The bridge shuddered under our footsteps. We ran through the island and onto the bridge leading out.
Ahead, sun reflected in a long, horizontal spark right at the level of Rogan’s throat.
“I see it.” He pulled a knife out of his jeans and slashed at the wire. It snapped, the two ends coiling to the sides. We ran down the bridge into the parking lot and jumped into the Range Rover. Mad Rogan peeled out of the parking lot so fast that the car almost banked. I grabbed onto the door handle out of sheer self-preservation.
“If he is using Hellspawn, we might not be able to get him,” Mad Rogan said.
“Hellspawn creates null space.”
“The amount of magic he’s using is so high that the boundary of the circle he’s in doesn’t exist in our physical realm.”
“How can it not exist? What does that—” A tiny grey body shot in front of the Land Rover. “Squirrel!”
Mad Rogan swerved to the side, trying to avoid the suicidal beast. The SUV hit a curb and jumped. For a terrifying second, we almost flew, weightless. My heart leaped into my throat. The heavy vehicle landed back on the pavement with a thud. The squirrel leapt into the grass on the other side.
I remembered to breathe. “Thank you for not killing the squirrel.”
“You’re welcome, although now I want to go back and strangle it.” Mad Rogan took a ramp onto the interstate. “Back to arcane circles. The boundary of the circle is where our physical reality meets the arcane realm, the ‘place’ where we reach to get swarms for swarmers, for example. It’s a small hole in our space. Nothing can penetrate the circle while the null space is active. You can stand on the street and lob grenades at Pierce, and they’ll just bounce off.”
We’ll see about that.
While the Land Rover hurtled down the interstate, an imaginary conversation between Adam and me played in my head. Hi, Adam. Did you set fire to my house? Did you try to kill my grandmother? They said I had to bring him in alive. They didn’t say anything about what condition he had to be in.
Maybe I could do it again, that thing I did with Mad Rogan—lock Adam in place and make him answer me. I bet I could. Just thinking about Grandma Frida made me shake.
Mad Rogan took the exit, and I glanced at the clock. Four minutes. We made it in record time.
Ahead the street rolled out, devoid of traffic. In the middle of the intersection, Adam Pierce spat a torrent of white-hot flames at the building. Two wrecks that used to be cars slowly melted a couple dozen feet from him.
Mad Rogan slammed on the brakes, and the Land Rover screeched to a halt.
“Get us closer, please.” I reached for my gun.
“Too hot. Look.”
The pavement just outside Adam’s circle had turned dark and soft. He was melting the road.
I jumped out of the car. Heat bathed me, blocking my way like a wall.
A car door clanged as Mad Rogan leaped out of the vehicle. A metal pole holding up a streetlight snapped in half and flew like a spear toward Adam Pierce. The pole hit the circle and ricocheted, spinning back at us through the air. I gulped. The pole reversed and punched the invisible boundary of Adam’s magic circle, grinding against it.
Mad Rogan grimaced.
The pole clattered to the pavement.
“Null space,” he said. “Come on.”
I could see Adam. He was right there. Argh.
“Nevada! We’re wasting time.”
But the firemen and Adam were working together. If we got what the firemen were after, Adam would come to us.
We spun around and hopped back into the Land Rover. Mad Rogan took a sharp turn left, circling the buildings, heading for the silver tower. He drove up to the front steps and parked the car, then we got out. The moment I stepped onto the stone steps leading to the door, a blinding headache gripped my brain and squeezed like a vise, tighter and tighter. I took another step up the stairs. The doorway wavered in front of me, distorted. The pain scraped the inside of my skull. I had an absurd feeling that my brain had swelled like an overinflated water balloon and was about to pop.
“They have a mage blocking the door.” Mad Rogan backed away onto the pavement and jogged right, looking at his phone.
I followed him. As soon as I left the stairway, the headache vanished. That was a nice power to have. If I’d had that power, I wouldn’t have had to build retractable stairs to my room.
In the distance sirens wailed. The emergency responders were on their way, which meant the fake firemen in the building would speed up whatever they were doing so they could get away before Houston’s finest showed up in force. We had to find a way in, and we had to find it now.
Since the firemen left someone covering the front entrance, it was highly likely they were still on the first floor. Their team was small. If their goal was on a different floor, they wouldn’t have left anyone covering the front entrance; they would’ve all gone to that floor instead. But they left a guard, so all of them were probably on the first floor, and they were armed, which meant they would probably defend the side entrances. That left us with windows, but the bottom floor of the tower was solid stone, and the first row of windows started about eighteen feet off the ground.
“They’ll expect people coming through the side exits,” I called out.
“That’s why we’re not going through the side exit.” Mad Rogan showed me a blueprint on his phone. “There are five ways to access the lobby, front entrance, two side exits, elevator, and an internal stairway.”
“Perfect.” They’d evacuated the building, so they wouldn’t expect us coming from the internal stairway. “Now we just have to get into the building itself.”
Mad Rogan pointed at a pair of green industrial-size Dumpsters. They slid across the pavement toward us. The first Dumpster bumped into the wall. Mad Rogan strained. The second Dumpster rose in the air and landed on top of the second one, hanging off one side. Together, they were just tall enough to let us reach the second-floor windows.
