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Rune & Claw [excerpt]

By Brian Castle All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

Chapter 1

If you’d asked me a week ago how I thought the world would end, I very much doubt I would have said, “A series of bad decisions on my part.” Then again, I’ve always considered myself the humble type. Plus, a week ago I had a much simpler life. Relatively speaking.

Then I found myself in the labyrinthine corridors of Portland’s warehouse district on an uncomfortably cold, rainy night in my going out clothes, watching a second story window in one of the older buildings. The kind made of wood siding instead of the newer corrugated aluminum of its neighbors. There was light behind the window, dim and flickering with gods knew what kind of eldritch fuckery.

Warlocks. There’s no lower scum on earth as far as I’m concerned. Not once had I encountered one that wasn’t a blood-thirsty megalomaniac. They fancied themselves masters of the arcane, lords of the underworld; but warlocking amounts to shake’n’bake magic that anyone with a sliver of talent can pull off. Just add chicken and poof, minions from the other side of the Veil, yours to command for the low, low price of your sanity.

You always found them in places like this, tucked out of the way so they could send their lackeys out to do all the dirty work. Something about its ease must have made them think they could get away with murder and mayhem.

If it weren’t for people like me and my uncle, they would.

Somewhere behind that pane of shifting light was one warlock in particular named Lester Weisman. He had been on a bona fide killing spree over the last two weeks. Having seen a picture of Lester, I’d had my doubts originally; he could easily have passed for Michael Moore’s fatter, uglier cousin and from all accounts had lived in his mother’s basement. He was thirty-five. How a loser like that ends up with this kind of power—cheap trick or not—was something I very much wanted to know.

I tugged a cigarette out of a pack and sheltered it from the rain with my hand while I lit it and tried to calm my nerves. Whatever Lester looked like, however he got his hands on magic, the pictures of the crime scenes showed that whatever this basement troll had called up was no joking matter. There’d been barely anything recognizable left of the victims.

Pete’s downright scary when he’s in a good mood, and shit like this definitely gets his panties in a wad, so I didn’t argue when he told me this was my hunt. If he hadn’t been dealing with his own trouble up in the opposite corner of the city—I couldn’t help noticing it was the nicer part of Portland that didn’t smell like oil and urine—he would have been here with me. Still, it was a good sign that he’d given me my own case—like he was admitting that I was grown enough to handle myself. About time. My teenage years were far behind.

The rain allowed me half a cig before it ruined the rest of it. I dropped it and stepped on the butt as I glanced around for any sign of bystanders. With no other excuses left, I took a deep breath, steeled myself, and headed out of hiding.

I made it across the gap from the shadowed corridor to the back door of the warehouse without making a sound or tripping any alarms—which was somewhat alarming in itself. By the time I made it to the door, confusion was fighting with nervousness in my head.

At last count, Lester had maintained at least two beasties at a time. Two of the murders happened in distant locations at around the same hour two nights ago. While that didn’t take much skill, it did take juice. The kind of juice that can also afford to maintain decent wards.

I stepped back from the door, suddenly unsure whether to be nervous or relaxed. What kind of murderous warlock doesn’t protect his lair? If you could summon the denizens of the Otherworld, you could ward your shop. Lester was either an idiot or so powerful or well guarded that he simply didn’t feel the need to waste power on wards.

On the other hand, I also might have had the wrong place. A mistake like that would set me back five years with Pete. Was I sure of my information? I hesitated, glanced up at the second story window that still trembled with light, and decided to trust my instincts.

I put my hand on the door knob and turned carefully. Locked, of course. I grunted and dug through my pockets for a hunk of chalk.

As I sketched the runes of passage onto the door, around the knob, I let the barest trickle of magic well up from the center of my will. Once they were all in place I touched the topmost symbol and poured magic into the formula. The chalk dust gave off a faint glow for the space of a few heartbeats, and the door gave a quiet click.

