White Night, Page 20Jim Butcher
"I knew it," Ramirez snarled. "I knew it was a setup. "
He turned to look and me and then blinked. It was only then that I realized that I had my teeth bared in a wide smile.
"That's right," I told him. "It is. "
I have seen some real pros open gateways to the Nevernever. The youngest of the Summer Queens of the Sidhe could open them so smoothly that you'd never see it happening until it was over. I'd seen Cowl open ways to the Nevernever as casually and easily as a screen door, with the gate itself being barely noticeable until it van-ished a few seconds later, leaving behind it the same musty smell now flooding the cavern.
I couldn't do it that smoothly or with that much subtlety.
But I could do it just as quickly, and just as effectively.
I spun on my heel as the ghouls flooded the cavern and plunged into the gathered members of the White Court in a killing frenzy.
"Go!" Ramirez shouted. "I can't run anyway. I'll hold them; get out of here!"
"Get over yourself and cover my back!" I snarled.
I gathered my will again, shifting my staff into my right hand. The runes on the staff blazed to life, and I pointed the staff across my body, at the air four feet off the cavern floor. Then I released my gathered will, focused by my intentions and the energies aligned in my staff, and shouted, "Aparturum!" Furious golden and scarlet light flowed down the length of wood, searing a seam in reality. I drew the staff from left to right, drawing a line of fire in the air - and after a heartbeat, that line expanded, burning up like a fire running up a curtain, down like rain sluicing down a car window, and left behind it a gateway, an opening from the Raith Deeps to the Nevernever.
The gate opened on a cold and frozen woodland scene. Silvery moonlight slipped through, and a freezing wind gusted, blowing powdery white snow into the cavern - substance of the spirit world, which transformed into clear, if chilly, gelatin, the ectoplasm left behind when spirit matter reverted to its natural state.
There was a stir of shadows, and then my brother burst through the opening, saber in one hand, sawed-off shotgun in the other. Thomas was dressed in heavy biker leather and body armor, with honest-to-God chain mail covering the biker's jacket. His hair was tied back in a tail, and his eyes were blazing with excitement. "Harry!"
"Take your time," I barked back at him. "We're not in a crisis or anything!"
"The others are right beh - Look out !"
I spun in time to see one of the ghouls bound into the air and sail toward me, the claws on both its hands and feet extended to rip and slash.
Ramirez shouted and flung one of his green blasts at the thing. It caught the ghoul at the apex of its flight and simply bored a hole the size of a garbage can in its lower abdomen.
The ghoul landed in a splatter of gore and fury. It kept fighting, though its legs flopped around like a seal's tail, of almost no use to it.
I sprang back - or at least, I tried to spring. Opening a gate to the Nevernever is not complicated, but it isn't easy, either, and between that and all the fighting I'd done, I was beginning to bump up against my physical limits. My legs wobbled, and my spring was more like the lazy, hot, and motionless end of summer.
Thomas dragged me the last six inches or I wouldn't have avoided the ghoul's claws. He extended his arm, shotgun in hand, and blew the ghoul's head off its shoulders in a spray of flying bits of bone and horn and a mist of horrible black blood.
After which, the ghoul seized him with one arm and began raking its talons at him with the other. The terrible power of the mangled ghoul was enormous. Links of chain mail snapped and went flying, and Thomas let out a scream of surprise and outrage.
"What the hell!" he snarled. He dropped the shotgun and took off the ghoul's attacking arm with his saber. Then he broke the grip of the last clawed hand, and flung the ghoul's body away from him.
"What the hell was that ?" he gasped, recovering the shotgun.
"Uh," I said. "That was one. "
"Harry!" Ramirez said, backpedaling as best he could with the wounded leg, and bumped into me. I steadied him before he lost his balance. That damned knife was still sticking out of his calf.
A dozen more ghouls were charging us.
Everything slowed down, the way it sometimes does when fresh adrenaline shifts me into overdrive.
The cavern had gone insane. The ghouls had been there for maybe thirty seconds, but there were several dozen of them at least, with more pouring out of the neat oval gate on the other side of the cavern. The ghouls had apparently attacked everyone with equal amounts of ferocity and fury. More of them had poured into the Malvoran and Skavis contingent than the Raith side, but that might have been a function of simple numbers and proximity.
The vampires, most of them unarmed and unprepared for a fight, had been taken off guard. That doesn't mean as much to vamps as it does to regular folks, but the walls had been splattered with pale blood where the ghouls had rushed in among them, and the battle now raging was horrific.
In one spot, Lady Malvora ripped the arm from a ghoul's socket, her skin gone marble-white and hard-looking, and proceeded to beat it about the head and shoulders with its own detached limb. The ghoul went down with a shattered skull, but four more of the creatures buried the White Court noblewoman under their weight and power, and literally ripped her to pieces in front of my eyes.
Elsewhere, a male vampire picked up an eight-foot-long sofa and slammed its end down onto a pair of ghouls ripping at the body of a fallen thrall. Still elsewhere, Lord Skavis had rallied a number of his retainers to him, standing off against the maddened ghouls like a rock ignoring a flash flood - for the moment, at least.
Other sights weren't nearly so pleasant.
A vampire, trying to flee, tripped over a human thrall, a girl no more than eighteen, and dealt her a blow of his fist in pure frustration, snapping her neck. He was brought down by ghouls a breath later. Elsewhere, other vampires seemed to have lost control of their demonic Hunger completely, and they had thrown down whatever thralls they could seize, with no regard for gender or for what their particular favorite food might be. One thrall, writhing under a Skavis, was screaming and pushing her thumbs into her own eyes. Another shuddered under the fear-compulsion of a Malvora, clearly in the midst of a seizure or heart attack, right up until a tide of ghouls overran predator and prey alike. The Raith didn't seem to be as wholly frenzied as the other Houses - or maybe they'd just eaten more today. I saw only a couple of thralls downed by them, being torn out of their clothes and ravaged on the stone.
