Small Favor, Page 14Jim Butcher
I t took me about a second to see what Mantis Bitch had in mind, and half that long to hate her for it.
Ivy didn't have a family. Until I'd given one to her, she hadn't even had a name. She'd just been "the Archive. " What she had was a world of power and responsibility and knowledge and danger-and Kincaid. While the Archive would know that the proper decision would be to allow Kincaid to die in order to protect the sanctity of the Archive, Ivy wouldn't be making the decision with the same detached calm. Kincaid was the closest thing she had to family. She wouldn't let them hurt him. She couldn't.
Damn them, to take a little girl's loneliness and use it against her like that.
Grand schemes and sweeping plans to bring doom and darkness are all fine and scary, but they at least have the advantage of being impersonal. This was simple, calculated, cruel malice deliberately aimed at a child-a child-and it pissed me off.
Deirdre was closest. Fine.
I stepped out of the ferns, swept my staff in a broad backhanded swing, and unleashed some of the power I'd been painfully holding back, snarling, "Ventas servitas!"
A burst of wind gathered underneath Deirdre, lifting her out of the amphitheater seats and throwing her out over the pool like a dart shot from a child's air gun. I'd thrown her at the nearest section of the pentagram's beam, but the instant she'd gone airborne those snakelike strips of her hair had fanned out like a tattered parachute and begun thrashing at the air, slowing her and changing her course.
I didn't stop to watch where she landed. Magog spun before Deirdre's feet were more than a yard off the ground and broke into one of those diagonal simian charges, coming right up the bleachers as smoothly as if they'd been level ground. Forget what I'd said about not reacting quickly. Magog's reaction time had been nothing, if not a little less. He had to have checked in at seven or eight hundred pounds, and he covered the forty feet between us in the space of a couple of seconds, the acceleration incredible.
Of course, reacting quickly isn't always the same thing as reacting intelligently. Magog looked like he was used to being an unstoppable force.
I brought up my shield bracelet, slamming my will through it, pushing most of the painful load of power still remaining to me into the barrier that sprang to life. I shouted out in wordless challenge, my voice thin and strained beside the deep-chested bellow that Magog unleashed in answer. Normally my shield manifests as a shimmering dome of mixed blue and silver light.
This time I left it transparent, on the theory that what Magog didn't know would hurt him. The shapeshifted Denarian slammed into the invisible barrier in an explosion of silver sparks and found it as immovable as the side of a mountain. The force of the gorilla-thing's charge was not simply physical, though, and ugly red light clung to the silver power of my defenses. Excess energy bled through my bracelet as heat, scalding my skin-but the barrier held, and Magog staggered back, stunned.
"Hey," I said as I let the shield fall. "Where's an eight-hundred-pound gorilla sit?" I took a step forward and kicked him as hard as I could, right in the coconuts, then followed up with a stomping kick to the neck. Magog shrieked in agony and went tumbling back down the bleachers. "Somewhere with lots of extra cushions, I guess, eh, Monkeyboy?"
My instincts screamed a warning at me, and I threw myself down behind the last row of bleacher seats just as Mantis Bitch pointed a finger at me and screamed, "Amal-bijal!" There was a crash of thunder, a flash of light, a wash of heat, and a cloud of glowing splinters flew up a few feet away, where a section of seating had been a second before.
Hell's bells. A sorceress. A damned dangerous one, too.
I readied my shield, already acutely aware of how little energy remained to me. I kept it small, maybe three feet across, and had started to rise when I saw a shape flit into my peripheral vision above me: Tessa, in the middle of an airborne leap. She cried out again, and I yelped and pulled into a tight fetal curl behind my shield as another bolt of lightning ripped through the air.
Pressure slammed my shoulders against concrete floor. Light blinded me, and sound deafened me, leaving my world nothing but one long white tone. My lungs forgot their job for a couple of seconds, but my legs were on the ball, scrambling to get beneath me.
I had just managed to sort out where I was when another deafening flash and crack hit somewhere close and flung me to the ground again. And then a third. I tried to keep my shield up, but I couldn't see anything but yellow spots, and there wasn't anything left to put into it, anyway. It was like walking along and suddenly finding myself without any floor-which happened more literally a second later, when I tripped over a bleacher seat and fell a couple of rows down, banging myself up pretty well in the process.
Some dazed part of me realized that I'd made a mistake in my assumptions. Tessa wasn't trying to take me out. She was just trying to keep me dazed and disoriented long enough for her people to arrive. That same part of me realized, even more belatedly, that I'd let myself be goaded into attacking by their words, let my heart rule my decision instead of playing it smart.
