Turn Coat Chapter 4244
Adrenaline does weird things to your head. You hear people talk about how everything slows down. That isn't the case. Nothing is happening slowly. It's just that you somehow seem to be able to fit a whole lot more thinking into the time and space that's there. It might feel like things have slowed down, but it's a transitory illusion.
For example, I had time to reflect upon the nature of adrenaline and time while sprinting through the woods at night. It didn't make me run any faster, though. Although if I wasn't actually moving my arms and legs faster than normal, then why was I twenty feet ahead of everyone else, the vampires included?
I heard someone curse in the dark behind me as they tripped over an exposed root. I didn't trip. It wasn't that I had become more graceful-I just knew where to put my feet. It was as if every step I took was over a path that I had walked so many times that it had become ingrained in my muscle memory. I knew when to duck out of the way of a low-hanging branch, when to bound forward at an angle to my last step in order to clear an old stump, exactly how much I needed to shorten a quick pair of steps so that I could leap a sinkhole by pushing off my stronger leg. Lara Raith herself was hard-pressed to keep pace with me, though she managed to close to within three or four yards, her pale skin all but glowing in the dark.
The whole time, I tried to keep track of the position of the enemy. It wasn't a simple matter. I didn't have a big map of the island in my head, with glowing dots marking their positions. I just knew where they were, as long as I concentrated on keeping track of them, but as the number of enemies continued to increase, it got harder to keep track.
The nearest of the hostile presences was about forty yards away when I lifted my fingers to my lips and let out a sharp whistle. ’’Out there, in front of me!’’ I shouted. ’’Now, Toot!’’
It had been an enormous pain in the ass to wrap fireworks in plastic to waterproof them against the rain, and even more of a pain to make sure that a waterproof match was attached to each of the rockets, Roman candles, and miniature mortars. When I had Molly and Will scatter them around the woods in twenty separate positions, I'd gotten those ’’Is he crazy?’’ looks from both of them.
After all, it isn't as if fireworks are heavy-duty weaponry, capable of inflicting grievous bodily harm and wholesale destruction. They're just loud and bright and distracting.
Which, under the circumstances, was more or less all I needed.
Toot-toot and half a dozen members of the Guard came streaking out of nowhere, miniature comets flashing through the vertical shadows of the trees. They went zipping ahead, alighting on low branches, and then tiny lights flickered as waterproof matches were set to fuses. A second later, a tiny shrill trumpet shrieked from somewhere ahead of us, and a dozen Roman candles began shooting balls of burning chemicals out into the darkness, illuminating the crouched running forms of at least ten of Binder's grey men in their cheap suits, not fifty feet away. They froze at the sudden appearance of the flashing pyrotechnics, attempting to assess them as threats and determine where they were coming from.
I dropped to one knee, lifting my blasting rod, as the human-seeming demons shrieked at the sudden appearance of the bright lights. I trained it on the nearest hesitating grey man, slammed my will down through the wooden haft, and snarled, ’’Fuego!’’
It was more difficult to do than it would have been if it hadn't been raining, but it was more than up to the task. A javelin of red-gold flame hissed through the rain, leaving a trail of white steam behind it. It touched the nearest of the grey men on one flank, and his cheap suit went up as readily as if it was lined with tar instead of rayon.
The grey man yawled and began thrashing furiously. The fire engulfed him, throwing out light for a good thirty yards in every direction, and illuminating his companions.
I dropped flat, and an instant later the forest behind me belched forth power and death.
Guns roared on full automatic fire. That would be the Raiths. Lara and her sisters'sidearms had been modified submachine guns, with an enlarged ammunition clip. Given the superhuman strength, perception, and coordination the vampires had at their disposal, they didn't suffer the same difficulties a human shooter would have faced, running at full speed in the dark, firing a weapon meant to be braced by a shooter's entire upper body in one hand-and their left hands at that. Bullets chewed into three different grey men, ten or eleven rounds each, all of them hitting between the neck and temple, blasting the demons back to ectoplasm.
Then it was the Wardens'turn.
Fire was the weapon of choice when it came to combat magic. Though it was taxing upon the will and physical stamina of the wizard, it got a lot of energy concentrated into a relatively small space. It illuminated darkness, something that was nearly always to a wizard's advantage-and it hurt. Every living thing had at least a healthy respect, if not an outright fear of fire. Even more to the point, fire was a purifying force in its non-physical aspect. Dark magic could be consumed and destroyed by fire when used with that intent.
The Wardens used the zipping little fireballs from the Roman candles and my own improvised funeral pyre to target their own spells, and then the real fireworks started.
Each individual wizard has his own particular quirks when it comes to how he uses his power. There is no industrial standard for how fire is evoked into use in battle. One of the Wardens coming up behind me sent forth a stream of tiny stars that slewed through the night like machine-gun fire, effortlessly burning holes through trees, rocks, and grey men with equal disdain. Another sent a stream of fire up in a high arc, and it crashed down among several grey men, splashing and clinging to any moving thing it struck like napalm. Lances of scarlet and blue and green fire burned through the air, reminding me for a mad moment of a scene from a Star Wars movie. Steam hissed and snarled everywhere, as a swath of woodland forty yards across and half as deep vanished into light and fury.
Hell's bells. I mean, I'd seen Wardens at work before, but it had all been fairly precise, controlled work. This was pure destruction, wholesale, industrial-strength, and the heat of it was so intense that it sucked the air out of my lungs.
The grey men, though, weren't impressed. Either they weren't bright enough to attempt to preserve their own existence or they just didn't care. They scattered as they advanced, spreading out. Some of them rushed forward, low to the ground and half hidden by the brush. Others bounded into the trees and came leaping and swinging forward, branch by branch. Still more of them darted to the sides, out of the harsh glare of the fires, spreading out around us.
’’Toot!’’ I screamed over the roaring chaos. ’’Go after the flankers!’’
A tiny trumpet added its own notes to the din, and the Pizza Patrol zipped out into the woods, two or three of the little faeries working together to carry fresh Roman candles. They gleefully kept on with the fireworks, sending the little sulfurous balls of flame chasing the grey men trying to slip around us through the shadows, marking their positions.
Lara let out a piercing call and came up to my side, gun in hand, snapping off snarling bursts every time a target presented itself. I pointed to either side and said, ’’They're getting around us! We've got to stop them from taking Mai and Injun Joe from behind!’’
