Small Favor, Page 13Jim Butcher
"Y ou're the one who wanted a conversation," I said. "And don't call me Harry. My friends call me Harry. "
He turned one hand palm up. "And who is to say I cannot be your friend?"
"That would be me, Nick. I say. Here, I'll show you. " I enunciated: "You can't be my friend. "
"If I am to call you Dresden, it is only fair that you should call me Archleone. "
"Archleone?" I asked. "As in 'seeking whom he may devour'? Kinda pretentious, isn't it?"
For half of a second, the smile turned into something almost genuine. "For a godless heathen, you are entirely too familiar with scripture. You know that I can kill you, do you not?"
"We'd make a mess," I said. "And who knows? I might get lucky. "
Really, really, really lucky.
Nicodemus moved a hand in acknowledgment. "But barring luck. "
"Yeah," I said.
"And you offer such insouciance regardless?"
"Habit," I said. "It doesn't make you special or anything, believe me. "
"Oh, I picked the right coin for you. " He started to walk in a slow circle around me, the way you might a car at the dealership. "There are rumors that a certain Warden has been flinging Hellfire at his foes. How do you like it?"
"I'd like it better if it came in Pine Fresh and New Car instead of only Rotting Egg," I said.
Nicodemus completed his circuit of me and arched an eyebrow. "You haven't taken up the coin. "
"I would, but it's in my piggybank," I said, "and I can't break the piggy, obviously. He's too cute. "
"Lasciel's shadow must be slipping," Nicodemus said, shaking his head. "It has had years to reason with you, and still you refuse our gifts. "
"What with the curly little tail and the big, sad brown eyes," I said, as if he hadn't said anything.
One of his heels hit the ground with unnecessary force, and he stopped walking. He inhaled through his nose and out again. "Definitely the proper coin for you. " He folded his hands carefully behind his back. "Dresden, you have a skewed image of us. We were operating at cross-purposes the first time we met, and you probably learned everything you know about us from Carpenter and his cohorts. The Church has always had excellent propaganda. "
"Actually, the murder, torture, and destruction you and your people perpetrated spoke pretty loudly all by themselves. "
Nicodemus rolled his eyes. "Dresden, please. You have done all of those things at one time or another. Poor Cassius told me all about what you did to him in the hotel room. "
"Gosh," I said, grinning. "If someone had walked in on us in the middle of that sentence, would my face be red or what?"
He stared at me for a second, and the emotion and expression drained out of his features like dewdrops vanishing under a desert sunrise. What was left behind was little more than desolation. "Harry Dresden," he said, so softly that I could barely make it out. "I admire your defiance of greater powers than your own. I always have. But tempus fugit. For all of us. "
For all of us? What the hell did he mean by that?
"Have you not seen the signs around you?" Nicodemus asked. "Beings acting against their natures? Creatures behaving in ways that they should not? The old conventions and customs being cast aside?"
I narrowed my eyes at him. "You're talking about the Black Council. "
He tilted his head slightly to one side. Then his mouth twitched at a corner and he nodded his head very slightly. "They move in shadows, manipulate puppets. Some of them may be on your Council, yes. As good a name as any. "
"Stop playing innocent," I spat at him. "I saw the leftovers of the Black Council attack on Arctis Tor. I know what Hellfire smells like. One of yours was in on it. "
Then he surged forward-fast. So fast that by the time I'd registered that he was moving, my back had already hit the wall that had been twenty feet behind me. He hadn't been trying to hurt me. If he had, the back of my head would have splattered open. He just pinned me there against the wall with one hand on my throat, tighter and harder than a steel vise.
"What?" he demanded, his voice still a whisper. His eyes, though, were very wide. Both sets of them. A second set, these glowing faintly green, had opened just above his eyebrows-Anduriel's, I presumed.
"Ack," I said. "Glarghk. "
His arm quivered for a second, and then he lowered his eyelids until they were almost closed. A moment later he very, very slowly relaxed his arm, allowing me to breathe again. My throat burned, but air came in, and I wheezed for a second or two while he stepped back from me.
