NOTE: Due to technical issues, this text is missing some of the final punctuation edits from the final, published version. Our apologies!
. . . . .
“To arms!” bellowed Sir Stuart. “They’re coming at us again, lads!”
The ringing of the alarm chimes doubled as figures immediately exploded from the very walls and floor of the ectomancer’s house, appearing as suddenly as . . . well, as a ghost. Duh.
One second, the only figures in sight were me and Sir Stuart. The next, we were striding at the head of a veritable armed mob. The figures didn’t have the same kind of sharp-edged reality that Sir Stuart did. They were wispier, foggier. Though I could see Sir Stuart with simple clarity, viewing the others was like watching someone walk by on the opposite side of the street during a particularly heavy rain.
There was no specific theme to the spirits defending Mort’s house. The appearance of each was eclectic, to such an extent that they looked like the assembled costumed staff from some kind of museum of American history.
Soldiers in the multicolored uniforms of regulars from the Revolutionary War walked beside buckskin-clad woodsmen, trappers, and Native Americans from the wars preceding the revolution. Farmers from the Civil War era stood with shopkeepers from the turn of the twentieth century. Men in suits, some armed with shotguns, others with tommy guns, moved toward the attack, the bitter divisions of the era of Prohibition apparently forgotten. Doughboys marched with a squad of buffalo soldiers, followed by half a dozen genuine, six-gun-toting cowboys in long canvas coats, and a group of grunts whose uniforms placed them as Vietnam-era U.S. Army infantry.
“Huh,” I said. “Now, there’s something you don’t see every day.”
Sir Stuart drew his gun from his belt as he strode forward, checking the old weapon. “I’ve seen a great many years in this city. Many, many nights. Until recently, I would have agreed with you.”
I looked back at Sir Stuart’s little army as we reached the front door and passed through it.
“I—glah, dammit, that feels strange—guess that means you’re seeing a pattern.”
“This is the fifth night running that they’ve come at us,” Sir Stuart replied, as we went out onto the porch. “Stay behind me, Dresden. And well clear of my ax arm.”
He came to a halt a step later, and I stood behind him a bit and on his left side. Sir Stuart, who had been a giant for his day, was only a couple of inches shorter than me. I had to strain to see over him.
The street was crowded with silent figures.
I just stared out at them for a moment, struggling to understand what I was looking at. Out on the road were scores, maybe even a couple hundred wraiths like the one Sir Stuart had dispatched earlier. They were flabby, somehow hollow and squishy-looking, like a balloon that hadn’t been filled with enough gas—sad, frightening humanoid figures, their eyes and mouths gaping too large, too dark, and too empty to seem real. But instead of advancing toward us, they simply stood there in even ranks, leaning forward slightly, their arms held vaguely upward as if yearning toward the house, though their hands seemed limp and devoid of strength, their fingers trailing into shapeless shreds. The horrible sound of hundreds of nearly-silent moans of pain emanated from the block of wraiths, along with a slowly building edge of tension.
“Tell me, wizard,” Sir Stuart said. “What do you see?”
“A crap-ton of wraiths,” I breathed quietly. “Which I do not know how to fight.” None of them had the deadly, focused look of Sir Stuart and his crew, but there were a lot of them out there. “Something is getting them worked up.”
“Ah,” he said. He glanced back over his shoulder at me, his eyes narrowed. “I thought your folk had clear sight.”
I frowned at him and then out at the small sea of wraiths. I stared and stared, bringing the focus of concentration I’d learned over endless hours of practice in my studies—and suddenly saw them. Dark, slithering shapes, moving up and down the ranks of wraiths at the back of their lines. They looked vaguely like folk covered in dark, enveloping cloaks and robes, but they glided through the air with a silent, effortless grace that made me think of sharks who had scented blood in the water and were closing in to feed.
“Four . . . five, six of them,” I said. “In the back ranks.”
“Good,” said Sir Stuart, nodding his approval. “That’s the real foe, lad. These poor wraiths are just their dogs.”
It had been a long, long time since I’d felt quite this lost. “Uh. What are they?”
“Lemurs,” he said, with the Latin pronunciation: Lay-moors. “Shades who have set themselves against Providence and have given themselves over to malice and rage. They do not know pity, nor restraint, nor . . .”
“Fear?” I guessed. “They always never know fear.”
Sir Stuart glanced over his shoulder and bounced his long-handled ax against his palm, his mouth turned up into an edged, wolfish grin. “Nay, lad. Perhaps they were innocent of it once. But they proved quick learners when they raised their hands against this house.” He turned back to face the street and called out, “Positions!”
