My blasting rod was hanging from its tie on the inside of my coat, a stick of oak about eighteen inches long and a bit thicker than my thumb. The ridges of the runes and sigils carved into it felt comfortably familiar under the fingers of my right hand as I drew it out.
I went up to the building as silently as I could, let myself in with my key, and dropped the veil only after I was inside. It wasn’t going to do anything to hide me from a vampire that got close–they’d be able to smell me and hear my heartbeat anyway. The veil would only hamper my own vision, which was going to be taxed enough.
I didn’t take the elevator. It wheezed and rattled and would alert everyone in the building where I was. I checked the index board in the lobby. Datasafe, Inc., resided on the ninth floor, five stories above my office. That was probably where Martin and Susan were. It would be where the vampires were heading.
I hit the stairs and took a risk. Spells to dull sound and keep conversations private were basic fare for wizards of my abilities, and it wasn’t much harder to make sure that sound didn’t leave the immediate area around me. Of course, that meant that I was effectively putting myself in a sonic bubble–I wouldn’t hear anything coming toward me, either. But for the moment, at least, I knew the vampires were here while they presumably were unaware of me. I wanted to keep it that way.
Besides, in quarters this close, by the time I reacted to a noise from a vampire I hadn’t seen, I was as good as dead anyway.
So I murmured the words to a reliable bit of phonoturgy and went up the stairs clad in perfect silence. Which was a good thing. I run on a regular basis, but running down a sidewalk or a sandy beach isn’t the same thing as running up stairs. By the time I got to the ninth floor, my legs were burning, I was breathing hard, and my left knee was killing me. What the hell? When had my knees become something I had to worry about?
Cheered by that thought, I paused at the door to the ninth-floor hallway, opened it beneath the protection of my cloak of silence, and then dropped the spell so that I could listen.
Hissing, gurgling speech in a language I couldn’t understand came from the hallway before me, maybe right around the corner I could see ahead. I literally held my breath. Vampires have superhuman senses, but they are as vulnerable to distraction as anyone. If they were talking, they might not hear me, and regular human traffic in this building would probably hide my scent from them.
And why, exactly, a voice somewhere within the storm in my chest whispered, should I be hiding from these murdering scum in the first place? Red Court vampires were killers, one and all. A half-turned vampire didn’t go all the way over until they’d killed another human being and fed upon their life’s blood. Granted, an unwilling soul taken into the Red Court found themselves at the mercy of new and nearly irresistible hungers–but that didn’t change the fact that if they were a card-carrying member of the Red Court, they had killed someone to be there.
Monsters. Monsters who dragged people into the darkness and inflicted unspeakable torments upon them for pleasure–and I should know. They’d done it to me once. Monsters whose existence was a plague upon millions.
Monsters who had taken my child.
The man once wrote: Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. Tolkien had that one mostly right.
I stepped forward, let the door bang closed, and snarled, “Fuck subtle.”
The gurgle-hissing from around the corner ahead stopped at a confused intersection of speech that needed no translation: Huh?
I lifted the blasting rod, aimed it at the corner ahead of me, and poured my rage, my will, and my power into it as I snarled, “Fuego!”
Silver-white fire howled down the hallway and bit into the corner ahead, blowing through it as easily as a bullet through a paper target. I drew the line of fire to my left, and as quickly as that, the fire gouged an opening as big as my fist through several sections of studs and drywall, blasting through to the perpendicular hallway where I’d heard the vampires talking. The din was incredible. Wood tore and exploded. Drywall flew into clouds of dust. Pipes screamed as they were severed as neatly as if I’d used a cutter. Wires erupted into clouds of popping sparks.
And something entirely inhuman let out a piercing shriek of pain, pain driven by unnaturally powerful lungs into a scream that was louder than gunshots.
I screamed in answer, in challenge, in defiance, and pelted forward. The runes on my blasting rod shone with white-hot fire, throwing brilliant silver-white light out ahead of me into the darkened building as I ran.
As I rounded the corner a shape was already in motion, coming toward me. My shield bracelet was ready. I lifted my left hand, fingers contorted into a gesture that had nothing to do with magic but that was generally considered insulting. My will poured into the charm bracelet hung with multiple tiny shields, and in an instant my power spread from there into a quarter-dome shape of pure, invisible force in front of me. The black shape of the vampire hit the shield, sending up concentric circles of blue light and white sparks, and then rebounded from it.
