Blood Lines Chapter Sixteen


'What the hell are you doing?’’

Henry slipped the BMW into neutral. ’’I'm stopping at a yellow light.’’

'Why?’’

'Detective, contrary to popular belief, a yellow light does not mean speed up, there's a red light coming.’’

'Yeah? Well, contrary to what you seem to believe, we haven't got all night. Rachel said this thing'll go down at midnight and it's eleven thirteen now.’’

'And being pulled over for a minor traffic violation with a wanted felon in the car would slow us down a lot more than obeying the rules of the road.’’

'Why don't I drive?’’

Vicki leaned forward. ’’Why don't we compromise? Mike, shut up. And, Henry, speed up. Neither of you are proving a damned thing.’’

They left the car on Front Street and pounded up the stairs and onto the walkway that led over the railway tracks to the base of the CN Tower. Although Henry could have quickly outdistanced the two mortals, he matched his speed to Vicki's;just in case.

Without the crowds of people that filled the area during the day, the acres of concrete had a surreal, deserted look and even rubber-soled shoes echoed. Flashing their messages at empty space, neon advertisements blazed along the path to the tower-for the restaurant, for the disco, for the Tour of the Universe.

'Actually only takes you to Jupiter,’’ Vicki panted as they passed under the last sign. ’’Half a solar system. Some universe.’’ She ran with one hand touching the wall for both guidance and support and didn't bother worrying about not being able to see her feet. The path was smooth and obvious, and after what she'd been through, she wasn't going to let a little lack of light stop her.

'If he's up there,’’ Celluci yelled as they flung themselves down the stairs at the other end of the walkway and rounded the corner to the main entrance. ’’I bet he's locked the elevators at the top with him.’’

'No bet.’’ Vicki threw herself against a glass handle with no more effect than if she'd been the wind. ’’Not when the son of a bitch has locked the doors at the bottom.’’

Henry wrapped both hands under Vicki's and pulled. With a crack that echoed up the tower and back from the Sky-dome, the handle snapped off.

'Shit!’’ She glared at the tinted glass door and then at Henry. ’’Can you break through it?’’

He shook his head. ’’Not without some kind of weapon. That's three-quarter-inch solid glass. Even I'd break bones first.’’

It almost seemed as though the tower designers had thought ahead to such a possibility;nothing in the immediate neighborhood could be used to shatter the door. Even the various levels were joined by solid masses of poured concrete, no metal banisters, no steel safety rails.

'Don't bother,’’ Vicki snapped as Henry squatted and attempted to pry up a paving block. ’’We're wasting our time trying to get in here when Celluci's most likely right about the elevators.’’

Henry straightened. ’’We have to get him tonight, now. Before those people are sworn. We have to stop his god from gaining enough power to create more of him.’’

'I know. We take the stairs.’’

Celluci shook his head. ’’Vicki, that door's going to be locked, too.’’

'But it's a metal door with a metal handle-not likely to pull off in Henry's hand.’’ She was moving before she finished speaking, limping around the reflecting pool and up to the back of the tower. ’’I am not,’’ she snarled as they arrived at the entrance to the stairwell, ’’going to have this place turned into the world's tallest freestanding Egyptian f*king temple. Henry-!’’

The heavy metal door bowed on his first pull, layers of paint cracking and dropping to the ground, a battleship gray avalanche of paint flakes. The second pull ripped it free of its hinges and dragged the very expensive security system out through the door frame nearly intact.

It made surprisingly little noise, all things considered.

'Why no alarms?’’ Celluci demanded suspiciously, frowning at the tangle of ripped wires.

'How should I know?’’ Muscles protesting, his strength tested to its limit, Henry leaned the door against the tower. ’’Perhaps Tawfik's providing burnt offerings and he doesn't want to set off the sprinkler system.’’

'Or it's silent and there's a fleet of patrol cars on the way.’’

'Also possible,’’ Henry agreed.

'Then maybe you'd better stop wasting time talking about it.’’ Although the ambient light did Vicki little good, it provided contrast between the concrete giant and the jagged black hole that was their only entrance. She charged toward it only to be brought to a rocking halt by Celluci's grip on her arm.

'Vicki, wait a minute.’’

'Let go of me.’’ The edge on her voice threatened to remove his arm if he didn't.

He took the chance. ’’Look, we can't just go charging up there without a plan. You're letting your emotions do the thinking for you. Hell, we're letting your emotions do the thinking for us. Just stop and consider for a second-what happens when we get to the top?’’

She glared at him and twisted free. ’’We take out Tawfik, that's what happens.’’

'Vicki?’’ Henry moved forward into her line of sight. ’’We probably won't be able to get close to him. He has protections.’’