The spirits who had come along behind us flowed around and over us and—though I twitched when I saw it—beneath us. Within seconds, they were spread into a defensive line in the shape of a half dome between the house and the gathered wraiths and lemurs. Then those silent forms stood steady, whether their feet were planted on the ground or in thin air or somewhere just below the ground, and faced the small horde with their weapons in hand.
The tension continued to build, and the seething, agonized gasps of the wraiths grew louder.
“Um,” I said, as my heart started picking up the pace. “What do I do?”
“Nothing,” Sir Stuart replied, his attention now focused forward. “Just stay near me and out of my way.”
“I can see you were a fighter, boy,” Stuart said, his voice harsh. “But now you’re a child. You’ve neither the knowledge nor the tools you need to survive.” He turned and gave me a ferocious glare, and an unseen force literally pushed my feet back across five or six inches of porch. Holy crap. Stuart might not be a wizard, but obviously I had a thing or two to learn about how a formidable will translated to power on the spooky side of the street.
“Stay close to me,” the marine said. “And shut it.”
I swallowed, and Sir Stuart turned back to the front.
“You don’t have to be a dick about it,” I muttered. Very quietly.
It bothered me that he was right. Without Sir Stuart’s intervention, I’d have been dead again already.
That’s right, you heard me: dead again already.
I mean, come on. How screwed up is your life (after- or otherwise) when you find yourself needing phrases like that?
I indulged myself in half a second of disgust that once again the universe seemed to be making an extraspecial effort to align itself against me, but it was my pride that was in critical condition. I was accustomed to being the guy who did the fighting and protecting. Fear had been fuel for the fire, meat and potatoes, when I was the one calling the shots. But now . . .
This was terror of an alien vintage: I was helpless.
Without warning, the air filled with whistling and ear-slashing shrieks, and the horde of wraiths washed toward us in a flash flood of strangled moans.
“Give it to them, lads!” Sir Stuart bellowed, his voice rising above the cacophony of screams with the silvery clarity of a trumpet.
Spectral gunfire roared out at once from the weapons of the hovering defenders. Again, clouds of powder smoke were replaced with bursts of colored mist. Bullets had been switched out for streaking spheres of violent radiance. Instead of the explosions of propellant and projectiles breaking the sound barrier, hammering bass-note thrums filled the air and echoed on long after a gunshot would have faded.
A tide of destruction swept over the assaulting wraiths, distorted light and sound tearing great, ragged holes in them, filling the air with faded, warped shadow-images as their feeble memories bled into wisps of cloud that were swallowed by the night. They fell by the dozens—and there were still plenty more wraiths left to go around. Wraiths closed in with the Lindquist Historical Home Defense Society—and it still wasn’t fair.
Sir Stuart’s troops reacted like the fighting men they had once been. Swords and sabers appeared, along with stilettos and brass knuckles and bowie knives. The wraiths came at them with a slow, graceful, terrible momentum and were hacked, stabbed, punched, clubbed, and otherwise broken—but there were a lot of wraiths.
I heard a hollow scream that sounded as if it had come from a couple of blocks away, and lifted my eyes to see half a dozen wraiths who had all attacked together swarm over a phantom Doughboy, a scrawny young man in a baggy uniform. Though one of the things was literally opened from one side to the other by a slash of the ghost soldier’s bayonet, the other five just fastened on to him, first by a single fingertip, which was then blindly followed by others. Another wraith expired when the young soldier drew his knife. But then all those tattered fingers began winding and winding around him, lengthening impossibly, until within a few seconds he looked like nothing so much as a massive burn victim covered in heavy, dirty bandages.
The wraiths pressed closer and closer, their flabby bodies compressing until they hardly resembled human forms at all, and then with a sudden scream, they darted away in four different directions as more solid, lethal-looking shapes, leaving behind the translucent outline of a young man screaming in agony.
I watched, my stomach twisting, as even that image faded. Within seconds, it was gone.
“Damn their empty eyes,” Sir Stuart said, his teeth clenched. “Damn them.”
“Hell’s bells,” I breathed. “Why didn’t . . . Couldn’t you have stopped them?”
“The lemurs,” he spat. “I can’t give them the chance to get by me into the house.”
I blinked. “But . . . the threshold . . . They can’t.”
“They did the first night,” he said. “Still don’t know how. I can’t leave the porch or they’ll get through. Now be quiet.” His fingers flexed and settled on the haft of his ax. “Here’s where we come to it.”
As the wraiths continued to assault and entangle the house’s defenders, Sir Stuart moved to the top of the little stairs leading up to the porch and planted his feet. Out at the street, the shadowy forms of the lemurs had all gone still, each of them hunched down in a crouch, predators preparing to spring.
