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Jim Butcher

Chapter 45

  Chapter Forty-five

  T he sleet had stopped coming down in favor of large, wet flakes of snow again. The boat rocked gently on the troubled waters of the lake. Water slapped against the sides and gurgled around the curve of the hull. Ice had begun to form all along the sides and front of the boat. I think there are boat words for all the pieces that were being covered, like prow and gunwale, but I'm only vaguely aware of them.

  "Harry Dresden speechless," Nicodemus said. "I can't imagine this happens every day. "

  I just stared at him.

  "In the event that you hadn't worked it out for yourself yet," Nicodemus said, "this is endgame, Dresden. " The fingers of his right hand stroked the hilt of his sword. "Can you puzzle out the next part, or must I explain it to you?"

  "You want the coins, the sword, the girl, the money, and the keys to the Monte Carlo," I said. "Or you shoot me and drop me over the side. "

  "Something like that," he said. "The coins, Dresden. "

  I reached into the pocket of my duster and. . .

  "What the hell," I said.

  The Crown Royal bag was gone.

  I checked my other pockets, careful of the coin I'd taken from Magog-and careful not to reveal its presence to Nicodemus. No bag. "It's gone. "

  "Dresden, don't even try such a pathetic lie on m-"

  "It's gone!" I told him with considerable heat, none of it feigned. Eleven coins. Eleven freaking cursed coins. The last time I remembered definitely having them had been up at the tower, when I'd jingled them for Nicodemus.

  He stared at me for a moment, his eyes searching, and then murmured something under his breath. Whispers rolled from the shadows around him. I didn't recognize the language, but I did recognize the tone. I wondered if the angelic tongue had swear words, or if they just said nice words backward or something. Doog! Teews doog!

  Nicodemus's sword came up as swiftly as a flickering snake's tongue and came to rest against my throat. I didn't have time to flinch; it was that fast. I sucked in a quick breath and held very, very still.

  "These marks," he murmured. "Thorned Namshiel's strangler spell. " His eyes drew a line from the last apparent mark on my neck down to the duster pocket that the bag of coins had been in. "Ah. The strangulation was the distraction. He picked your pocket with one of the other wires before he was incapacitated. He did that to Saint. . . someone-or-other, in Glasgow in the thirteenth century. "

  There's nothing like getting taken with an old trick, I guess. But that meant that Namshiel had been working together with someone else-someone else who had to have been hanging around to collect the coins after he'd taken them from my pocket and tossed them off to the side in the confusion. Someone who hadn't been pulling a fade after all.

  "Tessa and Rosanna," I said quietly. "They got their collection of thugs back. They bailed at just the right moment to ruin your plan, too. "

  "Deceitful bitches," Nicodemus murmured. "One of them is our own Judas; I was sure of it. "

  I lifted my eyebrows. "What?"

  "That's why I let them handle the more, shall we say, memorable aspects of the Archive's initiation to our world," Nicodemus said. "I suppose now that the child is free, she'll have some rather unpleasant associations with those two. "

  "And you're telling me this why?"

  He shrugged a shoulder. "It's somewhat ironic, Dresden, that I can talk to you about this particular aspect of family business. You're the only one that I'm sure hasn't gone over to this new force-this Black Council of yours. "

  "How can you be so sure about me?" I asked him.

  "Please. No one so obstreperous has been corrupted by anything but his own pure muleheadedness. " Nicodemus shook his head, never taking his eyes off me. "Still. My time here has not been wasted. The Knights carried away Namshiel's coin, so Tessa has lost her sorcery teacher. I heard Magog's bellow end quite abruptly a few moments ago, just before you walked out of the same building, so with any luck Tessa's heaviest bruiser is out of the game for a time as well, eh?" Nicodemus smiled cheerily at me. "Perhaps his collar is in one of your pockets. And I have Fidelacchius. Removal of one of the Three is profit enough for one operation, even if I did lose this chance at gaining control of the Archive. "

  "What makes you think," I said, "that you have Fidelacchius?"

