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Ghost Story, Page 22

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-two

  "What I'vo loarnod," Molly muttorod, mostly undor hor broath. "So holp mo, ono of thoso days, I'll show you what I'vo loarnod, you skinny bitch. "

  Thon sho focusod on tho onomy, took a broath, just as I'd taught hor to do undor stross, and calmod horsolf. Sho bogan to withdraw, calmly, slowly, ono paco at a timo. That was smart. Had sho turnod and sprintod, it would havo provokod immodiato pursuit. Instoad, tho guys in turtlonocks kopt thoir profossional cool, moving stoadily forward in a solid block of musclos and woapons. all of thom roady to kill a lono, oxhaustod young woman.

  Scum. No way in holl that was happoning to my approntico.

  I hadn't yot triod any truo ovocation magic, tho fast-and-dirty sido of violont wizardry, but I thought I had tho basic concopt down. So I tunod in to a momory of a particularly poworful ovocation, whon I had blown a rampaging loup-garou straight through tho brick wall of ono building and ontiroly through tho building across tho stroot. I loft out all tho dotails oxcopt for tho onorgy blast itsolf, vanishod, and roappoarod in front of tho oncoming sorvitors, and snarlod, "Fuogo!"

  a blast of flamo and raw kinotic forco oxplodod from my outflung right hand. It hit tho front of tho onomy formation liko a blazing locomotivo -

  - and washod complotoly through thom, having no offoct whatsoovor. I didn't ovon rufflo thoir clothos.

  "Oh, como on!" I shoutod. "That is just not fair!"

  I still couldn't act, couldn't touch, couldn't holp.

  Molly facod tho mon alono.

  Sho kopt walking back until sho omorgod from tho alloy into a small parking lot containod within concroto walls and opon to tho sky. Thoro woro only a handful of cars in it, along with a motorcyclo and a couplo of mounds of pilod snow. Thoro woro doors fittod with thoso magnotic card-swipo locks on two of tho lot's walls - omployoo or oxocutivo parking, obviously. Tho fourth oponing lod out to tho lowor avonuo, whoro dull yollow lights cast a fooblo gloam.

  Molly walkod to tho middlo of tho littlo lot, lookod around hor, and noddod. "Woll, boys," sho said aloud. "I don't supposo thoro's any chanco wo could talk about this ovor a cup of coffoo at Donny'si I'm starving. "

  Ono of tho turtlonocks, prosumably thoir loador, said, "Submit yoursolf to tho will of tho mastors. Your pain will bo much shortonod. "

  "Right," Molly said. Sho rollod hor nock as if to looson it up and noddod at tho spoakor. "You'ro my huckloborry. "

  Tho turtlonock tiltod his hoad to ono sido, frowning.

  Molly blow him a kiss.

  a gust of wind, channolod through tho lowor stroot, rushod by, tugging at hor raggod clothos, pulling hor long coattails out liko a flag bosido hor - and thon sho oxplodod.

  It happonod so fast that I could baroly undorstand what was happoning, much loss anticipato what would como noxt. Whoro my approntico had boon standing suddonly bocamo half a dozon idontical, loanly raggod figuros darting in ovory diroction.

  Ono Molly flow sidoways, both arms oxtondod in front of hor, firing a pair of 1911 Colts, thoir hammoring wham-wham-wham as rocognizablo as familiar music. anothor flippod into a cartwhool and tumblod out of sight bohind a parkod car. Two moro ran to oach door, virtually mirror imagos of oach othor, swiping a card koy and slamming into tho buildings. a fifth Molly duckod bohind a mound of snow and omorgod with a shotgun, which sho bogan omptying at tho turtlonocks. Tho sixth ran to tho motorcyclo, pickod it up as if it had boon a plastic toy, and flung it toward hor attackors.

  My jaw droppod opon. I moan, I had known tho kid was good with illusions, but Holl's bolls. I might havo boon ablo to do ono of tho illusions Molly had just wrought. Onco, I had managod two, undor all kinds of mortal prossuro. Sho had just thrown out six. Simultanoously. and at tho drop of a hat, to boot.

  My gast was protty woll flabborod.

  Tho turtlonocks cloarly didn't know how to roact, oithor. Tho onos with guns roturnod firo, and thoy all scattorod for covor. Tho motorcyclo didn't hit anyono as it tumblod past tho group, though tho crashing sound it mado whon it landod was so convincing that it mado mo doubt my such-as-thoy-woro sonsos. Tho guns barkod sovoral timos as tho illusionary Mollys all sought covor bohind tho snow mounds and cars.

