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Grave Peril, Page 38

Jim Butcher

Chapter Thirty-eight

  I lifted my left hand before me, pouring energy into the shield bracelet, and shouted, "Riflettum!"

  The guns roared with fire and thunder. Sparks showered off of a barrier less than six inches away from my hand. The bracelet grew warm as the security men poured a hail of gunfire at me. It stopped, just short, and bullets shot aside, chewing through the expensive woodwork and bouncing wildly around the room. One of the vampires let out a yowl and dropped from the wall to splat on the ground like a fat bug. One of the security men's guns suddenly jumped and twisted, and he cried out in pain, reeling back, blood streaming from his hands and the ruins of his face.

  Technology doesn't tend to work too well around magic. Including the feeding mechanisms of automatic weapons.

  Two of the guns jammed before dumping their full clips, and the others fell silent, spent. I still stood, one hand extended. Bullets lay all over the floor in front of me, misshapen slugs of lead. The security men stared, and stumbled away from me, behind Bianca and the vampires, and out the door. I don't blame them. If all I had was a gun, and it had just been that useless, I would run, too.

  I took a step forward, scattering bullets with my bare feet. "Get out of my way," I said. "Let us out. No one else has to get hurt. "

  "Kyle," Bianca said, stroking Susan's hair. "Kelly. She was quite mad in any case. Not all of them make the transition well. " Her gaze traveled down to Susan.

  The smile I wore sharpened. "Last chance, Bianca. Let us out peacefully, and you walk away alive. "

  "And if I say no?" she asked, very mild.

  I snarled, my temper snapping. I lifted the blasting rod, whirled it around my head as I drew in my will, and snarled, "Fuego!" Power exploded from the rod, circular coruscations following a solid scarlet column of energy that lanced forward, toward the vampire's head.

  Bianca kept smiling. She lifted her left hand, mumbled some gibberish, and I saw cold darkness gather before her, a concave disk that met my energy lance and absorbed it, scattered it, sent smaller bolts of fire darting here and there, splashing on the floor in small, blazing puddles.

  I just stared at her for a moment. I knew that she'd known some tricks, maybe a veil or two, a glamour or two, maybe how to whip up a fascination. But that kind of straightforward deflection wasn't something just anyone could do. Some of the people on the White Council couldn't have stopped that shot without help.

  Bianca smiled at me, and lowered her hand. The vampires laughed, hissing, inhuman laughter. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and a cold shudder glided gleefully up and down my spine.

  "Well, Mister Dresden," she purred. "It would appear that Mavra was an able instructor, and my lessons well learned. We seem to be at something of a standoff. But there's one more piece I'd like to put on the board. " She clapped her hands, and gestured to one side.

  One of the vampires opened a door. Standing behind it, both hands on a stylish cane, stood a medium-sized man, dark of hair and coloring, brawny through the chest and shoulders. He wore a tailored suit of dark grey in an immaculate cut. He made me think of native South Americans, with a sturdy jaw and broad, strong features.

  "Nice suit," I told him.

  He looked me up and down. "Nice . . . ducks. "

  "Okay," I said, "I'll bite. Who's that?"

  "My name," the man said, "is Ortega. Don Paolo Ortega, of the Red Court. "

  "Hiya, Don," I said. "I'd like to lodge a complaint. "

  He smiled, a show of broad, white teeth. "I'm sure you would, Mister Dresden. But I have been monitoring the situation here. And the Baroness," he nodded to Bianca, "has broken none of the Accords. Nor has she violated the laws of hospitality, nor her own given word. "

  "Oh come on," I said. "She's broken the spirit of all of them!"

  Ortega tsked. "Alas, that in the Accords it was agreed that there is no spirit of the law, between our kinds, Mister Dresden. Only its letter. And Baroness Bianca has strictly adhered to its letter. You have instigated multiple combats in her home, murdered her sworn bondsman, inflicted damage to her property and her reputation. And now you stand here prepared to continue your grievance with her, in a most unlawful and cavalier fashion. I believe that what you do is sometimes referred to as 'cowboy justice. ยป

  "If there's a point in here, somewhere," I said, "get to it. "

  Ortega's eyes glittered. "I am present as a witness to the Red King, and the Vampire Courts at large. That is all. I am merely a witness. "

  Bianca turned her eyes back to me. "A witness who will carry word of your treacherous attack and intrusion back to the Courts," she said. "It will mean war between our kindred and the White Council. "


  Between the vampires and the White Council.

  Son of a bitch. It was unthinkable. Such a conflict hadn't happened in millennia. Not in living memory - and some wizards live a damned long time.

  I had to swallow, and hide the fact that I had just gulped. "Well. Since he isn't running off to tattle right this second, I can only assume that you're about to offer me a deal. "

  "I never thought you were slow on the uptake, Mister Dresden," Bianca said. "Will you hear my offer?"

  I ached more with every moment that went by. My body was failing. I had ridden the rush of magic through the last several moments, but I had spent a lot of that power. It would come back, but I was running the batteries down - and the more I did it, the more I couldn't ignore my weakness, my dizziness.

