I ran around the corner, and spent a moment staring at the display of martial skill in front of me. Corpsetaker and Captain Luccio were fighting, their blades blurs of steel in the shadows. It was so fast, so closely matched, that I had no idea how to help Luccio without getting her killed. I raised my .44 and hoped for a clear shot, but there was a flicker of lightning and Corpsetaker saw me over Luccio's shoulder. Something lit her eyes, a gleam of calculation, and she swung in with a particularly brutal slash. It forced Luccio to turn slightly, and now the Captain was between me and Corpsetaker. I snarled in frustration.
Luccio heard me, I was certain of it; she began to wheel Corpsetaker back, slowly driving the necromancer around so they were side-on to me. I took aim again, and as I did Corpsetaker batted Luccio's sword away and sprang at me. I fired even as I threw myself to the ground, the bullet taking her in the stomach as her tulwar scraped across the right shoulder of my duster. Even with the magical reinforcements, pain welled up in my shoulder. No time to moan about it. I pushed against the ground with my left hand, and rose into a sitting position. Corpsetaker was was lying on her back beside me, one hand reaching towards me. I wrapped my left hand around my right wrist, and jerked the .44 around to aim at Corpsetaker's cute, dimpled face. As my finger tightened on the trigger, Corpsetaker's hand brushed my knee.
Suddenly I was falling, spinning through a dark tunnel. I could feel something slipping away from me, a chill creeping over me, and I knew that I was dying. Was this Corpsetaker's death curse? Then I slammed into something, an abrupt wall of sensation. I could feel my body again. And it hurt. There was a stabbing pain in my gut, and I could feel something warm and wet seeping over my stomach. I lifted my head from the ground – had the curse made me fall over? – and looked down my body at the wound. There was a ragged hole in my stomach, ugly and agonising.
More importantly, I had breasts.
I looked up, and saw myself standing over me, wearing a look of cruel amusement that made me feel ill. Shock and impotent fury washed through me, mastering the pain for a short instant. Corpsetaker had let me shoot her, then stolen my body! I watched myself bend over to pick up the .44, and tried to say something, tried to warn Luccio. I couldn't.
"Finish her, Dresden," said a voice somewhere behind me. "Time runs away from us."
"Of course, Captain," my own voice said, and I saw the corner of my mouth curl upwards. Corpsetaker swung the .44 down to aim at my new chest. I tried to gather my will, tried to say something, but I couldn't concentrate around the white-hot pain gnawing at my belly.
My host, let me assist you! A feminine voice murmured in my ear. Or your beloved city will perish.
You're still here? I asked her.
Until you take up the coin. She replied, a hint of amusement in her voice.
What can you do? I snarled in response. I suppose you want me to call the coin? Corpsetaker was moving far too slowly, and I realised Lasciel was altering my perceptions.
Allow me access to your magic, and I can heal your wound, Lasciel whispered in my ear. My original self need not be involved.
The gun was slowly tracking towards my face. The muzzle seemed huge and dark. Portentous. If I let Corpsetaker get the drop on Luccio, half the Wardens here would be down, and Chicago would be screwed. I had a shot at stopping that. And what was one more compromise with my darker self? Fine, I snapped inside my head. Heal me.
It will hurt, Lasciel murmured.
I was going to make a witty retort about how the bullet wound didn't exactly sting, but then Lasciel reached through my mind and into my magic. I could feel her weave something in the blink of an eye, a complex binding that hummed with dark power. It wrapped around my stomach, and I squeezed my eyes shut as my whole body exploded with pain. Before I could scream, the pain vanished – including the pain in my abdomen. I felt fine. I opened my eyes and sat up, grabbing my old hand and wrenching the .44 to the side.
"Luccio!" I shouted, and tried not to flinch at my lovely contralto voice. "I'm Dresden! Corpsetaker stole my body after I shot her!"
