The dog and I went to my grave. Graceland Cemetery is famous. You can look it up in just about any Chicago tour book-or God knows, probably on the Internet. It's the largest cemetery in town, and one of the oldest. There are walls, substantial ones, all the way around, and it has far more than its share of ghost stories and attendant shades. The graves inside range from simple plots with simple headstones to life-sized replicas of Greek temples, Egyptian obelisks, mammoth statues-even a pyramid. It's the Las Vegas of boneyards, and my grave is in it.
The cemetery isn't open after dark. Most aren't, and there's a reason for it. Everybody knows the reason, and nobody talks about it. It isn't because there are dead people in there. It's because there are not-quite-dead people in there. Ghosts and shadows linger in graveyards more than anywhere else, especially in the older cities of the country, where the oldest, biggest cemeteries are right there in the middle of town. That's why people build walls around graveyards, even if they're only two feet high-not to keep people out, but to keep other things in. Walls can have a kind of power in the spirit world, and the walls around graveyards are almost always filled with the unspoken intent of keeping the living and the unliving seated at different sections of the community dinner table.
The gates were locked, and there was an attendant in a small building too solid to be called a shack, and too small to be called anything else. But I'd been there a few times, and I knew several ways to get in and out after dark if need be. There was a portion of the fence in the northeast corner where a road construction crew just outside had left a large mound of gravel, and it sloped far enough up the wall that even a man with one good hand and a large and ungainly dog could reach the top.
We went in, Mouse and I. Mouse might have been large, but he was barely more than a puppy, and he still had paws that looked too big for his lean frame. The dog had been built on the scale of those statues outside Chinese restaurants, though-broad chested and powerful, with that same mountainous strength built into his muzzle. His coat was a dark and almost uniform grey, marked on the tips of his fuzzy ears, his tail, and his lower legs with solid black. He looked a little gangly and clumsy now, but after a few more months of adding on muscle, he was going to be a real monster. And damned if I minded the company of my own personal monster going to meet a vampire over my grave.
I found it not far from a rather famous grave of a little girl named Inez, who had died a century before. The little girl's grave had a statue mounted on it. I'd seen it often, and it looked mostly like Carroll's original Alice -a cherub in a prim and proper Victorian dress. Supposedly the child's ghost would occasionally animate the statue and run and play among the graves and the neighborhoods near the graveyard. I'd never seen her, myself.
But, hey. The statue was missing.
My grave is one of the more humble ones there. It's standing open, too-the vampire noble who bought it for me had set it up to be that way. She'd gotten me a coffin on permanent standby, too, sort of like the president gets Air Force One, only a little more morbid. Dead Force One.
My headstone is simple white marble, a vertical stone, but it's engraved in bold letters inlaid with gold: HARRY DRESDEN. Then a gold-inlaid pentacle, a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle-the symbol of the forces of magic contained within mortal will. Underneath it are more letters: HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING.
It's a sobering sort of place to visit.
I mean, we're all going to die. We know that on an intellectual level. We figure it out sometime when we're still fairly young, and it scares us so badly that we convince ourselves we're immortal for more than a decade afterward.
Death isn't something anyone likes to think about, but the fact is that you can't get out of it. No matter what you do, how much you exercise, how religiously you diet, or meditate, or pray, or how much money you donate to your church, there is a single hard, cold fact that faces everyone on earth: One day it's going to be over. One day the sun will rise, the world will turn, people will go about their daily routines-only you won't be in it. You'll be still. And cold.
And despite every religious faith, the testimony of near-death eyewitnesses, and the imaginations of storytellers throughout history, death remains the ultimate mystery. No one truly, definitively knows what happens after. And that's assuming there is an after. We all go there blind to whatever is out there in the darkness beyond.
You can't escape it.
That's a bitter, hideously concrete fact to endure-but believe me, you get it in a whole new range of color and texture when you face it standing over your own open grave.