I glared up at him and debated slamming him through one of those Corinthian columns by way of objecting to being manhandled. But I decided that I didn't want to piss him off.
Nicodemus's lips moved, but an entirely different voice issued from them-something musical, lyrical, and androgynous. "At least it has some survival instinct. "
Nicodemus shook his head as if buzzed by a mosquito and said, "Dresden, speak. "
"I'm not your friend," I said, my voice rough. "I'm not your damned dog, either. Conversation over. " I took a few steps to one side so that I could move around him without taking my eyes off him, and started to leave.
"Dresden," Nicodemus said. "Stop. "
I kept walking.
I was almost out of the room before he spoke again, resignation in his tone. "Please. "
I paused, without turning around.
"I. . . reacted inappropriately. Especially for this venue. I apologize. "
"Huh," I said, and looked over my shoulder. "Now I wish I had brought Michael. He'd have fainted. "
"Your friend and his brethren are tools of an organization with its own agenda, and they always have been," Nicodemus said. "But that's not the issue here. "
"No," I said. "The issue is Marcone. "
Nicodemus waved a hand. "Marcone is an immediate matter. There are long-term issues in play. "
I turned to face him and sighed. "I think you're probably full of crap. But okay, I'll bite. What long-term issues?"
"Those surrounding the activities of your Black Council," Nicodemus said. "Are you certain you saw evidence of Hellfire in use at the site of the attack on Arctis Tor?"
"Yes. " I didn't add the word dummy. Who says I ain't diplomatic?
Nicodemus's fingers flexed into the shape of claws and then relaxed again. He pursed his lips. "Interesting. Then the only question is if the contamination is among standing members of our Order or. . . " He let the thought trail off and glanced at me, lifting an eyebrow.
I followed the logic to the only other people in possession of any of the coins. "Someone in the Church," I whispered, with a sick feeling in my stomach.
"Historically speaking, we get about half of the coins back that way," Nicodemus noted. "What would you say if I told you that you and I might have a great many common interests in the future?"
"I wouldn't say much of anything," I said. "I'd be too busy laughing in your face. "
Nicodemus shook his head. "Shortsighted. You can't afford that. Come with me for a week and see if you feel the same way when we're done. "
"Even assuming I was stupid enough to go anywhere with you for an hour, much less a week, I saw how you treated Cassius. I'm not real eager to slide my nameplate onto his office door. "
"He didn't adjust to the times," Nicodemus replied with a shrug. "I wouldn't have been doing him any favors by coddling him. We live in a dangerous world, Dresden. One adapts and thrives or one dies. Living on the largesse of others is nothing but parasitism. I respected Cassius too much to let him devolve to that. "
"Gosh, you're chatty," I said. "You were right. This is so much fun. It's almost like. . . "
A horrible thought hit me.
Nicodemus was many things, but he wasn't a fool. He knew I wasn't going to sign o
n for his team. Not after the way he treated me the last time we'd met. He knew that nothing he said was going to sway me. I might have surprised him with that little nugget of information about Arctis Tor, but that could have been an act, too. All in all, odds were high that this conversation was accomplishing absolutely nothing, and Nicodemus had to know that.
So why was he having it? I asked myself.
Because the goal of the conversation doesn't have anything to do with the subject or the context of the conversation, I answered.
He wasn't here to talk to me about anything or convince me of anything.
He wanted to talk to me and keep me here.
Which meant that something else was about to happen somewhere else.
Wheels within wheels.
My God, it was a metaphor.
This conversation was a metaphor for the parley as a whole. Nicodemus hadn't come to talk to us about violations of the Accords. He'd engineered the parley, and his motivation had nothing to do with subverting Marcone's talents to the service of a Fallen angel.
He was after bigger game.