Something slapped my staff out of my hand. I went for my gun, only to be slammed to the ground by another terrific physical force. Then something like an iron bar slammed across my throat.
The light spots began to clear away in time for me to see a Denarian I'd never seen before atop me, this one like an androgynous, naked, bald statue of obsidian, green eyes glowing above human eyes of bright blue. A second shapeshifted creature, this one covered in a shaggy coat of grey, dusty-looking feathers, its face a grey mass of fleshy, hanging tendrils, had my wrists pinned to the ground.
Tessa stood over me, watching something on the far side of the room, her eyes narrowed. "Don't choke him out," she snapped. "He can't talk if he's unconscious. "
The obsidian statue eased up the pressure on my neck a little.
"Report," Tessa said.
"We think the Hellhound is hiding in the bathrooms," came a strained-sounding, harsh woman's voice.
"Varthiel and Ordiel are down and McKullen is dead. They were searching there. The exit is watched. There's no way for him to escape the room. "
"Their coins?" Tessa asked.
"Recovered, my lady. "
"Thank you, Rosanna. Any other word?"
"We've found Thorned Namshiel, unconscious and gravely wounded. There was extensive damage all around the area in which he fell. "
"Yes. And yet it was done fairly quietly. It seems our intelligence on our young wizard thug was faulty. "
Someone, presumably Mantis Bitch, kicked me in the ribs. It hurt. There wasn't much I could do about it other than try to suck in a breath.
"Very well," Tessa said. "Take Magog and Deirdre for the Hellhound. Take him alive. Do it within the next five minutes. "
"Yes, my lady," Rosanna rasped. What sounded like hooves clopped away.
Tessa stepped into view again, sweetly pretty face visible atop the monstrous body. She was smiling. "You're all kinds of feisty, boy. It's cute. The sort of thing my husband likes in his recruits. " She kicked me again. "I find it endlessly annoying, personally. But I'm willing to play nice, since we might work together in the future. I'll give you this chance to cooperate. Tell me where the little girl is. "
"I wish I knew," I panted. "That way I could exercise free will while telling you to go fuck yourself. "
She let out a playful little laugh and reached down to tweak my broken nose.
"They say to give a man three chances to say no," she said.
"Save us both time and breath," I said. "No, twice. That's three. "
"Suit yourself," Tessa said.
She reached into the pocket of my duster, withdrew my revolver, pointed it at my head, and pulled the trigger.
I had just enough time to gawk and think, Wait, wait, this isn't ri
The muzzle flashed.
There was a loud noise.
I reached for power, tried to shield, but there was simply nothing there, nothing to use. The magic was gone.
So it had to be someone else's spell that neatly intersected the bullet's course and bounced it into the shaggy-feathered thing holding my arms.
My stomach sank as I realized what was happening.
Ivy must have been there all along, quietly sitting on the bleachers, hidden by her veil from everything that was going on. Now she stood perhaps ten feet away, just a young girl, her expression solemn-but her eyes and cheeks were bright with tears.
"Get away from him," she said quietly. "All of you. I will not permit you to hurt him. "
I hadn't really extended my line of thinking beyond Kincaid. But of all the people who had dealt with the Archive, I'd been one of the only ones to take any interest in her as anything but a font of knowledge. I'd been the one to inquire after her personally. I'd been the one to give her a name. Sad but true, I was the closest thing that little girl had to a friend.
She couldn't have let anything happen to me, either.
I'd just handed her to the Denarians.
Tessa threw back her head and loosed a long, triumphant cry.
"I vy," I said in that tone you use with children who are up past their bedtime. I'm better at it than you'd think, after so much time working with an apprentice. "Get that veil back up and get out of here. "
Tessa kicked me in the ribs again, hard enough to keep me from breathing much or talking at all. "When I want an opinion from you, Dresden," she said, "I'll read it in your entrails. "
Ivy took two steps forward at Tessa's gesture and narrowed her blue eyes. "For the benefit of the slow, Polonius Lartessa, I will repeat myself. I will not allow you to harm him. Step away. "
Tessa's eyes narrowed suddenly. "You know my name. "
"I know everything about you, Lartessa," Ivy said, her tone flat, passionless. "It was all recorded, of course. Everything was, in Thessalonica in those days. Your father's failing business. Your sale to the temple of Isis. If you like, I could draw you a cost-benefit analysis of your training versus your earnings in your first year at the temple, before Nicodemus came. I could use charts to make it easier for you to understand. And color them in with crayons. I enjoy crayons. "
I wasn't certain, but it sounded like the kid was trying to give the bad guys some guff on my behalf. She needed to work on her technique, but it was the thought that counted. If I could breathe, I might have gotten a little choked up.
