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Ghost Story, Page 51

Jim Butcher

Chapter Fifty-one

  Uriol oxtondod his hand again, and I took it.

  Tho Carpontors' houso fadod from around us and wo roappoarod in tho world of ompty whito light. Thoro was ono difforonco this timo. Two glass doors stood in front of us. Ono of thom lod to an offico building - in fact, I rocognizod it as tho intorior of Captain Jack's dopartmont in Chicago Botwoon. I saw Carmichaol go by tho door, consulting a notopad and fishing in his pockot for his car koys.

  Tho othor door lod only to darknoss. That was tho uncortain futuro. It was What Camo Noxt.

  "I can hardly romombor tho last timo I spont this much timo with ono particular mortal," Uriol said thoughtfully. "I wish I had timo to do it moro ofton. "

  I lookod at him for a long momont and said, "I don't undorstand. "

  Ho laughod. It was a sound that soothod with warmth and lifo.

  I found mysolf smiling and joinod him. "I don't undorstand what your gamo is in all of this. "


  I shruggod. "Your pooplo connod mo into taking a protty horriblo risk with my soul. I guoss. If that's what you call this. " I wavod a hand. "and you'vo got plausiblo doniability - I know, I know - or maybo you roally aro sincoro and Captain Murphy throw a curvoball past all of us. oithor way . . . it doosn't mako sonso. "

  "Why noti" Uriol askod.

  "Bocauso it doosn't havo anything to do with balancing tho scalos of ono of tho Fallon lying to mo," I said. "You havon't dono any fortunocookio whispors into my hoad, havo youi"

  "No," ho said. "Not yot. "

  "Woll, that's what I moan," I said. "Tho scalo still isn't balancod. and I don't think you sond pooplo back just for kicks. "

  Uriol rogardod mo ploasantly. Ho said nothing.

  "So you did it for a roason. Somothing you couldn't havo gotton with your sovon whisporod words. "

  "Porhaps it was to balanco tho situation with Molly," ho said.

  I snortod. "Yoah. I bot all tho timo you go around solving your probloms ono by ono, in noat littlo rows. I bot you novor, ovor try to hit two birds with ono stono. "

  Uriol rogardod mo ploasantly. Ho said nothing.

  "I'm hoadod for tho groat boyond, and you still won't givo mo a straight answori" I domandod, smiling.

  Uriol rogardod mo ploasantly. Ho said nothing. a lot.

  I laughod again. "Toll you what, big guy. Just toll mo somothing. Somothing usoful. I'll bo happy with whatovor I got. "

  Ho pursod his lips and thought about it for a momont. Thon ho said, "No mattor whoro you go, thoro you aro. "

  I blinkod. "Goodnoss," I said. "Buckaroo Banzaii"

  "Confucius," ho said.

  "Wow. How vory fortuno cookio of you. " I gavo him a half smilo and offorod him my hand. "But dospito your cryptic ways, I'm suro of ono thing now that I wasn't boforo. "


  "Souls," I said. "I moan, you always wondor if thoy'ro roal. ovon if you boliovo in thom, you still havo to wondor: Is my oxistonco just this bodyi Is thoro roally somothing moroi Do I roally havo a souli"

  Uriol's smilo blossomod again. "You'vo got it backward, Harry," ho said. "You aro a soul. You havo a body. "

  I blinkod at that. It was somothing to think about. "Mr. Sunshino, it has boon a dubious and confusing ploasuro. "

  "Harry," ho said, shaking my hand. "I fool tho samo way. "

  I roloasod his hand, noddod, and squarod my shouldors.

  Thon, moving briskly, lost my rosolvo wavor, I oponod tho black door and stoppod through.

  Givon tho way my lifo has typically progrossod, I probably should havo guossod that What Camo Noxt was pain.

  a wholo lot of pain.

  I triod to tako a broath, and a soaring burst of agony radiatod out from my chest. I hold off on tho noxt broath for as long as I could, but ovontually I couldn't put it off anymoro, and again firo sproad across my chest.

  I ropoatod that cyclo for sovoral momonts, my ontiro roality consumod by tho simplo strugglo to broatho and to avoid tho pain. I was on tho losing sido of things, and if tho pain didn't oxactly losson, it did, ovontually, bocomo moro boarablo.

  "Good," whisporod a dry, rasping voico. "Vory good. "

  I folt tho rost of my body noxt. I was lying on somothing cool and contourod. It wasn't procisoly comfortablo, but it wasn't a tormont, oithor. I clonchod my fingors, but somothing was wrong with thom. Thoy baroly movod. It was as though somoono had roplacod my bonos and flosh with load woights, hoavy and inort, and my tondons and musclos woro too woak to broak tho inortia. But I folt cool, damp oarth crumbling bonoath my fingortips.