I stood there among silent headstones and memorials both sober and outrageous, and the late-October moon shone down on me. It was too cold for crickets, but the sound of traffic, sirens, car alarms, overhead jets, and distant loud music, the pulse of Chicago, kept me company. Mist had risen off of Lake Michigan like it did a lot of nights, but tonight it had come on exceptionally thick, and tendrils of it drifted through the graves and around the stones. There was a silent, crackling tension in the air, a kind of muted energy that was common in late autumn. Halloween was almost here, and the borders between Chicago and the spirit world, the Nevernever, were at their weakest. I could sense the restless shades of the graveyard, most of them too feeble ever to manifest to mortal eyes, stirring in the roiling mist, tasting the energy-laden air.
Mouse sat beside me, ears forward and alert, his gaze shifting regularly, eyes focused, his attention obvious enough to make me think that he could literally see the things I could only vaguely feel. But whatever was out there, it didn't bother him. He sat beside me in silence, content to leave his head under my gloved hand.
I wore my long leather duster, its mantle falling almost to my elbows, along with black fatigue pants, a sweater, and old combat boots. I carried my wizard's staff with me in my right hand, a length of solid oak hand-carved with flowing runes and sigils all up and down its length. My mother's silver pentacle hung by a chain around my neck. My scarred flesh could barely feel the silver bracelet hung with tiny shields on my left wrist, but it was there. Several cloves of garlic tied together in a big lump lay in my duster's pocket, and brushed against my leg when I shifted my weight. The group of odd items would have looked innocuous enough to the casual eye, but they amounted to a magical arsenal that had seen me through plenty of trouble.
Mavra had given me her word of honor, but I had plenty of other enemies who would love to take a shot at me. I wasn't going to make myself an easy target. But standing around in the haunted graveyard in the dark started to make me nervous, fast.
"Come on," I muttered after a few minutes. "What's taking her so long?"
Mouse let out a growl so low and quiet that I barely heard it-but I could feel the dog's sudden tension and wariness quivering up through my maimed hand, shaking my arm to the elbow.
I gripped my staff, checking all around me. Mouse was doing much the same, until his dark eyes started tracking something I couldn't see. Whatever it was, judging from Mouse's gaze, it was getting closer. Then there was a quiet, rushing sound and Mouse crouched, nose pointed at my open grave, his teeth bared.
I stepped closer to my grave. Patches of mist flowed down into it from the green grounds. I muttered under my breath, took off my amulet, and pushed some of my will into the five-pointed star, causing it to glow with a low blue light. I draped the amulet over the fingers of my left hand while I gripped the staff in my right, and peered down into the grave.
The mist inside it suddenly gathered, congealed, and flowed into the form of a withered corpse-that of a woman, emaciated and dried as though from years in the earth. The corpse wore a gown and kirtle, medieval style, the former green and the latter black. The fabric was simple cotton-modern manufacture, then, and not actual historic dress.
bubbled up into a more audible rumbling snarl.
The corpse sat up, opened milk-white eyes, and focused on me. It lifted a hand, in which it held a white lily, and held it toward me. Then the corpse spoke in a voice that was all rasp and whisper. "Wizard Dresden. A flower for your grave. "
"Mavra," I said. "You're late. "
"There was a headwind," the vampire answered. She flicked her wrist, and the lily arched up out of the grave and landed on my headstone. She followed it out with a similar, uncannily smooth motion that reminded me of a spider in its eerie grace. I noted that she wore a sword and a dagger on a weapons belt at her waist. They looked old and worn, and I was betting that they were not of modern make. She came to a halt and faced me from across my grave, her face turned very slightly away from the blue light of my amulet, her cataract eyes steady on Mouse. "You kept your hand? After those burns, I would have thought you would have amputated it. "
"It's mine," I said. "And it's none of your business. And you're wasting my time. "
The vampire's corpse lips stretched into a smile. Flakes of dead flesh fell down from the corners of her mouth. Brittle hair like dried straw had mostly been broken off to the length of a finger, but here and there longer strands the color of bread mold brushed the shoulders of her dress. "You're allowing your mortality to make you impatient, Dresden. Surely you want to take this opportunity to discuss your assault on my scourge?"