I grabbed onto the first Dumpster and climbed up. Black and white bags filled it nearly to the brink, and I had to cross to get to the second Dumpster. I stepped down and sank in to my knees. The top bag popped, and a metric ton of old lasagna spilled onto my pants. The stench of soured spaghetti sauce washed over me. Ew. Of all the trash from this whole giant building, I had to step on a bag from the food court. Damn it.
Well, they’d definitely smell me coming.
I mashed my way through the bags to the second Dumpster, climbed up, pulled out my gun, and hit the butt of the gun against the glass. It shattered. I knocked the shards in and climbed inside.
A conference room: a long table, chairs, and a flat-screen TV on the wall. Mad Rogan climbed in behind me, pulled out his phone, and showed it to me. A text message from a blocked number with a video clip. He clicked the link. A grainy video filled the screen, showing a lobby of a building, with a polished greyish floor and two rows of wide columns. At the top of the screen the glass front entrance spilled sunlight onto the floor. A man in fireman’s gear leaned against the wall near it, a rifle in his hands. Below him, on the right, another gunman leaned against a marble column. A little lower still on the left, right past the elevators, three people stood by the wall. One held his hand against the marble, the other swung an axe, hitting the wall below, and the third covered them with the rifle. The clip stopped, barely five seconds long. Bug had come through.
Whatever it was they wanted was in the wall. The man with the hand on the marble had to be a sniffer. Sniffers had higher sensitivity to magic, and they could find a magical object even through stone.
“The stairway will put us here.” Mad Rogan pointed to the left bottom corner of the screen.
We’d be in full view of the three gunmen. “Are you bulletproof?”
“No, but the metal door that blocks the staircase likely is. Do you have your Ruger?”
I pulled the gun out of its holster.
“I’ll hold the door as a shield, but you’ll have to fire.”
“Why can’t you just slice them to pieces like that chopstick?”
“Because my telekinetic magic doesn’t work on living things. I can throw something metal fast enough to slice an opponent to pieces. I can hurl a board at him, because cut wood is dead. I can choke him with his own clothes if they are loose enough. But I can’t simply throw a body.”
Oh. “So the best way to fight you is to strip na**d and attack?”
His eyes flashed with a wicked light. “Yes. You should try it and see what happens.”
Well, I did walk right into that one.
“I could try to slice the barrels off their guns, but considering the distance, I would need several seconds to aim, and they would likely shoot us. So, I’ll provide a shield, but the rest is up to you. I’m a less than mediocre shot.”
I leaned back. “Humility? I had no idea you had it in you.”
“No,” he said. “Honesty. I’m not very good with a gun. I don’t typically carry one.”
The pile of rubble that had buried Peaches flashed before me. Not that he ever needed one. “Good that I brought mine, then.”
“Nevada,” Mad Rogan said.
The sound of my name coming from him short-circuited my brain. All of my thoughts stopped. Damn it. I had to get over this, and fast.
“These men are well trained.”
Of course they were. They’d positioned themselves so that every entrance was covered by at least two intersecting fields of fire. No matter where we entered, at least two of them could shoot us from different angles.
“If we walk in there, they’ll shoot us. They won’t hesitate—they’ll do it on instinct. It’s second nature to them, a reflex, like stopping before a red light.”
“Mhm.” It’s good that he was here to explain it to me. I would’ve never figured it out on my own.
“You have to shoot them back. Is it going to be a problem?”
“There is only one way to find out,” I said.
He nudged the door open. An empty hallway lay before us. We ran down the hallway, passing the elevators. I stopped and mashed the down button. A diversion never hurt.
The elevator doors slid open with a chime.
“Good idea.” Mad Rogan stepped in, pushed the button for the lobby, and stepped out.
We jogged to the end of the hallway where a large sign said EXIT. Behind us, the doors of the elevator chimed as it began its descent to the lobby. With luck, they would all be looking at the elevator instead of the stairs.
We ran down the stairwell. My blood was rushing through my veins, my heart pounding too loud and too fast.
If I didn’t shoot them, they would shoot me.
I’d never killed anyone before.
The stairs ended in a large door. A grey-haired man in a dark security guard uniform sprawled facedown on the landing in front of it. The back of his head was one huge, red, wet hole. No, they didn’t hesitate to shoot. Not at all. They killed this man. Probably someone’s father, someone’s grandpa . . . This morning he got up, ate his breakfast, and came to work, and now he lay here facedown, alone and cold. He would never get up again. He would never speak, never hug anyone, never smile again. They killed him and left him here.
I had to stop Adam Pierce. Not only because I would lose everything if I didn’t, not only because he tried to kill Grandma, but because right now he was outside, spitting fire and not caring how many people he would hurt. The fastest way to stop Adam would be to get the thing he was after.
I was doing the right thing.
Mad Rogan stepped to the door, his feet shoulder-wide, his hands raised.
I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready . . .
“Aim for the center of mass,” he whispered.
Center of mass my foot.