Read Broken Souls Online

Authors: Stephen Blackmoore

Broken Souls (9 page)

The thing standing there is about seven feet tall, built like a wrestler. Muscles on muscles. Slick, black skin like polished ebony, thin veins of glowing red just under the skin. Where its head should be is a roiling mass of tentacles, whipping around like snakes on fire. Each arm ends in a hand with an open mouth in the palm, needle teeth dripping green goop.

Demons are easy to summon. Seems like they’re sitting there in whatever Hell they’re hanging out in just waiting for somebody to call their number. All those rituals and chants and circles and candles? That shit’s not for them. It’s for us. It’s the protection that takes a long time. The actual summoning is a snap.

Which means that whatever he’s summoned is about as feral as you can get.

The thing throws one of its arms out in a quick jab, latching onto my left shoulder. I bring the straight razor up and slice through the wrist. There’s no bone. The blade goes clean through. The thing jerks its arm back and I tear the hand from my shoulder, the teeth ripping out flesh like a lamprey.

The pain fucks my concentration. It’s a burning lance of agony. I stagger back, a wave of dizziness washing over me. The thing whips its other arm at me in a haymaker and before I can raise my arm to block it, it punches me in the head. I go crashing into the crowd, landing on the body of one of the Russian’s men.

My vision blurs. The left side of my body goes numb. I try to move but paralysis hits me like a freight train. Of course the fucking thing would be venomous. My joints freeze up. Hopefully it isn’t so poisonous that it stops my heart. The world around me slows down, fades in and out, goes black.

A second, a minute. I can’t tell. When my vision returns the hotel is full of smoke, fire, screaming. Flames are crawling up the walls, spreading across the ceiling. I try to get up, but no dice. The best I can do is roll over to my side and even that’s a struggle. Not an improved vantage point. From this angle I can really see how fucked things are.

The fire’s an inferno. I see Darius’ door engulfed in flames. He’ll be fine, but nobody’s getting in or out of that door. Bodies burn in the hotel’s wreckage. Support beams in the ceiling threaten to collapse. If the poison doesn’t kill me I’ll be burned to death.

Somebody starts dragging me across the floor. My shoulder is a ragged mess, blood spreading from the wound. I swim in and out of awareness, my vision a series of snapshots as the ceiling crawls past my vision. One second I know where I am, the next I don’t.

“If you die it’s gonna be really goddamn inconvenient,” Gabriela says, pulling me out through the doors. She sounds very far away. I try to say something, but I can barely move my lips, much less make any sound. I think I’m losing a lot of blood.

Then cursing, gunfire. The shattering of glass. Sirens in the distance. I see someone smack Gabriela aside like she’s a ragdoll. A man’s face blurs in front of my eyes as consciousness fades.

“He won’t die yet,
chica
,” he says. “We gotta skin him first.”

An empty highway at noon.
Mountains in the distance like a moonscape, the land blasted and bare. Skeletal palm trees speed past, dead husks with dried fronds. Air so desiccated the wind blowing in through the Cadillac’s window feels like sandpaper.

“This isn’t right,” I say.

“You’re tellin’ me,” Alex says. He’s in the driver’s seat, a bottle of beer held between his legs. “This thing steers like a fucking cow.”

This is my Eldorado. Well, the Eldorado I stole off a dead mage in Texas. Only I left it in San Pedro when I took the whole car over to the dead side and didn’t have enough power to bring it back. Far as I know it’s still there.

“No,” I say. “You, the car.” I wave at the landscape speeding by, surprised I can lift my arm after the beating I took in the hotel. “All this. Where the hell are we, anyway?”

“Nowhere, really. Look, we don’t have a lot of time. Well, you don’t have a lot of time. I got the stuff comin’ out my ass.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” There’s something familiar about the landscape, about the dryness in the air, the sense of blasted emptiness.

“You’re pretty jacked up,” he says. “They think they’ve got your hands tied, and they do. Literally, come to think of it. But you’ve got an ace. You just need to figure out how to use it.”

“This is all going on in my head, isn’t it?”

“Mostly. I don’t want to be telling you this because it’s just going to speed up the inevitable. But you dead isn’t going to do either of us any good. Not yet, at least.” He takes a pull on his beer.

“You could just tell me what I need to know.”

He shakes his head. “I don’t even want to be telling you this much. You’ll either figure it out, or you won’t. And to be honest, I kinda hope you don’t.”

“Who are you really?”

The car hits a pothole. “Crap,” he says. The landscape shudders, the mountains shimmering, fading out, popping back into view. “Okay, this next bit’s really gonna suck. Just remember that there’s another way out. You just need to grab it.”

The Eldorado hits the mother of all potholes, blows out a tire, goes into a skid. I’m thrown against the dashboard, my head snapping forward into the windshield with a loud crack. Everything goes black.