"Do you think I'm intimidated that you know where I come from, child?" Tessa snarled.
"I know more about you than you do," Ivy replied, her voice steady. "I know far more precisely than you how many you've harmed. How many bad situations you've made worse. Cambodia, Colombia, and Rwanda most recently, but whether in this century, the Wars of the Roses or the Hundred Years' War, your story is the same stupid little story, told over and over again. You learned your lessons when you were a child, and you've never swerved from them. You're a vulture, Lartessa. A maggot. You survive on diseased flesh and rotting meat. Anything whole and healthy frightens you. "
The little girl didn't see the Denarian that came creeping through the ferns behind her and flung itself at her back, several hundred pounds of scales and fangs.
"Ivy!" I choked out.
She had it covered. There was a flash of light, an overwhelming scent of ozone and fresh laundry, and a silver denarius rolled away from a mound of ash that fell to the ground without ever getting within three feet of the small form of the Archive. The coin rolled past her, on a straight line toward Tessa-but Ivy stomped on it with one small shoe, flattening it to the floor and preventing it from returning to Tessa's grasp.
"Tiny," I said, in an overblown imitation of Sanya's Russian accent, unable to keep a crazed giggle out of my voice. "But fierce. "
Tessa regarded the fallen coin with a faint smile. "Costly. How many such spells do you think you can manage before you are out of energy, little one?"
Ivy shrugged. "How many minions can you throw away? How many will be willing to die for you?"
Tessa called out, "Around her, everyone. Make sure she knows where you are. "
And nightmarish forms rose around the little girl, huge beside her single, slender little form. Deirdre, soaked and smelling of dead fish and seawater, gave me a sullen glare as she mounted the steps beside her mother. The shaggy-feathered thing that still held my hands bled quietly, keening under its breath. It was wounded, but it still kept my arms pinned. Magog came monkeying up over a bit of landscaping, grinning an evil grin, and I wondered where the hell Kincaid had wandered off to. The obsidian statue shifted its weight, keeping one hand resting on my chest-I had the feeling it could have shoved it right through to my spine if it wanted to.
There were half a dozen others. Rosanna proved to be a rather beautiful-looking woman, the classical demoness with scarlet skin and a goat's legs, complete with leathery black wings and delicately curling horns-though her deep brown eyes were haunted beneath the demonic green glowing set. She had a bag slung on a strap over her shoulder, just like Spinyboy-Tessa had called him Thorned Namshiel-had carried with him. Most of the others just looked big and mean, in various unsettling flavors.
I guess even in Hell, it's easier to find strong backs than strong brains.
Ivy faced them and lifted her arms into a pose that vaguely resembled a defensive martial arts stance. It wasn't. She was preparing to manipulate defensive energies. I just hadn't ever seen anyone getting ready to do two entirely separate spells in either hand at the same freaking time before.
Two questions occurred to me at that point. First, if the plan was for the Denarians to wear Ivy's magic down and then take her by main force before their trap ran out of power, why weren't they doing it already? And second. . .
What was that hissing sound?
It rose up around us, something I could just barely hear until I focused my senses on it, tuning out the musty reek and iron blood-scent of Shaggy Feathers and the cold solidity of Obsidian Statue's hand.
A definite, steady hissing sound, like air escaping from a tire or. . .
Or hair spray issuing forth from a can.
I lifted my head, twisting around enough to see through the crouched limbs of Shaggy Feathers, which seemed to be neither arms or legs, but something that served it as both, like the extremities of a spider. I couldn't see what it had my wrists pinned with, and I didn't want to. What I could see was a couple of leaves trembling on a nearby fern, and a gleam of metal from somewhere near the source of the mysterious hiss.
The entire strength of this plan is predicated upon attacking the child, not the Archive.
Children have very low body mass, compared to adults.
A toxin dispersed in the air would be far more effective against Ivy than one of the Denarians-or even a grown person. All the bad guys had to do was pick something that caused unconsciousness and skewed heavily toward body mass, and they'd have an ideal weapon to use against her. Tessa and Nicodemus must have had several of their more capable lackeys carry in canisters of the stuff, whatever it was. Then all they had to do was open the cans and wait for her to fall.
