/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy_city / Series: Dresden Files

Cold Days

Jim Butcher

HARRY DRESDEN LIVES!!! After being murdered by a mystery assailant, navigating his way through the realm between life and death, and being brought back to the mortal world, Harry realizes that maybe death wasn't all that bad. Because he is no longer Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard. He is now Harry Dresden, Winter Knight to Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness. After Harry had no choice but to swear his fealty, Mab wasn't about to let something as petty as death steal away the prize she had sought for so long. And now, her word is his command, no matter what she wants him to do, no matter where she wants him to go, and no matter who she wants him to kill. Guess which Mab wants first? Of course, it won't be an ordinary, everyday assassination. Mab wants her newest minion to pull off the impossible: kill an immortal. No problem there, right? And to make matters worse, there exists a growing threat to an unfathomable source of magic that could land Harry in the sort of trouble that will make death look like a holiday. Beset by enemies new and old, Harry must gather his friends and allies, prevent the annihilation of countless innocents, and find a way out of his eternal subservience before his newfound powers claim the only thing he has left to call his own... His soul.

Cold Days

(Book 14 in the Dresden Files series)

A novel by Jim Butcher

For Chris Achterhof, writer of “Greed” (he’ll know why after reading this), and all my old gaming buddies in the International Fantasy Gaming Society. You people are all silly, and you made the nineties a much brighter place.

Chapter One

Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, has unique ideas regarding physical therapy.

I woke up in softness.

What I probably should say was that I woke up in a soft bed. But . . . that just doesn’t convey how soft this bed was. You know those old cartoons where people sleep on fluffy clouds? Those guys would wake up screaming in pain if they got suckered into taking one of those clouds after they’d been in Mab’s bed.

The fire in my chest had finally begun to die away. The heavy wool lining coating my thoughts seemed to have lightened up. When I blinked my eyes open, they felt gummy, but I was able to lift my arm, slowly, and wipe them clear. I’d gone jogging on beaches with less sand than was in my eyes.

Man. Being mostly dead is hard on a guy.

I was in a bed.

A bed the size of my old apartment.

The sheets were all perfectly white and smooth. The bed was shrouded in drapes of more pure white, drifting on gentle currents of cool air. The temperature was cold enough that when I exhaled, my breath condensed, but I was comfortable beneath the bed’s covering.

The curtains around the bed parted and a girl appeared.

She was probably too young to drink legally and she was one of the lovelier women I’d ever seen in person. High cheekbones, exotic almond-shaped eyes. Her skin was a medium olive tone, her eyes an almost eerie shade of pale green-gold. Her hair was pulled back into a simple tail, she wore pale blue hospital scrubs, and she had no makeup at all.

Wow. Any woman who could wear that and still look that good was a freaking goddess.

“Hello,” she said, and smiled at me. Maybe it was just the bed talking, but the smile and her voice were even better than the rest of her.

“Hi,” I said. My voice came out in a croak that hardly sounded human. I started coughing.

She placed a covered tray on a little stand beside the bed and sat down on the edge of it. She took the cover off the tray and picked up a white china cup. She passed it to me, and it proved to be filled with not quite scalding chicken noodle soup. “You do that every day. Talk before you’ve gotten anything down your throat. Drink.”

I did. Campbell’s. And it was awesome. I flashed on a sudden memory of being sick when I was very young. I couldn’t remember where we’d been, but my dad had made me chicken noodle soup. It was the same.

“I think . . . I remember some of it,” I said, after several sips. “Your name is . . . Sarah?” She frowned, but I shook my head before she could speak. “No, wait. Sarissa. Your name is Sarissa.”

She lifted both eyebrows and smiled. “That’s a first. It looks like you’re finally coming back into focus.”

My stomach gurgled and at the same time a roaring hunger went through me. I blinked at the sudden sensation and started gurgling down more soup.

Sarissa laughed at me. It made the room feel brighter. “Don’t drown yourself. There’s no rush.”

I finished the cup, spilling only a little on my chin, and then murmured, “The hell there isn’t. I’m starving. What else is there?”

“Tell you what,” she said. “Before you do that, let’s shoot for another first.”

“Eh?” I said.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“What, you don’t know?”

Sarissa smiled again. “Do you?”

“Harry Dresden,” I said.

Her eyes sparkled and it made me feel good all the way to my toes. More so when she produced a plate that was piled with chicken and mashed potatoes and some other vegetables that I had little use for but which were probably good for me. I thought I was going to start drooling onto the floor, that food looked so good.

“What do you do, Harry?”

“Professional wizard,” I said. “I’m a PI in Chicago.” I frowned, suddenly remembering something else. “Oh. And I’m the Winter Knight, I guess.”

She stared at me like a statue for several seconds, absolutely nothing on her face.

“Um,” I said. “Food?”

She shivered and looked away from me. Then she took a quick breath and picked up an odd little fork, the kind they give to kids with motor control issues—it had lots of rounded edges—and pressed it into my hand. “If you’re willing to go for three, we’ll have had a really good day.”

The fork felt weird and heavy in my fingers. I remembered using forks. I remembered how they felt, the slender weight of them, the precision with which I could get food from the plate to my mouth. This fork felt heavy and clumsy. I fumbled with it for a few seconds, and then managed, on the second try, to thrust it into the mashed potatoes. Then it was another chore to get the stupid thing to my mouth.

The potatoes were perfect. Just warm enough, barely salted, with a faint hint of rich butter.

“Ohmmgdd,” I muttered around the mouthful. Then I went for more.

The second forkful was easier, and the third easier than that, and before I knew it the plate was empty and I was scraping the last of the remains into my mouth. I felt exhausted and stuffed, though it hadn’t been all that much food. Sarissa was watching me with a pleased smile.

“Got it all over my face, don’t I?” I asked her.

“It means you enjoyed the food,” she said. She lifted a napkin to my face and wiped at it. “It’s nice to know your name, finally, Harry.”

There was the sound of light, steady footsteps coming closer.

Sarissa rose immediately, turned, and then knelt gracefully on the floor with her head bowed.

“Well?” said a woman’s velvet voice.

My whole body shuddered in response to that voice, like a guitar’s string quivering when the proper note is played near it.

“He’s lucid, Your Majesty, and remembered my name and his. He fed himself.”

“Excellent,” said the voice. “You are dismissed for today.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty,” said Sarissa. She rose, glanced at me, and said, “I’m glad to see you feeling better, Sir Knight.”

I tried to come up with something charming or witty and said, “Call me.”

She huffed out a surprised little breath that might have been the beginning of a laugh, but shot a fearful glance the other way and then retreated. The sound of her sneakers scuffing on the hard floor faded into the distance outside the curtained bed.

A shadow moved across the curtains at the end of the bed. I knew whose it was.

“You have passed your nadir,” she said in a decidedly pleased tone. “You are waxing rather than waning, my Knight.”

I suddenly had difficulty thinking clearly enough to speak, but I managed. “Well. You know. Wax on, wax off.”

She didn’t open the curtain around the bed as much as she simply glided through, letting the sheer cloth press against her, outlining her form. She exhaled slowly as she reached my side, looking down at me, her eyes flickering through shades of green in dizzying cycles.

Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was too terrifying to be beautiful. Though every cell in my body suddenly surged with mindless desire and my eyes blurred with tears to see her beauty, I did not want to come an inch closer. She was a tall woman, well over six feet, and every inch was radiance. Pale skin, soft lips the color of frozen raspberries, long silver-white hair that shone with opalescent highlights. She was dressed in a silk gown of deep frozen green that left her strong white shoulders bare.

And she was about six inches away from being in bed with me.

“You look great,” I croaked.

Something smoldered in those almond-shaped eyes. “I am great, my Knight,” she murmured. She reached out a hand, and her nails were all dark blues and greens, the colors shimmering and changing like deep opals. She touched my naked shoulder with those nails.

And I suddenly felt like a fifteen-year-old about to kiss a girl for the first time—excitement and wild expectation and fluttering anxiety.

Her nails, even just the very tips, were icy cold. She trailed them down over one side of my chest and rested them over my heart.

“Um,” I said into what was, for me, an incredibly awkward silence. “How are you?”

She tilted her head and stared at me.

“Sarissa seems nice,” I ventured.

“A changeling,” Mab said. “Who once sought of me a favor. She saw Lloyd Slate’s tenure as my Knight.”

I licked my lips. “Um. Where are we?”

“Arctis Tor,” she said. “My stronghold. In the Knight’s suite. You will find every mortal amenity here.”

“That’s nice,” I said. “What with my apartment burned to the ground and all. Is there a security deposit?”

A slow smile oozed over Mab’s mouth and she leaned even closer to me. “It is well that you heal,” she whispered. “Your spirit wandered far from your body while you slept.”

“Free spirit,” I said. “That’s me.”

“Not anymore,” Mab murmured, and leaned down toward me. “You are shaking.”

“Yeah.”

Her eyes filled my vision. “Are you frightened of me, Harry?”

“I’m sane,” I said.

“Do you think I am going to hurt you?” she breathed, her lips a fraction of an inch from mine.

My heart beat so hard that it actually hurt. “I think . . . you are who you are.”

“Surely you have no reason to fear,” she whispered, her breath tickling my lips. “You are mine now. If you are not well, I cannot use you to work my will.”

I tried to force myself to relax. “That’s . . . that’s true,” I said.

I hadn’t seen her picking up the thick, fluffy pillow beside me while she held my eyes. So I was totally unprepared when she struck, as fast as any snake, and slammed the pillow down over my face.

I froze for half a second, and the pillow pressed down harder, shutting off my air, clogging my nose and mouth. Then the fear took over. I struggled, but my arms and legs felt as if they’d been coated in inches of lead. I tried to push Mab away, but she was simply too heavy, my arms too weak. Her hands and forearms were frozen steel, slender and immovable.

My vision went from red to black. Sensation began to recede.

Mab was cool. Unrelenting. Merciless.

She was Mab.

If I did not stop her, she would kill me. Mab couldn’t kill a mortal, but to her I was no longer one of them. I was her vassal, a member of her court, and as far as she was concerned, she had every right to take my life if she saw fit.

That cold knowledge galvanized me. I locked my hands around one of her arms and twisted, straining my entire body. My hips arched up off the bed with the effort, and I wasn’t even trying to push her away. There was no opposing the absolute force of her. But I did manage to direct her strength just a little to one side, and in so doing managed to push her hands and the smothering pillow past me, freeing my face enough to suck in a gasp of sweet, cold air.

Mab lay with her upper body across mine, and made no effort at all to move. I could feel her eyes on me, feel the empty intensity of her gaze as I panted, my head swimming with the sudden rush of blessed oxygen.

Mab moved very slowly, very gracefully. There was something serpentine about the way she slithered up my body and lay with her chest against mine. She was a cold, ephemeral weight, an incredibly feminine softness, and her silken hair glided over my cheeks and lips and neck.

Mab made a low, hungry sound in her throat as she leaned down, until her lips were almost touching my ear.

“I have no use for weakness, wizard.” She shivered in a kind of slow, alien ecstasy. “Rest. Heal. Sleep. I shall most likely kill you on the morrow.”

“You? A Princess Bride quote?” I croaked.

“What is that?” she asked.

Then she was gone. Just gone.

And that was day one of my physical therapy.

* * *

I could describe the next few weeks in detail, but as bad as they were, they did have a certain routine to them. Besides, in my head, they’re a music video montage set to the Foo Fighters’ “Walk.”

I would wake in the morning and find Sarissa waiting for me, keeping a polite and professional distance between us. She would help me take care of the needs of my weakened body, which was rarely dignified, but she never spoke about herself. At some point after that, Mab would try to kill me in increasingly unexpected and inventive ways.

In the video in my head, there’s a shot of me eating my own meal again—until, just as I finish, the giant bed bursts into flames. I awkwardly flop out of it and crawl away before I roast. Then, obviously the next day, Sarissa is helping me walk to the bathroom and back. Just as I relax back into bed, a poisonous serpent, a freaking Indian cobra, falls from the bed’s canopy onto my shoulders. I scream like a girl and throw it on the floor. The next day, I’m fumbling my way into new clothes with Sarissa’s help—until a small swarm of stinging ants comes boiling out of them onto my flesh, and I have to literally rip the clothes off of me.

It goes on like that. Sarissa and me on waist-high parallel bars, me struggling to remember how to keep my balance, interrupted by a tidal flood of red-eyed rats that forces us to hop up onto the bars before our feet get eaten off. Sarissa spotting me on a bench press, and then Mab bringing a great big old fireman’s ax whistling down at my head at the end of my third set so that I have to block with the stupid straight bar. Me slogging my exhausted way into a hot shower, only to have the door slam shut and the thing start to fill with water. Into which freaking piranha begin to plop.

On and on. Seventy-seven days. Seventy-seven attempted murders. Use your imagination. Mab sure as hell did. There was even a ticking crocodile.

* * *

I had just gotten back from the small gym, where’d I’d hiked about four miles up and I don’t know how many miles forward on the elliptical machine. I was sweaty and exhausted and thinking about a shower and then bed again. I opened the door to my quarters, and when I did, Mab opened fire with a freaking shotgun.

I didn’t have time to think or calculate before she pulled the trigger. All I could do was react. I flung myself back, slammed my will out into the air ahead of me, coalescing it into a barrier of pure energy. The gun roared, deafening in the enclosed space. Buckshot slammed against the barrier and bounced, scattering everywhere, landing with pops and rattles. I hit the floor, keeping the barrier up, and Mab advanced, her eyes glittering through every shade of opal, wild and ecstatic and incongruous against her otherwise calm expression.

It was one of those Russian-designed shotguns with the big drum magazine, and she poured all of it into me, aiming for my face.

The second the gun went click instead of boom, I flung myself to one side in a swift roll, just in time to avoid the pounce of a silver-grey malk—a feline creature about the size of a bobcat with wicked claws and the strength of a small bear. It landed where my head had been, its claws gouging chips from the stone floor.

I kicked the malk with my heel and sent him flying across the hall and into the stone wall. He hit it with a yowl of protest. I whirled my attention back to Mab as she dropped one drum magazine on the floor and produced another.

Before she could seat it in the weapon, I slashed at the air with my hand and shouted, “Forzare!” Unseen force lashed out and ripped the magazine and the shotgun alike from her hands. I made a yanking motion, and the bouncing shotgun abruptly shot across the empty space between us. I grabbed it by the barrel (which was freaking hot) just as the malk recovered and leapt at me again. I swung the empty shotgun two-handed and slammed the malk in the skull, hard enough to knock it from the air and leave it senseless on the floor.

Mab let out a delighted silvery laugh and clapped her hands like a little girl who has just been told she’s getting a pony. “Yes!” she said. “Lovely. Brutal, vicious, and lovely.”

I held on to the shotgun until the stunned malk recovered and began slinking sullenly away, and only after it was out of sight around the corner did I turn to face Mab again.

“This is getting old,” I said. “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than to play Grimtooth games with me?”

“Indeed, I do,” she replied. “But why play games if not to prepare for challenges that lie ahead?”

I rolled my eyes. “Fun?” I suggested.

The delight faded from her face, replaced by the usual icy calm. It was a scary transformation, and I found myself hoping that I had not provoked her with my wiseassery.

“The fun begins when the games end, my Knight.”

I frowned at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“That appropriate attire awaits you in your chambers, and that you are to get dressed for the evening.” She turned to walk after the departed malk, her gown whispering on the stone of the floor. “Tonight, my wizard, shall be . . . fun.”

Chapter Two

Back in my room, I found my clothes waiting for me: a tux in dark silver and pearl. The first of two small paper envelopes proved to contain a pair of jeweled cuff links, the stones too blue and too brilliant to be sapphires.

The other one held my mother’s amulet.

It was a simple silver pentacle, a battered five-pointed star bound within a circle, on a simple silver chain. The pentacle’s center was filled with a small red stone, cut to size. I’d once fastened the gem into place with hot glue. Apparently Mab had sent it to a genuine jeweler to attach it with something more solid. I touched the stone gingerly, and could instantly sense the energy within it, the psychic journal of my late mother’s travels.

I slipped the amulet on over my head and felt a sudden and profound sense of relief. I had thought it lost when my bullet-riddled self had fallen into the waters of Lake Michigan. I stood there with my hand over it for a moment, just feeling the cool metal press against my palm.

Then I got dressed in the tux and examined myself in a mirror the size of a pool table.

“Just a gigolo,” I sang, off-key, trying to enjoy myself. “Everywhere I go, people know the part I’m playing.”

The guy looking at me out of the mirror looked raw and hard. My cheekbones stood out starkly. I’d lost a lot of weight while I was in what amounted to a coma, and my rehabilitation had added only lean muscle back onto me. You could see veins tight against my skin. My brown hair hung down past my jawline, clean but shaggy. I hadn’t cut it or asked for a barber. Things that know magic can do awful stuff to you if they get hold of a lock of your hair, so I’d decided to hang on to mine. I’d ditched the beard, though. Beards grow out so fast that if you shave every day, there isn’t much of a window for anyone to use them against you—and shaved stubble is too diffuse to make a decent channel anyway.

I looked a little more like my brother with the long hair. Go figure. Long, lean face, dark eyes, a vertical line of a scar under the left one. My skin was absolutely pasty-pale. I hadn’t seen the sun in months. Lots of months.

As I looked, the song just sort of faded out. I didn’t have the heart for it. I closed my eyes.

“What the hell are you doing, Dresden?” I whispered. “You’re being kept locked up like a goddamned pet. Like she owns you.”

“Does she not?” growled a malk’s voice.

Didn’t I mention it? Those things can talk. They don’t pronounce words too well, and the inhuman sound of it makes the hairs on the back of my everything stand up, but they talk.

I spun, lifting my hand in a defensive gesture again, but I needn’t have bothered. A malk I didn’t think I’d seen before sat on the floor of my chambers, just inside the door. His too-long tail curled all the way around his front feet and overlapped itself in the back. He was a huge specimen of the breed, maybe eighty or ninety pounds, the size of a young adult mountain lion. His fur was pitch-black, apart from a white spot on his chest.

One thing I’d learned about malks was that you didn’t show them weakness. Ever. “These are my chambers,” I said. “Get out.”

The malk bowed its head. “I cannot, Sir Knight. I am under orders from the Queen herself.”

“Get out before I get you out.”

The very tip of the big malk’s tail twitched once. “Were you not the bond servant of my Queen, and were I not obliged to show you courtesy, I should like to see you try it, mortal.”

I squinted at him.

That was very unmalklike behavior. Apart from one, every malk I’d met had been a bloodthirsty little killing machine, primarily interested in what it could tear apart and devour next. They weren’t much for small talk. They also weren’t terribly brave, especially when alone. A malk might jump you in a dark alley, but you’d never see him coming.

This one . . . looked like it might like to see me put a chip on my shoulder.

I extended my senses cautiously and suddenly felt the nearly silent thrum of the malk’s aura. Whoa. The thing had power. Like, lots of power. You couldn’t usually feel a wizard’s aura unless you were close enough to touch it, but I could feel his from across the room. Whatever that thing was, it only looked like one of the other furry, terminally ADD homicidal maniacs. I reeled in on the attitude.

“Who are you?”

The malk bowed his head once. “A faithful servant of the Queen of Air and Darkness. I am most often called Sith.”

“Heh,” I said. “Where’s your red lightsaber?”

Sith’s golden eyes narrowed. “When first your kind began scrawling knowledge upon stone and clay, my name was ancient. Walk carefully around it.”

“Just trying to brighten the conversation with humor, Sithy. You need to cheer up.”

Sith’s tail twitched again. “Slicing your spine into coasters would cheer me. May I?”

“Gotta go with ‘no’ on that one,” I said. Then I blinked. “Wait. You’re . . . Cat Sith. The Cat Sith?”

The malk inclined its head again. “I am he.”

Hell’s bells. Cat Sith was a major figure in faerie folklore. This thing wasn’t just a malk. It was the freaking monarch of the malks, their progenitor, their Optimus Prime. I’d taken on an ancient faerie creature like this one a few years back. It hadn’t been pretty.

When Cat Sith had offered to slice my spine into coasters, he wasn’t kidding. If he was anything like the ancient phobophage, he could do it.

“I see,” I said. “Um. What are you doing here?”

“I am your batman.”

“My . . .”

“Not the notional hero,” Sith said, a bit of a growl in his voice. “Your batman. Your orderly.”

“Orderly . . .” I frowned. “Wait. You work for me?”

“I prefer to think of it as managing your incompetence,” Sith replied. “I will answer your questions. I will be your guide while you are here. I will see to it that your needs are met.”

I folded my arms. “And you work for me?”

Sith’s tail twitched again. “I serve my Queen.”

Aha. Evasion. There was something he was avoiding. “You are to answer my questions, are you not?”

“Yes.”

“Did Mab order you to obey my commands?”

Twitch, twitch, twitch went the tail. Sith stared at me and said nothing.

Silence could generally be taken as assent, but I just couldn’t resist. “Get me a Coke.”

Sith stared at me. Then he vanished.

I blinked and looked around, but he was gone. Then, maybe a second and a half later, there was the snap-hiss of a beverage can being opened. I turned and found Cat Sith sitting on one of the room’s dressers. An opened can of Coke sat beside him.

“Whoa,” I said. “How did . . . You don’t even have thumbs.”

Sith stared at me.

I crossed to the dresser and picked up the can. Sith’s eyes tracked me the whole time, his expression enigmatic and definitely not friendly. I sipped at the drink and grimaced. “Warm?”

“You did not tell me otherwise,” he said. “I shall be happy to similarly fulfill any such command you give me, Sir Knight, but for those that contravene the orders of my Queen.”

Translation: I don’t want to be here. I don’t like you. Give me commands and I will give you hell for it. I nodded at the malk. “I hear you.” I sipped at the Coke. Warm or not, it was still Coke. “So why the tux? What’s the occasion?”

“Tonight is a celebration of birth.”

“Birthday party, huh?” I said. “Whose?”

Sith said absolutely nothing for several seconds. Then he rose and leapt down to the floor, landing without a sound. He flowed past me to the door. “You cannot possibly be that stupid. Follow me.”

My hair was still pretty messy. I slopped some water on it and combed it back, which was as close to neat as it was going to get, and then walked after Sith, my patent leather formal shoes gleaming and clicking on the stone floor.

“Who’s going to be at this party?” I asked Sith when I caught up to him. I hadn’t left my chambers in a while. My entire life had been eating, sleeping, and getting myself put back together. Besides, I hadn’t wanted to go sightseeing around Arctis Tor. The last time I’d been there, I’d pissed off the faeries. Like, all of them. I hadn’t fancied the idea of bumping into some hostile bogeyman looking for payback in a dark corridor. The door leading from my chambers opened by itself, and Sith walked through it with me behind him.

“The high and mighty among the Winter Sidhe,” Sith said. “Important figures from the Wyld. There may even be a delegation from Summer there.”

As we emerged into the capital of Winter, the corridors changed from what looked more or less like smooth, poured concrete to crystalline ice in every hue of glacial blue and green, the bands of color merging, intertwining. Flickers of light danced through the depths of the ice like lazy fireflies of violet and crimson and cold sky blue. My eyes wanted to follow the lights, but I didn’t let them. I couldn’t tell you why, but my instincts told me that would be dangerous, and I listened to them.

“Kind of a big event, huh?” I said. “Think there’ll be a problem with the paparazzi?”

“One may hope,” Sith said. “Dispatching the perpetrators of such an intrusion would be gratifying.”

The air was arctic cold. I could feel the biting depth of the chill, but its fangs couldn’t seem to break my skin. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t shiver. I didn’t shake. I chalked it up to the power Mab had given me.

Sith led me down a much dimmer corridor, and we passed in and out of patches of deep darkness and cold, sullen light. As we did, our shadows danced and stretched. After a few seconds, I noticed that Cat Sith’s shadow was larger than mine. Like, seven or eight times larger than mine. I gulped.

“The last time I was at a supernatural shindig, I got poisoned and then everything there tried to kill me. So I burned the whole place to the ground,” I said.

“An appropriate way to deal with one’s enemies,” Sith said. “Perhaps you will find Arctis Tor less flammable.”

“I’ve never met a place I couldn’t blow up, burn down, or knock over with enough motivation,” I said. “Think anyone at the party wants to kill me?”

“Yes. I want to kill you.”

“Because I annoy you?”

“Because I enjoy it.” Sith glanced up at me for a moment. His billboard-size shadow on the wall mirrored the motion. “And you also annoy me.”

“It’s one of my gifts. Asking annoying questions is another. Other than you, is there anyone at the party I should make sure not to turn my back to?”

“You are of Winter now, wizard.” His turned his golden eyes away from me again. “Don’t turn your back to anyone.”

Chapter Three

Cat Sith led me down passages I had never seen on my previous visit to Mab’s seat of power. Heck, back then I had thought it consisted entirely of a wall around a courtyard and a single turreted tower. I hadn’t ever seen the complex beneath the ice of the courtyard. It was enormous. We walked for ten minutes, mostly in the same direction, before Cat Sith said, “That door.”

The one he spoke of was made of ice, just like the walls, though it had a thick ring of what might have been silver hanging upon it. I grabbed the ring and tugged, and the door opened easily onto a small antechamber, a little waiting room complete with several easy chairs.

“Now what?”

“Go in,” Cat Sith said. “Wait for instructions. Follow instructions.”

“I’m not good at either of those things,” I said.

Sith’s eyes gleamed. “Excellent. I have orders to dispatch you if you disobey Mab’s commands or undermine her authority in any way.”

“Why don’t you go ask Eldest Fetch how easy that one is, Mittens?” I said. “Scat.”

Sith didn’t vanish this time. He just sort of melted into shadow. His golden eyes remained behind for a few seconds, and then he was gone.

“Always stealing from the greats,” I mumbled. “Lewis Carroll’s estate should be collecting a licensing fee from that guy.”

Unless, of course, it was maybe the other way around.

I went into the chamber and the door shut behind me. There was a table with what looked like handmade candies on it. I didn’t touch them. Not because I was worried about my svelte figure, but because I was standing at the heart of wicked faerieland, and eating random candy seemed like a less than brilliant idea.

There was an old book on the table next to the candies, set carefully and precisely in place beside the dish. It was titled Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I leaned down and opened it. The text was in German. It was really old. The pages were made of paper of the finest quality, thin and crisp and edged in gold foil. On the title page, under the title, were the names Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and the year 1812.

It was autographed, and personalized, “For Mab.” I couldn’t read the text, so I settled for the illustrations. It was better than reading those stupid celebrity magazines in every other waiting room, and was probably more grounded in reality.

The door opened soundlessly while I looked at the book, and a vision came into the room. She wore a velvet dress the deep blue-purple of twilight. She glanced back toward the hallway behind her as the door closed, and I saw that the dress plunged low in the front. She had matching opera gloves that reached to halfway up her biceps, and there was a garland of periwinkles in her dark hair that complemented the dress gorgeously. Then she turned back to me and smiled. “Oh, my,” she said. “You clean up nicely, Harry.”

I rose politely to my feet, though it took me a couple of seconds to say, “Sarissa. Wow. You . . . barely look like you.”

She quirked an eyebrow at me, but I saw a pleased tilt to her mouth. “My. That was almost a compliment.”

“I’m out of practice,” I said. I gestured toward a chair. “Would you care to sit?”

She gave me a demure smile and did, moving with an absolute and liquid grace. I offered her my hand to help her sit, which she didn’t need. She gripped my fingers lightly anyway. Once she was seated, I sat back down myself. “Did you want a bit of candy?”

Her smile somehow contained gentle reproof. “I hardly think that would be wise. Do you?”

“Hell’s bells, no,” I said. “I just, uh . . . You make conversation when you’re, uh . . . I’m not sure what to . . .” I picked up the priceless copy of the Grimms’ tales and held it up. “Book.”

Sarissa covered her mouth with one hand, but her eyes twinkled. “Oh, um, yes. I’ve seen it a few times. I’ve heard rumors that Her Majesty worked hard to make sure the tales were put into print.”

“Sure,” I said. “Makes sense.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Oh, the Sidhe’s influence had been waning as the Industrial Age gathered steam,” I said. “By making sure the tales kept being told to mortal children, she made sure that she and her folk were never forgotten.”

“And that’s important?” Sarissa asked.

“If it wasn’t, why else would she do it? I’m pretty sure that being forgotten is bad for beings that live with one foot in the mortal world and the other over here. Wouldn’t shock me if she greased some wheels for Walt Disney, either. He did more than anyone else to bring those stories into modern times. Hell, he built a couple of fairylands in the mortal world.”

“I hadn’t ever thought about it that way,” Sarissa said. She folded her hands in her lap and smiled at me. It was a completely calm and lovely expression—but I had the sudden instinct that she was concealing unease.

I might not have been able to tell a couple of months ago, but she’d been on the periphery of several of Mab’s therapy sessions, and I’d seen her react to sudden fear and stress. There was that same sense of controlled tension in her now as there had been when a small avalanche of poisonous spiders—big ones—had come cascading out of the towel cupboard in the workout room. She’d been wearing capri pants and no shoes at the time, and she’d had to hold completely still while dozens of the things swarmed over her naked feet, until I could clear them off, gently and cautiously, so as not to threaten the little things into killing us.

That particular test had been all about regulating one’s reaction to sudden fear. Sarissa had done it, refusing to let her anxiety control her. She’d waited, expressionless and almost calm, looking much then as she did right now.

It made my feet start to itch.

She was expecting spiders.

“So,” I said. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? Do you need me to perform some last-minute yoga routines?”

“You took to yoga like a duck to vacuum,” she said. “I know how much you love the routines, but I’m afraid I must disappoint you. Tonight I’m to be on your arm, by command of the Queen. I’m supposed to tell you the protocols for a gathering of the court and make sure you don’t get too bored.”

I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. “I can’t remember the last time I had that problem. And gosh, walking around with someone as lovely as you all night sounds like torture.”

She smiled and lowered her eyes.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“I didn’t use that like a rhetorical question,” I said. “I’m serious. I’d like to ask you something, but if you would rather keep it to yourself, that’s okay, too.”

That put a crack in her mask. I saw her eyes flick up quickly to my face for a moment, and then back down. “Why wouldn’t I want to answer your questions?”

“Because we’ve been working together every day for eleven weeks and I don’t know your last name,” I said. “I don’t know what you do in the real world. I don’t know your favorite color or what kind of ice cream you like best. I don’t know if you have family. You’re very, very good at talking about things that don’t matter, and making it seem like the only conversation that could possibly have made sense.”

She very carefully did not move or answer.

“Mab’s got something on you, too, doesn’t she? Just like she does me.”

There was another moment of stillness. Then she said in a bare whisper, “Mab has something on everyone. The only question is whether they realize it or not.”

“I get that you’re afraid of me,” I said. “I know you saw Lloyd Slate in action when he was the Winter Knight, and I know exactly what a peach of a human being he was. And I figure you think I’m going to be like him.”

“I didn’t say that,” she said.

“It wasn’t an accusation,” I said, as gently as I could. “I’m not trying to trick you into saying something. I’m not hoping that you’ll give me an excuse to do something to you. Okay? I’m not like Lloyd Slate.”

“Neither was he,” Sarissa whispered. “Not at first.”

A cold little feeling wobbled through my guts.

See, that’s the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don’t want to misuse it, they don’t want to abuse it, and they don’t want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals.

But it keeps happening anyway.

History is full of it. As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.

“This is the reality, Sarissa,” I said quietly. “I’m the Winter Knight. I’ve got Mab’s favor and blessing. I can pretty much do as I damned well please here, and I won’t have to answer to anyone but her for it.”

The young woman shivered.

“If I wanted it,” I said quietly, “if I wanted y . . . to hurt you, I could do it. Right now. You couldn’t stop me, and no one else would do a damned thing. I’ve spent a year on my back and now that I’m moving again, um . . . my various drives are clamoring for action. In fact, Mab probably sent you in here to see what I would do with you.”

The pleasant mask faded from Sarissa’s face, replaced with wary neutrality. “Yes. Of course she did.” She switched her hands, moving the bottom one to the top, carefully, as if she worried about wrinkling her dress. “I know exactly what role she has in mind for me, Sir Knight. I am to”—her mouth twisted—“be at your convenience.”

“Yeah, well,” I said. “That isn’t going to happen, obviously.”

Her eyes widened slightly. She held completely still. “I’m sorry?”

“I’m not Lloyd Slate,” I said. “I’m not one of Mab’s pet monsters—and I’ll die before I let her make me into one. You were kind to me and you helped me through a bad patch, Sarissa. I won’t forget that. You have my word.”

“I don’t understand,” she said.

“It isn’t complicated,” I said. “I won’t take anything away from you. I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to do. Period.”

I couldn’t interpret the expression on her face when I said that. There could have been anger in it, or suspicion or terror or skepticism. Whatever was going on in her head to make her face look like that, I couldn’t translate it.

“You don’t believe me,” I said. “Do you?”

“I’ve lived a third of my life inside Arctis Tor,” she said, and turned her face away. “I don’t believe anyone.”

In that moment, I didn’t think I’d ever seen someone so entirely lovely look so utterly alone. A third of her life in Winter? And yet she could still be compassionate and friendly and caring. She’d probably seen things, had to face ugliness that few mortals ever did—the Unseelie were endlessly enthusiastic about their amusements, and they liked their games nasty and cruel.

But here she was, facing a fate she must have feared since she was a child—being given to a monster to be devoured. Facing it calmly. Staying in control of herself, and still managing to be warm to me, too. That told me she had a lot of strength, and strength has always been something I found attractive in a woman. So has courage. So has grace under pressure.

I could really get to like this girl.

Which, of course, was why Mab had chosen her—to tempt me, to make me convince myself to abandon the high road so that I could have her. Then, once I’d done one little thing, she’d start scattering new lures in front of me, until eventually I picked another one up. Mab was Mab. She had no intention of keeping a Knight with a conscience.

So she was planning on assassinating mine an inch at a time. Once I’d abused my power over the girl, Mab would use my guilt and self-loathing to push me to the next step, and the one after that.

Mab was one cold-blooded bitch.

I looked away from Sarissa. I was going to have to keep her safe—first and foremost from me.

“I understand,” I told her. “Or at least I understand part of it. My first mentor wasn’t exactly Officer Friendly, either.”

She nodded, but it was an entirely noncommittal gesture, an acknowledgment that I had spoken, not a statement of agreement.

“Okay,” I said. “Uncomfortable silence is uncomfortable. Why don’t you tell me what I need to know for tonight?”

She collected herself and slipped back into her pleasant demeanor. “We’ll enter next to last, just before the Queen. She will present you to the court, and then there will be a meal and entertainment. After the feast, you’ll be expected to mingle with the court and give them a chance to meet you.”

“That’s the protocol? Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws’?”

Something like a real smile brought a little light to her eyes, at the sight of which my glands did not go pitter-pat. At all.

“Not quite,” she said. “There are two laws all must follow under pain of death.”

“Only two? Man, how do Unseelie lawyers make a living?”

“First,” Sarissa said, ignoring my wiseassery, “Blood may not be spilled upon the floor of the court without the Queen’s express command.”

“No murder without getting the nod first. Got it. Second?”

“No one may speak to the Queen without her express command.”

I snorted. “Seriously? Because I’m not much for keeping my mouth shut. In fact, I’m pretty sure I physically can’t. Probably because I was influenced at an impressionable age. Did you ever read any Spider-Man comics when you were—”

“Harry,” Sarissa said, her voice suddenly tight. She put her hand on my arm, and her lean fingers were like heavy wires. “No one speaks to the Queen,” she whispered intently. “No one. Not even the Lady Maeve dares disobey that law.” She shuddered. “I’ve seen what happens. We all have.”

I pursed my lips and studied her hand thoughtfully for a moment. Then I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I hear you.”

Sarissa exhaled slowly and nodded.

Just then, a door I hadn’t seen before opened in the center of what had looked exactly like a wall. Cat Sith stood on the other side of the door. He ignored me pointedly, turning his golden eyes to Sarissa. “It is time.”

“Very well,” Sarissa said. “We are ready.”

I rose and offered Sarissa a hand up. She took it, and I tucked her arm into mine. Her fingers gave my forearm one quick squeeze, and then we turned to follow Cat Sith down another hallway.

Sarissa leaned a little closer to me and whispered, “You know what this is, don’t you?”

I grunted quietly. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s my first day in the prison yard.”

Chapter Four

Sith led us down yet another passageway, this one darker than the others, until finally I couldn’t see the malk at all in the dimness. Instead, a very dim phosphorescence in the shape of his paw prints began to rise from the floor, giving us just enough light to move by. I could feel Sarissa growing increasingly tense beside me, but she said nothing. Smart. If anything was going to jump up and eat us, our ears would tell us about it first.

The sound of our steps on the floor changed, and I realized that we had moved into a large open space. Just as I did, the glowing paw prints in front of us vanished.

I stopped at once, pulling Sarissa in closer against my side. Again, she remained completely silent, except for one sharp little inhalation.

Silent seconds went by.

“Sith,” I said quietly. “You are a suck guide. I don’t care how big your shadow is.”

My voice echoed cavernously while I waited, but apparently Sith didn’t have a comeback. After a few seconds, I reached up and tugged my amulet out of the tux.

I held it up and concentrated, sending a microcurrent of my will into the design, and an instant later it began to glow with a blue-white light. I held it aloft and looked around.

