Sprawlin' on the Bayou

Cauldron Bubble: Session 3

The Opening Boon

David sighed as they pulled into his driveway. At least they had not ended up back at his workshop. Of course, they were not exactly burdened with an over abundance of options. Hudson lived in a hotel, Javier was homeless, and no one really wanted to spend any time at Charlie’s place, even if he had been offering. By process of elimination, the Preternatural Justice League of Houston had been forced to convene at the domicile of one David Ramsay.

His house lay well off the street, surrounded by trees and set back from the other houses. Small but well maintained, the paint was crisp and new, the lawn neatly trimmed, and it lacked any exterior steampunk embellishments. Low profile, that was David’s watchword. Any investigation of the backyard might raise awkward questions – the dryad had been stubborn about removing the burned stump – but otherwise any mundane resident of Houston could wander by and see nothing unusual.

David led the crew up the porch and into his house. He held open the door for his three guests who immediately found their own places to collapse. Charlie sprawled onto his couch, Hudson fell into an overstuffed armchair set by the window, and Javier lowered himself gently onto one of David’s dining room chairs. They looked like a worn and tired lot. David glanced down the hallway to his bedroom wishing he could fall into his own bed and sleep for a couple of weeks. He would settle for a moment of gibbering madness if he could get it. But, in the words of that most eminent of Britons, you must keep calm and carry on.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll remember, a friend of ours – a citizen of Houston and the State of Texas – has been kidnapped by an evil sorcerer. We need to muster our contacts, our intelligence, and find out where this Eric McCullough has gone to ground. Time is of the essence.” His companions’ responses ranged from glares, to confusion, to a disheartened sigh, but none were particularly encouraging.

Hudson was the first to rouse himself, however. "Of course, you’re right David. I’ve got a phone and computer in my cruiser, assuming it’s still working. My contacts in the Rangers and the local police ought to know something. This psycho’s sprung a gear. He’ll have left a path of criminality that’ll lead us to wherever he’s headed.” Hudson nodded to the group and headed out the door.

David glanced at Charlie, pointedly. Charlie sighed and heaved himself off the couch. “You got a phone?” David pointed toward to the kitchen. “This psycho – " Charlie mimicked Hudon’s deep baritone, “is a criminal. And criminals gotta deal with other criminals. I’ll see who Eric’s been crossing paths with lately. One of’em will have seen him.” Charlie turned and walked back toward the kitchen and the ancient rotary style phone mounted to the wall.

David glanced at Javier. The exhausted young man looked up at David with wide, hopeful eyes. David sighed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Si, mi amigo. Vamos a encontrar que una ducha.”
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An hour later, David very carefully did not hurl the rare and expensive tome on his desk against the bloody wall. Within this library, he had collected dozens of works on early Houston and the city’s supernatural development. David had blueprints of the Scanlan Building, the original plans for the Rice Institute, and even maps of the ley lines that wound through the region. And those were just a few of the rare items he had managed to acquire over the years. As far as he knew, the most extensive and complete library on the occult history of Houston was housed within this room, and it seemed to be completely useless. He had been confident that his library would contain information on the entrance and layout of the tunnel system. Instead, all his digging had barely uncovered mention of the tunnels, much less their entrance.

David turned in his chair as he heard someone tap hesitantly on the door. Javier peaked his head through a crack in the door. “Usted, puede pedir prestado algo de ropa?” David sighed again, rubbing his temples with his fingers. If he could not crack the case, at least he could clothe their wayward mascot. David hauled himself from his chair and directed Javier to a box he kept in his hallway closet for the Salvation Army.

As he left Javier to dress, David walked back to the living room to see what the others had found. He found Hudson and Charlie deep in conversation at his dining table. They looked up as he entered.

Charlie spoke first. “David, we think we have someone that can tell us how to find Eric.”

David breathed a sigh of relief. “Excellent work, gentlemen. Who?”

Charlie looked at Hudson. Hudson folded his arms and suddenly found something dreadfully interesting out David’s window. Charlie rolled his eyes as he turned back to David.

“The contact is, allegedly,” Charlie directed this at Hudson, “a drug dealer, and a pretty nasty one by all accounts. His name is Lizard Gibbs.”

