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White Night, Page 19

Jim Butcher

Chapter 37~38

  Chapter Thirty-Seven

  "Empty night," Madrigal swore, in English, his eyes wide. "This isn't happening. "

  I showed him my teeth and replied quietly in the same tongue. "Time to pay the piper, prick. "

  Vitto Malvora turned his head to look over his shoulder at a tiny woman no more than five feet tall, dressed in a white gown more like a toga than anything else. She was curved like the Greek goddesses the gown made her resemble. Her face was a stark, frozen mask.

  She turned eyes the color of chrome toward me and wine-dark lips peeled back from very white teeth.

  There was an immediate uproar from the vampires, a sudden chorus of shouts of protest and anger. If I'd been in a less defiant mood, it probably would have scared the crap out of me. As it was, I simply shifted my stance, turning slightly to my left while Ramirez did the same in the opposite direction, so that we stood back-to-back. There wasn't much else to do but prepare to fight in the event that someone decided to kick off a good old-fashioned wizard-smashin' for the evening's group activity.

  That gave me a moment to look around the cavern. It was built on the scale of Parisian cathedrals, with an enormously high, arched ceiling that vanished into shadow far overhead. The floor and walls were of living stone, smooth and grey, shot through here and there with strands of green, dark red, and cobalt blue. Everything was rounded and smooth, not a jagged edge or sharp corner in sight.

  The decor had changed a bit since I was there last. There were soft amber, orange, and scarlet lights splashing onto the walls of the cavern, and the lamps they came from had to have been automated, because they moved slightly, mixing color, making all the shadows twitch, and generally giving the overall impression of crude firelight without surrendering any of the clarity of electric lighting. Furniture had been arranged in three large groupings, with a large open space in the center of the floor, and they were occupied by what I could only presume were the leading members of the three major Houses - somewhere near a hundred vampires in all. Servants, dressed in the same kind of more heavily embroidered kimono Justine had been wearing, hovered at the walls, bearing trays of drinks and food and so on.

  The floor rose in a series of inch-high ripples toward the far side of the chamber, where the White King sat looking down upon his Court.

  Raith's throne was an enormous chair of bone-white stone. Its back flared out like the hood of a cobra, spreading out into an enormous crest decorated with all manner of eye-twisting carvings, everything from rather spidery Celtic-style designs to bas-relief scenes of beings I could not easily identify engaged in activities I had no desire to contemplate. A thin sheet of fine mist fell behind the throne, the light playing delicately through it, sending ribbons and streams of color and refracted rainbows dancing around the throne. Behind that veil of obscuring mist, the floor abruptly ended, opening up into a yawning abyss that dropped into the bowels of the earth and, for all I knew, all the way through its intestinal tract.

  The White King sat upon the throne. Thomas favored his father heavily, and at first glance, Lord Raith could have been Thomas. He had the same strong, appealing features, the same glossy dark hair, the same lean build. He looked little older than Thomas, but his face was very different. It was the eyes, I think. They were. . . stained, somehow, with contempt and calculation and a serpentine dispassion.

  The White King wore a splendid outfit of white silk, something somewhere between Napoleonic finery and Chinese Imperial garb. Silver and gold thread and sapphires flickered over the whole of his outfit, and a circlet of glittering silver stood out starkly against his raven hair.

  Around the throne stood five women - every one of them a vampire, in less elaborate and more feminine versions of his own regalia. Lara was one of them, and not the prettiest, though they all bore her a strong likeness. Raith's daughters, I supposed, each beautiful enough to haunt a lifetime of dreams, each deadly enough to kill an army of fools who sought to make such a fantasy come true.

  The noise continued to rise all around us, and I could feel Ramirez's shoulders tightening, and sense the power he had begun to gather.

  Raith rose from his throne with lazy magnificence and roared, "SILENCE!"

  I thought my speaking voice had been loud, but Raith's shook small stones loose from the unseeing ceiling of the cavern far overhead, and the whole place went dead still.

  Lady Malvora wasn't having any intimidation, though. She strode into the open space before the throne, maybe ten feet from Ramirez and me, and faced the White King. "Ridiculous!" she snapped. "We are not in a time of peace with the White Council. A state of war has been ongoing for years. "

  "The victims were not members of the Council," I said, and gave her a sweet smile.

  "And they are not signatories to the Accords!" Lady Malvora snapped.

  "Given their status as members of the magical community, they are, however, within the purview of the White Council's legitimate political concerns, and as such are subject to the stipulations for protection and defense found within the Accords. I am well within my rights to act as their champion. "

  Lady Malvora stared daggers at me. "Sophistry. "

  I smiled at her. "That is, of course, for your King to decide. "

  Lady Malvora's glare became even more heated, but she turned her gaze from me to the white throne.

