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Grave Peril, Page 9

Jim Butcher

Chapter Nine

  I dreamed.

  The nightmare felt familiar, almost comfortable, though it had been years since I'd gone through it. It began in a cave, its walls made of translucent crystal, all but glowing in the dim light of the fire beneath the cauldron. The silver manacles were tight on my wrists, and I was too dizzy to keep my own balance. I looked to the left and right and watched my blood glide down over the manacles from where they pierced my wrists like thorns, then fall into a pair of earthen bowls set out beneath them.

  My godmother came to me, pale and breathtaking in the firelight, her hair spilling down around her like a cloud of silk. The sidhe lady was beautiful beyond the pale of mortals, her eyes bewitching, her mouth more tempting than the most luscious fruit. She kissed my bare chest. Shudders of cold pleasure ran through me.

  "Soon," she whispered, between kisses. "Only a few more nights of the dark moon, my sweetling, and you will be strong enough. "

  She kept kissing me, and I began to lose my vision. Cold pleasure, faerie magic, coursed through her lips like a drug, so sweet that it was almost an agony of its own, and made the torment of the bonds, the blood loss, almost worthwhile. Almost. I felt myself gasping for breath, and stared at the fire, focusing on it, trying to keep from falling into the darkness.

  The dream changed. I dreamt of fire. Someone I had once loved like a father stood in the middle of it, screaming in agony. They were black screams, horrible screams, high-pitched and utterly without pride or dignity or humanity. In the dream, as in life, I forced myself to watch flesh blacken and flake away from sizzling muscle and baking bone, watched muscles contract in tortured spasms while I stood over the fire and, metaphorically speaking, blew on the coals.

  "Justin," I whispered. In the end, I couldn't watch any longer. I closed my eyes and bowed my head, listening to the thunder of my own heart pounding in my ears. Pounding. My heart pounding.

  I came out of the dream, blinked opened my eyes. My door rattled on its frame under a series of hammering blows. Susan woke up at the same time, sitting up, the blanket we'd been curled under gliding down over the curves of her breasts. It was still dark outside. The longest candle hadn't yet burned away, but the fire was down to embers again.

  My body ached all over, the day-after ache of tired joints and muscles demanding time to recuperate. I rose as the pounding went on, and went to the kitchen drawer. My. 38 had been lost in the battle with the gang of half-mad lycanthropes the year before, and I'd replaced it with a medium-barreled. 357. I must have been feeling insecure that day, or something.

  The gun weighed about two thousand pounds in my hand. I made sure that it was loaded and turned to face the door. Susan pushed her hair out of her eyes, blinked at my gun, and backed away, making damn sure she was out of my line of fire. Smart girl, Susan.

  "You're not going to have much luck breaking down that door," I called out. I didn't point the gun at the door, yet. Never point a gun at anything you aren't sure you want dead. "I replaced the original one with a steel door and a steel frame. Demons, you know. "

  The pounding ceased. "Dresden," Michael called from the other side of the door. "I tried to reach you on the phone, but it must be off the hook. We've got to talk. "

  I frowned, and put the gun back in the drawer. "Okay, okay. Sheesh, Michael. Do you know what time it is?"

  "Time to work," he answered. "The sun will be up shortly. "

  "Lunatic," I mumbled.

  Susan looked around at the remains of our clothing, scattered pretty much everywhere, the sprawl of blankets and pillows and cushions all over the floor. "I think maybe I'll just wait in your room," she said.

  "Right, okay. " I opened the kitchen closet and got my heavy robe out, the one I usually save for working in the lab, and slipped into it. "Stay covered up, all right? I don't want you to get sick. "

  She gave me a sleepy half-smile and rose, all long limbs and grace and interesting tan lines, then vanished into my little bedroom and shut the door. I walked across the room, and opened the door for Michael.

  He stood there in blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a fleece-lined denim jacket. He had his big gym bag slung over his shoulder, and Amoracchius was a silent tension I could just barely feel within it. I looked from the bag to his face and asked, "Trouble?"

