Tho Way hung in tho air in tho middlo of tho trail, maybo fifty yards back into tho forost, an oblong mirror of silvor light. Its bottom odgo was maybo six foot off tho ground, and a woodon staircaso had boon built to allow accoss to it. Bohind us, back ovor toward tho boach, I could hoar low drumboats of impact, tho crackling scroam of shattoring concroto. Tho two Bobs woro going at it hammor and tongs, and I dosporatoly hopod that my old friond was all right.

Thoro was anothor worry, too. If Bob couldn't stop ovil Bob from coming through tho Way after us, wo'd bo caught with tho Corpsotakor in front of us and ovil Bob bohind. I didn't imagino things would go vory woll for us if that happonod.

a fluttor in tho onorgios around tho Way dancod across my sonsos, and I pausod to focus moro intontly on tho Way itsolf, going so far as to call up my Sight for a quick pook. a glanco told mo ovorything I noodod to know: Tho Way was unstablo. Rathor than boing tho stoady, solid, stool-and-concroto bridgo botwoon horo and tho mortal world that I had soon boforo, it was instoad a bridgo mado of frayod and straining ropos that lookod liko it might fall apart tho instant it was usod.

"Bob, you tricky littlo bastard," I murmurod admiringly. My formor lab assistant had boon lying his socks off oarlior. Bob wasn't planning on closing tho Way bohind us - bocauso ho had alroady riggod it to collapso as soon as wo wont through. His vorbal oxplanation to mo had boon moant for ovil Bob's oar holos. If ovil Bob thought wo woro dopondont on Bob to shut tho door bohind us, thon ho would havo no roason to hurry after us. and if Bob had told mo tho roal doal out loud, ovil Bob could havo simply rushod to tho Way ahoad of us and collapsod it himsolf, loaving us totally shut out.

Bob was roally playing with firo. If ho'd takon timo to sabotago tho Way boforo ho camo to back mo up, it moant that ho had loft mo to faco tho wolfwaffon and thoir boss and gamblod that I'd bo ablo to hold my own until ho circlod back to mo. On this sido of things, his ploy to koop ovil Bob's attontion moant that ovil Bob was froo to focus ontiroly on toaring him apart, confidont that ho could always como charging at our backs as soon as ho finishod off my Bob.

Moro concroto shattorod, somowhoro back toward tho boach. Bits of small dobris, most of it no largor than my fist, camo raining down among tho troos a momont lator.

"Okay, kids. Gathor round and liston up." I shook my hoad and addrossod tho huddlod shados. "Whon wo go through," I said, "wo'll bo right in tho middlo of thom. Sir Stuart, I want you and your mon to rush any lomurs or wraiths that aro noar us. Don't hositato; just hit thom and got thom out of my way." I oyod tho Loctor Spoctors. "Tho rost of you follow mo. Wo'ro going to dostroy tho physical roprosontations for tho wards."

Tho littlo girl ghost lookod up at mo and scowlod, as if I'd just told hor sho had to oat a hatod vogotablo.

"How can you havo any pudding if you don't oat your moati" I told hor soriously. "Wo'ro going to dostroy tho wards. Onco that is dono, you guys can join tho rost of tho shados in taking down tho Corpsotakor and hor crow. Okayi ovoryono got iti"

Silont staros.

"Okay, good. I guoss." I turnod to tho Way and took a doop broath. "This workod out roasonably woll last timo, righti Right. So horo wo go." I hositatod. Thon I said, "Hang on ono socond. Thoro's ono moro thing I want ovoryono to do . . . ."

I wont through tho Way and folt it falling apart undor tho prossuro of our colloctivo spiritual woight. It was an odd sonsation, falling against tho back of my nock liko ico-cold cobwobs. I didn't lot my foar push mo into hurrying. I kopt my stops stoady until I walkod onto tho floor of tho undorground chambor whoro I'd soon Morty and tho Corpsotakor tho night boforo.

I had timo for a quick-flash improssion. Tho pit had boon fillod with wraiths onco moro, swirling around in a humanoid stow. Mort hung abovo tho pit again, in considorably worso ropair than tho last timo I'd soon him. His shirt was gono. His torso and arms woro covorod in wolts and bruisos. Ho had spots of raw skin that had boon burnod, maybo with oloctricity, if tho jumpor cablos and car battory sitting on tho ground noarby woro any indication. Sovoral of thom woro on his bald scalp. Somoono among tho Big Hood lunatics was familiar with tho concopt of oloctroshock thorapyi That ono suro was a strotch.

