Grave Peril, Page 21Jim Butcher
I've done smarter things in my life. Once, for example, I threw myself out of a moving car in order to take on a truckload of lycanthropes singlehandedly. That had been nominally smarter. At least I had been fairly certain that I could kill them, if I had to, at the time.
Which put me one step ahead of where I was, now. I had already killed the Nightmare - or helped to kill it, at least. Something about that just didn't seem fair. There should be some kind of rule against needing to kill anything more than once.
Rain fell in sheets rather than drops, sluicing down into my eyes. I had to keep on wiping my brow, sweeping water away, only to have it fill my vision again. I started to give serious thought to what it might be like to drown, right there on the sidewalk.
I cut across the street toward the cemetery fence. Seven feet of red brick, the fence rose in a jagged stair-step fashion every hundred feet or so, keeping up with the slow slope of the street along its southern perimeter as it moved west. At one point, a gaping slash of darkness marred the fence's exterior, and I slowed as I approached it. The bricks had been torn like paper, and lay in rubble two feet deep around the hole in the wall. I tried to peer beyond it, and saw only more rain, green grass, the shadows of trees cast over the carefully tended grounds.
I paused, outside the graveyard. A dull, restless energy pressed against me, like when weariness and caffeine mix around three-thirty in the morning. It rolled against my skin, and I heard, actually heard whispering voices, through the rain, dozens, hundreds of whispers, ghostly sussurance. I put my hand on the wall, and felt the tension there. There are always fences around cemeteries. Always, whether stone or brick or chain-link. It's one of those unwritten things that people don't really notice, they just do it by reflex. Any kind of wall is a barrier in more than merely a physical sense. Lots of things are more than what they seem in a purely physical sense.
Walls keep things out. Walls around cemeteries keep things in.
I looked back, hoping that Michael had followed me, but I didn't or couldn't see him in the rain. I still felt weak, shaken. The voices whispered, clustering around the weak point in the wall, where the Nightmare had torn its way in. Even if only one death in a thousand had produced a ghost (and more than that did) there might be dozens of restless spirits wandering the grounds, some even strong enough for non-practitioners of the Art to experience.
Tonight, there weren't dozens. Dozens would have been a happy number. I closed my eyes and could feel the power they stirred up, the way the air wavered and shook with the presence of hundreds of spirits, easily crossed over from the turbulent Nevernever. It made my knees shake, my belly quiver - both from the wounds that had been inflicted on me by the Nightmare and from simple, primitive fear of darkness, the rain, and a place of the dead.
The inmates of Graceland felt my fear. They pressed close to the break in the wall, and I began to hear actual, physical moans.
"I should wait here," I muttered to myself, shaking in the rain. "I should wait for Michael. That would be the smart thing to do. "
Somewhere, in the darkness of the cemetery, a woman screamed. Charity.
What I wouldn't have given to have my Dead Man's talisman back, now. Son of a bitch.
I gripped my staff, knuckles white, and got out my blasting rod. Then I clambered through the break in the wall and headed into the darkness.
I felt them the moment I crossed into the cemetery, the second my shoes hit the ground. Ghosts. Shades. Haunts. Whatever you want to call them, they were dead as hell and they weren't going to take it anymore. They were weak spirits, each of them, something that would barely have given me a passing shiver on a normal night - but tonight wasn't.
A chill fell over me, abrupt as winter's first wind. I took a step forward and felt a resistance, but not as though someone was trying to keep me out. It felt more like those movies I've seen with tourists struggling through crowds of beggars in dusty Middle Eastern cities. That's what I experienced, in a chilling and spectral kind of way - people pushing against me, struggling to get something from me, something that I wasn't sure I had and that I didn't think would do any good even if I gave it to them.
I gathered in my will and slipped my mother's amulet from around my neck. I held it aloft in the smothering, clammy darkness, and fed power into it.
The blue wizard light began to glow, to cast out a dim radiance, not so bright as usual. The silver pentagram within the circle was the symbol of my faith, if that's what you wanted to call it, in magic. In the concept of power being controlled, ordered, used for constructive purpose. I wondered, for a minute, if the dimness was a reflection of my injuries or if it said something about my faith. I tried to think of how often I'd had to set something on fire, the past few years, how many times I'd had to blow something up. Or smash a building. Or otherwise wreak havoc.