Like those near Lord Skavis, a core of organization had formed around Lara and her father. Someone - I saw a flash of Justine's terrified face - was holding a little air horn up and triggering it wildly. I spotted Vitto Malvora, charging the ghouls around his fallen aunt - and watched as he threw himself on the remains with an inhuman howl, and began feasting beside the creatures who had killed her.
It had taken seconds for intrigue to devolve into insanity in a thousand simultaneous nightmare-inducing vignettes - none of which I could afford to think significant, save one: the dozen ghouls plunging directly toward me like a football team on the kickoff, huge and fast and ferocious, charging me on a straight line from the enemy gate.
For a second, I thought I saw a dark shape in that gate, the suggestion of an outlined hood and cloak. It might have been Cowl. I'd have hit him with all the fire I could call if I'd had a second to spare, but I didn't.
I brought my shield up as the ghouls came over the floor, and held it fast as the leader of the pack slammed into it in a flare of blue and silver light and a cloud of sparks. The ghoul only howled and began slamming at the barrier with his fists. Every single one hit with the energy of a low-speed car crash, and even with my nifty new bracelet, I could feel the surge of power I needed to keep the shield steady when each of the blows came thundering down.
sp; Boots thudded behind me. Someone was shouting.
Bam, bam, bam. The ghoul slammed against my shield, and it was an almost painful effort to hold it.
"Justine!" Thomas screamed.
I wouldn't be able to hold this ghoul off for long - which was all right, because the other eleven were going to go right around my shield while he forced me to hold it steady against him, and tear me into tiny pieces and eat me. Hopefully in that order.
Bootsteps thudded behind me, and a voice barked. A second ghoul, several steps in front of the rest, flung itself around my shield but was intercepted by Ramirez. It leaped at him and hit that gelatinous-looking green cloud of a shield he used.
What happened to the ghoul as its speed carried its whole mass all the way through the shield does not bear thinking on. But Ramirez was going to need new clothes.
Bam. Bam. BAM !
Murphy screamed, "Harry, Thomas, Ramirez, down!"
I dropped and dragged Carlos down with me, lowering my shield as I went. Thomas hit the ground a fraction of a second after I did.
And the world came apart in thunder. Sound hammered at my head and ears, and I found myself screaming in pain and shock, before I ground my teeth and shot a quick glance behind me, trying not to lift my head any higher than I had to.
Murphy knelt on the ground by my feet in her dark fatigues, body armor, black baseball cap, and amber safety glasses. She had a weird little rectangular gun about the size of a big box of chocolates held to one shoulder. It had a tiny little barrel, one of those little red dot optical sights, and Murphy's cheek was laid on it, one eye aligned with the sight as she poured automatic fire into the oncoming ghouls in neat, chattering bursts that ripped the ghoul that had been pounding on my shield into a spray of broken bits. It went over backward, thrashing one arm and howling in agony.
Beside Murphy, playing Clifford the Big Red Dog to her Emily Elizabeth, was Hendricks. The huge redheaded enforcer was also kneeling and firing, but the gun he held to his shoulder was approximately the size of an intercontinental ballistic missile and spat out a stream of tracer rounds that ripped into the attacking creatures with a vengeance. Several men I recognized from Marcone's organization were lined up next to him, all firing. So were several more men I didn't recognize, but whose clothing and equipment were sufficiently different to make me think they were freelancers, hired for the job. A few more were still pouring through the open gate and into the cavern.
The ghouls were hardy as hell, but there is a difference between shrugging off a few rounds from a sidearm and wading through the disciplined hail of assault-weapon fire that Marcone's people laid down on them. Had it been one man firing at one ghoul, it might have been different - but it wasn't. There were at least twenty of them shooting into a packed mass, and they kept shooting, even after the targets were thrashing on the ground, until their guns were empty. Then they reloaded, and returned to firing. Marcone had given his men the instructions I'd advised - and I imagined the guns he had hired on must have been used to facing supernatural threats of this sort as well. Marcone was nothing if not resourceful.
Murphy stopped shooting and screamed something at me, but it wasn't until Marcone stepped forward into the peripheral vision of the armed gunmen and held up a hand with a closed fist that they stopped firing.
For a second, nothing but a high, heavy tone buzzed in my ears, making me deaf to the other sounds in the cavern. The air was full of the sewer stench of wounded ghoul and the sharp scent of burning cordite. A swath of stone floor ten yards across and thirty deep had just been carpeted in pureed ghoul.
The fight was still going on all around us, but the main force of ghouls was concentrating on the hard-pressed vampires. We'd bought ourselves a temporary quiet spot, but it couldn't last.
"Harry!" Murphy screamed over the merely horrific cacophony of the slaughter.
I gave her a thumbs-up. I pushed myself to my feet. Someone gave me a hand up and I took it gratefully - until I saw that it was Marcone, dressed in his black fatigues, holding a shotgun in his other hand. I jerked my fingers away as if he were more disgusting than the things fighting and dying all around us.
His cold green eyes wrinkled at the corners. "Dresden. If it's all right with you, I think it would be prudent to retreat back through the gate. "
That was probably a very smart idea. The gate was six feet away from me. We could pull up stakes, hop through, and close it behind us. Gates to the spirit world paid absolutely no attention to trivial things like geography - they obeyed laws of imagination, intention, patterned thought. Even if Cowl was back there, he wouldn't be able to open a gate to the same place as mine, because he didn't think like me, feel like me, or share my intent and purpose.
Seeing fallout from the war with the Red Court had convinced me that running when you didn't have to fight was a really great idea. In fact, the Merlin had written a letter to the Wardens directing them to do so, rather than lose even more of our dwindling combat resources. If we hung around much longer, no one was getting out of this abattoir.