I dropped the shield almost before he was done rebounding, leveled the blasting rod with a flick of my wrist, and ripped the vampire in half with a word and a beam of silver fire. The pieces flew off in different directions, still kicking and thrashing hideously.
In the middle of the hallway was a second bisected vampire, which I’d apparently hit when firing blindly through the wall. It was also dying messily. Because I’ve seen too many bad horror movies and know the rules for surviving them, the instant I’d made sure the hallway was empty of more threats, I swung the rod up to point above me.
A vampire clung to the ceiling not twenty feet away. People have this image of vampires as flawless, beautiful gods of dark sex and temptation. And, while the Red Court can create a kind of outer human shell called a flesh mask, and while that mask was generally lovely, there was something very different underneath–a true, hideous, unrepentant monster, like the one looking down at me.
It was maybe six feet tall when standing, though its arms were scrawny and long enough to drag the backs of its claw-tipped hands along the ground. Its skin was rubbery and black, spotted here and there with unhealthy-looking bits of pink, and its belly hung down in flabby grotesquerie. It was bandy-legged, hunchbacked, and its face was somewhere between that of a vampire bat and something from H. R. Giger’s hallucinations.
It saw me round the corner, and its goggling black eyes seemed to get even larger. It let out a scream of…
It screamed in fear.
The vampire flung itself away from me even as I unleashed a third blast, bounding away down the hall, flinging itself from the ceiling to the wall to the floor to the wall and back again, wildly dodging the stream of ruinous energy I sent after it.
“That’s right!” I heard myself scream. “You’d better run, pretty boy!” It vanished around the next corner and I shouted in incoherent rage, kicked the still-twitching head of one of the downed vampires with the tip of my steel-toed work boots, and rushed after it in pursuit, cursing up a storm.
The entire business had taken, at most, six or seven seconds.
After that, things got a little complicated.
I’d started half a dozen small fires with the blasts, and before I’d gone another half a dozen steps the fire alarms twittered shrilly. Sprinkler systems went off all around me. And at the same moment, gunfire erupted from somewhere ahead of me. None of that was good.
The alarms meant that the authorities would be on the way–and except for the smartest guys in CPD’s Special Investigations, they just weren’t ready to deal with a vampire. They’d be little more than victims and potential hostages to the supernatural predators.
The falling water wasn’t good, either. Running water grounds magical energies, and while it wouldn’t shut me down completely, it would make everything harder to do, like running through soft sand or over wet clay. And the gunshots weren’t good because a pair of bullets came through the wall not six feet away, and one of them tugged hard at the hem of my jeans over my left ankle.
“Ack!” I said.
Fearless master of the witty dialogue, that’s me.
I twisted my left wrist across the front of my body, brought my shield up again. A couple of bullets that probably wouldn’t have hit me anyway popped off of it, concentric circles of flickering blue light spreading from the points of impact. I dashed down the hall and around the corner, the blasting rod in my right hand lifted and ready.
There were two vampires in front of a door to an office. One of them was on the floor, thrashing and hissing in agony, clutching at its flabby belly. It was leaking blood all over the floor. Several dozen bullet holes–exit holes–in the door explained why. The injuries wouldn’t kill the vamp, but they were painful and robbed it of the source of its supernatural power–the blood it had devoured. The other was crouched to the side of the doorway, as if debating with itself whether or not it should try to rush the door as its companion apparently had.
My runner went by them, wailing in fear.
I slid to a stop on the rapidly moistening floor, lifted the rod, and cut loose with another blast. It howled down the hallway, and the running vamp seized the wounded one and pulled it up to intercept the shot I’d meant for it. The wounded vamp screamed and absorbed just enough of the energy to let the runner plunge through the drywall at the end of the hall. It vanished from sight, and a second later I heard the sound of glass breaking as it fled the building.
The luckless vampire was dead, or on the final approach to it, since the beam had sliced off almost everything to the left of its spine. The final vampire whirled toward me, hesitating.
