Rune & Claw [excerpt]

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Chapter 2

“Kill him! Kill him now!”

I focused through the haze of pain and the ringing in my ears as the Lillitu pried the spike from her skull and turned to face me. The shot had drained me a bit, but I prepped another and turned the barrel of the revolver on her.

She was faster than I expected. Before I could empower another bullet, she had closed the small gap between us. A clawed hand flashed, and I had to give up the gun or the hand. The former clattered to the ground and slid across the floor. Where it ended up, I didn’t see—I was busy scrambling out of the vicious lady-beast’s way as she launched herself at me.

I dove away from the wall, landing hard on my shoulder as I rolled. It didn’t gain me much space, but it was enough for me to dig into my pants pocket and pull out a smooth, white stone engraved with a cheap and dirty light spell. I thrust magic into it and threw it at the Lillitu’s face.The spell triggered, bursting to life like burning magnesium and hanging in the small gap between us. I closed my eyes tight against the blinding flash.

My coat was behind her. In it were my prepped spells. As she shrieked and shrank away from the blinding light I pushed to my feet and dashed past her. Burning pain flared through my shoulder as her flailing claws caught me on the way. I scooped up my coat and kept running as I swept it around and thrust my arms into the sleeves.

I turned, indulging myself for a moment with a note to relay that part in detail to Pete and drew a square of parchment from the inside coat pocket. The light spell began to flicker. The Lillitu’s sunken eyes were murderous and rolling as she turned to find where I had gone.

She opened her maw, full of so many rotted, hooked teeth, and howled at me before she leapt. I poured magic into the stored spell on the parchment and hurtled toward the demon as the construct sprang to life in my hand. Just before I was able to press it to her body she twisted in the air and struck with a wiry, cast-iron arm. The parchment burned to ash in my hand, the spell wasted, as I tumbled.

I came up panicked, adrenaline barking in my brain and threatening to curtail my rationality. The Lillitu hooked its claws into a wooden pallet and heaved, forcing me to dive again over the injured arm. When I rolled to my feet, I whipped around to see her nearly on me.

I hurled the first spell paper I could identify just as she came in range and thrust power into it. In my panic, a lot more than was needed. It flashed, burning to cinders in an instant as the lines of the spell broke free.

The Lillitu crashed to the floor, suddenly too heavy to hold herself up as earthen magic reached up from the ground below with crushing gravity. I pumped everything I safely could into the construct before it unraveled. Her claws scrabbled at the wood. There was a snap as a bone broke. The floorboards groaned and quickly crescendoed into a sharp creak.

I had to retreat almost to the wall as the floor fell, dropping away as gravity jerked it toward the earth, taking the demon with it and a good deal of the surrounding floor. My heart leapt into my throat a second later when the collapsing floor, along with its passenger, met the concrete of the lower floor with a boom that shook the building. I held the magic only a moment longer before I let it go and stood.

Smokey had lost all interest in me once the seal-breaker bullet had freed him of his bindings. Now more or less a free agent, he had only one object on his mind, and Lester was it.

That was the major downside to warlocking.

Creatures from the Otherworld, beyond the boundary of the Veil, didn’t belong here. They only came when they were forced to, and it hurt. Even a creature made of shadows and death wasn’t inherently evil or destructive—it was just in a strange and hostile environment. One where the resulting culture clash was the kind that left bodies.

I strolled in the direction I’d last seen the revolver and poked around the shadows until I found it and then picked up the holster and took my time getting it properly adjusted around my waist. While I did this, Lester was frantically flipping through pages of something that looked like a notebook.

I frowned as I came close to the circle and peered at it. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “Don’t you at least have a proper book of the damned or something?”

He ignored me as he lifted his eyes to the Djinn and held out a hand. “By the seal of Azobael,” he intoned, “I command you, creature of shadow and misery—”

I snorted, and then waved a hand. “No, no, please… go on.”

Lester frowned. His hands shook as he glanced at the pages and then at me before he stared at the unmoved Djinn as though it had betrayed him. “I don’t… why doesn’t it…?”

“Whoever set you up did a piss poor job of it, Lester,” I said. I drew the revolver and dropped a bullet from the cylinder so that I could hold it up. He squinted at it. “It’s a seal-breaker,” I explained. I gestured at Smokey with it. “He’s got his own will back. If you were even half a warlock, you could re-seal him, but”—I clicked the cylinder back into place and holstered it again—“you aren’t even that, are you?”

“I summoned him,” Lester sputtered, “he… he does my bidding.”

I shook my head as I knelt by the edge of the circle and examined the ward sigils. “Nope. Someone else sealed him. Summoning isn’t the same. This is a pretty decent circle, Lester. Someone paint it for you too?”

“He said”—Lester choked on a sob—“I would be a prince in the new world.”