Her eyes narrowed. ’’If you're still afraid of him, Henry, you can wait down here.’’

Henry took another step toward her, his silence nearly deafening.

'I'm sorry.’’ She reached out and touched him lightly on the chest. ’’Look, how hard can it be? Mike'll shoot him from the doorway. I doubt he has a protection up against that. You do have your gun?’’

'Yeah, but?’’

'It does have a certain simplicity that appeals,’’ Henry admitted. ’’But I doubt he'll let us get that close. He'll have warded the temple area and the moment we cross those wards?’’ His voice trailed off.

'So you distract him and Mike shoots him,’’ Vicki ground out through clenched teeth. ’’As you said, simple. And surprise is essential and we are wasting time!'She started for the tower again and again Celluci stopped her.

'You wait down here,’’ he said. He'd already nearly lost her once this week. He wasn't going through that hell again.

'I what!’’

'You're in no shape to face natural opposition let alone supernatural. I doubt you can even make it to the top;you're at the end of your resources, you're already limping, you're?’’

'You. Just. Let. Me. Worry. About. Me.’’ Each word emerged as a separate, barely controlled explosion.

Henry laid a hand on her shoulder. ’’You know he's right. I distract Tawfik and he shoots him;you didn't include yourself in your simple plan.’’

'I am going up there to watch him die.’’

'You are putting yourself at unnecessary risk,’’ Celluci growled. ’’And what happens if we fail? Who's left to take a second shot?’’

Vicki yanked her arm out of his hands and shoved her face up close to his. ’’What? Did I forget to mention plan B? If you two screw up, I'm there to pick up the pieces. Now either give me your gun and I'll shoot him myself, or get the f*k up those stairs.’’

'She has the right to be there,’’ Henry said after a second that lasted several lifetimes, and it was obvious from his tone he liked it no more than Celluci did.

Vicki turned on him. ’’Thank you very much. You could have been at the top of the goddamned tower by now!’’ She stomped into the stairwell and groped for the first stair. Then the second. The emergency lights were a distraction so she closed her eyes. Two down, one thousand, seven hundred and eighty-eight left to go.

'Vicki?’’

She hadn't heard Henry come up behind her, but she could feel his presence just back of her left shoulder. She didn't want to listen to apologies or explanations or whatever he had to say. ’’Just go.’’

'But you're going to need help getting to the top. I could carry?’’

'You could worry about Tawfik and not about me. Get moving.’’ Through gritted teeth, she added, ’’Please.’’

The presence moved past, touched her lightly on the wrist, just at the spot where the vein lay closest to the surface, and was gone.

'He's right. You've barely got that drug out of your system not to mention the overt physical abuse. You won't make it to the top without help.’’

She glared at the vaguely man-shaped bit of dark on dark. ’’F*k you, too, and stop worrying about me.’’

Celluci knew better than to say anything further although she heard him snarl something under his breath as he brushed by.

She tried to match his speed, and anger actually kept her to it for a while, but the distance between them gradually grew. Finally, the sound of single footsteps blended into a staccato background to the pounding of her heart.

Ten steps and a landing. Ten steps and a landing. It was going to take her a little longer than nine minutes and fifty-four seconds this time. Her lack of vision made no difference-after establishing the pattern, her feet were well able to find their own way-but with each movement the last two days made themselves felt on her body. Everything ached.

Ten steps and a landing.

Her lungs began to burn. Each breath became purchased with greater denominations of pain.

Ten steps and a landing.

Her left knee felt as though a spike had been driven up under the bone.

Ten steps and a landing.

Lift the right leg up, pull the left leg forward. Lift the right leg up, pull the left leg forward.

She peeled out of her jacket and let it lie where it fell.

Ten steps and a landing.

Unnecessary risk, my ass.

Ten steps and a landing.

Of course I wasn't part of my plan. Did they actually think I wasn't aware of the shape I'd be in at the top of this thing? I'm going to be lucky if I can stand.

Ten steps and a landing.

’’She has a right to be there.’’ Jesus H. Christ.

Ten steps and a landing.

Damned right I'm going to be there. And I'm going to spit on Tawfik's corpse.

Ten steps and a landing.

She'd read an article once about an American Medal of Honor winner who'd been hit twenty-three times by enemy fire and still managed, despite his injuries, to run across a bridge to save another member of his unit. She'd wondered at the time what he'd been thinking of when he did it. She suspected now that she had a pretty good idea.

You can fall down when this is over, not before.

Ten steps and a landing.

Leg muscles began to tremble, then jump. Every step became an individual battle against pain and exhaustion. She stumbled, lost the rhythm, and slammed her shin into a metal fronting.

