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Grave Peril, Page 29

Jim Butcher

Chapter Twenty-nine

  Fear has a lot of flavors and textures. There's a sharp, silver fear that runs like lightning through your arms and legs, galvanizes you into action, power, motion. There's heavy, leaden fear that comes in ingots, piling up in your belly during the empty hours between midnight and morning, when everything is dark, every problem grows larger, and every wound and illness grows worse.

  And there is coppery fear, drawn tight as the strings of a violin, quavering on one single note that cannot possibly be sustained for a single second longer - but goes on and on and on, the tension before the crash of cymbals, the brassy challenge of the horns, the threatening rumble of the kettle drums.

  That's the kind of fear I felt. Horrible, clutching tension that left the coppery flavor of blood on my tongue. Fear of the creatures in the darkness around me, of my own weakness, the stolen power the Nightmare had torn from me. And fear for those around me, for the folk who didn't have the power I had. For Susan. For Michael. For all the young people now laying in the darkness, drugged and dying, or dead already, too stupid or too reckless to have avoided this night.

  I knew what these things could do to them. They were predators, vicious destroyers. And they scared the living hell out of me.

  Fear and anger always come hand in hand. Anger is my hiding place from fear, my shield and my sword against it. I waited for the anger to harden my resolve, put steel into my spine. I waited for the rush of outrage and strength, to feel the power of it coalesce around me like a cloud.

  It never came. Just a hollow, fluttering sensation, beneath my belt buckle. For a moment, I felt the fangs of the shadow demon from my dream once again. I started shaking.

  I looked around me. All around, the large courtyard was surrounded by high hedges, cut with crenelated squares, in imitation of castle walls. Trees rose up at the corners, trimmed to form the shapes of the guard towers. Small openings in the hedge led out into the darkness of the house's grounds, but were closed with iron-barred doors. The only other way out that I saw was at the head of the stairs, where Mavra leaned against the doors leading back into the manor and out front. She looked at me with those corpse-milk eyes and her lips cracked as she gave me a small, chill smile.

  I gripped my cane with both hands. A sword cane, of course - one made in merry old Jack the Ripper England, not a knock-off from one of those men's magazines that sells lava lamps and laser pointers. Real steel. Clutching it didn't do much to make me feel better. I still shook.

  Reason. Reason was my next line of defense. Fear is bred from ignorance. So knowledge is a weapon against it, and reason is the tool of knowledge. I turned back to the front as Bianca started speaking to the crowd, some vainglorious bullshit I didn't pay any attention to. Reason. Facts.

  Fact one: Someone had engineered the uprising of the dead, the torment of the restless souls. Most likely Mavra had been the one to actually work the magic. The spiritual turbulence had allowed the Nightmare, the ghost of a demon Michael and I had slain, to cross over and come after me.

  Fact two: The Nightmare was out to get me and Michael, personally, by taking shots at us and all of our friends. Mavra might even have been directing it, controlling it, using it as a cat's-paw. Optionally, Bianca could have been learning from Mavra, and used it herself. Either way, the results had been the same.

  Fact three: It hadn't come after us at sundown, the way we'd half expected.

  Fact four: I was surrounded by monsters, with only the strength of a centuries-old tradition keeping them from tearing my throat out. Still, it seemed to be holding. For now.

  Unless . . .

  "Hell's bells," I swore. "I hate it when I don't figure out the mystery that it's too late. "

  Dozens of gleaming red eyes turned toward me. Susan jabbed her elbow into my ribs. "Shut up, Dresden," she hissed. "You're making them look at us. "

  "Harry?" Michael whispered.

  "That's their game," I said, quietly. "We've been set up. "

  Michael grunted. "What?"

  "This whole thing," I said. The facts started falling into place, about two hours too late. "It's been a setup from the very beginning. The ghosts. The Nightmare demon. The attacks on our family and friends. All of it. "

  "For what?" Michael whispered. "What's it a setup for?"