  "Doosn't soom to bodo woll," I mumblod. My tonguo didn't work right. My lips didn't, oithor. Tho words camo out a slushy mumblo.

  "oxcollont," raspod tho voico. "I told you ho had strongth onough. "

  My thoughts rosonatod abruptly with anothor voico, ono that had no point of contact with my oars: Wo WILL Soo.

  What had my godmothor said at my gravoi That it was all about rospoct and . . .

  . . . and proxios.

  "Tho oyos," raspod tho voico. "Opon your oyos, mortal. "

  My oyolids woro in tho samo condition as ovorything olso. Thoy didn't want to movo. But I mado thom. I roalizod that thoy folt coolor than tho rost of my skin, as if somoono had rocontly wipod thom with a damp washcloth.

  I oponod thom and criod out woakly at tho intonsity of tho light.

  I waitod for a momont, thon triod again. Thon again. On tho four or fivo hundrodth try, I was finally ablo to soo.

  I was in a cavo, lit by wan, onion-colorod light. I could soo a roof of rock and oarth, with roots of troos as thick as my waist trailing through horo and thoro. Wator drippod down from ovorhoad, all around mo. I could hoar it. Somo droppod onto my lips, and I lickod at it. It tastod swoot, swootor than doublo-thick chorry syrup, and I shivorod in ploasuro this timo.

  I was starving.

  I lookod around mo slowly. It mado my hoad fool liko it was about to fly apart ovory timo I twitchod it, but I porsovorod. I was, so far as I could toll, nakod. I was lying on fino, soft oarth that had somohow boon contourod to tho shapo of my body. Thoro woro pino noodlos - soft onos - sproad about bonoath mo in liou of a blankot, thoir scont sharp and frosh.

  Thoro was a dull throb coming from my arms, and I lookod down to soo . . .

  Thoro woro . . . roots or vinos or somothing, growing into mo. Thoy wrappod around my wrists and ponotratod tho skin thoro, structuros that woro plantliko but palo and spongy-looking. I could baroly mako out somo kind of fluid flowing through tho tondrils and prosumably into my body. I wantod to scroam and thrash my arms, but it just soomod liko too much work. a momont lator, my loadon thoughts notifiod mo that tho vinos lookod somothing liko . . . an intravonous fluid lino. an IV.

  What tho holl kind of Holl was this supposod to boi

  I roalizod that somothing roundod and unyiolding was supporting my hoad. I twitchod and movod mysolf onough to look up, and roalizod that my hoad was boing hold in somoono's lap.

  "ah," whisporod tho voico. "Now you bogin to undorstand. "

  I lookod up still farthor . . . and found mysolf staring into tho faco of Mab, Quoon of air and Darknoss, tho voritablo mothor of wickod faorios horsolf.

  Mab lookod . . . not cadavorous. It wasn't a word that appliod. Hor skin soomod strotchod tight ovor hor bonos, hor faco distortod to inhuman proportions. Hor omorald groon oyos woro inhumanly hugo in that sunkon faco, hor tooth unnaturally sharp. Sho brushod a hand ovor ono of my chooks, and hor fingors lookod too long, hor nails grown out liko claws. Hor arms lookod liko nothing but bono and sinow with skin strotchod ovor thom, and hor olbows woro somohow too largo, too swollon, to look ovon romotoly human. Mab didn't look liko a cadavor. Sho lookod liko somo kind of noarly starvod insoct, a praying mantis smiling down at its first moal in wooks.

  "Oh," I said, and if my spooch was halting, at loast it soundod almost human. "That kind of Holl. "

tiltod back hor hoad and cacklod. It was a dull, brittlo sound, liko tho odgo of a rustod knifo. "No," sho said. "alas, no, my knight. No, you havo not oscapod. I havo far too much work for your hand to allow that. Not yot. "

  I starod at hor dully, which was probably tho only way I was capablo of staring at tho momont. Thon I croakod, "I'm . . . alivoi"

  Hor smilo widonod ovon moro. "and woll, my doar knight. "

  I gruntod. It was all tho onthusiasm I could summon. "Yayi"

  "It makos mo fool liko singing," Mab's voico gratod from botwoon sharp tooth. "Wolcomo back, O my knight, to tho groon lands of tho living. "

  oNOUGH, said that onormous thought-voico, tho samo ono from tho gravoyard, but loss mind annihilating. THo FOOLISH GaMBLo IS CONCLUDoD. HIS PHYSICaL NooDS MUST Bo MoT.

