Authors: Jim Butcher
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
I tore the rug from the trapdoor again. I’d packed almost all of my questionable materials into a large nylon gym bag. I slung it over my shoulder, grabbed my duster, staff, and blasting rod, and nearly killed myself trying to go down the ladder too quickly. I stopped a couple of steps from the bottom and reached up to close the trapdoor again. There was a pair of simple bolts on the lower side of the door, so that I or the grasshopper could signal the other that something delicate was in progress, and distractions might be dangerous. I locked the door firmly.
“What’s going on?” blurted Bob from his shelf.
“Bob, I need the wards down
“Why don’t you just—”
“Because they’ll come back up five minutes after I’ve used the disarming spell. I need them
. Get off your bony ass and do it!”
“But that will knock them out for at least a week—”
it, and hurry! You have my permission to leave the skull for that purpose.”
“Aye-aye, O captain, my captain,” Bob said sourly. A small cloud of orange sparkling light flowed out of the skull’s eye sockets and rushed upstairs through the cracks at the edge of the trapdoor.
I immediately started dumping things into my bag. I was making a mess doing it, too, but there was no help for that.
Less than half a minute later, Bob returned and flowed back into the skull again. “There’re a bunch of guys in suits and uniforms knocking on the door, Harry.”
“Why?” he asked. “What’s going on?”
“Trouble,” I said. “What do I have in here that’s illegal?”
“Do I look like an attorney? These ain’t law books I’m surrounded by.”
There was a heavy slam of impact from upstairs. Whoever was up there was trying a ram on the door. Good luck with that, boys. I’d had my door knocked down before. I had installed a heavy metal security door that nothing short of explosives was going to overcome.
“Where’s the ghost dust?” I asked.
“One shelf over, two up, cigar tin in a brown cardboard box,” Bob said promptly.
“Thanks,” I said. “That section of rhino horn?”
“Under the shelf to your left, plastic storage bin.”
So it went, with Bob’s flawless memory speeding the process. I wound up stuffing the bag full. Then I tore the Paranet map off the wall and added it to the bag, and tossed the directory of contact numbers for its members in next to it. The last thing I needed was the FBI deciding that I was the hub of a network of terrorist cells.
Bob’s skull went in, too. I zipped the bag closed, leaving just enough opening for Bob to see out. Last, I took the two Swords (at least one of which had been used in murders in the Chicago area), slipped them through some straps on the side of the bag, and then hurriedly duct-taped them into place, just to be sure I wouldn’t lose them. Then I drew on my duster and slung the bag’s strap over my shoulder with a grunt. The thing was heavy.
Bangs and bumps continued upstairs. There was a sudden, sharp cracking sound. I winced. The door and its frame might be industrial-strength, but the house they were attached to was a wooden antique from the previous turn of the century. It sounded like something had begun to give.
“I told you,” Bob said. “You should have found out what was on the other side from here long before now.”
“And I told
,” I replied, “that the last thing I wanted to do was thin the barrier between my own home and the bloody Nevernever by going through it and then attracting the attention of whatever hungry boogity-boo was on the other side.”
“And you were wrong,” Bob said smugly. “And I told you so.”
There was a tremendous crash upstairs, and someone shouted, “FBI!” at the same time someone else was shouting, “Chicago PD!”
An instant later, someone let out a startled curse and a gun went off.
“What was that?” screamed a rather high-pitched voice.
“A cat,” said Agent Tilly’s voice, dripping with disdain. “You opened fire on a freaking cat. And missed.”
Mister. My heart pounded in my chest. I’d forgotten all about him. But, true to his nature, Mister seemed to have taken care of his own daring escape.
There were chuckles from several voices.
“It isn’t funny,” snapped the other voice. It was Rudolph, all right. “This guy is dangerous.”
“Clear,” called a voice from another room—which meant my bedroom and bathroom, since it was the only other room available. “Nothing in here.”
“Dammit,” Rudolph said. “He’s here somewhere. Are you sure your men spotted him through the window?”
“They saw someone moving around in here not five minutes ago. Doesn’t mean it was him.” There was a pause and then Agent Tilly said, “Or, gee. Maybe he’s down in the subbasement under that trapdoor over there.”
“You still have men in place at the windows?” Rudolph asked.