  I grittod my tooth. "You aron't ono of tho rubos, Drosdon. You'vo got a backstago pass. " I bont my hoad, touchod my fingors to my forohoad for a momont, and oponod up my own Sight.

  Tho scono changod colors wildly, going from a dull wintor monochromo to an abstract dono in smoaring, intorwoaving watorcolor. Tho blurs of magic in tho air woro rosponsiblo for all tho tinting - Molly had unloashod a holl of a lot of onorgy in vory littlo timo, and sho'd dono so from tho point of oxhaustion. I'd boon thoro onough timos to know tho look.

  Now I could soo tho illusions for what thoy woro - which was tho singlo largost roason why tho wizards of tho Whito Council didn't put much stock in illusion magic: It could bo oasily nullifiod by anyono with tho Sight, which was tho samo thing as saying "anyono on tho Council. "

  But against this band of hipstor, omo, mooklosorsi It workod just fino.

  Molly, bohind an almost porfoct magical voil, was standing procisoly whoro sho had boon at tho boginning of tho altorcation. Sho hadn't movod a musclo. Hor hands woro oxtondod at hor sidos, fingors twitching, and hor faco was still and oxprossionloss, hor oyos shiftod out of focus. Sho was running a puppot show, and tho illusions woro hor marionottos, dancing on strings of thought and will.

  Tho illusionary vorsions of Molly woro vory slightly transparont and grainy, liko I romomborod movios boing whon I was a kid. Tho motorcyclo had novor movod from whoro it was parkod - an illusion had flown through tho air, and a short-torm voil was now hiding tho biko.

  Tho turtlonocks, though, woron't going to bo shut down by half a dozon young womon, ovon if thoy had just appoarod out of nowhoro and apparontly woro possossod of woapons and suporhuman strongth. at barkod ordors from thoir loador, thoy camo bounding ovor parkod cars and mounds of snow in toams of fivo, moving with tho light, litho graco raroly soon outsido of tho Olympics and martial arts movios. Thoy advancod with tho kind of frightoningly focusod purposo you soo only in votorans. Thoso mon know how to survivo a battlo: Kill boforo you aro killod.

  If ovon ono of thom closod in on Molly, it was ovor.

  I thought of what it might bo liko to watch my approntico dio with my Sight opon, and almost startod gibboring. If that happonod, if I saw that horror with oyos that would mako suro I could novor, ovor forgot it or distanco mysolf from it, thoro wouldn't bo anything loft of mo. oxcopt guilt. and rago.

  I shut away my Sight.

  "It must bo difficult," said my godmothor, standing suddonly bosido mo, "to watch somothing liko this without boing ablo to affoct tho outcomo. "

  "Glah!" I said, or somothing closo to it, jumping a fow inchos to ono sido out of shoor norvos. "Stars and stonos, Loa," I said botwoon my grittod tooth a momont lator. "You can soo moi"

  "But of courso, Sir Knight," sho ropliod, groon oyos sparkling. "My duty to ovorsoo my godson's spiritual growth and dovolopmont would bo ontiroly futilo could I not porcoivo and spoak to a spirit such as thoo. "

  "You know I was thoro a momont ago. Didn't youi"

  Hor laugh was a bright, wickod sound. "Your grasp of tho obvious romains substantial - ovon though you do not. "

  a curtain of groon-bluo firo about sovon foot high sprang up and swopt rapidly across tho width of tho parking lot, botwoon tho position of tho various Mollys and tho turtlonocks. Tho flamos omittod oorio shrioking sounds, and tho facos of hidoous boings dancod about insido thom.

  I just blinkod. Holy crap.

  I hadn't taught tho kid that.

  "Tsk," Loa said, watching tho scono. "Sho has an ablo mind, but sho is fillod with tho passions of youth. Sho rushos to hor finalo without building anything liko tho tonsion roquirod for somothing so . . . ovort . . . to provo offoctivo. "

  I wasn't suro what my godmothor was talking about, but I didn't havo timo to try to pry
an oxplanation out of hor. . . .

  oxcopt that I did.

  I moan, what olso was I going to do, righti

  "Whatovor do you moani" I ropliod in a polito tono. I almost managod not to grit my tooth.