  Raith sat down again slowly, carefully fussy with his sleeves, his eyes alight with pure pleasure. "Now, now, dear Cesarina. Moments ago, you were claiming credit for dealing what could prove a mortal blow to the freaks, at least in the long term. Just because said freaks are here to object, as is their right under the Accords, you can hardly claim that they have no vested interest in trying to stop you. "

  Comprehension dawned on Lady Malvora's lovely face. Her voice lowered to a pitch that couldn't have carried much farther than myself, and maybe to Raith's own enhanced senses. "You snake. You poisonous snake. "

  Raith gave her a chill smile and addressed the assembly. "We find that we have little choice but to acknowledge the validity of the freak's right of challenge. Under our agreement in the Accords, then, we must abide by its terms and permit the trial to proceed. " Raith rolled a droll hand at Vitto and Madrigal. "Unless, of course, our war heroes here lack the courage to withstand this utterly predictable response to their course of action. They are, of course, free to decline the challenge, should they feel themselves unable to face the consequences of their deeds. "

  Silence fell again, almost viciously anticipatory. The weight of the attention of the White Court fell squarely on Vitto and Madrigal, and they froze the way birds will before a snake, remaining carefully motionless.

  This was the ticklish part. If the duo declined the trial by combat, Raith would have to pay the Council a weregild for the dead, and that would be that. Of course, doing so would be a public admission of defeat, and would effectively neuter any influence they had in the White Court, and by extension would weaken Lady Malvora's position - not so much because they declined to fight as because they would have been outmaneuvered and forced to flee a confrontation.

  Of course, being proven slow and incompetent in front of a hundred ruthless predators, be they ever so well dressed, would probably prove lethal itself, in the long run. Either way, Lady Malvora's attempted influence coup would be finished. The bold and daring plan would have been proven overt and liable to attract far too much attention, both of which were simply not of value within the vampires' collective character. As a result, the White King, not Lady Malvora, would determine the course of the White Court's policy.

  Lady Malvora's only way out was through a victory in the trials and I was counting on it. I wanted Vitto and Madrigal to fight. Weregild wasn't good enough to atone for what these creatures had done to far too many innocent women.

  I wanted to give these monsters an object lesson.

  Madrigal turned to Vitto and spoke in a quiet hiss. I half closed my eyes an
d Listened in on the conversation.

  "No," Madrigal said, again in English. "No way. He's a stupid thug, but this is exactly what he does best. "

  Vitto and Lady Malvora traded a long stare. Then Vitto turned to Madrigal and said, "You were the imbecile who set out to attract his attention and got him involved. We fight. "

  "Like hell we fight," Madrigal snarled. "Empty night, Ortega couldn't take him in a straight fight. "

  "Don't act like such a kine, Madrigal," Vitto replied. "That was a duel of wills. A trial by combat allows us any weapons or tactics we wish. "

  "Have fun. I won't be one of the people fighting him. "

  "Yes, you will," Vitto replied. "You can face the wizard. Or you can face dear Auntie Cesarina. "

  Madrigal froze again, staring at Vitto.

  "I promise you that even if he burns you to death, it will be swift and painless by comparison. Decide, Madrigal. You are with Malvora or against us. "

  Madrigal swallowed and closed his eyes. "Son of a bitch. "

  Vitto Malvora's mouth widened into a smile, and he turned to address the White King, his language shifting back to Etruscan or whatever. "We deny the freak's baseless accusation and accept his challenge, of course, my King. We will prove the injustice of it upon his body. "

  "W-weapons," came Madrigal's unsteady voice. Lasciel's translation was flawlessly smooth, but it wasn't hard to extrapolate that Madrigal's Etruscan was about as bad as my Latin. "Weapons for our own we must have to fight. To get them we must send slaves for to find them. "

  Raith settled back in his throne and folded his arms. "I find this an only reasonable request. Dresden?"

  "No objection," I told him.

  Raith nodded once, and clapped his hands. "Music, then, while we wait, and another round of wine. "

  Lady Malvora snarled, turned on a heel, and stalked back into one of the groups of furniture, where she became the immediate center of an intent conference.

  Musicians struck up from somewhere nearby, hidden behind a screen, a chamber orchestra, and a pretty good one. Vivaldi, maybe? I'm weaker on smaller-scale music than I am on symphonies. An excited buzz of voices rose up as servants began circulating with silver trays and crystal flute glasses.