I whipped my staff toward Nicodemus, slamming my will through it in a surge of panicked realization, screaming "Forzare!" as I did. Unseen force lifted him from his feet and slammed him into one of the huge Corinthian columns like a cannonball. Stone shattered with a deafening crash like thunder, and a lot of rock started to fall.
I didn't stick around to see how much. It wouldn't kill him. I only hoped it would slow him down enough for me to get to the others.
"Kincaid!" I shouted as I ran. My voice boomed through the empty halls in the wake of the collapsing rubble. "Kincaid!"
I knew I had only seconds before all Hell broke loose.
"Kincaid, get the kid out of here!" I screamed. "They're coming for Ivy!"
M y brain flew along a lot faster than my feet.
Given the heavy snow outside, the first line of retreat the Archive would take would be into the Nevernever. The spirit world touches on the mortal world at all places and at all times. It gets weird once you realize that totally alien regions of the Nevernever might touch upon relatively close points in the real world. Crossing into the Nevernever is dangerous unless you know exactly where you're going-I don't use it as a fallback very often at all. But if you've really got your back to the wall, and you have more experience than I do at crossing over, you can get a feel for the crossing and almost always get to someplace relatively benign.
I figured it was safe to assume that the Archive would be savvy enough to feel comfortable stepping over-in fact, she would have chosen this location for the parley for precisely that reason. The Denarians would know it too, and they didn't want the Archive to escape their ambush and come back loaded for bear. They would have prepared countermeasures, much as they had for Marcone.
No, scratch that. Exactly the way they had for Marcone, I realized. The huge spell that had been used to tear apart the defenses of the crime lord's panic room hadn't simply been a way for the Denarians to secure the bait in this scheme. It had been a field test for their means to cut off the magical energy from a large area, and access to the Nevernever with it-and to imprison something big at the same time.
It was a bear trap, custom-designed for Ivy. They were going to spring that monstrous pentagram again.
Only this time I was going to be standing inside it when it happened.
Fortunately, the Shedd was a lot squattier and more stable than Marcone's old apartment building had been-though that didn't mean pieces big enough to kill people wouldn't fall when the beam ripped through the walls. And though a lot of stonework was used, there was still the danger of fire.
Fire. In an aquarium. Breathe in the irony.
But more important, once that pentagram came up-and it was coming now; I could feel it, a faint stirring of power that slid along the edges of my wizard's senses like some huge and hungry snake passing by in the darkness-it was going to shut the building off from the rest of the world, magically speaking. That meant that I wasn't going to be able to draw in any power to use to defend myself, any more than I'd be able to breathe if someone plunged my head underwater.
Usually, when you work a spell, you reach out into the environment around you and pull in energy. It flows in from everywhere, from the fabric of life in the whole planet. You don't create a "hole" in the field of energy we call "magic. " It all pours in together, levels out instantly, all across the world. But the circle about to go up was going to change that. The relatively tiny area inside the Shedd would contain only so much energy. Granted, it would be a fairly rich spot-there was a lot of life in the building, and it had hosted a lot of visitors generating a lot of emotions, especially the energy given off by all those children. But even so, it was a sealed box, and given the number of people present who knew how to use magic, the local supply wasn't going to last long.
Try to imagine a knife fight in an airtight phone booth-lots of heavy breathing and exertion, but not for long.
One way or the other, not for long.
That was their plan, of course. Without magic to draw upon, I was pretty much just a scrappy guy with a gun, whereas Nicodemus was still a nigh-invincible engine of destruction.
For a few seconds my steps slowed.
Put that way, it almost sounded a little crazy of me to be rushing into this. I mean, I was basically opting for a cage match with a collection of demons, and one that I would have to win within a matter of seconds or not at all-and I hadn't been all that impressive against the Denarians when I'd had relatively few constraints on what power I could wield against them.
I did some mental math. If the symbol the Denarians were using was approximately the same size as the one at Marcone's place, it would be big enough to encompass only the Oceanarium itself in the pentagram at its center. Murphy and the others, if they'd stayed where we'd come in, would probably be safe. More to the point, if they'd stayed where they were, they would have no way to enter the Oceanarium.
