Changes, Page 20Jim Butcher
Both of us had been gathering up our wills during the snark-off, and the first instant of the duel nearly killed us both.
I called forth force and fire, both laced with the soulfire that would help reinforce its reality, making the attack more difficult to negate or withstand. It took the shape of a sphere of blue-white fire the size of an inflatable exercise ball.
Meanwhile, Arianna fluttered her hands in an odd, twisting gesture and a geyser of water erupted from the soil with bone-crushing force.
The two attacks met halfway between us, with results neither of us could prevent. Fire and water turned to scalding-hot steam in a detonation that instantly washed back over us both. My shield bracelet was ready to go, and a situation something like this one that had rendered my left hand into a horror prop had inspired me to be sure I could protect myself from this kind of heat in the future.
I leapt back and landed in a crouch, raising the shield into a complete dome around me as the cloud of steam swept down, its heat boiling the grass as it came. It stayed there for several seconds before beginning to disperse, and when it finally did, I couldn't see Arianna anywhere on the field.
I kept the all-around shield in place for a moment, and rapidly focused upon a point a little bit above and midway between my eyebrows. I called up my Sight and swept my gaze around the stadium, to see Arianna, forty yards away and running to put herself in position to shoot me in the back. A layer of greasy black magic seemed to infest the air around her - the veil that my physical eyes hadn't been able to see. To my Sight, she was a Red Court vampire in its true form, only even more flabby and greasy than the normal vamp, a creature ancient in power and darkness.
I tried not to see anything else, but there was only so much I could do. I could see the deaths that had been heaped upon this field over centuries, lingering in a layer of translucent bones that covered the ground to a depth of three or four feet. In the edges of my vision, I could see the grotesqueries that were the true appearance of the Red Court, every one of them a unique and hideous monster, according to his particular madness. I didn't dare look directly up at the spectators, and especially not those gathered on the second floor of the little temple at the end of the stadium. I didn't want to look at the Red King and his Lords unveiled.
I kept my gaze moving, as if I hadn't spotted Arianna on the prowl, and kept turning in a circle, timing when my back was going to be exposed to her before I dropped the shield and rose, panting, as if I couldn't have held it any longer than that. I kept on turning, and an instant before she would have released her spell, I whirled on her, pointed a finger, and snarled, "Forzare!"
Raw will lashed out and exploded against her chest just before the flickers of electricity she'd gathered could congeal into a real stroke of lightning. It threw her twenty feet back and slammed her against the ancient rock wall along the side of the ball court.
Before she could fall, I looked up at the top of the wall, seized a section of large stones in fingers of unseen will, and raked them out of their resting places, so that they plunged thirty feet down toward Arianna.
She was superhumanly quick, of course. Anyone mortal would have been crushed. She got away with only a glancing blow from one of the smaller stones and darted to the side, rolling a sphere of lurid red light into a ball between her hands as she went.
I didn't want to be on the receiving end of that, whatever it was. So I kept raking at the wall, over and over again, bringing down dozens of the stones and forcing her to keep moving, while I ran parallel to her and kept our spacing static.
We were both slinging magic on the run, but she had more one-on-one experience than me. Like a veteran gunslinger in the Old West, she took her time lining up her shot while I flailed away at her with rushed actions that had little chance to succeed. All told, I must have dropped several dozen tons of rock down onto her as we ran, inflicting nothing worse than a few abrasions and heavy bruises.
She threw lightning at me once.
The world flashed red-white and something hard hit me in the back. My legs went wobbly and I sat there for a subjective hour, stunned, and realized that whatever she had packed her lightning bolt with, it had been sufficient to throw me twice as far as my heavy punch had thrown her. I'd bounced off the opposite wall. I looked down at myself, expecting to see a huge hole with burned edges - and instead found a black smudge on my overdone breastplate, and a couple of flaws in the gold filigree where the metal had partially melted.
I was alive.
My head came back together in a sudden rush, and I knew what was coming. I flung up my shield, shaping it not into a portion of a sphere, as I usually did, but into a lengthy triangle in the shape of a pup tent. I crouched beneath it and no sooner had I done so than stones from the wall above me, torn free by Arianna's will, began to slam into the shield. I crouched there, rapidly being buried in grey stone, and tried desperately to get my impact-dizzied brain to think of a plan.
The best I came up with under the circumstances was this: What would Yoda do?
There was a tiny moment between one rock falling and the next and I dropped the shield. As the next rock began to fall, I stretched out my hand and my will, catching it before gravity could give it much velocity. Again I screamed, "Forzare!" and with an enormous effort of will I altered the course of the stone's fall, flinging it as hard as I could at Arianna, abetted by gravity and the remnants of her own magic.
She saw it coming, but not until it was too late. She lifted her hands, her fingers making warding gestures as she brought her own defensive magic to bear. The stone smashed through it in a flash of reddish light, and then struck her in the hip, spinning her about wildly and sending her to the ground.
"Harry Dresden, human catapult!" I screamed drunkenly.
