Hellforged (Deadtown #2) read online free by Nancy Holzner
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Hellforged (Deadtown #2)
Author: Nancy Holzner

1

THERE ARE FEW PLACES CREEPIER THAN A DESERTED COMPUTER lab in the middle of the night. And believe me, I know creepy.

Dozens of fans whirred, their white noise pressing like cotton into my ears and making me jumpy about what I wasn’t hearing. Eerie blue light half-lit the room; other lights blinked randomly on the machines. Although it was late January, fans blew in streams of frigid air. Even with my leather jacket over my sweater, I had goose bumps prickling both arms. I was alone with MIT’s new supercomputer, and that made this particular deserted computer lab supercreepy.

That, and the fact that I wasn’t really alone. In here with me, somewhere, was a demon.

That’s why I’d been called in, to exterminate a Glitch in the supercomputer. Supposedly the world’s third biggest, fastest, and smartest, lately this giant machine hadn’t done anything but spit out error messages. The MIT brainiacs tried everything they could think of to eliminate the Glitch, but none of their usual fixes worked. In desperation, they called me. I’m Victory Vaughn, Boston’s only professional demon exterminator. And I deal with Glitches the old-fashioned way: by killing them.

Fifty or sixty locker-sized cabinets, each holding multiple processors, lined up in rows like ghostly soldiers standing eternally at attention. I opened a cabinet, leaned in, and sniffed, checking for that characteristic Glitch smell: a strong scent of ozone with an undertone of grape bubble gum mixed with sardine paste and rotten eggs.

Nothing. I’d been here half an hour with no luck. It was slow going. A supercomputer is basically a series of ultra-fast processors linked together to ramp up the computing power. All those processors in all those cabinets gave the Glitch hundreds of places to hole up in our little game of hide-and-seek.

I opened the next door. Come out, come out, wherever you are. Inside, a tangle of wires and cables snaked around stacks of circuit boards. Hard to believe a mess like that could perform billions of calculations at the speed of light. Except it couldn’t—not with the Glitch frying its circuits. I sniffed again, then tensed at the sharp smell of ozone. Beneath it, almost too faint to detect, was the stomach-churning odor of Glitch.

I pulled my rubber-lined electrician’s gloves from my belt and put them on. Clumsy, but a necessary precaution. A Glitch can take two forms. When the demon invades a machine, it’s pure magical energy that feeds off the electricity passing through its host. Outside its electronic nest, a Glitch has a physical body the size of a large teddy bear—but there’s nothing cuddly about its slimy purple skin, needle-sharp teeth, and inch-long claws. A shimmer of energy buzzes over its skin; touching one is like sticking your finger in an electric socket. That’s what the gloves were for.

To draw the Glitch out of the computer, I needed to force it into its physical form. So I’d brought Glitch Gone, an antistatic spray that won’t hurt the machine but forces the Glitch out. When that happens, the Glitch stays stuck in its physical form for a minute, maybe two, before it can turn back into energy and re-infest a machine.

I sprayed a light mist of Glitch Gone inside the cabinet, moving the can back and forth to make sure I didn’t miss a spot. Stepping back, I readied my bronze-headed ax, gripping it as best I could in the electrician’s gloves. With any luck, I’d split the Glitch in two before it attacked me.

Inside the cabinet, the processor lights began to blink faster. A spark shot out, then another. The Glitch stink intensified. Sparks, coming faster now, swirled into a pinwheel. The wheel spun faster, coalescing into a solid blur of light. I squinted against the brightness, trying to focus on the shape the light was taking. Then energy blasted out, a screech sliced the air, and the Glitch sprang.

I jumped back and to the left, but claws swiped my cheek. With the slash of pain came a teeth-clenching electric shock that almost knocked me off my feet. I staggered, and the Glitch leapt at me again. This time, I brought down the ax with both hands, but the damn demon was too fast. It sped away, and the ax buried itself in the floor.

I tugged at the handle, turning my head left and right to see where the demon had gone. It was too soon for it to reenter the computer—I hoped. My Glitch Gone spray was a couple of weeks past its expiration date. As the ax started to give, a yowl sounded behind me and the Glitch landed on my back. I staggered. The demon couldn’t shock me through my leather jacket, but what I heard promised something worse. The Glitch was hawking up a big wad of spit.

Glitch saliva is both disgusting and dangerous. It’s purple, it has that grape-and-sardine smell, and it’s where the phrase “gumming up the works” comes from. Worse, the stuff is venomous, gradually penetrating skin to deliver its poison. A couple of days of hard, repeated scrubbing gets rid of it, but I was not going to spend the next week washing Glitch spit out of my hair.