Lara's eyes snapped left and right, and she said something to her sisters in ancient Etruscan, the tongue of the White Court. One of them went in either direction, vanishing into the dark.
A grey man came crashing out of the flame twenty feet away from me, blazing like a grease fire. He showed absolutely no concern for the flame. He just sprinted forward and leapt at me, hands spread wide. I made it up to my knees and braced one end of my quarterstaff against the ground, aiming the other at the grey man's center of mass. The staff struck it, but not squarely. It twisted to one side at the impact, bounced off the ground, took a fraction of a second to reorient itself on me-
And erupted into a cloud of ectoplasm as rounds from Lara's gun took its head apart.
The next attacker was already on the way, out in the darkness beyond the firelight. I came to my feet and on pure instinct snapped off another blast of fire at the empty air twenty feet beyond Lara and about ten feet up. There was nothing there as I released the blast, and I knew it, but as the fire hissed through the falling rain, it illuminated the form of a grey man in the midst of a spectacular leap that would have ended at the small of Lara's back. The blast struck him and hammered him to one side so that he came down like a burning jet, crashing across a dozen yards of ground before dissolving into flame-licked mounds of swiftly vanishing transparent jelly.
Lara didn't see the attacker until he'd tumbled past. ’’Oh,’’ she said, her voice conversational. ’’That was gentlemanly of you, Dresden.’’
’’I've been known to pull out chairs and open doors, too,’’ I said.
’’How very unfashionable,’’ Lara said, her pale eyes gleaming. ’’And endearing.’’
Ebenezar stumped up to us, staff in hand, his eyes narrow and flickering all around us while Wardens continued to send blasts of power hammering into targets. Off in the woods behind us, submachine guns chattered. Apparently Lara's sisters were still hunting the grey men who had gotten around us.
’’We've got one Warden down,’’ Ebenezar said.
’’One of those things came out of a tree above her and tore her head off,’’ he said.
I tracked a slight motion in a nearby treetop and swiveled to point a finger. ’’Sir, up there!’’
Ebenezar grunted a word, reached out a hand, and made a sharp, pulling motion. The grey man who had been clambering toward us was seized by an unseen force, ripped out of the tree, and sent sailing on an arc that would land it in Lake Michigan a quarter of a mile from the nearest shore.
’’Where is the second group?’’ Ebenezar asked.
I thought about it. ’’They're at the dock, at the edge of the trees. They're closing on Mai and Injun Joe.’’ I glanced at Lara. ’’I think the vampires have been holding them off.’’
Ebenezar spat a curse. ’’That summoner is still out there somewhere. His pets won't last long in this rain, but we can't afford to give him time to call up more. Can you find him?’’
I checked. There was so much confusion and motion on the island that Demonreach had trouble distinguishing one being from another, but I had a solid if nonspecific idea of where Binder was. ’’Yeah.’’ I sensed more movement and pointed behind us, to where a trio of grey men had managed to close on a pair of Wardens who were standing on either side of a still, red-spattered form on the ground. ’’There!’’
Ebenezar stopped talking to make another swift gesture, spoke a word, and one of the approaching grey men was suddenly and literally pounded flat by an invisible anvil. Ectoplasmic ichor flew everywhere. The two Wardens, warned by the magical strike and now facing even odds, made short work of the remaining two.
Ebenezar turned back to me and said, ’’Shut down that summoner, Hoss. I'm taking the Wardens back to support Injun Joe and Mai. Let's go, vampire.’’
’’No,’’ Lara said. ’’If Binder is nearby, then so is my sweet cousin Madeline. I'll stay with Dresden.’’
Ebenezar didn't argue with her. He just snarled, made a fist, and lifted it up, and Lara let out a short, choking cry and rose up ten feet into the air, her arms and legs snapping down straight, locking her body into a rigid board.
I put a hand against his chest. ’’Wait!’’
He glanced at me from beneath shaggy grey brows.
’’Let her down. She can come along.’’ Ebenezar had no way of knowing that I wasn't out there alone. Georgia and Will were lurking nearby, and could be at my side in a couple of seconds if necessary. Between the two of them, they had accounted for three grey men, too. I tried to put that knowledge behind a very slight emphasis in my tone and told him, ’’I'll be fine.’’
Ebenezar frowned at me, then shot a glance out at the woods and gave me a reluctant nod. He turned back to Lara and released her from the grip of his will. She didn't quite manage to fall gracefully, and landed in a sprawl that gave me a great look at her long, intriguingly lovely legs. The old man eyed her and said, ’’You just remember what I told you, missy.’’
She rose to her feet, her expression unreadable-but I knew her well enough to know that she was furious. My old mentor had just insulted her on multiple levels, not the least of which was pointing out to her exactly how easy it would be for him to make good on his previous threat. ’’I'll remember,’’ she said, her tone frosty.
’’Wardens!’’ Ebenezar said. ’’On me!’’ The old man broke into a woodsman's lope, a shuffle-footed, loose-kneed gait that managed unpredictable terrain well and covered ground with deceptive speed. The four remaining Wardens fell into a wedge shape behind him and they moved out heading south, back toward the docks and the confrontation with whoever had come forth from the Nevernever with his own army.
Lara turned to me and nodded her head once, gesturing me to lead. I tried to fix Binder's presence firmly in mind, and was certain he was ahead of us and to the north, probably trying to circle widely around the scene of the battle with his minions. I started out through the woods again, pushing myself to move faster.
This time, Lara stayed close behind me. She mimicked my movements, down to the length of my stride, taking advantage of my instinctive knowledge of Demonreach.
’’I have little interest in this mercenary,’’ she said to me as we ran. She wasn't even breathing hard. ’’Do with him as you would. But Madeline is mine.’’
’’She might know something,’’ I said.
’’I can't believe anyone with half a mind would entrust her with knowledge of any importance.’’
’’And I can't believe the treacherous bitch wouldn't steal every bit of information she could find to use against whoever she's working with,’’ I replied, glancing back.
Lara didn't dispute the statement, but her eyes hardened like silver mirrors, reflecting the dancing flames that were still burning here and there as we moved through the site of the battle and out the other side. ’’Madeline has betrayed me, my House, and my Court. She is mine. I prefer you remained a living, breathing ally. You will not interfere.’’
