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Death Masks, Page 8

Jim Butcher

Chapter Eight

  I fumed and brooded all the way back to my apartment, the Beetle's engine sputtering nervously the whole time. Mister was sitting at the top of the steps, and let out a plaintive meow as I shut and locked up my car. Though I kept my blasting rod and shield bracelet ready in case any vanilla goons were waiting around with more silenced guns, I was fairly confident no preternasties were hanging around in ambush. Mister tended to make lots of noise and then leave whenever supernatural danger was around.

  Which just goes to show that my cat has considerably more sense than me.

  Mister slammed his shoulder against my legs, and didn't quite manage to trip me into falling down the stairs. I didn't waste any time getting inside and locked up behind me.

  I lit a candle, got out some cat food and fresh water for Mister's bowls, and spent a couple minutes pacing back and forth. I glanced at my bed and wrote it off as a useless idea. I was too worked up to sleep, even tired as I was. I was already chin deep in alligators and sinking fast.

  "Right, then, Harry," I mumbled. "Might as well do some work. "

  I grabbed a heavy, warm robe off its hook, shoved aside one of my rugs, and opened the trapdoor leading down to the subbasement. A folding ladder-staircase led down to the damp stone chamber beneath, where I kept my lab, and I padded down it, my robe's hem dragging against the wooden steps.

  I started lighting candles. My lab, barring a brief bout of insanity, generally reflects the state of my own mind-cluttered, messy, unorganized, but basically functional. The room isn't large. Three worktables line three of the walls in a U shape, and a fourth table runs down the center of the U, leaving a narrow walkway around it. Wire utility shelves line the walls above the tables. Piled on the shelves and tables are a vast array of magical ingredients, plus that sort of miscellaneous domestic clutter that in households of more substance always winds up in a big drawer in the kitchen. Books, notebooks, journals, and papers line the shelves, together with containers and boxes and pouches full of all sorts of herbs, roots, and magical ingredients, from a bottle of snake hisses to a vial of milk-thistle extract.

  At the far end of the room there was a patch of floor kept completely clear of all clutter. A copper ring set into the stone of the floor, my summoning circle, resided there. Experience had shown me that you never can tell when you might need a ritual circle to defend yourself from magical attack, or for its other most obvious use-keeping a denizen of the Nevernever a temporary prisoner.

  One of the shelves had less on it than the others. At either end rested a candleholder, long since overrun with many colors of melted wax until they were nothing but mounds, like a honeybee Vesuvius. Books, mostly paperback romances, and various small and feminine articles took up the rest of the shelf, but for where a bleached human skull sat in the middle. I picked up a pencil and rapped it against the shelf. "Bob. Bob, wake up. Work to be done. "

  Twin points of orange and gold light kindled in the shadows of the skull's eye sockets, and grew brighter as I went about the room lighting half a dozen candles and a kerosene lamp. The skull rattled a little, and then said, "It's only a few hours from dawn, and you're just starting up? What gives?"

  I started getting out beakers and vials and a small alcohol burner. "More trouble," I said. "It's been one hell of a day. " I told Bob the Skull about the television studio, the vampire's challenge, the hit man, the missing Shroud, and the plague-filled corpse.

  "Wow. You don't do things halfway, do you, Harry?"

  "Advise now; critique later. I'm going to look into things and whip up a potion or two, and you're going to help. "

  "Right," Bob said. "Where do you want to start?"

  "With Ortega. Where is my copy of the Accords?"

  "Cardboard box. " Bob said. "Third shelf, on the bottom row, behind the pickling jars. "

  I found the box and pawed through it until I had found a vellum scroll tied shut with a white ribbon. I opened it and peered down at the handwritten calligraphy. It started off with the word Insomuch, and the syntax got more opaque from there.

  "I can't make heads or tails of this," I said. "Where's the section about duels?"

  "Fifth paragraph from the end. You want the Cliff's Notes version?"

  I rolled the scroll shut again. "Hit me. "

  "It's based on Code Duello," Bob said. "Well, technically it's based on much older rules that eventually inspired the Code Duello, but that's just chickens and eggs. Ortega is the challenger, and you're the challenged. "

  "I know that. I get to pick the weapons and the ground, right?"

  "Wrong," Bob said. "You pick the weapons, but he gets to choose the time and location. "

  "Damn," I muttered. "I was going to take high noon out in a park somewhere. But I guess I can just say that we'll duel with magic. "

  "If it's one of the available choices. It almost always is. "

  "Who decides?"

  "The vampires and the Council will pick from a list of neutral emissaries. The emissary decides. "

  I nodded. "So if I don't have it as an option I'm screwed, right? I mean, magic, wizard, kind of my bag. "

  Bob said. "Yeah, but be careful. It's got to be a weapon that he can use. If you pick one he can't, he can refuse it, and force you to take your second choice. "

  "Meaning what?"