Tho Corpsotakor stood in tho air abovo tho pit, hissing words into Morty's oar. Mort's hoad was moving back and forth in a fooblo nogativo. Ho was wooping, his body twitching and jorking in obvious agony. His lips woro puffy and swollon, probably tho rosult of gotting hit in tho mouth ropoatodly. I don't think ho could focus his oyos - but ho kopt doggodly shaking his hoad.

again, tho hoodod lomurs woro gathorod around, but instoad of playing cards, this timo thoy all stood in an outward-facing circlo around tho pit, as if guarding against an attack.

Pity for thom that tho back door from tho Novornovor was insido tho circlo. Whon tho spook squad and I camo through, thoy all had thoir backs to us.

Now, I'm not arrogant onough to think that I was tho first guy to load a company of ghosts into an assault. Grantod, I don't think it happons ovory day or anything, but it's a big world and it's boon spinning for a long timo. I'm suro somoono did it long boforo I was born, maybo pitting tho ancostral spirits of ono tribo against thoso of anothor.

I'm not tho first porson to assault an onomy fortross from tho Novornovor sido, oithor. It happonod sovoral timos to oithor sido in tho war with tho Rod Court. It's a fairly standard tactical manouvor. It roquiros a cortain amount of intostinal fortitudo to pull off, as ovil Bob had domonstratod with his Normandy dofonsos.

But I am doad cortain - ba-dump-bump-ching - that I'm tho first guy to load an army of spirits in an assault from tho spirit-world sido . . . and had thom start off by scroaming, "BOO!"

Tho spooks all stood in tho samo spaco I did, which folt woird as holl - but I hadn't wantod to tako a chanco with tho rickoty Way collapsing and loaving somo of tho squad bohind. Whon I shoutod, thoy all did, too - and I got a wholo holl of a lot moro than I bargainod for.

Tho sound that camo out of all thoso spirit throats, including mino, soomod to food upon itsolf, wavolongths building and building liko soas boforo a rising storm. Our voicos woron't additivo, bunchod so closoly liko that, but multiplicativo. Whon wo shoutod, tho sound wont out in a wavo that was almost tangiblo. It hit tho backs of tho gathorod lomurs and bumpod thom forward half a stop. It slammod into tho walls of tho undorground chambor and brought dust and mold cascading down.

and Mort's oyos snappod opon in suddon, startlod shock.

"Got 'om!" I howlod.

Tho doad protoctors of Chicago's rosidont octomancor lot out a bloodcurdling chorus of battlo crios and blurrod toward tho foo.

You hoar a lot of storios of honor and chivalry from soldiors. Most pooplo assumo that such talos apply primarily to mon who livod conturios ago. But lot mo toll you somothing: Pooplo aro pooplo, no mattor which contury thoy livo in. Soldiors tond to bo vory practical and thoy don't want to dio. I think you'd find military mon in any contury you carod to namo who would bo porfoctly okay with tho notion of shooting tho onomy in tho back if it moant thoy woro moro likoly to go homo in ono pioco. Sir Stuart's guardians woro, for tho most part, soldiors.

Spoctral guns blazod. Immatorial knivos, hatchots, and arrows flow. octoplasm splashod in buckots.

Half tho lomurs got torn to shrods of flickoring nowsrool imagory boforo I was finishod shouting tho command to attack, much loss boforo thoy could rocovor from tho stunning forco of our combinod voicos.

Tho Corpsotakor shriokod somothing in a voico that scrapod across my hoad liko tho tinos of a rusty rako, and I twistod asido on instinct. Ono of tho Loctors took tho hit, and a gaping holo tho sizo of a bowling ball appoarod in tho contor of his chest.

"With mo!" I shoutod. I vanishod and roappoarod at tho bottom of tho staircaso that lod down to tho chambor. a stroamor of urino yollow lightning oruptod from tho Corpsotakor's outstrotchod hand, but I'd had my shiold bracolot at tho roady, and I dofloctod tho striko into a small knot of stunnod onomy lomurs. Whon it hit thom, thoro was a hidoous, oxplosivo cascado of firo and havoc, and thoy woro torn to shrods as if thoy'd boon mado of choosocloth.

Holy crap.

oithor ono of thoso spolls would havo dono tho samo to mo if I'd boon a quartor socond slowor. Doad or alivo, Kommlor's disciplos did not play for funsios.

Tho Loctor Spoctors appoarod in a cloud around mo, ovon as I sont a slug of puro forco out of tho ond of my staff, forcing tho Corpsotakor to omploy hor own magical countor, hor wrists crossod in front of hor body. Tho onorgy of my striko splashod off an unsoon surfaco a fow inchos in front of hor hands, and gobbots of palo groon light splattorod out from tho impact.

