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Grave Peril, Page 34

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-four

  I have very few memories of my father. I was about six years old when he died. What I do remember is a careworn, slightly stoop-shouldered man with kind eyes and strong hands. He was a magician - not a wizard, a stage magician. A good one. He never made it big, though. He spent too much time performing for children's hospitals and orphanages to pull down much money. He and I and his little show roamed around the country. The memories of the first several years of my life are of my bed in the backseat of the station wagon, going to sleep to the whisper of asphalt beneath the tires, secure in the knowledge that my father was awake, driving the car, and there to take care of me.

  The nightmares hadn't started until just before his death. I don't remember them, specifically - but I remember waking up, screaming in a child's high-pitched shriek of terror. I'd scream in the darkness, scrambling to squeeze into the smallest space I could find. My father would come looking for me, and find me, and pull me into his lap. He would hold me, and make me warm, and soon I would fall asleep again, safe, secure.

  "The monsters can't get you here, Harry," he used to say. "They can't get you. "

  He'd been right.

  Until now. Until tonight.

  The monsters got me.

  I don't know where real life left off and the nightmares began, but I thrashed myself awake, screaming a scratchy, hollow scream that made little more noise than a whimper. I screamed until I ran out of breath, and then all I could do was sob.

  I lay there, naked, undone. No one came to hold me. No one came to make it all better. No one had, really, since my dad died.

  Breathing first, then. I forced myself to control it, to stop the wracking sobs and to draw in slow, steady breaths. Next came the terror. The pain. Humiliation. More than anything, I wanted to crawl into a hole and pull it in after me. I wanted to be not.

  But I wasn't not. I hurt too much. I was very painfully, very acutely, very much alive.

  The burn still hurt the most, but the sweeping nausea running through me came in a photo finish second. My hands told me that I was lying upon a floor, but the rest of me thought I had been strapped into a giant gyroscope. I ached. My throat felt tight, and burned, as though seared by some hot liquid or chemical. I didn't want to dwell too long on that.

  I tested my limbs, and found them all present and functional. My belly twisted and roiled, and for a moment locked up tight, jerking me into a tight curl around it.

  The sweat on my naked body went cold. The mushroom. The poison. Six to eighteen hours. Maybe a little more.

  I felt thick, dry mouthed, fuzzy with the same aftereffects of the vampire venom that I'd felt before.

  For a minute, I stopped fighting. I just lay there, weak and thirsty and hurting and sick, curled up into a ball. I would have started crying again if I'd had that much feeling left in me. I would have wept and waited to die.

  Instead, some merciless, steady voice in my head drove me to open my eyes. I hesitated, afraid. I didn't want to open my eyes and see nothing. I didn't want to find myself in that same darkness. That darkness, with hissing things all around me. Maybe there, still, just waiting for me to awaken so that they -

  Panic swept me for a moment, and gave me enough strength to shiver and push myself up into a sitting position. I took a deep breath, and opened my eyes.

  I could see. Light seared at my eyes, a thin line of it surrounding a tall rectangle - a doorway. I had to squint for a moment, so used were my eyes to the darkness.

  I looked around the room, wary. It wasn't big. Maybe twelve by twelve, or a little more. I lay in a corner. The smell was violently rotten. My jailors, apparently, had no problems with letting me lie in my own filth. Some of it had crusted onto me, onto my legs and arms. Vomit, I guessed. There was blood in it. An early symptom of the mushroom poisoning.

  There were other shapes in the dimness. A lump of cloth in one corner, like a pile of dirty laundry. Several laundry baskets, as well. A washer and dryer, on the far wall from the door.

  And Justine, dressed in as little as I, curled up and sitting with her back to the wall, her arms wrapped loosely around her drawn-up knees, watching me with dark, feverish eyes.

  "You're awake," Justine said. "I didn't think you'd ever wake up. "

  Gone was the glamorous girl I'd seen at the ball. Her hair hung lank and greasy. Her pale body looked lean, almost gaunt, and her limbs, what I could see of them, were stained and dirty, as was her face.

  Her eyes disturbed me. There was something feral in them, something unsettling. I didn't look at her for too long. Even as bad off as I was, I had enough presence of mind to not want to look into her eyes.

