By Atom Mudman Bezecny
A new year had come again. It was strange to think about, but Bloody Mary had made it to 1944.
Much had happened for her recently, she considered, as she sat in the Georgia property of her dad, Sanger Rainsford. The coziness of her room here was almost enough to make her want to take up a pen and begin work on that memoir she'd felt such temptation for—but she knew that there was danger in writing something like that. The diary of Bloody Mary would be a great prize indeed for a clever thief—it would expose all of her secrets, including her identity and the identities of her friends. For some of her comrades, however, that would mean nothing. Anyone who came for them would be asking for trouble.
She tried not to be sad on New Year's, but time had taken much from her now. She had taken on no less than eight assistants in her time as Bloody Mary, and now six of them were gone—of those six, two of them were gone forever. They were more than her assistants. They were her family. Nadine Ingomar and Allan Tyler had left the group at her urging. Loretta van Helsing was traveling on her own, trying to find herself after Mary helped her destroy her old enemy, Armand Tesla. Immorté had returned to his homeworld of Rheton, to rule and rebuild. Dad, and her cousin Brian Hammerstein, had stayed with her, thankfully.
But then there was Ormond. And Professor Darwood.
Ormond Murks was a murderer, killing to sustain himself after he became a pseudo-undead creature, but through she and Loretta he started to show the makings of a good man. At the very least he learned to care for the two of them—and they, for him. She couldn't speak for Loretta but “Mr. Murks” had been Mary's friend. They had shared many adventures together, the three of them. But then, they had found themselves trapped on the so-called Mesa of the Zombies, and certain temptations were too strong for Murks. He forgot everything he learned with them—he thought they'd betrayed him. He turned his back on them for good, returning to murder until late last year, when consequences caught up with him. A Dr. Terry Evans and his girlfriend, a nurse named Susan Drake, ended up finding a way to kill Murks for good. Mary and Loretta heard the news secondhand. When they learned of the depth of Murks' new crimes they hadn't wanted to try to revive him, if there was any chance of such—the good man they knew was dead, killed by the bad man he became. They accepted his death, and moved on. Or thought they did.
Ernest Isaac Darwood was a more complicated figure. To get into his story, Mary had to go back to when she'd parted company with Immorté.
The witch Zahl Doone had stranded the two of them in 1947—five years in their relative future. She'd brought them there as part of a bizarre stunt to implant the spirit of her never-born child into a dead psychic, creating an avatar of her deity, the Stone God. She needed to time-travel forward to a point after which the psychic had died. Immorté didn't think his powers would take him back to the past, but fate said differently. Mary tried to use her powers to go back to the past, but the link proved unstable, and Mary was ejected in the opposite direction chronally from where she intended. Along the way, she saw Immorté cast back to 1942, while she was sent forward thirty years.
She remembered now the shock of seeing the world of 1977. It was a shock that wore off quickly, as she had already seen one of the great metropolises in 1983, but she was still badly lagged from the experience. She'd been dragged halfway across the country. Now she was in Berkeley, California. Returning to her human guise of Francine Rainsford, she tried to find a place to blend in, drifting eventually to the University campus there. The idea was that she'd befriend some of the students and maybe spend a night or two with them in one of the dorms, until she could work out the thirty-five year jump backwards.
It didn't work out that way. Instead she started hearing rumors of “crazy old Professor Darwood” and his time-machine. Sure enough, the ginger-bearded, labcoat-wearing scientist had claimed to have invented a large ornamental disk which could take travelers back in time. He claimed, to anyone who would listen (which included Francine Rainsford), that he had been set back five years after his work was publicized against his wishes in a pornographic film called A Clockwork Blue, which turned all his efforts into a racist, hypersexualized farce. However, at this point he had been able to complete his time-machine and had even taken it out on a few test-rides.
Mary revealed her nature and powers to him then, and the scientist had actually heard of her at that point in history. He agreed to help her return to 1942, but the journey hadn't been easy. It turned out the time-machine wasn't quite as stable as Darwood had hoped...
During this time they had met Scand.
Lord Scand, of the Fifth Millennium. He picked up the name Scand as a handy contraction of his clunkier title, “the Scandium Conqueror.” Scandium became a strangely common metal in the 41st Century, when Scand was a resistance fighter in China against the Tsan-Chan Empire. For his protection of the people against the Tsan-Chan he was called “Káng,” meaning “resistance.” But because he made his mask and armor out of scandium, they called him “Kàng,” meaning “scandium.” His efforts as a resistance leader had been a ruse—once the Tsan-Chan were defeated he made his fellow freedom-fighters into his slaves. He had only wanted to steal the Tsan-Chan throne for himself. But the people of Earth had banded together and forced him to escape him his time-machine. Now he rampaged through the timeline, trying to find other empires to steal out from under their rulers.
Mary and Darwood's battles against him had led him to recruit an assistant, the Victorian biologist Nathaniel Mirakle, but it wasn't enough, and each of Scand's schemes came to naught. Finally Mary and Darwood made it to 1942, where she rejoined Dad, Brian, Loretta, Ormond, and Immorté. Immorté had nearly left already but she returned just as he was going. They had a chance to say goodbye before he returned to Rheton, and he thanked her for helping him stop the Ghost Family, and reminded her of his promise to send Rhetonian weapons to Earth to help fight the KKK. He kept up on that promise, and from then on, well—their clashes with the Klan had been sort of like parties. The Klan didn't have any fun, though. Wasn't any fun being in jail or dead.
Ernest stayed in 1942 for a time and after the incident at the Mesa of the Zombies, he joined she and Loretta on some of their adventures. Loretta was unsure if she was the first member of her prestigious family to travel through time. Darwood was there with them when they killed Armand Tesla, and like she'd said earlier, Loretta broke off after that—they kept in touch, though, of course. Her last letter indicated she was going to spend some time with her half-sister Carmilla.
And so it had been she and the Professor for a while. As he improved the time-machine, he returned to his native era 1977 but often made return trips to 1942 (and later 1943) to check in. These improvements let them explore future eras which ought to have been wiped out by Tsuu-Aas' conquest of the Earth in the early 21st Century; based on a theory of Mary's these futures still exist on timelines “tilted” in relation to the main timeline. It was one of these axial tilts that Scand's 41st Century was built on.
During one of Ernest's jaunts to the past, Dad's house was attacked by Scand, and Dad had ended up in the hospital. She and Darwood had decided to hunt down Scand and stop him once and for all. They exited into the timestream on June 1st, 1943.
Half a dozen battles across space and time later, and they eventually tracked Scand to his own childhood, which, curiously, seemed to be in the 14th Century. Her theory was that Scand had transported his child self to the past for safekeeping and would later retrieve his younger self to move him into position to fulfill his timeline in the 41st Century, but that was just one possibility. During the fighting Scand accidentally shot and killed himself as a child. From then, he began a new existence—he only had so much chronal energy left in his body to shield himself with. Once that ran out, the Golden Guardians of Time would come for him, and erase him from existence. Escaping in his time-machine, Scand forced them to continue the battle—only now he was much more desperate. His strategy from then on involved seeking out power sources to draw from to sustain his shields and stave off his erasure. She and Darwood tracked him as far as the 1001st Century, where he tried to renew himself by extracting the mystic essence of one of occultists of the infamous Orloff family from a time-traveler in whom it had become embedded, a former member of Project Tic-Toc named Erik von Steiner. They fought him twice more before he met his end.