Eight, nine, ten steps, and a landing.

With so much of her weight pulled ahead by hands and arms, the gauze wrapped round her split knuckle sagged- wet with sweat or blood, she neither knew nor cared. When it became more hindrance than help, she ripped it off and dropped it.

Ten steps and a landing.

Lesser angers burned away until only the anger at Tawfik remained. He'd drugged her and jailed her, but worst of all, he'd perverted something she believed in. That stretched between them like the rope she'd hang him with and she dragged himself toward him on it.

Ten steps and a landing.

Henry felt the wards as he crossed them, a faint sizzle along the surface of his skin that jerked every hair on his body erect. He had no idea what information they conveyed back to Tawfik, whether general or specific, but either way time now became critical. He raced up the last two flights of stairs. Far below he could hear Celluci laboring, and below that, Vicki's crippled progress. Their heartbeats echoed in the stairwell, their breathing so loud it sounded as if the whole structure inhaled and exhaled with them. It seemed he'd be on his own for some time.

Only one in four of the fluorescents were on in the hall that wrapped around the central pillar of the tower and Henry, exiting out of the dim confines of the stairwell, gave thanks. Very often the level of light that mortals preferred placed him at a handicap and tonight he'd need every advantage.

Silently, he moved around the sweeping curve, following the hum of chanting. The background murmur in at least a dozen voices, consisted of nothing more than the name Akhekh repeated over and over with a kind of low-key intensity that worked its way beneath the surface and throbbed in bone and blood. Senses extended, Henry wasn't surprised to hear one single, all encompassing heartbeat where there should have been a multitude.

Rising over the chanting, a single voice spoke in a language that Henry didn't know, using cadences that sounded strange even to ears that had heard four and a half centuries of changes. Whatever else they were-and Henry had no doubt they held layers of meaning wrapped around each syllable, each tone-the words were a calling. Only the outermost edges brushed against him and he could feel himself urged closer.

He burst through the disco's main entrance, past an arc of empty tables. The background chanting grew louder.

Tawfik stood on the raised platform, inside an arc of padded rail where the dee jays usually sat, arms raised in the classic high priest pose. He wore a pair of khaki colored pants and an open necked linen shirt-not exactly the style of ancient Egypt, but then he didn't need a costume to declare what he was. Power crackled around him in an almost visible aura.

Crowded to either side of the dance floor, gazes riveted on Tawfik, were high-ranking officers from both the Metro and the Ontario Provincial police, two judges, and the publisher of the most powerful of the three Toronto daily newspapers. Henry had thought he'd heard a dozen voices, now, if he'd had to rely on hearing alone, he'd have said six although there were clearly more than twenty people involved. Individual tones and timbres were dissolving into the chant.

The most incongruous part of the entire scene had to be the giant silver disco ball that hung from the ceiling and spun slowly, flinging multicolored points of light over both Tawfik and his acolytes.

All this, Henry took in between one heartbeat and the next. Without breaking stride, he gathered himself up to spring forward at Tawfik's apparently unprotected back.

'AKHEKH!’’

For a single voicing of the name, Tawfik joined the chant, the points of light began to coalesce, the silver ball stopped spinning, and Henry barely got his arm up over his eyes in time. He staggered, almost fell, and tried to blink away the afterimages left by the tiny fraction of the brilliance that had actually gotten through.

The volume of the chanting rose, then fell to a nearly subliminal murmur, almost easy to ignore, and Henry realized that the overlay of spell-casting had stopped.

'You are interfering in things you have no understanding of, Nightwalker.’’ The voice was cold, distant, a counterpoint to the golden sun now burning in Henry's mind, larger and more brilliant than it had been only two days before.

Teeth clenched, Henry ignored the pain and wrapped the sun in his anger, dimming the overpowering life of the wizard-priest to the point where he could function. Through dancing patterns of light he saw Tawfik frown, an elder disturbed by the actions of a youth;those actions not a threat but merely an annoyance.

'Fortunately,’’ Tawfik continued, still parent to child, teacher to student, ’’we have reached a point in the ceremony where a short pause will not affect the final outcome. You have time to explain your presence here before I decide what to do about you.’’

For an instant, Henry felt himself sliding into the role the wizard-priest defined. Snarling, he thrust it aside. He was Vampire, Nightwalker. He would not be made subordinate again by mere words. The confusion Tawfik had used and twisted before had all been burned away in his rage at Vicki's disappearance and the elder immortal's part in it. He has hurt one of mine. I will not have that.

He'd nearly gained the edge of the platform, less than an arm's reach away from Tawfik's throat, when red lines flared and slammed him back against the wall of the disco.