We were in another ice cave, this one filled with enormous, bizarre . . . structures, was the only thing I could think to call them. I might have called them sculptures, except no one does sculptures the size of buildings these days, even in ice. I looked around the place slowly. There was something odd about the structures, something almost . . .

Sarissa was looking, too. She seemed alert, but not frightened. “Are those . . . giant pieces of furniture?”

. . . familiar.

The structures were sculpture, built on a scale of maybe one to eight, of a couch, two easy chairs, a brick fireplace, bookshelves. . . . Mab had re-created my old basement apartment in ice, right down to textured carvings of all of my area rugs crafted into the ice of the floor.

I had about a second to take that in before the cavern exploded with sound, color, and motion. A wave front of pure noise slapped against me as a sudden horde of beings from every dark folktale ever told surged into view at the edges of my light, their screams and cries coming from all around me.

This was a worst-case scenario for a mortal wizard. We can do amazing things, but we need time to make them happen. Sometimes we get that time by preparing well in advance—creating tools that help us focus our abilities more quickly and with greater precision. Sometimes we get the time by picking where and when to begin our battles. Sometimes we do it by slinging the spell from a couple or a couple hundred miles away. But I didn’t have any of that going for me.

My convalescence with Mab had kept me way too busy recovering or sleeping to have enough time to create new tools, and my amulet was all I had. On the upside, Mab had given me a serious workout, magically speaking. I’d been forced to use my abilities without any kind of tools or crutch to help me, or else perish. I was better at wielding raw magic now than I’d ever been in my life.

It just wasn’t going to be enough to survive what was coming at me.

I moved without thinking, putting myself between Sarissa and as many of them as I could, and bringing my will to bear upon my right hand. Pallid blue-white fire suddenly engulfed my fingers as I let the pentacle fall. I raised my hand—no time to think or aim or plan—determined to take someone down with me.

Sarissa’s hand snapped out and she grabbed my wrist, jerking my arm down before I could unleash the spell, and I heard two things in the vast roar of sound:

First, Sarissa screaming, “No bloodshed!”

Second, I realized that everything else in the cavern was bellowing, “SURPRISE!”

The horde of all things dark and hideous stopped maybe twenty feet short of Sarissa and me, and the walls and floor and ceiling began to glow with light. Music began to play, a full symphonic freaking orchestra, live, somewhere on the other side of the giant replica of my old secondhand sofa. High up on the ceiling of the cavern, thousands of wisps of eerie light swarmed deep within the ice, swiftly forming up like a flotilla of synchronized swimmers until they formed the words: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DRESDEN.

I stood there with my heart beating too fast for several seconds and blinked at the entire place. “Uh. Oh.”

Sarissa studied the ceiling for a moment and then looked up at me. “I didn’t know.”

“Neither did I, really,” I said. “Is it Halloween already?”

“Just barely, I think,” Sarissa said back.

It got weirder.

They started to sing.

They sang “Happy Birthday.”

Remember when I said that a malk’s voice made my skin crawl? It’s nothing next to the cackling rasp of a swamp hag, or the freaky-weird whistling voice of a manticore. Goblins can’t carry a tune if it has handles, and the huge bat things that served as Mab’s air force shrieked in pitches that could barely be heard. Trolls, hideous giant thugs towering over ten feet tall, sound like laryngitic foghorns.

But layered all throughout that cacophony were voices that went to the other extreme, voices that carried the melody with such perfect, razor-edged clarity that it made me want to slash my wrists on it. People always equate beauty with good, but it just ain’t so. Amongst the Winter Court were beings of haunting beauty, mesmerizing beauty, disarming beauty, flawless beauty, maddening beauty, bloodthirsty beauty. Even in the mortal world, a lot of predators are beautiful, and if you’re quick and motivated enough, you can admire that beauty while they kill you and eat you. Like all the other things there, the Sidhe sang to me, and I could feel the weight of their attention on me like the pressure wave from an onrushing shark.

You don’t listen to music like that. You survive it.

The voices ended abruptly, and left one crystalline alto singing, “And many more.”

The crowd of creatures parted suddenly, and a girl stepped out of their ranks. She paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, and to give everyone time to admire her.

She’d changed her hair again. Now it was a kind of extra-wide Mohawk, long except for where it had been shaved completely away from the sides of her head, where the cut could show off the tips of her gently tapering ears. It was still colored in all glacial shades of blue and green and deep violet, and hung down over much of one side of her face, allowing her to borrow enough of Veronica Lake’s vibe to give her wide, wide eyes a little extra hint of cheerily wicked mystery. She was tallish, for a girl, maybe five-ten, and built with that perfect balance of lean and lush proportions that some girls are lucky enough to have for maybe a year, the kind of look that gets girls that age in trouble with men who should be old enough to know better.

And she was naked. Gloriously, disconcertingly naked—and just as fresh and vibrant and unspoiled-looking as she’d been the first time I’d met her, most of ten years before.

Only, you know, she’d been less naked then.

Man, was I ever noticing that part.

“Here’s the birthday boy!” Maeve said in a singsong voice, flinging both arms up. She started toward me in a slow and slightly exaggerated walk. Technically, she wasn’t entirely naked. She had silver piercings at the tips of her breasts, beneath her lip, in her navel, and probably elsewhere. I didn’t let myself look quite that close. Her flawless pale skin was also spangled with gemstones. I don’t know how they’d been attached, but they clung to her and sent little flashes of color glittering around the cavern when she moved. They were concentrated most densely around her . . . well . . . She’d been, ah, vajazzled.

She came slinking over to me in the silence, her green eyes framed in a quasi-mask of gemstones and some kind of henna inking, and she absolutely smoldered with sex. Not that she’d never been suggestive before, but this was taking things to a whole new level.

“Look at you,” she said, walking around me and eyeing me slowly and thoroughly. “Rumors of your death have been greatly exaggerated, it would seem.”

“Hi, Maeve,” I said. “You know, I almost wore that same outfit. Gosh, would our faces have been red.”

The Winter Lady, Mab’s successor and understudy, completed the circle and stopped in front of me, just oozing pure animal attraction. “It is a birthday. I wore a birthday suit.” She took a deep breath, mostly for effect. “I hope you approve.”

Hell, yes, I approved. Or at least everything south of my upper lip did—way more than it should have, really. She wasn’t using some kind of magic on me; I had gone on alert to such a possibility the second I’d seen her. It must have been all the rest and the exercise and the good diet, most of which I’d successfully avoided back in the real world. It had resulted in a robust and healthy yet perfectly normal libido. Perfectly normal.

It wasn’t me changing. Whatever Mab had done to me that had healed a broken spine, made me able to run at vampire speed, and given me the kind of reflexes that were capable of keeping up with the attack of a furious malk hadn’t changed me on some fundamental level.

Everything was perfectly healthy and normal here in Denial Land.

Maeve’s eyes met mine and she gave me a slow, slow smile. And, as when Mab had been near, I felt my whole body thrum in response to her, to her presence, her proximity, to her . . . everything. That smile contained something within it, something conveyed to me in a flashing instant—Maeve as she would look in ecstasy, beneath me, looking up at me with that lovely face mindless with sensation. And with that image came a hundred or a thousand others, each of them a single captured moment, the kind of moments that are the only one to survive a frenzied dream, frozen and layered atop one another, each of them a promise, a prediction, and every one of them aimed right at the most base, most primitive parts of my brain. It wasn’t limited to visual imagery. Each layer of the flash had its own round of sensual memory, every one of them only partial but intense—touch, taste, scent, sound, and vision—dozens and dozens of dreams and fantasies compressed into that one instant of dark inspiration.

I’ve had sex that didn’t feel as good as Maeve’s smile.

You hear me, came Maeve’s thoughts, along with the images. You hear me now, because we are together now, just as you are with Mab. I felt you, you know, when you joined yourself to us. And I want to feel more. You are my Knight as well, Dresden. Let me welcome you. Come to me. Come with me. Walk by starlight and let me show you secret delights.

It took me a couple of seconds to remember that I was still standing there in the icy hall, still wearing my clothes, still standing most of an arm’s length away from Maeve. When I spoke, it was through clenched teeth. “Sorry. Already got a date for tonight, Maeve.”

She dropped her head back and laughed. “Bring her,” she said, her eyes both dancing and wild. Her eyes shifted to Sarissa, who took a short breath and went stiff beside me. “She’s gorgeous, and I would love to . . . get to know her better.”

Imagine the possibilities, my Knight. Another multisensory slide show hit my head, and every single image was something that I should have known better than to find intriguing, but that I could not bring myself to entirely ignore—only this time Sarissa was included. I can show you pleasures you have never dreamed could be. Bring your lovely companion. I will give you her and many, many more besides.

Again, my head lit up with lunatic pleasure-maybes, dizzying, electrifying, and I felt as if I were about to start tearing my way out of my clothes.

And, just for a second, I considered it.

I’m not really proud of that fact, but it’s not like I’m beyond temptation, either. I’m just as stupid as the next guy, and for a second, I thought about seeing what was behind door number one. I knew it would be foolish—and fun, yeah, but mostly foolish. I knew that I’d be an idiot to go along, and yet . . .

One day, something is going to kill me. It might be some monster. It might be my own foolishness. It might be what gets most everyone in the end: simple, implacable time (although I wasn’t betting on that one). I’d been closer to the idea of my own death lately, having been dead, or at least mostly dead, for a good while, and I wasn’t any more comfortable with the idea. I didn’t have any more desire to go out in an ugly, painful way than I did before.

And if you’ve gotta go, there are probably worse ways to do it than in a blaze of sybaritic glory.

Damn, Maeve had a great pitch.

Heh.

Everyone selling something to a sucker does.

The entire hall had gone completely silent, except for my own harsh breathing, and I suddenly became aware of the tension in the air. Every being there was waiting, and I suddenly realized that this was the second murder attempt of the evening. Maeve was trying to destroy me.

“You ever make Lloyd that offer?” I asked.

Maeve tilted her head, staring at me, her smile suddenly frozen.

“Cat got your tongue?” I asked in a louder voice. I put scorn into it. “Did you not hear the question?”

The frozen smile became something subarctic. “What did you say to me?”

“I said no, you psychopathic hosebeast,” I answered, spitting out the words with every ounce of contempt I could muster up. “I saw how you treated Lloyd Slate. I saw how you treated the changelings of your court. I know what to expect from you, you arrogant, spoiled, self-involved, petty, cruel little queen-bee twit.”

Maeve’s expression changed, though not in any kind of focused way. She looked . . . startled.

Sarissa gave me a shocked look. Then she glanced around, as if hunting for a foxhole or bomb shelter or perhaps some kind of armored vehicle to throw herself into.

“You sent your last handmaiden to murder my friends on their wedding day, Maeve,” I continued, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the entire hall. “Did you think I’d forgotten that? Or was it just too small and unimportant a fact for you to keep it from dribbling out of your alleged brain? Do you think I’m too stupid to understand that you set up this ‘surprise’ party in the hopes that you’d startle me into spilling blood at court, Darth Barbie? You tried to murder me just now, Maeve, and you think a little psychic porn is going to make me forget it? I can’t decide if you’re insane or just that stupid.”

Maeve stared at me with her mouth dropping wide open.

“Now hear this,” I said. “You’re cute, doll. You’re gorgeous. You inspire supernatural levels of wood. And so what? You’re damaged goods. So turn around and move your naked little ass away from me—before I do it for you.”

For a long moment, there was dead silence.

And then Maeve’s face twisted up in fury. The seductive beauty of her features vanished, replaced by an animal’s rage. Her eyes blazed, and the temperature in the air dropped suddenly, painfully, enough to cause icy frost crystals to start forming on the ice. The freaking ice iced over.

Maeve glared at me with naked hatred in her too-big eyes and then gave me a small bow of her head and a little smile. “It would appear we yet have a life to celebrate,” she hissed. “Music.”

From somewhere in the room, the symphony began playing again. The silent gang-circle ring of bedtime-story villainy broke up with fluid grace, and seconds later you would have thought you were at any kind of extremely wild, extremely posh costume party.

Maeve’s eyes glittered and she spun once, displaying herself to me with a mocking little flick of her hair, and then vanished into the crowd.

I turned to Sarissa and found her staring at me with wide eyes. “You turned her down.”

“Uh-huh.”

“No one does that. Not here.”

“Whatever,” I said.

“You don’t understand. The insult you’ve just given her is . . . is . . .” Sarissa shook her head and said, with masterful understatement, “You just earned a little payback, in her mind.”

“That was going to happen sooner or later,” I said. “What bugs me is her response.”

“Music?” Sarissa asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “And in a minute there might be dancing. Can’t be good.”

“It could be worse,” she said. She took a deep breath and settled her arm in mine again. “You won the first round.”

“I only survived it.”

“Here, that is winning.”

“So if we win the rest of the night, we’ll be making a good start.” I looked around us and said, “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Somewhere that isn’t the middle of the floor,” I said. “Somewhere I can put my back to a wall. And hopefully somewhere with snacks. I’m starving.”

Chapter Five

I’m never really comfortable at parties. Maybe I’m just not the partying type.

Even when they aren’t full of lunatic elves, hulking monsters, and psychotic faerie queens, parties are kind of tough for me. I think it’s because I’m never sure of what to do with myself.

I mean, there’re drinks, but I don’t like being drunk, and I’m pretty sure I don’t get any more charming when I do get that way. More amusing, tops, and that isn’t always in a good way. There’s music, but I never really learned to dance to anything that involved an electric guitar. There are people to talk to and maybe girls to flirt with, but once you put all the stupid things I do aside, I’m really not all that interesting. I like reading, staying home, going on walks with my dog—it’s like I’m already a retiree. Who wants to hear about that? Especially when I would have to scream it over the music to which no one dances.

So I’m there but not drinking, listening to music but not dancing, and trying to have conversations with near-strangers about anything other than my own stupid life, and they generally seem to have the same goals I do. Leads to a lot of awkward pauses. And then I start wondering why I showed up in the first place.

Hell’s bells, the kind of party with monsters is actually easier for me. I mean, at least I have a pretty good idea of what to do when I’m at one of those.

The food table was set up over by the replica of the trapdoor that used to lead into my subbasement. It was open in the giant model, which meant that there was a gaping hole in the icy floor, and if you slipped at the wrong moment, you’d wind up falling down into Stygian darkness. I wondered whether the drop was to scale.

The table was loaded down with party food of every description, but apart from the sheer variety, it didn’t look like anything but regular old food. I inhaled through my nose and felt absolutely certain about that—this was mortal chow, not the fabled ambrosia of faerie.

“Thank God,” Sarissa said, picking up a pair of plates. “Food. I was afraid they’d have nothing but those flower trifles again.”

“Wait,” I said. “Are we sure this is food?”

“You can’t smell it?” she asked. “I can always tell. Local cuisine is . . . not exactly subtle. Practically the first thing I learned here was how to tell the difference.” She started loading up both plates, mostly with things I probably would have picked anyway. Well. She had basically been my dietitian for nearly three months. She’d know, by now, what I liked and didn’t.

Weird. Would it be like that if I ever had, like . . . a wife or something?

Whoa, where the hell did that thought come from? All the recent, if entirely bent, domesticity? My heart did a weird little rabbitlike maneuver, beating way too fast for a few seconds. Hell’s bells, had I just had a panic attack? At the very notion of calling some woman my wife? Though . . . now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I had ever used that word in connection with myself and somebody else at the same time. Not explicitly, anyway.

I shook my head and filed the thought away to be examined later, when I didn’t have a great big target drawn on my back.

I let Sarissa pick us some food while I kept an eye out for anyone or anything suspicious. After about twenty seconds of that, I decided that it was an impossibility, and dialed it back to watching for anyone who rushed us with a knife, screaming. I kept my defensive spells right on the tip of my mind, so to speak, and ready to erupt into reality at an instant’s notice.

I spotted a good, quiet corner for us to stand in, over by the giant mantel above the giant fireplace. I took the plates from Sarissa, and we started that way.

A form that I recognized emerged from the crowd in our path, and I found myself smiling. The creature that came limping over to me wasn’t much more than five feet tall, and leaned on a heavy, gnarled walking staff. He wore a hooded robe of undyed linen, belted with a length of soft-looking rope. Three folded strips of purple cloth were tucked into the belt—the formal stoles of senior members of the White Council of Wizards, taken after they fell to him in separate duels.

Oh, and he was a goat. Well, a very human-looking goat, anyway. He had the same long face as a goat, and curling ram’s horns on his head. His eyes were golden, his beard long and white, and he looked pleased.

“Eldest Gruff,” I said, smiling.

“Sir Knight,” he replied, his basso a pleasant rumble. We exchanged small bows, which also seemed to please him. “Please do thou accept my best wishes on this day of your birth.”

“Gladly,” I said. “How did they rope you into showing up to this freak show?”

He sighed. “Obligation.”

“Word.” I nodded to Sarissa. “May I introduce Sarissa. She’s been helping me recover from an injury. Sarissa, this is—”

“Lord Gruff,” she said, giving him a courtesy that somehow seemed natural. “How lovely to meet you again, sir.”

“It is pleasant to see thee, child,” Eldest Gruff said. “Thou dost seem to thrive despite the climate.”

“That may be a generous assessment,” Sarissa replied.

“I prefer to think of it as a hopeful one,” the Gruff said. “I see thou hast attached thyself to the new Knight.”

“No,” I said quickly. “No, she hasn’t. There’s been no . . . attaching. She’s been doctoring me.”

Sarissa arched an eyebrow at me, and then said to the Gruff, “It was Mab’s price.”

“Ah,” the Gruff said. “A heavy burden obligation canst be, for Winter and Summer alike.” He glanced aside at me. “Does he know of thine—”

“It hasn’t come up,” Sarissa said.

“Ah,” Eldest Gruff said, raising his hands. He had weird nails. They were hoofy. “I will then follow the course of silence.”

Sarissa inclined her head. “Thank you.”

“Of course.”

Two more figures approached us, both of them over seven feet tall. I’m not used to being the shortest person in any given conversation. Or even the shorter person. I can change lightbulbs without stretching. I can put the star on the Christmas tree without standing on tiptoe. I’m like the Bumble, but with way better teeth, and I didn’t like feeling loomed over.

(Which probably should tell me about the kind of effect I might be having on other people, sort of generally speaking, and especially when I gave attitude to power figures who were shorter than me, but that kind of crystallized moment of enlightenment probably wouldn’t be helpful in winning the evening.)

The first was depressingly familiar. He was dressed in hunter’s leathers, all grey and green and brown. There was a sword with a hilt made from some sort of antler at his side. It was the first time I’d seen him wearing something other than a helmet. He had shaggy, grizzled light brown hair that fell to his shoulders. His features were asymmetrical but, though not handsome, contained a certain roguish charm, and his eyes were an unsettling shade of gold-green. I didn’t know his name, but he was the Erlking, one of the beings of Faerie powerful enough to lead the Wild Hunt, and he was the reigning ruler of the goblins.

(Not like the big ugly dimwit in the Hobbit. Real goblins are like mutant Terminator serial killer psycho ninjas. Think Hannibal Lecter meets Jackie Chan.)

Oh, and I’d insulted him once by trapping him in a magic circle. Faeries large and small hate that action.

“Gruff,” said the Erlking, tilting his head.

Eldest Gruff made a small bow in reply. “Lord Herne.”

“Know you these children?”

“Aye,” said Eldest Gruff. He began making polite introductions.

I studied the man standing beside the Erlking while he did. He was a sharp contrast. The Erlking was huge, but there was something about him that suggested agility and grace. It was like looking at a tiger. Sure, it might be standing there all calm and relaxed at the moment, but you knew that at any second it could surge with speed and terrible purpose and that it wouldn’t give you any warning before it came at you.

This man wasn’t a tiger. He was a bear. His shoulders were so broadly proportioned that he made Herne look positively slender by comparison. His forearms were nearly the size of his biceps, and he had the kind of thick neck that you see only in power lifters and professional thugs. There were scars all over his hands, and more on his face, all of them faded away to ancient white lines, like those you see on some lifelong bikers. He wore a coat of mail of some kind—a creature of Faerie couldn’t abide the touch of iron, so it had to be made from something else.

Over the mail he wore a long, open coat of scarlet, trimmed in white fur. It was held in with a wide black leather belt. He had such a barrel of a chest that even a modest bit of stomach was a considerable mass on his huge frame. His gloves were made of black leather trimmed with more white fur, and they were tucked through the belt, right next to the very plain and functional hilt of an unadorned broadsword. His hair was short, white, and shining clean, and his white beard fell over his chest like the white breaker of a wave. His eyes were clean, winter sky blue.

I lost track of what Eldest Gruff was saying, because my mouth was falling open.

The second man noticed my expression and let out a low, rumbling chuckle. It wasn’t one of those ironic snickers. It was a rolling, full-throated sound of amusement, and it made his stomach shake like . . . dare I say it?

Like a bowl full of jelly.

“And this,” Eldest Gruff said, “is Mab’s new Knight.”

“Uh,” I said. “Sorry. I . . . uh. Hi.” I stuck my hand out. “Harry Dresden.”

His hand engulfed mine as he continued to chortle. His fingers could have crushed my bones. “I know who you are, Dresden,” he rumbled. “Call me Kringle.”

“Wow, seriously? ’Cause . . . wow.”

“Oh, my God, that’s adorable,” Sarissa said, smiling. “You are such a fanboy, Dresden.”

“Yeah, I’ve just . . . I hadn’t really expected this kind of thing.”

Kringle let out another rumbling laugh. It absolutely filled the air around him. “Surely you knew that I made my home among the beings of Faerie. Did you think I would be a vassal of Summer, lad?”

“Honestly?” I asked. “I haven’t ever really stopped to think it through.”

“Few do,” he said. “How does your new line of work suit you?”

“Doesn’t,” I said.

“Then why did you agree to it?”

“Seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”

Kringle smiled at me. “Ah. I didn’t much care for your predecessor.”

“Ditto,” I said. “So do you come to all of these?”

“It’s customary,” Kringle replied. “I get to visit folk I rarely see elsewhere.” He nodded toward the Erlking and Eldest Gruff. “We take a few moments to catch up.”

“And hunt,” the Erlking said, showing sharp-looking teeth when he smiled.

“And hunt,” Kringle said. He eyed Eldest Gruff. “Would you care to accompany us this year?”

Gruff somehow managed to smile. “You always ask.”

“You always say no.”

Eldest Gruff shrugged and said nothing.

“Wait,” I said to Kringle. “You’re going hunting?” I pointed at the Erlking. “With him? You?

Kringle let out another guffaw and, I swear to God, rested his hands on his belly while he did it. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Dude,” I said. “Dude. You’re . . . freaking Santa Claus.”

“Not until after Halloween,” he said. “Enough is enough. I’m drawing a line.”

“Hah,” I said, “but I’m kinda not joking here.”

He grunted, and the smile faded from his features. “Lad, let me tell you something here and now. None of us is what we once were. Everyone has a history. Everyone comes from somewhere. Each moves toward a destination. And in a lifetime as long as mine, the road can run far and take strange windings—something I judge you know something about.”

I frowned. “Meaning?”

He gestured at himself. “This became the tale with which you are familiar only in fairly recent times. There are wizards enough alive today who knew of no such person when they were children awaiting the winter holiday.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “You became something different.”

He gave me a wink of his eye.

“So what were you before?”

Kringle smiled, apparently content to say nothing.

I turned to Sarissa, asking, “You seem to know these guys, mostly. What . . . ?”

She wasn’t there.

I looked around the immediate area, but didn’t see her. I moved my eyes back to Kringle and the Erlking. The two of them looked at me calmly, without expression. I darted a glance to Eldest Gruff, whose long, floppy right ear twitched once.

I glanced to my left, following the motion, and spotted Sarissa being led onto the dance floor underneath the replica of my original Star Wars poster. The poster was the size of a skyscraper mural now, the dance floor beneath it the size of a parking lot. For the most part, the Sidhe were dancing, all fantastic grace and whirling color, with the occasional glitter of jewellike feline eyes sparkling as they turned and swayed.

A young male Sidhe was leading her by the wrist, and from the set of her shoulders she was in pain. You couldn’t have guessed it from her expression. The young Sidhe wore a black leather jacket and a Cincinnati ball cap, but I didn’t get a look at his face.

“A fresh challenge, it would seem,” the Erlking murmured.

“Yeah,” I said. “Gentlemen, if you would excuse me.”

“You know Mab’s law at court, aye?” Kringle asked. “You know the price of breaking it?”

“Yep.”

“What do you mean to do, lad?”

“Seems that what we have here is a failure to communicate,” I said. “Think I’ll go open up a dialogue.”

Chapter Six

Moving onto a dance floor full of Sidhe is like dropping acid.

Partly it’s because they’re just so damned pretty. The Sidhe maidens there were all in Maeve’s league in terms of sheer physical attractiveness, and some of them were just about as barely dressed as she was, only in what must have been the latest trends in the Chicago club scene for the fashionably provocative. And, yeah, the boys were pretty, too, and tarting it up just as much as the girls, but they weren’t nearly as much of a distraction to me.

Partly it’s because of their grace. The Sidhe aren’t human, even though they look like close relatives. When you see an Olympic gymnast or ice skater or a professional dancer performing a routine, you can’t help but be impressed with the sheer, casual grace with which they move, as if their bodies are lighter than air. The clumsiest of the Sidhe operate at about that same level, and the exceptional leave the mortals eating dust behind them. It’s hard to describe because it’s hard for the brain to process—there’s no frame of reference for what I saw, the motion, the balance, the power, the effortless subtlety. It was like suddenly discovering an entirely new sense with an enormous amount of input: I kept seeing things that made my brain scream at me to stop and watch so that it could catalog and process them properly.

And partly it’s because of their magic. The Sidhe use magic the way the rest of us breathe, instinctively and without thinking about it. I’d fought them before, and their power was largely invoked through simple gestures, as if the spells had been hardwired into their motor reflexes. For them, movement was magic, and at no time so much as when they danced.

Their power didn’t come after me, specifically—it was more like I had plunged into it, as if it were a pool of water occupying the same space as the dance floor. It subsumed my mind almost at once, and it was all I could do to grit my teeth and hang on. Ribbons of colored light flared in the air around the dancing Sidhe. Their feet struck the floor and their hands struck upon bodies, their own or otherwise, adding rippling layers of syncopated rhythm to the music. Gasps and cries joined with the beat and the melody, primal and fierce, echoing and challenging one another from all quarters, as if they’d practiced it. They hadn’t. It was just what they were.

Sound and rhythm struck from either side, thrumming against my ears, disorienting me. Light danced and fluttered through the spectrum in subtle, seductive patterns. Bodies twisted and strained in inhuman artistry, their very grace an assault upon my reason. Part of me wanted to just stand there and drink it in, gawking like some ugly, clumsy behemoth among the Sidhe. Plenty of mortals had been lulled into tearful rapture by such dances—and generally speaking, it hadn’t ended real well for them.

I put up every mental defense I could, reaching for that core of cold, clear power that had been within me since the night I’d murdered my predecessor with Medea’s bronze dagger. I hadn’t even realized what was happening to me at the time, since other things had been on my mind, but I now realized that the power had restored my shattered body, and given me strength and speed and endurance at the very limits of human ability—and maybe past them. I felt it only when I sought it out, but apparently my instinctive need to survive had been enough to tap into it back when I’d set out to rescue my daughter from the late Red Court of vampires.

Now it poured into my mind like an ice-cold breeze, and withered away the bedazzlement the Sidhes’ dance had wrought on my thoughts. I started forward through the throng, and for a few feet I tried to skip and slip and duck my way through the moving crowd without hitting anyone. Then I realized that even with whatever I had gained from becoming the Winter Knight, I was still hopelessly dull-witted and slow-footed when compared to the Sidhe.

So I just started walking and left it up to them to get out of the way. It kinda fit my mood better, anyway. They did it, too. None of them were obvious about it, and some of them came within a fraction of an inch of striking me with whirling limbs, but none of them did.

The Sidhe are tall, generally speaking, but I’m NBA tall, and I could see over the crowd. I spotted the red ball cap and a flash of Sarissa’s wide eyes and went after them. I caught up to them near the back wall of the cavernous chamber. The Sidhe who had grabbed Sarissa stood behind her, one of his arms wound around her neck, the other around her waist, holding her back against his chest. Her eyes were wide now. I could see deep red flushing on the skin of her wrist, where bruises were already starting to form in the shape of the Sidhe’s fingers.

I found myself clenching my hands into fists and growling deep in my throat.

Without any evident forethought to it, the dance floor for ten feet all around any of the three of us became clear of moving bodies. The Sidhe had made room for the confrontation. Jewellike eyes glittered and watched intermittently while the dance continued.

“Sir Knight,” said the Sidhe holding Sarissa. He had straight black hair beneath the cap, and cheekbones so high that they needed to wear oxygen tanks. He was smiling, and there was something particularly vulpine in it. His canines were just a little too large, a little too sharp. “What a pleasure it is to speak with you.”

“You aren’t going to think so in a minute,” I said. “Let her go.”

He leaned in closer to her and inhaled through his nose. “Odd,” he said. “I don’t smell you on her. You haven’t claimed her as your own.”

“She’s not yours, either,” I said. “Let her go. Don’t make me say it again.”

“She’s just a mortal,” he said, smiling. “A mortal of no station here in Arctis Tor, at court. This place is not meant for mortals. Her body, her mind, and her life are all forfeit, should we decide to take them.”

“We just decided to let. Her. Go.” I began walking toward him.

Something feverish came into his eyes and I could suddenly see every bone and tendon in his hand, tight against his skin. His nails seemed a little too long, a little too heavy, and a little too sharp to be normal. Sarissa tried to speak, but only made a choking sound and went silent.

“You keep coming,” the Sidhe said, “and I’ll keep squeezing. This game is terribly interesting. I wonder how hard I’ll have to squeeze to crush her windpipe.”

I stopped, because I knew the answer to his question: not very hard. It’s only a little more pressure than you need to crush an empty beer can. It’s sort of scary how easy it is to kill someone once you know how to get it done.

“What about Mab’s law?” I said.

“I’ll not shed a drop of her blood,” he replied smoothly. “When I cut off her air or break her neck, she’ll simply cease—which is a waste, but the law is the law.”

And I got a sudden sinking feeling that the Sidhe in front of me, in his black leather jacket and his red cap, knew how to get it done. “You’re not a Cincinnati fan, are you?”

“Ah!” the Sidhe said, smiling. “You see, Sarissa, he’s worked it out. It took a while, but he got there.”

“You’re a redcap,” I said.

“Not a redcap,” he said, snapping annoyance in his voice. “The Redcap, little Knight.”

The Redcap was one of those figures I had hoped was a story. According to what I knew of legend, he got his name by greeting travelers in a friendly fashion, and then murdering them horribly. Once that was done, he would dye his cap freshly scarlet by dipping it in their cooling blood. Odds seemed reasonable that he was a badass. Legend was about as reliable as every other rumor mill on the planet, but looking at the guy, I got the impression that he would smile and have an erection the whole time he murdered Sarissa. Or me.

He certainly expected me to react with fear and caution. Which just goes to show you that no matter how old something is, centuries don’t necessarily make it all that bright.

“The big bad Redcap,” I drawled. “And when you were picking a red cap for tonight to emblemize your power and skill, you went with Cincinnati over Philly? Or Boston? Seriously?”

The Redcap apparently didn’t know what to make of that. He just stared at me, trying to decide whether he’d been insulted or not.

“Man, you Sidhe are a crowd of poseurs. Did you know that? You try to do and say the things you think will push our buttons—but you just don’t get it, do you? Have you even been to a ball game? I caught one with Gwynn ap Nudd a few years back. Decent guy. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”

“Do you think your allies frighten me, wizard?” the Redcap demanded.

“I think you’re an opportunist,” I said.

“A what?”

“You heard me. You jump people traveling alone, people who don’t have a chance in hell of defending themselves against you. Especially not when you make nice and put them off their guard first.” I gave him a toothy smile. “I’m not off my guard, Red. And I’m not someone who doesn’t have a chance against you.”

“Touch me and I will kill her,” he snarled, giving Sarissa a little jerk by way of demonstration.

I looked at Sarissa and hoped that she could read deeper than the surface. “That’s bad, but there’s not much I can do about it if you decide to kill her now,” I said. “Of course, after you do that . . . I don’t really like your chances, Red. If she dies, you’ll join her.”

“You wouldn’t break Mab’s law,” he sneered.

“You’re right,” I said. “So I figure I’ll just open a Way back to the mortal world, drag you through it, and after that . . . well, I’ve always been partial to fire.”

Evidently that line of possibility had not occurred to the Redcap. “What?”

“I know it’s not thematically in tune with my new job and all, but I find it effective. Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day,” I said. “But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Tao of Pratchett. I live by it. You wanted to face me down in front of everyone, get props for tweaking my nose on my first night here? Well, congratulations, Red. You’re the man.”

The Redcap’s eyes narrowed, gleaming bright, and his foxlike smile widened. “You think I’m afraid of you.”

“The last time somebody swiped my date to a party, it got a little messy,” I said in a very mild voice. “Ask the Red Court about it. Oh, wait.”

The Redcap actually laughed at that, and it was hurtful. Literally. My ears rang painfully at the sharpness of the sound. “It is nothing to me how many cockroaches or vampires you have ended, mortal. I am Sidhe.”

“Whatever,” I said. “Killed some of them, too.”

“Yes,” the Redcap said, and there was an ugly, hungry heat in his tone. “The Lady of Summer. I was in that battle, mortal. I saw her blood flow.”

I nodded and said, “And what makes you think I won’t do it again?”

The Redcap jerked his chin a little to one side and said, “They do.”

I froze.

Dammit, Harry, I chided myself. You’re dealing with faeries. There is always a scam with faeries. There is always a sucker punch on the way. I’d gotten too forward-focused. The Redcap hadn’t been a challenger.

He was the bait.

As if on cue, the wild dancing turned to stillness. The music died. All motion in the chamber, as far as I could tell, ceased entirely, and suddenly I stood in a small glade within a forest of lean, wickedly beautiful figures and weirdly sparkling eyes.

Two beings emerged from that forest, shambling out from the crowd of Sidhe, one on either side of me, maybe fifteen feet away.

The first, on my right, was a huge figure, shuffling forward with its form doubled over beneath a tattered grey cloak that could have covered a small truck. Its legs took strides that were two or three times as long as mine, and when it came to a halt, its long arms spread out to either side of it and rested on the floor. Beneath its hood, I could make out a flat, broad head, as stark as a skull and colored red and glistening. Its arms ended in hands with only three fingers, but they were proportionally too thick and a couple of feet long. They, too, were red and glistening, as if something had been built on a bone framework with flesh and muscle added on over it, but then whoever had made it had forgotten to put the skin on. It dripped little patters of ichor onto the floor and stared at me with very wide, very white eyes that contained only tiny pinpoints of black.

I recognized the thing. It was a rawhead, a creature that assembled itself out of the discarded bones and flesh of slaughtered hogs and cattle. Then they started eating whatever they could catch, usually starting with pets, then working their way up to schoolchildren, and finally hunting down adults. If you caught them early, you should shut them down hard—but no one had caught this one.

As I watched, it rose, slowly, up to its full height of well over ten feet. Its jaws had come from more than a couple of different creatures, and they spread open in a slow, wide gape, into a mouth as wide as a waterslide tunnel. More liquid pattered down out of the rawhead’s jaws onto the floor, and its breath rasped in and out in a slow, enormous wheeze.

On the left, the second figure drew back its hood. It was maybe only eight feet tall, and mostly human-looking, except for the thick coat of yellow-white fur that covered it. It was layered in so much muscle that it could be seen even through its pelt, and its eyes were burning, bloodshot orbs shining out from beneath a cavernous brow ridge. It was the Winter Court’s version of an ogre, it was a great deal stronger than it looked, and if it wanted to, it could pick me up and drive my head into one of the icy walls, then hammer my spine in like a piton.

“I’ve been waiting to see that expression on his face all night,” the Redcap said to Sarissa. “Isn’t it priceless? What’s going to happen next? I’m so interested.”

Taking on a little friendly training and a grumpy malk was one thing, but going up against three of the nastier creatures in Faerie all at once was probably a losing proposition. Maybe I could survive it, if I was fast and good and a little bit lucky.

But Sarissa wouldn’t.

I had only one real chance: instant and overwhelming aggression. If I could knock one of these bozos out of the fight before it even started, that changed the odds from impossible to merely daunting. It meant that there might be a chance of saving the girl.

Of course, it also meant that I would break Mab’s law. I’d bragged about opening a Way, and if push came to shove, I probably could—but not before the rawhead and the ogre closed in on me.

Just then there was a sound: a shriek, a blast of cruel trumpets that sounded as if whoever blew them was being beaten with a salted lash. It took me a second to realize that no instruments were playing. Instead, high up on the constructed replica of my favorite chair, at my left shoulder, crystals were thrusting themselves up out of the ice, and screaming as the ice changed form. They rose into a half dome of spikes and frozen blades, and shuddered as the center of the new outgrowth shifted again. Wisps of arctic blue and green and purple buzzed and whirled within those sharp spikes, sending out a wild coruscation of colored light. The aurora was mesmerizing and blinding at the same time, and little disco balls hoped that they could grow up to be half as brilliant one day.

