The good news was that there were few cars on the freeway heading towards the city, leaving the freeway mostly clear of enemies.
The bad news was that the outgoing lanes were bumper to bumper. The military had cleared away most of the ones near the wall–with a bulldozer, by the looks of things–but the rest were just blocking the road. They looked abandoned, but Wayne wasn’t about to let his guard down.
He kept one hand on his tome as he drove along. A constant trickle of magic left him ready for anything at a moment’s notice; whether that be a shield, a fireball, or something more.
It took ten minutes to reach the city proper. Every minute that passed just built up that much more anxiety in Wayne. He kept waiting for something to happen. For a vampire to jump out of nowhere and try to tear his head off. Perhaps a thrall would flag him down, pretending to be a regular human.
Or even a ghoul.
But nothing happened.
Which made a little sense. The garrison wouldn’t hesitate to put down anything that popped its head up. With the wide freeway and the stretch of cleared cars, they had quite the killing field.
Once he hit the city, Wayne started jumping at every shadow. The smoke filling the air from the half of the city that was on fire reduced visibility to about ten feet in front of his car.
Coughing lightly, Wayne decided he couldn’t delay any longer. He reached into the back of the Impala and pulled out a fire mask. The filter was only rated for three hours but he had brought along several spares along with three extra masks. It was somewhat claustrophobic, and the small window narrowed his view to a fraction of normal.
At least I won’t be getting the black lung, he thought as he slipped the mask over his head. He set a timer on his watch as well. With all the time dilation from enhancing his mind, he would surely lose track otherwise.
Mask secured, Wayne proceeded through the city at a snail’s pace.
Lansing was not an unfamiliar place. How could it be? Most of his childhood memories consisted of nothing but Lansing. Sarah lived in the city as well, and he had remained in-touch well into adulthood.
But driving through the smog-covered streets was something else entirely. The vague familiarness worked against him to create an unnatural sensation. Were there always so many side roads before the next major intersection? Did the street he needed to turn on even connect to this road?
It didn’t help that reading street signs was a near impossibility. And the cars littering the streets forced him to wind and weave around, nearly doubling the effective length of any one road.
And the noise…
Wayne shuddered as an inhuman screech tore apart the relative silence. It was far enough away to not be a threat, but that didn’t provide him with the slightest amount of comfort. The Impala was noisy enough that he would be very surprised if nothing had taken note.
That nothing had thus far charged out at him meant that whatever had noticed him was something smart.
A car wouldn’t just drive around a city like this unless the occupants were confident enough in their ability to handle vampires.
Wayne had confidence in his flames, but he would be feeling much better once Sarah was there to watch his back. Being alone was just asking for trouble.
Speaking of trouble, Wayne thought as he glanced out the side window.
The smoke had curled in the air. Like someone had run through it at speed. Not enough for a car. Perhaps a motorcycle, but those would be noisy.
And Wayne heard nothing but the rumble of his own engine.
Slowing his already tortoise pace down to that of a snail, Wayne ramped up his mental overclocking as he glanced around. A fireball started growing, flames licking the skin of his cupped hand harmlessly, all in the slow motion of his sped perception.
There it was. Wayne whipped his head towards another disturbance in the smoke. It was on the opposite side of the car. Scouting him out? Or more than one…
The human shaped figure disappeared into the smog. Even with time dilation, it vanished far too fast to get a decent look.
It had no elongated claws unlike the one at the fence, but the speed at which it moved was far beyond any regular human capabilities. There was no chance that it was a human. Likely not even a thrall. Not unless it was a very old and powerful thrall.
The lack of claws brought up disturbing implications. There were multiple strains active within the city, possibly working together. An event of this scale wasn’t from just a single cabal.
Seeing that the vampire was circling him, Wayne slammed his foot down on the accelerator. Smog parted before him as his vehicle surged forwards.
The vampire stood in the center of the road. His head turned in slow motion to face the oncoming Impala; a momentary deer-in-headlights look. That moment passed in an instant, even with Wayne’s enhanced perception. The vampire bared his teeth, showing off twin canines that protruded half-way down his lips.
Before Wayne could mow over the vampire, he jumped.
The roof dented inwards as something landed on top.
Wayne wasted no time in hitting the brakes.
A loud screech came from his uninvited passenger as the vampire rolled down his windshield. He stopped with his face pressed against the glass. One hand broke through the roof, arresting his momentum and keeping him from flying off the front.