'I told you when we first met that you couldn't destroy me. You should have listened.’’ The words stood out flat and uncompromising against the background chant as Tawfik realized that the Nightwalker's relative youth could no longer be manipulated and dropped the pose of bored disdain. After the challenges he had ignored the night before, he had known this confrontation would come, but tonight, when all his attention should be focused on Akhekh, tonight was not the time he would have chosen.

Not even the ceremony of sanctification had blocked the approaching glory of the Nightwalker's ka. He wanted it, wanted it more than he had ever wanted anything in his long life, and he had known from the moment the wards were shattered that tonight, at this moment, he held enough power to take what he so desperately desired. But the power he held wasn't his and Akhekh, for all he named his lord a petty godling, had painful ways of claiming ownership. The centuries had taught caution. After the ceremony, when Akhekh would be in a mood to grant favors, there would be power to spare and no risk of angering his lord. And once he had the Nightwalker's ka, he need never fear his lord's anger again.

If words were not enough to hold the Nightwalker, then other steps had to be taken. With a curt gesture, he raised the volume of the chant a fraction and then carefully, so as not to disturb the magical structures already in place and using only his own power, he began to weave a spell of binding. The mortals, still in the stairwell, could be ignored until they arrived, then their destruction would become part of the ceremony.

Stunned and bruised, Henry struggled to his feet. He had no idea how far behind him Celluci was as the scent and sound of the acolytes blocked the scent and sound of the detective's approach.

’’So you distract him and Mike shoots him. Simple.’’

Not so simple. Although if a physical attack had no effect, perhaps the wizard-priest could be distracted in other ways. He was fond enough of the sound of his own voice. Henry moved away from the wall. There was only one thing he was interested in hearing about. ’’Why did you attack Vicki Nelson?’’

Tawfik smiled, fully aware of what the Nightwalker attempted, for the accumulated power gave him access to all but the deepest levels of that glorious immortal ka. It didn't matter. In a moment he would invoke the binding spell and the moment after begin the third and final part of the calling. And the moment after that, he would feed. Answering the Nightwalker's question would serve to fill the time. ’’Your Vicki Nelson was chosen by my lord. To use an analogy you might understand, he occasionally orders a specific meal rather than taking what's offered on the buffet. As the gods may not directly interfere except in the lives of those sworn to their service, I prepare the meal for him, placing the chosen one in a situation of optimum hopelessness and despair. That she happened to be the mortal you cared for was pure coincidence, I assure you. Did you go to a great deal of trouble getting her out of jail?’’

'Not really. ’’ Henry stopped at the edge of the platform, at the point where the ambient power surrounding the wizard-priest brushed against him, throbbing in time with the single heartbeat of the chorus. ’’She'd nearly gotten herself out when I arrived.’’

'Almost a pity that she came along with you tonight.’’ The Nightwalker's ka flared and Tawfik nearly lost himself in desire. ’’You didn't think I was unaware of your companions, did you? I'll have to kill her, of course.’’

'You'll have to kill me first.’’

Tawfik laughed, but Henry's expression didn't alter and his ka burned high and steady. Slowly, he realized that the statement, as unbelievable as it was, came from those guarded, innermost regions of the ka and that the younger immortal had meant exactly what he'd said. Shock and confusion destroyed his control of the binding spell. Ebony brows drew down to meet in a painfully tight vee. ’’You would lay down your immortal life for her? For one whose entire existence should mean no more to you than a moment's nourishment?’’

'Yes.’’

'That's insane!’’ With the binding spell in tatters, Tawfik saw his options slip from his grasp. From the time the two mortals had entered the tower, their deaths had been woven into the ceremony of sanctification. The woman had to die. Her death was promised to Akhekh. But in order for the woman to die, he must kill the Nightwalker as well. If he killed the Nightwalker, all the power of that glorious ka would be lost.

No! I will not lose his ka! It is mine!

Henry had no idea what caused Tawfik to scowl so, but the wizard-priest certainly looked distracted. He pushed against the power barrier. It pushed back.

I could take the ka. Take it now. Use the power generated by the first two-thirds of the spell of sanctification. Use the power bled from the acolytes. Pay the price?

But would there be a price? Surely the devouring of an immortal life, would give him power equal to Akhekh's. Perhaps greater.

The chant began to rise in volume. The time had come to begin the third and final part of the spell of sanctification. He had no time to create another binding spell. He had no intention of losing the Nightwalker's magnificent, glorious ka.

Decision made between one heartbeat and the next, Tawfik wrapped his will around the accumulated power and threw all of it into the spell of acquisition. This would be rape, not the seduction he had initially planned, but the end result would be the same.

