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Changes, Page 21

Jim Butcher

Chapter 48

  Chapter 48

  The Red King raised the knife over my daughter, and she let out a quavering little scream, a helpless, hopeless wail of terror and despair - and as hard as I fought with the new strength given me by Queen Mab, with the protection granted by my godmother's armor, I could not do a damned thing about it.

  I didn't have to.

  White light erupted over the altar from no visible source, and the Red King let out a scream. The shackles of his will vanished, even as his right hand, the one holding the stone knife, leapt off of his arm and went spinning through the air. It fell to the stone floor, still clutched hard around the leather-wrapped hilt of the knife, and the obsidian blade shattered like a dropped dish.

  I let out a shout as I felt the Red King's will slip off of me. The others still held me in place, but I suddenly knew that I could move, knew that I could fight. As the Red King reeled back screaming, I lifted a hand, snarled, "Fuego!" and sent a wash of fire to my right, engulfing the jaguar warrior who still stood a couple of feet inside the doorway. He tried to flee, and only wound up screaming and falling down the deadly steep steps of the pyramid while the soulfire lacing my spell found his flesh and set it aflame.

  I whirled back to the Lords facing me from the far side of the altar. I couldn't have risked throwing destructive energy at them with my daughter lying on the altar between us, and I'd had no choice but to take out the immediate threat of the warrior so that I could focus on the Lords and the Red King - otherwise it would have been relatively simple for him to come over and cut my throat while I was engaged by the vampire elite.

  But two could play at that game - and my physical backup was a hell of a lot better than theirs.

  I drew in my own will and lifted my borrowed staff - and as I did four more beings in golden masks entered the temple.

  Where did all these yo-yos come from?

  "Hold the wizard!" snarled the Red King, and the pressure of hostile minds upon me abruptly doubled. My left arm shook and the staff I held in it slowly sank down. My right arm just ran out of gas, as if the muscles in it had become totally exhausted, and the tip of the sword clinked as it hit the stone floor.

  The Red King rose, and stared for a moment at the altar and at the column of shimmering light over it. As he did, his freaking hand began to writhe like a spider - and a second later, it flipped itself over and began to crawl back over toward him. The king just stood there, staring at the light. I tried to fight my way out of the mass of dark will directed against me. The light could only be Susan, veiled behind the Leanansidhe's handiwork and wielding Amoracchius. I mean, how many invisible sources of holy light interested in protecting my daughter could there be running around Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢? She hadn't attacked yet, instead standing over Maggie - I wanted to scream at her to take him, that it was her only chance. If she didn't, the Red King and his Lords could take her out almost as swiftly and easily as I had the jaguar warrior.

  But he didn't - and in a flash of insight, I understood why he didn't.

  He didn't know what the light was.

  He knew only that it had hurt him when he had tried to murder the child. From his perspective, it could have been almost anything - an archangel standing guard, or a spirit of light as terrible as the Ick had been foul. I thought back to the voice coming from Murphy's mouth, pronouncing judgment upon the Red Court, and suddenly understood what was making the Red King hesitate, what he was really thinking: that the entity over the altar might be something he did not think actually existed - like maybe the real Kukulcan.

  And he was afraid.

  Susan couldn't do anything. If she acted, if she revealed what she was, the enemy's uncertainty would vanish and the conflict would immediately ensue again. Outnumbered so heavily, she wouldn't have a chance.

  But she knew what she had, in uncertainty and fear, and she neither moved nor made a sound. It was a weapon as potent as the wills of the demigods themselves - it had, after all, paralyzed the Red King. But it was a fragile weapon, a sword made of glass, and I felt my eyes drawn to the broken pieces of obsidian on the floor.

  I couldn't move - and time was not our ally. With every moment that passed, the more numerous enemy would become more organized, recover more from the shock of the sudden invasion of a small army smack in the middle of their holiday celebration. I needed an opportunity, a moment, if I was going to get Maggie out of this mess. And I needed it soon.

  I strained against the wills of the Lords of Outer Night, unable to move - and keeping their attention locked upon me. One by one, my gaze traveled over each of the golden masks. I focused on the last one for a time, then began again with the first, tried to test each individual will, to find out which would be the weakest point of attack when my moment came.

  Just then, Martin ghosted into the temple through the fourth door, making absolutely no sound, and it looked to me like the moment was freaking nigh. All of the Lords present were focused on me. The Red King stood intently distracted by Susan's light show, while his severed hand crawled its way up his leg and hopped over to his wounded arm, where rubbery tendrils of black ooze immediately extruded from whole and wounded flesh alike, and began intertwining.