  "She meant to force us to show here from the very beginning. She's getting set to take a lesson from history," I said. "We have to get out of here. "

  "A lesson from history?" Michael said.

  "Yeah. Remember what Vlad Tepesh did at his inauguration?"

  "Oh Lord," Michael breathed. "Lord preserve us. "

  "I don't get it," Susan said, voice quiet. "What did this guy do?"

  "He invited all of his political and personal enemies to a feast. Then he locked them in and burned them all alive. He wanted to start off his administration on a high note. "

  "I see," Susan said "And you think this is what Bianca's doing?"

  "Lord preserve us," Michael murmured again.

  "I'm told that He helps those who help themselves," I said. "We've got to get out of here. "

  Michael's armor clinked as he looked around. "They've blocked the exits. "

  "I know. How many of them can you handle without the Sword?"

  "If it was only a question of holding them off . . . "

  "But it isn't. We may have to punch a hole through them. "

  Michael shook his head. "I'm not sure. Maybe two or three, Lord willing. "

  I grimaced. Only one vampire guarded each way out, but there were another two or three dozen in the courtyard - not to mention my godmother or any of the other guests, like Mavra.

  "We'll head for that gate," Michael said, nodding toward one of the gates in the hedges.

  I shook my head. "We'd never make it. "

  "You will," he said. "I think I can manage that much. "

  "Ixnay on that upidstay anplay," I said. "We need an idea that gets us all out alive. "

  "No, Harry. I'm supposed to stand between people and the harm things like these offer. Even if it kills me. It's my job. "

  "You're supposed to have the Sword to help. It's my fault that it's gone, so until I get it back for you, ease off on the martyr throttle. I don't need anyone else on my conscience. " Or, I thought, a vengeful Charity coming after me for getting her children's father killed. "There's got to be a way out of this. "

  "Let me get this straight," Susan said, quietly, as Bianca's speech went on. "We can't leave now because it would be an insult to the vampires. "

  "And all the excuse they would need to call for instant satisfaction. "

  "Instant satisfaction," Susan said. "What's that?"

  "A duel to the death. Which means that one of them would tear my arms off and watch me bleed to death," I said. "If I'm lucky. "

  Susan swallowed. "I see. And what happens if we just wait around?"

  "Bianca or one of the others finds a way to make us cross the line and throw the first punch. Then they kill us. "

  "And if we don't throw the first punch?" Susan asked.

  "I figure she'll have a backup plan to wipe us out with, just in case. "

  "Us?" Susan asked.

  "I'm afraid so. " I looked at Michael. "We need a distraction. Something that will get them all looking the other way. "

  He nodded and said, "You might be better for that than me, Harry. "

  I took a breath and looked around to see what I had to work with. We didn't have much time. Bianca was bringing her speech to a close.

  "And so," Bianca said, her voice carrying ably, "we stand at the dawn of a new age for our kind, the first acknowledged Court this far into the United States. No longer need we fear the wrath of our enemies. No longer shall we meekly bow our heads and offer our throats to those who claim power over us. " At this point, her dark eyes fastened directly upon me. "Finally, with the strength of the entire Court behind us, with the Lords of the O
uter Night to empower us, we will face our enemies. And bring them to their knees. " Her smile widened, curving fangs, blood red.

  She trailed a fingertip across her throat, then lifted the blood to her mouth to suckle it from her finger. She shivered. "My dear subjects. Tonight, we have guests among us. Guests brought here to witness our ascension to real power. Please, my friends. Help me welcome them. "

  The spotlights swiveled around. One of them splashed onto my little group; me, Michael, Susan, with Thomas and Justine just a little apart. A second illuminated Mavra, at the head of the stairs, in all her stark and unearthly pallor. A third settled upon my godmother, who glowed with beauty in its light, casually tossing her hair back and casting a glittering smile around the courtyard. At my godmother's side was Mister Ferro, unlit cigarette still between his lips, smoke dribbling out his nostrils, looking martial and bland in his centurion gear, and utterly unconcerned with everything that was going on.

