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Summer Knight, Page 28

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-eight

  I faced Slate head-on. I figured as long as I was going to take one of those swords, it might as well have a shot of killing me pretty quick. No sense in dragging it out. But I left my eyes on Aurora and held whatever power I had gathered up and ready.

  "I am sorry, wizard," Aurora said.

  "You're about to be," I muttered.

  Slate drew back his blade, an Oriental job without enough class to be an actual katana, and tensed, preparing to strike. The blade glittered and looked really, really sharp.

  Elaine caught Slate's wrist and said, "Wait. "

  Aurora gave Elaine a sharp and angry look. "What are you doing?"

  "Protecting you," Elaine said. "If you let Slate kill him, he'll break the circle around Dresden. "

  Aurora looked from Elaine to me and back. "And?"

  "Elaine!" I snarled.

  She regarded me with flat eyes. "And you'll leave yourself open to his death curse. He'll take you with him. Or make you wish he had. "

  Aurora lifted her chin. "He isn't that strong. "

  "Don't be so sure," Elaine said. "He's the strongest wizard I've ever met. Strong enough to make the White Council nervous. Why take a pointless risk so close to the end?"

  "You treacherous bitch," I said. "God damn you, Elaine. "

  Aurora frowned at me and then gestured to Slate. He lowered the sword and put it away. "Yet he is too dangerous to leave alive. "

  "Yes," Elaine agreed.

  "What would you suggest?"

  "We're in the Nevernever," Elaine said. "Arrange his death and leave. Once you are back in mortal lands, he won't be able to reach you. Let him spend his curse on Mab if he wishes, or on his godmother. But it won't be on you. "

  "But when I leave, my power will go with me. He won't be held by the circle. What do you suggest?"

  Elaine regarded me passionlessly. "Drown him," she said finally. "Call water and let the earth drink him. I'll lock him into place with a binding of my own. Mortal magic will last, even after I've left. "

  Aurora nodded. "Are you capable of holding him?"

  "I know his defenses," Elaine responded. "I'll hold him as long as necessary. "

  Aurora regarded me in silence for a moment. "So much rage," she said. "Very well, Elaine. Hold him. "

  It didn't take her long. Elaine had always been smoother at magic than me, more graceful. She murmured something in the language she'd chosen for her magic, some variant on Old Egyptian, adding a roll of her wrist, a graceful ripple of her fingers, and I felt her spell lock around me like a full-body straitjacket, paralyzing me from chin to toes, wrapping me in silent, unseen force. It pressed against my clothes, flattening them, and made it hard to take a deep breath.

  At the same time, Aurora closed her eyes, her hands spread at her side. Then she leveled her palms and slowly raised them. From within the circle, I couldn't sense what she was doing, but there wasn't anything wrong with my eyes and ears. The ground gurgled, and there was a sudden scent of rotten eggs. I felt the earth beneath me shift and sag, and then a slow "bloop bloop" of earth settling as water began rising up beneath me. It took maybe five seconds for the ground to become so soft that my feet sank into the warm mud, up to my ankles. Hell's bells.

  "Mortal time is racing," Aurora said, and opened her eyes. "The day grows short. Come. "

  Without so much as glancing at me, she swept away into the mist. Slate fell into place at her heels, and Talos followed several paces behind, slim and dangerous in his dark armor. Korrick the centaur spared me a sneer and a satisfied snort before he gripped a short, heavy spear in his broad fist and turned to follow the Summer Lady, hooves striking down in decisive clops.

  That left Elaine. She came forward until she stood almost close enough to touch me. Slender and pretty, she regarded me steadily while she took a band from her jeans pocket, and bound her hair back into a tail.

  "Why, Elaine?" I asked. I struggled furiously against the spell, but it was stronger than me. "Why the hell did you stop her?"

  "You're an idiot, Harry," she said. "A melodramatic fool. You always were. "

  I kept sinking into the earth and came level with her eyes. "I could have stopped her. "

  "I couldn't be sure you wouldn't have thrown the curse at me, too. " She looked over her shoulder. Aurora had paused, a dim shape in the mist, and was waiting.

