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Grave Peril, Page 2

Jim Butcher

Chapter Two

  We took the fire stairs. Michael knows how technology reacts to me, and the last thing either of us wanted was to be trapped in a broken elevator while innocent lives were snuffed out. Michael led the way, one hand on the rail, one on the hilt of his sword, his legs churning steadily.

  I followed him, huffing and puffing. Michael paused by the door and looked back at me, white cloak swirling around his calves. It took me a couple of seconds to come gasping up behind him. "Ready?" he asked me.

  "Hrkghngh," I answered, and nodded, still clenching my leather sack in my teeth, and fumbled a white candle from my duster pocket, along with a box of matches. I had to set my rod and staff aside to light the candle.

  Michael wrinkled his nose at the smell of smoke, and pushed open the door. Candle in one hand, rod and staff in the other, I followed, my eyes flicking from my surroundings to the candle's flame and back.

  All I could see was more hospital. Clean walls, clean halls, lots of tile and fluorescent lights. The long, luminescent tubes flickered feebly, as though they had all gone stale at once, and the hall was only dimly lit. Long shadows stretched out from a wheelchair parked to the side of one door and gathered beneath a row of uncomfortable-looking plastic chairs at an intersection of hallways.

  The fourth floor was a graveyard, bottom-of-the-well silent. There wasn't a flicker of sound from a television or radio. No intercoms buzzed. No air conditioning whirred. Nothing.

  We walked down a long hall, our steps sounding out clearly despite an effort to remain quiet. A sign on the wall, decorated with a brightly colored plastic clown, read: NURSERY/MATERNITY, and pointed down another hall.

  I stepped past Michael and looked down that hallway. It ended at a pair of swinging doors. This hallway, too, was quiet. The nurse's station stood empty.

  The lights weren't just flickering here - they were altogether gone. It was entirely dark. Shadows and uncertain shapes loomed everywhere. I took a step forward, past Michael, and as I did the flame of my candle burned down to a cold, clear pinpoint of blue light.

  I spat the sack out of my mouth and fumbled it into my pocket. "Michael," I said, my voice strangled to hushed urgency. "It's here. " I turned my body, so that he could see the light.

  His eyes flicked down to the candle and then back up, to the darkness beyond. "Faith, Harry. " Then he reached to his side with his broad right hand, and slowly, silently, drew Amoracchius from its sheath. I found it a tad more encouraging than his words. The great blade's polished steel gave off a lambent glow as Michael stepped forward to stand beside me in the darkness, and the air fairly thrummed with its power - Michael's own faith, amplified a thousandfold.

  "Where are the nurses?" he asked me in a hoarse whisper.

  "Spooked off, maybe," I answered, as quietly. "Or maybe some sort of glamour. At least they're out of the way. "

  I glanced at the sword, and at the long, slender spike of metal set into its cross guard. Perhaps it was only my imagination, but I thought I could see flecks of red still upon it. Probably rust, I reasoned. Sure, rust.

  I set the candle down upon the floor, where it continued to burn pinpoint-clear, indicating a spiritual presence. A big one. Bob hadn't been lying when he'd said that the ghost of Agatha Hagglethorn was no two-bit shade.

  "Stay back," I told Michael. "Give me a minute. "

  "If what the spirit told you is correct, this creature is dangerous," Michael replied. "Let me go first. It will be safer. "

  I nodded toward the glowing blade. "Trust me, a ghost would feel the sword coming before you even got to the door. Let me see what I can do first. If I can dust the spook, this whole contest is over before it begins. "

  I didn't wait for Michael to answer me. Instead, I took my blasting rod and staff in my left hand, and in my right I grasped the pouch. I untied the simple knot that held the sack closed, and slipped forward, into the dark.

  When I reached the swinging doors, I pressed one of them slowly opened. I remained still for a long moment, listening.

  I heard singing. A woman's voice. Gentle. Lovely.

  Hush little baby, don't say a word. Mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird.

  I glanced back at Michael, and then slipped inside the door, into total darkness. I couldn't see - but I'm not a wizard for nothing. I thought of the pentacle upon my breast, over my heart, the silver amulet that I had inherited from my mother. It was a battered piece of jewelry, scarred and dented from uses for which it was never intended, but I wore it still. The five-sided star within the circle was the symbol of my magic, of what I believed in, embodying the five forces of the universe working in harmony, contained inside of human control.

