Grave Peril Chapter 5

Chapter 5 of Grave Peril is out of order or missing from many copies of the audiobook format, so here’s the text for any frustrated fans. Our apologies!


Michael and I plunged through the hole I’d torn in reality and into the Nevernever. It felt like moving from a sauna into an air-conditioned office, except that I didn’t feel the change on my skin. I felt it in my thoughts and my feelings, and in the primitive, skin-crawling part of me at the base of my brain. I stood in a different world than our own.

The little leather sack of ghost dust in my duster pocket abruptly increased its weight, dragging me off balance and to the ground. I let out a curse. The whole point of the ghost dust was that it was something extra-real, that it was heavy and inert and locked spiritual matter into place when it touched it. Even inside its bag, it had become a sudden stress on the Nevernever. If I opened the bag here, in the world of spirit, it might tear a hole in the floor. I’d have to be careful. I grunted with effort and pulled the little pouch out of my pocket. It felt like it weighed thirty or forty pounds.

Michael frowned down at my hands. “You know, I never really thought to ask before-but what is that dust made of?”

“Depleted uranium,” I told him. “At least, that’s the base ingredient. I had to add in a lot of other things. Cold iron, basil, dung from a-”

“Never mind,” he said. “I don’t want to know.” He turned away from me, his arms steadily holding the massive sword before him. I recovered staff and rod, and stood beside him, studying the lay of the as-it-were land.

This part of the Nevernever looked like Chicago, at the end of the nineteenth century-no, strike that. This was the ghost’s demesne. It looked like a mishmash of Agatha Hagglethorn’s memories of Chicago at the end of her life. Edison’s bulbs were mounted in some of the streetlights, while others burned with flickering gas flames. All of them cast hazy spheres of light, doing little to actually illuminate their surroundings. The buildings stood at slightly odd angles to one another, with parts of them seamlessly missing. Everything-streets, sidewalks, buildings-was made of wood.

“Hell’s bell,” I muttered. “No wonder the real Chicago kept burning down. This place is a tinderbox.”

Rats moved in the shadows, but the street was otherwise empty and still. The rift that led back to our world wavered and shifted, fluorescent light and sterile hospital air pouring onto the old Chicago streets. Around us pulsed maybe a dozen shimmering disturbances in the air-the rich life forces of the infants back in the infirmary, showing through into the Nevernever.

“Where is she?” Michael asked, his voice quiet. “Where’s the ghost?”

I turned in a slow circle, peering at the shadows, and shook my head. “I don’t know. But we’d better find her, fast. And we need to get a look at this one if we can.”

“To try to find out what’s gotten it stirred up,” Michael said.

“Exactly. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting a little tired of chasing all over town every night.”

“Didn’t you already get a look at her?”

“Not the right kind of look,” I said with a grimace. “There could be spells laid on her, some kind of magic around her to clue me in on what’s going on. I need to be not in mortal peril for a couple of minutes to examine her.”

“Provided she doesn’t kill us first, all right,” Michael assented. “But time is short, and I don’t see her anywhere. What should we do?”

“I hate to say it,” I said, “but I think we should-”

I was going to say “split up,” but I didn’t get the chance. The heavy wooden timbers of the roadway beneath us exploded up and out in a deadly cloud of splinters. I threw one leather-clad arm across my eyes and went tumbling one way. Michael went the other.

“My little angels! Mine, mine, MINE!” screamed a voice that roared against my face and chest and made my duster flap around as though made of gauze.

I looked up, to see the ghost, quite real and solid now, clawing its one-armed way up from the sub-street. Agatha’s face was lean and bony, twisted in rage, and her hair hung about her in a shaggy mane, sharply at odds with her crisp white shirt. Her arm was missing from its shoulder, and dark fluid stained the cloth beneath it.

Michael rose to his feet with a shout, one of his cheeks cut and bleeding, and went after her with Amoracchius. The spirit backhanded him away with her remaining arm as though he weighed no more than a doll. Michael grunted and went flying, rolling along the wooden street.

And then, snarling and drooling, her eyes wide with frenzied madness, the ghost turned toward me.

I scrambled to my feet and held out my staff across my body, a slender barrier between me and the ghost on its home turf. “I guess it’s too late to have a reasonable discussion, Agatha.”

