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Grave Peril, Page 31

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-one

  The darkness swallowed me and kept me for a long time. There was nothing but silence where I drifted, nothing but endless night. I wasn't cold. I wasn't warm. I wasn't anything. No thought, no dreams, no anything.

  It was too good to last.

  The pain of the burns came to me first. Burns are the worst injuries in the world. I'd been scorched on my right arm and shoulder, and it throbbed with a dull persistence that dragged me out of the peace. All the other assorted scrapes and bruises and cuts came back to me. I felt like a collection of complaints and malfunctions. I ached everywhere.

  Memory came through the haze next. I started remembering what had happened. The Nightmare. The vampire ball. The kids who had been seduced into being there.

  And the fire.

  Oh, God. What had I done?

  I thought of the fire, towering up in walls of solid flame, reaching out with hungry arms to drag the vampires screaming back into the pyre I had made of the hedges and the trees.

  Stars and stones. Those children had been helpless in that. In the fire and the smoke that I'd needed a major sidhe sorceress's assistance to escape. I had never stopped to think about that. I had never even considered the consequences of unleashing my power that way.

  I opened my eyes. I lay in my bed in my room. I stumbled out of the bed and into my bathroom. Someone must have fed me soup at some point, because when I started throwing up, there was something left to come out.

  Killed them. I killed those kids. My magic, the magic that was the energy of creation and life itself had reached out and burned them to death.

  I threw up until my belly ached with the violence of it, wild grief running rampant over me. I struggled, but I couldn't force the images out of my head. Children burning. Justin burning. Magic defines a man. It comes from down deep inside you. You can't accomplish anything with magic that isn't in you, somewhere, to do.

  And I had burned those children alive.

  My power. My choice. My fault.

  I sobbed.

  I didn't come to myself until Michael came into the bathroom. By the time he did, I lay on my side, curled up tight, the water of the shower pouring down over me, the cold making me shiver. Everything hurt, inside and out. My face ached, from being twisted up so tightly. My throat had closed almost completely as I wept.

  Michael picked me up as though I weighed no more than one of his children. He dried me with a towel and shoved me into my heavy robe. He had on clean clothes, a bandage on his wrist and another on his forehead. His eyes looked a little more sunken, as though short on sleep. But his hands were steady, his expression calm, confident.

  I gathered myself again, very slowly. By the time he was finished, I lifted my eyes to his.

  "How many?" I asked. "How many of them died?"

  He understood. I saw the pain in his eyes. "After I got the pair of you out, I called the fire department and let them know that people needed a rescue. They got there pretty quickly, but - "

  "How many, Michael?"

  He drew in a slow breath. "Eleven bodies. "

  "Susan?" My voice shook.

  He hesitated. "We don't know. Eleven was all they found. They're checking dental records. They said the heat was so intense that the bones hardly look human. "

  I let out a bitter laugh. "Hardly human. There were more kids than that there - "

  "I know. But that's all they found. And they rescued a dozen more, alive. "

  "It's something, at least. What about the ones unaccounted for?"

  "They were gone. Missing. They're . . . they're presumed dead. "

  I closed my eyes. Fire had to burn hot to reduce bones to ash. Had my spell been that powerful? Had it hidden most of the dead?

  "I can't believe it," I said. "I can't believe I was so stupid. "

  "Harry," Michael said. He put his hand on my shoulder. "We've no way to know. We just don't. They could have been dead before the fires came. The vampires were feeding from them indiscriminately, where we couldn't see. "

  "I know," I said. "I know. God, I was so arrogant. Such an idiot to go walking in there like that. "

  "Harry - "

  "And those poor, stupid kids paid the price. Dammit, Michael. "

  "A lot of the vampires didn't make it out, either, Harry. "

  "It isn't worth it. Not if it wiped out all the vamps in Chicago. "

  Michael fell quiet. We sat that way for a long time.

  Finally, I asked him, "How long have I been out?"