  Applause, listless and somehow sinister, came out of the dark around us. There should be some kind of law. Anything that is so bad that its applause is sinister should be universally banned or something. Or maybe I was just that nervous. I coughed, and waved my hand politely.

  "The Red Court would like to take this opportunity to present our guests with gifts at this time," Bianca said, "so that they may know how very, very deeply we regard their goodwill. So, without further ado, Mister Ferro, would you honor me by stepping forward and accepting this token of the goodwill of myself and my Court. "

  The spotlight followed Ferro as he walked forward. He reached the foot of the dias, inclined his head in a shallow but deliberate nod, then ascended to stand before Bianca. The vampire bowed to him in return, and made a gesture with one hand. One of the hooded figures behind her stepped forward, holding a small cask, about as big as a breadbox. The figure opened it, and the lights gleamed on something that sparkled and shone.

  Ferro's eyes glittered, and he stretched his hand down into the cask, sinking it to the wrist. A small smile stretched his lips, and he withdrew his hand with slow reluctance. "A fine offering," he murmured. "Especially in this age of paupers. I thank you. "

  He and Bianca exchanged bows where she dipped her head just a fraction lower than his own. Ferro closed the cask and took it beneath one arm, withdrawing a polite step before turning and descending the stairs.

  Bianca smiled and faced the courtyard again. "Thomas, of House Raith, of our brothers and sisters in the White Court. Please step forward, that I may give you a token of our regard. "

  I glanced over at Thomas. He took a slow breath and then said, to me, "Would you stand with Justine for me, while I'm up there. "

  I glanced at the girl. She stood looking up at Thomas, one hand on his arm, her eyes worried, one sweet little lip between her teeth. She looked small, and young, and frightened. "Sure," I said.

  I held out a rather stiff arm. The girl's hands clutched at my forearm, as Thomas turned with a brilliant smile, and swaggered into the spotlight and up the steps. She smelled delicious, like flowers or strawberries, with a low, heady musky smell underneath, sensual and distracting.

  "She hates him," Justine whispered. Her fingers tightened on my arm, through my sleeve. "They all hate him. "

  I frowned and glanced down at the girl. Even worried, she was terribly beautiful, though her proximity to me lessened the impact of her outfit. Or lack thereof. I focused on her face and said, "Why do they hate him?"

  She swallowed, then whispered, "Lord Raith is the highest Lord of the White Court. Bianca extended her invitation to him. The Lord sent Thomas in his stead. Thomas is his bastard son. Of the White Court, he is the lowest, the least regarded. His presence here is an insult to Bianca. "

  I got over my surprise that the girl had spoken that many words all together. "Is there some kind of grudge between them?"

  Justine nodded, as on the dias, Thomas and Bianca exchanged bows. She presented him with an envelope, speaking too quietly for the crowd to hear. He responded in kind. Justine said, "It's me. It's my fault. Bianca wanted me to come be hers. But Thomas found me first. She hasn't forgiven him for it. She calls him a poacher. "

  Which made sense, in a way. Bianca had risen to where she was by being Chicago's most infamous Madame. Her Velvet Room provided the services of girls most men only got to daydream about, for a hefty price. She had enough dirt and political connections that she could protect herself from legal persecution, even without counting any of her vampire tricks, and she'd always had more than her share of those. Bianca would want someone like Justine - sweet looking, gorgeous, unconsciously sexy. Probably dress her up in a plaid skirt and a starched white shirt with -

  Down, Harry. Hell's bells. "Is that why you stay with him?" I asked her. "Because you feel that it's your fault he has enemies?"

  She looked up at me, for a moment, and then away, her expression more sad than anything. "You wouldn't understand. "

  "Look. He's a vampire. I know that they can affect people, but you could be in danger - "

  "I don't need rescuing, Mr. Dresden," she said. Her lovely eyes sparkled with something hard, determined. "But there is something you can do for me. "

  I got an edgy feeling and watched the girl warily. "Yeah? Like what?"