  I focused on it, and slid a little of my will into it, and the amulet began to glow with a gentle, blue-silver light, which spread out before me in a subtle wave, showing me the shapes of a fallen chair, and a pair of nurses at a desk behind a counter, slumped forward over their stations, breathing deeply.

  The soothing, quiet lullaby continued as I studied the nurses. Enchanted sleep. It was nothing new. They were out, they weren't going anywhere, and there was little sense in wasting time or energy in trying to break the spell's hold on them. The gentle singing droned on, and I found myself reaching for the fallen chair, with the intention of setting it upright so that I would have a comfortable place to sit down for a little rest.

  I froze, and had to remind myself that I would be an idiot to sit down beneath the influence of the unearthly song, even for a few moments. Subtle magic, and strong. Even knowing what to expect, I had barely sensed its touch in time.

  I skirted the chair and moved forward, into a room filled with dressing hooks and little pastel hospital gowns hung upon them in rows. The singing was louder here, though it still drifted around the room with a ghostly lack of origin. One wall was little more than a sheet of Plexiglas, and behind it was a room that attempted to look sterile and warm at the same time.

  Row upon row of little glass cribs on wheeled stands stood in the room. Tiny occupants, with toy-sized hospital mittens over their brand-new fingernails, and tiny hospital stocking caps over their bald heads, were sleeping and dreaming infant dreams.

  Walking among them, visible in the glow of my wizard's light, was the source of the singing.

  Agatha Hagglethorn had not been old when she died. She wore a proper, high-necked shirt, as was appropriate to a lady of her station in nineteenth-century Chicago, and a long, dark, no-nonsense skirt. I could see through her, to the little crib behind her, but other than that she seemed solid, real. Her face was pretty, in a strained, bony sort of way, and she had her right hand folded over the stump at the end of her left wrist.

  If that mockingbird don't sing, mama's going to buy you . . .

  She had a captivating singing voice. Literally. She lilted out her song, spun energy into the air that lulled listeners into deeper and deeper sleep. If she was allowed to continue, she could draw both infants and nurses into a sleep from which they would never awaken, and the authorities would blame it on carbon monoxide, or something a little more comfortably normal than a hostile ghost.

  I crept closer. I had enough ghost dust to pin down Agatha and a dozen spooks like her, and allow Michael to dispatch her swiftly, with a minimum of mess and fuss - just as long as I didn't miss.

  I hunkered down, kept the little sack of dust gripped loosely in my right hand, and slipped over to the door that led into the roomful of sleeping babies. The ghost did not appear to have noticed me - ghosts aren't terribly observant. I guess being dead gives you a whole different perspective on life.

  I entered the room, and Agatha Hagglethorn's voice rolled over me like a drug, making me blink and shudder. I had to keep focused, my thoughts on the cool power of my magic flowing through my pentacle and coming out in its spectral light.

  If that diamond ring don't shine . . .

  I licked my lips and watched the ghost as it stooped o
ver one of the rolling cradles. She smiled, loving-kindness in her eyes, and breathed out her song over the baby.

  The infant shuddered out a tiny breath, eyes closed in sleep, and did not inhale.

  Hush little baby . . .

  Time had run out. In a perfect world, I would have simply dumped the dust onto the ghost. But it's not a perfect world: Ghosts don't have to play by the rules of reality, and until they acknowledge that you're there, it's tough, very, very tough, to affect them at all. Confrontation is the only way, and even then, knowing the shade's identity and speaking its name aloud is the only sure way to make it face you. And, better and better, most spirits can't hear just anyone - it takes magic to make a direct call to the hereafter.

  I rose fully to my feet, bag gripped in my hand and shouted, forcing my will into my voice, "Agatha Hagglethorn!"

  The spirit started, as though a distant voice had come to her, and turned toward me. Her eyes widened. The song abruptly fell silent.

  "Who are you?" she said. "What are you doing in my nursery?"

  I struggled to keep the details Bob had told me about the ghost straight. "This isn't your nursery, Agatha Hagglethorn. It's more than a hundred years since you died. You aren't real. You are a ghost, and you are dead. "

  The spirit drew itself up with a sort of cold, high-society haughtiness. "I might have known. Benson sent you, didn't he? Benson is always doing something cruel and petty like this, then calling me a madwoman. A madwoman! He wants to take my child away. "

  "Benson Hagglethorn is long dead, Agatha Hagglethorn," I responded, and gathered back my right hand to throw. "As is your child. As are you. These little ones are not yours to sing to or bear away. " I steeled myself to throw, began to bring my arm forward.

