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Jim Butcher

Chapter 44

  Chapter Forty-four

  E ven as some part of me noted all of that happening, the rest of me started screaming in raw, red rage, in agony, in denial.

  I was pretty sure I had worked out who had taken my blasting rod away. I was pretty sure I knew why they'd done it. I even thought that, looked at from a certain point of view, it might not have been an entirely stupid idea.

  But as of now, I officially did not care.

  I didn't have my blasting rod with me, and I was not sure that my raw power, no matter how furious, would be enough to hurt Tessa through the defenses the Fallen gave her. I had never been able to attain the kind of precision I would need without artificial aid.

  As of right now, I officially did not care about that, either.

  I focused my rage, focused my anger, focused my hate and my denial and my pain. I blocked away everything in the entire universe but the thought of my friend's bloody body hanging from that rope, and a spot two inches across in the center of Tessa's chest.

  Then I drew in a breath, whirling a hand over my head and bellowed through my ragged throat, so loudly that it felt like something tore, "Fuego, pyrofuego!" I stabbed the first two fingers of my right hand forward as I did, unleashing my fury and my will. "Burn!"

  A bar of blue-white fire so dense that it was nearly a solid object lashed across the distance from me to Tessa and slammed into her like an enormous spear.

  The mantislike Denarian threw back her pretty face and screamed in agony as the shaft of fire bored cleanly through her, melting a wide hole that burned wider still before searing itself shut. She went down, howling and thrashing, burned by fire far deadlier and more destructive than any I had ever called before, with a blasting rod or without one.

  I sensed something moving toward me from the side and rolled out of the way just as one of Rosanna's cloven hooves slashed through the air where my thigh had been an instant before. If she'd struck she would have opened the flesh to the bone. I whipped my staff at her face, forcing her to duck away, and followed with a surge of will and a shout of, "Forzare!" It wasn't my best kinetic strike, but it was a blow heavy enough to throw her a dozen feet through the air and into a tumble over the ground.

  I seized the hilt of Fidelacchius from where the Sword had fallen. As my fingers closed around the weapon I realized several points of cold logic, as if having them explained to me by a calm, rational, wise old man who was utterly unperturbed by my rage.

  First, I realized that I was now alone on an uncharted island in the middle of Lake Michigan, with nothing but madmen and fallen angels for company.

  Second, that I still had the coins and the Sword that Nicodemus had been after-and that he was still going to be after them.

  Third, that the Denarians were sure to be really ticked off, now that I'd taken their real prize from them.

  Fourth. . .

  The ground shook, as if with the impact of a heavy foot.

  Fourth, that since I had confounded Summer's attempt to track me via use of the little oak leaf pin, Eldest Brother Gruff had probably been waiting for me to use fire magic in battle-the same magic that I had entwined with the power of the Summer Lady two years ago at Arctis Tor. It was the most probable reason why Mab, the most likely suspect for messing with my head, would have taken my blasting rod and my memories of how to use fire magic in battle-to prevent me from inadvertently revealing my position to Summer every time I got into a tussle.

  Only now that I had, Eldest Gruff was probably on his way to visit.

  And fifth, and last, I realized that I had no way to get off this stupid and creepily familiar island-unless I could get down to the docks and to the boat I'd come in on.

  I still burned with the need to strike back at the people who had hurt my friend, but the fact of the matter was that I couldn't strike back at them and survive-and if they took me down, I'd only be handing them weapons to continue the war Michael had spent a lifetime fighting to end.

  My only option was to run. Realistically, even escape wasn't looking likely-but it was my only chance.

  So I slid the Sword back into its scabbard, oriented myself toward the run-down little town where we'd first come ashore, and ran. Fast.

  Now, I'm not as strong as those really big guys, like Michael and Sanya. I don't do swordplay as well as folks like Nicodemus or Shiro. I don't yet have the magical experience and know-how to outfinesse the really experienced wizards and sorcerers who have been hanging around for centuries, like the Gatekeeper or Thorned Namshiel.

