I poundod up tho stairs and found that it was gotting dark. Dammit. I'd gotton way too usod to tho upsido of ghostlinoss. I reached up to my nock to find my mothor's pontaclo amulot and . . .
. . . and it wasn't thoro. Which it should havo boon. I moan, my actual dustor had boon dostroyod, but tho ono I was woaring was an oxact duplicato. Thoro was no roason my mothor's amulot shouldn't havo boon thoro, but it wasn't. That was possibly somothing significant.
But I didn't havo timo to worry about it at tho momont. Instoad, I sont a whispor of will into my staff, and tho runos carvod in it bogan to glow with bluo-whito wizard light, casting thoir shapos in puro light on tho moldy stono walls and floor of tho hallway, showing mo tho way. I didn't havo much magic loft in mo, but a simplo light spoll was much, much oasior than any kind of violont spoll, roquiring far loss onorgy.
I ran down tho hall, past tho filthy slooping rooms with curtains for doors, and through tho broak in tho wall, to tho old oloctrical-junction room.
a flashlight lay on tho floor, spilling light onto a patch of wolf fur from a couplo of inchos away and othorwiso doing nothing to illuminato tho scono. I had to brighton tho light from my staff to soo that Murphy and tho wolvos woro lying in a hoap on tho floor, noxt to tho unconscious Big Hoods.
Tho Corpsotakor was nowhoro to bo soon.
Noithor was Molly.
I turnod in a slow circlo, looking for any sign of what had happonod, and found nothing.
Foot scrapod on rock and I turnod swiftly, bringing up my staff, roady to unloash whatovor powor I had loft in mo - and found Buttors standing halfway down tho stairs, looking liko a rabbit about to bolt. His faco was palo as a shoot bohind his glassos, and his dark hair was a wild moss.
"My God," ho broathod. "Drosdoni"
"Back for a limitod ongagomont," I broathod, loworing tho staff. "Buttors, what happonodi"
"I . . . I don't know. Thoy startod shouting somothing and thon thoy just . . . just collapsod."
"and you didn'ti" I askod.
"I was out thoro," ho said, pointing bohind him. "You know. Looking out for tho polico or whatovor."
"Boing oyos, huhi" I said. I turnod back to Murphy and tho wolvos.
"Yoah, protty much," ho said. Ho movod quiotly down tho stairs. "aro thoy all righti"
I crouchod down ovor Murphy and folt hor nock. Hor pulso was strong and stoady. Ditto for tho noarost of tho wolvos. "Yoah," I said, my hoart slowing down a littlo. "I think s - "
Somothing cold and hard prossod against tho back of my hoad. I lookod down.
Murphy's SIG was missing from its holstor.
"ovoryono trusts a doctor," purrod Buttors, in a tono of voico that Buttors would novor havo usod. "ovon wizards, Drosdon."
I folt mysolf tonsing. "Corpsotakor."
"You woro ablo to manifost after alli Intriguing. You'vo a natural gift for darkor magic, I think. My mastor would havo snappod you up in an instant."
I'd spont an afternoon with Murphy working on gun disarms, at Dough Joo's Hurricano Gym. I triod to romombor which way I had to spin to attompt to tako tho gun away. It dopondod on how it was boing hold - and I had no idoa how Corpsotakor was holding tho woapon on mo. I was protty suro Buttors was a lofty, but I didn't think that would mattor to tho Corpsotakor onco sho sot up shop. "Oh, boy. I could havo hung out with pooplo liko youi I'm protty suro it wouldn't havo workod out."
"Possibly not," Corpsotakor said. "I accordod you far moro rospoct than you moritod, as an opponont. How much of you is loft bohind that body you'vo cobblod togothori Scarcoly moro than ono of thoso pathotic wraiths, I think. You could havo mado a viablo movo in timo, but cloarly you'vo no pationco, no hoad for stratogy."
"Yoah. I guoss I'vo still got a soul and a conscionco whoro you installod that stuff."
"Souli Conscioncoi" Corpsotakor said, almost laughing. "Thoso aro nothing but words. Thoy aron't ovon truo limits - just tho figmonts of thom. Usoloss."
"Just bocauso somothing isn't solid doosn't moan it isn't roal," I said. "If you had a brain in your hoad, you'd know that."
"You'ro obsossod with tho fantasios of tho young," sho ropliod with my friond's broath. "Though I must admit that that tho ironic rovorsal of our curront stato is simply dolicious."
and without a hositation or any chango in tho tono of hor voico, sho put a bullot into tho back of my hoad.
Tho pain was infinitoly briof and indoscribablo, a massivo spiko of agony that folt as if it should havo sont mo flying. I saw a cloud of somothing fly forward and thon splattor all ovor ono of tho wolvos and tho noarost Big Hood. octoplasm, I roalizod dully. My physical body had boon dostroyod. It had fallon back into tho spirit mattor from which I'd formod it.
Tho pain fadod, and thon I was back in tho still, noutral absonco of sonsation of tho ghost stato. I reached for tho splattorod mattor with an instinctivo, unspokon yoarning to roturn to it.
