Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

A Month of Marla: Little Better than a Beast

Each Tuesday for the month of February I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “Little Better than a Beast.” It first appeared in anthology Those Who Fight Monsters in 2011, and is available in audio form at Podcastle.

(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.)

Here’s the story! (Some people don’t like this one because they find Marla too vicious and mean and unsympathetic. Which is… exactly the reason I like it.)

 

LITTLE BETTER THAN A BEAST

“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?”

“He’s no kind of chief sorcerer at all,” Marla said, already seeing where this was going. “I’m the chief sorcerer here.”

The man whirled to face her, frowning. “You?” He gestured to Rondeau. “This one is a swarthy immigrant of some kind, that is troubling enough, but you — you are a woman.”

“Yes,” Marla agreed. “That’s true. And you’re Everett Malkin, I presume.”

#

“Incredible,” Malkin said, staring at the cars going past.

“Yup,” Marla said. “I guess it would be.” The three of them sat on a bus stop bench, waiting for the Chamberlain’s limo to arrive.

“The city itself, though I’m pleased to see its growth, is less astonishing. I have spent time in the capitals of Europe, after all.”

Wait until you see the skyscrapers in the Financial District, Marla thought. Or the clubs and quickie check-cashing joints and bars in my neighborhood. They were still in the old city, which made an attempt to keep a certain vintage feel, but culture shock would hit him eventually.

“You’re calling together the whole council?” Malkin asked. He gnawed at an apple Marla’d bought for him. Rondeau’s joke about how he must be hungry, seeing as how he hadn’t eaten in 400 years, had fallen flat, though, and Rondeau had been quiet and sulky ever since.

“Just the Chamberlain for now. This is her neighborhood, and from what you said you don’t think the beast will go too far. If it’s in her bailiwick, the Chamberlain will find it.”

Malkin grunted. “Another ‘her.’ You’re the chief sorcerer, or so you tell me — shouldn’t the heart of the city be your ‘neighborhood,’ as you say?”

Marla snorted. “This? This is toy-town. A tourist trap. Old-fashioned stuff for history buffs and tourists scared to stay in the real city. The heart of the city nowadays, where the action is, that’s south of the river. That’s where I live.”

Malkin mulled that over, and finally said, “You have told me about the Chamberlain, and the current Granger — sad to hear his lineage has decayed, I would not have entrusted him with the letter had I known his offspring would be ruined — but who are the other sorcerers of note? In my day it was only myself, Granger, and my apprentice, Corbin.”

“There’s a chaos magician named Nicolette, she looks after the financial district. The Bay Witch watches the water and the port. A sympathetic magician named Hamil over by the university. Viscarro, who lives in catacombs beneath the city. A junkyard wizard named Ernesto out in the industrial section. That’s about it for the council, but there are lots of talented apprentices and freelancers in town, too — a mad-scientist technomancer type named Langford, an order-magician named Mr. Beadle — not to mention the usual wannabes and alley wizards.”

“I will need to meet all of them as soon as possible,” Malkin said.

“Oh yeah?” It was rare for all the sorcerers to get together — they usually only had councils when some dire threat menaced the city, something Marla couldn’t handle herself, and she wasn’t sure yet the beast of Felport qualified. “Why’s that?”

“They must meet their new chief sorcerer,” Malkin said. “I will be taking over your position, of course.”

Before Marla could respond to that bit of apocalyptic nonsense, a long black limousine slid along the curb before them, and the back door swung open. The Chamberlain was inside, dressed in her usual impeccable evening-wear finery, this time a silvery-shimmering dress. She beckoned with her elegant hand. “Come on, then. Let’s hear about the latest disaster.”

Malkin leaned forward, squinting. “Is this woman… a Spaniard?”

“I’m black, dear,” she said. “Of West African descent, though my people are from Felport for many generations.”

“This future is a peculiar place,” Malkin said, but he climbed into the limousine after Rondeau, settling himself down on the dark leather seats across from the Chamberlain and Marla. Despite his ragged appearance — and the fact that this was his first time in a car — he looked at ease. “Your carriage is… most pleasant.”

“I understand you brought a monster to my community,” the Chamberlain said, smiling a smile that was not friendly at all.

Malkin frowned. “I expected sorcerous techniques to improve in the intervening centuries, so the current rulers could defeat the beast with ease.”

“Ah, I get it. Like people who die of brain cancer and have their heads frozen so they can be thawed out in the future when there’s a cure for tumors and decapitation,” Rondeau said, apparently trying to be helpful.

Malkin just looked at him blankly and continued. “Instead I find unprepared women playing at sorcery, who let the beast escape.”

