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Grave Peril, Page 32

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-two

  I flailed my arms and legs and watched the fireplace get closer to breaking open my head. At the last second, I saw a blur of white and pink, and then I slammed into Thomas, driving him into the stones of the fireplace. He let out a grunt, and I bounced off of him, and back to the floor, momentarily breathless. I shoved myself up to my hands and knees and looked at him. He'd wrapped a pink bath towel around his hips, but either the sheer speed of his movement or else the impact had knocked it mostly askew. His ribs jutted out on one side, oddly misshapen.

  Thomas looked up at me, his face twisted into a grimace. "I'll be all right," he said. "Look out. "

  I looked up to find Lydia stalking toward me. "Idiot," she seethed at Thomas. "What did you think you could accomplish? So be it. You just got added to the list. "

  Michael slipped in between the possessed girl and me, the sword glittering in the low light of the room. "That's far enough," he said. "Get back. "

  I struggled back to my feet, and wheezed, "Michael, be careful. "

  Lydia let out another twisted laugh, and leaned forward, pressing her sternum against Amoracchius's tip. "Oh yes, Sir Knight. Get back or what? You'll murder this poor child? I don't think so. I seem to remember, there was something about this sword not being able to draw innocent blood, wasn't there?"

  Michael blinked, and darted a glance back at me. "What?"

  I got to my feet. "This is really Lydia. It isn't a magical construct, like we saw before. The Nightmare is possessing her. Anything we do to Lydia's body, she's going to have to live with, later. "

  The girl ran a hand over her breasts, beneath the taut Lycra, licking her lips and staring at Michael with bloody eyes. "Yes. Just a sweet little innocent lamb, wandered astray. You wouldn't want to hurt her, would you, Knight?"

  "Harry," Michael said, "how do we handle this?"

  "You die," Lydia purred. She rushed Michael, one hand reaching out to strike the sword's blade aside.

  When she rushed me, I just got grabbed. But Michael had training, experience. He let the sword fall to the floor and rolled back with Lydia's rush. He grabbed her forearms as she reached for his throat, whirled, and sent her tumbling into the couch, knocking it over backwards and sending her into a sprawl on the far side.

  "Keep her busy!" I shouted to him. "I can get it out of her!" And then I rushed back into my bedroom, searching for the ingredients for an exorcism. My room was a mess. I scrambled through it, while out in the living room, Lydia screamed again. There was another thump, this one rattling the wall beside the bedroom door, and then the sounds of panting, scuffling.

  "Hurry up, Harry!" Michael gasped. "She's strong!"

  "I know, I know!" I jerked open the door to my closet and started knocking things off the shelves, rather than hunt through them.

  Behind the spare cans of shaving cream, I located five trick birthday candles, the kind that you can't blow out, and a five-pound bag of salt. "Okay!" I called. "I'm coming!"

  Michael and Lydia lay on the floor, his legs wrapped around hers, while his arms pinned hers back behind her in some kind of modified full Nelson hold.

  "Hold her there!" I shouted. I rushed in a circle around them, shoving back a chair and a footrest, kicking rugs and carpets aside, finally jerking the last one out from beneath Michael. Lydia fought him, twisting like an eel and screaming at the top of her lungs.

  I tore open the salt and ran about the pair of them, dumping it out into a white mound in a circle. Then I ran about again, setting the candles down, piling up enough salt around them to keep them from being turned over. Lydia saw what I was doing and screamed again, redoubling her efforts.

  "Flickum bicus!" I shouted, shoving a hurried effort of will into the little spell. The effort made me dizzy for a moment, but the candles burst to light, the circle of candles and salt gathering power.

  I rose, reaching out my right hand and feeding more energy into the circle, setting it up in a spinning vortex winding about the three beings inside it - Lydia, Michael, and the Nightmare. Energy gathered in the circle, spinning around, whirling magic down into the earth, grounding and dispersing it. I could almost see the Nightmare clutching tighter to Lydia, holding on. All I needed was the right move to stun the Nightmare, to lock it up for a second, so that the exorcism could sweep it away.

  "Azorthragal!" I shouted, bellowing out the demon's name. "Azorthragal! Azorthragal!" I stretched out my right hand again, concentrating fiercely. "Begone!"