What do you say to something like that? I shut my mouth and concentrated on finding Binder.
It took us about five minutes to reach the piece of shoreline where Binder and his companion had come ashore. A pair of Jet Skis lay discarded on the beach. So that's how they'd done it. The tiny craft would have no problems at all skimming over the stone reefs surrounding the island, though they would have been hellish to ride in the rough water.
We swung past the discarded equipment and up a little ridgeline, running along a deer trail. I knew we were getting close, and suddenly Lara accelerated past me, supernaturally fleet of foot on the even ground.
I don't know what triggered the explosion. It might have been a tripwire stretched across the trail. It's possible that it was detonated manually, too. There was a flash of light, and something hit me in the chest hard enough to knock me down. An ugly asymmetrical shape was burned into my vision as I lay on my back, trying to sort out what had just happened.
Then my body tingled, and Madeline Raith appeared over me. I realized that she was straddling me. There was a fire burning somewhere close by, illuminating her. She was wearing a black surfer's wet suit with short arms and legs, unzipped past her navel. She held a mostly empty bottle of tequila in one hand. Her eyes were wide and shining with a disorienting riot of colors as she leaned down and kissed me on the forehead and...
And Hell's freaking bells.
The pleasure that surged through me from that simple touch was delicious to the point of pain. Every nerve ending in my entire body lit up, as though someone had run up the wattage on my pleasure centers, or injected their engines with nitrous. I felt my body arch up and shudder, a purely se*ual reaction to a physical bliss that went far beyond se*uality. I stayed that way, locked into a quivering arch of ecstasy. It took maybe ten or fifteen seconds to subside.
From a kiss on the forehead.
God. No wonder people came back to the vampires for more.
I could barely register what was happening around me. So I only dimly noticed when Madeline produced a gun of her own, the other favorite model of those with more than human strength-a Desert Eagle.
’’Good night, sweet wizard,’’ Madeline purred, her hips grinding a slow rhythm against mine. She drew the half-inch-wide mouth of the gun over my cheek as she took a slug of tequila and then rested the gun's barrel gently on the spot she'd just kissed. It felt obscenely good, like a caress on skin that has just been shaved smooth but hasn't yet been touched. I knew that she was about to kill me, but I couldn't stop thinking how good it felt. ’’And flights of angels,’’ she panted, her breath coming faster, her eyes alight with excitement, ’’sing thee to thy rest.’’
I was still sorting things out after the titanic wallop the explosion had given the inside of my skull, when a dark-furred wolf emerged from the shadows of the night and slammed into Madeline Raith like a loaded armored car. I heard bones breaking under the impact, and she was ripped off me by the force of the dark wolf's rush.
Will didn't stop there. He'd already hammered her once, and he knew better than to try his strength infighting with a vampire, even if the members of the White Court were physically the weakest of the breed. He hit the ground and bounded away into the dark.
Madeline screamed in surprised rage, and her gun went off several times, but I'm not sure you could call it shooting. She was on her knees, firing that big old Desert Eagle with one delicate hand and holding the now-broken tequila bottle in the other when a sandy brown wolf swept by on silent paws and ripped at Madeline's weapon hand with her fangs. The rip went deep into the muscles and tendons of Madeline's forearm, an almost surgically precise attack. The gun tumbled from her fingers, and she whirled to swing the broken bottle at Georgia, but she was no more eager for a fair fight than Will had been, and by the time Madeline turned, Georgia was already bounding away-and Will, unnoticed, was on his way back in again.
Fangs flashed. Pale Raith blood flowed. The two wolves rushed back and forth in perfect rhythm, never giving the vampire a chance to pin one of them down. When Madeline finally realized how they were working her, she attempted to reverse herself suddenly the same instant Georgia began to retreat, to meet Will's rush squarely-but Will and Georgia had learned their trade from a real wolf, and they'd had eight years of what amounted to low-intensity but deadly earnest combat duty, defending several square blocks around the University from the depredations of both supernatural and mortal predators. They knew when the reverse was coming, and Georgia simply pirouetted on her paws and blindsided Madeline again.
The vampire screamed in frustrated rage. She was furious-and she was slowing down. The members of the White Court were flesh and blood beings. They bled. Bleed them enough, and they would die.
I forced myself to start using my head again, finally shaking off the effects of both Madeline's psychotically delicious kiss and the concussion of whatever had exploded. I realized that I was covered with small cuts and scratches, that I was otherwise fine, and that Binder was less than twenty feet away.
’’Will, Georgia!’’ I screamed. ’’Gun!’’
The wolves leapt out of sight and vanished into the forest with barely a leaf disturbed by their movements, half a second before Binder came out of the woods, a semiautomatic assault shotgun pressed against his shoulder. The mercenary was dressed in a wet suit as well, though he'd put on a combat jacket and equipment harness over it, and wore combat boots on his feet.
Binder aimed the weapon after Will and Georgia and started rapidly hammering the woods with shells, more or less at random.
Everyone thinks that shotgun pellets spread out to some ridiculous degree, and that if you aim a shotgun at a garage door and pull the trigger, you'll be able to drive a car through the resulting hole. That isn't so, even when a shotgun has a very, very short barrel, which allows the load of pellets to spread out more. A longer-barreled weapon, like Binder's, will only spread the pellets out to about the size of my spread fingers at a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards. Odds were good that he hadn't hit a damned thing, and given his experience he probably knew it. He must have kept up the salvo to increase the intimidation factor and force the wolves to stay on the run.
In the heat and adrenaline of a battle, gunshots can be hard to count, but I knew he fired eight times. I knew because through Demonreach, I could feel the eight brass and plastic shell casings lying on the ground around him. He stood protectively over Madeline as he reached into his pockets, presumably to reload the weapon with fresh shells.
I didn't give him the chance. I pulled my.44 out of my duster pocket, sat up, and tried to stop wobbling. I sighted on his center mass and pulled the trigger.
The revolver roared, and Binder's left leg flew out from beneath him as if someone had hit it with a twenty-pound mallet. He let out a yelp of what sounded more like surprise than pain and hit the ground hard. In the odd little beat of heavy silence that came after the shot, I almost felt sorry for the guy. He'd had a tough couple of days. I heard him suck in a quick breath and clench his teeth over a howl of pain.