  "Meaning that regardless of what happens, if he doesn't want to fight you in magic, he won't have to. Ortega didn't get to be a warlord without thinking things through, Harry. Odds are that he has a good idea what you can do and has planned accordingly. What do you know about him?"

  "Not much. Presumably he's tough. "

  Bob's eyelights stared at me for a minute. "Well, Napoleon, I'm sure he'll never overcome that kind of tactical genius. "

  I flicked my pencil at the skull in annoyance. It bounced off a nose hole. "Get to the point. "

  "The point is that you'd be better off taking something you can predict. "

  "I'm better off not fighting to begin with," I said. "Do I need to get a second?"

  "You both do," Bob said. "The seconds will work out the terms of the duel. His should be getting in touch with yours at some point. "

  "Uh. I don't have one. "

  Bob's skull turned a bit on its shelf and banged its forehead gently into the brick wall a few times. "Then get one, dolt. Obviously. "

  I got another pencil and a pad of yellow lined paper and wrote To do across the top, and Ask Michael about duel underneath it. "Okay. And I want you to find out whatever you can about Ortega before dawn. "

  "Check," Bob said. "I have your permission to come out?"

  "Not yet. There's more. "

  Bob's eyelights rolled. "Of course there's more. My job sucks. "

  I got out a jug of distilled water and a can of Coke. I opened the can, took a sip, and said, "That corpse Murphy showed me. Plague curse?"

  "Probably," Bob agreed. "But if it was really that many diseases, it was a big one. "

  "How big?"

  "Bigger than that spell the Shadowman was using to tear hearts out a few years ago. "

  I whistled. "And he was running it off of thunderstorms and ceremonial rites, too. What would it take to power a curse that strong?"

  "Curses aren't really my thing," Bob hedged. "But a lot. Like maybe tapping into a sorcerous ley line, or a human sacrifice. "

  I sipped more Coke, and shook my head. "Someone is playing some serious hardball then. "

  Bob mused, "Maybe the Wardens used it to get nasty on a Red Court agent. "

  "They wouldn't," I said. "They wouldn't use magic like that. Even if technically it was the diseases that killed the guy, it's too damn close to breaking the First Law. "

  "Who else would have that kind of power?" Bob asked me.

  I turned to a fresh page and sketched out a rough version of the tattoo on the corpse. I held it up to show it to Bob. "Someone who didn't like this, maybe. "

  "Eye of Thoth
," Bob supplied. "That the tattoo on the corpse?"

  "Yeah. Was this guy in someone's secret club?"

  "Maybe. The eye is a pretty popular occult symbol though, so you can't rule out the possibility that he was an independent. "

  "Okay," I said. "So who uses it?"

  "Plenty of groups. Brotherhoods connected to the White Council, historic societies, a couple of fringe groups of occult scholars, personality cults, television psychics, comic book heroes-"

  "I get the point," I said. I turned to a fresh page and from razor-sharp memory sketched out the symbol I'd seen on the demon Ursiel's forehead. "Do you recognize this?"

  Bob's eyelights widened. "Are you insane? Harry, tear that paper up. Burn it. "

  I frowned. "Bob, wait a minute-"

  "Do it now!"

  The skull's voice was frightened, and I get nervous when Bob gets frightened. Not much can scare Bob out of his usual wiseass-commentator state of mind. I tore up the paper. "I guess you recognize it. "

  "Yeah. And I'm not having anything to do with that bunch. "

  "I didn't hear that, Bob. I need information on them. They're in town, they've taken a shot at me, and I'm betting they're after the Shroud. "

  "Let them have it," Bob said. "Seriously. You've got no idea the kind of power this group has. "

  "Fallen, I know," I said. "Order of the Blackened Denarius. But they have to play by the rules, right?"

  "Harry, it isn't just the Fallen. The people they've taken are nearly as bad. They're assassins, poisoners, warriors, sorcerers-"


  "The coins make them effectively immortal. Some of the Order have had a thousand years to practice, and maybe more. That much time, even modest talents can grow teeth. Never mind everything experience would have taught them, everything they could have found to make themselves stronger over the years. Even without infernal superpowers, they'd be badass. "

  I frowned, and tore the bits of paper into smaller bits. "Badass enough to manage that curse?"

  "There's no question that they'd have the skill. Maybe enough that they wouldn't need as big a power source. "

  "Great," I said, and rubbed at my eyes. "All right, then. Big-leaguers all around. I want you to track down the Shroud. "

  "No can do," Bob said.

  "Give me a break. How many pieces of two-thousand-year-old linen are in town?"