In this last battle, Scand tried to summon upon a time-demon he'd heard of called Kul'ul. Kul'ul was much more powerful than he anticipated, but the demon still respected the power Scand had accumulated for himself. He consumed Scand, sparing him from the fate of being erased by the Golden Guardians, but also destroying the time-traveler for good. Mary and Ernest thought their troubles were over. But Kul'ul had heard of Darwood as well, and hungered for his chronal essence. Mary barely escaped with her life. Professor Darwood was not so lucky. She prayed that when the demon caught him, it was a quick end.
When she steered herself back to her relative present she landed on June 2nd, 1943. In a single day she'd been gone two years.
Now the only trace of the Professor that remained was his battered, nearly-useless time-machine, stored in Dad's garage with the hopes that it could be fixed someday. That, and the guilt that still haunted her for being unable to save his life. Sometimes at night she could still hear his final screams.
He left a widow, Penelope. When her own unstable time-powers were working, Mary would sometimes journey to 1978 or 1979 to spend time with her.
And now, strangely enough, it had been one of those detours that led to her current business. She always seemed to find trouble for herself around the holidays, but that this was happening on New Year's Day was somewhat unpardonable.
Still, this fight had been a long time coming, hadn't it...? She should have anticipated that her enemy was waiting. Watching. She had gathered information on her slowly, and it was when she had gone off to see Penelope she had struck.
It was a warm day in Berkeley, but that was to be expected. As far as Penelope Darwood's experience told her there was no such thing as a cold day in California. Where she'd come from it was much colder—or had the potential to be, in any case. “Sometimes,” she said, “the threat of cold is worse than cold itself.”
That was what she was saying now, as she sipped her iced sun tea. “But the cold is bad, when it does come,” she added this time.
“I know, hon,” Francine Rainsford assured her. “I've been thinking about that a lot myself recently. It's the end of December, 1943, at my proper point in the timeline. It's a New Year. Though it's funny talking with you future folk about 1944 being a 'new year.'”
“One step closer to ending the War,” Penelope said. “...you do know, right?”
“We've been over this, Penelope!” Mary laughed. “I know the War ends in 1945. I'm just keeping myself in the dark about the circumstances behind it. It's enough that I already know the way the world is basically guaranteed to end.”
“Oh, yes. Ernest told me about what will happen some forty years from now. I'm not overly concerned, my dear, if I can be honest—I'll be long dead by then.”
“Oh, don't say that.”
“I'll be in my eighties, and I smoke a pack a day. What do you want from me, Mary?”
Francine sighed. “It's not like I'll be around then either. I already know I go to my final fate in 1983.”
“Now who's being pessimistic?”
Francine ran a hand through her long, curly hair. Penelope had started watching some sparrows that had landed on the lawn.
She was about to take another sip of tea when she froze. “Mary,” she said. Mary was still Francine, but at the mention of her name, Bloody Mary's appearance returned. She, too, could see what Mrs. Darwood was looking at. The ground near the sparrows was changing. It took a little time for the birds to notice, and they only hopped away at first—before double-taking, and flying away at top speed, squawking. It seemed that what they flew from was endemic to them, indeed to all life, and they understood that somehow. Spreading out across the green California grass was a patch of reddish tar, thick and sickly-sweet, like molasses. In it were floating flotsam tendrils of black matter, which stretched out almost like the mycelium of fungus. It seemed to be welling up from the ground, but Mary could see that it almost seemed to emerge from a half-inch above the ground—as if crossing through a portal. Wherever this slime smothered the grass, the matted strands of vegetation became black and spiny, with razor-like serrations visible along its edge.
Soon it reached a tree, and just a few seconds slurping around its base caused the green leaves to wither and fall off en masse. The scarlet slick seemed to rise up to eat the falling leaves, digesting them into brownish slop.
“Some sort of...biological weapon?” Mary asked herself quietly. Then she looked at her hostess. “Penelope, I think you should run.”
“But what about you?”
“Just get inside. I'll stop this before it reaches the house.”
Penelope followed her instructions. Mary hoped this would work. It hadn't failed before.
She took out of her compact mirrors and threw it out in front of her. She opened it as a gate into the Mirror-Realm, and the fluid began to drain into it. She hoped the Mirror-Realm could process that glop, but for now it seemed to be sucking it up rather efficiently.
That was her first mistake. She realized quickly it was nearly her last.
A shock ran through her body. At once she felt the cloying substance leech into her, and she remembered that while she drew great power from the Mirror-Realm, it was also her heart. In an instant, the shrinking tides regained their mass, and quickly smothered the mirror, marching over it. Despite the pain growing rapidly in her chest, Mary realized she needed a new plan. She ran back to Penelope's house.
Penelope hadn't gone far.
“My plan didn't work. We're going to escape instead, and come back with help.”
“Well, where are we going?”
“You and Ernest never time-traveled together, did you?”
“Brace yourself for the idea. I can time-travel without the Professor's machine, but it's risky. I'm going to try to take us back to December, 1943.”
“Back to your home era? Why?”
“Because it's the first place I can think of that's safe. Whatever that stuff touches dies—that much is clear. We can return to this relative moment before it spreads too far.”
“Are you sure?”
“Penelope, I learned time-travel from the best. If we miss, it's 'cause I made a one-in-a-million mistake...or we really are up against something worth reckoning with.”
“Well, if we run into trouble, let's hope it's the former rather than the latter. You'd be easier to forgive than some monster.”
Mary already had her own theories on what this threat could be—by the nature of how it was spreading. As far as she knew, there was a certain irony to Penelope's words, as the source of this rotting soup was a relative of hers.
Finding a mirror in Penelope's living room, she prepared to enter the Mirror-Realm. At this point in her career she had hoped to have some words ready to help brace people for the shock of entering the Mirror-Realm, but the occasion to come up with said words had never arisen. Penelope Darwood was shocked alright when she entered the Mirror-Realm, but so was Mary. The Mirror-Realm had changed. As soon as they entered, both their bodies flooded with horrible agony. They screamed, but it did no good—in fact, it made things worse. The whole of the Realm was now filled with the thick soup that Mary had tried to drain into it; it stiffened where it felt into a gooey, velvety mat, which now entered the two women's lungs as they screamed.
Mary could feel as once that the gunk was partly magical in nature, and that was perhaps her chance to get it out of their systems. But she wasn't a witch—not in any official capacity at least. She didn't know formal spells. If she could use magic at all it was an extension of her powers.
Even as the poison fluid reached for her eyes, she began releasing her blood-tears. She put all of her will in projecting those tears as anti-gunk—as the universal opposite of whatever this stuff was. It worked; objectively, it had to. It was slow-going at first but she was working out a bubble of freedom. The invisible waters of the Mirror-Realm were a storm of red, but there was a lighter red within the dark that struggled to carve out its own territory.
Her powers doubled once she could breathe again, and she put that energy into helping Penelope. Poor woman...she didn't deserve this. This was a trap for her, and her alone.
Putting out the will to get a mirror back to 1943 was probably a bad idea, but it couldn't be worse than letting the slime into the Mirror-Realm. She was bound to burn out her powers if she wasn't careful, but she had to try. She was able to pull a mirror out of the slime into their little bubble, and she felt it shuffle backwards against the flow of time. She wasn't counting on being precise, but she could still surprise herself sometimes—maybe the adrenaline helped. In any case, she was back where she'd exited from. The end of December, 1943.
They tumbled out of the mirror hard on the ground. Mary left Francine out of shock, and slowly the young woman tried to help her friend to her feet. She coughed hard for a few moments, but it was over.
“1943, huh? I haven't been here since I was a kid,” Penelope joked. “We—made it, then?”
“I think so,” Francine replied. “I need to figure out how to get that stuff out of the Mirror-Realm, and fast.”
“Doesn't the Mirror-Realm open up into all reflections, ever? Doesn't that mean that stuff is going to start draining...everywhere?”
“No, I control the mirror-gates. If they're not in use they're not open. But that's a good point to bring up, Penny dear, because we just exited through an active gateway.”
They both looked back at the mirror they'd passed through. There was no reflection in it—only the crimson slime, pressing up tight against the glass.
“Penelope, I need you to go find Brian or my dad. Tell them to find your husband's time-machine and get it away from the house. If this stuff is planning on taking the house we can't let it get reach that...in case it can use it.”
“Got it...but...it doesn't seem to be leaving the mirror.”
“You're right. Why?”
The two stared at the glass for a few moments, watching the slime fluctuate and undulate. After a time, they concluded it wasn't coming out—at least, for now. That posed a problem of a different kind.
“Did Ernest ever tell you I need to periodically return to the Mirror-Realm or I die?” Francine said.
“He did not. That...is not good.”
“No. No, it isn't. And I think that confirms I know who our enemy is. Because she would know about that weakness.”
“Who is it, then?”
Francine didn't dare name her—not yet. For the first time in a while, fear gripped her heart.
Then began the waiting. Slowly, time began to tick by, with each passing second bringing new weakness to Francine. Brian and Sanger were gone, but Penelope did her best to take care of her. Slowly, sweat broke out across the adventurer's brow. She had to sit down, and after a few hours she found she couldn't stand up again.
“How long can you go without getting back in there?” Penelope asked her urgently, as she brought cool, wet towels to help her out with the fever.
“Would you believe me if I said I can't remember?”
“How could you forget that?”
“Nadine told me the precise figure, I think, when I started out, but I got anxious and kept shortening it—just to be on the safe side. But in doing so I lost track of how long it originally was. I might have a day or two left, or I might not make it through the night.” She gasped then, without meaning to. “Now I know how a fish out of water feels.”
“Do you think a blood transfusion might help?”
Francine looked at her squarely. “A blood transfusion?”
“I'm no doctor, but you're Bloody Mary for a reason, right? Maybe it will buy you more time.”
“My logic tells me that won't work, but Mary is telling me that it might. It's worth a shot...if you can spare the blood.” She gasped again. “And be very careful. As long as that stuff's in the Mirror-Realm, it's in me. I don't know if it can pass from me to you, but if it does I won't be able to work up the tears to get it out of your system.”
“I'll watch myself.”
Sanger Rainsford had stocked this place with a full-on hospital of medical supplies, aided by Dr. van Helsing. Francine hoped the transfusion rig she found didn't once belong to Ormond Murks. As Penelope got everything set up, Francine sat back and thought about Ormond.
Stuck in her human form, Francine could receive blood as surely as anyone else. She felt the change as soon as the fresh blood hit her veins. “It's working,” she said. “I'll be restored soon...though I doubt this will cure my problem permanently.”
“And I only have so much blood to give,” Penelope replied.
Francine, still trapped in a seated position, closed her eyes, and focused on putting the new blood entering her body to good use. She would need a fountain's worth of tears if she was going to take back the Mirror-Realm. Plus, she needed to prepare herself to try out some new tricks.
As she sat in the darkness of her eyelids she realized the fever had gone on for two days. It was New Year's Eve.
When she found strength in her legs again, she forced herself to stand. She changed back to Mary and began to shamble towards the mirror.
“Mary, you can't be serious—!”
“If I can make it in there and touch the Realm for even an instant, I'll be facing that stuff at full power. I'm going to use your blood to make a cloud of tears that will keep me safe, until...”
She had an idea on how to stop it. But she was already losing strength again. She had to hurry. Foregoing explanations, Mary dove back into the corrupted Mirror-Realm. As she dashed forward, she was crying.
It worked. The blood ate away as the fungal growths, exposing a little of the Mirror-Realm as it was meant to be. A flicker of cold water against Mary's cheek and the fever of two days wasn't even a memory. Focusing on her newfound strength, she pushed herself forward, calling out with the whole of her mind for the mirror she'd summoned from 1979.
The mirror moved slowly. The thick tendrils of slime branched like arms and hands, pushing the tangled glass back. But this was her Realm, and she wasn't going to give it up. Finally the mirror approached. Its surface still belched out the swelling mass of goo.
Mary swam near to the glass, and began moving the churning mass of tears downward. As her blood covered the mirror's surface, she moved the platelets of the blood cells, and fell fibrin churn in them. The blood clotted thickly over the glass, sealing it off completely. As this happened the remainder of her tears flowed out to eat away the invading mass.
It was slow work, and at first she was still trapped in close quarters. But once she liberated enough of the Realm, the Realm itself began fighting back. Mirrors opened up apertures to the light of the sun, or an equivalent force, and began burning away the toxic cancers. In time the black fluid of the Realm was exposed once again, with the traces of scarlet soon vanishing. Mary felt her health and strength return completely—the claws at her heart were gone.
She returned hurriedly to her parlor, eager to tell Penelope of her success. But as she emerged, she saw something was wrong. Penelope had collapsed next to the couch she'd sat on. Mary dashed to her fast, and when she turned her over, she saw already that she was feverish. It was the same swelling and the same sweaty brow that she had just endured.
And so it was that Mary was left on New Year's Day, contemplating her past friends. The mood had already come upon her before all this, but now she was worried about losing Penelope just as she'd lost her husband.
Then she clenched her fist. No. There was another way.
“I'm going to get you out of this, Penelope,” Mary said, walking over to where she'd laid her down. “It's just a matter of figuring out how to find her, that's all.”
Penelope didn't hear her. It was better that way.
“She has to have a place to hide. She and I are very similar, as I meant to say earlier,” Mary continued. “She lost her chance to be Mary—at least the same type of Mary I am. I think there are a lot of different Marys, and she's the one that...” She was tired. “The Golden Guardians feared her. She killed a lot of them once. Did they tell me she could infect universes?”
She looked over her shoulder. She wished Dad or Brian was here to help her out, but they'd be little help with what she had to do.
“There can only be one Mary at a time. Nadine lost her powers when she passed them to me, so that's proof of that. She could still be in the Mirror-Realm, but that's too obvious. I think she needs a Realm of her own...I think that's her hiding place.”
She sat down next to Penelope, and propped her up comfortably.
“It's fortunate, then, that she's infected you. I mean, as fortunate as it can be to be infected with a life-threatening disease. But I think that like how I have the Mirror-Realm, she must have...a Fever-Realm. That's her chosen aspect. I don't know how my type of Mary came by mirrors as a thing, but I'm sure I'll still have a chance to find that out...”
She was focusing on the disease churning within her friend. On the grotesque red mucus that was choking her vital organs. And the pain around it—the strain of inflamed tissue, bloated thick with teeming germs. She felt the first twitch. Her hunch was right, and she cursed the fact that it was.
“Gotta get into your sickness, my friend. Gotta think about those chills, the choking feeling. The tickling of cotton on bare muscles. It's weird to think about, but there's a whole world in illness. A paranoid world—a bendy, nauseous world. But a world all the same...”
In an instant, she was so sick. She felt like vomiting, but she kept pushing against those twitches—those distorted versions of the Mirror-Realm vibrations that told her she was going home.
She broke through. Now she was in her home.
It wasn't at all what she was expecting.
She remembered her childhood flus and fevers—some of them had nearly killed her, and she felt that, every inch of it, at the time. She expected to go back to that—to the cloying heat and the sneezing that felt like drowning. Instead, she was on solid ground, and all around was cool darkness.
She knew better than to trust these shadows. Her eyes were on her now, seeing her as clearly as she could see the whole of the Mirror-Realm.
“Since the beginning, I was warned about you,” Mary said. “You've picked up a name for yourself among us Bloody Marys. I know a lot of us fear you.”
“I never met you—you may have been watching me, but never up close. I suspect you watch every new one of us that comes out. I sense a bit of jealousy off of you, but it doesn't bother you so much anymore. You think you have real power now.”
“Sean. Coreani. Dameron. Kamarack. The Pumpkin Master. Tsuu-Aas. The Wild Huntsmen. Tesla. Scand. I've fought them all over and over again. But my greatest enemy has always been myself.” Mary turned slowly. “I beat my anger. I beat the part of Bloody Mary that wanted to strip away what was human, but you...” The darkness billowed, like a Halloween wind. “You gave into it, didn't you?”
She began walking into the darkness.
“And you went even further. You got so anger, so brutal, that even Mary was scared. She fractured, like with the Bell Witch, and the Witch Anthony Bell splintered off of her. You became your own entity. Your human identity was erased...”
She still couldn't see her. None of her words were drawing her out yet.
“You could've been one of the traitors Nadine and I talked about. Elizabeth Bathory, Queen Mary the First...possibly also Mary, Queen of Scots, if those weird other records are right. Maybe you were the man who supposedly wormed your way into the role for a few years, to use Mary as a weapon against women. It doesn't matter, though, because you've got just the one trade name now, right?” She had hoped she would react to one of those other names. She wanted to know who she was under her ghost-guise.
“Come out, Typhoid Mary. I've been expecting you.”
When Typhoid Mary came she laughed. Mary had trouble seeing her at first—despite the fact that she made her own light, she was still swallowed up by the darkness. More properly, the shadows were like clouds before the moon, a moon made of blood or magma. She seemed to be a living flame, and there was no sign of a head, a face, or hair—only smoldering orange eyes. Sometimes there were arms, which ended in similar claws to Bloody Mary's, but her limbs were only as stable as billowing pyre.
“And I've been expecting you,” Typhoid Mary returned.
It was astonishing to think that this creature had once been the same as she. How many years had worn down on her, breaking her down to this abomination? Could she even remember her own name?
Names didn't matter. The two charged at each other.
At once, however, Bloody Mary realized names did matter. Both of them were called Mary and that was confusing. But she always saw herself as Francine now, and that's who she was, even though the Mary spirit was over her. To view Typhoid Mary as just “Mary” was fitting—as she'd said, she and Mary had fought before, though they were one and the same. All classes of Mary were adversarial—meant to challenge those they walked with. Resurrection Mary, Gray Mary, Red Mary, and Blue Mary as well—all except for The Mary; though it was hard to speak of her, and the strange apparitions of her that came to Earth, which had been coming since the death of her Son...
Francine was letting her mind drift as she tested out her claws on Typhoid Mary, but it made no difference. (Some of this information seemed to come at her as she swiped at her enemy, but it was like she'd known it all along—and she had, through the memories of Bloody Marys past.) Her talons were useless against Mary's flame. Mary could hit her, though—punch after punch flew out from her spirit, each time leaving burns on Francine's ghostly body.
“You can't beat me, Rainsford,” Mary said in an androgynous voice. “I've been doing this for much longer. You wouldn't even be the first Bloody Mary I killed, though I couldn't destroy the Mirror-Realm at the time. Mary kept coming back, as she always does—each time twisting me as I grew further and further away from her. But each of those twists has given me new power.”
“So you want to destroy our native universe? By infecting it with that disease of yours?” Francine asked her, backing away from her next strike.
“Who says I'm from your universe? Not all of our kind comes from Earth-X. The Mirror-Realm is Multiversal in nature. We've had Marys from Alpha-Space, Dieselworld, and the Unnameable Shadow. What, you haven't noticed that yet?”
She laughed, and knocked Francine off her feet.
“You don't know the beginning of your powers. Reject Bloody Mary and become a spirit of disease like me. Together, we'll infect all the dimensions until every Multiversal authority that could ever mess with us is puking themselves to death.”
“I'm not interested,” Francine said.
In reply, Mary smacked her away, and Francine went sailing on and on for what felt like miles. When she crashed against the cold, colorless, formless ground, it was hard for her to stand up after.
But stand she did. She needed to stop this creature now, before she killed Penelope—and before she killed future incarnations of Bloody Mary. She just didn't know if stopping her was going to be possible.
“It is possible, Mary, but it will take a lot of work.”
Francine jumped. “Nadine?”
“Yes. I'm surprised my signal is coming through so clearly. But this dimension is a broken-off segment of the Mirror-Realm, and that means all of Bloody Mary's powers work here. Including the residual ones I've retained.”
“I'm glad to hear from you, Nadine. Do you know how to stop Typhoid Mary?”
“I know that your father and cousin are waiting back at the house on my request,” she said. “I was able to contact Brian because he's been with you in the Mirror-Realm so much—he passed the message on to Sanger. Immorté left you some weapons which might help you against her, if you move quick. Young Ms. Van Helsing has been writing to me and she tells me she upgraded those weapons, using what she learned from Carnacki...”
Typhoid Mary was closing in. Bloody Mary summoned a mirror—as per Nadine's words, this place was a fragment of the Mirror-Realm, and there were still plenty of mirrors in it. Once she called that to herself, she jumped in, escaping to the Mirror-Realm proper. Typhoid Mary would chase her through but she didn't know about the trap waiting for her. First of all, Francine set the Mirror-Realm to reject the spread of her fever. Having been sick once, she and her Realm were now inoculated. The fungus-scum still poured through, but it couldn't latch onto the material of the Realm.
Up ahead was a mirror taking her back to the house. She dove in, and found her dad and Brian waiting, as Nadine had suggested. They were toiling with a large metallic box, which seemed to have a fireman's hose trailing off from it.
“Mary!” Brian exclaimed happily. “She's right behind you then?”
“She stopped at the glass before I doubt we'll be as lucky this time. Where's Penelope?”
“If you mean that woman, we moved her to one of the bedrooms. Figured we didn't want the ghost Ingomar talked about tearing her head off while she's lying there sweating,” Sanger Rainsford said.
“What's this thing supposed to do?”
“We're not sure,” Brian told her. “Something with, uh, photons, I think? Or protons, I'm not sure. Loretta's notes mention that it's a 'Spates-Tobin plasma weapon.'”
“That sounds really destructive. Which is what we need. Here she comes!”
“Ahh!” Brian cried. “I don't know how it works yet!”
Francine pulled the hose from his hands. “I'm guessing you just pull the trigger.”
As Mary emerged from the mirror Francine followed her own instructions. Her hope paid off—a white-blue beam of energy burst out from the hose. The corruptive slime chased its mistress of the frame but it cringed backwards when the beam struck her. Typhoid Mary shrieked in pain, her flame suddenly fading as if hit by water. Her blazing red deepened to a sickly, ruddy crimson, and she raised her claws to defend herself in vain. Unable to speak, she was driven back into the mirror, into the darkness of the Mirror-Realm—but to Francine's surprise, the beam continued past the frame of the mirror, shoving both Mary and her slime into its depths. Then she was gone, of her own accord—Francine felt that the energy would splinter her otherwise.
And perfect timing, too. The batteries on this thing burnt out just after she disappeared.
“Thank you, Nadine,” Francine said silently. If it hadn't been for her, Brian and Sanger wouldn't have been warned, and all of them would be dead now.
To her surprise, Nadine's voice came back, winking at her out of the darkness of the mirror: “You're welcome.”
“I think that did it,” he said.
“No,” Mary said. “It's not over. Not for her.”
“What'll it take to bring her down?” Sanger Rainsford asked.
“I'm not sure, but I do have an idea. I was thinking of asking our last weapon-supplier for advice. Provided he's not too busy.”
She turned to the mirror she and Penelope had come through. Raising her hand, she stretched out into space. She had been to Rheton before, and that was what made it possible for her to find it again. She flipped through dozens of views, exposing Brian to old memories as well as revealing more of the planet they'd visited two years ago. They hadn't been able to see inside the Royal Palace much before, but it was clear that Prince Immorté had good accommodations.
At last, they found the Prince. He was part of a long line of Rhetonian soldiers who were working feverishly to get plates of steaming meats passed down towards a mob of folk who were clad in rags. Immorté wasn't just an idle observer of this work—whenever the servers moved it was because he told them to. His eyes picked up on the reflection of the trio in the shimmer of the metal wall next to him.
“A moment of your time, Your Highness, if you can spare it,” she said, grinning.
She wasn't expecting to see such gravity in her old friend's face when he responded, but that seriousness only deepened her pride. “Only a moment,” he told her. “This is very important.”
He left a standing order to one of his troops, and stepped over to Mary.
“I'm sorry Rheton is still suffering,” she said.
“It'll be a long time before we're truly free of the Imperium. Now, what can I do for you?”
“Do you have a way to trap one dimension inside another?”
“What do you mean?”
“Let's say I'm fighting someone who has their own private Mirror-Realm, and I want to bring their Realm into the Mirror-Realm so I can cut off the power they draw from their own dimension.”
“Trapping a dimensional world isn't easy.”
“But you know how to do it.”
“You'd need a Hemkra Quartz. And that's a bit of a problem, because you may remember, the main Quartz of Rheton was stolen. All the others that the Imperium had were lost in battle with their enemies.”
“Do you know where they were lost?”
“It was a long time ago...before the days of Sun of Zero Pity, even.” He thought it over for a moment. “I do seem to remember one was left behind on the planet Roman.”
“Home of the Ro-Men. The Imperium used the planet as a base during the Third Lithlux War. That's why they lost the Quartzes—the Lithlux got their final revenge against them. The Lithlux Authority were the first creators of the Hemkra Quartzes. Later races would imitate them but no one could match their power to manipulate dimensions—that's what the Quartzes are, after all, mashed up dimensional energy. When they were more naive the Lithlux taught the Burning Elf the secret of arbor-light on ancient Earth, and they seeded the crystals that the Champions of Bendoo used in their blades. Roman is a hostile world, albeit a degraded one—its native inhabitants, the Ro-Men, were created by the Mi-Go, who serve the Great Old Ones.”
“Can you send me the planet's location?”
“I can, if you can figure it out from what I send you.” He closed his eyes, his eyelids being the only part of his head that wasn't transparent. In a moment, by instinct, Mary knew how to get to Roman. She nodded at her friend, saying, “I got it.”
“Okay. Well, stay safe, Mary. Unless you need something else, I need to get back to my people.”
“Serve 'em proud, your Majesty.”
He smiled at her, and in that instant, the image vanished.
“Alright, Brian,” Mary said. “Let's get ready to go. Dad, you can mind things while I'm gone?”
She realized how instinctively she'd spat that out, and Sanger's silence increased her guilt. But then he said, “House gotta take care of itself, 'cause I'm going with.”
“What? But you don't—”
“Don't have the guts usually to jump in the Mirror-Realm? Yeah, well, I was thinking of changing that.” Mary looked over her father with pride, the same pride she'd just shown Immorté. “You beat Count Substance, you beat Armand Tesla, Kahuna'ana, the Pumpkin Master—I've learned that magic can't hurt me anymore. My little girl has it licked.”
“Way to go, Dad.”
“Yeah, nice job, Uncle Sanger!” Brian added. “The Mirror-Realm isn't that bad, like I tried telling you.”
“It's better than the Fever-Realm, from what I saw of it,” Mary said. “I hope that Roman was a breathable atmosphere. Just in case, you better let me go first.”
The mirror stabilized, and at once they saw the expanse of the planet Roman.
The three of them gasped as one, and a fourth gasp joined theirs after a delay. Penelope Darwood was now awake again, with Typhoid Mary having been banished from her presence. Brian turned to her, introduced himself, and began excitedly explaining what was going on. As he did so, Francine and Sanger surveyed the sight before them.
The reflection she had found came from a large crystal which was likely a relic of the Lithlux, who seemed to have a predilection for such things. Several other crystals like it emerging from the ash-black landscape, lined with long metallic-green veins. These veins converged and knitted upward into large sullen towers, which shimmered with the light of an alien sun.
Mary approached the glass, and stuck her face through.
Once she was through, she took a deep breath, and changed back to her human form. There was no harsh disturbance against her lungs. She exhaled, and then tried, very cautiously, to take a breath. Air very much like that of Earth, though considerably thinner, reached her lungs. She pulled back just as Brian finished expositing their circumstances.
“Do you wish to join us, Penelope?” Mary asked.
“Do I want to go to another planet? Yes. Of course I do,” she said. “We—can breathe there?”
“Yeah, and the temperature's fine too. But the air's thin, so be careful. You should be taking it easy after all that.”
She turned back, and at her lead the four of them crossed over the barrier.
When they came out, Sanger was the first to walk forward.
“It's even more unreal being here,” he said. He gestured to a number of angular divots in the ground, which had been visible from the mirror. “These green pits—they're full of copper. They're upside-down copper pyramids.”
“You're right,” Brian said. “I saw the pyramids out in Egypt on my boxing tour, and they have the same steps.”
Francine silently surveyed the imposing emerald towers. She realized these must have been what the copper was hauled up for. Now that they were closer, Mary could see the age of these structures—the thickness of their corrosion, the extent of the environmental battering they sustained from the atmosphere, thin as it was. The chances of life on this world seemed slim, and indeed Francine could only sense faint suggestions of such. None of it was of notable size.
They turned around, surveying the large reflective crystal they'd exited through. “Is this that Hemkra Quartz thing Mr. Hammerstein was talking about?” Penelope asked.
“No, judging from my friend Immorté's words, the Quartz is buried somewhere. He said once my powers were linked to Hemkra energies—remember, Brian? So hopefully I can locate it when we're close enough,” Francine said.
“That's a big 'hopefully.' Almost as big as this planet,” Brian said. “I just mean it'll be a tough search.”
“Maybe we should just head to one of the spires and see what we can find,” Sanger suggested. It was clear from his tone he didn't want leave this world without exploring it properly.
“Let's try that,” Francine agreed, not knowing what else to do for now.
She began to lead them across the desolate green-black fields. Overhead shimmering silver-blue clouds obscured a black sky full of stars. She didn't remember the skies of Rheton by night but she realized now (perhaps for a second time) the strangeness of shifted stars. She would never lose her fascination for alien worlds and she was glad her powers could take her to them. Overhead were two planets near to each other, like twins. The name of this world, Roman, made Francine think of them in her mind as Romulus and Remus. She wondered if there was any life on them...
When they cross through the ruined gate of one of the copper structures they were greeted by messes of wires and other gadgetry. The panels of the walls had split open to reveal this—it seemed likely that these the whole of all of these towers were lined with similar machinery. Perhaps the entire building was one big unit, dedicated to a specific, powerful purpose—or maybe the great power a joined mechanism could supply was used for many smaller tasks. More and more, Francine Rainsford found herself wishing they offered Cosmic History at Lamb University, and not just American and European. She had already found another world with cultures and worldviews entirely different from everything she knew—and now she was walking through the rubble of a second.
She noticed too late the blinking green dot of an electric eye.
“Guys, this place is still active,” she said. Penelope saw the blinking device and gasped.
“Are they watching us?”
“Not sure if Brian told you about Immorté's warning, Penelope, but this planet is hostile,” Mary said. “Roman is populated by things called Ro-Men. I don't know what they are, but they work for the Great Old Ones.”
“And the Great Old Ones are...?” Penelope asked.
“Oh, right. I forget that not everyone's had a look into ancient celestial conflicts. Um. Well, do you remember some of the weird stuff that went down in Red Hook back in the '20s? Those weird tunnels, the books talking about Gorgo and Mormo?”
“In my time I heard of Gorgo and Mormo cults out in a California town called Santa Cota, involving a woman called Melissa Strickland. Except some folks who told me the tale called them Gorgo and B'gol for some reason.”
“Well, you can imagine from what happened in Red Hook—”
“—and with this Strickland woman—”
“—that the Great Old Ones are something we humans would call demonic. Except they don't fit that bracket so easily.”
“I just have one question, Mary.”
“If the Great Old Ones are devils, why do their servants look like that...?”
She had turned away—Mary was still inspecting the eye. Sanger and Brian were also looking where Penelope was, watching now as several figures emerged from the dark depths of the ancient towers. Their hairy bodies contrasted the sleek metal that encapsulated their heads. It would be only somewhat correct to say they were human-like; if you wanted to be perfect you'd be frank and say they were like gorillas. Gorillas with robotic heads. They were armed with guns of some kind.
“Stop. You will surrender immediately, by the authority of the Great One,” came a stilted voice. It was speaking in English. “You are an invader. You are an enemy of the Ro-Men. You must be destroyed.”
“I don't care much for your logic,” Mary hollered back at them. She was trying not to laugh at their appearance.
“Use the calcinator rays,” the foremost Ro-Man told the others. As soon as they fired their guns, white bursts not dissimilar to those from the proton machine emerged. Mary's reflexes did not fail her. She took out of one of her hand-mirrors, and absorbed the energy into the Mirror-Realm. As it passed through she felt that such energy would burn her friends to bones, so she was glad she caught it, to say the least. But the Ro-Men were getting ready to fire again.
“Run!” she called, and run they did.
The large creatures didn't seem to able to move quickly, but from the camera they already knew that this place still had some of its old tricks left on. They found themselves forced to go down into the tower, seeing now it extended deep below the surface. Not the best option, given that that put them further into Ro-Men clutches, but it was better than disintegration.
Bloody Mary considered then that there was no such thing as a coincidence.
The murky darkness swelled up around her, but there was a light brightening this place. She was the only one who could see this light, but if it meant what she thought it did, it wouldn't be long before this place brightened up again. She presumed the Hemkra Quartz sparkled, anyway. She hoped it did—it would make it easier for the others to help her find it.
Their pursuers lost even more speed when it came time to chase them into the depths. It seemed they were unfamiliar with this dark tunnel, having not used it in some time; that probably meant they weren't aware of the gem at the base of the shaft either. The advantage was wholly theirs.
“Come on,” she whispered back to Penelope. “Take my hand. And Brian's. And so on.”
Sanger took Brian's hand went it came to him.
“Absolute single-file, everyone,” Mary hissed. And with her night-vision she led them down the winding stairs, leaving the Ro-Men in the dust.
There was still machinery down here, even more poorly maintained. The floor here, if there ever was one, had been worn away or buried, and nature was fighting back. From the exposed dirt, fungal shoots erupted with entangled itself in the twisted, rusted metal, and it was clear that the decay of these shoots had made new soil which buried parts of the tower over time. And now a fissure cracked in that barren ground—that was where the gem was buried. Of course—it had fallen from above, and its weight had broken the floor open to begin with. Now there was visible light, and the others could let go of their chain of hands. “I can see it—!” Sanger cried. “Stand back, sweetie, I'll go down and get it.”
“Dad, I don't think—”
However she was going to end that sentence, it didn't matter. Up above, she heard one of the Ro-Men give a command, and one of the machines near them, busted and dirty as it was, became active. Its paneling split open to revealed a glowing magenta jewel, which now pulsed ominously. A short eruption of bubbles, like soap bubbles, streamed out.
Then, in an instant, similarly-colored bubbles formed around each of the four party members. Each cried out as the bubbles left them levitating in the air. Brian and Mary got to work at once on trying to punch and claw their way out, but to no avail.
In their own time, the Ro-Men descended, all the while communicating with each other in their rich metallic voices. “That was a good employ of the security mechanisms, Extension KT-124.”
“Thank you, Commander Extension Tau-7. The modified Lithlux artifact supplied by our Cyykolo allies has functioned perfectly this time.”
“Yes, its frequent malfunctions are an embarrassment. But not today.”
Francine was starting to get some idea of how to get out of these things, but she needed to maneuver her bubble closer to Brian's to find out.
But Brian looked upward, as she rocked her prison back and forth in an attempt at movement. “Hey, Francine. I think we've got more company.”
She glanced up, expecting to see more Ro-Men, but instead, her eyes met something worse. Upon at the top of the shaft, there was a bright flash of flame—a very familiar flame. It was a fever-flame, and it was moving considerably faster than the sluggish Ro-Men.
The trio of aliens were now looking up at their captives.
“Three of the four appear to be hu-mans,” one of them said, enunciating that last word strangely. “The fourth's race is unknown. She is powerful, however—her energy scale is off the charts.”
Francine brought her face close to Brian's bubble. Sure enough, her own face looked back at her. That was all she needed. She tried, as she had briefly before, to once again enter the Mirror-Realm through the shimmer of the inside of her bubble, but once more it was useless. That didn't matter. She removed her hand-mirror, and turned back into Francine Rainsford.
“Now the fourth creature is a hu-man!” one of the Ro-Men exclaimed.
“She has the power of transformation. We must use that for our own ends.”
Francine ignored them. Instead, she gestured for Brian to push himself forward, positioning himself over the crack where the golden light of the Hemkra Quartz emanated. She needed her human form for the purpose of having human eyes. Turning her left eye and the reflection it offered into a gate into the Mirror-Realm, she shoved her hand-mirror through her eye and out of the shell of Brian's bubble.
The mirror toppled into the pit, the Ro-Men ignoring its fall. Francine felt it slide down, its surface cracked but clinging to its frame nonetheless. As long as an inch of that glass touched the gem...
Success. She dragged the Hemkra Quartz into the Mirror-Realm.
Once it was anchored, she felt its power reach her heart, just as Typhoid Mary's fever had reached her before. Stretching into the depths of that dimensional energy she shattered the energy bubbles they'd been caught in.
They were freed just as Typhoid Mary had finished descending. The rearmost Ro-Man had seen her coming and fired a potshot with his “calcinator ray.” However, she replied in kind, launching a burst of flames at his steel-lined head. Before their eyes the metal popped open, shattering like a crashing plane, revealing what appeared to be a strangely-human skull beneath. The ape-like creature collapsed, completely destroyed.
“You use Lithlux, Cyykolo, and Rhetonian technology,” Typhoid Mary said, “and I have met those races before when they have visited the Earth. The devices here are susceptible to psychic influence, and once I activate their power sources I can draw from them to redouble my efforts to control them. They're computerized, and I can flow within their circuits as a computer virus...”
“She is activating the whole city,” one of the two surviving Ro-Men said, with panic creeping into his once-monotone voice.
“May the Great Guidance protect us,” the other returned. Now, the various machines that made up the limits of this spire were starting to light up, and the whole planet was shaking under their feet.
“Everyone into the hole,” Francine said. She had no idea what the hell Typhoid Mary was doing, but it wasn't anything for their benefit. Ancient machines, linked to the long stretches of circuitry that brought the tall towers, were now moving giant pistons below the hard rock of the surface, driving great shelves of rock back and forth at Mary's will. As these vibrations grew greater and greater, they reached down into the deeper layers of the planet, where more volatile machines, the old weapons and power-cores of the Lithlux and the Rhetonians, waited precariously.
Once they found themselves all in the pit the Hemkra Quartz had dug out, Francine searched frantically for her cracked mirror. She found it as the sparking lights of the humming tower made it glisten in the dark. Hurriedly, she ushered all of them into the Mirror-Realm, at the exact moment the atomic core directly below them exploded.
They spotted the roaring flames for only a trifling moment before the glass that formed their connection was burnt to atoms. Francine didn't share her plan with the others—there was no time, as she only the hair of an instant. In that nuclear heat was a fever-flame, and through that flame there was another gateway. One which wasn't so easily erased from space by force; quite the opposite, in fact.
In the blazing pyre, Francine once more felt the fever-madness, as it had gnawed at her bones and Penelope's, but she activated the Hemkra Quartz. The facets glistened and with a burst of power, that burning flame that was the destruction unleashed on Roman was suddenly in the palm of Francine's hand.
“Is that her Realm, then? The Fever-Realm?” Penelope asked. She dimly remembered a mental vision of it, when she was sick.
“Yes,” Francine replied. “It wasn't hard to catch, once I had the Quartz here. It's its own dimension but it's still a shard of the Mirror-Realm. It's like I'm bringing it home. Only, it's grown out a bit since it broke off, and it won't graft back on right.”
Then, in her other hand, she held the golden light of the Hemkra Quartz—its blaze lit up the darkness of the Mirror-Realm. She brought the two together, and the fire of the Fever-Realm vanished into the angles of the Quartz.
“There's a sixth-dimensional barrier stopping anything from coming in or getting out of that gem,” Francine explained, “and so Typhoid Mary's cut off from her power-source.”
“I get the impression we're gonna have the chance to explain that to her in person soon,” Sanger said.
“She can still use the mirror-gates, yeah. Give her time.”
Sanger's breath sped up. Despite the relative comfort of the Realm his old fear was coming back, now that there was an added threat. “Have you ever fought anyone inside the Mirror-Realm before, honey?”
“No. Not properly, I guess. You guys should hang back.”
“I want to help,” Penelope offered, but Brian looked hard at her.
“Trust her when she says to hang back,” he said soberly. “I want to help as much as you do but that other Mary is too strong.”
Penelope was about to counter that she'd endured marriage to Ernest I. Darwood for 32 years, but didn't get her chance. One of the gates in the distance turned orange, and the now-familiar flames came through. Once more they were purpled up, like Typhoid Mary was finally getting a taste of her own sickness.
“You can't stop me,” she said. “I left that planet in ruins—made it shake itself apart, till it blew apart like a cannonball! It shattered so hard it tore open the dimensions, placed the whole cracked planet in interphase; there's a shock in its star, warped in time, to make it go nova in four centuries. Every planet in that supernova's path will die, and I will be their murderer!”
“As far as we know you killed a bunch of Old One robots. Not so sure about this future stuff, but it sounds like bullshit,” Bloody Mary said. “Looking for your Realm? I have it locked up here. And now all the mirror-gates here are sealed. You're not getting out of here ever again.”
“I could destroy this place,” the sickness-ghost said. “That would get me out. I'll kill all of you and tear my way back into realspace.”
“Unlikely,” Mary returned.