  The spirit looked at me with an expression of lost, lonely confusion. This was the hard part about dealing with really substantial, dangerous ghosts. They were almost human. They appeared to be able to feel emotion, to have some degree of self-awareness. Ghosts aren't alive, not really - they're a footprint in stone, a fossilized skeleton. They are shaped like the original, but they aren't it.

  But I'm a sucker for a lady in distress. I always have been. It's a weak point in my character, a streak of chivalry a mile wide and twice as deep. I saw the hurt and the loneliness on the ghost-Agatha's face, and felt it strike a sympathetic chord in me. I let my arm go still again. Perhaps, if I was lucky, I could talk her away. Ghosts are like that. Confront them with the reality of their situation, and they dissolve.

  "I'm sorry, Agatha," I said. "But you aren't who you think you are. You're a ghost. A reflection. The true Agatha Hagglethorn died more than a century ago. "

  "N-no," she said, her voice shaking. "That's not true. "

  "It is true," I said. "She died on the same night as her husband and child. "

  "No," the spirit moaned, her eyes closing. "No, no, no, no. I don't want to hear this. " She started singing to herself again, low and desperate - no enchantment to it this time, no unconscious act of destruction. But the infant girl still hadn't inhaled, and her lips were turning blue.

  "Listen to me, Agatha," I said, forcing more of my will into my voice, lacing it with magic so that the ghost could hear me. "I know about you. You died. You remember. Your husband beat you. You were terrified that he would beat your daughter. And when she started crying, you covered her mouth with your hand. " I felt like such a bastard to be going over the woman's past so coldly. Ghost or not, the pain on her face was real.

  "I didn't," Agatha wailed. "I didn't hurt her. "

  "You didn't mean to hurt her," I said, drawing on the information Bob had provided. "But he was drunk and you were terrified, and when you looked down she was gone. Isn't that right?" I licked my lips, and looked at the infant girl again. If I didn't get this done quickly, she'd die. It was eerie, how still she was, like a little rubber doll.

  Something, some spark of memory caught a flame in the ghost's eyes. "I remember," she hissed. "The axe. The axe, the axe, the axe. " The proportions of the ghost's face changed, stretched, became more bony, more slender. "I took my axe, my axe, my axe and gave my Benson twenty whacks. " The spirit grew, expanding, and a ghostly wind rustled through the room, emanating from the ghost, and rife with the smell of iron and blood.

  "Oh, crap," I muttered, and gathered myself to make a dash for the girl.

  "My angel gone," screamed the ghost. "Benson gone. And then the hand, the hand that killed them both. " She lifted the stump of her arm into the air. "Gone, gone, gone!" She threw back her head and screamed, and it came out as a deafening, bestial roar that rattled the nursery walls.

  I threw myself forward, toward the breathless child, and as I did the rest of the infants burst into terrified wails. I reached the child and smacked her little upturned baby butt. She blinked her eyes open in sudden shock, drew in a breath, and joined the rest of her nursery mates in crying.

  "No," Agatha screamed, "no, no, no! He'll hear you! He'll hear you!" The stump of her left arm flashed out toward me, and I felt the impact both against my body and against my soul, as though she had driven a chip of ice deep into my chest. The power of the blow flung me back against a wall like a toy, hard enough to send my staff and rod clattering to the floor. By some miracle or other, I kept hold of my sack of ghost dust, but my head vibrated like a hammer-struck bell, and cold shivers wracked my body in rapid succession.

  "Michael," I wheezed, as loudly as I could, but already I could hear doors being thrown open, heavy work boots pounding toward me. I struggled to my feet and shook my head to clear it. The wind rose to gale force, sending cribs skittering around the room on their little wheels, tearing at my eyes so that I had to shield them with one hand. Dammit. The dust would be useless in such a gale.

  "Hush little baby, hush little baby, hush little baby. " Agatha's ghost bowed over the infant girl's cradle again, and thrust the stump of her left arm down and into the mouth of the child, her translucent flesh passing seamlessly into the infant's skin. The child jerked and stopped breathing, though she still attempted to cry.

  I shouted a wordless challenge and charged the spirit. If I could not cast the dust upon her from across the room, I could thrust the leather bag into her ghostly flesh and pin her into place from within - agonizing, but undoubtedly effective.