"No. " I slipped my amulet on again and rested my hand on Mouse's head. "I'm not here to socialize. You've got dirt on Murphy and you want something from me. Let's have it. "
Her laugh was full of cobwebs and sandpaper. "I forget how young you are until I see you," she said. "Life is fleeting, Dresden. If you insist on keeping yours, you ought to enjoy it. "
"Funny thing is, trading insults with an egotistical super zombie just isn't my idea of a good time," I said. Mouse punctuated the sentence with another rumbling growl. I turned my shoulders from her, starting to turn away. "If that's all you had in mind, I'm leaving. "
She laughed harder, and the sound of it spooked the hell out of me. Maybe it was the atmosphere, but something about it, the way that it simply lacked anything to do with the things that should motivate laughter. . . There was no warmth in it, no humanity, no kindness, no joy. It was like Mavra herself-it had the withered human shell, but underneath it all was something from a nightmare.
"Very well," Mavra said. "We shall embrace brevity. "
I faced her again, wary. Something in her manner had changed, and it was setting off all my alarm bells.
"Find The Word of Kemmler," she said. Then she turned, dark skirts flaring, one hand resting negligently upon her sword, and started to leave.
"Hey!" I choked. "That's it?"
"That's it," she said without turning.
"Wait a minute!" I said.
"What the hell is The Word of Kemmler?"
"A trail. "
"Leading to what?" I asked.
"And you want it. "
"And you want me to find it. "
"Yes. Alone. Tell no one of our agreement or what you are doing. "
I took in a slow breath. "What happens if I tell you to go to hell?"
Mavra silently lifted a single arm. There was a photo between two of her desiccated fingers, and even in the moonlight I could see that it was of Murphy.
"I'll stop you," I said. "And if I don't, I'll come after you. If you hurt her, I'll kill you so hard your last ten victims will make miraculous recoveries. "
"I won't have to touch her," she said. "I'll send the evidence to the police. The mortal authorities will prosecute her. "
"You can't do that," I said. "Wizards and vampires may be at war, but we leave the mortals out of it. Once you get mortal authorities involved, the Council will do it as well. And then the Reds. You could escalate matters into global chaos. "
"If I intended to employ the mortal authorities against you, perhaps," Mavra said. "You are White Council. "
My stomach twisted with sudden, sickened understanding. I was a member of the White Council of Wizards, a solid citizen of the supernatural realms.
But Murphy wasn't.
"The protector of the people," Mavra all but purred. "The defender of the law will find herself a convicted murderer, and her only explanation would make her sound like a madwoman. She is prepared to die in battle, wizard. But I won't merely kill her. I will unmake her. I will destroy the labor of her life and her heart. "
"You bitch," I said.
"Of course. " She looked at me over her shoulder. "And unless you are prepared to unmake mortal civilization-or at least enough of it to impose your will upon it-there is nothing you can do to stop me. "
Fury exploded somewhere in my chest and rolled out through my body and thoughts in a red fire. Mouse rolled forward toward Mavra a step, shaking the mist around us with a rising growl, and I didn't realize at first that he was following my lead. "Like hell there isn't," I snarled. "If I hadn't agreed to a truce I would-"
Mavra's corpse-yellow teeth appeared in a ghastly smile. "Kill me in my tracks, wizard, but it will do you no good. Unless I put a halt to it, the pictures and other evidence will be sent to the police. And I will do so only once I am satisfied with your retrieval of The Word of Kemmler. Find it. Bring it to me before three midnights hence, and I will turn over the evidence to you. You have my word. "
She dropped the photo of Murphy, and some kind of purple, nauseating light played over it for a second as it fell to the ground. There was the acrid smell of scorched chemicals.
When I looked back up at Mavra there was no one there.
I walked slowly over to the fallen photo, struggling to slap my anger aside quick enough to reach out with my supernatural senses. I didn't feel any of Mavra's presence anywhere near me, and over the next several seconds my dog's growls died down to low, wary sounds of uncertainty- and then to silence. While I wasn't quite certain of the all the details, Mouse wasn't your average dog, and if Mouse didn't sense lurking bad guys, it was because there weren't any bad guys lurking.
