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Death Masks, Page 21

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-one

  The cold woke me.

  I came to my senses in complete darkness, under a stream of freezing water. My head hurt enough to make the wound on my leg feel pleasant by comparison. My wrists and shoulders hurt even more. My neck felt stiff, and it took me a second to realize that I was vertical, my hands bound together over my head. My feet were tied too. My muscles started jumping and twitching under the cold water and I tried to get out from under it. The ropes prevented me. The cold started cutting into me. It hurt a lot.

  I tried to get loose, working my limbs methodically, testing the ropes, trying to free my hands. I couldn't tell if I was making any progress. Thanks to the cold, I couldn't even feel my wrists, and it was too dark to see.

  I got more scared by the moment. If I couldn't work my hands free, I might have to risk using magic to scorch the ropes. Hell, I was cold enough that the thought of burning myself had a certain appeal. But when I started trying to reach out for the power to manage it, it slithered away from me. Then I understood. Running water. Running water grounds magical energies, and every time I tried to get something together the water washed it away.

  The cold grew more intense, more painful. I couldn't escape it. I panicked, thrashing wildly, dull pain flaring in my bound limbs, and fading away into numbness under the cold. I screamed a few times, I think. I remember choking on water while I tried.

  I didn't have much energy. After a few minutes, I hung panting and hurting and too tired to struggle any more, the water only getting colder, bound limbs screaming.

  I hurt, but I figured the pain couldn't possibly get any worse.

  A few hours went by and showed me how wrong I was.

  A door opened and firelight stabbed at my eyes. I would have flinched if I had been able to move that much. A couple of large, blocky men came through the door carrying actual flaming torches. The light let me see the room. The wall beside the door was finished stone, but the walls all around me were a mishmash of fallen rubble and ancient brick, and one was made of curved concrete-some kind of piping for the city's water system, I supposed. The ceiling was all rough earth, some stone, some roots. Water poured down from somewhere, over me, and vanished down a groove worn in the floor.

  They had taken me to Undertown, a network of caves, ruined buildings, tunnels, and ancient construction that underlay the city of Chicago. Undertown was dark, damp, cold, full of various creatures that shunned sunlight and human company, and might have been radioactive. The tunnels where the Manhattan Project had been housed were just the start of Undertown. The people who knew of its existence didn't come down here-not even wizards like me-unless matters were desperate.

  No one knew their way around down here. And no one would be coming to find me.

  "Been working out pretty hard," I muttered to the two men, my voice a croak. "One of you guys got a cold beer? Maybe a freeze pop?"

  They didn't so much as look at me. One man took up a position on the wall to my left. The other took the wall to my right.

  "I should have cleaned up, I know," I told them. "If I'd realized I was having company I'd have taken a shower. Mopped the floor. "

  No answer. No expression on their faces. No nothing.

  "Tough room," I said.

  "You'll have to forgive them," said Nicodemus. He came through the door and into the torchlight, freshly dressed, shaved, and showered. He wore pajama pants, slippers, and a smoking jacket of Hugh Hefner vintage. The grey noose still circled his throat. "I like to encourage discretion in my employees, and I have very high standards. Sometimes it makes them seem standoffish. "

  "You don't let your goons talk?" I asked.

  He removed a pipe from his pocket, along with a small tin of Prince Albert tobacco. "I remove their tongues. "

  "I guess your human resources department isn't exactly under siege, is it," I said.

  He tamped tobacco into his pipe and smiled. "You'd be surprised. I offer an excellent dental plan. "

  "You're going to need it when the formal-wear police knock your teeth out. This is a rented tux. "

  His dark eyes glittered with something ugly. "Little Maggie's youngest. You've grown up to be a man of considerable strengths. "

  I stared at him for a long second, shivering and startled into silence. My mother's name was Margaret.

  And I was her youngest? As far as I knew, I had been an only child. But I knew precious little of my parents. My mother died giving birth to me. My father had suffered an aneurism when I had been about six years old. I had a picture of my father on a piece of yellowed newspaper I kept in a photo album. It showed him performing at a children's benefit dinner in a small town in Ohio. I had a Polaroid instant picture showing my father and my mother, her stomach round with pregnancy, standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I wore my mother's pentacle amulet around my neck. It was scarred and dented, but that's to be expected when you run around using it to kill werewolves.