Arianna was back on her feet again in an instant: Her shield had bled enough of the energy from the stone to prevent it from smashing into her with lethal force, but it had bought me enough time to get out of the pile of rocks around me and away from the stadium wall. I smashed at her with more fire, and she parried each shaft deftly, congealing water out of the air into wobbling spheres that intercepted the bolts of flame and exploded into concealing steam. By the fifth or sixth bolt, I couldn't see her with my physical eyes, but I did see energies in motion behind the steam as she pulled another dark sheath of veiling energy around her, and I saw her take off into an animal-swift sprint, again circling me to attack me from behind.
No. She couldn't be trying the same thing twice.
Duels between wizards are about more than swatting each other with various forms of energy, just as boxing is about more than throwing hard punches. There is an art to it, a science to it, in which one attempts to predict the other's attack and counter it effectively. You have to imagine a counter to what the opponent might do, and have it ready to fly at an instant's notice. Similarly, you have to imagine your way around the strength of his defenses. A duel of magic is determined almost purely by the imaginations and raw power of those involved.
Arianna had obviously prepared against my favorite weapon - fire - which was only intelligent. But she had tried this backstabbing ploy on me once before, and nearly got burned doing it. A wizard of any experience would tell you that she would never have tried that one again, for fear that the enemy would exploit it even further.
Arianna was an experienced killer, but she hadn't done a lot of dueling with nothing to rely on except her magic. She'd always had the cushion of her extraordinary strength and speed to fall back upon. Hell, it would have been the smart way to kill me - come straight in, shedding attacks and maybe taking some hits to get close enough to end it decisively.
Except here, she couldn't. And she wasn't adjusting well to the handicap. Flexibility of thought is almost never a strength of the truly ancient monsters of the world.
Instead of obliging her by standing in place, as I had last time she'
d tried to give me the runaround, I darted forward, into the edges of the concealing steam. I got burned, and accepted it as the price of doing business. I clenched my teeth, focusing past my pain, and tracked Arianna's energy with my Sight, waiting for my shot and hoping that she didn't have the Sight as well.
Apparently she didn't, or wasn't bothering to use it, relying upon her superior senses instead. She got into position and seemed to realize that I'd gone into the steam. She began to advance cautiously, gathering more lightning to her cupped hands. I saw the instant in which she began to spot my outline, the way she drew a breath to speak the word to unleash the lightning upon me.
"Infriga," I hissed, and threw both hands forward. "Infriga forzare!"
And the entire cloud bank of steam in the air around me congealed into needle-pointed spears of ice that flew at her as if fired from a gun.
They struck her just as she unleashed her lightning bolt, which shattered one of the spears and tore a two-foot furrow in the dirt some twenty feet to my side.
Arianna stood still for a moment, her black eyes wide with disbelief, staring down at the spears and shards of ice that had slammed deep into her flesh. She looked up at me for a second and opened her mouth.
A blob of black blood burst out and spilled down over her chin. Then she shuddered and fell, simply limp, to the ground.
From the far end of the ball court, I heard my godmother throw back her head and let out an eerie howl of excitement and triumph, bubbling with laughter and scorn.
I watched Arianna twisting upon the spears of ice. She'd been pierced in dozens of places. The worst hit came from an icicle as thick as my forearm, which had impaled her through the belly and come out the back, bursting the blood reservoir of the creature beneath Arianna's flesh mask. The pure, crystalline-clear ice showed a glimpse of her insides, as if seen through a prism.
She gasped a word I didn't recognize, again and again. I didn't know what language it was, but I knew what it meant: No, no, no, no.
I stood over her for a moment. She struggled to bring some other form of magic to bear against me, but the cruel torment of those frozen spears was a pain she had never experienced and did not know how to fight. I stared down at the creature that had taken my daughter and felt . . .
I felt only a cold, calm satisfaction, whirling like a blizzard of snow and sleet in the storm of my wrath.
She stared up at me with uncomprehending eyes, black blood staining her mouth. "Cattle. You are c-cattle. "
"Moo," I said. And I lifted my right hand.
Her eyes widened further. She gasped a word I didn't know.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the Red King rise from his distant throne.
I poured all that was left of my fury into my hand and snarled, "No one touches my little girl. "
The explosion of force and fire tore a crater in the ground seven feet across and half as deep.
Arianna's broken, headless corpse lay sprawled within it.
Silence fell over the ruined city.
I turned toward the Red King and started walking that way. I stopped on what would have been the ten-yard line in a football stadium and faced him. "Now give me my daughter," I said.
He stared at me, bleak and remote as a far mountain. And then he smiled and said, in perfect English, "I think not. "
I clenched my teeth. "We had a deal. "
He looked at me with uncaring eyes and said, "I never spoke a word to you. A god does not converse or bargain with cattle. He uses and dispenses with them as he sees fit. You have served your purpose, and I have no further use for you - or the mewling child. "
I snarled. "You promised that she would not be harmed. "
"Until after the duel," he said, and sycophantic chuckles ran through the vampires all around me. "It is after the duel. " He turned his head to one side and said to one of the jaguar warrior vampires in his retinue, "Go. Kill the child. "
I almost got the Red King while his head was turned, but some instinct seemed to warn him at the last instant, and he ducked. The bolt of flame I'd hurled at him blew the jaguar warrior vamp's jaw off of his head and set him on fire. He fell back, stumbling and screaming, his monstrous form tearing free of his mask of flesh.