That caught my attention. “What new world? Lester, who told you that?”

He dropped the notebook and slumped onto the couch, ruddy cheeks wet with tears. “I don’t want to die. I just wanted to be someone.”

“Hey”—I snapped my fingers to get his attention—“focus, Lester. Who gave you all this?”

Lester sighed. “It doesn’t matter now.” He held up a hand and turned it over, looking at it as though it didn’t make sense to him. “It’s gone anyway.”

“So help me, gods, Lester”—I stood at the edge of the circle—“if I have to come in there and drag you out, you are not going to like it.”

His eyes focused again and flickered between me and the angry Djinn. “I…if you… get rid of him… get me out of here… I’ll tell you everything. I promise!”

Smokey, it seemed, understood English well enough without his binding in place that he took issue with this idea. He paused, momentarily halting his stalking, to rest those glowing coals on me.

Now,” I said, eying the angry Djinn, “I didn’t say I’d do that. Calm down, Smokey.”

Once freed, Otherworlders can be cranky. They want revenge on the warlock that summoned them, and they don’t care to be interrupted in that quest. This one seemed to have determined I represented a potential obstacle—one that warranted taking apart.

Smokey’s steely claws flexed, and he moved away from the circle with graceful, deadly purpose. I drew my magic up and hammered together will, purpose, and power into a Word that began to throb in my mind. “We can talk about this,” I said.

The darkness around the Djinn flared, raging as he came for me.

I held out a hand, braced myself, and brought the Word of Return to bear. It tore from my lips and struck the Djinn center mass, burning its Law into the fabric of his existence. A sound like ripping concrete filled the air. There was a frigid wind before the Djinn vanished, shrieking, as the Word forced him back across the Veil.

My knees buckled a bit, and my head swam. Dizziness flooded into the void left by the Word, complimenting the splitting headache. I took a moment to steady myself. “Alright, Lester,” I said when I had my feet again, “start talking.”

He stared open mouthed at the place where the Djinn had been a moment before. “I…I don’t know much. He had his face hidden. There was a demon with him, and he told me he could show me how to make all my dreams come true. That I would have power in his new world.”

“How did you meet him? What did he call himself?” I heard some commotion below and glued my eyes to the stairway.

“Craigslist,” Lester said.

I broke my vigil to stare at Lester’s greasy face. “Excuse me?”

“I answered a Craigslist ad. It’s gone now. It said something about real magic. I thought it was probably a joke, you know, but I wrote to him anyway. He called me back, and we met up in Forest Park. He called himself Machon.” Lester sniffed, and stared at his feet. “I never meant to hurt anyone.”

“Yes you did, Lester.” I clenched my fingers into white fists to keep from losing my temper. “You know I can’t let you go.”

“You said you’d think about it,” he said, but his voice was hollow. Reality began to set in.

“I did. Did this Machon idiot just give you a… notebook? Did you really summon these guys yourself or did he do it for you?”

“What does it matter now?”

Something scraped at the stairs. I drew the revolver and cocked the hammer. “It matters.”

Lester straightened his back, a pallid glow of pride lighting his face. “I did it myself. I had real magic.” He slumped back against the couch, staring into nothing. “I had it.”

“That doesn’t track.” I came back to the circle. The scraping was getting closer. “You’re born with it or not”—I had a thought, and the bitter pity that came with it threatened to shake my resolve in the matter—“unless he gave that to you, too. Fuck. Did Machon cut you, Lester?”

“Yeah, he… how did you know?”

Blood magic. Machon, whoever he was, had passed some of his own magic into Lester through a blood connection. Usually, it was the other way around; that’s what blood magic was normally, for getting the extra juice when you didn’t have enough for what you wanted to do. Nasty stuff. Chiefly because of how it messed with the mind.

Worse, Lester had been entirely defenseless against that corruption without magic of his own. There was no telling what kind of a person he was before—I never could find anyone who knew him whom he hadn’t killed—but he might well have been gentle as a lamb until foreign magic warped his mind. “I’m sorry, Lester. What happened to you wasn’t fair.”

“No. But it was wonderful,” he said, smiling but with new tears brimming over his ruddy cheeks. “I felt… alive. I didn’t even know that I didn’t know until then. The people in this world, they’re all dead. I was dead until Machon gave me life.”

Whoever Lester had been before, that person was gone.

Movement at the stair caught my eye, and a bag of broken bones hauled itself over the last rise and onto the hardwood floor. The remains of Lillitu hissed at me. All that kept her going was the seal of Lester’s conjuration, forcing her to suffer beyond what she otherwise could have withstood. It was easy to believe she deserved it.

I pointed the revolver at her. “She’s all you got left. Not pretty, is it?”

