Warlock, Chapter 1

You never get used to the smell. Not really. I’ve had lifetimes to try, and it still coats the back of my throat like a slick of putrid garbage water: old rot, with the gagging tang of powdered mold. Then comes the sting. Your eyes run, and your nose runs, and you worry that it’s eating away at your skin, if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Under all that floats the dry, musty stink of a snake pit. That’s enough to send some folks running all by itself.

I looked around, and fought the urge to hack and spit on the ground. A body just naturally wants to rid itself of anything that vile. But it wouldn’t do any good, and I had work to do. Still, I wished I had packed my gas mask that morning.

The Nofera had been denning here for a while, that was clear. The stink was stronger than I’d smelled in a long time. The old factory made sense for a safehouse; it was condemned, and set back from the road by a cracked and overgrown parking lot. It hunched up against a tangled woodlot on the other side, perfect for discreet comings and goings at any time of day or night. The owners clearly hadn’t been around to check on the place in years. Or hell, maybe they had, and the Nofera had eaten them. Either way, the place was in bad shape: flakes coming off the concrete walls, rust holes starting in the roof where the paint was worn through. Graffiti all over, though none of it looked recent. Normal people can’t sense them like I can, but the little bit of smell that leaked outside was probably enough to keep away anyone who didn’t have a good reason to be there.

The doors were all locked, but a broken window on the second floor around back was just the right size for a scuttle hole, and the glass was cleaned out of the frame. Nofera don’t like to go in and out on the ground if they can help it.

It only took a minute to draw a focus circle around the lock on one of the back doors with a piece of chalk. A trickle of Water, Air and Fire—the steel provided the Earth—and the whole mechanism powdered away, leaving nothing but a heap of rust flakes on the threshold.

The main floor was mostly empty. You couldn’t tell that it had once been a fabric mill. A scattering of metal posts and brackets set into the floor and some benches along the walls were the only signs, but I remembered when the place was still running from my last life, back in the sixties. I’d even worked there for a few years. I’d made it all the way to floor manager, had an office with a door and everything.

My feet remembered the way across the floor to the staircase on the west wall, but I wove a little wyrlight and sent it floating above my shoulder to cut the murk. Nofera love to leave surprises in dark corners.

The Brooder was on the second floor, hunkered in the break room. It hissed at me as I came around the corner. Its massive bulk hung from the heavy ceiling beams, distended with unlaid eggs, suspended by cords of sticky silk and splaying claws dug into the wood. More claws dangled from long jointed arms, trailing slowly across concentric rings of eggs glued to the floor and walls, each the size of a grapefruit.

I looked around warily. No sign of backup, but I didn’t trust that. It wasn’t like a den this size to leave its Brooder unprotected. For all their mass, Brooders are slow, and not very dangerous as long as you have the sense to stay out of grabbing distance. I assumed more Nofera were watching me, and held my rod low at the ready. I closed my eyes and listened a moment, but even my warlock’s ears couldn’t pick up any scratching of claws or rasping of carapace. No footsteps from any puppets, either. Nothing but the wind outside the windows, and the labored breathing of the thing hanging from the ceiling a few paces away.

“Guess it’s just you and me, eh, ugly?” The thing rattled its mouthparts at me in annoyance. It could likely understand me. Nofera are monsters, but they aren’t beasts. They have to understand us to prey on us so successfully. Before this one became a Brooder, it had probably worn a few humans as shells, gone out among us to hunt.

I raised my rod, and inscriptions flared down its length. It was a simple piece of wood, as long as my arm and thicker than my thumb, patterned over and over with symbols of Air and Fire. One element to feed the other, each sign linked to the next in such a way as to add their strength together.

When the Nofera saw the light of the symbols, it hissed again, louder this time. I didn’t back away, but pointed the tip of the rod at the nearest cluster of eggs. The hissing and rattling increased in volume, and the Brooder started to heave itself toward me, straining to reach me with its longest claws.

It was much too far away. I pushed, and a jet of white flame leaped from the rod to immolate the eggs.

The Brooder screamed, air whistling from each of its breathing holes like a dozen angry teapots.

Then all hell broke loose.

#

I limped out of the same door I’d entered half an hour before.

Jesus, where had they gotten the troll? I’d expected a few human puppets. Too easy to find marks in a town this size, with our homeless problem, and the hookers and dealers out alone in the early hours. But a missing goblin of that stature would be noticed. He should have been surrounded by his family, too dangerous to attack.

Maybe he’d been a roamer. It was rare, but not unheard of, for a goblin to live to full growth without the protection of a tribe. But how had they taken him in the first place? It wasn’t a very big nest, and even on his own he should have been a match for a dozen or more human puppets in a struggle. I’d only fought five, barely enough to even lift him, and Nofera weren’t known for the kind of strategic planning it would have taken to set up a trap. It was strange.

I shook my head. Regardless, the nest was destroyed. The fire I’d started was spreading though the building. It would burn hot enough to turn even troll bones to ash. I’d made sure. I paused outside for just a moment, and pulled a cell phone out of my bag. It was a cheap black flip phone, a burner, not connected to my real identity. I dialed 911, reported the fire, gave the dispatcher the address. Then I tossed the phone through the open door, where it skidded across the floor and came to rest a few feet from the expanding wall of flame. Even over the roaring and crackling of the fire, I could make out the woman’s voice on the other end.

“Sir? Sir, are you there? Are you all right? The fire crew is on its way…”

It only took another moment to weave a temporary ward in the air around the building, allowing it to settle on the surface of the bricks. The air would feed the flames right up until they reached the ward, and then it would choke them off. I didn’t want the woods burning down, if the firefighters didn’t arrive in time.

I turned and hobbled into the trees. The wail of sirens reached me, thin and far away, as I reached the first shadows.

Tomorrow, I’d start tracking down a missing troll.