  Martin had walked into what had to be a Fellowship operative's wet dream: the Red King's naked back, and no one to stop him from going medieval on the leader of the vile edifice of power and terror that was the Red Court.

  He took the machete from its sheath without a whisper of steel on nylon and drew back, readying himself to strike. There was an intensity of focus in his face that I had never seen before.

  He closed the last two steps in a superquick blur, went into a spin, and I was getting ready to cheer -

  - when his foot swept up to streak savagely through the air beneath the glowing white light.

  I heard Susan let out a cry as she fell, startled by the blow. Martin, moving with his eyes closed, got close to her, his arms lashing out, and caught something between them. He ripped hard with his left arm, twisting the machete up with the right as he did - and suddenly Susan was fully visible, bowed into a painful arch by Martin's grip on her. The feather cloak had fallen from her, and the blade of Martin's machete rested against her throat.

  I screamed in rage. It came out as a sort of vocalized seethe.

  The Red King took a swift step back as Martin attacked, his eyes intent. Then, when Susan appeared, his head tilted as he worked through what he was seeing.

  "Please excuse me, my lord," Martin murmured, giving a slight bow of his head to the Red King. "Drop it," he said in a flat voice to Susan. He twisted his body more, bending her painfully, and pressing the machete's edge against her throat even harder, until Susan's fingers opened and Amoracchius fell to the floor, its light slowly dying.

  "A trick," said the Red King. Anger began to pour off of him. "A charlatan's trick. " His eyes moved from Susan up to Martin. "And you have revealed yourself. "

  "I beg your forgiveness, my lord," Martin said. "It seemed the proper time. On my initiative, strike teams began removing Fellowship personnel and safe houses two hours ago. By this time tomorrow, there won't be an operative left alive south of the United States. And our financial division will have taken or destroyed well over ninety percent of their accounts. "

  "You son of a bitch," Susan said, her voice overflowing with pain. "You fucking traitor. "

  Martin's expression flickered at her words. But his eyes never left the Red King. "I give you the Fellowship of St. Giles, my lord," he said. "And I beg you to grant me my reward. "

  "Reward," Susan said, loading more contempt and hate into the word than should have been possible. "What could they possibly give you, Martin, to make it worth what you've done?"

  The Red King stared at Susan and said, "Explain it to her. "

  "You misunderstand," Martin said calmly. "I have not betrayed the Fellowship, Susan. This was the plan from the moment I joined it. Think. You've kn
own me for less than a decade and you've seen how near some of our scrapes have been. Did you truly believe I had survived a hundred and fifty years of battle against the Red Court, outlived every other operative ever to serve the Fellowship on my own merits?" He shook his head. "No. Escapes were provided. As were targets. It took me fifty years and I had to personally kill two of my fellows and friends working much as I was, to win the trust of the Fellowship. Once they admitted me to the inner circle, their time had come. Trust is a poison, Susan. It took another century to ferret out their secrets, but it is finally done. And our people will finish removing the Fellowship, in every meaningful sense, by tomorrow. It is over. "

  Susan's eyes flickered over to me, and Maggie continued to weep quietly, huddling in on herself. Susan's face was twisted with pain. There were furious tears in her eyes as she looked at me.

  And I couldn't even speak to her.

  "And what do you get?" Susan asked her, voice shaking.

  "Ascension," said the Red King. "I have no interest in admitting bloodthirsty lunatics to the nobility of my Court. Martin has proven himself - his dedication, his self-control, and, most important, his competence, over the course of decades. He was a priest for fifty years before he was even permitted to attempt this service. "

  "Honestly, Susan," Martin said. "I told you many times that you can never let emotion interfere with your duties. If you had listened to me, I'm certain you would have caught on. I would have been forced to kill you, as I have several others who were too wise for their own good, but you would have known. "

  Susan closed her eyes. She was shaking. "Of course. You could make contact as often as you wished. Every time I visited Maggie. "

  "Correct," he said quietly. He turned back to the Red King. "My lord, I beg your forgiveness. I sought only to give you that which you wished, and the timing made it necessary for me to act, or see the opportunity pass us by. "

  "Under the circumstances, I think I will not object, priest," the Red King said. "If the strike teams are as successful as you predict, you will have your reward and my gratitude. "

  Martin bowed his head to the Red King, and then looked up at me. He studied my face for a moment before he said, "The wizard has Alamaya's dagger in his sash, my lord, should you wish to complete the ritual. "

  The Red King took a deep breath and then blew it out, his expression becoming almost benevolent. "Martin, Martin, the voice of practicality. We've been lost without you. "

  "My lord is too kind," Martin said. "Please accept my condolences on the loss of Arianna, my lord. She was a remarkable woman. "

  "Remarkably ambitious," the Red King said. "Determined to cling to the past, rather than exploring new opportunities. She and her entire coterie, determined to undermine me. Had she destroyed this animal and then made good upon her promise to break the back of the accursed White Council, she would have been a real threat to my power. I take no pleasure in thinking on it, but her death was meant to be. "

  "As you say, my lord," Martin said.

