Read Little Better than a Beast (Marla Mason) Online

Authors: T.A. Pratt

Tags: #fantasy, #urban fantasy, #Marla Mason

Little Better than a Beast (Marla Mason)

LITTLE BETTER THAN A BEAST

T.A. PRATT

“This is for you, Miss Mason.” Granger, the idiot hereditary magician of Fludd Park, handed a crumpled envelope across her desk.

Marla took the envelope, which was smudged from Granger’s mud-streaked hands, and hefted it. It was age-browned and soft, made of some heavy paper with a lot of cloth mixed into the fibers. “And what’s this?”

“It’s been in our house underneath the trees,” Granger said, smiling affably, face as broad and unsubtle as a snowplow blade. “In the safe, with a note, that said, give to the chief sorcerer of Felport on such and such a date.”

Marla frowned. There was nothing written on the envelope, and it was sealed with several blobby hunks of wax. She could make out the barest shape of an impression in the central blob, maybe some kind of bird, a hawk or a crow, like a signet ring had been pressed into the wax when it was soft, a million years ago. “This has been in your family, like for safekeeping? For how long?”

Granger looked at the ceiling and hummed and drummed his blunt fingers on the desk, which was how you could tell he was thinking. Marla didn’t have much use for nature magicians in general, and inbred nature magicians with an inviolate hereditary line of succession and a seat on her highest councils were even worse. “A long time. As many springs as there are days in a year, maybe much.”

Three-hundred-sixty-five
years
or so, then? That would date this letter from the earliest days of Felport’s founding in the 17th century, back when it was nothing but a few settlers clinging to life. In those days Granger’s great-great-great-great-whatever-grandfather was just the sorcerer in charge of keeping the town commons and farmland healthy and green, long before the village became a thriving shipping and industrial center, and even longer before its recent somewhat rusty decline, an economic slowdown Marla was doing her best to reverse in her capacity as chief sorcerer and protector of the city. None of the city’s population of ordinaries, oblivious to the magic in their midst, would know the new biotech companies and urban renewal projects were Marla’s doing, but that was okay; she wasn’t in this job for the glory. She just loved her city, and wanted it to thrive.

“Any idea what the letter says?” Marla didn’t want to open the thing, particularly. She’d had a bad winter, combating a plague of nightmares, and the interdimensional invaders old Tom O’Bedbug still insisted were fairies from Faeryland, and she’d been hoping for a quiet spring. She didn’t think a letter from the early days of the city would be likely to contain good news.

“No ma’am, we were told to hold it, not read it, just keep it until such and such a date.” His beaming face suddenly closed down, smile gone like the sun slipping behind a mountain. “But I got distracted, spring is coming and times are so busy busy in the park, so such and such a date accidentally passed, some days ago, only as many days as I have fingers, about, not so many as could be, not too late, right?”

Marla picked up a letter opener shaped like the grim reaper’s scythe. “So I was supposed to get this a week or ten days ago?”

“Thereabouts,” Granger said, head bobbing, happy they were in agreement.

If I could fire him, or have him committed...
But Granger was a powerful magician, in his way, and even if he wasn’t much use to the city’s secret shadow government of sorcerers, he mostly stayed out of the way in the park, and his elementals had been formidable warriors in last winter’s battle against the nightmare-things. She considered reprimanding him for not bringing the letter on time, but it would be like hitting a puppy fifteen minutes after it pissed on the carpet – the poor thing wouldn’t even understand what it was being disciplined foor.

Marla used the letter opener to pry up the wax blobs and unfolded the envelope, which wasn’t an envelope at all, but just a sheet of paper folded in on itself. The message wasn’t very long, but it said everything it needed to.

She came around the desk, shouting “Rondeau! I need you!” and clutching her dagger of office. This was going to be a bloody afternoon.

“Is everything okay?” Granger said, bewildered by her sudden action.

“Everything’s just beastly,” Marla said.

#

“The mother-effing beast of Felport,” Rondeau said, long strides matching Marla’s own as they hurried along the sidewalk toward the center of the old city, north of the river. This was a neighborhood of cobblestone streets and quaint crammed-together shops (many spelled “shoppe” on the signs, with the odd “ye olde” as a modifier), a touristy district where you could buy hunks of fudge as big as pillows and stay in a bed-and-breakfast where an early president slept, once, allegedly.