Madeline whirled toward me, her dark hair gone stringy and flat in the rain. Her eyes burned pure white, as the hunger, the demon inside her, fed her more and more of its power and asserted more and more control. Her wet suit had been torn open in several places, and paler-than-human blood smeared her paler-than-human flesh. She wasn't moving as well as she should have been, but she stalked toward me in a hunter's crouch, deliberate and steady.
My bells were still ringing hard, and I didn't think I had time or focus to pull together a spell. And besides, my gun was already right there. It seemed like it would be a waste not to use it.
I sighted on the spot where Madeline's heart should have been and shot her in the belly, which wasn't terrible marksmanship under the circumstances. She cried out and staggered to one knee. Then she looked up, her empty white eyes furious, and stood up, continuing toward me.
I shot again and missed, then repeated myself. I gripped the gun with both hands, clenching my teeth as I did, knowing I only had two more rounds. The next shot ripped a piece of meat the size of a racquetball out of one of her biceps, sending her down to one knee and drawing another scream.
Before she could start moving again, I aimed and fired the last round.
It hit her in the sternum, almost exactly between her wet suit- contoured breasts. She jerked, her breath exploding from her in a little huff of surprise. She swayed, her eyelids fluttering, and I thought she was about to fall.
But she didn't.
The vampire's empty white eyes focused on me, and her mouth spread into a maniac's sneer. She reached down and picked up her own fallen weapon. She had to do it left-handed. The right was covered in a sheet of blood and flopped limply.
Running low on options, I threw my empty gun at her face. She bat-ted my revolver aside with the Desert Eagle.
’’You,’’ Madeline said, her voice hollow and wheezing, ’’are a bad case of herpes, wizard. You're inconvenient, embarrassing, no real threat, and you simply will not go away.’’
’’Bitch,’’ I replied, wittily. I still hadn't gotten my head back together. Everything's relative, right?
’’Don't kill him,’’ Binder rasped.
Madeline shot him a look that could freeze vodka. ’’What?’’
Binder was sitting on the ground. His shotgun was farther away than he could reach. He must have tossed it there, because when he had fallen it was still in his hands. Binder had realized precisely how badly the fight had gone for his side, that he had been lamed and therefore probably could not escape, and he was making damned sure that he didn't look armed and dangerous. ’’Death curse,’’ he said, breathing hard. ’’He could level the island with it.’’
I drew in my breath, lifted my chin, and tried to keep my eyes from slipping out of focus. ’’Boom,’’ I said solemnly.
Madeline looked bad. One of the bullets might have opened an artery. It was hard to tell in the near-darkness. ’’Perhaps you're right, Binder,’’ she said. ’’If he was a better shot, I suppose I might be in trouble. As it is, I'm inconvenienced.’’ Her eyes widened slightly, and her tongue lashed quickly over her lips. ’’And I need to feed if I'm to repair it.’’ She lowered the gun as if it had suddenly become too heavy to keep supporting. ’’Don't worry, Binder,’’ she said. ’’When he's screaming my name he won't be cursing anyone. And even if he tries it...’’ She shivered. ’’I'll bet it will taste incredible.’’
She came closer, all pale skin and mangled flesh, and my body suddenly went insane with lust. Stupid body. It had a lot more clout at the moment than it usually did, with my mind still reeling from the blast.
I aimed a punch at Madeline's face. She caught my hand as the weak blow came in, and kissed the inside of my wrist. Sweet silver lightning exploded up my arm and down my spine. Whatever was left of my brain went away, and the next thing I knew she was pressing her chest against mine, her mouth against mine, slowly, sensuously overbearing me.
And then a burned corpse came out of the woods.
That was all I could think of to describe it. Half the body was blacker than a hamburger that had fallen through the bars of a charcoal grill. The rest was red and purple and swollen with bruises and bloody blisters, with very, very occasional strips of pale white skin. A few wisps of dark hair were attached to her skull. I say her because technically the corpse was female, though that hardly mattered amongst all the burned and pulverized meat that smelled slightly of tequila.
The only things I really recognized were the cold silver eyes.
Lara Raith's eyes were bright with an insane rage and a terrible hunger as she snaked her bruised, swollen left arm around Madeline's wind-pipe, and tightened it with a horrible strength.
Madeline cried out as her head was jerked back sharply-and then she made no sound at all as the wind was trapped inside her lungs. The burned, blackened corpse that was Lara Raith dug one fire-ruined hip into Madeline's upper back, using Madeline's own spine as a fulcrum against her.
Lara spoke, and her voice was something straight from Hell. It was lower, smokier, but every bit as lovely as it ever was. ’’Madeline,’’ she purred, ’’I've wanted to do this with you since we were little girls.’’
Lara's burned black right hand, withered, it seemed, down to bones and sinew, reached slowly, sensually around Madeline's straining abdomen. Slowly, very slowly, Lara sunk her fingertips into flesh, just beneath the floating rib on Madeline's left flank. Madeline's face contorted and she tried to scream.
Lara shuddered. Her shoulders twisted. And she ripped an open furrow as wide as her four fingers across Madeline's stomach, pale flesh parting, as wet red and grey things slithered out.
Lara's tongue emerged from her mouth, bright pink, and touched Madeline's earlobe. ’’Listen to me,’’ she hissed. Her burned hand continued pulling things out of Madeline's body, a hideous intimacy. ’’Listen to me.’’
Power shuddered in those words. I felt an insane desire to rush toward Lara's ruined flesh and give her my ears, ripped off with my own fingers, if necessary.
Madeline shuddered, the strength gone out of her body. Her mouth continued trying to move, but her eyes went unfocused at the power in Lara's voice. ’’For once in your life,’’ Lara continued, kissing Madeline's throat with her burned, broken lips, ’’you are going to be useful.’’
Madeline's eyes rolled back in her head, and her body sagged helplessly back against Lara.
My brain got back onto the clock. I pushed myself away from Lara and Madeline's nauseating, horribly compelling embrace. Binder was sitting with his hands over his ears, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. I grabbed him under the arms and hauled him away from the entwined Raiths, maybe fifty yards downhill, through some thick brush and around the bole of a large old hickory tree. Binder was obviously in pain as I pulled him-and he was pushing with his unwounded leg, doing his best to assist me.
’’Bloody hell,’’ he panted, as I set him down. ’’Bloody hell and brimstone.’’
