Battle Ground Chapter 2
This summer brings not one but TWO Dresden Files novels! Peace Talks arrived July 14th, and Battle Ground hits September 29th. Order both through the Jim-Butcher.com store!
Tentacles. That’s what I remember of the next several seconds.
Something hit me in the face and chest and it felt like getting slugged with a waterbed’s mattress. I was knocked sprawling back from the rail, and even as I went down, something began crushing my ankles together. I looked down to see a couple of winding tentacles holding my legs together, toothed suckers seeking purchase, fruitlessly for the moment— Molly’s spell‑armored spider‑silk suit still had enough juice in it to hold them off, and the gripping teeth couldn’t get through the fabric.
Then a third tentacle, this one much slenderer, whipped around my forehead, and I could feel the crackling sound as dozens of tiny teeth crunched through my skin and found purchase in the bone of my skull.
That’s the kind of noise that will make you panic right quick.
My head slammed against something and there were a lot of lights, and then my head and my feet suddenly got pulled in opposite directions.
I seized the tentacle that had me by the head and pulled hard enough to get enough counterpressure to keep it from snapping my neck—and it left me suspended uncomfortably, stretched out between the overwhelming opposing forces, just trying to hang on.
Story of my freaking life.
Harry Dresden, professional wizard. I’m a little busy or I’d shake hands.
I pulled hard with my entire upper body, and the tentacle, though incredibly powerful, stretched like a rubber band and loosened slightly, enough to let me gasp out a quick incantation: “Infusiarus!”
A sphere of green‑gold fire, bright as a tiny sun, kindled to life in the
cup of my right hand—which happened to be grasping a freaking tentacle of a kraken.
The creature itself apparently couldn’t make sounds—but it shuddered in pain, twisting and jerking away from the sudden fire, and the Water Beetle screamed in agony as the beast thrashed.
I shrieked as my head was encircled by a band of fire from the tentacles biting in—only to vanish into the weird cold‑static sensation that the Winter mantle had used to replace most sensations of pain. The noise of it was incredibly loud, at least to me, as the scraping against my skull conducted the sound directly into my ear bones. Hot blood began to trickle down my face and ears and the back of my neck—scalp wounds bleed like you wouldn’t believe, and I’d just gotten dozens of them.
I cried out and forced more energy into the spell in my hands, and my little ball of sunshine blazed like an acetylene torch. There was the sharp scent of scorched meat, and the tentacle suddenly snapped, burning through, and I came down on the deck hard, forearms slamming against the boards.
An instant later, the tentacles that were wrapped around my ankles whipped me into the air and slammed me into the bitterly cold waters of Lake Michigan.
The impact with the surface of the water felt like hitting a slab of brittle concrete. I managed to curl defensively, spread the impact out a little, but it wasn’t enough to keep from having the wind blown out of my lungs just as I was plunged into frozen blackness.
There’s no cold like the cold of dark water. It’s . . . almost a predator, a living thing, and you can feel it ripping the heat out of you the instant you’re immersed in it. Go down past the first couple of feet, even in summer, and that water gets seriously chilly, fast. Get dragged to the bottom, with the sudden pressure on your ears, the shock of the cold on your body, and it would be real easy to panic and drown, regardless of what the damned kraken had planned.
I frantically searched for options. Water and magic mostly don’t mix. Water is considered, in many ways, the ultimate expression of the natural world. Water restores balance—and if there’s one thing wizards ain’t, it’s balanced. We disrupt the world around us with our very thoughts and emotions, violate the normal laws of reality at a whim. But there’s a reason dunking was used by the Inquisition and others, back in the day— surround a wizard with water, and he’d be lucky to be able to create the simplest little wizard light, or a spark of static electricity.
Which . . . left me with very limited options for dealing with a god‑ damned giant squid.
On the other tentacle, if there’s one place you don’t want to fight the Winter Knight, it’s in the dark and the cold.
I could see the thing down here in the black, my eyes picking up on subtle purple and blue hues of bioluminescence, too dim to be easily noticed in any setting less umbral, and I was uncomfortably reminded of what it was like to use standard antiglamour unguents to see through illusion, only backwards. Maybe the kraken wasn’t actually emitting light—maybe the faesight was simply illustrating it as something familiar for my human brain. But I could see it, plain as day, even down here in the frozen dark. Or maybe especially down here in the frozen dark.
The tentacles wrenched me this way and that, and I felt more of the things attaching themselves, some to my back, one across the backs of my thighs, one around my left arm—and I felt it when they started drawing me closer.