Corpsetaker snarled and kicked me in the ribs, pushing me away from my old body and breaking my grip on the necromancer's wrist. She – he now – raised the gun to fire over me, presumably at Luccio. I twisted my supine body, slamming my foot into Corpsetaker's knee. He twisted with the blow as he fired, and before he could recover a needle of flame shot over me and through his head, turning it into a charred mess. I watched my own body crumple to the ground. I'd always expected to die violently, but I'd never thought I'd see it from the outside.
Luccio leaned in over me, grabbing my cheeks and staring directly into my eyes. Right. Soulgaze, to make sure this was me. Good thinking. I fell into the Captain's eyes. She walked through the centre of a battle, and enemies fell before her. Their blows rebounded from her armour, a hogepodge of metal plates that seemed effective nonetheless. As I watched, a lucky blow slipped through a gap and drew blood. Luccio knocked the blade away and ran her enemy through, then reached down and snapped off a piece of the fallen man's armour. She rubbed it in her blood, then placed it over the wound; it stayed there, now just another part of her armour. Luccio walked on.
My vision cleared, and Luccio was still kneeling above me, her gaze sharp. "Come on, Dresden," she said. "I need to get you to the safe house."
I frowned. Lasciel, I said inside my head. How long will this binding last?
As long as you require it, a voice murmured in my ear, accompanied by the sensation of lips against the back of my neck. However, the longer it remains, the more it draws upon your life force. I would not advise its use for more than a few hours.
This thing is eating my soul? I thought furiously as I clambered to me feet, clumsy in a body that was smaller and slighter than I remembered being.
Nibbling, my host, the fallen angel said with a chuckle. Nothing permanent.
Funny. Now shoo.
I live to serve, Lasciel said, and faded from my awareness.
"Walk with me, Dresden," Luccio said impatiently. I realised she had my arm slung over my shoulder, and straightened my back.
"I'm fine," I said, and pulled away from her to look down at my body. I bent down, took my mother's pentacle amulet and slung it around my own neck. I stripped the rings off my fingers, the shield bracelet from my wrist, and finally pulled the revolver from my cold, dead hand. "This is so weird," I murmured, and winced at the sound of my voice. I sounded…girlish. I contemplated my duster, then realised it would get under my feet. Tripping in the middle of magical combat was a no-no. I sighed.
"Dresden, what are you doing?" Luccio asked.
I shrugged, and turned to face her. "I'm doing the job you asked me to do." I stuck the revolver in the pocket of my form-fitting jeans.
"You have a stomach wound, how can you possibly—" Luccio broke off, staring at my stomach. "Dresden, what have you done to yourself? Never mind," she said, shaking her head. "Now is not the time. Can you fight?"
"Yep." I leaned down again, and pulled the duster off my corpse. "Can you, uh, burn my body? I don't want my friends thinking I'm dead, before I get a chance to…uh…"
Luccio flicked a hand, and flames consumed my body. It was ash in moments. I stared at it for a long second, and threw the duster behind a bush to pick up later.
"We need to move," Luccio said quietly.
"Right. Vortex of necromantic energy about to consume central Chicago." I looked around. "Where's Morgan and Ramirez?"
"Here," Morgan rumbled from behind me. I turned, and he had his broadsword in hand, ready to swing at me from behind. Ramirez was there as well, his Glock aimed at my centre of mass. "Captain?" Morgan asked.
"It's Dresden," she said briskly. "Corpsetaker let him shoot her, then stole his body. I turned her to ash. We must move; the spell is reaching its end."
"Hurm. My condolences, Dresden," Morgan said, and sheathed his broadsword. Was that a gleam of savage amusement in his eyes? "Get to the apartment building; I sent your assistant there as well."
"Uh-uh," I said, disagreeing with Morgan almost on reflex. I pulled my thoughts together. "You need me to control Sue. I've got my gut wound on hold for the time being, so let's saddle up." Morgan frowned, and Ramirez raised an eyebrow, but Luccio had my back.
"Dresden is correct. We need the…dinosaur.." Even the Captain of Wardens tripped over saying that a little, I realised with weary satisfaction. "To reach the centre of the storm. Let us go." Luccio leaned towards me, and spoke again more quietly. "We will discuss the nature of this binding at a later time, Warden."