That meant it would be just me and Ivy and maybe Kincaid-against Nicodemus, Tessa, and every Denarian they could beg, borrow or steal. Those were long odds. Really, really long odds. Ridiculously long odds, really. When you have to measure them in astronomical units, it probably isn't a good bet.
So, going in there would be bad.
If I didn't go in, though, it would be just Ivy and Kincaid against all of them. In a deadly business, Kincaid was one of the deadliest, at the top of the field for centuries-but there was only one of him. Ivy had vast knowledge to draw upon, of course, but once she'd been cut off and expended whatever magic she had immediately available to her, the only thing she'd be able to do with all that knowledge would be to calculate her worsening odds of escape.
Every hair on my body tried to stand up all at the same time, and I knew that the symbol was being energized. In seconds it would howl to life.
I guess in the end it came down to a single question: whether or not I was the kind of man who walks away when he knows a little kid is in danger.
I'd been down this road before: Not going in there would be worse.
Heat shimmers filled the air in the hall in front of me as I sprinted toward the Oceanarium.
Fight smarter, not harder, Harry. I drew in power on the way-a lot of power. If there wasn't going to be any magic available for the taking once the symbol went up, I'd just have to bring my own.
Usually I draw in power only when it's ready to flow directly out of me again, channeling the energy through my mind and into the structure of a spell. This time I brought it in without ever letting it out, and it built up as a pressure behind my eyes. My body temperature jumped by at least four or five degrees, and my muscles and bones screamed with sudden pain while my vision went red and flickered with spots of black. Static electricity crackled with every single motion of my limbs, bright green and painfully sharp, until it sound
ed like I was running across a field of bubble wrap. My head pounded like every New Year's hangover I'd ever had, all in the same spot, and my lungs felt like the air had turned to acid. I concentrated on keeping my feet underneath me and moving. One step at a time.
I pounded through the entry to the Oceanarium, felt a shivering sensation as I ran right through a veil I had not sensed was there, and all but barreled into a demonic figure crouched down on the floor. I skidded to a stop, and there was an instant of surprise as we stared at each other.
The Denarian was basically humanoid, as most of them were, a gaunt, even skeletal grey-skinned figure. Spurs of bone jutted out from every joint, slightly curved and wickedly pointed. Greasy, lanky hair hung from its knobby skull to its skinny shoulders, and its two pairs of eyes, one very human brown and one glowing demonic green, were both wide and staring in shock.
It was crouched amidst the preparations of a spell of some kind-a candle, a chalk circle on the floor, a cup made from a skull and filled with water-and it wore a heavy canvas messenger bag slung across one shoulder. One hand was still down in the bag, as if it had been in the midst of drawing something out of it when I'd come charging up.
Fortunately for me, my mind had been in motion. His had been tangled up in whatever spell he was doing, and he was slower to get back into gear than I was.
So I kicked him in the face.
He went down with a grunt, and a chip of broken tooth skittered across the floor. I didn't know what spell he was getting together, but it seemed a good bet that I didn't want him to finish it. I broke his circle with my will as I crossed it with my body, unleashing a ripple of random and diffused energies that had never had the chance to coalesce into something more coherent. I knocked his skull goblet into one of the enormous nearby tanks with my staff as I raised it and pointed one end of it at the stunned Denarian, snarling, "Forzare!"
Some of that searing storm of power I was holding in screamed out of my body and down through my staff, hurtling at the Denarian, an invisible cannonball surrounded by a cloud of static discharge. It was more power than I'd meant to unleash. If it hit him it was going to throw him halfway across Lake Michigan.
But while the Denarian's mortal set of eyes may have still been blank with shock and surprise, the glowing green set was bright with rage. The thorny Denarian lifted his left hand in a sweeping gesture, made a rippling motion of his fingers, drawing his hand toward his mouth, and. . .
