Changes, Page 18Jim Butcher
The first leg of the trip was simple, a walk down a forest trail next to a backward-flowing river until we reached a menhir - that's a large, upright standing stone, to those of you without a pressing need to find out what a menhir is. I found where a pentangle had been inscribed on the stone, a five-pointed star within a circle, like the one around my neck. It had been done with a small chisel of some kind, and was a little lopsided. My mother had put it there to mark which side of the stone to open the Way on.
I ran my fingers over it for a moment. As much as my necklace or the gem that now adorned it, it was tangible proof of her presence. She had been real, even if I had no personal memories of her, and that innocuous little marking was further proof.
"My mother made this mark," I said quietly.
I didn't look back at Thomas, but I could all but feel the sudden intensity of his interest.
He had a few more memories than I did, but not many. And it was possible that he had me outclassed in the parental-figure issues department, too.
I opened another Way, and we came through into a dry gulch with a stone wall, next to a deep channel in the stone that might once have held a river - now it was full of sand. It was dark and chilly, and the sky was full of stars.
"Okay," I said. "Now we walk. "
I summoned a light and took the lead. Martin scanned the skies above us. "Uh. The constellations . . . Where are we?"
I clambered up a stiff little slope that was all hard stone and loose sand, and looked out over a vast expanse of silver-white beneath the moon. Great shapes loomed up from the sand, their sides almost serrated in the clear moonlight, lines and right angles that clashed sharply with the ocean of sand and flatland around them.
"Giza," I said. "You can't see the Sphinx from this side, but I never claimed to be a tour guide. Come on. "
It was a stiff two or three miles from the hidden gully to the pyramids, and sand all the way. I took the lead, moving in a shambling, loosekneed jog. There wasn't any worry about heat - dawn was under way, and in an hour the place would be like one giant cookie pan in an oven, but we'd be gone by then. My mother's amulet led me directly to the base of the smallest and most crumbly pyramid, and I had to climb up three levels to reach the next Waypoint. I stopped to caution the party that we were about to move into someplace hot, and to shield their eyes. Then I opened the Way and we continued through.
We emerged onto a plain beside enormous pyramids - but instead of being made of stone, these were all formed of crystal, smooth and perfect. A sun that was impossibly huge hung in the sky directly overhead, and the light was painfully bright, rebounding up from the crystal plain to be focused through the pyramids and refracted over and over and over again.
"Stay out of those sunbeams," I said, waving in the direction of several beams of light so brilliant that they made the Death Star lasers look like they needed to hit the gym. "They're hot enough to melt metal. "
I led the group forward, around the base of one pyramid, into a slim corridor of . . . Well, it wasn't shade, but there wasn't quite so much light there, until we reached the next Waypoint - where a chunk the size of a large man's fist was missing from one of the perfectly smooth edges of the pyramid. Then I turned ninety degrees to the right and started walking.
I counted five hundred paces. I felt the light - not heat, just the sheer, overwhelming amount of light - beginning to tan my skin.
Then we came to an aberration - a single lump of rock upon the crystalline plain. There were broad, ugly facial features on the rock, primitive and simple.
"Here," I said, and my voice echoed weirdly, though there was seemingly nothing from which it could echo.
I opened another Way, and we stepped from the plain of light and into chilly mist and thin mountain air. A cold wind pushed at us. We stood in an ancient stone courtyard of some kind. Walls stood around us, broken in many places, and there was no roof overhead.
Murphy stared up at the sky, where stars were very faintly visible through the mist, and shook her head. "Where now?"
"Machu Picchu," I said. "Anyone bring water?"
"I did," Murphy said, at the same time as Martin, Sanya, Molly, and Thomas.
"Well," Thomas said, while I felt stupid. "I'm not sharing. "
Sanya snorted and tossed me his canteen. I sneered at Thomas and drank, then tossed it back. Martin passed Susan his canteen, then took it back when she was finished. I started trudging. It isn't far from one side of Machu Picchu to the other, but the walk is all uphill, and that means a hell of a lot more in the Andes than it does in Chicago.
"All right," I said, stopping beside a large mound built of many rising tiers that, if you squinted up your eyes enough, looked a lot like a ziggurat-style pyramid. Or maybe an absurdly large and complicated wedding cake. "When I open the next Way, we'll be underwater. We have to swim ten feet, in the dark. Then I open the next Way and we're in Mexico. " I was doubly cursing the time we'd lost in the Erlking's realm. "Did anyone bring any climbing rope?"