  "Could be. Did you send someone to Father Forthill last night?"

  I rubbed at my eyes, trying to get the sleep out of them. Coffee. I needed coffee. Or a Coke. Just as long as there was caffeine somewhere. "Yes. A girl named Lydia. She was worried that a ghost was after her. "

  "He called me this morning. Something spent the night trying to get into the church. "

  I blinked at him. "What? Did it get inside?"

  He shook his head. "He didn't have time to tell me much. Can you come down there with me and take a look around?"

  I nodded, and stepped back from the door. "Give me a couple of minutes. " I headed for the icebox and got out a can of Coke. My fingers worked enough to open it, at least, though they still felt stiff. My stomach reminded me that I'd been ignoring it, and I got out the plate of cold cuts while I was there.

  I swigged Coke and made myself a big sandwich. I looked up a minute later to see Michael eyeing the destruction that had been the living room. He nudged one of Susan's shoes with his foot, and glanced up at me apologetically. "I'm sorry. I didn't know anyone was here. "

  "It's okay. "

  Michael smiled briefly, then nodded. "Well. Do I need to lecture you on sexual involvement before marriage?"

  I growled something about early morning and inconvenient visitors and toads. Michael only shook his head, smiling, while I wolfed down food. "Did you tell her?"

  "Tell her what?"

  He lifted an eyebrow at me.

  I rolled my eyes. "Almost. "

  "You almost told her. "

  "Sure. Got distracted. "

  Michael nudged Susan's other shoe with his foot and let out a delicate cough. "So I see. "

  I finished the sandwich and part of the Coke, then walked across the room and slipped into the bedroom. The room was freezing, and I could see Susan curled into a ball beneath the heavy blankets on my bed. Mister had lain down with his back against hers, and watched me with sleepy, self-satisfied eyes as I came in.

  "Rub it in, fuzzball," I growled at him, and dressed quickly. Socks, jeans, T-shirt, heavy flannel work shirt over that. Mom's amulet, around my neck, and a little silver charm bracelet with a half-dozen shields dangling off it, fixed to my left wrist in place of the charm I'd given to Lydia. A plain silver ring, its interior surface inscribed with a number of runes, went onto my right hand. Both pieces of jewelry tingled with the enchantments I'd laid on them, still fairly fresh.

  I leaned over the bed and kissed Susan's cheek. She made a sleepy, murmuring sound, and snuggled a little deeper beneath the covers. I thought about getting under there with her and making sure she was nice and warm before leaving - but instead went out, shutting the door carefully behind me.

  Michael and I left, piling into his truck, a white (of course) Ford pick-up with extra wheels and enough hauling power to move mountains, and headed for Saint Mary of the Angels.

  Saint Mary of the Angels is a big church. I mean, a big church. It's been looming over the Wicker Park area for more than eighty years, and has seen the neighborhood grow up from a collection of cheap homes for immigrants mixed in with rich folks' mansions to Little Bohemia today, packed with yuppies and artsies, success stories, and wannabes. The church, I'm told, is modeled after St. Peter's Basilica in Rome - which is to say, enormous and elegant and maybe a bit overdone. It takes up an entire city block. I mean, sheesh.

  The sun came up as we entered the parking lot. I felt the golden rays slice across the morning skies, the sudden, subtle shift of forces playing about the world. Dawn is significant, magically speaking. It is a time of new beginnings. Magic isn't as simple as good and evil, light and dark,
but there's a lot of correlations between the powers particular to night and the use of black magic.

  We drove around to the rear parking lot of the church and got out of the truck. Michael walked in front of me, carrying his bag. I stuffed my hands down in the pockets of my duster as I followed him. I felt uncomfortable, approaching the church - not for any weirdo quasi-mystical reason. Just because I'd never felt comfortable with churches in general. The Church had killed a lot of wizards in its day, believing them in league with Satan. It felt strange to just be strolling up on business. Hi, God, it's me, Harry. Please don't turn me into a pillar of salt.

