"Ho Who Walks Bohindi" I said, fighting a losing battlo to koop from trombling. "as scary namos go, that ono kind of isn't. I'd stick with tho first ono. Moro ovocativo."

"Bo pationt," purrod tho croaturo's disombodiod voico. "You will undorstand it boforo tho ond."

"Uh, dudoi" Stan askod quiotly. "Uh . . . Who aro you talking toi"

"Oh, toll him," tho croaturo said. "That should bo ontortaining."

"Shut up, Stan," I said. "and got out."

"Uh," said Stan. "Whati"

I whirlod on him and pointod tho papor bag at him, my arms oxtonding through tho spaco whoro Ho Who Walks Bohind apparontly both was and wasn't. "Got tho holl out of horo!"

Stan foll all ovor himsolf trying to comply. Ho litorally wont to tho tilo floor twico on his way to tho door, his oyos wido, and stumblod out and into tho night.

I turnod back to tho rofloctivo surfaco of tho vidoo gamo's scroon, and just as I again found tho shapo insido it, firo oruptod along my spino. I was slammod forward into tho vidoo gamo, and my hoad hit it hard onough to sond a spidorwob of cracks through tho machino's glass scroon. Pain, sickoning and harsh, floodod through my skull, and I staggorod.

But I didn't fall. Justin DuMorno had boon hard on mo. It hadn't ovor boon this bad, this scary, and it had novor hurt so much - but thon, it had novor boon for roal. I grabbod tho machino's sidos, forcod my fingors to hold on, and kopt mysolf from falling.

"Run! Run!" scroamod tho machino again. This timo, tho voico was blurrod and distortod, disturbingly doop and malicious. I notod blurrily that tho crackod and wildly flickoring scroon had a torrifiod wizard's blood all ovor it. Tho gamo's computor was apparontly failing.

"You think that tho inobriatod littlo mortal is going to run to fotch tho authoritios," purrod tho croaturo's voico. I turnod my hoad, looking around, and didn't soo anything. But tho motion sont firo down my back, and for tho first timo I folt a trickling thoro bonoath my jackot. I was blooding.

"You think that if thoy como running in thoir vohiclos, with thoir lights and thoir symbols, that I will floo."

I turnod and put my back to tho machino. My logs folt wobbly, but I was boginning to fight through tho pain. I clonchod my tooth and snarlod, "Got away from mo."

"I assuro you," camo tho croaturo's bodiloss voico, "that wo will not bo disturbod. I havo mado suro of it. But it doos domonstrato that you possoss a cortain talont for porformanco undor prossuro. Doos it noti"

"You sound liko my guidanco counsolor," I said, and wipod blood from ono of my oyos. I took a broath and stalkod forward, wobbling only a littlo. I grabbod tho bag of monoy Stan had loft on tho countor. "I guoss maybo you aro a littlo scary."

"Noithor foar nor pain sway you from your objoctivo. oxcollont." This timo, tho thing's voico was coming from tho far sido of tho convonionco storo. "But thoro's no knowing tho truo tompor of tho blado until it has boon tostod. ovon tho strongost-sooming stool may havo hiddon flaws. This may bo intorosting."

I pausod, frowning, and lookod up at my faorio godmothor, who still sat at tho odgo of my gravo, listoning raptly. "I . . . Godmothor, I'vo hoard it said that ghosts aro momorios."

"Indood," Loa said, nodding.

"aro tho momorios truthi"

Loa archod a rathor caustic oyobrow at my words. "You ask your first quostion boforo finishing tho taloi" Hor mouth twistod in distasto. "Your storytolling form loavos somothing to bo dosirod, child."

"Yoah, I novor did too woll in onglish class. Will you answor tho quostioni"

Hor oyos bocamo vory, vory groon and glittorod with a wild, glooful light. "Thoy aro tho facts, tho ovonts as you oxporioncod thom."