The sun flared white-gold behind Henry's eyes and he felt himself begin to burn. He could feel the strength that fed the flames, feel his edges consumed, feel? something familiar.

Hunger. He could feel Tawfik's Hunger.

Then he felt Tawfik's hands cup his face, lifting his head so their eyes met. Ebony eyes with no bottom to stop his fall.

The heartbeat of the acolytes roared in his ears. No. Not the acolytes. Not the heartbeat he had heard since he gained the top of the tower. Another heartbeat, a little faster than human norm, sound carried through the contact of skin against skin. Tawfik's heartbeat. Driving Tawfik's blood. For all his stolen centuries of life, Tawfik's scent was mortal. Had been mortal that night in the park. Was mortal now.

Henry set his own Hunger free, loosing the leash of restraint survival in a civilized world forced it to wear.

Steel fingers clamped down on Tawfik's shoulders and he cried out, forcing focus past the ecstasy to find the threat. He recognized the Hunter snarling out at him from the face between his hands.

'Nightwalker,’’ he whispered, suddenly realizing what he held, what the legends meant when they were not legends any longer. During the time it took him to say the name, he felt the ka he sought to devour pull almost clear of the spell and just for that instant he slid beneath the surface of hazel eyes gone agate hard.

The grip on his shoulders tightened. The bone began to give. Desperately, Tawfik sucked yet more power from the acolytes and fed it into the protection spell-so stupid to have touched him and rendered all but the most basic defense useless. If he released the spell of acquisition, he had power enough to break free, but the spell of acquisition was all he had left. There could be no turning back.

He wrenched his gaze free of the Nightwalker's and dropped his hands down to the corded column of throat. An instant later, an answering band of flesh closed tightly around his own throat, only his magic keeping the crushing thumbs from his windpipe.

I will not loose this ka! He slammed the spell of acquisition against the Nightwalker's strength.

The sun became a holocaust of flame, but the Hunger dragged Henry through it to answer the blood that called from the other side.

How the f*k am I supposed to shoot at that? Celluci leaned panting against the wall of the disco, one hand shielding his eyes from the painfully bright lights scattering off the spinning silver ball. Goddamned son of a bitch was supposed to distract him, not f*king dance with him.

From where he stood, Celluci could see Fitzroy's back and, just above that, long golden fingers wrapped around Fitzroy's throat. A slight shift to his right showed him that Fitzroy's fingers were in turn locked around the throat of a tall dark man;probably good-looking under more normal circumstances. Although he couldn't say why, Celluci had the strangest feeling that the attempt at mutual strangulation was merely window dressing, that the real struggle was taking place somewhere else.

Maybe I should let them throttle each other and then shoot what's left. Gun cocked, he stepped out onto the dance floor. The new angle moved the combatants into unobstructed profile. Although their upper bodies swayed back and forth barely a hand's span apart, both sets of feet were firmly planted with nearly a meter between them. Well, I'm no Barry Wu, but I think that I can at least guarantee not to hit the wrong legs. He took his stance, braced his service revolver with his left hand, and tried to steady his breathing. He'd probably have a better chance if he waited until his lungs stopped heaving air in and out like asthmatic bellows, but it was coming up on midnight, and if Rachel Shane was right, the world didn't have much time. Once in the knee to get his attention and then a second round to finish him.

In such a small, enclosed space the sound of the gunshot expanded to touch the walls then slam back. And forth. And back. The shot itself went wide.

'Shit goddamnit!’’

Ears ringing, Celluci raised the gun to shoot again, but unfortunately, although he'd done no damage, he had gotten the wizard-priest's attention.

The sound nearly jerked his grip from the Nightwalker's ka and only centuries of practice kept the spell of acquisition from shattering. He tightened his grip, slammed his rage at the interruption against the younger immortal's will, and, in the instant of breathing space that bought, sucked yet more power from the acolytes in order to snarl, ’’Stop him!’’

'Stop him?’’ Celluci stepped back a step and then another. ’’Oh, f*k.’’ He'd been so intent on the battle between Fitzroy and the mummy that he'd completely ignored the semicircles of chanting men and women that lined both sides of the dance floor. He had, in fact, passed right through one group in order to gain his current position, their presence never even registering. Look, it's been a long day, I've got a lot on my mind. But that kind of inattention to detail could get a man killed. I can't believe I did that.

Somewhere between twenty and thirty people shuffled out of the shadows, placing their bodies between their master and the threat. Still chanting, they moved slowly toward Celluci, faces frighteningly blank.

