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Grave Peril, Page 36

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-six

  My nightmares came quickly, dull cloud of poisonous confusion blurring my senses, distorting my perceptions. For a moment, I was hanging by one wrist over an inferno of fire, smoke, and horrible creatures, the steel of the handcuffs suspending me cutting into my flesh, drawing blood. Smoke smothered me, forced me to cough, and my vision blurred as I started to fade out.

  Then I was in a new place. In the dark. Cold stone chilled me where I lay upon it. All around me where the whispers of things moving in the shadows. Scaly rasps. Soft, hungry hisses, together with the gleam of malevolent eyes. My heart pounded in my throat.

  "There you are," whispered one of the voices. "I watched them have you, you know. "

  I sat up, shivering violently. "Yeah, well. That's why they call them monsters. It's what they do. "

  "They enjoyed it," came the whispering voice. "If only I could have videotaped it for you. "

  "TV will rot your brain, Kravos," I said.

  Something blurred out of the darkness and struck me across the face. The blow drove me back and down. My vision blurred over with scarlet and my perceptions sharpened through a burst of pain, but I didn't drop unconscious. You don't, as a rule, in dreams.

  "Jokes," the voice hissed. "Jokes will not save you now. "

  "Hell's bells, Kravos," I muttered, sitting up again. "Do they produce a Cliche Lines Textbook for Villains or something? Go for broke. Tell me that since you're going to kill me anyway, you might as well reveal your secret plan. "

  The dark blurred toward me again. I didn't bother trying to defend myself. It drove me to the ground, and sat on my chest.

  I stared up at Kravos. Forms and shapes hung about him like misty clothes. I could see the shape of the shadow demon, around him. I could see my own face, drifting among the layers. I saw Justine there, and Lydia. And there, at the center of that distorted, drifting mass, I saw Kravos.

  He didn't look much different. He had a thin, pinched face, and brown hair faded with grey. He wore a full, untrimmed beard, but it only made his head seem misshapen. He had wide, leathery shoulders, and symbols painted in blood, ritual things whose meanings I could vaguely piece together, covered his chest. He lifted his hands and delivered two more blows to my face, explosions of pain.

  "Where are your gibes now, wizard?" Kravos snarled. "Where are your jokes? Weak, petty, self-righteous fool. We are going to have a very good time together, until Bianca comes to finish you. "

  "You think so?" I asked. "I'm not sure. It's our first date. Maybe we should take this one step at a time. "

  Kravos hit me again, across the bridge of my nose, and my vision blurred with tears. "You aren't funny!" he shouted. "You are going to die! You can't treat this as a joke!"

  "Why not?" I shot back. "Kravos, I took you out with a piece of chalk and a Ken doll. You're the biggest joke of a spellslinger I've ever seen. Even I didn't expect you to drop like that; maybe the link with that doll worked so well because it was anatomically corr - "

  I didn't get the chance to finish the sentence. Kravos screamed and took my dream self by the throat. It felt real. It felt completely as though he had me, his weight pinning my weakened body down, his fingers crushing into my windpipe. My head pounded. I struggled against him, futile and reflexive motions - but to no avail. He kept on choking me, the pressure increasing. Blackness covered my dream vision, and I knew that he would hold it until he was sure I was dead.

  People who have near-death experiences often talk about moving toward the light at the end of the tunnel. Or ascending toward the light, or flying or floating, or falling. I didn't get that. I'm not sure what that says about the state of my soul. There was no light, no kindly beckoning voice, no lake of fire to fall into. There was only silence, deep and timeless, where not even the beating of my heart thudded in my ears. I felt an odd pressure against my skin, my face, as though I had pressed into and through a wall of plastic wrap.

  I felt a dull thud on top of my chest, and a sudden lessening of the burning in my lungs. Then another thud. More easing on my lungs. Then more blows to my chest.

  My heart lurched back into motion with a hesitant thunder, and I felt myself take a wheezing breath. The plastic-wrap sensation tugged at me for a moment, then lifted away.