  The watery earth kept drawing me down, and I looked up at her now, at the soft skin on the underside of her chin. She looked down at me and said, "Good-bye, Harry. " She turned and walked after Aurora. Then she paused, one leg bent, and turned enough so that I could see her profile. She said in that same casually neutral tone, "It's just like old times. "

  After that, they left me there to die.

  It's hard not to panic in that kind of situation. I mean, I've been in trouble before, but not in that kind of tick-tock-here-it-comes way. The problem in front of me was simple, steady, and inescapable. The ground kept getting softer and I kept on sliding down into it. The sensation of it was warm and not entirely unpleasant. I mean, people pay money for hot mud baths. But mine would be lethal if I didn't find a way out of it, and the mud was already creeping up over my thighs.

  I closed my eyes and tried to focus. I reached out to feel the fabric of Elaine's spell around me, and pushed, trying to break through it. I didn't have enough strength. Once Aurora's circle dropped, I would be able to reach out for more power, but I'd be running short on time - and even so, brute strength wasn't the answer. If I just randomly hammered at the spell around me, it would be like trying to escape from a set of shackles using dynamite. I would tear myself apart along with the binding.

  Still, that dangerous option seemed to be my only hope. I tried to hang on, to stay calm and focused, and to wait for Aurora's circle to give out. I got the giggles. Don't ask me why, but under the pressure of the moment, it seemed damned funny. I tried not to, but I cackled and chortled as the warm mud slid up over my hips, my belly, my chest.

  "Just like old times," I wheezed. "Yeah, just like old times, Elaine. You backbiting, poisonous, treacherous . . . "

  And then a thought hit me. Just like old times.

  ". . . deceitful, wicked, clever girl. If this works I'll buy you a pony. "

  I put the studied indifference of her words together with her whole bloodless attitude. That wasn't the Elaine I remembered. I could buy that she would murder me in a fit of rage, poison me out of flaming jealousy, or bomb my car out of sheer, stubborn pique. But she would never do it and feel nothing.

  The mud covered my chest, and still Aurora's circle hadn't faded. My heart pounded wildly, but I struggled to remain calm. I started hyperventilating. I might need every spare second I could get. The mud covered my throat and slid up over my chin. I wasn't fighting it any more. I got a good, deep breath just before my nose went under.

  Then darkness pressed over my eyes, and I was left floating in thick, gooey warmth, the only sound the beating of my own heart thudding in my ears. I waited, and my lungs began to burn. I waited, not moving, fire spreading over my chest. I kept everything as relaxed as I could and counted the heartbeats.

  Somewhere between seventy-four and seventy-five, Aurora's circle vanished. I reached out for power, gathering it in, shaping it in my mind. I didn't want to rush it, but it was hard not to. I took all the time I could without panicking, before I reached out again for the fabric of Elaine's spell.

  I'd been right. It was the same binding she'd used when we were kids, when she'd been holding me down while my old master, Justin DuMorne, prepared to enthrall me. I'd found the way out as a kid, because Elaine and I had shared a certain impatience for our magical studies. Besides schoolwork, we'd been forced to pursue an entirely different regimen of spells and mental disciplines as well. Some nights, we would have homework until dinner, then head right for the magical stuff until well after midnight, working out spells and formulae until our eyes ached.
  Toward the end, that got to be rough when all we really wanted was to be in bed, doing things much less scholarly and much more hormonal, until other parts ached. Ahem. To that end, we'd split the work. One of us would work out the spell while the other did the homework, then a quick round of copying and straight to . . . bed.

  I'd been the one who worked out that binding. And it sucked.

  It sucked because it had no flexibility to it, no subtlety, no class. It dropped a cocoon of hardened air around the target and locked it there, period. End of story. As teenagers, we had thought it impressively effective and simple. As a desperate man about to die, I realized that it was a brittle spell, like a diamond that was simultaneously the hardest substance on earth and easily fractured if struck at the correct angle.

  Now that I knew what I was doing, I found the clumsy center of the spell, where I'd located it all those years ago, tying all the strands of energy together at the small of the back like a Christmas bow. There in the mud and darkness, I focused on the weak spot of the spell, gathered my will, and muttered, with my mouth clenched closed, "Tappitytaptap. " It came out, "Mmphitymmphmph," but that didn't make any difference on the practical side. The spell was clear in my head. A spike of energy lashed into the binding, and I felt it loosen.