It was easy enough to send the Lillitu back. She didn’t put up a fight, really; just waved her talons at me and was generally rude and bitter about the whole crushing incident. When I loaded another bullet with magic and fired it into her head, she hissed once before her body gave out and crumbled to dust as the seal that held her enthralled was released.

All that was left was Lester, behind his foot thick circle. I sighed, world weary and not excited about the next part. Much as I hated it, there was only one version of justice for a man like Lester. I hoped there was enough magic in his barrier to do the job.

He watched me as I drew chalk from my pocket and knelt at the edge of the circle. “It’s not fair,” he said.

“No,” I said as I worked, “it isn’t. It’s not fair that you were given something you couldn’t handle. It wasn’t fair to Chelsea Ingram that she had to die because you were angry with her for breaking up with you. Or to your mother for… I don’t know, wanting you to move out of the basement? Or to William Tensel for whatever he did to you. Why did you have William killed?”

Lester spat and punched the cushion next to him. “He dated Chelsea after she left me. He knew how I felt about her!”

I chalked out the angles of the structure to shatter the circle. “Right, well, I kind of get it, but it’s not a reason to kill someone. Those people’s families will never know how or why their loved ones were murdered. They’ll never know that justice was done, either. The damage you’ve done, Lester, it’s more than just taking lives. You’ve tainted the lives of everyone who loved those people.” I took the stylus from my pocket and pressed the point against my thumb until a drop of blood beaded up. “And the Lillitu alone… how many infants did she need to eat while you kept her around?”

Lester’s eyes were cold and all but dead when he met mine. “Four,” he said quietly. “She had four. One a week after she came. I didn’t have to watch. Just sprinkled a little powder on random kids to mark them.”

“You poor, sad fuck,” I said. “You should have stayed in your basement.”

I pressed my thumb to the edge of the figure and scrounged up enough magic to light the sigil. The faint scent of burned chalk and wood rose on threads of white smoke, which slithered into the edge of the barrier and burrowed down into the ward seals.

Lester pressed his hands to either side of his head and opened his mouth in a soundless scream. The magic in his blood, bound to the barrier, was resonating with the feedback caused in the forceful breaking of the circle. Like slowly splintering glass, silent cracks sounded through the ether, each one reverberating against my own magic until, with a final strained sensation of nails on chalkboard, the circle snapped.

I flinched as the ethereal sensation passed over me, though it was harmless. To me at least—my own magic hadn’t been supporting the structure of the barrier. Even if it had, I knew how to fight with that kind of backlash.

Lester didn’t. The magic still in him cracked as well, and he shook for a long moment before a trickle of blood leaked from his nose. If the circle had been smaller, weaker, held less magic in it, he might have gotten off with a migraine. He slumped back onto the dirty couch, staring sightlessly into the darkness.

The scene was far from clean, but Lester was too much for me to haul out of there. The police would find the scene soon enough, and after a while it would just become another strange, unsolved case rotting in the back of a file cabinet somewhere. Fat nerd into freaky shit dies of aneurysm. Possibly killed office workers while on PCP. I didn’t envy them the clean up but thought they’d appreciate me not immolating the whole warehouse instead.

I picked up the notebook and hunted the area. When I didn’t find what I was looking for, I grimaced and held my breath as I gingerly picked through Lester’s pockets. It had to be here somewhere.

In his left pants pocket I found it. A little gold locket. When I popped it open, Chelsea Ingram’s smiling childhood face beamed up at me opposite the toothy grin of her dead father.

Lester had kept a trophy. I gave his corpse one last look. He didn’t deserve a peaceful hereafter, not after what he’d done—but it was difficult to wish him a painful one, knowing it was Machon’s magic that had twisted his mind.

Machon represented a significantly greater challenge, one that I didn’t doubt Pete would prefer to take charge of. Handing dangerous magic to psychopaths was easily as bad as killing people with his own hands—worse even. The sort of thing the Hall got involved in directly; there was half a chance they’d hand the case over to the Inquisition. The thought gave me a chill, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on it.

I swiped the screen on my phone and hit Pete’s speed-dial.

He’d never bothered to set up his voice mail, so I got the generic ‘You’ve reached the number you dialed’ message. “Hey, Uncle Pete,” I said after the tone, “all finished here, but there’s a bigger problem. Lester didn’t manage all this on his own. He was just an angry loser with a dangerous toy. Someone named Machon gave him the juice with blood magic. Fucked his head up. There are probably others out there like him. Call me when you get this. I’ve got a couple loose ends to tie up, and I’ll be back at the office.”

I hung up and then gave Lester a last look. Guilt nagged at the edge of my mind, and I let it. Somehow, I didn’t think the choice was supposed to be easy, even if Pete made it look that way sometimes, even if it didn’t seem like there was really a choice at all. Before I left, I closed his eyes.

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