All the lights on the third floor go out.
A few of the lights flicker on, then off, then on, then off, creating a strobe effect as CB cautiously makes his way down the hall to the stairwell. In the brief moments of light, the hallway looks different: the walls seem taller, the ceiling shimmers and rolls like water, and all the while he feels that strange oily, burning, freezing, cutting power slide over him. He reaches out to the wall to brace himself, then immediately draws his hand back. The Wall is soft. It throbbed ever so slightly as he touched it, and his fingers are wet.
Not just magic. This is a lot of magic.
He closes his eyes for a second and reaches out, trying to find the world around him, to pull it together and let it all fall into place, but he can’t. The power that surrounds him isn’t a part of the world, and it isn’t letting the world in. He sways in place as the power gathers, the air around him feels heavy.
At the end of the hall the stairwell door opens. Light streams out from the stairwell—those lights are, apparently, working—revealing a black silhouette standing in the doorway. CB can’t see its face, but he can feel the power swirling around it.
“You have my attention,” CB says. His voice sounds muffled, like he’s trying to talk through a burlap sack. The figure doesn’t move.
And then it does: in the blink of an eye it crosses the hall. Strong hands grab CB by the lapels of his trench coat, and with a violent, wrenching motion CB slams into the opposite wall.
And crashes through the opposite wall.
And flies into the apartment behind the opposite wall.
CB doesn’t feel the initial impact of the wall. The wall is thin, and he doesn’t hit any support beams on the way through. He crashes into a green couch in the living room, knocking it over backwards, spilling over on to the floor. Immediately he rolls to his feet and into a low crouch, nearly tripping on something lying on the floor. His hand reaches down to steady himself, and quickly draws back when he feels flesh.
The body of an older man, slightly overweight with graying hair and a sparse, patchy beard, lies on its back, wide glassy eyes staring sightlessly at the ceiling. The mouth hangs open; blood and vomit stream down the corners and are caked around the lips.
CB stares at the body. He’s seen this before.
Little Dresden. 1984.
The door bursts open, wood splinting to pieces as one sad remnant, still attached to the frame, swings crazily on a single twisted hinge. The figure stands in the doorway, still a silhouette in the darkness, but CB recognizes it now. Recognizes him now.
“I hoped you were dead,” CB says, voice flat.
“You’ll never be that lucky,” Plague says.
The oily power surges. Plague leaps through the air, hands outstretched. CB twists in his crouch, then buries his shoulder into Plague’s solar plexus. Plague grunts, stumbles, and falls to the ground, gasping.
CB doesn’t waste time. He runs out of the apartment, down the hall, to the stairwell.
The power he senses is coming from Plague. It shouldn’t come from Plague. Plague is a mutant. Plague believed absolutely and unshakably in the purity of his own blood, that it was the purity of his blood that allowed him to inflict sickness in almost anyone he wished. The Plague he knew probably didn’t even believe in magic.
Yeah, well, it’s been more than 25 years, hasn’t it?
Plague steps into the hall just as CB pushes through the door to the stairwell, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjust to the light. Jenny’s headed to the roof, so CB goes in the other direction. He’s halfway to the second floor when he sees three armed men on the second floor landing. They’re dressed like the ones who attacked Martin’s house—same gear, same weapons. All three look up as CB leaps down the rest of the stairs and launches himself, feet first, into the chest of the closest soldier.
The soldier smashes into the man on his left; both crash into the wall and slump to the ground, motionless. CB twists in mid-air, landing on his hands and feet. The third soldier brings his rifle to bear; CB grabs his leg and pulls just as the soldier pulls the trigger. The soldier falls back, rifle firing wildly into the air. He strikes his head on the floor and doesn’t move.
The door to the third floor stairwell crashes open.
CB grabs the rifle. Looking up, he can see brief flashes of Plague over the tops of the railings as he races down to the second floor. He ejects the old magazine, takes a fresh one from the soldier’s belt, and reloads.