Mab stepped out of the solid ice as if passing through a gauzy curtain. She was in formal wear, a robe of opalescent white, belted with joined crystals of ice. A tall crown of more ice rose from her brow, and her white hair spilled down around her like snow atop a mountain. She was distant and cold, as pure and lovely and merciless as moonlit snow.

She stood for a moment, staring out at the cavern. Then she sat, the motion slow and regal, and the ice within the spiked dome reshaped itself into a seat beneath her. She settled onto it, and the ice screamed again, shrieking out a second tortured fanfare.

Every head in the cavern turned to her. The Sidhe all around me knelt at once, including the Redcap and his buddies. All over the chamber, other beings of the Winter Court did the same, and suddenly only a very few people were standing upright. I was one of them. So were the Erlking, Kringle, and Eldest Gruff, though each of them stood with his head bowed in acknowledgment of Winter’s ruler. I took my cue from them, but kept my eyes open.

I spotted Maeve standing only forty or fifty feet away, on an icy deck that had been formed to look like a paperback that had fallen from one of my bookshelves. Maeve was in a perfect position to see the conflict between the Redcap crew and me, and she hadn’t bowed either. She was sipping something ice blue from a champagne flute, and ignoring her mother’s presence entirely—but I could feel her malice, burning toward me even though she wasn’t looking directly at me.

Mab studied me and my playmates for a solid minute, saying nothing, and in that silence you could hear the fluid dripping from the rawhead’s various bits onto the icy floor.

Maeve turned to her mother and sipped at her blue champagne. She said nothing, and her features were entirely smooth and relaxed, but you could just smell the way she was smirking on the inside.

And only then did I really get it. Maeve’s first attempt to get me to start a fight at court had been a distraction, then. She’d wanted me to focus on her, to unnerve me with her high-voltage psychic sex moves. That way I wouldn’t be thinking clearly enough to avoid it when the Redcap sprang his surprise.

Mab stared down at the Winter Lady for another silent minute. Then she smiled and bowed her head very slightly toward her daughter, the gesture one of acknowledgment.

“Well played,” Mab murmured. She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The ice rang with it.

Her eyes shifted to me, and though she was too far away for me to make out any details, I somehow knew exactly what the expression on her face meant: I had allowed myself to be drawn into this mess. I would have to be the one to get me out of it.

I was on my own.

Mab turned her gaze back to the rest of the room. “On this day of celebration of Our newest Knight’s birth, We give you greetings one and all, you lords and ladies of Winter. Welcome again to Our home. We can see that the celebrations are already well under way.” She settled back on her throne and placed one finger against her lips, as though she were fascinated with the scene before her. “We pray you, do not let Our entrance further disrupt them.” She lifted a languid hand. “It is Our desire that you continue the festivities.”

Oh, fun.

I turned back to face the Redcap, keeping his wingmen in my peripheral vision, and tried to think of something, anything, that would get both me and Sarissa out of this mess.

The rawhead gathered itself into a crouch again, clearly ready to pounce. Its mismatched set of claws and talons gouged at the floor in anticipation. The ogre flexed its hands open and closed once. It sounded like a popcorn popper. The Redcap already had his feet underneath him again, dragging Sarissa effortlessly up with him.

And I was wearing a tux.

Hell’s bells.

Clearly, if I wanted us to survive the evening I had to step up my game.

Mab’s voice came out as a throaty purr. “Music. Let Us see a dance.”

Chapter Seven

The odds here were long. Way long. All three deadly faeries stood ready to move, and no matter which of them I took on first, Sarissa’s outlook wasn’t good. The music began, low and quiet, with a slowly, slowly rising presence.

I needed some kind of edge, a game changer.

In fact . . .

A game changer was exactly what I needed.

Faeries are always underhanded and tricksy, true, and I’d overlooked that a few moments before. But there’s something else about faeries that runs absolutely bone deep: They love to play games.

“Why don’t we make this interesting?” I said out loud. “I trust you wouldn’t object to making a bit of a game of our dispute?”

Oh, the room got intense then, as maybe a thousand throats all inhaled at the same time. I could practically feel the air grow closer as all of those beings leaned very slightly toward me, their suddenly sharpened interest filling the cavern. The tempo of the music changed with it as well, now all suspended strings and muted percussion.

I felt a surge of emotion run through me, one that I knew was not my own—it was too pure, too primal, and it made my body do that thrumming thing again: Mab’s approval was fierce.

“But, wizard,” said the Redcap. “We’re already playing a game. One cannot change the rules simply because one is losing.”

“But one can change the stakes,” I replied. “What if you could get more out of it?”

The Redcap narrowed his eyes. “What more could you have to lose than your life?”

I gave him what I hoped was a patronizing smile, and then said, “Wait. Why am I talking to the tool instead of the person holding it?” I turned my back on the Redcap, gulped, and faced Maeve. “I’m offering you a prize, Winter Lady. Are you willing to hear me out?”

Maeve’s eyes sparkled more brightly than the jewels on her . . . midriff. She came to the edge of the platform and stood watching me.

“If he wins,” I said, jerking my head back at the Redcap, “I’ll go with you. Willingly.”

Maeve tilted her head. “And if you win?”

“Sarissa goes free. You leave peacefully.”

Maeve thrust out her lower lip. “Peacefully. That’s hardly ever any fun.” She lifted a hand and idly toyed with her hair. “As I see it, I already have a prize, mortal. I get to see Mother watch the steam rise from at least one fresh corpse, here in her own court.”

“You’re absolutely right, Maeve,” I said. “And you’ve got me in a pickle, and it was cleverly done.” I winked at her. “But what fun is the game you’ve already won? Why settle for so ephemeral a prize, however worthy, when you could take Mab’s Knight from her in front of all of Winter?”

That one sank home. I could feel the sudden surge of ambitious lust that went racing through the Winter Lady, and the seething hatred that went along with a swift glance toward distant Mab on her throne.

Maeve’s mouth curled up in an expression that bore as much resemblance to a smile as a shark does to a dolphin. She snapped her fingers, the sound almost as loud as a small-caliber gunshot, and two Sidhe hurried to her side escorting a dazed-looking athletic young man. Maeve didn’t wait for him. She simply sat. The Sidhe shoved the young man to his hands and knees, and Maeve’s slight weight settled across his broad back.

“I’ll give you this much, Mother,” she said, without looking toward Mab. “You do pick the most interesting mortals to serve you.”

Mab’s smirk said more than any words could have. Otherwise, she neither moved nor spoke.

“My lady . . .” began the Redcap, behind me.

“Hush,” Maeve said absently. “I want to see what happens. What did you have in mind, wizard?”

In answer, I reached up and with a couple of quick tugs undid my tux’s tie. It wasn’t one of those preassembled ties. It was made out of a single band of pure silk, sized perfectly to wrap around my throat, with a couple of wider bits left over for handholds. I held it up, making a bit of drama out of it as I turned in a circle, and said, “Out of respect for our host and her law, there shall be no bloodshed.”

Then I tossed the tie to the icy floor halfway between myself and the Redcap.

I looked up at Maeve and gave my chin an arrogant little lift. “’Sup, Princess. You game?”

Maeve lifted one hand and idly began tracing a fingertip over her lips, her eyes bright. She looked at Red and nodded.

“Okay, chucklehead,” I said, turning to face him. “How about you let the yeti there hold the girl while you and I dance?” I gave him a broad grin. “Unless you’re afraid of little old cockroach-swatting me.”

Red’s upper lip twitched. If he hadn’t been one of the Sidhe, and at a party, and in front of all of his dearest frenemies, he would have snarled at me.

He beckoned the ogre with one hand, and the thing lumbered over to him. He thrust Sarissa into its huge, hairy, meaty arms. The ogre didn’t get the girl around the neck. It simply wrapped its hand over her skull, like some hairy, spidery helmet, and held on. The smoky glass chopsticks in Sarissa’s hair clattered to the ice, and her eyes got even wider.

“If the wizard uses his magic,” the Redcap said, “break her neck.” He eyed the ogre and said, “Without ripping it off.”

“Yuh,” the ogre said. Its beady eyes glared at me.

The Redcap nodded and turned to face me, his eyes narrowed.

Yowch. Nice move on Red’s part. Though I’m not sure he needed to bother. I’d never been able to tag one of the Sidhe with a really solid hit with my magic. Their defenses against that kind of thing were just too damned good. But I’d been counting on using it indirectly to help out in the fight, and the Redcap had just taken that option away from me.

Sarissa gave the Redcap a glare that might have peeled paint from a wall, and then said, her voice rasping, “Harry, you don’t have to do this for me. You can walk away.”

“You kidding?” I said under my breath. “You think I’m going to go to all the trouble of finding a new PT guy? Hang tough.”

She bit her lip and nodded.

I dismissed the girl from my thoughts, as much as I could, and tried to focus. I was still better off than I’d been a few moments ago. Now, instead of a three-versus-one fight that would probably kill me and certainly kill Sarissa, I had a pure one-on-one. If I lost, Sarissa wouldn’t make it, and I would either be Maeve’s chew toy or dead. (I was hoping for dead.) But if I won, Sarissa and I both got to walk away. It wouldn’t keep something like this from happening again, but we’d live through the night, which was by definition victory.

Of course, now I had to win without using magic in a strangling-cord duel against a faerie who was faster than me, and who had centuries of experience in killing mortals. Oh, and I had to win it without drawing blood, or I’d be guilty of breaking Mab’s law—and I knew how she would react to that. Mab wasn’t evil, exactly, but she was Mab. She’d have me torn apart. The only mercy she would show would be by doing it all at once instead of spread over weeks.

Long story short, nobody there was going to help me. At times it sucks to be the lone hero guy.

I had one advantage: I was used to competing out of my weight class. I didn’t have a whole ton of training in unarmed combat, but I did have considerable experience with being in dicey situations against homicide-oriented people and things that were bigger than me, stronger than me, faster than me, and motivated to end my life: I knew how to fight an uphill battle. The Redcap knew how to kill, but by maneuvering me out of using my magic, he’d tipped some of his hand: He was being cautious about me.

Sure, he was a predator, but in nature predators generally go after the weak, the sick, the aged, and the isolated. Solitary predators almost exclusively hunt by attacking from surprise, where they have every advantage in their favor. Hell, even great white sharks do that, and they’re just about the biggest, oldest predators on the planet. I’ve seen a lot of things that hunted people in my time, and I regard them as a professional hazard, part of the job. I know how they operate. Predators don’t like to pick fair fights. It runs counter to their nature and robs them of many of their advantages.

The Redcap had tried to limit what I could do in a bid to scrape together any advantage he could, as any predator does. That told me that he probably wasn’t used to this kind of open confrontation.

He was nervous.

I was nervous, too—but I was on familiar psychological ground and he wasn’t. Maybe I could use that.

I undid the top button of the shirt and shrugged out of the jacket as if nothing at all were about to happen, taking my time. I tossed it at one of the watching Sidhe. He caught it and folded it neatly over one arm, never looking away, while I calmly undid the cuffs of my shirt and rolled up the sleeves. I stowed the cuff links in a pocket.

I stretched and yawned, which might have been taking the pantomime over the top, but what the hell? In for a penny. I smiled at Maeve, inclined my head very slightly to Mab, and turned to face the Redcap.

“Ready,” I said.

“Ready,” the Redcap echoed.

The music abruptly stopped, and in the silence Mab’s voice came from everywhere. “Begin.”

I rushed forward faster than I ever could have done before I’d become Mab’s Knight. It was damned close. The Redcap was quicker off the mark, but I had longer arms. He snatched the nearest end of the silk an instant before I grabbed my end. As my fingers closed, he snapped it back out of my grip, and then dropped his weight straight down, his back leg coming forward into a crescent-shaped sweep about six inches off the icy floor.

I turned my forward stumble into a forward roll. I went over the kick, tucked in tight, and came up to my feet smoothly—but the motion had carried me past him, and I knew that with his speed and grace, he’d already be leaping toward my back.

I spun to him, one hand at the level of my throat to intercept him if he was already close enough to get the tie around it, and lunged back toward him with my right arm raised to the horizontal, hoping to catch him across the neck in a clothesline.

I’d misjudged. He was moving so fast that all I got was motion blur, and he hadn’t swept the silk tie at my neck—he’d aimed for my upraised left hand. The silk snaked around my wrist, and I caught it in my hand just in time for him to slip to one side, dragging my arm in close to his body. He used my forward momentum and my trapped arm to rob me of my balance and spin me in a circle, hauling at my arm with all his strength.

His strength was considerable, and his technique was sound. He suddenly reversed, using my own motion against me, and dislocated my arm from its shoulder socket with a loud pop and a flash of red-hot pain.

“Harry!” Sarissa screamed, grabbing uselessly at the ogre’s wrist. It was as thick as her own leg, and the ogre didn’t even seem to notice her struggling.

The Redcap kept hold of my arm, my wrist pulled up against his sternum and still trapped in the tie. He smiled broadly and walked backward in a small circle, the pain and the leverage forcing me to scramble along the floor in front of him. A gale of lovely, cold laughter went up from the Sidhe like a chorus of frozen chimes.

The Redcap took a miniature, mocking bow to the crowd and spoke to me. “I was worried for a moment, mortal. You’re faster than you look.”

He kicked me in the dislocated shoulder. He wasn’t trying to kick my arm off. He was just doing it for the hell of it. It hurt a lot.

“You should see the look on your face, mortal,” the Redcap said. “This is fun.”

“You know what, Red?” I gasped. “We’re all having fun.”

I took my weight onto my knees and back, and slammed the heel of my right hand into the side of the jackass’s knee.

I don’t know how much stronger Mab’s gift had made me, because I’d never been much of a weight lifter until I’d started therapy. I didn’t know too much about how much weight lifters could, for example, bench-press. So I didn’t have a very good idea how I stacked up against plain old me. Or plain old anybody. Plus the weights for the bench press were marked in metric units, and I kind of fell asleep the day we learned to convert them to pounds.

But I’m pretty sure four hundred kilos isn’t bad.

The Redcap’s knee popped like a balloon from the force of the strike, and bent in toward his other knee. He howled in startled agony and tried to throw himself away, but just as I hadn’t been able to move for a few critical seconds after he’d injured me, his body wasn’t responding properly either, and he fell next to me.

The left side of my body felt like it was on fire, but me and pain are old buddies. His grip on the tie had loosened, and I couldn’t move my left arm enough to get it loose. So before he could recover, I punched him in the neck with my good hand. He gagged and thrashed, and I was able to unwrap the silk from my useless arm. I tried to pull the tie away from him, but he’d already shaken off the hits I’d given him and held on. I jerked on it as hard as I could, but I had only the one arm and was fresh out of leverage. I could feel the tie sliding through my fingers.

So I let go without warning and snapped my hand at a different target as he fell back.

He dropped into a backward roll and came up six feet away. He perched on one hand and a knee, still gripping the tie.

I casually settled his red ball cap onto my head, touched a forefinger to its brim, winked at him, and said, “You have hat hair.”

Again there was a chorus of marrow-curdling laughter from the Sidhe. It wasn’t any more pleasant to have them laughing with me than it had been to have them laughing at me.

The Redcap’s face flushed a furious red, and I could see the blood vessels in his eyes bursting.

Hell’s bells, the twit hadn’t been particularly perturbed when I’d crippled his leg. But touch his hat and embarrass him in front of his peers and the dude flipped out. Nobody has their priorities straight anymore.

I made it to my feet before he simply leapt at me. He hit me before I could get my balance and we both went down. His eyes burning, he ignored the tie and latched onto my throat with both hands.

He was strong. I think I might have been stronger than he was, but I had only the one arm. I slammed it at his forearms—if he kept his grip on me, those nails would almost certainly draw blood. He hissed and jerked his hands away at the last second, and I slammed my knee against his injured leg. I bucked him off me while he screamed. I went after him.

We rolled a couple of times, and I cannot tell you how much it hurt both of us to do it. He had the use of both arms. I was able to use both legs to stabilize myself—but he was a hell of a lot squirmier than me, and in a blur of confusing motion he somehow managed to slither around to my back and get an arm across my throat. I got a few fingers underneath it, and started trying to pry him away. It wasn’t a winning move. I managed to lessen the pressure, but I couldn’t pull him off me, and my head started to pound.

Another group inhalation went up from the Sidhe, and I could feel them leaning closer, their interest almost frenzied, hundreds and hundreds of gemlike eyes sparkling like stars as the light started dimming. Sarissa stared at me with wide eyes, her expression horrified.

But . . . she’d lost one of her shoes.

I watched as she reached out with her toes and managed to pluck one of her fallen glassy chopsticks up off the floor. The freaking yeti holding her didn’t notice. It was staring far too intently at the fight.

Sarissa passed the chopstick up to her hands, gripped it with both of them, and snapped it in the middle.

Shattered pieces of black glass fell away from a slender steel rod. Without looking, she simply lifted her hand and pressed the rod against the underside of the yeti’s wrist.

Faeries, be they Sidhe or any other kind, cannot abide the touch of iron. To them, it’s worse than molten plutonium. It burns them like fire, scars them, poisons them. There’s a lot of folklore about cold iron, and it’s a widely held belief that it refers only to cold-forged iron, but that’s a bunch of hooey. When the old stories refer to cold iron, they’re being poetic, like when they say “hot lead.” If you want to hurt one of the fae, you just need iron, including any alloy containing it, to hurt them.

And man, does it ever hurt them.

The ogre’s wrist burst into a sudden coruscation of yellow-white flame, as bright as that of an arc welder. The ogre howled and jerked its arm away from Sarissa’s head as if he’d been a child experimenting with a penny and an electrical outlet.

Sarissa spun on her heel and slashed the little steel rod across the ogre’s thigh.

It howled in primal fury and flinched back, sweeping one long arm at her in pure reflex.

Sarissa caught only a tiny fraction of the blow, but it was enough to send her staggering. She fell only a couple of feet away from me and looked up, her eyes dazed.

Her lower lip had been split wide-open.

A large ruby droplet fell from her lip and hung in the air, shining and perfect, and stayed there for half of forever. Then it finally splashed down onto the icy floor.

There was a shrieking hiss as the blood hit the supernatural ice, a sound somewhere between a hot skillet and a high-pressure industrial accident. The ice beneath the drop of blood shattered, as if the droplet had been unimaginably heavy, and a web of dark cracks shot out for fifty feet in every direction.

The music stopped. The Redcap froze. So did everyone else.

Mab rose out of her chair, and somehow in that instant of action she crossed the distance from her high seat, as though the simple act of standing up were what propelled her to the space nearby. As she came, the pallid finery of her dress darkened to raven black, as if the air had contained a fine mist of ink. Her hair darkened as well to the same color, and her eyes turned entirely black, sclera and all, as did her nails. The skin seemed to cling harder to her bones, making her beautiful features gaunt and terrible.

The Redcap flinched away from me and dragged himself back with his arms, getting clear. Give credit where it’s due: He might have been a sadistic, bloodthirsty monster, but he wasn’t a stupid one.

The furious, burned ogre wasn’t bright enough to realize what was happening. Still smoldering, still enraged, it came stomping toward Sarissa.

“Knight,” Mab said, the word a whipcrack.

Maeve came to the edge of the platform and clutched her hands into fists, her mouth twisted into a snarl.

I didn’t get up off the ground. There wasn’t time. Instead, I focused my will upon the advancing ogre and funneled my anger and my pain into the spell, along with the frozen core of power within me. I unleashed the energy as I thundered, “Ventas servitas!”

The ogre was only a couple of yards from Sarissa when the gale of arctic wind I’d called up slammed into the thing and lifted its massive bulk completely off the ground. It tossed the ogre a good ten feet away. It landed in a tumble, dug its claws into the ice, and fought its way back to its feet.

I rose from the ground, acutely conscious of Mab’s black presence just over my left shoulder, of the watching eyes of the Winter Court.

I’d told Sarissa this was my first day in prison, and the yard was full of things that could and would kill me if they got the chance. It was time for an object lesson.

I reached down into the cold inside of me. It was painful to touch that power, like throwing yourself into icy water, like emerging from warm covers into the shuddering cold of an unheated apartment on a winter morning. I didn’t like it, but I knew how to get it.

All I had to do was think about everyone I’d let down. Everyone I’d left behind back in Chicago. My brother, Thomas. My apprentice, Molly. My friends. My daughter. Karrin. I thought about them and it felt like something in my chest was starting to tear in half.

The Winter inside me was torment and agony—but at least when I was immersed in it, I couldn’t feel.

I lifted my right arm, the side that projects energy, focused my will, and shouted, “Infriga!”

There was a flash of light, an arctic howl, a scream of air suddenly condensed into liquid, and an explosion of frost and fog centered upon the ogre. The air became a solid fog bank, a rolling mist, and for several seconds there was silence. I waited for the mist to disperse, and after several long seconds it began to clear away, swept along by the remnants of the gale I had called first.

When it cleared, the entire Winter Court could see the ogre, standing crouched just as it had been when I threw the spell at it.

I waited for a moment more, letting everyone see the ogre standing absolutely still in defiance of Mab’s law.

Then I drew forth my will again, extended my hand, and snarled, “Forzare!” A lance of invisible power lashed out at the ogre—and when it struck, the frozen monster shattered into thousands of icy chunks, the largest of which was about the size of my fist.

The bits of the former ogre exploded over several hundred square yards of the dance floor, and grisly frozen shrapnel pelted the watching Sidhe and sent them reeling back with shouts of alarm. The Sidhe gathered themselves again, and every one of those bright eyes locked onto me, their expressions alien, unreadable.

From one of the back corners, I heard a deep, heartily amused chuckle rolling through the air. Kringle, I thought.

I turned to Mab and almost spoke—but then I remembered her other law and closed my mouth.

Mab’s mouth twitched in an approving microsmile, and she nodded her head at me.

“If you consent, I would speak to them.”

She stared at me with those black carrion-bird eyes and nodded.

First, I helped Sarissa to her feet, passing her a clean white handkerchief, which she immediately pressed to her mouth. I gave her what I hoped was a reassuring smile. Then I took a deep breath and turned to address the room, turning in a slow circle as I spoke to be sure I included everyone. My voice echoed throughout the whole chamber as clearly as if I’d been using a PA system.

“All right, you primitive screwheads. Listen up. I’m Harry Dresden. I’m the new Winter Knight. I’m instituting a rule: When you’re within sight of me, mortals are off-limits.” I paused for a moment to let that sink in. Then I continued. “I can’t give you orders. I can’t control what you do in your own domains. I’m not going to be able to change you. I’m not even going to try. But if I see you abusing a mortal, you’ll join Chunky here. Zero warnings. Zero excuses. Subzero tolerance.” I paused again and then asked, “Any questions?”

One of the Sidhe smirked and stepped forward, his leather pants creaking. He opened his mouth, his expression condescending. “Mortal, do you actually think that you can—”

“Infriga!” I snarled, unleashing Winter again, and without waiting for the cloud to clear, hurled the second strike, shouting, “Forzare!”

This time I aimed much of the force up. Grisly bits of frozen Sidhe noble came pattering and clattering down to the ice of the dance floor.

When the mist cleared, the Sidhe looked . . . stunned. Even Maeve.

“I’m glad you asked me that,” I said to the space where the Sidhe lord had been standing. “I hope my answer clarified any misunderstandings.” I looked left and right, seeking out eyes, but didn’t find any willing to meet mine. “Are there any other questions?”

There was a vast and empty silence, broken only by Kringle’s continued rumbles of amusement.

“Daughter,” Mab said calmly. “Your lackey shamed me as the host of this gathering. I hold you accountable. You will return to Arctis Minora at once, there to await my pleasure.”

Maeve stared at Mab, her eyes cold. Then she spun in a glitter of gems and began striding away. Several dozen of the Sidhe, including the Redcap and the rawhead, followed her.

Mab turned to Sarissa and said in a much calmer voice, “Honestly. Iron?”

“I apologize, my Queen,” Sarissa said. “I’ll dispose of it safely.”

“See that you do,” Mab said. “Now. I would have a dance. Sir Knight?”

I blinked, but didn’t hesitate for more than an instant or three. “Um. My arm seems to be an obstacle.”

Mab smiled and laid a hand upon my shoulder. My arm popped back into its socket with a silver shock of sensation, and the pain dwindled to almost nothing. I rolled my shoulder, testing it. If it wasn’t exactly comfortable, it seemed to work well enough.

I turned to Mab, bowed, and stepped closer to her as the music rose again. It was a waltz. While the stunned Sidhe looked on, I waltzed with Mab to a full orchestral version of Shinedown’s “45,” and the smaller bits of our enemies crunched beneath our feet. Oddly enough, no one joined us.

Dancing with Mab was like dancing with a shadow. She moved so gracefully, so lightly that had my eyes been closed, I might not have been able to tell that she was there at all. I felt lumbering and clumsy beside her, but managed not to trip over my own feet.

“That was well-done, wizard,” Mab murmured. “No one has lifted a hand to them that way since the days of Tam Lin.”

“I wanted them to understand the nature of our relationship.”

“It would seem you succeeded,” she said. “The next time they come at you, they will not do it so openly.”

“I’ll handle it.”

“I expect nothing less,” Mab said. “In the future, try to avoid being at such a stark disadvantage. Sarissa may not be there to rescue you a second time.”

I grunted. Then I frowned and said, “You wanted this to happen tonight. It wasn’t just about me staring down your nobles. You’re setting something into motion.”

Her lips quirked slightly at one corner in approval. “I chose well. You are ready, my Knight. It is time for me to give you my first command.”

I swallowed and tried not to look nervous. “Oh?”

The song came to a close with Mab standing very close to me, lifting her head slightly to whisper into my ear. The Sidhe applauded politely and without enthusiasm, but the sound was enough to muffle what she whispered into my ear.

“Wizard,” she said, her breathy voice trembling. Every syllable bubbled with venom, with hate. “Kill my daughter. Kill Maeve.”

Chapter Eight

Dancing with Mab was like rapidly downing shots of well-aged whiskey. Being that close to her, to her beauty, to her bottomless eyes, hit me pretty hard. The scent of her, cool and clean and intoxicating, lingered in my nose, a disorienting pleasure. I’d thrown around a lot of energy to pull off the pair of chunk-making combos, and between that and Mab’s proximity, I was having a little trouble walking a straight line after the dance.

It wasn’t like I had feelings for her. I didn’t feel the kind of low pulse of physical attraction that I would around a pretty woman. I didn’t particularly like her. I sure as hell didn’t feel any love for her. It was simply impossible to be that close to her, to that kind of deadly power and beauty, to that kind of immortal hunger and desire, without it rattling the bars of my cage. Mab wasn’t human, and wasn’t meant for human company. I had no doubt whatsoever in my mind that long-term exposure to her would have serious, unpleasant side effects.

And never mind what she had just asked me to do.

The consequences of that kind of action would be . . . really, really huge. And only an idiot would willingly involve himself in direct action on a scale that significant—which really didn’t say anything good about me, given how often I’d been the guy wearing the idiot’s shoes.

After our dance, Mab returned to her high seat and surveyed the chamber through barely open eyes, a distant figure, now garbed in pure white and untouchable again. As my head came out of the cold, numb clarity of wielding Winter, the aches and pains the Redcap had given me began to resurface in a big way. Fatigue began piling up, and when I looked around for a place to sit down, I found Cat Sith sitting nearby, his wide eyes patient and opaque.

“Sir Knight,” the malk said. “You do not suffer fools.” There was the faintest hint of approval in his tone. “What is your need?”

“I’ve had enough party,” I said. “Would it inconvenience the Queen for me to depart?”

“If she wished you to stay, you would be at her side,” Cat Sith replied. “And it would seem that you have introduced yourself adequately.”

“Good. If you do not mind,” I said, “please ask Sarissa to join me.”

“I do not mind,” Cat Sith said in a decidedly approving tone. He vanished into the party and appeared a few moments later, leading Sarissa. She walked steadily enough, though she still had my handkerchief pressed to her mouth.

“You want to get out of here?” I asked her.

“It’s a good idea,” she said. “Most of the VIPs left after your dance. Things will . . . devolve from here.”

“Devolve?” I asked.

“I don’t care to stay,” she said, her tone careful. “I would prefer to leave.”

I frowned, and then realized that she was trying to get a read on me. I simultaneously became acutely aware of a number of Sidhe ladies who were . . . I would say “lurking” except that you don’t generally use that word with someone so beautiful. There were half a dozen of them, though, who were staying nearby, and whose eyes were tracking me. I felt disconcertingly reminded of a documentary I’d once seen about lionesses involved in a cooperative hunt. There was something about them that was very similar.

One, a ravishing dark-haired beauty wearing leather pants and strategically applied electrical tape, stared hard at me and, when she saw me looking, licked her lips very, very slowly. She trailed a fingertip over her chin, down across her throat, and down over her sternum and gave me a smile so wicked that its parents should have sent it to military school.

“Oh,” I said, understanding. Despite my fatigue, my throat felt dry and my heart revved up a bit. “Devolving.”

“I’ll go,” Sarissa said. “I don’t expect anything from you simply because we arrived together.”

A Sidhe lady with deep indigo blue hair had sidled up to Miss Electrical Tape, and the two slid their arms around each other, both staring at me. Something inside me—and I’d be lying if I said that none of it was mine—let out a primal snarl and advised me to drag both of them back to my cave by the hair and do whatever I damned well pleased with them. It was an enormously powerful impulse, something that made me begin to shift my balance, to take a step toward them. I arrested the motion and closed my eyes.

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, they look great, but that isn’t a fantasy come true, Harry. That’s a wood chipper in Playboy bunny clothing.” I shook my head and turned deliberately away from temptation before I opened my eyes again. “We’ll both go,” I said to Sarissa. “It’d be a bad idea to stay.” I offered her my arm.

She frowned thoughtfully at me for a moment before she put her hand on my arm. We left, again preceded by Cat Sith. Once we were in the icy hallways, she asked me, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Leave,” she said. “You wanted to stay. And . . . let’s just say that the, ah, appetite of Sidhe ladies has never been overstated. And nothing excites them more than violence and power. There are men who would literally kill to have the opportunity you just passed up.”

“Probably,” I said. “Morons.”

“Then why turn it down?” she asked.

“Because I’m not a goddamned sex doll.”

“That’s a good reason to avoid attention that is forced on you,” she said. “But that isn’t what happened. Why pass up what they were offering?”

We walked for a while before I answered. “I’ve already made one choice that . . . that took everything away from me,” I said. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around, or how much of a life I can make for myself now. But I’m going to live as much of it as I can as my own man. Not somebody’s prison bitch. Not the flavor of the day.”

“Ah,” she said, and frowned faintly.

I blinked several times and suddenly realized what she’d been trying to find out. “Oh. You’re wondering if I turned them down because I was planning to have you instead.”

She gave me an oblique look. “I wouldn’t have phrased it that way.”

I snorted. “I’m not.”

She nodded. “Why not?”

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“Why always matters.”

It was my turn to give Sarissa an appraising look. “Yeah, it does.”

“So, why not?”

“Because you aren’t a goddamned sex doll, either.”

“Even if I were willing?” she asked.

My stomach jumped a little at that. Sarissa was attractive as hell, and I liked her. I’d made her smile and laugh on occasion. And it had been a while.

Man, story of my life. It seems like it’s almost always been a while.

But you have to think about more than what is going to happen in the next hour.

“You’re here because Mab ordered you to be here,” I said. “Anything we did would have an element of coercion to it, no matter how it happened. I’m not into that.”

“You saved my life just now,” Sarissa said. “Some people might think you’d earned my attentions.”

“People think stupid things all the time. The only opinion that matters is yours.” I glanced at her. “Besides, you probably saved me right back. Toting steel into the heart of Winter. Using it right in front of Mab herself? That’s crazy.”

She smiled a little. “It would have been crazy not to tote it,” she said. “I’ve learned a few things in my time here.”

We had reached the doors to my suite, which still felt awkward to say, even in my own head. My suite. Guys like me don’t have suites. We have lairs. Cat Sith had departed discreetly. I hadn’t seen him go.

“How long has it been?” I asked.

“Too long,” she said. She hadn’t taken her hand off of my arm.

“You know,” I said, “we’ve been working together for a while now.”

“We have.”

“But we haven’t ever talked about ourselves. Not really. It’s all been surface stuff.”

“You haven’t talked about you,” she said. “I haven’t talked about me.”

“Maybe we should change that,” I said.

Sarissa looked down. There were points of color in her cheeks. “I . . . Should we?”

“You want to come in?” I asked. “To talk. That’s all.”

She took a moment to choose her words. “If you want me to.”

I tried to think about this from Sarissa’s point of view. She was a beautiful woman who had to be constantly aware of male interest. She was a mortal living in a world of faeries, most of whom were malicious, all of whom were dangerous. Her introduction to the office of the Winter Knight had been Lloyd Slate, who had been one monstrous son of a bitch. She had some kind of relationship with Mab herself, a being who could have her destroyed at any moment she was displeased with Sarissa.

And I was Mab’s hatchet man.

She’d been targeted for death for no better reason than that she happened to be my date at the party. She’d nearly died. Yet she’d taken action to save herself—and me, too—and now here she was standing calmly beside me, not showing the least anxiety. She’d spent months helping me get back on my feet again, always gentle, always helpful, always patient.

She was wary about extending me any trust. She’d been holding herself at a careful distance. I could understand why. Caution was a critical survival trait in Winter, and as far as she was concerned, I was most likely a monster in the process of being born. A monster she’d been given to, no less.

Thinking about it, even if I had saved her life, it wouldn’t have needed saving had she not been with me. I figured that between that and everything else she’d done for me, I was well in her debt.

But I couldn’t help her if I didn’t know more about her.

“For a couple of minutes,” I said. “Please.”

She nodded, and we went inside. I had a little living room outside of my bedroom. I read somewhere that in general, women tend to be more comfortable with someone sitting beside them, rather than across from them. Men tend to be the opposite. Facing each other has undertones of direct physical conflict—in which a generally larger, stronger person would have an advantage. I didn’t know whether it was true or not, but she was already keyed up enough, and I didn’t want to add anything to it. So I seated her at one end of the couch, and then seated myself at the opposite end, out of arm’s reach.

“Okay,” I said. “We haven’t talked, I guess, because I’ve never told you anything about myself. Is that about the shape of it?”

“Trust has to go both ways,” she said.

I huffed out a short laugh. “You’ve been hanging around Mab too much. She’s not big on answering simple yes-or-no questions either.”

Sarissa’s mouth twitched at the corners. “Yes.”

I laughed again. “Okay,” I said. “Well, when in Rome. Maybe we should exchange questions and answers. You can go first.”

She folded her hands, frowning, and then nodded. “I’ve heard a lot of stories about you. That you’ve killed a lot of people. Are they true?”

“I don’t know what you’ve heard,” I said. “But . . . yeah. When bad things came after people in my town, I made it my business to get in the way. And I’ve been a Warden of the White Council for a while now. I fought in the war against the Red Court. I’ve done a lot of fighting. Sometimes people get killed. Why are you in Mab’s debt?”

“I . . . have a form of congenital dementia,” she said. “I watched what it did to my older sister and . . .” She shuddered. “Doctors can’t help me. Mab can. Have you ever killed anyone who wasn’t trying to kill you?”

I looked down at my shoes. “Twice,” I said quietly. “I cut Lloyd Slate’s throat to become the Winter Knight. And—”

A flash of memory. A ruined city full of howling monsters and blood. Flashes of light and roaring detonations of magic tearing asunder stone and air alike. Dust everywhere. Friends fighting, bleeding, desperate. A stone altar covered in a thick coating of dried blood. A terrified little girl, my daughter. Treachery.

A kiss pressed against the forehead of a woman I was about to murder.

God, Susan, forgive me.

I couldn’t see through the blur in my eyes, and my throat felt like the Redcap might be garroting me again, but I forced myself to speak. “And I killed a woman named Susan Rodriguez on a stone altar, because if I hadn’t, a little girl and a lot of good people would have died. She knew it, too.” I swiped a hand at my eyes and coughed to clear my throat. “What were the terms of your bargain with Mab?”

“That as long as I remained myself, and sane, I would attend her and do as she bade me for three months out of every year. Summer vacation, when I was in school. Weekends, now, except for lately. Taking care of you meant that I’d have months and months off to make up for it.” She fidgeted with the bloodied handkerchief. Her split lip had stopped bleeding, and a line of dark, drying blood marred it. “The whole time we worked on your therapy, I think you said something about having a dog and a cat once. But you never spoke about any friends or family. Why not?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure,” I said. And then I realized that I was lying to everyone in the room. “Maybe . . . maybe because it hurts to think about them. Because I miss them. Because . . . because they’re good people. The best. And I’m not sure I can look them in the eye anymore, after what I’ve done. What about you? Do you have any friends?”

“There are people I sometimes do things with,” she said. “I don’t . . . I’m not sure I’d call them friends. I don’t want to make friends. I have the attention of some dangerous beings. If I got close to anyone, I could be putting them in danger. Don’t you ever worry about that?”

“Every day,” I said. “I’ve buried friends who died because they were involved with my work, and my life. But they wanted to be there. They knew the dangers and chose to face them. It isn’t my place to choose for them. Do you think it’s better to be alone?”

“I think it’s better for them,” Sarissa said. “You’re healthy now. Are you going to go home? To your friends and family?”