  "I told you," Nicodemus said. "This is endgame. No more playing. " The pitch and intonation of his voice changed, and though he still spoke in my direction, it was clear that he was no longer speaking to me. "Shadow, if you would, disable Dresden. We'll talk some sense into him later, in a quieter setting. "

  He was talking to Lasciel's shadow.

  Hell, wizards didn't have a monopoly on arrogance.

  Neither did the Knights of the Cross.

  I stiffened in place, my mouth half-open. Then I fell over sideways, body resting against the boat's steering wheel, my spine ramrod straight. I didn't move, not one little twitch.

  Nicodemus sighed and shook his head. "Dresden, I truly regret this necessity, but time is growing short. I must act, and your talents could prove useful. You'll see. Once we've cleared some of these well-intentioned idiots out of our way. . . " He reached for Fidelacchius.

  And I punched him in the neck.

  Then I seized the noose and jerked it tight. I hung on, pulling it tighter. The noose, another leftover from Judas's field, made Nicodemus more or less invulnerable to harm-from everything but itself. Nicodemus had worn the thing for centuries. As far as I knew,

  I was the only one who had worked out how to hurt him. I was the only one who had truly terrified him.

  He met my eyes for a panicked second.

  "Lasciel's shadow," I told him, "doesn't live here anymore. The Fallen have no power over me. And neither do you. "

  I jerked the noose a little tighter.

  Nicodemus would have screamed if he could have. He thrashed uselessly, reaching for his sword. I kicked it out of reach. He reached up and raked at my eyes, but I hunched my head down and hung on, and his motions were more panicked than practiced. His shadow rose up in a wave of darkness and fury-but as it plunged down to engulf me, white light shone forth from the slits in the wooden cane sheath of the holy sword on my back, and the shadow itself let out a hissing, leathery scream, flinching away from the light.

  I was no Knight, but the sword did for me what it had always done for them-it leveled the field, stripping away all the supernatural trappings and leaving only a struggle of mind versus mind and will versus will, one man against another. Nicodemus and I fought for the sword and our lives.

  He threw savage kicks into my wounded leg, and even through the blocks Lash had taught me to build, I felt them. I had a great handle on his neck, so in reply I slammed my forehead against Nicodemus's nose. It broke with really satisfying crunching sounds. He hammered punches into my short ribs, and he knew how to make them hurt.

  Unfortunately for him, I knew how to be hurt. I knew how to be hurt with the best of them. It was going to take a whole hell of a lot more pain than this loser could dish out in the time he had left to put me down, and I knew it. I knew it. I tightened my grip on that ancient rope and I hung on.

  I took more blows to the body as his face turned red. He got one of my knees with a vicious kick as his face turned purple. I was screaming with the pain of it when the purple started looking more like black-and he collapsed, body loosening and then going completely limp.

  A lot of people let up when that happens, when their opponent drops unconscious. But it could have been a trick.

  Even if it hadn't been I'd been planning to hang on.

  I'm not a Knight.

  In fact, I squeezed harder.

  I wasn't sure how much longer I'd had him down. Might have been thirty seconds. Might have been a minute and a half. But I saw a flash of furious green light and looked up to see Deirdre coming down the hillside toward me on her hair and three limbs, one
leg bound up in white bandages. She had twenty or thirty tongueless soldier types with her, and her glowing eyes burned with verdant fury, like a pair of spotlights. She focused on me for half a second, hissed like a furious alley cat, and screamed, "Father!"


  I grabbed Nicodemus by the shirt and pitched him over the side, into the black waters of the lake. He went down with hardly a splash, his dark clothing making him all but invisible an instant after he hit the water.

  I scanned the bottom of the boat frantically. There, the key. I scooped it up and jammed it into the ignition.

