Authors: Jim Butcher
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
And suddenly it made sense why he would barely ever speak of his apprentice, Margaret LeFay—a name she’d earned for herself, when her birth certificate must have read Margaret McCoy. Hell, for that matter, he probably never told the Council that Margaret was his daughter. I sure as hell had no intentions of letting them know about Maggie, if I got her out of this mess.
My mother had eventually been killed by enemies she had made—and Ebenezar, her father, the most dangerous man on the White Council, had not been there to save her. The circumstances wouldn’t matter. No matter what he’d accomplished, I knew the old man would never forgive himself for not saving his daughter’s life, any more than I would if I failed Maggie. It was why he had made a statement, a demonstration of what would happen to those who came at me with a personal vengeance—he was trying, preemptively, to save his grandson.
And it explained why he had changed the Grey Council’s focus and led them here. He had to try to save me—and to save my little girl.
And, some cynical portion of me added, himself. Though I wasn’t even sure that would be a conscious thought on his part, underneath the mountain of issues he had accrued.
No wonder Arianna had been so hot and bothered to use the bloodline curse, starting with Maggie. She’d avenge herself upon me, who hadn’t had the good grace to die in a duel, and upon Ebenezar, who had simply killed Ortega as you would a dangerous animal, a workaday murder performed with expedience and an extremely high profile. Arianna must have lost a lot of face in the wake of that—and my ongoing exploits against the Reds and their allies would only have made her more determined to show me my place. With a single curse, she’d kill one of the Senior Council and the Blackstaff all at once. My death would be something to crow about, too—since, as Arianna herself had noted, no one had pulled it off yet—and I felt I could confidently lay claim to the title of Most Infamous Warden on the Council, after Donald Morgan’s death.
For Arianna, what a coup. And after that, presumably . . . a coup.
Of course, if the Red King was holding the knife, he got the best of all worlds. Dead enemies, more prestige, and a more secure throne. No-brainer.
He took the knife from my belt, smiling, and turned toward the altar—and my daughter.
, I thought.
Think, Dresden. Think!
One day I hope God will forgive me for giving birth to the idea that came next.
Because I never will.
I knew how angry she was. I knew how afraid she was. Her child was about to die only inches beyond her reach, and what I did to her was as good as murder.
I focused my thoughts and sent them to Susan.
Susan! Think! Who knew who the baby’s father was? Who could have told them?
Her lips peeled away from her teeth.
His knife can’t hurt you
, I thought, though I knew damned well that no faerie magic could blithely ignore the touch of steel.
“Martin,” Susan said, her voice low and very quiet. “Did you tell them about Maggie?”
He closed his eyes, but his voice was steady. “Yes.”
Susan Rodriguez lost her mind.
One instant she was a prisoner, and the next she had twisted like an eel, too swiftly to be easily seen. Martin’s machete opened up a long cut on her throat, but she paid as little attention to it as a thorn scratch gained while hiking.
Martin raised a hand to block the strike he thought was coming—and it was useless, because Susan didn’t go after him swinging.
Instead, her eyes full of darkness and rage, her mouth opened in a scream that showed her extended fangs, she went for his throat.
Martin’s eyes were on mine for a fraction of a second. No more. But I felt the soulgaze begin. I saw his agony, the pain of the mortal life he had lost. I saw his years of service, his genuine devotion, like a marble statue of the Red King kept polished and lovingly tended. And I saw his soul change. I saw that image of worship grow tarnished as he spent year after year among those who struggled against the Red King and his empire of terror and misery. And I saw that when he had come into the temple, he knew full well that he wasn’t going to survive. And that he was content with it.
There was nothing I could do in time to prevent what was coming next, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Martin said that it had taken him years and years to run a con on the Fellowship of St. Giles. But it had taken him most of two centuries to run the long con on the Red King. As a former priest, Martin must have known of the bloodline curse, and its potential for destruction. He must have known that the threat to Maggie and the realization of his betrayal would be certain to drive Susan out of control.