  The Red King approached me, smiling, and reached for the dagger in my sash.

  Susan bared her teeth, still straining, but Martin was more than her equal, it seemed.

  There was nothing I could do. The deck had been stacked so hard against me that even with Martin on our side, things had looked grim. His treachery had come at the ideal moment, damn him. Damn them all. There was nothing I could . . .

  Long ago, when I was little more than a child, my first lover and I had devised a spell to let us speak silently to each other in class. It was magic much like the speaking stone Ebenezar had crafted, but simpler, with a much shorter range. I had never used to it communicate with anyone but Elaine, but Susan had been intimate with me - and I thought that at that moment, the only thought on our minds was Maggie.

  It might be enough to establish the link, even if it was only one-way.

  I grasped for the minor magic, fighting to pull it together through the dragging chains of the wills of the Lords of Outer Night, and cast my thought at Susan as clearly as I could. He doesn't know all of it, I sent to her desperately. He doesn't know about the enchantment protecting your skin. He only knows about the cloak because he saw you use it when we got here.

  Susan's eyes widened briefly. She'd heard me.

  The altar, I thought. The ritual meant to kill us can be turned back upon them. If one of them dies on that knife, the curse will go after their bloodline, not ours.

  Her eyes widened more. I saw her thinking furiously.

  "Martin," she asked quietly. "Why did Arianna target my daughter?"

  Martin looked down at Susan, at Maggie, and then away. "Because the child's father is the son of Margaret LeFay, the daughter of the man who killed her husband. By killing her, this way she would avenge herself upon all of you. "

  If I hadn't already been more or less motionless, I would have frozen in place.

  Margaret LeFay. Daughter of the man who had killed Arianna's husband (and vampire child), Paolo Ortega.

  Duke Ortega. Who had been destroyed by the Blackstaff.

  Ebenezar McCoy.

  One of the most dangerous wizards in the world. A man of such personal and political power that she would never have been able to take him down directly. So she had set out to strike at him through his bloodline. From him to my mother. From her to me. From me to Maggie. Kill the child and kill us all.

  That was what Arianna had meant when she said it wasn't about me.

  It was about my grandfather.

  Suddenly it made sense that the old man had put his life on the line by declaring himself my mentor when the Council would have killed me for slaying Justin DuMorne. Suddenly it made sense why he had been so patient with me, so considerate, so kind. It hadn't just been an act of random kindness.

  And suddenly it made sense why he would barely ever speak of his apprentice, Margaret LeFay - a name she'd earned for herself, when her birth certificate must have read Margaret McCoy. Hell, for that matter, he probably never told the Council that Margaret was his daughter. I sure as hell had no intentions of letting them know about Maggie, if I got her out of this mess.

  My mother had eventually been killed by enemies she had made - and Ebenezar, her father, the most dangerous man on the White Council, had not been there to save her. The circumstances wouldn't matter. No matter what he'd accomplished, I knew the old man would never forgive himself for not saving his daughter's life, any more than I would if I failed Maggie. It was why he had made a statement, a demonstration of what would happen to those who came at me with a personal vengeance - he was trying, preemptively, to save his grandson.

  And it explained why he had changed the Grey Council's focus and led them here. He had to try to save me - and to save my little girl.

  And, some cynical portion of me added, himself. Though I wasn't even sure that would be a conscious thought on his part, underneath the mountain of issues he had accrued.

  No wonder Arianna had been so hot and bothered to use the bloodline curse, starting with Maggie. She'd avenge herself upon me, who hadn't had the good grace to die in a duel, and upon Ebenezar, who had simply killed Ortega as you would a dangerous animal, a workaday murder performed with expedience and an extremely high profile. Arianna must have lost a lot of face in the wake of that - and my ongoing exploits against the Reds and their allies would only have made her more determined to show me my place. With a single curse, she'd kill one of the Senior Council and the Blackstaff all at once. My death would be something to crow about, too - since, as Arianna herself had noted, no one had pulled it off yet - and I felt I could confidently lay claim to the title of Most Infamous Warden on the Council, after Donald Morgan's death.

  For Arianna, what a coup. And after that, presumably . . . a coup.