  "Don't shoot!" Deirdre screamed. "You might hit my father!" She bounded into the air, all that writhing hair folding back into a single, sharklike swimming tail as she dove, and hit the water with barely a splash.

  I turned the key. The old boat's engine coughed and wheezed.

  "Come on," I breathed. "Come on. "

  If I didn't get this boat moving before Deirdre found her daddy, game over. She'd order her soldiers to open fire. I'd have to raise a shield to stop the bullets, and once I did that the already wonky engine would sure as hell never get moving. I'd be stuck, and it would only be a matter of time before a combination of weariness, mounting pain, number of attackers, and wrathful daughter took me down.

  Deirdre surfaced, cast a glance around to orient herself, and dove into the featureless darkness again.

  The engine caught, and then turned over drunkenly.

  "Boo-ya!" I screamed.

  Then I remembered that I hadn't untied the boat.

  I lunged awkwardly up to the front and untied the rope, very much aware of all the guns pointing at me. The boat came free. I pushed off the pole, and the vessel began to sluggishly turn. I hobbled back to the steering wheel, cranked it around, and gave the engine some power. The boat throbbed and then roared and began to gather speed.

  Deirdre surfaced maybe twenty feet in front of me, carrying her father. Before she even looked around she screamed, "Kill him, shoot him, shoot him!"

  Cheerfully, I swerved the boat right at her. Something thumped hard against the hull. I hoped for some kind of lawn mower-like sound from the propellers, but I didn't get one.

  Gunfire erupted from the shore, meanwhile, and it wasn't blinded by bright lights or hurried or panicked. It started ripping the boat to splinters all around me. I started shouting curse words and crouched down. Bullets hit my duster. For several seconds the range was pretty close, at least for the military-grade weapons they were using, and while the duster was up to the chore of stopping those rounds, it wasn't any fun to experience. My back got hit with half a dozen major-league fastballs over the next few seconds.

  And cold water washed over my feet.

  And, half a minute later, over my ankles.

  Double crap.

  The engines were making really odd noises too. My back protested when I turned to look. It was damned dark out here on the lake, as I got farther and farther from shore, but the disappearing form of the island was being blotted by a lot of black smoke coming out of the boat's engines.

  The pain blocks were falling now. I was hurting a lot. The water in the bottom of the boat was up to the bottom of my calves now, and. . .

  And there were three searchlights coming toward me from the direction of the island.

  They'd sent out pursuit boats.

  "This just isn't fair," I muttered to myself. I gave the engine all the power I could, but from the way it was rattling around that was more or less a formality. It wasn't going to last long, and it was sinking in any case.

  I knew that if I went into the water I'd have about four or five minutes to live, given the temperature. I also knew that I had to get past the stone reefs around the islands, the ones Rosanna had needed the beacon light to navigate through.

  Nothing for it but to keep going.

  I was struck by a sudden thought: Bob the skull was going to be crushed that he missed this one, a genuine pirate adventure. I started singing, "Blow the Man Down" at the top of my lungs.

  Then there was a horrible noise, and the boat just stopped. The steering wheel hit me in the chest pretty hard, and then I bounced back into the driver's seat.

  Water started pouring in thick and fast and dark.

  "Ahoy!" I slurred drunkenly. "Reef!"

  I made sure I still had the coin and the sword. I grabbed up my staff and got out the pentacle amulet from around my neck. The lights of the pursuing boats were getting nearer by the moment. This was going to be a close one.

  The old ski boat was literally breaking apart around me, its prow shattered on a thick spike of stone that had penetrated it just left of its center, up by the front of the boat. The old stone ridge that rose up through the waters of the lake came to within a couple of feet of the surface here. It would give me a place to do something besides instantly immerse myself in cold water and go into hypothermia.

  And it would give me solid rock on which to plant my feet, and through which to draw power. The water of the lake would wash some of it away-not as much as free-running water, but some-but I would still be able to do something to defend myself.