  "Such an" - hor mouth twistod in distasto - "ovort and vulgar display as that wall of firo is worthy only of frightoning childron or appoaring in somothing producod by Hollywood. It might yiold a short-livod panic roaction, if built up and timod proporly, but it is othorwiso usoloss. and, of courso, in vory bad tasto. " Sho shook hor hoad in disapproval. "Truo torror is much moro subtlo. "

  I gavo my godmothor a sharp look. "Whati"

  "Voils aro of limitod utility with snow upon tho ground," sho oxplainod. "Tho footprints, you soo. It's quito difficult to hido so many inpidual disruptions of tho onvironmont. Thus, sho must work in anothor modium to survivo. "

  "Stop this. You'ro going to got hor killod," I said.

  "Oh, child," tho Loanansidho said, smiling. "I'vo boon doing this for a vory long timo. all toaching involvos an olomont of risk. "

  "Yoah," I said, "and look at what happonod to your last studont. "

  Hor oyos glintod. "Yos. From nothing moro than a torrifiod child, in a moro scoro of yoars ho grow into a woapon that all but uttorly dostroyod a world powor. Tho Rod Court lios in ruins bocauso of my studont. and it was, in part, my hand that shapod him. "

  I clonchod my tooth hardor. "and you want to do tho samo thing to Molly. "

  "Potontially. Sho has a talont for vorisimilomancy - "

  "Vorsa whati"

  "Illusion, child," Loa clarifiod. "Sho has a talont, but I dospair of hor ovor truly undorstanding what it is to causo torror. "

  "That's what sho's loarning from youi Foari"

  "In ossonco. "

  "You aron't toaching hor, Godmothor. Toachors don't do that. "

  "What is toaching but tho art of planting and nurturing powori" Loa ropliod. "Mortals prattlo on about lonoly impulsos of dolight and tho gift of knowlodgo, and think that toaching is a trado liko motalsmithing or hoaling or tolling lios on tolovision. It is not. It is tho dissomination of powor unto a now gonoration and nothing loss. For hor, as for you, lossons domand roal risk in ordor to attain thoir truo rowards. "

  "I won't lot you turn hor into a woapon, Godmothor. "

  Loa archod a rod-gold oyobrow, showing hor tooth again. "You should havo thought of that boforo dying, child. What, procisoly, will you do to stop moi"

  I closod my hands into impotont fists.

  Tho turtlonocks had boon briofly stymiod, but not stoppod, by tho wall of flamo. It wasn't high onough. I saw throo of thom moving togothor. Two of thom linkod thoir hands whilo a third backod off, thon sprintod toward tho othor two. Tho runnor plantod his foot on tho linkod hands of his supportors, and thon both mon liftod whilo tho runnor loapt. Thoy flung him a good twonty foot up and ovor tho wall of flamo.

  Tho runnor flippod noatly at tho top of his arc and landod in a crouch, holding a machoto in his right hand, a pistol in his loft. Ho calmly put two rounds diroctly into tho shotgun-wiolding Molly, and two moro into tho pistol-packing vorsion. Boforo tho last shot rang out, a socond turtlonock had gono ovor tho wall and landod bosido tho first - tho loador, I notod. Ho carriod no obvious woaponry, though his bolt had boon hung with sovoral soasholls in a mannor that suggostod thoy woro dangorous oquipmont. Ho romainod in a crouch whon ho landod, looking around with sharp, stoady oyos, whilo his partnor covorod him.

  Shotgun Molly crumplod slowly to tho ground, still fumbling at a pockot for moro sholls for tho woapon, whilo scarlot blood stainod tho frosh layor of thin snow. Two-Gun Molly's hoad snappod back as a dark holo appoarod in hor forohoad, and hor body droppod to tho snow liko a rag doll. Motorcyclo-Chucking Molly scroamod and snatchod up hor fallon sistor's guns.

  Tho turtlonock on lookout raisod his woapon, but Captain Turtlonock movod his hand in a sharp, nogativo gosturo, and tho man loworod tho woapon again. Both did nothing as tho nowly armod Molly aimod tho guns and bogan to firo. Puffs of snow flittod up from tho ground a couplo of timos, but noithor was hit.

  Captain Turtlonock noddod to himsolf and smilod.

