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Grave Peril, Page 26

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-six

  "Poisoned?" I said, witlessly.

  Thomas peered at my face and then down at my goblet. He leaned over it enough to see that it was empty and said, "Ah. Oops. "

  "Harry. " Michael stepped up beside me, and set his own glass aside. "I thought you said that they couldn't try anything so overt. "

  My stomach kept churning. My heart beat more quickly, though whether this was from the poison or the simple, cold fear that Thomas's words had brought to me, I couldn't say. "They can't," I said. "If I pitch over dead, the Council would know what happened. I sent word in today that I was coming here tonight. "

  Michael shot Thomas a hard look. "What was in the wine?"

  The pale man shrugged, slipping his arm around Justine once more. The girl leaned against him and closed her eyes. "I don't know what they put in it," he said. "But look at these people. " He nodded to those black-clad folk who were already stretched out blissfully upon the ground. "They all have wineglasses. "

  I looked a bit closer and it was true. The servants moved about the courtyard, plucking up glasses from the fallen. As I watched, another young couple, dancing slowly together, sank down to the ground in a long, deep kiss that faded away into simple stillness.

  "Hell's bells," I swore. "That's what they're doing. "

  "What?" Michael asked.

  "They don't want me dead," I said. "Not from this. " I didn't have much time. I stalked past the refreshments table to a potted fern and bent over it. I heard Michael take up a position behind me, guarding my back. I shoved a finger down my throat. Simple, quick, nasty. The wine burned my throat coming back up, and the fern's fronds tickled the back of my neck as I spat it back out into the base of the plant. My head spun as I sat back up again, and when I looked back toward Michael, everything blurred for a moment before it snapped back into focus. A slow, delicious numbness spread over my fingers.

  "Everyone," I mumbled.

  "What?" Michael knelt down in front of me and gripped my shoulder with one arm. "Harry, are you all right?"

  "I'm fuzzy," I said. Vampire venom. Naturally. It felt good to have it in me again, and I wondered, for a moment, what I was so worried about. It was just that nice. "It's for everyone. They're drugging everyone's wine. Vamp venom. That way they can say they weren't just targeting me. " I wobbled, and then stood up. "Recreational poisoning. Put everyone in the party mood. "

  Thomas mused. "Rather ham-handed, I suppose, but effective. " He looked around at the growing numbers of young people joining the first few upon the ground in ecstatic stupor. His fingers stroked Justine's flank absently, and she shivered, pressing closer to him. "I suppose I'm prejudiced. I prefer my prey a little more lively. "

  "We've got to get you out of here," Michael said.

  I gritted my teeth, and tried to push the pleasant sensations aside. The venom had to have an enormously quick absorption rate. Even if I'd brought the wine back up, I must have gotten a fairly good dose. "No," I managed after a moment. "That's what they want me to do. "

  "Harry, you can barely stand up," Michael objected.

  "You are looking a bit peaked," Thomas said.

  "Bah. If they want me incapacitated, it means they've got something to hide. "

  "Or just that they want you to get killed," Michael said. "Or drugged enough to agree to let one of them feed on you. "

  "No," I disagreed. "If they wanted to seduce me, they'd have tried something else. They're trying to scare me off. Or keep me from finding something out. "

  "I hate to point out the obvious," Thomas said, "but why on earth would Bianca invite you if she didn't want you to be here?"

  "She's obligated to invite the Council to witness. That means me, in this town. And she didn't expect me to actually show - pretty much everyone was surprised to see me at all. "

  "They didn't think you'd come," Michael murmured.

  "Yeah. Ain't I a stinker. " I took a couple of deep breaths and said, "I think the one we're after is here, Michael. We've got to stick this out for a little while. See if I can find out exactly who it is. "

  "Exactly who is what?" Thomas asked.

  "None of your beeswax, Thomas," I said.

  "Has anyone ever told you, Mister Dresden, that you are a thoroughly annoying man?" That made me grin, to which he rolled his eyes. "Well," he said, "I'll not intrude on your business any further. Let me know if there's anything I can do for you. " He and Justine sauntered off into the crowd.

  I watched Justine's legs go, leaning on my cane a bit to help me balance. "Nice guy," I commented.

  "For a vampire," Michael said. "Don't trust him, Harry. There's something about him I don't like. "

  "Oh, I like him," I said. "But I sure as hell don't trust him. "

  "What do we do now?"

  "Look around. So far we've got food in black, the vampires in red, and then there's you and me, and a handful of other people in different costumes. "

  "The Roman centurion," Michael said.

  "Yeah. And some Hamlet-looking guy. Let's go see what they are. "

  "Harry," Michael asked. "Are you going to be okay?"

  I swallowed. I felt dizzy, a little sickened. I had to fight to get clear thoughts through, bulldogging them against the pull of the venom. I was surrounded by things that looked at people like we look at cows, and felt fairly sure that I was going to get myself killed if I stayed.