I staggered and sat down across from him, panting to get my breath back and to push the sight of Lara devouring Madeline out of my head. ’’No kidding.’’
’’Some of the bloody fools I've known,’’ Binder said. ’’Can't stop talking about how tragic they are. The poor lonely vampires. How they're just like us. Bloody idiots.’’
’’Yeah,’’ I said, my voice raw.
We sat there for a few seconds. From up the slope, there was a low, soft, and eager cry.
We shuddered and tried to look as if we hadn't heard anything.
Binder stared at me for a moment, and then said, ’’Why?’’
’’Once Lara got going, she might not be able to stop. She'd have eaten you, too.’’
’’Too right,’’ Binder agreed fervently. ’’But that ain't the question. Why?’’
’’Somebody has to be human.’’
Binder looked at me as if I was speaking in a language he'd never been very good at, and hadn't heard in years. Then he looked sharply down and away. He nodded, without looking up, and said, ’’Cheers, mate.’’
’’F*k you,’’ I told him tiredly. ’’How bad are you hit?’’
’’Broke the bone, I think,’’ he said. ’’Didn't come out. Didn't hit anything too bad or I'd be gone by now.’’
He'd already tied a strip of cloth tightly around the wound. His wet suit was probably aiding it in acting as a pressure bandage.
’’Who was Madeline working for?’’ I asked.
He shook his head. ’’She didn't tell me.’’
’’Think,’’ I said. ’’Think hard.’’
’’All I know,’’ he said, ’’is that it was some bloke with a lot of money. I never talked to him. When she was on the phone with him, they spoke English. He wasn't a native speaker. Sounded like he'd learned it from a Continental.’’
I frowned. Television has most people confident that they could identify the nationality of anyone speaking English, but in the real world, accents could be muddy as hell, especially when you learned from a non-native speaker. Try to imagine the results, for example, of a Polish man learning English from a German teaching at a Belgian university. The resulting accent would twist a linguist's brain into knots.
I eyed Binder. ’’Can you get out of here on your own?’’
He shivered. ’’This place? I bloody well can.’’
I nodded. Binder was responsible for the death of a Warden, but it wasn't as though it had been personal. I could bill that charge to Madeline Raith's corpse. ’’Do business in my town or against the Council again and I'll kill you. Clear?’’
’’Crystal, mate. Crystal.’’
I got up and started to go. I didn't have my staff, my blasting rod, or my gun. They were back up the hillside.
I'd come back for them later.
’’Wait,’’ Binder said. He grunted and took off his belt, and I nearly kicked him in the head, thinking he was going for a weapon. Instead, he just offered the belt to me. It had a fairly normal-looking black fanny pack on it.
’’What's that?’’ I asked him.
’’Two more concussion grenades,’’ he said.
I put two and two together. My brain was back on the job. ’’You'd rather not be holding the matches to the one that got Lara, eh?’’
’’Too right,’’ he said. I started to turn away and he touched my leg. He leaned toward me a bit and said, very quietly, ’’Waterproof pocket inside has a phone in it. Boss lady had me hold it for her. It's powered off. Maybe the lady cop would find it interesting.’’
I stared hard at him for a second, and an understanding passed between us. ’’If this pans out,’’ I said, ’’maybe I'll forget to mention to the Wardens that you survived.’’
He nodded and sank back onto the ground. ’’Never want to see you again, mate. Too right I don't.’’
I snapped the belt closed and hung it across one shoulder, where I could get to the larger pouch in a hurry if I needed to. Then I got on to the next point of business-finding Will and Georgia.
They were both lying on the ground maybe sixty yards from where I'd last seen them. It looked like they'd been circling around the site of the battle with Madeline, planning on coming back in from the far side. I moved easily and soundlessly through the woods and found them on the ground, back in human form.
’’Will,’’ I hissed quietly.
He lifted his head and looked around vaguely. ’’Uh. What?’’
’’It's Harry,’’ I said, kneeling down next to him. I took off my pentacle amulet and willed a gentle light from it. ’’Are you hurt?’’
Georgia murmured in discomfort at the light. The two of them were twined together rather intimately, actually, and I suddenly felt extremely, um, inappropriate. I shut off the light.
’’Sorry,’’ he slurred. ’’We were gonna come back, but it was... really nice out here. And confusing.’’
’’I lost track,’’ Georgia said. ’’And fell over.’’
Their pupils were dilated to the size of quarters, and I suddenly understood what had happened to them: Madeline's blood. They'd been inadvertently drugged while ripping at a succubus with their fangs. I'd heard stories about the blood of the White Court, but I hadn't been able to find any hard evidence, and it wasn't the sort of thing Thomas would ever talk about.
’’Hell's bells,’’ I muttered, frustrated. Madeline seemed to have a habit of inflicting far more damage by coincidence than intention.
I heard a short, desperately pleasurable cry from nearby, in the direction where I knew Madeline and Lara were on the ground-then silence.
And Madeline wasn't on the island anymore.
I lifted a hand in the air and let out a soft whistle. There was a fluttering sound, and then a small faerie hovered in the air beside me, suppressing the light that usually gathered around them when they flew. I could hear its wings buzzing and sensed its position through the island's intellectus. It wasn't Toot-toot, but one of his subordinates. ’’Put a guard around these two,’’ I said, indicating Will and Georgia. ’’Hide them and try to lead off anyone who comes close.’’
The little faerie let its wings blur with blue light twice in acknowledgment of the order and zipped off into the dark. A moment later, a double dozen of the Militia were on the way, led by the member of the Guard.
Toot and company were generally reliable-within their limits. This was going to be pushing them. But I didn't have any other way of helping Will and Georgia at the moment, and the insanity was still in progress. Putting the Little Folk on guard duty might not be a foolproof protection, but it was the only one I had. I'd just have to hope for the best.
I reached out to Demonreach to find out about Ebenezar and the others, when a sense of fundamental wrongness twitched through my brain and sent runnels of fear and rage that did not belong to me oozing down my spine. I focused on the source of those feelings, and suddenly understood the island's outrage at the presence of a visitor it actively detested. It had come ashore on the far side of the island from Chicago, and was now moving swiftly through the trees, dragging a half-dead presence behind it.
The naagloshii had come to Demonreach.
I stood there without allies, without most of my weapons, and grew sick with horror as the skinwalker bypassed the battle at the docks and moved in a straight line toward Demonreach Tower.
