Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Death Masks, Page 9

Jim Butcher

Chapter Nine

  I hate cryptic warnings. I know, the whole cryptic-remark concept is part and parcel of the wizard gig, but it doesn't suit my style. I mean, what good is a warning like that? All three Knights and the population of Chicago would die if I didn't get involved-and my number would be up if I did. That sounded like the worst kind of self-fulfilling crap.

  There's a case to be made for prophecy; don't get me wrong. Mortals, even wizards, all exist at a finite point in the flow of time. Or, to make it simple, if time is a river, then you and I are like pebbles in it. We exist in one spot at a time, occasionally jostled back and forth by the currents. Spirits don't always have the same kind of existence. Some of them are more like a long thread than a stone-their presence tenuous, but rippling upstream and down as a part of their existence, experiencing more of the stream than the pebble.

  That's how oracle spirits know about the future and the past. They're living in them both at the same time they're delivering mysterious messages to you. That's why they only give brief warnings, or mysterious dreams or prophetic knock-knock jokes, or however they drop their clues. If they tell you too much, it will change the future that they're experiencing, so they have to give out the advice with a light touch.

  I know. It makes my head hurt too.

  I don't put much stock in prophecy. As extensive and aware as these spirits might be, they aren't all-knowing. And as nutty as people are, I don't buy that any spirit is going to be able to keep an absolute lock on every possible temporal outcome.

  Maybe- genuine prophecies aside, I could hardly drop the case now. In the first place, I'd been paid up front, and I didn't have the kind of financial breathing space I would need to be able to turn down the money and pay my bills at the same time.

  In the second place, the risk of imminent death just didn't hit me the same way it used to. It wasn't that it didn't scare me. It did, in that kind of horrible, uncertain way that left me with nothing to focus my fears upon. But I've beaten risks before. I could do it again.

  You want to know another reason I didn't back off? I don't like getting pushed around. I don't like threats. As well-intentioned and polite and caring as Michael's threat had been, it still made me want to punch someone in the nose. The oracle's prophecy had been another threat, of sorts, and I don't let spirits from the Nevernever determine what I'm going to do, either.

  Finally, if the prophecy was right, Michael and his brother Knights could be in danger, and they had saved my skinny wizard's ass not long ago. I could help them. They might be heaven-on-wheels when it came to taking on bad guys in a fight, but they weren't investigators. They couldn't run these thieves down the way I could. It was just a question of making them see reason. Once I'd convinced them that the prophecy they'd received wasn't wholly correct, everything would be fine.

  Yeah, right.

  I shoved those thoughts aside, and checked the clock. I wanted to move on Ulsharavas's tip as soon as possible, but I was beat and likely to make mistakes. With all the bad guys running around town, there was no sense in going out there into the dark, exhausted and unprepared. I'd wait for the potions to be ready and Bob to come back from his mission, at least. Sunlight would cut down on the risk as well, since Red Court vampires got incinerated by it-and I doubted these Denarian fruitcakes would get along with it either.

  Thus prioritized, I checked my notes, and started putting together a couple of potions that would offer me a few hours of protection from the narcotic venom of the Red Court. The potions were simple ones. Brewing any kind of potion required a base liquid, and then several other ingredients meant to bind the magic put into the potion to the desired effect. One ingredient was linked to each of the five senses, then one to the mind and one to the spirit.

  In this case, I wanted something that would offset the venomous saliva of the Red Court vampires, a narcotic that rendered those exposed to it passively euphoric. I needed a potion that would ruin the pleasurable sensations of the poison.

  I used stale coffee as my base ingredient. To that I added hairs from a skunk, for scent. A small square of sandpaper for touch. I tossed in a small photo of Meat Loaf, cut from a magazine, for sight. A rooster's crow I'd stored in a small quartz crystal went in for hearing, and a powdered aspirin for taste. I cut the surgeon general's warning label from a pack of cigarettes and chopped it fine to add in for the mind, and then lit a stick of the incense I sometimes used while meditating and wafted some of the smoke into the two bottles for the spirit. Once the potions were bubbling over a burner, I drew in my wearied will and released power into the mixes, suffusing them with energy. They fizzed and frothed with gratifying enthusiasm.

  I let them simmer for a while, then took them from the fire and emptied them into a pair of small sports-drink bottles. After that, I slumped on a stool and waited for Bob to come home.

  I must have nodded off, because when my phone rang, I jerked myself up straight and nearly fell off my stool. I clambered up the ladder and picked up the phone.

  "Dresden. "

  "Hoss," said a weather-beaten voice on the other end. Ebenezar McCoy, a sometime teacher of mine, sounded businesslike. "Did I wake you up?"