  Energy rushed out of my body as I completed the spell, swept toward the Nightmare within Lydia like a wave lifting a sleeping seal off a rock -

  - and passed over, leaving it untouched.

  Lydia began to laugh wildly, and managed to catch one of Michael's hands in hers. She gave a twist, and bones snapped with sharp pops and crackles. Michael let out an agonized scream, twisting and jerking. He knocked the circle of salt askew, and Lydia escaped him, rising to face me.

  "Such a fool, wizard," she said. I didn't banter. I didn't even stand there, stunned that my spell had failed so miserably. I wound back a hand and threw a punch at her as hard as I could, hoping to stun the body the demon was riding in, to keep it from reacting.

  The possessed Lydia glided from the path of my punch, caught my wrist, and dumped me onto my back. I started to push myself up, but she threw herself astride me, and slammed my head back against the floor, twice. I saw stars.

  Lydia stretched above me, purring, and thrusting her hips down against mine. I tried to escape during the moment of gloating, but my arms and legs just didn't respond. She reached down, laying both of her hands almost delicately on my throat, and murmured, "Such a shame. All this time, and you didn't even know who it was after you. You didn't even know who else wanted revenge. "

  "I guess sometimes you find out the hard way," I slurred.

  "Sometimes," Lydia agreed, smiling. And then her hands closed over my throat, and I didn't have any more air.

  Sometimes, when you're facing death, it feels like everything slows down. Everything stands out sharply in detail, almost freezes. You can see it all, feel it all, as though your brain has decided, in sheer defiance, to seize the last few moments of life and to squeeze them for every bit of living left.

  My brain did that, but instead of showing me my trashed apartment and how I really needed a new coat of paint on the ceiling, it started frantically shoving puzzle pieces together. Lydia. The shadow demon. Mavra. The torment spells. Bianca.

  One thing stood out in my mind, a piece that didn't fit anywhere. Susan had been gone for a day or two, where I had barely been able to talk to her. She'd said she was working on something. That something was happening. It fit, somehow, somewhere.

  Stars swam in my vision and fire started to spread through my lungs. I struggled to pry her arms off of me, but it was no use - possessed, she was simply too strong to deal with.

  Susan had been asking me about something, some insignificant part of the phone conversation we had, between sexual innuendos. What had it been?

  I heard myself making a very slight sound, something like, "Gaghk. Aghk. " I tried to lever Lydia's weight up and off of me, but she simply rolled with me, taking my weight onto her and then continuing the motion, slamming me to the floor again. My vision began to darken, though I opened my eyes wide. It was like staring down a dark tunnel, looking up at Lydia's blood-filled eyes.

  I saw Michael struggle to his knees, his face white as a fresh dusting of snow. He moved toward Lydia, but she turned her head slightly and kicked him, lashing out with one heel. I heard something else snap as the force of the kick drove Michael back.

  Murphy had been distracted about something, too. Something she'd hurriedly changed subjects on. Intuition drew a line between them. And then an equal sign.

  And then I had it: the last piece of the puzzle. I knew what had happened, where the Nightmare had come from, why it was after me, in particular. I knew how to sto
p it, knew what its limits were, how Bianca had enlisted it, and why my spells had been so hard-pressed to affect it.

  Almost a pity, really. I'd figured things out just in time to die.

  Vision faded altogether.

  And a moment later, so did the pain in my throat.

  Instead of drifting off into whatever lay beyond, though, I sucked in a breath of air, choking and gasping. My vision became red for a moment, as blood rushed back through my head, and then started to clear.

  Lydia still crouched over me, up on her knees, straddling me - but she'd released my throat. Instead, she had arched her arms up and back, over her head, to caress Thomas's naked shoulders.

  The vampire had pressed up against Lydia's back. His mouth nuzzled her throat, slow kisses, strokes of his tongue that made the girl shudder and quiver. His hands roamed slowly over her body, always touching skin, fingers roaming up beneath the brief Lycra top to caress her breasts. Lydia gasped, blood-filled eyes distant, unfocused, body responding with a slow, sensual grace.

  Thomas looked past her, through the dark fall of his hair, to me. His eyes weren't blue-grey anymore. They were empty, white, no color to them at all. I felt cold coming off of him, something I sensed more than felt on my skin, a horrible and seductive cold. He continued, spreading a line of kisses up Lydia's neck, to her ear, making her whimper and shake.