“Yes,” Tilly said wearily. He raised his voice a bit, as if speaking to someone on the far side of a large room. “This place is buttoned up. There’s nowhere for him to go. Let’s just hope he shows himself and gives himself up quietly. We’ll be sure to respect all his rights and everything, and if he cooperates, this could be over pretty quickly.”
I paused. I had some choices to make.
I could still do as Tilly suggested. In the long run, it was obviously the best choice for me. I’d be questioned and cleared by anyone reasonable (i.e., not Rudolph). I could even point them at the duchess’s business interests and turn them loose to become a thorn in her side. After that, I would be back to the status quo of wary cooperation with the authorities—but that process would take precious time. A couple of days at the very least.
I didn’t have that kind of time.
Agent Tilly struck me as someone not entirely unreasonable. But if I approached him now, protesting my innocence, and then vanished, I’d be up for resisting arrest at the very least. Even if everything else in this mess panned out in my favor, that could get me jail time, which I wished to avoid. Besides. There wasn’t anything Tilly could do for Maggie.
And, I had to admit it, I was
. This was my home, dammit. You don’t just break down the door of a man’s home on the say-so of a snake like Rudolph. I had plenty of anger already stored up, but hearing those voices in my living room added another large lump to the mound. I doubted my ability to remain polite for very long.
So instead of stopping to talk, I turned to the summoning circle, stepped into it, summoned up my will, and whispered, “
I waved my staff from left to right, infusing the tool with my will, and reality rolled up along it like a scroll. Soft green light began to emanate from the empty air in front of me in a rectangular area seven feet tall and half as wide—a doorway between my apartment and the Nevernever. I had no idea what was on the other side.
The bolts to the trapdoor began to rattle. I heard someone call for a saw. The door wasn’t closely fitted. They’d be able to slip a saw blade through the crack and slice those two bolts in seconds.
I gathered up my power into a defensive barrier around me, running it through my shield bracelet, and gritted my teeth. My heart pounded against my chest. It was entirely possible that walking through that doorway between worlds would take me to the bottom of a lake of molten lava, or over the edge of a rushing waterfall. There was no way to know until I actually stepped into it.
“I told you so!” Bob chortled.
An electric engine buzzed above me and then abruptly died. Someone made puzzled sounds. Then a slender steel blade slipped through the crack in the door and someone started cutting through the bolts by hand.
I stepped out of the real world and into the Nevernever.
I was braced for whatever would happen. Freezing cold. Searing heat. Crushing depth of water—even utter vacuum. The sphere of force around me was airtight, and would keep me alive even in someplace like outer space, at least for a few moments.
I emerged into the Nevernever, my shields at full strength, my blasting rod ready to unleash hell, as the invisible sphere of force around me slammed into—
—a rather lovely bed of daisies.
My shields mashed them flat. The entire bed, in its little white planter, immediately resembled a pressed-flower collection.
I looked around slowly, my body tight and ready, my senses focused.
I was in a garden.
It looked like an Italian number. Only a minority of the shrubs and flowers were planted in raised beds. The others had been laid out to give the impression that they had grown naturally into the space they occupied. Grassy paths wound through the irregularly shaped garden, twisting and turning this way and that. A hummingbird the size of a silver dollar darted down and tucked its beak into a particularly bright flower, and then vanished again. A bee buzzed by—just a regular old bumblebee, not some giant mutant monster thing.
Don’t laugh. I’ve seen them over there.
I adjusted the shielding spell to allow air to pass through it and took a suspicious, cautious sniff. It might look like a nice place, but for all I knew the atmosphere was laced with chlorine gas.
It smelled like autumn sunshine, where the days might be balmy but the nights could carry a heavy nip. Letting the air in meant that sound had an easier time getting past my shield. Birds chirped lazily. Somewhere nearby, there was running water.
Bob started tittering. “Look out! Look out for the vicious mega-squirrel, boss!” he said, hardly able to speak clearly. “My gosh! That ficus is about to molest you!”
I glowered down at the skull and returned to watching my surroundings for a moment more. Then I carefully lowered the shields. They burned a hell of a lot of energy. If I tried to hold them up for more than a few moments, I’d find myself too weary to function.
It was just a sleepy afternoon in a very pleasant, pretty garden.
“You should have seen your face,” Bob said, still twitching with muffled laughter. “Like you were going to face an angry dragon or something.”