  "No, sir," I said. "I was up anyway. Working on a case. "

  "You sound tired as a coal-mine mule. "

  "Been up all night. "

  "Uh- huh," Ebenezar said. "Hoss, I just called to let you know not to worry about this duel nonsense. We're going to slap it down. "

  By "we," Ebenezar meant the Senior Council members. Seven of the most experienced wizards on the White Council held positions of particular authority, especially during times of crisis, when quick decisions were needed. Ebenezar had turned down his chance at a seat on the Senior Council for nearly fifty years. He took it only recently to block a potentially fatal political attack directed against yours truly by some of the more conservative (read, fanatic) members of the White Council.

  "Slap it down? No, don't do that. "

  "What?" Ebenezar said. "You want to fight this duel? Did you fall and hit your head, boy?"

  I rubbed at my eyes. "Tell me about it. I'll work out something to give me a shot at winning. "

  "Sounds like your wagon's already pretty full to be letting this vampire push you. "

  "He knew where to push," I said. "Ortega brought a bunch of goons into town. Vampires and straight hit men, too. He says that if I don't face him he's going to have a bunch of people I know killed. "

  Ebenezar spat something in what I presumed was Gaelic. "You'd better tell me what happened, then. "

  I told Ebenezar all about my encounter with Ortega. "Oh, and a contact of mine says that the Red Court is divided over the issue. There are lots of them who don't want the war to end. "

  "Of course they don't," Ebenezar said. "That fool of a Merlin won't let us take the offensive. He thinks his fancy wards will make them give up. "

  "How are they working out?" I asked.

  "Well enough for now," Ebenezar admitted. "One major attack has been pushed back by the wards. No more Council members have been killed in attacks on their homes, though the Red Court's allies are putting pressure on ours, and a few Wardens have died on intelligence-gathering missions. But it isn't going to last. You can't win a war sitting behind a wall and hoping the enemy decides to leave. "

  "What do you think we should do?"

  "Officially," Ebenezar said, "we follow the Merlin's lead. More than anything, now, we need to stay together. "

  "What about unofficially?"

  "Think about it," Ebenezar snorted. "If we just sit here, the vampires are going to take apart or drive away our allies and then we'll have to take them all on alone. Look, Hoss. Are you sure about this duel?"

  "Hell no," I said. "I just didn't see much choice. I'll figure out something. If I win, it might be worth it to the Council. Neutral territory for meeting and negotiating could come in handy. "

  Ebenezar sighed. "Aye. The Merl
in will think the same thing. " He was quiet for a moment before he said, "Not much like the days on the farm, is it, Hoss?"

  "Not much," I agreed.

  "Do you remember that telescope we set up in the loft?"

  Ebenezar had taught me what I knew of astronomy, on long, dark summer evenings in the Ozark hills, hay doors to the barn's loft open, stars overhead shining in the country darkness by the millions. "I remember. That asteroid we discovered that turned out to be an old Russian satellite. "

  "Asteroid Dresden was a better name than Kosmos Five. " He chuckled and added, as an afterthought, "Do you remember whatever happened to that telescope and such? I kept meaning to ask you but I never got around to it. "

  "We packed it in that steamer trunk in the horse stall. "

  "With the observation logs?"

  "Yeah," I said.

  "Oh, that's right," Ebenezar said. "Obliged. "

  "Sure. "

  "Hoss, we'll agree to the duel if that's what you want. But be careful. "

  "I don't plan to roll over and die," I said. "But if something should happen to me -" I coughed. "Well, if it does, there are some papers in my lab. You'll know how to find them. Some people I'd like to make sure are protected. "

  "Of course," Ebenezar said. "But I'm likely to carry on cranky if I have to drive all the way up to Chicago twice in as many years. "

  "Hate for that to happen. "

  "Luck, Hoss. "

  "Thanks. "

  I hung up the phone, rubbed tiredly at my eyes, and stomped back down to the lab. Ebenezar hadn't come out and said it, but the offer had been there, behind the old man's talk of days gone by. He'd been offering me sanctuary at his farm. It wasn't that I didn't like Chicago, but the offer was a tempting one. After a couple of rough years slugging it out with various bad guys, a quiet year or two on the farm near Hog Hollow, Missouri, sounded tempting.

  Of course, the safety offered in that image was an illusion. Ebenezar's place was going to be as well protected as any wizard's on earth, and the old man himself could be a terrible foe. But the Red Court of vampires had a big network supporting it and they didn't generally bother to play fair. They'd destroyed a wizard stronghold the previous summer, and if they'd cracked that place they could do it to Ebenezar's Ozark hideaway too. If I went there and they found out about it, it would make the old man's farm too tempting a target to pass by.