  I shuddered, and struggled to open my eyes again. When I did, Kravos, still holding my throat, blinked his eyes in shock. "No!" he snarled. "You're dead! You're dead!"

  "Susan's giving his real body CPR," someone said, behind him. Kravos whipped his head around to look, just in time to catch a stiff cross to the tip of his chin. He cried out in startled fear, and fell off of me.

  I sucked in another labored breath and sat up. "Hell's bells," I gasped. "It worked. "

  Kravos struggled to his feet and backed away, staring, his eyes flying open wide as they looked back and forth between me and my savior.

  My savior was me, too. Or rather, something that looked a very great deal like me. It was my shape and coloring, and had bruises and scratches, mixed with a few burns, all over it. Its hair was a wild mess, its eyes sunken over circles of black in a pale, sickly face.

  My double peered at me and said, "You know. We really look like hell. "

  "What's this?" hissed Kravos. "What trick is this?"

  I offered myself a hand up, so I took it. It took me a moment to balance, but I said, "Hell, Kravos. As flexible as the boundaries between here and the spirit world have been, I would have expected you to figure it out by now. "

  Kravos looked at the two of us, and bared his teeth. "Your ghost," he hissed.

  "Technically," my ghost said. "Harry actually died for a minute. Don't you remember how ghosts are made? Normally, there wouldn't be enough latent energy to create an impression like me, but with him being a wizard - a real wizard, not a petty fake like you - and with the border to the Nevernever in such a state of flux, it was pretty much inevitable. "

  "That was very well said," I told my ghost.

  "Just be glad your theory worked. I wouldn't be very good at this, solo. "

  "Well, thank Kravos here. It was him and Bianca and Mavra who stirred things up enough to make this possible. " We looked at Kravos. "You aren't getting to sneak attack me while I'm doped unconscious, bub. It isn't going to be like last time. Any questions?"

  Kravos hurled himself at me in a fury. He overpowered me, and bore down on me, far too strong for me to overcome directly. I thrust a thumb into his eye. He screamed and bit at my hand.

  And then my ghost came in. He wrapped his arms around Kravos's neck and leaned back, hard, tugging the man's body into a bow. Kravos strained and struggled, his arms flailing, strong as any maddened beast. My ghost was a little stronger than I, but he wouldn't be able to hold Kravos for long.

  "Harry!" my ghost shouted. "Now!"

  I gripped Kravos by the throat, letting all the frustration and fury inside well up. I held up my left hand, and my dream self's nails lengthened into glittering claws. Kravos stared at me in shock.

  "You think you're the only one who can play in dreams, Kravos? If I'd been ready for you the last time, you'd have never been able to do to me what you did. " My face twisted, mouth extending into a muzzle. "This time I'm ready. You're in my dream, now. And I'm taking back what's mine. "

  I tore into his guts. I ripped him open with my claws and wolfed into his vitals, just as he had to me. Bits of him flew free, dream-blood splashing, dream-vitals steaming.

  I tore and worried and gulped down bloody meat. He screamed and fought, but he couldn't get away. I tore him to pieces and devoured him, the blood a hot, sweet rush on my tongue, his ghost-flesh hot and good, easing the ache of emptiness inside of me.

  I ate him all up.

  As I did, I felt power, surety, confidence, all rushing back into me. My stolen magic came raging back into me, filling me like silver lightning, a tingling, almost painful rush as I took back what was mine.

  But I didn't
stop there. My ghost fell away as I kept going. Kept tearing Kravos apart and gulping down the pieces. I got to his own power when I ate his heart - red, livid power, vital and primitive and dangerous. Kravos's magic had been for nothing but causing harm.

  I took it. I had plenty of harm to start causing.

  By the time I'd finished tearing him to shreds, the pieces were vanishing like the remnants of any foul dream. I crouched on the dream-floor as they did, shaking with the rushing energy inside of me. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and looked up.

  I must have looked feral. My ghost took a step back and lifted both hands. "Easy, easy," he said. "I think you got him. "

  "I got him," I said quietly.