Thomas's sword came down on a thrashing ghoul, and he shouted, with desperation bordering on madness, "Justine!" He spun to me. "Harry, help me!"
Leaving was smart.
But my brother wasn't leaving. Not without the girl.
So I wasn't leaving without her, either.
Come to think of it, there were a whole lot of people who didn't need to be here. And, in point of fact, there were some damned compelling reasons to take them with us when we went. Those reasons didn't make it any less dangerous, and they sure as hell didn't make the idea any less scary, but that didn't stop them from existing.
Without Lara's peace initiative (fronted by her puppet father), the White Court would pitch in more heavily with the Reds than they already had. If I didn't get Lara and her puppet out, what was already a grim war with the vampires would quite possibly become an impossible one. That was a damned good reason to stay.
But it wasn't the one that kept me there.
I saw another ghoul tear into a helpless, unresisting thrall, closed my eyes for a second, and realized that if I did nothing to save as many as I could, I would never leave this cavern. Oh, sure, I might get out alive. But I'd be back here every time I closed my eyes.
"Dresden!" Marcone shouted. "I agreed to an extraction. Not to a war. "
"A war's all we've got!" I shouted back. "We've got to get Raith out of this in one piece, or the whole thing was for nothing and no one pays you off!"
"No one will pay me off if I'm dead, either," Marcone said.
I snarled and stepped closer, getting into Marcone's face.
Hendricks rolled a half a step toward me and growled.
Murphy seized the huge man by one enormous paw, did something that involved his wrist and his index finger, and with a grunt Hendricks dropped to one knee while Murphy held one of his arms out straight behind him and angled painfully upward. "Take it easy, big guy," she said. "Someone might get hurt. "
"Don't move," Marcone snarled - to his men, not to me. His eyes never wavered from mine. "Yes, Dresden?"
"I could tell you to do it or I'd strand you all in the Nevernever on the way home," I said quietly. "I could tell you to help me or I'd close the gate, and we'd all die here. I could even tell you to do it or I'd burn you to ashes where you stand. But I won't tell you that. "
Marcone narrowed his eyes. "No?"
"No. Threats won't deter you. We both know that. I can't force you to do anything, and we both know that, too. " I jerked my head at the cavern. "People are dying, John. Help me save them. God, please help me. "
Marcone's head rocked back as if I'd slapped him. After a second he asked, "Who do you think I am, wizard?"
"Someone who can help them," I said. "Maybe the only one. "
He stared at me with empty, opaque eyes.
Then he said, very quietly, "Yes. "
I felt a f
ierce smile stretch my mouth and turned to Ramirez at once. "Stay here with these guys and hold the gate. "
"Who are these people?" Ramirez said.
"Later!" I whirled back to Marcone. "Ramirez is with the Council, like me. Keep him covered and hold the gate. "
Marcone pointed at several of the men. "You, you, you. Guard this man and hold the gate. " He pointed out several more. "You, you, you, you, you, start rounding up anyone close enough to us to get to without undue risk and help them through. "
Men leaped to obey, and I felt impressed. I'd never seen Marcone quite like this before: animated, decisive, and totally confident despite the nightmare all around. There was a power to it, something that brought order to the terrifying chaos around us.
I could see why men followed him, how he had conquered the underworld of Chicago.
One of the hired guns cut loose with a burst of fire, still shockingly loud enough to make me flinch. "You know what else?" I asked Marcone. "I don't really need this cave. Neither do you. "
Marcone narrowed his eyes at me, then nodded once, and said something over his shoulder to one of the hired guns. "Dresden, I would appreciate it if you would ask the sergeant to release my employee. "
"Murph," I complained, "can't you pick on someone your own size?" I took a second to admire Hendricks's expression, but said, "We need him with his arm still attached. "
Murphy eased up on the pressure and then released Hendricks's arm. The big man eyed Murphy, rubbing his arm, but regained his feet and his enormous machine gun.
"Harry," Thomas said, voice tight. "We need to move. "
"Yeah," I said. "Thomas, Murphy, and. . . " We needed mass. "Hendricks, with me. "
Hendricks checked that with Marcone, who nodded.
"Follow me," I told them. "Stay - What are you doing, Marcone?"
Marcone had accepted a weapon from one of his gunmen, a deadly little MAC-10 that could spew out about a berjillion bullets in a second or two. He checked it and clipped a strap hanging from it to a ring on his weapon harness. "I'm going with you. And you don't have enough time to waste any more of it arguing with me about it. "
Dammit. He was right.
"Fine. Follow my lead and stay close. We're going to go round up Lord Raith and get him and everyone else we can out of here before - "
Marcone abruptly raised his shotgun and put a blast through one of the nearer fallen ghouls that had begun to move. It thrashed, and he put a second shell into it. The ghoul stopped moving.
That was when I noticed that the black ichor that spewed from the ghouls was on the ground. . .
. . . and it was moving.
The black fluid rolled and ran like liquid mercury, gathering together in little droplets, then larger gobs. Those, in turn, ran over the floor - uphill, in some cases - back toward broken ghoul bodies. As I watched, bits of missing flesh ripped from the ghouls began to fill in again as the ichor returned to their bodies. The one Thomas had beheaded actually came crawling back over the floor, having regained some of the use of its legs. It was holding its head up against the stump of its neck with its one arm, and the ichor was flowing from both the severed head and the stump, merging, reattaching it. I saw the ghoul's jaws suddenly stretch, its eyes blink and then focus.
Time. We didn't have much time. If even the gutted and mangled ghouls could get back up again, there was no way the vampires were winning this one. The best they could hope for was to run - and when more vamps ran, more ghouls would be free to overwhelm us. Or possibly they'd do something even more disgusting than they already had, and we'd all puke ourselves to death.
"This just can't get much more disturbing," I muttered. "Follow me. "
I gripped my staff in both hands and charged ahead, into the mass of maddened vampires and ghouls, to save one monster from another.
