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Born in Fire (Page 5)

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Face toward the floor, he threaded his hands behind his head like the ceiling was falling down. “Please don’t hurt me.”

The bartender hurried closer, looking over the bar with a smile plastered on his face. “Hey, bud. You okay?”

“I definitely tweaked his wrist,” I murmured. “I wasn’t thinking.”

“Serves him right.” The bartender leaned on the bar for a better look. “Good reactions, though. Fast.”

The drunk guy’s hands relaxed to the floor. His breath evened out into a slow, deep rhythm.

“Did he pass out?” a woman down the bar asked, leaning backward to see around me.

“He passed out!” the bartender said with glee.

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The woman turned to her friend. “I told you these drinks were intense. Didn’t I tell you?”

Somehow she seemed to have missed the fist he’d taken to the face.

I gingerly sat down and vaguely gestured at the body on the ground. “Should someone pick him up, or…?”

The bartender shrugged. “Probably.”

No one moved to lift him.

Like everyone else, I decided it wasn’t my problem.

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Back to my notes—I went over a few more particulars before closing up the file and finishing my drink. I grabbed my duffel, which held my sword, a pack of throwing knives, and a nine millimeter I called Daisy. Wearing the full arsenal at night was one thing—I’d saved a cop’s life from a drugged-out tourist a few years ago, and he’d spread the word that I was good people. The police feigned blindness under the cover of darkness. But in the daytime, when it was easier to see what was strapped to my body, I dinged all kinds of danger bells with the visiting folk. For that reason, I only kitted myself out in daylight in dire emergencies.

“Wish me luck,” I said to the bartender as I headed for the door.

“Thanks for the tip.” He collected the five off the counter.

He wasn’t great at listening to direction.

The glare of the sunshine made me squint as I stepped out of the bar. I threw up a hand to block the rays and struggled to get my phone out of the small leather pouch around my waist.

There was a Lyft car nearby, so I ordered it and waited until it worked around the block. I slipped into the back and froze as the clanking of my weapons gave away what was in the duffel.

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“Where ya headed?” The bearded driver showed me a pleasant smile in the rearview mirror.

I pointed at my phone. “I put the coordinates into the app…”

He leaned toward the dash where his phone was stationed. “There it is. Okay, then.” He pulled away from the curb, almost hit a pedestrian, swore under his breath, and away we went.

“Good day so far?” he asked.

I mumbled something to the tune of “fine.” My thoughts had strayed back to the vampire’s note. Short and sweet, penned in an elegant hand, it had read: I require a bounty hunter. Reagan Somerset. Send her to me. I’ll make it worth her while.

It hadn’t said anything about a partner. Maybe they’d try to stick me with a new vamp that would lose its head and try to latch on to my neck. I’d then be forced to kill it, which might stress my relationship with the poster of the bounty, somewhat.

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The real question was: was this a trick to get me into the Dungeon, a name everyone but them used for the vampire’s lair, so they could check me out?

“This is it, right?” The driver turned in his seat to look back at me, and that was when I realized we were stopped in front of a dilapidated house overrun with weeds.

“Yes. Thanks.” My bag clinked as I climbed out of the car.

Small houses fairly close together stretched down the street. All but one had perfectly manicured, brownish-green lawns—all the weeds trimmed, if not pulled—straight welcome mats in front of the doors, and pruned bushes. No beads hung from the power lines. In their desire to fit in with the humans, they completely stuck out.

I eyed the sore thumb, the kind of house I might expect in this area. The breeze rattled leaves across the ground. Weeds grew like a disease, choking the sides of the cracked or crumbling walkway leading to a weathered door with peeling paint. I noticed a blackened area charring the dirt in the front yard—any hint of grass was long gone. Beside it were shells, a bone, and some feathers sticking to a clump of something no longer living.

Sacrifice, probably, intended to boost the power level of a spell. I hoped it wasn’t one I would soon be running into.

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Dare to dream.

With my eyes on the house, I bent to my bag and pulled back the zipper. My sword greeted me. I strapped it on, followed by my knives and gun. Once done, I walked the sidewalk in front of the house, feeling the vibration of magic. Somewhat powerful but straightforward. No flair, and no complexity.