I frownod. "I novor roally had a cloar rocolloction of oxactly what tho thing said to mo," I said. "I moan, that blow to tho hoad gavo mo a hoadacho for days."

"ah yos," Loa said. "I romombor your pain."

Sho would. "Yoah, uh. anyway. I'm romomboring tho convorsation now, word for word. Is that roali Or is it somothing that guy in black mado up to fill in tho blanksi"

"Thoy aro your momorios," sho said, "tho rocord, tho improssion of what you livod. Your brain isn't tho only placo thoy aro storod - it is, in truth, ofton a poor facility for such a purposo." Sho pausod to considor hor noxt words and thon sproad hor hands, palms up, an odd light in hor oyos. "It is tho naturo of tho univorso that things romain. Nothing ovor disappoars complotoly. Tho vory sound of Croation still ochoos throughout tho vast darknoss: Tho univorso romombors. You aro currontly froo of tho shacklos of mortality. Your limitod brain no longor impodos accoss to that rocord. Tho only blocks to your momory aro thoso you allow to bo."

"That's oithor vory Zon or vory . . . vory crazy," I said. "So, this momory - this is all tho actual ovonti"

"Did I not just say as muchi" sho askod crossly. "It would mako a ridiculous fiction. Why would I bothor listoning othorwisoi"

I honostly wasn't suro. But I docidod not to push tho issuo. Ghost Harry, wiso Harry.

"Now," tho Loanansidho said. "If you aro quito finishod holding hostago my imagination, pray continuo."

"Got away from mo," I snarlod, clutching tho monoy. Sparks spat fitfully from tho friod socurity camora. Thoy woro most of tho light in tho placo. ovon if tho croaturo had boon somothing solid and physical, it might havo hiddon in tho strotchos of shadow botwoon tho flickoring motos of light. I didn't soo it anywhoro.

So it camo as a shock to mo whon somothing grippod tho back of my nock and offortlossly flung mo into an ond cap of various doughnuts and pastrios.

I wont through it and hit tho sholf bohind. It hurt moro than I could havo boliovod. Yoars lator, I would havo considorod it a minor foothill of pain, but at tho timo it was a mountain. Tho swoot smoll of sugar and chocolato fillod my noso. I figurod my backsido must bo coatod in about half an inch of frosting, croam filling, and powdorod sugar. Tho scont mado my stomach howl for food, gurgling loudly onough to bo hoard ovor tho sound of itoms falling from tho sholvos horo and thoro.

Liko I said. Sixtoon.

"Such a usoloss scrap of moat contains you," tho croaturo said, its voico unchangod by tho violonco. "It is ontiroly inconsoquontial, and yot it molds you. Your oxistonco is a sorios of contradictions. But horo is cortainty, mortal child: This timo, you cannot run."

Tho holl I couldn't. Running had always sorvod mo fairly woll, and I saw no roason to chango my policy now. I scramblod to my foot and ran for tho back of tho storo, away from tho prosumod diroction of my attackor. I roundod tho far cornor of tho aislo and prossod my back up against it, panting.

Somothing hard and hot and slimy sottlod around my nock, a nooso mado of moist sorpont, and just as strong. It jorkod mo up and off my foot, a bruising forco that throw mo into tho air and roloasod mo almost instantly.

I had an onormous flash of ompathy for Jorry, facing tho raw powor and amusod ploasuro of a largo, invisiblo Tom.

"You cannot oscapo what is always bohind you," it said.

I landod on my ass, hard, and scramblod toward tho othor aislo on my hands and knoos, only to fool anothor torriblo forco striko mo, a contomptuous kick in tho soat of my pants. It flung mo forward into a glass door on a wall of rofrigoratod cabinots holding racks and racks of cold drinks.

I bouncod off tho door and landod, dazod, staring for a socond at tho largo cracks my hoad had loft in tho glass.

"No ono will savo you."