“That’s what the letter says.” Marla frowned at the compass-charm in her hand, ducking into an alleyway that led, she hoped, to the tiny square that was the site of Felport’s founding. There was a fancier more obvious Founder’s Square a few blocks away, with a monument, but she was dealing with magical rather the municipal history, and looking for the spot where Felport’s first chief sorcerer, Everett Malkin, spoke the spells of binding that tied each successive chief sorcerer to the city, ritually entangling the strengths, weaknesses, and interests of Felport itself with its protectors.

“So, uh, what exactly is the beast of Felport? Werewolf, demon, undead mutant water buffalo? My grasp of local history is a little shaky.” Rondeau shifted the heavy shoulder bag Marla’d given him to carry, and things inside clinked ominously.

“Probably because you never went to school,” Marla said. Rondeau was her closest friend and business associate – he owned the nightclub where she kept her office, and they’d saved one another’s lives far more often than they’d endangered them – but he’d had a non-traditional childhood and never saw the inside of a classroom. “Nobody seems to know exactly what the beast was. In the early 17th century, Felport was just a trading post with a nice bit of coastline, good for loading up and emptying boats. People kept trying to settle here in greater numbers... and something kept killing them, even worse than the usual New World problems of defensive natives and disease and bad winters and starvation. Bodies would be found chewed up, missing certain necessary organs, like that, killed by something worse than bears, nobody knew what – some kind of beast. People started calling the place ‘the fell port’ – ‘fell’ as in dangerous, bad, scary – which is where the city got its name. Eventually a sorcerer named Everett Malkin came along, really liked the location, and convinced some settlers to join him, despite the region’s nasty reputation. He said he’d keep the beast of Felport, whatever it was, away. And he did. He was the city’s first chief sorcerer.”

Rondeau yawned. “I’m glad I missed school. That was boring, except for the bit about dead bodies. So if Everett whatever killed the beast hundreds of years ago, how is it supposed to bother us today?”

“I didn’t say he killed it – he kept it away.” Marla stopped walking, looked at her compass charm, which was spinning wildly, and nodded. “This is the spot.” They were in a tiny cobblestoned courtyard, a pocket of forgotten space with only one alley leading in and out, surrounded by the windowless portions of various old brick buildings. A droopy tree grew in an unfenced square of grayish dirt, and a storm drain waited patiently to collect the next spring thunderstorm’s rain, but otherwise, the courtyard was bare.

“So what now?” Rondeau said, flipping open his butterfly knife.

Marla shaded her eyes and looked at the square of sky above. Very nearly noon. “Well, if I’d gotten the letter a week ago like I was supposed to, I’d have this place surrounded with containment teams and every contingency plan imaginable, and I’d feel pretty well prepared after spending a few days reading Malkin’s old enciphered journals, and researching every conceivable theory on the beast of Felport, but since Granger is an idiot and I had no advance notice, we wait for midday, and if something appears, we beat the shit out of it.”

Rondeau put down the shoulder bag and Marla sorted through it, taking out charmed stones, knives crackling with imbued energies, and even an aluminum baseball bat ensorcelled with inertial magic to give it an extra bone-shattering wallop. Finally, she removed her white cloak lined inside with purple, her most potent and dangerous magic, which exacted a terrible price every time she used it. She put on the cloak, fastening it at the throat with a silver pin in the shape of a stag beetle, telling herself she probably wouldn’t need its power. After all, how bad could the beast be? It was a beast. Sure, the stories said it was all kinds of unstoppable, but tales tended to grow in the telling, and four hundred years offered lots of time for embellishment.

After hefting the bat, Rondeau flipped his knife closed and put it away, choosing the blunt object over the razor’s edge. “Okay, you got a letter from Everett whatever saying he sent the beast of Felport umpty-hundred years into the future, and you might want to keep your eyes out for it. This raises a couple of questions for me.”

“Oh, good. I love your questions. They’re always so insightful.” Marla did a few stretches, her joints popping, then checked the knives up her sleeves.

“Number one: I thought time travel was impossible?”