“Home isn’t there anymore,” I said, and suddenly felt very tired. “They burned my apartment down. My books, my lab. And my friends think I’m dead. How do I just walk back in? ‘Hi, everyone. I’m back, and did you miss me? I’m working for one of the bad guys now, and what good movies came out while I was gone?’” I shook my head. “I’m making fresh enemies. Nasty ones. I’d be pulling them in all over again. I know what they’d say—that it didn’t matter. But I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. Mab seems to trust you. What is it that you do for her, exactly?”

Sarissa smiled faintly. “I’m sort of her humanity Sherpa,” she said. “For all of her power and knowledge, Mab doesn’t always understand people very well. She asks me questions. Sometimes we watch television or go to movies or listen to music. I’ve taken her to rock concerts. We’ve gone ice skating. Shopping. Clubbing. Once we went to Disneyland.”

I blinked. “Wait. Your job is . . . You’re BFFs with Mab?”

Sarissa let out a sudden torrent of giggles, until her eyes started to water a little. “Oh,” she said, still giggling. “Oh, I’ve never thought of it like that, but . . . God, it applies, doesn’t it? We do something every weekend.” She shook her head and took a moment to compose herself. Then she asked me, “Is there anyone special for you? Back home?”

Karrin.

But I didn’t dare use her name. No telling what other ears might be listening.

“Maybe,” I said. “It was . . . sort of starting up when I left. I’m not sure where it would have gone. I’d like to think that . . .” I shrugged. “Well. It was bad timing on an epic level. You?”

“Nothing more than casual,” she said. “If I was close to someone, well . . . it would create a target for Mab’s enemies, which I sometimes think is practically everybody in Faerie. Killing the lover of Mab’s pet mortal would be an insult while remaining oblique enough to not allow her room to respond.” She took a deep breath and looked at her hands. “I saw you speaking to her on the dance floor. I saw your face. Who did she tell you to kill?”

I hesitated. “I . . . I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t say. It’s information that could get you into trouble.”

I looked up in time to see the wariness returning to Sarissa’s features. “Ah,” she said. “Well, I suppose our little exchange is over, then.” She bit her lower lip and asked, quite calmly, “Was it me?”

That one caught me off guard. “Uh, what? No. No, it wasn’t you.”

She didn’t move for several heartbeats. “I . . . see.” Then she looked up, gave me a pleasant and false smile, and said, “Well, it’s late. And you should still try to rest as much as you can.”

“Sarissa, wait,” I began.

She rose, her back straight, her shoulders tense. “I think I’m going to my bed. Um. Unless you’d prefer . . .”

I stood up with her. “Don’t think that I’m against the idea, as a general principle. You’re smart, and I like you, and you’re gorgeous. But no. Not like this.”

She chewed on her lip again and nodded. “Thank you for that. For understanding.”

“Sure,” I said. I offered my arm and walked her back to the door of my lair.

(“Lair” worked so much better in my head than “suite.”)

At the door, she looked up at me. “May I ask you a question?”

“Of course.”

“Are you going to obey Mab?”

My brain started gibbering and running in circles at the very thought of what Mab had asked me to do. But I forced it to sit down and start breathing into a paper bag, and then I thought about it for a second. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Why?” she asked.

I rocked back onto my heels. It felt like that one little word had thumped me between the eyes with a Wiffle ball bat. Sarissa had hit exactly upon what most bothered me about Mab’s command.

Why? Why now instead of six months ago, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? Why today instead of tomorrow? Hell, why should I do it in the first place? The whole reason Winter and Summer had a Knight was because the Queens of Faerie themselves were forbidden from directly killing any mortal, and they needed a hit man to make it happen. But Maeve wasn’t a mortal. As far as Mab was concerned, Little Miss Spanglecrotch was fair game.

Why?

“I’m not sure yet,” I said. “But I’m damned well going to find out.”

Chapter Nine

“Cat Sith,” I called, once Sarissa had left.

From behind me, a voice said, “Yes, Sir Knight?”

I twitched and didn’t whirl around like a frightened teenager. I turned in a very urbane and James Bondian fashion, in keeping with my tux, eyed him, and said, “Hell’s bells. Do you always come in like that?”

“No,” the malk replied. He was sitting on the back of the sofa Sarissa and I had recently vacated. “Generally I do not speak. I simply proceed.”

“Are you aware of my orders?” I asked.

“I am aware that you have been given orders. I am to facilitate your ability to comply with them.”

I nodded. “I need to get back to Chicago. Right now. And I need a car.”

Cat Sith turned and padded down the hallway, toward my bedroom. He stopped in the hall at the door to the linen closet and lashed his tail once, then looked at me. “Very well.”

I frowned at him. Then I went to the closet and opened the door.

Autumn air, humid and smothering compared to that of Arctis Tor, flooded into my lair. Brilliant lights shone on the other side of the door, and it took me a few seconds of blinking against them to adjust, and realize that I was being blinded by simple streetlights. Inside my closet, there was a bit of sidewalk and then Michigan Avenue stretching out to the storefront opposite.

I blinked several times. Sith had opened a Way between Faerie and Chicago.

The spirit world, the Nevernever, is vast almost beyond imagining. Faerie is but one part of it, for the most part occupying the realms of spirit that lie most adjacent to the mortal world. The geography of the spirit world isn’t like that of the real world. Different places in the spirit world will connect with places with a similar energy in the real world. So dark, spooky parts of the Nevernever hook up with dark, spooky places in the mortal world.

And my freaking linen closet in Arctis Tor hooked up to Chicago—specifically to Michigan Avenue, to the Gothic stone building across the street from the Old Historic Water Tower. It was night. Cars went by occasionally, but no one seemed to take notice of the open portal to the heart of Winter. Arctis Tor was isolated in the Nevernever, difficult to reach without inside help. Even traveling by Ways takes at least some time, and I’d expected a hike back to the real world.

“How?” I asked quietly.

“Her Majesty had it made,” Sith said.

I whistled. Intentionally forming a connection from a specific place to a specific place took amounts of energy so enormous that even the White Council of Wizards could rarely manage it—I’d seen it done only once in my lifetime, the year before, in Chichén Itzá. “She had it made? For me?”

“Indeed,” Sith said. “In fact, this is, for the time being, the only way in or out of Faerie.”

I blinked several times. “You mean Winter?”

“Faerie,” Sith stated. “All of it.”

I choked. “Wait. You mean all of Faerie is on lockdown?”

“Indeed,” Sith said. “Until dawn.”

“Why?” I asked.

“One presumes it was done to give you a head start.” With that, Sith walked calmly through the door and onto the sidewalk. “Your car, Sir Knight.”

I stepped through the door into the Chicago air, and it slugged me in the face with a legion of scents and sensations and sounds that were as familiar to me as my own breathing. After the cool, dry silence of Arctis Tor, I felt like I’d leapt into the middle of an active circus. There were too many sounds, scents, too much color, too much motion. Arctis Tor was as still as the deepest night of winter, twenty-four/seven. Chicago is . . . well, Chicago.

I found myself blinking my eyes very rapidly.

Home.

I know. It’s corny. Especially since Chicago is what a polite person would call a colorful place. It’s a den of crime and corruption. And it’s a monument to architecture and enterprise. It’s violent and dangerous, and an epicenter of music and the arts. The good, the bad, the ugly, the sublime, monsters and angels—they’re all here.

The scents and sounds triggered a mental avalanche of memories and I shivered at the intensity of it. I almost didn’t notice the car that pulled up to the curb beside me.

It was an ancient hearse, a Caddy that must have been built sometime in the years immediately following World War II, complete with rounded tail fins. It had been painted dark, dark blue, and given a flame job in shades of electric purple. It wavered and bobbed drunkenly down the avenue, turned a bit too sharply toward the curb, lurched ahead with a roar of the engine, and then skidded to a halt with the brakes locked, missing the posts along the edge of the road, and the chains that hung between them, by maybe an inch.

“Will there be anything else, Sir Knight?” Cat Sith asked.

“Not right now,” I said warily. “Um. Who is driving that thing?”

“I recommend it be you,” Sith said with unmistakable contempt, and then with a swish of his tail, he vanished.

The engine roared once more, and the car lurched but didn’t move from its rest. The lights went on and then off, and then the wipers swept on a few times before the engine dropped to an idle and the brake lights shut off.

I approached the car warily, leaned across the chains, and rapped on the driver’s-side window.

Nothing happened. The windows were tinted a little, enough to make the dark interior invisible on the well-lit street. I couldn’t see anyone inside. I opened the door.

“Three cheers, boys!” piped a tiny cartoon-character voice. “Hip, hip!”

“Hip!” shrilled maybe a dozen more tiny voices.

“Hip, hip!”

“Hip!”

“Hip, hip!”

“Hip!” That was followed by a heartfelt chorus of “Yay!”

Sitting in the driver’s seat of the hearse were a dozen tiny humanoids. Their leader, the largest of them, was maybe eighteen inches tall. He looked like an extremely athletic youth, drawn down to scale. He was dressed in armor made from castoff bits of garbage and refuse. His breastplate had been made from a section of aluminum can, a white one bearing a Coca-Cola logo. The shield on his left arm was made from the same material, this one sporting Coke’s seasonal Christmas polar bears. Part of a plastic toothpaste travel container had been fixed to his belt, and what looked like a serrated butter knife was thrust into it, its handle wrapped in layers of duct tape and string. His hair was violet, a few shades of blue darker than the lavender I remembered, silky, and nearly weightless, drifting around his head like dandelion down. Wings like a dragonfly’s hung from his back like an iridescent cloak.

He was standing atop a formation of smaller sprites stacked up in a miniature human pyramid, and his hands rested on the wheel. Several weary-looking little wee folk were leaning against the gearshift, and several more were on the floor, holding the brake down in a dog pile of tiny bodies. They were all dressed in similar outfits of repurposed garbage.

The leader gave me a sharp salute, beaming. “Major General Toot-toot of the Sir Za Winter Lord Knight’s Guard reporting for duty! It is good to see you, my lord!” His wings buzzed and he fluttered out of the hearse to hover in front of my face, spinning in circles. “Look, look! I got new gear!”

“We’re all Winter and stuff!” piped up one of the smaller members of the guard. He brandished his shield, which was made out of a section of plastic that had come from a solid-stick deodorant container, bearing the words “Winter Clean.”

“Go, Winter!” shouted Toot, thrusting a fist into the air.

“Go, pizza!” echoed the others.

Toot spun around and scowled at them. “No, no, no! We practiced this!”

“GO, PIZZA!” they bellowed, louder and more in unison.

Toot-toot sighed and shook his head. “This is why you’re all kernels and I’m a major general. ’Cause you got corn silk in your ears.”

Toot and company were kind of my minions. I’d gotten along well with the Little Folk over the years, mostly by virtue of bribing them with pizza. A few snitches and stool pigeons had developed into a band of cute little moochers, and then into an army—and at some point after that, Toot had somehow gotten the idea to make them into a real army. And they tried—they honestly did—but it’s tough to form a disciplined military when most of the guys in it have an attention span about twenty seconds long. Discipline is boring.

“Guys, guys,” I said. “Break it up and shove over. I’m in a hurry.”

The wee folk complied at once, all of them scrambling into the passenger seat or over into the rear compartment. I got in as quickly as I could and shut the door behind me.

I buckled in and pulled out into the sparse traffic. The big Caddy moved out with a satisfied rumble and way more power than I was used to in an automobile. My last car had been a vintage VW Bug with an engine about the size of a deck of cards.

“Toot,” I said, “have you grown?”

“Yes,” Toot said, disgusted. “Even though I stand around with weights on my head for, like, twenty whole minutes every day. I even got laundered. Twice! And nothing!”

“I think you look dashing,” I said.

He settled down at the center of the dashboard, his legs hanging off and kicking idly. “Thank you, my lord!”

“So the pizza came on schedule while I was, uh, away?”

“Yes, my lord! The Lady Leanansidhe provided it in your stead!” Toot lowered his voice and talked from between clenched teeth. “If she hadn’t, these knuckleheads would have deserted!”

“Well, we do have a deal,” I said. “That’s what a deal means, right?”

“Right,” Toot said firmly. “We trust you, Harry. You’re barely like a human at all!”

I knew he meant it as a compliment, but something chilly slithered down my back at the statement. My faerie godmother, the Leanansidhe, had covered my obligations at home while I was gone? Man, that could get complicated. Among the Sidhe, favors are hard currency.

But I was glad to see Toot and his gang. They were damned handy, and could be far more dangerous and capable than most, even in the supernatural world, I realized.

“I never doubted you or the guard for a second, Major General.”

Which was true: I had no doubt at all that as long as the pizza kept flowing, I’d have their absolute loyalty.

Toot beamed at the compliment, and his body pulsed with a gentle aura of cool blue light. “How can the guard serve you, my lord?”

They’d started off the evening nearly crashing the car, but it was impressive they’d managed it at all. “I’m on a case,” I said seriously. “I’ll need someone to watch my back.”

“Lean forward a little, my lord,” Toot said instantly, and shouted, “Hey, Kernel Purpleweed! Come watch the Za Winter Lord Knight’s back!”

I fought not to smile. “No, that’s a metaphor,” I said.

Toot frowned and scratched his head. “I don’t know what it’s for.”

Mustn’t laugh. Mustn’t. It would crush his little feelings. “In a minute, I’m going to pull over and go into a building. I want guards to stay inside and around the car, and I want a couple more to go with me and make sure no one sneaks up on me when I’m not looking.”

“Oh!” Toot said. “That’s easy!”

“Good,” I said, as I pulled the car over. “Make it so.”

Toot saluted, leapt into the air, and zipped back to the rear compartment, piping orders as he went.

I set the old Caddy’s parking brake and got out, wasting no time. I didn’t hold the door open any longer than I would have if I’d been alone. The Little Folk do not need that kind of coddling. They’re not always bright, but they’re fast, tough, and resourceful. I’d have had trouble keeping them in the car if I wanted to.

Once I was out and moving, I was to all appearances alone. Whoever Toot had sent to watch my back would be silent and nearly invisible, and I didn’t bother rubbernecking around to try to spot them. One thing about the Little Folk that held as well with every faerie—when they made a deal, they stuck to it. They’d had my back before, and they had it now. Heck, since I was committing a felony, they probably thought it was fun to come along for the ride.

It’s tough to get one of the Little Folk to care about discipline. On the other hand, they really aren’t terribly impressed with danger, either.

I walked about a block to the right apartment building, a brownstone blockhouse that had all the flair and imaginative design of a brick of baking chocolate. It wasn’t an upscale place like where my brother lived, but it wasn’t one of the projects at their worst, either. It didn’t have a doorman, and the security wouldn’t be top-of-the-line, and that was, for now, the important thing.

I got a little bit lucky on the way in—a resident, a man in his twenties who had apparently been out drinking, opened the door on his way home, and I called out, “Hold that, please?”

He did. He probably shouldn’t have, but guys in tuxes, even without a tie, don’t strike anyone as a criminal upon first impression. I nodded to him and thanked him with a smile. He muttered something bleary and turned down a side hallway. I hit the elevators and took one up.

Once I was on the right floor, the rest wasn’t too tough. I walked calmly down the hallway to the proper door and leaned against it.

A ripple of gooseflesh washed up my arm, beginning on the back of my hand, and I jerked my fingers back in pure instinct. Huh. There were wards on the door, magical defenses. I hadn’t expected that. Wards can do all kinds of things to an intruder, from suggesting that he turn around and leave, to giving him a stiff push away, to frying him like a bug zapper.

I took a moment to study the wards. They were a smooth patchwork of enchantment, probably the result of several lesser talents working together. Somebody like me can put up a ward that is like a huge iron wall. This was more like a curtain of tightly interwoven steel rings. For most purposes, both would serve fairly well—but with the right tool, the latter kind of wall is easily dealt with.

“And I’m the tool,” I muttered. Then I thought about it, sighed, and shook my head. “One day,” I told myself, “one brave and magnificent day, I will actually be cool.”

I rested my fingertips lightly on the door and went over the wards in my thoughts. Aha. Had I tried to break in, the wards would have set off an enormous racket and a bunch of smoke, along with a sudden, intense sensation of claustrophobia. Fire alarms would have gone off, and sprinklers, and the authorities would have been summoned.

That was a nominally effective defense all by itself, but the claustrophobia bit was really masterful. The noise would trip off an instinctive adrenaline response, and that combined with the induced panic of the ward would send just about anything scurrying for the exit rather than take chances in what would have been a very noisy and crowded environment. That kind of subtle manipulation always works best amidst a flurry of distractions.

Washington’s been doing it like that for decades.

I cut the wards off from their power source one at a time, trying to keep the damage to a minimum so that it would be easy to fix. I already felt bad enough over what I was about to do. Then, once the wards were off-line, I took a deep breath and leaned against the door with a sudden thrust of my legs and body. I’d been working out. The doorframe splintered and gave way, and I slipped quickly and quietly into Waldo Butters’s apartment.

It was dark inside, and I didn’t know it well enough to navigate without light. I left the door a little bit open so that the light from the hall would leak in. This was the dangerous part. If someone had heard the noise, they’d be calling the cops. I needed to be gone in the next five minutes.

I crossed the living room to the short hallway. Butters’s bedroom was on the right, his computer room on the left. The bedroom door was closed. There was a faint light in the computer room. I entered. There were several computers set up around the walls of the room, which I knew Butters and company used for some kind of group computer game-related thingy they all did together. The computers were all turned off except for one, the biggest one in the corner, which sat facing out into the room. Butters called it the captain’s chair. He sat there and coordinated some kind of game activity. Raids, I think they were called, and they went on into the wee hours. His job required him to work nights, and he claimed it helped him keep circadian rhythm to play video games on his off nights.

That monitor was on, and in the reflection in the glass of the room’s single window, I could see that the screen had been divided into maybe a dozen sections, and every single one of them was playing a different pornographic scenario.

A human skull sat on the table, facing the monitor, and faint orange flickers of light danced in its eyes. Despite its utter inability to form any expression, it somehow gave the impression of a happily glazed look.

I’d been in the room for about two seconds when the computer made an awful sound, coughed out a little puff of smoke, and the monitor screen went black. I winced. My fault. Wizards and technology don’t get along so well, and the more advanced the technology is, the sooner something seems to go wrong—especially with electronics. Butters had been cobbling together a theory to explain why the world worked like that, but I’d drawn the line at covering my head in a tinfoil hat in the name of science.

The skull let out a startled, disappointed sound, and after several disoriented flickers, its eyelights panned around the room and landed on me.

“Harry!” said the skull. It didn’t move its jaws to form the words or anything. They just came out. “Hell’s bells, you’re back from the dead?”

“From the mostly dead,” I replied. “You made it out of Omaha Beach, huh?”

“You kidding?” Bob said. “The minute you were clear, I ran like a bunny and hid!”

“You could have taken that jerk,” I said.

“Why would I want to?” Bob asked. “So when do we set up the new lab? And can I have broadband?” His eyes gleamed with avarice or something near it. “I need broadband, Harry.”

“That’s a computer thing, right?”

“Philistine,” Bob the Skull muttered.

Bob wasn’t a skull, per se. He was a spirit of air, or intellect, or one of any of a great many other terms used to describe such beings. The skull was the vessel that he inhabited, kind of like a djinni’s bottle. Bob had been working as an assistant and adviser to wizards since before crossbows had gone out of style, and he’d forgotten more about the ins and outs of magical theory than I knew. He’d been my assistant and friend since I’d first come to Chicago.

I hadn’t realized, until I actually heard his voice, how much I’d missed the demented little perv.

“When do we get to work?” Bob asked brightly.

“I am working,” I said. “I need to talk to you.”

“I’m all ears,” Bob said. “Except for the ears part.” Bob blinked. “Are you wearing a tux?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Tell me you did not get married.”

“I didn’t get married,” I said. “Except for the whole Mab thing, which is creepy and weird. She spent the last three months trying to kill me once a day.”

“Sounds like her style,” Bob said. “How’d you get out of it?”

“Um,” I said.

“Oh,” Bob said. “Uh . . . oh. Maybe you should go, Harry.”

“Relax,” I said. “I know you’ve had your issues with Mab, but I’m the only one here.”

“Yeah. That’s kinda the part that bothers me.”

I scowled at him. “Oh, come on. How long have you known me?”

“Harry . . . you’re Mab’s hit man.”

“Yeah, but I’m not here to hit you,” I said.

“You could be lying,” Bob said. “Maybe the Sidhe can’t lie, but you can.”

“Hell’s bells, I’m not lying.”

“But how do I know that?”

“Because I haven’t hit you already?” I frowned at him. “Wait a minute. . . . You’re stalling me, aren’t you?”

“Stalling you?” Bob asked brightly. “What do you mean?”

There was no warning. None at all. The door to Butters’s bedroom exploded outward, sending splinters of cheap plywood sailing everywhere. A missile of living muscle hit me in the back at almost the same instant, shoving my chest forward and whiplashing my head back. My spine lit up like a casino, and I felt myself driven hard to the ground.

Something powerful and snarling and terribly strong came down on top of me, and I felt claws and fangs begin to rake at me.

Guess I used up all my evening’s luck on the front door guy.

Chapter Ten

Claws shredded my tux, raking over my back, my buttocks, and the backs of my legs. Jaws would have bitten into my neck if I hadn’t gotten my hands in the way, clamping them over the back of my neck and squeezing them as tight as I could, hoping that a finger wouldn’t come up and be nipped off. Pain came in, hot and high, but the claws didn’t dig as deep as they would have if this had been a malk or a ghoul, and I had to hope the damage wouldn’t be too serious—unless the fight went on long enough for blood loss to weaken me.

Some analytical part of my head was going over those facts in a detached and rational fashion.

The rest of me went freaking berserk with anger.

I got one arm beneath me to brace myself and threw the other elbow back in a heavy strike that slammed into something soft and drew a startled yelp out of my attacker. The teeth vanished for a second and the claws slowed. I rolled, shoving with a broad motion of that same arm, and threw a wolf the size of a Great Dane off of my back. It hit one of the computer tables with a tremendous racket, sending bits of equipment tumbling.

I got my feet underneath me, seized a computer chair by its back, and lifted it. By the time the wolf with dark red fur was getting back onto its feet, the chair was already halfway through its swing, and I was snarling in incoherent fury.

Only at the last second did I recognize my attacker through my rage and divert the arc of the descending chair. It broke into about fifty pieces when it hit the floor just in front of the wolf, plastic and metal tumbling in every direction.

The wolf flinched back from the flying bits, and lifted its eyes toward mine. It froze in what was an expression of perfect shock, and in a pair of seconds the wolf was gone, its form melting rapidly into the shape of a girl, a redhead with generous curves and not a stitch of clothing. She stared at me, gasping in short breaths, her expression pained, before she whispered, “Harry?”

“Andi,” I said, standing straighter and trying to force my body to relax. The word came out in a snarl. Adrenaline still sang along my arms and legs, and more than anything in the whole world, at that moment I wanted to punch someone in the face. Anyone. It didn’t matter who.

And that was not right.

“Andi,” I said, forcing myself to quiet and gentle my voice. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Me?” she breathed. “I . . . I’m not the one who’s dead.”

The night is young, thought the furious part of me, but I fought it down. “Rumors, death, exaggerated,” I said instead. “And I don’t have time to chat about it.”

I turned toward Bob at his desk, and heard Andi open a drawer behind me. The sound an automatic makes when someone racks the slide and pops a round into the chamber is specific and memorable—and gets your attention as effectively as if it were also really, really loud.

“Get your hands away from the skull,” said Andi’s shortened, pained voice, “or I put a bullet in you.”

I paused. My first impulse was to cover the floor of the computer room with frozen chunks of Andi, and what the hell was I thinking? It was the anger that kept on rolling through me in cold waves that was pushing for that, for action, for violence. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I exactly have an allergy to either of those things—but I’d always done a reasonably good job of keeping my temper under control. I hadn’t felt like this in years, not since the first days I’d nearly been killed by the White Council.

I fell back on what I’d learned then. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, reminding myself that the anger was just anger, that it was a sensation, like feeling hot or cold. It didn’t mean anything by itself. It wasn’t a reason to act. That’s what thinking was for.

The old lessons helped, and I separated myself from the fury. I put my hands slowly out to my sides, making sure they were visible. Then I turned to face Andi. She stood with a pistol in a solid Weaver stance, like she’d learned how from someone who knew.

I could deflect bullets if I had to do it, but I couldn’t stop them. And we were in a building full of innocent bystanders. “You know about the skull?” I asked.

“Kind of hard not to,” she said. “Since I live here.”

I blinked several times. “You and . . . Damn. Way to go, Butters.”

Andi stared steadily down the sights of her gun. She was holding herself a little hitched, as if her right side pained her. That elbow I’d thrown must have caught her in the ribs. I winced. I don’t mind a little of the rough-and-tumble when necessary, but I don’t hit my friends, I don’t hit women, and Andi was both.

“Sorry about that,” I said, nodding toward her. “I didn’t know it was you.”

“And I still don’t know if it’s you,” she replied. “Especially with you dead and all. There are plenty of things that might try to look like Harry.”

“Bob,” I said over my shoulder. “Tell her it’s me.”

“Can’t,” Bob said in a dreamy tone. “Boobs.”

Right. Because Andi was naked. I’d seen her that way before, because that was one of the hazards of being a werewolf. I knew several, and they’d been my friends. When they change form, clothes and things don’t go with, so when they change back, they’re stark naked.

I’ll give Bob this much—the little creep had good taste. Changing into a wolf must be a really fantastic exercise regimen, because Andi and naked went really well together. Although at the moment, I was mostly impressed with her great big, slightly heaving gun.

“Bob,” I said more urgently. I put my hand out, trying to get it between the skull and Andi without actually reaching for it.

“Hey!” Bob demanded. “Dammit, Harry! It’s not like I get much of a chance to see ’em!”

Andi’s eyes widened. “Bob . . . is it really him?”

“Yes, but he works for the bad guys now,” Bob said. “It’s probably safest to shoot him.”

“Hey!” I said.

“Nothing personal,” Bob assured me. “What would you advise a client to do if the Winter Knight broke into her place, fought with her, and cracked two of her ribs?”

“Not to shoot,” I said. “The bullet’s going to bounce and there are way too many people in the apartments around us.”

At that, Andi took her finger off the trigger, though she left it extended and pressed against the guard. She exhaled slowly. “That’s . . . more like what I would expect from . . . from you, Harry.” She swallowed. “Is it really you?”

“Whatever’s left of me,” I said.

“We heard about your ghost. I could even sort of . . . sort of smell you, when you were near. I knew. We thought you were dead.”

“Wasn’t really my ghost,” I said. “It was me. I just sort of forgot to bring my body along with me.” I coughed. “Think you could maybe point that somewhere else?”

“My finger’s not on the trigger,” she said. “Don’t be such a baby. I’m thinking.” She watched me for a moment and said, “Okay, let’s assume it’s really you. What are you doing here?”

“I came for the skull,” I said.

“I’m invaluable!” Bob piped.

“Useful.” I scowled at him. “Don’t get cocky.”

“I know you came for the skull,” Andi said. “Why now? In the middle of the night? Why break in? Harry, all you had to do was ask.”

I ground my teeth. “Andi . . . I don’t have a lot of time. So I’m going to give you the short answer. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“When I break in here and take something from Butters, he’s my victim and of no particular consequence. If I come here and ask him for help, he’s my accomplice, and it makes him a target for the people I’m working against.”

She frowned. “What people?”

I sighed. “That’s the kind of thing I’d tell an accomplice, Andi.”

“Um,” she said, “isn’t that kind of what we are?”

“It’s what you were,” I said, with gentle emphasis. “Bob’s right. I’m not exactly on the side of the angels right now. And I’m not taking you and Butters down the drain with me.”

“Say, Harry,” Bob asked, “who are you up against?”

“Not in front of the eye-stander-bey,” I said.

“Just trolling for info like a good lackey,” Bob said. “You understand.”

“Sure,” I said.

Andi frowned. “Bob isn’t . . . Isn’t he supposed to be yours?”

“I’m not the present owner of the skull,” I said. “Whoever has the skull has Bob’s loyalty.”

“Services,” Bob corrected me. “Don’t get cocky. And right now I’m working for Butters. And you, of course, toots.”

“Toots,” Andi said in a flat voice. “Did you really just say that?” Her gaze shifted to me. “Bystander?”

“If you don’t know anything,” I said, “there’s no reason for anyone to torture you to death to find it.”

That made her face turn a little pale.

“These people think the Saw movies were hilarious,” I said. “They’ll hurt you because for them, it feels better than sex. They won’t hesitate. And I’m trying to give you all the cover I can. You and Butters both.” I shook my head and lowered my hands. “I need you to trust me, Andi. I’ll have Bob back here before dawn.”

She frowned. “Why by then?”

“Because I don’t want the people I work for to get hold of him either,” I said. “He’s not the same thing as a human—”

Thank you,” Bob said. “I explain and explain that, but no one listens.”

“—but he’s still kind of a friend.”

Bob made a gagging sound. “Don’t get all sappy on me, Dresden.”

“Andi,” I said, ignoring him. “I don’t have any more time. I’m gonna pick up the skull now. You gonna shoot me or what?”

Andi let out a short, frustrated breath and sagged back against the table. She lowered the gun, grimaced, and slipped one hand across her stomach to press against her ribs on the other side.

I didn’t look at what that motion did to her chest, because that would have been grotesquely inappropriate, regardless of how fascinating the resulting contours may or may not have been.

I picked up the skull, an old, familiar shape and weight in my hand. There was a flitter in the flickering eyelights, and maybe a subtle change of hue in the flames.

“Awright!” Bob crowed. “Back in the saddle!”

“Pipe down,” I said. “I’ve got backup with me. The other team might have surveillance on me that is just as invisible. I’d rather they didn’t listen to every word.”

“Piping down, O mighty one,” Bob replied.

When I turned back to Andi, she looked horrified. “Oh, God, Harry. Your back.”

I grunted, twisted a bit, and got a look at myself in the reflection in the window. My jacket was in tatters and stained with blots of blood. It hurt, but not horribly, maybe as much as a bad sunburn.

“I’m sorry,” Andi said.

“I’ll live,” I said. I walked over to her, leaned down, and kissed the top of her head. “I’m sorry about your ribs. And the computers. I’ll make up the damages to you guys.”

She shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Whatever, you know. Whatever we can do to help.”

I sighed and said, “Yeah, about that. Um. I’m sorry about this, too.”

She frowned and looked up at me. “About what?”

I was going to deck her, clip her on the chin and put her down for a few moments while I left. That would do two things. First, it would prevent her from getting all heroic and following me. Second, if I was currently being observed, it would sell the notion that I had stolen Bob from her. It was a logical, if ruthless move that would give her an extra layer of protection, however thin.

But when I told my hand to move, it wouldn’t.

Winter Knight, Mab’s assassin, whatever. I don’t hit girls.

I sighed. “I’m sorry I can’t deck you right now.”

She lifted both eyebrows. “Oh. You think you’d be protecting me, I take it?”

“As screwed up as it is to think that—yeah, I would be.”

“I’ve been protecting myself just fine for a year, Harry,” Andi said. “Even without you around.”

Ouch. I winced.

Andi looked down. “I didn’t . . . Sorry.”

“No worries,” I said. “Better call the police after I’m gone. Report an intruder. It’s what you’d do if a burglar had broken in.”

She nodded. “Is it all right if I talk to Butters about it?”

This whole thing would have been a lot simpler if I could have kept anyone from getting involved. That had been the point of the burglary. But now . . . Well. Andi knew, and I owed her more than to ask her to keep secrets from Butters, whom I owed even more. “Carefully,” I said. “Behind your threshold. And . . . maybe not anyone else just yet. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said quietly.

“Thanks.” I didn’t know what else to say, so I added another “I’m sorry.”

Then I took the skull and hurried back out into the night.

Chapter Eleven

Once I was in the hearse again, I started driving. I had a silent and nearly invisible squadron of the Za Lord’s Guard flying in a loose formation around the car, except for Toot, who perched on the back of the passenger seat. Bob’s skull sat in the seat proper, its glowing eye sockets turned toward me.

“So, boss,” Bob said brightly, “where we headed?”

“Nowhere yet,” I said. “But I’m operating on the theory that a moving target is harder to hit.”

“That’s a little more paranoid than usual,” Bob said. “I approve. But why?”

I grimaced. “Mab wants me to kill Maeve.”

“What?” Bob squeaked.

Toot fell off the back of the passenger seat in a fit of shock.

“You heard me,” I said. “You okay, Toot?”

“Just . . . checking for assassins, my lord,” Toot said gamely. “All clear back here.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Bob said. “Tell me everything.”

So I did.

“And then she told me to kill Maeve,” I finished, “and I decided to come looking for you.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Bob said. “Let me get this straight. Mab gave you a whole girl, all to yourself, and you didn’t even get to first base?”

I scowled. “Bob, can you focus, please? This isn’t about the girl.”

Bob snorted. “Making this the first time it hasn’t been about the girl, I guess.”

“Maeve, Bob,” I said. “What I need to know is why Mab would want her dead.”

“Maybe she’s trying to flunk you intentionally,” Bob said.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you can’t kill Maeve, Harry.”

“I don’t want to do it,” I said. “I’m not even sure if I’m going to.”

“You’re too busy wrestling with your stupid conscience to listen to me, boss,” Bob said. “You can’t kill her. Not might, not shouldn’t. Can’t.”

I blinked several times. “Uh. Why not?”

“Maeve’s an immortal, Harry. One of the least of the immortals, maybe, but immortal all the same. Chop her up if you want to. Burn her. Scatter her ashes to the winds. But it won’t kill her. She’ll be back. Maybe in months, maybe years, but you can’t just kill her. She’s the Winter Lady.”

I frowned. “Huh? I killed the Summer Lady just fine.”

Bob made a frustrated sound. “Yeah, but that was because you were in the right place to do it.”

“How’s that?”

“Mab and Titania created that place specifically to be a killing ground for immortals, a place where balances of power are supposed to change. They’ve got to have a location like that for the important fights—otherwise nothing really gets decided. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and cannon fodder.”

I’d seen part of that place being created—with my Sight, no less—and it was burned indelibly into my memory. I saw the surging energy the two Queens of Faerie were pouring out, power on a level that defied description. And of course I had, in some sense, been in that place when I murdered Lloyd Slate and took his job as Mab’s triggerman.

Memory. The ancient stone table, stained with blood. Stars wheeling above me, dizzying in their speed and clarity. Writhing, cold mist reaching up over the edges of the table, clutching at my bare skin, while Mab bestrode me, her naked beauty strangling me, raking my thoughts out through my eyes. Power surging through me, into me, from the blood in the swirling grooves of the table, from Mab’s hungry will.

I shuddered and forced the memory away. My hands clenched the wheel.

“So I can’t kill her,” I said quietly.

“No,” Bob said.

I glowered out at the road. “What is the point of telling me to do something she knows is impossible?” I wondered aloud. “You’re sure about this, Bob? There’s no way at all, without the stone table?”

“Not really,” Bob said, his eyes flicking around the car. “And not in most of the Nevernever, either.”

“Hey,” I said. “What’s with the shifty eyes?”

“What shifty eyes?” Bob asked.

“When you said ‘Not really,’ your eyes got all shifty.”

“Uh, no, they didn’t.”

“Bob.”

The skull sighed. “Do I have to tell you?”

“Dude,” I said. “Since when has it been like that between us?”

“Since you started working for her,” Bob said, and somehow managed to shudder.

I tilted my head, thinking as hard as I could. “Wait. This has to do with your feud with Mab?”

“Not a feud,” Bob says. “In a feud, both sides fight. This is more like me screaming and running away before she rips me apart.”

I shook my head. “Man, Bob. I know you can be an annoying git when you want to be one—but what did you do to make Mab mad at you?”

“It isn’t what I do, Harry,” Bob said in a very small voice. “It’s what I know.”

I lifted an eyebrow. It took a lot to make the skull flinch. “And what is that, exactly?”

The lights in the eye sockets dwindled to tiny pinpoints, and his voice came out in a whisper. “I know how to kill an immortal.”

“Like Maeve?” I asked him.

“Maeve,” Bob said. “Mab. Mother Winter. Any of them.”

Holy crap.

Now, that was a piece of information worth killing for.

If the skull knew how to subtract the im from immortal, then he could be a source of danger to beings of power throughout the universe. Hell, he was lucky that gods and demons and supernatural powers everywhere hadn’t formed up in a safari and come gunning for him. And it meant that maybe I wasn’t looking at an impossible mission after all.

“I’d like you to tell me,” I said.

“No way,” Bob said. “No way. The only reason I’ve been around this long is that I’ve kept my mouth shut. If I start shooting it off now, Mab and every other immortal with an interest in this stupid planet are going to smash my skull to powder and leave me out to fry in the sun.” The eyelights bobbed toward the rear compartment. “And there are too many ears around here.”

“Toot,” I said, “get everybody out of the car. I need privacy. Make sure no one gets close enough to eavesdrop.”

“Aw,” Toot complained from the rear compartment. “Not even me?”

“You’re the only one I can trust to keep those other mugs from doing it, Major General. No one overhears. Got it?”

I could practically hear the pride bursting out of his voice: “Got it!” he piped. “Will do, my lord!”

He rolled down a window and buzzed out. I rolled it back up and took a look around the hearse with both normal and supernatural senses, to be sure we were alone. Then I turned back to the skull.