___

I wake to the smell of blood and smoke, the buzz of fluorescent lights. Storage room of some kind, cardboard boxes of no-name big-screens, DVDs, stereos. Some still on pallets wrapped in plastic, others piled high along one wall.

Red, hand-painted scrawls cover the walls. Insane squiggles. Sharp, spastic lines. I recognize some of them. Runes for binding, barriers. I have a few of those inked on my skin. Others I’ve never seen before. But I get the gist. And it’s not good.

Takes me a minute to realize it’s not all painted in my blood. Some of it, sure. I sure look like I’ve bled enough. But it’s the guy lying on the floor in front of me with his abdomen torn open and organs pulled out that’s the big giveaway.

The demon’s venom seems to have worn off. I can move, so that’s a plus. I roll myself up to sitting, the pain in my shoulder a burning agony that flares through my chest, and cough soot out of my lungs. My arms being zip-tied behind me aren’t helping. Blood, sticky and crusted, has soaked through my shirt. Those little needle teeth sure did a number on me.

I take a closer look at the runes on the wall, looking to see if I’m wrong. A few seconds of parsing out meaning and I know I’m not. All those markings working together have turned this room into a kind of magical Faraday cage. It’d be one thing if it just blocked me from the local pool. I don’t need to grab any extra power to pop off some zip-ties and walk out of a room.

But some of the spells in those runes are nullifying, sending out a steady stream of magical static that’ll block any spells the way noise-cancelling headphones cut out that screaming baby in the airplane seat next to you. In other words, right now, I’m just as normal as anybody else.

The room doesn’t have any windows, and only one flimsy-looking door. I can hear sirens not far off, helicopters overhead. Either that’s a different four-alarm fire or I’m holed up in some poor bastard’s electronics store downtown.

No magic. No gun. Christ only knows where my razor is. Even if I could get to the pocket watch the only thing I could do with it is tell time. Not real useful in a case like this.

Realistically, all I have to do is get through that door. Unless whoever painted this room with Mr. Proprietor’s guts have done the rest of the place up like a Pollock painting.

Takes a bit of doing, but I get to standing. Dizzy from blood loss. First order of business is the zip-tie. There’s a trick to getting out. I lean forward at the waist, stretch my arms up and behind me as far as the pain in my torn-up shoulder will let me, then bring them down hard against my tailbone while pulling my hands apart. It’s not enough. My shoulder’s still more dead weight than not and I can’t get enough momentum to break out. I start looking for something sharp to maybe saw through the tie, but there’s not so much as a box cutter in here.

The door opens to a redheaded man, freckles scattered across his face, wearing a green suit and tie. Perfectly normal looking except for the glowing red eyes smoldering like coals.

“It’s awake,” he says, stepping inside. A girl follows him. Looks maybe ten, twelve years old, Shirley Temple curls, Hello Kitty dress. Her eyes aren’t glowing red embers, but the irises are an unnatural blue.

“Where’s your buddy?” I say. The Lovecraftian horror that bit me in the shoulder is nowhere to be found.

“Your friend killed him,” the girl says. “Millennia old and she wiped him out of existence.” She flounces into the room, plants herself on a stack of boxes, pouts with her arms crossed. She brightens up. “I helped.”

Of course she did. They’re demons. That’s what they do. Impulsive, psychotic, stupid, but you can always trust them to turn on each other. Pretty low on the supernatural totem pole. Who knows what hell they crawled out of. Doesn’t really matter. There are a lot to choose from, after all.

“Can we kill it?” the redhead says. This is the guy who said something about skinning me back at the hotel. I don’t see the knife, so I’m betting they’re just here to hold me until the Russian shows up with it. At least I hope so. He steps a little closer than I’m comfortable with, but I stand my ground. Sure, he can tear my head off, but I won’t give him the satisfaction of flinching.

The girl sighs. Loud, dramatic. You’d almost think she was a real twelve-year-old girl. “No,” she says. “Stupid rules.”

“Rules, huh? You don’t say.” My instincts are to keep them talking. Even if they’ve been given specific commands not to kill me it doesn’t mean they’ll always listen to them. I try to feel for any chink in the cage keeping the magic out. If I could find a crack I might be able to wedge it open further. I don’t need much. Banishing spells are stupid simple. They’re some of the first things a mage will learn. The ones who usually don’t survive very long.

“I know what you’re doing,” the girl sings. “But it won’t work.” She hops off the stack of boxes, spins in place with her arms outstretched, feet dancing in the blood of the corpse at her feet. “That’s Nice Mister Iglesias. When we came here he said, ‘No, no, no! You must get out!’ so I gutted him and shit in his chest then smeared him aaaaallll around the room!”

“Well, aren’t you just the cutest thing,” I say.

“I am! I looked just like this when I killed a policeman, and a preschool teacher and an old lady who lives with lots of cats. I got them all alone, and I ate ’em up!” She snaps her jaws and her lower mandible unhinges, teeth like swords springing out. She bites the air, retracts her teeth and a second later she’s a giggling, innocent little girl again.