The Red King whirled toward me in a fury, and those black eyes pressed down upon me with all the crushing weight of the ages. I was driven to my knees by a blanket of pure will - and not just will, but horrible pain, pain that originated not in my body but in the nerves themselves - pain I was helpless to resist.
I heard someone shout, "Harry!" and saw the masked figures upon the temple with the Red King step forward. A gun went off, and then someone screamed. I heard a bellow, and looked up to see my friends and my godmother facing the masked Lords of Outer Night. Sanya was on his feet but motionless, grimly clutching Esperacchius in both hands. Murphy was on one knee and had dropped her P-90. One hand was moving slowly, determinedly toward the sword on her back. Martin was on the ground.
I couldn't see any of the others. I couldn't turn my head far enough. But nobody was up to fighting. None of us could move beneath the horrible pressure of will of the Red King and the Lords of Outer Night.
"Insolent beast," snarled the Red King. "Die in agony. " He seized another guard by his jaguar skin and jerked him close, as if the brawny vampire had been a child. "Need I repeat myself?" he seethed, and shoved his bloodstained ritual knife into the warrior's hands. "Place that child upon the altar and kill her. "
Guys like the Red King just don't know when to shut up.
I fought to raise my hand, and it was more effort than anything I'd done that night. My hand shook and shook harder, but finally moved six inches, to touch the surface of the skull in the cloth bag on my hips.
Bob! I screamed, purely in my head, as I would have using Ebenezar's sending stone.
Hell's bells, he replied. You don't have to scream. I'm right here.
I need a shield. Something to ward off his will. I figure this is a spiritual attack. A spirit should be able to counter it.
Oh, sure. But no can do from in here, boss, Bob said.
You have my permission to leave the skull for this purpose! I thought desperately.
The skull's eye sockets flared with orange-red light, and then a cloud of glowing energy flooded out of the eyes and rose, gathering above my head and casting warm light down around me.
Seconds later, I heard Bob thinking, Take this, shorty!
And suddenly the Red King's will was not enough to keep me down. The pain receded, smothered and numbed by an exhilarating, icy chill that left my nerves tingling with energy. I clenched my teeth, freed from the burden of pain, and thrust my own will against his. I was a child arm wrestling a weight lifter - but his last remark gave me some extra measure of strength, and suddenly I drove myself to my feet.
The Red King turned to face me fully again, and extended both hands toward me, his face twisting with rage and contempt. The horrible pressure began to swell and redouble. I heard his voice quite clearly when he said, "Bow. Down. Mortal. "
I took one dragging step toward my friends. Then another. And another. And another, moving forward with increasing steadiness. Then I snarled through clenched teeth and said, "Bite. Me. Asshole. "
And I put my hand on Murphy's left shoulder.
She'd already moved her hand halfway to the sword. As I touched her, touched our auras together, spreading my own defenses over hers, and felt the direct and violent strength of her own will to defy the immortal power brought against us, her hand flashed up to the hilt of Fidelacchius and drew the katana from its plain scabbard.
White light like nothing that ancient stadium had ever seen erupted from the sword's blade, a bright agony that reminded me intensely of the crystalline plain. Howls of pain rose from around us, but were drowned by Murphy's sudden, silvery cry, her voice swelling throughout the stadium and ringing off
the vaults of the sky:
"False gods!" she cried, her blue eyes blazing as she stared at the Red King and the Lords of Outer Night. "Pretenders! Usurpers of truth! Destroyers of faith, of families, of lives, of children! For your crimes against the Mayans, against the peoples of the world, now will you answer! Your time has come! Face judgment Almighty!"
I think I was the only one close enough to see the shock in her eyes, and I realized that it wasn't Murphy speaking the words - but someone else speaking them through her.
Then she swept her sword in an arc, slashing the very air in front of us in a single, whistling stroke.
And the will of the Red King vanished. Gone.
The Red King let out a scream and clutched at his eyes. He screamed something, pointing in Murphy's direction, and in the same instant the rest of my friends gasped and rocked in place, suddenly free.
Every golden mask turned toward my friend.
Bob! I cried. Go with her! Keep her free!
Wahoo! the skull said, and gold-orange light fell from my head toward Murphy and gathered about her blond hair, even as the joined wills of the Lords of Outer Night fell upon her, so thick and heavy that I was knocked away from her as if by a physical force. The very air around her warped with its intensity.
White light from the sword flowed down and over her, and her garments literally transformed, as if that light had flowed into them, become a part of them, turning night to day, black to white. She staggered to one knee and looked up, her jaw set in stubborn determination, her teeth bared, her blue eyes, through the distortion, blazing like fire in defiance of thirteen dark gods - and with one of the most powerful spirits I'd ever met gathered around her head in a glowing golden halo.