When it came, it came fast. Not fast like the rush of a mountain lion upon a deer, and not even fast like a runaway automobile. They were fast like bullets. One second, the lemurs were at the street, and the next they were in the air before the porch, seemingly without crossing the space between. I didn’t have time to do more than yelp and go into a full-body twitch of pure, startled reaction.
But Sir Stuart was faster.
The first lemur to charge met the butt of Sir Stuart’s ax, a blow that sent it into a fluttering, backward tailspin. The second and third lemurs charged at almost exactly the same moment, and Sir Stuart’s ax swept out in a scything arc, slashing them both and sending them reeling with high-pitched, horrible screams. The fourth lemur drove a bony-wristed punch across Sir Stuart’s jaw, staggering the marine and driving him to one knee. But when the lemur tried to follow up the attack, Stuart produced a gleaming knife from his belt, and it flashed in opalescent colors as he swept it in a treacherous diagonal slash over the thing’s midsection.
The fifth lemur hesitated, seeming to abort its instantaneous rush about halfway across the yard. Stuart let out a bellow and threw the knife. It struck home, and the lemur frantically twisted in upon itself, howling like the others, until the knife tumbled free of its ghostly flesh and fell to the snowy ground.
Five wounded lemurs fled from Sir Stuart, screaming. The sixth crouched on the sidewalk, frozen in indecision.
“Coward,” Stuart snarled. “If you can’t finish, don’t start.”
All things considered, I thought Stuart might be being a little hard on the thing. It wasn’t cowardly to not rush a juggernaut when you’d just seen your buddies get thrashed by it. Maybe the thing was just smarter than the others.
I never got a chance to find out. In the space of an instant, Sir Stuart crossed the lawn to the final lemur, only his rush ended not in front of his foe, but six feet past it. The lemur jerked in the twisting, surprised reaction I had just engaged in a moment before.
Then its head fell from its shoulders, hood and all, dissolving into flickering memory embers as it went. Its headless body went mad, somehow letting out a scream, thrashing and kicking and falling to the ground, where grey-and-white fire poured from its truncated neck.
A shout of triumph went up from the home’s defenders as they continued their own fight, and the suddenly listless wraiths began to be torn apart in earnest, the tide of battle shifting rapidly. Sir Stuart lifted his ax above his head in response and turned to almost casually step up behind a wraith and take its head from its shoulders with the ax.
Then, in the street, about ten feet behind him, a figure, one every bit as solid and real as Sir Stuart himself, appeared out of nowhere, a form shrouded in a nebulous grey cloak with eyes of green-white fire. It lifted what looked like a clawed hand, and sent a bolt of lightning sizzling into Sir Stuart’s back.
Sir Stuart cried out in sudden agony, his body tightening helplessly, muscles convulsing just as they would on an electrocuted human being. The bolt of lightning seemed to attach itself to his spine, then burned a line down to his right hip bone, burning and searing and blowing bits of the tattered, flaming substance of his ghostly flesh into the air.
“No!” I screamed, as he fell. I started running toward him.
The marine rolled when he hit the ground and came up with that ridiculously huge old horse pistol in his hand. He leveled it at the Grey Ghost and fired, and once again his gun sent out a plume of ethereal color and a tiny, bright sun of destruction.
But the cloudy grey figure lifted its hand, and the bullet bounced off the air in front of it smoothly, catching a luckless, wounded wraith who had been attempting to retreat. The wraith immediately dissolved as the first one had—and Sir Stuart stared up at the Grey Ghost with his mouth open in shock.
Magic. The Grey Ghost was using magic. Even as I ran forward, I could feel the humming energy of it in the air, smell it on the cold breeze coming off the lake. I didn’t move at ghostly superspeed. I mostly just ran across the hard ground, hurdled the little fence, went right through a car parked on the street (ow, grrrrrr!) and threw my best haymaker of a right cross at a point I nominated to be the Grey Ghost’s chin.
My fist connected with what felt like solid flesh, a refreshingly familiar smack-thump of impact that immediately flashed red pain through my wrist to the elbow. The Grey Ghost reeled, and I didn’t let up. I put a couple of left hooks into its midsection, gave it one hell of an uppercut with my right hand, and drove a hard reverse punch into its neck.
I am not a skilled martial artist. But I know a little, picked up in training with Murphy and some of the other SI cops over the years at Dough Joe’s Hurricane Gym. Real fighting is only slightly about form and technique. Mostly it’s about timing, and about being willing to hurt somebody. If you know more or less when to close to distance and throw the punch, you’re most of the way there. But having the right mind-set is even more important. All the technique in the world isn’t going to help you if you come to the fight without the will to wreak havoc on the other guy.
