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Death Masks, Page 22

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-two

  Nicodemus walked over to me, his expression somewhat distracted. I realized with a chill that he looked like a man planning his activities for the day. To Nicodemus, I wasn't a person anymore. I was an item on his checklist, a note in his appointment book. He would feel no differently about cutting my throat than he would about putting down a check mark.

  When he got within arm's reach, I couldn't stop myself from trying to get away from him. I thrashed at the ropes, hanging on to the desperate hope that one of them might break and give me a chance to fight, to run, to live. The ropes didn't break. I didn't get loose. Nicodemus watched me until I'd exhausted myself again.

  Then he took a handful of my hair and pulled my chin up and back, twisting my head to my right. I tried to stop him, but I was immobilized and exhausted.

  "Be still," he said. "I'll make it clean. "

  "Do you want the bowl, Father?" Deirdre asked.

  Nicodemus's expression flickered with annoyance. His voice came out tight and impatient. "Where is my mind today? Porter, bring it to me. "

  The grey- haired valet opened the door and left the room.

  A heartbeat later there was a wheezing grunt, and Porter flew back through the doorway and landed on his back. He let out a pained croak and curled into a fetal position.

  Nicodemus sighed, turning. "Bother. What now?" Nicodemus had looked bored when Anna Valmont emptied her gun into him. When I'd blasted a Nicodemus-shaped dent in the drywall of the hotel, he'd come through it without a ruffled hair. But when he saw the valet laying on the ground before the open door, Nicodemus's face went pale, his eyes widened, and he took a pair of quick steps to stand behind me, his knife at my throat. Even his shadow recoiled, rolling back away from the open door.

  "The Jap," Nicodemus snarled. "Kill him. " There was a second of startled silence, and then the goons went for their guns. The one nearest the door didn't get his weapon out of its holster. Shiro, still in the outfit he'd worn at McAnnally's, came through the opening in a flash of black and white and red, his cane in his hand. He drove the end of the cane into Goon A's neck, and the thug dropped to the ground.

  Goon B got his gun out and pointed it at Shiro. The old man bobbed to his left and then smoothly rolled right. The gun went off, and sparks flew up from two of the walls as the bullet ricocheted. Shiro drew Fidelacchius clear of its wooden sheath as he spun closer to the goon, the movement so fast that the sword looked like a blurred sheet of shining steel. Goon B's gun went flying through the air, his shooting hand still gripping it. The man stared at the stump at the end of his arm as blood gouted from it, and Shiro spun again, one heel rising to chin level. The kick broke something in the wounded goon's jaw, and the man collapsed to the damp floor.

  Shiro had taken out three men in half as many seconds, and he hadn't stopped moving. Fidelacchius flashed again, and the chair beneath Deirdre collapsed, spilling her onto the floor. The old man promptly stepped on her wealth of dark hair, whirled the sword, and brought its tip down to rest against the back of Deirdre's neck.

  The room became almost completely silent. Shiro kept his blade to Deirdre's neck, and Nicodemus did the same to mine. The little old man didn't look like the same person I'd talked to. Not that he had physically changed, so much as that the sheer presence of him was different-his features hard as stone, weathering the years only to grow stronger. When he had moved, it had been with a dancer's grace, speed, and skill. His eyes flashed with a silent strength that had been concealed before, and his hands and forearms were corded with muscle. The sword's blade gleamed red with blood and torchlight.

  Nicodemus's shadow edged a bit farther back from the old man.

  I think the freezing water was blending in with my sudden surge of hope and making me a little loopy. I found myself drunkenly singing, "Speed of lightning! Roar of thunder! Fighting all who rob or plunder! Underdog!"

  "Be quiet," Nicodemus said.

  "You sure?" I asked. "'Cause I could do Mighty Mouse if you'd rather. Underdog had this whole substance-use issue anyway. " Nicodemus pressed the knife a bit harder, but my mouth was on autopilot. "That looked fast. I mean, I'm not much of a fencer, but that old man looked amazingly quick to me. Did he look that quick to you? Bet that sword could go right through you and you wouldn't even realize it until your face fell on your feet. "

  I heard Nicodemus's teeth grind.

  "Harry," Shiro said quietly. "Please. "

  I shut up, and stood there with a knife at my throat, shivering, aching, and hoping.

  "The wizard is mine," Nicodemus said. "He's through. You know that. He chose to be a part of this. "

  "Yes," Shiro said.

  "You cannot take him from me. "

  Shiro glanced pointedly at the goons lying on the floor, and then at the captive he held pinned down. "Maybe yes. Maybe no. "

  "Take your chances with it and the wizard dies. You've no claim of redemption here. "

  Shiro was quiet for a moment. "Then we trade. "

  Nicodemus laughed. "My daughter for the wizard? No. I've plans for him, and his death will serve me as well now as later. Harm her, and I kill him now. "

  Shiro regarded the Denarian steadily. "I did not mean your daughter. "

  I suddenly got a sick feeling in my stomach.