  "You can take Thomas and me with you when you leave. "

  "You guys showed up in a limo, and you want a ride home with me?"

  "Don't be coy, Mr. Dresden," she said. "I know what you and your friends were talking about. "

  I felt my shoulders creak with tension. "You heard us. You aren't human, either. "

  "I'm very human, Mister Dresden. But I read lips. Will you help him or not?"

  "It isn't my business to protect him. "

  Her soft mouth compressed into a hard line. "I'm making it your business. "

  "Are you threatening me?"

  Her face flushed as pink as the dress she was almost wearing, but she stood her ground. "We need friends, Mister Dresden. If you won't help us, then I'll try to buy Bianca's favor by exposing your plans to escape and claiming that I heard you talking about killing her. "

  "That's a lie," I hissed.

  "It's an exaggeration," she said, her voice gentle. She lowered her eyes. "But it will be enough for her to call duel. Or to force you to shed blood. And if that happens, you will die. " She took a breath. "I don't want it to be like that. But if we don't do something to protect ourselves, she'll kill him. And make me into one of her pet whores. "

  "I wouldn't let that happen to you," I said. The words poured out of my mouth before I'd had time to run them past the thinking part of my brain, but they had that solid, certain ring of truth. Oh, hell.

  She looked up at me, uncertain again, catching one of those soft lips between her teeth. "Really?" she whispered. "You really mean that, don't you. "

  I grimaced. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do. "

  "Then you'll help me? You'll help us?"

  Michael, Susan, Justine, Thomas. Before long, I was going to need a secretary just to keep track of everyone I was supposed to be looking out for. "You. But Thomas can look out for himself. "

  Justine's eyes filled with tears. "Mister Dresden, please. If there's anything I can do or say to convince you, I - "

  "Dammit," I swore, earning a glare from Michael. "Dammit, dammit, dammit, woman. All women, for that matter. " That earned me a glare from Susan. "He's a vampire, Justine. He's eating you. Why should you care if something happens to him?"

  "He's also a person, Mister Dresden," Justine said. "A person who's never done you any harm. Why shouldn't you care what happens to him?"

  I hate it when a woman asks me for help and I witlessly decide to go ahead and give it, regardless of dozens of perfectly good reasons not to. I hate it when I get threatened and strong-armed into doing something stupid and risky. And I hate it when someone takes the moral high ground on me and wins.

  Justine had just done all three, bu
t I couldn't hold it against her. She just looked too sweet and helpless.

  "All right," I said, against my better judgment. "All right, just stay close. You want my protection, then you do what I say, when I say, and maybe we can all get out of this alive. "

  She let out a little shudder that ran through her most attractively, and then she pressed herself against me. "Thank you," she murmured, nuzzling her face into the hollow of my throat so that little lightning-streaks of sensation flickered down my spine. "Thank you, Mister Dresden. "

  I coughed, uncomfortably, and firmly shoved back any ideas of extracting a more thorough thanks from her later, despite the clamoring of my sex drive. Probably the vampire venom, I reasoned, making me notice things like that even more. Sure. I pushed Justine gently away, and looked up to see Thomas returning from his visit to the dias, holding an envelope in his hand.

  "Well," I greeted him quietly, as he returned. "That looks like it went well enough. "

  He gave me a rather pallid smile. "It . . . she can be rather frightening, when she wishes, can't she. "

  "Don't let her get to you," I advised him. "What did she give you?"

  Thomas accepted Justine into the circle of his arm, and she pressed her body to his as though she wanted to wallow in him and leave one of those angel shapes. He lifted the envelope and said, "A condo in Hawaii. And a ticket there, on a late flight tonight. She suggested that I might want to leave Chicago. Permanently. "

  "One ticket," I said, and glanced at Justine.