Plague is getting closer. His footsteps echo like thunder, the stairs shake with each step, and half a second later Plague runs into view. CB sees him clearly for the first time in 25 years.
He’s still a bruiser. His dark button-up shirt strains against the size of his arms, and he stands and moves with no trace of infirmity. But he looks old. His hair is white, his face droops, the joints in his fingers have swollen in a way that suggests arthritis—despite looking just as tough as he always did, there’s no question that time has marched on. The only direct link to the man he was are his eyes: they burn with the same contempt, the same murderous hatred, that they did in Little Dresden.
CB opens up with the assault rifle. Bullet after bullet tears into him: leg, shoulder, chest, neck, head. Plague stumbles as the bullets continue to rip through him. CB keeps the trigger down until the magazine is empty, then calmly steps back and watches as Plague falls to the second floor landing with a heavy, wet sound. Blood pools quickly beneath him, and he makes a gasping, gurgling sound as he claws feebly at the floor.
A small voice in the back of CB’s head says that wasn’t very heroic. CB thinks about the corpse in the apartment in his hall, and then thinks about how many other corpses they’ll probably find, and decides he doesn’t care.
“Goodbye, asshole,” CB says.
As if in response the oily power gathers again. Plague’s body twitches once, then he pushes himself upright. He stares at CB, his mouth twisting into a savage, triumphant smile.
“Not this time,” he croaks.
The wounds on Plague’s neck and head close. They close so quickly that it looks more like they’re being erased. The only trace remaining is the blood, and even that is starting to dry up and flake away. Plague unbuttons his shirt with one arm, and CB sees the wound in his shoulder doing the same thing. Plague shrugs off the shirt, casting aside the blood-soaked cotton, to reveal smooth, unblemished skin.
His chest and both arms are covered in a strange, oily script that shimmers silver under the stairwell lights. CB doesn’t know what the symbols mean, but looking at them makes him queasy: they’re unnatural, they bend and twist in ways that writing simply can’t do on its own. And the symbols aren’t still: they move on his skin, scuttling across his chest and around his arms like swarms of insects.
Better part of valor BETTER PART OF VALOR
CB takes two steps off the second floor platform and vaults over the stair rail, dropping into the space between the twisting stairwell until he lands on the platform leading to the lobby. His right leg twists as he lands, and he feels a sharp pain in his ankle. He pushes the pain aside and shoves his way through the door, into the lobby.
Gunfire tears through the lobby as four soldiers open fire from the far end of the room. CB dives, sliding across the dirty floor, as bullets sail over him, ripping through rotting wood and mold-caked plaster. The soldiers adjust their aim, and CB rolls to the side, grunting in pain as bullets hit his trench coat. They don’t pierce the armor plating, but they hurt.
In panicked desperation CB reaches out, trying to focus on the world around him, to find some thread of reality that isn’t tainted by the oily mess of power that seems to have displaced everything else around him. There’s almost nothing there, almost… but there—there, just out of reach, he can feel the pulse of the world, swirling. It’s faint, and it’s almost too far away…
He grits his teeth, closes his eyes, and focuses. The world wobbles for a moment, hesitates, then everything falls into place.
CB exhales slowly. Bullets ricochet off the ground around him as the soldiers start to miss. He stands, reaches into a trench coat pocket, and pulls out a pack of cigarettes. He twirls the pack in his fingers as he looks at each soldier in turn, then winks.
Every rifle jams at the same time.
“Leave it, boys.” Plague’s voice comes from the stairwell door. “Take a walk. I got this.”
CB can’t see their faces, but he recognizes their body language. They don’t precisely take orders from Plague, and he just told them to do something that directly contradicted someone they do take orders from. It’s a tough spot to be in. If circumstances were different, he might be inclined to sympathize. He takes a cigarette out of the pack, places it between his lips, and fishes around for his lighter.