I need to get the fuck out of this room.

“So you won’t find any holes, Mister Necromancer,” she says. “No, sir. The dead won’t answer your calls. No one here to help you.”

We’ll see about that. “So how come you can’t kill me? Big, nasty demons like yourselves. Don’t tell me somebody’s got you on a short leash.”

“We answer to no one,” the redhead says. He gets in my face and I can smell blood on his breath.

“Horseshit. You answer to the man who brought you here. Must have thought it was your lucky day getting summoned with no protections, no wards. Then, what, he yanked you back when he needed you? Slapped a collar round your neck and made you beg like a dog? Is that how it worked?” His eyes glow brighter, he punches me in the face with a fist like a sledgehammer.

“He’s right and you know it,” she says to him. “You’re just as owned as I am.” She points to me. “And now he owns you, too. He’s trying to get you mad. Thinks he can make you do something stupid. And he can, too. Because you are stupid.”

I push past the pain, keep poking at the cage with my mind, trying to find something I can worm my way through, but it’s as tight as a nun’s asshole. There’s got to be something. I’ll never make it through the door before these two are on me. And I have no doubts that if push comes to shove they’ll gut me like they did Nice Mister Iglesias.

What was it Alex said? I’ve got an ace, I just need to figure out how to use it.

I stop looking outward. Being cut off from the magic is like having a noise you’d spent your whole life with suddenly gone. Things you hadn’t heard before, like your own heartbeat, are thundering in your ears. And somewhere, just below my perception is something I’d never noticed before.

It’s not magic. Not the way I know it, at least. A small nugget of power rooted deep inside me. Black and seething. Stinks of death, but different. So old it’s alien. I think it must be something Santa Muerte gave me, but if she did it doesn’t belong to her. I couldn’t say how I know, but I know. It feels masculine somehow, and I think that she would probably find it as alien as I do.

“I am not stupid,” the redhead says, seething. He spins on the girl, stalks toward her.

The more I examine this little chunk of power, the more it grows in my awareness. It’s more than just death. Not like how I’ve ever understood it. It’s not a tool, not a thing I can use. It’s not like the power I have to talk to ghosts, or move corpses with my mind, or flip to the other side. Those are things I do. This is the thing itself.

It’s not death. It’s Death.

“You’re very stupid,” the girl says. “And you don’t deserve what’s promised you. All we have to do is keep him here until the man with the knife comes back to skin him and then we get all the souls we can eat. But you’re just going to fuck it all up, like you fuck up everything.”

The demons are frightening, but this power is downright terrifying. It’s a parasite. If I let it, it would consume me whole. At first I think I can feel it spreading through me, but then I realize it’s already there. Just sitting, dormant, wrapped up inside me like a coiled snake waiting for me to do something with it. Waiting for me to accept it and let it rule me.

Like it or not, it’s my ace.

“He can skin a corpse,” the redhead says. “It’s just meat, anyway.”

“Biggest score in over two hundred years and you want to piss it away because somebody bruised your ego,” the girl says. She heaves another one of her theatrical sighs. “I guess I’m just going to have to kill you and take it all for myself.”

“I got a better idea,” I say, reaching toward that dark power, letting it flow through me to do what it wants. “How about I kill you both?” The zip-tie binding my wrists together disintegrates as the redhead turns to me, lashes out with his hand. A few inches from my head and it vaporizes, breaking into dust that scatters in the air. He screams, his face twisting out of its human shape. His jaw unhinges, three barbed tongues lash out toward me only to meet the same fate. He reels back, his remaining hand pressed tight against his mouth. Smoke boils up from beneath it.

The redhead is closer, so I focus on him. I grab him, his skin blistering and flaking away into dust. I focus my will into this nightmare energy and pump him full of it. He tries to pull away, but it’s too late. He stumbles, falls. Pieces of him disintegrate like a sand castle in a high wind. By the time he hits the ground he’s nothing but a pile of grit.

“Oh, mister necromancer,” the girl says, “you are so very, very interesting. I’m going to have fun playing with you.”

I turn to her, intending to destroy her the same way, but then there’s a tugging in my chest, a tearing. A burst of pain blows through me. It’s the same as on the train, only ten times worse. Through the haze of pain I get it. I didn’t push myself on the train when I animated all those corpses, I tapped into this power without realizing it.

The pain is intense and I fight to keep it from dropping me. The girl picks up a box from the stack against the wall with one hand, one of the big-screen TVs, and lobs it at me like it’s a baseball. It hits me in the chest, a good fifty pounds of plastic, glass and cardboard, knocking me against the wall. My concentration’s blown and the tenuous grasp I had on that power disappears.

She’s on me in a flash. Tiny hands stretch, skin splitting until the fingers are sharp, birdlike talons wrapped in shredded flesh. She gets hold of my throat before I can stop her, sinks her claws into my neck.

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