  Of course, if the Red King was holding the knife, he got the best of all worlds. Dead enemies, more prestige, and a more secure throne. No-brainer.
  He took the knife from my belt, smiling, and turned toward the altar - and my daughter.

  Dear God, I thought. Think, Dresden. Think!

  One day I hope God will forgive me for giving birth to the idea that came next.

  Because I never will.

  I knew how angry she was. I knew how afraid she was. Her child was about to die only inches beyond her reach, and what I did to her was as good as murder.

  I focused my thoughts and sent them to Susan. Susan! Think! Who knew who the baby's father was? Who could have told them?

  Her lips peeled away from her teeth.

  His knife can't hurt you, I thought, though I knew damned well that no faerie magic could blithely ignore the touch of steel.

  "Martin," Susan said, her voice low and very quiet. "Did you tell them about Maggie?"

  He closed his eyes, but his voice was steady. "Yes. "

  Susan Rodriguez lost her mind.

  One instant she was a prisoner, and the next she had twisted like an eel, too swiftly to be easily seen. Martin's machete opened up a long cut on her throat, but she paid as little attention to it as a thorn scratch gained while hiking.

  Martin raised a hand to block the strike he thought was coming - and it was useless, because Susan didn't go after him swinging.

  Instead, her eyes full of darkness and rage, her mouth opened in a scream that showed her extended fangs, she went for his throat.

  Martin's eyes were on mine for a fraction of a second. No more. But I felt the soulgaze begin. I saw his agony, the pain of the mortal life he had lost. I saw his years of service, his genuine devotion, like a marble statue of the Red King kept polished and lovingly tended. And I saw his soul change. I saw that image of worship grow tarnished as he spent year after year among those who struggled against the Red King and his empire of terror and misery. And I saw that when he had come into the temple, he knew full well that he wasn't going to survive. And that he was content with it.

  There was nothing I could do in time to prevent what was coming next, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. Martin said that it had taken him years and years to run a con on the Fellowship of St. Giles. But it had taken him most of two centuries to run the long con on the Red King. As a former priest, Martin must have known of the bloodline curse, and its potential for destruction. He must have known that the threat to Maggie and the realization of his betrayal would be certain to drive Susan out of control.

  He'd told me already, practically the moment he had come to Chicago, that he would do anything if it meant damaging the Red Court. He would have shot me in the back. He would have betrayed Maggie's existence, practically handing her to the murderous bastards. He would betray the Fellowship to its enemies.

  He would destroy Susan.

  And he would die, himself.

  Everything he had done, I realized, he had done for one reason: to be sure that I was standing here when it happened. To give me a chance to change everything.

  Susan rode him to the stone floor, berserk with terror and rage, and tore out his throat, ripping mouthful after mouthful of flesh from his neck with supernatural speed.

  Martin died.

  Susan began to turn.

  And that was my moment.

  I flung myself against the wills of the Lords of Outer Night with everything in my body, my heart, my mind. I hurled my fear and my loneliness, my love and my respect, my rage and my pain. I made of my thoughts a hammer, infused with the fires of creation and tempered in the icy power of the darkest guardian the earth had ever known. I raised my arms with a scream of defiance, bringing as much of the armor as I could between my head and theirs, and wished for a fleeting second that I had just worn the stupid hat.

  And I threw it all at the second Lord from the left - the one whose will seemed the least concrete. He staggered and made a sound that I'd once heard from a boxer who'd taken an uppercut to the nuts.

  With that, the last Lord of Outer Night to enter the temple - the one wearing the mask I had seen once before, when Murphy had sliced it from its owner's head - raised her hands and sent ribbons of green and amethyst power scything through her apparent compatriots.

  The blast killed two of them outright, with spectacular violence, tearing their bodies to god-awful shreds and spattering the inside of the temple with black blood. All of the remaining Lords staggered, screaming in surprise and pain, their true forms beginning to claw their way free of the flesh that contained them.

  My godmother, too, discarded her disguise, flinging the gold mask at the nearest Lord as she allowed the illusion that concealed her true form to fade away, taking with it the clothes and trappings that had let her insinuate herself among the enemy. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed. Bloodlust and an eager, nearly sexual desire to destroy radiated from her like heat from a fire. She howled her glee and began hurling streaks and bolts and webworks of energy at the stunned Lords of Outer Night, spinning power from her flickering fingertips even as they brought the force of their wills and their own sorcery to bear upon her.

  Not one of the Lords of Outer Night remembered to keep me down.

  I was suddenly free.

  I hurled myself at the Red King's back with a scream, and saw him spin to face me, knife in hand. His dark eyes suddenly widened, and the awful power of his will descended upon me like a dozen leaded blankets.

