Here’s the first chapter of Feet of Clay. Sorry it’s a bit late.
“You know, Frank,” Gabriela said, trailing one hand down my chest and letting it linger over my thumping heart. “I think I have feelings for you.” She smiled sheepishly, color filling her cheeks. “I haven’t felt like this about anyone ever before.”
I stared at her in shock as she drew closer to me, pressing her lithe body against mine. Gabriela Perez was everything I’d ever wanted in a woman, and as she leaned in close to me, lips slightly parted, the only thing I could think was that I was never letting go of her. Not ever.
“I have feelings for you too,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her waist and pulling her into me. Part of me couldn’t believe this was happening after everything. Still, she was right there in front of me.
“Kiss me, Frank,” she whispered, tilting her head toward me. My heart started pounding like crazy in my chest as I tilted my head toward her and leaned in. Her lips were so close to mine, I could practically feel them. “Please.”
The touch of her breath on my lips sent little shivers tingling across my skin as I closed my eyes and pressed my lips to hers. The hunk of Aztec gold-and-turquoise taking the place of my flesh-and-blood heart went absolutely bonkers as I pressed into her.
Pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before tore at my chest, and for a second, it felt like my ribs were going to burst out of my skin. My eyes shot open to find Gabriela gone, her presence fading away into the last traces of a dream that seemed particularly unfair. Especially since the last time I’d woken up like this, I’d gotten assaulted by all sorts of supernatural nut jobs, and judging by the fact I’d last been knocked unconscious by a goddamned golem, I was betting this time would be no different.
The heart had been one the things that had seen me through the shadowy world of magicians and wizards and golems and general bullshit kept secret from us normal Joes and Josephines. It had allowed me to save the world (no, really!) from a bunch of cultists who wanted to rid the world of magic by tearing apart space and time. And this time, evidently, it was trying to save me again.
Still, waking up to find myself laid out on a stone slab in the middle of a torture room that would make Pinhead or Freddy Kruger lick their lips in delight, didn’t exactly seem fair given I’d saved the world. Okay, torture chamber might have been a bit of an exaggeration. The room was made of plain, grey stone, slick with condensation, plucked right out of any generic fantasy movie’s castle dungeon.
Still, for all that, the place was as clean as a whistle, and the air was filled with a medicine-y antiseptic scent. How much of that smell was because of the oxygen mask strapped over my mouth and nose, I couldn’t be sure. Oh, did I forget to mention that and the IV line stuck in my arm?
It almost made me think they were trying to revive me, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case because as I blinked away the haze, I found myself staring at a creepy-as-fuck guy hovering over me with a scalpel in hand. Maybe it was a girl. It was hard to tell because whoever it was had dressed up like a plague doctor out of a medieval history book, including the long nosed mask and goggles.
Assisting the good doctor were a pair of disembodied arms made out of what looked like a knight’s plate armor, each one floating around with no respect to physics or gravity. That might not have bothered me so much if each one wasn’t wielding equally archaic but strangely shiny surgeon’s tools in hand. Racks and shelves lined the walls with an assortment of cutting implements, bone saws, spreaders, and other tools I couldn’t begin to describe other than by saying they would be voted “Most Likely To Cleanly Dismember A Corpse” by a panel of their peers.
The sluggishness in my limbs and the fog in my brain were pretty damned familiar from those unfortunate times in my life I’ve had surgery done. Fuck it all, I hated going under then, and I hated it even more now. I mean, it didn’t take a rocket scientist (one of my early childhood dreams unrealized, just to have it said) to know what Dr. Plague and the Arm Boys were about to do to me.
After all, I had la Corazon, reputedly the most powerful anti-magical artifact known to the magical cults that lurked in the shadows, beating in my chest. When the White Alliance, my frenemies before advancing to full-on enemy, nabbed us, I guess la Corazon was too tempting to leave stuck in little old me. I’ll admit, that made me feel a touch used, especially since I’d helped the White save the world, but then again, they were probably worried I’d shit all over their parade too. After all, I’d taken on one cult full of psychos, what was one more in the grand scheme of things?
“It would appear traditional anesthetics have a reduced effect on the Bearer,” the doctor muttered to himself (the deep voice edged me toward that gender assumption), muffled a bit by the long-nosed mask. “While this might complicate the surgery, I must admit to a degree of fascination as how you might react to this, Mr. Butcher. I may very well leave you awake to get your direct input.”
My eyes came into full focus and I tried to give Dr. Plague a withering stare. “I don’t know you, but you’re a sadistic fuck, aren’t you?”
He shook his head, hat flopping crazily. “You misunderstand me. You are, after all, a unique thing, the first known host of such a powerful artifact. Your reactions, both rational and physiological, are of intense interest to me.” The doctor shrugged. “Besides, these are likely to be your last words, Bearer. Surely someone as talkative as you would want to leave a message behind for Dr. Perez?”
My limbs were still numb and rubbery, but I tried to get them to move so I could throttle the prick. “Where the fuck is she, Dr. Schnozz?!” Life was starting to return to every part of me, but all I managed that second was a flop that would make a dying fish proud.
“Spirits below, you have a lot of fight in you.” The surgeon clicked his tongue, the sound muffled by his plague mask. “A bit too much fight for this to be successful. Let us put you back to sleep, Mr. Butcher.”
He gestured off-handedly at the animated arm opposite of him, which diligently put its utensil, an unusually polished bone saw, next to me and floating out of my sight. Whatever it was going to do couldn’t be good. I had better do something, even though I was bare-assed-naked and still woozy from whatever they had pumping into this mask.