Sanya, Murphy, Martin - Look, you get the picture. There were a lot of people standing around who were more prepared than me. They didn't have super-duper faerie godmother presents, but they had brains, and it was a sobering reminder to me of which was more important.
We got finished running a line from the front of the group to the back (except for my godmother, who sniffed disdainfully at the notion of being tied to a bunch of mortals), and I took several deep breaths and opened the next Way.
Mom's notes on this Waypoint hadn't mentioned that the water was cold. And I don't mean cold like your roommate used most of the hot water. I mean cold like I suddenly had to wonder if I was going to trip over a seal or a penguin or a narwhal or something.
The cold hit me like a sledgehammer, and it was suddenly all I could do just to keep from shrieking in surprise and discomfort - and, some part of my brain marveled, I was the freaking Winter Knight.
Though my limbs screamed their desire to contract around my chest and my heart, I fought them and made them paddle. One stroke. Two. Three. Four. Fi - Ow. My nose hit a shelf of rock. I found my will and exhaled, speaking the word Aparturum through a cloud of blobby bubbles that rolled up over my cheeks and eyelashes. I tore open the next Way a little desperately - and water rushed out through it as if thrilled to escape.
I crashed into the Yucat¨¢n jungle on a tide of ectoplasmic slime, and the line we'd strung dragged everyone else through in a rush. Poor Sanya, the last in line, was pulled from his feet, hauled hard through the icy water as if he'd been flushed down a Jotun's toilet, and then crashed down amidst the slimed forest. Peru to Mexico in three and a half seconds.
I fumbled back to the Way to close it and stopped the tide of ectoplasm from coming through, but not before the vegetation for ten feet in every direction had been smashed flat by the flood of slime, and every jungle creature for fifty or sixty yards started raising holy hell on the what-the-fuck-was-that party line. Murphy had her gun out, and Molly had a wand in each hand, gripped with white knuckles.
Martin let out a sudden, coughing bellow that sounded like it must have torn something in his chest - and it was loud, too. And the jungle around us abruptly went silent.
I blinked and looked at Martin. So did everyone else.
"Jaguar," he said in a calm, quiet voice. "They're extinct here, but the animals don't know that. "
"Oooh," said my godmother, a touch of a child's glee in her voice. "I like that. "
It took us a minute to get everyone sorted out. Mouse looked like a scrawny shadow of himself with his fur all plastered down. He was sneezing uncontrollably, having apparently gotten a bunch of water up his nose during the swim. Ectoplasm splattered out with every sneeze. Thomas was in similar straits, having been hauled through much as Sanya was, but he managed to look a great deal more annoyed than Mouse.
I turned to Lea. "Godmother. I hope yo
u have some way to get us to the temple a little more swiftly. "
"Absolutely," Lea purred, calm and regal despite the fact that her hair and her slime-soaked silken dress were now plastered to her body. "And I've always wanted to do it, too. " She let out a mocking laugh and waved her hand, and my belly cramped up as if every stomach bug I'd ever had met up in a bar and decided to come get me all at once.
I knew I'd fallen, and was vaguely aware that I was lying on my side on the ground. I was there for, I don't know, maybe a minute or so before the pain began to fade. I gasped several times, shook my head, and then slowly pushed myself up onto all fours. Then I fixed the Leanansidhe with a glare and said, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Or tried to say that. What came out was something more like, "Grrrrrrbrrrr awwf arrrr grrrrr. "
My faerie godmother looked at me and began laughing. Genuine, delighted belly laughter. She clapped her hands and bounced up and down, spinning in a circle, and laughed even more.
I realized then what had happened.
She had turned us - all of us, except for Mouse - into great, gaunt, long-legged hounds.
"Wonderful!" Lea said, pirouetting upon one toe, laughing. "Come, children!" And she leapt off into the jungle, nimble and swift as a doe.
A bunch of us dogs stood around for a moment, just sort of staring at one another.
And Mouse said, in what sounded to me like perfectly understandable English, "That bitch. "
We all stared at him.
Mouse huffed out a breath, shook his beslimed coat, and said, "Follow me. " Then he took off after the Leanansidhe, and, driven by reflex-level instinct, the rest of us raced to catch up.
I'd been shapeshifted one other time - by the dark magic of a cursed belt, and one that I suspected had been deliberately designed to provide an addictive high with its use. It had taken me a long time to shake off the memory of that experience, the absolute clarity of my senses, the feeling of ready power in my whole body, of absolute certainty in every movement.