David raised his eyebrows. “Lizard?”

“Don’t mock it. The guy is supposed to be cold. Runs most of the drugs on the east and north sides of town. Rumor of the day is he got in an altercation with somebody down near the Bayou today. One of the pickpockets downtown said that some of Lizard’s men turned on him during the fight, started attacking their friends.” Charlie stopped and looked pointedly at David.

“Just like one might expect when fighting a psychomancer,” David mused. “Now, what’s the bad news?”

Hudson turned back to the conversation. “The bad news is that Gibbs is one of the worst drug runners in the state. The local gang task force is convinced that he’s been stockpiling weapons. Heavy weapons. Probably to use against the cartels. Oh, and right now half of HPD is swarming around the scene of that ‘altercation’. Gibbs is a violent predator, a fucking murder by all accounts, and you want us to go ask him for help?!” Hudson’s voice continued to rise during his speech. By the end, he had left his chair and was leaning heavily on the table, practically shouting down at Charlie.

Charlie rose out of his chair and put his face about three inches from Hudson’s, “You got a better idea Ranger boy? Gibbs is a problem for tomorrow. McCullough is our problem today! And Gibbs is the last one to have seen that psycho before he went to ground. You got any better ideas, I’m all fucking ears.”

“He’s a criminal Charlie! A vicious killer with an arsenal that would make Kaddafi jealous! I should be arresting the son-of-a-bitch, not asking him for help! How do you know – ”

“Gentlemen, please!” David interjected. He placed his hand on Hudson’s shoulder, “I know it’s distasteful Hudson, but Charlie may be right. Do we have any other leads?” Hudson found a sudden interest in David’s tabletop and shook his head. “And both your contacts indicated that this Lizard squabbled with our quarry this afternoon?” Both Charlie and Hudson nodded, one emphatically, one grudgingly. “Alright, then our goal is to get him to tell us where to find the entrance to Eric’s hideout. What do we know about this man? How is he likely to react? Charlie?”

“He’ll be hard to intimidate. He’s got guns, thugs, and a nasty rep. But he got beat today, run off his territory. If we give him a reason to think we can take down Eric, he might give us what we need.”

“Or he might be offended we think we can do better than him and shoot us on sight,” Hudson offered.

David rose from his chair. “Nevertheless, he’s our best shot at finding Diane. Charlie, do you have an idea where to find this Lizard? An address?” Charlie nodded, and suddenly his mouth dropped open. Hudson’s eyes widened as well as they both looked over David’s shoulder. David turned and found himself staring at a tall young Latino man with damp hair that hung down to his shoulders. He was dressed in gray sweats and a blue shirt, and stood in David’s hallway, white teeth flashing in a grin.

David recovered more quickly than his companions, “Javier, se le ve mucho major. Y, lo siento, pero huele mejor también, mi amigo. Hemos encontrado la manera de encontrar a la mujer. ¿Quieres venir con nosotros?”

Javier’s smile deepened. “Si, mi amigo. Y Carlos, insectos van a volar en tu boca.”

David laughed and even the corners of Hudson’s mouth twitched a little. “Alright gentlemen, let’s go find this Mr. Lizard. Charlie, would you say this man is impressed by material goods?”

Charlie shrugged, mouth now closed. “I guess so.”

“Good enough. We’ll take my car.”
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About half an hour later David parked his Jaguar Mark VII in front of an abandoned garage just north of the 610 Loop. Four doors of sleek, post-war British manufacturing and over sixty years old, the car gleamed in the afternoon sun. On the other hand, the building – not to mention the lots and neighborhood around it – had seen better days. Probably nothing but better days. By previous agreement, David and Charlie stepped out of the car. Hudson had flatly refused to talk to the drug dealer, and none of the rest sought to dissuade him. The situation was going to be volatile enough without throwing Lizard and the Ranger into the same room. On impulse, David turned and tossed the keys to Javier.

“Mantener el motor en marcha, por favor.”

David and Charlie strode toward the door to the garage. The windows were blacked out, but a faint sliver of light could be seen around the door. As they approached, the door swung back silently in invitation. David saw Charlie spinning his wrench in his right hand. He put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“Calmly my friend. Let’s not startle them.” Charlie shrugged but slid the wrench back into his pocket. Side by side, they walked through the door.