  I staggered, but I did not stop. I was hysterical. I was not well. I was invincible. My armor and my grandfather's staff and the sight of my frightened child and the cold power flowing through my limbs allowed me to push forward one step, and another, and another, until I stood nearly toe-to-toe with him.

  The Red King's restored right hand snapped forward to bury the obsidian knife in my throat.

  My left hand dropped the staff and intercepted his wrist. I stopped the knife an inch from my throat, and his eyes widened as he felt my strength.

  His left hand shot out to clench my throat with crushing power.

  I formed the thumb and forefinger of my right hand into a C-shape, ice crackling as it spread over them, rigid and crystal clear.

  I plunged them into both of his black, black eyes.

  And then I sent my will coursing down my arm, along with all the soulfire I could find as I screamed, "Fuego!"

  Fire seared and split and cooked and steamed, and the king of the Red Court, the most ancient vampire of their kind, the father and creator of their race, screamed in anguish. The sound was so loud that it blew out my left eardrum, a novel new agony for my collection.

  And when the Red King screamed, every single member of his Court screamed with him.

  This close to him I could almost feel it, feel the power of his will calling them, drawing vampires to him with a summoning beyond self-interest, beyond reason. But even if I hadn't been there touching him, the sudden storm of cries from outside would have told me the same story.

  The vampires were coming toward us in a swarm, a storm, and nothing on earth would stop them from going to their king's aid. His grip on my throat faltered, and he staggered back and away from me. My fingers came free of his head, and I grabbed his knife hand at the wrist with both hands. Then, screaming in rage, coating his arm with frost, I snapped his forearm in half - and caught the dagger before it could fall to the floor.

  Freed, the Red King staggered away, and even blinded and in sanity-destroying pain, he was dangerous. His will, unleashed at random, blew holes in the stone walls. Sorcery lashed out, the scarlet lightning that seemed to be a motif around here raking over one of his own Lords and cutting the struggling vampire in half.

  The eldest vampire of the Red Court screamed in his agony as a tide of his creatures came to obliterate us.

  And the youngest vampire of the Red Court knelt on the ground over Martin, staring at her hands.

  I watched for a second as the skin around her fingers seemed to burst at the tips. Then I saw her fingers b
egin to lengthen, nails growing into claws, muscle tissue tearing free of skin with audible, obvious torment. Susan stared at them with her all-black eyes, shaking her head, her face a mask of blood. She was moaning, shuddering.

  "Susan," I said, kneeling down in front of her. The howl of sorcerous energies filled the temple with a symphony of destruction. I took her face in my hands.

  She looked up at me, terrified and tortured, despair written over her face.

  "They're coming," she rasped. "I can feel them. Inside. Outside. They're coming. Oh, God. "

  "Susan!" I shouted. "Remember Maggie!"

  Her eyes seemed to focus on me.

  "They wanted Maggie because she was the youngest," I said, my voice cold. "Because her death would have taken us all with her. "

  She contorted around her stomach, which was twisting and flexing and swelling obscenely, but she kept her eyes on my face.

  "Now you're the youngest," I hissed at her, my voice fierce. "The youngest vampire in the entire and literally damned Court. You can kill them all. "

  She shuddered and moaned, and I saw the conflicting desires at war within her. But her eyes turned to Maggie and she clenched her jaw. "I . . . I don't think I can do it. I can't feel my hands. "

  "Harry!" screamed Murphy desperately, from somewhere nearby. "They're coming!"

  Lightning split the air outside with thunder that would register on the Richter scale.

  There was a sudden, random lull in the cacophony of sorcerous war, no more than a couple of seconds long.

  Susan looked back at me, her eyes streaming her last tears. "Harry, help me," she whispered. "Save her. Please. "

  Everything in me screamed no. That this was not fair. That I should not have to do this. That no one should ever have to do this.

  But . . . I had no choice.

  I found myself picking Susan up with one hand. The little girl was curled into a ball with her eyes closed, and there was no time. I pushed her from the altar as gently as I could and let her fall to the floor, where she might be a little safer from the wild energies surging through the temple.

  I put Susan on the altar and said, "She'll be safe. I promise. "

  She nodded at me, her body jerking and twisting in convulsions, forcing moans of pain from her lips. She looked terrified, but she nodded.

  I put my left hand over her eyes.

  I pressed my mouth to hers, swiftly, gently, tasting the blood, and her tears, and mine.

  I saw her lips form the word, "Maggie . . . "

  And I . . .

  I used the knife.

  I saved a child.

  I won a war.

  God forgive me.