. . . and he just ate my spell.
He ate it. And then that gaunt, skeletal face spread in a toothy smile.
"That," I muttered, "is incredibly unfair. "
I lifted my left hand just as the Denarian crouched and vomited out a spinning cloud of black threads that came whirling through the air in dozens of tiny, spiraling arcs. I brought up my shield, but none of the threads actually came down to touch me-they landed all around me instead, in a nearly perfect circle.
And an instant later my shield stuttered and shorted out. I still had the energy for it-I hadn't been cut off. But somehow the Denarian's weird spell had disrupted the magic as it left my body. I tried to throw another bolt of force at him, and got to feel supremely silly, waving my staff around to absolutely zero effect.
"Interruptions," the Denarian said in an odd accent. "Always the interruptions. "
His left hand returned to rummaging in his bag, while his mortal eyes went back to the now-scattered remnants of the spell, evidently dismissing my existence. The green eyes remained focused on me, though, and darkness suddenly gathered around the forefinger of his upraised right hand.
Time slowed down.
Dark light leapt toward me.
Sheer defiance made me step forward, trying to brush past the little spinning columns of shadow that surrounded me, only to find them as solid as steel bars, and colder than a yeti's fridge. I threw my magic against those bars to no avail as a shaft of dark lightning streaked toward my heart.
I don't know how to describe it. I was trying to slam another bolt of force between the bars of my conjured prison when something. . . else. . . got involved. Ever been carrying something and had someone intentionally, unexpectedly jostle your elbow? It felt something like that-a tiny but critically timed nudge just as I threw my will into a last futile effort of defiance.
Power screamed as it wrenched its way out of my body. It shattered the black-thread bars of my prison and left a streak of metallic light on the air behind it for an instant, reflective, like a trail of liquid chrome. It caught the falling Denarian in a massive silvery simulacrum of my own fist.
I actually felt my fingers close over the gaunt, skeletal, grey-skinned figure, felt the numerous spurs of bone jutting from its joints press painfully into my flesh. I flung it away from me with a cry, and the huge silver hand flung the Denarian into the nearest wall, ripping through several feet of expensive stone terracing and carefully simulated Pacific Northwest.
I stared for a second, first at the stunned Denarian, and then at my own spread fingers-and at the floating silvery hand beyond, mirroring my movements. Then the skeletal Denarian gathered itself and rose, fast as hell-until I shoved the heel of my hand forward and drove his bony ass six inches into the wall of rock behind him.
"Oh, yeah, baby!" I heard myself howl, elated. "Talk to the hand!"
I picked up the thorny fiend by a leg and laughed as it raked and bit and scrabbled at the construct that held it. I could feel the pain of it-but it was a small thing, really, something I might have gotten from a rat. Unpleasant as hell, but I'd felt much, much worse, and it was nothing compared to the agony of the power still burning inside me. I slammed him into the wall again, then swung him twenty feet through the air, shoved him through a pane of unbroken three-inch-thick glass on the outer wall of the Oceanarium, drew him back through, and then rammed him through the next one, and the next one, and the one after that, cutting him to tatters as I did.
I had maybe half of a second's warning, as my already overloaded nerves screamed that the circle was closing, that the Sign was rising, as I felt the surge of energy approaching from no more than a dozen yards away. There was still no time for a shield.
So Spinyboy would have to do.
I flung him between me and where my instinct warned me the inbound power was coming from, and then there was a roar like a dozen turbine engines howling to life in synchronization. Thirty feet from me the walls exploded in light and Hellfire. Heat, light, and sheer, intangible power slammed against my senses and threw me from my feet. Bits of molten rock hissed through the air, deadlier than any bullet.
Spinyboy caught a bunch of those. They flew out his back and left gaping, smoking, cauterized holes in it. I could see them through the silvery haze of the construct hand that still held him, could feel the heat as they bored through the construct, and-
- and then my head bumped the ground hard enough to make me see stars. I rolled to my feet and nearly wobbled over the railing and into the pool with the whales. I slammed the end of my staff into the ground with my left hand and leaned heavily against it, panting.