  "I'm not crazy," she said, her voice sharp, edged. "I know what you're thinking. "

  I had to cough before I could talk, and it made pains shoot through my belly again. "That wasn't what I was thinking. "

  "Of course it wasn't," the girl snarled. She rose, all lean grace and tension, and stalked toward me. "I know what you were thinking. That they'd shut you in here with that stupid little whore. "

  "No," I said. "I . . . that isn't what - "

  She hissed like a cat, and raked her nails across my face, scoring my cheek in three lines of fire. I cried out and fell back, the wall interrupting my retreat.

  "I can always tell, when I'm like this," Justine said. She gave me an abruptly careless look, turned on the balls of her feet and walked several feet away before stretching and dropping to all fours, watching me with an absent, disinterested gaze.

  I stared at her for a moment, feeling the heat of the blood welling in the scratches. I touched a finger to them, and it came away sprinkled with scarlet. I lifted my gaze to the girl and shook my head. "I'm sorry," I said. "God. What did they do to you?"

  "This," she said, carelessly, thrusting out one hand. Round, bruised punctures marked her wrist. "And this. " She held out the other wrist, showing another set of marks. "And this. " She stretched out her thigh to one side of her body, parallel to the floor, to show more marks, along it. "They all wanted a little taste. So they got it. "

  "I don't understand," I said.

  She smiled with too many teeth, and it made me uneasy. "They didn't do anything. I'm like this. This is the way I always am. "

  "Um," I said. "You weren't that way last night. "

  "Last night," she snapped. "Two nights ago. At least. That was because he was there. "


  Her lower lip abruptly trembled, and she looked as though she might cry. "Yes. Yes, Thomas. He makes it quieter. Inside me, there's so much trying to get out, like at the hospital. Control, they said. I don't have the kind of control other people have. It's hormones, but the drugs only made me sick. He doesn't, though. Only a little tired. "

  "But - "

  Her face darkened again. "Shut up," she snapped. "But, but, but. Idiot, asking idiot questions. Fool who did not want me when I was willing to give. Nothing does that. None of them, because they all want to take, take, take. "

  I nodded, and didn't say anything, as she became more agitated. It might have been politically incorrect of me, but the word LOONY all but appeared in a giant neon sign over Justine's head. "Okay," I said. "Just . . . let's just take it easy, all right?"

  She glowered at me, falling silent. Then she slunk back to the space between the wall and the washing machine and sank into it. She started playing with her hair, and took no apparent notice of me.

  I got up. It was hard. Everything spun around. On the floor, I found a dusty towel. I used it to sweep some of the grime off of my skin.

  I went to the door and tried it. It stood firmly locked. I tested my weight against it, but the effort made a sudden fire of scarlet flash through my belly and I dropped to the floor, convulsing again. I threw up in the middle of it, and tasted blood in my mouth.

  I lay exhausted for a while after that, and might have dropped off to sleep again. I looked up to find Just
ine holding the towel, and pushing it fitfully at my skin, the fresh mess.

  "How long," I managed to ask her. "How long have I been here?"

  She shrugged, without looking up. "They had you for a while. Just outside this door. I heard them taking you. Playing with you, for two hours, maybe. And then they put you in here. I slept. I woke. Maybe another ten hours. Or less. Or more. I don't know. "

  I kept an arm wrapped around my belly, grimacing, and nodded. "All right," I said. "We have to get out of here. "

  She brayed out a sharp laugh. "There is no out of here. This is the larder. The Christmas turkey doesn't get up and walk away. "

  I shook my head. "I . . . I was poisoned. If I don't get to a hospital, I'm going to die. "

  She smiled again, and played with her hair, dropping the towel. "Almost everyone dies in a hospital. You'd get to be someplace different. Isn't that better?"

  "It's one of those things I could live without," I said.

  Justine's expression went slack, her eyes distant, and she became still.

  I stared at her, waved my hand in front of her eyes. Snapped my fingers. She didn't respond.

  I sighed and stood up, then tested the door again. It was firmly bolted shut from the other side. I couldn't move it.

  "Super. " I sighed. "That's great. I'm never going to get out of here. "

  Behind me, something whispered. I spun, putting the door at my back, searching for the source of the sound.