He’d told me already, practically the moment he had come to Chicago, that he would do anything if it meant damaging the Red Court. He would have shot me in the back. He would have betrayed Maggie’s existence, practically handing her to the murderous bastards. He would betray the Fellowship to its enemies.
He would destroy Susan.
And he would die, himself.
Everything he had done, I realized, he had done for one reason: to be sure that I was standing here when it happened. To give me a chance to change everything.
Susan rode him to the stone floor, berserk with terror and rage, and tore out his throat, ripping mouthful after mouthful of flesh from his neck with supernatural speed.
Susan began to turn.
And that was my moment.
I flung myself against the wills of the Lords of Outer Night with everything in my body, my heart, my mind. I hurled my fear and my loneliness, my love and my respect, my rage and my pain. I made of my thoughts a hammer, infused with the fires of creation and tempered in the icy power of the darkest guardian the earth had ever known. I raised my arms with a scream of defiance, bringing as much of the armor as I could between my head and theirs, and wished for a fleeting second that I had just worn the stupid hat.
And I threw it all at the second Lord from the left—the one whose will seemed the least concrete. He staggered and made a sound that I’d once heard from a boxer who’d taken an uppercut to the nuts.
With that, the last Lord of Outer Night to enter the temple—the one wearing the mask I had seen once before, when Murphy had sliced it from its owner’s head—raised her hands and sent ribbons of green and amethyst power scything through her apparent compatriots.
The blast killed two of them outright, with spectacular violence, tearing their bodies to god-awful shreds and spattering the inside of the temple with black blood. All of the remaining Lords staggered, screaming in surprise and pain, their true forms beginning to claw their way free of the flesh that contained them.
My godmother, too, discarded her disguise, flinging the gold mask at the nearest Lord as she allowed the illusion that concealed her true form to fade away, taking with it the clothes and trappings that had let her insinuate herself among the enemy. Her eyes were bright, her cheeks flushed. Bloodlust and an eager, nearly sexual desire to destroy radiated from her like heat from a fire. She howled her glee and began hurling streaks and bolts and webworks of energy at the stunned Lords of Outer Night, spinning power from her flickering fingertips even as they brought the force of their wills and their own sorcery to bear upon her.
Not one of the Lords of Outer Night remembered to keep me down.
I was suddenly free.
I hurled myself at the Red King’s back with a scream, and saw him spin to face me, knife in hand. His dark eyes suddenly widened, and the awful power of his will descended upon me like a dozen leaded blankets.
I staggered, but I did not stop. I was hysterical. I was not well. I was invincible. My armor and my grandfather’s staff and the sight of my frightened child and the cold power flowing through my limbs allowed me to push forward one step, and another, and another, until I stood nearly toe-to-toe with him.
The Red King’s restored right hand snapped forward to bury the obsidian knife in my throat.
My left hand dropped the staff and intercepted his wrist. I stopped the knife an inch from my throat, and his eyes widened as he felt my strength.
His left hand shot out to clench my throat with crushing power.
I formed the thumb and forefinger of my right hand into a C-shape, ice crackling as it spread over them, rigid and crystal clear.
I plunged them into both of his black, black eyes.
And then I sent my will coursing down my arm, along with all the soulfire I could find as I screamed, “
Fire seared and split and cooked and steamed, and the king of the Red Court, the most ancient vampire of their kind, the father and creator of their race, screamed in anguish. The sound was so loud that it blew out my left eardrum, a novel new agony for my collection.
And when the Red King screamed, every single member of his Court screamed with him.
This close to him I could almost feel it, feel the power of his will calling them, drawing vampires to him with a summoning beyond self-interest, beyond reason. But even if I hadn’t been there touching him, the sudden storm of cries from outside would have told me the same story.