My thoughts flashed back to Thorned Namshiel's spell, the one he'd been carrying out behind his concealing veil. A detail I'd barely noticed at the time suddenly leapt out at me. I'd been worried about what spell he was getting ready. I should have been paying attention to where he was getting ready to cast it-directly underneath a set of large vents. He'd probably been getting ready to set a wind spell in motion, to keep air pumping through the vents and spreading the gas through the Oceanarium.
Could I smell something sort of mediciney? Had the end of my nose gone numb? Hell's bells, Harry, this is no time either to panic or to sudde
nly pass out. I had to warn Ivy.
I turned my head back toward her and caught Tessa's gaze halfway. "Worked it out, did you?" Mantis Girl murmured. "If he speaks," she said, presumably to Obsidian Statue, "crush his chest. "
A weirdly modulated voice issued from the general area of the androgynous statue's head. "Yes, mis-"
And then there was a whup and a slap of air pressure against my skin, and Statue's head-and Shaggy Feathers's too-exploded in simultaneous eruptions of distinctly different forms of gore. The statue went out like some kind of faulty street-paving machine, splattering black sludge that looked like hot asphalt everywhere in a steadily spurting stream. It flung itself onto its back, then bounded to its hands and knees and started hammering its fists at the concrete. I guess it intended to smash me. I guess without a head, it didn't know that it was actually six feet away, and digging a hole through the bleachers and into the material beneath.
Shaggy Feathers just fell in a welter of very human-looking, -smelling, and -tasting blood, and maybe three hundred pounds of limp, rubbery muscle landed on my chest.
"Ivy!" I screamed. "Gas! Get clear!"
And then things got noisy.
A series of cracking thumps came down faster than you could rapidly snap your fingers, and Denarians began to scream in pain and rage. I was vaguely aware of them bounding left and right, and saw a muzzle flash from the far side of the Oceanarium. At least I knew where Kincaid had been-getting into a position to kill both demon-taken madmen holding me down with a single freaking bullet, since anything less would have meant my certain death.
"He is nothing!" howled Tessa. "Tarsiel, take the Hellhound! Everyone else, the girl!"
Come on, Harry. Time to pay Kincaid back by getting the kid clear. Somehow. My right hand wasn't moving much, and my singed left arm didn't like it, but I heaved and strained and got enough of the dead Denarian off me to let me begin to squirm out from under it. Just as I was about to pull free, a silver coin rolled out from amidst the ruined tentacles that had passed for the thing's head and dropped toward my face. I jerked my head aside in a panic.
The falling coin missed touching my bare flesh by a hair and bounced off the concrete floor. My left hand moved, faster and smoother than I would have thought possible, snapping the coin from the air on the bounce as smoothly and nimbly as if it had been whole and healthy and not burned and scarred and covered in a leather glove.
I looked between it and my numb-tingling right hand for a quarter of a second.
What. The hell.
That was not normal.
Worry about it later, Harry. I mean, sure, obviously Something Has Happened to you, but now is not the time to get distracted. Focus. Save the girl.
I jammed the cursed relic in my pocket, hoped to God my 501s didn't have a hole in them, and spun toward Ivy.
I know I'm a wizard, a card-carrying member of the White Council and all. I know I'm a Warden, a certified combat expert of wizardkind, a cop, a soldier-have staff, will kick ass, if you will. I thought I'd seen some real professionals in action, the top of the wizarding game.
I was wrong.
It wasn't that Ivy was slinging around a ton of power. She wasn't. But think about this one for a moment: What's really more impressive? A giant truck rumbling around on a great big old smoking engine? Or a little car just barely big enough to get the job done that's powered by a couple of AA batteries?
Seven of them were going after Ivy with magic, and she was countering them. All of them.
Magog had charged her as he had me, but she hadn't slammed him to a stop with a brick wall. She'd trapped him inside some kind of frictionless bubble, and he was spinning uselessly in circles half an inch off the floor, every motion making him spin faster. Whatever additional metaphysical mass he'd brought to the fight hadn't cramped her style much. Her arms, bobbing and weaving continuously between all the workings she had up, flicked by the field containing him every few seconds and, I swear, struck his whirling snare for no reason other than to impart an additional, nausea-inducing vector to his spin.