The vampire was gone.
I picked up the photo. Murphy's picture had been marred. The dark energy had left scorch marks in the shape of numbers over Murphy's face. A phone number. Cute.
My righteous fury kept on fading, and I missed it. Once it was gone, there was going to be only sick worry and fear left in its place.
If I didn't work for one of the worst of the bad guys I've ever dealt with, Murphy would get hung out to dry.
Said bad guy was after power-and was on a deadline to boot. If Mavra needed something that soon, it meant that some kind of power struggle was about to go down. And three midnights hence meant Halloween night. Aside from ruining my birthday, it meant that black magic was going to be brought into play sometime soon, and at this time of year that could mean only one thing.
I stood there in the boneyard, staring down at my grave, and started shivering. Partly from the cold.
I felt very alone.
Mouse exhaled a breath that was not quite a whimper of distress, and leaned against me.
"Come on, boy," I told him. "Let's get you home. No sense in more than one of us getting involved with this. "
I needed some answers. Time to hit the lab.
Mouse and I returned to my apartment in the Blue Beetle, the beat-up old Volkswagen Bug that is my faithful steed. "Blue" is kind of a metaphorical description. The car has had various doors and panels replaced with white, yellow, red, and green. My mechanic, Mike, had managed to pound the hood more or less back into its original condition, which I'd bent out of shape while ramming a bad guy, but I hadn't had the money to repaint, so now the car had primer grey added to its ensemble.
Mouse had been growing too quickly to be very graceful ab
out getting out of the car. He filled up most of the backseat, and when climbing from there to the front and then out the drivers-side door he reminded me of some footage I've seen of an elephant seal flopping through a New Zealand parking lot. He emerged happily enough, though, panting and waving his tail contentedly. Mouse liked going places in the car. That the place had happened to be a clandestine meeting in a freaking graveyard didn't seem to spoil anything for him. It was all about the journey, not the destination. A very Zen soul, was Mouse.
Mister hadn't come back yet, and neither had Thomas. I tried not to think too hard about that. Mister had been on his own when I found him, and he frequently went rambling. He could take care of himself. Thomas had managed to survive for all but the last several months of his life without me. He could take care of himself too.
I didn't have to worry about either of them, right?
I disarmed my wards, the spells that protected my home from various supernatural intrusions, and slipped inside with Mouse. I built up the fire a bit, and the dog settled down in front of it with a pleased sigh. Then I ditched my coat, grabbed my thick old flannel robe and a Coke, and headed downstairs.
I live in a basement apartment, but a trapdoor underneath one of my rugs opens up on a folding wooden stair ladder that leads down to the subbasement and my lab. It's cold down there, year-round, which is why I wear the heavy robe. It's one more drop of romance sucked out of the wizarding mystique, but I stay comfortable.
"Bob," I said as I climbed down into the pitch-dark lab. "Warm up the memory banks. I've got work to do. "
The first lights in the room to flicker on were the size and golden-orange color of candle flames. They shone out from the eye sockets of a skull, slowly growing brighter, until I could see the entire shelf the skull rested upon-a simple wooden board on the wall, covered in candles, romance novels, a number of small items, and the pale human skull.
"About time," the skull mumbled. "It's been weeks since you needed me. "
" Tis the season," I said. "Most of the Halloween jobs start looking the same after a few years. No need to consult you when I already know the answers I need. "
"If you were so smart," Bob muttered, "you wouldn't need me now. "
"That's right," I told him. I pulled a box of kitchen matches out of my robe's pockets and began lighting candles. I started with a bunch of them on a metal table running down the center of the small room. "You're a spirit of knowledge, whereas I am only human. "
"Right," said Bob, drawing out the word. "Are you feeling all right, Harry?"
I continued on, lighting candles on the white wire shelves and workbenches on the three walls in a C shape around the long steel table. My shelves were still crowded with plastic dishes, lids, coffee cans, bags, boxes, tins, vials, flasks, and every other kind of small container you can imagine, filled with all kinds of substances as mundane as lint and as exotic as octopus ink. I had several hundred pounds' worth of books and notebooks on the shelves, some arranged neatly and some stacked hastily where they'd been when last I left them. I hadn't been down to the lab for a while, and I don't allow the faeries access, so there was a little bit of dust over everything.