  "More than a day. You slept through last night and yesterday and most of tonight. The sun will rise soon. "

  "God," I said. I rubbed at my face.

  I could hear Michael's frown. "I thought we'd lost you for a while. You wouldn't wake up. I was afraid to take you to the hospital. Any place where there'd be a record of you. The vampires could trace it. "

  "We need to call Murphy and tell her - "

  "Murphy's still sleeping, Harry. I called Sergeant Stallings, last night, when I called the fire department. S. I. tried to take over the investigation, but someone up the line called the police department off of it altogether. Bianca has contacts in City Hall, I guess. "

  "They can't stop the missing persons investigations that are going to start cropping up as soon as people start missing those kids. But they can stick a bunch of things in the way of it. Crap. "

  "I know," Michael said. "I tried to find Susan, the girl Justine, and the sword, after. Nothing. "

  "We almost pulled it off. Sword and captives and all. "

  "I know. "

  I shook my head. "How's Charity? The baby?"

  He looked down. "The baby - they still don't know about him. They can't find out what's wrong. They don't have any idea why he is getting weaker. "

  "I'm sorry. Is Charity - ?"

  "She's stuck in bed for a while, but she'll be fine. I called her yesterday. "

  "Called. You didn't go see her?"

  "I guarded you," Michael said. "Father Forthill was with my family. And there are others who can watch them, when I'm away. "

  I winced. "She didn't like that, did she. That you stayed with me. "

  "She's not speaking to me. "

  "I'm sorry. "

  He nodded. "So am I. "

  "Help me up. I'm thirsty. "

  He did, and I only swayed a little as I stood. I tottered out into the living area of my apartment. "What about Lydia?" I asked.

  Michael remained silent, and my eyes answered my own question a few seconds later. Lydia lay on the couch in my living room, under a ton and a half of blankets, curled up, her eyes closed and her mouth a little open.

  "I recognize her," Michael said.

  I frowned. "From where?"

  "Kravos's lair. She was one of the kids they hauled away, early on. "

  I whistled. "She must have known him. Known what he was going to do, somehow. "

  "Try not to wake her up," Michael said, his voice soft. "She wouldn't sleep. I think they'd drugged her. She was panicky, gabbling. I just got her quieted down half an hour ago. "

  I frowned a little and went into the tiny kitchen. Michael followed. I got a Coke out of the icebox, thought better of it with my stomach the way it was, and fetched a glass of water instead. I drank unsteadily. "I've got hell to pay now, Michael. "

  He frowned at me. "How do you mean?"

  "What you do comes back to you, Michael. You know that much. Roll a stone and it rolls back upon you. Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. "

  Michael lifted his eyebrows. "I didn't realize you'd read much of the Bible. "

  "Proverbs always made a lot of sense to me," I said. "But with magic, things like that come a lot sharper and cleaner than with other things. I killed people. I burned them. It's going to come back to haunt me. "

  Michael frowned, and looked out at Lydia. "The Law of Three, eh?"

  I shrugged.

p; "I thought you told me once that you didn't believe in that. "

  I drank more water. "I didn't. I don't. It's too much like justice. To believe that what you do with magic comes back to you threefold. "

  "You've changed your mind?"

  "I don't know. All I know is that there's going to be justice, Michael. For those kids, for Susan, for what's happened to Charity and your son. If no one else is going to arrange it, I'll damn well do it myself. " I grimaced. "I just hope that if I'm wrong, I can dodge karmic paybacks long enough to finish this. "

  "Harry, the ball was the whole point. It was Bianca's chance to put you down while staying within the terms of the Accords. She laid her trap and missed. Do you think she's going to keep pushing it?"

  I gave him a look. "Of course. And so do you. Or you wouldn't have played watchdog here for the past day. "

  "Good point. "

  I raked my fingers through my hair, and reached for the Coke, my stomach be damned. "We just have to decide what our next move is going to be. "

  Michael shook his head. "I don't know. I need to be with Charity. And my son. If he's . . . if he's sick. He needs me near him. "

  I opened my mouth to object, but I couldn't. Michael had already risked his neck for me more than once. He'd given me a lot of good advice that I hadn't listened to. Especially about Susan. If I'd only paid more attention, told her what I felt, maybe . . .

