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Death Masks, Page 20

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty

  My eyes adjusted enough to make out some details. The demonic female with the Joan Jett hair, two sets of eyes, a glowing sigil, and vicious claws was the same Denarian who had attacked at the harbor that morning. The second demonic being was covered in dark grey scales flecked with bits of rust red. From shoulders to waist, he looked more or less human. From the neck up and the waist down, he looked like some kind of flattened serpent. No legs. Coils slithered out behind him, scales rasping over the floor. He too had the double pair of eyes, one set golden and serpentine, the other, inside the first, glowing faintly blue-green, matching the pulsing symbol of the same light that seemed to dance in the gleam of the scales of the snake's head.

  One little, two little, three little Denarians, or so I judged the last of them. Of the three, he was the only one that looked human. He wore a tan trench coat, casually open. His clothes were tailor-fit to him and looked expensive. A slender grey tie hung loosely around his throat. He was a man of medium height and build, with short, dark hair streaked through with an off-center blaze of silver. His expression was mild, amused, and his dark eyes were half-closed and sleepy-looking. He spoke English with a faint British accent. "Well, well. What have we here? Our bold thief and her-"

  I got the impression that he would have been glad to begin one of those trademark bantering conversations all the urbane bad guys seem to be such big fans of, but before he could finish the sentence Anna Valmont turned with her little pistol and shot him three times in the chest. I saw him jerk and twist. Blood abruptly stained his shirt and coat. She'd hit the heart or an artery.

  The man blinked and stared at Valmont in shock, as more red spread over his shirt. He opened his coat a bit, and looked down at the spreading scarlet. I noted that the tie he wore wasn't a tie, as such. It looked like a piece of old grey rope, and though he wore it as apparent ornamentation, it was tied in a hangman's noose.

  "I do not appreciate being interrupted," the man said in a sharp and ugly tone. "I hadn't even gotten around to the introductions. There are proprieties to observe, young woman. "

  A girl after my own heart, Anna Valmont had a quick reply. She shot him some more.

  He wasn't five feet away. The blond thief aimed for the center of mass and didn't miss him once. The man folded his arms as bullets hit him, tearing new wounds that bled freely. He rolled his eyes after the fourth shot, and made a rolling "move this along" gesture with his left hand until Valmont's gun clicked empty, the slide open.

  "Where was I," he said.

  "Proprieties," purred the feminine demon with the wild hair. The word came out a little mangled, due to the heavy canines that dimpled her lips as she spoke. "Proprieties, Father. "

  "There seems little point," the man said. "Thief, you have stolen something I have an interest in. Give it to me at once and you are free to go your own way. Refuse me, and I will become annoyed with you. "

  Anna Valmont's upper lip had beaded with sweat, and she looked from her empty gun to the man in the trench coat with wide, wild eyes, frozen in confusion and obvious terror.

  The gunshots would bring people running. I needed to buy a little time. I leaned up, fished a hand into Valmont's jacket pocket, and drew out a small box of black plastic that looked vaguely like a remote control to a VCR. I held up the transmitter, put my thumb on it as if I knew what I was doing, and said to the man in the trench coat, "Hey, Bogart. You and the wonder twins back off or the bedsheet gets it. "

  The man lifted his eyebrows. "Excuse me?"

  I waggled the remote. "Click. Boom. No more Shroud. "

  The snakeman hissed, body twisting in restless, lithe motion, and the demon-girl parted her lips in a snarl. The man between them stared at me for a moment, his eyes flat and empty, before he said, "You're bluffing. "

  "Like the bedsheet matters to me," I said.

  The man stared at me without moving. But his shadow did. It writhed and undulated, and the motion made me feel vaguely carsick. His eyes went from me to Valmont to the courier's message tube on the floor. "A remote detonator, I take it. You do realize you are standing next to the device?"

  I realized it. I had no idea how big the incendiary was. But that was all right, since I had no idea which button to push to set it off, either. "Yup. "

  "You would kill yourself rather than surrender the Shroud?"

  "Rather than letting you kill me. "

  "Who said I would kill anyone?"

  I glared at him and at the demon-girl and said, "Francisca Garcia mentioned it. "

  The man's shadow boiled but he watched me with flat, calculating eyes. "Perhaps we can reach an arrangement. "

  "Which would be?"

  He drew a heavy-caliber handgun from his pocket and pointed it at Anna Valmont. "Give me the remote and I won't kill this young woman. "

  "The demon groupie headman uses a gun? You've got to be kidding me," I said.