I was still alive. I still retained an agonizing amount of energy. So far, I thought woozily, everything was going exactly according to plan.
The skeletal, spiny Denarian lay twitching on the ground ten or twelve feet in front of me. There were big smoking holes in its body. One of its arms was moving. So was its head. But its legs and its lower body were completely limp. I could see the bones of its spine standing out sharply from its gaunt, emaciated back. Two of the smoking holes intersected that spine precisely. He-or she, I supposed, if it mattered-wasn't going anywhere.
Great currents of energy, eight or nine feet thick, intersected maybe fifty feet away. It was like. . . looking at the cross-section of a river in flood-if the river had been made of fire instead of water, and if two rivers could have intersected and passed through each other without affecting ea
ch other's courses. I turned my head and saw, through the walls of glass that I'd broken, more of the same beams, all around the Oceanarium in an unbroken wall.
The eerie part was that the fiery current of energy was silent. Absolutely silent. There was no crackle of flame, no roar of superheated air, no hiss of steam as snow and ice melted. I heard some rubble falling, stone landing on stone. I heard a broken electrical line somewhere, spitting and snapping for a few seconds before it, too, went silent.
That was when I realized a couple of things.
The silver energy construct that had gripped the Denarian was gone.
And I couldn't feel my right hand.
I looked down in a panic, but found that it was still there, at least, flopping loosely at the end of my arm. I couldn't feel anything below my wrist. My fingers were slightly curled and didn't respond when I told them to move.
"Crap," I muttered. Then I gathered my wits about me, gripped my staff more firmly in my left hand, and took several rapid steps until I stood over Spinyboy.
Then I bashed him over the head with the solid length of oak until he stopped moving.
Immobilized wasn't the same as unconscious. He wouldn't be the only one of his kind in the building, and I didn't want him shouting my location to anybody the second my back was turned.
One down. Who knew how many to go.
I crouched in the walkway with the wall on my right, the windows facing the outside of the Oceanarium on my left, and the beam of Hellfire at my back. It was the most secure position I was likely to get. There was still no sound, which meant that they hadn't tried to take the Archive yet. Kincaid would not go down quietly.
But they were in here with me. They had to be.
But they didn't necessarily know I was in here with them.
That could be an advantage. Maybe even a huge advantage.
Sure, Harry. What cat ever expects the mouse to come after it?
I stuffed my numb right hand in my duster pocket, tried to ignore the bone-deep ache of unspent power racking my body and the limb-weakening tremors of raw terror radiating through my guts, and stalked silently forward to sucker punch some Fallen angels.
I' ve read that dolphins are as smart as people. I've even read one article by a researcher who claimed that her results indicated that the dolphins she'd been working with had been throwing the tests, and it had taken us years to realize it-that in fact, they might be smarter than us. I'd read other positions that said that they were quite a bit dumber than that. Being as how I'd never really sat down for a game of checkers with a dolphin, my own personal meter for such things, I didn't really have an opinion until that day in the Shedd.
That was when those ugly little dolphins swam by me in perfect silence, except for the swish of their dorsal fins breaking the surface to get my attention-and then raised holy hell seventy feet farther down the path beside the pool, around the curve and out of my sight, splashing and chattering and squeaking for all they were worth.
I stared stupidly for about half a second before the message got through: Bad guys sighted, and close. Evidently the aquatic Americans had decided that I was on the home team. As quickly as the chattering had begun it ended, the dolphins vanishing beneath the surface.
I heard a creaking, skittering sound, and instinct drew my face up. Shadows moved on the snow-covered glass roof of the Oceanarium.
More of Nicodemus's plan in delaying me became clear. He'd needed time to let his people get into position within and atop the building, once he'd been able to determine generally where the Archive was within the Aquarium.
