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Grave Peril, Page 30

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty

  In games and history books and military science lectures, teachers and old warhorses and other scholarly types lay out diagrams and stand up models in neat lines and rows. They show you, in a methodical order, how this division forced a hole in that line, or how these troops held their ground when all others broke.

  But that's an illusion. A real struggle between combatants, whether they number dozens or thousands, is something inherently messy, fluid, difficult to follow. The illusion can show you the outcome, but it doesn't impress upon you the surge and press of bodies, the screams, the fear, the faltering rushes forward or away. Within the battle, everything is wild motion and sound and a blur of impressions that flash by almost before they have time to register. Instinct and reflex rule everything - there isn't time to think, and if there's a spare second or two, the only thought in your head is "How do I stay alive?" You're intensely aware of what is happening around you. It's an obscure kind of torture, an acute and temporary hell - because one way or another, it doesn't last long.

  A tide of vampires came toward us. They rushed in, animal-swift, a blur of twisted, bulging faces and staring black eyes. Their jaws hung too far open, fangs bared, hissing and howling. One of them held a long spear and shoved it toward Thomas's pale belly. Justine screamed. Thomas swept the crystalline sword he bore down in an arc, parrying the spear's tip aside and cutting through the haft.

  Undeterred, the spear-wielding vampire came on, and sank its fangs into Thomas's forearm. Thomas shoved the vamp back, but it held firm. Thomas switched tactics, abruptly lifting the vampire up and clear of the ground, and then rolled the sword's blade around its belly, splitting it open in a welter of gore. The vampire fell to the ground, a sound bubbling up from his throat that was one part fury and one part agony.

  "Their bellies!" Thomas shouted. "Without the blood they're too weak to fight!"

  Michael caught a descending machete's blade on the metal guard around his forearm, and whipped one of his knives across the belly of the vamp who held it. Blood splattered out of the vamp, and it went down in convulsions. "I know," Michael snapped back, flashing Thomas an irritated look.

  And then he was buried in a swarm of red-clad bodies.

  "Michael!" I shouted. I tried to push toward him, but found myself jostled aside. I saw him struggle and drop to one knee, saw the vampires shoving knives at him, and fangs, teeth tearing and worrying, and if any of them were burning, like before, I couldn't see it.

  Kyle Hamilton appeared, across the dogpile over the fallen knight. He bared his fangs at me, and lifted a semiautomatic, one of the expensive models. Gold-plated. "Fare thee well, Dresden. "

  I lifted the cane, its runes shimmering blue and white, and snapped. "Venteferro!"

  The magic whispered silently out through the runes on the cane. Earth magic isn't really my forte, but I like to keep my hand in. The runes and the power I willed into the staff reached out and caught the gun in invisible waves of magnetism. I had been worried that the spells I'd laid on the cane might have gone stale, but they were still hanging in there. The gun flew from Kyle's hands.

  I whipped it through the air, into the face of another vamp coming toward Justine. It hit at something just this side of the speed of sound, and sent the thing flying back into the darkness. Justine whirled, as a second vampire came at her, only to have its legs literally scythed out from beneath it by Thomas's blade.

  "Iesu domine!" Michael's voice rang out from beneath the vampires like a brass army bugle, and with a sudden explosion of pressure and unseen force, bodies flew back and up, away from him, flesh ripped and torn from them, hanging in ragged, bloodless strips like cloth, showing gleaming, oily black flesh beneath. "Domine!" Michael shouted, rising, slewing gutted vamps off of him like a dog shakes off water. "Lava quod est sordium!"

  "Come on!" I called, and strode forward, toward the stairs leading up to the dias. Michael had parted the scarlet sea, as it were - stunned vampires gathered themselves from the ground or slowed their attack, hovering several feet away, hissing. Susan and Justine caught one of them starting to creep in closer, and discouraged the others from following its example by splattering it with holy water from Susan's basket. The thing howled and fell back, clawing at its eyes, flopping and wriggling like a half-crushed bug.