  My heart pounded with excitement and I reached out with the spell again. The third time I tried it, the binding slipped, and I flexed my arms and legs, pulling them slowly free.

  I'd done it. I'd escaped the binding.

  Now I was merely drowning in what amounted to quicksand.

  The clock was running against me as I started to feel dizzy, as my lungs struggled against my will, trying to force out what little air remained and suck in a deep breath of nice, cleansing muck. I reached for more power, gathered it in, and hoped I hadn't spun around without noticing. I pushed my palms toward my feet, just as my lungs forced me to exhale, and shouted with it, "Forzare!"

  Naked force lashed out toward my feet, bruising one leg as it swept past. Even in magic, you can't totally ignore physics, and my action of exerting force down against the earth had the predictable equal and opposite reaction. The earth exerted force up toward me, and I flew out of the mud, muck and water flying up with me in a cloud of spray. I had a wild impression of mist and dreary ground and then a tree, and then it was replaced with a teeth-rattling impact.

  By the time I'd coughed out a mouthful of mud and choked air back into my lungs, I had the presence of mind to wipe mud out of my eyes. I found myself twenty feet off the ground, dangling from the branches of one of the skeletal trees. My arms and legs hung loosely beneath me, and my jeans felt tight at the waist. I tried to see how I'd gotten hung up that way, but I couldn't. I could possibly get a hand and a foot on different branches, but I could barely wiggle, and I couldn't get loose.

  "You foil a Faerie Queen," I panted to myself. "Survive your own execution. Get away from certain death. And get stuck up a freaking tree. " I struggled some more, just as uselessly. One mud-covered boot fell off and hit the ground with a soggy plop. "God, I hope no one sees you like this. "

  The sound of footsteps drifted out of the mist, coming closer.

  I pushed the heel of my hand against my right eyebrow. Some days you just can't win.

  I folded my arms and had them sternly crossed over my chest when a tall, shrouded form emerged from the mist below. Dark robes swirled, a deep hood concealed, and a gloved hand gripped a wooden staff.

  The Gatekeeper turned his head toward me and became still for a moment. Then he reached his other gloved hand into his hood. He made a strangled, muffled sound.

  "Hi," I said. King of wit, that's me.

  The Gatekeeper sounded as though he had to swallow half a gallon of laughter as he responded, "Greetings, Wizard Dresden. Am I interrupting anything?"

  My other boot fell off and plopped to the ground. I regarded my dangling, muddy sock-feet with pursed lips. "Nothing all that important. "

  "That is good," he said. He paced around a bit, peering up at me, and then said, "There's a broken branch through your belt. Get your right foot on the branch below you, your left hand on the one above you, and loosen your belt. You should be able to climb down. "

  I did as he said and got my muddy self down from the tree and to earth. "Thank you," I said. I privately thought to myself that I'd have been a hell of a lot more grateful about five minutes earlier. "What are you doing here?"

  "Looking for you," he said.

  "You've been watching?"

  He shook his head. "Call it listening. But I have had glimpses of you. And matters are worsening in Chicago. "

  "Stars and stones," I muttered and picked up my boots. "I don't have time to chat. "

  The Gatekeeper put a gloved hand on my arm. "But you do," he said. "My vision is limited, but I know that you have accomplished your mission for the Winter Queen. She will keep her end of the bargain, grant us safe passage through her realm. So far as the Council is concerned, that will be enough. You would be safe. "

  I hesitated.

  "Wizard Dresden, you could end your involvement in the matter. You could choose to step clear of it, right now. It would end the trial. "

  My aching, weary, half-smothered, and dirty self liked that idea. End it. Go home. Get a hot shower. A bunch of hot food. Sleep.

  It was impossible, anyway. I was only one tired, beat-up, strung-out guy, wizard or not. The faeries had way too many powers and tricks to deal with on a good day, let alone on this one. I knew what Aurora was up to now, but, hell, she was getting set to charge into the middle of a battlefield. A battlefield, furthermore, that I had no idea how to even find, much less survive. The Stone Table had been in some weird pocket of the Nevernever like nothing I'd ever felt before. I had no idea how to reach it.