Toward Molly. Toward Donald Morgan. And it was moving fast.
I put my head down, found the fastest route up the hill, and broke out into a flat sprint, praying that I could beat the skinwalker to the tower.
As I ran, I tried to keep track of the battle between the White Council and the forces of the traitor who had brought them to the island. Whatever the enemy had brought with him, they weren't anything close to human-shaped, and they were all over the place. The Council's forces, together with the White Court, were arranged in a half circle at the shoreline, their backs protected by the lake. The attackers were stacked up at the tree line, where they would be able to hide, and they were probably making swift attacks at odd intervals. The two human-shaped presences who had arrived first were standing together in the forest, well back from the fight, and I felt a moment of severe frustration.
If I could only get word to the Wardens, to tell them where the traitor was, they might be able to launch an effective attack-but I was pretty sure it wasn't possible. If I used more of the Little Folk, I'd have to stop to whistle some of them up and dispatch them to the task, and it was always possible that they wouldn't find the right target to point out to the Council with their fireworks.
Then, too, a wizard would be a far different sort of threat to the Little Folk than a vampire or the grey men had been. A wizard, particularly one smart enough to remain hidden within the Council for years without betraying his treacherous goals, could swat Little Folk out of the air like insects, killing them by the score. Whether or not they thought they understood the risks, I wasn't going to send them into that.
But I had to figure out something. The fight wasn't going well for the home team: there was blood mixed heavily with the rain on the muddy ground in the center of their defensive position.
I gritted my teeth in frustration. I had to focus on my task, for my brother's sake. If I stopped moving now, if I tried to bail the Council and Lara's family out of their predicament, it could mean Thomas's life. Besides, if Ebenezar, Listens-to-Wind, and Ancient Mai couldn't hold off their attackers, it was pretty much a given that I wouldn't be able to do any better.
They would have to manage without me.
I didn't quite get up to the tower before the skinwalker, but it was damn near a tie. I guess being a nine-foot-tall shapeshifter with a nocturnal predator's senses and superhuman strength was enough to trump even my alliance with the island's spirit.
Taken as an omen for the rest of the evening, it was hardly encouraging, but if I did the smart thing every time matters got dangerous, the world would probably come to an end.
As it turned out, moving through the forest with perfect surety of where to put your feet is very nearly the same thing as moving in perfect silence. I reached the edge of the trees, and saw the skinwalker coming up the opposite side of the bald knoll. I froze in place, behind a screen of brush and shadows.
The wind had continued to rise and grow cooler, coming in from the northeast-which mean that it was at the skinwalker's back. It would warn the creature should anything attempt to come slipping up his back trail, but it offered me a small advantage: Shagnasty wouldn't be able to get my scent.
He came up the hill, all wiry limbs and stiff yellow fur that seemed entirely unaffected by what must have been a long swim or by the rain that was currently falling in intermittent splatters. The racing clouds overhead parted for a few seconds, revealing a moon most of the way toward being full, and a scythe of silver light swept briefly over the hilltop.
It showed me Thomas.
The naagloshii was dragging him by one ankle. His shirt was gone, and his upper body was covered in so many fine cuts and scratches that they looked like marked roads in a particularly detailed atlas. He'd been beaten, too. One eye was swollen up until it looked like someone had stuck half of a peach against the socket. There were dark bruises all over his throat, too-he'd been strangled, maybe repeatedly, maybe for fun.
His head, shoulders, and upper back dragged on the ground, and his arms followed limply along. When the naagloshii stopped walking, I saw his head move a little, maybe trying to spot some way to escape. His hair was still soaking wet and clinging to his head. I heard him let out a weak, wet cough.
He was alive. Beaten, tortured, half drowned in the icy water of Lake Michigan-but he was alive.
I felt my hands clench as a hot and hungry anger suddenly burned through me. I hadn't planned on trying to take the naagloshii alone. I'd wanted Lara and her people and every member of the Council present to be there, too. That had been part of the plan: establish a common interest by showing them that they had a common enemy. Then take the naagloshii on with overwhelming force and force it to flee, at the very least, so that we could recover Thomas. I just hadn't counted on the traitor showing up in such numerical strength.
Taking the naagloshii on alone would be a fool's mistake. Anger might make a man bolder than he would be otherwise. It was possible that I could use it to help fuel my magic, as well-but anger alone wouldn't give a man skill or strength that he didn't have already, and it wouldn't grant a mortal wizard undeniable power.
All it could do was get me killed if I let it control me. I swallowed down my outrage and forced myself to watch the naagloshii with cold, dispassionate eyes. Once I had a better opportunity, once I had spotted something that might give me a real chance at victory, I would strike, I promised my rage. I'd hit it with the best sucker punch of my life, backed by the ambient energy of Demonreach.
I focused my whole concentration on the skinwalker, and waited.
The skinwalker, I realized a moment later, was enormously powerful. I'd known that already, of course, but I hadn't been able to appreciate the threat it represented beyond the purely physical, even though I'd viewed it through my Sight.
(That memory welled up again, trying to club me unconscious as it had before. It was difficult, but I shoved it away and ignored it.)
Through Demonreach, I could appreciate its presence in a more tactile sense. The skinwalker was virtually its own ley line, its own well of power. It had so much metaphysical mass that the dark river of energy flowing up from beneath the tower was partially disrupted by its presence, in much the same way as the moon causes tidal shifts. The island reflected that disruption in many subtle ways. Animals fled from the naagloshii as they might from the scent of a forest fire. Insects fell silent. Even the trees themselves seemed to grow hushed and quiet, despite the cold wind that should have been causing their branches to creak, their leaves to whisper.
It paced up to the cottage, where Morgan and my apprentice were hiding, and something odd happened.
The stones of the cottage began to glimmer with streamers of fox fire. It wasn't a lot of light, only enough to be noticeable in the darkness, but as the naagloshii took another step forward, the fox fire brightened and resolved itself into symbols, written on each stone in gentle fire. I had no idea what script it was written in. I had never seen the symbols before.
The naagloshii stopped in its tracks, and another flicker of moonlight showed me that it had bared its teeth. It took another step forward, and the symbols brightened even more. It let out a low, snarling noise, and tried to take another step.