  I swallowed, and crawled back on my elbows, dragging my hips and legs out from beneath the pair of them.

  Thomas murmured, so softly that I wasn't sure I'd heard him. "I don't know how long I can distract her, Dresden. Quit gawking and do something. I'll put on afternoon theater for you later, if you want to watch that bad. " Then his mouth covered the girl's, and she stiffened, eyes flying open wide before they languidly closed, deepening the kiss.

  I flushed at Thomas's words, which made my head pound painfully. I rooted around the floor and recovered the candles, still lit, and the bag of salt. I spread the salt in a circle around Lydia and Thomas, as Lydia drew the Lycra shorts down and reached back to grasp at Thomas, to urge him toward her.

  Thomas let out a groan of pure anguish and said, "Dresden. Hurry. "

  I settled the candles into place and gathered up whatever power I had left to close the circle and to begin the vortex again. If I was right, I would free Lydia, maybe permanently. If I was wrong, this was the last of my energy, and I'd dump it into the earth for nothing. The Nightmare would presumably kill us - and I didn't think any of us were in shape to do anything about it.

  Energy gathered in the circle, rising in a growing whirl of invisible, tingling power. I stretched out my hand and willed more energy into it, feeling dizzy.

  The Nightmare finally seemed to take notice of what was around it again. Lydia shivered and leaned a little away from Thomas, breaking some of the contact between them - then the bloodred eyes snapped open, and focused on me. Lydia began to rise, but Thomas clutched onto her hard, holding her.

  The power rose again, a second vortex whirling around the pair of them, tugging at spiritual energies within. Lydia screamed.

  "Leonid Kravos!" I thundered. I repeated the name, and saw Lydia's eyes fly open wide in shock. "Begone, Kravos! You second-rate firecaller! Begone! Begone!" And with the last word, I stamped my foot down, releasing the power of the exorcism down, into the earth.

  Lydia screamed, her body arching, her mouth dropping open wide. Within the whirling vortex, glittering motes of silver and gold light gathered into a funnel, centered on Lydia's gaping mouth. Scarlet energy flooded out of her screaming mouth, and for a moment there was an unnerving overlap of screams - one high-pitched, young, feminine, terrified, while the other was inhuman, otherworldly. More scarlet light lashed forth from Lydia's eyes, stolen away by the vortex's power.

  And then with a rush and an implosion of suddenly empty air, the vortex swirled into an infinitely thin line and vanished, dropping down into the floor, lower, deep into the earth.

  Lydia let out a low, exhausted cry, and dropped limply to the floor. Thomas, still clutching her, tumbled down with her. Silence fell on the room, but for the four of us, gasping for breath.

  Finally, I managed to sit up. "Michael," I called, my voice hoarse. "Michael. Are you okay?"

  "Did you stop it?" he asked. "Is the girl all right?"

  "I think so. "

  "Thank God," he said. "It kicked me, got one of my ribs. I'm not sure I can sit up. "

  "Don't," I said, and mopped sweat from my brow. "Broken ribs could be bad. Thomas? Are you - Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

  Thomas lay with his arms around Lydia, his pale, naked body pressed against hers, his lips nuzzling her ear. Lydia's eyes were open, colored naturally again, but not focused on anything. She didn't look conscious, but she was making tiny, aroused motions of her body, her hips, leaning back to him. Thomas blinked up at me when I spoke, eyes still empty and white.

  "What?" he asked. "She's not unwilling. She's probably just grateful to me, for my help. "

  "Get away from her," I snapped.

  "I'm hungry," he said. "It won't kill her, Dresden. Not the first time. You'd be dead right now without me. Just let me - "

  "No," I said.

  "But - "

  "No. Get off of her, or you and I are going to have words. "

  A snarl split the air between us, Thomas's full lips peeling back from his teeth. They looked like human teeth, not vampire fangs. Whiter and more perfect than human teeth, but other than that, normal.

  I returned his stare coolly.

  Thomas looked away first. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when he opened them again, there were pale rings of color in them once more, slowly darkening. He released Lydia and rolled away from her. His ribs still looked dented, but not as much as before. He got to his feet and wrapped the towel around his hips again, then stalked back toward the bathroom without another word.

