They crested the final flight of stairs, battered and singed but triumphant, stepping onto the teakwood floor of the Asian-themed executive hallway. Tendrils of ethereal mist spiraled and coalesced behind the reception desk into a darkly glowing specter of an executive assistant.
Russ drew his blades but the executive assistant simply said, "He's waiting for you," and held out a translucent hand toward the paper screen double doors, which slid open soundlessly.
Russ and the others looked at each other.
"This is definitely a trap, right?" said Percy.
"It's always a trap," said Russ, dismissively. "You fight your way up 50 floors, there's no way he hasn't been able to set something up by now."
"It would just be gross negligence otherwise," said Thomas.
"The point is," said Russ, "this is my fight. I'm the one who is bound to pursue him to the death. The rest of you don't need to walk through those doors."
Gloria laughed. "You're fooling yourself if you think Hustle will ever leave us alone after this."
"He will," said Russ insistently, "because he'll be dead, because I'll successfully kill him."
"I'll believe it when I see it," said Thomas, drawing his bo staff. "No offense to your skills."
"I'm extremely offended," said Russ, huffily. "I have killed much worse things. Sometimes intentionally."
"Um," said Percy, clearing his throat uncomfortably, "I don't have a ride."
Russ frowned. "That is the best argument I have heard so far."
"I would like to leave," Percy clarified.
"But you can't," said Russ. "And that's just the hand life deals you sometimes."
"If one of you two went with me," Percy said to Gloria and Thomas, "we could probably find a -"
"Well, no sense wasting any more time," said Russ, and strode purposefully through the doors, followed by Gloria, Thomas, and finally Percy.
The executive office was brilliantly lit, with wraparound windows on three sides. The decor was a spacious and airy sort of commercialized Zen. At the far end was a large but tasteful bamboo standing desk, and standing behind the desk was Carton Hustle.
"Welcome," he said. He wore extremely expensive jeans that looked like normal jeans and a Patagonia vest over what was probably a Patagonia base layer. He was white but looked like he had been to a lot of countries and had a lot to tell you about what you could learn from them.
"Sup," said Russ.
"It had been a pretty normal day until you got here," said Hustle. "I woke up at 4am, cross-trained in my walk-in freezer while listening to audio books, ate exactly two oats, remoted in to a video conference where we completed the acquisition of two Japanese car companies, meditated just long enough to leave my body and possess a crow, ate a nutrition cube, and I was multitasking on coding our new sports portal, making a hype video for the incoming executive ascendants, and droning into remote factory inspections, up until you burst in and started slaughtering my employees."
"Just like he says in his books," whispered Percy in awe.
"We don't really need to do this bullshit, do we?" asked Russ.
"No, I suppose not," said Hustle. "Just a bit of fun for his benefit," he said, flashing a smile at Percy. "My loyal former boatman. You turn on me like this? After I generously gave you the tools and the responsibility for your own success?"
"I-" began Percy.
"It doesn't matter," said Hustle. "You and the two filthy street criminals can have a seat while your betters speak." And with that, an unseen force violently pushed Percy, Gloria, and Thomas onto a minimalist leather couch, pinning them there.
Russ moved to lunge at him, but something held him in place.
"Here's a lesson for you that's not in my books: Power is all that matters. Right and wrong mean nothing. Respect means nothing. Rules and legitimacy are a fiction. Whoever has enough power controls what will be done, and what will be said, and what the world will call 'right' and 'wrong'."
He pushed a button and the standing desk motor whirred as it lowered down to seated level. He pushed the monitors to the side and leapt easily over the desk, striding toward Russ.
"That vampire allows you to fight alongside him as if you were equals, humoring you, mocking you. Surely even if you did not know he was one of the First Ones, you have seen his power. You know that your little tricks and weapons are children's games and toys beside his power."
"Please, you're making me blush," said Russ.
"You are nothing but ants to him," said Hustle.
Gloria and Thomas glared coldly and silently right at him, unblinking. Percy shifted uncomfortably and looked at everyone in turn.
"I don't say this to flatter you, vampire," said Hustle, walking right up to Russ and grinning coldly in his face. "I'm just trying to give them a sense of proportion."
"You see," he said, strolling away and addressing everyone, "I have come into possession of power so great that just as you are ants to this vampire, so he is less than an ant... to me!"