He backed up another few steps and raised his gun. Although he recognized a number of the group as senior police officers, they didn't seem to recognize the weapon and kept advancing. In another two or three feet, he'd be at the edge of the dance floor, his back against the wall. Fifteen years on the force allowed him to maintain a patina of calm, but he could feel panic beginning to lap at the edges.

Almost frantically he searched for something to shoot, something that would get their attention, force them to acknowledge that he was the one with the gun. Unfortunately, the spinning disco ball, the most obvious target, was providing over half of the available light. Backing up another step, he made his decision and squeezed the trigger.

The ceiling tile exploded, throwing compressed foam and sound insulation down over the chanting crowd. Ignoring the echos battering the inside of his skull, Celluci lowered the gun.

Some instinct of self-preservation seemed to kick in and they stopped advancing, but the living barrier between him and Tawfik remained.

Okay. Now what?

A single man shuffled forward out of the front rank. In spite of the bad light, Celluci had no trouble recognizing?

'Inspector Cantree.’’

His hand grew sweaty around the pistol grip as his immediate superior shuffled closer. While there were any number of high-ranking police officers Celluci could've cheerfully shot, Cantree wasn't one of them. He'd been a black man on the force long before affirmative action programs and, in spite of all the bullshit thrown at him, he'd risen through the ranks with both his belief in the law and his sense of humor intact. That Tawfik could take a decent man, who had survived so much, and strip him of free will and honor twisted Celluci into knots, and to his horror he felt his eyes grow damp.

'Inspector, I don't want to shoot you.’’

One massive hand came up, palm outstretched, miming, ’’Give me the gun,’’ very clearly over the continuing chant.

The roaring in his ears made it nearly impossible to think. ’’Inspector, don't make me do this.’’

Vicki heard the gunshot as she fell out of the stairwell and onto her knees, forehead pressed against the pale gray carpet. Shooting should've been over ages ago. What the hell's going on up here?

She had very little memory of how she'd managed to climb the last few flights of stairs although she knew that every movement had been imprinted on muscle and sinew and that her body would collect payment later, with interest, for the layers of abuse. She'd fallen twice and the second time, sprawled writhing on a concrete landing, only the thought of Celluci, already at the top, had given her the strength to move again. Her howl of desperate denial still echoed up and down the length of the tower.

Teeth clenched against the agony in her calves, she crawled to the wall and inched her way along it, not bothering, not able, to stand. Having been the native guide for her mother on numerous occasions, she ignored the disco's main entrance and continued around the curve of the hall as quickly as tortured muscles and bones could take her. All she could hear was her own labored breathing-in with the taste of blood, out with the taste of defeat.

You can't have won, you antique son of a bitch. I won't allow it.

Almost a quarter of the way around the arc of the tower was a window, designed so tourists could stand and watch the gyrations inside on the dance floor. The disco side of the window had been heavily tinted-apparently the management assumed the dancers had no interest in watching the tourists.

Just beyond, a dark line of shadows advanced toward Celluci.

Backing carefully away from the window, one hand still clamped to the frame for support, Vicki jammed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose. Looks like it's time for plan B.

Close by, tucked discreetly into an angle in the wall, was an emergency exit;beside it, a glass-fronted cabinet of fire-fighting equipment. Vicki fell toward the cabinet, hung off the latch for a heartbeat, and finally managed to get it open. Clamping the nozzle under her arm, she turned the water on full force, then let her weight drop against the bar-latch on the door. She figured she had between five and ten seconds before the water reached the end of the hose and the pressure blew her off her feet.

Three seconds to drag the door toward her far enough to let her pass.

There's got to be a light here. You can't deal with emergencies in the dark. Two further seconds while logic actually answered and groping fingers closed on a familiar plastic switch.

One final second for her to take in Celluci backed against the wall, gun out;Inspector Can tree crawling on his stomach toward him, dragging blood across the parquet from a wounded thigh;a crowd of two dozen terrifyingly blank-faced men and women shuffling forward, fingers curled into claws.

For the first time, she could hear the chanting over the protests of her own body.

And then the water exploding from the nozzle nearly jerked the hose out of her hands. Knuckles white, thrown against the wall and held upright between the irresistible force and the immovable object, Vicki fought to keep the stream spraying across the dance floor, slamming Tawfik's puppets off their feet.

The chant abruptly shut off and with it the power he pulled from the acolytes. He felt thumbs press harder against his windpipe and his will drawn into the trap of agate eyes. To dissolve the spell of acquisition was no longer an option, in order to win, in order to live, his will must prove stronger and he must absorb the Nightwalker's ka. All or nothing. He released his personal power into the spell.

