I looked like a cool guy leading the charge for about a second and a half, and then my brother and my dog left me and Molly eating their dust. If I hadn't been a regular runner, Molly would have done the same, albeit more gradually. By the time I had covered half the distance, Thomas and Mouse had already bounded around to the back, one around either side of Rudolph's house.
"Get gone, grasshopper!" I called, and even as we ran forward Molly vanished behind her best veil. It took us another quarter of a minute to cover the distance, and I went around the side of the house Thomas had taken. I pounded around the back corner to see that a large glass sliding door leading from a wooden deck into the house had been shattered. I could hear a big, thumping beat, as if from a subwoofer, pounding away inside the house.
I took the stairs up to the deck in a single jumping stride, and barely avoided a sudden explosion of glass, wood, drywall, and siding that came hurling toward me. I had an instant to realize that the projectile that had just come through the wall was my brother, and then something huge and black and swift came crashing through the same wall, expanding the hole to five times its original size.
The whatever-it-was stood within a step or two, and I was already sprinting. I kept doing it. I slapped one hand down and vaulted the railing on the far side of the deck. I barely jerked my hand from the rail before the thing smashed it to kindling with one huge, blindingly fast talon. That deep beat grew louder and faster as I landed, and I realized with a shock that I could hear the thing's rising heart rate as clearly as if it had been pounding on a drum.
I was kidding myself if I thought I could run from something that fast. I had a step or two on the creature, but it reclaimed them within half a dozen strides and swiped at my head with terrible speed and power.
I whirled desperately, drawing my blasting rod and letting out a burst of flame, but I stumbled and fell during the spin. The fire hammered into the creature, and for all the good it did me I might as well have hit it with a rubber chicken.
I thought I was done for - until Mouse emerged from the house onto the back deck, bathed in a faint nimbus of blue light. He took a single, bounding, thirty-yard leap that ended at the attacking creature's enormous, malformed shoulders. Mouse's claws dug into the thing's hide, and his massive jaws closed on the back of its thick, almost indistinguishable neck.
The creature arched up in pain, but it never made a sound. It tripped over me, too distracted to actually attack, but the impact of so much mass and power sent up flares of agony from my ribs and from one thigh.
Mouse rode the creature down into the dirt, tearing and worrying it, his claws digging furrows in the flesh of its back. His snarls reverberated in the evening air, and each shake and twist of his body seemed to send up little puffs of glowing blue mist from his fur.
Mouse had the thing dead to rights, but nobody seemed to have told the creature that. It twisted lithely, bouncing up from the ground as if made of rubber, seized Mouse's tail, and swung the huge dog in a single, complete arc. Mouse hit the ground like a two-hundred-pound sledgehammer, drawing a high-pitched sound of pain from him.
I didn't think. I lifted my blasting rod again, filling it with my will and with all the soulfire I could shove in, screaming, "Get off my dog!"
White fire slammed out of the rod and drew a line on the creature from hip to skull, digging into flesh and setting it ablaze. Once again, it convulsed in silent agony, and the boom-box beat of its heart ratcheted up even higher. It fell, unable to hold on to Mouse, and writhed upon the ground.
I tried to get up, but my injured leg wouldn't support me, and the sudden surge of weariness that overtook me made my arms collapse, too. I lay there, panting and helpless to move. Mouse staggered slowly to his feet, his head hanging, his tongue dangling loosely from his mouth. Behind me, I heard a groan and twisted awkwardly to see Thomas sit up, one shoulder hanging at a malformed angle. His clothes had been ripped to shreds, there was a piece of metal protruding from his abdomen, just next to his belly button, and half his face was covered in a sheet of blood a little too pale to belong to a human.
"Thomas!" I shouted. Or tried to shout. The acoustics were odd in this tunnel within which I was suddenly sprawled. "Get up, man!"
He gave me a blank, concussed stare.
The creature's movements had slowed. I turned to see it beginning to relax, its body shuddering, the drumbeat of its heart steadying, and I got a better look at it than I had before.
It was huge, easily the size of a full-grown bull, and it carried a stench with it that was similar in potency. Or maybe that was because I had just overcooked it. Its body was odd, seemingly able to move on two legs or four with equal efficiency. Its flesh was a spongy blackness, much like the true skin of a Red vampire, and its head was shaped like something mixing the features of a human being, a jaguar, and maybe a crocodile or wild boar. It was pitch-black everywhere, including its eyes, its tongue, and its mouth.
