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Grave Peril, Page 33

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-three

  It only takes a couple of these rough little episodes of life to teach a man a certain amount of cynicism. Once a rogue wizard or three has tried to end your life, or some berserk hexenwolves have worked really hard to have your throat torn out, you start to expect the worst. In fact, if the worst doesn't happen, you find yourself somewhat disappointed.

  So really, it was just as well that Godmother had caught up to me, in spite of my best efforts to avoid her. I'd hate to find out that the universe really wasn't conspiring against me. It would jerk the rug out from under my persecution complex.

  Therefore, working on the assumption that some sadistic higher power would make sure my evening got as complicated as it possibly could, I had formed a plan.

  I jerked the lariat from about my throat and croaked, "Thomas, Michael. Now. "

  The pair of them produced small cardboard boxes from their pockets, palm-sized and almost square. With a shake, Michael cast the contents of the first box forward, slewing the box left and right, like a man scattering seeds. Thomas followed his lead, on the other side of my body, so that objects began to rain down atop and nearby me.

  The faerie hounds let out startled yelps and leapt away. My godmother's horse let out a scream and pranced back several steps, putting distance between us.

  I scrunched up my face and did my best to shield my eyes from the scattering nails. They fell over me in a sharp-toothed shower, prickling as they struck, and settled around me. Godmother had to let out on the rope that had looped about my throat as her horse backed away, giving me a bit of slack.

  "Iron," hissed my godmother. Her lovely face turned livid, furious. "You dare defile the Awnsidhe soil with iron! The Queen will rip your eyes from your skull!"

  "No," Thomas said. "They're aluminum. No iron content. That's a lovely horse you have. What's its name?"

  Lea's eyes flashed to Thomas, and then at the nails all over the ground. While she did, I dipped a hand into my pocket, palmed my contingency plan, and popped it into my mouth. Two or three chews and a swallow and I was finished.

  I tried not to let the abrupt surge of terror show.

  "Not steel?" Lea said. She beckoned sharply at the ground, and one of the nails leapt up to her hand. She gripped it, frowning, her expression abruptly wary. "What is the meaning of this?"

  "It's meant to be a distraction, Godmother," I said. I coughed, and patted my chest. "I just had to eat something. "

  Lea laid a hand on her horse's neck, and the savage beast calmed. One of the shadowy hounds nosed forward, nudging one of the nails with its snout. Lea gave the rope a little jerk, taking up the slack again, and said, "It will do you no good, wizard. You cannot escape this rope. It is bound to hold you. You cannot escape my power. Not here, not in Faerie. I am too strong for you. "

  "All true," I agreed, and got to my feet. "So let's get cracking. Turn me into a doggie and show me which trees I can pee on. "

  Lea stared at me as though I'd gone mad, her expression wary.

  I took hold of the rope and shook it impatiently. "Come on, Godmother. Make with the magic already. Do I get to pick my color? I don't think I want to be that charcoal grey. Maybe you could do a nice sandy pelt for me. Or oh, I know, winter white. With blue eyes, I always wanted blue eyes, and - "

  "Be silent!" Lea snarled, and shook the rope. There was a sharp, stinging sensation, and my tongue literally stuck to the roof of my mouth. I tried to keep talking, but it made my throat buzz as though bees were in it, angry, stinging. I kept silent.

  "Well," Thomas said. "I'd like to see this. I've never seen an external transformation before. Do proceed, madame. " He waved his hand impatiently. "Dog him, already!"

  "This is a trick," Lea hissed. "It will avail you naught, wizard. No matter what hidden powers your friends are preparing to cast at me - "

  "We're not," Michael put in. "I swear it on the Blood of Christ. "

  Lea sucked in a breath, as though the words had brought a sudden chill over her. She rode the horse up to me, close, so that the animal's shoulder pressed against mine. She reeled in on the braided leather of the lariat as she did, until she held it by a length of no more than six inches, jerking hard against my throat, hauling me almost off balance. She leaned down close to me and whispered, "Tell me, wizard. What are you hiding from me?"