  But I'll take any of those guys in a footrace. Guaranteed. I run-and not so that I'll be skinny and look good, either. I run so that when something that wants to kill me is chasing me, I'll be good at running. And when you've got legs as long as mine, you're skinny, and in good shape, you can really move. I hit the woods running like a deer, sticking to the path we'd broken on the way up. The snow made it easy to see the way, and though in another hour or two it would be a sheet of frozen ice, for the moment the footing was excellent.

  I was benefiting from the chaos caused by Gard's entrance. I could hear all kinds of confusion as men shouted in the woods and tried to figure out what was going on, to get the wounded to help, and to follow what were probably conflicting orders thanks to holes ripped in their chain of command by Hendricks and his minigun. Radios clicked and voices buzzed over them, functioning unreliably, as they would in any area so rich with concentrated magical energy.

  The fact that most of the men had had their tongues removed probably didn't help anything, either. Nick should have taken my advice and read that evil-overlord list. Seriously.

  Someone a few yards off to my right shouted something at me. It came out as totally mangled gobbledygook. I shouted back at him in similar wordless garbage, pretending that I didn't have a tongue either, and added a rude gesture to the tirade. I don't know if it was the perfect charade, or if it just shocked him into stunned silence, but either way it got the same effect. I went on by him without garnering any further reaction whatsoever.

  I thought I was home free as I reached the ruins of the little company town and its one main drag along the shoreline.

  And then I heard Magog's bellow coming down the hill behind me-coming fast, too, easily making twice the speed I could manage. That was the damnedest thing about these demonic collaborator types. Even though they didn't work out and practice, they still got to run faster than we dedicated roadsters who actually sweated and strained for our ability to haul ass. Jerks.

  It seemed clear that Magog was coming in pursuit of me, or at least that he was coming down the hill toward the dock and the boat off the island to cut off any chance of escape. I had little time to pick and choose where to go to avoid his notice, and wound up ducking into the long, heavily shadowed, cavernous length of the building that looked as if it had once been a cannery.

  The roof had fallen through in several places, and snow covered perhaps a third of the floor, providing the only thing even vaguely like light. Most of the walls were still standing, but I had grave doubts about the floor. There wasn't space for much of a basement above the waterline, but there was plenty of room to break a leg if I fell through on a weak board. I would just have to stay close to the wall and hope for the best.

  For once, enemy manpower was working in my favor. If Nicodemus had brought only his fellow Denarians along, there would have been nothing but the footprints of cloven hooves and giant mantises and Grape Apes and whatnot in the snow of the island. But no, he'd had to bring along dozens and dozens of foot soldiers, too, and as a result there were regular old footprints everywhere. One more set, more or less, wasn't going to stand out. So all I had to do was get into the building, get out of sight, and lie low until Magog had gone past.

  I had no sooner crouched down and begun my impersonation of a mouse than the ancient, half-rotted wood of the old cannery shuddered beneath me, a vibration that I felt in the soles of m
y feet. Then another, and another, rhythmic, like slow footsteps.

  They were followed by the sound of Magog's approach, a heavy, leathery shuffling through the snow, accompanied by the steady heave of lungs like a blacksmith's bellows. Then I heard Magog slide to a sudden halt in the snow and snort in surprise-then let out an enormous roar of challenge.

  And a voice, a very deep, resonant voice, said, "Be thou gone from this place, creature. My quarrel is not with thee. "

  Magog answered with a howl and spat out words in a language I did not understand.

  "Be that as it may, Elder One," the huge voice said, gently and with respect, "I also have a duty from which I may not waver. We need not be at odds this night. Depart in peace, Elder One, with your beast of burden. "

  Magog snarled again in that foreign tongue.

  The deep voice hardened. "I seek no quarrel with thee, Fallen One. I pray thee, do not mistake peaceable intention for weakness. I do not fear thee. Begone, or I will smite thee down. "

  The gorillalike Denarian howled. I heard its claws dig and rip at the ground as it hurtled forward toward the source of the resonant voice.