And, despite the punishment I had just dealt out, it was getting up again.
"Thomas!" I shouted. Or wheezed.
The creature shook its head and its dead-black eyes focused on me. It started toward me, pausing briefly to swat my stunned dog out of its path. Mouse landed in a tumble, seemingly struggling to find his balance but unable to do so.
I lifted my blasting rod again as it came on, but I didn't have enough juice left in me to make the rod do anything but smoke faintly.
And then a stone sailed in from nowhere and struck the creature on the snout.
"Hey!" called Molly's voice. "Hey, Captain Asphalt! Hey, tar baby! Over here!"
The creature and I turned to see Molly standing maybe twenty yards away, in plain sight. She flung another rock, and it bounced off the creature's broad chest. Its heartbeat began to accelerate and grow louder again.
"Let's go, gorgeous!" Molly called. "You and me!" She turned sideways to the thing, rolled her hips, and made an exaggerated motion of swatting herself on the ass. "Come get some!"
The thing tensed and then rushed forward, covering the ground with astonishing speed.
The creature smashed into the earth where she'd been standing, with its huge talons balled into furious fists, slamming them eight inches into the earth.
There was a peal of mocking laughter, and another rock bounced off of the thing, this time from the left. Furious, it whirled to rush Molly again - and again, she vanished completely. Once more it struck at empty ground. Once more, Molly got its attention with a rock and a few taunts, only to vanish from sight as it came at her.
Each time, she was a little closer to the creature, unable to match its raw speed. And each time, she led it a little farther away from the three of us. A couple of times, she even shouted, "Toro, toro! Ol¨¦!"
"Thomas!" I called. "Get up!"
My brother blinked his eyes several times, each time a little more quickly. Then he swiped a hand at the bloodied side of his face, shook his head violently to get the blood out of his eyes, and looked down at the section of metal bar sticking out of his stomach. He clenched it with his hand, grimaced, and drew it slowly out, revealing a six-inch triangle that must have been a corner brace in the wall he'd gone through. He dropped it on the ground, groaning in pain, and his eyes rolled briefly back into his head.
I saw his other nature coming over him. His skin grew paler, and almost seemed to take on its own glow. His breathing stabilized immediately, and the cut along his hairline where he'd been bleeding began to close. He opened his eyes, and their color had changed from a deep, contented blue to a hungry, metallic silver.
He got up smoothly and glanced at me. "You bleeding?"
"Nah," I said. "I'm good."
A few feet away, Mouse got to his feet and shook himself, his tags jingling. Molly had gotten as far as the street again, and there was an enormous crashing sound.
"This time, we do it smart," Thomas said. He turned to Mouse instead of me. "I'm going to go in first and get its attention. Go for its strings. I think you'll have to hit two limbs to really cripple it."
Mouse woofed, evidently an affirmative, let out a grumbling growl, and once more very faint, very pale blue light gathered around him.
Thomas nodded, and picked up a section of ruined deck that had scattered around where he landed. He shouldered a corner post, a section of four-by-four about a yard and a half long, and said, "Don't sweat, Harry. We'll be back for you in a minute."
"Go, Team Dresden," I wheezed.
The two of them took off, zero to cheetah speed in about a second. Then they were out of sight. I heard Thomas let out a high-pitched cry that was a pretty darn good Bruce Lee impersonation, and there was a thunder crack of wood striking something hard.
An instant later, Mouse let out his battle roar. There was a flicker of strobing colors of light as Molly pitched a bit of dazzling magic at the creature. It wouldn't hurt the thing, but the kid could make eye-searing light in every color imaginable burst from empty air, accompanied by a variety of sounds if she so chose. She called it her One-woman Rave spell, and during the last Independence Day, she had used it to throw up a fireworks display from her parents' backyard so impressive that evidently it had caused traffic problems on the expressway.
It was hard to lie there twisted halfway around at the waist, to see only the occasional flash of light or to hear the thumps and snarls of combat. I tried my leg again and had no luck. So I just settled down and concentrated on not blacking out or breathing too hard. The creature had definitely cracked at least one of my ribs.
That was when I noticed the two sets of glowing red eyes staring at me from the forest, staring with the unmistakable fixation of a predator, and coming slowly, steadily, silently closer.
I suddenly realized that everyone around who might have helped me was sort of distracted at the moment.
"Oh," I breathed. "Oh, crap."