“Bob, it’s just you and me talking here. Think about this. Mab sends me off to kill Maeve, something that would be impossible for me to do on my own—and she knew that you know how to do it. She knew the first thing I would do is come back here as the first step in the job. I think she meant for me to come to you. I think she meant for you to tell me.”

The skull considered that for a moment. “It’s indirect and manipulative, so you’re probably onto something. Let me think.” A long minute went by. Then he spoke very quietly. “If I tell you,” he said, “you’ve got to do something for me.”

“Like what?”

“A new vessel,” he said. “You’ve got to make me a new house. Somewhere I can get to it. Then if they come after this one, I’ve got somewhere else to go.”

“Tall order for me,” I said soberly. “You’ve basically got your own little pocket dimension in there. I’ve never tried anything that complicated before. Not even Little Chicago.”

“Promise me,” Bob said. “Promise me on your power.”

Swearing by one’s power is how a wizard makes a verbal contract. If you break your word, your ability with magic starts to fray, and if you keep doing it, sooner or later it’ll just wither up and die. A broken promise, sworn by my power, could set me back years and years in terms of my ability to use magic. I held up my hand. “I swear, on my power, to construct a new vessel for you if you tell me, Bob, assuming I survive the next few days. Just . . . don’t expect a deluxe place like you have now.”

The flickering eyelights flared up to their normal size again. “Don’t worry, boss,” Bob said with compassion. “I won’t.”

“Wiseass.”

“Right, then!” Bob said. “The only way to kill an immortal is at certain specific places.”

“And you know one? Where?”

“Hah, already you’re making a human assumption. There are more than three dimensions, Harry. Not all places are in space. Some of them are places in time. They’re called conjunctions.”

“I know about conjunctions, Bob,” I said, annoyed. “When the stars and planets align. You can use them to support heavy-duty magic sometimes.”

“That’s one way to measure a conjunction,” said the skull. “But stars and planets are ultimately just measuring stakes used to describe a position in time. And that’s one way to use a conjunction, but they do other things, too.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “And there’s a conjunction when immortals are vulnerable?”

“Give the man a cookie; he’s got the idea. Every year.”

“When is it?”

“On Halloween night, of course.”

I slammed on the brakes and pulled the car to the side of the road. “Say that again?”

“Halloween,” Bob said, his voice turning sober. “It’s when the world of the dead is closest to the mortal world. Everyone—everything—standing in this world is mortal on Halloween.”

I let out a low, slow whistle.

“I doubt there are more than a couple of people alive who know that, Harry,” Bob said. “And the immortals will keep it that way.”

“Why are they so worried?” I asked. “I mean, why not just not show up on Halloween night?”

“Because it’s when they . . .” He made a frustrated noise. “It’s hard to explain, because you don’t have the right conceptual models. You can barely count to four dimensions.”

“I think the math guys can go into the teens. Skip the insults and try.”

“Halloween is when they feed,” Bob said. “Or . . . or refuel. Or run free. It’s all sort of the same thing, and I’m only conveying a small part of it. Halloween night is when the locked stasis of immortality becomes malleable. They take in energy—and it’s when they can add new power to their mantle. Mostly they steal tiny bits of it from other immortals.”

“Those Kemmlerite freaks and their Darkhallow,” I breathed. “That was Halloween night.”

“Exactly!” Bob said. “That ritual was supposed to turn one of them into an immortal. And the same rule applies—that’s the only night of the year it actually can happen. I doubt all of them knew that it had to be that night. But I betcha Cowl did. Guy is seriously scary.”

“Seriously in need of a body cast and a therapist, more like.” I raked at my too-long, too-messy hair with my fingers, thinking. “So on Halloween, they’re here? All of them?”

“Any who are . . . The only word I can come close with is ‘awake.’ Immortals aren’t always moving through the time stream at the same rate as the universe. From where you stand, it looks like they’re dormant. They aren’t. You just can’t perceive the true state of their existence properly.”

“They’re here,” I said slowly. “Feeding and swindling one another for little bits of power.”

“Right.”

“They’re trick-or-treating?”

“Duh,” Bob said. “Where do you think that comes from?”

“Ugh, this whole time? That is creepy beyond belief,” I said.

“I think it was the second or third Merlin of the White Council who engineered the whole Halloween custom. That’s the real reason people started wearing masks on that night, back in the day. It was so that any hungry immortal who came by might—might—think twice before gobbling someone up. After all, they could never be sure the person behind the mask wasn’t another immortal, setting them up.”

“Halloween is tomorrow night,” I said. A bank sign I was passing told me it was a bit after two a.m. “Or tonight, I guess, technically.”

“What a coincidence,” Bob said. “Happy birthday, by the way. I didn’t get you anything.”

Except maybe my life. “’S okay. I’m kinda birthdayed out already.” I rubbed at my jaw. “So . . . if I can get to Maeve on Halloween night, I can kill her.”

“Well,” Bob hedged. “You can try, anyway. It’s technically possible. It doesn’t mean you’re strong enough to do it.”

“How big a window do I have? When does Halloween night end?” I asked.

“At the first natural morning birdsong,” Bob replied promptly. “Songbirds, rooster, whatever. They start to sing, the night ends.”

“Oh, good. A deadline.” I narrowed my eyes, thinking. “Gives me a bit more than twenty-four hours, then,” I muttered. “And all I have to do is find her, when she can be anywhere in the world or the Nevernever, then get her here, then beat her down, all without her escaping or killing me first. Simple.”

“Yep. Almost impossible, but simple. And at least you know the when and the how,” Bob said.

“But I’m no closer to why.”

“Can’t help you there, boss,” the skull said. “I’m a spirit of intellect, and the premise we’re dealing with makes no sense.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s no reason for it,” Bob said, his tone unhappy. “I mean, when Maeve dies, there will just be another Maeve.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

Bob sighed. “You keep thinking of the Faerie Queens as specific individuals, Harry,” Bob said. “But they aren’t individuals. They’re mantles of power, roles, positions. The person in them is basically an interchangeable part.”

“What, like being the Winter Knight is?”

“Exactly like that,” Bob said. “When you killed Slate, the power, the mantle, just transferred over to you. It’s the same for the Queens of Faerie. Maeve wears the mantle of the Winter Lady. Kill her, and you’ll just get a new Winter Lady.”

“Maybe that’s what Mab wants,” I said.

“Doesn’t track,” Bob said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the mantle changes whoever wears it.”

My guts felt suddenly cold.

(I’m not Lloyd Slate.)

(Neither was he. Not at first.)

“Doesn’t matter who it is,” Bob prattled on. “Over time, it changes them. Somewhere down the line, you wouldn’t be able to find much difference between Maeve and her successor. Meet the new Maeve. Same as the old Maeve.”

I swallowed. “So . . . so Lily, who took the Summer Lady’s mantle after I killed Aurora . . .”

“It’s been what? Ten years or so? She’s gone by now, or getting there,” Bob said. “Give it another decade or two, tops, and she might as well be Aurora.”

I was quiet for a moment. Then I asked, “Is that going to happen to me, too?”

Bob hedged. “You’ve . . . probably felt it starting. Um, strong impulses. Intense emotions. That kind of thing. It builds. And it doesn’t stop.” He managed to give the impression of a wince. “Sorry, boss.”

I stared at my knuckles for a moment. “So,” I said, “even if I frag this Maeve, another one steps up. Maybe not for decades, but she does.”

“Immortals don’t really care about decades, boss,” Bob said. “To them, it’s like a few weeks are to you.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “Then maybe it’s about the timing.”

“How so?”

I shrugged. “Hell if I know, but it’s the only thing I can think of. Maybe Mab wants a less Maeve-ish Maeve for the next few years.”

“Why?” Bob asked.

I growled. “I already have one why. I don’t need you adding more.” I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. “Why doesn’t Mab do it herself?”

“Oh, I see. It’s okay if you add more whys. You have complicated rules, Harry.”

I ignored that with the disdain it deserved. “I’m serious. Mab has the power. What’s stopping her from tearing Maeve to shreds?”

“Something?” Bob suggested.

“I can’t believe I got my tux shredded for brilliant analysis like that,” I said.

“Hey!” Bob said. “I just told you something so valuable that it could save your life! Or get you killed!”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “You did. But it isn’t enough. I need more information.”

“You do know a few people around here,” Bob said.

I growled. “My physical therapist, who I’ve known for three whole months, nearly died tonight because she showed up at a party with me—and that was with Mab looking over my shoulder as a referee.”

“How is that any different from the last time you played with faeries?”

“Because now I know them,” I said. It was actually sort of scary looking back at the me from a decade ago. That guy was terrifying in his ignorance. “Aurora and her crew were basically a decent crowd. Misguided, yeah. But to them, we were the bad guys. They were tough, but they weren’t killers. Maeve’s different.”

“How?” Bob asked.

“She doesn’t have limits,” I said.

“And you figure you’re up against her.”

“I know I am,” I said. “And she’s grown powerful enough to challenge Mab in her own court. I also know more about Mab now, and all of it scares the crap out of me.” I snorted, and felt a tremble of winged insects in my midsection. “And apparently Maeve is a threat to her. And I’m supposed to deal with it.”

Bob whistled. “Well. Maybe that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

“Why Mab was so hell-bent on getting you to be the new Knight,” Bob said. “I mean, you’re kind of an avatar of the phrase ‘Things fall apart.’ Mab has a target she wants to be absolutely sure of. You’re like . . . her guided missile. She can’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but she knows there’s going to be a great big boom.”

“I’m a missile, huh?”

“Her big, dumb bunker buster,” he said cheerily. “Of course, you know the thing about missiles, Harry.”

“Yeah,” I said, as I put the Caddy back in gear again. “They’re expendable.”

“Buck up, little camper. At least you had a hot redhead jump your bones tonight. Not the right bone, but you can’t have everything.”

I snorted. “Thanks, Bob.”

“Andi totally got the drop on you. Where was your tiny secret service team?”

“I forgot to invite them past the threshold,” I said. “Besides, I think she’d hit me before anyone could have shouted a lookout anyway.”

“You ever think about replacing them with some real bodyguard goons, Harry? I know a thing that knows a thing.”

“Screw that. Toot and his gang aren’t exactly gangstas, but I trust them. That means more.”

“That means you’re a sucker!” Bob said. “Did The X-Files teach you nothing? Trust no one.”

I grunted. “Cat Sith gave me almost the same advice.”

“Ack,” Bob said. “That guy. He still got the attitude?”

“I feel safe in assuming that he does.”

“I don’t like him, but he’s no dummy,” Bob said. “At least he gives good advice.”

“Mathematically, maybe,” I said. “But trust isn’t one of those things that lends itself well to math.”

“Sure it does,” Bob said. “You trust somebody, they betray you, you get a negative value. You never trust, they can never disappoint you, you break even.”

I laughed. “Or you trust, it’s vindicated, and you’re better off.”

“Shah,” Bob said. “Like that happens.”

“Life’s about more than breaking even,” I said.

Bob snorted. “Which is why the first thing you did, when you got back to town, was call all of your friends and immediately tell them you needed their help, and trust them to help you.”

I scowled out at the road.

“It wasn’t like the first thing you did was abuse one of your friends and inflict property damage on his house and steal a powerful magical counselor whose loyalties are transferrable to whoever happens to be holding an old skull—presumably so that you’d have a lackey who would agree with whatever you said instead of give you a hard time about it. And the only beings you’re allowing to help you are a bunch of tiny faeries who worship the ground you walk on because you buy them pizza.” Bob made a skeptical sound. “I can see how important trust is to you, boss.”

“That’s why I got you, clearly,” I said. “Because I wanted a yes-man and you’re so good for that.”

“Hey, I’m just a mirror, boss. Not my fault you’re ambivalent.”

“I’m not ambivalent.”

“You know better, but you’re being a moron about it anyway,” Bob said. “If that ain’t ambivalence, maybe Mab’s getting to you. Because it’s a little crazy.” He sniffed. “Besides, if you weren’t of two minds about it, I wouldn’t be giving you this kind of crap, now, would I?”

I was going to say something sarcastic, but the red glare of a stoplight suddenly appeared about ten feet in front of the old Caddy’s nose. I stared at the light for a fraction of a second, and then mashed the brakes down. I had an instant to see that it wasn’t a traffic signal, but Toot-toot, his aura glaring brilliant scarlet, frantically waving his arms at me. As the Caddy lumbered forward, I saw him take a couple of steps forward, running up the windshield, and up out of sight above me.

As the heavy old piece of Detroit iron began to slide on the asphalt, I saw an object tumble out of the air in front of me and hit the street, turning over and over. I had another instant to recognize a plain black nylon duffel bag.

And then the world went white and a hammer the size of the Chrysler Building slammed me back against the old Caddy’s seat.

Chapter Twelve

The bomb might have been fifty feet away when it exploded.

Mab’s therapy had paid off. On raw instinct, I’d already begun to form a defensive shield in front of me when everything went boom. I hadn’t had time to build much of a shield, but what little I could do probably kept me conscious.

Explosions are unbelievably loud. If you haven’t been near one, there’s no way to convey the sheer violence of it. It doesn’t really register as a sound, the way a gunshot will. There’s just this single, terrible power in the air, a sudden hammer blow of disorienting pressure, as if you’ve been hit by a truck made of pillow-top mattresses.

Your hearing goes. There’s a familiar, high-pitched tone, only no one is telling you that this is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. There’s dust and smoke everywhere, and you can’t see. Your muscles don’t all work right. You tell them to move and it’s iffy. Maybe they do; maybe they don’t. It’s hard to tell which way is down. Not that you don’t know it rationally, somewhere in your head—but your body just seems to forget its natural awareness of gravity.

Even if something sharp and fast doesn’t go flying through some of your favorite organs, a nearby explosion leaves you half-blind, deaf, and drunkenly impaired.

Vulnerable.

One moment the Caddy was screeching and sliding toward that black duffel bag. The next, I was staring at a cloud of dust and the dim image of a brick wall at the end of the Caddy’s nose. The windshield had been splintered into a webwork of cracks that made it hard to see. My chest hurt like hell.

I picked fitfully at it, my fingers clumsy, and thought to myself that the car Sith had provided must have had armored glass, or there would be windshield mixed in with my intestines. Lights danced and darted in my vision. My eyes wouldn’t focus enough to track them. Smells were incredibly sharp. The air was acrid, thick with smoke, laced with the scents of things it is unhealthy to burn. I smelled gasoline nearby. There were wires hanging down from something in the corner of my vision, outside the car, spitting white sparks.

None of it seemed normal, but I couldn’t quite remember the right word to describe it.

Danger.

Right. That was it. Danger. I was in danger.

A moving target is harder to hit.

I pushed open the passenger door and stumbled out of the car, choking on dust. Another car wreck? Man, Mike was going to charge me a small fortune to fix the Blue Beetle this time. Did I have the money in the bank? I couldn’t remember whether I’d deposited my last stipend check from the Wardens.

No, wait. The car I’d just gotten out of wasn’t the Blue Beetle, my trusty old Volkswagen Bug that had died in the line of duty. It was the creepy Herman Munster hot rod my boss had gotten m—

My brain finished rebooting, and things snapped back into focus; someone had just tried to bomb me back into the Stone Age.

I shook my head, gagging on dust, then dragged the Redcap’s hat down off my head and over my mouth as a dust mask. The Caddy was up on the curb and had hit a building. The building had gotten the worst of it. One of the Caddy’s headlights was out, its front fender crumpled a bit, and the passenger door had been thrown open, but otherwise the car was fine. Maybe ten or twelve square feet of brick wall had fallen out, some of it onto the hood, some of it onto the sidewalk. I looked around. It was hard to see through the dust. There were a lot of busted-up walls. Several small fires. A streetlight had come swinging down from the line that supported it—that was where the sparking cables came from.

Lights still darted and flickered randomly, and I blinked, trying to clear the stars away. But stars in the vision were usually white and silver. These were orange and red, like the embers of a fire.

Then one of those lights pivoted in midair and flashed toward my eyes. I jerked away from it, still clumsy, and a sudden spike of agony burned through my face.

I screamed and staggered to one knee. Something had gone through my cheek and was still there, tacking the damned Cincinnati cap to my face. I reached for it on instinct, but before I could get to it, pain exploded from my back, from the fresh wounds there, from my bruised hands, from my throat where the Redcap had nearly crushed it.

That did put me on the ground. It was too much to process, much less ignore. I reacted on blind animal instinct, swiping at the most intense source of pain with my paw. There was another flash of agony, and suddenly the hat came away from my face. A bloodied nail a good four inches long fell away with the hat, its last two inches bloodied, its other end swathed in duct tape.

The instant it came free, I felt my pain recede again, back to the dull background annoyance it had been a few moments before. My thoughts cleared as the agony retreated.

Someone had shot me? With a freaking nail gun? What the hell was going on here?

No sooner had I thought that than another light flashed toward me, and before I could react, a second round of utterly ridiculous levels of pain slammed through me, starting at my leg. The other pains resurfaced, with the fresh addition of my throbbing face. I screamed and swatted, and tore a second nail, much like the first, from the flesh of my right quadriceps. Again that cold power flooded into me, making pain distant, making thoughts more clear.

The ember-colored lights were coming at me too fast. There was no time to get a defensive spell up, not in my condition, and my body, Winter Knight or not, wasn’t fast enough to dodge or swat them out of the way. Even as I processed those thoughts, a third nail hit me in the left arm, and I had to scream and thrash my way out of another spike of pure agony. I felt utterly helpless, and stunned at my inability to overcome so tiny a foe.

And I suddenly knew how the late Summer Lady, Aurora, had felt at the end.

“Get up, Harry,” I panted, fighting through the disorientation, the polar shifts in pain. “Get up before they nail you.”

Nail you. Get it?

But I always joke when I’m afraid, and I was terrified. Whatever these things were, if they got more than one of those nails into me, I doubted I would be able to hold my thoughts together long enough to get them out again. I had a gruesome vision of myself stretched in lifeless, agonized rigor on the sidewalk, nails sticking out of every square inch of my skin.

I tried to scramble, to evade, but compared to the darting motes of light, I was moving in slow-motion replay. Half a dozen more of the glimmering things came arrowing toward me out of the night, zooming at me in a flying V formation, and I knew things were about to get really bad.

Then someone blew on a coach’s whistle, a sound I heard even through my stunned ears, and a tiny, distant voice piped, “To the Za Lord!”

Half a dozen little cool blue spheres of light flashed toward my attackers, intercepting them only a couple of feet from my body. Six explosions of sparks and glowing motes lit the night, various colors swirling and spinning, as the tiny soldiers of the Za Lord’s Guard closed to battle with my attackers.

Toot soared in from directly overhead, his heels landing hard on my stomach. For somebody the size of a chicken, he was strong, and my breath huffed out as I was knocked back to the ground. He planted his feet wide, a snarl on his tiny face, his shield hefted up to a defensive position, his table-knife sword in hand. “Stay down, my lord! Wait until we clear a path for escape!”

A path? I took a second to look around. I saw one of Toot’s “kernels” go by, flying sideways, wielding a spear made of a straight pin and a pencil against another of the Little Folk, a humanish figure dressed in what looked like actual black armor made of some kind of shaped plastic or maybe carapace, and carrying another of the too-familiar nails. The enemy faerie was wounded, and glowing motes of scarlet and sullen orange light dribbled from a straight pin–inflicted wound on his tiny leg.

Sullen and chill spheres of light darted everywhere, dozens of them, all spinning and diving and looping at once. There was no way to track all of that motion. Even if I’d been completely clearheaded, I would have done well to follow a tenth of it.

Five or six more enemy fae, larger and brighter than the others, dived down at me bearing a nail sword in each hand. They let out shrill, eerie little cries as they came at me—and at Toot-toot.

Okay, I’ve thought a lot of things about Toot-toot over the years. I’ve compared him to a lot of really humorous stuff, and occasionally to people I didn’t admire too much. I’ve made jokes at his expense, though never when I thought it would hurt him. But if you’d asked me for a perfect parallel for the little guy a year ago, I would never, ever, ever have said, “King Leonidas.”

Toot let out a high-pitched roar and leapt into the air. He smashed his shield into the black-armored fae in the center of the enemy formation, spinning as he did, to send the luckless faerie careening into the companion on his left. Toot’s sword lashed out, and a single dragonfly wing went fluttering free of the body it had been attached to. The little fae went spinning out of the air to crash into a pile of fallen bricks and rubble.

Two got through.

Agony.

The next thing I knew, Toot was pulling a nail from the muscle over my abdomen, and fresh hits there and in my left pectoral muscle had added their toll of pain to my evening. Toot, gripping the nail carefully by its duct-tape handle, turned and flung it at a pair of dueling fae, striking the orange-lit enemy with the broad side of the steel nail. There was a flash of white light, and the hit fae let out a shriek that started at the edge of human hearing and went up into dog frequencies, and darted away, the guard in hot pursuit.

“They’re breaking!” Toot bellowed. Well. As much as someone who can fit in a bread box can bellow. “After them, kernels!”

Sullen lights slithered away in panic, while bright balls of blue buzzed after them.

“Permission to pursue those jerks, my lord?” Toot shouted.

I finally had a couple of seconds to get my head together. I shook it violently. It didn’t help, but the simple act of putting together recognition of a problem, consideration of a solution, and taking action to fix it had gotten my mental house in some kind of order.

“It’s a feint,” I said, looking around. “They’re luring the guard away.”

There. High up. Way the hell high up, maybe twenty stories. A blob of ember-colored light suddenly plunged off of a balcony and began to fall toward us. As it came closer, the blob broke apart into dozens of angry little spheres. They began to bob and interweave, picking up more and more speed, the patterns dizzying, confusing. Streaking lights peeled off from the main cloud in every direction.

Toot, once more perched on my stomach, stared up at them, his mouth open. His left arm sagged, his shield dropping down to his side. “Uh-oh.” He gulped. “Um. I’m not sure I can get them all, my lord.”

I sat up, forcing him off my stomach, and gained my feet. “You did good, Toot,” I growled. “Okay, small fry. Wizard time.”

A couple of years back, me and my apprentice, Molly, had been studying air magic as part of her basic grounding in the elemental forces. She hadn’t ever picked up the knack for using blasts of wind as weapons, but she had managed to develop a spell that did a passable imitation of a blow-dryer.

I lifted my right hand, summoned my will, and readied the blow-dryer spell.

Only I turned it to eleven.

“Ventas reductas!” I thundered, unleashing my will, and an arctic gale came howling and shrieking from my outstretched hand. It condensed the damp October air into mist, too, bellowing out from my hand in a cone the size of an apartment building. Frost formed on every surface in the immediate area. It struck the cloud of diving Little Folk and sent them tumbling in every direction. Little orange lights went spinning and wobbling, their complex formation shattered.

I saw them begin to gather to one side, trying to re-form, but I poured on the wind and altered the direction of the blast, scattering them again. Molly’s spell was more efficient than anything I’d come up with when I had her level of experience, but there’s no free lunch. That much wind takes a lot of energy to whip up, and I wasn’t going to be able to hold it forever.

Abruptly, Toot flashed away from me, diving through the air, his wings a blur. He vanished behind the nose of a parked car on the other side of the street, brandishing his sword.

A brawl spilled out from the tail end of the car an instant later. One of the enemy Little Folk went tumbling in a windmill of arms and legs and fetched up against the corpse of the traffic signal. Two went darting away in obvious panic, their flight erratic and swift, dropping their nail swords as they fled.

And then there was a flash of sparks as steel struck steel, and Toot came out from behind the truck, frantically defending himself from another of the Little Folk almost as tall as he was. The foe was dressed in black armor covered in spikes made from the tips of freaking fishhooks, even the helmet, and he fought with what seemed to be an actual sword designed to size, a wavy-bladed thing that I think was called a flamberge.

As I watched, the enemy champion’s blade sheared half an inch of aluminum from the top of Toot’s shield, and he followed up with a series of heavy two-handed blows meant to divide Toot in half.

Toot bobbed and weaved like a reed, but the assault was ferocious, the foe as fast as he was. He got the flat of the shield in front of another blow, stopping it, but on the next strike the flamberge’s wavy blade caught on the edge of the shield and sliced through it again, leaving it little more than a rectangle of aluminum strapped to Toot’s arm. Toot took to the air, but his opponent matched him, and they darted and spun around a light pole, the enemy’s sword meeting Toot’s improvised blade in flashes of silver sparks.

I wanted to intervene, but, like it always does, size mattered. My target was tiny and moving fast. The pair of them were darting around so much that even if I got lucky and hit someone, I probably had as much chance of taking out Toot as I did Captain Hook over there. My evocation magic was more focused and precise than it had ever been, thanks to Mab, but my control still wasn’t up to the task of being that discriminating. And besides—I still had to keep my giant leaf blower going against the rest of Hook’s goons. All I could do was watch.

Hook swung at Toot’s head, but Toot ducked in the nick of time, and the flamberge caught briefly in the metal of the streetlight’s post.

“Aha!” Toot said, and slammed his table knife down onto Hook’s armored hand.

The other fae reeled, obviously in pain, and the flamberge fell to the ground.

“Surrender, villain!” Toot cried. “Face the justice of the Za Lord!”

“Never!” answered another piping voice from within the helmet, and Hook produced a pair of toothpick-slender daggers. He made a scissor shape of them and caught Toot’s next attack in it, flicking the table knife aside and whipping his dagger at Toot’s throat. Toot recoiled, but took a long cut across his chest, the knife shearing through his armor just as the flamberge had done.

My major general screamed in pain, recoiling.

It was the opening I’d needed, and I twisted my leaf blower around to slam into Hook. It caught the little fae as he was starting to move toward Toot-toot, sending him tumbling into the side of a building, while the back blast of wind actually threw Toot clear. He managed to recover in midair, wings blurring, and shot unsteadily toward me. I caught him in my free hand, drawing him in close against my side, and turned partly away from Hook, sheltering Toot.

The cloud of hostile fae was still swirling and wobbling around. They obviously lacked any kind of leadership, and were still disordered by the gale-force winds with which I’d hit them—but I was almost out of energy, and about two seconds after they got their act together, I was a dead man.

“Feets don’t fail me now,” I muttered.

I kept the leaf blower on Hook, who I suspected was their leader, and strode forward, toward the car. I checked it with several quick glances. The gasoline smell wasn’t coming from the Caddy, but from a half-smashed car that had been close to the exploding duffel bag.

I gave the leaf blower one last surge of power and lunged into the Caddy, slamming the door behind me. I dumped Toot down next to Bob as gently as I could.

“What’s happening?” Bob shouted blearily from where he’d landed, sideways, in the well of the passenger seat.

“I’m getting my ass kicked by tiny faeries!” I shouted back, fumbling to start the car. “They’ve got my freaking number!”

There was a loud pop, and a slender miniature steel dagger slammed through the passenger window, transforming it into a broken webwork, as difficult to see through as a stained-glass window.

“Ack!” I said.

Bob started laughing hysterically.

The dagger vanished and then the same thing happened on the driver’s side.

Holy crap, Hook was way too bright for someone the size of a Tickle Me Elmo. He was blinding me.

I got the Caddy into reverse and rumbled back off the sidewalk onto the street, shedding bricks and debris as I went. Just as I bounced down onto the street proper, the front windshield exploded into a web of cracks, too, so I just kept driving backward, turning to look over my shoulder. That went well for a few seconds, and then the rear window broke, too.

I gritted my teeth. Under normal circumstances, the next move would be to roll down the window and stick my head out of it. Tonight, I was pretty sure I’d get a miniature dagger in the eye if I tried.

Sometimes you have to choose between doing something stupid and doing something suicidal. So I kept driving blind and backward through the middle of Chicago while Bob chortled his bony ass off.

“Tiny faeries!” He giggled, rolling a bit as the Caddy weaved and jounced. “Tiny faeries!”

My plan worked for about ten seconds—and then I slammed into a parked car. I was lucky that it wasn’t a large one. I mean, I couldn’t see it, but it bounced off the Caddy like a billiard ball struck by the cue ball. It also knocked the wheel out of my hands, wrenching it from my fingers and sending the Caddy onto another sidewalk. It smashed through a metal railing and then the back tires bounced down into a sunken stairwell.

I struggled to get the Caddy clear, but there was nothing for the tires to grab onto.

End of the line.

I let out a heartfelt curse and slammed a fist against the steering wheel. Then I made myself close my eyes and think. Think, think, don’t react in panic. Keep your head, Dresden.

“Major General,” I said. “You okay?”

“It’s not bad, my lord.” He gasped. “I’ve had worse.”

“We’ve got to move,” I said.

“Run away!” Bob giggled. “Run away! Tiny faeries!”

I growled in frustration and popped the Redcap’s hat down over Bob. “Stop being a jerk. This is serious.”

Bob’s voice was only barely muffled. It sounded like he couldn’t breathe. “Serious! Tiny! Faeries! The m-m-mighty wizard Dresden!”

“You are not as funny as you think you are,” I said severely. “Toot, you got any ideas?”

“Trap them all in a circle?” Toot suggested.

I sighed. Right. I’d just need to get them all to land in the same place at the same time, inside of a magic circle I had no means to create.

Toot’s a great little guy. Just . . . not really adviser material.

Orange light began to bathe the broken windows, highlighting the webwork of cracks in them. A lot of orange light.

“Crap,” I gasped. “I am not going to be known as the wizard who used his death curse thanks to a bunch of bitty nail guns.”

Then there was a very sinister sound.

Toward the rear of the Caddy, someone opened the lid to the fuel tank.

It wasn’t hard to work out what would happen next. Fire.

“Hell, no,” I said. I recovered the ball cap, turned a still-giggling Bob upside down, and then popped Toot into the skull. He sprawled in it, arms and legs sticking out, but he didn’t complain.

“Hey!” Bob protested.

“Serves you right, Giggles,” I snapped. I tucked the skull under my arm like a football.

I knew I didn’t have much of a chance of getting away from that swarm of fae piranha, but it was an infinitely larger chance than I would have if I stayed in the car and burned to death. Hell’s bells, what I wouldn’t give to have my shield bracelet. Or my old staff. I didn’t even have an umbrella.

I wasn’t sure how much more magic I had left in me, but I readied my shield spell, shaping it to surround me as I ran. I wouldn’t be able to hold it in place for long—but maybe if I got very, very lucky, I would survive the swarm long enough to find another option.

I took several sharp and completely not-panicked breaths, then piled out of the Cadillac, bringing my shield up with a shout of “Defendarius!”

The Little Folk started hitting my shield almost instantly. I once rode out a hailstorm in a dome-shaped Quonset hut made of corrugated steel. It sounded like that, only closer and a hell of a lot more lethal.

I went into a sprint. Between the still-present dust, the shroud of mist my leaf-blower spell had billowed forth, and the swarm of hostile fae, I could barely see. I picked a direction and ran. Ten steps. Twenty steps. The enemy continued pounding against the shield, and as I kept pouring my will into it to keep it in place, my body began to feel heavier and heavier.

Thirty steps—and I stepped into a small pothole in the sidewalk, stumbled, and fell.

Falling in a fight is generally bad. You tend not to get up again. I mean, there’s a reason that the phrase “He fell” was synonymous with death for a bunch of centuries.

I fell.

And then I heard the most beautiful sound of my life. Somewhere nearby, a cat let out an angry, hissing scream.

The Little Folk live in mortal dread of Felis domesticus. Cats are observant, curious, and fast enough to catch the little fae. Hell, the domestic cat can stalk, kill, and subsist upon more species than any other land predator in the world. They are peerless hunters and the Little Folk know it.

The effect of the scream was instantaneous. My attackers recoiled on pure reflex, immediately darting about twenty feet into the air—even Hook. I got a chance to look up and saw a large brindle tomcat leap from the top of a trash can onto the sidewalk beside me.

“No!” shouted Hook from inside his helmet. “Slay the beast! Slay them all!”

“What? What did I ever do to you?” Bob protested, indignant. “I’m not even supposed to be here today!”

The fae all looked at Hook and seemed to begin gathering their courage again.

A second cat screamed nearby. And a third. And a fourth. Cats started prowling out of alleys and from beneath parked cars. Cats began pacing along building ledges twenty feet from the ground. Glowing eyes reflected light from the deep shadows between buildings.

Even Hook wasn’t willing to put up with that action, I guess. The little fae champion let out a frustrated scream, then turned and darted up, up, and away, vanishing into the night. The others followed Hook, flowing away in a ribbon of emberlight.

I lay there for a second, exhausted and panting. Then I sat up and looked around.

The cats were gone, vanished as if they’d never been there.

I heard someone walk out of the alley behind me, and my body went tense and tight, despite my weariness. Then a young woman’s voice said, in a passable British accent, “The Little Folk are easily startled, but they’ll soon be back. And in greater numbers.”

I sagged in sudden, exhausted relief. The bad guys hardly ever quote Star Wars.

“Molly,” I breathed.

A tall young woman dressed in rather shabby secondhand clothing crouched down next to me and smiled. “Hey, boss. Welcome home.”

Chapter Thirteen

“Grasshopper,” I said, feeling myself smile. “Illusion. Very nice.”

Molly gave me a little bow of her head. “It’s what I do.”

“Also good timing,” I said. “Also, what the hell? How did you know I was . . . ?”

“Alive?”

“Here, but sure. How did you know?”

“Priorities, boss. Can you walk?”

“I’m good,” I said, and pushed myself to my feet. It wasn’t as hard as it really should have been, and I could feel my endurance rebuilding itself already, the energy coming back into me. I was still tired—don’t get me wrong—but I should have been falling-down dizzy and I wasn’t.

“You don’t look so good,” Molly said. “Was that a tux?”

“Briefly,” I said. I eyed the car. “Feel like driving?”

“Sure,” she said. “But . . . that’s pretty stuck, Harry, unless you brought a crane.”

I grunted, faintly irritated by her tone. “Just get in, start it, and give it gas gently.”

Molly looked like she wanted to argue, but then she looked down abruptly. A second later, I heard sirens. She frowned, shook her head, and got into the car. The motor rumbled to life a second later.

I went down the stairwell where the car’s tires were stuck, set down Bob’s skull, and found a good spot beneath the rear frame. Then I set my feet, put the heels of my hands against the underside of the Caddy, and pushed.

It was hard. I mean, it was really, really gut-bustingly hard—but the Caddy groaned and then shifted and then slowly rose. I was lifting with my legs as much as my arms, putting my whole body into it, and everything in me gave off a dull burn of effort. My breath escaped my lungs in a slow groan, but then the tires were up out of the stairwell, and turning, and they caught on the sidewalk and the Caddy pulled itself the rest of the way.

I grabbed the skull, still with the mostly limp Toot-toot inside it, staggered back up out of the stairwell and into the passenger side of the car. I lifted my hand and sent a surge of will down through it, muttering, “Forzare,” and the overstrained windshield groaned and gave way, tearing itself free of the frame and clearing Molly’s vision.

“Go,” I grated.

Molly went, driving carefully. The emergency vehicles were rolling in past us, and she pulled over and drove slowly to let them by. I sat there breathing hard, and realized that the real effort of moving that much weight didn’t hit you while you were actually moving it—it came in the moments after, when your muscles recovered enough to demand oxygen, right the hell now. I leaned my head against the window, panting.

“How’s it going, buddy?” I asked a moment later.

“It hurts.” Toot sighed. “But I’ll be okay, my lord. The armor held off some of the blow.”

I checked the skull. The eyelights were gone. Bob had dummied up the moment Molly was around, as per my standing orders, which had been in place since she had first become my apprentice. Bob had almost unlimited knowledge of magic. Molly had a calculated disregard for self-limitation when she thought it justified. They would have made a really scary pair, and I’d kept them carefully separate during her training.

“We need to get off the street,” I said. “Someplace quiet and secure.”

“I know a place just like that,” Molly said. “What happened?”

“Someone tossed a gym bag full of explosives at my car,” I growled. “And followed it up with the freaking pixie death squadron from hell.”

“You mean they picked this car out of all the other traffic?” she asked, her tone dry. “What are the odds?”

I grunted. “One more reason to get off the street, pronto.”

“Relax,” she said. “I started veiling the car as soon as we passed the police. If someone was following you before, they aren’t now. Catch your breath, Harry. We’ll be there soon.”

I blinked, impressed. Veils were not simple spells. Granted, they were sort of a specialty of Molly’s, but this was taking it up a notch. I didn’t know whether I could have covered the entire Caddy with a veil while driving alertly and carrying on a conversation. In fact, I was pretty sure I couldn’t.

Grasshopper was growing up on me.

I studied Molly’s profile while she drove. Stared, really. I’d first met her years ago, when she was a gawky little kid in a training bra. She’d grown up tall, five-ten or a little more. She had dark blond hair, although she had changed its color about fifty times since I’d met her. At the moment, it was in its natural shade and cut short, hanging in an even sheet to her chin. She was wearing minimal makeup. The girl was built like a particularly well-proportioned statue, but she wasn’t flaunting it in this outfit—khaki pants, a cream-colored shirt, and a chocolate brown jacket.

The last time I’d seen Molly, she’d been a starved-looking thing, dressed in rags and twitching at every sound and motion, like a feral cat—which was hardly surprising, given that she’d been fighting a covert war against a group called the Fomor while dodging the cops and the Wardens of the White Council. She was still lean and a little hyperalert, her eyes trying to watch the whole world at once, but that sense of overly coiled spring tension was much reduced.