  Ramirez gave the chamber a somewhat disbelieving stare and then shook his head. "This is a nuthouse. "

  "Cave," I said. "Nutcave. "

  "What the hell is going on?"

  Right. Ramirez didn't have his own photocopy of a demon's personality to translate Ancient Etruscan. So I summed up the conversation and the players, and gave him the best quotes.

  "What's this freak stuff?" Ramirez demanded in a low, outraged tone.

  "I think it's a perspective thing," I said. "They call humans kine - deer, herd animals. Wizards are deer who can call down the lightning and whip up firestorms. From that perspective, we're fairly freakish. "

  "So we're going to kick their asses now, right?"

  "That is the plan. "

  "Incoming," Ramirez said, stiffening.

  Lara Raith approached us, demure in her white formal getup, bearing a silver tray with drinks upon it. She inclined her head to us, her grey eyes pale and shining. "Honored guests. Would you care for wine?"

  "Nah," I said. "I'm driving. "

  Lara's lips twitched. I had no idea how she had switched into the complex kimono so quickly. Chalk it up to the same sexy vampire powers that had once let her shoot a layer of skin off my ear while standing on gravel in stiletto heels. Poof, business suit. Whoosh, whoosh, silk negligee. I shook my head a little and got my thoughts under control. Adrenaline can make me a little silly.

  Lara turned to Carlos and said, "May I offer you a taste of something sweet, bantam?"

  "Well," he said. "As long as you're offering stuff, how about a little assurance that somebody isn't going to shoot us in the back for fun once we're stomping on Beavis and Butthead over there?"

  Lara arched a brow. "Beavis and. . . "

  "I would have gone with Hekyll and Jekyll," I told him.

  "Gentlemen," she said. "Please be assured that the White Throne wishes nothing more than for you to prevail and humiliate its foes. I am sure that my father will react most harshly to any violation of the Accords. "

  "Okay," Ramirez said, drawing the word out. He nodded toward the Malvoran contingent, still huddled around Cesarina. "So, what's stopping II Duca there from taking a whack at you and the King and everybody? If she offs you, she gets to kill us, take over the organization, and just do whatever she likes. "

  Lara looked at him and her expression twisted with distaste, to the point that a little shudder actually flickered along her body. Which I noticed because I am a trained observer of body language and not because of the way the kimono was perfectly outlining one of her thighs. "You don't understand. . . " She shook her head, holding her mouth as if she'd unexpectedly bitten into a lemon. "Dresden, can you explain it to him?"

  "The White Court vamps can be violent," I said quietly. "Savage, even. But that isn't their preferred mode of operation. You're worried that Malvora is going to come smashing in here like a big old grizzly bear and kill anything in her way. But they aren't like grizzly bears. They're more like mountain lions. They prefer not to be seen acting at all. When they do attack, they're going after a victim, not seeking an opponent. They'll try to isolate them, hit them from behind, preferably destroy them before they even know that they're being attacked. If Lady Malvora threw down right now, it'd be a stand-up fight. They hate those. They won't do them unless thereto no alternative. "

  "Oh," Ramirez said.

  "Thank yon," Lara told me.

  "Of course," I said, "there's been some uncharacteristic behavior going around lately. "

  Lara tilted her head at me, frowning.

  "Oh, come on," I said. "You think it's a little odd the faeries didn't immediately stomp all over the Red Court when they violated Unseelie territory a couple of years back? Don't tell me you're trapping the little faeries because it's cheaper than getting those paper party lanterns. "

  Lara narrowed her eyes at me.

  "You're testing their reaction," I said. "Giving a minor but deliberate insult and seeing what happens. "

  Her lips turned up very, very slowly. "Are you sure you're quite determined to remain attached to that sad little clubhouse of old men?"

  "Why? Do you take care of your own?" I asked.

  "In a great many senses, wizard," she promised.

  "The way you took care of Thomas?" I asked.

  Her smile turned brittle.

  "Pride goeth, Lara," I said.

  "Each is entitled to his opinion. " She glanced up and said, "The runners have returned with your foes' weaponry. Good hunting, gentlemen. "

  She bowed to us again, her expression a mask, and drifted away, back toward her place behind the throne.

  The music came to an end, and it seemed to be a signal to the vampires. They withdrew from the center of the chamber to stand on either side, leaving the long axis of the cavern open, the entrance upon one end, the White Throne upon the other. Last of all, the White King himself rose and descended from the enormous throne to move to one side of the cavern. On the right side of the room were all the members of Malvora and Skavis, and on the left gathered the members of House Raith. The Skavis and Malvora weren't actually standing together, but. . . there was a sense of hungry anticipation in the air.