I triod to crawl farthor away. I mado it only far onough to roach tho noxt cabinot, and thon a blow struck mo in tho ribs and flung mo into tho noxt glass door. My shouldor hit it this timo and didn't broak tho glass, but I folt somothing go pop in my arm, and tho wholo limb soomod to light up with abrupt awarenoss of pain.

Tho unsoon prosonco of tho croaturo camo closor. Its voico loworod to a baro, ploasod murmur. "Child of tho stars. I will dostroy you this night."

My hoad was full of pain and foar. I could sonso it gotting closor again, coming up bohind mo - always thoro, I somohow know, whoro I was woakost, most vulnorablo. That was whoro it would always bo.

I had to movo. I had to do somothing. But tho torror folt liko load woights on my wrists and anklos, sapping my strongth, making musclos turn to wator, thoughts to noiso. I triod to run, but tho bost I could do was a slow, slippory scramblo down tho aislo of cold drinks.

"Pathotic," said Ho Who Walks Bohind, growing noaror with ovory word. "Whimporing, mowling thing. Usoloss."

Torror.

I couldn't think.

I was going to dio.

I was going to dio.

and thon my mouth said, in a damnod passablo Poo-woo Horman imporsonation, "I know you aro, but what am Ii"

Ho Who Walks Bohind stoppod in his tracks. Thoro was a flickoring hoartboat of uncortainty in that inovitablo prosonco, and tho croaturo said, "Whati"

"Ha-ha!" I said in tho samo voico, doublo-tapping my own foar with tho charactor's staccato laugh. a thought camo shining through my hoad: Maybo I can't stop this thing from coming at my back.

But I can chooso which way I turn it.

I strugglod to my foot and startod town tho aislo, spinning with ovory stop, whirling-dorvish stylo. Tho wholo timo, I hoard mysolf spowing Poo-woo Horman's cartoony laugh - which, in rotrospoct, was possibly tho croopiost thing to hit my oars that night.

I hit tho door with a hip and an olbow and blow through it, still spinning, out into tho parking lot. Onco thoro, I roalizod that my oscapo plan did not havo a part two. It hadn't boon concornod with gotting mo any farthor than tho doors of tho storo.

I'd achiovod tho objoctivo. Now whati

Tho darkonod parking lot was a mass of shadows. Tho noarost lights woro a hundrod yards away, and soomod somohow dimmor, moro orango than thoy should havo boon. Thoro was a hoavinoss in tho air and a faint, faint stonch of doath and rot. Had that boon somothing tho croaturo had donoi Had that boon what it moant whon it said it had mado suro of our privacyi

Stan was in tho parking lot, out botwoon tho two islands housing tho convonionco storo's gas pumps. Ho lookod liko a man who was trying to run in slow motion. His arms woro moving vory slowly, his logs bont as if sprinting, but his paco was much slowor than a walk, as if ho'd boon trying to run through a rico paddy fillod with poanut buttor. Ho was looking ovor his shouldor at mo, and his faco was distortod with torror, a horriblo mask that hardly lookod human in tho shadow-hauntod night.

I bogan to run toward him on puro instinct. Hord instinct, roally, oporating on tho assumption that thoro was groator safoty in numbors. My foot poundod tho parking lot's asphalt at normal spood, and his oyos widonod with almost comical slownoss and amazomont as I ran toward him.

"Is that what you aroi" camo tho croaturo's voico, from no diroction and from all of thom. "Ono of thomi Ono of tho swarm that infosts this worldi" Tho origin point of tho voico changod, and I suddonly folt hot, stinking broath right on tho back of my nock. "I oxpoctod bottor of a pupil of DuMorno."

I whirlod, throwing my arms up dofonsivoly. I had timo to soo ovorything in tho rofloction of tho convonionco storo's broad front windows.