  "Harry," Michael said, bringing me out of my reverie. "Look. "

  He had stopped beside a pair of worn old cars parked in the back lot. Someone had done one hell of a job on them. The windows had all been smashed, their safety glass fractured and dented. The hoods were dented as well. The headlights lay mostly on the ground in front of the cars, and all the tires were flat.

  I walked around to the back of the cars, frowning. The taillights lay shattered on the ground. The antenna had been torn off each car, and were not in sight. Long scratches, in three parallel rows ran down the sides of both cars.

  "Well?" Michael asked me.

  I looked up at him and shrugged. "Probably something got frustrated when it couldn't get inside the church. "

  He snorted. "Do you think?" He adjusted the gym bag until Amoracchius's handle lay jutting outside the zipper. "Any chances that it's still around?"

  I shook my head. "I doubt it. Come daylight, ghosts usually head back to the Nevernever. "


  "Usually. Almost without exception. "

  Michael eyed me and kept one hand on the hilt of the sword. We walked on up to the delivery door. Compared to the grandeur of the church's front, it looked stunningly modest. On either side of the double doors, someone had gone to a lot of trouble to plant and care for a half-dozen rosebushes. Someone else had gone to a lot of trouble to tear them to shreds. Each plant had been uprooted. Thorny branches lay strewn across several dozen square yards around the door.

  I crouched down beside several fallen branches, picking them up one at a time, squinting at them in the dawn dimness.

  "What are you looking for?" Michael asked me.

  "Blood on the thorns," I said. "Rose thorns can poke little holes in just about anything - and something that tore them up this hard would have been scratching itself on them. "

  "Any blood?"

  "No. No footprints in the earth, either. "

  Michael nodded. "A ghost, then. "

  I squinted up at Michael. "I hope not. "

  He tilted his head and frowned at me.

  I dropped a branch and spread my hands. "A ghost can usually only manage to move things, physically, in bursts. Throwing pots and pans. Maybe really stretch things and stack up a bunch of books or something. " I gestured at the torn plants, and then back toward the wrecked cars. "Not only that, but it's limited to a certain place, time, or event. The ghost, if it is one, followed Lydia here and rampaged around on blessed ground tearing things apart. I mean, wow. This thing is way stronger than any ghost I've ever heard about. "

  Michael's frown deepened. "What are you saying, Harry?"

  "I'm saying we might be getting out of our depth here. Look, Michael, I know a lot about spooks and nasties. But they aren't my specialty or anything. "

  He frowned at me. "We might need to know more. "

  I stood up, brushing myself off. "That," I said, "is my specialty. Let's talk to Father Forthill. "

  Michael knocked on the door. It opened at once. Father Forthill, a greying man of slight build and only medium stature, blinked anxiously up at us through a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. His eyes were normally a shade of blue so bright as to rival robin's eggs, but today they were heavily underlined, shadowed. "Oh," he said. "Oh, Michael. Thank the Lord. " He opened the door wider, and Michael stepped over the threshold. The two embraced. Forthill kissed Michael on either cheek and stepped back to peer at me. "And Harry Dresden, professional wizard. I've never had anyone ask me to bless a five-gallon drum into holy water before, Mr. Dresden. "

  Michael peered at me, evidently surprised that the priest and I knew each other. I shrugged, a little embarrassed, and said, "You told me I could count on him in a pinch. "

  "And so you can," Forthill said, his blue eyes sparkling for a moment behind the spectacles. "I trust you have no complaints about the blessed water?"

  "None at all," I said. "Talk about your surprised ghouls. "

  "Harry," Michael chided. "You've been keeping secrets again. "

  "Contrary to what Charity thinks, Michael, I don't go running to the phone to call you every time I have a little problem. " I clapped Michael on the shoulder in passing and offered my hand to Father Forthill, who shook it gravely. No hug and kiss on each cheek for me.