"Why do you ask?" I said.
"Well," Bob said, his tone careful, "you're complimenting me, which is never good. Plus lighting all of your candles with matches. "
"So?" I said.
"So you can light all the candles with that stupid little spell you made up," Bob said. "And you keep dropping the box because of your burned hand. So it's taken you seven matches now to keep lighting those candles. "
I fumbled and dropped the matchbox again from my stiff, gloved fingers.
"Eight," he said.
I suppressed a growl, struck a fresh match, and did it too forcefully, snapping it.
"Nine," Bob said.
"Shut up," I told him.
"You got it, boss. I'm the best at shutting up. " I lit the last few candles, and Bob said, "So did you come down here to get my help when you start working on your new blasting rod?"
"No," I said. "Bob, I've only got the one hand. I can't carve it with one hand. "
"You could use a vise grip," the skull suggested.
"I'm not ready," I said. My maimed fingers burned and throbbed. "I'm just. . . not. "
"You'd better get ready," Bob said. "It's only a matter of time before some nasty shows up and-"
I shot the skull a hard look.
"All right, all right," Bob said. If he had hands, the skull would have raised them in a gesture of surrender. "So you're telling me you still won't use any fire magic. "
"Stars and stones. " I sighed. "So I'm using matches instead of my candle spell and I'm too busy to get the new blasting rod done. It's not a big deal. There's just not much call for blowing anything up or burning it to cinders on my average day. "
"Harry?" Bob asked. "Are your feet wet? And can you see the pyramids?"
I blinked. "What?"
"Earth to Dresden," Bob said. "You are standing knee-deep in de Nile. "
I threw the matchbook at the skull. It bounced off halfheartedly, and the few matches left in tumbled out at random. "Keep your inner psychoanalyst to your damned self," I growled. "We've got work to do. "
"Yeah," Bob said. "You're right, Harry. What do I know about anything?"
I glowered at Bob, and pulled up my stool to the worktable. I got out a notebook and a pencil. "The question of the hour is, what do you know about something called The Word of Kemmler?"
Bob made a sucking sound through his teeth, which is fairly impressive given that he's got no saliva to work with. Or maybe I'm giving him too much credit. I mean, he can make a B sound with no lips, too. "Can you give me a reference point or anything?"
"Not for certain," I said. "But I have a gut instinct that says it has something to do with necromancy. "
Bob made a whistling sound. "I hope not. "
"Why?" I asked.
"Because that Kemmler was a certifiable nightmare," Bob said. "I mean, wow. He was sick, Harry. Evil. "
That got my attention. Bob the skull was an air spirit, a being that existed in a world of knowledge without morality. He was fairly fuzzy on the whole good-evil conflict, and as a result he had only vague ideas of where lines got drawn. If Bob thought someone was evil, well. . . Kemmler must have really pushed the envelope.
"What'd he do?" I asked. "What made him so evil?"
"He was best known for World War One," Bob said.
"The whole thing?" I demanded.
"Mostly, yeah," Bob said. "There were about a hundred and fifty years of engineering built into it, and he had his fingers into all kinds of pies. He vanished at the end of hostilities and didn't show up again until he started animating mass graves during World War Two. Went on rampages out in Eastern Europe, where things were pretty much a nightmare even without his help. Nobody is sure how many people he killed. "
"Stars and stones," I said. "Why would he do something like that?"
"A wild guess? He was freaky insane. Plus evil. "
"You say 'was,'" I said. "Past tense?"
"Very," Bob said. "After what the guy did, the White Council hunted him down and wiped his dusty ass out in 1961. "
"You mean the Wardens?"
"I mean the White Council," Bob said. "The Merlin, the whole Senior Council, the brute squad out of Archangel, the Wardens, and every wizard and ally the wizards could get their hands on. "
I blinked. "For one man?"