“You might want to watch it with the sexist shit,” Marla said. “You’re kind of outnumbered here.”

“Women can excel at erotic magic, and herbwifery, and certain nature magics, but the more intellectual rigors of advanced sorceries are not suitable for the weaker sex.” Malkin shrugged. “I mean no offense. These are merely facts.”

“Are you sure we can’t send him back in time?” the Chamberlain said.

“I don’t even know what he’s doing forward in time,” Marla said. “Your letter said you were setting a time-trap for the beast. Why the hell did you hitch a ride?”

“The beast seized me,” Malkin said, shifting uncomfortably. “We struggled. The beast stepped into the circle of power. We were transported. I… did not intend to join him. I am surprised Felport survived with Corbin as chief sorcerer.”

“Well, now you’re here, and so’s the beast, so tell us what we’re dealing with,” Marla said.

“Obviously you don’t know how to stop it, but you can tell us what we’re dealing with,” the Chamberlain agreed.

Malkin nodded. “The natives said the beast was a dark god, and had roamed the land since the beginning of time. The beast cannot be harmed by iron, or fire, or blades, or charms. Even my dagger of office, which can cut through all things, only scratched the beast, and the wound closed instantly.”

Marla touched the dagger at her waist — it had been Malkin’s dagger, passed down from chief sorcerer to chief sorcerer over the centuries, and it was one of her most potent weapons, capable of slicing through everything from steel cables to ghosts.

“Some magics worked,” Malkin said. “A spell to make it sleep for a thousand years succeeded in making it slumber for half a dozen seasons. Spells of disorientation made it wander, lost, for another year. But it fights, and once it overcomes a particular spell, the spell loses all efficacy. I do not know if it is a demon, a sorcerer from long ago who attained immortality, or, indeed, an ancient god.”

“Okay, but what does it want?” Marla said.

“Want? It is a beast. It wants to kill all who encroach on its territory. It wants to rend flesh. It prefers to sleep in the day, and emerge at night, wandering and howling. Its motives are no more comprehensible than those of any other beasts. I am sure it is disoriented by the changes here, and it will go to ground somewhere, hiding, and wait until dark to emerge. And then…” He shook his head. “The beast will not stop until the city is scoured to dirt. It is clever. It will set fires, build traps. Your people will die.”

Setting arson and building booby traps didn’t sound very beast-like to Marla, but then, Malkin was from another time — he considered Marla and the Chamberlain and even Rondeau, who was Hispanic, basically beasts, too, didn’t he?

“Call together a council,” Malkin said. “I will announce my return to the position of chief sorcerer, and formulate a strategy.”

The Chamberlain looked at Marla, raising an eyebrow, and Marla sighed. “I’m not stepping down, Captain Retro. I’m still in charge here. We honor your past service and all that jazz, but you can’t just come back and — ”

“Silence, woman. Give me my dagger of office, and let me begin my work. Sorcery is no business for you. Despite your mannish affect you are not unattractive, so perhaps you can serve me in some other — ”

Marla punched him in the throat. Malkin gagged, grabbing at his windpipe — Marla hadn’t hit him hard enough to do permanent damage, but he wouldn’t be speaking any spells — and fished a sachet of sleep potion out of her pocket. The Chamberlain and Rondeau both grabbed their noses as Marla slapped the cloth pouch of lavender and stranger herbs into Malkin’s open mouth. He gagged, gasped, and then dropped into a deep supernatural slumber.

“This guy,” Marla said. “This guy is going to be trouble. I don’t think I’ll be able to sucker-charm him again, either.”

“He does need to confront certain new realities,” the Chamberlain said. “But, Marla, that’s Everett Malkin. He’s legendary.” The Chamberlain had a certain reverence for the past — much of her power came from her relationship with the ghosts of Felport’s founding families, including the persistent spirits of many former sorcerers from the early days.

“I liked him better when he was just a legend,” Marla said. “He’ll be asleep for a while, you mind watching him for me?”

“I — I suppose. And if he wakes up, he can speak with the ghosts, his apprentice Corbin is among the residents on my estate. But, Marla, what of the beast?”

“Yeah,” Marla said. “The beast is another problem. I’m gonna have to go see a guy about that.”

#

Marla wore black, loose-fitting pants and a snug top that kept her arms free, and held a specially modified sniper rifle. Rondeau was dressed like an extra in a movie about a special forces operation, all black padded vest and a helmet and night-vision goggles (which he found more fun than Marla’s more practical magical night vision). He persistently referred to their operation as “playing dress-up,” which was annoying, but Marla knew she could rely on him in a pinch, and he had a backup rifle, albeit less fancy. They were on the dark balcony of a charming little pied-a-terre a few blocks from the place where the beast and Malkin had appeared. The apartment’s rightful residents were off in Aspen or something, wherever rich ordinaries spent early spring.