The garage was dark, even in the afternoon sun. Two figures scuttled around the back of the garage, but they were shrouded in shadow. It was the two men standing about ten feet into the building, obviously waiting for David and Charlie that drew their attention. As they walked into the building, the one on the left spoke.

“That’s far enough boys. We’re doing crime in the back, wouldn’t want your poor eyes to see such things. What do you want? And make it quick,” the man glanced back over his shoulder, “I’ve got plans this evening.”

As Charlie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, the men in front of him became clearer. One stood a couple of steps to the back of the leader. He was dressed in black fatigues and held a very large gun like the ones Rambo’s faceless enemies tended to carry before they got mowed down. But his eyes were drawn to the man who had spoken. Taller than average, his skin seemed to fade into the shadowy light. Everything except for flat hard eyes and a Cheshire cat grin. He leaned on a heavy machine gun as well and a smaller one was strapped to his belt.

“Are you Lizard Gibbs?” Charlie asked.

“I might be. Depends on how you found me and what you want.”

“You had a run-in with a man today, Eric McCullough. He took a friend of ours. We want her back. You can tell us where she is,” Charlie drew his wrench out once again and started twirling it in his fingers. Light began to shine from the metal, illuminating the garage and driving the shadows from the corners of the building. Charlie let the spell bleed over a little and arcs of electricity started to shoot out from between his fingers. His grin looked more than a little demonic in the eerie light. “One way or the other.”

David thought the response could have been worse. Lizard’s thugs could have actually opened fire. Lizard’s lieutenant jerked his assault rifle to his shoulder. The two thugs from the back of the room scrambled up behind their boss and flicked the safeties off their machine pistols. The light from Charlie’s wrench was suddenly reflected off multiple gun barrels pointed at their heads. Only Lizard himself stood unmoving, still leaning on his heavy assault rifle, although David imagined he could see a slight tremor in his right hand where a smaller machine gun had appeared. David very carefully remained completely still.

Then Lizard laughed, “Cute trick Harper, but we’ve seen better today.” He turned to his men. “Stand down boys, I’ll handle this. DeShawn,” Lizard turned to the man who had stood behind him when David and Charlie entered, “check on Tyronne. You two,” he pointed to the men with the machine pistols, “back to our other guests.” He turned back to David and Charlie, “Now, where were we? Oh yeah, you were trying to intimidate me.”

David thought it an appropriate time to take over negotiations. “Mr. Gibbs. I apologize for my associate’s rather…aggressive attempt at diplomacy. Perhaps an economic inducement would be more to your liking?”

Lizard grinned again. “I don’t want your money peckerwood. You just haven’t convinced me I should give up McCullough to you.”

Charlie still gripped his now de-illuminated wrench tightly in his hand. “Why not? Heard you lost a few men. Thought you’d be achin’ for a little payback.”

Lizard’s eyes flashed in the gloom, but his voice was as smooth as ever, “Could be I’m looking out for you. Could be I’ve decided to be the bigger man. Could be I’m not sure you can take him and I’m not hankerin’ for a rematch if he finds out I gave him up. You were stupid enough to walk in here after all.”

Charlie’s wrench flashed again, “Don’t mistake ignorance for weakness Gibbs. We’re taking this guy down.”

Lizard’s laugh took on a mocking tone, “Saw Copperfield disappear the Statue of Liberty when I was a kid.” He took a step closer to Charlie, “And today I saw someone throw around real power.” Lizard grabbed Charlie’s collar and pointed to the corner where he had sent his lieutenant. Sitting on the floor in the corner slumped a large black man whose face was covered in bruises. Bald with arms that strained the seams of his Rockets t-shirt, drool dripped gently from his half-open mouth and his eyes saw nothing under his half-closed lids. Nevertheless, his hands were chained to the wall behind him.