On a platform on the far side of the dance floor, Vicki saw Henry locked in combat with a tall, dark-haired man. Tawfik. It had to be. She felt Celluci push up against her side and shoved the hose into his hands, bellowing, ’’Keep? them down.’’ Then she staggered back out into the hall for the fire ax.

'Vicki? Goddamnit, Vicki, what are you doing?’’

She ignored him. It was all she could do to drag herself across the dance floor using the heavy ax as a kind of wedge-headed cane. Leg muscles had begun to spasm by the time she reached the platform and Tawfik's hair had gone from black to gray.

Teeth locked down on her lower lip, desperately fighting for enough air through flared nostrils, she stepped up behind the wizard-priest. It took her two tries to lift the ax over her head.

The sun became a burning weight, a thousand, a hundred thousand lives bearing down on him. The smell of his own flesh burning began to bury the blood scent. Ebony depths promised a cooling, an end. Henry pushed past the Hunger to reach them.

The ax went into the center of Tawfik's back with a meaty thunk and sank haft deep. Vicki'd put everything she had left into the blow. Fingers with no strength in them slid off the handle and the weight of her arms falling drove her back an involuntary step. Her hips slammed into the platform rail, her legs folded, and she dropped straight down to sit, more or less upright, against a padded support.

Tawfik's head jerked up and his mouth opened, but no sound came out. His hands released their hold on Henry's throat and groped behind him. He spun around, pulling free of Henry's grip, staggered, and fell, back arched against the pain, mouth still silently working.

Henry's shoulders straightened and his lips came up off his teeth. Now, finally, he would feed?

'No, Henry!’’

Snarling, he lifted his head toward the voice. Dimly, through the Hunger, he recognized Vicki, and turned to see what she stared at with such terror.

Two red eyes burned in the air at the edge of the platform. A faint crimson haze hinted at a bird's head, strangely winged, and an antelope's body.

Tawfik lifted one hand toward his god, trembling fingers spread, silently begging to be saved.

The red eyes burned brighter.

Gray hair turned white, brittle, and then fell to expose a yellowed dome of skull. Cheeks collapsed in upon themselves. Flesh melted away and skin stretched tight, tighter, gone. One by one, the tiny bones dropped from Tawfik's outstretched hand as tendons rotted and let go.

Finally, there were only clothes and the ax and a fine gray powder that might have been ash.

And the red eyes were gone.

'You guys okay?’’

Henry reached across the remains and touched Vicki lightly on the cheek. In four hundred and fifty years, he had never felt the Hunger less. Vicki managed to nod. Together they turned to face Celluci.

'We're okay.’’ Henry's throat closed around the words and they emerged with all the highs and lows scraped off. ’’What about you?’’

Celluci snorted. ’’Fine. Just fine.’’ He looked down at the powder, his movements jerky and tightly controlled. ’’All things considered. Why didn't?’’The pause filled with a common memory of glowing red eyes. ’’?it save him? I mean, it made him.’’

Henry shook his head. ’’I don't know. I guess we'll never know. But I could feel Tawfik's life right until the last second. He was aware the whole time he was? was?’’

'Dying. Jesus H. Christ.’’ It was more a prayer than a profanity.

A collective moan that broke down into a babble of near hysteria drew their attention back out onto the dance floor. Most of Tawfik's ex-acolytes appeared to be in a state of shock. Most but not all.

Shirt wrapped in a makeshift bandage around his leg, supported by one of the two judges and the Deputy Chief of the OPP, Cantree dragged himself out of the crowd and scowled at the three on the platform.

'What the hell,’’ he demanded, ’’has been going on here?’’

'Go ahead, Mike.’’ Vicki's head lolled back against the rail as she tried to decide whether she'd rather puke or cry, and if she had the energy to do either. ’’He's your boss. You tell him?’’

Celluci showed up at Henry's condo about an hour before dawn. He'd spent an uncomfortable two hours with Cantree in the emergency ward at St. Michael's Hospital telling him as much as he seemed willing to hear.

’’You realize what this sounds like, don't you?’’

’’Yeah, I realize.’’

’’I'd say you were the biggest liar of my acquaintance if it weren't for two things. I had no reason to have you arrested, yet I can remember giving the order and, just before you shot me, kind of hovering over your head?’’He wet his lips. ’’? I saw a pair of red glowing eyes. ’’

’’Apparently, it feeds on despair.’’

Cantree shifted position on the gurney and winced. ’’Nice to hear you weren't looking forward to pulling the trigger?’’

Moving carefully, he crossed the living room, threw himself down on the couch, and rubbed his face with his hands. ’’Christ, Vicki, you stink of liniment. You should've gone to the hospital yourself.’’ Behind her glasses her eyes narrowed in warning and he let it drop. Again. He had to believe she was too smart to allow machismo to cripple her. ’’So how did the rest of it go?’’