  I checked Lydia's pulse, blushed, and tugged her shorts back into place. Then I righted the couch and put her back onto it, beneath the blankets. After that, I went to Michael.

  "What was that all about?" he asked.

  I told him what had happened, in terms as PG rated as possible. He scowled, flicking a glance back toward the bathroom. "They're like that. The White Court. Seducers. They feed on lust, fear, hatred. Emotions. But they always use lust to seduce their victims. They can force them to feel it, indulge in sex. It's how they feed. "

  "Sex vampires, I know," I muttered. "Still. It's interesting. "

  "Interesting?" Michael sounded skeptical. "Harry, I wouldn't call it interesting. "

  "Why not?" I said. I squinted after Thomas, thoughtfully. "Whatever he used, it worked on the Nightmare. Caught it up. That means that it's either some kind of ambient magic, maybe that cold I felt, that works on everything around, or else it's something chemical - like Red Court venom. Something that got to Lydia's body and bypassed the Nightmare's control of her mind, altogether. Pheromones, maybe. "

  "Harry," Michael said, "I really don't mean to discourage your scholarly pursuits, but would you mind, very much, helping me with these broken ribs. "

  We took inventory. I had some nasty bruises on my throat, but nothing more. Michael had one rib that was definitely broken, and one more that might have been cracked, tender as it was. I got him wrapped up pretty well. Thomas came out of my room, dressed in some of my spare jogging clothes. They hung off of him, and he had to roll the sleeves and legs of the sweatpants up. He slouched into a chair, his gaze settling on Lydia's sleeping form with a rather disconcerting intensity.

  "It all fits now," I told them. "I know what's going on, so I can finally do something about it. I'm going to go to the town house, and get everyone out. "

  Michael frowned at me. "What fits?"

  "It wasn't the demon that crossed over, Michael. We were never fighting the demon. It was Kravos himself. Kravos is the Nightmare. "

Michael blinked at me. "But we didn't kill Kravos. He's still alive. "

  "Dollars to donuts he isn't. I figure the night before the Nightmare's attacks started, he puts together a ritual and takes himself out. "

  "Why would he do that?"

  "To come back as a ghost. To get revenge. Think about it - that's all the Nightmare has been doing. It's been rampaging around, avenging Kravos. "

  "Could he do that?" Michael asked.

  I shrugged. "I don't see why he couldn't, if he had raised a bunch of power, and if he was focused on getting his vengeance and turning himself into a ghost. Especially . . . "

  ". . . with the border to the Nevernever as turbulent as it was," Michael finished.

  "Exactly. Which means that Mavra and Bianca helped him out, specifically. Hell, they probably put together the ritual that he used. And if someone in federal custody here in Chicago suddenly turned up suicided in his cell, it would cause a big stir in local police - and would be serious news for the media. Which is why Murphy was being so hush-hush, and Susan was so distracted. She was working on a story, finding out what happened. Following up a rumor, maybe. "

  Thomas frowned. "Let me get this straight. This Nightmare is the ghost of the sorcerer Kravos. The cult murderer in the news several months ago. "

  "Yeah. The turbulence in the Nevernever let him get made into a badass ghost. "

  "Turbulence?" Thomas said.

  I nodded. "Someone began binding the local spooks with torment spells. They went wild and started stirring the border between the real world and the Nevernever. I figure it was Mavra, working with Bianca. That same turbulence let Kravos hit everyone he could in their dreams. It's how he got to me, and how he got to poor Malone, and how he got to Lydia just now. Lydia knew what he was doing. That's why she never wanted to go to sleep. I didn't see it coming, when he hit me in my dreams. I wasn't ready for a fight, and he kicked my ass. "

  "But now you can defeat him?" Michael asked.

  "I'm ready for him now. I beat this punk when he was alive. Now that I know what I'm dealing with, I can do it to his shade, too. I'll go to the house, take out the Nightmare, Bianca if I have to, and get everyone out. "

  "Did you get hit on the head when I wasn't looking?" Thomas asked. "Dresden, I told you about the guards. The machine guns. I did mention the machine guns, didn't I?"