  My tongue loosened again, and I cleared my throat. "Oh. Nothing much. I just wanted a bite to eat before we left. "

  "A bite," Lea murmured. Then she jerked me over toward her and leaned down close, dainty nostrils flaring. She inhaled, slow, the silken mass of her hair brushing against my cheek, her mouth almost nuzzling mine.

  I watched her face, her expression changing to slow surprise. I spoke to her in a quiet voice. "You recognize the smell, yes?"

  The whites showed around her emerald eyes as they opened wider. "Destroying Angel," she whispered. "You have taken death, Harry Dresden. "

  "Yep," I agreed. "Toadstool. Amanita virosa. Whatever. The amantin toxin is going to show up in my blood in about two minutes. After that, it will start tearing apart my kidneys and liver. A few hours from now, I'll collapse, and if I don't die then, then I'll apparently recover for a few days while my innards fall apart, and then drop into arrest and die. " I smiled. "There's no specific antidote for it. And I kind of doubt even you could use magic to put me back together again. Stitching closed a wound is a lot different from major internal transmutation. So, shall we?" I started walking in the direction Lea had come from. "You should be able to enjoy tormenting me for a few hours before I start vomiting blood and die. "

  She jerked the lariat tight, halting me. "This is a trick," she hissed. "You are lying to me. "

  I looked up at her with a lopsided grin. "Now, Godmother," I said. "You know I'm a terrible liar. Do you think I could really lie to you? Do you not smell it yourself?"

  She stared at me, her face twisting slowly into an expression of horror. "Merciless winds," she breathed. "You have gone mad. "

  "Not mad," I assured her. "I know precisely what I'm doing. " I turned to glance back at the bridge. "Goodbye Michael. Goodbye Thomas. "

  "Harry," Michael said. "Are you sure we shouldn't - "

  "Shhh," I said, shooting him a look. "Ixnay. "

  Lea's eyes flickered back and forth between us. "What?" she demanded. "What is it?"

  I rolled my eyes, and gestured at Michael.

  "Well," Michael said. "As it happens, I have something here that might help. "

  "Something?" Lea demanded. "What?"

  Michael reached into the pocket of his jacket and produced a small vial, capped at one end. "It's extract of St. Mary's Thistle," he said. "They use it in a lot of hospitals in Europe, for mushroom poisoning. Theoretically, it should do quite a bit to help a poisoning victim survive. Provided it's taken in time, of course. "

  Lea's eyes narrowed. "Give it to me. Now. "

  I tsked. "Godmother. As your faithful pet and companion, I feel I should warn you about how dangerous it is for one of the high sidhe to accept gifts. It could bind you to the giver if you don't return a gift in kind. "

  Lea's face slowly flushed scarlet, sweeping up from the creamy skin of her collarbones and throat over her chin and cheeks and up into her hair. "So," she said. "You would drive a bargain with me. You would take deadly toadstool to force me to release you. "

  I lifted my eyebrows and nodded, with a smile. "Essentially, yes. You see, I figure it's like this. You want me alive. I'm not of any use to you dead. And you won't be able to undo the poisoning with magic. "

  "I own you," she snarled. "You are mine now. "

  "Beg to differ," I said. "I'm yours for the next couple of days. After that, I'm dead, and I won't be doing you any more good. "

  "No," she said. "I will not set you free in exchange for this potion. I too can find the thistle. "

  "Maybe," I admitted. "Maybe you can even do it in time. Maybe not. Either way, with
out a trip to the hospital, there's not much chance of me living, even with the extract. And none at all, really, if I don't get it soon. "

  "I will not trade you away! You have given yourself to me!"

  Michael shrugged one shoulder. "I believe that you wrought a bargain with a foolish young man caught in the heat of the moment. But we aren't asking you to undo it altogether. "

  Lea frowned. "No?"

