Dead Beat Chapter 43

Chapter Forty-three

When I came to my senses there was darkness and steady, cold rain, and I had sunk up to my neck in a deep well of aching pain. Neither lightning nor thunder played through the skies. I lay there for a moment, gathering my wits, and as I did the lights of the city began to come on, bit by bit, as the power grids went back online.

A booted foot pressed into the ground beside my face, and I followed it up, up and up, until I saw the horned helmet of the Erlking outlined against the brightening Chicago skyline.

’’Wizard. Called you forth a mighty hunter tonight. One that has not walked this earth since time gone and forgotten.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Pretty nifty, huh?’’

There was a low, wild laugh from that helmet. ’’Daring. Arrogant. It pleases me.’’ He tilted his head. ’’And you are poor game at the moment. Because of that, and because you pleased me with your calling of the old hunter, this night you may go free. But beware, mortal. The next time our paths cross, it shall be my very great pleasure to run you down.’’

There was a gust of cold autumn wind, and the Erlking was gone.

I looked around blearily. Every tree in the area was gone, torn off about a foot from the earth. The picnic tables had been torn to splinters. The buildings of the college, especially the museum, looked as if they had been ravaged by a tornado that had torn out great chunks and sections of them.

My ribs hurt. I looked down and saw that I had fallen around Bob the skull and curled my body around him as I had shielded myself. Orange flame flickered to life in the eye sockets.

’’Some show, huh?’’ Bob said. He sounded exhausted.

’’You had to go get the dinosaur, eh?’’ I said. ’’I figured you'd just grab a handy zombie.’’

’’Why settle for wieners when you can have steak?’’ the skull said brightly. ’’Pretty good idea, Harry, talking to me once Cowl sat me on the ground. I didn't want to work for him anyway, but as long as he had the skull... well. You know how it is.’’

I grunted. ’’Yeah. What happened?’’

’’The spell backlashed when you slugged Cowl,’’ Bob said. ’’Did just a bit of property damage.’’

I coughed out a little laugh, looking around me. ’’Yeah. Cowl?’’

’’Most likely there are little pieces of him still filtering down,’’ Bob said brightly. ’’And his little dog, too.’’

’’You see them die?’’ I asked.

’’Well. No. Once that backlash came down, it tore apart every enchantment within a hundred miles. Your dinosaur sort of fell apart.’’

I grunted uneasily.

’’Oh,’’ Bob said. ’’I think that Warden over there is alive.’’

I blinked. ’’Ramirez?’’

’’Yeah,’’ Bob said. ’’I figured that you were a Warden now and stuff, and that you would probably want me to help out some other Warden. So just before the big bang, I had the dinosaur stand over him, soak up the blast.’’

I grunted. ’’Okay,’’ I said. ’’We've got to help him. But one thing first.’’

’’What's that?’’ Bob asked.

I squinted around until I found Grevane's battered corpse. Then I crawled over to it. I fumbled in the trench coat's pockets until I found Kemmler's slender little book. I squinted around me, but there was no one to look as I put it in my pocket.

’’Okay,’’ I said. ’’Come on. Watch my back while I help Ramirez.’’

’’You betcha, boss,’’ Bob said, and his voice was very smug. ’’Hey, you know what? Size really does matter.’’

Ramirez made it out of that evening alive. He had four broken ribs and two dislocated shoulders, but he came through. With Butters's help, I was able to get him, Luccio, and Morgan back to my place. At some point in the evening, Butters had taken off his drum and let Morgan take over the drumming duties while he tried to help Luccio, and as a result her wound hadn't been quite as fatal as she had thought it would be.

They were far too badly hurt to stay at my place, though, and Senior Council member ’’Injun Joe’’ Listens-to-Wind himself showed up with half a dozen more stay-at-home wizards who knew something about medicine and healing to move them to a more secure location.

’’Just don't get it,’’ Morgan was telling Listens-to-Wind. ’’All of these things happening at once. It can't be a coincidence.’’

’’It wasn't,’’ I heard myself say.

Morgan looked at me. The resentment in his eyes hadn't changed, but there was something else there that hadn't been before-dare I hope it, some modicum of respect.

’’Think about it,’’ I said. ’’All those heavy vampire attacks just when Cowl and his buddies most needed the White Council not to be involved.’’

’’Are you saying that you think Cowl was using the vampires as a tool?’’ Morgan asked.

’’I think they had a deal,’’ I said. ’’The vampires throw their first major offensive at the right time to let Cowl pull off this Darkhallow.’’