“Traveling backwards in time is. Or, at least, no sorcerer I’ve heard of has ever cracked it. Some people say they figured out how to move forward in time, though it’s more like putting yourself off to the side in an extra-dimensional stasis, set to re-enter normal space-time at a later date, unaffected by the passing time. But not many people try to do it, since there’s no way you can go back again after seeing the wondrous future.” She took a leather pouch toward the alleyway and emptied it, dumping a dozen thumbtacks and pushpins – all augmented with charms of snaring and paralysis – across the courtyard’s only exit, just in case.

“Seems like it could be a good trick for waiting out the statute of limitations,” Rondeau said, in the tone of voice that meant he was contemplating casino robberies.

Marla snorted. “Any sorcerer capable of going forward in time would have more elegant ways to avoid being arrested for something, Rondeau. It’s bigtime mojo. I couldn’t do it, and I can do damn near anything I set my mind to.”

“Too bad. It’d be nice to skip the occasional boring weekend. Okay, so my second question: isn’t sending the beast of Felport to the future kind of a dick move? Getting rid of your current problems and leaving it for your descendants to deal with?”

“Yep,” Marla said. “Everett Malkin was, by most accounts, a nasty piece of work. A badass sorcerer with a knack for violence and the interpersonal warmth of a komodo dragon –”

“Doesn’t sound like anybody I know,” Rondeau murmured.

“– but, to be fair, the guy was in kind of a bind. The story goes he used charms and protective circles and various kinds of exorcism and banishment and eventually even tried appeasement, by which I mean human sacrifice, to keep the beast of Felport at bay, but it was all just temporary. The thing kept coming back. He couldn’t kill it, couldn’t drive it away, just failed and failed, and his little settlement was on the verge of permanent disintegration. So one day he sucked it up, gave his dagger of office to his apprentice and chosen successor, and went out into the woods to finish things once and for all. And, apparently, left this letter explaining his plan to send the beast into the future, to be delivered to whatever poor sucker happened to be in charge four centuries later.” Marla shrugged. “Malkin never came back, and the beast never troubled anyone again, and now we’re waiting for... whatever.”

“Maybe he didn’t send the beast into the future at all,” Rondeau said. “Maybe they just, like, killed each other.”

“We can hope, Marla said, and then the courtyard got a lot more crowded.

A hard wind blew, making Marla squint, and a brown hairy thing the size of two gorillas fighting over a tractor tire appeared about three feet off the ground, slamming to the ground hard enough to crack the stones. There was an impression of tusks, snout, and hard black eyes, but it was hunched and crouched and twisting and moving too fast for her eyes to encompass it. It stank like the sewers under a slaughterhouse. Marla began speaking words of binding and tossed a handful of charmed stones, but the rocks just bounced off the thing’s matted hide – disappointing, since they should have respectively burned, frozen, and turned it to stone – and then an arm swung out, long as an extension ladder, and knocked Marla against a brick wall. Rondeau went in manfully, baseball bat cocked, but the thing plucked the weapon away and swatted Rondeau aside too.

Marla stood up, about to reverse her cloak, to make the soothing white exterior switch places with the bruise-purple lining and unleash her most deadly battle magic – when the beast flung something slightly larger than Marla herself through the air, straight at her.

That’s a person
, Marla realized, and then about two hundred pounds of human body – dead or alive, she wasn’t sure yet – hit her square in the chest and drove her back. She grunted, shoved the guy off her body, and struggled to her feet, all the wind knocked out of her.

The beast of Felport took a moment to consider its handiwork, and Marla thought,
Run for the alley, fucker, get caught in my bear traps
, and then the beast crouched, leapt about fifteen feet in the air, grabbed a jutting chunk of brick wall, and went up the side of a building and over the rooftop like a gecko climbing a garden wall.

“That’s bad,” Rondeau said, picking himself up and taking out his cell phone. “Guess I should call the Chamberlain.”

“It’s her neighborhood,” Marla said, “and I left her a message before we left telling her there might be some shit hitting her fan this afternoon. Damn it.”

Rondeau looked toward the roof where the beast had escaped. “Yeah. Who knew that thing could jump?”


I
did,” said the body the beast had thrown at Marla, sitting up and rubbing his head. He was a big, broad-shouldered man with a nose like a cowcatcher and bushy eyebrows, dressed in the filthy ragged remains of what might once have been nice old-fashioned clothes. He rose and stalked toward Rondeau. “And so would
you
if you had read the journals I left behind, detailing everything I knew about the beast! You came here utterly unprepared. What kind of chief sorcerer are you?”

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