She looked good. Noticing that made things stir under the surface, things that shouldn’t have been, and I abruptly looked away.

“Uh,” she said. “Harry?”

“You look better than the last time I saw you, kiddo,” I said.

She grinned, briefly. “Right back atcha.”

I snorted. “It’d be hard to look worse. For either of us, I guess.”

She glanced at me. “Yeah. I’m a lot better. I’m still not . . .” She shrugged. “I’m not exactly Little Miss Stability. At least, not yet. But I’m working on it.”

“Sometimes I think that’s where most of us are,” I said. “Fighting off the crazy as best we can. Trying to become something better than we were. It’s that second bit that’s important.”

She smiled, and didn’t say anything else. Within a few moments, she had turned the Caddy into a private parking lot.

“I don’t have any money for parking,” I said.

“Don’t need it.” She paused and rolled down the cracked window to wave at an attendant operating the gate. He glanced up from his book, smiled at her, and pushed a button. The gate opened, and Molly pulled the Caddy into the lot. She drove down the length of it, and pulled the car carefully into a covered parking spot. “Okay. Come on.”

We got out of the car, and Molly led me to a doorway leading into an adjacent apartment building. She opened the door with a key, but instead of moving to the elevators, she guided me to another doorway to one side of the entrance. She unlocked that one too, and went down two flights of stairs to a final door. I could sense magical defenses on the doors and the stairs without even making an effort to open myself up to it. That was a serious bunch of security spells. Molly opened the second door and said, “Please come in.” She smiled at Toot. “And your crew with you, of course.”

“Thanks,” I said, and followed her inside.

Molly had an apartment.

She had an apartment big enough for Hugh Hefner’s birthday party.

The living room was the size of a basketball court, and it had eleven-foot ceilings. There was a little bar separating the kitchen from the rest of the open space. She had a fireplace with what looked like a handmade living room set around it in one corner of the room, and a second section of comfy chairs and a desk tucked into a nook lined with built-in bookshelves. She had a weight bench, too, along with an elliptical machine, both of them expensive European setups. The floors were hardwood, broken up by occasional carpets that probably cost more than the floor space they covered. A couple of doors led off from the main room. They were oak. Granite countertops. A six-burner gas stove. Recessed lighting.

“Hell’s bells,” I said. “Uh. Nice place.”

Molly shrugged out of her jacket and tossed it onto the back of a couch. “You like?” She walked into the kitchen, opened a cabinet door, and pulled out a first-aid kit.

“I like,” I said. “Uh. How?”

“The svartalves built it for me,” she said.

Svartalves. They were some serious customers in the supernatural scene. Peerless artisans, a very private and independent folk—and they tolerated absolutely no nonsense. No one wants to get on the bad side of a svartalf. They weren’t exactly known for their generosity, either. “You working for them?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “This is mine. I bought it from them.”

I blinked again. “With what?”

“Honor,” she said. She muttered something and flicked a hand at a chandelier hanging over the table in the little dining area. It began to glow with a pure white light as bright as any collection of incandescent bulbs. “Bring him over here, and we’ll see if we can’t help him.”

I did so, transferring Toot from the skull to the table as gently as possible. Molly leaned down over him, peering. “Right through the breastplate? What hit you, Toot-toot?”

“A big fat jerk!” Toot replied, wincing. “He had a real sword, too. You know how hard it is to convince any of you big people to make us a sword we can actually use?”

“I saw his gear,” I said. “I totally liked yours better, Major General. Way cooler and more stylish than that stupid black-knight look.”

Toot gave me a brief, fierce grin. “Thank you, my lord!”

Toot got out of his ruined armor with effort, and with Molly’s cautious, steady-fingered help I managed to clean the wound and bandage it. It looked ugly, and Toot was anything but happy during the process, but he was clearly uncomfortable and weary, rather than being badly hurt. Once the wound was taken care of, Toot promptly flopped onto the table and went to sleep.

Molly smiled, got a clean towel out of a cabinet, and draped it over the little guy. Toot seized it and curled up beneath it with a sigh.

“All right,” Molly said, picking up the first-aid kit. She beckoned me to follow her to the kitchen. “Your turn. Off with the shirt.”

“Not until you buy me dinner,” I said.

For a second, she froze, and I wondered whether that had come out like the joke it had sounded like in my mind. Then she recovered. Molly arched her eyebrow in a look that was disturbingly like that of her mother (a woman around with whom a wise man will not mess) and folded her arms.

“Fine,” I said, rolling my eyes. I shrugged my way out of the ruined tux.

“Jesus,” Molly said softly, looking at me. She leaned around me, frowning at my back. “You look like a passion play.”

“Doesn’t feel so bad,” I said.

“It might if one of these cuts gets infected,” Molly said. “Just . . . just stand there and hold still. Man.” She went to the cabinet and came back with a big brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a couple of kitchen towels. I watched her walking back and forth. “We’ll start with your back. Lean on the counter.”

I did, resting my elbows on the granite, still watching her. Molly fumbled with the supplies for a second, then bit her lower lip and began to move with purpose. She started dribbling peroxide onto the cuts on my back in little bursts of cold liquid that might have made me jump before I’d spent so much time in Arctis Tor. It burned a little, and then fizzed enthusiastically.

“So, not one question?” I asked her.

“Hmmm?” She didn’t look up from her work.

“I come back from the dead, I sort of expected . . . I don’t know. A little shock. And about a million questions.”

“I knew you were alive,” Molly said.

“Yeah, I sort of figured. How?” She didn’t answer, and after a moment I realized the likely answer. “My godmother.”

“She takes her Yoda-ing seriously.”

“I remember,” I said, keeping my tone neutral. “How long have you known?”

“Several weeks,” Molly said. “There are so many cuts here, I don’t think I have enough Band-Aids. We’ll have to wrap it, I guess.”

“I’ll just put a clean shirt over them,” I said. “Look, it isn’t a big deal. Little marks like that are going to be gone in a day or two.”

“Little . . . Winter Knight stuff?”

“Pretty much,” I said. “Mab . . . kinda gave me the tour during my recovery.”

“What happened?” she asked.

I found my eyes wandering to Bob’s skull. Telling Molly what was going on would mean that she was involved. It would draw her into the conflict. I didn’t want to expose her to that kind of danger—not again.

Of course, it probably wasn’t my sole decision. And besides, Molly had intervened in an assassination that had been really close to succeeding. Whoever was behind the swarm of piranha pixies had probably seen it. Molly was already in the fight. If I started keeping things from her now, it would only hinder her chances of surviving it.

I didn’t want her involved, but she’d earned the right to make that choice for herself.

So I gave it to her, straight, succinct, and with zero editing except for the bit about Halloween. It felt sort of strange. I hardly ever tell anyone that much truth. The truth is dangerous. She listened, her large eyes steadily focused on a point around my chin.

When I finished, all she said was, “Turn around.”

I did, and she started working on the cuts on my chest, arms, and face. Again, cleaning the wounds was a little uncomfortable, but nothing more. I watched her tending me. I couldn’t read her expression. She didn’t look up at my eyes while she worked, and she kept her manner brisk and steady, very businesslike.

“Molly,” I said, as she finished.

She paused, still not looking up at me.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I had to ask you to help me . . . do what I did. I’m sorry that I didn’t make you stay home from Chichén Itzá. I never should have exposed you to that. You weren’t ready.”

“No kidding,” Molly said quietly. “But . . . I wasn’t really taking no for an answer at the time, either. Neither of us made smart choices that night.”

“Maybe. But only one of us is the mentor,” I said. “I’m supposed to be the one who knows what’s going on.”

Molly shook her head several times, a jerky motion. “Harry—it’s over. Okay? It’s done. It’s the past. Let it stay there.”

“Sure you want that?”

“I am.”

“Okay.” I picked up a paper towel and dabbed at a few runnels of peroxide bubbling their way down my stomach. “Well. Now all I need is a clean shirt.”

Molly pointed at one of the oak doors. “In there. There are two dressers and a closet. Nothing fancy, but I’m pretty sure it will all fit you.”

I blinked several times. “Um. What?”

She snorted and rolled her eyes. “Harry . . . duh. I knew you were alive. That meant you’d be coming back. Lea told me to keep it to myself, so I got a place ready for you.” She took a quick step back into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and came back with a small brass key. “Here, this will get you past the locks, and past the svartalves’ wards and past my defenses.”

I took the key, frowning. “Um . . .”

“I’m not asking you to shack up with me, Harry,” Molly said, her tone dry. “It’s just . . . until you get back on your feet. Or . . . or just as long as you’re in town and need a place to stay.”

“Did you think I couldn’t take care of it myself?”

“Of course not,” Molly said. “But . . . you know. I guess I think that maybe you shouldn’t have to?” She looked up at me uncertainly. “You were there when I needed you. I figured it was my turn now.”

I looked away before I got all emotional. The kid had gotten this place together, made some kind of alliance with a very suspicious and cautious supernatural nation, furnished a room for me, and picked me up a wardrobe? In just a few weeks? When she’d been living in rags on the street all the time for the better part of a year before that?

“I’m impressed, grasshopper,” I said. “Seriously.”

“This isn’t the impressive part,” she said. “But I don’t think we have time to get into that right now, given what you’ve got going.”

“Let’s survive Halloween,” I said, “and then maybe we can sit and have a nice talk. Molly, you shouldn’t have done this for me.”

“Ego much?” she asked, the ghost of her old, irreverent self lurking in her eyes. “I got this place for me, Harry. I lived my whole life in one home. Living on the street wasn’t . . . wasn’t a good place for me to put myself back together. I needed someplace . . . someplace . . .” She frowned.

“Yours?” I suggested.

“Stable,” she said. “Quiet. And mine. Not that you aren’t welcome here. While you need it.”

“I suppose you didn’t get those clothes for my sake, either.”

“Maybe I started dating basketball teams,” Molly said, her eyes actually sparkling for a moment. “You don’t know.”

“Sure I do,” I said.

She started putting the kit away. “Think of the clothes as . . . as a birthday present.” She looked up at me for a second and gave me a hesitant smile. “It’s really good to see you, Harry. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’d give you a hug, but I’d bleach and bloodstain your clothes at the same time.”

“Rain check,” Molly said. “I’m, uh . . . Working up to hugs might take a while.” She took a deep breath. “Harry, I know you’ve got your hands full already, but there’s something you need to know.”

I frowned. “Yeah?”

“Yeah.” She rubbed her arms with her hands as though cold. “I’ve kind of been visiting your island.”

In the middle of the southern reaches of Lake Michigan lies an island that doesn’t appear on any charts, maps, or satellite images. It’s a nexus point of ley lines of dark energy, and it doesn’t like company. It encourages people who come near it to get lost and wander away. Planes fly over the thing all the time, but no one sees it. A few years back, I’d bound myself to the island, and the world-class genius loci that watched over it. I’d named it Demonreach, and knew relatively little about it, beyond that it was an ally.

When I’d been shot and plunged into the dark waters of Lake Michigan, it had taken Mab and Demonreach both to preserve my life. I’d woken up from a coma in a cavern beneath the island’s surface with plants growing into my freaking veins like some kind of organic IV line. It was a seriously weird kind of place.

“How did you get there?” I asked.

“In a boat. Duh.”

I gave her a look. “You know what I mean.”

She smiled, the expression a little sad. “After you’ve had someone like the Corpsetaker pound your mind into pomegranate seeds, a psychic No Trespassing sign seems kinda slow-pitch.”

“Heh,” I said. “Point. But it’s a dangerous place, Molly.”

“And it’s getting worse,” she said.

I shifted my weight uneasily. “Define ‘worse.’”

“Energy is building up there. Like . . . like steam in a boiler. I know I’m still new at this—but I’ve talked with Lea about it and she agrees.”

God, she was dragging this out, making me wonder what she knew. I hate that. “Agrees with what?”

“Um,” Molly said, looking down. “Harry. I think that within the next few days, the island is going to explode. And I think that when it does, it will take about half the Midwest with it.”

Chapter Fourteen

“Of course it is,” I said. I looked around and grabbed the first-aid kit, then started stomping toward the indicated guest bedroom. “I swear, this stupid town. Why does every hideous supernatural thing that happens happen here? I’m gone for a few months and augh. Be right back. Grrssll frrrsl rassle mrrrfl.”

There was a light switch in the bedroom and it worked. The lightbulb stayed on and everything. I scowled up at it suspiciously. Normally when I’m in a snit like this, lightbulbs don’t survive eye contact, much less my Yosemite Sam impersonation. Evidently, the svartalves had worked out a fix for technological grumpy-wizard syndrome.

And the room . . . well.

It reminded me of home.

My apartment had been tiny. You could have fit it into Molly’s main room half a dozen times, easy. My old place was almost the same size as her guest bedroom. She’d furnished it with secondhand furniture, like my place had been. There was a small fireplace, with a couple of easy chairs and a comfortable-looking couch. There were scuffed-up old bookshelves, cheap and sturdy, lining the walls, and they contained what was probably meant to be the beginning of a replacement for my old paperback fiction library. Over toward where my bedroom used to be was a bed, though it was a full rather than a twin. A counter stood where my kitchen counter had been, more or less, and there was a small fridge and what looked like an electric griddle on it.

I looked around. It wasn’t home, but . . . it was in the right zip code. And it was maybe the single sweetest thing anyone had ever done for me.

For just a second, I remembered the scent of my old apartment, wood smoke and pine cleaner and a little bit of musty dampness that was inevitable in a basement, and if I squinted my eyes up really tight, I could almost pretend I was there again. That I was home.

But they’d burned down my home. I had repaid them for it, with interest, but I still felt oddly hollow in my guts when I thought about how I would never see it again. I missed Mister, my cat. I missed my dog. I missed the familiarity of having a place that I knew, that was a shelter. I missed my life.

I’d been away from home for what felt like a very long time.

There was a closet by the bed, with a narrow dresser on two sides. It was full of clothes. Nothing fancy. T-shirts. Old jeans. Some new underwear and socks, still in their plastic packaging. Some shorts, some sweatpants. Several pairs of used sneakers the size of small canoes, and some hiking boots that were a tolerable fit. I went for the boots. My feet are not for the faint of sole, ah, ha, ha.

I ditched the tux, cleaned up and covered the injuries on my legs, and got dressed in clothes that felt familiar and comfortable for the first time since I’d taken a bullet in the chest.

I came out of the bedroom holding the bloodied clothes, and glanced at Molly. She pointed a finger at the fire. I nodded my thanks, remembered to take the bejeweled cuff links out of the pockets of the pants, and tossed what was left into the fire. Blood that had already been soaked up by cloth wouldn’t be easy to use against me, even if someone had broken in and taken it somehow, but it’s one of those things best not left to chance.

“Okay,” I said, settling down on the arm of a chair. “The island. Who else knows about it?”

“Lea,” Molly said. “Presumably she told Mab. I assumed word would get to you.”

“Mab,” I said, “is apparently the sort of mom who thinks you need to find things out for yourself.”

“Those are real?”

I grunted. “Have you had any contact with Demonreach?”

“The spirit itself?” Molly shook her head. “It . . . tolerates my presence, but it isn’t anything like cordial or friendly. I think it knows I’m connected to you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure it does. If it wanted you off the island, you’d be gone.” I shook my head several times. “Let me think.”

Molly did. She went into the kitchen, to the fridge. She came out with a couple of cans of Coca-Cola, popped them both open, and handed me one. We tapped the cans together gently and drank. I closed my eyes and tried to order my thoughts. Molly waited.

“Okay,” I said. “Who else knows?”

“No one,” she said.

“You didn’t tell the Council?”

Molly grimaced at the mention of the White Council of Wizards. “How would I do that, exactly? Given that according to them, I’m a wanted fugitive, and that no one there would blink twice if I was executed on sight.”

“Plenty of them would blink twice,” I said quietly. “Why do you think you’re still walking around?”

Molly frowned and eyed me. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that Lea’s clearly taught you a lot, Molly, and it’s obvious that your skills have matured a lot in the past year. But there are people there with decades’ worth of years like the one you’ve had. Maybe even centuries. If they really wanted you found and dead, you’d be found and dead. Period.”

“Then how come I’m not?” Molly asked.

“Because there are people on the Council who wouldn’t like it,” I said. “My g— Ebenezar can take anyone else on the Council on any given day, if he gets mad at them. That’s probably enough—but Ramirez likes you, too. And since he’d be the guy who would, theoretically, be in charge of capturing you, anyone else who did it would be walking all over his turf. He’s young, too, but he’s earned respect. And most of the young guns in the Wardens would probably side with him in an argument.” I sighed. “Look, the White Council has always been a gigantic mound of assorted jerks. But they’re not inhuman.”

“Except sometimes,” Molly said, her voice bitter.

“Humanity matters,” I said. “You’re still here, aren’t you?”

“No thanks to them,” she said.

“If they hadn’t shown up at Chichén Itzá, none of us would have made it out.”

Molly frowned at that. “That wasn’t the White Council.”

True, technically. That had been the Grey Council. But since the Grey Council was mostly made up of members of the White Council working together in secret, it still counted, in my mind. Sort of.

“Those guys,” I said, “are what the Council should be. And might be. And when we needed help the most, they were there.” I sipped some more Coke. “I know the world seems dark and ugly sometimes. But there are still good things in it. And good people. And some of them are on the Council. They haven’t been in contact with you because they can’t be—but believe me, they’ve been shielding you from getting in even more trouble than you’ve already had.”

“You assume,” she said stubbornly.

I sighed. “Kid, you’re going to be dealing with the Council your whole life. And that could be for three or four hundred years. I’m not saying you shouldn’t get in their faces when they’re in the wrong. But you might want to consider the idea that burning your bridges behind you could prove to be a very bad policy a century or two from now.”

Molly looked like she wanted to disagree with me—but she looked pensive, too. She drank some more of her Coke, frowning.

Damn. Why couldn’t I have figured out that particular piece of advice to give to myself when I was her age? It might have made my life a whole lot simpler.

“Back to the island,” I said. “How sure are you about the level of energy involved?”

She considered her answer. “I was at Chichén Itzá,” she said. “It’s all pretty blurry, but I remember a lot of fragments really well. One of the things I remember is the tension that had built up under the main ziggurat. Do you remember?”

I did, though it had been pretty far down on my list of priorities at the time. The Red King had ordered dozens, maybe hundreds of human sacrifices to build up a charge for the spell he was going to use to wipe me and everyone connected to me by blood from the face of the earth. That energy had been humming inside the very stones of the city. Go to a large power station sometime, and stand near the capacitors. The air is full of the same kind of silently vibrating potential.

“I remember,” I said.

“It’s like that. Maybe more. Maybe less. But it’s really, really big. It’s scaring the animals away.”

“What time is it?” I asked.

Molly checked a tall old grandfather clock, ticking steadily away in a corner. “Three fifteen.”

“Ten minutes to the marina. An hour and change to the island and back. Call it an hour for a service call.” I shook my head and snorted. “If we leave right now, that puts us back here in town right around sunrise, wouldn’t you say?”

“More or less,” she agreed.

“Mab,” I said, in the same tone I reserved for curse words.

“What?”

“That’s why the lockdown,” I said. Then clarified. “Mab closed the border with Faerie until dawn.”

Molly was no dummy. I could see the wheels turning as she figured it out. “She’s giving you time to deal with it unmolested.”

“Relatively unmolested,” I corrected her. “I’m starting to think that Mab mainly helps those who help themselves. Okay. Once Maeve gets to start moving pieces in and out of Faerie in the morning, things are going to get busy, fast. Also, I don’t want to be working with the magical equivalent of a reactor core the next time Hook and his band of minipsychos catch up with me. So.”

Molly nodded. “So we go to the island first?”

“We go to the island now.”

* * *

Molly had the apartment building’s security call us a cab on the theory that it would be slightly less noticeable than the monster car now in the parking lot. They took her orders as if she were some kind of visiting dignitary. Whatever she’d done for the svartalves, they had taken it very, very seriously. I left Toot sleeping off the fight, with some junk food left out where he would find it when he woke up. Bob was in a cloth messenger bag I had slung over one shoulder, still buttoned up tight. Molly glanced at the bag, then at me, but she didn’t ask any questions.

I felt like wincing. Molly hadn’t ever exactly been shy about pushing the boundaries of my authority in our relationship as teacher and apprentice. Her time with my faerie godmother, the Leanansidhe, Mab’s girl Friday, was starting to show. Lea had firm and unyielding opinions about boundaries. People who pushed them got turned into dogs—or something dogs ate.

The marina was one of several in the city. Lake Michigan provided an ideal venue for all kinds of boating, sailing, and shipping, and there was a nautical community firmly established all around the shores of the Great Lake. I’m not really part of it. I say “wall” instead of “bulkhead,” and I’m not quite sure if port is left, or if it’s something best left until after dinner. I get the terms wrong a lot. I don’t care.

Marinas are parking lots for boats. Lots of walkways were built on piers or were floating pontoon bridge–style in long, straight rows. Boats were parked in individual lots much like in any automobile parking lot. Most of the boats showed signs of being prepared for winter—November can be a dangerous time for pleasure boating on Lake Michigan, and most people pack it in right around Halloween. Windows and hatches were covered, doors closed, and there were very few lights on in the marina.

Which was good, because I was breaking and entering again.

I’d had a key to the marina’s locks at one time, but I’d lost track of it when I got shot, drowned, died, got revived into a coma, haunted my friends for a while, and then woke up in Mab’s bed.

(My life. Hell’s bells.)

Anyway, I didn’t have a key or any time to spare, so when I got to the locked gate to the marina, I abused my cool new superstrength and forced the chain-link gate open in a low squeal of bending metal. It took me about three seconds.

“Cool,” Molly murmured from behind me. “Wait. Did you do the car, too?”

I grunted, a little out of breath from the effort.

“Holy cow,” Molly said. “You’re like Spider-Man strong.”

“Nah,” I panted. “Spider-Man can press ten tons. I can do sets with four hundred kilos.”

“Kilos,” Molly said.

“I inherited the last guy’s weight set,” I said. “It’s this fancy European thing. Not sure exactly how heavy that is in English.”

“In England they use kilos,” Molly said wryly. “But it would also be around sixty or sixty-five stone.”

I stopped and looked at her.

She smiled sweetly at me.

I sighed and kept on walking out to the boat.

It’s called the Water Beetle. It could be the stunt double for the boat of the crusty old fisherman in Jaws, except that it had been freshly painted and refinished and it looked a little too nice. I stopped on the dock in front of it.

There. I’d been standing right there, looking out toward the parking lot when it happened. My chest didn’t actually feel a pang of agony, but the memory of it was so sharp and clear that I might as well have reexperienced it—it hadn’t hurt at the time, not until I’d been in the water for a while, but it had been pure fire once Mab and Demonreach had succeeded in keeping my soul and body knit together.

And to think, I’d had to call in a solid to get the guy to come shoot me. It seemed like kind of a waste, at this point. I’d been sure that if I had managed to win the day, thanks to my deal with Mab, that I would be a monster in need of a good putting down. I’d scheduled my own assassin, and Molly had used her unique talents to help me forget that it was coming. Once the day had been safely saved, the plan had been to circumvent the evolution of monster-Harry by way of high-powered rifle.

Except I’d survived. Next, I guess, came the monster-Harry part.

I had it on good authority that it didn’t have to end with me going all nutty and villainous—assuming an archangel was trustworthy, which I didn’t. I also had it on good authority that it would end like that anyway. So at the end of the day, I really didn’t know what was going to happen to me in the future.

Heh. Why should I be any different?

The Water Beetle was definitely not battened down for winter, not yet. She was a sturdy, tough little craft—not fast, but not afraid of much of anything nature would throw at her, either. Her gangplank was down, and “batten” and “gangplank” are about the only boat words I’m comfortable with. I moved up it without hesitation, even in the shadowy dimness of late night on the marina. I was familiar with the boat. I’d visited the island on it on multiple occasions.

I went aboard and up onto the roof of the wheelhouse, where the driver’s position was. I flicked on a couple of tired old bulbs and checked the gauges. Fuel, oil, good. She had more than enough for the trip out to the island and back. The key wasn’t in the ignition—it would be in the small safe down in the boat’s cabin, but I knew the combination.

“We’re good,” I called softly. “Come on.”

Molly came up the gangplank while I went down into the cabin.

I got no warning whatsoever, no sound, no visible motion, nothing. One second I was going down the stairs, and the next my face and chest were being crushed against the wall and something extremely sharp was pressing against my neck, just beneath my right ear. Cool, iron-strong fingers were spread over my whole head, pressing it to the wall. The message was clear—if I struggled or made any sound, something pointy would go into my brain.

I froze. It seemed smart. If my attacker wanted me dead, I wouldn’t still be able to reason that he could already have killed me.

“Hello, precious,” murmured a man’s very soft voice. “I think you’re on the wrong boat.”

I sagged suddenly in relief. “Stars and stones,” I breathed. “Thomas, you scared the hell out of me.”

The power of the cold fingers against my head did not falter in the slightest, but there was a short, stunned silence. Then the pressure against my skull became furious. “Do you think this is funny?” my half brother said, his voice becoming louder, fairly boiling with anger. “Do you think I am amused by this kind of prank?”

“Thomas,” I said. “It’s me.”

“Sure it is,” Thomas snarled, the pressure against me surging for a second. “Harry Dresden is dead.”

I thought my eyeballs were trying to squeeze their way out of their sockets. “Glurk!”

“Now,” he growled. “I’m going to give you exactly three seconds to start telling me the truth, or I swear to God they will never find enough pieces of you to identify the body.”

He meant it, Hell’s bells. He was furious. If I were the kind of guy who ever got scared by anything, ever, which of course I am not, I would have been feeling extremely nervous at that moment.

“Mab!” I ground out. “Dammit, Thomas, you lunatic. It was Mab!”

“Mab sent you?” Thomas demanded.

“Mab saved me!” I rasped. “Hell’s bells, man, it’s me!”

Thomas growled, lower, but he didn’t pancake my skull or stick something sharp and metal into my brain. Thomas was strong—stronger than me. A vampire of the White Court can bring out that kind of strength only on special occasions, but Thomas was a very well-fed vampire. I knew that if he wanted to do it, Winter Knight steroids or no, he could twist me like a congressman’s logic.

“Molly!” he called out. “I know you’re out there. I can smell you.”

A few seconds later, there were soft steps on the gangplank, and then the shadows moved at the door. “I’m here.”

“What the fuck is this?” he demanded.

“I’m not sure,” Molly said. “It’s dark. But if I could see, I’d tell you that I try not to put myself between two siblings when they’re fighting. It never seems to help.”

Two or three flabbergasted seconds passed. Then the pressure against my skull was gone so fast that I all but fell over. I grabbed myself before I could and shook my head. “Ow. Nice to see you again, too, man.”

He moved silently across the cabin and something clicked. A battery-powered tap light came to life, bringing a dim if adequate level of light to the compartment.

My brother was a hair shy of six feet tall. He looked much as I remembered him: dark, glossy hair fell to his shoulders. His skin was even paler than mine. His eyes were storm-cloud grey, though they looked brighter than that now, glinting with little metallic flecks that revealed his anxiety and anger. He and I shared a similar scowl, all dark brows and intense eyes, and his mouth was twisted into a silent snarl as he stared at me. He was wearing a pair of jeans, and that was it. The cabin’s bunk had been folded down and slept in. I’d woken him when I came aboard. In his right hand he held a metal tent stake. There was both dirt and rust on it. Can you get gangrene in your brain?

“Oh,” Molly said. She stared at Thomas for a moment. “Oh, um. My.”

Oh, I forgot to mention it: My brother is the kind of man whom women stalk. In cooperative packs. I’d say he was model pretty, except that as far as I could tell, there weren’t any models as pretty as he was. He had muscles that rippled even when he was motionless and relaxed, and it was utterly unfair.

And . . . I didn’t do a lot of appraising myself in the mirror, typically, but I suddenly realized that sometime in the past few years, Thomas had stopped looking like my older brother. He looked younger than me. Wizards can live a long time, but we don’t look youthful while we do it. Thomas was a vampire. He’d look this good until he stopped breathing.

The guy barely works out, eats whatever he wants, and gets to look that good and that young his whole life. How is that fair?

“You can’t be my brother,” Thomas said, staring hard at me. “My brother is dead. You know how I know?”

“Thomas,” I began.

“Because my brother would have contacted me,” Thomas snarled. “If he were alive, he would have gotten in touch with me. He would have let me know.”

Molly winced and looked away as though she’d just heard a very loud and very unpleasant sound. I’m not sensitive to the emotions of others the way Molly is, but I didn’t need to be to know that Thomas was boiling over in reaction to seeing me there.

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Molly said. “I can’t . . . It hurts.”

“Go,” I said softly.

She nodded and withdrew onto the deck of the boat, shutting the door behind her.

My brother stayed where he was, staring at me. “All this time,” he said. “And not a word.”

“I was dead,” I said quietly. “Or the next-best thing to it. Maybe it was more like a coma. Hell, I thought I was dead.”

“When did you wake up?” he asked. His voice was carefully neutral.

“About three months ago,” I said. “Wasn’t in good shape. I’ve been recovering since then.”

“Three months,” he said. “No phones there?”

“No, actually. I was in a cave on the island for a while. Then Arctis Tor.”

“No way for you to make contact?” he asked calmly. “You?”

Silence fell heavily. Thomas knew the kinds of things I could do. If I want someone to get a message, I can generally make sure it gets done—one way or another.

“What do you want me to say, man?” I responded. “I sold out, Thomas.”

“Yeah, when you hurt your back. You told us. For Maggie. To get her home safe.”

“Right.”

He was silent for a second. Then he said, “Empty night, why didn’t I put that together . . . ?” He sighed. “Let me guess. You tried to kill yourself after she was home safe, right?”

I snorted through my nose. “Something like that.”

He shook his head in silence for several seconds. Then he took a deep breath, looked up at me again, and said, “You. Moron.

“Hey,” I said.

“You. Idiot.

“Dammit, Thomas,” I said. “I haven’t lived my life the way I have to watch myself get turned into—” I broke off suddenly, and looked away.

“Into what, Harry?” he asked. “Say it.”

I shook my head.

“No, you don’t get a pass on this one, little brother,” Thomas said. “Say it.”

“Into a monster,” I snapped.

“Right,” Thomas said. “A monster. Like me.”

“That isn’t what I meant.”

“It is exactly what you meant,” he spat, angry. “You arrogant . . .” He flung the tent spike in a fit of pure frustration. It tumbled end over end once, and sank two inches into a wooden beam. “You were going to be tempted, eh? Going to have to deal with monstrous urges? Going to have to face the possibility that you might change if you lost focus for a minute? Lose control of yourself? Maybe hurt somebody you care about?” He shook his head. “Cry me a fucking river, man. Boo-fucking-hoo.”

I couldn’t look at him.

“You’d rather be dead than be like me,” he said. “That’s one hell of a thing to say to your brother.”

“It wasn’t about that,” I said.

“It kind of was,” he snapped back. “Dammit, Harry.”

“I can’t go back and change it,” I said. “Maybe I would if I could. But it’s done. I’m sorry, but it is.”

“You should have talked to me,” he said.

“Thomas.”

“You should have trusted me,” he said. “Dammit, man.”

The memory of those desperate hours hit me hard. I felt so helpless. My daughter had been taken away from her home, and for all the times I had gone out on a limb for others, no one had seemed willing to do the same for me. The White Council for whom I had fought a war had turned its back on me. Time had been running out. And the life of a little girl who had never known her father was on the line.

“Why?” I asked him tiredly. “What would it have changed? What could you possibly have said that would have made a difference?”

“That I was your brother, Harry,” he said. “That I loved you. That I knew a few things about denying the dark parts of your nature. And that we would get through it.” He put his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead on his hands. “That we’d figure it out. That you weren’t alone.”

Stab.

Twist.

He was right. It was just that simple. My brother was right. I had been self-involved and arrogant. Maybe it was understandable, given the pressures on me at the time, but that didn’t mean that I hadn’t made bad calls of colossal proportion.

I should have talked to him. Trusted him. I hadn’t even tried to consider anyone other than Maggie, hadn’t even thought to start seeking support from my family. I’d just moved right along to the part of the plan where I hired one of the world’s premier supernatural assassins to whack me. That probably said something about the state of despair I’d been in at the time.

But it didn’t say as much as I had about my brother. He was right about that, too. It wasn’t something I had ever consciously faced before, but I had told Thomas, with my actions, that it was better to be dead than a monster—a monster like him. And actions speak far more loudly than words.

I always thought it would get easier to be a person as I aged. But it just gets more and more complicated.

“I’m sorry. I should have talked to you then,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse. “I should have talked to you three months ago. But I couldn’t because I made the wrong call. I didn’t think I should contact anyone.”

“Why not?” he asked, looking up.

“Because I didn’t deserve to do it,” I said quietly. “Because I sold out. Because I was ashamed.”

He came to his feet, angry. “Oh, absolutely, I get that. I mean, you had to stay away. Otherwise we all would have known that you aren’t perfect, you gawking, stupid, arrogant, egotistical . . .”

He hit my chest and wrapped his arms around me so hard that I felt my ribs creaking.

“. . . clumsy, short-tempered, exasperating, goofy, useless . . .”

I hugged my brother back and listened to a steady string of derogatory adjectives until he finished it.

“. . . asshole.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I missed you, too.”

Chapter Fifteen

Thomas got us to the island navigating by the stars.

I kept checking the ship’s compass. Not because I didn’t trust my brother, but because I had no freaking idea how he managed to keep the Water Beetle on course without one. Molly had spent the first part of the trip down in the cabin, wrapped up in some blankets: It was a chilly night out on the lake. Thomas and I were comfortable in shirts. I suspected my apprentice was still feeling the aftereffects of standing too close to my reunion with Thomas.

I filled Thomas in on recent events on the way out, omitting only the details on the immortal-killing thing. I had a sinking feeling that knowing something that important about beings that powerful was an excellent way to get yourself killed horribly on any night of the year that wasn’t Halloween.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Thomas said, when I finished the briefing. “Have you seen her yet?”

I scowled. “Seen who?”

“You tell me,” he said.

“Just you and Molly,” I said.

He gave me a look of profound disappointment, and shook his head.

“Thanks, Dad,” I said.

“You’re alive,” he said. “You owe it to her to go see her.”

“Maybe when this is done,” I said.

“You might be dead by then,” he said. “Empty night, Harry. Didn’t your little adventure in the lake teach you a damned thing?”

I scowled some more. “Like what?”

“Like life is short,” he said. “Like you don’t know when it’s going to end. Like some things, left unsaid, can’t ever be said.” He sighed. “I’m a freaking vampire, man. I rip out pieces of people’s souls and eat them, and make them happy to have it happen.”

I didn’t say anything. That was what my brother was. He was more than that, too, but it would have been stupid to deny that part of him.

“I’m mostly a monster,” he said. “And even I know that she deserves to hear you tell her you love her. Even if she never gets anything more than that.”

I frowned. “Wait. Who are we talking about here?”

“Either,” he said. “Stop being an idiot. Stop flagellating yourself about how you endanger her by being in her life. You’re the only you in her life, Harry. Believe me. They don’t make replacements for a guy like you.”

“They don’t make replacements for anybody,” I said tiredly. “We’ll see.”

Thomas looked at me like he wanted to push. But he didn’t.

“So what about you?” I asked. “Justine and her playmate keeping you company?”

“Playmates,” Thomas said absently. “Plural.”

Totally not fair.

“Hmph,” I said.

He frowned. “Hey. How did you know about that?”

“Ghost me was there the night Justine decided she’d had enough of you moping,” I said.

“Ghost you was there for how long, exactly?” he asked.

“I left before it got to an NC-17.”

He snorted. “Yeah, well, Justine . . . has sort of become a dietitian.”

“Uh, what?”

He shrugged. “You are what you eat, right? Same principle applies to vampires. Justine thinks I’m sad, she brings home someone happy. She thinks I’m too tense, someone laid-back and calm.” He pursed his lips. “Really . . . it’s been kind of nice. Balanced, like.” His eyes narrowed and flickered through a few paler shades. “And I get to be with Justine again. Even if it was hell, that would make it worthwhile.”

“Dude,” I said, making the word a disgusted sound. “Single guys everywhere hate you. Starting with me.”

“I know, right?” he asked, nodding and smiling. Then he looked ahead and pointed. “There, see it?”

I peered ahead into the black and found a giant block of more solid black. We were at the island.

The cabin door opened and Molly emerged, the blanket still wrapped around her shoulders. Her face still looked drawn, but not as pale as it had before we left the marina. She came up the steps to the top of the wheelhouse and stood beside me. “Thomas,” she asked. “Why were you down at the boat tonight?”

Thomas blinked and looked at her. “What do you mean?”

“I mean why were you sleeping on board?”

“Because you didn’t tell me what time you’d be there, and I got sleepy,” he said.

Molly glanced aside at Thomas, and then at me. “I asked you to do it?”

“Uh, yeah,” Thomas said, snorting. “You called around ten.”

Molly kept looking at me, frowning. “No. No, I didn’t.”

Thomas promptly cut the throttle on the boat. The Water Beetle began coasting to a halt, and the sound of the water hitting her hull resurfaced as the rattle of her engines died.