The vampires were coming toward us in a swarm, a storm, and nothing on earth would stop them from going to their king’s aid. His grip on my throat faltered, and he staggered back and away from me. My fingers came free of his head, and I grabbed his knife hand at the wrist with both hands. Then, screaming in rage, coating his arm with frost, I snapped his forearm in half—and caught the dagger before it could fall to the floor.
Freed, the Red King staggered away, and even blinded and in sanity-destroying pain, he was dangerous. His will, unleashed at random, blew holes in the stone walls. Sorcery lashed out, the scarlet lightning that seemed to be a motif around here raking over one of his own Lords and cutting the struggling vampire in half.
The eldest vampire of the Red Court screamed in his agony as a tide of his creatures came to obliterate us.
And the youngest vampire of the Red Court knelt on the ground over Martin, staring at her hands.
I watched for a second as the skin around her fingers seemed to burst at the tips. Then I saw her fingers begin to lengthen, nails growing into claws, muscle tissue tearing free of skin with audible, obvious torment. Susan stared at them with her all-black eyes, shaking her head, her face a mask of blood. She was moaning, shuddering.
“Susan,” I said, kneeling down in front of her. The howl of sorcerous energies filled the temple with a symphony of destruction. I took her face in my hands.
She looked up at me, terrified and tortured, despair written over her face.
“They’re coming,” she rasped. “I can feel them. Inside. Outside. They’re coming. Oh, God.”
“Susan!” I shouted. “Remember Maggie!”
Her eyes seemed to focus on me.
“They wanted Maggie because she was the youngest,” I said, my voice cold. “Because her death would have taken us all with her.”
She contorted around her stomach, which was twisting and flexing and swelling obscenely, but she kept her eyes on my face.
“Now you’re the youngest,” I hissed at her, my voice fierce. “The youngest vampire in the entire and
damned Court. You can kill them
She shuddered and moaned, and I saw the conflicting desires at war within her. But her eyes turned to Maggie and she clenched her jaw. “I . . . I don’t think I can do it. I can’t feel my hands.”
“Harry!” screamed Murphy desperately, from somewhere nearby. “They’re coming!”
Lightning split the air outside with thunder that would register on the Richter scale.
There was a sudden, random lull in the cacophony of sorcerous war, no more than a couple of seconds long.
Susan looked back at me, her eyes streaming her last tears. “Harry, help me,” she whispered. “Save her. Please.”
Everything in me screamed no. That this was not fair. That I should not have to do this. That no one should
have to do this.
But . . . I had no choice.
I found myself picking Susan up with one hand. The little girl was curled into a ball with her eyes closed, and there was no time. I pushed her from the altar as gently as I could and let her fall to the floor, where she might be a little safer from the wild energies surging through the temple.
I put Susan on the altar and said, “She’ll be safe. I promise.”
She nodded at me, her body jerking and twisting in convulsions, forcing moans of pain from her lips. She looked terrified, but she nodded.
I put my left hand over her eyes.
I pressed my mouth to hers, swiftly, gently, tasting the blood, and her tears, and mine.
I saw her lips form the word, “Maggie . . .”
And I . . .
I used the knife.
I saved a child.
I won a war.
God forgive me.
Everything changed the night the Red Court died. It made the history books.
First, for the unexplained destruction of several structures in Chichén Itzá. A thousand years of jungle hadn’t managed to bring the place down, but half an hour of slugfest between practitioners who know what they’re doing can leave city blocks in ruins. It was later attributed to an extremely powerful localized earthquake. No one could explain all the corpses—some of them with dental work featuring techniques last used a hundred years before, some whose hearts had been violently torn from their chests, and whose bodies had been affected by some kind of mutation that had rendered their bones almost unrecognizable as human. Fewer than 5 percent of them were ever identified—and those were all people who had abruptly gone missing in the past ten or fifteen years. No explanation was ever offered for such a confluence of missing persons, though theories abounded, none of them true.