It proved fatal. The wall behind it suddenly exploded outward, and Martin, his skin livid with dark tattoos, came crashing through it. He drove the vampire across the hallway and slammed it into the wall. One hand snaked around the surprised vampire’s belly, and a knife gleamed. Scarlet gore fountained against the wall, and the vampire collapsed, screaming breathlessly.
Martin leapt clear before the thrashing creature got lucky with one of its claws, snapped his gaze up and down the hallway, saw the hole in the far wall, and said, “Damnation. You let one get away?”
Before I could answer him, Susan appeared, slipping out through the hole in the wall. She had the computer backpack slung over one shoulder and a smoking gun in her hand, a .45 automatic with an extended magazine. She took a look at the vampire on the ground and lifted the gun, her dark eyes hard and cold.
“Wait,” I said. “There were six. He’s number four.”
“There are always six of them,” Susan said. “Standard operations team.”
She calmly pulled the trigger, letting loose a short, precise burst of automatic fire, and blew the wounded vampire’s head into disgusting mulch.
Martin looked at his watch. “We don’t have long.”
Susan nodded and they both started down the hallway, toward the stairs. “Come on, Harry. We found floor plans. The building’s wired.”
I blinked and ran after them. “Wired? To what?”
“The explosives are on the fourth floor,” Martin said calmly, “placed all around your office.”
“Those jerks,” I said. “They told us they were cleaning out asbestos!”
Susan barked out a short laugh, but Martin frowned her down. “When that runner gets them word about what happened, they’ll set them off. I suggest we hurry.”
“Holy crap,” I breathed.
We sprinted for the stairs. Going down them took a lot less time than going up, but it was harder to control. I stumbled once and Susan caught me by the arm, her fingers like bands of rigid steel. We reached the bottom together.
“Not out the front!” I barked. “Inbound authorities!” I pounded past them and led them down a short hallway and out a side door, into an alley. Then we sprinted to the back of the building, down another alley, and away.
We had made it to the next block when light flashed and a giant the size of the Sears building hauled off and swatted us all with a pillow from his enormous bed. We were flung from our feet. Susan and Martin landed in a roll, tumbling several times. By contrast, I crashed into a garbage can.
It was, of course, full.
I lay there for a moment, my ears putting out a constant, high-pitched tone. A cloud of dust and particles washed over me, mixing with whatever hideous stew was in the trash can and caking itself to my body.
“I am not playing at the top of my game,” I mused aloud. I felt the words buzz in my throat, but I couldn’t hear them.
A few seconds later, sounds began to drift back in. Car horns and car alarms were going off everywhere. Storefront security systems were screaming. Sirens–lots and lots of sirens–were closing in.
A hand slipped beneath my arm and someone helped me stand up. Susan. She was lightly coated with dust. It filled the air so thickly that we couldn’t see more than ten or twenty feet. I tried to walk and staggered.
Martin got underneath my other arm, and we started shambling away through the dust. After a little while, things stopped spinning so wildly. I realized that Martin and Susan were talking.
“–sure there’s not something left?” Susan was saying.
“I’ll have to examine it sector by sector,” Martin said tonelessly. “We might get a few crumbs. What the hell was he thinking, throwing that kind of power around when he knew we were after electronic data?”
“He was probably thinking that the information would be useless to the two of us if we were dead,” Susan said back, rather pointedly. “They had us. And you know it.”
Martin said nothing for a while. Then he said, “That. Or he didn’t want us to get the information. He was quite angry.”
“He isn’t that way,” she said. “It isn’t him.”
“It wasn’t him,” Martin corrected her. “Are you the same person you were eight years ago?”
She didn’t say anything for a while.
I remembered how to walk, and started doing it on my own. I shook my head to clear it a little and looked back over my shoulder.
There were buildings on fire. More and more sirens were on the way. The spot in the skyline where my office building usually sat from this angle was empty except for a spreading cloud of dust. Fires and emergency lights painted the dust orange and red and blue.
My files. My old coffee machine. My spare revolver. My favorite mug. My ratty, comfortable old desk and chair. My frosted-glass window with its painted lettering reading, HARRY DRESDEN, WIZARD.
They were all gone. “Dammit,” I said.
Susan looked up at me. “What was that?”
I answered in a weary mumble. “I mailed in the rent on my office this morning.”