  "Naturally not," Thomas said. "The extract only offers Harry a chance at life. That's all we'd ask from you. You'd be obliged to let him go - and bound for a year and a day to do no harm to him or his freedom so long as he remains in the mortal world. "

  "That's the deal," I said. "As a faithful pet, I should point something out: If I die, you never get me, Godmother. If you let me go now, you can always give it a shot another night. It isn't as though you have a limited number of them, is it. You can afford to be patient. "

  Lea fell silent, staring at me. The night fell silent as well. We all waited, saying nothing. The quiet panic I already felt, after eating the toadstool, danced about my belly, making it twitch and jerk.

  "Why?" she said, finally, her voice very quiet, pitched only for me. "Why would you do this to yourself, Harry? I don't understand. "

  "I didn't think you would," I said. "There are people who need me. People who are in danger because of me. I have to help them. "

  "You cannot help them if you are dead. "

  "Nor if I am taken by you. "

  "You would give your own life in place of theirs?" she asked, her tone incredulous.

  "Yes. "


  "Because no one else can do this. They need me. I owe it to them. "

  "Owe them your life," Lea mused. "You are mad, Harry Dresden. Perhaps it comes of your mother. "

  I frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

  Lea shrugged. "She spoke as you do. Near the end. " She lifted her eyes to Michael and straightened on the horse. "A dangerous play you made tonight, wizard. A bold play. You cut the traditions of my people very close to the bone. I accept your bargain. "

  And then, with a casual flick, she removed the lariat from me. I stumbled back, away from her, gathered up my fallen staff and rod, and Bob in his net sack, and made my way to the bridge. Once there, Michael gave me the vial. I unstoppered it and drank. The liquid within tasted gritty, a little bitter. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, after swallowing it down.

  "Harry," Michael said, watching Lea. "Are you sure you'll be all right?"

  "If I get to the hospital soon," I said. "I've got somewhere between six and eighteen hours. Maybe a little longer. I drank all that pink stuff before we left to line my stomach. It might slow down the rate of digestion on the mushroom, give the extract a chance to beat it to my guts. "

  "I don't like this," Michael muttered.

  "Hey. I'm the one who ate the deadly poison, man. I don't much care for it myself. "

  Thomas blinked at me. "You mean, you were telling her the truth?"

  I glanced at him, nodding. "Yeah. Look, I figure we'll be in there and out again in an hour, tops. Or else we'll be dead. Either way, it will happen in plenty of time before the first round of symptoms sets in. "

  Thomas just stared at me for a moment. "I thought you were lying," he said. "Bluffing. "

  "I don't bluff if I can help it. I'm not too good at it. "

  "So you really could die. Your godmother is right, you know. You are mad as a hatter. Nutty as a fruitcake. "

  "Crazy like a fox," I said. "All right. Bob, wake up. " I shook the skull, and its empty eye sockets kindled with orange-red lights, somehow too far back inside them.

  "Harry?" Bob said, surprised. "You're alive. "

  "For a while," I said. I explained to him how we'd gotten me away from my godmother.

  "Wow," Bob said. "You're dying. What a great plan. "

  I grimaced. "The hospital should be able to take care of it. "

  "Sure, sure. In some places, the survival rate is as high as fifty percent, in the case of amantin poisoning. "

  "I took extract of milk thistle," I said, a little defensive.

  Bob coughed, delicately. "I hope you got the dosage right, or it could do more harm than good. Now, if you'd come to me about this to begin with - "

  "Harry," Michael said, sharply. "Look. "

  I turned to look at my godmother, who had ridden a little way off and sat still upon her dark steed. She raised in her hand something dark and gleaming, maybe a knife. She waved it to the four corners, north, west, south, east. She said something in a twisting, slippery tongue, and the trees began to moan as the wind rose, washing through them. Power washed out from the sidhe sorceress, from the dark knife in her hand, and raised the hairs on my arms, the nape of my neck.

  "Wizard!" she called to me. "You have made bargain with me tonight. I will not seek you. But you have made no such bargain with others. " She threw back her head in a long, loud cry, somehow terrifying and beautiful at once. It echoed over the rolling land, and then was answered. More sounds came drifting back, high-pitched howls, whistling shrieks, and deep, throaty coughing roars.