I could have screamed the truth from the mountaintops and blended right in with all the rest of the nuts. Everyone knows that vampires aren’t real.
Second, it made the books because of all the sudden disappearances or apparent outright murders of important officials, businessmen, and financiers in cities and governments throughout Latin America. The drug cartels took the rap for that one, even in the nations where they weren’t really strong enough to pull such tactics off. Martial law got declared virtually everywhere south of Texas, and a dozen revolutions in eight or ten different countries all kicked off, seemingly on the same night.
I’ve heard that nature abhors a vacuum—though if that’s true, then I can’t figure why about ninety-nine zillion percent of creation
vacuum. But I do know that governments hate ’em, and always rush to fill them up. So do criminals. Which probably tells you more about human beings than it does about nature. Most of the nations in South America proper kept their balance. Central America turned into a war zone, with various interests fighting to claim the territory the vampires had left behind them.
Finally, it made the books in the supernatural community as the night of bad dreams. Before the next sunset, the Paranet was buzzing with activity, with men and women scattered over half the world communicating about the vivid and troubling dreams they’d had. Pregnant women and mothers who had recently delivered had been hardest hit. Several had to be hospitalized and sedated. But everyone with a smidge of talent who was sleeping at the time was troubled by dreams. The general theme was always the same: dead children. The world in flames. Terror and death spreading across the globe in an unstoppable wave, destroying anything resembling order or civilization.
I don’t remember what happened when the ritual went off. There’s a blank spot in my head about two minutes wide. I had no desire whatsoever to find out what was there.
The next thing I remember is standing outside the temple with Maggie in my arms, wrapped up in the heavy feather cloak her mother had left behind. She was still shivering and crying quietly, but only in sheer reaction and weariness now, rather than terror. The shackles lay broken on the ground behind me. I don’t remember how I got them off her without hurting her. She leaned against me, using a fold of the cloak as a pillow, and I sat down on the top step, holding her, to see what I had paid for.
The Red Court was dead. Gone. Every one of them. Most of the remains were little more than black sludge. That, I thought, marked the dead vampires. The half-breeds, though, only lost the vampire parts of their nature. The curse had cured them.
Of course, it was the vampire inside them that had kept them young and beautiful.
I saw hundreds of people on the ground aging a year for every one of my breaths. I watched them wither away to nothing, for the most part. It seemed that half-breeds came in a couple of flavors—those who had managed to discipline their thirst for blood, and thus carried on for centuries, and those who had not been half-vampires for very long. Very few of the latter had ranked in the Red King’s Court. It turned out that most of the young half vampires had been working for the Fellowship, and many had already been killed by the Reds—but I heard later that more than two hundred others had been freed from their curse.
But for me, it wouldn’t matter how many I’d freed in that instant of choice. No matter how high the number, it would need to be plus one to be square in my book.
Inevitably, the Red Court had contained a few newbies, and after the ritual went off, they were merely human again. They, and the other humans too dim to run any sooner, didn’t last long once the Grey Council broke open the cattle car and freed the prisoners. The terror the Reds had inflicted on their victims became rage, and the deaths the Reds and their retainers suffered as a result weren’t pretty ones. I saw a matronly woman who was all alone beat Alamaya to death with a rock.
I didn’t get involved. I’d had enough for one day.
I sat and I rocked my daughter until she fell asleep against me. My godmother came to sit beside me, her gown singed and spattered with blood, a contented smile upon her face. People talked to me. I ignored them. They didn’t push. I think Lea was warning them off.
Ebenezar, still bearing the Blackstaff in his left hand, came to me sometime later. He looked at the Leanansidhe and said, “Family business. Please excuse us.”
She smirked at him and inclined her head. Then she stood up and drifted away.
Ebenezar sat down next to me on the eastern steps of the temple of Kukulcan and stared out at the jungle around us, beneath us. “Dawn’s about here,” he said.
I looked. He was right.
