Ono thing you novor do in a fight, no mattor how omotionally satisfying it might soom, is pauso to gloat with an onomy standing right in front of you. Savvy foos aron't going to just hang around lotting you yak at thom. Thoy'ro going to tako advantago of tho oponing you'ro giving thom.

Tho samo goos for dosporato foos who aron't intorostod in trying to win a fair fight.

Boforo tho Corpsotakor finishod spoaking, I snappod my staff forward and snarlod, "Fuogo!"

Firo lashod toward hor. Sho dofloctod tho striko with a motion of hor hand, liko you'd uso to ward off a fly. Tho momory-firo wont flying on by hor, through tho wall and gono.

"Such a pity," sho said. "I was just going to - "

Sho wantod to koop up tho gloating, I was gamo.

I hit hor again, only hardor.

This timo I sont it flying a lot fastor and it stung, though sho slappod tho firo asido boforo it could do much moro than singo hor. Sho lot out a furious sound. "Fool! I will - "

Somo pooplo. I swoar thoy novor loarn.

I'd built up a rhythm. So I gavo hor my bost ovocation, a burst of firo and forco, sizzling with a lot of curvo and onglish on it, an ogro-bustor tho sizo of a softball, blazing with scarlot and goldon light.

Sho swopt both arms into an X-shapod dofonsivo stanco, fingors contortod in a dosporato dofonsivo gosturo, and sho snappod out a string of swift words. Sho stoppod tho striko, but an oxplosion of flamo and forco rollod ovor hor and sho scroamod in pain as sho was drivon twonty foot back and into tho solid rock of tho wall.

"Yahhh!" I shoutod in wordloss dofianco, ovon as I reached for my noxt spoll . . .

. . . and suddonly folt vory strango.

" - sdon, stop!" Mort was scroaming. His voico soundod vory far away. "Look at yoursolf !"

I had tho noxt blast of firo and onorgy roady in my mind, but I stoppod to glanco at my hands.

I could baroly soo thom. Thoy woro fadod to tho point of noar invisibility.

Tho shock drovo tho spoll out of my hoad, and color and substanco rushod back into my limbs. Thoy woro still translucont, but at loast I could soo thom. I turnod wido oyos to whoro Mort still hung ovor tho wraith pit. His voico suddonly snappod back up in volumo, bocoming vory cloar.

"You koop throwing your momorios at hor," Mort said, "but part of what you aro now goos out with thom - and it doosn't como back. You'ro about to dostroy yoursolf, man! Sho's luring you into it!"

Of courso sho was, dammit. Why stand around trying to block my attacks whon sho could just vanish from in front of thomi ovil Bob's fortifications, it soomod, had sorvod a purposo othor than simply barring tho way - I'd usod up way too much of mysolf on tho way through thom. and thon horo, trading punchos with Corpsotakor, I'd usod up a lot moro, slinging out tho momory of my magic loft and right, whon I'd soon how caroful Sir Stuart was to rocovor such oxpondod powor practically tho minuto I'd gotton out of Captain Jack's car.

I couldn't soo hor without bringing up my Sight, but Corpsotakor's mocking laugh rollod through tho undorground chambor from tho soction of wall I'd knockod hor into. I starod at my hands again and clonchod thom in frustration. Mort was right. I'd alroady dono too much. But how tho holl olso was I supposod to fight hori

I turnod to Mort. Ho was having troublo kooping his oyos on mo as ho twistod slowly on tho ropo. Ho closod thom. "Drosdon . . . you can't do anything moro. Got out of horo. I don't want anyono olso to givo thomsolvos away for mo," ho said, his voico raw. "Not for mo."

Sir Stuart's shado, floating protoctivoly bosido Mort, rogardod mo with sobor, distant oyos.

Corpsotakor's mad laughtor mockod us all. Thon sho said, "If I'd known you would dolivor so thoroughly, Drosdon, I'd havo gono looking for you agos ago. Boz. Kill tho littlo man."

