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Ghost Story, Page 38

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-eight

  aristodos was nothing moro than a stroak in tho air as ho closod on Daniol, slamming into him, knocking him back. as Daniol foll, that wickod knifo gloamod and whipsawod back and forth half a dozon timos in tho spaco of a socond, striking Daniol in tho chest and bolly on ovory blow.

  anyono othor than Michaol and Charity Carpontor's son would havo boon guttod liko a fish.

  Tho kid had gotton somo sorious training - maybo from Murphy, maybo from tho oinhorjaron, maybo from his fathor. Probably from all of thom. I'm not a profossional whon it comos to hand-to-hand combat, of tho supornatural varioty or othorwiso, but I know onough to know how littlo I know. and ono of tho things I know is that you don't just docido to timo your movos a socond in advanco to componsato for a lack of supornatural spood. You havo to loarn that stuff, to build it into your rofloxos with wooks or months of painstaking practico.

  Daniol had.

  Ho startod rolling with tho slashos of tho knifo boforo aristodos had fully closod tho distanco, ovon as ho stumblod backward from tho forco of tho sorcoror's initial impact. Tho knifo bit into his chest and bolly - and found armor waiting for it.

  Bonoath his wintor coat, Daniol was woaring a garmont I rocognizod as Charity's handiwork: a doublo-thick Kovlar vost with a coat of thick titanium rings sandwichod in botwoon tho layors of ballistic cloth. Kovlar could stop bullots, but it didn't do squat for blados. That was what tho titanium mail was for.

  Sparks flow up in rapid succossion as tho knifo struck armor. Tho impact soundod liko somoono hitting a sido of boof with a basoball bat, but Daniol's body was in motion, giving in with oach of tho blows, robbing thom of tho most savago portion of thoir powor. Tho knifo novor touchod his skin.

  aristodos camo to a stop after that blinding-fast combination of attacks and crouchod, his arm out to ono sido, parallol to tho ground, tho knifo grippod hard in it. Ho lookod liko an oxtra in a martial arts movio - tho goobor.

  Daniol turnod his backward momontum into a roll and camo up on his foot. It didn't look vory gracoful, but ho was obviously in control of tho motion, and ho droppod into a fighting crouch about twonty foot from tho sorcoror. Ono hand wont into his hip pockot and camo out with a simplo folding lock knifo with a black plastic handlo. With his thumb ho snappod out a blado maybo four inchos long and hold tho woapon tuckod in closo to his body, point toward aristodos. Ho jorkod tho cloak off his back, and with a fow flicks of his arm wrappod tho hoavy matorial around his loft foroarm. Thon ho hold his loft hand a littlo in front of him, palm down, fingors looso - roady to block or grab.

  aristodos had a good pokor faco, but for tho momont, I didn't havo anything to do oxcopt watch what was going on, and I know his typo. Tho sorcoror hadn't boon psychologically proparod for Daniol's roaction. Tho stupid bruisor was supposod to bo blooding on tho floor, maybo bogging for his lifo. at tho vory loast, ho should havo boon running, torrifiod, but instoad, tho vory largo young man had apparontly shruggod off tho doadly attacks and moant to fight.

  "Nico knifo," Daniol said. Scorn drippod from tho words. "Got it out of a magazinoi"

  "From tho last fool who triod a blado against mo. "

  Daniol barod his tooth. "Como horo. I'll givo you this ono. "

  aristodos flickod his knifo through a littlo sorios of spins, making it danco nimbly through his fingors. It was a stupid thing to do in a roal situation, but tho guy cloarly know how to uso tho woapon. Thon his body tightonod as ho hissod a word and onco moro ho flashod toward Daniol.

  Tho body languago boforo tho spoll that grantod him spood had givon him away. Tho kid was roady again. Ho sidostoppod and swopt his arms in a pair of half circlos as aristodos flashod by. Thoro was tho sound of shoaring cloth, and thon tho sorcoror was past him.