’’But what do they get out of it?’’ Morgan asked.

I glanced at Listens-to-Wind and said, ’’The Senior Council.’’

’’Impossible,’’ Morgan said. ’’By that time, they had to know that the Senior Council was back at Edinburgh. The defenses there have been built over thousands of years. It would take...’’ Morgan paused, frowning.

I finished the sentence for him. ’’It would take a god to break through them and kill the Senior Council.’’

Morgan stared at me for a long time, but didn't say anything. It wasn't long before they left, pulling out the wounded Wardens and leaving.

It left me with only about half an hour to meet Mavra's deadline, but since the phones were up again, I left a message at her number and headed for our rendezvous.

I turned up at my grave again, standing over the open hole in the ground as Mavra approached me, this time openly and without melodrama. She faced me over my grave, and said nothing. I took the book out of my pocket and tossed it to her. She picked it up, regarded it, and then drew an envelope from her jacket and tossed it at my feet. I picked it up and found the negatives of the incriminating pictures of Murphy inside.

Mavra turned to leave.

I said, ’’Wait.’’

She paused.

’’This never happens again,’’ I said quietly. ’’You try to get to me through other mortals again and I'll kill you.’’

Mavra's rotted lips turned up at one corner. ’’No, you won't,’’ she said in her dusty voice. ’’You don't have that kind of power.’’

’’I can get it,’’ I said.

’’But you won't,’’ she responded, mockery in her tone. ’’It wouldn't be right.’’

I stared at her for a full ten seconds before I said, in a very quiet voice, ’’I've got a fallen angel tripping all over herself to give me more power. Queen Mab has asked me to take the mantle of Winter Knight twice now. I've read Kemmler's book. I know how the Darkhallow works. And I know how to turn necromancy against the Black Court.’’

Mavra's filmed eyes flashed with anger.

I continued to speak quietly, never raising my voice. ’’So once again, let me be perfectly clear. If anything happens to Murphy and I even think you had a hand in it, f*k right and wrong. If you touch her, I'm declaring war on you. Personally. I'm picking up every weapon I can get. And I'm using them to kill you. Horribly.’’

There was utter silence for a moment.

’’Do you understand me?’’ I whispered.

She nodded.

’’Say it,’’ I snarled, and my voice came out so harsh and cold that Mavra twitched and took half a step back from me.

’’I understand,’’ she rasped.

’’Get out of my town,’’ I told her.

And Mavra retreated into the shadows.

I stood there over my grave for a minute more, just feeling the pain of my battered body, and bitterly considering the inevitability of death. After a moment I felt another presence near me. I looked up and found the dream image of my father regarding my tombstone speculatively.

’’ 'He died doing the right thing,'’’ my father read.

’’Maybe I can change it to, 'he died alone,'’’ I said back.

My father smiled a little. ’’Thinking about the death curse, eh?’’

’’Yeah. 'Die alone.'’’ I stared down at my open grave. ’’Maybe it means I'll never be with anybody. Have love. A wife. Children. No one who is really close. Really there.’’

’’Maybe,’’ my father said. ’’What do you think?’’

’’I think that's what he wanted to do to me. I think I'm so tired that I'm hallucinating. And that I hurt. And that I want someone to be holding my hand when it's my time. I don't want to do it alone.’’

’’Harry,’’ my dad said, and his voice was very gentle, ’’can I tell you something?’’

’’Sure.’’

He walked around the grave and put his hand on my shoulder. ’’Son. Everyone dies alone. That's what it is. It's a door. It's one person wide. When you go through it, you do it alone.’’ His fingers squeezed me tight. ’’But it doesn't mean you've got to be alone before you go through the door. And believe me, you aren't alone on the other side.’’

I frowned and looked up at my father's image, searching his eyes. ’’Really?’’

He smiled and drew his finger in an X on his chest. ’’Cross my heart.’’

I looked away from him. ’’I did things. I made a deal I shouldn't have made. I crossed a line.’’

’’I know,’’ he said. ’’It only means what you decide it means.’’

I looked up at him. ’’What?’’

’’Harry, life isn't simple. There is such a thing as black and white. Right and wrong. But when you're in the thick of things, sometimes it's hard for us to tell. You didn't do what you did for your own benefit. You did it so that you could protect others. That doesn't make it right-but it doesn't make you a monster, either. You still have free will. You still get to choose what you will do and what you will be and what you will become.’’ He clapped my shoulder and turned to walk away. ’’As long as you believe you are responsible for your choices, you still are. You've got a good heart, son. Listen to it.’’