Now I had it back - and this time, without the reality-blurring euphoria. I was intensely aware of the scents around me, of a hundred thousand new smells that begged to be explored, of the rush of sheer physical pleasure in racing across the ground after a friend. I could hear the breath and the bodies of the others around me, running through the night, bounding over stones and fallen trees, slashing through bits of brush and heavy ground cover.
We could hear small prey animals scattering before us and to either side, and I knew, not just suspected but knew, that I was faster, by far, than any of the merely mortal animals, even the young buck deer who went soaring away from us, leaping a good twenty feet over a waterway. I felt an overwhelming urge to turn in pursuit - but the lead runner in the pack was already on another trail, and I wasn't sure I could have turned aside if I had tried to do so.
And the best part? We probably made less noise, as a whole, than any one of us would have made moving in a clumsy mortal body.
We didn't cover five miles in half the time, an hour instead of two.
It took us - maybe, at the most - ten minutes.
When we stopped, we could all hear the drums. Steady, throbbing drums, keeping a quick, monotonous, trance-inducing beat. The sky to the northwest was bright with the light of reflected fires, and the air seethed with the scents of humans and not-quite humans and creatures that made me growl and want to bite something. Occasionally, a vampire's cry would run its shrill claws down my spine.
Lea stood upon a fallen log ahead of us, staring ahead. Mouse walked up to her.
"Gggrrrr rawf arrrgggrrrrarrrr," I said.
Mouse gave me an impatient glance, and somehow - I don't know if it was something in his body language or what - I became aware that he was telling me to sit down and shut up or he'd come over and make me.
I sat down. Something in me really didn't like that idea, but when I looked around, I saw that everyone else had done it too, and that made me feel better.
Mouse said, again in what sounded like perfectly clear English, "Funny. Now restore them. "
Lea turned to look at the big dog and said, "Do you dare to give me commands, hound?"
"Not your hound," Mouse said. I didn't know how he was doing it. His mouth wasn't moving or anything. "Restore them before I rip your ass off. Literally rip it off. "
The Leanansidhe tilted her head back and let out a low laugh. "You are far from your sources of power here, my dear demon. "
"I live with a wizard. I cheat. " He took a step toward her and his lips peeled up from his fangs in unmistakable hostility. "You want to restore them? Or do I kill you and get them back that way?"
Lea narrowed her eyes. Then she said, "You're bluffing. "
One of the big dog's huge, clawed paws dug at the ground, as if bracing him for a leap, and his growl seemed to . . . I looked down and checked. It didn't seem to shake the ground. The ground was actually shaking for several feet in every direction of the dog. Motes of blue light began to fall from his jaws, thickly enough that it looked quite a bit like he was foaming at the mouth. "Try me. "
The Leanansidhe shook her head slowly. Then she said, "How did Dresden ever win you?"
"He didn't," Mouse said. "I won him. "
Lea arched an eyebrow as if baffled. Then she shrugged and said, "We have a quest to complete. This bickering does not profit us. " She turned to us, passed a hand through the air in our general direction, and murmured, "Anytime you want it back, dears, just ask. You'd all make gorgeous hounds. "
Again, agony overwhelmed me, though I felt too weak to scream about it. It took a subjective eternity to pass, but when it did I was myself again, lying on my side, sweating and panting heavily.
Mouse came over and nuzzled my face, his tail wagging happily. He walked around me, sniffing, and began to nudge me to rise. I got up slowly, and actually braced my hand on his broad, shaggy back at one point. I felt an acute need to be gripping a good solid wizard's staff again, just to hold me up. I don't think I'd ever appreciated how much of a psychological advantage (i. e. , security blanket) it was, either. But I wouldn't have one until I'd taken a month or so to make one: Mine had been in the Blue Beetle, and died with it, too.
I was on my feet before anyone else. I eyed the dog and said, "You can talk. How come I never hear you talk?"
"Because you don't know how to listen," my godmother said simply.
Mouse wagged his tail and leaned against me happily, looking up at me.
I rested my hand on his head for a moment and rubbed his ears.
The important things don't need to be said.
Everyone was getting back up again. The canteens made a round, and I let everyone recover for five minutes or so. There was no point in charging ahead before people could get their breath back and hold a weapon in a steady hand.
I did say something quietly to Susan, though. She nodded, frowned, and vanished.