“Shut up,” I told him quietly. “This is the Nevernever. And it’s way too easy.”
“Not every place in the spirit world is a nightmare factory, Harry,” Bob scolded me. “It’s a universe of balance. For every place of darkness, there is also one of light.”
I turned another slow circle, checking for threats, before I took my staff and waved it from left to right again, shutting the gateway back to my laboratory. Then I returned to cautiously scanning the area.
“Stars and stones, Harry,” Bob said merrily. “I guess wearing that grey cloak for so long rubbed off on you. Paranoid much?”
I glowered and never stopped scanning. “Way. Too. Easy.”
Five minutes later, nothing had happened. It’s difficult to stay properly intimidated and paranoid when there is no evident threat and when the surroundings are so generally peaceful.
“Okay,” I said, finally. “Maybe you’re right. Either way, we need to get moving. Hopefully we can find somewhere one of us recognizes that can get us back to the Ways.”
“You want to leave a trail of bread crumbs or something?” Bob asked.
“That’s what you’re for,” I said. “Remember how to get back here.”
“Check,” he said. “Which way are we going?”
There were three paths. One wandered among high grasses and soaring trees. Another was pebbled and ran uphill, with plenty of large rocks figuring in the landscaping. The third had greenish cobblestones, and led through a field of nice low flowers that left lots of visibility around us. I went with option three, and started down the cobbled path.
After twenty or thirty paces, I started to get uneasy. There was no reason for it that I could see. It was pure instinct.
“Bob?” I asked after a moment. “What kinds of flowers are these?”
“Primroses,” the skull replied instantly.
I stopped in my tracks. “Oh. Crap.”
The earth shook.
The ground heaved around my feet, and along the primrose path ahead of me, the walking stones writhed and lifted up out of the soil. They proved to be the gently rounded crowns of segments of exoskeleton. Said segments belonged to the unthinkably large green centipede that had just begun shaking its way loose from the soil as we spoke. I watched in sickly fascination as the creature lifted its head from the soil, fifty feet away from us, and turned to look our way. Its mandibles clacked together several times, reminding me of an enormous set of shears. They were large enough to cut me in half at the waist.
I looked behind us and saw another fifty or sixty feet of the path ripping free, and looked down to see that the walking stone I stood upon was also part of the creature, albeit the last to unplant itself.
I fought to keep my balance as the stone ripped free, but I wound up being dumped into a bed of primroses while the enormous centipede’s head slithered left and right and rolled toward me at a truly alarming rate.
Its enormous eyes glittered brightly, and slime dripped from its hungrily snapping jaws. Its hundreds of legs each dug into the ground to propel its weight forward, their tips like tent stakes, biting the earth. It sounded almost like a freaking locomotive.
I looked from the centipede down to the skull. “I told
so!” I screamed. “Way! Too! Easy!”
This was not what I’d had in mind when I got out of bed that morning.
The damned thing
have been slow. By every law of physics, by every right, a centipede that big should have been
. Dinosauric. Elephantine.
But this was the Nevernever. You didn’t play by the same rules here. Physics were sort of a guideline, and a very loose and elastic guideline at that. Here, the mind and heart had more sway than the material, and the big bug was
. That enormous, predatory head shot at me like the engine of some psychotic locomotive, its killer jaws spreading wide.
Fortunately for me, I was, just barely, faster.
I brought forth my left hand, holding it out palm forth in a gesture of command and denial, a universal pose meaning one thing:
Intent was important in this place. As the jaws closed, I brought up my spherical shield to meet it, the energy humming through my bracelet’s charms, which burst into shining light as the magic coursing through them shone through the ephemeral substance of mere material metals.
The jaws closed with a crunch and a crash, and my bracelet flared even brighter. The shield exploded in more colors and shapes than a company of kaleidoscopes, and turned aside the beast’s jaws—its strength, after all, was just one more bit of materially oriented power in an immaterial realm.
I brought my right hand out of my coat holding my blasting rod, and with a shouted word loosed a sledgehammer of searing power. It dipped down and then curled up an instant before it hit, landing a sorcerous uppercut on what passed for the centipede’s chin. It flung the creature’s head several yards up, and its entire body rippled in agony.