  "Many there are who owe me," Lea sneered. "I will not be cheated of you. You have had the potion. You would not have placed your life in such jeopardy without a cure to hand. I will raise no hand against you - but they will bring you to me. One way or another, Harry Dresden, you will be mine this night. "

  The wind continued to rise, and overhead sudden clouds began to blot out the stars. The howls and calls came closer, carried on the rising wind.

  "Shit," I said. "Bob, we have to get out of here. Now. "

  "It's still a pretty good walk to the spot you showed me on the map," Bob said. "A mile, maybe two, in subjective terms. "

  "Two miles," Michael noted, clinically. "I can't run that far. Not with my ribs like they are. "

  "And I can't carry you," Thomas said. "I'm amazing and studly, but I have limits. Let's go, Harry. It's just me and you. "

  My mind raced, and I struggled to put together a plan. Michael couldn't keep up. He had managed the sprint before, but his face looked a little greyish, now, and he carried himself stiffly, as though in pain. I trusted Michael. I trusted him at my side, and at my back. I trusted him to be able to take care of himself.

  But alone, against a wrathful faerie posse, how would he do? I couldn't be sure - even with the sword, he was still a man. He could still lose his life. And I didn't want another life on my conscience.

  I glanced over at Thomas. The handsome vampire managed to wear my castoff clothes and make them look like some kind of fashion statement. Slouch nouveau. He returned my glance with a perfect, shining smile, and I thought about what he had said, about what a good liar he was. Thomas had sided with me. Mostly. He'd been friendly enough. He even, apparently, had every reason to want to help me and work with me to get Justine back.

  Unless he was lying to me. Unless she hadn't been taken at all.

  I couldn't trust him.

  "The two of you are staying here," I said. "Hold the bridge. You won't have to do it for long. Just slow them down. Make them go around. "

  "Oooo," Bob said. "Good plan. That should make it a real pain for them, Harry. I mean, until they kill Michael and Thomas and come after you. But that could take minutes! Hours, even!"

  I glanced at the skull, and then at Michael. He shot Thomas a look, and then nodded to me.

  "If there's trouble, you'll need me to protect you," Thomas objected.

  "I can watch out for myself," I told him. "Look, this whole plan is based on surprise and speed and quiet. I can be quiet better alone. If it turns out that fighting has to be done, one or two people wouldn't make a difference. If we have to fight, this whole thing is over. "

  Thomas grimaced. "So you want us to stay here and die for you, is that it?"

  I glared. "Hold the bridge until I can make it out of the Nevernever.
After that, they shouldn't have any reason to come after you. "

  The wind rose to a howl, and shapes began to crest the top of the hill with the dolmens, dark things, moving swift and close to the ground.

  "Harry, go," Michael said. He took Amoracchius into his hands. "Don't worry. We'll keep them off of your back. "

  "Are you sure you wouldn't rather I come with you?" Thomas asked, and took a step toward me. The shining steel of Michael's sword abruptly dropped in front of Thomas, the sharp edge of it pressing against his belly.

  "I'm sure I'd rather not leave him alone with you, vampire," Michael said, his tone polite. "Do I make myself clear?"

  "As water," Thomas said, sourly. He glanced at me and said, "You'd better not leave her there, Dresden. Or get killed. "

  "I won't," I said. "Especially that second part. "

  And then the first monstrous thing, like a mountain lion made all of shadows, bounded past Lea, and a set of dark talons flashed toward me. Thomas shoved me out of the way of the strike, crying out as the thing tore into his arm. Michael shouted in Latin, and his sword flared into argent light, cutting the vaguely cat-like beast and dropping it into two squirming, struggling halves to the floor of the bridge.

  "Go!" Michael roared. "God go with you!"

  I ran.

  The sounds of fighting died behind me, until I could only hear my own laboring breaths. The Nevernever changed, from sculpted, faerie-tale wilderness to dark, close forest, with cobwebs hanging down across a narrow trail through glowering trees. Eyes flashed in the shadows, things that never quite could be clearly seen, and I stumbled on.

  "There!" Bob called. His orange eyelights swung to shine upon the split trunk of a dead, hollow tree. "Open a way there, and it will take us through!"