  "Vampires standing on both sidelines," Ramirez said. "Guess no one wants to catch a stray lightning bolt. "

  "Or bullet," I muttered. "But it won't help them much if things get confused and turned around once the fight starts. "

  Raith snapped a finger, and thralls in their white kimonos began filing into the room. They swayed more than walked, filing down the "sidelines" of the dueling ground, and then simply knelt down, in a pair of double ranks, in front of the vampires on either side of the chamber. They formed, take
n together, a wall like that around a hockey arena - but one made of living, human flesh.

  Crap. Any form of mayhem that spread to the sidelines was going to run smack into human victims - and my own powers, in a fight, were not exactly surgical instruments. Torrents of flame, blasts of force, and impenetrable bastions of will were sort of my thing. You will note, however, how seldom words like torrent, blast, and bastion get used in conjunction with terms that denote delicacy and, precision.

  Ramirez was going to be better off than I was, in that regard. His combat skills ran more to speed and accuracy, versus my own preference for massive destruction, but they were no less deadly in their own way.

  Carlos looked back and forth, then said to me, "They're going to try to stay on our flanks. Use those people in the background to keep us from cutting loose. "

  "I know I never went to Warden combat school," I told him. "But I feel I should remind you that this is not my first time. "

  Ramirez grimaced at me. "You just aren't going to let that go, are you?"

  I showed him my teeth. "So I hit them fast and hard while you keep them off me. If they flank, you're on offense while I keep them off of you. Try to maneuver them out to where I'll have a clean shot. "

  Ramirez scowled, and his voice came out with more than the usual heat. "Yes, thank you, Harry. You want to tie my shoes for me before we start?"

  "Whoa, what's that?" I asked him.

  "Oh, come on, man," Ramirez said quietly, his voice tight and, angry. "You're lying to me. You're lying to the Council. "

  I stared at him.

  "I'm not an idiot, man," Ramirez said, his expression neutral. "You can barely get by in Latin, but you speak ghoul? Ancient Etruscan? There's more going on here than a duel and internal politics, Dresden. You're involved with these things. More than you should be. You know them too well. Which is a really fucking disturbing thing to realize, considering we're talking about a race of mind-benders. "

  Vitto and Madrigal emerged from the Malvoran contingent. Vitto bore a long rapier at his side, and there were a number of throwing knives on his belt, as well as a heavy pistol in a holster. Madrigal, meanwhile, carried a spear with a seven-foot haft, and his arms were wrapped with two long strips of black cloth covered in vaguely oriental characters in metallic red thread. I'd have guessed that they were constructs of some kind, even before I felt the ripple of magical energy in them as he walked with Vitto to stand facing us from thirty feet away.

  "Carlos," I said. "This is one hell of a time to start having doubts about my loyalty. "

  "Dammit, Harry," he said. "I'm not backing out on you. It's too late for that, even if I wanted to. But this whole thing feels more and more like a setup every second. "

  I couldn't argue with him there.

  I was pretty sure it was.

  I looked back and forth down the length of the ranks of vampires, all of whom watched in total silence now, grey eyes bright, edging over into metallic silver with their rising hunger. The formalities of the Accords had kept us alive and largely unmolested, here amidst the monsters, but if we deviated from the conventions, we'd never live to see the surface again. We were in the same position as Madrigal and Vitto, really: Win or die.

  And I didn't delude myself for one single second that this was going to be as simple as a stand-up fight. Part of the nature of the White Court was treachery, as well. It was only a matter of time, and timing, before one of them turned on us, and if we weren't ready when it happened, we'd either be dead or getting fitted for our own white robes.

  Vitto and Madrigal squared off against us, hands on their weapons.

  I took a deep breath and faced them. Beside me, Ramirez did the same.

  Lord Raith reached up his sleeve and withdrew a handkerchief of red silk. He offered it to Lara, who took it and walked slowly down the lines of kneeling thralls. She stopped at the sidelines, midway between us, and slowly lifted the red silk. "Gentlemen," she said. "Stand ready. Let no weapon of any kind be drawn until this cloth reaches the earth. "

  My heart started pounding faster, and I drew my duster back enough to put a hand near the handle of my blasting rod.

  Lara flicked the scarlet silk cloth into the air, and it began to fall.

  Ramirez was right. This was a trap. I had done everything I could to prepare for it, but the bottom line was that I was not sure what was going to happen.

  But like the man said: It was too late to back out now.