Murphy came to her feet with a shout and a smooth stroke of the sword. The Lords of Outer Night all reacted, jerking back as if they'd been struck a blow in the face. Several golden masks were ripped from their faces, as if the blow had physically touched them - and the molten presence of their joined wills was suddenly gone.
With a scream, the jaguar warriors, half-breed and vampire alike, surged toward Murphy.
She ducked the swing of a modern katana, shattered a traditional obsidian sword with a contemptuous sweep of Fidelacchius, and struck down the warrior wielding it with a precise horizontal cut.
But she was outnumbered. Not by dozens or scores, but by the hundreds, and the jaguar warriors immediately fanned out to come at her from several directions. They knew how to work together.
But then, so did Sanya and I.
Sanya came forward with Esperacchius, and as it joined the fray, it too kindled into blazing white light that seemed to lick out at the vampires, forcing them to duck, to slap at white sparks that danced in their eyes. His booted foot caught one jaguar warrior in the small of the back, and the raw power of the kick snapped the warrior's head back with force enough to break his neck.
I followed Sanya in, unleashing a burst of freezing wind that took two warriors from their feet when they tried to flank Murphy from the other side.
She and Sanya went back-to-back, cutting down jaguar warriors with methodical efficiency for several seconds, as more and more of the enemy swarmed toward them. I kept slapping them away - not able to do any real harm, but preventing them from focusing overwhelming numbers on Murph and Sanya - but I could feel the fatigue setting in now. I couldn't keep this up forever.
There were quick footsteps beside me, and then Molly pressed her back to mine. "You take that side!" she said. "I'll take this one!"
DJ Molly C lifted both of her wands and turned the battle chaos to eleven.
Color and light and screaming sound erupted from those two little wands. Bands of light and darkness flowed around and over the oncoming jaguar warriors, fluttering images of bright sunshine intertwining with other images of yawning pits suddenly gaping before the feet of the attackers. Bursts of sound, shrieks and clashes and booms, and high-pitched noises like feedback on steroids sent the hyperkeen senses of full vampires into overload, literally forcing them back onto the weapons of those coming behind them.
Vampires staggered through the handiwork of the One-woman Rave, not stopped but slowed and stunned by the incredible field of sound and light.
"I love a good party," Thomas shouted merrily, and he began to dance along the edges of Molly's dance floor, his falcata whipping into the limbs and necks of the jaguar warriors as they wobbled forward, struck down before they could recover. I didn't think anyone could have moved fast enough to catch them, but my brother evidently didn't agree. He struck down the foe as they came for us, and he threw in a few dance moves along the way. The part he borrowed from break dancing, where a wave traveled up one arm and down the other, was particularly effective, aesthetically, when it was bracketed by his falcata beheading one vamp and his automatic blowing apart the skull of another.
The pressure of numbers increased, and Thomas started moving more swiftly, more desperately - until Mouse leapt in to help plug the leak in the dam of confusion that held the full power of the Red Court at bay.
I had my own side of the store to mind. Again I reached into the well of cold, ready power, and with a word blanketed the field before me in smooth, slick ice. Howling wind rose to greet any foe who stepped out onto the ice, forcing them to work around to the killing machine that was Sanya and Murphy, or else circle around to attempt an approach through Molly's murderous light and sound show.
Someone touched my arm and I nearly roasted him without looking.
Martin flinched, as though he'd had a dodge ready to go if I had something for him. "Dresden!" he called. "Look!"
I looked. Up on the little temple at the end of the ball court, the Lords of Outer Night and the Red King were standing in a circle, and they were all gathering magical power - probably from one of the bloody ley lines, to boot. Whatever they were going to do, I had a bad feeling that I was reaching the very end of my bag of tricks.
I heard booted feet and saw the mortal security guards lining up along the sides of the stadium, rifles at the ready. When they were in position they would open fire, and the simple fact was that if they piled enough rounds into us, we would go down.
Who was I kidding?
I couldn't keep the field of ice and wind together for very long. And I knew Molly couldn't maintain her Rave at that intensity for long, either. Dozens of jaguar warriors had fallen, but that meant little. Their numbers had not been diminished by any significant measure.
We could fight as hard as we wanted - but despite everything, in the end it was going to be futile. We were never getting out of that stadium.
But we had to try.
"Lea!" I screamed.
"Yes, child?" she asked, her tone pleasant and conversational. I could still hear her perfectly clearly. Neat trick.
"The king and his jokers are about to hit us with something big. "
"Oh, my, yes," the Leanansidhe said, looking skyward dreamily.
"So do something!" I howled at her.
"I already am," she assured me.
She removed a small emerald from a pocket of her gown and flung it skyward. It sparkled and flashed, and flew up out of the light of torches and swords, and vanished into the night. A few seconds later, it exploded in a cloud of merry green sparks.
"There. That place will do," she said, clapping her hands and bouncing up and down on her toes. "Now we shall see a real dance. "
Green lightning split the sky, erupting with such a burst of thunder that the ground shook. Instead of fading, though, the thunder grew louder as more and more strokes of lightning flared out from the area of sky where Lea's gem had exploded into light.