  I cut off that line of thought before the hysterical sob that rose in my throat became more than a blur of tears in my eyes. "All right," I said. "I . . . thank you. For your help. "

  He nodded, and looked down, as though ashamed. "Harry. I'm sorry. I've done all that I could. But I'm not as young as I used to be. And . . . I lost the sword. Maybe I'm not the one to hold it anymore after all. Maybe this is how He is telling me that I need to be at home now. Be there for my wife, my children. "

  "I know," I said. "It's all right. Do what you think is best. "

  He touched the bandage on his forehead, lightly. "If I had the sword, maybe I'd feel differently. " He fell quiet.

  "Go on," I said. "Look, I'll be all right, here. The Council will probably give me some help. " If they didn't hear about the people who'd died in the fire, that is. If they heard about that, that I'd broken the First Law of Magic, they'd take my head off my neck faster than you could say "capital offense. "

  "Just go, Michael. I'll take care of Lydia. "

  "All right," he said. "I'll . . . "

  A thought occurred to me, and I didn't hear what Michael said next.

  "Harry?" he asked. "Harry, are you all right?"

  "I'm having a thought," I said. "I . . . something feels off about this to me. Doesn't it to you?"

  He just blinked at me.

  I shook my head. "I'll think about it. Make some notes. Try to sort this mess out. " I started toward the door. "Come on. I'll let you out. "

  Michael followed me to the door, and I had my hand on the knob when the door abruptly rattled under several rapid blows that could only loosely be construed as knocking. I shot him a glance over my shoulder, and without a word, he retreated to the fireplace and picked up the poker that had been laying against some of the logs. The tip glowed orange-red.

  When a fresh barrage hammered against my door, I jerked it open, slipping to one side.

  A slender figure of medium height stumbled into the room. He wore a leather jacket, jeans, tennis shoes, and a Cubs ball cap. He carried a rifle case made of black plastic, and he smelled of sweat and feminine perfume.

  "You," I snarled. I grabbed the man's shoulder before he could get his balance and spun his shoulders hard, sending him back against the wall. I drove my fist hard at his mouth, felt the bright smack-thud of impact on my knuckles. I grabbed the front of his jacket in both hands, and with a snarl hurled him away from the wall, to the floor of my living room.

  Michael stepped forward, put his work boot on the back of the intruder's neck, and pressed the glowing tip of the poker close to his eyes.

  Thomas released the rifle case and jerked his hands up, pale fingers spread. "Jesus!" he gasped. His full lower lip had split, and was smeared with something pale and pinkish, not much like human blood. I glanced down at my knuckles, and they were smeared with the same substance. It caught the light of the fire and refracted in an opalescent sheen. "Dresden," Thomas stammered. "Don't do anything hasty. "

  I reached down and plucked the hat off of his head, letting his dark hair spill out and down in an unkempt mane. "Hasty? Like, maybe, turn traitor on you all of a sudden and let a bunch of monsters eat your girlfriend?"

  His eyes rolled back to Michael and then over to me. "God, wait. It wasn't like that. You didn't see all that happened afterwards. At least shut the door and listen to me. "

  I glanced over at the open doorway, and after a hesitation shut it. No sense in leaving my back open just to be contrary. "I don't want to listen to him, Michael. "

  "He's a vampire," Michael said. "And he betrayed us. He's probably come here to try to trick us again. "

  "You think we should kill him?"

  "Before he hurts someone," Michael said. His tone was flat, disinterested. Scary, actually. I shivered a little, and drew my robe closed around me a little more tightly.

  "Look, Thomas," I said. "I've had a really bad day, and I only woke up half an hour ago. You're adding to it. "

  "We're all having a bad day, Dresden," Thomas said. "Bianca's people were after me all day and all night, too. I just barely got here without getting myself torn to pieces. "

  "The night is young," I said. "Give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you like the lying, treacherous vampire sleaze you are?"