  The cloth hit the floor and my hand blurred for my blasting rod as the duel began.

  Chapter Thirty-Eight

  Some people are faster than others. I'm fast. Always have been, especially for a man my size, but this duel had gotten off to a fair start, and no merely mortal hand is faster than a vampire's.

  Vitto Malvora's gun cleared its holster before my fingers had tightened on the blasting rod's handle. The weapon resembled a fairly standard Model 1911, but it had an extension to the usual ammunition clip sticking out of the handle, and it spat a spray of bullets in the voice of a yowling buzz saw.

  Some vampires are faster than others. Vitto was fast. He'd drawn and fired more swiftly than I'd ever seen Thomas move, more swiftly than I'd seen Lara shoot. But bodies, even nigh-immortal vampire bodies, are made of flesh and blood, and have mass and inertia. No hand, not even a vampire's, is swifter than thought.

  Ramirez already had his power held ready when the scarlet cloth hit the ground, and in that instant he hissed a single syllable under his breath and flipped his left hand palm up. That bizarre glove he wore flashed and let out a rattling buzz of furious sound.

  A sudden, gelatinous cloud of green light interposed itself between us and the vampires before even Vitto could fire. The bullets struck against that gooey cloud, sending watery ripple patterns racing across it, plowing a widening furrow through the semisolid mass. There was a hissing sound, a sharp pain high up on my left cheek, and then I was slapped across the chest by a spray of tiny, dark particles the size of grains of sand.

  Ramirez's shield was nothing like my own. I used raw force to create my own steel-hard barrier. Ramirez's spell was based on principles of entropy and water magic, and focused on disrupting, shattering, and dispersing any objects trying to pass through it, turning their own energy against them. Even magic must do business with physics, and Carlos couldn't simply make the energy the bullets carried go away. Instead, the spell reduced their force by shattering the bullets with their own momentum, breaking them into zillions of tiny pieces, spreading them out, so that their individual impact energy would be negligible.

  When the dispersed cloud of leaden sand struck me, it was unpleasant and uncomfortable, but it had lost so much power that it wouldn't have gotten through an ordinary leather coat, or even a thick shirt, much less my spell-laced duster.

  If I'd had time to breathe a sigh of relief, I would have. I didn't. Every bit of focus I had was bent on slamming a surge of energy and will through my blasting rod, even before I had the business end lifted all the way up.

  "Fuego !" I cried.

  A column of fire as thick as a telephone pole flew from the tip of the rod, struck the ground twenty feet away, and then whipped across the floor toward Vitto as I finished lifting my weapon.

  He was fast. He'd barely had time to register that his bullets had missed their target before the fire came for him, but he flung himself to one side in a desperate dive. As he went, he gained enough of an angle to get him just around the edge of Rodriguez's highly visible shield, and the vampire's hand flickered to his belt to whip one of those knives at me in a side-armed throw.

  It would have been a waste of time for any human. Thrown knives aren't terribly good killing weapons to begin with - I mean, in the movies and TV, every time someone throws a knife it kills somebody. Wham, it slams to the hilt in their chest, right into the heart, or glurk, it sinks into their throat and they die instantly. Real knives don't generally kil
l you unless the thrower gets abnormally lucky. Real knives, if they hit with the pointy part at all, generally only inflict a survivable - if very distracting - injury.

  Of course, when real people throw real knives, they don't fling them at a couple of hundred miles an hour. Most of them haven't had centuries to practice, either.

  That knife flickered as it came, and if I hadn't hunched up my shoulder and tucked my face down behind it, the knife might have found the flesh of my neck and killed me. Instead, its tip struck the duster's mantle at an oblique angle, and the weapon skittered off the spell-armored coat and tumbled off on a wobbly arc.

  Vitto landed in a tumble, teeth clenched over a scream of pain. His left leg was on fire from the knee down, but he was smart - he didn't stop, drop, and roll. In fact, he didn't stop at all, and it was the only thing that kept my second blast from immolating him. The lance of flame missed him by a foot and momentarily smashed the curtain of falling water behind the white throne into steam. Beside me, I heard Ramirez fling out one of those green blasts.

  "Harry!" Ramirez screamed.

  I turned my head in time to see Madrigal coming at us from nearly straight ahead, his spear in hand. Ramirez hurled a second shaft of green light at him, but it splashed against an unseen barrier a foot away from his body. Glitters of golden light ran up and down the symbols on the cloth strips wrapped around his arms. I understood, then. Ramirez's second shot had been a demonstration.

  "He's warded!" Ramirez snarled.

