Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Summer Knight, Page 21

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-one

  Three minutes later Murphy and I went out the back door, and Grum was waiting for us.

  He rose up out of the shadows by the large trash bins with a bull elephant's bellow and stomped toward us. Murphy, dragging a leg and wrapped somewhat desperately in a plaid auto blanket, let out a shrill cry and turned to run, but tripped and fell to the ground before the ogre.

  I kept my left hand behind my back and lifted my right. Flame danced up from my cupped fingers, and I thundered, "Grum!"

  The ogre's beady eyes turned to me, glittering. He let out another rumbling snarl.

  "Stand thee from my path!" I called in that same overdramatic voice, "lest I grow weary of thee and bereft thee of thy life!"

  The ogre focused wholly on me now, striding forward, past the whimpering form of Murphy. "I do not fear thy power, mortal," he snarled.

  I lifted my chin and waved my fire-holding hand around a bit. "This is thy last warning, faerie dog!"

  Grum's beady eyes grew angrier. He let out a harsh laugh and did not slow down. "Feeble mortal trickster. Thy spellfire means nothing to me. Do thy worst. "

  Behind Grum, Murphy threw the auto blanket off of her shoulders, and with one rip of the starting cord fired up her shiny new Coleman chain saw. She engaged the blade with a hissing whirr of air and without preamble swung it in an arc that ended precisely at the back of Grum's thick, hairy knee. The steel blade chewed through the ogre's hide as if it was made of Styrofoam. Blood and bits of meat flew up in a gruesome cloud.

  The ogre screamed, his body contorting in agony. The scarlet skin around the injury immediately swelled, darkening to black, and tendrils of infectious-looking darkness spread from the wound up over the ogre's leg and hip within the space of a breath. He swept one huge fist at Murphy, but she was already getting out of his reach. The ogre's weight came down on the injured leg, and Grum fell to earth with a heavy thud.

  I started forward to help, but everything was happening fast, and my movements felt nightmarishly slow. The ogre rolled to his belly at once, maddened at the touch of the iron in the chain saw's blade, and started dragging himself toward Murphy faster than I would have believed with just his arms, talons gouging into the concrete. She hurried away from him, limping, but Grum slammed one fist down on the concrete so hard that half a dozen feet away, she was jarred off balance and fell.

  Grum got hold of Murphy's foot and started dragging her back toward him. She let out a hollow gasp, then twisted and wriggled. She slipped out of her sneaker and hauled herself away from the ogre, her face gone white and drawn.

  I ran up behind Grum, pulling my left hand out from behind my back, the fingers of my right hand still curled around the flickering flame I'd shown the ogre. A large yellow-and-green pump-pressure water gun sloshed a little in my left fist. I lowered it and squeezed the trigger. A stream of gasoline sprayed out all over Grum's back, soaking the ogre's skin. Grum whirled toward me halfway through, and I shot the gasoline into his eyes and nose, eliciting another scream. He bared his fangs and glared at me through eyes swollen almost shut.

  "Wizard," he said, hardly understandable through the fangs and the drool, "your spellflame will not stop me. "

  I turned my right hand slowly, and showed Grum the burning can of Sterno I'd been palming. "Good thing I've got this plain old vanilla fire, then, huh?"

  And I tossed the lit can of Sterno onto the gasoline-soaked ogre.

  Hamstrung and blazing like a birthday candle, Grum screamed and thrashed. I skipped back and around him, helping Murphy up to her feet as the ogre slammed himself against the ground and then against the back wall of the Wal-Mart. He did that in a frenzy for maybe twenty seconds, before uttering an odd, ululating cry and hurling himself at a deep shadow behind a trash bin - and vanished, the light from the flames simply disappearing.

  Murphy got up only with my help, her face pale with pain. She could put no weight at all on her wounded leg. "What happened?"

  "We whipped him," I said. "He packed up and headed back to Faerie. "

  "For good?"

  I shook my head. "For now. How's your leg?"

  "Hurts. Think I broke something. I can hop on the other one. "

  "Lean on me," I said. We went a few paces, and she swayed dangerously. I caught her before she toppled. "Murph?"

  "Sorry, sorry," she gasped. "Hopping, bad idea. "

  I helped her back down to the ground. "Look, stay here, against the wall. I'll get the Beetle and pull it around here to you. "

  Murphy was in enough pain to keep her from arguing. She did draw her gun, switch the safety on, and offer it to me. I shook my head. "Keep it. You might need it. "

  "Dresden," Murphy said, "my gun has been about as useful as fabric softener in a steel mill tonight. But someone out there has a rifle. If they're using one, it's because they're a human, and you don't have most of your magic stuff with you. Take the gun. "

  She was right, but I argued anyway. "I can't leave you defenseless, Murph. "

  Murphy hauled up the leg of her jeans and pulled a tiny automatic from an ankle holster. She worked the slide, checked the safety, and said, "I'm covered. "

  I took the Colt, checked the chamber and the safety, more or less by reflex. "That's a cute little gun there, Murph. "

  She scowled at me. "I have small ankles. It's the only one I can hide there. "

  I chanted, teasing, "Murphy's got a girl gun, Murphy's got a girl gun. "

  Murphy glowered at me and hauled the chain saw to within easy reach. "Come a little closer and say that. "

  I snorted at her. "Give me a couple minutes," I said. "I'll tell you it's me. Some of these bad guys can play dress up - so if you aren't sure who it is . . . "

  Murphy nodded, pale and resolved, and rested her hand on the gun.