Deirdre's tangle of living locks danced with purple Saint Elmo's fire, lashing out in a deadly webwork, but Ivy constantly cast out a spinning cat's cradle of light, tiny, tiny threads of power that did not so much stop any of Deirdre's attacks as they fouled any one of her locks with others near it, tangling them together into useless clumps-sort of an enforced bad-hair day. On the opposite side of Ivy, Rosanna launched more traditional lances of flame from her open palms, much like the ones I-
- a savage pain went through my skull for a second-son of a bitch-
- but Ivy dispersed them with delicately applied wedges of air, intercepting each burst of fire far enough short of her body to prevent the bloom of heat as they died from scorching her-though the two more physical Denarians who strained to force their way past the barrier of snapping sparks that formed whenever they tried to get close had far less luck. The Hellmaid's flames scorched them badly.
The sixth, a wizened little thing that looked like a caricature of a woman carved from a dried tree root, seemed to be holding the end of a rope of liquid shadow that curled like a hungry serpent, darting now and then toward Ivy's head. Ivy faced it down steadily, moving her head calmly in a dodge once, swatting it aside with a little burst of silver energy a second later.
But mostly she faced an amused-looking Tessa, who, apparently just for the fun of it, threw another thunderbolt at her now and again. That told me something right there. It told me Tessa was no punk sorceress. She was White Council material herself, if she could make that much flash and bang while expending that little energy. Either that or she'd been able to hold back one whale of a lot more power than I had when she took her deep breath before the battle. Either way she was a big-leaguer, and Ivy's response to the attack confirmed it. Each time the Archive turned to fully face Tessa, and each time she dedicated one of her hands entirely to the defensive measure used to stop the incoming spell.
Holy moly. It was one thing to have an academic appreciation that I still had a lot to learn about magic. It was another to see a demonstration of exactly how much I still couldn't do. In another circumstance it would be humbling. In this one it was freaking terrifying. For maybe ten seconds I stood there, trying to figure out how the hell to help without getting myself incinerated, skewered, or otherwise obliterated without accomplishing anything.
I felt a little surge of dizziness. The gas levels must be rising. Screw it. The only reason someone hadn't killed me already was because I was so impotent, at the moment, that nobody gave a damn what I did. I might be able to get the kid to another part of the building, out of the gas-and if someone killed me on the way, I could try to level my death curse on them, maybe get her out of this mess.
So I rushed toward her, trying to use the hot zone and the trapped Magog as shields, and said, "Ivy, come on!"
Something took a swipe at me, and several feet away my gun went off. I ducked, but I guess Tessa wasn't much of a shot. I didn't get hit. A second later I grabbed Ivy by the waist and lifted her to my hip.
"Keep clear of my arms, please!" Ivy commanded.
I made sure to. I was getting dizzier, but anywhere was better than here.
"His legs!" Tessa commanded.
I had a feeling that those people tried to do a lot of disturbing things to my pins, but I didn't stop to watch them try it. I ran for the stairs, trusting the skill of the Archive to keep me mobile. It was a good bet. Ivy murmured and waved her arms the whole while, and I felt her little body tingling with the live current of the energy she was working.
She was using what power she had left for all it was worth, but it wasn't bottomless. She was running dry. This fight was almost over.
Time, I thought muzzily, panting. We just needed a little more time.
Gravity suggested that I keep on going down, and it seemed an excellent idea. I staggered down th
e stairs into the lower level, running past the underwater vistas of the whale and dolphin tanks, past the cute penguins and the sea otters, the Denarians in pursuit, their sorceries flashing past us while Ivy shielded us with the last bits of energy in her reservoir. I felt it when she ran dry, and labored to keep my legs moving, to keep ahead of the pursuit.
Then the ground hit me with an uppercut. Everyone else in the Oceanarium suddenly fell sideways.
Or wait. Maybe it was me.
I realized belatedly that, given that I'd been at ground level near that one container, and breathing hard with pain and exertion to boot, I'd probably given myself a nice large dose before I'd ever gotten up. Furthermore, if the gas was heavier than air, there was probably even more of it down here than there had been up in the bleachers.
I had bought us a few seconds. It just hadn't been time enough.
Ivy landed beside me. She blinked, and her eyes abruptly went wide with panic. She lifted her arms again, but they came up slowly, sluggishly, and her fingers stayed half-closed, like a sleepy child's.
The black rope-spell wrapped around Ivy's throat, and dozens of Deirdre's tendrils twined around her arms and legs. They jerked her out of my sight.
I looked up to find the Denarians standing as a group in the hallway, lit by the eerie blue light coming in from the big tanks. Rosanna stared intently at Ivy for a moment before she shuddered and folded her dark bat wings around herself, shivering as if with cold, and turned away from the scene, her glowing eyes narrowed. She reached into the bag and produced another canister. She offered it to Tessa without being prompted.