  "Call me Nicodemus. " He glanced at the revolver. "Trendy, I know, but one can only watch so many dismemberments before they become predictable. " He pointed the gun at the terror-stricken Valmont and said, "Shall I count to three?"

  I threw on a puppet's Transylvanian accent. "Count as high as you vant, but you von't get one, one detonator, ah, ah, ah. "

  "One," Nicodemus said.

  "Do you expect me to hand it over on reflex or something?"

  "You've done such things repeatedly when there was a woman in danger, Harry Dresden. Two. "

  This Nicodemus knew me. And he'd picked a pressure tactic that wasn't going to take long, however it turned out, so he knew I was stalling for time. Crap. I wasn't going to be able to bluff him. "Hold on," I said.

  He thumbed back the hammer of the revolver and aimed at Valmont's head. "Thr-"

  So much for cleverness. "All right," I snapped, and I tossed the remote to him underhand. "Here you go. "

  Nicodemus lowered the gun, turning to catch the remote in his left hand. I waited until his eyes flicked from Valmont to the remote.

  And then I pulled up every bit of power I could muster in that instant, hurled my right hand forward, and snarled, "Fuego!"

  Fire rose up from the floor in a wave as wide as the doorway and rolled forward in a surge of superheated air. It expanded as it lashed out, and slammed into Nicodemus's bloodied chest. The force of it threw him back across the hallway and into the wall on the opposite side. He didn't quite go through the wall, but only because there must have been a stud lined up with his spine. The drywall crumpled in from his shoulders to his hips, and his head snapped back in a whiplash of impact. It almost seemed that his shadow was thrown back with him, slapping wetly against the wall around him like blobs of tar.

  The snakeman moved with blinding speed, slithering to one side of the blast. The demon-girl shrieked, and her bladed tresses gathered together in an effort to shield her as the fire and concussion threw her back and away from the door.

  The heat was unbearable, an oven-hot flash that sucked the air from my lungs. Backwash from the explosion drove me back across the floor, rolling until I hit the wall myself. I cowered and shielded my face as the scarlet flames went out, replaced with a sudden cloud of ugly black smoke. My ears rang, and I couldn't hear anything but the hammering of my own heart.

  The fire spell had been something I wouldn't have done if I'd had an option. That's why I had made a blasting rod. Down-and-dirty fast magic was difficult, dangerous, and likely to run out of control. The blasting rod helped me focus that kind of magic, contain it. It helped me avoid explosions that left heat burns on my lungs.

  I fumbled around in the blinding smoke, unable to breathe and unable to see. I found a feminine wrist with one hand, followed it up to a shoulder, and found Anna Valmont. I hauled on her with one hand, found the courier's tube with the other, and crawled for the ventilation duct, hauling them both behind me.

  There was air in the ventilation shaft, and Valmont coughed and stirred as I dra
gged her into it. Enough of the storage room had caught on fire that I had light enough to see. One of Valmont's eyebrows was gone, and one side of her face was red and blistered. I screamed, "Move!" at her as loudly as I could. Her eyes blinked with dull comprehension as I pushed her past me and toward the opening in the laundry room, and she started moving stiffly in front of me.

  Valmont didn't crawl as quickly as I wanted her to, but then she wasn't the one closest to the fire and the monsters. My heart hammered in my ears and the shaft felt oppressively small. I knew that the demonic forms of the Denarians were tougher than either me or Anna Valmont. Unless I'd gotten lethally lucky, they'd recover from the blast, and it wouldn't be long before they came after us. If we couldn't shake them or get into a car, and fast, they'd catch us, plain and simple. I shoved at Valmont, growing more frantic as my imagination turned up images of whipping tendrils cutting my legs to shreds, or venomous serpent fangs sinking into my calves as scaled hands dragged me backward by my ankles.

  Valmont tumbled out of the air shaft and into the laundry room. I followed her closely enough to make me think of a program I'd seen about howler monkey mating habits. My ears were starting to get their act together, and I heard the high, buzzing ring of a fire alarm in the hallway outside.

  "Harry?" Susan said. She looked between Valmont and me and helped the woman to her feet. "What's happening?"

  I got to my feet and choked out, "We need to be gone. Right now. "

  Susan nodded at me, and then shoved me. Hard. I went stumbling sideways and into the wall of drying machines, slamming my shoulder and head. I looked back to see the demon-girl's hair pureeing its way out of the vents, and then the rest of the Denarian came out, scales, claws and all, rolling to all fours with dizzying grace.