  "Drop back!" I snapped, as Vitto came streaking toward me down the other sideline. He was reloading the gun as he came, dropping the old magazine, slapping a new one in. I lifted my shield bracelet, readying it - then hesitated for a fraction of a second to get the timing just right, gauging angles of incidence and refraction.

  Vitto's hand game up and the gun snarled again.

  I brought the shield up at the last second, a flat plane perpendicular to the floor, and Ramirez took a hopping step back just in time to get behind the shield as it formed. Twenty or thirty bullets ricocheted off the invisible barrier in a shower of sparks - and spalled more or less toward Madrigal Raith and his magical protection.

  The nifty armbands apparently weren't made to stop physical projectiles, because one of the bouncing bullets ripped through the outside of his thigh with an ugly explosion of torn cloth and a misty burst of pale blood. He screamed and faltered, throwing out one hand to catch his balance before he could hit the floor.

  "Drop it!" Ramirez shouted. His hand blurred toward his pistol, and he drew it before Madrigal could get moving again.

  I pivoted the shield to clear Ramirez, taking a couple of steps forward to wall Vitto away from Carlos's flank, and transmuted the far surface of the shield into a reflective mirror.

  Ramirez's gun began to roar beside me - measured shots that were actually aimed, as opposed to the rapid crack-crack-crack of panic fire.

  Vitto reacted to the gunfire and the suddenly appearing mirrored wall ten feet long and eight feet high with instant violence. He flung the heavy handgun at a suddenly appearing and swift-moving target before he could realize that it was his own reflection. The gun had its slide locked open, and when it hit the shield at the speed he threw it, something in the assembly slipped, and it bounced off in several pieces.

  Vitto slowed down for a step, eyes widening, and I didn't blame him one bit. It would have made me blink for a second if my opponent had suddenly changed open air into the back wall of a dance studio.

  Then he accelerated again and did something I wasn't ready for. He bounded straight up into the air, a good ten or twelve feet, arching over the top of my shield in an instant and flinging knives with each hand as he came. I threw up my right arm, trying to interpose it with the oncoming knife as far out from my body as I could. The knife hit flat, which was fine, where the leather of my duster's sleeve covered my arm. The handle of the knife, though, hit my naked wrist, and my right hand abruptly went numb. I heard the other knife whisper as it tumbled through the air beside me, missing me.

  "Madre de Dios!" Carlos screamed.

  The blasting rod tumbled from my useless fingers.

  I cursed and flung myself to one side as Vitto landed on the inside of my shield, his sword whipping from its scabbard in a horizontal slash at my throat. My tactical thinking had been limited to two dimensions, maybe reinforced by the mockery of the sports field we fought on. The second knife had missed me because Vitto hadn't been aiming for me. Its handle now protruded from Ramirez's right calf.

  I couldn't move my fingers correctly, which precluded the use of the energy rings on my right hand. I dropped the shield - all it would do with him already so close was slow down my movement. I'd have to re-form it between me and him the second I got a chance, which he didn't seem inclined to give me. He sent a lightning-quick thrust at my guts, and I had to dance back a pair of steps to buy myself enough time to parry it with a sweep of the staff in my left hand.

  There was no way I could fence with Vitto. Even if he didn't totally outclass me, physically, fighting one-armed with a staff against a competent fighter with a rapier is not a winning proposition. If I tried it, I'd be backing away from him in circles until I tripped, he slashed a few of my fingers off and finished me, or else forced me away from Ramirez long enough to double-team him and kill him. I couldn't sling magic at him, either. His back was to the crowd of vampires and the human victims shielding them, and he was damned fast. Anything I could throw that would have hurt him could miss - and if it missed, it'd kill anyone who got in the way.

  I couldn't take my eyes off Vitto for a second - I had to hope that Ramirez was holding his own against Madrigal. I had to buy time and distance. I slammed will and Hellfire through my staff, snarled, "Forzare!" and released it in a broad wave that lashed out into absolutely everything in front of me.

  The wave of force caught Vitto and flung him from his feet. He hit a brawny thrall with a neatly clipped goatee, and then the wave caught up and struck the man, too, as well as the folk on either side of him. They were flung back into the second row of kneeling thralls, and they, in turn, were all bowled back into the crowd of vampires behind them, to a general scream of surprise and dismay.

  It hadn't been a lot of force by the time it got to the thralls, not all spread out like that. I could have delivered tackles that hit harder. It had been enough, though, to tangle Vitto - whose leg was still on fire, by the way - in a pile of courtiers and thralls.

  "Welcome, ladies and gentlemen," I hollered, "to Bowling for Vampires!"