She was back a few minutes later, and reported what she'd found into my ear.
"All right, people," I said then, still quietly. "Gather in. "
I swept a section of the jungle floor clean and drew with my fingertip in the dirt. Martin lit the crude illustration with a red flashlight, one that wouldn't ruin our night vision and had less chance of being glimpsed by a nearby foe.
"There are guards stationed all over the big pyramid. The girl is probably there, in the temple on top. That's where I'm going. Me, Susan, and Lea are going to move up through the gallery, here, and head for the temple. "
"I'm with Susan," Martin said. "I go where she does. "
This wasn't the time or place to argue. "Me, Susan, Lea, and Martin will go in that way. I want all eyes facing north when we head for the pyramid. So I want the rest of you to circle that way and come in from that direction. Right here, there's a cattle truck where they're storing their h
uman sacrifices. Get close and spring them. Raise whatever hell you can, and run fast. Head west. You'll hit a road. Follow it to a town. Get into the church there. Got it?"
There was a round of nods and unhappy expressions.
"With any luck, that will draw off enough of them to let us pull a smash and grab on the temple.
"Also," I said, very seriously, "what happens in the Yucat¨¢n stays in the Yucat¨¢n. There will be no jokes about sniffing butts or chasing tails or anything like that. Ever. Agreed?"
More sober nods, this time with a few smiles.
"Okay, folks," I said. "Just so you know, friends - I'm in your debt, and it's one I'll never be able to repay. Thank you. "
"Gush later," Murphy said, her tone wry. "Rescue now. "
"Spoken like a true lady," I said, and put my hand out. Everyone piled hands. Mouse had to wedge in close to put his paw on the pile. All of us, every single one of us, except maybe my godmother, were visibly, obviously terrified, a circle of shivers and short, fast breaths.
"Good hunting, people," I said quietly. "Go. "
Everyone had just gotten to their feet when the brush rattled, and a half-naked man came sprinting almost directly into us, his expression desperate, his eyes wide with mindless terror. He smashed into Thomas, rebounded off him, and crashed to the ground.
Before anyone could react, there was a muted rustle, and a Red Court vampire in its black-skinned monstrous form came bounding out of the forest five yards away and, upon seeing us, went rigid with startled shock. An instant later, it tried to reverse its course, its claws gouging at the forest floor.
I've heard it said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
The vampire let out an earsplitting screech, and all hell broke loose.
A lot of things happened very quickly.
Mouse rushed forward and caught the vampire by one calf just before it could vanish into the thick brush. He set his legs as the vampire struggled wildly, trying to scream again.
Martin brought his pistol up in a one- handed grip, six inches of sound suppressor attached to its muzzle. Without hesitating for an instant, Martin took a step to one side for a clear shot and fired on the move. The gun made a sound no louder than a man clearing his throat, and blood spattered from the vampire's neck. Though it kept struggling, its screams suddenly ended, and it bounded and writhed wildly to maneuver Mouse between itself and Martin.
That stopped abruptly when Thomas's falcata took the vampire's head from its shoulders.
The half-naked man looked at us, and babbled something in Spanish. Susan answered him with a curt gesture and a harsh tone, and then the man blurted something, nodding emphatically, then turned to keep running into the darkness.
"Quiet," I breathed, and everyone dropped silent while I stood quite still, Listening for all I was worth.
I have a knack, a skill that some people seem to be able to learn. I'm not sure if it's something biological or magical, but it allows me to hear things I wouldn't otherwise pick up, and I figured it was a good time for it.
For a long breath, there was nothing but the continued rumble of the drums.
Then a horn, something that sounded a bit like a conch, began to blow.
A chorus of vampire screams arose and it didn't take any supergood hearing to know that they were headed our way.
"There. You see?" Sanya said, his tone gently reproving. "Frontal assault. "
"Oh, Jesus," Murphy said, her tone more disgusted than afraid.
"He's right," I said, my voice hard. "Our only chance is to hit them hard. " We had only a moment, and my mind raced, trying to come up with a plan that resulted in something other than us drowning in a flood of vampires.
"Harry," Susan said. "How are we going to do this?"
"I need Lea," I said, trying to keep my voice calm and steady. "I need Molly. "
Molly made a squeaking noise.
I turned to Susan and said, "We do it in two waves. "
We moved directly toward the enemy, entering the ancient gallery full of columns, and the vampires came boiling out of the shadows to meet us. I don't know how many of them there were. More than a hundred, less than a million. I stepped out in front of everyone and said, "Attack!"