A minute later, I was riding a dinosaur once more, with the others clinging to the makeshift harness and saddle behind me.
"I'm going to swing around, take them from the rear," I shouted over the wind.
"Once we reach the central point," Luccio shouted back. "Morgan and I will disembark and engage them from the ground. Ramirez, you give covering fire and shield Dresden. Dresden, do your best to keep the undead occupied. Remember, our primary goal is to prevent them from drawing down the vortex. Kill them if you can, but we need only distract them until the spell ends."
"Gotcha," I yelled back. Morgan nodded grimly, and Ramirez reached over Sue's spine to give Luccio a thumbs-up. "So we've got Grevane, Cowl, and Cowl's apprentice Kumori. Grevane's pretty good with a chain, and Cowl's really strong – like, Senior Council strong."
"His apprentice?" Morgan asked.
"No idea," I said honestly. "But she brought someone back to life a few days ago; she might still be drained." Sue pounded around the final corner. "Here we go…uh."
A crowd of zombies stretched out before us. They weren't the recently dead walking corpses that I'd been fighting over the past few days; these were ancient bodies, filled with dark power. Most of them looked Native American. These zombies would be faster, stronger, harder to kill than normal. And there were dozens of them. I took a deep breath, and directed my will at Sue. My steed roared, a primal challenge that was wasted on the undead, and charged forward. I heard a shout from somewhere ahead, and the zombies surged forward.
The zombies were strong, but weren't thirteen feet high, and they didn't weigh seven tons. Sue ploughed through them on momentum along, scattering them like tenpins. A couple managed to sink their arms into her flesh and begin tearing, but the Wardens behind me disposed of them with needles of flame and bursts of green energy. Working with a team was kind of cool. Sue burst through the final rank of zombies, one clawed foot splintering a picnic table as she entered the clear space beneath the vortex. I willed Sue to a halt, and Luccio and Morgan released their grips on the harness and slid to the ground.
Squinting into the darkness, I saw Grevane charge Morgan and Luccio, swinging a chain.
"Dresden, the zombies?" Ramirez said behind me. Grevane zombies were moving again, swarming towards the picnic tables to distract Morgan and Luccio.
"Right!" I wheeled Sue, and her tail cut a swath through the zombies as she shifted around; I tried to ignore the fact that my centre of gravity was different. I urged Sue forward on an angle, her head dipping to bite and tear at the zombies to the side as I guided her in a circle around the fight. Grevane had some kind of animated shadow around him, both shielding him and spinning outwards to snap at his opponents. Ramirez was throwing jets of green light which disintegrated zombies where they struck, blowing holes in their ranks and preventing them from choking Sue with numbers.
A zombie leapt from the ground and slammed its hands into Sue's flesh, sinking in up to its forearms. I gathered my will, and funneled my dread and helpless nausea at the loss of my own body into a spell.
"Forzare!" I snarled, thrusting my right hand down at the zombie. A burst of force slammed into the creature's head, but wasn't strong enough to knock it away. A couple of days ago, I had used that incantation to flip a car. A streak of green light shot past me and turned the zombie's upper half to dust, and the lower half fell back to the ground. I carefully didn't look back at Ramirez.
I risked a glance at the fight amongst the picnic tables as I wheeled Sue through another circle. Grevane was on the defensive, using his animated shadow to defend against Morgan's blows as he parried Luccio's blows with a length of chain. As I watched, Morgan managed to pierce the shadow with his broadsword. Grevane twisted in pain, allowing Luccio to slide her rapier past his chain and through Grevane's throat. Morgan immediately whipped his sword around and beheaded Grevane; apparently he wasn't taking any chances. There was a tiny moment where both Morgan and Luccio paused, as if waiting for Grevane's body to move.