  To my intense discomfort, a round of laughs went up from the Raith contingent, and I got a smattering of applause. I raised my shield again, into a shimmering half dome of glittering silver and blue light this time, and twisted my head around to look for Ramirez.

  I turned in time to see Madrigal, bleeding from several gunshot wounds, rush forward, spear held high. Ramirez had fallen to one knee, his wounded leg unable to support his weight, and as I watched he dropped the Desert Eagle and gathered another bolt of disintegrating emerald force in his right hand.

  Madrigal laughed at him, the sound silvery and scornful, and now that he was in motion I could see the chromium glitter of the demonic Hunger in his eyes. His protective armbands flickered brightly as he rushed forward.

  "Ramirez!" I screamed.

  Madrigal raised the spear.

  Ramirez flung the gathered energy in a last useless strike. . . that missed Madrigal entirety and splashed on the stone at his feet.

  A section of stone the size of a big bathtub glowed green for a split second, then shattered into dust so fine that its individual grains would be almost invisible to the naked eye.

  Just as my average preparation session for a fight does not involve considering twelve-foot kung fu leaps from knife-throwing masters, I guess Madrigal's practices didn't take into account floors that might suddenly become pools of nearly frictionless dust.
He let out a shriek and plunged into it, flailing wildly. I could see the wheels spinning in his head, trying to work out what had happened and how the hell he would get out of it.

  Ramirez shot a look over his shoulder and snarled, "Harry!"

  The fingers of my right hand were tingling. I raised it, clenching it into a weak fist. It was good enough to align the rings with my thoughts. "Go!"

  Madrigal had worked it out. He thrashed to one side of the trough Ramirez's spell had eaten in the floor, thrust the handle of his spear down into the ultrafine dust, and shoved himself roughly up and out of the sand trap.

  But not before Ramirez drew the silver Warden's blade from his hip, the sword designed to let the Wardens of the White Council slice into any enchantment, unraveling it with a single stroke. Carlos drew it, lunged out onto his wounded leg with a cry of pain and challenge, and sliced the willow blade left and right at Madrigal while the spear was grounded and locked into place, supporting him.

  The sword cut through the wooden haft of the spear, snicker-snack, which was itself an indicator of just how unbelievably sharp an edge it had to have carried. Luccio did good work. That was just collateral damage, though.

  The Warden blade also licked lightly across each of Madrigal's arms.

  The black cloth armbands erupted into sudden flame, the embroidered symbols on them flaring into painfully brilliant light, as if the scarlet thread had been made of magnesium. Any construct that held enough energy to counteract the magic of a major-league wizard, especially a combat specialist like Ramirez, had to have been holding all kinds of energy. Ramirez had just cut it loose.

  Madrigal stared down in sudden panic at the fire writhing up his arms and let out a horrified scream.

  I crouched, clenched my fist a little tighter, narrowed my eyes, and with a single thought released every bit of energy in the rings - what had been left over after the ghoul attack and what I had added later, all at the same time.

  The power hit Madrigal low in the belly, at a slightly upward angle. It slammed him from his feet as the fire blazed over his arms, lifted him up over the heads of the gathered Raith contingent like a living, sizzling comet, and slammed him into the cavern wall behind them with literally bone-shattering power.

  Broken, bleeding wreckage tumbled limply down.

  "And the wizards," I snarled, "pick up the spare. "

  I turned back to face Vitto, who was only then clawing his way out of a pile of confused and unhappy Skavis and Malvora vampires and meekly passive thralls. He came to his feet with his sword in hand.

  I faced him through the glowing dome. I heard a grunt, and then Ramirez stepped up beside me, silver sword in hand, still stained with Madrigal's pinkish blood, his staff in the other, taking some of the weight from his injured foot. I kept the dome up, recovered my blasting rod, and raised it, calling up my will, letting fire illuminate the runes carved down its length one sigil at a time. The new shield was more taxing than the old, and I was getting tired - but there was nothing to do about that but keep going.

  There were rustling sounds all around us. Vampires came to their feet. They edged closer to the thralls, shifted position so that they would be able to see. There were murmurs and whispers all around us as the White Court sensed that the end was near. Vitto's aunt was not far from him, and she stood with one hand to her delicate throat - but she stood fast, watching, anxiety and calculation warring for space in her eyes. Just over one shoulder, I could just barely make out Lara's profile as she leaned forward over the thrall kneeling between her and the fight - Justine - to watch the end, her lips parted and glistening wet, her eyes glowing.

  The spectacle of it sickened me, but I thought I understood something of what triggered it in them.