I ran out of fingers and shivered. Maybe I'd better start being a little more careful.
The spirits fell back from that light, but for a few who still clustered close, whispering things into my ears. I didn't pay them any attention, or stop to listen. That way lay madness. I shoved forward, more an effort of the heart than of the body, and started searching.
"Charity!" I shouted. "Charity, where are you?"
I heard a short sound, a call, off to my right, but it cut off swiftly. I turned toward it and began moving forward at a cautious lope, glowing pentacle held aloft like Diogenes's lamp. Thunder rumbled again. The rain had already soaked the grass, made the dirt beneath my feet soft and yielding. A brief, disturbing image of the dead tearing their way up through the softened earth brought me a brief chill and a dozen spirits clustering close as though to feed from it. I shoved both fear and clutching, unseen fingers aside, and pressed forward.
I found Charity laying upon a bier within a marble edifice that looked like nothing so much as a Greek temple, the roof open to the sky. Michael's wife lay upon her back, her hands clutched over her swollen belly, her teeth bared in a snarl.
The Nightmare stood over her, with my dark hair plastered to its head, my dark eyes reflecting the gleam of my pentacle. It held one hand in the air over Charity's belly, its other over her throat. It tilted its head and watched me approach. In the edges of my wizard's light, shapes moved, flitted, spirits swirling around like moths.
"Wizard," the Nightmare said.
"Demon," I responded. I wasn't feeling much like any snappier patter.
It smiled, teeth showing. "Is that what I am," it said. "Interesting. I wasn't sure. " It lifted its hand from Charity's throat, pointed a finger toward me, and murmured, "Goodbye, wizard. Fuego. "
I felt the surge of power before any fire rose up and swept toward me through the rain. I lifted my staff in my left hand in front of me, horizontally, and slammed power recklessly into a shield. "Riflettum!"
Fire and rain met in a furious hiss and a cloud of steam a foot in front of my outstretched staff. The rain helped, I think. I would never have been stupid enough to try for a gout of flame in a downpour like this. It was too easily defeated.
Charity moved, the instant the Nightmare's attention was distracted. She spun her feet toward it and, with a furious cry, planted both her heels high in the thing's chest with a vicious shove.
Charity wasn't a weak woman. The thing grunted and flew back, away from her, and at the same time the motion pushed Charity's body off the bier. She fell to the other side, crying out, curling her body around her unborn child to protect it.
I sprinted forward. "Charity," I shouted. "Get out! Run!"
She turned her head toward me and I saw how furious she was. She bared her teeth at me for a moment, but her face clouded with confusion. "Dresden?" she said.
"No time!" I shouted. On the other side of the bier, the Nightmare rose to its feet again, dark eyes gone now, instead blazing with scarlet fury. I didn't have time to think about it, running forward. "Run, Charity!"
w it would be suicide to wrestle with something that had torn down a brick wall a few minutes ago - but I had a sinking feeling that I was outclassed in the magic department. If he got another spell off, I didn't think I could counter it. I held my staff in both hands, planted it at the base of the bier and vaulted up, swinging my feet toward the Nightmare's face.
I had speed and surprise on my side. I hit it hard and it staggered back. My staff spun out of my hands and my hip struck painfully on the edge of the bier and scraped along my ribs as I continued forward, riding the thing into the marble flooring. My concentration gone, the blue wizard light died out and I fell in darkness.
I hit the ground with a wheeze, and scrambled back. If the Nightmare got hold of me, that would be it. I had just reached the edge of the bier when something seized my leg, right below the knee, a grip like an iron band around me. I struggled to draw myself back, but there was nothing to grab onto but rain-slicked marble.
The Nightmare stood up, and a flash of lightning somewhere overhead showed me its dark eyes, its face like mine. It was smiling. "And so it ends, wizard," it said. "I am rid of thee at last. "
I tried to get away, but the Nightmare simply whirled me by one leg, whipping me into a circle in the air. Then I flew upwards and saw one of the columns coming toward me.
Then there was a flash of light and a sharp pain in the center of my forehead. The impact with the ground came as a secondary sensation, relatively pleasant compared with the first.