  "Bianca!" Thomas shouted. "Our only chance is to take out their leader!" A knife flew out of the dark, too fast for me to see. But Thomas did. He reached out and flicked the blade of his sword across its path with a contemptuous swat, deflecting it out.

  We reached the foot of the stairs. "Thomas, hold them here. Michael, we go up. " I didn't wait to see who was listening - I just turned and headed up the stairs, sword and cane out and ready, my stomach sinking. There was no way we would be in time to save Lydia.

  But we were. The carnage had evidently drawn Mavra's attention, and she stared at the blood, withered lips pulled back from yellow teeth. She looked at me, and her expression twisted in malice. She spun back to Lydia, sword held high.

  "Michael," I snapped, and stretched out my cane. "Venteferro!"

  Amoracchius burst into conflicting shades of blue and golden light, as my power wrapped around it, a coruscation of sparks that made Mavra howl in surprise and pain. The vampire retreated, but kept her pale hands clenched on the blade.

  "Suit yourself, sparky," I muttered. I gritted my teeth as the cane smoked and shook in my hand. "Vente! Venteferro!" I whipped the cane in a wide arc, and with a hiss the vampire found herself lifted clear of the ground by her grip on the sword, and flung like a beach ball toward the courtyard below. She smacked into the stones of the courtyard hard, brittle popping sounds a gruesome accompaniment. The sword exploded in another cloud of vengeful argent sparks and went spinning away from Mavra, the blade flashing where hit the ground.

  A wave of exhaustion and dizziness swept over me, and I nearly fell. Even using a focus, the rune-etched cane, that effort had nearly been more than I could manage. I had to clench my teeth and hope I wouldn't simply pitch to one side. I was getting down to the bottom of the barrel, as far as magic went.

  "Harry!" Michael shouted. "Look out!"

  I looked up to see Mavra bound up onto the dias again, not bothering to take the stairs, landing a few feet from me. Michael strode forward, one hand holding a dagger up reversed, point down, a cross extended toward Mavra. The vampire flung her hands at Michael, and darkness spilled out of them like oil, splattering toward the knight. It sizzled and spat against him, going up in puffs of steam, and Michael came on forward through it, white fire gathering around the upheld cross. Mavra let out a dusty, hissing scream and fell back from him, forced away from me.

  "Harry," Thomas shouted up the stairs, "hurry up! We can't last much longer!"

  My eyes swept the dias, but I could see no sign of Bianca or her attendants in the shadows cast by the halogen-brightness of Michael's blazing cross. I hurried to Lydia, sheathing my slender blade before scooping her up. "Longer? I'm amazed we're still alive now!"

  "Light shines brightest in the deepest dark!" Michael shouted, a fierce joy on his face, his eyes alight with a passion and a vengeance I had never seen in him. He kept forcing Mavra back before the paralyzing fire of the cross, until with a scream she fell from the dias. "Let come the forces of night! We will stand!"

  "We will get the hell out of here is what we will do," I muttered, but louder I said, "back down the stairs. Let's go!"

  I turned to see Thomas, Susan, and Justine holding off a ring of vampires, at the base of the stairs to the dias, between the pair of spotlights. Only scraps of skin and cloth clung to the vampires. Some of the Red Court still had partially human faces, but most stood naked, now, free of the flesh masks they wore. Black, flabby creatures, twisted, horrible faces, bellies bulging, mostly, tight with fresh blood. Black eyes, empty of anything but hunger, glittered in the light. Long, skinny fingers ended in black claws, as did the grasping toes of their feet. Me
mbranes stretched between their arms and flanks, horribly slime-covered, the beautiful bodies and shapes of before given way to the horror beneath.