  "Mmmm. "

  "Friendly of her," I commented. "Look, Thomas. We both want to get out of here tonight. Just stay close to me and follow my lead. All right?"

  He frowned a bit, and then shot Justine a reproachful look. "Justine. I asked you not to - "

  "I had to," she said, her face earnest, frightened. "I had to do something to help you. "

  He coughed. "I apologize, Mister Dresden. I didn't want to involve anyone else in my problems. "

  I rubbed at the back of my neck. "It's okay. We can help each other, I guess. "

  Thomas closed his eyes for a moment. Then he said, very simply and very openly, "Thank you. "

  "Sheesh," I said. I glanced up at Bianca, who was in converse with one of the robed and hooded shadows. The pair of them vanished to the back of the dias while Bianca watched, and then returned, lugging something that evidently weighted a good deal. They settled the fairly large object, hidden beneath a dark red cloth, on the dias beside Bianca.

  "Harry Dresden," Bianca purred. "Old and esteemed acquaintance, and wizard of the White Council. Please come forward so that I can give you some of what I've been longing to for so long. "

  I gulped, and shot a glance back at Michael and Susan. "Look sharp," I said. "If she's going to do something, I guess it will be now, when we're separated. "

  He put his hand on her shoulder, and said, "God go with you, Harry. " Energy thrummed along my skin, and the nearest vampires shifted about uneasily and took a few steps away. He saw me notice, and gave me a small, sheepish smile.

  "Be careful, Mister Dresden," Susan said.

  I bobbed my eyebrows at them, nodded to Thomas and Justine, and then walked forward, my cane in one hand, my cheesy cape flowing in the night air as I mounted the stairs to the dias. A bit of sweat stung in the corner of my eye, smearing my makeup, probably. I ignored it, meeting Bianca's gaze as I came level with her.

  Vampires don't have souls. She didn't have to fear my gaze. And she wasn't good enough to sucker me into her eyes. Or at least, she hadn't been, a couple years ago. She met my gaze, steady, her eyes dark and lovely and so very, very deep.

  I took the better course of valor, and focused upon the tip of her perfectly upturned nose. I saw her breasts rise and fall in pleasure beneath the flames that gowned her, and she let out a small, purring sound of satisfaction. "Oh, Harry Dresden. I had looked forward to seeing you tonight. You are a very handsome man, after all. But you look utterly ridiculous. "

  "Thanks," I said. No one, except maybe the pair of robed attendants at the back of the dias, could hear us. "How did you plan on killing me?"

  She fell quiet for a moment, thoughtful. Then she asked me, as she formally inclined her head, for the benefit of the crowd below, "Do you remember Paula, Mister Dresden?"

  I returned the gesture, only more shallowly, just to throw the little zing of insult into it. "I remember. She was pretty. Polite. I didn't really get to meet her much. "

  "No. She was dead within an hour of you setting foot in my house. "

  "I thought she might have gone that way," I said.

  "That you might have killed her, you mean?"

  "Isn't my fault if you lost control and ate her, Bianca. "

  She smiled, teeth blinding white. "Oh, but it was your fault, Mister Dresden. You'd come to my house. Provoked me to near madness. Forced me to go along with you under threat of my destruction. " She leaned forward, giving me a glimpse down the flame-dress. She was naked beneath. "Now I get to return the favor. I'm not someone you can simply walk over, slap around, whenever you have a need. Not anymore. " She paused and then said, "In a way, I'm grateful to you, Dresden. If I hadn't wanted so very badly to kill you, I would never have amassed the power and the contacts that I have. I never would have been elevated to the Court. " She gestured to the crowd of vampires below, the courtyard, the darkness. "In a way, all of this is your doing. "

  "That's a lie," I said, quiet. "I didn't make you rope Mavra into working for you. I didn't make you order her to torture those poor ghosts, stir up the Nevernever and bring Kravos's pet demon back across to send after a bunch of innocents while you tried to get to me. "