Which, in retrospect, probably shouldn’t have caught me quite as off guard as it did.
The ground beneath my feet heaved and bucked, and I went flying, my arms whirling in a useless windmill. I landed in a sprawl amid ranks of primroses, which immediately began to move, lashing out with tiny stem-tendrils lined with wickedly sharp little thorns. Even as I struggled back to my feet, tearing them away from my wrists and ankles, I noticed that the flowers around me had begun to blush a deep bloodred.
“You know what, Harry!” Bob called. “I don’t think this is a garden at all!”
“Genius,” I muttered, as the centipede recovered its balance and began reorienting itself to attack. Its body flowed forward, following the motion of its head. I decided that all those legs hitting the earth like posthole diggers in steady sequence made the giant bug sound less like a locomotive than a big piece of farm equipment churning by.
I ran at it, focusing my will beneath me, planted my staff on the earth, and swung my legs up in a pole vaulter’s leap. I unleashed my will beneath and behind me as I did, and flew over the thing’s back as it continued surging forward. It let out a rumbling sound of displeasure as I went, the head twisting to follow me, forced to slow down enough to allow its own rearmost legs to get out of its way. It bought me only a few seconds.
Bigger doesn’t mean better, especially in the Nevernever. One second was time enough to turn, focus another beam of fire into a far smaller area, and bring it down like an enormous cutting torch almost precisely across the middle of the big bug’s body, an act of precision magic that I’d learned from Luccio, and which I was not at all confident I could have duplicated in the real world.
The beam, no bigger around than a couple of my fingers, sliced the creature in half as neatly and simply as if I’d used a paper cutter the size of a semi trailer.
It shrieked in pain, a brazen, bellowing sound that conveyed, even from such an alien thing, the depth of its physical agony. Its hindquarters just kept right on rolling forward, as if they hadn’t noticed that the head was gone. The front half of the thing began to veer and waver wildly, its limited brain perhaps overloaded by the effort of sending nerve impulses to bits of its anatomy that no longer existed. It settled into a pattern of chasing its own retreating midsection, rolling in a great circle that crushed the ranks of primroses on either side of the trail.
“Booya!” I shouted in pure triumph, the adrenaline turning my manly baritone into a rather terrified-sounding shriek. “What have you got for fiery beam of death, huh? You got
for fiery beam of death! Might as well go back to Atari, bug-boy, ’cause you don’t got game enough for me!”
It took me five or ten seconds to realize what was happening.
The wound I’d inflicted hadn’t allowed for much bleeding, cauterizing even as it sliced—but even that little bit of bleeding stopped on both severed halves of the monster. The front half’s wounded rear end suddenly rounded out. The second half’s wounded front end shuddered and suddenly warped in place, and then with a wriggling motion, a new head began to writhe free of the severed stump.
Within seconds, both halves had focused on me, and then two of the freaking things rolled at me, jaws clashing and snapping, equally strong, equally as deadly as before. Only they were going to come rushing at me from multiple directions now.
“Wow,” Bob said, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact, conversational tone. “That is incredibly unfair.”
“Been that kind of day,” I said. I swapped my blasting rod for my staff. The rod was great for pitching fire around, but I needed to pull off something more complicated than it was really meant to handle, and my wizard’s staff was a great deal more versatile, meant for handling a broad range of possibilities. I called forth my will and laced it with the soulfire within me, then thrust the staff ahead and called, “
Fuego murus! Fuego vellum!
Energy rushed out of me, and silver-white fire rose up in a ring nearly sixty feet across, three feet thick, and three or four yards high. The roar of the flames seemed to be somehow intertwined with an odd tone that sounded like nothing so much as the voice of a great bell.
The centipedes (plural—Hell’s bells, I needed to stop being so arrogant) rose up onto their rearmost limbs, trying to bridge the wall in a living arch, but they recoiled from the flames even more violently than when I’d slammed the original head with a cannonball of fire.
“Hey, neat working!” Bob said. “The soulfire is a nice touch.”
The effort of managing that much energy caught up to me in a rush, and I found myself gasping and sweating. “Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Of course, now we’re trapped,” Bob noted. “And that wall is going to run out of juice soon. You can keep chopping them up for a while. Then they’ll eat you.”
“Nah,” I said, panting. “We’re in this together. We’ll both get eaten.”