I got to see one great glassy eye the size of a hubcap, and then against the illuminated flesh of the kraken, I saw the black outline of its beak, an obsidian mass of hard, slicing armor that could snip me in half as easily as a gardener’s shears take a blossom.
Then there was a dim, burbling sound of impact, and a second later someone came slicing through the water, swimming with an inhuman speed and grace, moving more like a seal than a human being.
She was wearing nothing more than black athletic underwear, inhumanly pale skin all but glowing in my faesight. Her silver eyes threw back the limited light like a cat’s, and she bore one of my brother’s backup kukris in her hand, doubtless taken from the arms locker belowdecks. She darted through the water, seized me by the front of my coat, and then twisted one cold hand into my freaking belt and braced a foot against my hip, to give her a point of stability as she swung the knife with inhuman strength and speed against the resistance of the water.
The blade sliced into the warty skin of the kraken, unleashing a gouting cloud of purple blood. The creature twitched and writhed, and the hull of the Water Beetle screamed in the water as she hacked down at my feet like a frenzied axe murderer while somehow never striking my flesh.
A second later, the pressure on my ankles loosened, and then the thing ripped its tentacles away from me, taking half a dozen small bites of flesh out of my ankles and calves as it went.
Lara Raith, the queen in all but name of the White Court of vampires, watched the thing retreat for a second, knife gripped in her hand. Then she shifted her grip from my belt to under one arm, kicked off the bottom, and started dragging me up to the surface.
We broke into air and I wheezed as much of the precious stuff as I could into my lungs. Lara’s hand was like a slender iron bar under my arm, firmly holding my head up out of the water. “Wizard, get back to the boat,” she snapped. The water had pressed her coal black hair to her head. It made her ears stand out noticeably and somehow made her look a decade younger. Her eyes were bright with anger. “I will not have my brother trapped out on that island because you are too stupid to avoid swimming with a kraken.”
“How is this my fault!?” I glugged, spitting out water.
There was a sudden cough and a hissing sound, and brilliant light flooded the surface of the water. Murphy had popped a flare on the bow of the Water Beetle, maybe twenty yards off, and stood holding it aloft in her hand, peering out at the water.
“Ms. Murphy!” Lara called sharply, and Murph swiveled to peer out toward us. The flare had blinded her to anything beyond the immediate reach of its light, but she’d ignited it to show us where to find the boat once she’d realized I’d gone into the drink.
The water suddenly thrashed with nearby motion.
“Go!” Lara called, and upended into the water as smoothly as an otter, vanishing with a kick of legs that were way too distracting, even in this mess. I spun in the water and started thrashing toward the boat. I was in good shape, but swimming was not my thing. I churned at the water and slowly drew closer to the ship’s side. Murphy hustled over with the flare and said, “Over here!”
A lean, dangerous‑looking Valkyrie came vaulting over the locker at the back of the main deck, where we stored the ship’s lines, a coiled rope gripped in one hand. Freydis had short red hair, bright green eyes, freckles, and a boxer’s scars and was dressed in black tactical gear. Her hands blurred as she unknotted the line and flung it out toward me.
The coil hit the water a foot from my head, and I seized it. Freydis started hauling me in, hard enough that the counterpressure from the water made it difficult to hang on to the rope.
“Harry!” Murphy screamed, pointing behind me.
I whipped my head around in time to see a bow wave rushing toward me as something massive gathered speed in the water.
I started hauling myself up the rope, but the harder we pulled me, the harder the water pushed back.
“Harry!” Murphy shouted again—and flung the marine flare at me. It tumbled through the air, dizzying in its brightness. At my size, I’m not an acrobat or anything, but my hand‑eye coordination isn’t too shabby. I reached out, batted it into the air instead of catching it, then with a last desperate clutch managed to grab onto it—just as the tentacles chewed into me again and dragged me under, the magnesium flare blazing even brighter as it hit the water with me.
Magnesium flares burn at about twenty‑nine hundred degrees Fahrenheit. So when I shoved it against the tentacle around my waist, it peeled away as swiftly as a snapping rubber band—and the spider‑silk suit reached the limits of its endurance, tearing off me like tissue paper, leaving pinched bruises all over my torso in its wake.
I looked down through the dark water and saw the kraken spreading out beneath me. It was . . . vast, its eyes gleaming with feral awareness, throwing back the light of the flare like eerie mirrors. For a second, I hovered there, meeting that gaze . . .