I sprinted toward the little knot of struggling vampires around the White King, while dozens of uber-ghouls ripped into the leading families of the White Court. I slipped on some slimy ichor, but didn't fall on my ass. For me, that's actually pretty good.
I noted more details on the way, and started trying to think ahead of the next few seconds. Assuming we got to the White King in one piece and convinced Lara to team up and follow us, then what? What was the next step?
At least a dozen ghouls bounded out the tunnel, heading up that long slope to the cave's entrance. They'd be in a good position to stop Lara's mortal security forces from pushing through the tunnel to rescue the King. Stopping a charge over open ground with firearms is one thing. Using a gun to charge a large, deadly, powerful predator in close quarters is a different proposition entirely - and not a winning one.
Naturally, the ghouls in the tunnel would also be in position to intercept anyone who tried to flee, which meant that we had to leave through the gate, which meant that if Ramirez and Marcone's men lost it, we were screwed. And that meant that if Cowl was over there and saw what was going on, he would hardly sit by doing nothing.
I might be able to counter him if I were defending the gate. My skills aren't fine, but I'm pretty strong, and I'm good at adapting them on the fly. Cowl had cleaned my clock in two fights already, but slowing and delaying him wasn't the same as trying to wipe the walls with him. Even if I couldn't be a real threat to him, personally, I could tie him up long enough to hold the gate until we could skedaddle.
Ramirez couldn't. He was a dangerous combat wizard, but his skills just weren't strong enough or broad enough to pose a significant obstacle to Cowl. If Cowl - or Vitto, for that matter - saw what was going on, and the ghouls concentrated on the gate. . .
The shrieks and roars of the struggle on our right suddenly got louder, and I saw the resistance around Lord Skavis and his henchmen suddenly buckle. The horrible glee of the ghouls rushing into the opening was almost more terrifying than the carnage that followed. I caught a glimpse of Vitto Malvora in the middle of the mess, shoving a ghoul toward a wounded vampire, snarling at others, giving orders. The largest of the ghouls were with Vitto.
"That vampire has the strongest and largest of those creatures with him!" Marcone called to me as we ran. "He'll hit any pockets of resistance with them, use them as a hammer. "
"I can see that," I snapped. "Murphy, Marcone, cover our right. Hendricks, Thomas, get ready to go in. "
"Go in where?" Hendricks asked.
I took my staff in hand, focused on the fight raging around the White King, and called up my will and Hellfire. "In the hole I'm about to make," I growled. "Get them out. "
"They're mostly. . . eating now. But the second we start to break them free," Marcone cautioned from behind me, "these others are going to come after us. "
"I know," I said. "I'll handle it. "
I felt something warm press up against my lower back - Murphy's shoulders. "We'll make sure that - " Her voice broke off suddenly, and that boxy little submachine gun chattered in three quick bursts, punctuated by a single throaty roar from Marcone's shotgun. "Holy crap, that was close. "
"Another," Marcone warned, and the shotgun blasted again.
The air horn in Justine's hand started blaring more desperately.
"Harry!" Thomas shouted.
"Go!" I shouted at Thomas and Hendricks. Then I leveled the staff at the nearest clump of the enormous ghouls and shouted, "Forzare!"
My will lashed out, leashed to Lasciel's Hellfire, and rushed upon the ghouls, exploding in a sphere of raw force that blazed with flickers of sulfurous flame. It blew them up and outward like extras on the set of The A-Team, flying in high arcs. Some of them flew right through the falling curtain of water behind the throne and into the abyssal depths below. Others slammed hard into the nearest wall, and still others fell among the frenzied ghouls now finishing off Lord Skavis and his retainers.
Thomas and Hendricks charge
d forward. My brother had slipped his shotgun into a sheath over one shoulder, and now wielded his saber in one hand and that inward-bent knife in the other. The first ghoul he reached was still staggered from the blast that had sent his companions flying, and Thomas never gave him a chance to recover. The saber removed its arm, and a scything, upward-sweeping slash of the crooked knife struck its head from its shoulders. A vicious kick to the small of its back crunched into its spine and sent the maimed, beheaded creature flying into the next in the line.
Hendricks came in at Thomas's side. The big man could not possibly overpower one of the ghouls, despite all the muscle, but he did have an important factor on his side: mass. Hendricks was a huge man, three hundred pounds and more, and once I saw him hit the ghouls, I no longer had any doubts about whether he had played football. He hit an unbalanced ghoul in the back, knocking the creature sprawling, slammed the stock of the huge gun into the neck of a ghoul who turned to follow Thomas's motion, then ducked a shoulder and slammed it into the stunned creature's flank, sending it sprawling.
Thomas hacked down another ghoul, Hendricks powered through a single creature who never had the chance to set itself against his locomotive rush, and we were suddenly faced with a line of savage goddesses bathed in black blood.
Lara stood in the center, her white robes pressed against her skin, soaked in the dark fluids leaking from crushed and broken ghouls, and it left absolutely nothing to the imagination. Her hair, too, had been soaked flat to her skull, and it clung to the skin of her black-spattered cheek and to the lines of her dark-stained throat. In each hand she held a long, wavy-bladed knife, long enough to qualify as a small sword, though God only knew where she'd concealed the weapons before. Her eyes were chrome silver, wide and triumphant, and I jerked my gaze away from them as I felt a mad desire just to stare and see what happened.
In that moment, Lara was more than simply a vampire of the White Court, a succubus, pale and deadly. She was a reminder of days gone by, when mankind paid homage to blood-soaked goddesses of war and death, revered the dark side of the protective maternal spirit, the savage core of the strength that still allowed tiny women to lift cars off of their children, or to turn upon their tormentors with newfound power. Lara's power, at that moment, hovered around her, deadly in its primal seduction, its sheer strength.