Sanya's battle roar was loudest. He leapt forward, drawing Esperacchius , and blazing light shone forth from the blade.
Murphy ran forward upon his right, letting out a scream of her own and holding the shining length of Fidelacchius in her hands. An aura of soft blue light had surrounded her. On Sanya's left, Susan ran, Amoracchius held aloft and wreathed in white fire, and her scream was something primal and terrible. Thomas flanked Murphy. Martin ran next to Susan, and both of them charged forward with blade and pistol in hand.
I saw the front ranks of vampires hesitate as they saw the pure, terrible light of the three Swords coming toward them, but it wasn't enough to stop the momentum of that horde. It swallowed all five valiant figures in a tidal wave of dark, flabby bodies, claws, fangs, and lashing tongues.
I still stood forward of everyone else, and the meeting of the two ranks of combatants brought the horde to a halt. A brief halt, true, something that lasted no more than a handful of seconds - but it was time enough for me to reach down to touch the slow, terrible power of the ley line flowing beneath my feet.
The temple atop the pyramid in the ruins was the center of the confluence, but ley lines, each one a vast, roaring current of magical energy, radiated out in all directions - and the one beneath us was an enormous current of raw earth magic. Earth magic wasn't my forte, and I knew only a couple of applications well enough to use them in a fight.
But one of them was a doozy.
I reached out and touched the power of that ley line, desperately wishing I had my staff with me to assist with the effort. I could sense the earth magic in my mind, feel it flowing by with a power that vibrated up through the soles of the big, stompy, armor-plated boots my godmother had put on me. I took a deep breath, and then thrust my thoughts down into that power.
I was immediately overwhelmed with a rush of images and alien sensations, contacting a power so intense and coherent that it nearly had its own awareness. In a single moment, I saw the ponderous dance of continents clashing against one another to form mountains, felt the slow sleepiness of the earth, its dreaming shivers felt as disasters by the ephemeral things that lived upon its skin. I saw wealth and riches beyond petty mortal imagination, gold and silver flowing hot in rivers, precious gems by the millions being born and formed.
I fought to contain the images, to control them and channel them, focusing all of those sensations into a well I could see only in my imagination, a point deep below the gallery of crumbling old stone that rested next to the pitifully temporary mortal structure on the surface.
Once I had the raw magic I needed, I was able to pull my mind clear of the ley line, and I was suddenly holding a whirlwind of molten stone in my head, seething against the containment of my will until it felt like my skull would burst outward from the pressure, and realized as I did that the use to which I was putting this pure, raw energy was almost childish in its simplicity. I was a frail wisp of mortality beside that energy, which could, quite literally, have moved mountains, leveled cities, shifted the course of rivers, and stirred oceans in their beds.
I set that well of energy to spinning, and directed its power as it spiraled up, a tornado of magic that reached out to embrace simple gravity. With the enormous energy of the ley line, I focused the pull of the earth for miles around into a circle a couple of hundred yards across and spoke a single word as I unleashed the torrent of energy, bound only, firmly if imperfectly, by my will. The spell, start to finish, had taken me a good sixty seconds to put together, and tapping into the ley line had been the last part of the process - far too long and far too destructive to
use in any of the faster and more furious fights that I'd found myself in over the years.
Perfect for tonight.
For a quarter of a second, gravity vanished from Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢, and the land for miles all around it, jerking everything that wasn't fastened down, myself included, several inches into the air. For that time, all of that force was focused and concentrated into a circle perhaps two hundred yards across that embraced the entire gallery and every vampire inside it. There, the enormous power of that much focused gravity, nearly three hundred times normal, slammed everyone and everything straight down, as if crushed by a single, gigantic, invisible anvil.
The stone columns handled it better than I thought they would. Maybe half of them suddenly cracked, shattered, and fell into rubble, but the rest bore up under the strain as they had for centuries.
The assault force of the Red Court wasn't nearly so resilient.
I could hear the bones breaking from where I stood, each snapping with hideously sharp pops and cracks. Down crashed the wave of vampires in a mass of shattered bones. Many of them were crushed beneath the falling stones of the weaker columns - each flabby black body smashed beneath a weight of scores of tons of stone, even if hit by only one piece from a single block.