"See above, regarding nightmare," Bob said. "Kemmler was a necromancer, Harry. Power over the dead. He had truck with demons, too, was buddies with most of the vampire Courts, every nasty in Europe, and some of the uglier faeries, too. Plus he had his own little cadre of baby Kemmlers to help him out. Apprentices. And thugs of every description. "
"Damn," I said.
"Doubtless he was," Bob said. "They killed
him pretty good. A bunch of times. He'd shown up again after the Wardens had killed him early in the nineteenth century, so they were real careful the second time. And good riddance to the psychotic bastard. "
I blinked. "You knew him?"
"Didn't I ever tell you?" Bob asked. "He was my owner for about forty years. "
I stared. "You worked with this monster?"
"I do what I do," Bob said proudly.
"How did Justin get you, then?"
"Justin DuMorne was a Warden, Harry, back at Kemmler's last stand. He pulled me out of the smoldering ruins of Kemmler's lab. Sort of like when you pulled me out of the smoldering ruins of Justin's lab when you killed him. Circle of life, like that Elton John song. "
I felt more than a little tiny bit cold. I chewed on my lip and laid my pencil down. I had the feeling the rest of this conversation was not going to be something I wanted to create a written record of. "So what is the Word of Kemmler, Bob?"
"Not a clue," Bob said.
I glowered. "What do you mean, not a clue? I thought you were his skull Friday. "
"Well, yeah," Bob said. His eyelights nickered suddenly, a nervous little dance. "I don't remember very much of it. "
I snorted out a laugh. "Bob. You never forget anything. "
"No," Bob said. His voice shrank into something very small. "Unless I want to, Harry. "
I frowned and took a deep breath. "You're saying that you chose to forget things about Kemmler. "
"Or was compelled to," Bob said. "Um. Harry, can I come out? Just inside the lab? You know, while we talk. "
I blinked a couple of times. Bob was full of mischief on the best of days. I didn't let him out except on specific intelligence-gathering missions anymore. And while he often pestered me to let him out on one of his perverted minirampages, he had never asked permission to leave his skull for the duration of a chat. "Sure," I told him. "Stay inside the lab and be back in the skull at the end of this conversation. "
"Right," Bob said. A small cloud of glowing motes of light the size of campfire sparks came sailing out of the skull's eyes and darted to the far corner of the lab. "So anyway, when are we going to work on the new blasting rod?"
"Bob," I said. "We're talking about The Word of Kemmler. "
The lights shot restlessly over to the other side of the lab, swirling through the steps on my stair ladder in a glowing helix. "You're talking about The Word of Kemmler," Bob said. The glowing cloud stretched, motes now spiraling up and down the stairs simultaneously. "I'm working on my Vegas act. Lookit, I'm DNA. "
"Would you stop goofing around? Can you remember anything at all about Kemmler?"
Bob's voice quavered, the motes becoming a vague cloud again. "I can. "
"Then tell me what you know. "
"Is that a command?"
I blinked. "Do I have to make it one?"
"You don't want to command me to remember, Harry. "
"Why not?" I demanded.
The cloud of lights drifted in vague loops around the lab. "Because knowledge is what I am. Losing my knowledge of what I knew of Kemmler took away a. . . a big piece of my existence. Like if someone had cut off your arm. What's left of what I know of Kemmler is close to the missing pieces. "
I thought I started to understand him. "It hurts. "
The lights swirled uncertainly. "It also hurts. It's more than that. "
"If it hurts," I said, "I'll stop, and you can forget it again when we're done talking. "
"But- " Bob said.
"It's a command, Bob. Tell me. "
It was a bizarre sight. The cloud of lights shivered for a second, as if in a trembling breath of wind, and then abruptly just shifted, flickering to one side as quickly as if I had been looking at it with one eye closed and suddenly switched to the other.
"Kemmler," Bob said. "Right. " The lights came to rest on the other end of the table in the shape of a perfect sphere. "What do you want to know, wizard?"
I watched the lights warily, but nothing seemed all that wrong. Other than the fact that Bob was suddenly calm. And geometric. "Tell me what The Word of Kemmler is. "
The lights pulsed scarlet. "Knowledge. Truth. Power. "
"Uh," I said, "a little more specific?"