“My babies!” the spirit screamed. “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I breathed. I gathered my forces and started channeling them through the staff. The pale wood began glowing with a gold-and-orange light, spreading out before me in a quarter-dome shape.

The ghost screamed again and hurtled toward me. I stood fast and shouted, “Reflettum!” at the top of my lungs. The spirit impacted against my shield with all the momentum of a bull rhinoceros on steroids. I’ve stopped bullets and worse with that shield before, but that was on my home turf, in the real world. Here, the Nevernever, Agatha’s ghost overloaded my shield, which detonated with a thunderous roar and sent me sprawling to the ground. Again.

I jammed my scorched staff into the ground and groaned to my feet. Blood stained my tingling fingers, the skin swelling with dark bruises and burst blood vessels.

Agatha stood several paces away, shaking with rage, or if I was lucky, with confusion. Bits of my shield-fire played over her shape and slowly winked out. I fumbled for my blasting rod, but my fingers had gone numb and I dropped it. I bent over to pick it up, swayed, and stood up again, red mist and sparkling dots swimming through my vision.

Michael circled the stunned spirit and arrived at my side. His expression was concerned, rather than frightened. “Easy, Harry, easy. Good Lord, man, are you all right?”

“I’ll make it,” I croaked. “There’s good news and bad news.”

The knight brought his sword to guard again. “I’ve always been partial to the good news.”

“I don’t think she’s interested in those babies anymore.”

Michael flashed me a swift smile. “That is good news.”

I wiped some sweat from my eyes. My hand came away scarlet. I must have gotten a cut, somewhere along the way. “The bad news is that she’s going to come over here and tear us apart in a couple more seconds.”

“Not to be negative, but I’m afraid the news gets worse,” Michael said. “Listen.”

I glanced at him, and cocked my head to one side. Distantly, but quickly growing nearer, I could hear haunting, musical baying, ghostly in the midnight air. “Holy shit,” I breathed. “Hellhounds.”

“Harry,” Michael said sternly. “You know I hate it when you swear.”

“You’re right. Sorry. Holy shit,” I breathed, “heck-hounds. Godmother’s out hunting. How the hell did she find us so damned fast?”

Michael grimaced at me. “She must have been close already. How long before she gets here?”

“Not long. My shield made a lot of noise when it buckled. She’ll home in on it.”

“If you want to go, Harry,” Michael said, “go on and leave. I’ll hold the ghost until you can get back through the rift.”

I was tempted. There aren’t a lot of things that scare me more than the Nevernever and my godmother in tandem. But I was also angry. I hate it when I get shown up. Besides, Michael was a friend, and I’m not in the habit of leaving friends to clean up my messes for me. “No,” I said. “Let’s just hurry.”

Michael grinned at me, and started forward, just as Agatha’s ghost extinguished the last residual bits of my magic that had been plaguing it. Michael sent Amoracchius whistling at the ghost, but she was unthinkably swift, and dodged each blow with a circling, swooping sort of grace. I lifted my blasting rod and narrowed my focus. I tuned out the baying of the hellhounds, now a lot nearer, and the sound of galloping hoofbeats that sent my pulse racing. I methodically blanked out everything but the ghost, Michael, and the power funneling into the blasting rod.

The ghost must have sensed the strike gathering, because she turned and flew at me like a bullet. Her mouth opened in a scream, and I could see jagged, pointed teeth lining her jaws, the empty white fire of her eyes.

“Fuego!” I shouted, and then the spirit hit me, full force. A beam of white fire spewed out from my blasting rod and across the wooden storefronts. They burst into flame as though soaked in gasoline. I went down, rolling, the spirit going after my throat with her teeth. I jammed the end of the blasting rod into her mouth and prepared to fire again, but she tore it from my hands with a ferocious dog-like worrying motion and it tumbled away. I swiped the staff at her awkwardly, to no avail. She went for my throat again.

I shoved a leather-clad forearm into her mouth and shouted, “Michael!” The ghost ripped at me with her nails and clamped down on my forearm. I dropped the ghost dust and scrabbled furiously at her with my free hand, trying to lever her off of me, but didn’t do much more than muss up her clothing.

She got her hand on my throat and I felt my breath cut off. I writhed and struggled to escape, but the snarling ghost was a lot stronger and faster than me. Stars swam in front of my eyes.