“Okay,” Thomas said. “Uh. What the hell is going on, then?”

“Molly,” I said, “are you sure?”

“None of my issues have included memory loss or unconscious actions,” she said.

Thomas squinted back at her. “If they had, how would you know it?”

Molly frowned. “Valid point. But . . . there’s been no evidence of that, to my knowledge. I’m as confident about that as anything else I perceive.”

“So if Molly didn’t call me . . .” Thomas began.

“Who did?” I finished.

Water slapped against the hull.

“What do we do?” Molly asked.

“If someone set us up to be here,” Thomas said, “it’s a trap.”

“If it’s a trap, they sure as hell didn’t try very hard to hide it,” I said. “All we really know is that someone wanted us here.”

Molly nodded. “Do you think . . . ?”

“Mab’s work?” I asked. “Having my ride prepared? Yeah, maybe.”

“If your new boss wanted you on the island, wouldn’t she just have told you to go there?” Thomas asked.

“Seems like,” I said. “Taking her orders is pretty much my job now.”

Molly snorted softly.

“Maybe I’ll grow into it,” I said. “You don’t know.”

Thomas snorted softly.

More water sounds.

We didn’t have a lot of choice, really. Whether or not we’d been manipulated into showing up, there was still a giant potential problem with the island, something that had to be addressed as soon as possible. If I waited, dawn would be upon us, and it was entirely possible I’d be too busy—or dead—to fix the problem before it went boom. Which meant that the only time I had to take real action was right now.

“Just once,” I growled, “I’d like to save the goddamned day without a shot clock. You know?”

“The monster business is an easier gig,” Thomas said, nodding. “Way, way easier.”

Which was my brother’s backhanded way of telling me what he thought of me.

“I think we all know I’m not smart enough for that,” I said. “Eyes open, everyone. Thomas, pull her up to the dock. Let’s see who’s waiting for us.”

* * *

The island had once been host to a small town, back in the late nineteenth century. It had been home to docks, warehouses, and what might have been a fishery or cannery or something. Probably no more than a couple of hundred people had lived there, at most.

But the people weren’t there anymore. And what was left of the town was like some kind of skeleton lying among the trees that had grown up through the floorboards. I don’t know what happened to the town. Stories from the time mention only mysterious events in the lake, and an influx of new customers to what passed for a psychiatric care facility of the day. The town itself had been expunged from any records, and not even its name remained to be found. The island, likewise, had vanished from the official record—though if I had to guess, I would say that the reigning authorities at the time decided that covering up the island’s existence was the best way to protect people from exposure to it.

Actually, knowing what I know now, I’d guess that the island made them come to that conclusion. The island I’d named Demonreach was very much alive.

Most of the world is, actually. People think that civilization and organized religion have somehow erased the spirits that exist in nature, in all the world. They haven’t. People aren’t the omnipotent force for destruction that we arrogantly believe we are. We can change things, true, but we never really destroyed those old spirits and presences of the wild. We aren’t that powerful. We are very loud and very self-involved, though, so most people never really understand when they’re in the presence of a spirit of the land, what the old Romans called a genius loci.

So, naturally, they also didn’t understand when they were in the presence of a truly powerful spirit of the land—a potent spirit like that of, say, Vesuvius.

Or Demonreach.

I’d been to the island on most weekends up until I got shot, and Thomas had often come with me. We’d used some fresh lumber, some material salvaged from the ruined town, and some pontoons made from plastic sheathing and old tractor-tire inner tubes to construct a floating walkway to serve as a dock, anchored to the old pilings that had once supported a much larger structure. Upon completion, I had dubbed it the Whatsup Dock, and Thomas had chucked me twenty feet out into the lake, thus proving his utter lack of appreciation for reference-oriented humor.

(And I’d thrown him forty feet out with magic, once I got dry. Because come on, he’s my brother. It was the only thing to do.)

The Water Beetle came drifting slowly into the dock, and bumped it gently. You had to be a little bit nimble to get over the side of the boat and onto the floating dock, but fortunately for me you didn’t need to be a gymnast. We’d limned the outer boards of the floating dock in phosphorescent paint, and in the darkness it was a gently glowing, clearly visible outline. I hit the dock and secured the first line on the ring we’d installed, then walked down the dock and caught the second when Thomas threw it to me. Once the boat had been made fast, Thomas lowered the gangplank (a pirate’s life for me!), and Molly padded down it. Thomas came last, buckling on his gun belt, which was currently hung with his ridiculously huge Desert Eagle, just in case we were attacked by a rabid Cape buffalo, and a big old bolo-style machete.

Watching him put the weapons on, I started to feel a little bit naked. I didn’t have any of my usual gear, and I’d survived a bunch of nasty situations because I’d had it. I rubbed my hands against the thighs of my jeans, scowling, and tried not to think of how the only gear I had now consisted of a messenger bag and a talking skull.

Thomas noticed. “Oh. Hey, you need a piece, man?”

“They’re just so fashionable,” I said.

He slipped back aboard and came out with a freaking relic. He tossed it to me.

I caught it, frowning. It was a repeating rifle, a Winchester, complete with the large rounded hoop handle on the lever action. It was seriously heavy, with an octagonal barrel, walnut wood fixtures, and shining brass housing. Elkhorn sights. The gun had a certain comforting mass to it, and I felt like even if it ran out of ammunition, I would still be holding a seriously formidable club. Plus, whatever it was chambered in, a gun that heavy would hardly kick at all. It’d be more like handling a shotgun that pushed against your shoulder, rather than trying to jar it off.

“What am I?” I complained. “John Wayne?”

“You aren’t that cool,” Thomas said. “It’s quick, easy to instinct-shoot, and good to way out past the effective range of a handgun. Lever action, it’ll be reliable, keep working right through the apocalypse.”

Which was a point in its favor, the way my life had been lately. “Rounds?”

“Traditional, forty-five Colt,” he said. “Knock a big man down in one hit and keep him there. Catch.”

He tossed me an ammo belt heavy with metallic shells that were nearly as big around as my thumb. I slung the belt across my chest, made sure the chamber was empty, but with a shell ready to be levered into it, and balanced the heavy gun up on one shoulder, keeping one hand on the stock.

Molly sighed. “Boys.”

Thomas hooked a thumb back at the boat. “I got a machine gun you can have, Molly.”

“Barbarian,” she said.

“I don’t rate a machine gun?” I asked.

“No, you don’t,” Thomas said, “because you can’t shoot. I just gave you that to make you feel better.”

“You ready?” I asked them.

Molly had her little wands out, one in each hand. Thomas swaggered down the gangplank and looked bored. I nodded at them, turned, and took several quick steps off the dock and onto the stony soil of the island.

My link with the island was an extremely solid and powerful bond—but it existed only when I was actually standing on it. Now that I was, knowledge flooded into me, through me, a wave of absolute information that should have inundated my senses and disoriented me entirely.

But it didn’t.

That was the beauty of intellectus, pure universal knowledge. While I stood on the island, I understood it in a way that was breathtakingly simple to experience and understand, but practically impossible to explain properly. Knowledge of the island just flowed into me. I could tell you how many trees stood upon it (17,429), how many had been taken down by the summer’s storms (seventy-nine), and how many of the apple trees currently bore fruit (twenty-two). I didn’t have to focus on an idea, or wrest the knowledge from the island. I just thought about it and knew, the way I knew what my fingers were touching, the way I knew what scents belonged to what foods.

We were alone on the island. That much I knew. But I could also sense a profound unease in the place. Molly’s description had been perfectly accurate. Something was wrong; some kind of horrible strain was upon the island, a pressure so pervasive that the trees themselves had begun to lean away from the island’s heart, stretching their branches toward the waters of the lake. Without my heightened awareness of the island, I never would have been able to sense the shift of inches across thousands and thousands of branches, but it was real and it was there.

“We’re clear,” I said. “There’s no one else out here.”

“You’re sure?” Thomas asked.

“I’m certain,” I said. “But I’ll stay alert. If I sense anyone showing up, I’ll fire off a shot.”

“Wait,” Thomas said. “Where are you going?”

“Up the hill,” I told him. “Uh . . . up to the tower, I think.”

“Alone? You sure that’s smart?” he asked.

Molly was standing at the end of the dock. She crouched down, reaching a hand out toward the dirt of the island. She brushed her fingers against it and then jerked them away with a shudder. “Ugh. Yes. We don’t want to step off the dock. Not tonight.”

I could hear Thomas’s frown in his voice. “Island’s got its panties in a bunch, eh?”

“I think something bad would happen to us if we tried to go with him,” Molly said, her voice troubled. “Whatever’s happening . . . Demonreach only wants Harry to see what’s going on.”

“Why doesn’t it just marry him?” Thomas muttered under his breath.

“It sort of did,” I said.

“My brother the . . . geosexual?”

I snorted. “Look, think of it as a business partner. And be glad it’s on our side.”

“It isn’t on our side,” Molly said quietly. “But . . . I think it might be on yours.”

“Same thing,” I said warningly, out at the island in general. “You hear that? They’re my guests. Be nice.”

The thrumming tension in the island didn’t change. Not in the least. It went on with a kind of glacial inevitability that didn’t give two shakes for the desires of one ephemeral little mortal, wizard or not. I got the feeling that nice simply wasn’t in Demonreach’s vocabulary. I’d probably have to be satisfied with it refraining from violence.

“We’ll talk,” I said to the island, trying to make it a threat.

Demonreach didn’t care.

I muttered under my breath, bounced the Winchester on my shoulder, and started walking.

Walking on the island is an odd experience. I’d say it’s like walking through your house in the dark, except I’ve never known a house as well as I knew that island. I knew where every stone lay, where every branch stuck out in my path, knew it without being warned by any senses at all. Walking in the dark was as easy as doing it in broad daylight—easier, even. I’d have had to pay at least a little attention to use my eyes. But here, every step was solid, and every motion I made was minimal, efficient, and necessary.

I made my way through unbroken brush in the dark, hardly making a sound, never tripping once. As I did I noted that Molly had been right about another thing: The clash of energies in the air had created enough dissonance to drive away most of the animals, the ones that had the capacity to readily escape. The deer were gone. Birds and raccoons were gone, and so were the skunks—though that would be one hell of a long swim to the nearest stretch of lakeshore, animals had been known to swim farther. Smaller mammals, mice and squirrels and so on, remained, though they had crowded into the ten yards or so nearest the shoreline all around the island. The snakes were having a field day with that, and evidently weren’t bright enough to know that there was a bigger problem brewing.

I found the trail to the top of the hill, the high point on the island, and started up it. There were irregular steps cut into the hillside to make the ascent easier. They were treacherous if you didn’t walk carefully, or if you didn’t have near-omniscience about the place.

At the top of the hill is a ruined lighthouse made of stone. It’s basically just a chewed-up silo shape now, having collapsed long ago. Next to the ruined tower, someone cobbled together a small cottage out of fallen stones. When I first saw it, it had been a square, squat little building with no roof. Thomas and I had been planning on putting the roof back on, so that I could overnight on the island someplace where I could build a fire and stay warm, but we hadn’t gotten that far yet when everything had gone sideways. The cottage just sat, empty and forlorn—but a soft golden glow bathed the interior wall I could see from my position. There was the scent of wood smoke on the air.

Someone had built me a fire.

I made my way forward cautiously, looking around with both my awareness and my eyes, just in case my omniscience was in actuality nigh-omniscience, but I couldn’t sense any threat. So I went into the cabin and looked around.

There was a fire in the fireplace and a folding table stacked with thick plastic boxes containing jars of food that would stay good for months at a time. The boxes would resist the tampering of critters. There were some camp implements stored in another box, and I took the time to break out a metal coffeepot, went out to the little old iron pump just outside the front door, and filled it. I tossed in a couple of handfuls of coffee grounds, hung it on the swivel arm by the fireplace, and nudged it over the fire.

Then I broke out the skull and set him down on the table. “Okay, Bob,” I said. “We have work to do. You been listening?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Bob said, his eyelights flickering to life. “Island go boom or something.”

“We’re on a mission to find out what it’s going to do, and why, and how we can stop it.”

“Gosh, I’d never have thought of that myself, Harry.”

“This is top secret stuff,” I said. “Anything you learn here is for me and you only. You go to someone else, I want this whole evening locked away someplace nice and tight. And don’t go splitting off another personality on me, like you did with Evil Bob.”

“Entirely confidential, check,” Bob said. “And it would take a lot more than one night working with you to build up enough momentum to spin off a whole new me. I have to actually learn things to make that happen.”

“Less insult, more analysis,” I said.

The beams from the skull’s eye sockets grew brighter. They swept left and right, up and down, panning around like prison searchlights. Bob made thoughtful noises.

I tended the coffeepot. After it had been boiling for a few minutes, I took it off the fire, added a splash of cold water from the pump to settle the grounds, and poured myself a cup. I added a little powdered creamer and a bunch of sugar.

“Might as well drink syrup,” Bob muttered.

“Says the guy with no taste buds,” I said. I sipped. “Been meaning to have you out here to take a look at the place anyway.”

“Uh-huh,” Bob said absently.

“So?” I asked.

“Um,” Bob said. “I’m still working on the surface layer of spells on the stones of this cottage, Harry.”

I frowned. “Uh. What?”

“You know there’re symbols there, right?”

I sipped coffee. “Sure,” I said. “They kinda lit up when—”

Nauseating, mind-numbing horror and pain flashed over my thoughts for a couple of seconds. I’d used my wizard’s Sight to look at the wrong being a couple of years ago, and that isn’t the kind of mistake you ever live down. Now the memory of seeing that thing’s true being was locked into my noggin, and it wouldn’t go away or fade into the past—not ever.

That’s bad. But the really bad part is that I’ve gotten used to it. It just caused a stutter step in my speech.

“—the naagloshii tried to get inside. It didn’t seem to like them much.”

“I should fucking think not,” Bob said, his voice nervous. “Um, Harry . . . I don’t know what these are.”

I frowned at him. “Uh. What?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated. He sounded genuinely surprised. “I don’t know what they are, Harry.”

Magic is like a lot of other disciplines that people have recently begun developing, in historic terms. Working with magic is a way of understanding the universe and how it functions. You can approach it from a lot of different angles, applying a lot of different theories and mental models to it. You can get to the same place through a lot of different lines of theory and reasoning, kind of like really advanced mathematics. There’s no truly right or wrong way to get there, either—there are just different ways, some more or less useful than others for a given application. And new vistas of thought, theory, and application open up on a pretty regular basis, as the Art develops and expands through the participation of multiple brilliant minds.

But that said, once you have a good grounding in it, you get a pretty solid idea of what’s possible and what isn’t. No matter how much circumlocution you do with your formulae, two plus two doesn’t equal five. (Except maybe very, very rarely, sometimes, in extremely specific and highly unlikely circumstances.) Magic isn’t something that just makes things happen, poof. There are laws to how it behaves, structure, limits—and the whole reason Bob was created was so that those limits could be explored, tested, and charted.

I could count on the fingers of no hands how many times Bob had come up completely dry. He always knew something. The skull had been working with wizards for centuries. He’d run into damned near everything.

“Uh, what?” I said. “Seriously? Nothing?”

“They’re powerful,” he said. “I can tell you that much. But they’re also complex. I mean, like, Molly on her best day could not come close to weaving together something this crazy. You on your best day could not sling around enough power to juice up one of the smallest stones. And that’s just the first layer. I think there are more. Maybe a lot more. Uh, like hundreds.”

“On each stone?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s . . . It isn’t . . . You can’t put that much magic into that little space,” I protested.

“No, no, I can’t,” Bob said. “And, no, you can’t. Because it’s impossible. But, um. Someone doesn’t care.”

“How did they do it?”

“If I knew that, it wouldn’t be impossible,” Bob said, an edge to his voice. “But I can tell you this much: It predates wizardry as we know it.”

I would have said, What? but I felt like I’d been saying that a lot already. So I sipped coffee and scowled interrogatively instead.

“This work, the actual spells on the stone, comes from before even the predecessors to the White Council. I’m conversant in the course and application of the Art since the golden age of Greece. This stuff, whatever it is? It’s older.”

“You can’t lay out spells that last that long,” I mumbled. “It isn’t possible.”

“Lot of that going around,” Bob said. “Harry . . . you’re . . . we’re talking about a whole different level, here. One that I didn’t even know existed. Uh. Do you get what that means? In round terms, at least?”

I shook my head slowly.

“Well, at least you’re smart enough to know that,” Bob said. “Um, okay. You know the old chestnut about how sufficiently advanced science could be described only as magic?”

“Right,” I said.

“Well, I’m going to use the same model right now: As a wizard, you’re pretty good at making wooden axles and stone wheels. These spells? They’re an internal combustion engine. You do the math from there. On your metaphorical abacus, I guess.”

I blew out a very long, very slow breath.

Hell’s bells.

I suddenly felt very young and very arrogant, and not terribly bright. I mean, I’d known I was going to be out of my depth when I first hooked up with the island, but I thought I’d at least be in the same freaking ocean. Instead, I was . . .

I was in uncharted space, wasn’t I?

And the best part of this whole conversation? Those spells that had stymied one of the most advanced research tools known to wizardry and baffled the collected knowledge of centuries? Those were just the ruined part of the island.

What the hell was I going to find in the part that was working?

One second I was alone in the ruined cottage, and the next, there was a presence filling the doorway, looking down at me through the empty space where the roof should have been. It was huge, maybe twelve feet tall, and roughly humanoid in shape. I couldn’t see much of it. It was covered in what looked like a heavy cloak that covered it completely. Two points of green fire burned from within the cloak’s hood. It simply stood, unnaturally still, staring down at me, though the cool night breeze over the lake stirred the edges of its cloak.

Demonreach. The manifested spirit of the island.

“Uh,” I said. “Hi.”

The burning eyes shifted from me to Bob on the table. And then Demonreach did something it had never done before.

It spoke.

Out loud.

Its voice was a rumble of heavy rocks scraping together, of summer thunder rolling in from over the horizon. The voice was huge. Not loud. That didn’t do it justice. It just came from everywhere, all at once. The surface of my partly drunk coffee buzzed and vibrated at the all-pervasive sound. “ANOTHER ONE.”

“Meep,” Bob squeaked. The lights vanished from the eye sockets of the skull.

I blinked a bunch of times. “You . . . you’re talking now?”

“NECESSITY.”

“Right,” I said. “Um. So . . . you’re having some trouble, I guess?”

“TROUBLE,” it said. “YES.”

“I came to help,” I said, feeling extremely lame as I did. “Um. Is that even possible?”

“POTENTIALLY,” came the answer. Then the vast form turned. It took a limping step. The ground didn’t so much tremble at the weight as shift slightly beneath the sheer, overwhelming presence of the ancient spirit. “FOLLOW. BRING THE MEMORY SPIRIT.”

“. . . meep . . .” Bob whimpered.

I grabbed the skull in shaking hands and stuffed it into the messenger bag. I grabbed a chemical light from the storage boxes on the table, snapped it, and shook it to life as I hurried to catch up. I had an instinct about where we were headed, but I asked to be sure. “Uh. Where are we going?”

Demonreach kept walking, slow paces that nonetheless forced me to scurry to keep up. “BELOW.”

The spirit walked to the ruined circle of the lighthouse and lifted a shadowy arm in a vague gesture. When it did, the ground of the circle rippled and quivered, and then what had appeared to be solid stone began to run down, pouring itself into a hole like sand falling through an hourglass. In seconds, an opening the size of the trapdoor to my old lab had formed in the stone, and stairs led down into the darkness.

“Oh,” I said. I’d known there were caves beneath the island, but not how I had gotten there or where I could find them. “Wow. What’s the game plan here, exactly?”

“THE WELL IS UNDER ATTACK,” came the surround-sound answer. “IT MUST BE DEFENDED.” Demonreach started toward the stairs. There was no way it should have fit down them, but it moved as though that wasn’t going to be an issue.

“Wait. You want me to fight off something you can’t stop?” I asked.

“IT IS TIME FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND.”

“Understand what?”

“OUR PURPOSE, WARDEN,” it said. “FOLLOW ME.”

Then it went down the stairs and vanished into the unknown.

“Here there be monsters!” Bob whispered, half hysterically. “Run! Run already!”

“Think it’s a little late for that,” I said.

But for a second there, I thought about taking his advice. Some part of me wondered what Tibet looked like this time of year. For a minute, it seemed like an awesome idea to go find out.

But only for a minute.

Then I swallowed, gripped the plastic glow stick in fingers that felt very slippery for some reason, and followed Demonreach down into the dark.

Chapter Sixteen

I don’t know how far down those stairs went.

I’m not even kidding. I’m not taking poetic license. The stairs went down twelve steps, took a right angle, and went down twelve more, took another right-angled turn, and went down twelve more, and so on. I stopped counting in the low two hundreds and resorted to my awareness of the island to feel out the rest of them. Duh. Seventeen hundred and twenty-eight—twelve cubed.

The stairs were about eight inches each, which meant eleven hundred feet and change, straight down. That was well below the water level of the lake. Hell, it was below the bottom of the lake. The staircase echoed with deep, groaning sounds pitched almost too low to be heard. In the wan light of the chemical glow stick, the place took on a kind of amusement-park fun-house atmosphere, where you suddenly realize that you’ve been routed into a circle with no apparent way out.

“Down, down to goblin town you go, my lad!” I sang in a hearty, badly pitched baritone. I was panting. “Ho, ho, my lad!”

Demonreach’s glowing eyes flicked toward me. Maybe irritated.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You never saw the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit? The one they made before they did the movies in New Zealand?”

It didn’t answer.

“Harry,” Bob muttered at me. “Stop trying to piss it off.”

“I’m bored,” I said. “And I’m not looking forward to coming back up. I get that we’re going a long, long way down, but couldn’t we use an elevator? Ooh, or a fireman’s pole. Then it’d be like going down to the Batcave. Way more fun.” I raised my voice a little. “And more efficient.”

Maybe it was my imagination, but when I said that last, I thought I saw Demonreach’s steady pace slow for a thoughtful second or two.

Nah.

“Hey, how come you called me Warden?” I asked. “I mean, I’ve been a Warden, but there are a lot of other guys who are better at it than me. I’m not exactly the poster child.”

“WARDEN,” Demonreach said. “NOW THERE ARE MANY. FIRST THERE WAS ONE.”

I counted down the last ten steps out loud, stopped at two, and jumped over the last one to the floor beneath with both feet. My hiking boots clomped on the stone.

We had reached a small chamber, the floor and walls lined in the same stone used in the lighthouse and cottage. I put a hand on them and could feel them quivering with power, with the dissonance of conflicting energies. Actually, looking back, I saw that at some point, the walls of the stairway, and the stairs themselves, had begun to be constructed of the same material—every single stone of it invested with impossible amounts of power and skill.

“Uh,” I said. “Question?”

Demonreach had stopped at a stone doorway shape in the wall. It was surrounded with larger stones covered in intricate carving. The burning eyes turned toward me.

“Um. Who made this place?”

It didn’t speak. It pointed to the door. I looked. There was a sign in the middle of it, a sigil. It wasn’t something I recognized as part of any set of runes that I knew, but I knew I’d seen it somewhere before. It took me several seconds of sorting through memories to run it down—I’d seen it on the spine of a very, very, very old journal on my mentor’s bookshelf.

“Merlin,” I said quietly. “That’s whose sign that is, isn’t it?”

Demonreach did not respond. Why say YES when silence will do?

I swallowed. The original Merlin was the real deal, Arthur and Excalibur and everything. Merlin had, according to legend, created the White Council of Wizards from the chaos of the fall of the Roman Empire. He plunged into the flames of the burning Library of Alexandria to save the most critical texts, helped engineer the Catholic Church as a vessel to preserve knowledge and culture during Europe’s Dark Ages, and leapt tall cathedrals in a single bound. There were endless stories about Merlin. Popular theory among contemporary wizards was that they were more apocryphal than accurate. Hell, I’d always figured it that way, too.

But staring around at this place, I suddenly felt less sure.

“WATCH.”

Demonreach stretched out one long arm, still shadowy and indistinct in the feeble light of my glow stick. It touched one of the stones framing the door, and the stone erupted into emerald light.

I hissed and shielded my eyes against it, and took note of the fact that the air suddenly crackled with power.

Demonreach touched a second stone, which also began to glow. When it did, the sense of building energy was palpable in the air, and the hairs on my arms began to stand up. That was when I got what was happening here: Demonreach had wards around whatever was beyond the door—much like the wards that had been put into position around Butters’s apartment. Only they had to be fueled with freaking mystic plutonium or something to generate this much ambient energy simply from being bypassed.

The giant spirit reached for another stone, but paused before touching it.

“REMEMBER.”

The stones. They were like a security keypad. Demonreach was giving me the combination to its security system. And given how much dangerous energy was in the air right now, it stood to reason that if I ever got the combination wrong, well . . . you’d need a bloodhound, a Ouija board, a forensic anthropologist, and a small army of Little Folk to find what was left of me.

I took careful note of which stones the spirit had indicated. Really careful note. Demonreach touched the last stone, and the granite doorway in front of us didn’t move, exactly—it simply stopped being there. The leashed violence in the air, that angry, watchful energy dwindled and vanished, and Demonreach moved forward through the doorway. I followed.

We emerged into a familiar cavern, and once again my chest lit up with phantom remembered pain.

It was surprisingly well lit, for a subterranean chamber. When I’d last been there, I hadn’t been in any shape to go over the details, but I could now see that several glimmering clusters of crystal in the floor, some kind of pale green quartz maybe, gave off a dim glow. No single patch of them really provided adequate illumination, but as a whole they filled most of the cavern with wan green-white light.

Roots burrowed down into the cavern through its ceiling, though I had no idea how in the hell they’d gotten there. No plant sent roots down as deep beneath the surface as this chamber. No normal, earthly plant did, anyway. Water dripped slowly down from above, and where it fell from the ceiling was where the patches of crystal lay.

Over to one side of the chamber was a hollowed-out section of soft earth no deeper than a very shallow bathtub, about seven feet long. I recognized it, even without seeing the withered vines that lay strewn forgotten all around the area. It was my sickbed, where my body had lain for months while Mab and Demonreach exerted themselves to keep the pumps working while my mind and spirit were doing a Casper impersonation.

My chest panged again and I looked away. Waking up from that particular nap had been one of the top two or three most painful moments of my life. Something inside me had changed. Not because of the pain of the experience—though that had been profound. Staring at that place, I felt as if the pain had been a side effect of a deeper and more significant shift in the way I thought of myself, saw myself, and how I should interact with my world.

Fire isn’t always an element of destruction. Classical alchemical doctrine teaches that it also has dominion over another province: change. The fire of my tribulations had not simply been pain to be endured. It had been an agent of transformation. After all that I’d been through, I’d changed.

Not for the worse, I was pretty sure—at least, not yet. But only a moron or a freaking lunatic could have faced the things I had and remained unfazed by them.

I blinked myself out of my reverie to find Demonreach watching me. There was something intense about its eyes.

“MEMORY,” it said, “REFLECTION.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“THIS PLACE.”

I pondered that one for a minute. “Are you saying that I just went into an internal monologue because I came in here?”

Demonreach did not seem to feel a need to clarify. “MEMORY. REFLECTION.”

I sighed. “Well, if I ever need to mull things over, I know just where to go, I guess.” It was chilly in the cavern, and damp, and the air was thick with musty, earthy smells. I turned a slow circle, surveying the entire chamber. “What do you call this place?”

Demonreach said nothing and did not move.

“Right,” I said. “You don’t call it anything at all, I guess.” I scrunched up my nose, thinking. “What is this chamber’s purpose?”

“CONTAINMENT.”

I frowned. “Uh. Of what?”

“THE LEAST.”

“The least what?” I asked, feeling exasperated.

Demonreach just watched me.

“Uh, Harry,” Bob said in a small voice. “Maybe you should look at the crystals?”

I glanced down at the skull, shrugged, and walked over to the nearest formation. I stood over it for a moment. It was a large clump, maybe twelve feet long and four or five across. And . . . and the shadows passing through the translucent crystals seemed to indicate that the floor beneath it had been hollowed out, much the same as my own recovery bed. In fact . . .

I frowned, leaning closer. There was a form beneath the crystals, an outline. The image of whatever it was got to me only after being refracted through multiple crystals, so it was awfully blurry, but I peered at it, trying to unfocus my eyes and look past it, the way you do those magic paintings at the mall.

The image suddenly snapped into disjointed clarity. The form beneath the crystal was a lean creature of basically human shape, maybe nine or ten feet tall and lithe, covered in shaggy hair of golden brown. Its arms were too long for its body. Its hands were too big for its arms. Its fingers were too long for its hands, and were tipped with vicious claws.

And its yellow-gold eyes were open, aware, staring at me in naked, undisguised hatred.

“Fuck me!” I shouted, staggering back in pure, panicked reflex. “That’s a naagloshii! That’s a fucking naagloshii!”

Naagloshii were bad news. Serious bad news. Originally divine messengers of the Dine’s Holy People, they had turned their backs on their origins and become the legendary skinwalkers of the American Southwest. I went up against one of them once. It killed one of my friends, tortured my brother half-crazy, and left me with permanent psychic scars before beating the ever-loving snot out of me. The only reason I had survived was that the wizard who was the greatest shape-shifter I’d ever seen had intervened. Listens-to-Wind had taken on the naagloshii head-to-head. Even then, it had been close, and the naagloshii had escaped to fight another day.

I’ve run into cruel and dangerous beings before. But the naagloshii were quite simply among the most evil creatures it had ever been my displeasure to encounter. And one of the damned things was staring at me from beneath a fragile layer of quartz I could have smashed with a wrench, its eyes burning like it was going to eat me whole.

I got a sudden sinking feeling.

And I turned to the next mound of quartz. And the next.

I’m a lucky guy. I didn’t have one of the most nightmarish fiends in circulation lying on the floor within pouncing distance.

I had six of them.

There were more shapes beneath more crystal mounds. I didn’t recognize them. I’m pretty sure I was extremely happy that I didn’t.

“The least,” I said, my voice shaking. “You’re telling me that a naagloshii is one of the least.” I felt like sitting down, so I did, sort of abruptly, onto the floor. “What . . . what else is in here?”

Demonreach turned to a wall. It lifted an arm and the stone of the wall faded into nonexistence, revealing a hallway maybe fifty feet across. I got back up onto my shaky legs again to take a look. The tunnel sloped down gently, and was lit by the wan glow of the crystals.

Lots of crystals.

Lots and lots and lots of crystals.

The tunnel stretched into the distance. Maybe it was a mile long. Maybe two. Maybe it ran all the way down to Hell. Mounds of crystals dotted the tunnel at regular intervals. Some of them were the size of buildings. Some of the individual crystals had to be the size of freaking trees. I had barely gotten my gawk on when a flood of energy smashed into me, as though opening the door had released liquid held back under pressure. The energy had no physical presence—but I felt a nauseating wave of greasy cold flooding through me, the dark power of the ley lines that converged upon the island breathing across me like a cloud of invisible smog.

“THE WELL,” Demonreach said. The spirit turned, slowly, and eleven more doorways to tunnels almost identical to the first one sighed into existence. Eleven more of them. Because one infinite tunnel full of horrors obviously wasn’t enough. I had twelve.

The dark energy from them hissed and oozed through the air, as if sheer malice and vicious will had been distilled into an unseen mist.

“And . . . and everything down there makes a naagloshii look like small change?” I asked.

“CORRECT.”

“Of course. Naturally,” I said, staring down the first hall. “What are they? What’s down there?”

“NIGHTMARES. DARK GODS. NAMELESS THINGS. IMMORTALS.”

“Holy crap,” I whispered. And that was when I understood why the place was called the Well. “This is why the island is the source of all those ley lines. It’s like a great big bubbling geyser of bad.”

Bob let out an awed whistle. “Uh. Wow, boss, yeah. That’s exactly it. The energy in those ley lines . . . it’s the body heat these things give off.”

I felt a giggle coming up. “Man. Containment. Hell’s bells, containment.” I tried to stuff the giggles back down and addressed Demonreach. “This isn’t a magical stronghold,” I said. “It’s a prison. It’s a prison so hard that half a dozen freaking naagloshii are in minimum security.”

“CORRECT,” Demonreach answered, “WARDEN.”

Chapter Seventeen

“I don’t guess this job pays anything, does it?” I asked.

The spirit just regarded me.

“Didn’t think so,” I said. “So . . . when you call me Warden, you’re speaking literally.”

“INDEED.”

“And you are what? The guard?”

“THE GUARD. THE WALLS. THE BARS. I AM ORDER.”

“You are not the first law-person I would want to be involved with,” I said. I raked my fingers back through my hair. “Okay,” I said, wincing. “The things in here. Are they dangerous where they are?”

“THEY ARE ALWAYS DANGEROUS. BUT THEY HAVE THE LEAST OPPORTUNITY TO EXPRESS IT HERE.”

I blinked. Those were some of the longest, most nuanced, and most complex sentiments the spirit had expressed to me. Which meant that we were speaking about something important—which only made sense. Demonreach didn’t care about friends or enemies or the price of tea in China. It cared about its inmates, period. Anything else, everything else, would be judged based upon its relevance to that subject.

“But can they get loose?”

“NOT WITHOUT OUTSIDE INTERVENTION,” Demonreach said, “OR YOUR AUTHORIZATION.”

“Meep,” I breathed. “Uh. You mean I could turn these things loose?”

“YOU ARE THE WARDEN.”

I swallowed. “Is it possible for me to communicate with them?”

“YOU ARE THE WARDEN.”

“Oh, Hell’s bells, this is bad.”

I had just inherited myself a world of trouble.

Having experienced a naagloshii up close and personal, there wasn’t any way I was letting one of those hideous things loose. I doubted I was going to like anything else that was being held prisoner here any better. In fact, I had no intention, for the time being, of even looking at them, much less finding out who and what the inmates were—and forget about actually talking to them. Not going to happen. Things that old and powerful could be deadly with only a few carefully chosen words dropped at the right place—and I’d learned that one the hard way, too.

But none of that really mattered.

I’d just been handed what amounted to a great big ugly weapon of mass destruction and potential havoc. To the various powers of the supernatural world, it wouldn’t matter that I would never use it. All that would matter was that I had it to use. Really, Officer, I know that’s a rocket launcher in my trunk, but I’m only holding it so that someone bad won’t use it. Really. Honest.

The guys in the White Council who didn’t like me were going to turn purple and start frothing at the mouth when they found out. And every foe the White Council ever had would start looking at me like a gift from Heaven—someone with knowledge of the inner workings of the Council, with enormously concentrated personal power, who was almost certain to frighten the Council enough to make them suspect, isolate, and eventually move against him. That guy would be an awesome asset in any struggle against the wizards of the world.

And boy, wouldn’t the White Council know it?

Like I didn’t have enough recruiters aiming for me already.

And hey, the very best part? I didn’t actually have a real, usable superweapon. I just had the key to a great big box full of pain and trouble for a whole lot of people.

No wonder my grandfather had looked stunned when he’d seen what I had done with Demonreach. Or maybe less “stunned” than “horrified.”

My head was starting to ache again. Dammit, this was all I needed. Over the past few years, my headaches had grown steadily worse, to the point where sometimes they all but knocked me unconscious. I could function through it, to some degree—you don’t spend most of your life learning to manipulate the powers of the universe without racking up a considerable amount of self-discipline and tolerance for pain. But it was just one more freaking stone being added to the baggage I had to carry while I tried to get out of the tightest corner I had ever been in.

Demonreach growled. In all capital letters.

And the headache vanished.

One second, my scalp was tightening up as two separate ice picks dug into my skull in the same places they always did, and the next the pain was utterly gone. The endorphins my body had started pumping got to the scene to find no pain there and threw a party instead. I didn’t fall over in a dazed stupor, because of my universe-manipulating chops, but it was close.

“Whoa,” I breathed. “Uh . . . what did you just do?”

“I WARNED IT.”

I blinked several times. “You . . . warned away my headache?”

“THE CREATURE CAUSING IT. THE PARASITE.”

I stared stupidly for a second, and then sorted through my memories again. That’s right. Right here in this chamber, the last time I’d been here, either Mab or Demonreach had said something about the division of labor keeping my body alive while the rest of me was elsewhere. They’d said that the parasite kept my heart running. I glowered at Demonreach and said, “Tell me about this parasite.”

“I WILL NOT.”

I made an exasperated sound. “Why not?”

“IT BARGAINED.”

“With what?”

“YOUR LIFE, WARDEN.”

I thought about that one for a few seconds. “Wait. . . . You needed its help to save me? And its price was that you don’t tell me about it?”

“INDEED.”

I exhaled slowly and ran my fingers over my head. Something was running around in there, giving me migraines. “Is it a danger to me?”

“IN TIME.”

“What happens if it stays in there?” I asked.

“IT BURSTS FORTH FROM YOUR SKULL.”

“Aglck!” I said. I couldn’t help it. My skin was crawling. I’d seen those Alien movies at a formative age. “How do I get it out?”

Demonreach seemed to consider that for a moment. Then it said, “ASK GRASSHOPPER.”

“Molly? Uh, seriously? You know she’s new, right?”

It just looked at me.

“How long do I have to take care of it?” I asked.

“SOON.”

“Soon? How soon is soon? What do you mean, soon?”

It just stared at me.