  A low mist crept out of the wall, a smoky, slithery mass that whirled itself down onto the floor like ethereal lace. The mist touched lightly at my blood on the floor where I'd thrown up, and then began to swirl and shape itself into something vaguely human.

  "Great," I muttered. "More ghosts. If I get out of this alive, I've got to get a new job. "

  The ghost took shape before me, very slowly, very translucently. It resolved itself into the form of a young woman, attractive, dressed like an efficient secretary. Her hair was pulled up into a bun, but for a few appealing tendrils that fell down to frame her cheeks. Her ghostly wrist was crusted with congealed blood, spread around a pair of fang-punctures. Abruptly, I recognized her, the girl Bianca had fed upon until she died.

  "Rachel," I whispered. "Rachel, is that you?"

  As I spoke her name, she turned to me, her eyes slowly focusing on me, as though beholding me through a misty veil. Her expression turned, no pun intended, grave. She nodded to me in recognition.

  "Hell's bells," I whispered. "No wonder Bianca got stuck on a vengeance kick. She literally was haunted by your death. "

  The spirit's face twisted in distress. She said something, but I could hear it only as a distant, muffled sound accompanying the movement of her lips.

  "I can't understand you," I said. "Rachel, I can't hear you. "

  She almost wept, it seemed. She pressed her hand to her ghostly breast, and grimaced at me.

  "You're hurt?" I guessed. "You hurt?"

  She shook her head. Then touched her temple and drew her fingers slowly down over her eyes, closing them. "Ah," I said. "You're tired. "

  She nodded. She made a supplicating motion, holding out her hands as though asking for help.

  "I don't know what I can do for you. I don't know if I can help you rest or not. "

  She shook her head again. Then she nodded, toward the door, and made a bottle-shaped curving gesture of her hands.

  "Bianca?" I asked. When she nodded, I went on. "You think Bianca can lay you to rest. " She shook her head. "She's keeping you here?"

  Rachel nodded, her ghostly, pretty face agonized.

  "Makes sense," I muttered. "Bianca fixates on you as you die tragically. Binds your ghost here. The ghost appears to her and drives her into a vengeance, and she blames it all on me. "

  Rachel's ghost nodded.

  "I didn't kill you," I said. "You know that. "

  She nodded again.

  "But I'm sorry. I'm sorry that me being in the wrong place at the wrong time set you up to die. "

  She gave me a gentle smile - which transformed into a sudden expression of horror. She looked past me, at Justine, and then her image began to fade, to withdraw into the wall.

  "Hey!" I said. "Hey, wait a minute!"

  The mist vanished, and Justine started to move. She rose, casually, and stretched. Then glanced down at herself and ran her hands appreciatively down over her breasts, her stomach. "Very nice," she said, voice subtly altered, different. "Rather like Lydia, in a lot of ways, isn't she, Mister Dresden. "

  I tensed up. "Kravos," I whispered.

  Justine's eyes flooded with blood through the whites. "Oh yes," she said. "Yes indeed. "

  "Man, you need to get a life in the worst way. That was you, wasn't it. The telephone call the night Agatha Hagglethorn went nuts. "

  "My last call," Kravos said through Justine's Ups, nodding. "I wanted to savor what was about to happen. Like now. Bianca has ordered that you should receive no visitors, but I just couldn't resist the chance to take a look at you. "

  "You want to look at me?" I asked. I tapped my head. "Come on in. There's a few things in here I'd like to show you. "

  Justine smiled, and shook her head. "It would be too much effort for too little return. Even without the shelter of a threshold, possessing even a mind so weak as this child's requires a considerable amount of effort. Effort," she added, "which was made possible by a grant from the Harry Dresden Soul Foundation. "

  I bared my teeth. "Leave the girl alone. "

  "Oh, but she's fine," Kravos said, through Justine's lips. "She's really happier like this. She can't hurt anyone, you see. Or herself. Her ranting emotions can't compel her to act. That's why the Whites love her so much. They feed on emotion, and this little darling is positively mad with it. " Justine's body shivered, and arched sensuously. "It's rather exciting, actually. Madness. "

  "I wouldn't know," I said. "Look, if we're going to fight, let's fight. Otherwise, blow. I've got things to do. "