Suddenly, its wiry fur was plastered tight to the front of its body, and it seemed unable to take another step forward. It stood there with one leg lifted and let out a spitting curse in a language I did not know. Then it retreated several steps, snarling, and turned to the tower. It approached the ruined tower a bit more warily than it had the cottage, and once again those flowing sigils appeared upon the stones, somehow seeming to repulse the naagloshii before it could get closer than eight or ten feet to it.
It let out a frustrated sound, muttered something to itself, and flicked out a hand, sending unseen streamers of power fluttering toward the tower. The symbols only seemed to glow brighter for a moment, as if absorbing the magic that the skinwalker had presumably meant to disrupt them.
It cursed again, and then lifted Thomas idly, as though it planned on smashing its way through the stones using Thomas's skull. Then it glanced at my brother, cursed some more, and shook its head, muttering darkly to itself. It fell back from the tower, clearly frustrated, and just as clearly familiar with the symbols that allowed the stones to shed the power of a skinwalker as swiftly and as easily as they shed rainwater.
Demonreach's alien presence rarely seemed to convey anything understandable about itself-but for a few instants it did. As the skinwalker retreated, the island's spirit allowed itself a brief moment of smug satisfaction.
What the hell was that stuff?
Never mind. It didn't matter. Or, rather, it could wait for further investigation. The important thing was that the game had just changed.
I no longer had to get Thomas away from the skinwalker and then find a way to defeat it. All I had to do was get Thomas away. If I could grab my brother and drag him into the circle of the broken tower or into the sheltering walls of the cottage, it seemed as though we would be fine. If the very stones of the cottage repulsed the skinwalker's presence, then all we'd need to do is let Molly activate the crystal and wait the naagloshii out. Regardless of the outcome of this night's battle, the Council would win the day, eventually-and even the worst thing they might do to us would be a better fate than the skinwalker would mete out.
In an instant of rational clarity, I acknowledged to myself that there were about a million things that could go wrong with that plan. On the other hand, that plan had a significant advantage-there was at least one thing that could go right, which was exactly one more right thing than the previous ’’take back my brother away and beat the skinwalker up’’ plan could produce if I tried it unassisted.
I might actually pull this one off.
’’Wizard,’’ the skinwalker called. It faced the cottage and began walking in a slow circle around it. ’’Wizard. Come forth. Give me the doomed warrior.’’
I didn't answer him, naturally. I was busy changing position. If he kept pacing a circle around the cottage, he would walk between me and the empty doorway. If I timed it right, I might be able to unleash a kinetic blast that would rip Thomas out of its grip and throw him into the cottage.
Of course, it might also fail to rip Thomas out of the skinwalker's grip, in which case it might whiplash his limp body severely enough to break his neck. Or it might succeed and hit him hard enough to stop his heart or collapse a lung. And if my aim was off, I might be blasting Thomas out of the skinwalker's hands and into a stone wall. Given how badly off he looked at the moment, that might well kill him.
Of course, the skinwalker would kill him if I did nothing.
So. I would just have to be perfect.
I got into position and licked my lips nervously. It was harder to work with pure, raw kinetic energy, with force, than almost any other kind of magic. Unlike using fire or lightning, summoning up pure force required that everything in the spell had to come from the wizard's mind and will. Fire, once called, would behave exactly like fire unless you worked to make it otherwise. Ditto lightning. But raw will had no basis in the natural order, so the visualization of it had to be particularly vivid and intent in the mind of the wizard using it.
That was one reason I usually used my staff, or another article, to help focus my concentration when I worked with force. But my staff was several minutes away, and my kinetic energy rings, while powerful enough to handle the job, were essentially designed to send out lances of destructive energy-to hurt things. And I hadn't designed the magic that supported them with on-the-fly modifications in mind. I couldn't soften the blow, so to speak, if I worked with the rings. I could kill Thomas if I used them.
’’Wizard!’’ the naagloshii growled. ’’I grow weary of this! I have come to honor the exchange of prisoners! Do not force me to take what I want!’’
Just a few more steps, and it would be in position.
My legs were shaking. My hands were shaking.
I stared at them in shock for a second, and realized that I was terrified. The mind specter of the skinwalker hammered at the doors of my thoughts and raked savagely at my concentration. I remembered the havoc it had wrought, the lives it had taken, and how easily it had avoided or overcome every threat that had been sent its way.
Anything less than a flawless execution of the spell could cost my brother his life. What if the skinwalker was good enough to sense it coming? What if I misjudged the amount of force I needed to use? What if I missed? I wasn't even using a tool to help me focus the power-and my control was a little shaky on the best of days.
What about the seconds after the spell? Even if I managed to do it right, it would leave me out in the open, with a vengeful and enraged naagloshii to keep me company. What would it do to me? The image of the half-cooked Lara ripping out Madeline's intestines burned in my thoughts. Somehow I knew that the naagloshii would do worse. A lot worse.
Then came the nastiest doubt of all: what if this had all been for nothing? What if the traitor escaped while I flailed around here? What if the politics of power meant that Morgan would pay the price for LaFortier's death despite everything?
God. I really wanted that cold beer and a good book.
’’Don't screw this up,’’ I whispered to myself. ’’Don't screw it up.’’
The skinwalker passed in front of the empty cottage doorway.
And, a second later, he dragged Thomas into line between the doorway and me.
I lifted my right hand, focusing my will and aligning my thoughts, while the constantly shifting numbers and formulae of force calculation went spinning through my head.
I suddenly spread my fingers and called, ’’Forzare!’’
Something approximately the same size and shape as the blade of a bulldozer went rushing across the ground between my brother and me, tearing up earth and gravel, root and plant. The unseen force dug into the earth an inch beneath Thomas, hammered into his unmoving form, and ripped him free of the naagloshii's grip. He went tumbling over ten feet of ground to the doorway-and struck his head savagely on the stone wall framing the door as he went through.
Had his head flopped about with a lethally rubbery fluidity after the impact? Had I just broken my brother's neck?
I let out a cry of agony and chagrin. At the same time, the skinwalker whirled to face me, crouched, and let out a furious roar that shook the air all around, sending drops of water that had beaded upon the leaves of the trees raining to the earth in a fresh shower. That roar held all the fury of a mortally offended, maniacal ego and promised a death that could only be described with the assistance of an encyclopedia of torments, a thesaurus, and a copy of Gray's Anatomy.