  Her smile widened. "Is that what you think happened? Oh, my, Mister Dresden. You have an unpleasant surprise awaiting you. "

  Anger made me lift my eyes to meet her gaze, gave me the strength not to get pulled in by it - no mistaking. She had grown stronger in the past couple of years. "Can we just get this over with. "

  "Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly," she murmured, but she reached out a hand and tugged on the dark red cloth, uncovering the object there. "For you, Mister Dresden. With all of my most fervent sincerities. "

  The cloth slid away from a white marble tombstone, set with a pentacle of gold in its center. Block letters carved into it read HERE LIES HARRY DRESDEN, above the pentacle. Below it, they read HE DIED DOING THE RIGHT THING. An envelope had been taped to the side of the tombstone.

  "Do you like it?" Bianca purred. "It comes complete with your own plot at Graceland, near to dear little Inez. I'm sure you'll have ever so much to talk about. When your time comes, of course. "

  I looked from the tombstone back up to her. "Go ahead," I said. "Make your move. "

  She laughed, a rich sound that spilled back down into the crowd below. "Oh, Mister Dresden," she said, lowering her voice. "You really don't understand, do you. I can't openly strike you down. Regardless of what you may have done to me. But I can defend myself. I can stand by while my guests defend themselves. I can watch you die. And if things are hectic and confusing enough, and a few others die along with you, well. That's hardly to be blamed upon me. "

  "Thomas," I said.

  "And his little whore. And the Knight, and your reporter friend. I'm going to enjoy the rest of the evening, Harry. "

  "My friends call me Harry," I said. "Not you. "

  She smiled, and said, "Revenge is like sex, Mister Dresden. It's best when it comes on slow, quiet, until it all seems inexorable. "

  "You know what they say about revenge. I hope you got a second tombstone, Bianca. For the other grave. "

  My words stung her, and she stiffened. Then she beckoned the attendants forward, to lift my tombstone in their gloved hands and carry it back. "I'll have it delivered to Graceland, Mister Dresden. They'll have your bed all ready for you, before the sun rises. " She flicked her wrist at me, curt dismissal.

  I bowe
d my head, a bare, stark motion, cold. "We'll see. " How's that for a comeback? Then I turned and descended the stairs, my legs shaking a little, my back rigid and straight.

  "Harry," Michael said, as I drew close. "What happened?"

  I held up my hand and shook my head, trying to think. The trap was already closing around me. I could feel that much. But if I could figure out Bianca's plan, see it coming, maybe I could think my way out ahead of her.

  I trusted Michael and the others to keep an eye out for trouble while I furiously pondered, tried to work through Bianca's logic. My godmother glided forward at Bianca's bidding, and I paused for a moment, to glance up to the dias.

  Bianca presented her with a small black case. Lea opened it, and a slow tremble ran down her body, made her flame-red hair shift and glisten. My godmother closed it again and said, "A princely gift. Happily, as is the custom of my people, I have brought a matter of equal worth, to exchange with you. "

  Lea beckoned the attendant forward, and was given a long, dark case. She opened it, displaying it for a moment to Bianca, and then turned, showing it to the gathered Court.

  Amoracchius. Michael's sword. It lay gleaming in the dark box, casting back the ruddy light with a pure, argent radiance. Michael went stiff beside me, stifling a shout.

  A murmur went up from the assembled vampires and sundry creatures. They recognized the sword as well. Lea basked in it for a moment, until she folded the case closed and passed it over to Bianca. Bianca settled it across her lap, and smiled down at me and, I thought, at Michael.

  "A worthy reply to my gift," Bianca said. "I thank you, Lady Leanandsidhe. Let Mavra of the Black Court come forward. "

  My godmother retreated. Mavra glided out of the night and onto the dias.