That was when a blast of flame seared through the air towards them, white-hot and suffocating. Morgan saw it coming and raised a shield, curving it around both himself and Luccio. The blast struck the shield, illuminating its surface in pearly light as more and more flame rushed towards Morgan and Luccio and pooled around the sides of the shield. After a long moment, the stream of flame ended, leaving Morgan on his knees panting. Luccio raised her own shield, turning and throwing out a wide, unfocused blast of force in the direction the stream of flame had come from. Something glittered on the ground around her, and I realised the blast had turned some of the ground to glass.
"Holy shit," said Ramirez behind me.
"Yeah," I agreed, glancing around the area. Grevane's zombies were standing stock still, apparently not the homicidal variety now that there was no will controlling them. I nudged Sue to keep moving, rather than be a standing target, as I thought. With Grevane and Corpsetaker dead, the attacker had to be either Cowl or Kumori. "Watch out for the other one," I called over my shoulder as Luccio and probably-Cowl traded blows of the kind that would blow right through my best shield. "They're pretty good at veils."
There was a thump from behind me, and the sound of something sliding. I went to turn around, but felt something cold and sharp against my throat and went very still.
"Indeed," Kumori said in my ear, reminding me uncomfortably of Lasciel. "It is an area in which I excel."
"The other being the quest for the Philosopher's Stone? No, wait, you're trying to get immortality using death magic." I said.
Kumori made an irritated noise. "Guide this steed towards the two Wardens, or I will kill you." I sent my will down into Sue, and she stopped in place and began to turn towards Luccio and the prostrate Morgan – as slowly as I could make her. "At first we were bewildered to see the Corpsetaker making common cause with the White Council," Kumori went on calmly. "But then I noticed your accoutrements, and deduced what had happened. I assume Corpsetaker's favourite trick failed to convince the Wardens?"
"Pretty much," I said. I definitely wasn't going to mention Lasciel's helping hand. "Morgan and Luccio are the baddest of the bad; your boy Cowl's going to get his ass handed to him."
"Perhaps. Charge the dinosaur at them at full speed." The knife dug into my neck slightly to emphasise the command.
"Aye aye, cap'n," I said, and willed Sue to run – quickly, but not quite ramming speed. "Enjoy the ride." And at my command, Sue threw her weight to the right as I leaned left, leaving Kumori unbalanced and the knife a few inches from my throat. I rolled over Sue's back to the left, throwing up a hasty shield around as I slid down the pebbled skin and hit the ground. As the impact drove the breath from my lungs through my weakened shield, Sue continued to lean to the right. A living creature would never had done it, but Sue was not alive and was forced to obey my will. I lifted my head from the dirt, and saw the dinosaur's massive figure silhouetted against the whirling vortex in the sky. The massive profile began to grow smaller as Sue lost her balance and fell onto her side.
Seven tons of reanimated tyrannosaurus made quite a thump, massive whoomp that shook the earth beneath me and sent dirt flying into the air. Something lit the area, a bolt of lightning thrown by Luccio at Cowl, or possibly the other way around. As the sudden flash of light died, I pushed at the ground and struggled to my feet. I stood up, and I wasn't as tall as I should have been. Pushing through the disorientation, I willed Sue to stop kicking and ran around the other side of the dinosaur to look for Kumori, drawing my .44 from my hip-hugging (hell's bells, I had hips) jeans. Kumori was nowhere to be seen, which I didn't find vastly surprising. Working from years of horror movies at the drive-in, I counted to three slowly, and then spun and dropped to one knee to aim the revolver at whatever had been behind me.
"Well done," Kumori said from behind me. I spun again, trying not to get dizzy, but she was staring up at the vortex. It was only a few feet above our heads. "The circle has grown too unstable for my master to engulf it. You have won – in a sense."
"That's it?" I said in disbelief. "You people come to my city, kill people, cause mass panic and that's it?"
"Defeat was always a possibility," she said, her cloaked shoulders moving in what might have been a shrug. "Goodbye, Harry Dresden. I hope you do not come to regret the price you have paid tonight." Kumori waved a hand, and a rift opened behind her. She stepped backwards without looking, into the patch of summer light visible through the rift into the Nevernever. "Do not meddle again, Dresden. I imagine my master already regrets allowing you to live." And the rift closed.