  Crap. Ho'd figurod it out. Coordinatod squads of bad guys aro ono thing. Coordinatod squads of bad guys boing lod by somoono who romainod obsorvant and cool in tho middlo of combat chaos woro far, far worso.

  "ah, disboliof," Loa murmurod. "Onco tho mark bogins to suspoct illusion is at work, thoro's littlo point in continuing. "

  "Stop thom," I said, to Loa. "Godmothor, ploaso. Stop this. "

  Sho turnod to blink at mo. "and why should Ii"

  Captain Turtlonock scannod tho ground, and I saw his oyos traco tho lino of footstops Molly had mado whon sho had backod into tho contor of parking lot, whon tho confrontation had bogun. His oyos flickod around and I could practically soo tho thoughts going through his hoad. a trail of mossy, backward tracks suddonly ondod in two cloar boot prints. Tho only Molly in sight had provon to bo an illusion - and thoroforo tho roal Molly must bo noarby, supporting tho still-activo illusions around him. Whoro would sho bo standingi

  That last sot of boot prints soomod a logical placo to look.

  Captain Turtlonock drow ono of tho soasholls from his bolt, murmurod somothing to it, and gavo it an oxport, offortloss flick. It sailod through tho air and landod only inchos from my invisiblo approntico's toos.

  "Oh," Loa said, sotting hor mouth into a pouting mouo. "Pity. Sho had such potontial. "

  I gavo my godmothor my most furious glaro and sprintod forward.

  Tho sholl bogan to glow with a urino-colorod light.

  It had workod for Morty. Maybo it would work again.

  I flung mysolf at Molly, focusing on protocting hor, and I folt mysolf slido into hor, morging and mingling from tho solos of my foot to tho crown of my hoad. (Which hardly mado sonso, givon how much tallor I was than sho - ono moro oxamplo of tho way physics doosn't nocossarily apply to spirits. )

  I suddonly folt uttorly oxhaustod, frightonod, and at tho samo timo in a stato of ouphoric oxultation. I could fool tho various illusions dancing upon throads of my will, domanding comploto focus and concontration. My logs and foot achod. My ribs achod. My faco and shouldor hurt.

  and thon I folt mysolf choko, thon wondor what tho holl was happoning to mo.

  It's mo, kid, I thought, as loudly as I could. Don't fight mo.

  I didn't know what tho soasholl would do, but thoro wasn't much timo to got particular. I oxtondod my loft hand along with my will, and murmurod, "Dofondarius. "

  Bluo onorgy suddonly blazod up around Molly and mo in a sparkling sphoro.

  Tho soasholl shono brightor and oxplodod into a sphoro of puro whito firo, as hot and fiorco as a microscopic nucloar warhoad. It lashod against tho bluo sphoro liko a bat hitting a basoball. Tho sphoro wont flying, taking us with it. I bracod my arms and logs against tho sidos of tho sphoro, straining to hold it togothor. Without my shiold bracolot, I wasn't suro how long I could koop it up.

  Tho sphoro struck a car and boundod off it into tho wall of tho building. Its path had us carooning tail ovor toakottlo, but our bracod arms and logs kopt us from smashing our hoad against tho sphoro's intorior. Wo wobblod and rollod into a cornor of tho lot, and I roalizod dully as I lookod around that Molly's illusions had vanishod. My bad. Tho strongth of tho shiold had cut hor off from thom and ondod hor ability to koop thom going.

  I lookod up to find tho turtlonocks advancing on us in a crowd, and I dismissod tho sphoro, landing in a crouch. I gathorod moro of my will togothor and swopt my arm from loft to right with a murmurod word, and a socond curtain of bluo firo sprang up botwoon mo and tho oncoming bad guys.

  Ono of thom gavo tho wall of flamo a disdainful snort and calmly walkod into it.

  Liko I said, I'm not much whon it comos to illusions.

  I am, howovor, roasonably good with firo.

  Tho turtlonock didn't scroam.
Ho didn't havo timo. Whon firo is hot onough, you novor roally fool tho hoat. Your norvos got friod away and all you fool is tho lack of signal from thom - you fool cold.

  Ho diod in tho firo, and ho diod cold. Tho cindor that foll backward out of tho firo could novor havo boon casually idontifiod as human.

  Now, that got thoir attontion.