Michael shouted, and swept Amoracchius at the spirit. The great blade bit into her back with a wooden-sounding thunk and made her arch up, screaming in pain. It was a deathblow. The white light of the blade touched her spirit-flesh and set it alight, sizzling away from the edges of the wound. She twisted, screaming in fury, and the motion jerked the blade from Michael’s hands. Agatha Hagglethorn’s blazing ghost prepared to fly at his throat.

I sat up, seized the sack of ghost dust, and with a grunt of effort swept it at the back of her head. There was a sharp sound when the improvised cosh struck her, the superheavy matter I’d enchanted hitting like a sledgehammer on china. The ghost froze in place for a moment, her feral mouth wide-and then toppled slowly to one side.

I looked up at Michael, who stood gasping for breath, staring at me. “Harry,” he said. “Do you see?”

I lifted a hand to my aching throat and looked around me. The sounds of baying hounds and thundering hooves had gone. “See what?” I asked.

“Look.” He pointed at the smoldering ghost-corpse.

I looked. In my struggles with Agatha’s ghost, I had torn aside the prim white shirt, and she must have ripped up the dress when she’d been crashing through sidewalks and strangling wizards and so on. I crawled a bit closer to the corpse. It was burning-not blazing, but steadily being eaten away by Amoracchius’s white fire, like newsprint slowly curling into flame. The fire didn’t hide what Michael was talking about, though.

Wire. Strands of barbed wire ran about the ghost’s flesh, beneath her torn clothing. The barbs had dug cruelly into her flesh every two inches or so, and her body was covered with small, agonizing wounds. I grimaced, picking away at the burning cloth in tentative jerks. The wire was a single strand that began at her throat and wrapped about her torso, beneath the arms, winding all the way down one leg to her ankle. At either end, the wire simply vanished into her flesh.

“Sun and stars,” I breathed. “No wonder she went mad.”

“The wire,” Michael asked, crouching down next to me. “It was hurting the ghost?”

I nodded. “Looks like. Torturing it.”

“Why didn’t we see this in the hospital?”

I shook my head. “Whatever this is … I’m not sure it would be visible in the real world. I don’t think we would have seen it if we hadn’t come here.”

“God smiled on us,” Michael said.

I eyed my own injuries, then glowered at the bruises already spreading over Michael’s arm and throat. “Yeah, whatever. Look, Michael-this kind of thing doesn’t just happen. Someone had to do it to this ghost.”

“Which implies,” Michael said, “that they had a reason to want this ghost to hurt those children.” His face darkened into a scowl.

“Whether or not that was their goal, what it implies is that someone is behind all the recent activity-not some thing or condition. Someone is purposefully doing this to the ghosts in the area.” I stood up and brushed myself off, as the corpse continued to burn, like the buildings around us. Fire raged up the sides of anything vertical, and began to chew its way across the streets and sidewalks as well. A haze of smoke filled the air, as the spirit’s demesne in the Nevernever crumbled along with its remains.

“Ow,” I complained. I keep my complaints succinct. Michael took the handle of his sword and drew it out of the flames, shaking his head. “The city is burning.”

“Thank you, Sir Obvious.”

He smiled. “Can the flames hurt us?”

“Yes,” I said, emphatic. “Time to go.” Together, we headed back to the rift at a quick trot. At one point, Michael shouldered me out of the way of a tumbling chimney, and we had to skirt around the pile of shattered bricks and blazing timbers. “Wait,” I said suddenly. “Wait. Do you hear that?”

Michael kept me hustling over the ground, toward the rift. “Hear what? I don’t hear anything.”

“Yeah.” I coughed. “No more hounds howling.”

A very tall, slender, inhumanly beautiful woman stepped out of the smoke. Reddish hair curled down past her hips in a riotous cascade, complementing her flawless skin, high cheekbones, and lush, full, bloodred lips. Her face was ageless, and her golden eyes had vertical slits instead of pupils, like a cat. Her gown was a flowing affair of deep green.

“Hello, my son,” Lea purred, evidently unaffected by the smoke and unconcerned about the fire. Three great shapes, like mastiffs built from shadows and soot, crouched about her feet, watching us with flat, black eyes. They stood between us and the rift that led back home.

I swallowed and forced down a sudden feeling of childlike panic that started gibbering down in my belly and threatened to come dancing up out of my throat. I stepped forward, between the faerie and Michael and said, in a rough voice, “Hello, Godmother.”