I threw myself into the heavy ferns planted next to the footpath beside the outer pools, crouching down in the thickest bunch of greenery I could find. I held on hard to the power I'd drawn into me and hoped I could make my sucker punch last for more than a single hit.
A breath later, glass shattered and fell. Dark, inhuman forms dropped silently from overhead.
I picked the outermost of the invading Denarians, the one farthest from the center of action and attention, pointed my staff at him from my hiding spot amidst the green, and snarled, "Forzare!" unleashing a moderate effort of will. Invisible force caught the shapeshifted fiend as he was falling. I never got much of a look at him, beyond the fact that he had a lot of muscle and a ridge of leathery plates running down his spine.
Muscle doesn't do you any good in free fall, no matter how many Fallen angels you've got inside you. Unless you've got some wings to put it to use, you're in the hands of Mother Earth and Sir Isaac Newton.
I wasn't trying to smash him into the middle of the lake. I applied just enough force to alter his trajectory, shoving the falling Denarian thirty feet off course, and he landed in one of those beams of titanic energy.
There was a flash of white light, a brief shadow of a human skeleton burned onto my vision, and then a white-hot something went spinning out from the beam. It landed in one of the pools in an angry gush of steam. The dolphins darted away from it.
Then I froze, not moving.
Denarians fell like rain, more than a dozen of them, landing with heavy-sounding thumps and a couple of splashes. . .
. . . and a splat. One of them, a lizard-looking thing, had fallen into the foliage behind me and not five feet from my hiding spot, with about two-thirds of its head simply missing from its shoulders. It twitched wildly for several seconds, pumping very human-looking blood all over the place before it slowly went still and simply started draining.
My eyes tracked up to the roof and found a darkened corner.
Kincaid hung in it like a spider, suspended from some sort of harness and perfectly still, and I realized that he'd had the same idea I had: Remove them before they'd realized that the battle was well and truly begun, while they were still holding back all their power to unleash in concentration. He gave me a grim little smile, moved his head in an "after you" sort of gesture, and raised a rifle sporting a heavy, outsized silencer to his cheek.
Kincaid had once informed me, quite calmly, that if he ever wanted to kill me, it would be with a rifle from more than a mile away. This was more like a hundred feet, maybe less, but Kincaid had dropped the Denarian with a shot to the head, maybe more than one, while it fell to the ground amidst a shower of broken glass. He was deadly as hell, and he could just as easily be coming after me as my enemies, but somehow my terror had dwindled to something familiar-and ferocious.
Sure, I might be outnumbered, but I was no longer at all certain that I was outclassed. When the Fallen were calling the shots they were arrogant to the extreme, and they weren't at all used to playing it by ear and adjusting to changes in the tempo. When the coin bearers were running things, they could be more dangerous-but no more so than anyone else I had crossed metaphorical swords with.
Nicodemus, then, was dangerous because he was Nicodemus-not because of a Fallen angel or a lack of one. And while I would be a fool to think him anything less than a deadly threat, I had survived him once, and seen the trap coming this time, even if it had been at the last minute.
I spared a glance for the splattered, twitching remains of the decapitated Denarian in the ferns. These creeps might have scary angels looking over their shoulders-but for the next couple of minutes, at least, so did I.
It didn't make them any less dangerous. It just made me see that I had a chance of standing up to them.
No flash and thunder, then. I had no energy to spare for them. No wasted time, either. I rose and stole through the ferns toward where I thought the next-nearest Denarian had come down, up a steep hillside that was murder to move over silently. The Denarian who had landed hadn't stayed immobile, though. I found the spread talon prints in the earth where it had touched down, like those of a turkey, but larger.
I froze as water splashed off to my right. From the corner of my eye I saw a Denarian haul herself out of the water of the dolphin pool-Man
tis Girl, Tessa. She pulled herself over the pedestrian guardrail, moving fast and warily. I saw a flash of silver in the talons of one hand. She'd recovered the coin of the Denarian I'd shoved into the beam. She knew they weren't alone. I didn't have much in the way of cover between her and me, but I didn't move, and I didn't think she spotted me.