  Magog, it seemed, had a really limited vocabulary when it came to repartee.

  I couldn't see what happened next. There was a flash of gold-green light, like sunlight reflected from fresh spring grass, and a detonation in the air, a sound that was not quite a crack of thunder, not quite an explosion of fire. It wasn't even loud so much as it was pervasive, something that I felt along the whole surface of my body as much as I did on my eardrums.

  The wall of the cannery shattered inward, and Magog-what was left of Magog-came hurtling through it. It landed on the ground about twenty feet away from me. Enormous sections were missing from the front of the gorillalike body, including its thighs and most of the front half of its torso. It wasn't a messy wound, either. The empty chunks were limned with a gentle yellow-green glow that seemed to seal in any blood. Even as I watched, Magog quivered once, then went limp. Tiny sprouts of green flowered up from the fallen corpse over the course of a couple of seconds, leaves spreading, then budding out into wildflowers in a riot of colors.

  The coating of flowering plants seemed to devour the body of the gorilla from around the mortal body beneath-that of a muscular young man, which gradually emerged, though was still modestly shrouded in a veil of flowers. He was thoroughly dead, his eyes glassy, empty, and there were flowers growing in a hole where his heart had been. He wore a leather collar, and hanging from it, in a little rubber frame like a dog tag, was another blackened denarius. He was a kid, Molly's age at the oldest.

  From outside there was a deep, resonant sigh. Then another heavy, ground-shuddering thump. And another.

  Coming closer.

  My heart jumped right up into my teeth. Sure, I had no idea who that really was out there, but all those thees just screamed that it was one of the Sidhe. They really got into the archaic modes of speech-or maybe it was fairer to say that they never got out of them. Anyway, odds were running high that this was Eldest Brother Gruff come to settle up with Winter's champion in this affair, and given that he'd just swatted down one of the Denarians like he was an uppity pixie, it didn't bode real well for me.

  I found myself taking a step back as that thumping sound came again, and the floorboard beneath my foot creaked precariously.

  That gave me an idea. The bigger they are, et cetera. If Eldest Gruff was even bigger than the last one had been, maybe I could use the rickety flooring against him-long enough to get myself out to the boat and off the island, in any case. Open water was another fantastic neutralizer for the enormous size discrepancy. Setting realistic goals has always been the key to my success. I didn't have to win a fight with this thing. I just had to survive long enough to run away.

  I took a chance, picked the most solid-looking floorboard I could see, and eased across the floor to the far side of the building, the one nearest the water, and turned to face the hole in the wall that Magog's body had smashed open on its way in.

  Thump. Thump. Thump.

  I readied my will and shook out my shield bracelet, in case I needed it. I lifted my staff and pointed it at where I thought Eldest Gruff 's head might be when he came in, so he would know I was serious.

  Thump. Thump. Thump.

  I adjusted the aim on the staff a little higher.

  Thump. Thump.

  Sweat trickled off my brow.

  Thump. Thump.

  How far did this guy have to walk?

  Thump. Thump.

  This was just getting ridiculous, now.

  Thump. Thump.

  And Eldest Gruff appeared in the opening.

  He was five feet tall. Five-two, tops.

  He wore a robe with a cowl, pulled back so that I could clearly see his curling ram's horns, the goatlike features, the long white beard, the yellow eyes with their hourglass pupils.

  And in his right hand he carried a wooden staff carved with runes that looked almost precisely like my own.

  He took a limping step forward, leaning on his staff, and when he planted the tool on the ground, it flickered with green light that then splashed out onto the earth beneath it, spreading outward in a resonating wave. Thump.

  The floorboards creaked beneath him, and he came to a cautious stop and faced me quietly, both hands on his staff. His robe was belted with an old bit of simple rope. There were three stoles hanging through it-purple ones, faded and frayed with the passage of time.