Next door, curtains ruffled in a window. I was being watched.

Busybody.

I thought back to the file again. Had it said anything about the magical nature of the people in the neighborhood? I couldn’t remember, but if they were mages, or even witches, they’d expect me to coat my blade with a spell. Few, if any, mages could pump raw power into a weapon and then use it to unravel a spell. Which meant I needed to put on a show to hide my abilities. So annoying.

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I dug into the leather pouch and extracted an empty casing. Pinching it together so no one would know it had already been used, I held the ball near my sword. It was an effort to keep myself from looking around guiltily as I muttered a few curse words. That would pass for spell casting, I hoped.

Once done, I dropped the casing and surged fresh power into the sword. My blade passed through the spell, steaming. Nothing to it.

Before I could charge forward, the front door burst open. A spell gushed out, sizzling the air.

I dove to the side and rolled onto the mage’s dirt yard. Hopping up quickly, I ran at him, sword held in front of me.

“Melt!” he bellowed—or something similar, anyway. I wasn’t paying much attention to the words.

A stream of crystalized blue rushed toward my face.

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Holy balls!

I pushed more of my magic into the blade and sliced through the middle of the stream. The hex crackled as the magic fell away and slithered along the ground. Snakes boiled up, hissing. One struck at me and hit my leather boot. Fangs didn’t puncture my skin, thank god.

“What the hell kind of magic are you practicing in there?” I stomped through the vipers, keeping my blade juiced up. Another stream of magic came at me, frosty blue this time. He was losing power. That was good news for me.

I dug my hand into my leather pouch and pulled out another rubber casing, this time with a spell inside. I didn’t have many of these, since they were expensive, but the ones I did have were powerful.

I cracked it open and threw it at him. Nothing happened at first, then a starburst of pure white light exploded against his chest. The spell burned through his clothes and met his skin with a sizzle. I bet that hurt.

He screamed and dodged into his house, most likely heading for more magic.

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Chapter Three

I ran after him. “Don’t do anything stupid…guy!” I probably should’ve paid more attention to his name.

Black rings stained the brown carpet throughout the dingy interior. Yellowed wallpaper peeled away from the walls. Bedsheets with tears and holes hung over the windows, streaming weak light in odd patterns through the dusty air.

“This place looks like a meth lab,” I mumbled as I paused in the entryway.

“They’ve come before.” His voice bounced off the walls and crawled along the floor. “In twos and threes, they’ve tried to take me alive. They’ve tried to take me dead. But I am Chartross the Almighty. No one will stand in my way!”

I stuck a finger in my ear and wiggled while extending my jaw. My ears popped, breaking the spell that had amplified his voice. That’s better.

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“That was a very showy spell, Chartross the Almighty. Let’s have a look behind the curtain, shall we? I bet I’ll find a little man with a plastic ring from a cereal box. Is that what you are, Big C? Seen one case, seen ’em all.”

Something crunched under my boot. A piece of chalk lay crumbled in the middle of an unfinished pentagram. The carpet had been ripped away, revealing the discolored hardwood underneath. Unfamiliar characters had been scrawled near each point, along with stick figures contorted in extremely uncomfortable looking positions.

“I think you’ve got the wrong idea about how to make a circle, buddy.” The house rumbled. Miniature statues, all naked, rocked on the small table next to me. The smallest two fell over and spun across the tabletop until they finally clattered onto the floor.

A gun in one hand and my sword in the other, I peered into the nearest doorway. Small piles of garbage littered the corners. A funky smell tickled my nose. More patches of carpet had been peeled away, and shapes were drawn in paint or blood in each open patch. A hole had been blasted through one of the walls. Movement caught my eye. I could just make out the side of a face through the gap, and from the angle, it was clear his body was facing the door of the room he was in.

Criminals were rarely very bright.

A voice echoed through the house, the words sounding like gibberish. The walls shook and the floor rolled as waves of magic washed through the house. The power level was mediocre, but the spell itself seemed intricate and advanced. I’d never run into that dichotomy.

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