  Of course, if I didn't stay, other people could get killed. If I didn't stay, the people who had already been hurt remained in danger: Charity. Michael's infant son. Murphy. If I didn't stay, the Nightmare would have time to recuperate, and then it and its corporate sponsor, who I thought was here at this party, would feel free to keep taking pot shots at me.

  The thought of remaining in that place scared me. The thought of what could happen if I gave up now scared me a lot more.

  "Come on," I said. "Let's get this over with. "

  Michael nodded, looking around, his grey eyes dark, hard. "This is an abomination before the Lord, Harry. These people. They're barely more than children . . . what they're doing. Consorting with these things. "

  "Michael. Chill out. We're here to get information, not bring the house down on a bunch of nasties. "

  "Samson did," Michael said.

  "Yeah, and look how well things turned out for him. You ready?"

  He muttered something, and fell in behind me again. I looked around and oriented on the man dressed as a Roman centurion, then headed toward him. A man of indefinite years, he stood alone and slightly detached from the rest of the crowd. His eyes were an odd color of green, deep and intense. He held a cigarette between his lips. His gear, right down to the Roman short sword and sandals, looked awfully authentic. I slowed a little as I approached him, staring.

  "Michael," I murmured, over my shoulder. "Look at his costume. It looks like the real thing. "

  "It is the real thing," said the man in a bored tone of voice, not looking at me. He exhaled a plume of smoke, then put the cigarette back between his lips. Michael would have barely been able to hear my question. This guy had picked it right out. Gulp.

  "Interesting," I said. "Must have cost you a fortune to put together. "

  He glanced at me. Smoke curled from the corners of his mouth as he gave me a very slight, very smug smirk. And said nothing.

  "So," I said, and cleared my throat. "I'm Harry Dresden. "

  The man pursed his lips and said, thoughtfully and precisely, "Harry. Dresden. "

  When someone, anyone, says your name, it touches you. You almost feel it, that sound that stands out from a crowd of others and demands your attention. When a wizard says your Name, when he says it and means it, it has the same effect, amplified a thousandfold. The man in the centurion gear said my part of my Name and said it exactly right. It felt like someone had just rung a tuning fork and pressed it against my teeth.

  I staggered, and Michael caught my shoulder,
keeping me upright. Dear God. He had just used one part of my full name, my true Name, to reach out to me and casually backhand me off my feet.

  "Hell's bells," I whispered. Michael propped me back up. I planted my cane, so that I would have an extra support, and just stared at the man. "How the hell did you do that?"

  He rolled his eyes, took the cigarette in his fingers and blew more smoke. "You wouldn't understand. "

  "You're not White Council," I said.

  He looked at me as though I had just stated that objects fall toward the ground; a withering, scathing glance. "How very fortunate for me. "

  "Harry," Michael said, his voice tense.

  "Just a minute. "

  "Harry. Look at his cigarette. "

  I blinked at Michael. "What?"

  "Look at his cigarette," Michael repeated. He was staring at the man with wide, intent eyes, and one hand had fallen to the hilt of a knife.

  I looked. It took me a minute to realize what Michael was talking about.

  The man blew more smoke out of the corner of his mouth, and smirked at me.

  The cigarette wasn't lit.

  "He's," I said. "He's, uh. "

  "He's a dragon," Michael said.

  "A what?"

  The man's eyes flickered with interest for the first time, and he narrowed his focus - not upon me, but upon Michael. "Just so," he said. "You may call me Mister Ferro. "

  "Why don't I just call you Ferrovax," Michael said.

  Mister Ferro narrowed his eyes, and regarded Michael with a dispassionate gaze. "You know something of the lore, at least, mortal. "

  "Wait a minute," I said. "Dragons . . . dragons are supposed to be big. Scales, claws, wings. This guy isn't big. "

  Ferro rolled his eyes and said, impatient, "We are what we wish to be, Master Drafton. "

  "Dresden," I snapped.

  He waved a hand. "Don't tempt me to show you what I can do by speaking your name and making an effort, mortal. Suffice to say that you could not comprehend the kind of power I have at my command. That my true form here would shatter this pathetic gathering of monkey houses and crack the earth upon which I stand. If you gazed upon me with your wizard's sight, you would see something that would awe you, humble you, and quite probably destroy your reason. I am the eldest of my kind, and the strongest. Your life is a flickering candle to me, and your civilizations rise and fall like grass in the summer. "

  "Well," I said. "I don't know about your true form, but the weight of your ego sure is pushing the crust of the earth toward the breaking point. "

  His green eyes blazed. "What did you say?"

  "I don't like bullies," I said. "You think I'm going to stand here and offer you my firstborn and sacrifice virgins to you or something? I'm not that impressed. "

  "Well," Ferro said. "Let's see if we can't make an impression. "

  I clutched my cane and gathered up my will, but I was way, way too slow. Ferro just waved a hand vaguely in my direction, and something crushed me down to the earth, as though I suddenly had gained about five thousand pounds. I felt my lungs strain to haul in a breath, and my vision clouded over with stars and went black. I tried to gather up my magic, to thrust the force away from me, but I couldn't focus, couldn't speak.