One of the soldiers makes a decision: he stands down. He slings his rifle over his shoulder and heads out the door. It’s still raining, and the soldier starts to jog as soon as he exits the building. CB finds his lighter, pulls it out, and lights his cigarette, eying the other three. Two more soldiers head for the door at almost the same time. The third, seeing the others leaving, hurries after them.
CB waits until the last soldier leaves the lobby, waits for the door to close, then turns around.
Plague stands outside the stairwell entrance, leaning against the wall. His arms are crossed, and the strange oily runes appear to flow down the length of his arms, to his wrists, and then jump from his wrists to his stomach, flow up his chest, and down his arms again. There’s no trace of the gunshot wounds at all—even the dried blood is gone.
“New ink,” CB says.
“Old ink,” Plague says. “Older than you or me. Older than time.”
CB snorts in irritation as he blows out a stream of smoke. “Oh come on, Doyle. Don’t start that shit.”
“Fuck you,” Plague says. “I don’t work for you.”
“Yeah?” CB flicks some ash from his cigarette. “Who do you work for?”
Plague offers a thin smile. “The real masters.”
“Give me a fucking break,” CB says. “You work for, what, the Illuminati now?”
“People who understand power,” Plague says. “People who know what power demands. Who understand that sacrifices…” He sways a little, and a brief flash of grief twists his face into a pained grimace. “Sacrifices must be made.”
“Like the people in this building,” CB says.
Plague shrugs. “Those weren’t people. They don’t keep people in this part of the city. Just animals.”
“Now there’s the Doyle I used to know,” CB says.
“Yeah,” Plague says, “here I am.”
Plague moves so fast CB can barely track him. He leaps across the room, the runes on his body glowing brightly as the air ripples around him. CB throws himself to one side, dodging Plague’s attack by inches. Plague lands on the ground in a crouch, and with inhuman speed he lashes out again. CB rolls out of the way, feeling a breeze as Plague’s fist misses his head and drives deep into the floor, his arm sinking in as far as his elbow.
He didn’t use to be this strong.
CB kicks. Plague pulls his arm out of the hole he made in the cement sub-flooring and grunts as a stronger-than-steel toed boot connects with the small of his back. Plague sprawls on the ground, but immediately gets back up. CB rolls up to his feet and jumps back as Plague rips a piece of cement and throws it at him. It misses and crashes into the wall. The wall shudders as cement shatters against cinder block.
Too strong. You can’t fight him directly. He’s too damned strong.
“WHY AREN’T YOU GETTING SICK?” Plagues voice rises in pitch to an enraged madman’s shriek. “GET SICK, DAMN YOU!”
The runes on Plague’s arms are shining so brightly that they look like tiny spotlights roving over his body. The air around him shimmers and swirls as if the oily power is straining to take a visible form. CB’s stomach clenches and he stumbles, nearly falling into Plague’s kick. He twists in desperation, and the heel of Plague’s boot glances off CB’s knee. CB shouts in pain. CB’s stomach clenches again, and a moment later he rolls over onto his hands and knees and vomits. His hands are shaking. His head feels hot.
He’s getting sick.
Plague smiles, showing his teeth. “Finally. Finally. After all these years, I finally get to kill you the way you've always deserved: painfully. Slowly. Helplessly.”
CB tries to focus, but the world isn’t there. Just oil and sick. He gags, feels his stomach twist, and vomits again.
“I got power now,” Plague says. “I paid a hell of a price to get it. I did things…” he breaks off, and through the haze of his own sickness CB is dimly aware of the grief in his voice. “I did things. Killing you won’t make it all worthwhile, but you know what? Not killing you would make it a waste.”
CB’s vision blurs. He feels mucus pouring out of his nose and eyes. His hands won’t stop shaking.
Plague stands over him, watching him writhe and puke and claw at his face. “You’re going to die today, Curveball. You’re going to die, then everyone else is going to die. Every hero, every villain, every poor metahuman bastard on this planet is going to die. There’s not a damn thing you can do about it.”