Above me the vortex was whirling faster, a screaming ghost or looming spectre occasionally glimpsed through the dark clouds and sporadic lightning.
"Dresden! Ramirez!" I heard Luccio yell. "Shield yourselves!" Oh, shit. Ramirez. I called light to my amulet and held it above my head – a whole five feet five – to look for him. There was a grey-cloaked figure groaning on the ground, fifty feet away. Too far to run to him before the vortex discharged itself.
"Carlos!" I shouted, so loud it tore at my throat. "Shields!" The figure didn't move, didn't raise a barrier. "Empty night, Harriet, this is a really bad idea," I said to myself. I started running towards Ramirez, focusing my will as I did. "Forzare!" I screamed in desperation, summoning a minor blast of force that flipped Ramirez off the ground and sent him spinning through the air in my general direction. I ducked to the side to catch him, and pushed every drop of strength I had left into my shield bracelet to raise the strongest barrier I could. Ramirez's weight drove me to the ground, there was an unearthly shriek, and the vortex earthed itself. The world went black.
Awake, wizard, a voice said to me, echoing inside my head. A tide of energy rolled through me, leaving me awake and energetic. I opened my eyes, and shoved Ramirez's snoring head off my chest. The Erlking, source of the voice – and the energy, for some reason – stood over me. You raised a mighty hunter this night,the Erlking said without speaking. Worthy to share this night with the Wild Hunt.
"It was pretty neat," I said with a grin. "Are you going to kill me?"
The Erlking didn't answer right away; he turned his head, as though staring into the distance. I can feel the hunt beginning, he said after a moment. The master has released the hounds, and they bay. Oh, how they bay, little wizard. The Erlking reached up to his helm, snapped off the tip of one horn and tossed it to me. A token of my regard. I shall not slay thee this night, wizard. When you are worthy prey once more, look for me.
"Great," I said under my breath. "I'll look forward to that." The Erlking inclined his head, then turned and strode away from me. A bolt of green lightning hissed down from the sky to strike him, and then he was gone. I looked around. The Wardens – the other Wardens, I amended – were still out cold, and Grevane's zombies were still just standing around. Perfect. I had things to do that I really didn't want anyone to see, not even my allies. Especially my allies. A glint of white caught my eye, and I walked over near Luccio.
"Bob!" I said with delight. "You're here!" His eyeholes flicked with familiar orange light.
"Good to see you're well enough to state the obvious…" His voice trailed off. "Oh my stars. Boss, you've grown breasts!" Bob's voice grew reverent. "This is the greatest night of my life."
"Corpsetaker stole my body, and Luccio had to kill it." I growled, then shook my head. "Anyway. Bob, I need to hide you and – other stuff – so that the Wardens don't confiscate you while I'm healing."
"Healing? From what? You got a total upgrade in the body department, Harry," Bob crowed.
"Healing from the bullet wound in my gut, Bob. How do I hide you from them?"
"Let me out of my skull, and it's just a skull," Bob said matter-of-factly. "Hide it somewhere they won't look for it, and they probably won't find it with magic."
"Fine," I said. The Erlking's little boost was fading, and I was too drained to care what Bob did. "You've got my permission to leave for, um, five days. See you."
I picked up his skull, turned and started walking as Bob let out a cry of delight and rushed away into the night. I had other objects of dark magic to conceal tonight. I went over to Grevane's headless body, and rifled through the pockets until I found the little black book. Then I went back to where my body had been cremated, and rooted around in the bushes for my duster. I wrapped the skull and book in the enchanted leather, along with the bit of the Erlking's horn, then stuffed the duster between a rock and the side of the building and arranged branches around it. With my link to the duster, I could find it again later. Hopefully. With all my indiscretions concealed for the time being, I stumbled back to the Sue's massive corpse and sat down beside it. Ramirez had shifted so his head was on one of Sue's massive toes.