. . . feeling a dark, horrible awareness suddenly swelling unbearably inside my head.
What happened next would haunt me a while. The eyes are the windows to the soul. And wizards, if they meet your gaze for a moment, can sometimes get a peek in there. In the frozen dark of Lake Michigan, in the blazing, limited light of the flare, I soulgazed a kraken.
Soulgazes are serious business, because whatever you see there gets burned in. It never fades, never diminishes in horror or awe. If you see something bad enough, such as the n—
—something bad enough, it could do horrible things to your head.
I don’t even know what I saw that night. A blur of images, alien and strange and somehow nauseating. I felt my limbs, spread out and floating in the water. I sensed other creatures like me, writhing in obscene embraces on the floor of the ocean, amid broken columns and ancient statues of things that somehow seemed to bend themselves into more than three dimensions. Sensation flared through my thoughts, so absolutely alien to anything in the human experience that it might as well have been
I heard myself screaming, felt the bubbles pouring up over my face. But here’s the thing.
When a wizard looks into your soul, you look back into his. You see him the same way he sees you, clearly, a gaze that pierces veils and deceptions to see the world for what it truly is. The kraken stared back at me, and its warty hide began to ripple through fluttering bands of color, the skin distorting, becoming spiky, its tentacles coiling and curling in upon themselves.
I ripped my gaze away from the thing, my brain screaming in protest, but somewhere deep down, the instinctive part of me that almost enjoyed the benefits of the Winter mantle recognized something crucial.
Whatever it had seen when it looked back inside me had, for that moment, terrified it utterly. And something abruptly changed inside me, like a switch had been flipped.
The not‑squid, the kraken, was afraid.
I was still stunned by the soulgaze, and so was the squid.
It never saw Lara coming.
She hit it from behind and beneath, knifing through the water as if she’d been wearing a jet pack. She slammed the point of my brother’s kukri into the warty flesh of its head, then used the viciously sharp blade on its curving inner edge to begin opening up the creature’s flesh.
Hell’s bells. She meant to cut out its brain.
The kraken abruptly thrashed and twisted, its skin rippling with colors and textures as it turned on her, tentacles questing. It seized her around the hips and whiplashed her back and forth in the water, ripping her hands free of the knife and aiming to break her neck with the force of it.
The knife was still sticking out of the back side of its head. Or body. I’m not sure which it was—the whole thing was just warts and tentacles and that vicious biting beak. So I began kicking down, ignoring the burning in my lungs. Lara hadn’t gotten to cut very far before the thing had seized her, maybe twelve or fifteen inches.
But that was an opening more than big enough for the magnesium flare.
I shoved it into the kraken’s flabby skull, all the way to my elbow.
It went mad.
I was battered by something, shoved back three or four feet, and if I’d had any breath left it would have been knocked out of me. I dimly saw Lara struggling, enwrapped in tentacles, until with her skin glowing like marble, she seized one of the tentacles in both hands and simply tore it in half.
Fluid stained the water in a cloud the size of a swimming pool.
And through that cloud suddenly appeared lean, sinuous shapes, striking fear into the base of my brain that no amount of being a grown‑up would ever entirely erase.
Bull sharks, blunt‑nosed and with that glassy, quietly desperate stare. Maybe a dozen of them emerged from the murk, the smallest one at least twelve feet long.
Oh come on. This isn’t even fair.
Someone, I reminded myself, and I’m not sure who, just got done telling Murphy that when Ethniu’s forces came, they would have no intention of fighting fair.
The kraken thrashed in agony in the water.
And the sharks rushed the monster.
And, man, did that get messy fast. Tails threshing. Teeth flashing. Eyes rolling back white. Earth’s oldest superpredators went up against a monster out of a madman’s nightmares, and the result looked deadly and savage and beautiful.
Lara’s eyes widened as two more sharks, fifteen‑footers, came gliding out of the darkness straight toward her—and between them, gripping a pectoral fin of each, came the Winter Lady, the deputy to the Queen of Air and Darkness—my friend, Molly Carpenter. Molly had been tending to her duties as the Winter Lady all evening, but she’d still found time to provide me with sneaky backup magic in the true tradition of the Fae. She must have had the Little Folk keeping a watch along the shoreline for my return from the island.
Molly wore one of those surfer’s wet suits, with patterns of deep purple and pale green on it in the streaks and rings of a highly venomous sea snake, her mouth stretched into a madwoman’s grin. Her hair, luminous silver in the weird light, spread out around her head in an otherworldly aura.