The energy involved had been enormous, and as I was bounced up about a foot into the air, I was hit with the wave of exhaustion that came along with it. It wasn't as bad as it might have been. Technically, I was only channeling and rearranging forces that were already in existence and motion, not creating them from my will, or I could never have managed to affect an area so big, and to do it so violently. But believe you me, it was still hard.
I was thrown several inches up along with everything and everyone else that wasn't secured. I landed with only one foot beneath me, so I dropped to one knee, catching myself on my hands. Panting, I looked up to see the results of the spell.
A couple of acres of flat, dead, and a few horribly wounded and dying vampires lay strewn about like so many crushed ants, and standing over them, each in a combat pose, as if ready to keep on swinging, were the friends I had sent running ahead, entirely unaffected.
"Good," I said, panting. "That's enough, kid. "
I heard Molly, several feet behind me, let out a sigh of relief herself, and the lights and shining auras vanished from the three figures wielding a Sword.
"Well-done, little one," the Leanansidhe said, and as she spoke the five figures themselves vanished. "A most credible illusion. It is always the little touches of truth that make for the most potent deceptions. "
"Well, you know," Molly said, sounding a little flustered. "I just watched my dad a few times. "
Mouse stayed close at my side. His head was turned to the right, focused upon the trees and the darkness that way. A growl I felt more than heard came from deep in his chest.
Susan stepped up to my side and looked at the crushed vampires with undisguised satisfaction, but frowned. "Esclavos de sangre," she said.
"Yes," said Martin from somewhere behind me.
"What?" I asked.
"Blood slaves," Susan said to me. "Vampires who have gone entirely feral. They can't create a flesh mask. They're almost animals. Scum. "
"Cannon fodder," I said, forcing my lungs to start taking slower, deeper breaths. "A crowd of scum at a top-end Red Court function. "
It wasn't hard to figure out why they'd been there. Mouse's interest in whatever it was he sensed in the trees was deepening. "The Red Court was expecting company. "
"Yes," Susan said, her voice tight.
Well. Nothing's ever simple, is it?
That changed everything. A surprise raid upon an unsuspecting, unprepared target was one thing. Trying to simply kick in the teeth of a fully armed and ready Red Court obviously expecting someone with my firepower was something else entirely. Namely, sheer stupidity.
I had to change the game and change it fast.
A gong began to clash slowly, a monstrous thing, the metallic roar of its voice something low and harsh that reminded me inexplicably of the roar Martin had produced earlier. The tension got thicker, and except for the sounds of the drum and the gong, there were no other noises, not of the creatures of the jungle or any other kind.
The quiet was far more terrifying than the noise had been.
"They're out there," I said quietly. "They're moving right now. "
"Yes," said Lea, who had suddenly appeared at my left side, opposite Mouse. Her voice was very calm, and her feline eyes roamed the night, bright and interested. "That mob of trash was merely a distraction. Our own tactic used against us. " Her eyes narrowed. "They are employing veils to hide themselves - and they are quite skilled. "
"Molly," I said.
"On it, boss," she replied.
"Our distraction was an illusion. It didn't cost us any lives," Murphy pointed out.
"Neither did theirs, from their perspective, Sergeant," Martin said. "Creatures who cannot control themselves are of no use to the Red King, after all. Their deaths simply reduced the number of useless, parasitic mouths he had to feed. He may think of humans as a commodity, but he'd rather not throw that wealth away. "
"Harry?" Murphy asked. "Can you do that anvil thing again?"
"Hell. I'm sorta surprised I got away with it the first time. Never done anything with that much voltage. " I closed my eyes for a second and began to reach down for the ley line again - and my brain contorted. Thoughts turned into a harsh explosion of images and memories that left long lacerations on the inside of my skull, and even after I had moved my mind away from those images, it took several seconds before I could open my eyes again. "No," I croaked. "No, that isn't an option. Even if they gave me enough time to pull it off. "
"Then what are we going to do?" Thomas asked. He held a large pistol in his left hand, his falcata in his right, and stood at my back, facing the darkness behind us. "Stand here until they swarm us?"
"We're going to show them how much it will cost to take us down," I said. "How's it coming, padawan?"
Molly let out a slow, thoughtful breath. Then she lifted one pale hand, rotated an extended finger in a circle around us, and murmured, "Hireki. "
I felt the subtle surge of her will wash out and drew in my own as it did. The word my apprentice whispered seemed to flow out from her in an enormous circle, leaving visible signs of its passing. It fluttered leaves and blades of grass, stirred small stones - and, as it continued, it washed over several shapes out in the night that rippled and became solid black outlines, where before there was only indistinct darkness and shadow.