"You've got the right idea, buddy," I murmured. I wasn't sure if I fell asleep, or just passed out.
My face felt cold as I woke up. I was laying on something comfortable, maybe a bed. I blinked a few times, and Captain Luccio came into view. She was standing over me, looking exasperated and a little worried.
"Dresden!" said Luccio, and from the tone of her voice she'd said it more than once. "You must remove the binding."
"Huh?" I said articulately. "Oh. Shiela—Lash…"
Of course, my host, Lasciel said in her normal seductive murmur. I felt her feather-light touch on my magic, and the binding fell apart. The pain slammed back into my stomach, and I arched off the bed with an inarticulate cry. Luccio leaned in and set a hand on my forehead.
"Sleep," she said quietly, her magic twisting a suggestion into the words. I fell back into the dark.
I woke up slowly the next time, enjoying the soft sheets and surprising lack of pain in my stomach. Then I shifted slightly, and felt the sheets moving against unfamiliar curves. I opened my eyes. I was in my own bed. The warm glow of candlelight lit the door to the living room. I cleared my throat.
"Hello?" I shut my mouth, clenching my teeth together at the warm contralto that had replaced my own voice. I heard someone talking in the next room, and Luccio appeared in the doorway.
"Warden Dresden," she said. "Can you feel your wound?"
"Uh…no, actually," I said, reaching down to run a finger over the bandages wrapped around my midsection. "And I don't feel drugged."
"Several of the Council's healers worked on your wound. It's four in the afternoon, now." Luccio pulled over a straight-backed chair that I used as a clothes hanger, and sat down beside me.
"Well, that's nice of them," I said. "I guess the…rest…is permanent?" I waved at my new chest vaguely.
Luccio shook her head. "I'm sorry, Dresden. Without your old body, there's nothing to be done."
"Great," I said, my fingers digging into the sheets. "That's just…brilliant."
Luccio allowed me to feel sorry for myself for a few moments before speaking again.
"Dresden. The binding you used last night."
I looked away. "I wouldn't have used it, Captain. But Corpsetaker was going to shoot you in the back, and probably Ramirez as well."
"He wouldn't turn his back on me," I said with a snort. "But he wouldn't have been able to take Cowl on his own. I'm sorry, Captain. If it had been just me at stake, I wouldn't have done it."
"As a Warden, you will be confronted with many situations where others are at risk, and you must face them while remaining a Warden. Can you do that, Dresden?" Luccio's eyes were sharp. She wanted a real answer. I had to think about it.
"Yes," I said after a moment. I'd done many things that the Council wouldn't approve of or would find suspicious, but I'd never done anything that could conceivably be black magic. Until last night, when I'd let a fallen angel staunch my wound, but hopefully that was going to be a one-off.
"Very well then." Apparently that was all Luccio needed. "The Venatori Umbrorum have some useful contacts in the American government, so your new papers and identification should arrive in a few days. What would you like your name to be?"
"My new papers. Right." I leaned back against the pillows and let out a breath. Goddamn Corpsetaker. I was going to have to rebuild my whole life. I could tell some of my friends what had happened – and wasn't that going to be fun – but as far as the normal world was concerned, Harry Dresden was dead. Did that mean that Quistus' death curse had run its course? "I'm seriously considering Thalia," I told Luccio.
"The muse of comedy?" she said with a small smile. "I was going to suggest Bellona."
"The war goddess? Wouldn't that be a joke."
"I think it entirely appropriate, Dresden." Luccio said seriously. I raised an eyebrow.
"Well, I'll only be using it with the straights…I guess Bellona would work. Bellona Dresden, I can be my own cousin."
"Very good." Luccio stood up. "I will inform the Venatori."
She left the room, and I leaned back into my pillows. I had a fairly intimidating to-do list. Recover Bob and Kemmler's little black book, give the book to Mavra, rebuild my life, and inform Thomas and Murphy of my impromptu sex change. But first…sleep.