She and the sharks went at the kraken. She bore a knife in her hand and immediately went to Lara’s aid. The kraken wasn’t done, though. Its jaws gaped and the beak came down on one of the smaller sharks like a pair of enormous scissors. One bite and snip, and it had cut the thing neatly in half.
There was a splash from above, and then Freydis arrived, the lean woman cutting through the water with nearly as much grace as Lara. She swooped down, kicking smoothly, headed for the knife at the back of the thing’s head. Tentacles threatened her, but the Winter Lady flicked her wrist and half a dozen bull sharks rushed in, jaws ripping and tearing.
Freydis reached the knife, seized it in one hand, ripped the pin out of a freaking grenade that she’d been holding, and shoved it in the same hole where I had put the flare. I could see the outline of her fingers and hand through the creature’s flesh in the illumination of the still‑burning magnesium.
I started kicking for the surface as fast as I could. I wasn’t worried about shrapnel from the grenade, but water is a noncompressible liquid. The blast would carry through it excellently, causing far more damage than the same explosion in open air. If anyone was too close to it, they’d get their lungs pancaked, and I had no way of knowing exactly how far the force of it would carry.
Freydis pushed off the thing contemptuously with her legs and had caught me in an embarrassingly short amount of time. I looked back to see Molly gripping the dorsal fin of the largest bull shark, rushing away from the wounded monster. Lara held on to Molly’s ankles, dressed in the shreds of her underwear now, her pale skin covered in cuts and circular sucker marks, oozing slightly‑too‑pale blood in little streamers, and we all ran like the last fighters at the end of Star Wars.
The grenade went off behind us, wrapped in the flesh of the kraken, and maybe a quarter of the thing’s head just turned into a cloud of chum. Its skin suddenly flushed pale, and the tentacles stopped thrashing so much as just spasming wildly. Leaving a cloud of blood and meat behind it, the thing started sinking toward the frigid bottom of the lake.
I broke the surface, gasping in a lungful of air, and started coughing. My head felt decidedly odd after that soulgaze, drunken in the worst kind of way. But, God, the air felt good. It felt so good I just sucked it in for a while, and only dimly realized, a moment later, that Molly and her big shark were just sitting there in the water next to me.
“I swear,” she said. “I look the other way for like five minutes, and already you’re in trouble.”
“Bite me, Padawan,” I muttered.
The smile she gave me grew extra sharp. “Sharks, seriously?” I asked.
“They’ve been finding decades’ worth of bull‑shark baby teeth in the Great Lakes for years now,” she replied. She ran a hand fondly over the beast’s back. “Plenty of these bad boys around.”
“Lara?” I called.
“Here,” said a voice behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. Lara looked like hell. She’d had no protection at all against the toothed suckers on the tentacles, and it showed. Her pale eyes were steady, though, glistening like the edge of a sword, as Freydis trod water beside her, helping her keep her head above the drink.
I kicked at the water a few times and said, “Uh. How do we get back up to the boat?”
In answer, a line fell over the side again, splashing into the water near me. Murphy appeared in the glow of chemical lights and said in a hushed, angry tone, “Jesus Christ, people, keep your voices down. If someone onshore has a night scope and hears you, they’ll pick you off like cans on a fence.” She looked down at me, and some kind of strain eased out of her face. She made a snorting sound. “Well? It’s not like I’m going to pull you all out.”
Wearily, I started lugging myself toward the boat through the water and made sure the others were coming after me. It took a hell of a lot of effort, but I hauled my bloodied ass to the boat, braced my foot on the hull, and climbed up it like the old Adam West version of Batman, only clumsier and a lot more bedraggled.
I made it to the deck, flopped over the railing, and just lay there for a minute, weary.
“You all right?” Murphy asked quietly, as the others began to climb out the same way.
“Gotta tell you, Murph,” I sighed back. “I got a bad feeling about this.”
“Speak for yourself,” Murphy said. “I just gave my last grenade to a Valkyrie and ordered her to blow up a kraken. I’m having a ball.”
Wasn’t much I could say to that, all things considered.
Murphy and Molly between them had just saved our collective bacon.
I closed my eyes for a second.
I hadn’t even seen what was coming for Chicago, and I was already bloodied and exhausted.
This was going to be a long night.
This summer brings not one but TWO Dresden Files novels! Peace Talks arrived July 14th, and Battle Ground hits September 29th. Order both through the Jim-Butcher.com store!