Wayne lifted the fireball in his hand up to the hole. Flames erupted out the top of his car like a fountain of fire.
The vampire screamed and released his hold on the car’s roof.
A curse escaped Wayne’s lips as the flames spread over the hood of his car. The vampire had catapulted himself away, disappearing into the smoke-filled air. Clenching his fist, the fires extinguished before much damage could be done.
At least, before any burn damage. The hood was covered in person-sized dents, his window had cracked where the vampire rolled down it, and there was a hand sized hole in the center of the roof. He was starting to doubt the wisdom in bringing in his own car.
“Should have got a rental,” Wayne grumbled to himself.
As he looked around for any sign of the vampire, Wayne pressed his hand against the hole on the ceiling. He built up a large fireball and kept it hovering there, directing the heat upwards and away from his hand and his car.
If that vampire dared to come back, it shouldn’t be difficult to lash out with a tongue of flame in any direction.
For a moment, he actually considered setting the entirety of his car on fire. It was, after all, a well-known fact that vampires can’t catch things that are on fire.
But even if he kept the heat away from the engine and himself, losing concentration could result in his magical, heatless fire acting like regular fire, totaling the Impala in a few seconds. Potentially with him still inside. That was aside from the fact that he would have to leave the windows clear to see.
The windows were the biggest vulnerable point to something like a vampire. They had the strength to shatter them with their bare hands and the intelligence to use tools. If that vampire returned with a gun, he’d have to rely on his mental speed to erect a shield in time.
Hopefully, that vampire would decide to go for some softer targets before coming back. Wayne was a mage and had a vehicle separating him from the outside world. There had to be regular humans left in the city. It had only been three days and rounding up a good hundred thousand unwilling people wouldn’t be easy.
And there were some left. Though garbled, the message he had received from Sarah proved as much.
Shaking his head, Wayne continued his sedate trek through the city. Really, it shouldn’t take long. Normally, from the city-limits to Sarah’s house didn’t take longer than fifteen minutes. Lansing was not a large city by any standards.
The smog, the abandoned cars, and the vampires all forced him to take caution.
The fireball was extinguished as he actually had to grab the wheel. A bus sat almost perpendicular in the road, fully crashed into the entryway of a coffee shop.
Not exactly unusual given the state of the city.
More unusual was a second bus crashed into the buildings on the opposite side of the street, completely blocking off the road.
A loud crash from the direction he had come set Wayne’s hackles on end.
Turning his car around, Wayne made it a good twenty feet before he had to slam on his brakes. A car came crashing down from the sky. It skidded along the road, stopping only after giving the Impala a quick love tap.
A second landed next to the first, blocking the road.
Parking lots were still open on either side, but if the vampires were going to keep hunting him down, he would have to deal with them sooner or later. Wayne debated for a moment about the merits of staying in his car. If they were going to be dropping cars, he wasn’t too keen on being crushed.
Wayne shut off his engine, grabbed his backpack and tome, and opened the door. “Couldn’t you just take the hint and leave me alone,” Wayne grumbled as he got out. He wasn’t entirely certain if the vampires would hear him or not. They had enhanced hearing, but he was mostly grumbling to himself.
And they were a ‘they’ as far as he could tell. The two cars landed in quick succession. At least two vampires threw them. Those buses had not parked themselves, so there could be more than two, but he had been driving relatively slow.
His tome split open as Wayne started channeling magic into separate pages, preparing several more powerful attacks for an instantaneous release. He pointed his free hand around the road. Flame burst out of the ground before settling into faintly glowing embers, creating the shape of stylized flame emblems on the ground everywhere he pointed.
Everywhere just happened to be the sidewalks between the crashed cars and the buildings, a few points in the parking lot of a grocers, and at random intervals all along the street leading back towards the buses.
Traps set, Wayne turned all of his attention towards locating targets. He turned slowly, scanning every shadow in the thick smog. One shadow, behind the rooftop facade of the grocers, moved.
Wayne unleashed a stream of fire. It erupted from his hand like a stream of water from a fire hose. A very literal fire hose.
Within seconds, the entirety of the roof was in flames. A loud screech preceded a smoking person leaping from the roof.
Vampires, regardless of strain, tended to have a few distinct advantages over humans. Namely, strength and speed. Technically, one could say longevity as well, but that wasn’t much of a concern in a fight save for the potential experience a long life–or undeath–granted. Though Wayne couldn’t discern whether or not this vampire was the same as the one he had caught a glimpse of earlier, this one was not of the feral claw variety.