The Grey Ghost staggered back, and I kicked one leg out from under it as it went. It fell. I started kicking it as hard as I could, screaming, driving my toe into its ribs and back, then switching to move in and stomp at its head with the heel of my heavy hiking boot. I did not let up, not even for a second. If this thing could pull out more magic, it would deal with me as easily as it had Sir Stuart. So I focused on trying to crush the enemy’s skull and kept kicking.
“Help me!” snarled the Grey Ghost.
There was a flash of blue light, and what felt like a wrecking ball made from foam-rubber mattresses smashed into my chest. It threw me back completely through the car again (Hell’s bells,
ow!) and I landed on my back with stars in front of my eyes, unable to remember how to inhale.
A nearby wraith turned its empty-eyed head toward me, and a surge of fear sent me scrambling to my feet. I got up in time to see the Grey Ghost rising as well, and those burning green-white eyes met mine.
In the air behind the ghost floated . . . a skull. A skull with cold blue flames flickering in its empty eye sockets.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I whispered. “Bob?”
“You!” the ghost hissed. Its hands formed into arching clawlike shapes, and it hissed in rage—and in fear.
Click-clack, went the hammer of Sir Stuart’s gun.
The Grey Ghost let out a scream of frustration and simply flew apart into thousands of tiny wisps of mist, taking the floating skull along with it. The wisps swarmed together into a vortex like a miniature tornado, and streaked down the road and out of sight, leaving a hundred voices screaming a hundred curses in its wake.
I looked around. The lasts of the wraiths were dying or had fled. The house’s defenders, most of them wounded and bleeding pale ectoplasm and flickering memory, were still in their positions. Sir Stuart was holding one hand to his side, and with the other held the pistol pointed at the empty air where the Grey Ghost had been.
“Ahhhh,” he said, sagging, once it became clear that the fight was over. “Bloody hell. That’s going to leave a mark.”
I moved to his side. “Are you okay, man?”
“Aye, lad. Aye. What the hell were you trying to do? Get yourself killed?”
I glowered at him and said, “You’re welcome. Glad I could help.”
“You nearly got yourself destroyed,” he replied. “Another second and that creature would have blasted you to bits.”
“Another second and you’d have put a bullet in its head,” I said.
Sir Stuart idly pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. The hammer fell with a flash of sparks as flint struck steel . . . and nothing happened.
“You were bluffing?” I asked.
“Aye,” Sir Stuart said. “ ’Tis a muzzle-loading pistol, boy. You have to reload them like a proper weapon.” Idly, he reached out a hand toward the last remnants of a deceased wraith, and flickers of light and memory flowed across the intervening space and into his fingertips. When he had it all
back, Sir Stuart sighed and shook his head, seeming to recover a measure of strength. “Very well, then, lad. Help me up.”
I did so. Sir Stuart’s midsection on the right side was considerably more translucent than before, and he moved as if it pained him.
“When will they be back?” I asked him.
“Tomorrow night, by my reckoning,” he said. “With more. Last night they had four lemurs along. Tonight it was six. And that seventh . . .” He shook his head and started reloading the pistol from the powder horn he carried on a baldric at his side. “I knew something stronger had to be gathering all those shades together, but I never considered a sorcerer.” He finished reloading the weapon, put the ramrod back into its holder, and said, “Pass me my ax, boy.”
I got it for him and handed it over. He slipped its handle through a ring on his belt and nodded. “Thank you.”
A thumping sound made me turn my eyes back toward the house.
A man, burly, wearing a dark, hooded sweater and old jeans, was holding a long-handled crowbar in big, blocky hands. He shoved one hand into the space between the door and the frame, and with a practiced, powerful motion, popped the door from its frame and sent it swinging open.
Without an instant’s hesitation, Sir Stuart fired. So did the house’s spectral defenders. A hurricane of ghostly power hurtled down upon the man—and passed harmlessly through him. Hell, the guy looked like he hadn’t noticed anything at all.
“A mortal,” Sir Stuart breathed. He took a step forward, let out a sound of pain, and clutched at his side. His teeth were clenched, his jaw muscles standing out sharply. “Dresden,” he gasped. “I cannot stop a mortal man. There is nothing I can do.”
The hooded intruder took the crowbar into his left hand and drew a stubby revolver from his sweater with his right.
“Go,” Stuart said. “Warn Mortimer. Help him!”
I blinked. Mortimer had made it clear that he didn’t want to get involved with me—and some childish part of my nature wanted to snap that turnabout was fair play. But a wiser, more rational part of me reminded my inner child that without Mort, I might never be able to get in touch with anyone else in town. I might never find my own killer. I might never be able to protect my friends.
And besides. You don’t just let people kick down other people’s doors and murder them in their own home. You just don’t.
I clapped Stuart on the shoulder and sprinted back toward the little house and its little owner.