Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Grave Peril, Page 28

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-eight

  I stared at Susan in mute disbelief.

  She looked apologetic. "Oh, I'm sorry. I mean. I didn't mean to upset you, Mister . . . "

  "Dresden," I supplied in a whisper.

  "Mister Dresden, then. " She frowned down at herself, and smoothed a hand uncomfortably over the skirt, then looked around her. "Dresden. Aren't you the guy who just opened a business as a wizard?"

  Anger made me clench my teeth. "Son of a - "

  "Harry," Michael said. "I think we need to leave, rather than stand about cursing. "

  My knuckles whitened as I tightened my fingers on my cane. No time for anger. Not now. Michael was right. We had to move, and quickly. "Agreed," I said. "Susan, did you drive here?"

  "Hey," she said, squaring off against me. "I don't know you, okay? My name is Miss Rodriguez. "

  "Look, Su - Miss Rodriguez. My faerie godmother just stole a year's worth of your memory. "

  "Actually," Michael put in, "you traded it away to her to keep some kind of spell from leaving Harry helpless. "

  I shot him a glare and he subsided. "And now you don't remember me, or I guess, Michael. "

  "Or this faerie godmother, either," Susan said, her face and stance still wary.

  I shot Lea a look. She glanced over at me and her lips curved up into a smirk, before she turned back to her conversation with Thomas. "Oh, damn. She's such a bitch. "

  Susan rolled her eyes a little. "Look, guys. It's been nice chatting with you, but this has got to be the lamest excuse for a pickup line I've ever heard. "

  I reached a hand toward her again. Her own flashed down into the picnic basket and produced a knife, a G. I. -issue weapon from the last century, its edge gleaming. "I told you," she said calmly, "I don't know you. Don't touch me. "

  I drew my hand back. "Look. I just want to make sure you're all right. "

  Susan's breathing was a little fast, but other than that she concealed her tension almost completely. "I'm perfectly fine," she said. "Don't worry about me. "

  "At least get out of here. You're not safe here. You came in on an invitation you had made up. Do you remember that?"

  She screwed up her face into a frown. "How did you know that?" she asked.

  "You told me so about five minutes ago," I said, and sighed. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. You've had a bunch of your memories taken. "

  "I remember coming here," Susan said. "I remember having the counterfeit invitation made. "

  "I know," I said. "You got it off of my living room table. Do you remember that?"

  She frowned. "I got it . . . " Her expression flickered, and she swallowed, glancing around. "I don't remember where I got it. "

  "There," I said. "Do you see? Do you remember driving out to bail me out of jail a couple of nights ago?"

  She'd lowered the knife by now. "I . . . I remember that I went down to the jail. And paid the bail money, but . . . I can't think . . . "

  "Okay, okay," I said. My head hurt, and I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger. "It looks like she took all of your memories that had me directly in them. Or her. What about Michael, do you remember him?"

  She looked at Michael and shook her head.

  I nodded. "Okay. Then I need to ask you to trust me, Miss Rodriguez. You've been affected by magic and I don't know how we can get it fixed yet. But you're in danger here and I think you should leave. "

  "Not with you," she said at once. "I have no idea who you are. Other than some kind of psychic consultant for Special Investigations. "

  "Okay, okay," I said. "Not with me. But at least let us walk you out of here, so that we can make sure you get out okay. You can't swing a cat without hitting a vampire in here. So let us get you out to your car and then you can go wherever you like. "

  "I didn't get my interview," she said. "But . . . I feel so strange. " She shook her head, and replaced her knife in her picnic basket. I heard the click of a tape recorder being switched off. "Okay," she said. "I guess we can go. "

  I nodded, relieved. "Wonderful. Michael, shall we?"

  He chewed on his lip. "Maybe I should stay, Harry. If your godmother's here, the Sword might be here too. I might get the chance to take it back. "

  "Yeah. And you might get the chance to get taken from behind without someone here to cover for you. There's too much messed up stuff here, man. Even for me. Let's go. "

  Michael fell in behind me, to my right. Susan walked beside him, on my left, keeping us both in careful view, and one hand still inside her picnic basket. I briefly wondered what kind of goodies she'd been bringing in case the big, bad wolf tried to head her off from grandma's house.