On either side of her stood two of her sisters, all of them tall, all of them beautiful, all of them gorgeous and soaked in gore, all of them armed with those wavy-bladed short swords. I didn't know any of them, but they stared at me with ravenous energy, with maddeningly seductive destruction spattered all over them, and it took me two or three seconds to remember what the hell was going on.
Lara swayed a step toward me, all the motion in her thighs and hips, her eyes brilliant and steady, focused on me, and I felt a sudden urge to kneel that vibrated in my brain and. . . elsewhere. I mean, how bad could that be? Just think of the view from down there. And it had been a long time since a woman had. . .
I dimly heard Murphy's gun chattering again, and Marcone's, and I shook my head and kept my feet. Then I scowled at Lara and croaked, "We don't have time for this. Do you want out or not?"
"Thomas!" Justine cried. She appeared from behind Lara and the Raith sisters and threw herself bodily upon my brother. Thomas wrapped an arm around her without releasing his grip on his knife, and pressed her hard against him. I could see his profile as she held him back, and his face. . . was transported, I suppose. Thomas always had a certain look. Whether he was making a joke, working out, or giving me a hard time about something, the sense of him was always the same: self-contained, confident, pleased with himself and unimpressed with the world around him.
In Justine's arms he looked like a man in mourning. But he bent his whole body to her, holding her with every fiber and sinew, not merely his arm, and every line of his face became softer, somehow, gentler, as though he had been suddenly relieved of an intolerable agony I had never realized he felt - though I noticed that neither he nor Justine touched each other's skin.
"Ah," Lara said. Her voice was a quavering, silvery thing, utterly fascinating and completely inhuman. "True love. "
"Dresden!" Marcone shouted. Hendricks spun away from where he had been staring at the Raith sisters with much the same expression I must have had, and stomped past me. I shortly heard him adding the racket of his big gun to that of Marcone's and Murphy's.
"Raith!" I shouted. "I propose an alliance between yours and mine, until we get out of here alive. "
Lara stared at me with her empty silver eyes for a second. Then she blinked them once, and they turned, darkening by a few degrees. They went out of focus for a moment, and she tilted her head. Lord Raith abruptly stepped forward, appearing from behind his daughters. "Naturally, Dresden," he said in a smooth tone. Unless you knew what you were looking for, you'd never have seen the glassy shine in his eyes, or heard the slightly stilted cadence of his words. He put on a good act, but I had to wonder just how much of his mind Lara had left him. "Though I regard myself as bound by honor to see to your protection in the face of this treachery, I can only be humbled by the nobility of you offering me your - "
"Yeah, yeah, whatever, all right," I snapped, glaring past him at Lara. "Run away now, speeches later. "
Lara nodded, and looked quickly around her. Maybe twenty of the Raith clan had survived the fight. The remaining ghouls had sprung away during our unexpected assault, and now prowled in circles around us well out of arm's reach, but close enough to rush back in if they saw a weakness. They were waiting for the others to finish off the last of the Skavis and Malvora. Once they got here, they'd overrun us easily.
Near the gate, Marcone's soldiers had a steady line of white-robed thralls moving out of the cavern. There were rather more of them still alive than I had supposed there would be, until I saw that the circling ghouls were largely ignoring the passive thralls, focused instead on what they knew to be the real threat - the keepers of the mind-numbed herds.
"Dresden!" Marcone shouted. His shotgun boomed once more and then clicked empty. I heard him feeding new shells in as Murphy's gun chattered. "They're coming. "
I grunted acknowledgment and said to Lara, "Bring the thralls. "
"Bring the bloody thralls!" I snarled. "Or you can damned well stay here!"
Lara gave me a look that might have made me a little nervous about getting killed if I weren't such a stalwart guy, but then Lord Raith snapped to the vamps around him, "Bring them. "
I turned, drawing more Hellfire into the staff, and knew that I wasn't going to be able to manage much more in the way of magic. I had just done too much, and I was on my last legs. I had to pull off one more spell if any of us were going to make it out. Murphy's gun kept rattling away, as did Hendricks's, and I could hear gunfire coming from the soldiers around the gate now, as well, as the ghouls on the opposite side of the cavern began to turn from the ruined remains of the leaders of House Skavis and Malvora.
"Go!" I said. "Go, go, go!"
We headed for my gate. The vampires seized thralls as they went, tossing them into the center of the group, forming a ring around them. Raith formed the core of the group, with his daughters and their swords around him - and the thralls forming a thick human shield around them, in turn. Trust Lara to turn what she had seen as a hindrance to her advantage. It was the way her mind worked.
We started out at a quick pace - and then an almost-human voice cried out, there was a surge of magic that flashed against my wizard's senses, and the lights went out.
The cavern's lighting had been of excellent quality. It had remained functional all through the duel, despite the magic Ramirez and I had been hurling around, and through the opening of not one, but two gates to the Nevernever. That implied that Raith had invested in lighting with a long track record of high performance and reliability, to continue functioning through so much - but there's never been an electrical sys
tem a wizard couldn't put down with a little direct effort, and this one was no exception.
Even as I lifted my staff to call up more light, my brain was paddling up the logic stream. Vittorio had seen us making a break for it - or Cowl had, though again, I had to remind myself that Cowl's presence was still theoretical, however well supported by circumstantial evidence the theory might be. Killing the lights wasn't going to be a hindrance to the vampires or to the ghouls, which meant that he was trying to hamper us people. Sinking the cavern into Stygian blackness would make Marcone's troops almost impotent, hamper and slow any of the escaping thralls, therefore slowing the vampires apparently intent upon protecting them.
My staff hadn't been made to produce light, but it was a flexible tool, and I sent more Hellfire through it as I lifted it overhead to light our way, sending out red-orange light in the shape of the runes and sigils carved into the staff out over the darkness.
And, just as I did, I realized what else the darkness would do.
It would force the humans to produce light.