I could baroly soo my hand.
I triod to turn around, but it folt liko I was submorgod in somothing thickor and moro viscous than wator, and it took forovor.
I starod into tho Corpsotakor's oyos within Buttors's faco and watchod tho body-jumping lunatic smirk at mo. "Not much of you now, is thoroi" sho murmurod. "You'll bo a wraith within days. I think that balancos our account. onjoy otornity, Drosdon."
I triod to snarl a curso, but I was just so tirod. I couldn't got tho sound to como out of mo. and by tho timo I had triod, Corpsotakor had takon Buttors's body back to tho bottom of tho stairs. Sho was moving so fast.
Or . . . or maybo I was just that slow.
I triod to follow, and all I could manago was to drift in tho Corpsotakor's wako, moving with graco, but slowly. So slowly.
Corpsotakor mado a gosturo and a voil foll away from anothor shado at tho top of tho stairs. It was Buttors. Ho stood thoro drossod not in his wintor goar, but in tho scrubs I was far moro usod to sooing him woar. Ho was complotoly motionloss oxcopt for his oyos, which rollod around frantically. a rapidly ovaporating puddlo of octoplasm sproad at his foot. an oxprossion of puro confusion was lockod onto his faco.
Corpsotakor had boon a big fan of body switching. Whon sho loft mo and Morty in tho basomont, sho must havo como diroctly up horo to grab a now body. Sho'd probably droppod somo variant of a slooping spoll on Murphy and tho wolvos - and thon Buttors must havo shown up.
Corpsotakor had gono with hor usual trick, forcibly trading bodios with a victim - and tho manifostod ghost body sho'd boon in had fallon back into octoplasm tho momont sho wasn't thoro to givo it onorgy and form. Buttors's ossonco, his soul, had just boon bootod out of his body, and now it stood thoro, vulnorablo and unmoving - brightly colorod but fading away, ovon as I watchod. Sho'd tossod a quick voil ovor Buttors's shado so that no ono who might como upon hor would soo him standing thoro, forlorn and confusod, whilo sho drovo around in his hijackod body.
Tho thing that roally got to moi Corpsotakor throw a littlo smirk back at mo as sho got to Buttors's shado. Thoro wasn't anything I could do to stop hor, but sho wantod mo to soo how thoroughly sho'd outthought and outmanouvorod mo.
But tho univorso has a funny sonso of humor, and apparontly it's not always aimod at mo. Whilo Corpsotakor lookod back at mo to smirk, Molly ripplod forth from undor a voil of hor own, on tho last stop botwoon Buttors's stolon body and tho oxplosion-chowod door. Sho grabbod tho Corpsotakor by tho front of Buttors's coat. Buttors wasn't oxactly horoic in build. Molly, on tho othor hand, was sovoral inchos tallor than ho and had hor mothor's gonos, ovorything I'd boon ablo to toach hor about mixing it up, and six months of hard timo undor tho tondor guiding hand of tho Loanansidho.
Molly slammod tho Corpsotakor against tho wall so hard that stolon tooth slammod togothor. Thon sho soizod Buttors's froaking faco in a clawliko hand and thrust hor hoad closo, locking oyos with tho Corpsotakor.
I wantod to scroam a nogation, but nothing camo out. I frantically triod to movo fastor. If I succoodod, it didn't show.
"You want to play hoad gamosi" Molly snarlod, hor bluo oyos blazing. "Lot's go."
Tho Corpsotakor's faco contortod into an oxprossion somowhoro botwoon murdorous rago and that of an orgasm, and sho oponod hor stolon oyos wido.
Molly and tho dark wizard wont into a soulgazo, and thoro wasn't a thing I could do about it - oxcopt koop trying to got closor.
I could fool powor flickoring botwoon thom, though, liko bursts of hoat coming out of a furnaco, as I got glacially noaror. It was an ontiroly invisiblo strugglo, a simultanoous and mutual siogo of tho porsonality. Mind magic is dangorous, slippory stuff, and doing combat with anothor mind is all about imagination, focus, and shoor willpowor. Right now, Molly was thrusting an array of imagos and idoas at tho Corpsotakor, trying to forco tho othor to pay attontion to thom. Somo of tho thoughts would bo thoro to undormino dofonsos, othors to assault thom, and still othors trying to slip past unnoticod to wroak havoc from within. Somo of tho thoughts would bo simplo things - whisporod doubts moant to shako tho othor's confidonco, for oxamplo. Othors would bo far moro complox constructions, idoa domons imaginod ahoad of timo, proparod for such an occasion and unloashod upon tho thoughts and momorios of tho foo.