  Agatha's head whipped toward me as I came, and she jerked away from the child with a snarl. Her hair had come free in the gale and spread about her face in a ferocious mane well suited to the feral features that had replaced her gentle expression. She drew back her left hand, and there suddenly appeared, floating just above the stump, a short, heavy-headed hatchet. She shrieked and brought the hatched down at me.

  Ghostly steel chimed on true iron, and Amoracchius's light flared bright-white. Michael slid his feet into position on the floor, gritting his teeth with effort, and kept the spirit-weapon from touching my flesh.

  "Dresden," he called. "The dust!"

  I fought my way forward, through the wind, shoved my fist into Agatha's weapon-arm, and shook loose some of the ghost dust from the leather sack.

  Upon contact with her immaterial flesh, the ghost dust flared into blazing motes of scarlet light. Agatha screamed and jerked back, but her arm remained in place as firmly as if it had been set in concrete.

  "Benson!" Agatha shrieked. "Benson! Hush little baby!" And then she simply tore herself away from her arm at the shoulder, leaving her spirit flesh behind, and vanished. The arm and hatchet collapsed to the floor in a sudden spatter of clear, semifluid gelatin, the remnants of spirit-flesh when the spirit was gone, ectoplasm that would swiftly evaporate.

  The gale died, though the lights continued to flicker. My blue-white wizard light, and the lambent glow of Michael's sword were the only reliable sources of illumination in the room. My ears shrieked with the sudden lack of sound, though the dozen or so babies, in their cribs, continued a chorus of steady, terrified little wails.
r />   "Are the children all right?" Michael asked. "Where did it go?"

  "I think so. The ghost must have crossed over," I guessed. "She knew she'd had it. "

  Michael turned in a slow circle, sword still held at the ready. "It's gone, then?"

  I shook my head, scanning the room. "I don't think so," I responded, and bent over the crib of the infant girl who had nearly been smothered. The name on her wrist bracelet read Alison Ann Summers. I stroked her little cheek, and she turned her mouth toward my finger, baby lips fastening on my fingertip, cries dying.

  "Take your finger out of her mouth," Michael chided. "It's dirty. What happens now?"

  "I'll ward the room," I said. "And then we'll get out of here before the police show up and arres - "

  Alison Ann jerked and stopped breathing. Her tiny arms and legs stiffened. I felt something cold pass over her, heard the distant drone of mad lullaby.

  Hush little baby . . .

  "Michael," I cried. "She's still here. The ghost, she's reaching here from the Nevernever. "

  "Christ preserve," Michael swore. "Harry, we have to step over. "

  My heart skipped a beat at the very thought. "No," I said. "No way. This is a big spook, Michael. I'm not going to go onto her home ground naked and offer to go two out of three. "

  "We don't have a choice," Michael snapped. "Look. "

  I looked. The infants were falling silent, one by one, little cries abruptly smothered in mid-breath.

  Hush little baby . . .

  "Michael, she'll tear us apart. And even if she doesn't, my godmother will. "

  Michael shook his head, scowling. "No, by God. I won't let that happen. " He turned his gaze on me, piercing. "And neither will you, Harry Dresden. There is too much good in your heart to let these children die. "

  I returned his stare, uncertain. Michael had insisted that I look him in the eyes on our first meeting. When a wizard looks you in the eyes, it's serious. He can see inside of you, all of your dark secrets and hidden fears of your soul - and you see his in return. Michael's soul had made me weep. I wished that my soul would look like his had to me. But I was pretty damned sure that it didn't.

  Silence fell. All the little babies hushed.

  I closed the sack of ghost dust and put it away in my pocket. It wouldn't do me any good in the Nevernever.

  I turned toward my fallen rod and staff, thrust out my hand, and spat, "Ventas servitas. " The air stirred, and then flung staff and rod into my open hands before dying away again. "All right," I said. "I'm tearing open a window that will give us five minutes. Hopefully, my godmother won't have time to find me. Anything beyond that and we're going to be dead already or back here, in any case. "

  "You have a good heart, Harry Dresden," Michael said, a fierce grin stretching his mouth. He stepped closer to my side. "God will smile on this choice. "

  "Yeah. Ask Him not to Sodom and Gomorrah my apartment, and we'll be even. "

  Michael gave me a disappointed glance. I shot him a testy glare. He clamped a hand onto my shoulder and held on.

  Then I reached out, caught hold of reality in my fingertips, and with an effort of will and a whispered, "Aparturum," tore a hole between this world and the next.