  They were the only concrete things I had left of my parents. I'd heard stories before, that my mother hadn't run with a very pleasant crowd. Nothing of substance, just inferences made from passing comments. I'd had a demon tell me that my parents had been murdered, and the same creature had hinted that I might have relatives. I'd shied away from the whole concept, deciding that the demon had been a dirty liar.

  And given that Nicodemus and Chauncy worked for the same organization, I probably couldn't trust the Denarian either. He was probably lying. Probably.

  But what if he wasn't?

  Keep him talking, I decided. Fish for information. It wasn't like I had a lot to lose, and knowledge was power. I might find out something that would give me some kind of edge.

  Nicodemus lit the pipe with a match and puffed on it a few times, watching my face with a little smile on his lips. He read me, easily. I avoided looking at his eyes.

  "Harry- may I call you Harry?"

  "Would it matter if I told you no?"

  "It would tell me something about you," he said. "I'd like to get to know you, and I would rather not make this a trip to the dentist if I can avoid it. "

  I glared at him, shivering under the freezing water, the bump on my head pounding, and my limbs aching beneath the ropes. "I've got to ask-just what kind of freaking dentist do you go to? Ortho de Sade? Smokin' Joe Mengele, DDS?"

  Nicodemus puffed on the pipe and regarded my bonds. Another expressionless man came in, this one older, thin, with thick grey hair. He pushed a room-service cart. He unfolded a small table and set it up over to one side, where the water wouldn't splash on it. Nicodemus toyed with the bowl of his pipe. "Dresden, may I be frank with you?"

  I figured the cart would open up to show an array of hardware intended to frighten me with its potential torture applications. "If it's okay with Frank, I guess I don't mind. "

  Nicodemus watched the valet set out three folding chairs and cover the table with a white cloth. "You have faced a great many dangerous beings. But by and large, they have been idiots. I try to avoid that whenever I am able, and that is why you are bound and held under running water. "

  "You're afraid of me," I said.

  "Boy, you've destroyed three rival practitioners of the Arts, a noble of the vampire Courts, and even one of the Faerie Queens. They underestimated you as well as your allies. I don't. I suppose you could think of your current position as a compliment. "

  "Yeah," I muttered, shaking freezing water out of my eyes. "You're way too kind. "

  Nicodemus smiled. The valet opened the cart and something far more diabolical than torture hardware was there. It was breakfast. The old valet started setting out food on the table. Hash browns. Some cheese. Some biscuits, bacon, sausages, pancakes, toast, fruit. And coffee, dear God. Hot coffee. The smell hit my stomach, and even frozen as it was it started crawling around on the inside of my abdomen, trying to figure out how to get away and get some food.

  Nicodemus sat down, and the valet pour
ed him some coffee. I guess pouring his own was beneath him. "I did try to keep you out of this affair. "

  "Yeah. You seem like such a sweet guy. You're the one who edited the prophecy Ulsharavas told me about?"

  "You've no idea how difficult it is to waylay an angelic messenger. "

  "Uh- huh," I said. "So why'd you do it?"

  Nicodemus was not too important to add his own cream, no sugar. His spoon clinked on the cup. "I have a fond memory or two of your mother. It cost me little to attempt it. So why not?"

  "That's the second time you've mentioned her," I said.

  "Yes. I respected her. Which is quite unusual for me. "

  "You respected her so much you snatched me and brought me here. I see. "

  Nicodemus waved his hand. "It worked out that way. I needed someone of a certain metaphysical mass. You interfered in my business, you were convenient, and you fit the recipe. "

  Recipe? "What recipe?"

  He sipped at his coffee and closed his eyes in enjoyment. The bastard. "I take it that this is the portion of the conversation where I reveal my plans to you?"

  "What have you got to lose?"

  "And apparently you expect me to tell you of any vulnerabilities I might have as well. I am wounded by the lack of professional respect this implies. "

  I ground my teeth. "Chicken. "

  He picked up a piece of bacon and nibbled at it. "It is enough for you to know that one of two things will happen. "

  "Oh, yeah?" Master of repartee, that's me.