  "I know," Justine said. "You're busy dying of some kind of poisoning. The vampires tried to drink from you, but you made some of them very sick, and so they left you more or less untapped. Highly miffed, Bianca was. She wanted you to die as food for her and her new children. "

  "What a shame. "

  "Come now, Dresden. You and I are among the Wise. We both know you wouldn't want to die at the hands of a lesser being. "

  "I might rank among the wise," I said. "You, Kravos, are nothing but a two-bit troublemaker. You're the stupid thug of wizard land, and that you managed to live as long as you did without killing yourself is some kind of miracle in itself. "

  Justine snarled and lunged for me. She pinned me to the door with one hand and a casual, supernatural strength that told me she could have pushed her hand through me just as easily. "So self-righteous," she snarled. "Always sure that you're right. That you're in command. That you have all the power and all the answers. "

  I grimaced. Pain flared through my belly again, and it was suddenly all I could do not to scream.

  "Well, Dresden. You're dead. You've been slated to die. You'll be gone in the next few hours. And even if you aren't, if you live through what they have planned, the poison will kill you slowly. And before you go you'll sleep. Bianca won't stop me, this time. You'll sleep and I'll be there. I'll come into your dreams and I will make your last moments on earth a nightmare that lasts for years. " She leaned up close, standing on tiptoe, and spat into my face. Then the blood rushed from Justine's eyes and her head fell loosely forward, as though she'd been a horse struggling against the reins, to find their pressure gone. Justine let out a whimper, and sank against me.

  I did my best to hold her. We sort of wound up on the floor together, neither one of us in much shape to move. Justine wept. She cried piteously, like a small child, mostly quiet.

  "I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry. I want to help. But there's too much in the way. I can
't think - "

  "Shhhhh," I said. I tried to stroke her hair, to soothe her before she could become agitated again. "It's going to be all right. "

  "We'll die," she whispered. "I'll never see him again. "

  She wept for some time, as the nausea and pain in my belly grew. The light outside the door never wavered. I didn't know if it was dark or light outside. Or if Thomas and Michael were still alive to come after me. If they were gone, and it was my fault, I'd never be able to live with myself in any case.

  I decided that it must be night. It must be fullest, darkest night. No other time of day could possibly suit my predicament.

  I rested my head on Justine's, after she fell quiet, and relaxed, as though she were falling asleep after her weeping. I closed my eyes and struggled to come up with a plan. But I didn't have anything. Nothing. It was all but over.

  Something stirred, in the shadows where the laundry was piled.

  Both of us looked up. I started to push Justine away, but she said, "Don't. Don't go over there. "

  "Why not?" I asked.

  "You won't like it. "

  I glanced at the girl. And then got up, unsteadily, and made my way over to the piled laundry. I clutched the towel in my hand, for lack of any other weapon.

  Someone lay in the piled clothing. Someone in a white shirt, a dark skirt, and a red cloak.

  "Stars above," I swore. "Susan. "

  She groaned, faintly, as though very much asleep or drugged. I hunkered down and moved clothing off of her. "Hell's bells. Susan, don't try to sit up. Don't move. Let me see if you're hurt, okay?"

  I ran my hands over her in the dimness. She seemed to be whole, not bleeding, but her skin was blazing with fever.

  "I'm dizzy. Thirsty," she said.

  "You've got a fever. Can you roll over here toward me?"

  "The light. It hurts my eyes. "

  "It did mine too, when I woke up. It will pass. "

  "Don't," Justine whispered. She sat on her heels and rocked slowly back and forth. "You won't like it. You won't like it. "

  I glanced back at Justine as Susan turned toward me, and then looked down at my girlfriend. She looked back up to me, her features exhausted, confused. She blinked her eyes against the light, and lifted a slim, brown hand to shield her face.

  I caught her hand halfway, and stared down at her.

  Her eyes were black. All black. Black and staring, glittering, darker than pitch, with no white to them at all to distinguish them as human. My heart leapt up into my throat, and things began to spin faster around me.

  "You won't like it," Justine intoned. "They changed her. The Red Court changed her. Bianca changed her. "

  "Dresden?" Susan whispered.

  Dear God, I thought. This can't be happening.

  "Mister Dresden? I'm so thirsty. "