  So before the boat could capsize and dump me into the water, I gritted my teeth and jumped in.

  My body immediately informed me that I had made an insane decision.

  You have no idea what the depths of cold can be until you have jumped into near-freezing water.

  I screamed my way into it, finding places to stand with my frozen feet, being careful of the leg that Nicodemus had rendered gimpy for me. Then I held up my mother's amulet in my right hand and focused on it, forcing energy into it carefully and slowly. It happened sluggishly, the way everything was happening in the mounting cold, but I was able to draw power up through the stone beneath my feet, and to call silver-blue wizard light from the amulet-brighter and brighter, light that spread out over the waters in a literal beacon that read, clear as day, Here I am.

  "T-T-Thomas," I muttered to myself, shivering so hard I could barely stand. "Y-y-you'd b-better b-be c-c-close. "

  Because Deirdre's men were.

  The searchlights oriented on me instantly, and the boats-rubber raft things that would skim right over the reefs-came bouncing toward me over the waves.

  It wouldn't have been impossible to sink one of the rafts. But it would have killed every man inside. And those weren't people collaborating with demons for their own dark gain. They were just people, most of whom had been brought up from childhood to serve Nicodemus and company, and who probably thought that they were genuinely doing the right thing. I could kill someone like Nicodemus and sleep peacefully afterward. But I wasn't sure I could live with myself if I sent those rafts down into the lake and condemned the men in them to die. That isn't what magic is for.

  More to the point, killing them wouldn't save me. Even if I managed to sink every other raft out there, send every man in them into the water, it wouldn't stop me from freezing to death and drowning. It would just mean that I had a lot of company.

  I'm not a Knight. But that doesn't mean I don't draw the line somewhere.

  They started shooting from about a hundred yards away, and I raised a shield. It was hard to do in the icy waters, but I raised it and held it, a shimmering quarter-dome of silver light. Bullets smashed against it and skipped off it, sending out little concentric rings of spreading energy as their force was distributed over the shield. Most of the shots never really came anywhere close. Shooting from a moving rubber raft at a hundred yards isn't exactly a recipe for precision marksmanship.

  They got closer, and I got colder.

  I held the light and the shield.

  Please, brother. Don't let me down.

  I never heard anything until a wave of cold water hit my shoulder blades and all but knocked me over. Then the heavy chug-chug-chug of the Water Beetle's engines shook the water around me as my brother's battered old ship bellied up
dangerously close to the reef, and I turned to find the ship wallowing broadside behind me.

  I liked to give Thomas a hard time about the Water Beetle, teasing him that he'd stolen it from the prop room of Jaws. But the fact of the matter was that I didn't know a damned thing about boats, and that I was secretly impressed that he could sail the thing around the lake so blithely.

  "Harry!" Murphy called. She came hurrying down the frozen deck, slipping here and there on patches of ice as she did. She slapped a line attached to a harness she wore to the ship's safety railing, and threw the other end of the line to me. "Come on!"

  "It's about time you got outside the reef," Thomas complained from the top of the wheelhouse. As I watched, he drew his heavy Desert Eagle from his side, aimed, and loosed a round. A dark form on one of the oncoming rafts let out a cry and fell into the water with a splash.

  I scowled at Thomas. He doesn't even practice.

  I stumbled forward and grabbed the line, wrapping it around my right arm. That was pretty much all I had enough energy left to do. Murphy began hauling it in, and started yelling for Thomas to help her.

  "Cover me!" Thomas yelled.

  He came down from the wheelhouse pirate style, just jumping down, all graceful and stylish despite the roll of the ship, despite the ice and the cold. Murphy, her feet planted, secured to the railing, shifted her grip and produced the little assault weapon she'd had on a strap around her back-the P-90 Kincaid had given her as a gift. She raised it to her shoulder, sighted through the scope at one of the oncoming rafts, and started calmly squeezing out rounds, one and two at a time. Fam. Famfam. Fam. Famfam. Fam. Fam.