  Forthill smiled up at me. "I look forward to the day when you give your life to God, Mr. Dresden. He can use men with your courage. "

  I tried to smile, but it probably looked a little sickly. "Look, Father, I'd love to talk about it with you sometime, but we're here for a reason. "

  "Indeed," Forthill said. The sparkle in his eyes faded, and his manner became absolutely serious. He began to walk down a clean hallway with dark, heavy beams of old wood overhanging it and paintings of the Saints on the walls. We kept pace with him. "The young woman arrived yesterday, just before sunset. "

  "Was she all right?" I asked.

  He lifted both eyebrows. "All right? I should say not. All the signs of an abused personality. Borderline malnutrition. She had a low-grade fever as well, and hadn't bathed recently. She looked as though she might be going through withdrawal from something. "

  I frowned. "Yeah. She looked like she was in pretty bad shape. " I briefly recounted my conversation with Lydia and my decision to help her.

  Father Forthill shook his head. "I provided fresh clothes and a meal for her and was getting set to put her to bed on a spare cot at the back of the rectory. That's when it happened. "

  "What happened?"

  "She began to shake," Forthill said. "Her eyes rolled back into her head. She was still sitting at the dinner table, and spilled her soup onto the floor. I thought she was having a seizure of some sort, and tried to hold her down and to get something into her mouth to keep her from biting her tongue. " He sighed, clasping his hands behind his back as he walked. "I'm afraid that I was of little help to the poor child. The fit seemed to pass in a few moments, but she still trembled and had gone absolutely pale. "

  "Cassandra's Tears," I said.

  "Or narcotic withdrawal," Forthill said. "Either way, she needed help. I moved her to the cot. She begged me not to leave her, so I sat down and began to read part of St. Matthew's gospel to her. She seemed to calm somewhat, but she had such a look in her eyes . . . " The old priest sighed. "That resolved look that they get when they're sure that they're lost. Despair, and in one so young. "

  "When did the attack begin?" I asked.

  "About ten minutes later," the priest said. "It started with the most terrible howling of wind. Lord preserve me, but I was sure the windows would rattle out of their frames. Then we started to hear sounds, outside. " He swallowed. "Terrible sounds. Something walking back and forth. Heavy footsteps. And then it started calling her name. " The priest folded his arms and rubbed his palms against either arm.

  "I rose and addressed the being, and asked its name, but it only laughed at me. I began to compel it by the Holy Word, and it went quite mad. We could hear it crushing things outside. I don't mind telling you that it was quite the most terrifying experience I have ever had in my life.

  "The girl tried to leave. To go out to it. She said that she didn't want me harming myself, that it would only find her in any case. Well, I forbade her, of course, and refused to let her past me. It kept on, outside, and I kept on reading the Wor
d aloud to the girl. It waited outside. I could . . . feel it, but could see nothing outside the windows. Such a darkness. And every so often it would destroy something else, and we'd hear the sound of it.

  "After several hours, it seemed to grow quiet. The girl went to sleep. I walked the halls to make sure all the doors and windows were still closed, and when I came back she was gone. "

  "Gone?" I asked. "Gone as in left or as in just gone?"

  Forthill gave me a smile that looked a bit shaky. "The back door was unlocked, though she'd shut it after herself. " The older man shook his head. "I called Michael at once, of course. "

  "We've got to find that girl," I said.

  Forthill shook his head, his expression grave. "Mr. Dresden, I am certain that only the power of the Almighty kept us safe within these walls last night. "

  "I won't argue with you, Father. "

  "But if you could have sensed this creature's anger, its . . . rage. Mr. Dresden, I would not wish to encounter this being outside of a church without seeking God's help in the matter. "

  I jerked a thumb at Michael. "I did seek God's help. Heck, is one Knight of the Cross not enough? I could always put out the Bat-signal for the other two. "

  Forthill smiled. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. But as you wish. You must come to your own decision. " He turned to Michael and me both and said, "I hope, gentlemen, that I can trust your discretion on this matter? The police report will doubtless reflect that persons unknown perpetuated the vandalism. "

  I snorted. "A little white lie, Father?" I felt bad the minute I'd said it, but heck. I get tired of the conversion efforts every time I show up.