  Those were the mantles worn by members of the Senior Council, the leaders of the White Council of Wizards. They were, generally speaking, the oldest and strongest wizards on the planet.

  And Eldest Brother Gruff had, evidently, killed three of them in duels.

  "This," I said, "has really not been my day. "

  The gruff regarded me solemnly. "Hail, young wizard. " He had a deep, resonant voice, far too huge and rich for the frame it came from. "Thou knowest why I have come. "

  "To slay me, most likely," I said.

  "Aye," said the gruff. "By my Queen's command and in defense of Summer's honor. "

  "Why?" I asked him. "Why would Summer want Marcone taken by the Denarians? Why would Summer want the Archive under their control?"

  The gruff only stared at me for a long moment, but when he spoke I could have sworn that his voice sounded pensive. Maybe even troubled. "It is not my place to know such things-or to ask. "

  "The gruffs are Summer's champion in this matter, aren't they?" I demanded. "If not you, then who?"

  "What of thee, wizard?" the gruff countered. "Hast thou asked why the wicked Queen of Winter would wish thee to prevent Marcone from being taken by those servants of the darkest shadow? Why she who embodies destruction and death would wish to protect and preserve the Archive?"

  "I have, actually," I said.

  "And what answers hast thou found?"

  "Gruff," I said, "I find myself largely clueless about why mortal women do what they do. It will take a wiser man than me to understand what's in a fae woman's mind. "

  Eldest Gruff stared at me blankly for a second. Then he threw back his head and made a sound that. . . well, more than anything it sounded like a donkey. Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw.

  He was laughing.

  I laughed, too. I couldn't help it. The whole day had just been too much, and the laugh just felt too good. I laughed until my stomach hurt, and when the gruff saw me laughing, it only made him laugh harder-and more like a donkey-and that set me off in turn.

  It was a good two or three minutes before we settled down.

  "They tell children stories about you guys, you know," I said.

  "Still?" he said.

  I nodded. "Stories about clever little billy goats outsmarting big mean trolls until their bigger, stronger brothers come along and put the trolls in their place. "

  The gruff grunted. He said, "We hear tales of t
hee, young wizard. "

  I blinked. "You, uh?"

  "We too like stories about. . . " His eyes searched his memory for a moment before he smiled, pleased. The gesture looked pleasantly nonviolent on his face. "Underdogs. "

  I snorted. "Well. I guess this is another one. "

  The gruff 's smile faded. "I dislike being cast as the troll. "

  "So change the role," I said.

  The gruff shook his head. "That I cannot do. I serve Summer. I serve my Queen. "

  "But it's over," I said. "Marcone is already free. So's Ivy. "

  "But thou art still here, upon the field of conflict," the gruff said gently. "As am I. And so the matter is not closed. And so I must fulfill my obligations-to my great regret, wizard. I have only admiration for thee, in a personal sense. "

  I tilted my head and stared hard at him. "You say that you serve Summer and the Queen. In that order?"

  The gruff mirrored my gesture, his eyes questioning.

  I fumbled in my pocket and came out with the other thing I had grabbed back at my apartment-the little silver oak leaf pin Mister had been batting all over Little Chicago. I'd figured that they'd stopped using it to chase me, once they'd gotten tired of Mister having his catnipped way with them.

  The gruff 's eyes widened. "The confounding enchantment thou didst employ upon our tracking spell was most efficacious. I had hoped to ask thee how it was done. "

  "Trade secret," I said. "But you know what came with this pin. "

  "Indeed," he said. "You were made an Esquire of Summer, and granted a boon, but. . . " He shook his head. "A boon can be a matter of importance, but not one this grave. Thou canst not ask me to yield to thee in a matter of conflict between the Courts themselves. "

  "I won't," I said. "But just so we're clear. Once both of us have left this island, the matter is closed?"

  "Once thou art safe again in Chicago, aye, it would be. "

  "Then I ask for Summer to honor its pledge to me, and the debt it incurred to me when I struck at Winter's heart on its behalf. "

  The gruff 's ears stood up, facing me. "Aye?"