  I drew a deep breath and walked through the mist around the side of the building and toward the front parking lot. I kept close to the wall and moved as quietly as I could, Listening as I went. I gathered up energy for the shield bracelet and held my left hand ready. I held the gun in my right. Holding a pair of defenses focused around my left hand, I would have to do all my shooting with my right. I'm not a very good shot even when I can use both hands, so I just had to hope that no sharpshooting would be required.

  I got to the front of the building before I heard something click in the fenced area of the garden center. I swallowed and pointed the Colt at it, noting that I wasn't sure how many rounds the gun had left.

  As I came closer, through the mist, I saw the chain fence around the ruined area where I'd been trapped with the chlorofiend. It had been torn down in a swath ten feet wide, and from what I could see of the inside, the tree-thing wasn't there anymore. Great. I took a few steps closer to the break in the fence to stare at the ruined chain link. I'd expected bent and stretched wire, still hot enough to burn where it had torn. Instead, I found edges cut off as neatly as with a set of clippers and coated with frost.

  I checked around on the ground and found sections of wire, none of them longer than two or three inches. Steam curled up from them, and the cold in the air near the fence made me shiver. The fence had been frozen, chilled until the steel had become brittle and then shattered.

  "Winter," I muttered. "I guess that wasn't much of a stretch. "

  I swept my eyes around through the mist, left my ears open, and paced as quietly as I could toward the dim, flickering lights that lay somewhere ahead in the parking lot. I'd parked the Beetle in an aisle almost even with the front doors, but I didn't have a reference point through the mist. I just headed out, picked the first row of cars, and started prowling silently along them, looking for the Beetle.

  My car wasn't in the first row, but a thin stream of some kind of yellowish fluid was. I traced it to the next row, and found the Beetle sitting there in its motley colors. Another leak. They weren't exactly unheard of in a wizard's car, but this would be a hell of a time for the Beetle to
get hospitalized.

  I got in and set the gun down long enough to shove my keys in the ignition. My trusty steed wheezed and groaned a few times, but the engine turned over with an apologetic cough and the car rattled to life. I put it in gear, pulled through the empty space in front of me, and headed for the back of the building to get Murphy.

  I had just passed the garden center with its ruined fence when my windows abruptly frosted over. It happened in the space of a breath, ice crystals forming and growing like plants on a stop-motion film until my view was completely cut off. The temperature dropped maybe fifty degrees, and the car sputtered. If I hadn't given it a bunch of gas, it would have stalled. The Beetle lurched forward, and I rolled down the window, sticking my head out the side in an effort to see what was going on.

  The chlorofiend loomed up out of the mist and brought one huge, knobby fist down on the Beetle like an organic wrecking ball. The force of it crumpled the hood like tin foil and drove the shocks down so that the frame smushed up against the tires. The impact threw me forward against the steering wheel and drove the breath out of me with a shock of pain.

  The impact would have rolled any car with an engine under the hood. Most of the mass of the car would have been driven down, the lighter rear end would have flipped up, and me without my seat belt would have been bounced around like a piece of popcorn.

  The old Volkswagens, though, have their engine in the back. Most of the weight of the car got bounced up a little in the air, then came back down to the ground with a jolt.

  I slammed my foot on the gas harder, and the Beetle's engine sputtered gamely in response. As big and strong as the chlorofiend might be, it wasn't solid and it wasn't as heavy as a living mass of the same size. The Beetle bounced up from the blow that had crumpled the empty storage compartment under the hood and slammed into the chlorofiend without losing much of its momentum.

  The beast let out a shriek of what might have been surprise, and was definitely pain. My car hammered into it with a flickering of scarlet static and a cloud of smoke from the substance of the faerie creature, swept under its legs, and drove the chlorofiend atop its hood.

  I kept my foot on the gas, held the wheel as steadily as I could with one hand, and stuck my head out the window so I could see. The chlorofiend screamed again, the magic around it gathering in a cloud that made the hairs on my neck stand up, but the Beetle rattled through the attempt to hex it down, carrying the chlorofiend the length of the Wal-Mart garden center and to the back of the building.

  "Think of it as payback for all those telephone poles," I muttered to the Beetle, and slammed on the brakes.

  The chlorofiend rolled off of my car, skidded on the asphalt, and slammed into the side of a metal trash bin with a yowl of pain and an exploding cloud of dirt clods. Only one of my headlights appeared to have survived the attack, and even it flickered woozily through the mist and the cloud of dust and dirt rising from the chlorofiend.