"The master wrote down his teachings, wizard, so that those who came after him could learn from him. Could learn about the true power of magic. "
"You mean," I said, "so that they could learn about necromancy. "
Bob's voice took on the edge of a sneer. "What you call magic is nothing but a mound of parlor tricks, beside the power to master life and death itself. "
"That's an opinion, I guess," I said.
"More than that," Bob said. "It is a truth. A truth that reveals itself to those who seek it out. "
"What do you mean?" I said slowly.
There was a flash, and a pair of white eyes formed in the glittering cloud of red points of light. They weren't pleasant. "Shall I show you the start of the path?" Bob's voice said. "Death, Dresden, is a part of you. It is woven into the fabric of your being. You are a collection of pieces, each of them dying and in turn being reborn and remade. "
The white lights were cold. Not mountain-spring cold, either. Graveyard-mist cold. But I'd never seen anything quite like them before.
And there was no sense interrupting Bob when he was finally spilling some information.
Besides. Fascinating light.
"Dead flesh adorns you even now. Nails. Hair. You tend them and caress them like any other mortal. Your women decorate them. Entice with them. Death is not a thing to be feared, boy. She is a lover who waits to take you into her arms. You can feel her, if you know what her touch is like. Cold, slow, sweet. "
He was right. A cold, tingling nonfeeling was glittering over my fingernails and my scalp. For a second I thought that it hurt, but then I realized that it was only a shivering sensation where that cold energy brushed close to the blood pulsing beneath my skin. It was where they met that it felt uncomfortable. Without the blood, the cold would be a pure, endless sweetness.
"Take a little of death inside, boy. And it will lead you to more. Open your mouth. "
I did. I was staring at the light in any case, and it was amazing enough to merit a bit of gaping. I barely noticed a frozen mote of dark blue light, like the corpse of a tiny star, that appeared from one of the spirit's white eyes and began drifting toward my mouth. The cold sensation grew, and it hit my tongue like a thermonuclear peppermint, freezing hot, searingly bitter and sweet and-
- and wrong. I spat it out, recoiling, throwing my arms up in front of my face. I fell to the floor, numbness spreading.
"Too late!" crowed the spirit. It shot into the air, swirling around over me, gloating. "Whatever you have done to my thoughts, the master will not be pleased that you have meddled with his servant. "
The cold started spreading, and it wasn't purely physical. There was an empty, heartless void to it, a starless, frozen quality that raked at me- not just my body, but me-with a mindless hunger. And I could feel it sending tendrils out through me, slowing my heartbeat, making it impossible to breathe.
"Do you know how long I've been waiting for that?" the spirit purred, drifting back and forth over me. "Sitting there locked behind my own thoughts? Waiting for the chance to fight free? Finally, you thick-witted ogre, I get to leave your stupidity behind. "
"Bob," I choked out. "This conversation is over. "
The spirit's scarlet lights flared to sudden, incandescent rage and it screamed, a wailing sound that rattled my shelves and felt like it was splitting my head. Then the cloud was ripped backward across the room, sucked into the eyeholes of the skull as though down a hellish drain.
Once of the last of the motes went flickering back into the skull, the horrible cold faltered a little, and I curled up, focusing my will and trying to push it away. It took me a while, and that hi
deous void-presence lingered against my fingernails, even after I could feel my fingers again, but after a little while I was able to sit up.
After that I just curled up my knees against my chest, shocked and scared half out of my mind. I had always known that Bob was an incredibly valuable asset, and that no spirit with as much knowledge as he had could be weak. But I had not been at all prepared for the sheer power he had wielded, or for the malice with which he did it. Bob wasn't supposed to be a sleeping nightmare waiting to wake up. Bob was supposed to be my wisecracking porta-geek.
Good Lord, I couldn't remember the last time I'd confronted a demon with that much raw psychic power. If I'd been a second slower, or- stars and stones-if I hadn't remembered the condition that would banish Bob back to the skull and once again remove the dark memories, I'd be dead now. Or maybe dead and then some.