  "I want you," I said, "to get me a doughnut. A real, genuine, Chicago doughnut. Not some glamoured doughnut. An actual one. Freshly made. "

  The gruff 's teeth began to show as he smiled again.

  "Of course," I said, "you could deny me the boon I rightfully earned in blood and fire and kill me instead, thus ensuring that Summer would renege on a debt and never be able to make good on it. But I don't think that would be very good for Summer and its honor. Do you?"

  "Indeed not, wizard," the gruff said. "Indeed it would not be. " He bowed his head to me. "Likest thou jelly within thy doughnut?"

  "Nay, but prithee, with sprinkles 'pon it instead," I said solemnly, "and frosting of white. "

  "It could take some time to locate such a pastry," the gruff said seriously.

  I bowed my head to him. "I trust in the honor of Summer's champions that it will arrive in good time. "

  He bowed his head in reply. "Understand, young wizard, I may not aid thee further. "

  "You're pushing the rules enough already," I said dryly. "Believe me. I know how that is. "

  Eldest Gruff 's golden eyes glittered. Then he lifted the staff and thumped it quietly onto the floorboards. Once again there was a pulse of green light and a surge of gentle thunder-and he was simply gone.

  So was the silver oak leaf pin. Just gone from my fingers, and I hadn't felt a thing. Give it up for the fae; they can do disappearing like nobody's business.

  Maybe I should have taken some lessons. It might have helped me get out of this mess alive.

  I made my way carefully back across the creaking floor to the body of the young man. He looked relaxed in death, peaceful. I had the impression that whatever Eldest Gruff had done to him, it had been painless. It seemed like the sort of thing the old faerie would do. I reached down with my gloved left hand and grasped the tag containing the blackened denarius of Magog. I jerked it sharply, pulling it off the collar, and pocketed it, careful not to let it touch skin. I was getting to be kind of blasĀ§?about handling these coins, but it was difficult to keep getting terrified over and over again, especially given the circumstances. The risk of once more exposing my immortal soul to a fiendish presence seemed only a moderate danger, compared to what still stalked the night outside the old building.

  Speaking of which. . . I took a deep breath and made my way quietly back out to the street. I could still hear shouting from farther up the hillside. I heard the sound of a boat's engine on the far side of the island. There must have been other vessels docked elsewhere along the shore.

  Well, I'd known about only the one, and it was close. I slipped back out of the cannery and hurried down the street as quickly and quietly as I could.

  Down past the bottom of the rough stone staircase the boat still floated, tied beside the broken stump of an old wooden column. I restrained the urge to let out a whoop, and settled for hustling down the frozen stones as fast as I could without breaking my neck. The water was viciously cold, but I still wasn't feeling it-which probably wasn't a good thing. There was going to be hell to pay in afterthought pain when this was over. But compared to the other problems I'd had recently, that one was a joy to think about.

  I got to the boat, tossed my staff in, and clambered aboard. I heard a shout up the hillside and froze. A flashlight swept back and forth up in the trees, but then moved off in another direction. I hadn't been seen. I grinned like a fool and crept up to the driver's seat. Once I got the engine started it would attract attention, but all I had to do was drive west as fast as I could until I hit ground. The whole western shoreline hereabouts was heavily occupied, and it should be no problem to get to a spot public enough to avoid any further molestation.

  I eased into the driver's seat and reached for the ignition key.

  But it was gone.

  I felt around for it. Rosanna had left it in the ignition. I specifically remembered that she had done so.

  The shadows rippled away from the passenger seat opposite the driver's seat, revealing Nicodemus. He sat calmly in his black silk shirt and dark trousers, the grey noose worn like a tie around his throat, a naked sword across his lap, his left elbow resting on his left knee. In the fingertips of his left hand he held a key ring, dangling the grease-smeared ignition key of the boat.

  "Good evening, Dresden," he said. "Looking for this?"