  Impossible. Painful. Way too dangerous. I could call it a day, get some sleep, and hope I did better the next time I came up to the plate.

  Meryl's face came to mind, ugly and tired and resolute. I also saw the statue of Lily. And Elaine, trapped by her situation but fighting things in her own way despite the odds against her. I thought of taking the Unraveling from Mother Winter, able to think of nothing but using it for my own goals, for helping Susan. Now it would be used for something else entirely, and as much as I wanted to forget about it and go home, I would bear a measure of the responsibility for the consequences of its use if I did.

  I shook my head and looked around until I spotted my bag, jewelry, staff, and rod on the ground several yards away from the muddy bog Aurora had created. I recovered all of them. "No," I said. "It isn't over. "

  "No?" the Gatekeeper said, surprise in the tone. "Why not?"

  "Because I'm an idiot. " I sighed. "And there are people in trouble. "

  "Wizard, no one expects you to stop a war between the Sidhe Courts. The Council would assign no such responsibility to any one person. "

  "To hell with the Sidhe Courts," I said. "And to hell with the Council too. There are people I know in trouble. And I'm the one who turned some of this loose. I'll clean it up. "

  "You're sure?" the Gatekeeper said. "You won't step out of the Trial now?"

  My mud-crusted fingers fumbled with the clasp of my bracelet. "I won't. "

  The Gatekeeper regarded me in silence for a moment and said, "Then I will not vote against you. "

  A little chill went through me. "Oh. You would have?"

  "Had you walked away, I would kill you myself. "

  I stared at him for a second and then asked, "Why?"

  His voice came out soft and resolute, but not unkind. "Because voting against you would have been the same thing in any case. It seems meet to me that I should take full responsibility for that choice rather than hiding behind Council protocol. "

  I got the bracelet on, then shoved my feet back into my boots. "Well, thanks for not killing me, then. If you'll excuse me, I've got somewhere to be. "

Yes," the Gatekeeper said. He held out his hand, a small velvet bag in it. "Take these. You may find a use for them. "

  I frowned at him and took the bag. Inside, I found a little glass jar of some kind of brownish gel and a chip of greyish stone on a piece of fine, silvery thread. "What's this?"

  "An ointment for the eyes," he said. His tone became somewhat dry. "Easier on the nerves than using the Sight to see through the veils and glamours of the Sidhe. "

  I lifted my eyebrows. Bits of drying mud fell into my eyes and made me blink. "Okay. And this rock?"

  "A piece from the Stone Table," he said. "It will show you the way to get there. "

  I blinked some more, this time in surprise. "You're helping me?"

  "That would constitute interfering in the Trial," he corrected me. "So far as anyone else is concerned, I am merely seeing to it that the Trial can reach its full conclusion. "

  I frowned at him. "If you'd just given me the rock, maybe," I said. "The ointment is something else. You're interfering. The Council would have a fit. "

  The Gatekeeper sighed. "Wizard Dresden, this is something I have never said before and do not anticipate saying again. " He leaned closer to me, and I could see the shadows of his features, gaunt and vague, inside his hood. One dark eye sparkled with something like humor as he offered his hand and whispered, "Sometimes what the Council does not know does not hurt it. "

  I found myself grinning. I shook his hand.

  He nodded. "Hurry. The Council dare not interfere with internal affairs of the Sidhe, but we will do what we can. " He stretched out his staff and drew it in a circle in the air. With barely a whisper of disturbance, he opened the fabric between the Nevernever and the mortal world, as though his staff had simply drawn a circle of Chicago to step into - the street outside my basement apartment, specifically. "Allah and good fortune go with you. "

  I nodded to him, encouraged. Then I turned to the portal and stepped through it, from that dark moor in Faerie to my usual parking space at home. Hot summer air hit my face, steamy and crackling with tension. Rain sleeted down, and thunder shook the ground. The light was already fading and dark was coming on.

  I ignored them all and headed for my apartment. The mud, substance of the Nevernever, melted into a viscous goo that began evaporating at once, assisted by the driving, cleansing rain.

  I had calls to make, and I wanted to change into non-slimy clothes. My fashion sense is somewhat stunted, but I still had to wonder.

  What do you wear to a war?