Then a sheet of a dozen separate green bolts of lightning fell all at the same time onto the ground of the ball court twenty yards away, blowing smoking craters in the ground.
It took my dazzled eyes a few seconds to recover from that, and when they did, m
y heart almost stopped.
Standing on the ball court were twelve figures.
Twelve people in shapeless grey robes. Grey cloaks. Grey hoods.
And every single one of them held a wizard's staff in one hand.
The Grey Council.
The Grey Council!
The nearest figure was considerably shorter than me and stout, but he stood with his feet planted as if he intended to move the world. He lifted his staff, smote it on the ground, then boomed, "Remember Archangel!" He spoke a single, resonating word as he thrust the tip of the implement at the Red King and the Lords of Outer Night.
The second floor of the stadium-temple where they stood . . . simply exploded. A force hit the ancient structure like an enormous bulldozer blade rushing forward at Mach 2. It smashed into the temple. Stone screamed. The Red King, the Lords of Outer Night, and several thousand tons of the temple's structure went flying back through the air with enough violent energy to send a shock wave rebounding from the point of impact.
The massive display of force brought a second of stunned silence to the field - and I was just as slack-jawed as anyone.
Then I threw back my head and let out a primal scream of triumph and glee. The Grey Council had come.
We were not alone.
The echo of my scream seemed to be a signal, sending the rest of us back to fighting for our lives. I blew a few more vampires away from my friends, and then sensed a rush of supernatural energy coming at me. I turned and caught a tide of ruinous Red power upon my shield, and hurled a blast of flame back at a Red Court noble in massive amounts of jewelry. Others in their ranks began to open up on the newly arrived Grey Council, who responded in kind, and the air was filled with a savage crisscross of exchanged energies.
The stocky figure in grey stumped up to me and said casually, "How you doing, Hoss?"
I felt my face stretch into a fierce grin, but I answered him just as casually. "Sort of wish I'd brought a staff with me. Other than that . . . can't complain. "
From within his hood, Ebenezar grunted. "Nice outfit. "
"Thanks," I said. "I liked your ride. Good mileage?"
"As long as there's some carpet to scuff your feet on," he said, and tossed me his staff. "Here. "
I felt the energies moving through the implement at once. It was a better-made staff than mine, but Ebenezar had been the one to teach me how they were made, and both staves I had used over the years had been carved from branches of the lightning-struck oak in the front yard of his little farm in the Ozarks. I could make use of this staff almost as well as if it were my own.
"What about you?" I asked him. "Don't you want it?"
He batted a precisely aimed thrown ax from the air with a flick of his hand and a word of power, and drawled, "I got another one. "
Ebenezar McCoy extended his left hand and spoke another word, and darkness swirled from the shadows and condensed into a staff of dark, twisted wood, unmarked by any kind of carving whatsoever.
"Fuego!" shouted someone on the walls - and for a second I was hit with a little sting of insult. Someone was shouting "fuego" and it wasn't me.
While I was feeling irrational pique, guns started barking, and they aimed at me first. Bullets rang sharply as they hit my armor, rebounding from it and barely leaving a mark. It was like getting hit with small hailstones: uncomfortable but not really dangerous - unless one of them managed a head shot.
Ebenezar turned toward the walls from which the soldiers were firing. Hits thumped into his robes, but seemed to do little but stir the fabric and then fall at his feet. The old man said, mostly to himself, "You took the wrong contract, boys. "
Then he swept the Blackstaff from left to right, murmured a word, and ripped the life from a hundred men.
They just . . . died.
There was absolutely nothing to mark their deaths. No sign of pain. No struggle. No convulsion of muscles. No reaction at all. One moment they were firing wildly down at us - and the next, they simply -
The old man turned to the other wall, and I saw two or three of the brighter soldiers throw their guns down and run. I don't know if they made it, but the old man swept the Blackstaff through the air again, and the gunmen on that side of the field dropped dead where they stood.
My godmother watched it happen, and bounced and clapped her hands some more, as delighted as a child at the circus.
I stared for a second, shocked. Ebenezar had just shattered the First Law of Magic: Thou shalt not kill. He had used magic to directly end the life of another human being - nearly two hundred times. I mean, yes, I had known what his office allowed him to do. . . . But there was a big difference between appreciating a fact and seeing that terrible truth in motion.
The Blackstaff itself pulsed and shimmered with shadowy power, and I got the sudden sense that the thing was alive, that it knew its purpose and wanted nothing more than to be used, as often and as spectacularly as possible.
I also saw veins of venomous black begin to ooze their way over the old man's hand, reaching up slowly, spreading to his wrist. He grimaced and held his left forearm with his right hand for a moment, then looked over his shoulder and said, "All right!"
The farthest grey figure, tall and lean, lifted his staff. I saw light gleam off of metal at one end of the staff, and then green lightning enfolded the length of wood as he thrust the metal end into the ground. He took the staff back - but the twisting length of green lightning stayed. He drove the staff down again about six feet away, and again lightning sheathed it. Then he removed the staff, reversed his grip on it, and with a sweep of his arm drew another shaft of lightning between the two upright columns of electricity, bridging the gap.