  I grunted, and came to a halt, gasping. "Are you sure?"

  "Yes, yes!" Bob said. "Hurry! Some of the awnsidhe will be here at any moment!"

  I cast a fearful glance behind me, and then started gathering in my will. It hurt to do. I felt so weak. The poison in my belly hadn't started tearing my body apart yet, but I almost thought that I could feel it stirring, moving, licking its chops and eyeing my organs with malevolent glee. I shoved all of that out of my thoughts, and forced myself to breathe steadily, to gather in my strength and reach out to part the curtain between worlds.

  "Uh, Harry," Bob said suddenly. "Wait a minute. "

  Behind me, something broke a branch. There was a swift, rushing sound, of something moving toward me. I ignored it and reached out a hand, sinking my fingers into the friable border substance of the Nevernever.

  "Harry!" Bob said. "I really think you should hear this!"

  "Not now," I muttered.

  The rushing noise grew closer, the rattle of undergrowth shunted aside by something large. Behind me, a warbling bellow shook the ground. Holy brillig and slithy toves, Batman.

  "Aparturum!" I shouted, thrusting out with my will and opening a way. The rent in reality shone with dim light.

  I threw myself forward into it, willing the way closed behind me. Something snagged at one corner of my leather duster, but with a jerk I was free of it and through.

  I tumbled forward, onto the floor, the smell of autumn air and damp stone all around me. My heart thudded painfully with the effort of both the running and the spell. I lifted my head to look around me and get my bearings.

  Bob had been good to his word. He had brought me out of the Nevernever right into Bianca's mansion. I found myself on the floor at the head of a staircase down, away from the front doors and the main hall.

  I also found myself surrounded by a ring of vampires, all of them in their inhuman forms, the flesh masks gone. There had to be a dozen of them there, dark eyes glittering, their noses snuffling, drool spattering out and dripping from their bared fangs to the floor while their talons clawed at the air or ran lightly over their flabby black bodies. Some of them showed burns on their rubbery hide, patches of shrunken, wrinkled, scar-like tissue.

  I didn't move. Anything, I sensed, would have set them off. Any motion, any move to flee or fight or escape would have ignited a frenzy, with myself on the receiving end.

  While I watched, frozen, Bianca came up the stairs dressed in a white silk nightgown that whispered around her shapely calves. She carried a single candle that bathed her in soft radiance. She smiled at me, very slowly, very sweetly, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach.

  "Well," she purred. "Harry Dresden. Such a pleasant surprise to have you visit. "

  "I tried to tell you," Bob said, his voice miserable. "The curtain felt weak there. Like someone had just gone through it. Like they had been watching this side. "

  "Of course," Bianca murmured. "A guard for every door. Did you think me a fool, Mister Dresden?"

  I glowered at her, despairing. There wasn't anything I could say. I saved my breath, and began to draw in my will, to throw everything I had left into taking that smug smile off of her pretty, false face.

  "Dears," Bianca purred, watching me. "Bring him down. "

  They hit me so fast that I never saw them move. There simply came a hideous, rushing force. I have memories of being passed from claw to claw, thrown, carried into the air, toyed with. Snuffling, squashed snouts, and staring black eyes, and hissing, terrible laughter.

  I was driven down, carried, tossed about, everything torn from me, Bob disappearing without a sound. They pressed me down while I struggled and screamed, all useless, my mind too full of terror to focus, to defend myself.

  And there, in the dark, they tore my clothes from me. I felt Bianca press her naked flesh to me, a heated, sinuous dream-body that unraveled into a nightmare. I felt the skin split and burst apart around her true form. The sweetness of her perfume gave way to a rotten-fruit reek. Her purring voice became a whining hiss.

  And their tongues. Soft, intimate, warm, moist. Pleasure that struck me like hammers while I tried to scream against it. Chemical pleasure, animal sensation, heartless and cold, uncaring of my horror, revulsion, despair.

  Darkness. Horrible, thick, sensual darkness.

  Then pain.

  Then nothing.