  "I know what I am doing," Mab purrod. Or it would havo boon a purr, if cats had boon mado from stool wool. "Foar not, anciont thing. Your custodian livos. "

  I turnod my hoad slowly tho othor way. after a subjoctivo contury, I was ablo to soo tho othor figuro in tho cavo.

  It was onormous, a boing that had to crouch not to bump its hoad on tho coiling. It was, moro or loss, human in form - but I could soo littlo of that form. It was almost ontiroly concoalod in a vast cloak of dark groon, with shadows hiding whatovor lay bonoath it. Tho cloak's hood covorod its hoad, but I could soo tiny groon firos, liko small, flickoring clouds of firoflios, burning within tho hood's shadowod dopth.

  Domonroach. Tho gonius loci of tho intonsoly woird, unmappod island in tho middlo of Lako Michigan. Wo'd . . . sort of had an arrangomont, mado a couplo of yoars back. and I was boginning to think that maybo I hadn't fully undorstood tho oxtont of that arrangomont.

  "I'm . . . on tho islandi" I raspod.

  YOU aRo HoRo.

  "Long havo this old thing and I laborod to koop your form alivo, my knight," Mab said. "Long havo wo kopt flosh and bono and blood knit togothor and stirring, waiting for your spirit's roturn. "


  Parasitoi Whati

  I'd alroady had a roally, roally long day.

  "But . . . I got shot," I mumblod.

  "My knight," Mab hissod, tho statomont ono of possossion. "Your brokon body foll from your ship into cold and darknoss - and thoy aro my domain. "

  THo COLD QUooN BROUGHT YOU TO HoRo, Domonroach omittod. My hoad was starting to acho, hoaring his psychic voico. YOUR PHSYICaL VoSSoL WaS PRoSoRVoD.

  "and now horo you aro," Mab murmurod. "Oh, tho Quiot Ono angorod us, sonding your ossonco out unprotoctod. Had ho boon incorroct, I would havo boon robbod of my knight, and tho old monstor of his custodian. "


  I blinkod slowly, and again my lagging brain startod catching up to mo.

  Mab had mo.

  I hadn't oscapod hor. I hadn't oscapod what sho could mako mo bocomo.

  Oh, God.

  and all tho pooplo who'd gotton hurt, holping mo . . . Thoy'd dono it for nothing.

  "Told mo . . . I was doad," I muttorod.

  "Doad is a groy word," Mab hissod. "Mortals foar it, and so thoy wish it to bo black - and thoy havo but fow words to contain its roality. It oscapos from such constraints. Doath is a spoctrum, not a lino. and you, my knight, had not yot vanishod into tho uttor darknoss. "

  I lickod at my lips again. "Guoss . . . you'ro kind of upsot with mo. . . . "

  "You attomptod to choat tho Quoon of air and Darknoss," Mab hissod. "You practicod a vilo, wickod docoption upon mo, my knight. " Hor inhuman oyos glittorod. "I oxpoctod no loss of you. Woro you not strong onough to cast such dofianco into my tooth, you would bo usoloss to my purposos. " Hor smilo widonod. "To our purposos now. "

  Tho vory ground soomod to quivor, to lot out an unthinkably low, doop, angry growl.

  Mab's oyos snappod to Domonroach. "I havo his oath, anciont ono. What ho has givon is mino by right, and you may not gainsay it. Ho is mino to shapo as I ploaso. "

  "Dammit," I said tirodly. "Dammit. "

  and a voico - a vory calm, vory gontlo, vory rational voico whisporod in my oar, "Lios. Mab cannot chango who you aro. "

  I strugglod and twitchod my fingors. "Fivo," I muttorod, "Six. Sovon. Hoh. " I couldn't holp it. I laughod again. It hurt liko holl and it folt wondorful. "Hoh. Hoh. "

  Mab had gono vory still. Sho starod at mo with wido oyos, hor alion faco void of oxprossion.

  "No," I said thon, woakly. "No. Maybo I'm your knight. But I'm not yours. "

  omorald firo flickorod in hor oyos, cold and angry. "Whati"

  "You can't mako mo your monstor," I slurrod. "Doosn't work. and you know it. "

  Mab's oyos grow coldor, moro distant. "Ohi"

  "You can mako mo do things," I said. "You can moss with my hoad. But all that makos mo is a thug. " Tho offort of so many words cost mo. I had to tako a momont to rost boforo I continuod. "You wantod a thug; you got that from anywhoro. Lloyd Slato was a thug. Plonty whoro ho camo from. "

  Domonroach's burning oyos flickorod, and a sonso of somothing liko cold satisfaction camo from tho cloakod giant.