"Not all that skilled," Molly said, panting, satisfaction in her voice.
"Fuego!" I snarled, and threw a small comet of fire from my right hand. It sailed forth with a howling whistle of superheated air and smashed into the nearest of the shadowed forms, less than a dozen yards away. Fire leapt up, and a vampire screamed in rage and pain and began retreating through the trees.
"Infriga!" I barked, and made a ripping gesture with my left hand. I tore the fire from the stricken vampire - and then some. I sent the resulting fireball skipping over to the next form - and left the first target as a block of ice where the damp jungle air had emptied its water over the vampire's body and locked it into place, rigid and very slightly luminous with the residue of the cold energy I felt in me, the gift of Queen Mab. Which was just as well - there were a dozen closing attackers in my immediate field of vision alone, which meant another fifty or sixty of them if they were circling in from all around us, plus the ones I couldn't see, who may have employed more mundane techniques of stealth to avoid the eye.
I wanted them to see what I could do.
The second vampire fell as easily as the first, as did the third, and only then did I say quietly, "One bullet apiece, Martin. "
Martin's silenced pistol coughed three times, and the slightly glowing form
s of the ice-enclosed vampires shattered into several dozen pieces each, falling to the ground where the luminous energy of Winter began to bleed slowly away, along with the ice-riddled flesh.
They got the point. The vampires stopped advancing. The jungle became still.
"Fire and ice," murmured the Leanansidhe. "Excellent, my godson. Anyone can play with an element. Few can manipulate opposites with such ease. "
"Sort of the idea," I said. "Back me up. "
"Of course," Lea said.
I stepped forward and slightly apart from the others and lifted my hands. "Arianna!" I shouted, and my voice boomed as though I'd been holding a microphone and using speakers the size of refrigerators. It was something of a surprise, and I looked over my shoulder to see my godmother smiling calmly.
"Arianna!" I called again. "You were too great a coward to accept my challenge when I gave it to you in Edinburgh! Now I am here, in the heart of the power of the Red King! Do you still fear to face me, coward?"
"What?" Thomas muttered under his breath.
"This is not an assault," Sanya added, disapproval in his voice.
I ignored them. I was the one with the big voice. "You see what I have done to your rabble!" I called. "How many more must die before you come out from behind them, Duchess? I am come to kill you and claim my child! Stand forth, or I swear to you, upon the power in my body and mind, that I will lay waste to your strong place. Before I die, I will make you pay the price for every drop of blood - and when I die, my death curse will scatter the power of this place to the winds!
"Arianna!" I bellowed, and I could not stop the hatred from making my voice sharply edged with scorn and spite. "How many loyal servants of the Red King must die tonight? How many Lords of Outer Night will taste mortality before the sun rises? You have only begun to know the power I bring with me this night. For though I die, I swear to you this: I will not fall alone. "
I indulged in a little bit of melodrama at that point: I brought forth soulfire - enough to sheath my body in silver light - as my oath rolled out over the land, through the ruins, and bounced from tree to tree. It cast a harsh light that the nearest surviving vampires cringed away from.
For a long moment, there was no sound.
Then the drums and the occasional clash of the gong stopped.
A conch shell horn, the sound unmistakable, blew three high, sweet notes.
The effect was immediate. The vampires surrounding us all retreated until they were out of sight. Then a drumbeat began again, this time from a single drummer.
"What's happening?" Thomas asked.
"The Red King's agents spent the past couple of days trying to kill me or make sure I showed up here only as a vampire," I said quietly. "I'm pretty sure it's because the king didn't want the duchess pulling off her bloodline curse against me. Which means that there's a power play going on inside the Red Court. "
"Your explanation isn't one," Thomas replied.
"Now that I am here," I said, "I'm betting that the Red King is going to be willing to attempt other means of undercutting the duchess. "
"You don't even know he's here. "
"Of course he is," I said. "There's a sizable force here, as large as any we've ever seen take the field during the war. "
"What if it isn't his army? What if he's not here to run it?" Thomas asked.
"History suggests that kings who don't exercise direct control over their armies don't tend to remain kings for very long. Which must be, ultimately, what this is all about - diminishing Arianna's power. "
"And talking to you does that how?"
"The Code Duello," I said. "The Red Court signed the Accords. For what Arianna has done, I have the right to challenge her. If I kill her, I get rid of the Red King's problem for him. "
"Suppose he isn't interested in chatting?" Thomas said. "Suppose they're pulling back because he just convinced someone to drop a cruise missile on top of us?"