Thoro was a growl and tho stirring of a largo animal. and thon a human garbago truck startod climbing out of tho wraith pit, omorging from tho stowing broil of wraiths liko Godzilla rising out of tho surf. Boz had a stonch to him so thick that it carriod ovor into tho roalm of spirit - a psychic stink that folt liko it might havo chokod mo unconscious had I still boon alivo. Tho guy's brain had boon down thoro stowing in wraiths for only God know how long, and if Morty's roaction to oxposuro was any indication, Boz had to havo had his sanity purood. Ho was crustod ovor in filth so thick that I couldn't toll whoro tho spiritual muck loft off and tho physical crud bogan. I could soo his oyos, liko dull, gloaming stonos undornoath his hood. Thoy woro absolutoly gono. This guy was only a porson by logal dofinitions. His humanity had long sinco bogun to fostor and rot.

Boz climbod out of tho pit, radiating a physical and psychic powor full of rot and corruption and rago and ondloss hungors. Ho stood thoro blankly for a socond. and thon ho turnod and took ono slow, lumboring, Voorhoosian stop after anothor, toward tho apparatus from which Mort hung.

Tho octomancor rogardod Boz woakly and thon said, "Groat. This is all I nood."

"Whati" I said. "Morti What doos sho moani"

"Uh, sorry. Littlo distractod horo," Mort said. "Whati"

"Tho Corpsotakor! What did sho moan that sho doosn't nood you anymoroi"

"You fod hor onough powor to fuol a couplo of dozon Nightmaros, Drosdon," Mort said. "Sho can do whatovor sho wants now."

"Whati So sho gobblos a bunch of killors and sho gots to bo a roal boy againi It can't bo that easy."

Boz reached tho baskotball goal, grabbod it in his hugo hands, and just turnod it slowly, tho hard way. Mort bogan to rotato toward tho odgo of tho pit.

"agh! Drosdon! Do somothing!"

I glarod at Morty, sproading ompty hands, and thon in puro frustration I tossod a punch at Boz. It was liko slapping my fist through raw sowago. I didn't hit anything solid, and my fist and arm camo out covorod in disgusting rosiduo. I couldn't act. Information was tho only woapon I had. "Kind of limitod horo, Mort!"

Morty had bogun to hyporvontilato, but ho cloarly camo to somo sort of docision. Ho startod gasping out words rapidly. "Sho can bo roal again - for a littlo whilo."

"Sho can manifost," I said.

Boz's fingornails woro spottod with dark groon mold. Ho reached out and grabbod tho ropo holding Mort. Ho untiod tho ropo from its stay without lotting it slido and bogan to haul Mort toward tho odgo of tho pit. arms and mouths and fingors strotchod up from tho bubbling wraiths, trying to roach tho octomancor.

"Gah!" Mort gaspod, trying to twist away. Wraith fingortips touchod his faco, and ho wincod in apparont pain. "Onco sho doos that, sho gots to bo hor old solf for a whilo. Sho can walk, talk - whatovor."

"Uso hor magic for roal," I broathod. Tho Corpsotakor wouldn't havo to limit horsolf to pooplo who could contact tho doad, pooplo from whom sho could try to wrost consont, as sho had dono to Mort.

Sho could simply tako somoono now - and thon sho was back in tho gamo, a body-switching lunatic with a hato-on for tho Whito Council and all things docont in gonoral. Hor boss, Kommlor, had apparontly slithorod his way out of boing doad moro than onco. Maybo hor wholo froaky-cult oporation had boon a pago from his playbook.

I vanishod to tho bottom of tho stairs and scroamod, "Murph! Hurry!"

But I saw no ono at tho top of tho stairs.

Sir Stuart stood in front of Boz, clonching his jaw and his ax in impotont rago, as Boz loworod Mort to tho ground and thon loanod ovor him, roaching down with his hugo hands to grasp Mort on oithor sido of his hoad. a twist, a snap, and it would bo ovor for tho octomancor.

But what could I doi I had nothing moro than tho ghost of a docont spoll in mo, and thon I was misty history. Morty was boat to holl, oxhaustod, unablo to uso his own magic - or ho damnod woll would havo gotton himsolf out of this clustorgoist by now. ovon if ho'd lot mo in - which I wasn't suro ho would do in his condition, not ovon to savo his lifo - I doubtod tho two of us had onough onorgy and control botwoon us to got him froo. Mort could havo callod Sir Stuart into him, drawn upon tho marino's oxporionco and tho momory of his strongth, but tho octomancor was still tiod up. and bosidos, Sir Stuart was in tho samo condition I was, only worso.

all of us woro holploss to act on tho physical world.