“What if the dart doesn’t work?” Rondeau said. “We got a plan B?”

“I throw you to the beast, and while he’s dismembering you, I sneak around and hit him on the back of the head with the rifle butt.”

“That’s always your plan B.”

They were watching another uninhabited apartment across the quiet upscale residential street. The Chamberlain’s diviners had tracked the beast to that location, where their best remote-viewer said it was sleeping heavily on a mound of blankets and the shredded remains of a mattress. The beast hadn’t torn the door off its hinges to get inside — it had unobtrusively jimmied a side door with its claws. Smart beast, laying low. Marla wondered if it would be possible to communicate with it… but communication wasn’t part of the plan.

“Something moved there,” Rondeau said, pointing to the front window, where a shadow had shifted. “Poor thing must be scared to death. One minute you’re fighting your mortal enemy in the woods, and the next, poof, you’re in the future and there’s not a tree in sight.”

“Let’s hope it’s still disoriented,” Marla said. She watched through the scope as the side door opened and the beast slouched out, its physiognomy still a mysterious jumble of apelike and boarlike and manlike and, well, beastlike.

She pulled the trigger three times, and three darts flew through the air and struck the beast’s flesh. The darts were each charmed with a different armor-piercing and true-aim spell, and she hoped at least one of them would hit — worst case, all three would hit, and the beast would overdose and die, and wait, that was kind of the best case, too.

The beast lifted its shaggy head, looked straight at Marla, and rushed toward them, loping and leaping and snarling.

“Oh this is fucked,” Rondeau said, and lifted his air rifle, firing another dart at the approaching furry projectile. The beast jumped for the balcony –

– and bounced off the railing, landing on the street, sprawled on its back, unconscious. Maybe it was immune to Malkin’s sleep spells, but times had changed, and Marla had mixed up a potent cocktail of chemical and magical tranq-juice, concentrated enough to make a blue whale yawn. Still, who knew how much time they had to finish the plan?

Rondeau was on his cell calling in Langford and the rest of the team while Marla looked down at the beast. Something about its shape made comprehending its form difficult, as if it had joints and limbs that weren’t entirely in this dimension. Whatever it was, demon or god or refugee from another plane of existence, it didn’t belong here. Maybe it had once, when Felport was just trees and dirt and hills, but this was a human place, now. The beast couldn’t stay, even if it had a prior claim on this land as a home.

“Let’s get it on the truck,” Marla said. “And then go see Malkin.”

#

“You fool,” Malkin said, stalking into one of the Chamberlain’s many parlors. He was dressed in period finery doubtless dug out of mothballs in some deep basement in the Chamberlain’s estate, and he smelled faintly dusty. “You dare to attack me, and leave the city vulnerable to the beast’s — ”

“Gods, shut up, the beast is taken care of,” Marla said. “Come on, I’ll show you. You coming, Chamberlain?”

“Oh, indeed,” she said brightly. “I haven’t begun to tire of Mr. Malkin’s company at all.”

Malkin didn’t shut up. “You will be flogged in the town square,” he said, following Marla, Rondeau, and the Chamberlain out of the mansion, toward the truck parked in the driveway. “You will be stripped of whatever authority you think you have and banished. I am the chief sorcerer here, and I will not be — ”

Marla pulled open the back of the truck, and Malkin shut up when he saw the beast bound with ‘chanted chains in the back, watched over by the technomancer Langford, who had a tranquilizer pistol in one hand and an overcomplicated cell phone in the other.

“So you rendered it unconscious,” Malkin said. “Very well, but what happens when it wakes?”

“I don’t imagine it will wish to wake,” Langford said mildly. He beckoned, and the others climbed into the back of the truck. “Though I do wish I could be allowed to vivisect it. I’m not fond of mysteries, and this creature is unprecedented in my experience.”

“I’ve got nothing against scientific curiosity,” Marla said, “But I’m a pragmatist, and studying it is too dangerous.”

“Standing here while it slumbers is too dangerous,” Malkin snapped. “You are unfit to lead, and your folly is too great to be borne — ”

“The beast is harmless,” Langford said. He pointed to a silvery mesh net that covered the beast’s lumpy skull. “This device controls the electrical impulses within the beast’s brain. It’s a beautiful place, in there. If you’re a monster.”

“I don’t understand,” Malkin said. “This… hat… does what?”