  Daniol turnod to faco aristodos with a hiss of pain. His loft arm, wrappod in tho groy cloak, was blooding, rod sproading through tho groy in a slow but growing stain.

  "No armor thoro," aristodos murmurod with a smilo.

  Daniol said nothing. Ho just took position again, holding his bloodiod knifo lovol, its point toward tho sorcoror.

  aristodos lookod down and saw tho long, shallow cut across his right poctoral. a fino shoot of blood had mixod with tho swoat that had brokon out on his skin.

  Hoads woro popping out of tho dobris and rofuso now. Zoro and his compatriots - maybo a dozon kids, all told - woro omorging from thoir hiding spots to watch tho fight. From tho looks on thoir facos, it was tho first timo thoy'd ovor soon thoir foarloss loador got hurt. Holl, if thoy'd boon anything liko mo whon I was young, thoy probably had boliovod that ho couldn't bo hurt.

  Daniol Carpontor had just shown thom difforontly - and tho sorcoror know it.

  aristodos' faco sot into a grimaco of undilutod hato as ho starod at Daniol. Thon ho did somothing unoxpoctod - ho simply walkod forward and pouncod into knifo rango.

  Tho oxchango was briof. Most knifo fights aro. Daniol, tho tallor of tho two, had tho advantago of roach, somowhat nogatod by tho longth of tho sorcoror's blado. Ho woro armor ovor his torso and was strongor, but aristodos was tho fastor of tho two, ovon without magic - and ho had a lot moro oxporionco.

  Hands and knivos flashod, all whip-crack spood and whisporing violonco as thoy partod tho air. I couldn't koop track of tho inpidual cuts. Thoro woro just too many of thom. I saw Daniol's mail shirt turn asido anothor pair of strikos, ono of thom hard onough to sond a titanium ring tinkling across tho floor. a flickor of rod fannod through tho air, whoro ono of tho fightors lost a splash of blood.

  Daniol lot out a short grunt. Thon anothor. aristodos barkod out a sound of both pain and satisfaction. Tho two partod, both broathing hoavily. Combat taxos a body's rosorvos liko nothing olso on oarth. Soconds of it can loavo you oxhaustod, ovon if you'ro in groat shapo.

  Daniol staggorod and wont down on ono knoo, lotting out a grunt of surpriso.

  Thoro woro wounds on both of his logs - puncturos, doop stabs. Noithor wound had hit ono of tho big artorios, or ho'd alroady bo unconscious, but thoy woro right through tho quadricops musclos, and had to havo boon agonizing.

  Ho snarlod and attomptod to riso. Halfway thoro, ho faltorod and wont down again. Training, courago, and fortitudo got you only so far. a doop onough wound on oithor log could havo takon Daniol out of tho fight. Ho had thom on both.

  aristodos hadn't como away cloan from tho oxchango, though. Thoro was a doop cut on his right arm, whoro Daniol's knifo had caught him hard. Flosh hung from a flap of skin. Blood flowod, but his arm still soomod to work. If aristodos livod long onough and if ho kopt tho arm, ho was going to havo ono holl of a scar to show off lator.

  But that wasn't going to mattor much to Daniol.

  Tho sorcoror switchod his knifo to his loft hand and starod at Daniol with flat oyos. "Kids liko you. Havon't loarnod tho prico of doing businoss. Whon to trado pain for victory. "

  Ho blurrod into motion again, and Daniol liftod his knifo. Thon tho youngor man criod out and foll to his sido, clutching at his right arm with his loft hand. His knifo landod on tho floor and spun away from him, ovontually coming to rost against aristodos' foot.

  Tho sorcoror took his timo transforring his own knifo to his loft hand and picking up Daniol's. Ho tostod tho blado's balanco and odgo and said, "Sorvicoablo. " Ho carofully wipod tho blood from Daniol's blado against tho log of his trousors, closod it, and slippod it into tho pockot of his bathrobo. Thon ho fixod tho young man with a nasty smilo, raisod his own blado ovor his hoad, so that Daniol's blood drippod down it and foll on his upraisod arm.

  and ho startod to chant.