“Ah,” Bob said. “You’d better open a Way back to Chicago, then.”
“Back to my apartment?” I demanded. “The FBI is there just waiting to slap cuffs onto me.”
“Then I guess you shouldn’t have become a terrorist, Harry!”
Bob raised his voice and shouted toward the centipedes, “I’m not with him!”
None of my options were good ones. Getting eaten by a supernaturally resilient centipede-demon would be an impediment to my rescue effort. Getting locked up by the FBI wouldn’t be much better, but at least with the feds putting me in a cell, I’d have a chance to walk out of it—unlike the centipedes’ stomach. Stomachs.
But I couldn’t walk back into my apartment with a bag full of no-nos. I’d have to hide them before I got there—and that meant leaving the bag here. That wasn’t exactly a brilliant idea, but I didn’t have much in the way of a choice. I would have to take whatever precautions I could to hide the bag and hope that they were enough.
Earth magic isn’t my forte. It is an extremely demanding discipline, physically speaking. You are, after all, talking about an awful lot of weight being moved around. Using magic doesn’t mean you get to ignore physics. The energy for creating heat or motion comes from a different source, but it still has to interact with reality along the same lines as any other kind of energy. That means that affecting tons of earth takes an enormous amount of energy, and it’s damned difficult—but not impossible. Ebenezar had insisted that I learn at least one very useful, if enormously taxing, spell with earth magic. It would be the effort of an entire day to use it in the real world. But here, in the Nevernever . . .
I lifted my staff, pointed it at the ground before me, and intoned in a deep, heavy monotone, “
” I unleashed my will as I did, though I was already winded, and the earth and stone beneath my feet cracked open, a black gap opening like a stony mouth a few inches in front of my toes.
“Oh, no, no,” Bob said. “You are
going to put me in—”
It was an enormous effort to my swiftly tiring body, but I pitched the bag, with the Swords, Bob, and all, into the hole. It vanished into the dark, along with Bob’s scream of, “You’d better come back!”
The furious hissing of the enraged centipedes sliced through the air.
I pointed my staff at the hole again and intoned, “
” More of my strength flooded out of me, and as quickly as that, the hole mended itself again, with the earth and stone that the bag and its contents displaced being dispersed into a wide area, resulting in little more than a very slight and difficult-to-see hump in the ground. The spell would make retrieval of the gear difficult for anyone who didn’t know exactly where it was, and I had put it deep enough to hide it from anyone who wasn’t specifically looking for it. I hoped.
Bob and the Swords were as safe as it was possible for me to make them, under the circumstances, and my wall of silver fire was steadily dwindling. It was time to get going while I still could.
My legs were shaking with fatigue and I leaned hard on my staff to keep from falling over. I needed one more effort of will to escape this prettily landscaped death trap, and after that—
The ring of fire had fallen low enough that one of the centipedes arched up into the air, forming a bridge of its own body, and flowed over it and onto the ground outside. Its multifaceted eyes fixed upon me and its jaws clashed in hungry anticipation.
I turned away, focused my thoughts and will, and with a slashing motion of my hand cut a tiny slice into the air, opening a narrow doorway, a mere crack, between the Nevernever and reality. Then I threw myself at it.
I had never gone through such a narrow opening before. I felt as if it were smashing me flat in some kind of spiritual trash compactor. It hurt, an instant of such savage agony that it seemed to stretch out into an hour, all while my thoughts were compressed into a single, impossibly dense whole, a psychic black hole where every dark and leaden emotion I’d ever felt seemed to suffuse and poison every thought and memory, adding an overwhelming heartache to the physical torment.
The instant passed, and I was through the narrow opening. I sensed a fraction of a second in which the centipede tried to follow, but the slit I’d opened between worlds had healed itself almost instantaneously.
I tumbled through about three feet of empty air, banged my hip on the side of the worktable in my lab, and hit the concrete floor like a sack of exhausted bricks.
People started shouting and someone piled onto me, rolling me onto my chest and planting a knee in my spine as they hauled my arms around behind my back. There was a bunch of chatter to which I paid no heed. I hurt too much, and was too damned tired to care.
Honestly, the only thought in my mind at the time was a sense of great relief at being arrested. Now I could kick back and relax in a nice pair of handcuffs.
Or maybe a straitjacket, depending on how things went.