  We reached the foot of the stairs that led back up into the house. Something prickled the hairs at the back of my neck, and I stopped.

  "Harry?" Michael asked. "What is it?"

  "There's someone . . . " I said, and closed my eyes. I brought up my Sight, just for a moment, and felt the pressure just a little above the spot between my eyebrows. I looked up again. The Sight cut through the enchantment in front of me like sunlight through a wispy cloud. Behind me, Michael and Susan both took in sharp breaths of surprise.

  The Hamlet lookalike stood three stairs up, half smiling. I realized only then that the figure was a woman rather than a man, the slender shape of her slim hips and breasts obscured by the sable doublet she wore, giving her an odd, androgynous appearance. Her skin was pallid - not pale, not creamy. Pallid. Translucent. Almost greyish. Her lips were tinged very faintly blue, as though she'd been recently chilled. Or dead. I shivered, and lowered the Sight before it showed me something that I didn't want to keep with me.

  It didn't change her appearance one bit. She wore a cap, which hid her hair completely, one of those puffy ones that fell over to one side, and stood with one hip cocked out, a rapier hanging from her belt. She held a skull in her other hand - it was a real one. And the bloodstains on it couldn't have been more than a few hours old.

  "Well done, wizard," she said. Her voice sounded raspy, a quiet, hissing whisper, the kind that comes from throats and mouths which are perfectly dry. "Very few can see me when I do not wish to be seen. "

  "Thank you. And excuse me," I said. "We were just leaving. "

  Bluish lips curved into a chill little smile. Other than that, she didn't move. Not an inch. "Oh, but this is the hour for all to mingle and meet. I have a right to introduce myself to you and to hear your names and exchange pleasantries in return. " Her eyes fastened calmly on my face, evidently not fearing to meet my gaze. I figured that whatever she was, she probably had an advantage on me in the devastating gaze department. So I kept my own eyes firmly planted on the tip of her nose, and tried very hard not to notice that her eyes had no color at all, just a kind of flaccid blue-grey tinge to them, a filmy coating like cataracts.

  "And what if I don't have time for the pleasantries?" I said.

  "Oh," she whispered. "Then I might be insulted. I might even be tempted to call for satisfaction. "

  "A duel?" I asked, incredulous. "Are you kidding me?"

  Her eyes drifted to my right. "Of course, if you would rather a champion fought in your place, I would gladly accept. "

  I glanced back at Michael, who had his eyes narrowed, focused on the woman's doublet or upon her belt, perhaps. "You know this lady?"

  "She's no lady," Michael said, his voice quiet. He had a hand on his knife. "Harry Dresden, Wizard of the White Council, this is Mavra, of the Black Court of Vampires. "

  "A real vampire," Susan said. I heard the click of her tape recorder coming on again.

  "A pleasure," Mavra whispered. "To meet you, at last, wizard. We should talk. I suspect we have much in common. "

  "I'm failing to see anything we might possibly have in common, ma'am. Do you two know each other?"

  "Yes," Michael said.

  Mavra's whisper became chill. "The good Knight here murdered my child
ren and grandchildren, some small time ago. "

  "Twenty years ago," Michael said. "Three dozen people killed in the space of a month. Yes, I put a stop to it. "

  Mavra's lips curved a little more, and showed yellowed teeth. "Yes. Just a little time ago. I haven't forgotten, Knight. "

  "Well," I said. "It's been nice chatting, Mavra, but we're on our way out. "

  "No you're not," Mavra said, calmly. But for her lips and her eyes, she still hadn't moved. It was an eerie stillness, not real. Real things move, stir, breathe. Mavra didn't.

  "Yes, we are. "

  "No. Two of you are on your way out. " Her smile turned chilly. "I know that the invitations said only one person could be brought with you. Therefore, one of your companions is not under the protection of the old laws, wizard. If the Knight is unprotected, then he and I will have words. A pity you do not have Amoracchius with you, Sir Knight. It would have made things interesting, at least. "

  I got a sinking feeling in my gut. "And if it isn't Michael?"