  "Indeed. Either you will be freed and sit down to enjoy a nice breakfast -" He picked up a slightly curved and sharp-looking knife from the table. "Or I will cut your throat as soon as I finish eating. "

  He said it scary-without any melodrama to it at all. Matter-of-fact. The way most people say that they need to take out the trash. "Ye olde 'join up or die' ultimatum," I said. "Gee, no matter how many times I get it, that one never goes out of style. "

  "Your history indicates that you are too dangerous to leave alive, I'm afraid-and I am on a schedule," Nicodemus said.

  A schedule? He was working against a time limit, then. "I'm really inconvenient that way. Don't take it personal. "

  "I don't," he assured me. "This isn't easy for either of us. I'd use some sort of psychological technique on you, but I haven't gotten caught up on some of the more recent developments. " He took a piece of toast and buttered it. "Then again, I suppose not many psychologists can drive chariots, so perhaps it balances out. "

  The door opened again, and a young woman came into the room. She had long, sleep-tousled dark hair, dark eyes, and a face a little too lean to be conventionally pretty. She wore a kimono of red silk belted loosely, so that gaps appeared as she moved. She evidently didn't have anything on underneath it. Like I said, Undertown is cold.

  The girl yawned and stretched lazily, watching me as she did. She too spoke with an odd, vaguely British accent. "Good morning. "

  "And you, little one. Harry Dresden, I don't believe you've been introduced to my daughter, Deirdre. "

  I eyed the girl, who seemed vaguely familiar. "We haven't met. "

  "Yes, we have," Deirdre said, reaching out to pluck a strawberry from the breakfast table. She took a slow bite from it, lips sealed around the fruit. "At the harbor. "

  "Ah. Madame Medusa, I presume. "

  Deirdre sighed. "I've never heard that one before. It's so amusing. May I kill him, Father?"

  "Not just yet," Nicodemus said. "But if it comes to that, he's mine. "

  Deirdre nodded sleepily. "Have I missed breakfast?"

  Nicodemus smiled at her. "Not at all. Give us a kiss. "

  She slid onto his lap and did. With tongue. Yuck. After a moment she rose, and Nicodemus held one of the chairs out for her as she sat down. He reseated himself and said, "There are three chairs here, Dresden. Are you sure you wouldn't like to take breakfast with us?"

  I started to tell him what he could do with his third chair, but the smell of food stopped me. I suddenly felt desperately, painfully hungry. The water got colder. "What did you have in mind?"

  Nicodemus nodded to one of the goons. The man walked over to me, drawing a jewelry box out of his pocket. He opened it, offering it out to me.

  I mimed a gasp. "But this is so sudden. "

  The goon glared. Nicodemus smiled. Inside the jewelry box was an ancient silver coin, like the one I'd seen in the alley behind the hospital. The tarnish on the coin was in the shape of another sigil.

  "You like me. You really like me," I said without enthusiasm. "You want me to join up?"

  "You needn't if you do not wish to," Nicodemus said. "I just want you to hear our side of things before you make up your mind to die needlessly. Accept the coin. Have some breakfast with us. We can talk. After that, if you don't want to have anything to do with me, you may leave. "

  "You'd just let me go. Sure. "

  "If you accept the coin, I doubt I'd be able to stop you. "

  "So what says I wouldn't turn around and use it against you?"

  "Nothing," Nicodemus said. "But I am a great believer in the benevolence of human nature. "

  Like hell he was. "Do you actually think you could convince me to join up with you?"

  "Yes," he said. "I know you. "

  "Do not. "

  "Do too," he replied. "I know more about you than you do yourself. "

  "Such as?"

  "Such as why you chose this kind of life for yourself. To appoint yourself protector of mortal kind, and to make yourself the enemy of any who would do them harm. To live outcast from your own kind, laughed at and mocked by most mortals. Living in a hovel, barely scraping by. Spurning wealth and fame. Why do you do it?"

  "I'm a disciple of the Tao of Peter Parker, obviously," I said.

  I guess Nicodemus was a DC Comics fan, because he didn't get it. "It is all you will allow yourself, and I know why. "

  "All right. Why?"

  "Because you are ruled by fear. You are afraid, Dresden. "

  I said, "Of what?"