Any half-baked fire mage could easily negate the speed advantage of vampires through overclocking of the mind.
That just left strength.
Smoke trailed off the vampire as he ran, joining in with the ambient smoke in the air. He nimbly avoided all the traps in the grocers parking lot, thanks to his position above the grocers, no doubt. Both of his hands were clasped into tight fists.
Once the vampire came within reach, Wayne twisted on his foot. The high-speed punch went past his face, missing him by a hair. Wayne grabbed the arm and pulled downwards, angling all the momentum at the ground.
The vampire tried to catch himself by putting a foot out. Too far out. Wayne had no trouble kicking the vampire’s legs out from under him.
As the vampire fell to the ground, Wayne jumped back, gaining a little momentum by shooting a stream of fire from his fingertips as he sailed through the air.
That had the added benefit of torching the vampire.
Before Wayne’s feet hit the ground, he had already started scanning for another target. He kept the first in his field of view until the screams died off and the vampire lay still.
Two more vaulted over the crashed cars, one male and one younger female. Neither were of the clawed strain.
Wayne took three hops backwards, winding up with one of his preset traps between him and the two vampires.
One held up his hand, halting the other. He made a vague gesture at the ground. Whatever he was trying to say apparently got communicated, as the woman nodded.
Then they split up.
Wayne suppressed a groan. Tactics. If one wound up behind him, their speed would let them move fast enough to hurt.
Yet his lips quirked into a smile. The two were fighting a pyrokinetic. Only earth mages could contend with the sheer battlefield control that a fire mage could impose.
Wayne burned one of his pages.
He wouldn’t be able to catch both of them, so Wayne aimed towards the male. Best to take out the leader first.
A cone of hot coals spread out in front of Wayne. They started at his feet and extended out a good twenty feet, well behind the crashed cars.
The vampire slowed to a stop, looking down at the glowing ground. His eyes widened in slow motion as the glow increased in intensity.
All at once, the embers along the ground blazed to their full potential. A column of fire erupted, encompassing a good portion of the street.
The smile hidden by Wayne’s mask vanished as he watched the vampire leap out to one side. Flames licked the vampire’s jacket, burning it in places, but he seemed unharmed otherwise.
Unharmed and angry.
He twisted his head towards Wayne, spittle flying free as his lips contorted in a snarl.
His body blurred as he took off, leaving his companion behind in an attempt to close the distance.
An attempt he succeeded at.
Frantically backpedaling, Wayne burned another page to put a powerful shield between the two of them.
The vampire slammed into it, stopping, but shattering the shield in a single blow.
But it stopped him long enough.
The embers of Wayne’s trap flared to life, forming a miniature version of the cone of fire. This time, the vampire was in the dead center and stunned from his momentary collision with the shield.
Being stunned did not stop his screams.
Nor did it stop him.
Clothes completely on fire, the vampire jumped out of the flames. Wayne ducked under and stepped to one side.
Now there was a vampire on either side of him.
Wayne faced the closer target, the male, first. He burned another page to send off a wall of fire behind him. The other vampire could probably jump through unscathed, but would she?
No time to consider. The already on fire vampire was getting his bearings back.
Wayne stepped forward as the vampire turned around, a fireball bursting to life in his hand as he moved.
This time, the vampire backpedaled with fear in his eyes.
Maintaining the flames in one hand, Wayne burnt another page. That small fireball expanded to the size of a beach ball and it wasn’t stopping there.
Hot as the surface of the sun, Wayne launched the fireball straight ahead.
It didn’t go fast and it didn’t go far, but it didn’t matter.
The vampire tried to dodge. Even with his speed, there was no escape.
Tar on the street bubbled. A metal pole belonging to a street lamp warped and bent, falling to one side before collapsing completely to the ground in a puddle of molten metal. A wooden bench from a bus stop spontaneously burst into flames despite the miniature sun being nowhere nearby.
And the vampire…
What vampire? Wayne thought with a smile.
When the sun extinguished itself, not even ashes remained.
The only one granted protection from the intense heat of his sun was himself.
Wayne stumbled forward as something hit is back. Legs wrapped around his waist as a pair of arms encircled his shoulders. He ramped up his overclocking to its limits to give himself a moment to think.
To start with, Wayne decided to move a foot forwards. The impact had been at speed, and he wasn’t interested in falling into a puddle of molten tar. He might be protected from the heat of his own fires, and the residual heat, but jumping into a vat of boiling liquid was a separate matter entirely.
