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Pray for us sinners

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Have I ever mentioned that, between teaching Molly, baby wardens, and the general amount of practice I've had lately, I've gotten a lot better at veils and illusions and that sort of thing?

This time I was fairly sure I'd taken out all of the Queens' thugs, but I wasn't really up to much more in the way of a firefight; I was leaning against a mostly-vertical wall, trying to catch my breath, when I heard another set of footsteps come echoing down the narrow passageway, and I cursed sulphurously. It would be just like the Queens to hold one last minion in reserve, to take me down once I was exhausted, and it would probably be the strongest of the lot.

This is when 'run and hide' becomes the favored strategy. But I decided to put a new twist on it, something I'd been working on lately and hadn't tested yet. Before I veiled myself, I set up a quick illusion/construct of myself, Harry Dresden, collapsed against the wall, as a decoy. It's not a standard spell, but it's not all that creative: some of the other Wardens can pull that sort of thing off on the fly, in the middle of a fight.

I'm better at the subtle stuff than I was, but I'm not that good yet. While I had the breathing space, though, I decided to add a few artistic touches: I gave it a massive bloody gut wound, and the ability to moan incoherently and react instinctively to touch. Maybe if they thought I was dying slowly and in pain, they'd be satisfied and I'd get a little breathing room. Or at least a delay while whatever it was stopped to watch me die. Strong doesn't necessarily mean smart, and I've made enough friends in the Courts that even some of the smart ones might be willing to let themselves be fooled.

So I set up the construct, made myself invisible, and legged it.

I was maybe three blocks away when I slowed down. Nobody was following me, which meant the decoy and/or the veil had worked, at least for now, but now I was curious. I convinced myself that it would be useful to know if somebody was going to report back to the Queens that I was dead, and if they weren't fooled long-term, I wanted to know what was following me this time. So I reinforced my veil, and turned carefully back.

It took me almost no time to get back to the crossroads where I'd stopped, and I hid myself under a deeper shadow to peer into the dimness. There was something bent over my body, but it was...

...It was John Marcone, Baron of Chicago. Stars knew how he'd ended up down here all alone, but his white dress shirt stood out like a beacon. He'd balled up his suit jacket and was using it to put pressure on the wound. His hands were bloody almost up to the elbows.

I suppose it made sense that John would try to save me, from a pragmatic point of view: his survival chances would be a lot better with me than without me. Hell's bells, reverse our positions, I'd probably do the same; I'd learned that, vanilla mortal or not, my chances of survival were probably higher with him along, too. Not this time, though, I wasn't going to put anyone else in danger over a stupid personal vendetta. I could send some of his men to the spot once I knew for sure it was clear.

I swallowed against a sudden, inexplicable pressure in my throat, and took a half-step back, ready to fade away, when I noticed that he was chanting something rhythmic that didn't sound like English, and I froze. Maybe it wasn't John. Maybe they were returning illusion for illusion, and I was in more danger than I realized.

Without moving, I Listened, turning on that special power of concentration that let me hear things most mortals (and most wizards) couldn't, and I managed to make Latin words out of the soft murmur of his voice. But it wasn't a spell. Not in the wizardly sense, anyway.

"Ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc, et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen. Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei..."

Pray for us sinners, now, and in the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary, full of grace...

Oh. It probably was John, then. I found myself looking at him a lot more closely: he wasn't in great shape. Probably worse off than I was. Real me, that is, not illusionary me, who chose that moment to let out a long, melodramatic moan, and then let his head flop bonelessly on his neck. I winced. Possibly I had overdone it a little, there. Surely John realized that he wasn't going to be able to make a difference? He couldn't exactly call for an ambulance down here, even if by some miracle he still had a working phone, and that wound wasn't going to be survivable with anything less than surgery or some really high-powered healing magic, if at all.

His voice choked on the repeat of mortis and his head dropped, almost as heavy as the illusion's. But he kept pressure on the wound. I was two steps out into the open area before I consciously realized it, and called "John," softly, as I dropped most of the veil. It's not a good idea to startle John Marcone, even in the best circumstances, which this wasn't.

Even so he whipped his head around to face me, tensing for battle as best he could with both hands still pressing against the construct's belly. But in the split second it took him to recognize my features, all the readiness bled back out of him. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Ah, yes, why not. May I ask, are you a ghost or a hallucination? I suppose if you're a ghost you might at least be of some help."

"Neither," I told him cheerfully. "He's the illusion." I was close enough now that I tapped the construct on the shoulder. It opened one eye and turned enough to look at me. "Vamoose," I told it. "Make like a tree." It rolled the eye at me, but melted obediently into ectoplasm.

Marcone blinked, once, at his hands, now covered in green goo rather than blood, and sat back against his ankles. He shook his head, like Mouse shaking ichor off his fur, and said, "Of course. Room 101. I should have been expecting it. Sorry about that, Mr. Dresden."

Luckily I know better than to pay attention to things people say when they're in shock. "Up," I told him, suiting words to actions as I pulled him to a standing position. I grabbed the jacket from the puddle of ectoplasm while I was at it; he didn't seem to be in any state to think of details like that.

"We need to get you out of here," I told him. "I don't know what you were thinking, getting involved in this in the first place." He rolled an eye toward mine with almost exactly the same expression my construct had used, and I ignored it. "Are any of your people around?"

"Three levels down from the Clark Street entrance," he said after a moment's thought, as we started staggering back the way we'd come, me still half-supporting him. I nodded; I knew where that was. "I think we were somewhere near the Blue Line, I heard trains. They cut me off from the others. Very coordinated."

That was... worrying, and implied I hadn't been the sole target. On the other hand, I at least knew enough not to wander into a maze of twisty passages, all alike, without some way of finding my way around, so I was pretty sure I could get us back to where they'd been separated, and with any luck, whoever had been with him would have known to leave some sort of message. "All right," I told him. "Lucky us, that's not very far if we take the shortest route." When he didn't react to speak of, I added, "Stars and stones, Gard's going to be pissed that she lost you. Make sure you tell her none of this is my fault, okay?"

He suddenly stopped walking; I let go of him just so I didn't tumble us both over. "That was your illusion," he said, looking me in the eyes. "You wouldn't have been that casual around an enemy trap."

I shrugged and looked over his shoulder, feeling uncomfortable for some unknowable reason. "It's a pretty standard defensive gambit. How was I supposed to know it was you galumphing around the corridors like an injured Behemoth?"

He started walking again, this time without my help. "You bastard," he said conversationally. "Do you know how much that suit jacket was worth?"

"Ah!" I said, producing it with a flourish. "But that's the great thing about ectoplasm: never leaves stains."

He didn't look back to observe my wit, though. "I should have known it was an illusion," he said, "but the melodrama convinced me. 'Nobody but Harry Dresden,' I thought, 'would think a death scene that overdone was convincing.'"

"I hate you," I told him sincerely, but he still looked a little bit shocky, so I draped the jacket over his shoulders for him anyway.