  "Evil gains power from fear, Mr. Dresden," Forthill replied. "Within the Church, we have agencies for dealing with these matters. " He put a hand on Michael's shoulder, briefly. "But spreading word of it to everyone, even to all of the brethren would accomplish nothing but to frighten many people and to make the enemy that much more able to do harm. "

  I nodded at the priest. "I like that attitude, Father. You almost sound like a wizard. "

  His eyebrows shot up, but then he broke into a quiet, weary laugh. "Be careful, both of you, and may God go with you. " He made the sign of the cross over both of us, and I felt the quiet stirring of power, just as I sometimes did around Michael. Faith. Michael and Forthill exchanged a few quiet words about Michael's family while I lurked in the background. Forthill arranged to christen the new baby, whenever Charity delivered. They exchanged hugs again; Forthill shook my hand, businesslike and friendly, and we left.

  Outside, Michael watched me as we walked back to his truck. "Well?" he asked. "What's next?"

  I frowned, and stuffed my hands into my pockets. The sun was higher now, painting the sky blue, the clouds white. "I know someone who's pretty close to the spooks around here. That psychic in Oldtown. "

  Michael scowled and spat. "The necromancer. "

  I snorted. "He's no necromancer. He can barely call up a ghost and talk to it. He's got to fake it most of the time. " Besides. Had he been a real necromancer, the White Council would already have hounded him down and beheaded him. Doubtless, the man I was thinking of had already been visited by at least one Warden and warned of the consequences of dabbling too much into the dark arts.

  "If he's so inept, why speak to him at all?"

  "He's probably closer to the spirit world than anyone else in town. Other than me, I mean. I'll send out Bob, too, and see what kind of information he can run down. We're bound to have different contacts. "

  Michael frowned at me. "I don't trust this business of communing with spirits, Harry. If Father Forthill and the others knew about this familiar of yours - "

  "Bob isn't a familiar," I shot back.

  "He performs the same function, doesn't he?"

  I snorted. "Familiars work for free. I've got to pay Bob. "

  "Pay him?" he asked, his tone suspicious. "Pay what?"

  "Mostly romance novels. Sometimes I splurge on a - "

  Michael looked pained. "Harry, I really don't want to know. Isn't there some way that you could work some kind of spell here, instead of relying upon these unholy beings?"

  I sighed, and shook my head. "Sorry, Michael. If it was a demon, it would have left footprints, and maybe some kind of psychic trail I could follow. But I'm pretty sure this was pure spirit. And a goddamned strong one. "

  "Harry," Michael said, voice stern.

  "Sorry, I forgot. Ghosts don't usually inhabit a construct - a magical body. They're just energy. They don't leave any physical traces behind - at least none that last for hours at a time. If it was here, I could tell you all kinds of things about it, probably, and work magic on it directly. But it's not here, so - "

  Michael sighed. "Very well. I will put out the word to those I know to be on the lookout for the girl. Lydia, you said her name was?"

  "Yeah. " I described her to Michael. "And she had a charm on her wrist. The one I'd been wearing the past few nights. "

  "Would it protect her?" Michael asked.

  I shrugged. "From something as mean as this thing sounded . . . I don't know. We've got to find out who this ghost was when it was alive and shut it down. "

  "Which still will not tell us who or what is stirring up the spirits of the city. " Michael unlocked his truck, and we got inside.

  "That's what I like about you, Michael. You're always thinking so positively. "

  He grinned at me. "Faith, Harry. God has a way of seeing to it that things fall into place. "

  He started driving, and I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. First off to see the psychic. Then to send Bob out to find out more about what looked to be the most dangerous ghost I'd seen in a long time. And then to keep on looking for whoever it was behind all the spooky goings-on and to rap them politely on the head until they stopped. Easy as one, two, three. Sure.

  I whimpered, sunk down in my seat a little more, and wished that I had kept my aching, sore self in bed.