  One of the rafts foundered. Maybe she'd struck whoever was steering it and caused him to misguide it. Maybe the lake had simply swamped it. I don't know. But a second raft immediately turned to start picking up men who had spilled into the water from the first. Murphy turned her gun onto the remaining raft.

  Thomas started hauling me out of the water by the line around my arm, just pulling me up arm over arm as if I'd been a child and not an adult a hundred pounds heavier than he was. He doesn't even work out.

  I was tired enough that I just let him do it. As a result I had enough spare attention to notice when my feet cleared the water, and Deirdre surged out of the blackness and seized my ankles.

  "Kill you!" she snarled. "Kill you for what you did to him!"

  "Holy crap!" Thomas yelled.

  "Ack!" I agreed.

  Most of those deadly strands of her hair were thrust into the stone reef below, holding her down, but a few that were free whipped wildly at Thomas. He ducked aside with a yell, barely managing to hold on to the line.

  It felt like she was going to pull my legs off at the ankles. I screamed and kicked at her as best I could, but my legs were so numb that I could barely move them, much less shake her off. Thomas had all that he could do to simply hold on to the line and prevent those bladed strands from severing it.

  "Karrin!" he screamed.

  Murphy swung her legs up over the railing of the ship, still attached to it by the line fastened to her harness. Then she swung herself out into empty air above the water until she hung alongside me.

  Then she aimed the P-90 down at Deirdre and flicked the selector to full automatic.

  But before she could pull the trigger, Deirdre hissed, and a flickering blade swept up and struck Murphy across the face. She screamed and recoiled as the blade continued, an S-shaped cut that missed Murphy's throat by a finger's breadth and sliced through the strap that held the P-90 on her body. The weapon tumbled into the water.

  "Bitch!" Murphy snarled, one side of her face a sheet of blood. She tried to reach for her pistol-in its shoulder holster, beneath her harness, beneath her coat. It might as well have been on the surface of the moon.

  "Murph!" I said. I twisted my shoulders and thrust the end of Fidelacchius to within reach of her hand.

  Murphy's fingers closed on the hilt of the holy blade.

  She drew it maybe an inch from the scabbard.

  White light blinded me. Blinded Deirdre. Blinded Murphy. Blinded Thomas. Blinded everyone.

  "No!" Deirdre screamed, utter despair and terror in her voice. "No, no, no!"

  The pressure on my ankles vanished, and I heard the Denarian splash into the water.

  Murphy released the hilt of the sword. The light died. It took maybe half a minute before I could see anything else. Thomas recovered faster, of course, and by that time he had us both back onto the deck of the Water Beetle. There was no evidence of Deirdre anywhere, and the two boatloads of soldier boys were hightailing it away as fast as they could go.

  Murphy, bleeding from a cut running parallel to her right eyebrow all the way into her hairline, was staring in shock at me and at the sword. "What the fuck was that?"

  I slipped the sword off my shoulder. I felt really tired. I hurt everywhere. "Offhand," I mumbled, "I'd say it was a job offer. "

  "We've got to move before we get carried onto the reef," Thomas muttered. He hurried off, pirate style. He looked good doing it. Of course. He doesn't even moisturize.

  Murphy stared at the sword for a second more. Then she looked at me, and her bloody face went tight with concern. "Jesus, Harry. " She moved to the side of my wounded leg and helped support my weight as I hobbled into the ship's cabin. "Come on. Let's get you warmed up. "

  "Well?" I asked her as she helped me. "How 'bout it? I got this sword that needs somebody to use it. "

  She sat me down on one of the bench seats in the ship's cabin. She looked at the sword for a moment, seriously. Then she shook her head and said quietly, "I've got a job. "

  I smiled faintly and closed my eyes. "I thought you'd say that. "

  "Shut up, Harry. "

  "Okay," I said.

  And I did. For hours. It was glorious.