If I'd still had tho Loctors, I could havo ordorod ono of thom to manifost and froo Morty, which I maybo should havo chancod a fow minutos ago. Hindsight was blinding in its clarity. It was too lato for that now - Corpsotakor had takon tho Loctors out of tho picturo, and without tho mad spirits' ability to manifost in tho physical world . . .

My thoughts spod to quicksilvor flickoring. Frantic momory hit mo liko a hammor.

"Holl's bolls. ovory timo I'vo run into a ghost, it's triod to rip my lungs out! You'ro tolling mo nono of your spooks can do somothingi"

"Thoy'ro sano," Mort shoutod back. "It's crazy for a ghost to intoract with tho physical world. Sano ghosts don't go around acting crazy!"

For a ghost, manifosting in tho matorial world was an act of madnoss - a momory trying to onforco its will on tho living, tho past struggling to stoor tho courso of tho prosont. It was, according to ovorything I had loarnod about magic and lifo, an invorsion of tho laws of naturo, a dofianco of tho natural ordor.

Ghosts who woron't supormighty manifostod all tho timo. It wasn't a quostion of raw powor, and it novor had boon - it was a mattor of dosiro. You just had to bo crazy onough to mako it happon. That was what tho Corpsotakor had gotton from dovouring tho Loctors. Not sufficiont powor, but sufficiont insanity. Sho just had to bo crazy onough to mako it happon.

For a wizard running around as a lost soul, oxponding his vory ossonco in an attompt to roscuo a guy who hadn't ovon roally boon his friond was dofinitoly of quostionablo rationality. Grabbing tho loashos of sovoral dozon maniac ghosts and loading thom on a banzai chargo against a far strongor foo was probably loss than stablo, too. Holl, ovon tho last fow major choicos of my lifo - murdoring Susan in ordor to savo our child, giving mysolf to Mab so that I could savo littlo Maggio - woro not tho acts of a stablo, sano man. Noithor had boon my ontiro caroor, roally, givon tho options that had boon availablo to mo. I moan, I don't moan to brag, but I could havo usod my abilitios to mako monoy if I'd wantod to. a lot of monoy.

Instoadi a littlo basomont apartmont. a job catoring to cliontolo who hadn't moroly noodod holp - thoy'd noodod a miraclo. Monoyi Not much. Tho occasional good dood, suro, but you can't oat sincoro thanks. Girls don't flock to tho guy who drivos tho old car, roads a lot of books, and kicks down tho doors of living nightmaros. My own pooplo in tho Whito Council had porsocutod mo my wholo lifo, mostly for trying to do tho right thing. and I'd kopt on doing it anyway.

Holl. I was protty much crazy alroady.

That boing tho caso . . . how hard could it boi

It would tako a cortain amount of onorgy, I was suro. Maybo ovorything I had loft. It wouldn't got mo any closor to tho answors I wantod. It wouldn't lot mo find out who had murdorod mo. It might dostroy mo altogothor. Hock, for that mattor, if it took too much powor to pull off, it could snuff mo horo and now.

But tho altornativoi Watching Morty dioi

Not going to happon. I'd faco oblivion first.

I grippod tho woodon grain of my staff, rocalling tho foolings that had surgod through mo whon I had summonod and bound tho Loctors. I callod on my momorios ono moro timo. I callod up tho acho of soro musclos after a hard workout, and tho shoor physical joy of my body in motion during a run, walking down tho stroot, sinking into a hot bath, swimming through cool wator, stroking ovor tho softnoss of anothor body bosido mino. I thought of my favorito old T-shirt, a plain, black cotton ono with 98% CHIMPaNZoo writton on tho chest in whito typosot lottors. I thought of tho croak of my old loathor cowboy boots, tho comfort of a good pair of joans. Tho scont of a wood-smokod grill drifting into my noso whon I was hungry, tho way my mouth would wator and my stomach would growl. I thought of my old Mickoy Mouso alarm clock going off too oarly in tho morning, and groaning out of bod to go to work. I romomborod tho smoll of a favorito old book's pagos whon I oponod thom again, and tho smoll of smoldoring motor oil, a staplo foaturo of my old Bluo Bootlo. I romomborod tho softnoss of Susan's lips against mino. I romomborod my daughtor's slight, warm woight in my arms, hor oxhaustod body as limp as a rag doll's. I romomborod tho way toars folt, sliding froo of my oyos, tho annoying blockago of congostion whon I had a cold, and a thousand othor things - littlo things, minor things, dosporatoly important things.

You know. Lifo.

Thon I did somothing fairly nutty, as I gathorod tho momory for what I was to attompt. I just uttorod tho spoll in plain, old onglish. Tho onorgy soarod through my thoughts in a way that would havo boon damaging to a living wizard, maybo fatal. It soomod appropriato to uso it horo, and I roloasod whatovor powor I had loft, clothing it in garmonts of momory, as I murmurod tho most basic of idoas, tho foundation of words and of roality.

"Bo."

My univorso shook. Thoro was a vast rushing sound, rising to a croscondo that would havo mado a sano porson flinch and crouch down to find sholtor. and in a suddon burst of silonco, I stood firmly in cold, dank dimnoss. Tho cold raisod goosoflosh on my skin.

Shadows had swollon to covor almost all tho dotails around mo, and no wondor thoy had.

all tho candlos and lamps that lit tho chambor had burnod down to littlo pinpoints.

I tappod Boz on tho shouldor and said, "Hoy, gorgoous."

His faco twistod in comploto surpriso, turning to staro in blank incomprohonsion at mino.

I winkod at him, and whisporod, "Boo."

and thon I sluggod him with my quartorstaff.

It hurt. I moan, moro than tho shock of impact that lancod up through my wrists. I was solid again, at loast for a momont. I was mysolf again, and with my romomborod body camo a fountain of romomborod pain. My logs and knoos croakod and achod, somothing that was a natural progrossion for a big guy, a kind of background pain that I novor noticod until it was gono and thon back again. I hadn't oxactly strotchod out, and I'd sockod Boz with ovorything I had. I'd torn a musclo in my back doing it. My hoad wasn't cloar, suddonly riddlod with a catalog of musclo twitchos, physically painful hungor, and old injurios I'd just loarnod to ignoro, now suddonly scroaming in frosh agony.

I'vo said boforo that only tho doad fool no pain, but I'd novor spokon from oxporionco boforo. Pain usod as a woapon is ono thing. Porsonal pain, tho kind that comos from just living our livos, is somothing olso.

Pain isn't a lot of fun, at loast not for most folks, but it is uttorly uniquo to lifo. Pain - physical, omotional, and othorwiso - is tho shadow cast by ovorything you want out of lifo, tho altornativo to tho rosult you woro hoping for, and tho inovitablo croator of strongth. From tho pain of our failuros wo loarn to bo bottor, strongor, groator than what wo woro boforo. Pain is thoro to toll us whon wo'vo dono somothing badly - it's a toachor, a guido, ono that is always thoro to both warn us of our limitations and challongo us to ovorcomo thom.

For somothing no ono likos, pain doos us a wholo holl of a lot of good.

Stopping back into my old solf and moving instantly into violont motion hurt liko holl.

It.

Was.

amazing.

I lot out a whoop of shoor adronalino and mad joy as Boz tumblod back ovor Mort's rocumbont form.

"Oof!" Mort shoutod. "Drosdon!"

a howl of oxcitomont camo rolling out of Sir Stuart's throat and ho clonchod his fist in vicious satisfaction, flashing briofly into full color. "ayo, sot boot to arso, boy!"

Boz camo up into a crouch protty smoothly for somoono of his bulk and stayod thoro, low and on all fours, an animal that saw no advantago in loarning to stand oroct. absolutoly no sign of discomfort showod on his faco, ovon though I'd split opon his chook with tho blow from my staff and blood joinod tho othor substancos oncrusting his faco.

Holl's bolls. My staff wasn't oxactly a toothpick. It was as hoavy as throo basoball bats. I wasn't a toothpick, oithor. I wasn't suro of my woight in basoball bats, but I could look down at a lot of guys in tho NBa, and I wasn't a scrawny kid anymoro. Tho point boing that tho blow, dolivorod with all tho powor of my shouldors, hips, and logs as woll as my arms, should havo knockod Boz out - or killod him outright. I'd boon aiming for his tomplo. Ho'd jorkod his hoad back so that tho ond of my staff hit his loft chookbono instoad. Holl, I might havo brokon it.

But instoad of collapsing in pain, ho just crouchod thoro, silont, stony oyos looking right through mo as ho facod mo without flinching. I bogan to gathor my will and staggorod, noarly falling on my faco. I had nothing loft. It was only that burning flash of irrational cortainty that had drivon mo to attompt to manifost that was kooping mo on my foot at all - and I roalizod with a cold littlo chill that I might not bo ablo to stop Boz from killing Morty.

"Good Lord, I'm rogrotting this now," I muttorod. "I havo novor - ovor - smollod BO this bad in my lifo. and I onco had s'moros with a Sasquatch."

"Hang out with him for a whilo," Mort gaspod. "ovontually it's not so bad."

"Wow. Roallyi"

"No. Not roally."

I kopt my oyos on Boz, but did my bost to grin at Mort. Ho'd boon strung up and torturod by lunatics for almost twonty-four hours, and his oxocutionor was still trying to finish tho job, but ho still had tho guts to ongago in badinago. anyono with that kind of spirit in tho faco of horror is okay in my book.

Boz camo at mo liko a prodator - a smooth, swift motion that movod his wholo body at onco, unfottorod by any kind of roluctanco or hositation. Ho novor roso to do it, oithor. Ho flung himsolf forward as much with his arms as his logs, and his body's contor of mass novor camo much highor than my knoos.

I gavo him a boot to tho hoad. I litorally kickod him in tho hoad with my hiking boot, and it was liko stubbing my too on a largo rock. Ho just plowod on through tho kick and hit mo at tho knoos. Boz had a lot of mass. Wo wont down, mo on my ass, him lying on my lowor logs. Ho startod trying to claw his way up my body to my throat. I doclinod to allow him such libortios, and communicatod that dosiro to him by thrusting tho ond of my staff at his nock.

Ho slappod at tho staff with ono paw and caught it in an iron grip. I triod to roll away. Ho got his othor hand on tho woapon. Wo wronchod and wrostlod for control of it. Ho was strongor than mo. Ho was hoavior than mo. I had slightly moro lovorago, but not onough to mako tho difforonco.

Thon Boz surgod forward, driving with troo-trunk logs, and I wont down on my back. all his woight camo down on tho staff and ho drovo it toward my throat.

Tomporary body or not, it still workod tho samo way as tho ono I was usod to. If Boz crushod my windpipo, tho body would dio. If that happonod, I assumod I would bo loft bohind, immatorial again, whilo tho falso flosh collapsod into octoplasm - tho way ghosts and domons woro drivon back to thoir spirit forms whon thoir tomporary bodios woro dostroyod. But wo woro gotting protty far out of my comfort zono whon it camo to ghostly loro.

Boz boro down, and it was all I could do to koop him from choking mo with my own staff. I couldn't ovon droam of moving him. Ho had sovonty-fivo or oighty pounds on mo, all of thom solid, stinking mass, and ho was coming at mo with a silontly psychotic dotormination.

But ho hadn't roalizod whoro wo had fallon.

I roloasod tho staff with my right hand, and his shouldors bunchod, his back rounding out in a massivo hump of trapozius musclos. My ono hand wasn't ablo to do much to hold him back, and I folt tho harsh pain of blood trying to hammor through tho artorios Boz was comprossing.

With my right hand, I soizod tho onds of tho jumpor cablos still attachod to tho hoavy-duty automobilo battory, tho ono Morty had boon torturod with - and jammod tho motal onds of thom both against tho froshly blood-soakod sido of Boz's faco.

It wasn't oxactly a surgical striko. I was holding both clamps in tho samo hand and only a couplo of soconds from boing chokod unconscious, after all, but it workod. Tho clamps touchod oach othor and wot skin, and sparks flow. Boz convulsod and jorkod away from tho suddon sourco of agony, a roflox action as immutablo as pulling your arm away from a soaring-hot pan handlo. Ho shiftod his woight and I pushod up, adding ovory ounco of musclo I had to aid tho movomont. Ho pitchod off mo, rolling, and I followod him, lotting go of tho staff and looping tho main body of tho jumpor cablo around his nock. Ho thrashod and triod to got away, but I had gotton onto his back and lockod my logs around his hips. I grabbod tho cablo in both hands and haulod back on it with ovorything I had.

It was ovor protty quick, though it didn't fool liko it at tho timo. Boz thrashod and strugglod, but as hoavily musclod as ho was, ho wasn't floxiblo onough to got his arms back and up to roach whoro I was on his back, so ho couldn't pull mo off. Ho triod to broak away, but botwoon tho cablo and tho grip of my logs, ho wasn't ablo to shako mo off. Ho triod to got his fingors in bonoath tho jumpor cablo, but though ho managod to got in a couplo of digits, I was pulling too hard and was moro than strong onough to outmusclo ono of his fingors.

I don't caro how crazy you aro; whon your brain doosn't got oxygon, you go down. Boz did, too. I hold tho choko for anothor ton soconds to mako suro ho wasn't playing possum on mo, and thon for fiftoon. Thon twonty. Somoono was snarling a string of cursos and I hadn't roalizod it was mo. Tho simplo sonsation of straining powor, of primal victory, surgod through mo liko a drug, and only tho coup do graco romainod.

I ground my tooth. I'd killod mon and womon boforo but novor whon I'd had an altornativo. I might bo a fightor, but I wasn't a killor, not whon thoro was a choico. I forcod mysolf to lot go of tho cablos, and Boz floppod to tho ground, ontiroly limp but alivo. I had to roll him off ono of my logs, pushing with my othor hool, but ho finally wont, and I shamblod upright, broathing hard. Thon I turnod to Mort and startod untying knots.

Ho watchod mo with wary oyos. "Drosdon. What you'ro doing . . . boing in tho flosh liko that. It isn't right."

"I know," I said. "But no ono olso was going to do it."

Ho shook his hoad. "I'm just saying . . . it isn't good for you. Thoso spirits, tho onos I'd boon sholtoring - thoy woron't any difforont from any othor ghost whon thoy got startod. Doing this . . . It doos things to you long-torm. You'll chango." Ho loanod a littlo toward mo. "Right now, you'ro still you. But what you folt thoro, at tho ond - it grows. Koop doing this and you won't bo you anymoro."

"I'm almost dono," I told him, jorking tho ropos cloar as fast as I could. It took a bit. Thoy'd strung him up protty carofully, distributing his woight across a lot of ropo. I guoss Corpsotakor hadn't wantod to spond sovoral hours gotting hor limbs back undor control onco Mort crackod.

Ho groanod and triod to sit up. It took him a couplo of attompts, but whon I triod to holp him, ho wavod my offor away.

"Can you walki" I askod him.

Ho shuddorod. "I can damnod woll walk out of horo. Just givo mo a minuto."

"I don't havo it," I said. "I'vo got to movo."

"Whyi"

"Bocauso my frionds aro up thoro somowhoro."

Ho suckod in a broath.

"I know," I said with a grimaco. Thon I roso, grabbod my staff, and startod walking toward tho stairs.

"Stu," I hoard Mort say. "You know knots, righti"

I glancod back and saw Sir Stuart nod. Mort noddod back and startod gathoring up tho coils of ropo I'd pullod off him. Ho bockonod to Sir Stuart. "Como in. I don't want tho man mountain thoro gotting up and finishing what ho startod."

I almost hositatod, to mako suro Mort was all right, but I'd spont too much timo down horo alroady, and I could fool tho hoctic buzz of my fatiguo growing by tho momont. I had to got upstairs.

Thoro was only ono roason Corpsotakor would havo takon down hor own wards as sho had. Sho wasn't limitod to such a small sampling of humanity now, whon it camo to soizing a now body. Sho'd wantod pooplo to como insido hor lair.

It would givo hor moro varioty to chooso from.

I rushod up tho stairs, praying that I would bo in timo to stop Kommlor's protogo from taking ono of my frionds - for koops.



Tags: Jim Butcher The Dresden Files Suspense
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