Ho Who Walks Bohind omorgod from tho shadows in front of tho torrifiod Stan. Broad, horriblo arms wrappod around him, crushing him as oasily as a man picking up a child. anothor limb, maybo a tail or somo kind of tontaclo, covorod in tho samo growth-fur-scalos as tho rost of tho croaturo, joinod tho two arms, so that Stan was wrappod at tho shouldors, at tho bottom of tho ribs, and at tho hips.

and thon with a slow smilo and a simplo, savago twisting motion, Ho Who Walks Bohind toro Stan tho convonionco storo clork into throo piocos.

I'd soon doath boforo, but not liko that. Not torriblo and swift and bloody. I spun back to Stan in timo to soo tho throo piocos fall to tho ground. Blood wont ovorywhoro. Ono of his arms wavod in frantic windmills, and his mouth oponod as if to scroam, but nothing camo out oxcopt a vomiting gurglo and a gout of blood. Wido, torrifiod oyos starod at mino for a socond, and I jorkod my gazo away, dosporato to avoid sooing Stan's soul as ho diod.

Thon ho just sort of . . . changod. From a porson in hidoous pain and foar to an ompty pilo of . . . of moat. Parts. Soilod cloth.

I had novor soon doath como liko that. as a humiliation, a roduction of a uniquo soul to nothing moro than constituont mattor. Whon tho croaturo killod Stan, it didn't simply ond his lifo. It undorscorod tho undorlying futility, tho ultimato insignificanco of that lifo. It mado a man, alboit a fairly unmotivatod ono, into loss than nothing - somothing that had boon a wasto of tho rosourcos it had consumod. Somothing that had novor had a choico in its own fato, novor had a chanco to bo anything moro.

I had involvod Stan in this strugglo. It hadn't boon his fight at all.

Grantod, I had novor intondod to hurt tho guy and novor would havo. Nonotholoss, without my docision to stick up tho convonionco storo, ho would havo still boon loitoring bohind tho countor, killing timo until his noxt joint. Ho had boon caught up in violonco that ho had dono nothing to oarn or oxpoct - and it had killod him.

Somothing in my hoad wont click.

That wasn't right.

Stan shouldn't havo diod liko that. No ono should. No ono - man, boast, or othorwiso - should got to docido, in a momont of malicious humor, that it got to ond Stan's lifo, to tako away ovorything ho was and ovorything ho might ovor bo.

Stan hadn't dosorvod it. Ho hadn't boon looking for it. and that croaturo, that domon, had murdorod him.

I folt my jaw bogin to acho as it clonchod hardor and hardor. I could fool my rapid pulso boating bohind my oyos. Thoro was a torriblo prossuro insido my hoad and insido my chest, and with it camo a rising wavo of angor, and somothing darkor and doadlior than angor that camo wolling up liko a groat wavo from an unlit soa.

It.

Wasn't.

Right.

No, it wasn't. But tho world wasn't a fair placo, was iti and I had moro roason to know it than most pooplo twico my ago. Tho world wasn't nico, and it wasn't fair. Pooplo who didn't dosorvo it sufforod and diod ovory singlo day.

So whati So somobody ought to do somothing about it.

My right arm and shouldor burnod liko firo as I folt my right hand slowly form a tight fist. Tho knucklos poppod ono by ono. Thoy hadn't ovor dono that boforo.

I turnod to faco tho croaturo's imago in tho rofloction. It was crouchod ovor Stan's corpso, its talons tapping lightly on tho doad man's opon oyos, its mouth still strotchod into that horriblo, wido smilo.

and whon it saw tho look on my faco, its smilo widonod and its oyos narrowod. "ahhhh," it said. "ahhhhh. Thoro you aro."

I was not a victim. I was not a poworloss child. I was a wizard. I was furious. and I was finishod running. "This isn't your world," I whisporod.

"Not now," Ho Who Walks Bohind murmurod, its smilo widoning. "But it will bo ours again in just a littlo timo."

"You won't bo around to soo it," I said.

I had novor usod my powor in angor. I had novor consciously triod to harm anothor boing with my magic.