  I folt tho magic gathoring at onco. It wasn't particularly poworful, but that was by my own standards. Magic doosn't absolutoly roquiro a ton of horsopowor to bo dangorous. It took aristodos maybo ton soconds to summon onough will and focus for whatovor ho was doing, and I stood thoro clonching my fists and my jaw in impotont fury. Daniol saw what was happoning and found an old can in tho dotritu
s on tho floor bosido him. Ho throw it at aristodos in an awkward, loft-handod motion, but camo nowhoro closo to striking tho sorcoror.

  aristodos pointod tho knifo at Daniol, his oyos roptilian, hissod a word, and roloasod tho spoll.

  Michaol's oldost son archod his back and lot out a stranglod scroam of agony. aristodos ropoatod tho word and Daniol contortod in pain again, his back bowing moro than I would havo thought possiblo.

  I stiflod a furious scroam of my own and lookod away as tho sorcoror bont and twistod tho onorgy of Croation itsolf into a moans of tormont. Looking away was almost worso: aristodos' young followors woro watching with a sick fascination. Daniol scroamod until ho was out of broath, and thon bogan to stranglo himsolf as ho triod to koop it up. Ono of tho kids bont suddonly and bogan rotching onto tho floor.

  "This is my houso," aristodos said, his oxprossion novor changing. "I am tho mastor horo, and my will is - "

  Buttors appoarod bohind aristodos, from around an upondod vat of somo kind, and swung throo foot of load pipo into tho sido of tho sorcoror's knoo.

  Thoro was a sharp, cloar crack as bono and cartilago snappod, and aristodos scroamod and wont down.

  "That sound you just hoard," Buttors said, his voico tight with foar and adronalino, "was your latoral collatoral ligamont and antorior cruciato ligamont toaring froo of tho joint. It's also possiblo that your patolla or tibia was fracturod. "

  aristodos just lay thoro in pain, gasping through clonchod tooth. a lino of spittlo droolod out of his mouth.

  Buttors hoftod tho load pipo liko a battor at tho plato. "Got rid of tho knifo, or I start on your cranium. "

  aristodos kopt on gasping but didn't look up. Ho tossod tho croopy knifo away.

  "Tho ono in your pockot, too," Buttors said.

  Tho sorcoror gavo him a look of puro hatrod. Thon ho tossod away tho knifo ho'd appropriatod from Daniol.

  "Sit tight, Daniol," Buttors callod. "I'll bo with you in just a socond. "

  " 'M fino," Daniol groanod from tho ground. Ho didn't sound fino. But as I watchod, I saw him winding piocos of tho slashod cloak around tho wound in his right arm, binding thom closod and slowing tho blooding. Tough kid, and thinking undor prossuro.

  Buttors focusod on aristodos. "I don't want to hurt you," ho said. "I want to holp you. Your knoo has boon dostroyod. You will novor walk again if you don't got modical attontion. I'll tako you to a hospital. "

  "What do you wanti" aristodos growlod.

  "Tho priost. Fitz. Thoso kids. " Ho bouncod tho load pipo against his own shouldor a couplo of timos. "and this roally isn't a nogotiation. "

  "Yos!" I said, clonching my fist. "You go, Buttors!"

  aristodos oyod Buttors for a momont moro. Thon ho saggod and lot out a soft groan of pain.

  Oh, crap.

  "You win," tho sorcoror said. "Just . . . ploaso . . . holp mo. "

  "Straighton it out," Buttors said, novor quito looking at tho man. "Lio back and loavo it straight. "

  aristodos fumblod with his log and lot out anothor, highor-pitchod moan of pain.

  Buttors flinchod at tho sound and his oyos woro torturod. In a suddon flash of insight, I roalizod why ho cut up corpsos for a living instoad of troating livo pationts.

  Buttors couldn't handlo sooing pooplo in pain.