  "That's not the point, Harry. The Shroud is -" Bob seemed to struggle to find words. "It doesn't exist on the same wavelength as me. It's out of my jurisdiction. "

  "What are you talking about?"

  "I'm a spirit of intellect, Harry. Of reason, logic. The Shroud isn't about logic. It's an artifact of faith. "

  "What?" I demanded. "That doesn't make any sense. "

  "You don't know everything, Harry," Bob said. "You don't even know a lot. I can't touch this. I can't come anywhere near it. And if I even try, I'll be crossing boundaries I shouldn't. I'm not going up against angels, Dresden, Fallen, or otherwise. "

  I sighed, and lifted my hands. "Fine, fine. Is there someone I can talk to?"

  Bob was quiet for a moment before he said, "Maybe. Ulsharavas. "

  "Ulsha- who?"

  "Ulsharavas. She's an ally of the loa, an oracle spirit. There's details about halfway through your copy of Dumont's Guide to Divinationators. "

  "How are her prices?"

  "Reasonable," Bob said. "You've got everything you need for the calling. She isn't usually malicious. "

  "Isn't usually?"

  "The loa are basically good guys, but they all have their darker aspects, too. Ulsharavas is a pretty gentle guide, but she's been harsh before. Don't let your guard down. "

  "I won't," I said, and frowned. "One more thing. Swing by Marcone's place and see if there's anything interesting there. You don't have to go all David Niven; just take a look around. "

  "You think Marcone's involved in this one?"

  "His thugs already took a poke at me. I might as well find out whatever I can. I give you permission to leave in pursuit of that information, Bob. Get back before dawn. Oh, do we still have that recipe for the antivenom to vampire spit?"

  A cloud of orange lights flowed out of the skull, across the table, and then up the stairs. Bob's voice, oddly modulated, floated back to me. "Red notebook. Don't forget to light the wardflame while I'm gone. "

  "Yeah, yeah," I muttered. I gave Bob a minute to clear my wards, then got down a three-candle holder with green, yellow, and red candles on it. I lit the green one and set the candleholder aside. I got out Dumont's Guide and read over the entry for Ulsharavas. It looked pretty simple, though you couldn't be too careful whenever you called something in from the Nevernever.

  I took a couple of minutes to gather what I'd need. The oracle spirit couldn't put together a body for herself, not even a nebulous cloud of light, like Bob could. She required a homunculus to manifest in the mortal world. Dumont recommended a newly dead corpse, but as the only one I was likely to find was my own, I needed a substitute. I found it in another box and plopped it down in the center of my summoning circle,

  I added a cup of whiskey and a freshly opened tin of Prince Albert's chewing tobacco to the circle, the required down payment to convince Ulsharavas to show up. It was the last of my whiskey and the last of the tins of tobacco, so I added Get more scotch and Prince Albert in a can to my to-do list, and stuck it in my pocket.

  I spent a couple of minutes sweeping the floor around the circle, so that I wouldn't kick a stray hair or bit of paper across the circle and flub it up. After a brief deliberation I chalked down another circle outside the copper one. Then I took a moment to go over the guide a last time, and to clear my head of distractions.

  I took a deep breath and gathered in my strength. Then I focused, reached down, and touched the copper circle, willing a tiny jolt of power into it. The summoning circle closed. I felt it as a tingling prickle on the back of my neck and a faint warmth on the skin of my face. I repeated the process with the chalk circle, adding a second layer, and then knelt down by the circle, lifting both hands palms-up.

  "Ulsharavas," I murmured, willing energy into the words. My voice shook oddly, skittering around tones in what seemed a random fashion. "Ulsharavas. Ulsharavas. One lost in ignorance seeks you. One darkened by the lack of knowledge seeks your light. Come, guardian of memory, sentinel of the yet to come. Accept this offering and join me here. "

  At the conclusion of the ritual words, I released the power I'd been holding, sending it coursing from me into the circle, and through it to seek out the oracle spirit in the Nevernever.

  The response came immediately. A sudden swirl of light appeared within the copper circle, and briefly made the barrier around it visible as a curved plane of blue sparkles. The light drizzled down over the homunculus, and a moment later it twitched, then sat up.

  "Welcome, oracle," I said. "Bob the Skull thought you might be of some help. "

  The homunculus sat up and stretched out pudgy arms. Then it blinked, looked at its arms, and rose to stare down at itself. It looked up at me with one eyebrow raised, and asked, in a tiny voice, "A Cabbage Patch doll? You expect me to help you while wearing this?"