Tessa took it, twisted something on the nozzle, and gave Ivy a polite smile. Then she quite literally jammed the nozzle into the little girl's mouth and held it there.
Ivy panicked and cried out. I saw her kick and twist. She must have bitten her tongue or cut her lip on one of her teeth. Blood ran from her mouth. She bucked and fought uselessly for a few seconds, and then went rag-doll limp.
"Finally," Tessa said, expelling her breath in irritation. "Could it have been any more annoying?"
"Damn you," I slurred. I shoved myself up to one knee and glared at Tessa. "Damn you all. You can't have her. "
"Clich§?," Tessa singsonged. "Boring. " She tapped her chin with one claw-hand. "Let me see. Where were we when we were so rudely interrupted? Ah!" She stepped closer, smiling cheerily, and lifted my. 44.
Just then, I felt the snap of magic rushing back into the Oceanarium as the enormous symbol collapsed and the circle fell.
I took my frustration and rage and turned it into raw force, screaming, "Forzare!"
I didn't direct it at Tessa and her crew.
I aimed it at the glass wall that was the only thing between all of us and three million gallons of seawater.
The force of my will and my rage lashed out and shattered the wall into powder.
The sea came in with a roar, one enormous impact that felt like the strike of a hammer being applied to every square inch of my body at once.
Then it was cold.
T he next thing I knew, I was coughing, and my chest hurt, and my head hurt, and everything else hurt, and I was colder than hell. I choked in a breath and felt my body getting ready to send up everything. I tried to roll onto my side and couldn't, until someone pulled on my coat and helped me.
Fishy salt water and whatever had been in my stomach came out in equal proportions.
"Oh," someone said. "Oh, thank You, God. "
"Michael!" Sanya shouted from somewhere nearby. "I need you!"
Work boots pounded away at a sprint.
"Easy, Harry," Murphy said. "Easy. " She helped me turn back over when I was done puking. I was lying at the top of the stairs to the lower level. My lower legs were actually on the stairs. My left foot was in cold water to the ankle.
I put a hand to my chest, wincing. Murphy smoothed a hand over my head, brushing hair and water away from my eyes. The lines in her face looked a little deeper, her eyes worried.
"CPR?" I asked her. My voice felt weak.
"Guess we're even," I said.
"Like hell we are," she said quietly. "I only spit fruit punch into your mouth. "
I laughed weakly, and that hurt, too.
Murphy leaned down and rested her forehead gently against mine. "You are such an enormous pain in my ass, Harry. Don't scare me like that again. "
Her fingers found mine and squeezed really tight. I squeezed back, too tired to do anything else.
Something brushed my foot, and I nearly screamed. I sat up, reaching for power, raising my right hand, while invisible force gathered around it in shimmering waves.
A corpse floated in the water, nude, facedown. It was a man I'd never seen before, his hair long, grey, and matted. His limp, outstretched hand had bumped against my foot.
"Jesus, Harry," Murphy said, her voice shaking. "He's dead. Harry, it's okay. He's dead, Harry. "
My right hand remained where it was, fingers outspread, ripples of light flickering over them. Then they started shaking. I lowered my hand again, releasing the power I'd gathered, and as I did I felt my fingers tingle and go numb once more.
I stared at them, puzzled. That wasn't right. I was fairly sure that I should be a lot more worried about that than I was at the moment, but I couldn't put together enough cohesive thought to remember why.
Murphy was still talking, her voice steady and soothing. I dimly realized, a minute later, that it was the tone of voice you use with crazy people and frightened animals, and that I was breathing hard and fast despite the lack of any exertion to explain it.
"It's all right, Harry," she said. "He's dead. You can let go of me. "
That was when I realized that my left arm had pulled Murphy tight against me, drawing her across my body and away from the corpse as I'd gotten ready to do. . . whatever it was I had been about to do. She was, at the moment, more or less sitting across my lap. Wherever she was touching me, I was warm. It took me a moment to figure out exactly why it was a good idea to let her go. Eventually, though, I did.
Murphy slid carefully away from me, shaking her head. "God," she said. "What happened to you, Harry? What did they do to you?"
I slumped, too tired to move my foot out of the water, too tired to try to explain that I'd failed to stop the demons from carrying away a little girl.
After a moment of silence Murphy said, "That's it. I'm getting you to a doctor. I don't care who these people think they are. They can't just waltz into town and tear apart my-" She broke off suddenly. "Hngh. What do you make of this, Harry?"
She took a step down into the water and bent over.