  I almost heard Nicodemus's smile. "Very clever, old man. You knew I'd not pass the opportunity by. "

  "I know you," Shiro said.

  "Then you should know that your offer isn't enough," Nicodemus said. "Not by half. "

  Shiro's face did not show any surprise. "Name it. "

  Nicodemus's voice dropped lower. "Swear to me that you will make no effort to escape. That you will summon no aid. That you will not release yourself quietly. "

  "And let you keep me for years? No. But I will give you this day. Twenty-four hours. It is enough. "

  I shook my head at Shiro. "Don't do this. I knew what I was doing. Michael will need your-"

  Nicodemus delivered a swift jab to my right kidney and I lost my breath. "Be silent," he said. He focused his attention on Shiro and inclined his head slowly. "Twenty-four hours. Agreed. "

  Shiro mirrored the gesture. "Now. Let him go. "

  "Very well," Nicodemus said. "As soon as you release my daughter and lay down your sword, the wizard will go free. I swear it. "

  The old knight only smiled. "I know the value of your promises. And you know the value of mine. "

  I felt an eager tension in my captor. He leaned forward and said, "Swear it. "

  "I do," Shiro said. And as he did, he placed his palm lightly along the base of his sword's blade. He lifted it to show a straight cut on his hand, already dribbling blood. "Set him free. I will take his place as you demand. "

  Nicodemus's shadow writhed and boiled on the ground at my feet, bits of it lashing hungrily toward Shiro. The Denarian let out a harsh laugh, and the knife left my neck. He made a couple of quick movements, cutting the rope holding my wrists.

  Without the support of my bonds, I fell. My body screamed in pain. It hurt so much that I didn't notice him cutting my feet free until it was done. I didn't make any noise. Partly because I was too proud to let Nicodemus know how bad I felt. Partly because I didn't have enough breath to whimper anyway.

  "Harry," Shiro said. "Get up. "

  I tried. My legs and feet were numb.

  Shiro's voice changed, carrying a quiet note of authority and command. "Get up. "

  I did it, barely. The wound on my leg felt hot and painful, and the muscle around it twitched and clenched involuntarily.

  "Foolishness," Nicodemus commented.

  "Courage," Shiro said. "Harry, come over here. Get behind me. "

  I managed to lurch to Shiro's side. The old man never looked away from Nicodemus. My head spun a bit and I almost lost my balance. My legs felt like dead wood from the knees down, and my back had started cramping. I ground my teeth and said, "I don't kn
ow how far I can walk. "

  "You must," Shiro said. He knelt down by Deirdre, rested his knee on her spine, and wrapped one arm around her throat. She began to move, but the old man applied pressure, and Deirdre went still again with a whimper of discomfort. That done, Shiro gave Fidelacchius a flick, and the beads of blood upon it sprinkled against one wall. He sheathed the blade in a liquid movement, drew the cane-sheath from his belt, and then passed the hilt of the sword back toward me. "Take it. "

  "Uh," I said. "I don't have a real good record with handling these things. "

  "Take it. "

  "Michael and Sanya might not be too happy with me if I do. "

  Shiro was quiet for a moment before he said, "They will understand. Take it now. "

  I swallowed and did. The wooden hilt of the sword felt too warm for the room, and I could sense a buzz of energy emanating from it in rippling waves. I made sure I had a good grip on it.

  Shiro said quietly, "They will come for you. Go. Second right. Ladder up. "

  Nicodemus watched me as I fell back through the doorway into the dimness of the hall beyond it. I stared at Shiro for a moment. He knelt on the floor, still holding Deirdre's neck at the breaking point, his eyes on Nicodemus. From the back, I could see the wrinkled skin on the back of his neck, the age spots on his freshly shaved scalp. Nicodemus's shadow had grown to the size of a movie screen, and it covered the back wall and part of the floor, twitching and writhing slowly closer to Shiro.

  I turned and headed down the tunnel as quickly as I could. Behind me, I heard Nicodemus say, "Keep your word, Japan. Release my daughter. "

  I looked back. Shiro released the girl and stood up. She flung herself away from him, and as she did Nicodemus's shadow rolled forward like an ocean wave and crashed over the old Knight. One moment, he was there. The next, the room where he stood went totally black, filled with the rasping, seething mass of Nicodemus's demon shadow.

  "Kill the wizard," Nicodemus snarled. "Get the sword. "

  Deirdre let out wild, primal scream from somewhere inside the darkness. I heard ripping, tearing sounds. I heard popping noises that might have been bones breaking or joints being dislocated. Then I heard the steely, slithery rasp of Deirdre's hairdo, and half a dozen metallic strands whipped toward me from the darkness.

  I shuffled back, and the blades fell short of me. I turned around and started hobbling away. I didn't want to leave Shiro there, but if I'd stayed, I only would have died with him. My shame dug at me like a knife.

  More blades emerged from the dark, presumably while Deirdre was still transforming into her demonic aspect. It couldn't be long before she finished and came flashing down the hallway after me. If I couldn't get myself clear, I'd be done for.

  So once again I ran like hell. And hated myself for doing it.