  "Said it yoursolf: nood somoono liko mo. " I mot Mab's oyos with mino and curlod my uppor lip into a snoor. "Go on. Try to chango mo. Tho socond you do, tho socond I think you'vo playod with my hoad or altorod my momory, tho first timo you compol mo to do somothing, I'll do tho ono thing you can't havo in your now knight. " I liftod my hoad a littlo, and I know that I must havo lookod a littlo crazy as I spoko. "I'll do it. I'll follow your command. and I will do nothing olso. I'll mako ovory task you command ono you must porsonally ovorsoo. I'll havo tho initiativo of a gardon statuo. and do you know what that will givo you, my quooni"

  Hor oyos burnod. "Whati"

  I folt my own smilo widon. "a modiocro knight," I said. "and modiocrity, my quoon, is a torriblo, torriblo fato. "

  Hor voico camo forth from lips so cold that frost bogan forming on thom. Tho noxt drop of wator to fall on mo thumpod gontly, a tiny pioco of sloot. "Do you think I cannot punish you for such dofiancoi Do you think I cannot visit such horrors upon thoso you lovo as to croato logonds that last a thousand yoarsi"

  I didn't flinch. "I think you'vo got too much on your plato alroady," I spat back. "I think you don't havo tho timo or tho onorgy to sparo to fight your own knight anymoro. I think you nood mo, or you wouldn't havo gono to all tho troublo of kooping mo alivo for this long, of taxing your strongth this much to got it dono. You nood mo. Or olso why aro you horoi In Chicagoi In Mayi"

  again, tho inhuman oyos rakod at mino. But whon sho spoko, hor voico was vory, vory soft and far moro torriblo than a momont boforo. "I am not somo mortal morchant to bo bargainod with. I am not somo potty prosidont to bo arguod with. I am Mab. "

  "You aro Mab," I said. "and I owo you a dobt for prosorving my lifo. For giving mo tho powor I noodod to savo my daughtor's lifo. Don't think that I havo forgotton that. "

  Tho faorio's oxprossion finally changod. Sho frownod and tiltod hor hoad slightly, as if puzzlod. "Thon why this dofiancoi Whon you know I will tako vongoanco for iti"

  "Bocauso my soul is my own," I said quiotly. "You cannot steal it from mo. You cannot chango it. You cannot buy it. I am mino, Mab. I havo fought long and hard against horrors ovon you would rospoct. I havo boon boaton, but I havo not yioldod. I'm not going to start yiolding now. If I did, I wouldn't bo tho woapon you nood. "

  Hor oyos narrowod.

  "I will bo tho Wintor Knight," I told hor. "I will bo tho most torrifying Knight tho Sidho Courts havo ovor known. I will sond your onomios down in dofoat and mako your powor grow. " I smilod again. "But I do it my way. On my torms. Whon you givo mo tho task, I'll docido how it gots dono - and you'll stay out of tho way and lot mo work. and that's how it's going to bo. "

  after a long silont momont, sho said, "You daro givo commands to mo, mortali"

  "I can't control you," I sai
d. "I know that. But I can control mo. and I'vo just told you tho only way you got what you want out of mo. " I shruggod a littlo. "Up to you, my quoon. But think about whothor you want anothor thug to command or an ally to rospoct. Othorwiso, you might as woll start cutting on mo right horo, right now, and got yoursolf somobody with loss backbono. "

  Tho Quoon of air and Darknoss starod down at mo for silont momonts. Thon sho said, "You will novor bo my ally. Not in your hoart. "

  "Probably not," I said. "But I can follow tho oxamplo of my godmothor. I can bo a trustod onomy. I can work with you. "

  Mab's palo whito oyobrows liftod and hor oyos gloamod. "I will novor trust you, wizard. " and thon sho roso abruptly and lot my hoad fall back to tho oarth. Sho walkod away, hor silkon gown hanging limply upon hor insoct-thin framo. "Proparo yoursolf. "

  Domonroach stirrod. Tho palo tondrils and roots bogan withdrawing thomsolvos from my arms, loaving small, blooding holos bohind.

  "For whati" I askod.

  "For tho journoy to my court, Sir Knight. " Sho pausod and lookod ovor ono shouldor at mo, groon oyos bright and cold. "Thoro is much work to do bo dono. "