Specifically, it would draw the response from wizards that being sunk into darkness always did. We called light. By one method or another, it was the first thing any wizard would do in a situation like this one. We'd do it fast, too - faster than anyone without magic could pull out a light of his own.
So, as my staff lit up, I realized that I had just declared my exact position to every freaking monster in the whole freaking cavern. The darkness had been a trap designed to elicit this very response, and I had walked right into it.
Ghouls let out howls of fury and surged toward me through a hundred rune-shaped scarlet spotlights that glinted on their bloodied fangs, their talons, those horrible, hungry, sunken eyes.
Guns roared all around me, splattering the nearest ghouls into black-blooded slurry. It wasn't enough. The creatures simply surged forward, being torn apart, until Murphy's gun clicked empty.
"Reloading!" she screamed, ejecting the weapon's magazine, hopping a step back as the ghoul she'd only wounded continued toward me.
Marcone's gun roared and that ghoul went away, but when he pumped the weapon it clicked on an empty chamber. He dropped it for the little submachine gun clipped to his harness, and for a second or two it cut through ghouls like a scythe, ripping in a great horizontal swath - and then it ran empty.
I stepped forward as another wave of ghouls bounded over those the gunfire had held off.
Murphy and Marcone had bought me time enough for the spell I'd been forming in my mind to meet with my will and congeal into fire. I whirled the staff overhead, and then brought it down gripped in both hands, striking its end to the stone floor as I cried, "Flam-mamurus!"
There was a crackling howl, and fire ripped its way up out of the stones of the floor. It rippled out from the point of impact in a line running thirty or forty yards in either direction, a sudden fountain of molten stone that shot up in an ongoing curtain ten or twelve feet high, angled toward the ghouls charging us from the far side of the cavern. Blazing liquid stone fell down over them, among them, and the oncoming tide of screaming ghouls broke upon that wall of stone and fire with screams of agony and, for the first time, of fear.
The wall held off fully half the ghouls in the cavern and screened us from Vittorio's sight. It also provided all the humans with plenty of light to see by.
"Hell's bells, I'm good," I wheezed.
The effort of the spell was monumental, even with the Hellfire to help me, and I staggered, the light vanishing from the runes of my staff.
"Harry, left!" Murphy screamed.
I turned my head to my left in time to see a ghoul, half of its body a charred ruin, slam Hendricks aside as if the huge man had been a rag doll, and throw itself at me, while two more leaped over the group from behind, and tried to follow in its wake.
I was pretty sure I could have taken the ghoul, provided he wasn't much heavier than a loaf of bread and had no idea how to use those claws and fangs. But just in case he was heavier than he looked and competent at ripping things apart, I flung up my shield bracelet.
It sputtered into life for a second; and the ghoul bounced off it - and the effort it cost me nearly made me black out. I fell.
The ghoul recovered and thrashed toward me, even as I saw Thomas appear from the ranks of vampires and thralls and attack its two companions from behind. My brother's pale face was all but glowing, his eyes were wide with fear, and I hadn't ever seen him move that fast. He hamstrung both of the other ghouls with the blades in his hands - well, if hacking through three-quarters of the leg, including the thick, black thighbones, could be considered "hamstringing. " He left them on the ground while other Raiths tore them to pieces. Thomas leaped at the lead ghoul.
He wasn't fast enough.
The ghoul came at me with a dreadful howl. I didn't have enough energy left to lift my body up off the floor and face my killer head-on;
Fortunately, I did have energy enough to draw the . 44 from my duster pocket. I'd like to tell you that I waited till the last second for the perfect shot, coolly facing down the ghoul with nerves of steel. The truth is that my nerves were pretty much shot, and I was too tired to panic. I barely got the sights lined up before the ghoul's jaws opened wide enough to engulf my entire head.
I never consciously pulled the trigger, but the gun roared, and the ghoul's head snapped back before it crashed into me. There was pain and I suddenly couldn't breathe.
"Harry!" Thomas cried.
The weight vanished from my chest and I sucked in a breath. I got my left hand free and pounded at the ghoul with the . 44.
"Easy!" Murphy shouted. "Easy, Harry!" Her small, strong fingers caught my wrist and eased the gun out of it. I dimly realized that I was lucky it hadn't gone off again while I was thrashing around with it.
Thomas flung the ghoul off me, and it landed in a heap. The back upper quarter of its head was gone. Just gone.
"Nice shot," Marcone noted. I looked back to see him lifting a pale and sweating Hendricks, getting one of the big man's arms over his shoulder and supporting his weight. "Shall we?"
Thomas hauled me to my feet. "Come on. No time to rest now. "
"Right," I said. I raised my voice and called, "Lara, get them moving!"
We started toward the gate, keeping the curtain of molten fire on our flank. It was hard just moving one foot in front of the other. It took me a while to notice that Justine was under one shoulder, supporting part of my weight, and that I was walking amidst the thralls, near the White King and his guard.
The vampires were still the outer guard, spread out over a half circle, in what amounted to a running battle. Only we weren't running. It was more of a steady walk, made all the more eerie by hellish light and shadow and desperation. Murphy's gun chattered several more times, and then fell silent. I heard the throaty bellow of my . 44. I checked my hand and sure enough, my gun wasn't there.
"Leave them!" I heard Lara snap, her cold silver voice slithering around pleasantly in my ear. "Keep the pace steady. Stay together. Give them no opening. "
We walked, the vampires growing more desperate and less human as the fight went on. Ghouls roared and screamed and died. So did Raiths. The cold subterranean air of the cavern had grown greenhouse hot, and it felt as if there weren't enough air left in the air. I panted hard, but it never seemed to get enough into my lungs.
I kept lifting one foot and putting it back down again, numbly noticing that Marcone was behind me with Hendricks, doing the same thing.