  A vampire lurched toward Thomas, while another reached out to grasp Susan. She thrust her cross in its face, but unlike with Mavra, the wood did not blaze to light. Faith magic isn't always easy to work, even on vampires, and the Red Court, creatures with a more solid hold on reality than the more magical denizens of the Black, were not so easily repelled. The vampire howled, mouth yawning open, foaming slaver spattering Susan's red hood.

  She twisted and fought, and with her other hand swept up another baby food jar of holy water - not at the vampire, but at the spotlight beside them. With a screaming hiss, the water vaporized against the heat of the light, bursting out in a sudden cloud of steam that enfolded the vampire completely. It let out a screech that swept upward through the range of human hearing, vanishing above it, and fell away from Susan, its skin sloughing off, the black, stringy muscles and bones beneath showing through.

  Susan fumbled her basket open and drew her gun. She fired for the vampire's belly, the rapid thump-thump-thump of panic fire, and the vampire's abdomen ruptured, blood spraying out in a cloud. The vamp fell to the ground, and I remember thinking that she'd just killed the thing - really and truly taken one of them out. A fierce pride shot through me, and I headed down the stairs.

  And then our streak of luck ended.

  Justine took a step too far to one side, and Bianca appeared out of nowhere, seizing the girl by the hair and dragging her away from Thomas. Thomas whirled, but too late. Bianca held the girl's back against her front, her fingers wound with deceptive gentleness around Justine's throat. With the other hand, Bianca, still quite human-seeming and calm, caressed the girl's belly. Justine struggled, but Bianca simply turned her head to one side and drew her tongue slowly, sensuously over Justine's throat. The girl's eyes widened, panicked. Then they grew heavy. She shuddered, her body relaxing toward Bianca, arching slowly. Bianca's rich mouth quirked, and she murmured something into Justine's ear that made the girl whimper.

  "Enough," Bianca said. And as quickly as that, the courtyard grew silent. Michael and I stood on the stairs a bit above Thomas and Susan. The vampires ringed them in, just out of reach of Thomas's sword. I held Lydia unmoving in my arms. Bianca looked up at me and said, "The game has ended, wizard. "

  "You haven't taken us down yet," I shot back. "Smart for you and your people to get out of my way, before I get cranky. "

  Bianca laughed, idly plucking some of the petals from Justine's top, baring a bit more of her breasts. "Surely you don't think me so stupid as to be bluffed now, Dresden. You have already had a measure of your strength taken. What remains barely keeps you standing. If you could force your way out, you'd have done it already. " Her eyes moved to Michael. "And you, Sir Knight. You will die gloriously and take many of the horrid creatures of the night with you. But you are outnumbered and alone, and without the sword. You will die. "

  I glanced at Thomas and Susan and said, "Well, then. I guess it's a good thing we brought help. Your whole Court, Bianca, and you couldn't take us down. " I swept my eyes back and forth over the vampires below, and said, "All of your little minions here have eternity laid out before them. Eternity is a bad thing to lose. And maybe you would get us, eventually. But whichever one of you would like to lose eternity first, please. Just go ahead and step on up. "

  Silence reigned over the courtyard for a moment. I allowed a bit of hope to seep into my pounding heart. Kenny Rogers, eat your heart out. If this bluff worked, I'd be more of a gambler than he'd ever dreamed.

  Bianca only smiled, and said, to Thomas, "She's so beautiful, my cousin of the White Court. I've wanted her ever since the moment I saw her. " Bianca licked her lips. "What would you say to a bargain?"

  I sneered. "You think we would do business with you?"

  Thomas glanced back up at me. Incredibly, he was clean - but for a sprinkling of scarlet droplets on his pale flesh, unmarred, loincloth, wings, and all. "Go ahead," he said. "I'm listening. "

  "Give them to us, Thomas Raith," Bianca said. "Give us these three, and take the girl as your own, uncontested. I will have as many little pets as I wish, now. What is one over another?"