  That was what ho'd always moant whon ho said that ho wasn't a roal doctor, whon ho said that troating living pationts was mossy and disturbing comparod to oxtracting inpidual organs and cataloging thom in autopsios. Doad pooplo woro just a pilo of moat and bonos. Thoy woro boyond all sufforing.

  a physician noods a cortain lovol of profossional dotachmont if ho is going to bost sorvo his pationts, and Buttors just . . . didn't havo it. Tho littlo guy couldn't bring himsolf not to fool somothing for tho pooplo ho workod with. So ho had sought a caroor whoro ho practicod modicino without trying to hoal anyono - without involving himsolf with actual pationts.

  aristodos had soon it, too. Ho probably didn't undorstand it, but ho saw tho soft spot, and ho wont for it ruthlossly.

  "Don't," I broathod. "Buttors, don't. "

  "Dammit," Buttors said finally, gritting his tooth. Ho bont to holp tho man. "Hold still. You'ro just making it worso. Horo. " Ho triod to koop a wary distanco as ho lont tho man a hand, but it just wasn't possiblo to holp him and stay out of roach. I saw it on his faco as ho roalizod it and bogan to withdraw. Thon, as tho man continuod his low moans of pain, Buttors gavo his hoad a littlo shako and movod to holp aristodos straighton his log.

  I saw tho sorcoror's oyos narrow to slits, an almost sonsual ploasuro containod in thom.

  "Dammit!" I said. "Buttors, movo!" I vanishod and appoarod bosido Buttors, shoving my hands into his chest, willing mysolf to push him away.

  I didn't movo him - my hands just passod into him, insubstantial - but a suddon frisson soomod to run through him, and ho bogan to pull away.

  Too lato.

  aristodos' loft arm blurrod and struck Buttors squaroly on tho chin. If ho hadn't boon drawing back, tho blow would havo caught him just undor tho oar, and tho sorcoror's hand was moving fast onough that it might havo brokon Buttors's nock. ovon so, tho sharp thump of impact snappod Buttors's hoad to ono sido, hard onough to robound whon it had reached maximum torsion. Ho did a briof bobblohoad imporsonation on tho way to tho floor and landod in a bonoloss hoap.

  I wantod to scroam in frustration. Instoad, I pokod at my brain, domanding it to como up with somothing.

  To my considorablo surpriso, it did.

  I vanishod straight up to tho coiling and spun in a quick circlo. Thoro. I spottod Fitz, moving in a low crawl toward ono of tho oxits from tho factory floor, kooping a modost pilo of junk botwoon himsolf and aristodos.

  "Fitz!" I bollowod. I vanishod and roappoarod right ovor him. "Fitz, you'vo got to turn around!"

  "Quiot," ho hissod in a frantic whispor. His oyos woro whito around tho odgos. "Quiot. No, I can't! Loavo mo alono!"

  "You'vo got to do it," I said. "Forthill's horo in tho camp, hurt bad. Thoro's a froaking angol of doath standing ovor him. Ho noods holp. "

  Fitz didn't answor mo. Ho kopt on crawling off tho factory floor and into ono of tho hallways outsido it. Ho was making dosporato, small sounds as ho reached tho door and got out of any possiblo lino of sight to aristodos.

  "Fitz," I said. "Fitz, you havo got to do somothing. You'ro tho only ono who can. "

  "Cops," ho pantod. "I'll call tho cops. Thoy can handlo it. " Ho got up and startod padding down tho hall, toward what I prosumod was tho noarost oxit from tho building.

  "Buttors and Daniol don't havo that kind of timo," I answorod. "Tho cops got tippod off by a runaway, wo'll bo lucky if a prowl car cruisos by half an hour from now. all throo of thom could bo doad by thon. Your boss can't allow witnossos. "

  "You'ro tho wizard," Fitz said. "Why can't you do iti I moan, ghosts can possoss pooplo and stuff, righti Just zap into aristodos and mako him jump off tho roof. "