"No!" I snapped.
She froze in place.
"Jesus, those things get predictable," I muttered. "Silver coin just fall out of the corpse's fingers?"
Murphy blinked and looked at me. "Yes. "
"Evil. Cursed. Don't touch it. " I shook my head and stood up. The wall had to help me, but I made it all the way up, thinking out loud on the way. "Okay, we've got to make sure there's no more of these lying around, first thing. I'm already carrying one. We limit the risk. I carry them all for now. Until they can be properly disposed of. "
"Harry," Murphy said in a steady voice. "You're mumbling, and what's coming through is making a limited amount of sense. "
"I'll explain. Bear with me. " I bent over and found another stained denarius gleaming guiltily in the water. "Moron," I muttered at the coin, then picked it up with my gloved hand and put it in my pocket along with the other one. In for a penny, in for a pound, ah hah hah.
Damn, I'm clever.
Footsteps sounded, brisk and precise, and Luccio walked into view beside Gard. There was a subtle difference in Gard's body language toward Luccio, something a shade more respec
tful than was there before. The captain of the Wardens was wiping her sword clean on her grey cloak-blood wouldn't stain it, which made it handy for such things. Luccio paused for a moment upon seeing me, her expression carefully guarded, then nodded. "Warden. How are you feeling?"
"I'll live," I rasped. "What happened?"
"Two Denarians," Gard replied. She nodded her head briefly to Luccio. "Both dead. "
Luccio shook her head. "They'd been half-drowned," she said. "I only finished them off. I shouldn't have liked to fight them fresh. "
"Take me to the bodies," I said quietly. "Hurry. "
There was a sighing sound from behind us. I didn't freak out about it this time, but Murphy did, her gun appearing in her hand. To be fair, Luccio had her sword half out of its sheath, too. I checked and found what I'd more or less expected: The body of the former Denarian, relieved of its coin, was decomposing with unnatural speed, even in the cold water. The Fallen angel in the coin might have been holding off the ravages of time, but the old man with the hourglass is patient, and he was collecting his due from the fallen Denarian with compounded interest.
"Captain, we've got to get every single coin we possibly can, and we've got to do it now. "
Luccio cocked her head at me. "Why?"
"Look, I don't know what arrangements Kincaid made, but somebody is going to notice something soon, and then emergency services will be all over this place. I don't want some poor fireman or cop accidentally picking up one of these things. "
"True enough," she said, nodding-and then glanced at Murphy. "Sergeant, do you concur?"
Murphy grimaced. "Dammit, there's always something. . . " She held up her hands as if pushing away a blanket that was wrapped too tightly around her and said, "Yes, yes. Round them up. "
"Michael," I said. "Sanya?"
"When we got here," Murphy said, "a bunch of those things were pulling you out of the water. "
"They ran. We went different directions, pursuing them," Gard supplied.
"Where's Cujo?" I asked.
Gard gave me a blank look.
"Ah," she said. "Lookout. He'll give us a warning when the authorities begin to arrive. "
At least someone was thinking like a criminal. I suppose she was the right person for the job.
I raised my voice as much as I could. It came out sort of furry and rough. "Michael?"
"Here," came the answer. He came walking around the curving path toward us a few moments later, wearing only his undershirt beneath his heavy denim jacket. I hadn't seen him wearing that little before. Michael had some serious pecs. Maybe I should work out. He was carrying with both hands part of his blue-and-white denim shirt folded into a careful bundle in front of him.
Sanya came along behind Michael, soaking wet, his chest bare underneath his coat. Never mind Michael's pecs. Sanya made us both look like we needed to eat more wheat germ or something. He was carrying Esperacchius and Amoracchius over one shoulder-and Kincaid over the other.
Kincaid wasn't moving much, though he was clearly trying to support some of his weight. His skin was chalk white. He was covered in blood. The rest of Michael's shirt, and both of Sanya's, had been pressed into service as emergency bandages-and layers of duct tape had been wrapped around and around them, sealing them into place around both arms, over his belly, and around one leg.
Murphy hissed and went to him, her voice raw. "Jared. "
"Dresden. " Kincaid gasped. "Dresden. "
They laid him down, and I shambled over. I managed not to fall down on him as I knelt beside him. I'd seen him wounded before, but it hadn't been as bad as this. He'd used the tape the same way, though. I checked. Sure enough, there was a roll of tape hanging from a loop on Kincaid's equipment harness.
"Just like the vampire lair," I said quietly.