  "Because you can trust me," he said. "I want to help you. "

  I snorted. "Why the hell should I believe you?"

  "You shouldn't," he said. "Don't. I'm a good liar. One of the best. I'm not asking you to believe me. Believe the circumstances. We have a common interest. "

  I scowled. "You're kidding me. "

  He shook his head, and offered me a wry smile. "I wish I was. I thought I would get the chance to help you out once Bianca had taken her eyes off me, but she double crossed me. "

  "Well, Thomas. I don't know how new you are to all of this, but Bianca is what we colloquially refer to as a 'bad guy. They do that. That's one way you can tell they're bad guys. "

  "God save me from idealists," Thomas muttered. Michael growled, and Thomas shot him a hopeful, puppy-like smile. "Look, both of you. They have Dresden's woman. "

  I took a step forward, my heart fluttering. "She's alive?"

  "For now," Thomas said. "They've got Justine, too. I want her back. You want Susan back. I think we can make a deal. Work together. What do you say?"

  Michael shook his head. "He's a liar, Harry. I can tell just by being this close to him. "

  "Yes, yes, yes," Thomas said. "I confess to it. But at the moment, it isn't a part of my agenda to lie to anyone. I just want her back. "


  Thomas nodded.

  "So he can keep on draining the life out of her," Michael said. "Harry, if we aren't going to kill him, let's at least put him out. "

  "If you do," Thomas said. "You'll be making a huge mistake. And I swear to you, by my own stunning good looks and towering ego, that I'm not lying to you. "

  "Okay," I said to Michael. "Kill him. "

  "Wait!" Thomas shouted. "Dresden, please. What do you want me to pay you? What do you want me to do? I don't have anywhere else to go. "

  I studied Thomas's expression. He looked weary, desperate, beneath the cool facade he was barely holding onto. And beneath the fear, he looked resigned. Determined.

  "Okay," I said. "It's all right, Michael. Let him up. "

  Michael frowned. "You sure?"

  I nodded. Michael fell back from Thomas, but he kept the poker gripped loosely in one hand.

  Thomas sat up, running hi
s fingers lightly over his throat, where Michael's boot had left a dark mark, and then touched his split lip, and winced. "Thank you," he said, quietly. "Look in the case. "

  I glanced at the black rifle case. "What's in it?"

  "A deposit," he said. "A down payment, for your help. "

  I quirked an eyebrow and leaned over the case. I ran my fingertips lightly over it. There was no spiny buzz of energy around it to herald a sorcerous booby trap, but a good one would be hard to notice. There was something inside, though. Something that hummed quietly, a silent vibration of power that ran through the plastic and into my hand. A vibration I recognized.

  I flicked open the latches on the rifle case, fumbling in my hurry, and swung it open.

  Amoracchius lay gleaming against the grey foam inside the case, unmarked from the inferno at Bianca's town house.

  "Michael," I said, quietly. I reached out and touched the blade's hilt, again. Still, it buzzed with that quiet, deep power, at once reassuring and intimidating. I withdrew my fingers.

  Michael paced over to the case and leaned down, staring at the sword. His expression wavered and became difficult to read. His eyes filled with tears, and he reached a broad, scarred hand down to the weapon's hilt. He took it in hand and closed his eyes.

  "It's all right," he said. "They didn't hurt it. " He blinked his eyes open, and looked upwards. "I hear you. "

  I glanced up toward my ceiling and said, "I hope you meant that in a figurative sense. Because I didn't hear anything. "

  Michael smiled and shook his head. "I was weak for a while. The swords are a burden. A power, yes, but at a price. I thought that perhaps the loss of the sword was His way of telling me it was time to retire. " He ran his other hand over the twisted metal nail set into the blade at the weapon's crossguard. "But there's still work to be done. "

  I glanced up, at Thomas. "You say they've got Susan and Justine, huh? Where?"