  Ebenezar knew that as well as I did, but he and I shared a common trait-he doesn't like bullies either. He'd be glad to have me and he'd fight to the death against the Reds if they came. But I didn't want to draw that kind of thing down on him. I was grateful for the old man's support, but I owed him more than that.

  Besides, I was almost as well protected here in Chicago. My own wards, defensive screens of magic to protect my apartment, had kept me safe and alive for a couple of years, and the presence of a large mortal population kept the vampires from trying anything completely overt. Wizards and vampires notwithstanding, everyone in the supernatural community knew damned well that plain old vanilla mortals were one of the most dangerous forces on the planet, and went out of their way not to become too noticeable to the population at large.

  The population at large, meanwhile, did everything it possibly could to keep from noticing the supernatural, so that worked out. The vampires had taken a poke or two at me since the war began, but it hadn't been anything I couldn't handle, and they didn't want to risk being any more obvious.

  Thus, Ortega and his challenge.

  So how the hell was I supposed to fight a duel with him without using magic?

  My bed called to me, but that thought was enough to keep me from answering. I paced around my living room for a while, trying to think of some kind of weapon that would give me the most advantage. Ortega was stronger, faster, more experienced, and more resistant to injury than me. How the hell was I supposed to pick a weapon to go up against that? I supposed if the duel could be worked into some kind of pizza-eating contest I might have a shot, but somehow I didn't think that the Pizza Spress Hungry Man Special was on the list of approved weaponry.

  I checked the clock and frowned. Dawn was only minutes away, and Bob wasn't back yet. Bob was a spirit being, a spirit of intellect from one of the more surreal corners of the Nevernever. He wasn't evil as much as he was magnificently innocent of any kind of morality, but as a spirit, daylight was a threat to him as surely as it was to the vampires of the Red Court. If he got caught out in it, it could kill him.

  Dawn was about two minutes off before Bob returned, flowing down the ladder and toward the skull.

  Something was wrong.

  Bob's manifestation of a candle flame-colored cloud of swirling lights bobbed drunkenly left and right on its way back to the shelf with the skull. Purple globs of glowing plasm dribbled from the cloud in a steady trail, striking the floor, where they winked out into blobs of transparent goo. The cloud flowed into the skull, and after a moment, faint violet flames appeared in the skull's empty eye sockets.

  "Ow," Bob said, his voice tired.

  "Hell's bells," I muttered. "Bob, you all right?"

  "No. "

  Bob? Monosyllabic? Crap. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

  "No," Bob said, faintly. "Rest. "

  "But- "

  "Report," Bob said. "Have to. "

  Right. He'd been sent out on a mission and he was feeling pressured to finish it. "What happened?"

  "Wards," Bob said. "Marcone's. "

  I felt my mouth fall open. "What?"

  "Wards," Bob repeated.

  I sat down on my stool. "How the hell did Marcone get wards?"

  Bob's tone became a shade contemptuous. "Magic?"

  The insult relieved me a little. If he was able to be a wiseass he'd probably be okay. "Could you tell who did the wards?"

  "No. Too good. "

  Damn. A spell had to get up pretty early in the morning to get around Bob. Maybe he'd been hurt worse than I thought. "What about Ortega?"

  "Rothchild," Bob said. "Half a dozen vamps with him. Maybe a dozen mortals. "

  Bob's eyelights flickered and guttered. I couldn't risk losing Bob by pushing him too hard-and spirit or not, he wasn't immortal. He wasn't afraid of bullets or knives, but there were things that could kill him. "Good enough for now," I said. "Tell me the rest later. Get some sleep. "

  Bob's eyelights flickered out without another word.

  I frowned at the skull for a while and then shook my head. I collected my potion bottles, cleaned up the work area, and turned to leave and let Bob get some rest.

  I was leaning over the wardflames to blow them out when the green candle hissed and shrank to a pinpoint of light. The yellow candle beside it flared up without warning, brighter than an incandescent lightbulb.

  My heart started pounding and nervous fear danced over the back of my neck.

  Something was approaching my apartment. That's what it meant when the flame spread from the green to the yellow candle. Warning spells I had threaded out to a couple of blocks from my house had sensed the approach of supernatural hostility.

  The yellow candle dimmed, and the red candle exploded into a flame the size of my head.

  Stars and stones. The intruder that had triggered the warning system the wardflames were linked to was getting closer; and it was something big. Or else a lot of somethings. They were heading in fast to set off the red candle so quickly, only a few dozen yards from my house.

  I dashed up the ladder from the lab and got ready to fight.