  Michael looked down at me dispassionately, then said, to Ferro, "Siriothrax should have learned that trick. It might have kept me from killing him. "

  Ferro's cold regard swept back to Michael, bringing with it a tiny lessening in the pressure - not much, but enough that I could gasp out, "Riflettum," and focus my will against it. Ferro's spell cracked and began to flake apart. I saw him look at me, sensed that he could have renewed the effort without difficulty. He didn't. I climbed back to my feet, gasping quietly.

  "So," Ferro said. "You are the one. " He looked Michael up and down. "I thought you'd be taller. "

  Michael shrugged. "It wasn't anything personal. I'm not proud of what I did. "

  Ferro tapped a finger against the hilt of his sword. Then said, quietly, "Sir Knight. I would advise you to be more humble in the face of your betters. " He cast a disdainful glance at me. "And you might consider a gag for this one, until he can learn better manners. "

  I tried for a comeback, but I still couldn't breathe. I just leaned against my cane and wheezed. Ferro and Michael exchanged a short nod, one where neither of them looked away from the other's eyes. Then Ferro turned and . . . well, just vanished. No flicker of light, no puff of flame. Just gone.

  "Harry," Michael chided. "You're not the biggest kid on the block. You've got to learn to be a little more polite. "

  "Good advice," I wheezed. "Next time, you handle any dragons. "

  "I will. " He looked around and said, "People are thinning out, Harry. " He was right. As I watched, a vampire in a tight red dress tapped the arm of a young man in black. He glanced over to her and met her eyes. They stared at one another for a while, the woman smiling, the man's expression going slowly slack. Then she murmured something and took his hand, leading him out into the darkness beyond the globes of light. Other vamps were drawing more young people along with them. There were fewer scarlet costumes around, and more people blissed out on the ground.

  "I don't like the direction this is going," I said.

  "Nor do I. " His voice was hard as stone. "Lord willing, we can put a stop to this. "

  "Later. First, we talk to the Hamlet guy. Then there's just Bianca herself to check. "

  "Not one of the other vampires?" Michael asked.

  "No way. They're all subordinate to Bianca. If they were that strong, they'd have knocked her off by now, unless they were in her inner circle. That's Kyle and Kelly. She doesn't have the presence of mind for it, and he's already out. So if it's not a guest, it's probably Bianca. "

  "And if it's not her?"

  "Let's not go there. I'm floundering enough as it is. " I squinted around. "Do you see Hamlet anywhere?"

  Michael squinted around, taking a few paces to peer around another set of ferns.

  I saw the flash of red out of the corner of my eye, saw a form in a red cloak heading for Michael's back, from around the ferns. I turned toward Michael and threw myself at his attacker.

  "Look out!" I shouted. Michael spun, a knife appearing in his hand as though conjured. I grabbed the red cloaked-figure and whirled it around to face me.

  The hood fell back from Susan's face, revealing her startled dark eyes. She'd pulled her hair into a pony-tail. She wore a low-cut white blouse and a little pleated skirt, complete with white knee socks and buckle-down shoes. White gloves covered her hands. A wicker basket dangled in the crook of her elbow, and round, mirror-toned spectacles perched upon the bridge of her slender nose.

  "Susan?" I stammered. "What are you doing here?"

  She let out a breath, and drew her arm out of my hand. "God, Harry. You scared me. "

  "What are you doing here?" I demanded.

  "You know why I'm here," she said. "I came to get a story. I tried to call you and talk you into it, but no, you were way too busy doing whatever you were doing to even spare five minutes to talk to me. "

  "I don't believe this," I muttered. "How did you get in here?"

  She looked at me coolly and flicked open her basket. She reached inside and came out with a neat white invitation, like my own. "I got myself an invitation. "

  "You what?"

  "Well. I had it made, in any case. I didn't think you'd mind me borrowing yours for a few minutes. "

  Which explained why the invitation hadn't been on the mantel, back at my apartment. "Hell's bells, Susan, you don't know what you've done. You've got to get out of here. "

  She snorted. "Like hell. "

  "I mean it," I said. "You're in danger. "

  "Relax, Harry. I'm not letting anyone lick me, and I'm not looking anyone in the eyes. It's kind of like visiting New York. " She tapped her specs with a gloved finger. "Things have gone all r
ight so far. "

  "You don't get it," I said. "You don't understand. "

  "Don't understand what?" she demanded.

  "You don't understand," purred a dulcet voice, behind me. My blood ran cold. "By coming uninvited, you have waived any right you had to the protection of the laws of hospitality. " There came a soft chuckle. "It means, Little Red Riding Hood, that the Big, Bad Wolf gets to eat you all up. "