Lizard dragged Charlie’s ear to his mouth and whispered to him, “I’ve known Tyronne since before we started pissin’ standing up. Today he pointed a gun at me and pulled the trigger. I wouldn’t be standing here if another of my crew hadn’t hit him low. Tyronne broke his neck. We had to knock him out to stop him and when we dragged him back here, he was like this.” Lizard turned to stare directly into Charlie’s eyes, “So tell me again, why should I throw my lot in with y’all?” Lizard shoved Charlie away from him and turned to David. “So, it ain’t a question of money Brit. I’d rather have half of something than all of nothin’ and I don’t relish the idea of waking up one morning looking like that.” He pointed at the figure slumped against the wall. Lizard seemed to deflate as he looked at Tyronne. His arm fell to his side and he cradled his head in his hands.

“Well, a decent threshold – ”

“Shut-up Charlie,” David turned to face the drug dealer. “Mr. Gibbs, both us and our compatriots have some…experience with these matters. I promise you, we can neutralize this sorcerer.” David moved closer to Lizard, “We can get justice for your friend. For Tyronne.”

Lizard lifted his head and stared into David’s eyes for a full minute before finally glancing back at his lieutenant, who was dabbing the spittle from Tyronne’s face. He nodded back at his boss. Lizard spoke, “DeShawn here can take you to the hole that little rat crawled into. But there’s one more thing.” Lizard stepped directly into David’s face, “I don’t want him neutralized. I want him dead.”

David and Lizard locked eyes again. Within those depths, David saw a man struggling to maintain a lock on his rage, to keep from leading his men again into another hopeless confrontation. But that rage, the desire for revenge, was still there. It had to be quenched. David looked at Charlie, who shrugged. David nodded.

“Good, then bring me back a trophy. I don’t want you and your tame Ranger – ” David and Charlie both started, “Yeah, I knew about him boys. Y’all aren’t the only ones with contacts. I just want to make sure y’all don’t turn all lawful when the time comes. Might be that you and that lawman can take down that bukra son-of-a-bitch, but I want to make sure he doesn’t get up when you do. I want him dead.”

“My word on it,” David replied.

Less than a minute later David, Charlie, and one drug dealer named DeShawn walked across the garage parking lot. To his credit, Lizard’s associate’s steps barely faltered when he saw their car.

“Nice ride,” he said.

“I got a good deal,” David replied.

Hudson stuck his head out the window as they approached, “Did the asshole give it up?”

DeSahwn bristled. “Mr. Gibbs was most forthcoming,” David said, attempting to forestall any confrontation. Hudson apparently had no such desire. He gave their guide a quick but thorough once over.

“You got a permit for that piece, son.”

DeShawn’s hand twitched toward the pistol poorly concealed under his fatigues. “I got your permit right – ”

“Gentlemen! I tire of playing peacemaker! Charlie, please get in – ”

Charlie poked his head out of the window, “Already there. Let’s go David, time’s a wastin’!”

David shivered as if something had walked across his grave. Javier tossed him the keys as he got in the car. DeShawn gave him the address as David pulled into the street. David grimaced as Charlie spoke up from the backseat. “So, Whataburger?”
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A short time later, Charlie found a new appreciation for the plight of Bilbo Baggins as he crept down a corridor toward the cave where Diane was being held. DeShawn had guided them easily to where McCullough had entered the tunnels under Houston’s downtown. The entrance had been a maintenance door behind one of the civic buildings and shockingly free of vagrants. As they opened the door, DeShawn had turned and walked back down the alley, wishing them luck without a great deal of conviction. From there, following McCullough’s trail had been surprisingly easy. The tunnels had steadily become more filled with mud beyond the pipes and Javier’s senses had allowed them to follow the sorcerer’s trail with relative ease.

After about fifteen minutes of following the trail, David, Hudson, Javier, and Charlie had found the cave where McCullough was holding Diane. The sorcerer had been making little effort to hide. There was a bonfire in the middle of the cavern, which cast light far up the tunnels. The flames made shadows dance along the walls as well, particularly since two ghouls sat near the fire, fighting over some thankfully unidentifiable bones and making enough noise to be heard far up the corridor as well. Diane had been staked to the ground near the back of the cavern, surrounded by an empowered circle. Similar to the circle back at McCullough’s house, the motif had been heavy on skulls and demonic figures. This time, however, the circle’s creator had been there, crouching beside his handiwork, tweaking the placement of the focus items while Diane struggled against her bonds, attempting to scream around a gag.