  "Thomas," I said. "I know we just met, but don't listen to her. She set you up to get killed already. "

  Thomas glanced back and forth between us. He met my eyes for a moment - almost long enough to let me see inside him. Then looked away. I had the impression that he was trying to tell me something. I don't know what. His expression seemed apologetic, maybe. "I know, Mister Dresden," he said. "But . . . I'm afraid the situation has changed. " He didn't kick Susan, so much as he simply planted his sandaled foot against her and shoved her into the crowd of vampires. She let out a short, startled scream, and then they took her, and dragged her into the darkness.

  Thomas lowered his sword and turned toward me, his back to the vampires. Leering, hissing, they crept closer to Michael and me, around Thomas, one of them rubbing up against his legs. His mouth twisted in distaste, and he sidestepped. "I'm sorry, Mister Dresden. Harry. I do like you quite a bit. But I'm afraid that I like myself a whole lot more. "

  Thomas faded back, while the vampires crowded around the bottom of the stairs. Somewhere, in the dark, Susan let out a short, terrified scream. And then it faded to a moan. And then silence.

  Bianca smiled sweetly at me, over Justine's lolling head. "And so, wizard, it ends. The pair of you will die. But don't worry. No one will ever find the bodies. " She glanced back, toward where Thomas had faded into the background and said, aside, "Kyle, Mavra. Kill the white-bellied little bastard, too. "

  Thomas's head whipped around toward Bianca and he snarled, "You bitch!"

  My mouth worked and twisted, but no words came out. How could they? Words couldn't possibly contain the frustration, the rage, the fear that poured through me. It cut through my weariness, sharp as thorns and barbed wire. It wasn't fair. We'd done everything we could. We'd risked everything.

  Not we. The choices had been mine.

  I'd risked everything.

  And I'd lost.

  Michael and I couldn't possibly fight them all alone. They'd taken Susan. The help we thought we'd found had turned against us.

  They had Susan.

  And it was my fault. I hadn't listened to her, when I should have. I hadn't protected her. And now she was going to die, because of me.

  I don't know how that realization would make someone else feel. I don't know if the despair, and the self-loathing and the helpless fury would crumble them like too-brittle concrete, or melt them like dirty lead, or shatter them like cheap glass.

  I only know what it did to me.

  It set me on fire.

  Fire in my heart, in my thoughts, in my eyes. I burned, burned down deep in my gut, burned in places I hadn't known I could hurt.

  I don't remember the spell, or the words I said. But I remember reaching for that pain. I remember reaching for it, and thinking that if we had to go, then so help me God, weakened or not, hopeless or not, I was going to take these murdering, bloodsucking sons of bitches with me. I would show them that they couldn't play lightly with the powers of creation, of life itself. That it wasn't smart to cross a wizard of the White Council when someone has stolen his girlfriend.

  I think Michael must have sensed something and taken the girl from my arms, because the next thing I remember is thrusting my hands toward the night sky and screaming, "Fuego! Pyrofuego! Burn, you greasy bat-faced bastards! Burn!"

  I reached for fire - and fire answered me.

  The tree-towers of the topiary castle exploded into blazes of light, and the hedge-walls, complete with their crenelated tops, went up with them. Fire leapt up into the air, forty, fifty feet, and the sudden explosion of it lifted everyone but me up and off the ground, sent wind roaring around us in a gale.

  I stood amidst it,
my mind brilliantly lit by the power coursing through me. It burned me, and some part of me screamed out in joy that it did. My cloak flapped and danced in the gale, spreading out around me in a scarlet and sable cloud. The abrupt glare fell on the scene of the vampires' revelry, lighting it harshly. The young people of earlier lay about, out in the darkness near the hedges, near the fires, pathetic little lumps. Some of them twitched. Some of them breathed. A few whimpered and tried to crawl away from the heat - but most lay dreadfully, perfectly still.

  Pale. Pretty.