Henry turned away from the city. The night was his again. He'd almost lost it, would have lost it had Vicki not used the ax when she had. For all he had meant nothing by it, Tawfik had been right when he'd said a man shouldn't travel alone through the years. You were the one traveling alone, old man, he told the memory of ebony eyes. And that's what killed you in the end. I have companions on the road. I have someone to guard my back. You gave up humanity for your immortality. I only gave up the day. There would be no more dreams of the sun.

He leaned back against the window, arms folded across his chest, his gaze caressing Vicki lightly on its way to Celluci's face. ’’Fortunately, the various ex-acolytes remembered enough of what they'd agreed to-including rather explicit hallucinations during the chanting that none of them wanted to talk about-that 'it's over, it never happened'seemed to be explanation enough. Your Inspector Cantree was the only one involved who wanted to know what was really going on. By morning, the rest of them will have convinced themselves that they were at a wild party that got a little out of hand.’’

'All except George Zottie,’’ Vicki added from the armchair. ’’Tawfik had taken over so much of his mind that when Tawfik died he didn't have anything left. The doctors say it was a massive stroke and he probably won't live long.’’

'A massive stroke,’’ Celluci repeated, his eyes narrowing suspiciously, and he peered across the room at Henry. ’’What would make them think that?’’

Henry shrugged. ’’Well, they were hardly likely to think his brain had been magically destroyed by a three-thousand-year-old Egyptian wizard-priest trying to sanctify a temple to his god.’’

'Yeah? And what about that god? Tawfik's dead. Is it?’’

'Of course it isn't,’’ Vicki snapped before Henry could speak. ’’Or Tawfik wouldn't be dead.’’

'Look, Vicki,’’ Celluci sighed, ’’pretend it's very late and that I've been up for almost forty-eight hours, which it is and I have, and explain that to me.’’

'Tawfik's god allowed Tawfik to die. Therefore Tawfik was no longer necessary for its survival.’’

'But Tawfik told me that his god only survived because of him,’’ Henry objected. ’’That a god with no one to believe in it is absorbed back into good or evil.’’

Vicki rolled her eyes. ’’Tawfik's god has people who believe in it,’’ she said slowly and distinctly. ’’Us. Worship isn't necessary. Only belief.’’

'No, Tawfik worshiped.’’

'Sure he did;he sold his soul for immortality and that was his part of the bargain. But he also spent a few thousand years out cold in a sarcophagus and he sure as shit wasn't worshiping then. His god seems to have survived just fine.’’ She slid her glasses back up her nose. ’’So tonight, Tawfik does something to piss off his god. We don't know what. Maybe it didn't approve of the venue for the temple-although any god that feeds off hopelessness and despair should find itself right at home in that meat market-maybe it didn't like the taste of the acolytes, maybe it didn't like Tawfik's attitude?’’

'Tawfik wanted to be seen as all powerful,’’ Henry said thoughtfully, remembering.

'Well, there you have it.’’ Vicki spread her hands. ’’Maybe it was afraid of a temple coup. Whatever the reason, it chose to trade Tawfik in. It'd never get a better opportunity because you,’’ she jabbed an emphatic finger in Henry's direction, ’’are as immortal as Tawfik was.’’

Celluci frowned. ’’Then Henry's in danger.’’

Vicki shrugged. ’’We all are. We know its name. The moment we give in to hopelessness and despair, it'll be on us like-like politicians at a free bar. It may not need worshipers to survive, but it certainly needs them to get stronger. All it has to do is convince one of us and then we tell two friends and they tell two friends and so on and so on and here we go around the mulberry bush again. It'll want Henry, he'll last longer. But it'll settle for you or me.’’

’’So basically what you're saying,’’ Celluci sighed, ’’in your own long-winded way, is that it isn't over. We've beaten Tawfik, but we've still got Tawfik's god to fight.’’

To his surprise, Vicki smiled. ’’We've been fighting the god of hopelessness and despair all our lives, Mike. Now, we know it has a name. So what? It's the same fight.’’

Then her expression changed and Celluci, who recognized trouble, shot an anxious look at Henry who apparently recognized it, too.

’’And now, I have something to say to you both.’’ Her voice should've been registered as a lethal weapon. ’’If either of you ever again pull the patronizing bullshit you pulled on me tonight at the base of the tower, I'm going to rip your living hearts out and feed them to you. Do I make myself clear?’’

The answering silence spoke volumes.

’’Good. You can spend the next few months making it up to me.’’

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