But really, what was the vampire thinking? Her arms weren’t in a position to break his neck. More like a position to bite down on his neck and feed. Even if it wanted to crush him, Wayne was willing to bet that he could get a fireball off over his shoulder before she broke too many bones.
So he did.
He aimed a ball of fire right where he felt a few fangs tickling his neck.
Unfortunately, the vampire saw it coming. She kicked off of his back, sending him stumbling forwards as much as it sent her backwards.
Neither of Wayne’s boots would be surviving the night. At least they kept his bare feet from the tar.
He whipped around to face his assailant, very glad that while ruined, his shoes weren’t stuck to the ground.
The vampire hadn’t relented. Had he pivoted around the other foot, he would have a fist in his stomach. Instead of that grisly demise, Wayne found himself to the side of an opponent with an outstretched arm.
Snapping his book shut, Wayne caught her arm and threw it straight up. He thrust the corner of his heavy tome straight into the center of her chest. A normal human would have air forced out of their lungs at the very least.
Vampires didn’t need to breathe.
But they were still slaves to basic laws of physics.
Stepping forward, Wayne put one leg behind hers.
And down she went.
One hand reached out, flailing in the air. She tried to grab his arm, but wound up grasping nothing. His enhanced mind gave him plenty of opportunity to dodge.
Once her back hit the ground, he picked up his foot and slammed it down on her chest. Something cracked inside, but Wayne didn’t care.
Dropping his foot within easy reach of her hands was a dangerous move, but Wayne was counting on the fireball aimed at her face to keep her docile.
“Your comrades are dead. A smart vampire would have run.”
She snarled again and reached towards his leg.
A portion of his fireball dropped, exploding right next to her ear with a rush of air.
The vampire shrieked, throwing her head to one side to put some distance between it and her.
Other than some hair singing, she wasn’t hurt, and that would grow back.
Actually, Wayne thought, would it grow back? Vampires regenerated from all kinds of debilitating injuries, but most of the older and more powerful vampires were bald. Hair not growing back would explain that.
Which meant that the vampires that still had hair were either incredibly new or extremely powerful and intelligent. Or lucky.
Tangent line completed in an instant of time dilation, Wayne focused back on the vampire before him.
“Answer my questions and you may live to see another day. Or night.”
She bared her teeth, glaring at him but making no move to attack.
A dark sky lay behind her eyes. Wayne looked beyond the surface to the raging thunderstorm beyond.
The sight gave him cause to frown. The Blacksky vampires weren’t a strain to be trifled with. The good news was that she had likely only been awake for a few hours at this point. Not nearly enough time to be a threat. Not enough time to realize her abilities.
And her next words proved that without a doubt.
“How,” she said, teeth gnashing. “How do you make fire?”
“Magic,” Wayne said with a smile. Not that she could see it. His voice came out oddly as it echoed behind his mask. “But I believe we were answering my questions.” Wayne let the fireball drop slightly for punctuation. “Who sired you?”
True, he was here solely for Sarah. That didn’t mean he wasn’t curious about the city.
Very new then, Wayne thought, rolling his eyes. “Who made you, girl? Who turned you into a vampire? Who destroyed this city? Who is behind all this?”
“I…” She pinched her eyes shut, clenching her teeth together hard enough to make a noise. “My sister and I sneaked out to go to Chad’s party. Mom didn’t want us to go.”
Wayne frowned. Looking at her now, looking past her teeth and hungry stare, Wayne could see a young teenager in the light of his fireball. Maybe even preteen.
“We were on our way home. Something… an explosion, I think. It scared Nancy. She started running, leaving me alone. A man came up behind me. Asked if I needed help. I said no and tried to leave–his smile scared me. And then… I woke up strapped to a chair.”
Wayne nodded along, filling in the blanks with his own knowledge and imagination. “And then that guy drank your blood for three days before feeding you something?”
“N-no. I was scared and struggled. And I was strong. I felt good, like I had woken up from a refreshing nap. Except… I was hungry. So hungry. So I struggled and broke the restraints. Eric and Bart were strapped up too. I helped them and we left.”
That brought a deep frown to Wayne’s face. She could have been fed on for three days while unconscious, but she would have needed to be awake to complete the vampire transformation. There was magic in intent and feeding on the vampire’s flesh was one of those things that had to be done willingly. Not necessarily knowingly, but willingly. Handing a kid a chunk of meat and saying it was pork worked, but shoving that same chunk down their throat did not.