  Fast as the Denarian was, Susan was faster. The demon-girl came up with those rich lips split into a snarl, and Susan drove her heel right into them. She kicked hard enough that something crunched, and the demon-girl screamed in surprise and pain.

  "Susan!" I shouted. "Look-"

  I was going to say "out" but there wasn't time. Half a dozen bunches of tendrils drove at Susan like spears.

  Susan dodged them. All of them. She had to fling herself across the room to the washing machines to do it, and the Denarian regained her balance and pursued. More blades drove toward Susan, but she ducked to one side, one hand ripping open the door to one of the washing machines. Susan slammed the door down on the demon-girl's hair, and without missing a beat kicked the Denarian's reverse-jointed knee in sideways.

  The demon-girl shrieked in pain, struggling. I knew she was strong enough to pull free of the washing machine before long, but for the moment she was trapped. Susan reached up and tore a fold-down ironing board from where it was mounted on a nearby wall. Then she spun around and slammed it edge-on into the Denarian. Susan hit her three times, in the wounded leg, the small of the back, and the back of the neck. The Denarian shrieked at the first two blows and then collapsed into a limp heap at the third.

  Susan stared down at the demon-girl for a moment, dark eyes hard and hot. The ironing board's metal frame was now bent and twisted from the force of the blows Susan had dealt with it. Susan took a deep breath and then tossed the ironing board to one side, straightened her hair with one hand, and commented, "Bitch. "

  "Wow," I said.

  "Are you all right, Harry?" Susan asked. She wasn't looking at me.

  "Yeah," I said. "Wow. "

  Susan walked over to the counter, where she'd left her clutch. She opened it, got the phone, and said, "I'll have Martin pick us up at the exit. "

  I shook myself into motion and helped draw Anna Valmont to her feet. "What exit?"

  Susan pointed wordlessly at a fire-escape diagram on the wall, still not looking at me. She spoke maybe a dozen quiet words into the phone and then folded it shut. "He's coming. They're evacuating the hotel. We'll need to-"

  I felt a surge of magical energies. The air around Susan grew darker and then coalesced into a cloud of shadows. Within a heartbeat, the cloud deepened, then solidified into a writhing tangle of snakes of all sizes and colors wrapped all around Susan. The air suddenly filled with the sound of hissing and buzzing rattles. I saw the snakes begin to strike, fangs flashing. Susan let out a scream.

  I turned to the doorway and saw the snakeman Denarian standing in it. One not-quite-human hand was held out toward Susan. His serpent mouth was rolling out hissing sounds, and I could feel the thrumming tension in the air between the Denarian's outstretched hand and Susan.

  Rage flooded over me, and I barely stopped myself from throwing out another blast of raw spellfire at the snakeman. With that much rage behind it, I'd probably have killed everyone in the room. Instead, I reached out to the air in the hallway beyond the Denarian and pulled it all toward him, the words, "Ventas servitas!" thundering off my lips.

  A column of wind hit the snakeman from behind, lifted him from the floor, and flung him across the room. He slammed into the wall of washing machines, driving a foot-and-a-half-deep dent in one of them, and let out a wailing, hissing whistle of what I hoped was surprise and pain.

  Susan flung herself onto the ground, rolling, tearing at snakes, flinging them away. I could see flashes of her honey-brown skin and saw the black dress tearing. Droplets of red blood appeared on the floor near her, on her skin, and on the discarded snakes, but they were hanging on. She was tearing herself apart in her panic to remove the snakes.

  I closed my eyes for a second that felt a year long, and gathered together enough will to attempt to disrupt the Denarian's spell. I formed the counterspell in my head, and hoped to God that I didn't misjudge how much power I'd need to undo it. Too little and the spell might actually get stronger, like steel forged in a flame. Too much, and the counterspell could unleash the power of both spells in a random, destructive flash of energies. I focused my will on the cloak of serpents over Susan and lashed out at them with my power, letting loose the counterspell with a snarled, "Entropus!"

  The counterspell worked. The serpents writhed and thrashed around for a second, and then imploded, vanishing, leaving behind nothing but a coating of clear, glistening slime in their place.

  Susan scrambled away, still gasping, still bleeding. Her skin shone, wet and slick with the residue of the conjured serpents. Rivulets of blood laced her arms and one leg, and thick black bruises banded the skin of one arm, one leg, her throat, and one side of her face.