Unconsciousness would have been a mercy. Cold rain instead kept me awake enough to experience every agonizing second of expanding pain in my skull. I tried to move my limbs and couldn't, and for a second I thought that my neck must have broken. Then, in the corner of my vision, I saw my fingers twitch, and thought with a flash of depression that I wasn't out of the fight yet.
A major effort got my hand down onto the ground. Another major effort pushed me up and made my head spin, my stomach heave. I leaned back against the column, gasping for breath through the rain, and tried to gather my strength.
It didn't take long - there just wasn't all that much strength left to gather. I opened my eyes, slowly focused them. I felt a sharp tang in my mouth. I touched my hand to my mouth, my cheek, and my fingers came away stained with something warm and dark. Blood.
I tried to rise up and couldn't. Just couldn't. Everything spun too much. Water coursed down over me, chilling me, pooling at the base of the little hill the Greek temple-cum-mausoleum stood upon, running a stream down toward another creek.
"So much water," purred a female voice beside me. "So many things flowing down, away. I wonder if some of them are not being wasted. "
I rolled my head enough to see my godmother standing beside me in her green dress. Lea's skin had evidently recovered from the ghost dust I'd dumped upon her in Agatha Hagglethorn's demesne. Her golden cat-eyes studied me with their old, familiar warmth, her hair spilling around her in a mane that seemed unaffected by the rain. She didn't seem to mind it soaking her dress, though. It clung to the curves of her body, showed the perfection of her breasts, their tips clearly showing through the silken fabric as she knelt down beside me.
"What are you doing here?" I muttered.
She smiled, reached out a finger, and ran it over my forehead, then drew it back to her mouth and slipped it between her lips and suckled, gently, upon it. Her eyes closed, and she let out a long and shivering sigh. "Such a sweet boy. You always were such a sweet boy. "
I tried to push myself to my feet and couldn't. Something in my head seemed broken.
She watched me with that same, benign smile. "Thy strength is fading, my sweet. Here in the place of the dead, it may fail thee altogether. "
"This isn't the Nevernever, godmother," I rasped. "You don't have any power here. "
She pursed her lips in what would have been a seductive pout on a human. My blood had stained them even darker. "My sweet. You know it is not true. I simply only have what I am given, here. What I have fairly traded for. "
I bared my teeth at her. "You're going to kill me, then. "
She threw back her head in a rich laugh. "Kill you? I never intended to kill you, my sweet, barring moments of frustration. Our bargain was for your life - not your death. " One of her hounds appeared out of the darkness, and crouched beside her, fastening its dark eyes upon me. She laid a fond hand upon its broad head, and it shivered in pleasure.
I felt myself grow colder, at that, staring at the hound. "You don't want me dead. You want me . . . " I couldn't finish the sentence.
"Tamed. " Lea smiled. She scratched the dog's ears, fondly. "But not like this. " Her mouth twisted into a contemptuous smirk. "Not as you are. Pathetic. Really, Harry, allowing yourself to be eaten, so. Justin and I taught you better than that. "
Somewhere close, Charity shouted again. Thunder rolled overhead.
I groaned and struggled to push myself up. Lea watched me through golden, cat-slitted eyes, interested and uncaring. I managed to get to my feet, my back and most of my weight leaning against the column. In the rain, I could dimly see Charity on her knees. The Nightmare stood over her, one hand clutching her hair. It pushed the other toward her head. She fought it, uselessly, shuddering in the rain. Its fingers sunk into her skull, and Charity's struggles abruptly ceased.
I groaned and pushed myself forward, to get closer, to do something. Everything spun around and I fell to the earth again, hard.
"Sweet boy. " Lea sighed. "Poor child. " She knelt down beside me again, and stroked my hair. It felt nice, through my nausea and pain. I think the nausea and pain definitely cut down on the seductive potential of it, though. "Would you like me to help you?"
I managed to look up at her lovely face. "Help me?" I asked. "H-how?"
Her eyes sparkled. "I can give you what you need to save the White Knight's Lady. "
I stared up at her. All the pain, the terror, the stupid, rainy cold made me ache horribly. I heard Charity whimper. I had tried. Dammit, I had done my best to help the woman. She didn't even like me. It wasn't my fault if she died, right? I had done everything in my power.