But Typhoid Mary reared then, bloating up her flame into a crackling wall. Her ghostly eyes grew in size, forming pits at the centers that looked through the jaundiced lenses into the madness behind them. “I am the mistress of time. I have mastered powers which you never will, Rainsford. I tricked you into luring my Rot back to 1944, where it would seed itself and grow anew in 1979—where it would then fall back in time through the Mirror-Realm to create itself. Even if you stop me here...I have other traps set for you, to take my revenge.”
Francine offered no reply. The effort of blowing herself up was already weakening her, and she was shrinking again, like a candlewick drowning in wax. Only by a surge of strength did Typhoid Mary reassert her normal form.
“Let's fight,” she said.
“We don't have to,” Francine replied. “You burn through your power a lot faster—you don't remember how to slow down at this point. You know that I know your link to the Fever-Realm is lost. What takes days to kill me will take less than an hour to bring you down.”
“There's one way to settle this, Mary. I will let you go into the Fever-Realm, but...I couldn't remove it from the gem now if I tried. The sixth-dimensional entanglement is too strong—the Fever-Realm is too big. You need to reunite with that Realm to survive but you'll have to live in the gem for all eternity.”
“You want to trap me by reconnecting me with my source of power, Rainsford? You're an idiot. I'll just build my power until I'm strong enough to break out of your Hemkra crystal.”
“Except you'd be right back where you are now, cut off from your power source. You can only gain as much mystic power as the Fever-Realm itself originally has in it, so even if you used its power to escape the Quartz you could only free yourself, and not the Realm—leaving it sealed inside the crystal. Actually, you'd be at risk of destroying the Fever-Realm entirely if you soaked up that much of its power, and then you'd really be nailed. The same goes if you used the Fever-Realm to escape through a sick person in...'realspace,' I think you called it. You'd be on a dimensional plane isolated from the Realm's power, and you couldn't get back inside it.”
“But—but someone will come into your Realm and break the crystal! That will get me out!”
“I've been Mary for three years now, and I'll be her for many yet, my dear. I already know that the chances of anyone breaking in here are one in a million.”
“Well, then—maybe you'll let me out...?”
She was shrinking fast now...not really trying to eat up her excess power but doing so nonetheless. It was pathetic, and Mary felt bad for her. She produced the Quartz, and opened a one-way link into it.
“Maybe. If I feel it's the right time. And I'll need time, anyway, to find out how to do it.”
There wasn't enough of the sickness-ghost left for her to have any sort of expression on her face. Crumbling fast into a tiny firefly of flame, she flew into the crystal-tunnel and was sealed inside.
Bloody Mary exhaled slowly. The peace of the Mirror-Realm returned. It was done.
“I was married to a college professor,” Penelope said, getting her kick in at last, “and even he wasn't that good at talking people to death. Bra-vo, Mary.”
“That was...pretty impressive, hon,” Sanger rejoined, laughing.
Mary looked down at the Quartz and was filled with a sudden revulsion as she saw the Fever-Realm within it. She sent it away, making sure it wasn't lost at the Realm's far edges...but ensuring it wasn't too close, either.
“You beat her?” Brian asked, wanting to make sure.
“I think she's down, yeah,” Mary said back. But she was already thinking of the traps the ghost had mentioned. And the possibility that she might break out someday. These were not small consideration. These were—
Ah, to hell with it. She turned back, and hugged her cousin and father.
Penelope joined them as well, and for a brief moment Mary felt like Ernest was with them again. Maybe he was, but he wouldn't be the only ghost present.
Over her dad's shoulder, Francine saw the apparition of Nadine Ingomar. Nadine was still alive, of course, but this was the first time she'd manifested bodily in the Realm. Sanger wasn't exactly pleased to see her but he let her go to her.
At first, Nadine said nothing.
“I'm sorry to interrupt,” she put in at last. “I just like checking on how my old student is doing sometimes.”
“I'm glad to have you watching over me,” Francine returned. She felt like she should say more but it had been a long two years.
“I, uh. I like to help,” Nadine put in, after she realized Francine was done. But then she looked down.
Mary reached into her dress, and pulled out another hand-mirror. Since she'd returned to the Realm, the Realm had given her a new one—she'd fixed things so it was like they grew on trees around here. Never a bad idea to carry hand-mirrors.
She pretended to be checking something unimportant as she flipped through a handful of mirrors yet to come. In these future mirrors she saw friendly faces both new and old fighting alongside her, against Kamarack and the Pumpkin Master and all the others. She waited patiently, then she got a lock. Early 1946, huh?
“Come back later, my dear Madame Ingomar,” Francine purred to her former mentor. “It's not yet time for you.”
Nadine saw the mirror in her hand, and realized what she had done.
“You realize now that you've—you've seen that,” she stuttered, “you can change it. It's not locked in stone now, or...or maybe the reverse. What else did you see? My God, Francine, you could've scrambled time itself, just to see...” She didn't dare finish that sentence.
“I did get a glimpse of what's coming in next,” Mary said to her. She raised her voice now, so her three compatriots could hear her. “It's gonna be a doozy. That's why I'm putting it off, I guess.”
“P-putting it off?”
“Reinstating you on the team, you old biddy! I'm going to be tied up for a little while, but also...” And she sighed, letting the spontaneous joy of the moment drift away. “I'm not ready to take you back, Nadine. And neither is Dad, pretty sure. Seeing that you do come back at some point changes my way of thinking, but the thing is...I wanted it to. And I don't really know if I want you back because you're my friend, or because you're useful to me. I don't want that latter option to be true—I don't want to be cold—because you were cold to me, in a way I don't think you get yet.”
“Still?” Nadine cried, but then she covered her mouth. She realized there was truth to what she said.
“Now, speaking of futures—mine's coming up fast, and there's one waiting for one of my friends to come back to it. I have to go, but we'll...talk.”
Nadine seemed to accept that. Both of them had trouble smiling, but they did smile.
Nadine's image faded as Mary turned away. She paused in her motion, but only for a second. Then, her voice rang out loud and clear. “Let's get you home, little lady!”
“Oh, Ms. Rainsford, how generous of you to offer me a ride!” Penelope laughed. As Mary passed Sanger and Brian, her cousin asked, “Wait, you're going to leave us here?”
“I don't view that as a punishment, Brian,” Sanger returned to him. “Let's do some explorin'.” Brian didn't seem pleased with his uncle's apparent seriousness.
As Mary prepared to take Penelope back, she realized slowly that a dawning peace was coming over her. The battle had brought doom to an alien world, but the fires that ravaged that world were now locked away. She and Typhoid Mary had been bound together, and with her enemy's defeat it was like she had banished the last trace of her doubt in her power to bear this mantle. She felt that doubt reverberate in the echo of Mary's blind anger, and she realized that that doubt was her true enemy all along, in its own way. At the center of destruction and hate were doubt and fear; when Bloody Mary was created all those millennia ago she was the fury of an old fear, the fear of injustice. And while that fear and that fury were toxic, they could be used for good if they were used to fight against the terror that spawned them. She knew she wore the face of fear, but never would she allow that face and the power tied to it to lead her into the shadows.