Unless all the books were wrong. Wayne freely admitted to himself that he was not an expert in vampires beyond what he had been taught in school.
“So,” Wayne said, “you get out and decide that attacking a car is a good way to start off your new life?”
“I’m hungry. Still hungry.” She started to reach up. Her eyes flicked to the fireball glowing in Wayne’s hand and she let her arms flop to her side. “I tried to eat food. Bread and water tasted like vomit. Raw meat worked, but it wasn’t enough. I ate so much but it never was enough.”
Great, Wayne thought, now she is crying. Not literally; as far as Wayne knew, vampires couldn’t produce tears. Her face was sure going through the motions.
“Eric was the one who said we were vampires. The speed, the strength, the senses. And the teeth.” Her hands lifted up again.
For a moment, Wayne was about to drop another portion of the fire, maybe on her this time. But her hands went to her face, rubbing away imaginary tears.
“Then we found you, and now they’re dead and you’re going to kill me too.”
Wayne stood there, fireball in hand and monster underfoot. He stood there, stuck in indecision.
He hated life stories. Everyone had one. Everyone had some sob-story about how the world was cruel and they deserved sympathy for their woes. Some might actually deserve it. The kid on the ground was probably one of those that did.
Dropping the fireball would have been so much easier had she just said that she didn’t know what happened. He would have incinerated her without a second thought and not lost any sleep over it.
“Vampires live forever, kid. Trust me when I say that I will put every moment of your eternity through hell if you make me regret this.”
He leaned down, watching the girl for any sign of attack. He undid the buttons on his suit cuff after extinguishing the fireball. Pulling his sleeve all the way up to his elbow, he exposed his bare arm to the girl.
“You will lean forward. You will bite down a shallow bite. You will stop when I say stop or…” His fireball reignited in his hand with a woosh of air. “Or this will be going through your skull. Understand?”
Held as it was in the hand he was offering her, the fireball ended up next to her face. It didn’t burn a single hair on her head. Wayne was far too good for that to happen.
Eying the fireball warily, the girl nodded.
Using the book in his hand, Wayne kept her from rising too quickly.
Not that he needed to do so. She made no sudden movements.
Wayne was surprised. He didn’t let it show, but it was true nonetheless. There were always stories about how irresistible a vampire’s first feeding was. How they often killed entirely on accident their first time because they couldn’t control themselves.
But the girl touched her long fangs to his arm gingerly. Feeling them on his skin tickled to a degree. Even when she finally punctured, they barely went in at all. When she started drinking, she pressed in more, but it was still far from what Wayne had expected.
Guess a fireball next to your head is a pretty good incentive to maintain your senses. Good to know.
“Stop,” Wayne called out after about five minutes of her lapping up blood.
She unhooked her fangs immediately. Her tongue ran across his arm only once before she pulled away. Licking her lips, she quickly cleared off any traces of her meal from her face.
Wayne turned the fireball on himself, cauterizing the wound. He had potions in his backpack, but that would have required rummaging through it, potentially leaving himself vulnerable to her. Cauterizing it left a brief moment of pain and an ugly mark. Nothing he couldn’t fix later with the proper potions.
“Now,” he said, standing. “You can’t leave the city. The military has the entire place fenced off and they’re killing any vampires that try to escape. I don’t know what the plan is for the city. Maybe they leave it fenced off, maybe they nuke it.”
That is, if the Elysium Order doesn’t nuke it first, he thought with a frown.
He really needed to hurry.
She started to open her mouth, but Wayne cut her off.
“Whatever. Not my problem. If you survive, don’t let your hunger dominate you.”
“I’m coming with you.”
“You might as well just kill me now then. I can’t go home, I can’t see my sister. Not like this. And if they’re going to destroy the city, you might as well get it over with now.”
Wayne tried to pinch the bridge of his nose. His hand smacked against the mask. Sighing instead, Wayne shook his head. “Fine. Do whatever you want. But cross me and you’ll wish I would just kill you.”
He didn’t bother to mention that her sister was probably dead or turned as well.
Instead, Wayne ignored whatever the little vampire had started to say to find his car.
He found it right in the center of the second cone of fire he had ignited.
There wasn’t much left of it.
Wayne pinched his eyes shut, counted backwards from ten, before grumbling out, “I should have got a rental.”