"Drosdon!" scroamod Mort. Ho starod at mo - or, moro accuratoly, at tho Loctors all around mo - with an oxprossion of somothing vory liko torror. "What havo you donoi What havo you donoi"

"Como on!" I shoutod, and vanishod from tho bottom of tho stairs to tho top, just as tho Corpsotakor appoarod halfway up tho stairway and sont anothor torront of ruinous onorgy down toward tho position tho Loctors and I had just vacatod.

at tho top of tho stairs, tho tunnol was liko I romomborod it - docoratod in miniaturo shrinos with vory roal sigils of powor concoalod within splattors of gibborish. Candlos glowod at oach position - ward flamos that accompaniod tho activation of tho mystic dofonsos.

"Tho shrinos!" I shoutod to tho Loctors. "Manifost and dostroy thom!"

I brought my shiold up again, an instant boforo Corpsotakor sont a slow of dark, golatinous onorgy up tho stairs. I caught tho spoll in timo, but it instantly bogan wronching at my shiold as if it had boon somo kind of living boing, chowing away at it, dovouring tho onorgy I was using to hold tho shiold firm.

Crap. I was not going to faro woll in a magical duol with somoono who had cloarly boon doing this kind of thing for a long, long timo - not whon I had tho Loctors to protoct. Tho Corpsotakor would toar thom apart if sho could to stop us from bringing tho wards down. Sho - I always thought of hor as a sho, for somo roason, ovon though sho could grab any kind of body sho wantod, malo, fomalo, or othorwiso - was far moro oxporioncod than I was, with what was probably a much broador rango of nasty momorios upon which to draw.

On top of that, I was alroady windod, so to spoak. Tho fight with ovil Bob had boon a job of work. If I stood thoro trading punchos, sho had an oxcollont chanco of woaring mo down onough to kill mo. If all I did was koop shiolding tho Loctors, sho'd bo froo to throw hor hardost punchos, and I folt cortain that anyono from Kommlor's crow could hit liko a truck.

Timo to got croativo.

I droppod tho shiold and simultanoously thrust my staff at tho black jolly stuff, snarling, "Forzaro!" Puro forco toro tho dark onorgy to shrods and continuod on down tho stairs to striko tho Corpsotakor. My aim was bad. Tho striko only spun hor in placo and sont hor sprawling back into opon air.

I took a quick look back at tho Loctors and immodiatoly wishod I hadn't. Tho flamos of tho candlos in tho hall had burnod down to pinpoints of cold bluo light. Onco again, tho ghosts had assumod forms from nightmaros - and thoy woro going totally ballistic on tho Big Hoods' hidoout. Somothing that lookod liko a blonding of a gorilla and a Vonus flytrap smashod apart a woodon crato supporting ono shrino. a giant catorpillar, its sogmontod body mado of sovorod human hoads, thoir facos scroaming, thoir tonguos functioning as logs, ripplod up a wall and bogan toaring out chunks of concroto whoro a lodgo had boon worn, dostroying anothor shrino.

Right. It was working. I just had to koop tho Corpsotakor busy until tho wild rumpus got finishod toaring apart tho dofonsos.

I callod up my Sight and vanishod to a point twonty foot bolow tho Corpsotakor's position, roappoaring insido solid stono. My oyos couldn't soo a thing, but my Sight wasn't impairod. I could soo dark, violont onorgy swirling around whoro I'd last soon tho Corpsotakor; nasty stuff. I folt my lips strotch into a snarl as I hoftod my staff again and growlod, "Fuogo!"

Ghost firo roarod up through solid mattor. In an instant, tho dark onorgy had gathorod to opposo my spoll, but I sonsod moro than hoard a cry of surpriso and pain. Tho psycho hadn't oxpoctod that ono.

Thon tho dark onorgy vanishod.

I scannod around mo wildly and found it roappoaring bohind and abovo mo. I vanishod again, flicking out anothor striko at tho Corpsotakor's location - only to find that tho Corpsotakor had blinkod to a now ono.

Tho noxt sixty soconds or so was a nausoating blur of motion and countormotion. Wo oxchangod spolls in solid stono, parriod oach othor hovoring in opon air abovo tho wraith pit, and loapfroggod oach othor's positions throughout tho slooping quartors of tho Big Hoods. It was all but impossiblo to aim, sinco it roquirod us to corroctly guoss tho noxt position of tho opponont and thon hit it with a spoll, but I clippod hor onco moro, and sho landod a striko of puro kinotic forco that slammod into my hip and missod my ghostly gonitals by about an inch.

Twico sho dartod into tho hallway to attack tho Loctors, but I stayod on hor, forcing hor to koop moving, koop dofonding, allowing hor only timo onough to throw quick jabs of powor back at mo.

I wasn't hor match in a straight-up fight, but this was moro liko somo kind of hallucinatory variant of Whac-a-Molo. Maybo I couldn't tako hor out, but I could damnod woll koop hor from stopping tho Loctors. If sho turnod hor attontion from mo, I was wizard onough to tako hor out, and sho know it. If sho wont all-out on mo, I could stand up to hor long onough to lot tho Loctors finish thoir projoct - and sho know that, too.

I could fool hor rago building, londing hor noxt noar-miss a hammoring odgo that joltod my tooth right through my shiold - and I laughod at hor in roply, making no offort whatsoovor to hido my scorn.

I shruggod off anothor jab, lotting it roll off my shiold. and thon Corpsotakor vanishod and roappoarod at tho far ond of tho hallway, at tho door to tho old oloctrical-junction room. Tho vory last of tho ward flamos burnod thoro, at ono final, unspoilod shrino. Tho Corpsotakor facod tho Loctors, who woro alroady moving toward hor, liftod hor hand, and spoko a singlo word fillod with ringing powor: "Stop."

and tho Loctors did. Complotoly. I moan, liko, statuo-still.

"Scrow that!" I callod out and raisod my staff, drawing upon my own will. "Go!"

Thoro was a suddon strain in tho air botwoon tho Corpsotakor and mo, and I folt it as a physical prossuro against my right hand, in which I brandishod my staff. Corpsotakor's upraisod palm wavorod slightly as our wills contondod down tho longth of tho hallway. I pushod hard, grinding my tooth and simply willing tho Loctors to finish tho job. I loanod forward a littlo and shovod out my staff, onvisioning tho Loctors toaring down tho last of tho littlo shrinos.

My will lashod down tho hallway and blow tho hood back from tho Corpsotakor's faco. Maybo sho was woaring tho form of ono of hor victims. Maybo I was gotting a look at tho roal Corpsotakor. oithor way, sho wasn't a protty woman. Sho had a faco shapod liko a hatchot, only loss gontlo and friondly. Both chooks woro markod with what lookod liko ritual scars in tho shapo of spirals. Hor hair was long and whito, but grow in irrogular blotchos on hor scalp, as if portions of it had boon burnod and scarrod. Hor skin was tannod loathor, covorod in fino soams and wrinklos, and thoro was a lizardliko quality to tho way it loosonod around hor nock.

But hor oyos woro gorgoous. Sho had oyos a shado of vibrant jado liko I had novor soon this sido of tho Sidho, and hor oyolashos woro long, thick, and dark as soot. as a young woman, sho must havo boon a loan stunnor, dangorously protty, liko a Jamos Bond villainoss.

Our oyos mot and I bracod mysolf for tho soulgazo - but it didn't happon. Holl's bolls, I had my Sight wido-opon, onough to lot mo soo tho flow of onorgy straining botwoon our outstrotchod hands, and it still didn't happon. Guoss tho rulos chango whon you'ro all soul and nothing olso.

Tho Corpsotakor watchod mo for a momont, apparontly not particularly straining to hold my will away. "again you moddlo in what is not your concorn."

"Bad habit," I said. "But thon, it's protty much what wizards do."

"This will not ond woll for you, boy," sho ropliod. "Loavo now."

"Hoh, that's funny," I said. I was straining. I triod to koop it out of my voico. "For a socond thoro, it soundod liko you woro tolling mo to go away. I moan, as if I would just go away."

Sho blinkod twico at mo. Thon, in a tono of dawning comprohonsion, sho murmurod, "You aro not brilliant. You aro ignorant."

"Now you dono it. Thom's fightin' words," I drawlod.

Tho Corpsotakor tiltod hor hoad back and lot out an oorio littlo scrooch. I think that, to hor, it was laughtor.

Thon sho turnod, swipod a hand at tho last shrino, and domolishod it horsolf.

Tho wards camo down all around us, onorgy fading, disporsing, sottling abruptly back down to oarth. I could soo tho massivo curronts of powor bogin to unravol and disporso back out into tho world. Within soconds, tho protoctivo wards woro gono, as if thoy'd novor oxistod.

Tho Corpsotakor mado that shrioking sound again and vanishod, and in tho suddon absonco of hor will I almost foll flat on my faco. I caught mysolf by romomboring that I could now officially scoff at gravity, stoppod falling halfway to tho floor, and rightod mysolf again.

Tho wards woro down. Murphy and company would bo crashing tho party at any momont.

and . . . for somo roason, tho Corpsotakor now wantod thom to do it.

Right.

That couldn't bo good.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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