  Legally speaking, the vampires had me over a barrel. I needed a plan. I needed a plan in the worst way. I needed time.

  "Sure," I said. "I'll hear you out. "

  Bianca curled her fingers through Susan's hair. "First. You shall be forgiven your . . . excesses of bad taste of the last few days. But for the two deaths, none of it is unworkable - and those two would have died shortly, in any case. I will forgive you, Mister Dresden. "

  "That's so kind. "

  "It gets better. You may take your equipment, your skull, and the White bastard's whore with you when you leave. Unharmed and free of future malice. All accounts will be called even. "

  I let the dry show in my tone. "How could I possibly say no. "

  She smiled. "You killed someone very dear to me, Mister Dresden - not directly, true, but your actions mandated her death. For that, too, I will forgive you. "

  I narrowed my eyes.

  Bianca ran her hands over Susan's hair. "This one will stay with me. You stole away someone dear to me, Mister Dresden. And I am going to take away someone dear to you. After that, all will be equal. " She gave Ortega a very small smile and then glanced at me and asked, "Well? What say you? If you prefer to remain with her, I'm sure a place could be made for you here. After suitable assurances of your loyalty, of course. "

  I remained silent for a moment, stunned.

  "Well, wizard?" she snapped, harsher. "How do you answer? Accept my bargain. My compromise. Or it is war. And you will become its first casualty. "

  I looked at Susan. She stared blankly, her mouth partially open, caught in a trance of some kind. I could probably snap her out of it, provided a bunch of vampires didn't tear me limb from limb while I tried. I looked up at Bianca. At Ortega. At the hissing vampire cronies. They were drooling on the polished floor.

  I hurt all over, and I felt so very damned tired.

  "I love her," I said. I didn't say it very loud.

  "What?" Bianca stared at me. "What did you say?"

  "I said, I love her. "

  "She is already half mine. "

  "So? I still love her. "

  "She isn't even fully human any longer, Dresden. It won't be long before she is as a sister to me. "

  "Maybe. Maybe not," I said. "Get your hands off my girlfriend. "

  Bianca's eyes widened. "You are mad," she said. "You would flirt with chaos, destruction - with war. For the sake of this one wounded soul?"

  I sm
ote my staff on the floor, reaching deep for power. Deeper than I've ever reached before. Outside, in the gathering morning, the air crackled with thunder.

  Bianca, even Ortega, looked abruptly uncertain, looking up and around, before focusing on me again.

  "For the sake of one soul. For one loved one. For one life. " I called power into my blasting rod, and its tip glowed incandescent white. "The way I see it, there's nothing else worth fighting a war for. "

  Bianca's face distorted with fury. She lost it. She split apart her skin like some gruesome caterpillar, the black beast clawing its way out of her flesh mask, jaws gaping, black eyes burning with feral fury. "Kill him!" she shouted. "Kill him, kill him, kill him!"

  The vampires came for me, across the floor, along the walls, scuttling like roaches or spiders - too fast for easy belief. Bianca gathered shadow into her hands and hurled it at me.

  I fell back a pace, caught Bianca's strike with my staff, and parried it into one of her flunkies. The darkness enfolded the vampire, and it screamed from within. When the fog around it vanished, nothing remained but dust. I responded with another gout of fire from the rod, sweeping it like a scythe through the oncoming vampires, setting them aflame. They writhed and screamed.

  Spittle sliced toward me from above and to one side, and I barely ducked away in time. The vampire clinging to the ceiling followed its venom down, but it met the end of my staff in its belly, the other end solidly planted against the floor. The vampire rebounded with a burping sound and landed hard on the floor. I lifted the staff and smote down on the thing's head, to the sound of more thunder outside. Power lashed down through the staff, and crushed the vampire's skull like an egg. Dust rained down from the ceiling, and the vampire's claws scratched a frantic staccato on the floor as it died.

  I had done well for the moment - the vamps nearest me were falling back, teeth bared. But more were coming, from behind them. Bianca hurled another strike at me, and though I interposed both staff and shield, the deathly cold of it numbed my fingers.

  I was running out of strength, panting, my weariness and weakness struggling to claim me. I fought off the dizziness, enough to send another flash of fire at an oncoming vampire, but it skittered aside, and all I did was plow a blazing furrow in the floorboards.

  They fell back for a moment, separated from me by an expanse of flame, and I struggled to catch my breath.

  They were coming. The vampires would be coming for me. My brain kept chattering at me, frantic, panicked. They're coming. Justine, Susan, and I might as well be dead. Dead like all the others. Dead like all their victims.

  I leaned against the wall by the stairs, panting, fighting to hold on to some sense of clarity. Dead. Victims. The victims below. The dead.

  I dropped the blasting rod. I fell to my knees.

  With my staff, I scratched a circle around me, in the dust. It was enough. The circle closed with a thrum of power. Magic ran rampant in that house, the sea of supernatural energy stirred to froth.

  I had no guide for this kind of spell. I had no focus, nothing to target, but that wasn't the kind of magic I was working with. I shoved my senses down, into the earth, like reaching fingers. I blanked out the burning hall, my enemies, Bianca's howling. I shut away the fire, the smoke, the pain, the nausea. I focused, and reached beneath me.