  "Mavra, you have been a most gracious and honorable guest in my house," Bianca said. "And I trust that you have found your treatment here fair and equitable. "

  Mavra bowed to Bianca, silent, her rheumy eyes gleaming, glancing down towards Michael.

  "Oh, Jesus," I whispered. "Son of a bitch. "

  "He didn't mean it, Lord," Michael said. "Harry? What did you mean?"

  I clenched my teeth, eyes flickering around. Everyone was watching me, all the vampires, Mister Ferro, everyone. They all knew what was coming. "The tombstone. It was written on my damned tombstone. "

  Bianca watched the realization come over me, still smiling. "Then please, Mavra, accept these minor tokens of my goodwill, and with them my hopes that vengeance and prosperity will belong to you and yours. " She offered forth the case, containing the sword, which Mavra accepted. Bianca then beckoned to the background, and the attendants brought out another covered bundle.

  The attendants jerked the cover off of the bundle - Lydia. Her dark, tousled hair had been trimmed into an elegant cut, and she wore a halter and shorts of black Lycra that emphasized her hips, the beauty of her pale limbs. Her eyes stared into the lights, glazed, drugged, and she sagged helplessly between the attendants.

  "My God," Susan said. "What are they going to do with that girl?"

  Mavra turned to Lydia, reaching into the case as she did. "Sweet," her hissing voice rasped. Her eyes went to Michael again. "Now to open my gift. It may tarnish the steel a bit, but I'm sure I'll get over it. "

  Michael drew in a sudden breath.

  "What's going on?" Susan blurted.

  "The blood of innocents," he snarled. "The Sword is vulnerable. She means to unmake it. Harry, we cannot allow it. "

  All around me, vampires dropped their wineglasses, slid out of their jackets, bared their scarlet-smeared fangs in slow smiles to me. Bianca started laughing, up above me, as Mavra opened the case and withdrew Amoracchius. The sword seemed to almost chime with an angry sound as the vampire touched it, but Mavra only sneered down at the blade as she lifted the sword.

  Thomas moved closer to us, pushing Justine behind him as he drew his sword. "Dresden," he hissed. "Dresden, don't be a fool. It's only one life - one girl's life and a sword balanced against all of us. If you act now, you condemn us all. "

  "Harry?" Susan asked, her voice shaking.

  Michael too turned to look at me, his expression grim. "Faith, Dresden. Not all is lost. "

  All looked pretty damned lost to me. But I didn't have to do anything. I didn't have to lift a finger. All I had to do, to get out of here alive, was to sit still. To do nothing. All I had to do was stand here and watch while they murdered a girl who had come to me a few days before, begging me for protection. All I had to do was ignore her screams as Mavra gutted her. All I had to do was let the monsters destroy one of the major bastions standing against them. All I had to do was let Michael go to his death, claim the protection of the laws of hospitality upon Susan, and I could walk away.

  Michael nodded at me, then drew both knives and turned toward the dias.

  I closed my eyes. God forgive me for what I'm about to do.

  I grabbed Michael's shoulder before he could start walking. Then I drew the sword blade forth from the cane, holding the cane in my left hand, reversing it in my grip as I drew in my will, sent it coursing down the haft of the cane, caused blue-white light to flare in the runes etched there.

  Michael flashed me a fighting grin and took position at my right. Thomas took one look at me and whispered, "We're dead. " But he fell in at my left, crystalline sword glittering in his hand. A howl went up from the vampires, a sudden wave of deafening sound. Mavra turned her eyes to us, gathering night into the fingers of her free hand again. Bianca slowly rose, dark eyes glowing in triumph. Over to one side, Lea laid her hand on Mister Ferro's arm, frowning faintly, standing well out of the way.

  Mavra hissed, lifting Amoracchius up high.

  "Harry?" Susan asked. Her shaking hand touched my shoulder. "What are we going to do?"

  "Stay behind me, Susan. " I clenched my teeth. "I guess I'm going to do the right thing. "

  Even if it kills me, I thought. And all of you, too.