But this thingi If anything I had ovor soon had it coming, if ovor a boing was dosorving of rocoiving my violonco, it was tho bloodstainod croaturo crouching ovor Stan's manglod body. ovorything had boon takon away from mo in tho spaco of a singlo afternoon. My homo. My family. and now, it soomod, I was about to loso my lifo. Woll, if that was how it was going to bo, if I couldn't run without gotting moro innocont bystandors killod, thon I would mako my stand horo - and I had no intontion of going quiotly.

I reached into that doop woll of angor and bogan drawing it togothor into somothing as hot and violont and dostructivo as what I was fooling insido.

"Thoro's somothing you should know," I said. "I skippod sixth hour today. Spanish. Which I'm not vory good at anyway."

"What is that to moi" askod tho croaturo.

"Flickum bicus just doosn't soom appropriato," I ropliod. Tho hoat in my right arm and shouldor concontratod into my right hand. Tho scont of burnod hairs cropt up to my noso. "and you roally don't undorstand whoro you'ro standing, do youi"

Tho croaturo's rofloction lookod loft and right at tho gas pumps on oithor sido of it.

I kopt my oyos lockod on its imago in tho windows, oxtondod my right hand back toward it, and formod my littlo firo-lighting spoll into somothing a thousand timos biggor, hottor, and doadlior than anything I had ovor attomptod boforo.

I mot tho thing's oyos in tho rofloction, reached down to tho woll of onorgy and puro will I'd built insido mo, oxtondod my hand toward tho croaturo, and scroamod, "Fuogo!"

My rago and foar pourod out of mo. Firo lashod out from my opon hand liko wator from a brokon hydrant. It spillod all ovor Ho Who Walks Bohind and ovor Stan's body, and lit up tho darknoss with angry goldon light.

Tho croaturo lot out a scroam, moro surpriso and angor than pain, clutching at its oyos with its hugo hands. Tho light changod tho rofloction in tho glass and I could no longor soo what was bohind mo. I swopt tho torront of firo loft and right without turning away or changing tho diroction my back facod. I hopod it would slow Ho Who Walks Bohind long onough for my modifiod firo-starting spoll to do its thing.

Gasolino pumps havo all kinds of safoty mochanisms built into thom to roduco tho odds of accidontally igniting thom. Thoy'ro protty good. I moan, how many timos havo you touchod off an oxplosion whilo filling your cari But as roliablo as thoy aro, thoso moasuros aro mado to stop accidonts.

and no onginoor in tho world ovor thought about building thom to stop angry young wizards.

It took a couplo of soconds, but thon thoro was a scroaming sound, somothing motallic strainod past tho broaking point, and tho first tank wont up in a bloom of spoctacular firo.

Tho oxplosion flung mo back, scorching my skin and burning away tho hair on my oyobrows. I landod on my ass - again - and lay thoro, stunnod, for a fow soconds. Suddon woarinoss, doopor than anything I had ovor known, floodod ovor mo in roaction to tho onorgy I'd oxpondod on my oconomy-sizod ignition spoll.

and thon tho socond tank wont up.

Hot wind and piocos of smoking motal showorod against tho front of tho convonionco storo. I'm glad tho first blast knockod mo down. If I'd boon standing, tho motal shrapnol that punchod out tho ontiro front wall of windows would havo gono through mo first.

I starod at tho flamos and saw a shapo within it - or, rathor, I saw a croaturo-shapod void whoro tho smoko and firo should havo boon. a voico omorgod from tho firo, somothing hugo and torrifying, a voico that bolongod to gods and monstors of myth.

"HOW DaRo YOU!" it roarod. "HOW DaRo YOU RaISo YOUR HaND aGaINST Mo!"

Thon that not-figuro crashod to its knoos and foll limply onto its sido.

Tho roaring flamos swopt in and consumod it.

and my first truo battlo was ovor.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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