason admitted.
"Oooh yes," said Kalfou. "I got such a boner from watching."
"Can you?" Mason was afraid to ask. "While in, um, a woman?"
"Well," said Kalfou, a little unsure himself, "I got something, anyway. But! That's for another time. There is work to do."
"Since you've got me at your mercy," said Mason, "and can kill me anytime you want, won't you explain what your evil plan is?"
Kalfou gave Mason a Look. "I ought to shoot you for that. But, there is no harm in explaining. I don't actually have anything against you. I just admitted that you turn me on, after all." He gestured with the revolver. "I have a book of spells, a book of power, an empty vessel, and a source of blood, which no one happens to want. Can you guess?"
"An empty vessel?" asked Mason. "What do you mean?"
"That!" Kalfou pointed with his left hand at the incubator. "That is a dragon egg, boy, or are you completely blind? They've been extinct for nine hundred years or more. And it's just about ready. And I? Well, I am in the business of living inside bodies. Can you guess now?"
"You'd like to be a dragon," said Mason.
"Hell, son, who wouldn't?" Kalfou shrugged. "But the process will be messy, and poor Quentin will kinda get it in the shorts. Bad luck, kid," he added.
The room went dark. Kalfou froze in place. Someone put a hand on Mason's shoulder. He turned, and saw a pale chin and a small smile beneath a black hood. The apparition pulled her hood off.
"Marguerita?" asked Mason.
"Yeah," she said. She smiled wryly. "Here on business, I'm afraid."
"Are you." Mason didn't even have the energy to be surprised.
"Yeah." She shrugged. "The last Grim Reaper retired a few years ago. I was looking for a job and clicked the wrong craigslist link. Congrats, you'll be the Pale Horseman for the next few centuries."
"Of course." Mason shuddered. "Is this it, then? Did something get me from behind?"
"No, actually." She nodded at Kalfou-Marie. "I just wanted to talk. You know that letting Kalfou into that egg will be an incredible disaster."
"Okay." Mason shrugged. "What can I do, though? I gave Kalfou the unloaded gun, but I think he could rip my arms off, anyway. So, what? Do you want me to shoot my friend, my coworker? What would that make me?"
"No. I don't want you to shoot your coworker." Marguerita lifted her hand and vanished.
"It's too bad," said Kalfou.
"Wait!" Mason shouted. "You can't do this. That's someone's child! Marie, take control from this creep!"
Kalfou's eyes glittered. "Oh, she's trying."
Mason pulled his own gun.
Kalfou didn't wait. He squeezed the trigger. click. click. click. "You're a cunning one!" He laughed. "Hah, boy, I hope you have a long and glorious career. Will you shoot Marie, then?" He grabbed Quentin's throat. "That would be inconvenient for me. I know you have ice water in your veins, boy. How much?"
"This much," said Mason Thompson.
Marguerita Willowbrook flew the distance between him and Quentin. Time, for her, passed like water on the Big River: slow and dark. Quentin looked up at her. He blinked, and shook his head. "I feel funny," he said. "I had a bad dream."
Marguerita picked him up. "Yeah, I bet!" she said. "You've had a rough few days." She took two steps forward, onto a beach. Quentin looked around, awed.
"Hey," he said. "This is a river."
"Yes it is, Quentin," she said. She put him down, watched him kick the sand, knead it between his toes. "Did your mother take you to the river?"
"No," said Quentin. "She talked about it."
"A city boy through and through, eh," said Marguerita. The river was foggy. The air smelled like bank-mud and hummed with the sound of midges and the faint slop of water on the bank. Out of the mist the shape of a dark boat loomed. Death shrugged. "I think you'll like fishing."
"Is that you, Marge?" shouted the boatman. "How are you?" His voice was big and rich, almost like a nautical Saint Nick.
"Yeah," shouted Marguerita. "Got someone here for you."
"Well, let's see." The boat drifted into view. It was an old wooden thing. The paint was fading, but the sides were polished smooth and the seats were cushioned. Inside was a big man with a black beard and olive skin. He was wearing a camouflage jumpsuit and a reflectorized orange vest. The boatman saw them, and reached beneath his seat. He pulled out a happy plastic fishing pole with a neon worm on the end. "Hi there, Quentin," he said. "Come on across the river."
Quentin grinned. "Okay." He stepped into the boat and grabbed the pole. He waved it around. The boatman was glad that the hook was blunt and plastic.
"Here," said the boatman. He grabbed a big white t-shirt and a fleece coat. "Put these on, kid, it's a bit chilly out. Thanks for bringing him, Marge."
"Are we going to catch anything?" asked Quentin.
The boatman winked broadly at Death. "Of course we will, son," he said. "Of course we will."
Kalfou looked down at the corpse in his hands. "Holy shit, boy," he said, awed. "I did not think you had that in you."
Mason tried to choke down a wave of vomit. "So," he wheezed, "What do you do now?"
"Hell, I'm beaten." Kalfou threw up his hands. "That was a solution and no mistake." He brushed Quentin's blood off his hands onto the incubator absent-mindedly. "I guess I'll go home now," he said. "Let you and Marie try to clean up this mess. Good luck, and all that." Kalfou smiled. "Oh, don't look so glum!" he said. "You're already eating yourself up, having nightmares before you fall asleep. The boy was insane, seeing visions. A tremendous psychic liability, and he was probably going to die of his injuries anyway, with the Herald's power pulled out of him."
This didn't make Mason feel any better.
"It was a mercy-killing, Mason. You just mercy-whacked him before I did. Bra-vo."
Marie looked down at Quentin and wailed. "Aaaaahh!" She looked up at Mason. "What have I done?"
"You made a bad bargain," said Mason. "Kalfou tried to use him. Had something to do with that thing in the machine. Had something to do with becoming a dragon," he explained lamely. "So, I um."
"My God!" shouted Lucas Ross Davies. He'd arrived a few minutes before, seen the wreckage, seen Ian and Grammama snoring gently, and now seen Marie holding a tiny body and Mason holding a smoking gun. "What happened here?"
"Oh," said Mason. "This feels familiar."
THE END... FOR NOW...
I couldn't have written this book without help and inspiration from loads of people. Special and particular thanks are owed to Neil Gaiman, who I cunningly stole from, and Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who I blatantly stole from (but that's okay, because stealing from him is a whole genre). Also to my mother and father, who may one day forgive themselves for spawning someone who could write such a thing. Extra thanks to all the people who promote and run NaNoWriMo, and to my sister, who happened to obliquely refer to them in passing one afternoon. The idea of a self-imposed deadline made my brain catch fire.
This book, for what it's worth, is dedicated to Sir Terry Pratchett, 1948 – 2015. Terry, if by some divine filing accident this book falls into your spectral hands, I'd like to thank you for all the wonderful writing you did. You were wrong, sometimes, bloody insulting and infuriating, actually, and all the more magnificent for that.