Kralupy nad Vltavou (north of Prague)
April 1, 1970
The barge was on fire.
Not that it wasn’t supposed to catch fire eventually, Karel noted, hurrying to stamp out his cigarette. But it was supposed to be a controlled burn. A final farewell. Long after the seedy thugs he’d hired had jumped down onto the barge from the bridge where he now crouched. Long after they’d pried open the hold with the crowbars and mystical charms Karel and his Flame colleagues had supplied. And long, long after they’d chiseled the Consortium of Ice’s frozen Hosts free and loaded them into the truck that even now sat, idling, near the docks. And it certainly wasn’t supposed to surge toward the heavens like an unholy combustion, devouring everything in its path.
No, this fire was nothing like the one Karel Hašek had planned. And it had come much too soon.
Karel swore under his breath. What the hell were those imbeciles doing? He rushed to the vantage point at the base of the bridge that spanned the narrow gap where the river Vltava twisted beneath the suburb of Kralupy nad Vltavou. The signal he’d been awaiting—a sharp whistle, a flicker of green on the charm clenched in his hand—wasn’t likely to come. Briefly, he sorted through his mental catalogue of charms and ritual components on his person, then muttered fuck it under his breath and brought the binoculars to his eyes.
Flames. Orange and red—and a sickly undertone of green—filled his vision. He staggered back, adjusted the binoculars’ focus. Now he could see the chaos filling the decks—Karel’s own men and the Ice guards both running, shouting, waving pistols and fire extinguishers, flames racing along a stack of wooden crates and lapping greedily at the wheelhouse. One of the thugs he’d hired raced past, his jacket consumed in that hungry green flame, and flung himself overboard into the Vltava. Karel cringed at the splash and plume of smoke that followed.
Shit. This fire was definitely not part of the plan, and if he didn’t get down there soon, they’d be lucky to collect any of the Hosts at all. But with the Ice running around in an uncoordinated flurry, when they had the advantage of the defensive position—
What was the Consortium of Ice doing? Had they known the Flame had planned to attack, and were trying to throw them off? Zerena was greedy, yes, but she wasn’t careless. She wouldn’t have agreed to this plan if she’d thought there was any chance Ice would be prepared for the raid. And anyway, there were only supposed to be two guards on the boat—just enough to steer it upriver, barely enough to even manage the boating functions, much less protect the precious cargo in the hold.
A shot rang out, ricocheting against the embankment walls, smashing Karel’s last hope that maybe, just maybe, this catastrophe could be undone. Soon enough, they’d have the Státní bezpečnost police force swarming down on them. But if they could get away from the smoldering wreckage first, with at least some of the Hosts, like they’d planned . . .
He swung the binoculars toward the boat’s aft side, where Vladimir crouched over the locked hatch that led to the hold. Come on, Vladimir, get inside. Stick to the plan. A golden light swirled around the witch as he chanted and wove the distant ley lines’ energy into power. Then the hatch issued a cloud of white mist and, with a grin, Vladimir yanked it open.
Karel exhaled. All right. If they moved quickly enough, they might still salvage this mission. He tugged the belt on his trench coat tight and ran toward the center of the bridge, thumb running over the charm in his pocket, coaxing it to life.
More shots—three in a row, followed by sharp curses. All the flames were tinged in green now, and a heavy metallic stench flooded Karel’s nose. “Stop wasting bullets!” someone screamed. “Can’t you see they don’t work?”
Karel reached the bridge’s middle and swung himself up over the railing. The charm flared to life and enveloped him in a white flash.
With a thud, he crashed onto the barge’s deck. Far, far more heavily than he should have, with that charm. Karel toppled forward with a gasp. One ankle crunched uselessly beneath him as pain seared up his shins. He rolled onto his hands and knees to stagger to his feet, but his left ankle couldn’t support him. Hot pain radiated from it as he felt the bones shift and crunch.
The charm should have cushioned his fall—he’d charged it himself, had used just such a charm countless times in his service to the Flame. Did the Ice have some sort of shield to block his spell? Such a thing was rare, difficult to charge, even more difficult to arrange the ritual for, but it was always a possibility . . . Karel propped himself against the nearest crate, drew a fortifying breath, and limped toward the hatch. No time to wonder. If they were going to get the Hosts out before the entire barge was engulfed, they had to move now. He raised a hand toward Vladimir, who was inching his way down into the...