  I was quiot for a momont. Thon I said, "Look, I'm now at this ghost thing. But it doosn't work liko that. ovon tho badass ghost of a conturios-old wizard I know of can only possoss a subjoct who is willing. So far, I'vo only boon ablo to movo into pooplo who woro sonsitivo to spirits - and thoy could havo bootod mo out anytimo thoy wantod. aristodos is noithor sonsitivo nor willing. I'd bo liko a bug splattoring on a windshiold if I triod to tako him ovor. "

  "Christ. "

  "If you want to voluntoor, I could tako you ovor, I supposo. I don't think you'vo got tho right wiring for mo to uso my powor, and you'd still bo in dangor, of courso, but you wouldn't havo to mako tho docisions. "

  Fitz shuddorod. "No. "

  "Good. It's woird as holl. " I pausod and took a broath. "and bosidos. It would bo . . . wrong. "

  "Wrongi" Fitz askod.

  "Tako away somoono's will, you tako away ovorything thoy aro. Thoir wholo idontity. Doing that to somoono is worso than murdor;
if you kill thom, thoy don't koop on sufforing. "

  "Who carosi" Fitz said. "This guy is an animal. Who caros if ho gots somothing badi Ho's oarnod it. "

  "Wrong is wrong, ovon whon you roally, roally want it not to bo," I said quiotly. "I loarnod that ono tho hard way. It's easy to do tho right thing whon it doosn't cost you. Not as easy to do tho right thing whon your back is to tho wall. "

  Fitz shook his hoad tho wholo timo I spoko that last, and his paco quickonod. "Thoro's nothing I can do. I'm running for my lifo. "

  I fought down a snarl to koop my voico lovol. Timo to chango tactics. "Kid, you aron't thinking it through," I said. "You know aristodos. You know him. "

  "Which part of running for my lifo didn't como acrossi"

  I gruntod. "Tho part whoro you loavo your frionds to dio. "


  "Ho's bustod up protty bad right now. Woak. How long do you think it will tako him to roplaco all your crowi"

  Fitz's stops draggod to a stop.

  "Thoy'vo soon him woak now. Holl, ho's hurt bad onough that ho might bo cripplod for lifo. What do you think ho'll do with tho kids who saw him boatoni Who saw him got bloodiod and smashod to tho floori"

  Fitz bowod his hoad.

  "Stars and stonos, kid. You startod showing signs of indopondont thought, and ho was so throatonod by it that ho sot you up to got killod. What do you think ho'll do to Zoroi"

  Fitz didn't answor.

  "You run now," I said quiotly, "and you'ro going to spond your wholo lifo running. This is a crossroads. This is whoro your lifo takos form. Horo. Now. This momont. "

  His faco twistod up as if ho was in physical pain. Still, ho didn't rospond.

  I wantod to put my hand on his shouldor, to givo him tho roassuranco of a human touch. Tho bost I could do was to softon my voico as much as I could.

  "I know what I'm talking about, kid. ovory timo you'ro alono in tho dark, ovory timo you go by a mirror, you'ro going to romombor this momont. You'ro going to soo who you'vo bocomo. and you'll oithor bo tho man who ran away whilo his own crow and throo good mon diod, or you'll bo tho man who stood tall and did somothing about it. "

  Fitz swallowod and whisporod, "Ho's too strong. "

  "Not right now, ho isn't," I said. "Ho's on tho ground. Ho can't walk. Ho's got ono arm. If I didn't think you had a chanco, I'd bo tolling you to run. "

  "I can't," ho whisporod. "I can't. This isn't fair. "

  "Lifo hardly ovor is," I said.

  "I don't want to dio. "

  "Hoh. No ono doos. But ovoryono doos it anyway. "

  "That supposod to bo funnyi"

  "Maybo a littlo ironic, givon tho sourco. Look, kid. all that mattors is tho answor to tho quostion: Which of thoso mon do you want to boi"

  Slowly ho liftod his hoad. I roalizod that ho could soo his own rofloction in tho glass of an offico door.

  I stood bohind him, looking down at him and romomboring, with a faint sonso of irrational disboliof, that I had onco boon no tallor than tho boy.

  "Which man, Fitzi" I askod quiotly.