Charlie had crept back to the group to report on the cavern’s layout and joined them on planning the attack. Their resulting plan had been simple. Hit’em hard, hit’em fast. Charlie had been in full support of the concept until they included an addendum. In Hudson’s words, Charlie was to ‘make like a hobbit.’ He was to sneak back down the corridor, slip past the ghouls, and position himself to hit the sorcerer from behind. David had promised a ‘significant distraction,’ but Charlie had felt somehow less than comforted as he veiled himself and went once more into the breach.

Charlie’s view was distorted behind the veil, but he could still see the ghouls’ noses sniffing and their scarred ears twitching as they gnawed their bones in the firelight. He made a mental note to take smell and hearing into account next time he updated the spell’s formula. An endless dozen steps took him past the ghouls and took only four or five years off his life. The ghouls turned back to their snack as Charlie thought silent thoughts and stole around the edge of the firelight, aiming for where McCullough was laying the finishing touches on his ritual circle. The evening had been waning when they found the tunnel entrance and obviously the time for McCullough’s spell was fast approaching. Charlie crept forward until he was crouched next to the cavern wall, about fifteen feet behind McCullough, wrench in hand, waiting for David’s ‘distraction.’

When it came, Charlie made another mental note to apologize to the smug little twit. As he held his aim at the sorcerer’s back, ticking off the seconds until McCullough would finish his spell, David’s pocket watch came sliding across the floor. It slid past the ghouls and skidded to a stop inches from McCullough’s foot. The top popped open with a faint click as sphere of dense, multi-colored steam exploded out from the watch. Red, blue, yellow. Primary colors, secondary colors. Colors even Crayola™ did not sell shot out into the cavern, twisted together in a dense smoke. Light shattered and refracted off the fog, dazing and blinding everyone who looked at it. McCullough had started chanting softly while Charlie waited and turned when he heard the click, catching the blast of light full in the face. He stumbled up from his knees, clutching at his face, screaming a string of viscous curses. Charlie’s spell was already on his lips as he rose from his crouch at the edge of the fog, dropped his veil, and leveled his wrench at the sorcerer’s back.
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David followed the rest of the group as they charged out of the tunnel. Javier out distanced the other two easily, sprinting to the edge of the David’s shroud of steam, swinging at one of the dazed ghouls. The ghoul – not a species well suited to rapid changes of circumstance – was so confused by the turn of events that it simply gapped as the young man charged forward. Unfortunately, while faster than his compatriots, Javier was less skilled. His swing went wide, missing the ghoul and almost landing him in the fire.

Hudson, however, had been trained by the best Texas law enforcement had to offer. He used the ghouls’ confusion to slip around the side of the cavern. Hudson drew his shotgun from beneath his coat as he came into position, leveling the double barrel at the ghouls. The shotgun roared twice as Hudson pumped a shell into each of them. Javier’s target was thrown to the ground as it slashed at the off balance young man, his claws only lightly gouging his arm. The second ghoul took advantage of Hudson’s covering of Javier to charge, but the lawman swung the shotgun coolly back to the right, pulling the trigger just as the ghoul’s claws shredded the Ranger’s jacket. The ghoul flew back toward the flames, its attack having little effect on the Ranger. Hudson’s hat did land perilously close to the bonfire, however.

“Good show, constable!” David shouted as he heard a loud whump. As he turned toward the sound, Eric McCullough came flying out of the multicolored fog. Robes fluttering and dreads trailing behind him, the sorcerer crashed into one of the ghouls, losing his feet and rolling directly into the bonfire. David’s pistol flew into his hand without conscious thought, tracking the now burning sorcerer. As his finger squeezed the trigger, a gust of air caught him in the chest, staggering him. His shot went wide, but he was treated to a fantastic view of the flames beginning to run up the sorcerer’s dreadlocks. McCullough screamed as he rolled on the cavern floor. David re-cocked his pistol.

To David’s right, the ghoul that had attacked Hudson was still off-balance after being gut-shot and hit by a flying sorcerer. Hudson stepped forward, swinging the butt of the shotgun into the ghoul’s jaw. Teeth like a dog’s canines flew through the air as the ghoul’s jaw shattered. It swiped back feebly at Hudson, but the Ranger blocked the monster’s claws with his shotgun while his boot lashed out and caught it in the gut, throwing the ghoul back across the cavern floor. As Hudson strode forward he let his still smoking shotgun fall to the floor. The ghoul barely had time to whimper as the Ranger drew his revolver and double tapped its skull.