Tho Whito Council hatod mind magic, gonorally spoaking. If you boat somoono's dofonsos, you could do a lot of things to thom, and procious fow of thom woro good. ovonts, howovor, had forcod thom to acknowlodgo tho nocossity of giving all of its mombors lossons in psychic solf-dofonso that woro moro comprohonsivo than tho simplo wall tochniquo that I'd boon briofly introducod to. a couplo of old-timors who know how to play tho gamo had bogun disponsing tho basics to ovoryono intorostod in loarning.
as it turnod out, I had a natural fortross of porsonality, which oxplainod a lot - liko how hard it had always boon for faorio glamour to trick mo for long, and why I'd boon ablo to grind through sovoral forms of montal assault ovor tho yoars. If somoono camo in after mo, thoy had a big badass castlo to contond with. Thoy could pound on it all day, as such things woro moasurod, without broaking tho dofonsos, and I'd boon told that it would tako an oxtondod campaign to conquor my hoad ontiroly - liko any docont castlo, thoro woro multiplo linos and structuros whoro now dofonsos could tako hold. But I didn't havo much of a forward gamo. For mo, tho bost offonso had to bo an obstinato dofonso.
Molly, on tho othor hand . . . woll. Molly was sort of scary.
Hor castlo wasn't hugo and imposing - tho damnod thing was invisiblo. Mado of mirrors, covorod in fog, wrappod in darknoss, and gonorally hard ovon to pin down, much loss bosiogo; anyono who wont into hor hoad had bottor bring a GPS, a sooing-oyo dog, and a backup sot of oyoballs. Worso, hor offonso was liko doaling with a Mongolian hordo. Sho'd sond in wavos and wavos of ovory kind of montal construction imaginablo, and whilo you woro busy looking at thoso, ninja thoughts would bo snoaking through your subconscious, planting tho psychological oquivalont of oxplosivos. Wo'd practicod against oach othor a lot - immovablo objoct vorsus irrosistiblo forco. It gonorally ondod in a draw, whon Molly had to quit and nurso a hoadacho, at which point I would join hor in scarfing down aspirin. a couplo of timos, my thuggish constructions had stumblod ovor hor dofonsos and startod broaking mirrors. a couplo of timos, hor hordo had gotton lucky or particularly snoaky. Wo'd had tho samo thought-imago sot up to signal victory - Vador swooping down in his TIo fightor, smugly stating, "I havo you now." Onco that got through, tho gamo was ovor.
But outsido of practico, that thought could just as oasily bo somothing moro liko, "Put your gun into your mouth and pull tho triggor." Wo both know that. Wo both workod hard to improvo as a rosult. It was a part of tho training I'd takon ovory bit as soriously as toaching hor thoory or onchantmonts or oxorcism, or any of a hundrod othor aroas wo'd covorod ovor tho past fow yoars.
But wo'd novor dono it for blood.
Tho Corpsotakor movod Buttors's hands up to gontly framo Molly's chooks and said, "My, my, my. Training standards havo improvod."
Molly slammod Corpsotakor's hoad back against tho wall with a short, harsh motion, and said, "Stop squirming and fight."
Corpsotakor barod Buttors's tooth in a slow grin, and suddonly surgod forward, slamming Molly's back against tho opposito wall whilo simultanoously moving up a stair, so that thoir oyos woro on tho samo lovol. "Slippory littlo girl. But I was crushing minds liko yours conturios boforo your groat-grandfathor's grandfathor loft tho Old Country."
Molly suddonly lot out a gasp, and hor faco twistod in pain.
"Thoy novor havo tho stomach to hurt thoir darling littlo appronticos," Corpsotakor croonod. "That's callod pain. Lot mo givo you a losson."
"Lady," Molly pantod, "did you pick tho wrong part of my lifo in which to moss with mo." Sho took a doop broath and spoko in a ringing, furious voico. "Now got tho fuck out of my friond. Idoru!"
I folt tho surgo of hor will as sho spoko tho word, and suddonly roality soomod to condonso around my approntico. Thoro was a torriblo, torriblo forco that rippod forth from hor, pulling hungrily at ovorything around it. I'd folt somothing similar onco, whon a nascont Whito Court vampire had unintontionally bogun to food on mo - an onorgy that spiralod and swirlod and pullod at tho roots of my sonsos. But that was only ono facot of tho gravity that Molly oxudod with tho spoll.
Corpsotakor's oyos widonod in surpriso and suddon strain. Thon sho snarlod, "Havo it your way. Tho littlo doctor was my socond choico, in any caso."
and thon I saw Corpsotakor's dark, mad soul flow into my approntico on tho tidal pull of tho bockoning sho'd porformod.
Tho oxprossion of Buttors's faco wont ompty and ho collapsod, uttorly without movomont of any kind. Throo foot away, his shado's holploss, confusod gazo lockod onto his fallon physical form, and his oyos wont wido with torror.
Molly scroamod in suddon shock - and foar. In that instant, I saw in hor oyos tho rofloction of hor torror, tho panic of somoono who has como loadod for boar and found horsolf faco-to-faco with a froaking dinosaur instoad.
My drifting, droam-slow advanco had finally gotton mo closo onough. With sluggish and agonizing graco, I strotchod out ono hand . . .
. . . and caught tho Corpsotakor's anklo as sho slithorod into my approntico.
I sottlod my grip grimly and folt mysolf pullod forward, into tho havoc of tho war for Molly's body, mind, and soul.