  I waved a hand. "I'm already past the point where a sane man would be afraid. Guards and machine guns, whatever. Look, Bianca has Susan, plus Justine, and maybe twenty or thirty kids being held captive, or getting set to get turned into fresh vampires. The police's hands are tied on this. Someone has to do something, and I'm the only one in a position to - "

  "Get riddled with bullets," Thomas interjected, his tone dry. "My, how very helpful that will be toward attaining our mutual goals. "

  "Oh ye of little faith," Michael said, from his place in my easychair. He swung his head back toward me. "Go ahead, Harry. What do you have in mind?"

  I nodded. "All right. I figure Bianca will have security all over the outside of the house. She'll cover all the approaches to it, any cars that go in are going to get searched, and so on. "

  "Exactly," Thomas said. "Dresden, I thought maybe we could pool our resources. Work something out with our contacts and spies. Perhaps disguise ourselves as caterers and sneak in. " He paused. "Well. You could pass for a caterer, in any case. But if we simply assault her house, we'll all be killed. "

  "If we walk up where they can see us. "

  Thomas frowned. "You have something else in mind? I doubt we could veil ourselves with magic. In familiar surroundings, she's going to be difficult to fool with those kinds of glamour. "

  I lifted an eyebrow at the vampire. "You're right. I had something else in mind. "

  I came through the rift between the mortal world and the Nevernever last. I bore my staff and rod, and wore my leather duster, my shield bracelet and a copper ring upon my left hand matched by another upon my right.

  The Nevernever, near my apartment, looked like . . . my apartment. Only a bit cleaner and brighter. Deep philosophical statement about the spirituality of my little basement? Maybe. Shapes moved in the shadows, scurrying like rats, or gliding over the floor like snakes - spirit-beings that fed on the crumbs of energy that spilled over from my place in the real world.

  Michael bore Amoracchius in his hand, its blade glowing with a pearly luminescence. As soon as he had picked up the blade, his face had regained color, and he had moved as though his bandaged ribs no longer pained him. He wore denim and flannel and his steel-toed work boots.

  Thomas, dressed in my castoffs and carrying an aluminum baseball bat from my closet, looked about the place, amused, his dark hair still damp and curling wetly over his shoulders.

  In a sack made of fishnet, Bob's skull hung from my fist, the orange skull-lights glowing dimly, like candles. "Harry," Bob asked. "Are you sure about this? I mean, I don't really want to get caught in the Nevernever if I can avoid it. A few old misunderstandings, you see. "

  "You aren't any more worried about it than I am. If my godmother catches me here, I've had it. Take it easy, Bob," I said. "Just guide us through the shortest path to Bianca's place. Then I tear a hole back over to our side, into her basement, we get everyone and get them out again, and bring them home. "

  "There is no shortest path, Harry," Bob said. "This is the spirit world. Things are linked together by concepts and ideas and don't necessarily adhere to physical distance like - "

  "I know the basics, Bob," I told him. "But the bottom line is that you know your way around here a lot better than I do. Get us there. "

  Bob sighed. "All right. But I can't guarantee we'll be in and out before sundown. You might not even be able to make a hole through, while the sun's still up. It tends to diffuse magical energies that - "

  "Bob. Save the lecture for later. Leave the wizarding to me. "

  The skull swung around to Michael and Thomas. "Excuse me. Have either of you told Harry what a brainless plan this is?"

  Thomas raised his hand. "I did. It didn't do much good. "

  Bob rolled his eyelights. "It never does. So help me, Dresden, if you die I'm going to be very annoyed. You'll probably roll me under a rock at the last minute, and I'll be stuck there for ten thousand years until someone finds me. "

  "Don't tempt me. Less talk, more guide. "

  "Si, memsahib," Bob said, seriously. Thomas snickered. Bob turned his eyelights toward the stairs leading out of the Nevernever version of my apartment. "That way," he said.

  We passed out of the apartment, and into a sort of vague representation of Chicago, which looked like a stage set - flat building faces with no real substance to them, vague light that could have come from sun or moon or streetlights, plus a haze of grey-brown fog. From there, Bob guided us down a sidewalk, then turned into an alley, and opened a garage door, which led to a stone-carved staircase, winding down into the earth.