I glanced to my left and saw the fiery fountain of molten stone beginning to dwindle. It hadn't been an ongoing spell I had to keep pumping power into. That's the beauty of earth magic. Momentum. Once you get it moving, it doesn't slow down very quickly. I'd poured fire magic into all that stone and forced it to expand out of the earth around it. It had simply taken this long for the spell to play out.
But that's exactly wh
at had happened. The spell was beginning to play out. Much as I had.
The curtain lowered slowly, thinning and growing less hot, and I could see ghouls behind it, ready to attack. I noted, idly, that they would be able to rush right into our group of dazed thralls, wounded gangsters, and weary wizards, with nothing much to oppose them.
"Oh, God," Justine whimpered. She'd noticed, too. "Oh, God. "
The ghouls had all seen the curtain lowering. Now they rushed forward, to the very edge of the fading curtain, seemingly uncaring of the molten stone on the floor, dozens of them, a solid line of the creatures just waiting for the first chance to bounce over and eat our faces.
A blast of green light flashed down the line. It went completely through two ghouls, leaving them howling on the floor, severed a third ghoul's arm at the shoulder, and continued on through the white throne, leaving a hole the size of a laundry basket in its back.
Ramirez had been waiting for them to line up like that.
He stood, his weight on one foot, at the far end of the lowering wall of flaming stone, on the ghoul side, arms akimbo. They whirled toward him, but Ramirez started lifting his arms alternately from his hip to extend before him, the motion like that of a gunfighter in the Old West, and every draw flung more silent green shafts of deadly light through the ghouls.
Those nearest him tried to rush forward for the kill, but Ramirez had their measure now, and he wasn't content to leave a single gaping hole, trusting that it would incapacitate them sufficiently. He hurled blast after hideously ruinous blast, and left nothing but a scattered pile of twitching parts of the first ghouls to rush him, and those beyond them suffered nearly as greatly. Fresh-spilled black ichor rushed back and forth across the cavern floor until it looked like the deck of a ship pitching on a lunatic sea.
"What are you waiting for, Dresden?" Ramirez shouted. "One little bit of vulcanomancy and you get worn out!" A particularly well-aimed bolt tore the heads from a pair of ghouls at once. "How do you like that!"
We all began hurrying ahead. "Not bad," I slurred back at him, "for a virgin. "
His rate of fire had begun to slacken, but the gibe drew a fresh burst of ferocity out of Ramirez, and he redoubled his efforts. The ghouls howled their frustration and bounded away from the wall of fire, out of its treacherous light and away from the power of the Warden of the White Council ripping them to shreds.
"It hurts!" bellowed Ramirez drunkenly, flinging a last pair of bolts at a fleeing ghoul. "Ow! Ow, it hurts! It hurts to be this good!"
There was a hiss of sound, a flicker of steel, and one of Vitto Malvora's knives hit Ramirez's stomach so hard that that it threw the young man off his feet and to the ground.
"Man down!" Marcone shouted. We were close enough to the gate that I could see the pale blue light that spilled through it. Marcone waved his hand through a couple of signals and flicked a finger at Ramirez, then at Hendricks. The armed men - mercenaries, they had to be; no gang of criminal thugs was so disciplined - rushed forward, taking charge of the wounded, seizing Ramirez and dragging him back toward the gate, roughly pushing and shoving the thralls ahead and toward the gate.
I went to Ramirez, staggering away from Justine. The knife had hit him in the guts. Hard. Ramirez had worn a Kevlar vest, which wasn't much good for stopping sharp, pointy things, though it had at least kept the knife's hilt from tearing right into the muscle and soft tissue. I knew there were some big arteries there, and more or less where they were located, but I couldn't tell if the knife was at the right angle to have hit them. His face was terribly pale, and he blinked his eyes woozily as the soldiers started dragging him across the floor, and his legs thrashed weakly, bringing his own left leg up into his field of view.
"Bloody hell," he gasped. "Harry. There's a knife in my leg. When did that happen?"
"In the duel," I told him. "Don't you remember?"
"I thought you'd stepped on me and sprained my ankle," Ramirez replied. Then he blinked again. "Bloody hell. There's a knife in my guts. " He peered at them. "And they match. "
"Be still," I warned him. Vampires and thralls and mercenaries were falling back through the gate now. "Don't move around, all right?"
He began to say something, but a panicked vampire kicked his leg as he went past. Ramirez's face twisted in pain and then suddenly slackened, his eyes fluttering closed. I saw his staff on the ground and grabbed it and pitched it through the gate after him, the men carrying him as the fight behind me got closer, while most of the retreating vampires still fought off the determined assault of the ghouls.
"How long?" I heard Marcone demand of one of the soldiers.
The man checked his watch - an expensive Swiss stopwatch, with springs and cogs, not some digital thing. "Three minutes, eleven seconds," the soldier said.
"How many charges?"
"Six doubles," he replied.
"Hey," I snapped at Marcone. "Cutting it a little close, huh?"
"Any longer and they wouldn't accomplish anything," Marcone replied. "Can you walk?"
"Yes, I can walk," I snapped.
"I could get someone to carry you," Marcone said, his tone solicitous and sincere.
"Bite me," I growled, and called, "Murphy?"
"Here!" Murphy called. She was among the last of those retreating from the ghoul onslaught. Her boxy little Volvo of a gun was hanging by its strap on one shoulder, and she held my . 44 in both hands, though it looked almost comically overlarge for her.
"Ramirez has got a knife in the stomach," I said. "I need you to look after him. "
"He's the other Warden, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "He's already through the gate. "
"What about you?"
I shook my head and made sure my duster was still covering most of me. "Malvora is still out there. He might try to kill our gate, or try some other spell. I've got to be one of the last ones through. "
Murphy gave me a skeptical look. "You look like you're about to fall over. You in any shape to do more magic?"