I swallowed down the sickly taste of bile and acid and asked, "What do you want, Godmother?"
She shivered and drew in a swift breath. "What I have always wanted, sweet boy. This bargain is no different than the one we made years ago. It is, in fact, a part of the same. I give you power. And in return, I get you. " Her eyes flashed. "I want your promise, wizard. I want your promise that when the woman is safe, you will come to me. You will take my hand. Here, tonight. "
"You want me to go back with you," I whispered. "But you don't want me like this, Godmother. All torn up. I'm empty inside. "
She smiled, and stroked the hellhound's head. "Yes. In time, you will heal. And I will make that time pass swiftly, my sweet. " She leaned closer to me, golden eyes burning. "Such pleasures I will teach you. No man could wish for a merrier passing. " She looked up again, over the bier that hid my view of Charity and the Nightmare. "The White Knight's Lady sees such things, now. Soon, she will be trapped, as is the police woman. "
"How did you know about Murphy?" I demanded.
"I know many things. I know that you may die, if you do nothing, my sweet. You may die here cold and alone. "
"I don't care about that," I said. "I . . . "
Charity let out a choking, sobbing sound nearby. Lea smiled, and murmured, "Time is fleeting, child. It waits for no one, not man nor sidhe nor wizard. "
Lea already had me over a barrel. If I deepened our pact, reconfirmed it, I'd be letting her nail it closed with me inside. But I couldn't get up. I couldn't do a damned thing to save Charity without getting some help.
I closed my eyes, and saw Michael's little daughter. I thought of her growing up without a mother.
"I accept your bargain, Godmother. " When I spoke the words, I felt something stir agai
nst me, something that sealed closed.
Lea gasped, eyes closing as she shuddered again, then opening with a feral glow. She leaned down and murmured, "The answer, my sweet, is all around you. " Then she kissed my forehead and was gone in a flicker of shadows.
I found myself thinking clearly again. It still hurt to move - stars, did it hurt, but I managed it. I clambered to my feet, leaned against the bier, and looked up to let the rain wash the blood from my eyes.
The answer was all around me. What the hell kind of idiotic advice was that? I glared around, but saw nothing but rolling lawns, trees, and graves. Lots of graves. Plain tombstones and marble markers, graves with ponds beside them, graves with lights, graves with small fountains. Dead people. That's what was all around.
I focused my eyes on Charity and the Nightmare, and felt cold anger inside. I moved around the edge of the bier, gaining a little stability and balance as I went, and shouted, "Hey! You! Ugly!"
The Nightmare turned its head to blink in my direction, surprised. Then it smiled again and said, "Thou art not yet dead. How interesting. " It released Charity, fingers gliding out of her as they had from Murphy, and she fell limply to her side. "I can finish that one at leisure. But thou, wizard, I will make an end to at once. "
"Yadda yadda yadda," I muttered. I bent down and recovered my staff, standing again with it in both hands. "People don't talk like that anymore. All those thous and thees. Hells bells, at least the faeries can keep up with the dialect. "
The Nightmare frowned at me, and started walking toward me. "Dost thou not realize it, fool? This is thy death come upon thee. "
A boot planted itself heavily on the marble beside me. Then another. Amoracchius cast a glowing white light upon my shoulder, and Michael said, "I think not. "
I glanced aside at Michael. "You," I groaned, "have very good timing. "
He bared his teeth in an unpleasant, fierce expression. "My wife?"
"She's alive," I said. "But we'd better get her out of here. "
He nodded. "I'll kill it again," he said. He passed me something hard and cool - a crucifix. "You get her. Give her this. "
The Nightmare came to a halt, its eyes narrowing upon the pair of us. "Thou," it said to Michael. "I knew it would come to this. "
"Oh, shut up!" I shouted, exasperated. "Michael, killing this thing already!"
Michael started forward, the sword's white fire lighting the night like a halogen torch. The Nightmare screamed in fury and threw itself to one side, avoiding the blade, then rushed back in toward Michael, fingers raking like claws. Michael ducked under them, planted a shoulder in the thing's gut, and shoved it away, spun, and whipped the sword at it. Amoracchius cut into the Nightmare's midsection, and white fire erupted from the wound.