He was opening a Way.
There was a flash of light, and the space between the bolts of lightning warped and went dark - then exploded with black figures bearing swords. For the first moment, I thought that they were wearing odd costumes, or maybe weird armor. Their faces were shaped something like a crow's, complete with a long yellow beak. They were wearing clothes that seemed to be made from feathers - and then I got it.
They actually were beak-faced creatures, covered in soft black feathers and carrying swords, each and every one of them a Japanese-style katana. They poured out of the gate by the score, by the hundreds, and began to bound forward with unnaturally long leaps that seemed only technically different from flying. They looked deadly and beautiful, all grace, speed, and perfection of motion. The wild light of the One-woman Rave glittered off of their blades and glassy black eyes.
"The kenku owed me a favor," Ebenezar drawled. "Seemed like a good time to call it in. "
With sharp whistles and wails of fury, the strange creatures bounded up out of the ball court and began to engage the Red Court in numbers.
It was too much to take in. Sorcery flew beside bullets on a scale larger than anything I'd ever seen. Stone weapons clashed against steel. Blood flew: the black of the vampires, the blue of the kenku, and, mostly, flashes of scarlet mortal blood. There was too much terror and incongruous beauty in it, and I think my head reacted by tuning out everything that wasn't threatening my life, or was more than a few yards away.
"Maggie," I said. I grabbed the old man's shoulder. "I've got to get to her. "
He grimaced and nodded his head. "Where?"
"The big temple," I said, pointing at the pyramid. "And about four hundred meters north of the temple, there's a trailer cattle car," I said. "It was guarded the last time I looked. There are human prisoners still in it. "
Ebenezar grunted and nodded. "Get the girl. We'll take care of the Red Court and their Night Lords. " The old man spat on the ground, his eyes alight with excitement. "We'll see how the slimy bastards like eating what they've been dishing out. "
I gripped his hand, hard, then put my other one on the old man's shoulder and
said, "Thank you. "
His eyes welled up for an instant, but he only snorted and squeezed back. "Get your girl, Hoss. "
The old man winked at me. I blinked a few times myself and then turned away.
Time was running out - for Maggie, and for me.
"Godmother!" I shouted, turning toward the pyramid.
Lea appeared at my side, her hands now filled with emerald and amethyst light - her own deadly sorcery. "Shall we pursue the quest now?"
"Yeah. Stay close. We'll round up the team and move. "
Molly was nearest. I went to my apprentice and shouted in her ear, "Come on! Let the birdmen take it from here! We've got to move. "
Molly gave me a vague nod, and finally lowered the little wands as the kenku's charge drove into the Red Court and took the pressure from our flanks. The tips of her wands, both of them made of ivory, were cracked and chipped. Her arms hung limply and swung at her sides, and she looked even paler now than she had going in. She turned to me, gave me a quivering smile, and then suddenly sank to the ground, her eyes rolling back in her head.
I stared at her in shock for a second, and then I was on my knees next to her, my amulet glowing as I used its light to check her for injuries. In the chaos, I hadn't seen that one of her legs, at midthigh, was a mass of blood. One of the wild shots from the security goons had hit her beneath the armored vest. She was bleeding out. She was dying.
Thomas crashed to the ground next to me. He ripped off his belt and whipped it around her leg as a tourniquet. "I've got this!" he said, looking up at me, his expression remote, calm. "Go, go!"
I stared at him for a second, uncertain. Molly was my apprentice, my responsibility.
He regarded me and his calm mask cracked for a second, showing me his tension, the fear he was holding in check at the scale of the conflict around us. "Harry," he said. "I'll guard her with my life. I swear it. "
I nodded, and then clenched a fist, looking around. That much spilled blood would start drawing vampires to the wounded girl like bees to flowers. Thomas couldn't care for her and fight. "Mouse," I called, "stay with them!"
The dog rushed over to Molly and literally stood over her head, his eyes and ears everywhere, a guardian determined not to fail.
Then I ran to Murphy and Sanya, who both bore small cuts and abrasions, and who looked like they were about to charge into the nearest portion of the fray. Martin tagged along with me, apparently calm, and by all appearances unaware that he was in the middle of a battle. Say what I would about Martin, his blandness, his boring demeanor, and his noncombative body language were very real armor in this situation. He simply didn't look like an important or threatening target, and he was untouched.
I looked around them and picked up a sword that had been dropped by one of the warriors they had killed, a simple Chinese straight sword known as a jian. It was light, razor-sharp on both edges, and suited me just fine.
"We're going to the pyramid," I called to Murphy and Sanya. A group of thirty or forty kenku went over us, witch shadows against the rising moon, and entered the fray against the jaguar warriors who still stood between us and an exit from the ball court. "There!" I said. "Go, go, go!"