And it would have been my own stupid fault, too.
"Harry?" Bob said.
I flinched and let out a small squeaking sound. Then I got hold of myself and blinked up at the skull. It rested on its shelf, and its orange-gold eye lights were back to their usual color. "Oh. Hey. "
Bob's voice was very quiet. "Your lips are blue. "
"What happened?" Bob asked.
"It got kind of cold in here. "
"I'm sorry, Harry," Bob said. "I tried to tell you. "
"I know," I said. "I had no idea. "
"Kemmler was bad, Harry," Bob said. "He. . . he took what I was. And he twisted it. I destroyed most of my memories of my time with him, and I locked away everything I couldn't. Because I didn't want to be like that. "
"You won't," I told him quietly. "Now hear this, Bob. I command you never to recover those memories again. Never to let them out again. Never to obey any command to unleash them again. From here on out they sleep with the fishes. Understand me?"
"If I do," Bob said carefully, "I won't be able to do much to help you, Harry. You'll be on your own. "
"Let me worry about that," I said. "It's a command, Bob. "
The skull let out a slow sigh of relief. "Thank you, Harry. "
"Don't mention it," I said. "Literally. "
"Right," he said.
"Okay. Let's see," I said. "Can you still remember general information about Kemmler?"
"Nothing you couldn't find in other places. But general knowledge I learned when Justin was with the Wardens, yes. "
"All right, then. You-that is, that other you-said that Kemmler had written down his teachings, when I asked him what The Word of Kemmler was. So I figure it's a book. "
"Maybe," Bob said. "Council records stated that Kemmler had written three books; The Blood of Kemmler, The Mind of Kemmler, and The Heart of Kemmler. "
"He published them?"
"Self- published," Bob said. "He started spreading them around Europe. "
"Resulting in what?"
"Way too many penny-ante sorcerers getting their hands on some real necromancy. "
I nodded. "What happened?"
"The Wardens put on their own epic production of Fahrenheit 451," Bob said. "They spent about twenty years finding and destroying copies. They think they accounted for all of them. "
I whistled. "So if The Word of Kemmler is a fourth manuscript?"
"That could be bad," Bob said.
"Because some of Kemmler's disciples escaped the White Council's dragnet," Bob said. "They're still running around. If they get a new round of necro-at-home lessons to expand their talents, they could use it to do fairly horrible things. "
"Black wizards, yes," Bob said.
"Four or five at the most, but the Wardens' information was very sketchy. "
"Doesn't sound like anything the Wardens can't handle," I said.
"Unless what's in the fourth book contains the rest of what Kemmler had to teach them," Bob said. "In which case, we might end up with four or five Kemmlers running around. "
"Holy crap," I said. I plunked my tired ass down on my stool and rubbed at my head. "And it's no coincidence that it's almost Halloween. "
"The season when the barriers between the mortal realm and the spirit world will be weakest," Bob said.
"Like when that asshole the Nightmare was hunting down my friends," I said. I peered at Bob. "But for him to do that, he had to weaken the barriers even more. He and Bianca had tormented all those ghosts to start making the barriers more unstable. Would it have to be ghosts to stir up the kind of turbulence you'd need for big magic?"
"No," Bob said. "But that's one way. Otherwise you'd have to use some rituals or sacrifices of one kind or another. "
"You mean deaths," I said.
I frowned, nodding. "They'd have to invest some energy early to get things moving for a big necromantic working. Like bouncing on a diving board a couple of times before you jump. "
"An accurate, if crude aphorism," Bob said. "You'd have to do a little prework if you wanted to start working Kemmler-level necromancy, even on Halloween. " He sighed. "Though that doesn't really help you much. "
I got up and headed for the stepladder. "It helps more than you know, man. I'm getting you new romances. "
The skull's eye lights brightened. "You are? I mean, of course you are. But why?"
"Because if someone's setting up for big bad juju, they'll have left bodies. If they've done that, then I have a place to start tracking them and finding out what's going on. "
"Harry?" Bob called up as I left the lab. "Where are you going?"
I stuck my head back down the trapdoor and said, "The morgue. "