I hurried forward, around Michael's back to Charity. Already, she was stirring, trying to sit up. "Dresden," she whispered to me. "My husband?"
"He's busy kicking ass," I said, and pressed the crucifix into her fingers. "Here. Take this. Can you walk?"
"Mind your tongue, Mr. Dresden. " She grasped the crucifix and bowed her head for a second. "I don't know," she said. "Oh, Lord help me. I think - " Her whole body tightened, and she let out a low gasp, pressing her hand against her belly.
"What?" I said. Had she been injured? Behind me, I could hear Michael grunting, see the sweep of Amoracchius's white fire making shadows dance. "Charity, what is it?"
She let out a low groan. "The baby," she said. "Oh, I think . . . I think my water broke earlier. When I fell. " Her face twisted up, flushing bright red, and she groaned again.
"Oh," I said. "Oh. Oh, no. No, this is not happening. " I put the heel of my hand to my forehead. "This is just wrong. " I shot an accusing glance skywards. "Someone up there has a sick sense of humor. "
"Nnngggrhhh!" Charity groaned. "Oh, Lord preserve. Mr. Dresden, I don't have much time. "
"No. " I sighed. "Naturally not. " I bent down to pick her up and all but fell on my face. I managed to keep from sprawling onto her, but wobbled as I stood up again. Charity was not a dainty flower. There was no way I could carry her out of there.
"Michael!" I shouted. "Michael, we've got a problem!"
Michael threw himself behind one of the biers as a stone whistled out of the darkness and shattered to powder against it. "What?"
"Charity!" I shouted. "Her baby's coming!"
"Harry!" Michael shouted. "Look out!"
I turned and the Nightmare appeared from the darkness behind me, moving almost more swiftly than I could see. It reached down and simply tore a marble headstone from the earth, lifting it high. I threw myself between it and Charity, but even as I did, I knew it would be a futile gesture - it was strong enough to crush her right through me. But I did it anyway.
"Now!" screamed the Nightmare. "Put down your sword, Knight! Put it down, or I crush them both!"
Michael started towards us, his face pale. "Not a step closer," the Nightmare snarled. "Not an inch. "
Michael stopped. He stared at Charity, who groaned again, panting, eyes forced shut. "H-Harry?" he said.
I could get out of the thing's way. I could draw its fire, maybe. But if I moved, it could simply crush Charity. She'd have no chance at all.
"The sword," the Nightmare said, voice cool. "Drop it. "
"Oh Lord," Michael whispered.
"Don't do it, Michael," I said. "It's only going to kill us anyway. "
"Be thou silent," the Nightmare said. "My quarrel is with thee, wizard, and with the knight. The woman and her child are nothing to me, so long as I have both of you. "
Rain sleeted down for a long and otherwise silent moment. Then Michael closed his eyes. "Harry," he said. He lowered the great sword. Then gave it a gentle toss to one side, letting it fall on the ground. "I'm sorry. I can't do it. "
The Nightmare met my eyes with its own, glowing faint scarlet, and its lips curled up into a gleeful smile. "Wizard," it said, in a whisper. "Thy friend should have listened to thee. " I saw the gravestone start to come down toward me.
Charity's arm abruptly swept up, the crucifix I'd passed her held in it. The symbol flickered, and then kindled with white fire that threw harsh, horror-movie shadows up over the Nightmare's face. It twisted and recoiled from that light, screaming, and the tombstone crashed down to the earth, rending the damp, vulnerable soil.
Everything slowed down and came into crystalline focus. I could clearly see the grounds, the shadows of the trees. I could hear Charity beside me, uttering something in harsh Latin, and out of the corner of my eye, could see the restless shades moving about the cemetery. I could feel the cold sharpness of the rain, feel it coursing down over me, flowing down the gentle slopes to run in rivulets and streams to the nearby pond.
Running water. The answer was all around me.
I moved forward, toward the Nightmare. It swung at me with one flailing arm, and I felt it clip my shoulder as it swept down. Then I threw myself into the Nightmare's body, hit it hard. We tumbled together down the slope, toward the newly forming stream.