  I slammed the car into reverse, backed up a few more feet, then put it back into neutral. I raced the engine, then popped the clutch and sent the Beetle hurtling at the monster. I braced myself for the impact this time, and pulled my head in before I hit. The impact felt violent, shockingly loud, and viscerally satisfying. The chlorofiend let out a broken-sounding creak, but until I backed the car up and whipped the wheel around so that I could see out the side window, I couldn't tell what had happened.

  I'd torn the thing in half at about the middle, pinching it between the battered, frost-coated Beetle and the metal trash bin. Thank the stars it hadn't been a Fiberglas job. The legs lay against the trash bin, now only a pile of twisted saplings and earth, while the arms flailed toward me, a dozen long paces away, uselessly pounding the asphalt.

  I spat out my window, put the car into gear again, and went to get Murphy.

  I jumped out of the car and had to wrench the passenger door hard to get it to open. Murphy pushed herself up, using the wall for support, and stared at the frost-covered Beetle with wide eyes. "What the hell happened?"

  "The plant monster. "

  "A plant monster and Frosty the Snowman?"

  I got on her wounded side to support her. "I took care of it. Let's go. "

  Murphy let out another small sound of pain, but she didn't let it stop her from hobbling along toward the car. I was just about to help her in when she shouted, "Harry!" and threw her weight against me.

  The chlorofiend, the upper half, had somehow clawed its way out of the mist, and one long, viny limb was reaching for me. I fell back, away from it, and tried to shield Murphy with my body.

  It got me. I felt fingers the size of young tree trunks wrap around my throat and jerk me away from Murphy like I was a puppy. More branch-fingers got one of my thighs, and I felt myself suspended in the air and pulled slowly apart.

  "Meddler," hissed an alien voice from somewhere near the chlorofiend's glowing green eyes. "You should never have involved yourself in these affairs. You have no concept of what is at stake. Die for your arrogance. "

  I tried for a witty riposte, but my vision blacked out and my head felt like it was trapped in a slowly tightening vise. I tried gathering forces, attempting to push them through my shield bracelet, but the moment I did there was a rustle of wood and leaves, and the bracelet snapped off of my wrist, broken. I tried to gather another spell - and realized as I did that my concentration had wavered too much and that my defense against the insidious enchantment of the mist had begun to fail. My thoughts broke apart into irregular pieces, and I struggled to reach for them and put them together again as the pressure on my body increased, became a red-hot agony.

  I only dimly heard the chain saw start up again, and Murphy's scream of challenge. The charm she wore wasn't relying on my concentration. It wouldn't last long, but it would keep the mist away from her for a few more minutes. The chlorofiend let out a shriek, and I heard the saw biting into wood, felt wood chips hitting my face.

  I tumbled free, sapling branches tangled all around my head and shoulders, leaves and dirt scratching my face. My leg was still in the chlorofiend's grip, but I could breathe again.

  The mist pressed close to me, giving me a sense of detachment and disinterest. It was hard to make any sense of what happened next. Murphy hopped closer, her weight on the one leg, and swept the chain saw through the chlorofiend's other arm. I fell to the ground, more inert tree parts around me.

  The chlorofiend waved its arms at Murphy, but they didn't have the crippling force I'd seen it use before. They merely jostled her and knocked her down. Murphy snarled, crawling on her hands and knees, dragging the chain saw with her. She lifted it again and drove it at the creature's head, engine racing, blade singing through the air. The chlorofiend screamed in protest and frustration, lifting the stumps (hah hah, get it, stumps?) of its arms in feeble defense. Murphy tore through them with the chain saw, snicker-snack, and then drove the blade directly between the chlorofiend's glowing green eyes.

  The monster shrieked again, writhing, but its arms never managed to do more than shove Murphy around a bit. Then it let out a final groan, and the eyes winked out. Murphy suddenly sat atop a mound of dirt and leaves and gnarled branches.

  I lay there, staring stupidly at her, then heard a gunshot, the sharp, cracking report of a rifle. Murphy threw herself down and rolled toward me. A second shot rang out, and a puff of leaves a foot to Murphy's right leapt into the air.

  Another sound cut through the night - police sirens, getting closer. Murphy dragged me and herself over the ground toward the car. I heard a harsh curse somewhere in the mist, and then a pair of footsteps retreating. A moment later, I thought the mist was starting to thin out.

  "Harry," Murphy said, shaking me. I blinked at her, and the relief showed in her worried expression. "Harry, can you hear me?"

  I nodded. My mouth felt dry and my body ached. I fought to clear my head.

  "Get us in the car," she said, enunciatin
g the words. "Get us in the car and get us out of here. "

  The car. Right. I hauled Murphy into the Beetle, got in myself, and stared at the frosted windshield. The heat of the summer night was already melting the frost away, and I could see through it in spots.

  "Harry," Murphy said, exasperated, her voice thin and shaky. "Drive!"

  Oh, right. Drive. Get out. I put the Beetle in gear, more or less, and we lurched out of the parking lot and out of the mist.