"True," I said, and offered her my staff. "Hey, maybe you should do it. "
She gave me a hard look. "No one likes a wiseass, Harry. "
"Are you kidding? As long as the wiseass is talking to someone else, people love 'em. " I gave her half a smile and said, "Get out of here. "
"How are we getting back out again?" she asked. "Thomas led us there, but. . . "
"He'll lead you back," I said. "Or one of the others will. Or Ramirez, if some idiot doesn't kill him trying to help him. "
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather you did it, Harry. " She touched my hand, and departed through the broad oval of the gate. I saw her hurry through ankle-deep snow beneath what looked like sheltering pine trees to Ramirez's side, where he lay limply on his cloak. The thralls looked confused, which of course they would be, and cold, which, given their wardrobe, of course they would be.
"That's all of ours!" shouted the soldier to Marcone. "Two minutes, fifteen seconds!"
He had to shout. The nearest of the ghouls were about ten feet away, doing battle against, for lack of a more cliched term, a thin white line of Raith, including my brother with his two blades spinning.
"Go!" Marcone said, and the soldier went through. Marcone, a fresh shotgun in hand, stepped up next to me. "Dresden?"
"What are you hanging around for?"
"If you recall," he said, "I agreed to extract you alive. I'm not leaving until I have done so. " He paused and added, "Provided, of course, that it happens in the next two minutes. "
From where I was standing, I could see three two-brick bundles of C4, detonators thrust into their soft surfaces, each fitted with old-fashioned precision timepieces. They were simple charges on the floor. The other three must have been shaped charges affixed to the cavern walls. I had no idea how much destruction was going to be wrought by them, but I didn't suppose it would be much fun to be there when they went boom. Alas, that the poo
r ghouls would most likely be staying for the fireworks.
"Thomas!" I called. "Time to go!"
"Go!" Thomas shouted, and the other vampires with him broke from their line and fled for the gate, except for one, a tall female Raith who. . .
I blinked. Holy crap. It was Lara.
The other vampires fled past me, through the gate, and Thomas and his sister stood alone against the horde of eight-foot ghouls. Stood against it, and stopped it cold.
Their skin gleamed colder and whiter than glacial ice, their eyes blazed silvery bright, and they moved with blinding speed and utterly inhuman grace. His saber fluttered and slashed, drawing a constant stream of blood, punctuated by devastating blows of his kukri.
(Ah, right, that was the name of that inward-bent knife. I knew I'd remember it eventually. )
Lara moved with him, trailing her damp, midnight hair and shredded silk kimono. She covered Thomas's back like a cloak hung from his shoulders. She was no weaker than her younger brother, and perhaps even faster, and the wavy-bladed short sword in her hand had a penchant for leaving spills of ghoulish entrails in its wake. Together, the pair of them slipped aside from repeated rushes and dealt out deadly violence to one foe after another.
Ultimately, I think, their fight was futile - and all the more valiant and astonishing for being so doomed. No matter how lethal Thomas and Lara proved to be, or how many ghouls went screaming to the floor, their black blood continued to slither back into their fallen bodies, and the ghouls that had been taken down continued to gather themselves together to rise and fight again. Most of those who reentered the fight with renewed vigor and increased fury remained hideously maimed in some way. Some trailed their entrails like slimy grey ropes. Others were missing sections of their skulls. At least two entered the fray armless, simply biting with their wide jaws of vicious teeth. Beside the beauty of the brother and sister vampires, the ghouls' deformed bodies and hideous injuries were all the more monstrous, all the more vile.
"My God," Marcone said, his voice hushed. "It is the most beautiful nightmare I have ever seen. "
He was right. It was hypnotic. "Time?" I asked him, my voice rough.
He consulted his own stopwatch. "One minute, forty-eight seconds. "
"Thomas!" I bellowed. "Lara! Now!"
With that, the pair of them bounded apart, apparently the last thing the ghouls had been expecting, and dashed for the gate.
I turned to go - and that was when I felt it.
There was a dull pulse, a throb of some power that seemed at once alien and familiar, a sickening, whirling sensation and then a sudden stab of energy.
It wasn't a magical attack. An attack implies an act of force that might be predicted, countered, or at least mitigated in some way. This was something far more existential. It simply asserted itself, and by its very existence, it dictated a new reality.
A spike of thought slammed into my being like a physical blow - it wasn't any one single thought. It was, instead, a melange of them, a cocktail of emotions so heavy, so dense, that it drove me instantly to my knees. Despair flooded through me. I was so tired. I had struggled and fought to achieve nothing but raw chaos, rendering the whole of my effort useless. My only true friends had been badly injured, or had run, leaving me in this hellish cavern. Those who currently stood beside me were monsters, of one stripe or another - even my brother, who had returned to his monstrous ways in feeding on other human beings.
Terror followed hard on its heels. I had been paralyzed, while surrounded by monsters of resilience beyond description. In mere seconds, they would fall on me. I had fallen with my face toward the gate, and though physical movement was beyond me, I could see that everyone, everyone had also pitched over onto the ground, vulnerable to the attack while the gate remained open. Vampires, thralls, and mortal warriors alike, they had all fallen.
Guilt came next. Murphy. Carlos. I had gotten them both killed.
Useless. It had all been useless.
Marcone's stopwatch lay on the ground near his limply outstretched hand. He'd fallen next to me. The second hand was sweeping rapidly downward, and the watches on the charges of C4, the nearest of them about ten feet away, did the same.
Then I understood it. This was Vittorio Malvora's attack. This hideous, paralyzing brew of everything darkest in the moral soul was what he had poured out, as the Raith administered desire, the Malvorans gave fear, and the Skavis despair. Vitto had gone beyond them all. He had taken all the worst of the human soul and forged it into a poisonous, deadly weapon.
And I hadn't been able to do a damned thing to stop him.
I lay staring at Marcone's stopwatch, and wondered which would kill us all first: the ghouls or the explosion.