  "Of what you could be if you ever let yourself stray from the right-hand path," Nicodemus said. "Of the power you could use. You've thought about what it might be like to bend the world to your will. The things you could have. The people. Some part of you has considered and found joy in the idea of using your abilities to take what you wish. And you are afraid of that joy. So you drive yourself toward martyrdom instead. "

  I started to deny his words. But I couldn't. He was right, or at least not wholly wrong. My voice came out subdued. "Everyone has thoughts like that sometimes. "

  "No," Nicodemus said, "they don't. Most people never consider such actions. It never crosses their minds. The average mortal would have no sure way of taking that kind of power. But for you, it's different. You may pretend you are like them. But you are not. "

  "That's not true," I replied.

  "Of course it is," Nicodemus said. "You might not like to admit it, but that makes it no less true. It's denial. There are a number of ways you express it in your life. You don't want to see what you are, so you have very few pictures of yourself. No mirrors, either. "

  I ground my teeth. "I'm not different in any way that matters. I'm not any better than anyone else. We all put our pants on one leg at a time. "

  "Granted," Nicodemus said. "But a century from now, your mortal associates will be rotting in the earth, whereas, barring amputation or radical shifts in fashion, you will still be putting your pants on one leg at a time. All these allies and friends you have made will be withered and gone, while you are just beginning to come into your full strength. You look like a mortal, Dresden. But make no mistake. You aren't one. "

  "Oh, shut up. "

  "You are different. You are a freak. In a city of millions, you are all but alone. "

  "Which explains my dating life," I said, but I couldn't put much zing in the words. Something in my throat f
elt heavy.

  Nicodemus had the valet pour coffee for Deirdre, but he spooned sugar into it himself. "You're afraid, but you don't have to be. You're above them, Dresden. There's an entire world waiting for you. Uncounted paths you could take. Allies who would stand with you over the years. Who would accept you instead of scorning you. You could discover what happened to your parents. Avenge them. Find your family. Find a place where you truly belonged. "

  He'd chosen to use words that struck hard on the oldest wound in me, a child's pain that had never fully healed. It hurt to hear those words. It stirred up a senseless old hope, a yearning. It made me feel lost. Empty.


  "Harry," Nicodemus said, his voice almost compassionate. "I used to be much as you are now. You are trapped. You are lying to yourself. You pretend to be like any other mortal because you are too terrified to admit that you aren't. "

  I didn't have an answer for that. The silver coin gleamed, still offered out to me.

  Nicodemus laid one hand on the knife again. "I'm afraid I must ask you for an immediate decision. "

  Deirdre looked at the knife and then at me, eyes hot. She licked some spilled sugar off the rim of her coffee cup, and remained silent.

  What if I did take the coin? If Nicodemus was on the level, I could at least live to fight another day. I had no doubts that Nicodemus would kill me, as he had Gaston LaRouche, Francisca Garcia, and that poor bastard Butters had cut into. There was nothing stopping him, and with the water still running over me, I doubted that even my death curse would be at one hundred percent.

  I couldn't stop myself from imagining what it would feel like to bleed to death, there under the cold water. A hot, burning line on my throat. Dizziness and cold. Weakness fading into warmth that became perfect, endless darkness. Death.

  God help me, I didn't want to die.

  But I'd seen the poor bastard Ursiel had enslaved and driven mad. What he'd suffered was worse than death. And chances were that if I took the coin, the demon that came with it might coerce or corrupt me into the same thing. I'm not a saint. I'm not even particularly sterling, morally speaking. I've had dark urges before. I've been fascinated by them. Attracted to them. And more than once, I've given in to them.

  It was a weakness that the demon in the ancient coin could exploit. I wasn't immune to temptation. The demon, the Fallen, would drown me in it. It's what the Fallen do.

  I made my decision.

  Nicodemus watched me, eyes steady, his knife hand perfectly still.

  "Lead us not into temptation," I said. "But deliver us from evil. Isn't that how it goes?"

  Deirdre licked her lips. The goon shut the box and stepped back.

  "Are you certain, Dresden?" Nicodemus said in a quiet voice. "This is your very last chance. "

  I slumped weakly. There didn't seem to be much of a point to bravado anymore. I'd made the call, and that was that. "I'm certain. Fuck off, Nick. "

  Nicodemus stared at me impassively for a moment. Then he stood up with the knife and said, "I suppose I've had enough breakfast. "