He vanished into the night, and somewhere in the city, bells started tolling midnight.

I stared at my waiting grave, and I suddenly realized that death was really not my biggest worry.

He died doing the right thing.

God, I hope so.

Thomas was waiting back at my apartment when I returned, and Mouse came loping in not long after. Murphy's bike had failed him completely, and by the time he'd reached the college campus, the fur had flown and the whole show was over. I crashed hard, and slept for more than a day. When I woke up, I found that my injuries had all been dressed again, and that an IV was hanging beside my bed. Butters showed up every day to check on me, and he had me on antibiotics and had imposed a ferociously healthy diet on me that Thomas made me stick to. I grumbled a lot, and slept a lot, and after several days was feeling almost human again.

Murphy showed up to chew me out for the wreck she found where her house used to be. We'd left the place sort of trashed. But when she saw me in bed, covered in bandages, she stopped in her tracks.

’’What happened?’’ she asked.

’’Oh. Things,’’ I said. ’’Chicago was interesting for a couple of days there.’’ I peered at her. She had a cast on her left arm, as if for a broken wrist, and I thought I saw the edge of a bruise on her neck. ’’Hey,’’ I said. ’’What happened?’’

Her cheeks turned pink. ’’Oh. Things. Hawaii was interesting for a couple of days there.’’

’’I'll trade you my story for yours,’’ I said.

She got pinker. ’’Um. I'll... have to think about it.’’

Then we both looked at each other and laughed, and we left it at that.

Chicago reacted to the events of that Halloween predictably. It was all attributed to the worst storm in fifty years, rioting, a minor earth tremor, a large load of bread produced by a local bakery that had been contaminated with ergot, and similar Halloween-fueled hysteria. In the blackout, some reprehensible types had vandalized the museum and relocated Sue's skeleton to a local campus as some kind of bizarre practical joke. There had been dozens of break-ins, robberies, murders, and other crimes during the blackout, but any other reports and wild stories were automatically put down to hysteria and/or ergot poisoning. Life went on.

Captain Luccio survived her injuries, but not without serious long-term damage that would take a lot of rehabilitation. Between that and the uncertainty of what would happen in her shiny new body, she had been relieved of command as the captain of the Wardens until such time as her health and state of mind were judged to be sound and reliable.

Morgan took her place.

He came to visit me at my place, maybe two weeks later, and gave me the news.

’’Dresden,’’ he said. ’’I was against inducting you in the first place. But Captain Luccio had the right to ignore my recommendation. She made you a Warden and she made you a regional commander, and there's nothing I can do about that.’’ He took a deep breath. ’’But I don't like you. I think you are dangerous.’’

His mouth twisted. ’’But I am no longer convinced you do these things out of malice. I think you lack discipline and judgment. You have repeatedly demonstrated your willingness to put yourself in harm's way to protect others. As much as it galls me to admit it, I don't think you have any evil intentions. I think your questionable actions are the result of arrogance and poor judgment. In the end, it matters little why you do it. But I cannot in good conscience condemn you for it without giving you some sort of chance to prove me wrong.’’

From Morgan, this was the equivalent of Emperor Constantine converting to Christianity. He was almost admitting that he had been wrong. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a penny, and dropped it to the floor.

’’What was that for?’’ he asked.

’’I'm just making sure gravity is still online,’’ I said.

He frowned at me, then shrugged and said, ’’I don't trust you. I'm not committing any Wardens to your command, and, truth be told, we don't have them to spare in any case. But you may be required to participate in missions from time to time, and I will expect you to work with the other regional commander in America. He operates out of Los Angeles. He specifically requested the assignment, and given his role in recent events, he could hardly be gainsaid.’’

’’Ramirez,’’ I guessed.

Morgan nodded. Then he reached into his coat and produced an envelope. He handed it to me.

’’What's this?’’ I asked.

’’Your first paycheck,’’ Morgan said, and he didn't look happy to be saying it. ’’Monthly.’’

I opened the envelope and blinked. It wasn't a fortune, but it sure as hell would be a nice little addition to my earnings in the investigation business. ’’I never thought I would hear myself say this,’’ I said as he started to leave, ’’but thank you, Morgan.’’

His face twisted up into something bitter, and he managed to spit out the words: ’’You're welcome.’’ I think he fled before he started to puke.

Several weeks later Butters showed up at my door with a big box wrapped in Christmas paper. I let him in, and he carried it to the living room and presented me with it. ’’Go ahead. Open it.’’