  "Then you keep offensive company, wizard, and I am displeased with you. I will demonstrate my displeasure decisively. " Her gaze swept to Susan. "By all means. Choose which two are leaving. Then I will have a brief conversation with the third. "

  "You mean you'll kill them. "

  Mavra shrugged, finally breaking her stillness. I thought I heard a faint crackling of tendons, as though they'd protested moving again. "One must eat, after all. And these little, dazzled morsels the Reds brought tonight are too sweet and insubstantial for my taste. "

  I took a step back, and turned to Michael, speaking in a whisper. "If I get Susan out of here, can you take this bitch?"

  "You might as well not whisper, Harry," Michael said. "It can hear you. "

  "Yes," Mavra said. "It can. "

  Way to go, Harry. Endear yourself to the monsters, why don't you. "Well," I asked Michael. "Can you?"

  Michael looked at me for a moment, his lips pressed together. Then he said, "Take Susan and go. I'll manage here. "

  Mavra laughed, a dry and raspy sound. "So very noble. So pure. So self-sacrificing. "

  Susan stepped around me, to close a triangle with Michael and me. As she did, I noticed that Mavra leaned back from her, just slightly. "Now just a minute," Susan said. "I'm a big girl. I knew the risks when I came here. "

  "I'm sorry, Miss Rodriguez," Michael said, his tone apologetic. "But this is what I do. "

  "Save me from chauvinist pigs," Susan muttered. She turned her head around to me. "Excuse me. What do you think you're doing?"

  "Looking in your pick-a-nick basket," I responded, as I flipped open one cover. I whistled. "You came armed for bear, Miss Rodriguez. Holy water. Garlic. Two crosses. Is that a thirty-eight?"

  Susan sniffed. "A forty-five. "

  "Garlic," Michael mused.

  Above us on the stairs, Mavra hissed.

  I glanced up at her. "The Black Court was nearly wiped out, Thomas said. I wonder if that's because they got a little too much publicity. Do you mind, Miss Rodriguez?" I reached into the basket and produced a nice, smelly clove of garlic, then idly flicked it through the air, toward Mavra.

  The vampire didn't retreat - she simply blurred, and then stood several steps higher than she had been a moment before. The garlic clove bounced against the stairs where she'd been, and tumbled back down toward us. I bent down and picked it up.

  "I'd say that's a big yes. " I looked up at Mavra. "Is that what happened, hmm? Stoker published the Big Book of Black Court Vampire Slaying?"

  Those drowned-blue lips peeled back from her yellowed teeth. No fangs. "It matters little. You are beings of paper and cotton. I could tear apart a dozen score of your kind. "

  "Unless they'd had an extra spicy pizza, I guess. Let's get out of here, guys. " I started up the stairs.

  Mavra spread her hands out to either side, and gathered darkness into her palms. That's the only way I can explain it. She spread out her hands, and blackness rushed in to fill them, gathering there in a writhing mass that shrouded her hands to the wrists. "Try to force your way past me with that weapon, wizard, and I will take it as an attack upon my person. And defend myself appropriately. "

  Cold washed over me. I extended my senses toward that darkness, warily. And it felt familiar. It felt like frozen chains and cruel twists of thorny wire. It felt empty and black, and like everything that magic isn't.

  Mavra was our girl.

  "Michael," I said, my voice strangled. Steel rasped as he drew one of his knives.

  "Um," Susan said. "Why are her hands doing that? Can vampires do that?"

  "Wizards can," I said. "Get behind me. "

  They both did. I lifted my hand, my face creasing in concentration. I reached out and tried to call in my will, my power. It felt shaky, uncertain, like a pump that has lost its prime. It came to me in dribs and drabs, bit by bit, stuttering like a nervous yokel. But I gathered it around my upraised hand, in a crystalline azure glow, beautiful and fragile, casting harsh shadows over Mavra's face.

  Her dead man's eyes looked down at me, and I had an abrupt understanding of why Michael had called her "it. " Mavra wasn't a woman anymore. Whatever she was, she wasn't a person. Not like I understood people, in any case. Those eyes pulled at mine, pulled at me with a kind of horrid fascination, the same sickly attraction that makes you want to see what's under the blanket in the morgue, to turn over the dead animal and see the corruption beneath. I fought and kept my eyes away from hers.

  "Come, wizard," Mavra whispered, her face utterly without expression. "Let us test one another, thou and I. "

  I hardened the energy I held. I wouldn't have enough juice to take two shots at her. I'd have to take her out the first time or not at all. Cold radiated off of her, little wisps of steam curling up as ice crystals formed on the steps at her feet.