The naagloshii in my crystalline memory of the recent past and the one standing in front of me in the here-and-now both rushed at me, huge and unstoppable, determined to hit me from either side and rip me to shreds.
And suddenly I did not care that this creature was a foe on par with any number of nightmares I would never dare to trade blows with. I did not care that I was probably about to die.
I saw Kirby's still form in my head. I saw the small, broken figure of Andi in her hospital room. I saw my brother's wounds, remembered the agony the thing had caused me when I had seen it through my Sight. This creature had no place here. And if I was to die, I was not going to go out in a gibbering heap of terror. If I was to die, it wouldn't happen because I was half crippled with fear and Sight trauma.
If I was to die, it was going to be a bloody and spectacular mess.
’’Bring it!’’ I screamed back at the naagloshii, my terror and rage making my voice sharp and high and rough. I cupped my right hand as if preparing to throw a baseball, drew up my will, and filled my palm with scarlet fire. I thrust out my left hand and ran my will through the shield bracelet hanging there, preparing a defense, and as I did I felt the power of the land beneath my feet, felt it spreading out around me, drawing in supportive energy. ’’Bring it! Bring it, you kon***less freak!’’
The naagloshii's form shifted from something almost human to a shape that was more like that of a gorilla, its arms lengthening, its legs shortening. It rushed forward, bounding over the distance between us with terrifying speed, grace, and power, roaring as it came. It was also vanishing from sight, becoming one with the darkness as its veil closed around it, utterly invisible to the human eye.
But Demonreach knew where Shagnasty was. And so did I.
In some distant corner of my mind, where my common sense apparently had some kind of vacation home, my brain noted with dismay that I had broken into a sprint of my own. I don't remember making the decision, but I was charging out to meet the skinwalker, screaming out a challenge in reply. I ran, embracing a rage that was very nearly madness, filling the fire in my hand with more and more power that surged higher every time one of my feet hit the ground, until it was blazing as bright as an acetylene torch.
The naagloshi leapt at me, horrible eyes burning and visible from within the veil, its clawed arms reaching out.
I dropped into a baseball player's slide on my right hip, and brought my shield up at an angle oblique to the skinwalker's motion. The creature hit the shield like a load of bricks and bounced up to continue in the same direction it had been leaping. The instant the naagloshii had rebounded, I dropped the shield, screaming, ’’Andi!’’ and hurled a miniature sun up at the skinwalker's belly.
Fire erupted in an explosion that lifted the skinwalker another dozen feet into the air, tumbling it tail over teakettle-an expression that makes no goddamned sense whatsoever yet seemed oddly appropriate to the moment. My nose filled with the hideous scent of burning hair and scorched meat, and the naagloshii howled in savage ecstasy or agony as it came tumbling down, bounced hard a couple of times, and then rolled to its feet.
It came streaking toward me, its body shifting again behind its concealing veil, becoming something else, something more feline, maybe. It didn't matter to me. I reached out to the wind and rain and rumbling thunder around us and gathered a levy of lightning into my cupped hand. Then, instead of waiting for its charge, I turned my left hand over and triggered every charged energy ring I had left, unleashing their deadly force in a single salvo.
The naagloshii howled something in a tongue I didn't know, and the lances of force glanced off of his veil, leaving concentric rings of spreading color where they struck. A bare second later, I lifted my cupped had and screamed, ’’Thomas! Fulminas!’’
Thunder loud enough to knock several stones loose from the tower shook the hilltop, and the blue-white flash of light was physically painful to the eyes. A thorny network of lightning leapt to the naagloshii, whose defenses had not yet recovered from deflecting the blasts of the force rings. The deadly-delicate tracery of lightning hammered into the exact center of its chest, stopping its charge in its tracks. Smaller strikes, spreading out from the main bolt like the branches of a tree, snapped into the rocky ground in half a dozen places, digging red-hot, skull-sized divots into the granite and flint.
Exhaustion hit me like a hammer, and stars swam in my vision. I had never thrown punches that hard before, and even with the assistance of Demonreach, the expenditure of energy needed to do so was literally staggering. I knew that if I pushed too hard, I'd collapse-but the skinwalker was still standing.
It stumbled to one side, its veil faltering for a second, its eyes wide with surprise. I could just see it going through the naagloshii's head: how in the world was I hitting him so accurately when it knew that its veil rendered it all but perfectly invisible?
For one quick fraction of a second, I saw fear in its eyes, and triumphant fury roared through my weary body.
The skinwalker recovered itself, changing again. With what looked like trivial effort, it reached down and ripped a section of rock shelf the size of a sidewalk paving stone from the rock. It flung the stone at me, three or four hundred pounds coming at me like a major-league fastball.
I dove to the side, slowed by exhaustion, but fast enough to get out of the way, and as I went, I gathered my will. This time the silver-white streamers of soulfire danced and glittered around my right hand. I lay on the ground, too tired to get back up, and ground my teeth in determination as it charged me for what would, one way or another, be the last time.
I didn't have the breath to scream, but I could snarl. ’’And this,’’ I spat, ’’is for Kirby, you son of a bitch.’’ I unleashed my will and screamed, ’’Laqueus!’’
A cord of pure force, glittering and flashing with soulfire, leapt out at the skinwalker. It attempted to deflect it, but it clearly hadn't been expecting me to turbocharge the spell. The naagloshii's defenses barely slowed it, and the cord whipped three times around its throat and tightened savagely.
The skinwalker's charge faltered and it staggered to one side, its veil falling to shreds by degrees. It started shifting form wildly, struggling to get loose of the supernatural garrote-and failing. The edges of my vision were blurry and darkening, but I kept my will on him, drawing the noose tighter and tighter.
It kicked and struggled wildly-and then changed tactics. It rolled up to a desperate crouch, extended a single talon, and swept it around in a circle, carving a furrow into the rock. It touched the circle with its will, and I felt it when the simple magical construct sprang up and cut off the noose spell from its source of power: me. The silver cord shimmered and vanished.
I lay there on the ground, barely able to lift my head. I looked toward the cottage and the safety it represented, standing only forty feet away. It might as well have been forty miles.
The naagloshii ran its talons along the fur at its throat and made a satisfied, growling noise. Then its eyes moved to me. Its mouth spread into a carnivorous smile. Then it stepped out of the circle and began to stalk nearer.
One bloody and spectacular mess, coming up.