  "He was a ghost," my ghost said. "He wasn't really a person any more. And even as ghosts go, he was a bad egg. You don't have anything to regret. "

  "Easy for you to say," I said. "You don't have to live with me. "

  "True," my ghost answered. He glanced down at himself. His bruised limbs grew slowly translucent, and he began vanishing. "That's the only bad thing about this gig as a ghost. Once you accomplish whatever it was that caused you to get created, you're done. Kravos - the real Kravos - is already gone. Just his shell stayed behind. And this would have happened to him, too, if he'd killed you. "

  "Do unto others before they do unto you," I said. "Thanks. "

  "It was your plan," my ghost said. "I feel like hell anyway. "

  "I know. "

  "I guess you do. Try not to get killed again, okay?"

  "Working on it. "

  He waved one hand, and faded away.

  I blinked open my eyes. Susan knelt over me, striking my face with her hand. I felt wretched - but that wasn't all. My body almost buzzed with the energy I held, my skin tingling as though I hadn't used a whit of magic in weeks. She struck me twice more before I let out a strangled groan and lifted a hand to intercept hers.

  "Harry?" she demanded. "Harry, are you awake?"

  I blinked my eyes. "Yeah," I said. "Yeah. I'm up. "

  "Kravos?" she hissed.

  "I pushed his buttons and he lost control. He got me," I said. "Then I got him. You did it just right. "

  Susan sat back on her heels, trembling. "God. When you stopped breathing, I almost screamed. If you hadn't told me to expect it, I don't know what I would have done. "

  "You did fine," I said. I rolled over and pushed myself to my feet, though my body groaned in protest. The pain felt like something happening very far away, to someone else. It wasn't relevant to me. The energy coursing through me - that was relevant. I had to release some of it soon or I'd explode.

  Susan started to help me, and then sat back, staring at me. "Harry? What happened?"

  "I got something back," I said. "It's a high. I still hurt, but that doesn't seem to be important. " I stretched my arms out over my head. Then I stalked over to the dirty laundry and found a pair of boxers that fit me, more or less. I gave Susan a self-conscious glance, and slipped into them. "Get something on Justine, and we're out of here. "

  "I tried. She won't come out from behind the washing machine. "

  I clenched my jaw, irritated, and snapped my fingers while saying, "Ventas servitas. "

  There was an abrupt surge of moving air and Justine came tumbling out from behind the washing machine with a yelp. She lay there for a moment, naked and stunned, staring up at me with wide, dark eyes.

  "Justine," I said. "We're leaving. I don't care how crazy you are. You're coming with me. "

  "Leaving?" Justine stammered. Susan helped her sit up, and wrapped the red cloak around her shoulders. It fell to mid-thigh on the girl, who rose, trembling like a deer before headlights. "But. We're going to die. "

  "Were," I said. "Past tense. " I turned back to the door and reached into all that energy glittering through me, pointed my finger and shouted, "Ventas servitas!" With another roar of wind, the door exploded outwards, into a large, empty room, splinters flying everywhere and shattering one of the two lightbulbs illuminating the room beyond.

  I said, voice crackling with tension and anger, "Get behind me. Both of you. Don't get in front of me unless you want to get hurt. "

  I took a step toward the doorway.

  An arm shot around the edge of the door, followed swiftly by Kyle Hamilton's body in its masquerade costume, his flesh mask back in place. He got me by the throat, whirling me in a half circle to slam me against the wall.

  "Harry!" Susan shouted.

  "Got you," Kyle purred, pinning me in place with supernatural force. Behind him, Kelly followed him in, her once-pretty face twisting and bulging beneath her flesh mask, as though she could barely contain the creature inside her. Her face was warped, twisted, distorted, as though whatever was beneath it had been so horribly mangled that not even a vampire's powers of masquerade could wholly conceal its hideousness.

  "Come along, sister," Kyle said. "Tainted or not, we shall tear open his heart and see what a wizard's blood tastes like. "