David returned his attention to the fallen sorcerer. Before he could emulate the Ranger’s excellent example, Charlie strode out of the fading steam. Wrench in hand, Charlie spat a word and unseen force caught the sorcerer – still on fire – and slammed him against the far wall of the cavern. McCullough collapsed to the ground as Charlie caught David’s eye. Side by side, they looked down at the fallen warlock.

“Did you find Diane?”

“She’s in the back. You got this?”

David nodded as Charlie spat toward the sorcerer and faded back into the steam, presumably to tend to the wretch’s victim. McCullough struggled to rise as David advanced on him, finally dragging himself into a sitting position against the cavern wall. As David raised his pistol, the pair’s eyes met and a moment of almost perfect understanding passed between them. “It’s nothing personal old chap, but I’ve got promises to keep.” David’s shot took McCullough in the gut, slamming him to the wall again.

David had turned away and holstered his pistol before he realized his shot had not stopped the sorcerer. Over the coughing of blood, David heard the warlock snarl something and suddenly he felt knives gouging into his skull. Daggers of ice ripped through his brain and David’s vision began to narrow. He lost his balance and his pistol as he spun back around, collapsing to his hands and knees as the pressure continued to mount on his skull. Hope surged as he saw Javier charge to his defense from the edge of his vision. Javier stooped, grabbed a branch from the bonfire, tripped and then crashed headlong into the surviving ghoul as it fled from the cavern. My savior, David thought.

As the last of David’s vision began to fade, boot heels scuffed the floor of the cavern as Hudson placed himself between David and the sorcerer. David’s mind suddenly cleared as the Ranger’s shadow fell across the fallen warlock. As McCullough opened his mouth to cast another spell, Hudson’s boot lashed into his gut, driving the breath from his body and the spell from his mind. When he drew it back, Hudson’s heel was covered in blood and the sorcerer lay sprawled on the ground, to weak even to scream, blood and worse flowing freely from his wound.
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The smell was horrendous as Hudson stood over McCullough. Blood and bodily fluids mingled with scorched hair and vomit, not to mention the indescribable smells coming from the dead ghoul. McCullough was sobbing as he retched onto the ground, face smudged with soot and mud, seemingly oblivious to the Ranger towering above him.

He did not look like a dangerous man. If this were a normal manhunt, Hudson would be following Ranger protocol, kneeling beside the perp, administering first aid and calling for a bus. Instead, Hudson’s pistol floated up almost of its own accord as he stood there. His hand was rock steady as he trained the revolver’s sites on McCullough’s forehead.

There were a hundred reasons to shoot the man lying before him. The cops would not be able to hold him. The justice system could not hold him accountable. Not to mention that he deserved it, a dozen times over at least. The darker reaches of Hudson’s mind whispered other reasons. It was the heat of battle; deadly force was authorized. No one would know. He was scum anyway. Why shouldn’t he die here in the dirt? The revolver remained steady on its target. No one would know.

Even on the practical side, if Hudson gave McCullough a few moments to collect himself he might be able to cast what Charlie called a ‘death curse.’ All good reasons to shoot, but none of them was what drove Hudson to raise the revolver and cock the hammer back. It was the fear he saw in the sorcerer’s eyes as he looked up at the Ranger. The mind-raping little shit had power that Hudson had thought existed only in fairy tales a month ago – hell, this morning. But when McCullough looked up at Hudson and his revolver, his face held nothing but naked terror. He feared the gun and the man who wielded it. And Hudson would need that fear if he wanted to walk among these monsters and madmen. If he wanted to continue to protect his people from them, the monsters would have to fear him. Fear what he would do. Fear his retribution. Hudson would have to nurture that fear, cultivate it. He would have to grow his reputation until no one dared fuck with his beat. If he wanted fear like that, mercy would be a mistake.