I suited action to my words and plunged toward the opening Ebenezar's allies were cutting for us. There was a surge of magic and a flash of motion ahead of us, as another vampire noble tossed another flare of power at me. I caught a small stroke of lightning on my mentor's staff - it was shorter, thicker, and heavier than mine - conducting the attack down my arm, across my shoulder, and out the tip of my newly acquired sword. The lightning bolt chewed a hole in the belly of the Red Court noble. He staggered as I closed on him. I spun the staff to the horizontal, and checked him in the nose as I went by, dropping him to the ground.
We went past the remains of the temple and out into the open space between the buildings. It was chaos out there. Jaguar warriors and priest types were everywhere, and most of them were armed. Mortal security folks were forming into teams and racing toward the ball court to reinforce the Red Court. I realized that at some point Murphy, her clothing shining with white light, her halo a blaze of molten gold, had begun racing along on my right side, with Sanya on my left. The brilliant light of the two Swords was a terror to the vampires and half-breeds alike, and they recoiled from that aura of power and fear - but that wasn't the same thing as retreating. They simply fell back, while other creatures closed a large circle about us, drawing it slowly tighter as we moved toward the pyramid.
"We aren't going to make it," Murphy said. "They're getting ready to rush us from all sides. "
"Always they are doing that," Sanya said, panting, his cheerful voice going slightly annoyed. "Never is it anything new. "
They were right. I could sense the change in motion of the villains around us, how they were retreating more slowly before us, pressing in more closely behind us.
I felt my eyes drawn up to the pyramid ahead - and there, standing on the fifth level of the pyramid, looking down, was a figure in a golden mask. Evidently, one of the Lords of Outer Night had been knocked all the way over to the pyramid by Ebenezar's entrance. And I could feel his will at work in the foes around us - not used to overcome an enemy with immobility now, but to infuse his troops with confidence and aggression.
"That guy," I said, nodding at him. "Gold mask. We take him down and we're through. "
Murphy scanned the pyramid until she spotted him. Then her eyes tracked down to the base of the stairs and she nodded shortly. "Right," she said.
And she raised Fidelacchius, let out a scream that had startled a great many large men working out at her dojo, and plunged into the warriors of the Red Court like a swimmer breasting a wave.
Holy crap, I hadn't meant she should do that.
"Tiny," Sanya said, letting out a belly laugh as he began to move. "But fierce!"
"You're all insane!" I screamed, and plunged forward with them, while Martin backpedaled and tried to keep up with us while simultaneously warding off the vampires closing in from behind.
Murphy did what no mortal should have been able to do - she cut a path through a mob of warrior vampires. She went through them as if they'd been no more than a cloud of smoke. Fidelacchius blazed, and no weapon raised against the Sword of Faith, neither modern steel nor living relic, could withstand its edge.
Murphy hardly seemed to actually attack anyone. She simply moved forward, and when attacks came at her, bad things happened to whoever had attempted to strike her. Sword thrusts were slid gently aside while she continued onward, her own blade seeming to naturally, independently pass through an S-shaped slash upon the opponent's body on the way through, wreaking terrible damage with delicate speed. Warriors who flung themselves upon her found their hands grabbing nothing, their bodies being sent tumbling through the air - and that horrible Sword of light left wounds in each and every opponent, their edges black and sizzling.
They'd come at her in twos, and once, three of the jaguar warriors managed to coordinate an attack. It didn't do them any good. Murphy had been handling opponents who were bigger and stronger and faster than her, in situations of real danger, since she was a rookie cop. The vampires and half-breeds, swift and strong as they were, seemed no more able to beat her down than had all of those thugs and criminals. Stronger though her enemies were, the blazing light of the Sword seemed to slow them, to undermine their strength - not much, but enough to make the difference. Murphy dodged and feinted and tossed warriors into one another, using their own strength against them. The three-on-one she faced almost seemed unfair. One of the jaguar warriors, armed with an enormous club, wound up smashing his two compatriots, courtesy of the intern Knight, only to find his club sliced into three pieces that wound up on the ground next to his own severed leg.
Karrin Murphy led the charge, and Sanya and I tried to keep up. She went through that sea of foes like a
little speedboat, her enemies spun and tossed and turned and disoriented in her wake. Sanya and I hacked our way through stunned foes, pushing and chopping with unsophisticated brutality - and that big Russian lunatic just kept laughing the whole time.
We hit the stairs, and resistance thinned sharply. Murphy surged ahead, and the Lord of Outer Night raised a bejeweled hand against her, his sheer will causing the air to ripple and thicken. Sanya and I hit it like a brick wall and staggered to a halt, but it seemed to slide off of Murphy, as had every other attack to come at her, her halo burning still brighter. Panicked, the enemy raised a hand and sent three shafts of sorcerous power howling at her, one right after another. Murphy's feet, sure and swift on the stairs, carried her into a version of a boxer's bobbing dance, and each shaft went blazing uselessly past her.
Sanya yelped and dropped, dodging the bolt that nearly clobbered him. I blocked one on my shield and took the other in the shin. My godmother's armor protected my flesh, but I hit the stone stairs of the pyramid pretty hard.
I jerked my eyes up in time to see Murphy rush the Lord of Outer Night and speed straight past him, her sword sweeping up in a single, upward, vertical slash.