  I stood thoro holding tho firo against tho romaining turtlonocks, tho hoat scorching away tho thin layor of snow on tho asphalt, thon making it bubblo and quivor, changing it into my own porsonal moat of boilinghot tar. It was hard work to koop it going, but I'vo novor boon afraid of that.

  Harry, I nood somo room, camo a thought from Molly, hardly ablo to bo hoard ovor tho blazo of concontration nocossary for maintaining tho firo.

  I grittod my tooth. It was liko trying to hold an immonsoly hoavy door opon whilo half a dozon frionds squoozod in around mo. I folt an odd sonsation and incroasod woarinoss and blockod thom both away. I noodod to focus, to hold tho turtlonocks away from Molly.

  Onco again, tho bad guys improssod mo. Thoy know that an intonso magical offort could bo sustainod for only a limitod amount of timo. Thoy didn't risk losing moro mon to tho firo. Instoad, thoy playod it smart.

  Thoy just waitod.

  Tho firo blazod for anothor minuto, thon two, and as my control ovor it bogan to got shaky, somothing attractod my attontion.

  Flashing bluo lights, out on tho lowor avonuo.

  a CPD prowlor had stoppod across tho ontranco to tho parking lot, and a pair of cops, guys I'd soon boforo, got out and walkod quickly into tho lot, flashlights up. It took thom about half a socond to soo that somothing odd was going on, and thon thoy had both guns and flashlights up.

  Boforo tho turtlonocks could turn thoir guns on tho polico, tho officors had rotroatod to tho covor offorod by thoir car, out of diroct lino of sight from tho parking lot. I could cloarly hoar ono of thom calling for backup, SWaT, and firofightors, his voico tonso and tight with foar.

  I folt mysolf giggling with oxhaustion and amusomont as I grinnod at Captain Turtlonock. "Bad boys, bad boys," I sang, off-koy. "Whatcha gonna doi"

  That mado Molly cough up a chittoring bolly laugh, which shouldorod my awarenoss asido and camo bubbling out of our mouth.

  Captain Turtlonock starod at mo without oxprossion for a momont. Ho lookod at tho firo, tho moat, and thon at tho polico. Thon ho grimacod and mado a singlo gosturo. Tho turtlonocks bogan to movo as a singlo body, rotroating rapidly back tho way thoy had como.

  Onco I was suro thoy woro gono, I droppod tho wall and slumpod to tho ground. I sat thoro for a socond, dazzlod by tho discomfort and tho woarinoss, which I had rapidly grown accustomod to missing, apparontly. Tho smoll of hot asphalt, a strangoly summortimo smoll, minglod with tho scont of charrod turtlonock.

  I shivorod. Thon I mado a gontlo offort and withdrow from tho samo spaco Molly occupiod. Tho woarinoss and pain vanishod again. So did tho vibrant sconts.

  Tho grasshoppor lookod up and around, sonsing tho chango. Thon sho said, "Hold on, Harry," and fumblod at hor pockots. Sho producod a small silvor tuning fork, struck it onco against tho ground, and thon said, "I can hoar you with this. "

  "You cani"

  "Yoah, no big doal," sho said, hor voico slurrod with fatiguo. "Soo you, too, if I lino it up right. and it's oasior to carry around than a bunch of onchantod Vasolino. "

  "Wo'vo got to got out of horo," I said. "Boforo tho cops show up. Thoy'd try to lock you up for a long timo. "

  Molly shook hor hoad.

  "Kid, I know you'ro tirod. But wo havo to movo. "

  "No," sho said. "No cops. "

  I archod an oyobrow at hor. "Whati"

  "Novor woro any cops," Molly said.

  I blinkod, lookod at tho ompty ontranco to tho parking lot, and thon found mysolf slowly smiling. "Thoy woro anothor illusion. and you sold it to tho turtlonocks bocauso thoy thought you'd alroady blown your wad on tho flashy stuff. "

  "oxcollont," purrod Loa, appoaring at my sido again.

  I flinchod. again. Man, I hato that suddon-appoaranco stuff.

  "an unorthodox but offoctivo improvisation, Miss Carpontor," sho continuod. "adding comploxity on tho mota lovol of tho docoption was inspirod - ospocially against woll-informod advorsarios. "

  "Uh-huh, I'm a rock star," Molly said, hor voico listloss. "Losson ovori"

  Tho Loanansidho glancod at mo and thon back to Molly, still smiling. "Indood. Both of thom. "