“We couldn’t beat the thing,” Marla said. “You told us yourself, it’s immune to everything, and what it’s not immune to, it gets immune to. So, if we can’t defeat it, I figured, why not give it what it wants?”

“Think of it like an illusion,” the Chamberlain said, having been briefed on the plan — the whole plan — in a phone call earlier. “The beast believes it is back in Felport in the early days, before there were settlers, alone in the woods.”

“The simulation was easy enough to create,” Langford said. “There are geographical surveys, so reconstructing the landscape wasn’t difficult. Likewise the weather. Woodland creatures are simple to emulate, too, and there are hardly any humans, just the occasional native for the beast to dismember.”

“The beast has been enchanted to believe it dwells in the past?” Malkin blinked, clearly wrongfooted by the whole situation.

“Well, it’s at least a third technology,” Langford said. “Creating false experiences by manipulating electrical impulses in the brain is within the grasp of science, though outside the bounds of most ethical systems. I did use magic to bridge the impossible bits, admittedly.”

“But the beast fights enchantments,” Malkin said. “And when it wakes — ”

“Why would it fight?” Marla said. “It’s got what it wants. If this thing is capable of being happy, it’s going to be happy. But don’t worry. We’re taking it to a little place outside the city, called the Blackwing Institute. It’s where we keep sorcerers who go crazy and pose a danger to themselves, and others, and the substance of reality.”

“And the sorcerer who runs it, Dr. Husch, is totally hot,” Rondeau said.

Marla rolled her eyes. “We’ll keep the beast in a cell deep in the basement, with every kind of technological and magical countermeasure we can think of, in case it ever wakes up. Don’t worry. It’s a secure site.”

“We’re sure you’ll like it there,” Langford said, and shot Malkin with the tranquilizer pistol.

#

“We could have given Malkin a perfect fantasy life, too,” Langford said. “It would have to be far more complex than the one I created for the beast, but it’s certainly possible.”

“Fuck that,” Marla said. “Why would I want to make him happy? He called me the weaker sex.”

“Carry on, then,” Langford said, and waved as Rondeau drove the truck off into the night.

#

“His real name is Barry Schmidt,” Marla said, sitting with Dr. Husch before the security monitors. Malkin was on screen, sleeping on a bed in a pleasantly-appointed — but impenetrable — apartment in the Institute’s east wing. “An apprentice from out west. Poor bastard actually thinks he’s Everett Malkin, the first sorcerer of Felport, you believe that? He came to the city and started talking about how he was the rightful ruler, demanding I give him my dagger, crazy stuff like that.”

“Hmm,” Husch said, a vertical worry line marring her smooth pale forehead.

“And then he summoned the beast of Felport from, you know, the primordial whatever,” Rondeau chimed in. “So he’s got some magical chops, no doubt about that. Better to keep him in maximum super-isolation, we figure, with every magic-nullifying countermeasure you’ve got.”

“Heck, keep him sedated forever,” Marla said. “That’d be fine with me.”

“You know I believe in therapy, not mere containment,” Husch said. She looked at the Chamberlain. “Tell me, Chamberlain — do you think there’s any chance he is Everett Malkin? The beast of Felport is bound, dreaming peacefully, in my basement, and if one creature can come from the past, can’t another?”

Marla tried not to tense up. The Chamberlain was the key here. Rondeau was trustworthy, and Langford was both uninterested and trustworthy, but the Chamberlain could change her mind. She had a potent connection to the early days of Felport through her relationship with the ghosts, and she didn’t really like Marla all that much. But, on the other hand, Malkin had ordered her around like a servant, and the Chamberlain said the ghosts who’d known Malkin — especially his apprentice Corbin — had really hated the guy, so maybe she’d stick to the plan.

“Oh, no,” the Chamberlain said, smooth as her own silk gown. “That man is not Everett Malkin. I checked with the ghosts, and they say he’s nothing like Malkin was. He is merely a madman, I’m afraid, a troubled soul who read too many histories. But his delusion is very fixed. He’s clever, too — he might pretend to be cured, even if he isn’t. Be careful.”

“The poor dear. It’s good you brought him to me. At the very least, I’ll make him comfortable.” Husch raised one perfect eyebrow. “He really demanded you relinquish your dagger of office, Marla, and said he was going to take over the city?”

“He did.”

“I suppose he’s lucky you left his head attached, then.”

“Hey,” Marla said. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you I’m not a benevolent and enlightened ruler.”

One Response to “A Month of Marla: Little Better than a Beast”

  1. ELLEN Says:

    This is a great story. Thanks. I am still laughing.

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