"Then we'll get blown up," I said. "Which is better than we'd get if we had to tangle with them here and now, I expect. "
"Okay," Thomas said. "Just so we have that clear. "
"Pansy," Murphy sneered.
Thomas leered at her. "You make my stamen tingle when you talk like that, Sergeant. "
"Quiet," Sanya murmured. "Something is coming. "
A soft lamp carried by a slender figure in a white garment came toward us down the long row of columns.
It proved to be a woman dressed in an outfit almost exactly like Susan's. She was tall, young, and lovely, with the dark red-brown skin of the native Maya, with their long features and dark eyes. Three others accompanied her - men, and obviously warriors all, wearing the skins of jaguars over their shoulders and otherwise clad only in loincloths and heavy tattoos. Two of them carried swords made of wood and sharpened chips of obsidian. The other carried a drum that rolled off a steady beat.
I thought there was something familiar about the features of the three men, but then I realized that they weren't personally familiar to me. It was the subtle tension of their bodies, the hints of power that hung about them like a very faint perfume.
They reminded me quite strongly of Susan and Martin. Half vampires. Presumably just as dangerous as Susan and Martin, if not more so.
The jaguar warriors all came to a halt about twenty feet away, but the drum kept rolling and the girl kept walking, one step for each beat. When she reached me, she unfastened her feathered cloak and let it fall to the ground. Then, with the twist of a piece of leather at each shoulder, the shift slid down her body into a puddle of soft white around her feet. She was naked beneath, except for a band of leather around her hips, from which hung an obsidian-bladed knife. She knelt down in a slow, graceful motion, a portrait in supplication, then took up the knife and offered its handle to me.
"I am Priestess Alamaya, servant of the Great Lord Kukulcan," she murmured, her voice honeyed, her expression serene. "He bids you and your retainers be welcome to this, his country seat, Wizard Dresden, and offers you the blood of my life as proof of his welcome and his compliance with the Accords. " She lowered her eyes and turned her head to the right to bare her throat, the carotid artery, while still holding forth the blade. "Do with me as you will. I am a gift to you from the Great Lord. "
"Oh, how thoughtful," the Leanansidhe murmured. "You hardly ever meet anyone that polite, these days. May I?"
"No," I said, and tried to keep the edge of irritation out of my voice. I took the knife from the girl's hands and slid it into my sash, and let it rest next to the cloth sack I had made from a knotted inside-out Rolling Stones T-shirt. The shirt had been in my gym bag of contraband ever since it had been a gym bag of clean clothes for when I went to the gym. I had pressed the shirt (bah-dump-bump, ching) into service when I realized the one other thing I couldn't do without during this confrontation. It was tied to my grey cloth sash.
Then I took the young woman's arm and lifted her to her feet, sensing no particular aura of power around her. She was mortal, evidently a servant of the vampires.
She drew in a short breath as she felt my hand circle her wrist and rose swiftly, so that I didn't have to expend any effort lifting her. "Should you wish to defile me in that way, lord, it is also well within your rights as guest. " Her dark eyes were very direct, very willing. "My body is yours, as is my blood. "
"More than a century," Murphy muttered, "and we've gone from 'like a fish needs a bicycle' to this. "
I cleared my throat and gave Murphy a look. Then I turned to the girl and said, "I have no doubt about your lord's integrity, Priestess Alamaya. Please convey us to his seat, that I may speak with him. "
At my words, the girl fell to her knees again and brushed her long, dark hair across my feet. "I thank you for my life, wizard, that I may continue to serve my lord," she said. Then she rose again and made an imperious gesture to one of the jaguar warriors. The man immediately recovered her clothing and assiste
d her in dressing again. The feather cloak slid over her shoulders once more, and though I knew the thing had to be heavy, she bore it without strain. "This way, lord, if you please. "
"Love this job," Sanya murmured. "Just love it. "
"I need to challenge more people to duels," Thomas said in agreement.
"Men are pigs," Murphy said.
"Amen," said Molly.
Lea gave me a prim look and said, "I've not sacrificed a holy virgin in ages. "
"Completely unprofessional," muttered Martin.
"Ixnay," I said quietly, laying a hand on Mouse's shoulders. "All of you. Follow me. And don't look edible. "
And, following the priestess with her lamp, we entered the city of Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢.