With a flick of his wrist, the zombies behind me started to move. I glanced over my shoulder, saw their hands grasping at me. I turned back just in time to see a distortion in the air; a spell coming right at me. I had no time for a shield, so I just threw myself into a roll to the right.
I felt the cold, greasy energy graze me, some of it actually snagging on my duster like paint, tugging at my shoulder. I didn't see what happened to the zombies behind me, but the wet, squelching sounds I heard told me everything I needed to. I came up from the roll with a shield already forming.
Instead of a spell hurling at me, more zombies tried to grab at me. Without dropping the shield, I swept my staff in an arc, shouted "Forzare!" and tossed a couple dozen dead bodies around. But there were plenty more. Then lightning – of course it would be lightning, from a guy with a Frankenstein complex – ripped out of the sky.
I'm pretty sure my shield took the brunt of the strike; either that, or being the Winter Knight came with some curious perks, like an elemental resistance bonus. I landed on my back, my ears ringing. My skull bounced off the pavement with a wonderful cracking sound. I shook my head and both sight and sound came back quickly. A quick glance side to side showed me green grabbing hands coming from all directions.
Somehow, I'd managed to keep my staff, so I lifted it above my head, held it perpendicular to the ground, and shouted "Forzare!" again. It was like swinging from a rope in gym class, after bouncing off a trampoline. The staff exploded upwards like a rocket, and I barely managed to hold on, wrenched off the ground and flung forward.
I came down on my feet, a good fifteen yards from where I'd been, and almost stumbled. There were a couple of brief flares of pain in my joints. I looked around for Cowl, but he'd vanished. I realized that I needed to get off the street. Every dead body here was just another set of hands for him to use against me. Except for the drummers, who were still pounding away, some now with only one arm, they were hemming me in.
I think the most unnerving part of the whole experience was the silence. There was the rustle of clothing, the beats of the drummers, the slap of footsteps, but no voices. It was just disturbing.
I felt a rumble in the street before I noticed the path that the zombie infantry were clearing. The last remaining zombelephant, the one Cowl had been riding earlier, was charging at me, trunk swinging. "Oh, star and stones." I spun around to run, but there was nowhere to run to. I was surrounded by undead soldiers. They weren't grasping for me, but they had formed a solid wall of bodies. I couldn't jump, I couldn't run.
Well, if you can't go around…
I held my arms and legs close together, and concentrated on my shield bracelet, pouring my worry and fear into it. A solid sphere of energy formed around me, and I willed it as solid as I could. The zombelephant charged right into me, and I, in my sphere, went blasting into the horde like a bowling ball. I flipped end over end, knocking bodies aside and getting seriously dizzy.
I kind of exploded out the back of the crowd as my shield fizzled out. I ended up landing hard on my back as I cleared the crowd after a spectacular cartwheel, spilling into the T-intersection. My head managed not to hit the ground that time, which I took as a minor victory. A look down the road showed me only the tail end of the half of Cowl's army – his Second Army, if you will – that was advancing on St. Mary's, easily half a block away and getting farther with each second. Half of the drummers had gone with them. I needed to bring in the big guns.
I pushed myself to my feet as the horde tried to reform around me. And they were quick – so quick! But I had a second or two. I drew in a breath to open a portal to the Nevernever.
My throat stopped working. It was like a hand was choking me from the inside; I couldn't speak, I could barely breathe. It was tight, sharp pain, like swallowing tacks. I dropped my staff and grasped at my neck, for the good it did. I jerked from side to side, and the pressure lessened somewhat; I twisted to the right, and it disappeared on the left, I twisted left, same on my right. I couldn't turn very far; my legs were pinned, too.
Okay, think calmly, I told myself. The paralysing spell weakens from side to side, so it's a line of sight spell. But what's blocking my neck when I turn?
My duster. I grabbed the lapels of my own jacket and yanked them up, over my head, pulling them together. Instantly, I could breathe again. Spell-re-enforced leather had so many uses. I held it closed like that for a three count, then poked my head back up. I still couldn't move my feet, and I was surrounded again. I couldn't speak. My throat was on fire.
I looked around. Cowl emerged from the horde on my one side, Kumori on the other. Cowl was shaking his head. "You always complicate things. The Darkhallow. Removing the White Court. And now this."
I couldn't get out a snarky comeback, and that annoyed me. I tried swallowing a few times, and gasping. "Transit," I finally wheezed. I tapped my ear and pointed up.
He leaned back a little, and his hood fell back. I once again saw his face, gazing up at the sky. "Ah, yes. You stopped them. Well done. It doesn't matter, of course." He smiled and I nearly choked. "The Lords of Outer Night and the sidhe of Titania's Court continue to maintain the Transit." I felt a wave of frustration, quickly followed by several sets of arms grabbing at me from behind. One of the zombies got my left arm; I wheeled towards her before another one could get my right arm.
I grabbed her and lifted. Damned if it wasn't easier than I expected. With a grunt, which hurt my throat, I threw the zombie at Cowl, who sidestepped. Another zombie tried to grab me by wrapping its arms all the way around me. Fortunately, my duster was prepared for that manoeuver months ago, and the energy it used to grab me was thrown back at it, blowing it off me and back into the crowd.
"Seize him!" Cowl shouted.
I coughed, still trying to get my throat working. I needed a weapon. I reached for my staff and managed to get it in hand just before a glowing green foot could pin it down. I couldn't cast a spell, so I swung the staff overhead as I came to my feet and brought it around in to a half-formed skull. I swung again, crushing another, then jammed it straight into a third face.
I kept clearing my throat, trying to get it working. While I could technically cast magic without words, doing so tended to backfire, painfully. I didn't really have a second to pause and concentrate, anyway.
"Knock down as many as you want, Dresden; there are always more."
I could still see Cowl, though Kumori had disappeared again. I kept twisting, still unable to move my feet – the asphalt had grabbed it again – staff swinging and jabbing. Murphy had taken me under her wing years ago, teaching me some basic moves with a quarterstaff, since that was usually my preferred melee weapon. She'd shown me how to use my height to its greatest advantage, my greater reach to keep out of an opponent's.
But those lessons had been against one or two opponents. And when I hit them, then tended to stay down. And when I was mobile. This group – this huge group – despite my reach, my apparently-enhanced strength, and my really heavy wooden weapon, would not stop coming. There were simply too many; they felt no pain, and only a killing blow would take them out.
Within about ten seconds, I was tightly surrounded again, and I felt my staff being pulled away. I tried to cry out in frustration, but only a hollow growl came out. I managed one more jab, then my staff was yanked out of my hands. I tried throwing elbows and fists, but in another few seconds, I was held tightly.
When they didn't start biting deeply into my brain like my instincts warned me they would, I took a few breaths, letting a wave of panic wash over me. As soon as it cleared, I remembered something, something so simple I'd have hit my forehead if I could have moved my arms: my target didn't have to hear my spell, even I didn't have to hear it; I only had to say it. I opened my right hand and whispered, "Fuego."
Fire exploded from me like a flamethrower, a gout of flame pouring out of my hand, catching the clothing and skin of the zombies on my right side. Half a dozen of them suddenly reeled back, unable to stand or function. Others moved forward to take their place, but for a second, my hand was free. I moved my arm, fire still flooding out of it, in a slow arc, melting down another dozen standing right in front of me.
My vision started to blur, but rather than turn the tap off, I drew on Hellfire. The heat doubled, and the size of the flame rushing out of me increased. The zombies to my left were all but incinerated. Finally, I stopped the spell; the fire remained, eating away at the corpses, the stink of brimstone and burning flesh mixing into something entirely unpleasant. My arms were free; a set of arms grabbed me from behind, but a twist-and-shove move Murphy had shown me cleared it off.
The horde was wasting no time moving in again; Cowl hadn't been boasting when he said there were always more. Fortunately, I had more tricks. I pointed down and mouthed 'Expius', and felt my feet release. I turned in a quick circle, looking for the zombelephant. I found it, just as it was starting to steadily tromp towards me. I pointed at the street beneath it and whispered, "Geodas!"
Earth magic isn't my personal forte. But I've learned a few useful spells in the last couple of years, and the power boost from the mantle made those spells I wasn't always comfortable with work better.
The street cracked, buckled, and just sort of collapsed. Propelled by the great mass of the elephant, the section of road and the undead foot soldiers around it were crushed down into the sewers, falling a good fifteen feet, creating a huge racket, and ceasing to be a threat.
Normally, the strain of a spell like that, after all the other magic I'd just tossed around, would have exhausted me. Instead, I felt only slightly winded. Score another one for the Winter Knight's mantle. I turned to get the hole in the ground behind me so I wouldn't have to grow eyes in the back of my head, and took a breath. I started to lift my hands to sink them into the ether, and opened my mouth to open a Way into the Nevernever.
Once again, my freaking throat failed me. I tried to lift my arms, but they wouldn't lift any higher than my stomach, bouncing off an invisible barrier. "I don't think so, Dresden. Not again." Cowl again emerged from the crowd, which had stopped advancing about ten feet away, both arms raised and pointed at me. He'd been just out of reach the whole time, letting his minions get re-slaughtered and probably hoping to let me wear myself out. The evil genius.
Okay. I could breathe. That was good. But I couldn't speak, not even whisper. My vocal chords were just… paralysed. Crap. So much for the 'throw trolls at him and run' part of the plan. Cowl twisted his hands a little, and I felt pressure on my spine, pushing it into an arch. I gasped in pain; phantom hands grabbed my wrists and yanked them down, holding them to my sides, adding to the discomfort. It felt like the world's worst yoga pose. On top of that, the pavement once again cracked, surged, and grabbed onto my ankles.
Only then did he lower his hands. Kumori – or Mathilde, or whatever – emerged from the horde, too. Both of them had their hoods down. I locked eyes, just for a second, with Kumori. She glanced at her father and generally looked really uncomfortable.
Cowl was shaking his head. "Always complicating things." He sounded angry.
I looked at Kumori again. She took a breath. "Why, father? Why not kill him, then raise him? He would be so much easier to deal with."
He turned to her and gave her a patronizing look. "Because, Mathilde, the power he wields would be severed at death. It would not rise with him again."
I tried to growl, or even grunt, but nothing came out. I was as silent as the zombies.
So I just breathed at him.
"Surely he is no longer a threat," Kumori said.
"One such as he is always a threat, daughter." Despite that, he took a few steps closer to me.
I mouthed a few choice words at him, most of them four letters long.
He sighed. "I'm afraid lip reading is not a skill I have developed. Very well." He gestured, and I felt something shift within my chest.
I cleared my throat, coughed, and spat. Not the best idea when trussed up like I was. I wiped my lips on my collar with a twist of my neck. My voice was little more than a rasp. "I don't suppose it'll make much difference if I say I won't help you? Again?"
"Dresden, allow me to be blunt. If you do not help me, I will kill you. Then I will force DuMorne's other apprentice to help me."
I laughed at him. "She won't help you, either."
"She will if I tell her I have you, and will kill you if she does not." I stopped laughing. "I could kill you, animate your corpse, make you act as though in great pain. She would resist, of course, DuMorne only liked the strong. But she cares for you too much. She would give in, eventually."
"Or, she'd see right through you and blast that beard right off your face."
He sighed again. "Harry," he said, stepping closer still, "Would it make a difference if I told you that I don't want you to act against any human being?"
"You mean directly, right? You want me to control Outsiders for you, raise a little army. What you do with them after I'm done is no concern of mine? Like Hell."
He shook his head. "No, no. Raise an army? I can do that myself. I already did." He shrugged and waved an arm at his army of the dead. "No, that's what the rest of the Circle wants. Especially the vampires, for some reason. The Red Court heavily favours using the Outsiders, though they cannot control them very well. They cannot even deal with the one already here."
"So you want to use them against the Circle? Well, I'll admit I like that idea more, but I don't even know how to use whatever power it is you think I've got."
"Oh, you would, when you needed to. But no, I don't wish to use them against the Circle, either. I don't wish to use them, period."
I looked at him, completely confused. I glanced at Kumori, but she looked confused, too. "Well then… what the hell?"
"Dresden, this plan of mine… well, it was years in the making. But when you disrupted the Darkhallow last time, you did me a favour, really. I had forgotten about the Outsiders. Had I succeeded, they would have stopped me when I tried to enact the next stage of my plan."
"Remaking the universe?" I asked.
He arced an eyebrow and shot a look at his daughter, who looked away.
"Yes. The Outsiders could have stopped that. Dresden, I simply need you to hold them back for me. For everyone."
"Yes. I can remake the world. All of existence. I can end pain and suffering. I can end death itself. And I can preserve you, and all those you care about, forever."
"We've had this debate before. Mortality is what defines human beings. The marks we leave behind; they lose all meaning and significance if we never die. What motivation is there to finish something if there's no deadline?"
"Imagine what could be learned in an infinite life."
"Ask the vampires and fae what they've learned." I shook my head. "We'd all be struldbrugs."
His brow furrowed for a second. "Ah, Swift. Yes. Well, I could also eliminate aging. Imagine if he had lived longer, or Einstein, Newton, Galileo, Archimedes, what observations they'd have made, what wisdom they'd have imparted."
"Sure, wisdom. What about Hitler, and his wisdom? What about Idi Amin? What about the great advances made by the Inquisition? What if bacteria and viruses didn't die, huh? Would a perpetual Ebola or Black Plague fit nicely into your world?"
"I could eliminate all disease! No suffering! No pain!" Ah, he was getting angry. Good. I started trying to work my hands free.
"No suffering? Then what's the point? If it's all wine and roses, what do we have to look forward to? Stagnation, genius. If everything's perfect, why try? Why struggle?"
He stepped back, and steadied himself with an effort. "We," he said, pulling up his hood, "will have to agree to disagree. Until I can remake you."
"Right. And where are you going to get the power for that?"
He turned to watch the departing Second Army, now at least three blocks away and creeping closer to the refugees every second.
It clicked. "Hell's bells," I whispered. "You're not sending an army to kill everyone. You want them hemmed in!"
"While in Transit, Chicago is in the same state of flux as when we tried to perform the Darkhallow. I will be able to work it again. With the living to jump start it, and with all the souls contained in Hell… well, only the local Outsider will be able to stand against me."
"If you thought I was against you before, there's no way I'm going to – wait, local? What are you talking about?"
He turned a little more, facing vaguely southeast. "The truth is, Dresden, that even with the power I am about to take on, reworking the universe itself will take time. Time during which I will be vulnerable. Of course, until the Gates are opened, only the Outsiders already here are a threat. He Who Walks Behind, I can handle, through Titania. But that cursed island…"
I felt my eyes expand, and couldn't stop them. "Demonreach… Demonreach is an Outsider?"
He turned back to me. "You named it? How quaint."
"It… it gave me its name."
His hood ticked to the side; he was thinking. "It gave you… Ah. You performed sanctum invocation." It wasn't a question. He laughed. "Yes, DuMorne did like them strong. Though I thought he preferred them smart, too." He sighed again, and dropped a logic bomb on me. "He always stood against us."
I felt my head tick to the side in a weird mirror of Cowl. I didn't understand. "What?"
"You didn't realize?" His head shifted within the hood again. "No. No, you didn't." He laughed again. "DuMorne was recruiting his army; that much you knew. He started with you and the girl."
"Elaine. He enthralled her, and tried to do the same to me!"
"That makes sense. He would have wanted no mistakes. His methods were always… harsh. He would have used you two against us. Turned the Outsiders against the Circle. Brilliant, really."
My mind raced, then stalled, and completely shut down. I couldn't think. Justin – the man who had ripped away Elaine's own mind, nearly done the same to me, nearly killed me – had been working against the bad guys. It didn't make any sense. "You're lying." My voice was very low.
"No, no I wish I was. DuMorne would have made quite the addition to our forces. He wasn't privy to all our plans, of course, but he knew enough. In a way, you did us a great favour by removing him. If you hadn't… well, who knows where we'd be today? We might have been wiped out by DuMorne and his ur-demons."
I had a hard time breathing. Justin had never been a great guy. 'Harsh' was an accurate description. But he'd been working against the bad guys.
And I'd killed him.
Harry? Are you all right? Lash asked.
Harry, fighting Justin was the only thing you could have done.
I know that, on one level. But, once he learned of the Circle's plans, Justin could never have gone to the Council, even though he'd been a Warden. They would have never allowed him to recruit Elaine and me, let alone use us like he'd planned. They would have launched an assault against the Circle… and very likely, they'd have lost. In an all-out war, a century ago, or even thirty years back, there would simply not have been enough wizards, let alone Wardens.
Don't get me wrong – I fought Justin because he'd threatened me, and the only real friend I had at the time. But… if he'd managed to wipe out the Circle early, using the Outsiders, all of the destruction the Circle had caused – hell, all the destruction I've caused – would never have happened.
No! The sheer force of Lash's voice was like a splash of cold water to my brain.
You have no way of knowing if DuMorne would have freed you after the Circle was defeated, or even if his plan would have succeeded. You do not know if he would have succumbed to temptation and continued to use the pair of you until you were both broken and dead. Enthralling you would have damaged him, as well – even if he started out with the intention simply saving the world, do you think he would have resisted the power controlling you and Elaine would have given him?
I had no answer.
He would have used you until the three of you were even worse than the Circle. You did the right thing, Harry. She paused. Just like you always do. Just like all the best people do.
I stared, wide-eyed and feeling stupid; she was right. Fighting Justin had been the right thing to do, based on what I knew. Killing him… well, I'd always felt regret, mixed with the anger and the betrayal. Justin had been a father to me, if a cold one.
I was confused, conflicted, sorrowful, and angry at Justin all over again. He could have just told us… To be perfectly honest, I felt a little like crying.
But Molly had been right, too: I couldn't blame myself for what others had done, or failed to do.
Cowl saw my expression, and completely misinterpreted it. "Yes, Dresden. You allowed this to happen. But you can set it right." He took a few steps closer. "Help me, to fix it all. Help me, and I will spare what lives I can, you have my word."
I shook my head, slowly. "I can't," I whispered.
"Because the world isn't beyond saving as it is."
He grunted in frustration. "How can you still believe that?"
I smiled at him. "Because, I have faith."
Man, I love handing the universe a straight line.
"Pretender to eternal life!" All three of us turned to look at the source of the ringing new voice. Cowl lifted his hand and the horde parted. I had a clear line of vision to short blonde woman standing half a block away, clothes tattered, hair messy, ancient Sword in hand.
My voice came back, full strength. "Murphy!"
"Cry off your cause, or answer to a higher power!"
Cowl stepped towards her. "Not this time!" he snarled. He lifted his hands, and the zombies started turning and rushing towards Murph. They blocked her from my sight in less than a second; the last I saw, she was bringing Fidelacchius down and choosing a target.
I instantly started struggling again, but my invisible bonds held tight. "Stay away from her, you nercophiliac son of a bitch!"
I glanced at Kumori. She was frozen, looking back and forth between Cowl and the horde. Her jaw was working, but she wasn't saying anything. Aside from the drummers and the shuffling of feet, the only thing I could hear was Murphy shouting and grunting. She looked at me, then quickly away. Then she looked again.
I mouthed the words, "Help. Me."
She looked away again, back to her father. Her only family. I saw her close her eyes and take a breath, and knew she'd made her decision. She lifted her hand, and said, "I'm sorry, father."
My arms came free.
Cowl sensed the change, and whirled around. "What?"
"Aparturum!" I shouted in his face, and slashed a hand through the air. He lifted his hands to close the portal – but before he could, a troll, big, green and smelly, emerged from it, up to its waist, roaring a challenge.
It took one look at Cowl, and swung a fist at him. The necromancer flew backwards into the horde, bowling over a dozen zombies and flipping end over end. He was not, however, reduced to a sticky paste, so I have to assume he got a shield up.
I moved my hands, and realized I was completely free. I reached out and pulled the portal open further, letting the troll all the way through. It stood eight feet tall, wore only a loincloth and tattered leather vest, and held a giant cudgel. Its feet made great thud sounds on the ground, too.
After a moment, the zombies turned their attention to the troll and started towards it. Of course, by that time, another troll had joined the first, and started roaring, too. "Crush them all!" I ordered. They both had huge clubs in hand, and started swinging indiscriminately.
I turned to look for Kumori, but she was gone. I heard Murphy shouting wordlessly. My staff was gone. I pushed the portal open as far as I could for the continuing stream of Incredible Hulk wannabes and started running for my best friend.
"Murph, I'm coming! Forzare!" Twenty or so zombies were flattened by my unfocussed spell, as still more trolls emerged from the shrinking portal. There were half a dozen now, each taking reckless joy in crushing everything they could.
I bounded over a pile of slightly glowing bodies, shoved into a few more standing ones with my shield, and set still more on fire. All that magic was fed with joy and relief. Murphy was alive. She was… well, not safe, exactly, but she was up and fighting, and that was as close as she ever got. "Murphy! Where are you?"
I altered my course slightly and headed for a wall of zombies, stepping up the pace. I swung my arm in a wide arc, hollered, "Arctis!" and watched half a dozen zombies freeze solid. I charged into them, knocking a few over and shattering them. I slipped on some of the damn ice I had just created and fell over in the process, landing on frozen chunks of zombie and sprawling in a pile in front of a couple dozen more. They looked down at me with vacant expressions and grasping hands, and no voices. They were about to come down on me like the Hammer of God.
Then she was there.
I once looked upon Karrin Murphy with my Sight, and beheld her truest essence; a bright guardian angel, a force of positive energy and a warrior to the core. The Murphy before me now was like that: Every inch the perfect warrior, her Sword was just a tool, her body was the weapon, every twist and gesture graceful, beautiful, exactly what it was supposed to be.
She made more noise than any of them, but that was because she actually had to use her lungs. Murph sliced, diced and julienned every zombie in my line of vision while I rolled over and shoved myself up. We had a second's reprieve. "So," I said, putting my back to hers, "what took you so long?"
"Oh, you know," she said. "Traffic."
And we were fighting for our lives again, only it didn't feel that way. It felt… well, not great, but right. I threw up my shield and bounced three zombies off it, then unleashed a little fire on two more. Behind me, I heard a sword singing and Murphy grunting, along with occasional squelching sounds. Off to the side, the trolls were doing their thing, crushing whatever came at them.
I danced to the right and threw an ice spell underhand, freezing the road under half a dozen opponents and sending them tumbling.
"Behind you," Murphy said without any real urgency. I threw myself into a forward roll. When I came up, she was chopping in half a zombie who was standing where I had been a second ago. I lifted a shield to bounce two more of them away before they could grab onto her back.
"Where did you come from?" I asked. "Fuego!"
"Ended up in the Southwest of town. Ran into some friends. Hey-ya, stay down, you! Just followed my nose up here."
"So what's the plan?" I asked. "Forzare!"
"We just need to last another few seconds – would you just die already?"
"They're already dead, Murph. Pyrofuego!"
"You know what I mean, Dresden." I could hear her rolling her eyes as she said it. "Getting a little heavy over here."
"Duck." She did. I stretched my hand over the space she occupied and shouted "Arctis!" A dozen of the zombies froze in mid-stride. She jumped back up instantly, shattering limbs and heads and creating a little breathing space.
We were holding, glowing bodies bouncing off my shield every few seconds or falling beneath the Sword of the Cross. But my shield wouldn't last forever. And Murphy's arms would get tired eventually. And there were still over a hundred zombies. I glanced to the side just in time to watch one of the trolls I'll called up get overwhelmed and pulled down by about twenty zombies working together.
Before I had a chance to curse, something red and flying caught my eye. "What the hell - ?"
"Get down!" Murph spun, grabbed my collar, and heaved me to the ground while my brain slowly registered that I'd just seen a flare.
Halfway to the pavement, my eyes locked on Murphy's. Just for a fraction of a second. But on this particular day, at that particular moment, that was all it took to start a Soulgaze.
We hit the ground a second later, both of us disoriented, confused and wide-eyed. Before I could even take a breath, the air was split with the roar of gunfire. A lot of gunfire. I mean, The Matrix had fewer gunshots. And a quieter soundtrack.
Every single zombie around us was ripped to shreds by flying bullets. I pulled my duster open and Karrin rolled into it, instinct overriding any shock she'd felt from the 'gaze. I pulled my head down under the collar.
Body parts landed on me. Entire bodies landed on me. I tried not to think about it.
There was a silence after a moment. I opened my duster a little and we both peered out at the street. There was little movement. My ears rang from the gunfire. Karrin pushed herself up onto her elbows and I followed suit. As I came up, I saw a person running towards us and threw up a shield.
Karrin's hand touched my outstretched wrist. "It's okay, Harry." I glanced at her, then dropped my shield. Karrin gathered up the Sword and we clambered to our feet. I looked around at the mounds of dead bodies, most of them already disintegrating back into rotten remains.
The person running up to us was joined by others. Most of them were wearing suits… or uniforms. The guy in front was Rawlins. They were cops. And there was FBI agent Tilly. And agent Rick, Karrin's first husband. Everyone was armed, and everyone was in rough shape.
"Murph," Rawlins' voice rumbled, "You good?"
He turned to me. "Good to see you, Dresden. Nice to know she charged in like a madwoman for a good reason."
"She was buying time for you guys to get into position?"
He nodded. "She didn't think you'd last."
"Yeah, well…" I rubbed the back of my neck. "I had him right where I…" I looked at Karrin, who was looking at me with a raised eyebrow. "Thanks."
"We got a live one!"
We all turned to the voice; it was Rudolph. A former member of Special Investigations, Rudolph had joined IA and made Karrin's life difficult until her early 'retirement.' I could charitably think of him as a douche. But he was part of this joint task force, so I decided not to insult him to his face. Who says I don't have people skills?
The group of us moved to Rudolph as quickly as we could, considering the bodies we had to climb over and the wet and sticky bits we had to avoid sliding in. Rudolph was standing in the doorway to the post office that Abbi and the others had hidden in, and I found myself scared. Please don't let them be dead, please don't let them be dead. The front window was missing several large chunks, with a few other pieces of glass hanging precariously.
I got there first, on account of my long legs, and stuck my head in the door, bumping Rudolph out of the way. Abbi and the others were fine, except for a little shell-shock. There were several messy, decomposing corpses littering the floor.
Kumori was breathing raggedly, Abbi and a one of the other Transiteers trying to stop bleeding from many places. Kumori's robe had been torn open in several places; some with long, slashing marks from zombies, some with tiny, bullet hole precision.
"She was protecting us," Abbi said.
"What happened?" I asked, then realized my question had already been answered.
I took a breath and stepped inside. Kumori looked up at me. She tried to speak, but her voice was very quiet. I crouched down. "Dresden. Tell him… tell him, I'm…"
I nodded. "I will. And, thank you."
Her breathing accelerated for a few seconds, then Abbi withdrew her hand and made a sad, squeaky sound. Then Kumori – Mathilde - stopped breathing. I reached up and closed her eyes. I shook my head, unsure what to do or say. "Rest in peace," I finally said.
"No!" The scream erupted from behind me, and I spun just in time to see Rudolph go flying through the doorway and over me. Cowl was standing in the door, hood down and teeth bared. I willed up a shield, and stood between him and the others.
"Harry!" I flicked my eyes to the shattered window, where I could see Karrin finally arriving. Cowl turned and made a slashing motion with his hand. The street itself shrugged, throwing up a wave of asphalt and concrete, throwing Rawlins, Rick, Tilly and half a dozen other law enforcement types to the ground.
Throwing Karrin Murphy to the ground.
I have no memory of dropping my shield and charging at the crazed necromancer, but I must have, because a second later, I was grappling with him, one arm under his right, the other over his left. Momentum carried us a few steps into the street. I had no staff, no blasting rod. I hadn't thought to even look for my gun. I'd just seen Karrin fall, and I hadn't really thought at all.
Cowl – no, Klaus – threw an elbow at my face, and connected squarely with my cheek bone. My head snapped back, more from surprise than pain. But then he did it again. And again. My grip broke, and he turned to me. His eyes were glassy, and he was foaming a bit at the lips, spittle flying as he took another swing at me. I realized then that he was cracked. His daughter's death, despite his own life-long pursuits, had driven him over the edge.
He threw a haymaker at me, growling nonsense. I dodged it and hit him in the jaw with a quick jab. He hardly seemed to feel it. Then he threw another punch, which I leaned back from. He followed it with a gut shot that I didn't manage to dodge. I managed to get my own arms up before his next few blows landed. There was a slight pause after the third swing, and I took a chance on a left straight. I connected with his nose and he staggered back.
I wasn't sure when the two wizards present had decided to settle their match with fisticuffs, but I wasn't objecting; Klaus was about an order of magnitude above me in terms of magical oomph. However, even as I threw another punch at him, I was forming a theory.
Here's something most people don't know about magic, but is really common sense: in order to work it, you have to believe in it. I know that sounds silly and circular, but it's the truth. If you don't believe that what you're doing is right, it'll fizzle. If you don't have the confidence in yourself to make it work, it won't. Magic is as much mental as it is physical.
And I think that's why Klaus didn't try to flash fly me or blow me up – he couldn't concentrate long enough, or see far enough past his anger and madness to do it, though he had managed to work magic just a minute ago against others. That meant his anger was probably directed at me. And that meant he probably blamed me for his daughter's death.
Seriously, of all the things that could drive a freaking necromancer over the edge.
I put a right hook into his jaw, but he rolled with it, spun completely around, and put a right backhand into my shoulder.
I didn't feel most of it thanks to my duster, but I still staggered. He was hitting a lot harder than I was.
His next right came in wide, and I blocked it with both arms, stepping into him. He tried to compensate, get a left jab at my head, but I put an shoulder in his face to stop that. As he staggered back, I asked, "You like it? Hurts, doesn't it?"
He finally seemed to get a hold of himself, pausing and looking around. The cops were back on their feet, but hanging back. Fidelacchius was back in its sheath, and its bearer was watching Klaus from twenty feet away, Glock in hand. "Get down on the ground!" she called.
His eyes took in the cops and agents then finally settled back on me. "You have a way, Dresden. A way of… putting things into perspective."
With him able to concentrate again, I mentally readied my shield bracelet. "Kind of hard to really deal with death? I mean, not make deals with it, but to feel it? Yeah, that's called being human. You get used to it after a while."
His eyes moved to rest on the doorway into the post office, just a few feet away from him. "She was all I had left," he said. His voice was very quiet. His eyes came back to me.
Oh, crap. A slightly mad, angry wizard is bad to fight. A fully-aware, angry wizard? Best avoided. I brought up my shield as he lifted his arms. A solid ball of light exploded from his hands. I felt the impact right up my arm, and fell back a few steps, eyes closed.
My shield bracelet started to get hot, something it only did when trying to bleed off enormous amounts of energy it absorbed. After a few seconds, the light dimmed, and I opened my eyes, moving my wrist to keep the bracelet off my skin. I could see only dancing balls of misshapen colour as my eyes adjusted to the brightness. I brought my shield back up, unable to see. I turned to get the wall of the post office behind me.
Klaus pounced. He attacked from the side, bringing something heavy down on my left arm. I think it was a parking meter. I grunted; my arm didn't quite go numb, but my shield winked out of existence.
Then there were hands wrapping around my throat. Not ghostly-force hands, like before; his real hands. And he had quite a grip. I found myself clutching at those fingers as they squeezed down on me. I couldn't cry out, I couldn't draw a breath. As my eyes finally cleared, I saw Cowl had re-asserted control of a few of the more complete bodies. They formed a – well, not living, but moving – wall between me and the cavalry. He was tapping his foot to keep the beat for them.
I couldn't see any of the trolls I'll summoned; they must have been cut down by the cops. Probably in revenge for the officers who had been hurt by a few trolls last month.
I mentally called up some hellfire, feeding through my hands, trying to hurt Cowl, trying to kill him, just trying to breathe again.
"That," he said quietly, "tingles." I tried to look down to see if I'd done anything, but I couldn't; his grip was iron tight. "Of course, he might have had a way to prepare; I'd rather foolishly shown off Hellfire to Kumori a day or two ago.
Desperate, I dug into my pockets, hoping for anything that might help. My hands were clumsy. I pulled out my revolver and dropped it before I could get a proper grip. I couldn't get a swing in at Cowl as long as he was behind me, so I threw myself back, trying to squish him between the wall and my body. He didn't seem to notice.
My lungs burned, the strength in my limbs started to ebb. I felt my knees giving out. My eyes were starting to bulge, and my vision faded. Winter Knight or not, I was still mortal – and mortals needed to breathe. There were sounds nearby, probably Karrin and the cops fighting their way through the new horde.
"This is why you do not take all that a man has, Dresden," he whispered into my ear. If only his voice wasn't the last thing I would hear, I might die happy. I wouldn't be able to toss out a death curse without air, unfortunately.
I slid to my knees. My eyes closed.
There was an explosion of sound very close by, and air came rushing in to my lungs. I collapsed and rolled over. I couldn't stand, I could barely lift my arms, but sight flooded in with an amazing Technicolour bleed of stars and fireworks. I blinked a lot, then there was a cooling sensation in my throat, and my vision cleared.
Of course, Harry.
I lifted my head; the window in the post office's front wall had completely shattered. Cowl was stepping past me. I turned my head. He snatched my gun out of Abbi's hands and dropped it on the ground. She looked terrified.
For some disoriented reason, I put my hand in my pocket, trying to grab my gun, even though I could see it lying five feet away. My hand came out clutching the Black Key. I reached for the old revolver.
I heard the sounds of gunshots and knew the cops were making short work of the re-reanimated zombies, but also knew Cowl had stopped tapping his foot; they would be fighting mad now, with no control or coordination.
Cowl backhanded Abbi in the face. She cried out before the blow landed, and she crumpled to the sidewalk. I felt my teeth grind together and pushed myself up. Cowl turned. There were burns on his arms and part of his beard was singed away. His eyes were glassy again, unfocussed. His whole face was contorted with a Joker-grin.
I had my shield bracelet ready, and the gun pointed at his head. I couldn't remember if there were any bullets left, but he didn't know that. I stared at him as I asked, "Abbi, are you okay?"
She took a moment to answer. "I'm… I'm okay."
"You need to back away. Get back inside the post office and close the door." She was already moving, crawling. My eyes never left Cowl. He glanced off to the side, where the cops were finishing up. "It's over," I told him.
He just looked at me. "I know," he said. "Though, what really, am I still doing here?" He grew very quiet. "I was supposed to live forever. We were all supposed to live… forever…"
Once again, his eyes locked on my face. I didn't want a soulgaze – especially since I still hadn't had a chance to talk with Karrin about hers – so I turned my head away, just a little. He lunged, and he was fast. Superhumanly fast. He'd obviously been holding something back, because now he was a blur, and I didn't have a chance to get a shield up. One of his fists hit the side of my head, and I dropped the gun again. But I managed to get an arm up to block his next shot, then landed one of my own, right across his jaw.
"You took eternal life from me!" he shouted with his next punch. I took it in the arm, then landed another punch to his face. He staggered back. "You took eternal life from everyone! You took my daughter from me! My wife!"
He wasn't using magic again. I'll let you decide what that means about his true feelings on what he was saying. I gripped the Black Key tightly, inspiration jumping up and down on my brain. "You want eternal life?" I asked. "Take it!"
I threw myself against him, putting my hand over his, looping one of the strings from the pouch holding the Black Key's ashes over his wrist. I shoved him back, off-balance, and twisted to put him against the door. He pushed back, but an elbow to his face made him cry out and stagger. With the image of the Black Hall in mind, I pushed harder.
The door opened (against its hinges) into a solid black abyss. I pushed him into it… and pulled on the Black key's pouch as I did.
The pouch tore open as he vanished into the Hall, the ashes spilling everywhere.
The cops came running up to me just as the door finished swinging closed.
"Harry?" I turned to Karrin and gave her a small smile while I took a few deep breaths. She turned to the door. "Is he - ?"
"Gone," I said, and pulled the door open. Inside, the former Transiteers were sprawled near Mathilde's body.
"Somewhere that he already would have come back from, if he could." I held up the pouch. "But he lost the key. He'll live, forever, inside a single moment, unable to die. And that moment is already passed." I looked up at the post office again. "There's a dead letter joke in here somewhere, but I can't be bothered to find it."
Yeah, it had been harsh. Possibly the worse thing I'd ever done to another human being. But allowing him to remake the universe – to be, in essence, a mad god – was simply not an option. He would have taken everyone's lives, then given them back, minus free will.
Abbi's head turned to the shadows in the back of the post office. "Help," a weak voice called from there. Rudolph.
I sighed and Karrin shook her head, before we both headed in to drag him out, Rawlins and Tilly following.
"We need to get going," I said.
"To St. Mary's?" she asked.
"No." I helped Abbi to her feet. "Thank - "
"- you." She was smiling, despite a nasty red mark on her cheek. I smiled, put a hand on her shoulder, then kept moving towards Rudolph. Karrin was already there. He was cradling his left arm. "We organized an exodus when the dead rose. Need to let everyone know they're safe."
"Oh?" she got under Rudolph's shoulder, and I got a hand around his back.
"Yeah. Everyone's headed for Cellular Field."
"What?" She almost dropped Rudolph, who gasped in pain and failed to form words as he leaned against me. "Harry," – Abbi gasped – "that's where the Red Court has been holed up!"
"What?" It was my turn to almost drop Rudolph, who groaned this time.
"That's the part of town I've been in for the past day. We chased a small group up here, wiped them out and were going to head down to the church when we found you."
"Stars and stones. I just sent 1200 people marching straight into vampire territory?"
"Tell me you have cars!"
Rawlins spoke up. "Damn right. One street over."
"Ah, hell." I picked Rudolph up – causing another groan – and started running.
I tossed Rudolph in the back of a car that Stallings was driving, then followed Karrin to a Detroit-built pick-up, comically over-sized for her, just about right for my height.
We drove. Fast. The lack of street lights and traffic helped, though the occasional missing chunk of road slowed us down a little. Karrin is one of the best drivers I've ever seen outside of the movies, and it wasn't long before we left the rest of the cop column in our dust.
"So," she said. "Good to see you again."
"You, too." Man, it was awkward. "Listen, Karrin, I'm sorry - "
"It was an accident, Harry. I'm not angry. I'm not scared." All the same, she took a corner a little more sharply than necessary.
"And you didn't pass out, which has been known to happen."
"True. What is that?"
I looked where she pointed. "It was an elephant," I said. "Now it's a corpse. Cowl raised a few. With him gone, though, everything he raised will wind down and fall apart soon."
We were quiet again, and she took another corner. I started to feel awkward. "What did you see?" she asked suddenly. She didn't look at me. "I mean, inside?"
Ah. So she did want to know. She wanted to know what was at the core of her being. She needed to know she was good people.
So I told her the truth. "I saw you, walking. Marching, really. Forward, never looking back. And you were carrying a pack, a huge one. Had to be about the same size as you. You struggled a bit under it, but you never fell. Thing is, the backpack didn't carry anything physical. It carried voices. The voices of everyone you've ever known. Some were calling you weak, some were laughing. Some were cruel, some were kind and encouraging. But you were drawing strength from each and every one." One side of her mouth ticked up. "There was one voice, it was very quiet, barely a whisper. But I could hear it over all the others. It was telling you to ignore every other voice, and listen only to your own heart, your own head." She took an unsteady breath. "I think it was your father."
She nodded. "The last thing he ever… it was the last bit of advice he gave me before he… died." Her voice hitched a bit. We took another corner. "Do you want to know?"
I took a second before answering. The responses I'd had to my soulgazes over the years were varied; Susan, my ex-girlfriend, had passed out, John Marcone had smiled knowingly, and Deirdre, one of Lash's old compatriots, had become terribly confused. Considering some of the things I'd done, I'd never really been sure I wanted to know, and had waffled a bit over the years. Knowing what was at the heart of your being tended to be a Big Deal, in my experience. It wasn't the sort of lesson that would be easily forgotten, and once I knew, it would probably influence my character and my thinking for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, this was Murphy.
Fuck it. "Yes," I said.
She swallowed. "You were standing in a room. But it was an enormous room, it went on forever. I couldn't see the walls. It was split right down the middle, one side completely, perfectly dark, the other side blindingly light. And you were straddling the two sides, one foot on each. And you were holding your hands up, moving your fingers, almost like you were feeling the air, feeling the light and the darkness. Almost like… you were testing them, to see which you liked better."
Oh, boy. I'd spent a large chunk of my life uncertain if I could hold back the darkness in my own soul. Now, it appeared my soul agreed with me. I looked out the window as the street zipped by.
"Then I heard voices, too," she continued. "Loud, powerful voices. They were coming from the dark half. And you looked up at them." I swallowed again. "And you started to lean towards them."
I closed my eyes. There it was. I was leaning towards darkness, despite all the effort and worry over the years…
"But, then there were other voices, coming from the light half." I turned back to Murphy, confused. "They weren't as powerful, individually, they weren't as loud. But there were so many of them, Harry. I saw your parents, Molly, Butters, I even saw myself; it was every person you'd ever helped, ever loved, who had ever loved you… Harry, it was every positive influence in your life, and every bit of good will you'd ever cultivated." I reached up absently and wiped a tear away from the edge of my eye.
"They pulled you back."
I sighed, in relief.
"And I thought you'd step into the light."
She shrugged, apologetically. "You didn't. You just looked at everyone, smiled at them, took them in… And then, you just kind of nodded to yourself, like you'd made a decision."
My mouth went dry. "What happened next, Karrin?" I asked, though I feared that I already knew.
She licked her lips. "You turned around, to face the darkness again. Then you started laughing like a maniac, and ran into it. You ran as fast as you could."
I took a deep breath, and sat staring out the side window again. So. Despite what I wanted, despite what I had tried… I was destined to walk in darkness. Or at least, that was Murphy's interpretation of my soul. And she was the person probably most willing and determined to see the best in me.
My seatbelt suddenly cut into my neck and waist as Murph slammed on the brakes.
"What the hell?" she cursed.
"Gah," I answered. I got my eyes facing forward again.
There was a faerie in the road.