  It was a cute doll. Blond ringlets fell to her plush shoulders, and she wore a pink-and-blue calico dress, complete with matching ribbons and little black shoes. "Uh, yeah. Sorry," I said. "I didn't have anything else with two arms and two legs, and I'm pressed for time. "

  Ulsharavas the Cabbage Patch doll sighed and sat down in the circle, legs straight out like a teddy bear's. She struggled to pick up the comparatively large cup of whiskey, and drank it down. It looked like she was taking a pull from a rain barrel, but she downed the whiskey in one shot. I don't know where it went, given that the doll didn't actually have a mouth or a stomach, but none of it spilled onto the floor. That done, she thrust a tiny fist into the tobacco and stuffed a wad of it into her mouth.

So," she said, between chews. "You want to know about the Shroud, and the people who stole it. "

  I lifted my eyebrows. "Uh. Yeah, actually. You're pretty good. "

  "There are two problems. "

  I frowned. "Okay. What are they?"

  Ulsharavas peered at me and said, "First. I don't work for bokkor. "

  "I'm not a bokkor," I protested.

  "You aren't a houngun. You aren't a mambo. That makes you a sorcerer. "

  "Wizard," I said. "I'm with the White Council. "

  The doll tilted her head. "You're stained," she said. "I can feel black magic on you. "

  "It's a long story," I said. "But mostly it isn't mine. "

  "Some of it is. "

  I frowned at the doll and then nodded. "Yeah. I've made a bad call or two. "

  "But honest," Ulsharavas noted. "Well enough. Second is my price. "

  "What did you have in mind?"

  The doll spat to one side, flecks of tobacco landing on the floor. "An honest answer to one question. Answer me and I will tell you what you seek. "

  "Yeah, right," I said. "You could just ask me for my Name. I've heard that one before. "

  "I didn't say you'd have to answer in full," the doll said. "I certainly do not wish to threaten you. But what you would answer, you must answer honestly. "

  I thought about it for a minute before I said, "All right. Done. "

  Ulsharavas scooped up more tobacco and started chomping. "Answer only this. Why do you do what you do?"

  I blinked at her. "You mean tonight?"

  "I mean always," she answered. "Why are you a wizard? Why do you present yourself openly? Why do you help other mortals as you do?"

  "Uh," I said. I stood up and paced over to my table. "What else would I do?"

  "Precisely," the doll said, and spat. "You could be doing many other things. You could be seeking a purpose in life in other careers. You could be sequestered and studying. You could be using your skills for material gain and living in wealth. Even in your profession as an investigator, you could do more to avoid confrontation than you do. But instead you consign yourself to a poor home, a dingy office, and the danger of facing all manner of mortal and supernatural foe. Why?"

  I leaned back against my table, folded my arms, and frowned at the doll. "What the hell kind of question is that?"

  "An important one," she said. "And one that you agreed to answer honestly. "

  "Well," I said. "I guess I wanted to do something to help people. Something I was good at. "

  "Is that why?" she asked.

  I chewed over the thought for a moment. Why had I started doing this stuff? I mean, it seemed like every few months I was running up against situations that had the potential to horribly kill me. Most wizards never had the kind of problems I did. They stayed at home, minded their own business, and generally speaking went on about their lives. They did not challenge other supernatural forces. They didn't declare themselves to the public at large. They didn't get into trouble for sticking their noses in other people's business, whether or not they'd been paid to do so. They didn't start wars, get challenged to duels with vampire patriots, or get the windows shot out of their cars.

  So why did I do it? Was it some kind of masochistic death wish? Maybe a psychological dysfunction of some sort?


  "I don't know," I said, finally. "I guess I never thought about it all that much. "

  The doll watched me with unnerving intensity for a full minute before nodding. "Don't you think you should?"

  I scowled down at my shoes, and didn't answer.

  Ulsharavas took one last fistful of tobacco, and sat back down in her original position, settling her calico dress primly about her. "The Shroud and the thieves you seek have rented a small vessel docked in the harbor. It is a pleasure craft called the Etranger. "

  I nodded and exhaled through my nose. "All right then. Thank you for your help. "

  She lifted a tiny hand. "One thing more, wizard. You must know why the Knights of the White God wish you to stay away from the Shroud. "

  I arched an eyebrow. "Why?"

  "They received part of a prophecy. A prophecy that told them that should you seek the Shroud, you will most assuredly perish. "

  "Only part of a prophecy?" I asked.

  "Yes. Their Adversary concealed some of it from them. "

  I shook my head. "Why are you telling me this?"

  "Because," Ulsharavas said. "You must hear the second half of the prophecy in order to restore the balance. "

  "Uh. Okay. "

  The doll nodded and fixed me with that unsettling, unblinking stare. "Should you seek the Shroud, Harry Dresden, you will most assuredly perish. "

  "All right," I said. "So what happens if I don't?"

  The doll lay down on her back, and wisps of light began flowing back out of her, back from whence Ulsharavas had come. Her voice came to me quietly, as if from a great distance. "If you do not, they all die. And this city with them. "