I did. Inside the box was a guitar case, and inside that an old wooden guitar. ’’Uh,’’ I said. ’’What's this for?’’

’’Therapy,’’ Butters said. He'd been having me practice squeezing a squishy ball with my left hand, and, just as he'd predicted, I had slowly gained a little more control of it. ’’You're going to learn to play.’’

’’Uh, my hand doesn't work that well,’’ I said.

’’Not yet,’’ Butters replied. ’’But we'll start slow like everything else, and you can work up to it. Just do the lessons. Look, there's a book in the bottom of the case.’’

I opened the case and found a book entitled Guitar for Total Idiots, while Butters went on about tendons and metacarpal something-or-other and flexibility. I opened the book, but night had fallen and the fire was too low to let me read it. I absently waved a hand at the candles on the table beside the couch and muttered, ’’Flickum bicus.’’ They puffed to light with a little whoosh of magic.

I stopped and blinked-first at the candles and then at my burned hand.

’’What?’’ Butters asked.

’’Nothing,’’ I said, and opened the book to look over it. ’’You know, Butters, for a mortician you're a pretty good healer.’’

’’You think so?’’

I glanced at the warm, steady flame of the candles and smiled. ’’Yeah.’’

Author's Note

When I was seven years old, I got a bad case of strep throat, and was out of school for a whole week. During that time, my sisters bought me my first fantasy and sci-fi novels: the boxed set of Lord of the Rings and the boxed set of the Han Solo adventure novels by Brian Daley. I devoured them all during that week.

From that point on, I was pretty much doomed to join SF amp;F fandom. From there, it was only one more step to decide I wanted to be a writer of my favorite fiction material, and here we are.

I blame my sisters.

My first love as a fan is swords-and-horses fantasy. After Tolkien I went after C. S. Lewis. After Lewis, it was Lloyd Alexander. After them came Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Robert Howard, John Norman, Pol Anderson, David Eddings, Weis and Hickman, Terry Brooks, Elizabeth Moon, Glen Cook, and before I knew it I was a dual citizen of the United States and Lankhmar, Narnia, Gor, Cimmeria, Krynn, Amber- you get the picture.

When I set out to become a writer, I spent years writing swords-and-horses fantasy novels-and seemed to have little innate talent for it. But I worked at my writing, branching out into other areas as experiments, including SF, mystery, and contemporary fantasy. That's how the Dresden Files initially came about-as a happy accident while trying to accomplish something else. Sort of like penicillin.

But I never forgot my first love, and to my immense delight and excitement, one day I got a call from my agent and found out that I was going to get to share my newest swords-and-horses fantasy novel with other fans.

The Codex Alera is a fantasy series set within the savage world of Carna, where spirits of the elements, known as furies, lurk in every facet of life, and where many intelligent races vie for security and survival. The realm of Alera is the monolithic civilization of humanity, and their unique ability to harness and command the furies is all that enables their survival in the face of the enormous, sometimes hostile elemental powers of Carna, and against savage creatures who would lay Alera in waste and ruin.

Yet even a realm as powerful as Alera is not immune to destruction from within, and the death of the heir-apparent to the Crown has triggered a frenzy of ambitious political maneuvering and infighting amongst the High Lords, those who wield the most powerful furies known to man. Plots are afoot, traitors and spies abound, and a civil war seems inevitable- all while the enemies of the realm watch, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.

Tavi is a young man living on the frontier of Aleran civilization- because let's face it. swords-and-horses fantasies start there. Born a freak, unable to utilize any powers of furycrafting whatsoever, Tavi has grown up relying upon his own wits, speed, and courage to survive. When an ambitious plot to discredit the Crown lays Tavi's home, the Calderon Valley, naked and defenseless before a horde of the barbarian Marat, the boy and his family find themselves directly in harm's way.

There are no titanic High Lords to protect them, no Legions, no Knights with their mighty furies to take the field. Tavi and the free frontiersmen of the Calderon Valley must find some way to uncover the plot and to defend their homes against a merciless horde of Marat and their beasts.

It is a desparate hour where the fate of all Alera hangs in the balance, where a handful of ordinary steadholders must find the courage and strength to defy and overwhelming foe, and where the courage and intelligence of one young man will save the Realm-or destroy it.

Thank you, readers and fellow fans, for all of your support and kindess. I hope that you enjoy reading the first book of the Codex Alera, Furies of Calderon, as much as I enjoyed creating it for you.


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