With that he held up a hand and Russ was thrown back violently, crashing through the window and plunging out of sight.
Thomas and Gloria gasped, trying to rise to their feet. "No!" cried Percy.
A moment later, a demonic bat creature came soaring through the broken window, landing and transforming into Russ. "That was unnecessary!" he said angrily.
"Dramatic illustrations are very effective in public speaking!" retorted Hustle.
Russ tried to rush him again and found himself restrained once more.
Hustle took a leisurely silent walk back to his desk, sitting down in his ergonomic mesh chair. "Your vampire knows the power I speak of. It's what he's come here for, isn't it? But he's come too late. It's mine now."
As he spoke, dark vapors swirled from all corners of the room, spiraling into a tangled vortex behind Hustle that seemed to wrestle and strangle itself into a solid mass, as if its own parts were hostile to each other. The twisting darkness coalesced into a robed figure whose every particle radiated suffocation and decay.
"What is that?" gasped Percy.
"That," said Russ, with grim satisfaction, "is the former Governor of Florida."
"Do you now understand the level of power I'm talking about?" crowed Hustle. "You know that I built my empire. I became the richest man in the world. It wasn't enough. I crushed other empires, I reigned alone. It wasn't enough. I studied forbidden wisdom and willed my own ascension beyond humanity, a transformation fueled by grinding up the disposable souls of millions of lesser men, just as I built my empire by grinding up the disposable bodies and worthless lives of lesser men."
Percy felt like he was looking directly at him.
"And it still wasn't enough," said Hustle.
"It never will be," said Gloria.
"I told you to be silent, mortal," said Hustle, sending out another wave of force that pressed the three into the couch so hard they fought to breathe.
"You don't know what you're dealing with, Hustle," said Russ, glancing with dread at the robed figure of decay.
"He knows," it whispered, as quietly as a breath of air, and yet it struck so harshly on their ears their instinct was to fall to the ground and cower. But they were held, frozen.
"We all know the legend, of course," said Hustle. "The ancient president-king who sought to save his crumbling economy with measures including tax cuts and banning poverty but also having his master demonsmiths forge the Nine Coins of Prosperity, giving one to each of the most powerful governors in order to secure their loyalty. Each governor used their coins to create wealth and the economy boomed."
"Each governor was consumed with their own greed," added Russ, "until it was all that remained of them, and even when their bodies crumbled to dust, their greed lived on and become stronger and stronger with every year." He looked at the awful figure again, whose robe seemed to hang loosely on the thin, jagged frame of bones. It radiated bountiful, dark, dreadful power, pouring out in every direction, and yet it was starving.
"Well, sure, that's one way of looking at it," said Hustle. "But what you call greed - let's call it hunger - is exactly what gives you the edge. Never having enough, never content, never resting complacently on your laurels - you're never going to stop. Every day you get tougher, more determined, more ruthless. Who could stand in your way?"
"There is never going to be room for two of that kind, Hustle," said Russ, uneasily eyeing the Coinwraith, whose shape had grown in size and now hovered menacingly over the man at the desk. "You're in for more than you've bargained for."
"Your concern is touching," said Hustle.
"Watch out!" cried Percy, the force pushing against him somewhat eased, as the now-towering figure began to descend upon Hustle, as if to engulf him.
Hustle swept something up from his desk, spun around, and plunged an obsidian dagger into the center of the figure. A horrific soul-piercing wail shattered the windows and into the city poured the sound of ultimate despair, grief, and hatred, all at once inhuman and too human, cutting into every human heart for miles around.
"Thanks for the coin, governor," said Hustle with a grin, taking a gleaming golden disc from the midst of the crumbling ash. He clutched the coin to his chest, his face seized in a fanatical expression of ecstasy.
"It's incredible," he whispered, his eyes shining with a horrible brightness. "There's... so much more... to have." He threw a glance of contempt at his office, at his empire, at the city below. "This can all burn for all I care." And with an echoing cackle, he spun away into a cloud of golden wisps. As the last of these evaporated, his faintly echoing voice said, mockingly, "I'll see you again soon enough, vampire."
And then there was nothing left in the office but dusty contemporary furniture, broken glass, and four battered human figures.
"I'm gonna be honest with everybody here," said Russ, "That didn't go how I expected."