The gold mask fell from the vampire's head - along with the front half of its skull. Silver fire burned at the revealed, twisted, lumpy lobes of the vampire's brain, and as its blood flowed out and touched that fire, it went up in a sudden pyre of silver-white flame. The Lord of Outer Night somehow managed to scream as fire consumed it, and flung more bursts of magic blindly and in all directions for several more seconds, until it finally fell into blackened ash and ugly smears on the stone.
Only then did the barrier of its will vanish, and Sanya, Martin, and I hustled up the stairs toward the temple.
Still, the enemy pursued us - there were so damned many of them - and as I gained more height I was able to look back and see that the Red Court had begun to contain the kenku incursion. The battle was still furiously under way within the ball court, and though the feathered warriors were the match of any two or three vampires or half-breeds, the enemy had numbers to spare. I could only be grateful that so many of their spell-slingers were duking it out with the Grey Council instead of getting in our way.
"Dammit," I said, looking up the steps toward the temple at their summit. Shadows moved inside. "Dammit!" I looked around me wildly and suddenly felt a hand grasp mine, where I clutched my staff.
Murphy shook my hand until I looked at her. "Sanya and I will stay here," she said, panting. "We'll hold them until you get Maggie. "
I looked down the slope of the pyramid. Hundreds of the Red Court were coming up, and they were tearing free of their flesh masks now, revealing the monsters beneath. Hold them? It would be suicide. The Swords gave their wielders immense power against things out of nightmares, but it didn't make them superhuman. Murphy and Sanya had both been fighting for twenty minutes - and there is no aerobic exercise that compares with the physical demands of combat. Both of them were breathing hard, growing tired.
But I needed to get up there.
"Dresden," Martin called. "Come on!"
I hadn't even realized he was shaking me, trying to get me up the stairs.
I guess I was getting pretty tired, too.
I narrowed my focus to Martin, to the stairs up, and tried to ignore the burning in my arms, my legs, my chest. I drew in a sharp breath, and it was like inhaling sudden cool, clean wind. I thought I heard someone whispering to me, something in a tongue I didn't understand - but I knew my queen's voice. I became aware that a cloud of white mist and vapor was gathering around me as I continued, a little faster, the humid air of the Yucat¨¢n boiling around the frost that had formed on my armor.
Then the cold washed away the hot fatigue, and I felt the ice flowing into me, implacable, merciless, relentless. My legs began to churn like the pistons of an engine. Suddenly one step per stride simply wasn't enough, and I started flying up them two at a time, rapidly leaving Martin behind.
I reached the top and a half-breed jaguar warrior flung himself toward me. I snarled, batted his sword aside with mine, and lashed out with one foot, landing a stomping kick in the center of his chest.
His sternum cracked audibly, and he flew backward as if rammed by a truck. He hit the stone wall behind him hard enough to shake dust from the roof overhead, and crumpled like a broken toy. Which was exactly the kind of power the Winter Knight was supposed to have, and as I watched the poor idiot drop, I felt nothing but satisfaction.
The square temple had four doorways, one on each side, and in the one to my immediate right a vampire torn free of its flesh mask appeared, a jaguar skin still draped over its shoulders. It clutched an obsidian knife in its hand - the Red King's dagger. It was the vamp he'd dispatched to kill Maggie.
"Fog of war, huh?" I asked him, and felt myself smiling. "Buddy, did you ever walk through the wrong door at the wrong time. "
Its eyes flicked to the floor to my left for an instant, and I looked, too. Maggie crouched there, directly between the altar and the door on my left, chained and shivering, huddling low to the ground as if hoping to be overlooked.
"Go on," I said, looking back at the vampire. I bounced the sword in my hand lightly. White mist poured off the blade. So did a few snow-flakes. "Go for it, tough guy. Take one step toward that girl and see what happens. "
The door opposite me suddenly darkened.
The Red King and no fewer than four of his Lords stood there, gold masks shining, throwing back weird reflections from the dazzling array of flickering lights and fires in the darkness outside.
His face twisted with rage, and his will and the wills of the Lords behind him fell upon me like blows from individual sledgehammers. I staggered, planted my mentor's staff firmly on the stone floor, and barely kept myself from being driven to the ground.
"Now," the Red King said, his voice strangled with fury. "Put that little bitch on the altar. "
One of the Lords stepped forward and bent down to seize the child by her hair. Maggie screamed.
"No!" I shouted.
The Red King went to the altar and kicked the corpse of the dead woman from it. "Mortal," he spat. "Still so certain that his will matters. But you are nothing. A wisp. A shadow. Here and then gone. Forgotten. It is fated. It is the way of the universe. " He jerked the ritual knife from the hands of the warrior and glared at me, his true nature writhing and twisting beneath his skin. The Lord dragged the shackled, screaming child to the altar, and the Red King's black eyes gleamed.
"This is your only role, mortal," he said, "your only grace, the only thing you are truly meant to do. " He stared at Maggie and bared his teeth, all long fangs, slaver running out of his mouth and down over his chin. "Die. "