  And I found them. I found the dead, the victims, the ones who had been taken. Not just the few piled below, like so much trash to be discarded. I found others. Dozens of others. Scores. Hundreds. Bones hidden away, never marked, never remembered. Restless shades, trapped in the earth, too weak to act, to take vengeance, to seek peace. Maybe on another night, or in another place, I couldn't have done it. But the way had been prepared for me, by Bianca and her people. They'd thought to weaken the border between life and death, to use the dead as a weapon against me.

  But that blade can cut both ways.

  I found those spirits, reached out and touched them, one by one.

  "Memorium," I whispered. "Memoratum. Memortius. "

  Energy rushed out of me. I shoved it out as fast as it would go, and I gave it to them. To the lost ones. The seduced, the betrayed, the homeless, the helpless. All the people the vampires had preyed on, through the years, all the dead I could reach. I reached out into the turmoil Bianca and her allies had created, and I gave those wandering shades power.

  The house began to shake.

  From below, in the basement, there came a rumbling sound. It began as a moan. It rose to a wail. And then it became a screaming mob, a roar of sound that shattered the senses, that made my heart and my belly shiver with the sheer force of it.

  The dead came. They erupted through the floor, and took forms of smoke and flame and cinder. I saw them as I swayed, weakened, finished by the effort of the spell. I saw their faces. I saw newsboys from the roaring twenties, and greaser street punks from the fifties. I saw delivery people and homeless transients and lost children rise up, deadly in their fury. The ghosts reached out with flaming hands to burn and sear; they shoved their smoky bodies into noses and throats. They howled their names and the names of their murderers, the names of their loved ones, and their vengeance shook that grand old house like a thunderstorm, like an earthquake.

  The ceiling began to fall in. I saw vampires being dragged into the flames, down into the basement as burning sections of floor gave way. Some tried to flee, but the spirits of the dead knew no more pity than they had rest. They hammered at the vampires, raked at them, ghostly hands and bodies made nearly tangible by the power I'd channeled into them.

  Vampires died. Ghosts swarmed and screamed everywhere, terrible and beautiful, heartbreaking and ridiculous as humanity itself. The sound banished any thought of speech, hammered upon my skin like physical blows.

  I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I struggled to my feet and beckoned down the stairs. Justine stumbled up them, Bob's eyelights blazing bright orange, a beacon in the smoke. I grabbed her wrist and tried to make my way around the trembling house, the gaping hole in the floor that led down to an inferno.

  I saw a spirit leap for Bianca with blazing hands reached out, and she smote it from the air with a blast of frozen black air. She seized Susan by the wrist and started dragging her toward the front door.

  More spirits hurtled toward her, the eldest of the murderers of this house, fire and smoke and splinter - even one that had forged a body for itself out of the spent bullets laying upon the floor.

  She fought them off. Talon and magic, she thrust her way through them, and toward the front door. Susan began to wake up, to look around her, her expression terrified.

  "Susan!" I shouted. "Susan!"

  She began to struggle against Bianca, who hissed, turning toward Susan. She fought to drag my girlfriend closer to the front door, but one of the ghosts clawed at the vampire's leg, setting it aflame.

  Bianca screamed, berserk, out of control. She lifted one hand high, her claws glittering, dark, and swept it down at Susan's throat.

  I sent my spell hurtling out along with Susan's name, the last strength of my body and mind.

  I saw her rise. Rachel's ghost. She appeared, simple and translucent and pretty, and put herself between Bianca's claws and Susan's throat. Blood gouted from the ghost, scarlet and horrible. Susan tumbled limply to one side. Bianca started screaming, high enough to shatter glass, as the bloody ghost simply pressed against her, wrapping her arms around the monstrous black form.

  My spell followed on the heels of Rachel's ghost, and took Bianca full in the face, a near-solid column of wind, which seized her, hurtled her up, and then smashed her down into the floor. The overstrained boards gave way beneath her with a creak and a roar, and flame washed up toward me in a wave of reeking black smoke. I felt my balance spin and I struggled to make it to the exit, but fell to the ground.

  Spirits flooded after Bianca, fire and smoke, following the vampire sorceress down the hole.
The house itself screamed, a sound of tortured wood and twisted beam, and began to fall.

  I couldn't get my balance. I felt small, strong hands under one of my arms. And then I felt Susan beneath the other, powerful and terrified. She lifted me to my feet. Justine stayed by my other side, and together, we stumbled out of the old house.

  We had gone no more than a dozen paces when it collapsed with a roar. We turned, and I saw the house drawing in upon itself, sucked down into the earth, into an inferno of flame. The fire department, later, called it some kind of inverted backblast, but I know what I saw. I saw the ghosts the dead had left behind settle the score.

  "I love you," I said, or tried to say, to Susan. "I love you. "

  She pressed her mouth to mine. I think she was crying. "Hush," she said. "Harry. Hush. I love you, too. "

  It was done.

  There was no more reason to hold on.