  I stared for a second. The darkness on her skin wasn't bruising. It gained shape, as I watched, resolving itself from vague discoloration to the dark, sharp lines of a tattoo. I watched the tattoo come into being over her skin, all curves and points, Maori-style. It began on her cheek under one eye and wound down around her face, around the back of her neck, and on down over one collarbone and into the neckline of her evening gown. It emerged again winding down along her left arm and left leg, finishing at the back of her hand and over the bridge of her left foot. She hauled herself to her feet, panting and shaking, the swirling designs lending a savage aspect to her appearance. She stared at me for a moment, her eyes dark and enlarged, the irises too big to be human. They filled with tears that didn't fall, and she looked away.

  The snakeman recovered enough to slither his way vertical again, looking around. He focused yellow snake eyes on Susan and let out a surprised wheeze. "Fellowship," he rasped, the word a hiss. "Fellowship here. " The Denarian looked around and spotted the courier's tube still hanging by its strap from my shoulder. Its tail lashed about and the Denarian darted toward me.

  I slipped to one side, keeping a table between us, and shouted, "Susan!"

  The snakeman struck the table with one arm and broke it in half. Then he came at me over the pieces-until Susan ripped a dryer out of the wall and threw it at his head.

  The Denarian saw it coming and dodged at the last second, but the dryer clipped him and sent him sprawling. He hissed again, and slithered away
from both of us, shooting into the air shaft and out of sight.

  I panted and watched the vent for a second, but he didn't reappear. Then I hauled the still-stunned Valmont toward the door and asked Susan, "Fellowship?"

  Her lips pressed together, and she averted her too-large eyes. "Not now. "

  I ground my teeth in frustration and worry, but she was right. The smoke was getting thicker, and we had no way of knowing if tall, green, and scaly would be reappearing. I pulled Valmont along with me, made sure I still had the Shroud, and followed Susan out the door. She ran along barefoot without breaking stride, and between the pain in my lungs and the blond thief's torpor, I could barely keep up with her.

  We went up a flight of stairs and Susan opened a door on a pair of gorillas in red security blazers. They tried to stop us. Susan threw a right and a left cross, and we walked over them on our way out. I kind of felt bad for them. Getting punched out by a dame was not going to pad their goon resumes.

  We left the building through a side door, and the dark limo was waiting, Martin standing beside it. I could hear sirens, people shouting, the blaring horns of fire vehicles trying to get to the hotel.

  Martin took one look at Susan and stiffened. Then he hurried over to us.

  "Take her," I rasped. Martin picked up Valmont and carried her to the limo like a sleepy child. I followed him. Martin put the blond thief in and got behind the wheel. Susan slipped in after her, and I slung the tube off my shoulder to get in behind her.

  Something grabbed me from behind, wrapping around my waist like a soft, squishy rope. I slapped at the car door, but I managed only to slam it shut as I was hauled back off my feet. I landed on the ground near the fire door.

  "Harry!" Susan shouted.

  "Go!" I gasped. I looked at Martin, behind the wheel of the limo. I grabbed the Shroud and tried to throw it at the car, but something pinned my arm down before I could. "Get out! Get help!"

  "No!" Susan screamed, and tried for the door.

  Martin was faster. I heard locks click shut on the limo. Then the engine roared, and the car screamed into the street and away.

  I tried to run. Something tangled my feet and I couldn't even get off the ground. I turned to find Nicodemus standing over me, the hangman's noose the only thing he wore that wasn't soaked with blood. His shadow, his freaking shadow was wrapped around my waist, my legs, my hands, and it moved and wriggled like something alive. I reached for my magic, but the grasping shadow-coils grew suddenly cold, colder than ice or frosted steel, and my power crumbled to frozen powder beneath it.

  One of the shadow-coils took the courier's tube from my numbed hands, curling through the air to hand it to Nicodemus. "Excellent," he said. "I have the Shroud. And I have you, Harry Dresden. "

  "What do you want?" I rasped.

  "Just to talk," Nicodemus assured me. "I want to have a polite conversation with you. "

  "Blow me. "

  His eyes darkened with cold anger, and he drew out the heavy revolver.

  Great, Harry, I thought. That's what you get for trying to be a hero. You get to eat a six-pack of nine-millimeter bon-bons.

  But Nicodemus didn't shoot me.

  He clubbed me over the head with the butt of the gun.

  Light flashed in my eyes, and I started to fall. I was out before my cheek hit the ground.