  He licked his lips. "The town house," he said. "The fire ruined the back of the house, but only the exterior. The inside was fine, and the basement was untouched. "

  "All right," I said. "Talk. "

  Thomas did, laying out facts in rapid order. After the havoc of the fire, Bianca and the Court had retreated into the mansion. Bianca had ordered the other vampires to each carry one of the helpless mortals out. One of them had brought Susan. When the police and fire crews had arrived, most of the action was over, and the fire marshal had been worked up into a lather over the deaths. He'd gone inside to speak to Bianca, and come out calm and collected, and ordered everyone to pack up and leave, that he was satisfied that it had been a terrible accident and that everything was over.

  After that, the vampires had been able to relax and enjoy their "guests. "

  "I think they're turning some of them," Thomas said. "Bianca has the authority to allow it, now. And they lost too many in the fight and the fire. I know Mavra took a couple and took them with her when she left. "

  "Left?" I asked.

  Thomas nodded. "She skipped town just after sunset, word is. Couple of hungry new mouths to feed, you know?"

  "And how do you know all of this, Thomas? The last I heard, Bianca's people were trying to kill you. "

  He shrugged. "There's more to a good liar than meets the eye, Dresden. I was able to keep an eye on things for a while. "

  "Okay," I said. "So they've got our people at the manor house. We just need to get inside, get them, and get out again. "

  Thomas shook his head. "We need something else. She's brought in mortal security. Guards with machine guns. It would be a slaughter. "

  "That's the spirit," I said, with a grim smile. "Where in the house are they keeping the captives?"

  Thomas looked at me rather blankly for a moment. Then he shook his head. "I don't know. "

  "You've known everything so far," Michael said. "Why are you drying up on us now?"

  Thomas gave the Knight a wary look. "I'm serious. I haven't seen any more of that house than you two. "

  Michael frowned. "Even if we do get in, we can't go blundering around checking every broom closet. We need to know about the inside of the house. "

  Thomas shrugged. "I'm sorry. I'm tapped. "

  I waved a hand. "Don't worry. We just need to talk to someone who has seen the inside of the house. "

  "Capture a prisoner?" Michael asked. "I don't know how much luck we'd have with that. "

  I shook my head, and glanced over at the sleeping figure of Lydia, who hadn't stirred in all that time. "We just need to talk to her. She was inside. She might have some useful insights for us, in any case. She's got a gift for it. "


  "Cassandra's Tears. She can see bits of the future. "

  I got dressed, and we gave Lydia another hour or so. Thomas went into the bathroom to shower, while I sat out in the living room with Michael. "What I can't figure," I said, "is how we managed to get out of there so easily. "

  "You call that easy?" Michael said.

  I grimaced. "Maybe. I would have expected them to come after us by now. Or to have sent the Nightmare to get us. "

  Michael frowned, rolling the hilt of the sword between his two hands as though it were a golf club. "I see what you mean. " He was quiet for a minute, and then said, "You really think the girl will be of help?"

  "I hope so. "

  At that moment, Lydia started coughing. I moved to her side, and helped her drink some water. She seemed groggy, though she started to stir. "Poor kid," I commented to Michael.

  "At least she got a little sleep. I don't think she'd had any for days. "

  Michael's words froze me solid.

  I started to push myself away from Lydia, but her fingers reached out and dug into the sweater I was wearing. I jerked against them, but she held me, easily, not at all moved. The pale girl opened her sunken eyes, and they were flooded with blood, all through the whites, scarlet. She smiled, slow and malicious. She spoke, and her voice came out in a low, harsh sound totally unlike her natural tones, alien and malevolent. "You should have kept her from sleeping. Or killed her before she woke. "

  Michael started to his feet. Lydia rose, and with one arm she lifted me clear of the ground, bloody eyes glaring up at me with wicked exultation. "I've waited long enough for this," the alien voice, that of the Nightmare, purred. "Goodbye, wizard. " And the slender girl flung me like a baseball at the stone of my fireplace.

  Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.