"No claymores here," Kincaid said. "Should have had claymores. " He shook his head and blinked his eyes a couple of times, trying to focus them. "Dresden, not much time. The girl. They got out with her. She's alive. "
I grimaced and looked away.
His bloody hand shot out and seized the front of my coat. "Look at me. "
I expected rage, hate, and blame. All I got was a look of. . . just, desperate, desperate fear.
"Go after them. Bring her back. Save her. "
"Kincaid. . . " I said softly.
"Swear it," he said. His eyes went out of focus for a second, then glittered coldly. "Swear it. Or I'm coming for you. Swear it to me, Dresden. "
"I'm too damned tired to be scared of you," I said.
Kincaid closed his eyes. "She doesn't have anybody else. No one. "
Murphy knelt down by Kincaid across from me. She stared at me for a moment, then said quietly, "Jared, rest. He's going to help her. "
I traded a faint, tired smile with Murphy. She knows me.
"But-" Kincaid began.
She leaned down and kissed his forehead, blood and all. "Hush. I promise. "
Kincaid subsided. Or passed out. One of the two.
"Dresden, get out of the way," Gard said in a patient voice.
"Don't tell me you're a doctor," I said.
"I've seen more battlefield injuries than any bone-saw-flourishing mortal hack," Gard said. "Move. "
"Harry," Murph said, her voice tight. "Please. "
I creaked to my feet and shambled over to Michael and Sanya, who stood looking out at the dolphins and the little whales in the big pool. The water level had dropped seven or eight feet, and the residents were giving the newly inundated area of the pool a wide berth. If the presence of the rotting thing behind me made the water feel anything like the air was starting to smell, I couldn't blame them.
"He looks pretty bad," I told them.
Michael shook his head, his eyes distant. "It isn't his time yet. "
I spocked an eyebrow and gave him a look. Sanya gave him one very nearly as dubious as mine.
Michael glanced at me and then back out at the water. "I asked. "
"Uh-huh," I said quietly.
Sanya smiled faintly and shook his head.
I glanced at him. "Still agnostic, huh?"
"Some things I am willing to take on faith," Sanya said with a shrug.
"Luccio took down two," I told Michael. "What's the count?" I didn't need to be any more specific than that.
Sanya's grin broadened. "That is the good news. "
I turned to face Sanya. "Those assholes just carried off a child that they plan to torture into accepting a Fallen angel," I said quietly. "There isn't any good news. "
The big Russian's expression sobered. "Good is where you find it," he seriously.
"Eleven," Michael said quietly.
I blinked at him. "What?"
"Eleven," he repeated. "Eleven of them fell here today. Judging from the wounds, Kincaid killed five of them. Captain Luccio killed two more. Sanya and I caught a pair on the way out. One of them was carrying a bag with the coins of those who had already fallen. "
"We found the coin of Urumviel, which we knew to be in possession of a victim," Sanya said, "but we were short by one body. "
"That one was mine," I said. "He's tiny pieces of soot and ash now. And that only brings us to ten. "
"One more drowned when that tank collapsed," Michael said. "They're floating down there. Eleven of them, Harry. " He shook his head. "Eleven. Do you realize what this means?"
"That if we whack one more, we get the complimentary steak knives?"
He turned to me, his eyes intent and bright. "Tessa escaped with only four other members of her retinue, and Nicodemus was nowhere to be found. We have recovered thirteen coins already-and eleven more today, assuming we can find them all. "
"Only six coins remain free to do harm," Sanya said. "Only six. Those six are the last. And they are all here in Chicago. Together. "
r /> "The Fallen in the coins have been waging a war for the minds and lives of mankind for two thousand years, Harry," Michael said. "And we have fought them. That war could end. It could all be over. " He turned back to the pool and shook his head, his expression that of a man baffled. "I could go to Alicia's softball games. Teach little Harry to ride a bicycle. I could build houses, Harry. "
The longing in his voice was so thick, I could practically feel it brushing against my face.
"Let's round up the coins and get out of here before the flashing lights show up," I said quietly. "Michael, open up the bundle. "
He frowned at me but did, revealing disks of tarnished silver. I drew the pair of coins I'd found from my pocket with my gloved hand and added them to the pile. "Thanks," I said. "Let's get moving. "
I turned and walked away as Michael folded the cloth closed around the coins again, his eyes distant, presumably focused on some dream of shoving those coins down a deep, dark hole and living a boring, simple, normal life with his wife and kids.
I let him have it while he could.
I was going to have to take that dream away from him, dammit.
Whether he wanted to go along with the idea or not.