“Locals stay hidden in their houses until sunrise around here. Red Court would meet here sometimes. Induct new nobility and so on. Survival trait.”
“Yeah,” I said. It was like that a lot, especially in nations that didn’t have a ton of international respect. Something weird happens in Mexico; twenty million people can say that they saw it and no one cares.
“Sun comes up, they’ll be out. They’ll call authorities. People will ask questions.”
I listened to his statements and didn’t disagree with any of them. After a moment, I realized that they were connected to a line of thought, and I said, “It’s time to go.”
“Aye, soon,” Ebenezar said.
“You never told me, sir,” I said.
He was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, “I’ve done things in my life, Hoss. Bad things. I’ve made enemies. I didn’t want you to have them, too.” He sighed. “At least . . . not until you were ready.” He looked around at the remains of the Red Court. “Reckon you more or less are.”
I thought about that while the sky grew lighter. Then I said, “How did Arianna know?”
Ebenezar shook his head. “A dinner. Maggie—my Maggie—asked me to a dinner. She’d just taken up with that Raith bastard. Arianna was there. Maggie didn’t warn me. They had some scheme they wanted my support on. The vampires thought I was just Maggie’s mentor, then.” He sighed. “I wanted nothing to do with it. Said she shouldn’t want it, either. And we fought.”
I grunted. “Fought like family.”
“Yes,” he said. “Raith missed it. He’s never had any family that was sane. Arianna saw it. Filed it away for future reference.”
“Is everything in the open now?” I asked.
“Everything’s never in the open, son,” he responded. “There’re things we keep hidden from one another. Things we hide from ourselves. Things that are kept hidden from us. And things no one knows. You always learn the damnedest things at the worst possible times. Or that’s been my experience.”
“Sergeant Murphy told me what happened.”
I felt my neck tense. “She saw it?”
He nodded. “Reckon so. Hell of a hard thing to do.”
“It wasn’t hard,” I said quietly. “Just cold.”
“Oh, Hoss,” he said. There was more compassion in the words than you’d think would fit there.
Figures in grey gathered at the bottom of the stairs. Ebenezar eyed them with a scowl. “Time for me to go, looks like.”
I nudged my brain and looked down at them. “You brought them here. For me.”
“Not so much,” he said. He nodded at the sleeping child. “For her.”
“What about the White Council?”
“They’ll get things sorted out soon,” he said. “Amazing how things fell apart just long enough for them to sit them out.”
“With Cristos running it.”
“He’s Black Council,” I said.
“Or maybe stupid,” Ebenezar countered.
I thought about it. “Not sure which is scarier.”
Ebenezar blinked at me, then snorted. “Stupid, Hoss. Every time. Only so many blackhearted villains in the world, and they only get uppity on occasion. Stupid’s everywhere, every day.”
“How’d Lea arrange a signal with you?” I asked.
“That,” Ebenezar said sourly. “On that score, Hoss, I think our elders ran their own game on us.”
He nodded down the stairs, where the tall figure with the metal-headed staff had begun creating another doorway out of green lightning. Once it was formed, the space beneath the arch shimmered, and all the hooded figures at the bottom of the stairs looked up at us.
I frowned and looked closer. Then I realized that the metal head of the staff was a blade, and that the tall man was holding a spear. Within the hood, I saw a black eye patch, a grizzled beard, and a brief, grim smile. He raised the spear to me in a motion that reminded me, somehow, of a fencer’s salute. Then he turned and vanished into the gate. One by one, the other figures in grey began to follow him.
“Vadderung,” I said.
Ebenezar grunted. “That’s his name this time. He doesn’t throw in often. When he does, he goes to the wall. And in my experience, it means things are about to get bad.” He pursed his lips. “He doesn’t give recognition like that lightly, Hoss.”
“I talked to him a couple of days ago,” I said. “He told me about the curse. Put the gun in my hand for me and showed me where to point it.”