  Death did not come swiftly to vampires - but the old Reaper was in the house, and when he struck, he would take lives that should have lasted for centuries more. That realization let me understand something else about the White Court - that for all of their allure, that forbidden attraction, the unnatural magnetism of a creature so beautiful outside and so twisted within, with their ability to give you the greatest pleasure of your life, even as they snuffed it out - they, the vampires themselves, were not immune to that dark attraction.

  They were regular, near-eternal voyeurs to death's handiwork, after all. They saw the mingled ecstasy and terror on the faces of those they took. They fed upon the surrender of life and passion to the endless silence - knowing, all the while, that in the end, they were no different. One day, one night, it would be their turn to face the scythe and the dark cowl, and that they would fall, fall just as helplessly as their own prey had, over and over and over.

  Death had already taken Madrigal Raith. And it would soon take Vitto Malvora. And the White Court, one and all, longed to see it happen, to feel Death brush close by, to be tantalized by its nearness, to revel in its presence and passing.

  Words could not express how badly they needed therapy.

  Dysfunctional sickos.

  I put it out of my head. I still had work to do.

  "All right," I growled to Ramirez. "You ready?"

  He bared his teeth in a ferocious smile. "Let's get it on. "

  Vitto Malvora, the last of Anna's killers, faced me steadily, his eyes gone white. I thought that for a man about to face two fairly deadly wizards determined to kill him, he did not look terribly frightened.

  In fact, he looked. . . pleased.

  Oh, crap.

  Vitto threw back his head and spread his arms.

  I dropped the shield and shouted, "Kill him!"

  Vitto lifted his voice in a sudden, thunderous roar, and I could sense the will and the power that underlay his call. "MASTER!"

  Ramirez was a beat slow in transferring his sword to his other hand so that he could fling green fire at Vitto, and the vampire lowered his arms and crossed them in front of him, hissing words in some strange tongue as he did. Ramirez's strike shattered upon that defense, though bits of greenish fire dribbled onto Vitto's arms, each of them chewing out a scoop of flesh as far across as a nickel.

  "Crap!" Ramirez snarled.

  But I didn't have time to listen.

  I could feel it. Feel power building on the cave floor in front of the white throne. It wasn't explosive magic, but it was strong, quivering on a level so fundamental that I could feel it in my bones. A second later, I recognized this power. I had felt the dim echoes of its passing, months before, in a cave in New Mexico.

  There was a deep throb. Then another. Then a third. And then the air before the white throne suddenly swirled. It spun for a moment, and then there was abruptly an oblong disk of darkness hanging in the air. It spun open, pushing the space of the cavern aside, and a dank, musty, mildew-scented flood of cold air washed out of the passage that had been opened from the Nevernever and into the Deeps.

  Seconds later, there was movement in the passage, and then a ghoul sprang through it.

  Well. I call it a ghoul. But just looking at it, I knew I was seeing something from another age. It was. . . like seeing drawings of things from the last ice age - familiar animals, most of them, but they were all too large, too heavy with muscle, many of them festooned with extra tusks, spurs of horn, and lumpy, armored hide.

  This thing, this ghoul, was of the same order. Eight feet tall if it was an inch, and its hunched shoulders were so wide that it made the thing look more like a gorilla than it did a hyena or baboon, the way most of them did. It had serrated ridges of horn on its stark cheekbones, and its jaw was far more massive with muscle. Its forearms were even longer than a normal ghoul's, its claws heavier, longer, and backed by knobbed ridges of horn that would let the thing crush and smash as effectively as it sliced and diced. Its brow ridge was far heavier, too, and its eyes, so recessed as to be little more than glitters from the indirect lighting, could hardly be seen.

  The ghoul crouched and leaped twenty feet forward with an e
asy grace, then landed with a roar that made my knees feel a little weak.

  More of them poured out of the gate. Ten. Twenty. They kept coming and coming.

  "Hell's bells," I whispered.

  Beside me, Ramirez swallowed. "I," he said, "am going to die a virgin. "

  Vitto let out a wild cackle of glee, and howled, "At last!" He actually capered a little dance step in place. "At last the masquerade ends! Kill them! Kill them all!"

  I don't know if it was one of the vampires or one of the thralls, but suddenly a woman screamed in utter terror, and the Ghouls went mad with bloodlust and surged forward in an unstoppable wave.

  I dropped all the power in my shield, and all that I had put into the blasting rod, too. Neither of them would get me out of the hellish Cuisinart of pain and death that this cavern was about to become.

  "Right, then," I panted. "This would be the trap. "