I reached back, yanked the Glitch off me, and slammed it onto the floor. I got both hands around the ax handle and swung. Missed by a hair. The Glitch zipped out from under the blade and leapt on top of a cabinet. It started hawking again, its yellow eyes squinting, its body bobbing with effort. At the same time, the sparks that sizzled over its skin began to consolidate and swirl into a circle above its head. Damn it, the Glitch Gone was wearing off. If the demon jumped back into the supercomputer now, it’d double the amount of damage it had already caused. I swung, but again the Glitch jumped clear. The cabinet didn’t, though. My ax slammed through its top and into the processor inside.

Oops.

No time to worry about collateral damage. I spun in the direction the Glitch had gone, in time to see a stream of sparks flow into a video camera mounted in a corner of the room.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” I grabbed my Glitch Gone and raced to the camera, which I blasted with a big cloud of spray.

Sparks shot out like fireworks. I ducked as the camera exploded. This time, the Glitch materialized almost immediately. It hurtled at me feet first, knocking me backward with its powerful legs, using my chest as a launchpad to rocket off in the opposite direction. Damn, that hurt. The Glitch sped down the aisle between two rows of cabinets, toward the back of the room.

I took off after it, clutching the ax with both hands, my boots pounding the floor. I skidded around the corner where I’d seen it turn. The Glitch launched itself at me, claws aiming for my eyes. I dodged and swung. The ax smashed deep into the side of a processor cabinet and, again, got stuck. Instead of giving the Glitch another chance to attack, I whirled around, reaching for the throwing knife in my ankle sheath. The Glitch jumped at my face, but it overshot and bounced off the wall. It landed with an oof and lay on the floor. I threw. The damn Glitch rolled, and my knife barely scratched its arm.

The demon emitted a nails-on-chalkboard screech and clambered to its feet. It took off down the next aisle, running toward the front of the lab. It was fast, but not with its previous speed. I glanced at the ax embedded in the cabinet, then retrieved my throwing knife instead. Its bronze blade showed spots of purplish-black blood. Good. Bronze is lethal to demons, and even though I hadn’t wounded the Glitch deeply enough to kill it, the touch of bronze had slowed it down. Even better, the scratch from the bronze blade would prevent the thing from shifting into energy.

That Glitch was mine.

I wiped the blade on my jacket sleeve and crept down the aisle, pausing every few feet to listen, but I couldn’t hear anything through the whirring of all those fans. I scanned the tops of cabinets towering on either side, my arm aching with tension, ready to throw the knife at the first sign of a purple blur speeding toward my head. Next time, I wouldn’t miss.

At the end of the aisle I wondered: which way—left or right? I held my breath, straining to hear through the white noise. My ear caught something. I listened harder. There it was again, a shuffling to the right. I eased off the electrician’s glove—no way I was going to let the clumsy thing mess up my aim this time—flexed my fingers, and got a good grip on the knife. I drew back my arm, ready to throw, then whipped around the corner.

And found myself face-to-face with the barrel of a gun.

“Don’t shoot!” I dropped the knife and showed my open, empty hands.

The face behind the gun came into focus: a wide-eyed fiftyish guy in a campus police uniform. His gun shook.

“I’m not armed,” I said, standing absolutely still. A shaking gun means a jumpy trigger finger. “I’m authorized to be here. Check with Professor Milsap.”

“You hear that, Professor?” the cop said over his shoulder. “Says she’s working for you.”

Milsap was here? Good. He’d clear this up, and then I’d finish the job.

“Professor Milsap,” I called out. “It’s Vicky Vaughn. Please tell the officer to put down his gun.”

“I will in a moment,” said a deep voice. Milsap appeared behind the still-shaky cop. He was tall and thin, with a full head of wavy gray hair—kind of Einstein-esque. He glared at me through wire-rimmed glasses. “As soon as he’s arrested you for vandalism.”

The rest of me wasn’t moving, but my jaw dropped far enough to hit the floor. “What are you talking about? You hired me to do this job.”

“We saw what you did. I arrived at Officer Hadley’s station in time to see you disable the surveillance cameras.”

“I didn’t—”

“You sprayed an aerosol can at a camera, and then the system went down.”

“That wasn’t me, that was the Glitch—”

“And now we arrive on the scene to find you’ve taken an ax to several processors.”

“Trying to kill the Glitch you hired me to exterminate.” My voice squeaked with indignation. I hate when that happens. “I warned there could be damage to the facility. There’s a clause about it in the contract you signed.”

“What contract? I signed no contract.”

“He’s lying!” shouted an indignant female voice. A second later, a teenage zombie in a Hello Kitty T-shirt stomped around the corner in her size-eight, pink, sparkly platform sandals. Tina, my self-proclaimed apprentice, scowled like she’d been grounded two days before the prom. This would be the same self-proclaimed apprentice who was supposed to keep track of my paperwork.

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