I waited and listened with my ear pressed against the door. It was only a little magic but enough to get someone’s attention if they were paranoid enough to be looking for it. Warlocks tended to be the type that would.

When I heard nothing that made me think I’d been made, I gently turned the knob and pushed the door in.

It was definitely the right place, unless dead bodies were just the most recent hipster trend in office decor. The stench of rotting flesh hammered into my nose. Three security monitors gave off just enough static glow to light the carnage.

Something had come in and redecorated the place with limbs, entrails, and blood—and a potpourri of other human insides in the process. I pressed my coat sleeve to my nose, hoping the heavy fabric would filter out the stench. It didn’t.

This did explain how Lester had managed to rent the place. I added two—yes, there were only two faces in the mess—to Lester’s body count. Probably more as someone would have come looking for these, uh, individuals. Men? Hard to say. In any case, more attention would be coming—a brilliant villain Lester Weisman was apparently not.

I pushed forward through the mess, stepping around the bits to keep from ruining my good shoes. I should have grabbed a pair of Goodwill sneakers on my way. Where there are demons, one was likely to ruin their nice clothes.

I pulled open the door to the main level and winced as I scraped remains along the ground in the process. Hopefully, nobody’s vengeful spirit was still around to be pissed about it.

Only the weak light from the bay window in the office kept the place from being pitch black. I peered into the dark and held my breath as I listened. A faint light spilled down the far wall where a stairway led to the upper floor. The only indication that the place was occupied was some muffled noise from above. I strained to listen.

Voices, and more than one.

Shit. Lester had company. Maybe that was the deal—there was more than one of them. It was unusual for warlocks to work together, although the whole mess made a lot more sense now. For a moment, I considered leaving to regroup.

Except, the longer Lester and his buddies were at large, the more messes like the one behind me were made. And if I backed out now, Pete would be furious. Already, there were grieving relatives out there with no hope of seeing justice done. The police don’t exactly have a profile for kill-happy warlocks or their Otherworld minions.

I took a moment to be still and reassess. I had a handful of prepped spells in one pocket and a revolver with seal-breaker bullets, which I preferred not to use unless I had to. If all else failed I had enough magic in me to pull off a handful of Words before I was useless.

Always have at least three plans. Pete had been telling me that twice a day for most of my life.

Three plans.

There were two voices in the chatter. One was probably Lester. Two warlocks with no wards meant they were most likely one-trick ponies; if they had any other skill with magic, the place would have been protected. They might easily have firearms, but they’d be in a circle, and guns were unreliable in that kind of high-magic environment. If I was wrong, there was a barrier spell in my front right coat pocket. That left the Otherworlders.

The bodies behind me and the ones I’d seen before were shredded by something with claws. That meant something short range. I let a few scenarios play out in my head and tried not to panic about the ones that ended with me holding my guts in. Make and keep distance; distract and attack. Don’t waste magic.

I fingered the iron stylus in my pocket, pursed my lips, and then trickled a little power into it until I felt a good solid link was in place. One deep breath to calm myself, and I stepped out into the darkness.

Quiet as an overweight, clumsy mouse I padded across the warehouse floor, which was strewn with bits of broken pallets, stacks of small shipping containers, and the occasional entrail. In the dark it was hard not to stumble over the debris.

There was a whisper like rustling of fabric from above and behind me. Panic jerked my muscles into action and I turned just in time to see a seething tower of shadow and smoke with burning eyes bear down on me. I leapt backwards, seal breaker raised, banishing spell lit.

Then its friend hit me over the head.

I groaned as I woke up to a mix of relief and panic. On the up side, I’d woken up; so I wasn’t dead. On the other hand, I was not alone, and I’d been relieved of my coat and revolver.

Lester Weisman was even prettier in person. He stood with his arms almost folded over the ample bosom that threatened to tear through his food-stained Grumpy Cat tee shirt. He sneered down at me with a thin mouth positioned amid several weeks worth of neck-beard. His impossibly full sweat-pants suggested he was the type of man who preferred comfort over style, shockingly. Greasy hair was slicked back into a chunky tail and gave his face a rounded plumpness that I thought he could do without.

I could smell him from a few yards away and it was not pleasant.

“Welcome back,” he said, his voice nasally and remarkably similar to what I’d expected him to sound like. Some people just look like who they are. “You’re just in time to tell me who you are before I have you slowly disemboweled.”

“Yay, me,” I muttered as I pushed myself up onto my knees. I was a few feet away from the circle he’d set up. It took an effort not to gape at the scene.

The circle itself was laid onto the old oaken floor in thick white paint—a dozen layers at least—on top of which he’d carved the runes and sigils that kept his friends from getting too close. That bordered on prudent, if a little overboard, but what he’d done with the interior was an act of near comical lunacy.

A glowing television screen stood at one end of the circle, set up next to a support beam that had an outlet at the base, where a slender fold-out table supported the TV itself and a small collection of video game systems. There was a movie playing on the flat screen, now muted, and a ratty old couch that belonged in some grandmother’s sitting room faced the television from the other side of the circle. One corner was held up by a tattered wooden shipping pallet instead of a clawed wooden foot.

The window I had been watching was opposite the television screen. Eldritch fuckery, indeed. And the voices I had heard had been from the movie. Lester was alone up here.

Well, not counting the minions.

There were two that I could see, both of which looked precisely like the kind of creatures that excel at decorating rooms with things like blood and bones and intestines.

The one I had seen before stood at the ready a short distance away, maybe seven feet tall and largely hidden behind writhing shadows laced with slithering tendrils of smoke that flickered like flames but cast no heat. Pinpoints of red floated in the darkness near the top, and the pallid light of the television reflected off of metallic looking claws as they shivered impatiently at the being’s sides. It was a new one to me, but knowing what it was didn’t make it less likely to carve me up, so I named it Smokey.

I did know the other and seeing her made my blood boil. Gainly limbs hung off a hunched frame—a skeleton sewn together with only the barest familiarity of humanoid structure—knotted joints jutting up into tight, pale skin like cured and stretched leather. Her face was split with a mouth that was too wide as though whoever crafted it slipped when cutting. A stringy topknot of hair jutted from the apex of her misshapen skull like an afterthought. She was Lillitu, a breed of demon famed in old Sumer for eating babies.

She smiled, I think. I was making friends already.

“As you can see,” Lester said, “You’ve broken into the wrong sanctum.”

I shifted my posture a bit, wincing as the throbbing at the back of my head disagreed with the choice. When the pain settled into a persistent pounding ache instead of an ice pick, I pressed my hands to my thighs and looked up at Lester. “How are you getting the TV to work in here?”

When Lester blinked his eyes all but vanished into the folds of his face. “I believe you fail to grasp the seriousness of your situation,” he said. Then, when I stared, he sighed. “I put another circle around the socket, large enough to accommodate my entertainment. I inverted the formulas.”

“Oh.” I had to admit, it was clever. Circles keep things out or in; a second circle provided a zone with a normal enough environment to keep the electricity from fritzing. I try to give credit where it’s due. “You know what? I revise my earlier opinion of you, Lester. You can’t be entirely retarded.”

He snorted, his face becoming, somehow, even uglier in his sudden rage. “Is that so? Why the hell should I care about the opinion of some ineffectual interloper? Who are you, anyway? And why are you here? Clearly you have some knowledge of the hidden arts.”

“Hidden…?” I sighed. “I’m Adam. Adam Saint. I’d say it’s a pleasure but”—I glanced around, sizing up the space, and winced against the reminder at the base of my skull when I moved—“it’s really not.”

Lester gave no hint that he recognized the name. I clarified. “Pete Saint’s appre—eh, partner.”

“Should I know who that is?” Lester’s fingers twitched, and the slightest sheen of sweat began to form on his forehead. To be fair, sweating was probably just a fact of life for this one.

“You really should. Did you think you could just run around Portland—or, at any rate, have your minions running around—killing folks and that no one would notice?” I asked. “Don’t you know there’s a sheriff in town? Everyone else does.”

“Of course I do! But I was assured that—” He bit the words off and took a step back from the inner edge of the circle. “It makes no difference. Neither you nor this ‘sheriff’ are of any consequence. You either gravely misjudged me, or greatly overestimated yourself.”

I squinted at him and tilted my head to the most condescending angle I could manage on my knees and without too much pain. “Where did you learn to talk? Are all your role models bad comic book villains? And this place…” I looked around again. Three yards to Smokey, maybe six to the baby-eater. I spied my coat lying in a crumpled pile a little distance behind her. “I mean, doesn’t the smell bother you, or is that part of your image or something? Totally classless. I don’t know; maybe they let anyone into warlock school these days, am I right?” I thought my toothy smile was… companionable.

Lester’s nostril tugged up and his lips pressed together, trembling with barely contained words.

There are two reasons that bad guys like Lester drag you into an audience instead of killing you outright. The first is that they want you to know who’s doing it and gloat about it in the final moments of your life. The other is that they want information of some kind—who you are, what you know, what you’re there for. These two things are almost always a sure-fire ticket to the greatest weakness megalomaniacs and psychopaths of the villainy sort have. Monologuing.

I saw it come over him, burning behind his eyes. The righteous aura shared by the self-diagnosed misunderstood and the justified crusaders for vengeance against the perceived sleights of the universe. It practically swelled around him. I opened myself to my magic and reached out to the bit I had invested in the iron spike still nestled in my coat as I focused on setting up an empty spell form.

“You’re in no position to show such arrogance, worthless swine,” Lester said, spittle gathering attractively at the corners of his mouth. “I wield power over the wills of the foulest beasts to populate the nether realms! The Shadow Djinn alone proves my worth as a magus, but to command a Lillitu at the same time? And that’s hardly the extent of my power. I shall raise an army of servants and bring this city to its knees.”

I frowned at him, and lifted both eyebrows. “Lester—oh, great and powerful warlock—before you smite me, or something, mind answering a question that’s been chomping around in my head for the past… thirty seconds or so?”

He bristled, his eyes narrowing, but waved a hand as though granting royal approval.

“Assuming you immediately went on a killing spree after you somehow managed to work up enough mojo to call just one of these guys across the Veil…you’ve been at this maybe a month at the most. And you plan to raise an army? It doesn’t add up.”

“What’s your point?” He scowled, the expression making him somehow even uglier.

It dawned on me then, making me both want to laugh and to throttle someone. I got my chuckle out of the way first. “Of course,” I said, face-palming as I rolled my eyes. “It’s borrowed magic. Someone gave you all this. Who the hell would do that?”

“Silence!” Lester was red-faced. “I’ve heard enough and will not be insulted again. How do you prefer to die? Torn apart by my Shadow Djinn or disemboweled by my Lillitu?” The triumphant smirk on his face was priceless.

“You are really cute when you’re angry, you know that?” I didn’t wait for his indignant snarl to become a cogent response.

Magic rushed into the spell form, waking the iron stylus in my coat. The spike tore free of its hiding place and flashed through the air and into the back of the Lillitu’s head. She let loose a scream like something from Jurassic Park as she clawed at the two inches of metal jutting from her forehead. I launched myself past her in a dive roll that brought me within arm’s reach of my coat.

I tugged the revolver free, braced myself against the wall, took aim, and let my magic loose into the first bullet as the hammer fell. The shot rang out and the gun kicked. The actinic tang of spent magic washed over me, and Smokey stumbled back as the seal-breaker bored into it and unraveled the bindings that kept it under Lester’s will.

And then the fighting started.
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