The hammer fell and the gun roared again. More fluids flowed onto the cavern floor and more smells joined the reek. As Hudson turned away he saw the second ghoul pause as it fled the cavern. He did not need to be an expert on the supernatural to understand the terror in its eyes when it saw the smoking gun and the ruined body of its former master. Hudson gave the monster a mocking little salute with his revolver before he holstered it and turned away. He’d hunt down that asshole too, eventually, but not today. Today, word needed to spread.
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Hudson helped David to his feet and together they collected Javier from where he had fallen. He was shaken up, but more from his numerous pratfalls than from any of the ghouls’ attacks. They found Charlie smashing through the sorcerer’s circle, his wrench destroying the items that had held Diane captive. David laid a hand on his shoulder and the wrath seemed to fade from him. Hudson walked across the circle, caring little what horrific items his boots crushed. He bent down to gather up the semi-comatose Diane, wrapping her in his trench coat.

As he rose, applause began echoing around the cavern. The slow, mocking claps preceded the arrival of a pale man in a blue suit from a shadowed recess across from the tunnel they had used to enter. Tall, with dark hair, and a confident gait, he strode boldly through the mud and fluids that covered the cavern floor. He paused approximately ten yards from the companions, hands hanging loosely at his sides.

“Ummm, that was delicious. Such hatred, such anger. What a wonderful confrontation! I must commend you all. I must admit, I really thought it fairly long odds that you would manage to defeat Mr. McCullough. And so handedly as well. My congratulations gentlemen!”

Hudson and David looked at each other. Both shrugged and turned to look at Charlie. Charlie shrugged and rolled his eyes as he turned toward the figure. It wasn’t like he knew every questionable figure in town.

Charlie drew his wrench again as he stepped forward toward the man. When in doubt, nothing like a frontal assault. “And who the hell might you be?”

“Just another fellow traveler, Mr. Harper, and one who commends your prowess. Now, if you would all be so kind as to depart, I have some cleaning up to do. Ghouls leave such an abominable odor, even when they’re not dead.” The man bowed and gestured toward the tunnel they had used to enter.

Charlie felt his anger growing again. He had just taken down a full-fledged warlock – with some assistance and a sucker punch admittedly – but nonetheless, he had spent his entire day chasing around the city fighting thralls, guardian spirits, and crazy sorcerers. He would be goddamned if he was going to blithely follow the orders of a self-satisfied jackass in a thousand-dollar suit. “If you want us to leave, why don’t you step the hell out of our way, whoever the fuck you are?”

The figure blurred forward and Charlie was flung against the side of the cavern ten feet away with no discernible change in trajectory. He crumpled to the ground, coughing and retching. The figure stood where Charlie had previously been, not a hair out of place or a wrinkle in his suit. His face, on the other hand, was twisted into a snarl.

“I am Darian Rasna, mageling, and you will keep a civil tongue in your head or I will rip it out. Now take the wench and get out.”

Hudson looked at David and made no effort to lower his voice. “Discretion is often the better part of valor. Plus, I’d have to drop Diane and reload before I could shoot the asshole.” Hudson paused, “Not that I’m ruling it out as an option mind you.”

David took a moment to stroke his chin before responding. “True enough, constable. Our work here is done. Perhaps we should leave Mr. Rasna to his cleaning. Charlie?”

Charlie had managed to haul himself upright to lean against the cavern wall. “If we hurry, we might be able to make happy hour at Khon’s place. Hell, I’ll buy the first round.” Charlie walked steadily, if slowly, to stand with his companions. David put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and turned to face Rasna. He reached into his pocket and tossed a business card at Rasna’s feet.

“Wish I could say it has been a pleasure Mr. Rasna, but do feel free to give us a call if you have any further vermin you’d prefer not to handle yourself. If you ask nicely, I might even offer you a discount. Cheers mate.” David guided Charlie toward the exit tunnel and Hudson followed him, still carrying Diane. David felt Javier gliding along in his wake. As he passed the sorcerer’s body, he stooped quickly to grab the pocketwatch still dangling from the dead man’s fingers.

David’s shoulder blades itched as the companions strode toward the cavern exit. Rasna did not seem like one to take kindly to mockery, but sometimes you had to show your back to a predator to convince them you were not prey. As they rounded the corner to the tunnel leading to the surface, David breathed a silent sigh of relief. The monster had been slain and the damsel rescued. And all four of the companions were walking away as well. Anything else was a consideration for another day.

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