  "But you won't take the first shot, will you. " I didn't realize I'd spoken my thoughts aloud until after I had. "Because then you'd be breaking the truce. "

  I saw an emotion in that face, finally. Anger. "Strike, wizard. Or do not strike. And I will take the mortal of your choice from you. You cannot claim the protection of hospitality to them both. "

  "Get out of the way, Mavra. Or don't get out of the way. If you try to stop us from leaving, if you try to hurt anyone under my protection, you'll be dealing with a Wizard of the Council, a Knight of the Sword and a girl with a basket full of garlic and holy water. I don't care how big bad and ugly you are, there won't be anything left of you but a greasy spot on the floor. "

  "You dare," she whispered. She blurred and came at me. I took a breath, but she'd caught me on the exhale, and I had no time to unleash the crystalline blast I'd prepared.

  Michael and Susan moved at the same time, hands thrusting past me. She held a wooden cross, simple and dark, while he clutched his dagger by its blade, the crusader-style hilt turned up into a cross as well. Both wood and steel flared with a cold white light as Mavra closed, and she slammed into that light as if it were a solid wall, the shadows in her hand scattering and falling away like sand between her fingers. We stood facing her, my azure power and two blazing crosses, which burned with a kind of purity and quiet power I had never seen before.

  "Blood of the Dragon, that old Serpent," Michael said, quietly. "You and yours have no power here. Your threats are hollow, your words are empty of truth, just as your heart is empty of love, your body of life. Cease this now, before you tempt the wrath of the Almighty. " He glanced aside at me and added, probably for my benefit, "Or before my friend Harry turns you into a greasy spot on the floor. "

  Mavra walked slowly back up the steps, tendons creaking. She bent and gathered up the skull she'd dropped at some point during the discussion. Then turned back to us, looking down with a quiet smile. "No matter," she said. "The hour is up. "

  "Hour?" Susan asked me, in a tight whisper. "What hour is she talking about, Dresden?"

; "The hour of socialization," Mavra whispered back. She continued up to the top of the stairs, and gently shut the doors leading out. They closed with an ominous boom.

  All the lights went out. All but the blue nimbus around my hand, and the faded glory of the two crosses.

  "Great," I muttered.

  Susan looked frightened, her expression hard and tightly controlled. "What happens now?" she whispered, her eyes sweeping around in the dark.

  Laughter, gentle and mocking, quiet, hissing, thick with something wet and bubbling, came from all around us. When it comes to spooky laughter, it's tough to beat vampires. You're going to have to trust me on this one. They know it well.

  Something glimmered in the dark, and Thomas and Justine appeared in the glow of the power gathered in my hand. He lifted both hands at once, and said, "Would you mind terribly if I stood with you?"

  I glanced at Michael, who frowned. Then at Susan, who was looking at Thomas in all his next-to-naked glory . . . somewhat intently. I nudged her with my hip and she blinked and looked at me. "Oh. No, not at all. I guess. "

  Thomas took Justine's hand, and the two of them stood off to my right, where Michael kept a wary eye on them. "Thank you, wizard. I'm afraid I'm not well loved here. "

  I glanced over at him. There was a mark on his neck, black and angry red, like a brand, in the shape of lovely, feminine lips. I would have thought it lipstick, but I sensed a faint odor of burnt meat in the air.

  "What happened to your neck?"

  His face paled a few shades. "Your godmother gave me a kiss. "

  "Damn," I said.

  "Well put. Are you ready?"

  "Ready for what?"

  "For Court to be held. To be given our gifts. "

  The tenuous hold I had on the power faltered, and I lowered my trembling hand, let go of the tension gently, before I lost control of it. The last light flickered and went out, leaving us in a darkness I wouldn't have believed possible.

  And then the darkness was shattered by light - the spotlights again, shining up on the dias, upon the throne there, and Bianca in her flaming dress upon it. Her mouth and throat and the rounded slopes of her breasts were smeared in streaks of fresh blood, her lips stained scarlet as she smiled, down at the darkness, at the dozens of pairs of glowing eyes in it, gazing up at the dias in adoration, or terror, or lust, or all three.

  "All rise," I whispered, as soft whispers and moans, rustled up out of the darkness around us, not at all human. "Vampire Court is now in session. "