Ebenezar nodded. “He taught Merlin, you know. The original Merlin.”
“How’d Merlin make out?” I asked.
“No one’s sure,” Ebenezar said. “But from his journals . . . he wasn’t the kind to go in his sleep.”
The old man stood and used his right hand to pull his hood up over his face. He paused and then looked at me. “I won’t lecture you about Mab, boy. I’ve made bargains myself, sometimes.” He twitched his left hand, which was still lined with black veins, though not as much as it had been hours before. “We do what we think we must, to protect who we can.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“She might lean on you pretty hard. Try to put you into a box you don’t want to be in. But don’t let her. She can’t take away your will. Even if she can make it seem that way.” He sighed again, but there was bedrock in his voice. “That’s the one thing all these dark beings and powers can’t do. Take away your ability to choose. They can kill you. They can make you do things—but they can’t make you
to do ’em. They almost always try to lie to you about that. Don’t fall for it.”
“I won’t,” I said. I looked up at him and said, “Thank you, Grandfather.”
He wrinkled up his nose. “Ouch. That doesn’t fit.”
“Grampa,” I said. “Gramps.”
He put his hand against his chest.
I smiled a little. “Sir.”
He nodded at the child. “What will you do with her?”
“What I see fit,” I said, but gently. “Maybe it’s better if you don’t know.”
Both pain and faintly amused resignation showed in his face. “Maybe it is. See you soon, Hoss.”
He got halfway down the stairs before I said, “Sir? Do you want your staff?”
He nodded at me. “You keep it, until I can get you a new blank.”
I nodded back at him. Then I said, “I don’t know what to say.”
His eyes wrinkled up even more heavily at the corners. “Hell, Hoss. Then don’t say anything.” He turned and called over his shoulder, “You get in less trouble that way!”
My grandfather kept going down the stairs, walking with quick, sure strides. He vanished through the doorway of lightning.
I heard steps behind me, and turned to find Murphy standing in the entrance of the temple.
rode over one shoulder, and her P-90 hung from its strap on the other. She looked tired. Her hair was all coming out of its ponytail, strands hanging here and there. She studied my face, smiled slightly, and came down to where I sat.
“Hey,” she said, her voice hushed. “You back?”
“I guess I am.”
“Sanya was worried,” she said, with a little roll of her eyes.
“Oh,” I said. “Well. Tell him not to worry. I’m still here.”
She nodded and stepped closer. “So this is her?”
I nodded, and looked down at the sleeping little girl. Her cheeks were pink. I couldn’t talk.
“She’s beautiful,” Murphy said. “Like her mother.”
I nodded and rolled one tired and complaining shoulder. “She is.”
“Do you want someone else to take her for a minute?”
My arms tightened on the child, and I felt myself turn a little away from her.
“Okay,” Murphy said gently, raising her hands. “Okay.”
I swallowed and realized that I was parched. Starving. And, more than anything, I was weary. Desperately, desolately tired. And the prospect of sleep was terrifying. I turned to look at Murphy and saw the pain on her face as she watched me. “Karrin,” I said. “I’m tired.”
I looked down at the child, a sleepy, warm little presence who had simply accepted what meager shelter and comfort I had been able to offer. And I thought my heart would break. Break more. Because I knew that I couldn’t be what she needed. That I could never give her what she had to have to stand a chance of growing up strong and sane and happy.
Because I had made a deal. If I hadn’t done it, she’d be dead—but because I had, I couldn’t be what she deserved to have.
Never looking away from the little girl’s face, I whispered, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Yes,” Karrin said. Such a simple word, to have so much reassuring mass.
My throat tightened and my vision blurred. It took me two tries to speak. “Please take her to Father Forthill, when we get b-back,” I said. “T-tell him that she needs to disappear. The safest place he has. That I . . .” My voice failed. I took deep breaths and said, “And I don’t need to know where. T-tell him that for me.”