Mantis Girl landed on the concrete and vanished down the path and out of my sight. Something let out a chittering, monkeylike sound from somewhere in the vast room, but other than that everything remained silent.
I ghosted forward again, straining to hear. Where was the drama? Where were the explosions, the howling screams, the deafening sound track? This was just one big, eerie game of hide-and-seek.
Which, I suddenly realized, must have been the Archive's counterstrategy. The energy output of the enormous symbol was too high to maintain for long. If she could simply remain hidden from her enemies until the symbol could no longer be maintained, she could depart at will. There would then be no need for her to burn through her precious little available energy in a last-ditch, desperate effort to defend herself-provided she could stay calm and focused enough to maintain a veil under these circumstances, of course. It would force the Denarians to hunt Ivy-expending their efforts on trying to pierce her veil, while Kincaid concentrated on isolating them and killing them while they were distracted. It was a deucedly clever countertactic.
On the far side of the room one of the Denarians started screaming, a wail of agony. My eyes snapped up to Kincaid's position. He was gone. A rope now dangled down over the foliage below where he'd hung, but he'd abandoned the exposed shooting position after taking down one more enemy, it would seem.
I found myself grinning. Fine. If that was the game, I could play too. Ready or not, here I come.
I pressed on through the ferns, angling over toward the amphitheater seats, and dropped into a sudden crouch as the low mutter of voices came to me.
"Where is she?" demanded a heavy, thick-sounding man's voice.
I couldn't see the source of the voices from amidst the fake wilderness until I glanced up. Light and shadow played together in the room and conspired to create a reflective surface for me upon one of the panels of glass on the ceiling. Three of the Denarians had gathered on the bleacher seats. The one who spoke looked like nothing so much as a big, leathery gorilla, except for the goat's horns and heavy claws.
"Shut up, Magog," snarled Mantis Girl. "I can't think with you running your stupid mouth. "
"We're nearly out of time," Magog growled.
"She knows that," snapped a third Denarian. I recognized this one, which looked like a woman, except for the reverse-jointed legs ending in panther claws, the bright red skin, and the mass of metallic, ten-foot-long, independently moving blades in place of hair. Deirdre, Nicodemus's darling daughter. She turned back to Tessa. "But Magog has a point, Mother. Scent tracking has been useless. " She held up a small pink sock. "Bits of clothing with her scent on them have been scattered everywhere. "
"That's the Hellhound's work," Magog spat, bright green eyes glowing brightly over dull, animalistic brown ones. "He's fought us before. "
"He hunts us," Deirdre said, "while she forces us to focus on piercing a veil. They work too well together. He's killed two of us. Three if you count Urumviel. "
Tessa bounced the silver coin in her palm. "Urumviel's vessel may have been killed by his own idiocy," she said. Her insectoid eyes seemed to narrow. "Or perhaps the wizard managed to return before the Sign was raised. "
"You think that pathetic sot bested Father?" Deirdre said with scorn.
"He wouldn't need to best him, you moron," Tessa said. "Only to run faster. And it would explain why Thorned Namshiel hasn't appeared as well. "
Yeah. If Spinyboy ever woke up, it would be with one hell of a Dresden hangover. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Deedee.
"The wizard is nothing," Magog growled. "If the girl is not found, and swiftly, none of this will matter to us. "
Tessa snapped her fingers and once again did that disgusting little trick where the mouth of the mantis form opened and the head of a pretty young girl emerged, smiling. "Of course," she said, looking at Deirdre. "I should have thought of it sooner. "
Deirdre tilted her head. Blades whispered murderously against one another at the gesture. "Of what?"
"The entire strength of this plan is predicated upon attacking the child, not the Archive," Tessa said, her smile turning vicious. "Ignore the girl. Bring me the Hellhound. "