  We followed his lead, into the darkness. At times, the only light we had was the orange glow of the skull's eyelights. Bob turned his head in the direction required, and we passed through a subterranean region that was mostly blackness and low ceilings, eventually rising up a slope that emerged in the center of a ring of standing dolmens atop a long hill. Stars shone overhead in a fierce blaze, and lights danced in the woods at the base of the hill, skittering around like manic fireflies.

  I stiffened in my boots. "Bob," I said. "Bob. You blew it, man. This is Faerie. "

  "Of course it is," Bob said. "It's the biggest place in the Nevernever. You can't get to anywhere without crossing through Faerie at one place or another. "

  "Well hurry up and cross us out," I said. "We can't stay here. "

  "Believe me, I don't want to hang here, either. Either we get the Disney version of Faerie, with elves and tinkerbell pixies and who knows what sugary cuteness, or we get the wicked witch version, which is considerably more entertaining, bu
t less healthy. "

  "Even the Summer Court isn't all sweetness and light. Bob, shut up. Which way?"

  The skull turned mutely toward what seemed to be the westernmost side of the hill, and we descended down it.

  "It's like a park," Thomas commented. "I mean, the grass should be over our knees. Or no, maybe like a good golf course. "

  "Harry," Michael said, quietly. "I'm getting a bad feeling. "

  The skin on my neck started to crawl, and I looked back to Michael, nodding. "Bob, which way out?"

  Bob nodded ahead, as we rounded a stand of trees. An old, colonial-style covered bridge arched up over a ridiculously deep chasm. "There," Bob said. "That's the border. Where you're wanting isn't too far past that. "

  In the distance, came the notes of a hunting horn, dark and clear - and the baying of hounds.

  "Run for the bridge," I snapped. Thomas sprinted beside me without apparent effort. I glanced at Michael, who had reversed his grip on the sword and held it pommel-first, the blade laying against his forearm as he ran. His face was twisted up in effort and pain, but he kept pace.

  "Harry," Bob commented. "If it's all the same, you might want to run a bit faster. There's a hunt coming. "

  The horn belled again, backed up by the dolmens, and the cries of the pack rang out sharp and clear. Thomas whirled to look, running a few paces backward, before turning again. "I could have sworn they were miles away a moment ago. "

  "It's the Nevernever," I panted. "Distance, time. It's all fucked up here. "

  "Wow," Bob commented. "I hadn't realized that they grew hellhounds that big. And look, Harry, it's your godmother! Hi, Lea!"

  If Bob had a body, he'd have been jumping up and down and waving his fingers at her. "Don't be so enthusiastic, Bob. If she catches me, I get to join the pack. "

  Bob's eyelights swung toward me and he gulped. "Oh," he said. "There's been a falling out, then. Or a falling further out, at any rate, since you weren't on such great terms to begin with. "

  "Something like that," I panted.

  "Um. Run," Bob said. "Run faster. You really need to run faster, Harry. "

  My feet flew over the grass.

  Thomas reached the bridge first, his feet thumping out onto it. Michael got there a pace later. With a broken rib and twenty years on me, he still outran me to that damn bridge. I've got to work out more.

  "Made it!" I shouted, taking a last long step toward the bridge.

  The lariat hit me about the throat before my feet had quite touched down, and jerked me back through the air with a snap. I lay on the ground, stunned, choking for the second time in two hours.

  "Uh-oh," Bob said. "Harry. Whatever you do, don't drop me. Especially under a rock. "

  "Thanks a lot," I gasped, reaching up to jerk the rope from its constricting hold on my throat.

  Heavy hooves sank into the turf on either side of my head. I gulped, and looked up at a night-black steed with black and silver tack. Its hooves were shod with bladed shoes of some silvery metal. It wasn't iron or steel. There was blood on those shoes, as though the horse had trampled some poor, trapped thing to death. Or else sliced it apart.

  My gaze slid on up past the horse, to its rider. Lea rode the beast sidesaddle, perfectly relaxed and confident, wearing a dress of sable and midnight blue, her hair caught back in a loose braid of flame. Her eyes gleamed in the starlight, the other end of the lariat held in one lovely hand. The hellhounds crowded around her steed, all of them focused on yours truly. Call it a wild impression of the moment, but they looked hungry.

  "Feeling better, are we?" Lea asked, with a slow smile. "That's wonderful. We can finally conclude our bargain. "