You ever hear the Legend of Sleepy Hollow? Remember the part with poor old Ichabod riding like blazes for the covered bridge and safety? Running water grounds magical energies. Creatures of the Nevernever, spirit bodies, cannot cross it without losing all the energy required to keep those bodies here. That was the answer.
I rolled down the slope with the Nightmare, and felt its hands tearing at me. We went down into the stream together, as one of its hands clenched my throat and shut off my breath.
And then it began to scream. It jerked and twisted atop me in eight or nine inches of running water, shrieking. The thing's body just started melting away, like sugar in water, starting at its feet and moving up. I watched it, watched myself dissolve with a morbid kind of fascination. It writhed, it bucked, it thrashed.
"Wizard," it said, voice bubbling. "This is not over. Not over. When the sun sets again, wizard, I wil
l be back for thee!"
"Melt already," I mumbled. And, seconds later, the Nightmare vanished, leaving only sticky gook behind, on my coat, my throat.
I stood up out of the water, drenched and shivering, and slogged my way back up the little hill. Michael had gone to his wife and crouched down beside her. He got his arms underneath her and lifted her as though she were a basket of laundry. Like I said before, Michael's buff.
"Harry," he said. "The sword. "
"I got it," I replied. I trudged up to where he'd let Amoracchius fall and picked it up. The great blade weighed less than I would have thought, and it fairly hummed with power, vibrating in my fingers. I didn't have a sheath for it, so I just slung it up on one shoulder and hoped I wouldn't fall and cut my head off or something. I recovered my other stuff, too, and turned to walk out with Michael.
That was when Lea arrived, appearing before me with a trio of her hellhounds around her. "My sweet," she said. "It is time to fulfill your bargain. "
I yelped and jumped back from her. "No," I said. "No, wait. I beat this thing, but it's still loose. It will be able to come back from the Nevernever tomorrow night. "
"That is of no concern to me," Lea said, and shrugged. "Our bargain was for you to save the woman with what I gave you. "
"You didn't give me anything," I said. "You just blanked out some of the pain. It isn't as though you made the water, Godmother. "
She shrugged, smiling. "Semantics. I pointed it out to you, did I not?"
"I would have realized it on my own," I said.
"Perhaps. But we have a bargain. " She lowered her face, eyes gleaming gold and dangerous. "Are you going to attempt to escape it once more?"
I'd given my word. And broken promises add up to trouble. But the Nightmare hadn't been defeated. Driven back, sure, but it would only be back the next night.
"I'll go with you," I said. "When I've beaten the Nightmare. "
"You'll go now. " Lea smiled. "This instant. Or pay the price. " The three hellhounds took a pace toward me, baring their teeth in a silent snarl.
I fumbled everything out of my grasp but the sword, and gripped it tightly. I don't know a thing about broadswords, but it was heavy and sharp, and even without its vast power, I was pretty sure I could stick the pointy part into one of those hounds. "I can't do that," I said. "Not yet. "
"Harry!" Michael shouted. "Wait! It can't be used like that!"
One of the hounds leapt toward me, and I lifted the blade. Then there was a flash of light and a jolt of pain that lanced up through my hands and arms. The blade twisted in my grasp, fell out of it and spun to the ground. The hellhound snapped at me, and I stumbled back, my hands gone numb and useless.
Lea's laughter rang out through the graves like silver bells. "Yes!" she caroled, stepping forward. She bent and with a casual motion picked up the great sword. "I knew you would try to cheat me again, sweet boy. " She smiled at me, a flash of dainty canines. "I must thank you, Harry. I would never have been able to touch this had not the one who held it betrayed its purpose. "
I felt a flash of anger at my own stupidity. "No," I stammered. "Wait. Can't we talk about this, Godmother?"
"We'll talk again, sweet boy. I'll see you both very soon. " Lea laughed again, eyes gleaming. And then she turned, her hellhounds gathering at her feet, and took a step forward, vanishing into the night. The sword went with her.
I stood there in the rain, feeling tired and cold and stupid. Michael stared at me for a second, his expression shocked, eyes wide. Charity curled against him, shuddering and moaning quietly.
"Harry," Michael whispered. I think he was crying, but I couldn't see the tears in the rain. "Oh my God. What have you done?"