The thing was, I wasn’t nearly as woozy as I felt I should be, but I was willing to overlook that as I realized something important. They hadn’t tied me up, chained me to the table, or restrained me in any way. I wasn’t sure who was running this amateur hour, but I was instantly thankful for their oversight as I snapped the saw up in my good right arm and rolled, bringing the nasty blade around with my left arm. Now, I’m a rightie, but surprise was on my side as I cut a jagged slash through cloak and robes of Mr. Beak’s arm. The sleepy-time mask ripped clean in that same motion, yanked back by its tubing. Still hurt as it snapped over my broken nose, though.
The doctor grabbed his arm as he staggered back, blood pulsing through his fingers. Though he was somewhere in the middle of Shock Street and Surprise Avenue, the Hotel Transylvania extras weren’t. The unarmed one flew past my shoulder as I rolled unsteadily to my feet, while the other, a surgical rib spreader in its metal grip, tried to blindside me. I got a good crack upside the head from Lefty, which hurt like the dickens.
Fear that I wasn’t going to show to anyone mixed with raw adrenaline to keep my ass standing. Biting back that fear, I tried to shout a good one-liner, but what came out was a garbled mess from my mush-mouth.
As I feigned a slash at the doctor to keep him off balance and, if I was right, from casting spells. Yeah, I assumed he was a sorcerer like the rest of the Whites, but it was a damned good assumption.
My main focus was the armed, er, arm, though. As Righty zipped in the way of my feint, I tried to focus through the fuzz in my brain, to think about the hunk of ancient mojo I had for a heart now. Calling on la Corazon, the heart snapped to action quicker and easier than it ever had, as if all the action we had been through had been a warm-up to this moment, dropping a gold filter over my eyes and laying bare the tapestry of magic hidden to normal eyes.
You’ve never really seen the world properly until you’ve seen that majestic sight. Yeah, I know, Frank Butcher waxing poetic, but I’m fucking serious here. Everything in the world, from bricks to trees to people to bees, are all woven together by threads of magic, pulsing and glowing in a Technicolor light show, very Force-like to be quite honest. More importantly at this particular moment, magic spells, the ‘patches’ to reality wizards wove into those threads to bend reality to their wills, were visible plain as day to me.
What magic I could see, I could rip apart. I put that power into action right then with my right hand, sweeping a clawed hand through the stitches holding the magic animating the spreader-wielding sleeve in place. The stitches tore like the pants of a fat kid doing the splits, dropping the armor to the ground with the resounding clatter of metal on stone.
I think that’s when the Plague Knight decided he was truly fucked. He turned toward the thick wooden door, which as far as I could tell, was the only way out of Torture Central. He no doubt hoped Lefty would keep me busy long enough to get help. Fat chance.
As Lefty came at me with a big haymaker, dumb luck decided to step in. I was already moving to slip the punch, but a bit too slowly. As I was about to eat a knuckle-sandwich loaded with way more than my daily requirement of iron, my leading foot hit the puddle of blood left by the doctor’s arm wound.
My foot slipped forward and what had started as an elegant-but-tardy dodge turned into a klutzy fall. The steel fist caught nothing but air as I did a rather painful split. Back in my Army days, I could have pulled it off just fine, sans the stone floor of course, but I wasn’t in my prime anymore, thanks in no small part to all the delicious Mexican food out there and my own lack of inhibitions. Of course, yeah, stone floor, family jewels, no pants. You do the math.
Still, it was preferable to having a super-strong magic arm punch you in the brain. Maybe. I mean, I haven’t compared the two. Muffled mutterings of magic hit my ear. No doubt, the doctor was trying to heal his arm before he bled out. Well, that wasn’t happening. As I tried to ignore the urge to throw up from the groin trauma, I snatched the bit of magic animating Lefty out of the air as it reared back to punch me in the head.
As I said, it got easier each and every time I did it, so it wasn’t a surprise that the stone heart hammering away in my chest was up to the challenge, even with my current distraction. I dropped the saw as I clawed at the weave of magic with my free hand. The results were immediate, adding Lefty to the pile of discarded Ren Faire gear on the ground.
My caregiver had managed to finish his incantation, and as he did, a white glow stitched his gashed arm back together. He looked up just as I grabbed the edge of the stone slab and pulled myself to my feet. Back still to the door, he searched for the door handle with one blood-stained hand as the other held up in a defensive panic.
“Stay back,” he squeaked. I wasn’t sure if he was trying not to sound like he was about to drop a deuce in his pantaloons, but either way, I didn’t believe him. “Stay back or I’ll–”
If he called for help, I was fucked. Since I couldn’t have that, I tried to look my most badass, which is hard to do when you’ve got the whole show on display. The blood and such did help though.
“You’ll do what? I’m the Bearer and you’re just one of Rollie’s goons, aren’t you?” I growled while looking him over and almost couldn’t keep the smirk off my face when I realized that, under the cloak, his robes were red. “You’ve even got a red shirt on.” With each word, I stalked forward another step.
He realized too late how close I had gotten. He didn’t answer me, instead turning to slam on the door to get help. His hand was raised and his mouth opened just enough to get a sound out when I grabbed him, locking one hand onto his upraised hand and clamping the other over his mouth.
I leaned in close to listen for sounds of alarm. The only things I heard were a few drips of water and a cough, but no immediate rushing or cries of alarm. For the moment, I had progressed from “Up Shit Creek Without A Paddle” to “Flying Blind on a Rocket Cycle.” It wasn’t much of an improvement really.
“Now, buddy,” I whispered harshly, going for my best Clint Eastwood impression. It was pretty good if I do say so myself. “If you want to live through this, you’re going to do exactly what I say. Nod if you understand.”
He nodded like crazy. I pulled my hand back to let him stammer, “Y-Yes, B-Bearer, whatever you say.”
“Groovy.” I turned him so he could face me, while shifting a hand to his throat. “First things first.” I bopped the beaked mask right on its nose. “I need you to strip.”