  The fury in me grew. It swelled and burned and I reached out to the fires again. Flames flew out, caught one of the more cowardly of the vampires, huddled at the back, scrabbling to slip his flesh mask back over his squashed bat face. The fire touched him and then twined about him, searing and blackening his skin, then dragging him back, winding and rolling him toward the blaze.

  The magic danced in my eyes, my head, my chest, flying wild and out of control. I couldn't follow everything that happened. More vampires got too close to the flames, and began screaming. Tendrils of fire rose up from the ground and began to slither over the courtyard like serpents. Everything exploded into motion, shadows flashing through the brightness, seeking escape, screaming.

  I felt my heart clench in my chest and stop beating. I swayed on my feet, gasping. Michael got to me, Lydia slung over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. He'd torn his cloak off, and it lay to one side, burning. He dragged my arm across his shoulder, and half carried me down the stairs.

  Smoke gathered on us, thick and choking. I coughed and retched, helpless. The magic coursed through me, slower now, a trickle - not because the floodgates had closed, but because I had nothing left to pour out. I hurt. Fire spread out from my heart, my arms and legs clenching and twitching. I couldn't get a breath, couldn't think, and I knew, somewhere amidst all that pain, that I was about to die.

  "Lord!" Michael coughed. "Lord, I know that Harry hasn't always done what You would have done!" He staggered forward, carrying me, and the girl. "But he's a good man! He's fought against Your foes! He deserves better than to die here, Lord! So if you could be kind enough to show me how to get us out of here, I'd really appreciate it. "

  And then, abruptly, the smoke parted, and sweet, untainted air hit us in the face like a bucket of ice water.

  I fell to the ground. Michael dropped the girl somewhere near me and tore the cheap tuxedo open. He laid his hand over my heart and let out a short cry. After that, I don't remember much more than pain, and a series of dull, hard thumps on my chest.

  And then my heart lurched and began to beat again. The red haze of agony receded.

  I looked up.

  The smoke had parted in a tunnel, as though someone had shoved a glass tube of clean air through it and around us. At the far end of the tunnel stood a slender, willowy figure, tall, feminine. Something like wings spread out behind the figure, though that might have been an illusion, light falling on it from many angles, so that it was all shadow and color.

  "I thought He wasn't so literal," I choked.

  Michael drew back from me, his soot-stained face breaking into a brief smile. "Are you complaining?"

  "H - Heck, no. Where's Susan?"

  "I'll come back in for her. Come on. " Too tired to argue, I let him haul me back to my feet. He picked up Lydia, and we staggered forward and out, to the figure at the tunnel's far end.

  Lea. My faerie godmother.

  We both drew up short. Michael fumbled for his knife, but it was gone.

  Lea quirked one delicate brow at us. Her dress, still blue, unsoiled, flowed around her, and her silken mane matched the bloody fires consuming the courtyard. She looked almost good enough to drink, and she still held the black box Bianca had given her beneath one slender arm.

  "Godmother," I said, startled.

  "Well, fool? What are you waiting for. I took the trouble to show you a way to escape. Do it. "

  "You saved us?" I coughed.

  She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Though it pains me in ways I could not explain, yes, child. How am I supposed to have you if I let this Red Court hussy kill you? Stars above, wizard, I thought you had better sense than this. "

  "You saved me. So you could get me. "

  "Not like this," Lea said, holding a silken cloth to her nose, delicately. "You're a husk, and I want the whole fruit. Go rest, child. We will speak again soon enough. "

  And then she withdrew and was gone.

  Michael got me out of the house. I remember the smell of his old truck, sawdust and sweat and leather. I felt its worn seat creak beneath me.

  "Susan," I said. "Where's Susan?"

  "I'll try. "

  Then I drifted in darkness for a while, dimly conscious of a lingering pain in my chest, of Lydia's warm skin pressed against my hand. I tried to move, to make sure the girl was all right, but it was too much effort.

  The truck door opened and slammed closed. Then came the rumble of its engine.

  And then everything went mercifully black.