Right. Immortal, inhuman, wholly-focused-on-holding-evil-horde-still-forever sorts of creatures don’t have a real solid grasp of the concept of time. From what I’ve seen and heard over the years, I’ve begun to understand that linear time is a uniquely mortal perspective. Other things aren’t attached to it nearly as tightly as we are. There were bushes on the island older than me. There were trees there older than Chicago. Demonreach was not compatible with stopwatches or day planners.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, priorities: Put the skull-bursting-parasite issue aside for the moment. That leaves me in charge of a veritable doomsday machine that the White Council and everyone else is gonna flip out about. But they aren’t going to flip out about it today, because presumably they don’t even know I’m alive yet, and if I don’t stay focused on the next twenty-four hours, I might not live long enough to have all that fun. So we forget about that for now, too.”

“SENSIBLE PRIORITIES.”

“I’m glad you approve,” I said. I was pretty sure something that didn’t understand minutes and seconds wouldn’t be big on getting sarcasm either. “You’ve still got a problem. I need you to explain it to me.”

“YOU ARE TOO LIMITED,” Demonreach said. “IT WOULD DAMAGE YOU, AS IT DAMAGED YOUR SPIRIT.”

I held up both my hands and half flinched. “For God’s sake, don’t think it at me. You think way too loud.”

The glowing eyes looked somehow disgusted. “THIS MEANS OF CONVEYANCE OF IDEAS IS INEFFICIENT AND LIMITED.”

“Words, words, words,” I said. “Tell me about it. But it’s what we’ve got, unless you can draw me a picture.”

Demonreach was still for a moment—and then vines abruptly twined up out of the floor. I almost jumped, but stopped myself. It clearly hadn’t done me any harm, apart from what I’d done to myself, and if it wanted to hurt me, I wasn’t going to be able to stop it anyway. So I waited.

The vines twined up into my bag and came out wrapped around Bob’s skull.

“Harry!” Bob squeaked.

“He’s one of mine,” I said in a hard voice. “You hurt him and you can forget me helping you.”

“LITTLE ENTITY,” Demonreach said. “YOU ARE FAMILIAR WITH THE WARDEN. YOU WILL TRANSLATE. YOU WILL NOT BE DAMAGED.”

“Hey!” I said, and took a step between Demonreach and Bob. “Did you hear me, Hopalong? Put down the skull.”

“Harry!” Bob said again. “Harry, wait! It heard you!”

I scowled and turned to look at Bob. He looked like the same old Bob. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” the skull said. The eyelights were flicking everywhere, as if watching dozens of screens at once. “Man, this thing is big! And old!”

“Is it hurting you?”

“Uh, no . . . no, it isn’t. And it could if it wanted to. It’s just . . . kind of a lot to take in. . . .” Then the skull quivered in the grip of the tendrils and said, “Oh!”

“Oh, what?” I asked.

“It’s explaining the problem,” Bob reported. “It had to take it through several levels of dumbing-down before I was able to get it.”

I grunted and relaxed a little. “Oh. So what’s the problem?”

“Hang on. I’m trying to figure out how to dumb it down enough for you to get it.”

“Thanks,” I growled.

“I got your back, boss.” Then Bob bounced up and down in the tendrils a few times. “Hey, Hopalong! Turn this thing around this way!”

Demonreach glowered at the skull.

Bob jiggled a little more. “Come on! We’re on a schedule here!”

I blinked at that. “Damn. You went from scared to wiseass pretty quick there, Bob.”

Bob snorted. “’Cause as big and bad as this thing is, it needs me to talk to you, and that makes me important. And it knows it.”

“LESSER BEINGS ONCE KNEW TO RESPECT THEIR ELDERS,” Demonreach said.

“I respect the crap out of you,” Bob complained. “You want me to help, and I’m telling you how. Now turn me around.”

A sudden breeze passed through the cavern in a long, enormous sigh. And the vines stirred and twisted the skull toward the nearest wall.

Bob’s eyelights brightened to brilliance and suddenly cast double cones of light on the wall. There was a scratchy sound that seemed to emanate from the skull itself, a blur of a sound like an old film sound track warming up, and then the old spotlight-sweeping 20th Century Fox logo appeared on the wall, along with the pompous trumpet-led symphony theme that often accompanied it.

“A movie?” I asked. “You can play movies?”

“And music! And TV! Butters gave me the Internet, baby! Now hush and pay attention.”

The opening logo bit faded to black and then familiar blue lettering appeared. It read: A LONG TIME AGO, PRETTY MUCH RIGHT HERE . . .

“Okay, come on,” I said. “You’re going to buy me a lawsuit, Bob.”

“Hush, Harry. Or you’ll go to the special hell.”

I blinked at that, confused. I’m not supposed to be the guy who doesn’t get the reference joke, dammit.

On the wall, the black gave way to a star field that panned down to a blue-and-green planet. Earth. Then it zoomed in and in and in until I recognized the outline of Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes, and came closer still until it got to the outline of the island itself.

Bob is invaluable, but man, he loves his wisecracks and his drama.

The image sank down until it showed a familiar landing point, though it had no ruined town and no Whatsup Dock and no row of wooden piles in the water. It was just a little beach of dirt and sand and heavy, brooding forest growth.

Then a ribbon of light maybe eight feet long split the air vertically. The light broadened until it was maybe three feet wide, and then a figure appeared through it. I recognized the signs—someone had opened a Way, a passage from the Nevernever to the island. The figure emerged, made a gesture with one hand, and the Way closed behind it.

It was a man, fairly tall, fairly lean. He wore ragged clothing in many shades of grey. His grey cloak had a deep hood on it, and it shadowed his features, except for the tip of his nose and a short grey-white beard covering a rather pointy chin.

(Letters appeared at the bottom of the screen. They read: MERLIN.)

“Wait? You saw Merlin?” I asked Bob.

“Nah,” Bob said, “but I cast Alec Guinness. Looks good, right?”

I sighed. “Could you get to the point, please?”

“Oh, come on,” Bob said. “I wrote in this romance triangle subplot and cast Jenna Jameson and Carrie Fisher. There’s a love scene you’re gonna really—”

“Bob!”

“Okay, okay. Fine. Sheesh.”

The movie shifted into fast motion. The grey-clad figure became a blur. It walked about waving its arms, and directed oceans of energy here and there, settling them all in and around the substance of the island itself.

“Wait. Did Demonreach tell you how he did that?”

“No,” Bob said, annoyed. “It’s called artistic license, Harry.”

“Okay, I get it. Merlin built the island. However he did it. Get to the part with the problem.”

Bob sighed.

Merlin walked into the woods in comically fast motion and vanished. Then time passed. The sun streaked by hundreds and then thousands of times, the shadows of the island bowing and twisting, the trees rising, growing, growing old, and dying. At the bottom of the screen, words appeared that read, A LOT OF TIME PASSES.

“Thank you for dumbing that down for me,” I said.

“De nada.”

Then the camera slowed. Again, Merlin appeared. Again, oceans of power rose up and settled into the island. Then Merlin vanished, and more years passed. Maybe a minute later, he appeared again—looking exactly the same, I might add—and repeated the cycle.

“Hold on,” I said. “He did it again? Twice?”

“Ah,” Bob said, as a fourth cycle began on the screen. “Sort of. See, Harry, this is one of those things that you’re going to have trouble grabbing onto.”

“Go slow and try me.”

“Merlin didn’t build the prison five times,” Bob said. “He built it once. In five different times. All at the same time.”

I felt my brows knit. “Uh. He was in the same place, doing the same thing, in five different times at once?”

“Exactly.”

“That does not make any sense,” I said.

“Look, a mortal jail is built in three dimensions, right? Merlin built this one in four, and probably in several more, though you can’t really tell whether or not he built it in a given dimension until you go there and measure it, and the act of measuring it will change it, but the point is: This is really advanced stuff.”

I sighed. “Yeah. I’m getting that. But what’s wrong?”

The shot zoomed out, rising up to give a top-down view of the island, which became a blurry shape. A familiar five-pointed star blazed itself across the surface of the lake, its lines so long that the pentagon shape at its center enfolded the island entirely. Within the pentagon, a second pentacle formed, like the first one drawn in the manner to preserve and protect. The camera tightened in, and I saw that the second pentagon enfolded the entire hilltop where the cottage and ruined tower lay. The camera tightened more, and I saw more pentacles drawn, this time not flat but at dozens of intersecting angles, their centers encircling the dozen tunnels full of evil beings beneath the island.

“These,” Bob said, “represent the original enchantments on the island. This is vastly simplified, of course, but the basic star-and-circle architecture is the same as the work you do, Harry.”

Then the design blurred and increased, growing denser and more delicate and more brilliant in power, until something twinged in my brain and I had to look away from the diagram.

“Yeah, sorry about that, boss. This is meant to represent the entanglement of the spells being delivered at different times.”

“No wonder it was so complicated,” I muttered.

“And it’s even worse than this,” Bob said. “I’m filtering it down for you. And here’s the problem.”

I forced myself to look back at the projection, and saw those millions upon millions of spells resonating with one another, spreading and interlocking into an impenetrable barrier. It was, I thought, somehow like watching crystals grow. The spells powering the actual construction of it hadn’t been, alone, too much stronger than some of the work I had done—but when they’d been interconnected with their counterparts across time, they’d fed upon one another, created a perfect resonance of energy that had become something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Then I saw the dissonance appear. Bob had chosen to show it as a sullen red light that began to pulse lightly at the westernmost edges of the great design. It began as something faint, but then, like an oncoming headache, started to throb into something larger and more noticeable. Where scarlet and blue light touched, there were ugly flares of energy—flares that I had been sensing ever since I’d gotten to the island. Before long, that scarlet pulse had spread to half the island, and then, abruptly, the screen went white.

Text at the bottom read, NOVEMBER 1.

“By tomorrow,” I said. “Super. But I still don’t see what is wrong, Bob.”

“Energy hits it,” Bob said. “A directed burst of energy, a whole lot of it. It unravels the whole containment spell Merlin laid down and triggers the fail-safe.”

“FIRE,” rumbled Demonreach.

“I figured that one out, thanks,” I said. “But nothing has actually happened to the spells yet?”

“Nope,” said Bob. “That tension that’s building? It’s . . . Well, think of it as cause and effect, only backward.”

“Huh?”

“What the island is experiencing now is the echo of the moment that burst of energy strikes it,” Bob said. “Only instead of the echo happening after, it’s happening first.”

I stopped and thought. “You’re telling me that the reason the island is about to blow up is . . . because it’s about to blow up?”

Bob sighed. “Someone hits the island with energy, Harry. But they’ve figured out how Merlin put this place together. They aren’t attacking it in three dimensions. They’re attacking in four. They’re sending power through time as well as through space.”

“So . . . I have to stop them from attacking the island tomorrow?”

“No,” Bob said, exasperated. “You have to stop them from attacking whenever it is that they actually attack.”

“Uh . . .”

“Look, the rock they’re throwing hits tomorrow,” Bob said. “But you have to stop them from throwing it at whatever point they’re standing when they throw it.”

“Oh,” I said, blinking. “I get that.”

Bob turned to look at Demonreach. “Do you see what I have to work with here? I had to take that down to throwing a rock before it got through.”

“HIS UNDERSTANDING IS LIMITED,” Demonreach agreed.

“Okay, I’ve had just about enough from both of you,” I said. “If you’re so smart, how come you don’t stop it from happening?”

“THE EXPLANATION WOULD DAMAGE YOU, WARDEN.”

Bob made an impatient sound. “Because that spirit is the island, Harry. The spells, the Well, the physical island, all of it. Demonreach does not exist outside this island. It has no ability to reach beyond itself. The attack is coming from outside the prison. That’s why it needs a Warden in the first place.”

I scowled. “It talked to me in the graveyard last year.”

“It bullied Mab into helping it,” Bob said.

“I DID NOT BULLY. I BARGAINED.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll add that to my list, then. Find whoever it is, wherever they are, and stop them from doing something they haven’t done yet.”

“Unless they have,” Bob said. “In which case, well. Kinda too late.”

“Right,” I said tiredly.

I had my own private purgatory full of sleeping monsters.

I had a parasite in my brain that was fixing to burst my skull on its way out of me.

My little island paradise was about to explode with enough energy to cook dark gods and Lord only knew what else hanging around under the island. That meant we were talking about a release of energy in the gigaton range. And if I didn’t stop someone from doing it, the continental shelf was about to have a very bad day.

Oh, right. And I was supposed to kill an insane immortal—or else face the wrath of her mother.

And I had to do it all in the next twenty-four hours. Maybe a little less.

“And the sad part is, this actually feels like having my life back. How bent is that?”

“Harry,” Bob said. “Sunrise in one hour.”

“Right.” I sighed and picked up the skull. I tucked him away into the messenger bag and said to Demonreach, “I’m on it.”

“GOOD.”

I muttered darkly under my breath and turned for the stairs, then started jogging back up them, thinking of all the problems arrayed against me.

Good thing I’d been working out.

Chapter Eighteen

Okay, for the record: That is one hell of a lot of stairs to go up.

Also for the record: I did them two and three at a time, at a run, and went to the top without stopping.

From there, I went pounding down the hillside, my feet never slipping or faltering, until I got back to the beach, moving at an easy run. The sun was rising behind me, but the solid mass of Demonreach kept it blotted out in shadow, and I could tell only by the light beginning to fill the sky.

Thomas came to his feet as I left the woods, his hands moving to his weapons automatically. I shook my head at him, never slowing down, and said, “Let’s get this tub moving!”

“What did you find out?” he called. He started untying the lines and then leapt nimbly up to the deck of the Water Beetle. Molly appeared from the cabin, looking as though she’d been sleeping a few seconds before.

I ran down the dock and hopped up to the ship’s deck. “A bunch of people are gonna be mad at me, I’ve got some kind of medical issue that’s going to kill me in a while if I don’t deal with it, oh, and the island’s blowing up tomorrow and taking a whole lot of the country with it if I don’t fix it.”

Thomas gave me a steady look. “So,” he said. “Same old, same old.”

“I think it’s nice that there are some things in this world you can rely on,” I said.

My brother snorted and started the Water Beetle’s engines. We backed away from the dock, and then he turned, gunned it, and headed back toward town. Like I said before, the boat isn’t a racing machine, but it’s got some horsepower in it, and as the sun rose properly, we were zooming over the orange-gold water, leaving a huge V-shaped wake behind us, while I stood at the front of the boat, my hands on the railing.

I felt it when the dawn broke, the way you almost always can if you stop to pay attention. Something subtle and profound simply shifted in the air around me. Even if I’d been blindfolded, I would have felt the transition, the way that the winds and currents of energy broadly known as magic began to gust and shift, driven by the light of the oncoming sun.

I wasn’t close enough to any of the Ways to the realms of Faerie to be able to sense whether they had been reopened, but it made sense that they would be. Sunrise tends to disperse and dissolve patterns of magical energy—not because magic is inherently a force of the night so much as because the dawn is inherently a force of new beginnings and renewal.

Every sunrise tended to erode ongoing enchantments. A spell spread so wide that it curtained the whole of Faerie away from the mortal world would by necessity be rather thin and fragile. When the sun hit it, it would be like about a zillion magnifying glasses focusing light on old newsprint. It would blacken and wither away. My mind treated me to a gruesome little collage of images—the darkest beings of Faerie suddenly pouring forth from every creepy shadow and unsettling alley and dangerous-looking old abandoned building in the city. You’d think my mind would find better things to do, like fantasize about improbably friendly women or something.

Molly came up and stood with me, facing ahead. I looked at her obliquely. The rising sun behind us painted her hair gold but left her face lightly veiled in shadow. She didn’t look young anymore.

I mean, don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t like her hair had gone grey and her teeth fell out. But there had always been a sense of energy and life and simple joy welling up from the grasshopper. It had been her default setting, and I hadn’t realized how much I had loved that about her.

Now her blue eyes looked weary, wary. She wasn’t looking at the beauty in life as much as she once had. Her eyes scanned for dangers both nearby and farther down the road, heavy with caution and made wise by pain—and they had far, far more steel in them than I had ever seen there before.

Months of training with the Leanansidhe while fighting a street war will do that.

Maybe if I’d been tougher on the grasshopper early on, it wouldn’t have come as such a shock to her. Maybe if I’d focused on different aspects of her training, she would have been better prepared.

Maybe, maybe, maybe, but I was kidding myself. Molly’s eyes were always going to end up like that sooner or later—just like mine had.

This business doesn’t play nice with children.

“I told you,” Molly said, never looking toward me. “It’s in the past. Leave it there.”

“You listening to my head, kiddo?”

Her mouth twitched. “Only when I want to hear the roar of the ocean.”

I grinned. I liked that so much better than all the “Sir Knights” I’d been getting lately.

“How much can you tell me?” she asked.

I looked at her eyes for a moment while she stared ahead and made a decision.

“Everything,” I said quietly. “But not right this second. We’ve got priorities to focus on first. We can get into the details after we’ve dealt with the immediate threat.”

“Maeve?” Molly asked.

“And the island.” I told her about the danger to Demonreach without going into specifics about the island’s purpose. “So if I don’t stop it, boom.”

Molly frowned. “I can’t imagine how you can stop an event from happening if you don’t know who is going to do it, and both where and when it’s going to happen.”

“If the problem was simple and easy, it wouldn’t require wizards to fix it,” I said. “The impossible we do immediately. The unimaginable takes a little while.”

“I’m serious,” she said.

“So am I,” I replied. “Be of good cheer. I think I know the right guy to talk to about this one.”

* * *

Half the sun was over the horizon when Chicago’s skyline came into sight. I just basked in that for a minute. Yeah, I know, stupid, but it’s my town and I’d been gone for what felt like a lifetime. It was good to see the autumn sun gleaming off of glass and steel.

Then I felt myself tense, and I pushed myself up from where I’d been leaning on the forward rail. I took a moment to look around me very carefully. I didn’t know what had set off my instincts, but they were doing the same routine they’d learned to do every time Mab had been about to spring her daily assassination attempt, and I couldn’t have ignored them if I’d wanted to.

I didn’t see anything, but then I heard it—the humming roar of small, high-revolution engines.

“Thomas!” I shouted over the snorting of the Water Beetle’s motor. I gestured toward my ear and then spun my hand in a wide circle.

It wasn’t exactly tactical sign language, but Thomas got the message. From his vantage point in the wheelhouse atop the cabin, he swept his gaze around warily. Then his gaze locked on something northwest of us.

“Uh-oh,” I breathed.

Thomas spun the wheel and rolled the Water Beetle onto a southwesterly course. I hustled over to the ladder up to the wheelhouse and stood on the top rung, which put my head about level with Thomas’s. I shielded my eyes from the glare of the oncoming sun with one hand and peered northwest.

There were five Jet Skis flying toward us over the water. Thomas had altered course enough to buy us a little time, but I could see at a glance that the Jet Skis were moving considerably faster than we were. Thomas opened the throttle all the way and passed me, I kid you not, a shiny brass telescope.

“Seriously?” I asked him.

“Ever since those pirate movies came out, they’re everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got a sextant, too.”

“Any tent you have is a sex tent,” I muttered darkly, extending the telescope.

Thomas smirked.

I peered through the thing, holding myself steady with one hand. Given the speed and bounce of the boat, it wasn’t easy, but I finally managed to get a prolonged glimpse of the Jet Skis. I couldn’t see much in the way of detail yet—but the guy on the lead Jet Ski was wearing a bright red beret.

“We’ve definitely got a problem,” I said.

“Friends of yours?”

“The Redcap and some of his Sidhe buddies, it looks like,” I said, lowering the telescope. “They’re Winter muscle, but I think they’re mostly medieval types. That gives us a couple of minutes to—”

There was a sharp hissing sound and something unseen slapped the telescope out of my hand, sending it spinning through the air in a whirl of torn metal and tiny shards of broken glass.

The report of a gunshot followed a second later.

“Holy crap!” I sputtered, and dropped down to lie flat on the deck. There was another hiss and a loud cracking sound as a round smacked into the wall of the cabin above me.

“Medieval? Are you sure you know what that means?” Thomas demanded. He heeled the boat about a bit and then snaked it back in the original direction, following a serpentine course. That would make us a harder target—but it also meant that we were going slower, cruising in a zigzag while our pursuers were rushing forward in a straight line.

But even with the maneuvers, the rounds kept coming in. At that distance, with the relative movements of the vehicles, a purely human marksman could have hit us only through something that went well past good luck and began approaching divine intervention. But the Redcap and his cronies weren’t human. The grace I’d seen the Sidhe displaying on the dance floor had been all precise, subtle elegance and flawless grace. Both of those things transitioned well into marksmanship.

I still had my shiny, gleaming cowboy rifle, but it was worse than useless in this situation. The .45 Colt round would be killer at conventional gunfight distances, most of which happened at about twenty feet—but it would lose a lot of effectiveness shooting at targets that distant. Coincidentally, the guy holding the gun would also lose effectiveness shooting at targets that distant. So blazing away at them seemed like a stupid plan.

“Hey!” I shouted toward my brother. “If I take the wheel, can you pick them off from here?”

“If we drive straight, maybe!” he called back.

A round tore a chunk of wood off the corner of the boat’s dashboard. Thomas stared hard at it for a second. Six inches to the left and it would have hit him in the lower back.

“Uh,” he said, continuing to veer and swerve the boat. “Plan B?”

“Right,” I muttered. “Right. Plan B.”

I thought furiously while the fusillade continued. Rounds hit the side of the ship in sharp, angry whacks. Surely they didn’t have the ammunition to keep this kind of thing up for very long. Though, thinking about it, I had no idea how rapidly they were going through the ammo. For all I knew, one guy was shooting at us, and getting more and more successful at judging the shot over the surface of the water. And the Sidhe were closing. Their accuracy seemed to be increasing as they did. Once they got into optimal range, where they were close enough to land rounds but we weren’t capable of replying in kind, all they had to do was maintain the distance and kill us to death.

I could start throwing magic at them, but Mab’s training had a gap in it: Everything had been right up in my grille. I’d never engaged her or one of her proxies at more than twenty feet or so, and without a properly prepared staff or blasting rod, I’d never be able to reach out far enough to hit those clowns. Odds were good that they knew it, too. They’d hold the distance.

A weakness. I had to exploit a weakness. The Sidhe hated iron, but even if I found some, how did I get it to them? I mean, a gun shooting jacketed rounds would really screw them up, but for it to work I’d have to hit them. There was a box of nails in the toolbox. I could throw those, maybe, but again there was the issue of actually hitting them. Which wasn’t going to happen as long as they were way out there.

I needed to lure them in closer.

“Grasshopper!” I shouted.

The cabin door swung open and Molly belly-crawled onto the deck until she could see me. “Who started shooting at us?”

“Bad guys!” I cringed as another round hit the side of the boat and peppered me with wooden splinters. “Obviously!”

“Can we outrun them?”

“Not happening,” I said. “Ideas?”

“I could veil us?”

“Going to be hard to hide the boat’s wake, isn’t it?”

“Oh. Right. What do we do?”

“I need mist,” I said. “A bunch of it. Gimme.”

“Oh, ow, I don’t know Harry. I’d have to move an awful lot of fire to give you even a little. You know that’s not my thing.”

“It doesn’t have to be real mist,” I said.

“Oh!” Molly called. “That is exactly my thing!”

“Attagirl!”

“Fuck!” Thomas snarled. I looked up to see him stagger, holding on to the boat’s wheel with his right hand, his face twisted in pain. He’d taken a bullet in his left arm, just above the elbow, and he held it clenched in tight against his body, teeth bared. Slightly too pale blood trickled down his elbow and dribbled to the deck. “Plan B, Harry! Where the hell is plan B?!”

“Go, go, go!” I told Molly.

My apprentice closed her eyes and clenched her fists. I saw her focus, felt the slight stirring in the air as she gathered her will and power. Then she moved her hands in a complicated little gesture, whispering something. She continued making the gesture, and I realized that the motion was duplicating that of weaving three lines into a braid.

From between her fingers a thick white mist began to appear. First it came as a trickle, but as I watched it thickened to a stream. Then Molly bowed her head in concentration and muttered words beneath her breath, and a sudden plume of white mist bigger than the Water Beetle itself began jetting from her hands and spreading out to blanket the surface of the water over the boat’s wake, shutting the pursuing Sidhe away from view.

For a long minute we raced across the water, a wall of white mist spreading out to cover our wake. The enemy fire continued for a few seconds, but then dropped off to nothing. Hell, if we could keep this up, maybe we could make it back to shore without doing anything more. I checked Molly. Her face was pale, twisted into a grimace of concentration, and already the plume of illusory mist was beginning to wane. Mist isn’t a hard illusion to pull off, and it’s usually the first thing an apprentice learns to do with that kind of magic, but Molly was spreading the illusion out over an enormous area, and brute-force approaches were not her strong point in magic. We wouldn’t make it back to shore that way.

Fine, then.

“Thomas!” I shouted. “Throttle down! Let them catch up to us and then gun it!”

Thomas slowed the boat abruptly, and the sound of screaming Jet Ski engines rose up over the Water Beetle’s motor, growing higher-pitched as they approached.

“Molly, drop it on my signal!”

“’Kay,” she gasped.

My brother stood at the wheel with his eyes closed, focused intently on the sound. Then, abruptly, he gunned the Water Beetle’s engines again.

“Molly, now!”

Molly let out a groan and the illusionary cloud of white mist vanished as if it had never existed.

The formation of oncoming Jet Skis was only about fifty yards away, charging hard after us over the water, and they were moving so much more swiftly than us that within seconds they were almost on top of the Water Beetle. Jet Skis started swerving left and right to avoid a collision with our boat.

All except for the Redcap. He was guiding the Jet Ski with one hand and held a military carbine in the other. His eyes widened as the vehicle rushed closer, but rather than swerving to one side, he broke out into a wild smile, swung the gun around to point toward me, and accelerated.

Before he could shoot, I unleashed my gathered will into a burst of completely unfocused magical energy, shouting, “Hexus!”

I think I mentioned before how technology doesn’t get along with wizards. Put any kind of intricate machine in a wizard’s presence, and suddenly everything that might go wrong with the machine does go wrong. And that’s when we’re not even trying to make it happen. Electronics generally get hit the hardest, like poor Butters’s computers, but that particular law of magical forces is good across the spectrum.

Jet Skis, especially the brand-new ones, are intricate machines. They focus tremendous power and energy into a tiny space, and their systems are regulated by little computers and so on. They’re a gathering of tiny, nearly continuous explosions in a box, moving water under intense pressure—and a world of things can go wrong with them.

The Redcap’s Jet Ski suffered an abrupt, catastrophic engine failure. There was a hideous sound of tearing metal, a flash of flame, and the handlebar twisted abruptly from his hands. The Jet Ski’s nose plunged down into the water, flinging the Redcap off of it at full speed. He’d been doing maybe sixty when I hit him, and he skipped twice across the water’s surface before he slammed into a swell from the Water Beetle’s wake and vanished under the surface.

Thomas, meanwhile, had seized another opportunity. As the Jet Skis split off to swing around us, he whirled the steering wheel, turning the Water Beetle sharply to her left. I heard one scream, and a crunching sound accompanied by a heavy reverberation in the deck beneath my feet as a Jet Ski slammed into our boat’s nose—with results very similar to a deer slamming into a speeding semi.

“Hexus!” Molly shouted from where she was crouched on the deck. Her aim was good, even if her hex wouldn’t carry the same kind of raw power mine did. The Jet Ski Thomas had missed suddenly began billowing smoke, and its roaring engine cut away to a gasping, labored rattle.

I spun to face the other direction, pitching another hex at the two Jet Skis passing on the far side of the ship. They were at the edge of my range and racing away, so my hex didn’t convince their engines to tear themselves apart, the way the short-range, focused curse had the Redcap’s vehicle—but one of the Jet Skis abruptly began coasting to a stop, and the other took a sharp right turn and then simply went on turning in a furious, continuous circle.

Thomas opened up the throttle all the way, and the Water Beetle left the lamed flotilla of would-be assassins bobbing in her wake.

I didn’t relax until I’d swept the ship’s exterior with my eyes and magical senses alike to make sure no one was hanging on to a rail or something. Then, just to be certain, I double-checked the cabin and hold, until I was certain that no one had infiltrated the boat in the chaos.

And then I sank down in relief on a chair in the cabin. But only for a second. Then I grabbed the first-aid kit and went up to the bridge to see to Thomas.

Molly was sprawled on the deck in the morning sunshine, exhausted from her efforts, and obviously asleep. She snored a little. I stepped over her and went up to my brother. He saw me and grunted. “We should be pulling into port in another fifteen minutes,” he said. “I think we’re clear.”

“That won’t last,” I said. “How’s your arm?”

“Through and through,” Thomas said. “Not too bad. Just stop the leak.”

“Hold still,” I told him. Then I started working on his arm. It wasn’t bad, as bullet wounds go. It had entered the lean muscle at the bottom of his triceps in back and come out the other side, leaving a small hole. That had probably been the Redcap, then—the rounds from his M4 would be armor-piercing, metal-jacketed military rounds, specifically designed to punch long, fairly small holes. I cleaned it up with disinfectant, got a pressure bandage positioned over the holes, and taped it down. “Okay, you can stop complaining now.”

Thomas, who had been silent the whole time, gave me a look.

“You can have your harem change out the bandages later,” I said. “How busy are you today?”

“Oh,” he mused. “I don’t know. I mean, I’ve got to get a new shirt now.”

“After that,” I asked, “would you like to help me save the city? If you don’t already have plans.”

He snorted. “You mean, would I like to follow you around, wondering what the hell is going on because you won’t tell me everything, then get in a fight with something that is going to leave me in intensive care?”

“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding, “pretty much.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Okay.”

Chapter Nineteen

We took Thomas’s car back to his apartment.

“You got the Hummer fixed,” I said approvingly.

He snorted. “After I let you ride in it, it went undamaged for what, about thirty minutes?”

“Come on,” I said, stretching out my legs. There was room. “It was at least an hour. How you doing back there, Molly?”

From the backseat, Molly snored. I smiled. The grasshopper had shambled to the truck and flung herself down on the backseat without saying a word.

“She okay?” Thomas asked.

“She pushed it today,” I said.

“With that mist thing? She does illusions all the time, I thought.”

“Dude,” I said. “It was hundreds of yards long and hundreds of yards across. That’s a huge freaking image to project, especially over water.”

“Because water grounds out magic?” Thomas asked.

“Exactly right,” I said. “And be glad it does, or the Sidhe would have been chucking lightning bolts at us instead of bullets. Molly had to sustain her image while the energy from which it was made kept on draining away. And then she hexed one of the Jet Skis. For her, that’s some serious heavy lifting. She’s tired.”

He frowned. “Like that time you collapsed at my dad’s place?”

“More or less,” I said. “Molly’s still relatively new at this. The first few times you hit your wall, it just about knocks you out. She’ll be fine.”

“So how come the Sidhe didn’t hex up their own engines? I mean, I’m guessing a Jet Ski would run for about ten seconds with you on it.”

“I’d give it ten or fifteen minutes,” I said. “And it worked for the Sidhe because they aren’t human.”

“Why should that make a difference?”

I shrugged. “No one really knows. Ebenezar thinks it’s because human beings are inherently conflicted creatures. Magic responds to your thoughts and to your emotions—and people’s thoughts and emotions are constantly conflicting with one another. The way he figures it, that means that there’s a kind of turbulence around people with magical talent. The turbulence is what causes mechanical failure.”

“Why?”

I shrugged again. “It’s just the way things are. The specific effects this turbulence causes tend to change slowly over time. Three hundred years ago, it made cream turn sour, disturbed animals, and tended to encourage minor skin infections in wizards. Gave them blemishes and moles and pockmarks.”

“Fun,” Thomas said.

“Yeah, I’m not upset about missing out on that kind of fun,” I said. “Then sometime between then and now, it segued into triggering odd flashes of hallucination in the people who hung around in close proximity to us. You know the whole ergot theory of history? People with talent, especially people who didn’t even know they had it, probably had a lot to do with that. Now it mucks around with probability where machines are concerned.”

Thomas eyed me. Then he carefully powered off his truck’s stereo.

“Funny,” I said. After a moment I added, “I don’t mean to do it. I mean, I try not to do it, but . . .”

“I don’t mind if you break my stuff,” Thomas said. “I’ll just make Lara buy me new stuff.”

Lara, Thomas’s half sister, was the power behind the throne of the White Court of vampires. Lara was gorgeous, brilliant, and sexier than a Swedish bikini team hiking up a mountain of money. As a potential enemy, she was a little scary. As an occasional ally, she was freaking terrifying.

I wasn’t ever going to tell Thomas this, but when I’d been arranging my own murder, Lara had been the runner-up on my list of possible administrators of my demise. I mean, hey, if you’re going to go, there are worse ways to do it than to be taken out by the freaking queen of the world’s succubi.

“How’s Lara doing?” I asked.

“She’s Lara,” Thomas said. “Always doing business, planning plans, scheming schemes.”

“Like the Brighter Future Society?” I asked. The BFS was an alliance of unlikely bedfellows of the supernatural scene in Chicago, headquartered out of a small but genuine castle, guarded by hired guns from Valhalla.

Thomas bared his teeth in a smile. “That was Lara’s idea, actually. Marcone imported that freaking castle and had it rebuilt over your old boardinghouse. Lara says it’s impregnable.”

“The Death Star was impregnable,” I said. “So Lara got in bed with Marcone?”

“She tried,” Thomas said, “but Marcone kept it purely business. That’s two men who have turned her down in the same century. She was annoyed.”

I grunted. I’d been the other guy. John Marcone was the crime lord of Chicago. He could buy and sell United States congressmen, and had the establishment in Chicago completely wired. He was also the first regular mortal to sign on to the Unseelie Accords, and according to them, he was the baron of Chicago.

“I was sort of hoping she’d kill him,” I said.

“I was sort of hoping for the other way around,” Thomas said. “But with the Fomor trying to muscle in on everyone’s territory, they need each other—for now.”

“The Fomor are that bad?” I asked. They were a crew of bad guys whose names were known primarily in old mythology books, the survivors of a number of dark mythoi across the world, the worst of the worst—or at least the most survival-minded of the worst.

“They’re ruthless,” Thomas said. “And they’re everywhere. But between Marcone’s hired goons, Lara’s resources, and Murphy’s people, they haven’t gotten a solid foothold here. Other cities, it’s bad. Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, and Boston are the worst off. They’re grabbing anyone with a lick of magical ability and carrying them away. Thousands of people.”

“Hell’s bells,” I muttered. “What about the White Council?”

“They’re busy,” Thomas said. “Word is that they’re operating around the coasts of Europe, especially in the Mediterranean, fighting the Fomor there. Lara’s people have been sharing a little information with the Council, and vice versa, but there’s nothing like an alliance.”

“They aren’t working in the U.S. at all?” I asked.

Thomas shrugged. “Your Warden buddies are trying,” he said. “Ramirez got hurt pretty bad last year. I don’t think he’s back in action yet. But the Wardens in Baltimore and San Diego are holding out, and the kid in Texas is giving them hell.”

“Good for Wild Bill,” I said. “So how come other cities haven’t gone down?”

“Lara,” Thomas said simply. His voice altered subtly and I could recognize the precise, enunciated tones that marked his sister’s voice. “We labored for centuries to cultivate this herd. I will not abide a horde of toady, has-been poachers.”

“She’s a sweetheart,” I said.

“She’s done a lot,” he said. “But she wouldn’t have been able to do it without the Paranet.”

“Wow. Seriously?”

“Knowledge is power,” Thomas said. “There are tens of thousands of people on the Paranet. Eyes and ears in every city, getting more experienced every day. Something happens, one of the Fomor moves, and the entire community knows about it in minutes.”

I blinked. “They can do that?”

“Internet,” Thomas said. “The Netters are all low-grade talents. They can use computers and cell phones without hexing them up. So something starts happening, they tweet about it, and Lara dispatches a ready team.”

“And she just happens to get to find out more about the magical talents in other cities. The ones who can’t really defend themselves. In case she gets hungry later.”

“Yeah,” Thomas said. “But it’s not like the Netters have a lot of choice in the matter.” He paused for a couple of blocks and then said, “Lara’s getting scary.”

“Lara was always scary.”

Thomas shook his head. “Not like this. She’s getting involved in government.”

“She was always doing that,” I said.

“City officials, sure. A few key state bureaucrats. And she kept it gentle and invisible—manipulation, influence. But now she’s going for something different.”

“What?”

“Control.”

It’s funny how chilling one little word can be.

“I’ll stick her on my to-do list, then,” I said.

Thomas snorted.

“Not like that,” I said. “Pervert.”

“Yeah. Because you think she’s hideous.”

“She’s too scary to be pretty,” I lied.

“If she knew I’d told you even that much, bad things would happen,” Thomas said.

“To you?”

“Not me. I’m family.” His jaw tensed. “To Justine.”

“No, it won’t,” I said. “Because if she tries it, we’ll protect Justine.”

My brother looked at me. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

“Whatever,” I said. “It’s getting cloying in here. Are we there yet?”

He smiled. “Jerk.”

“Wuss.”

“Jackass.”

“Pansy.”

“Philistine.”

“Dandysprat.”

“Butthead.”

“Whiner . . .”

* * *

Thomas had just pulled the Hummer into a parking space in a garage across from his apartment building in the Loop when a gold SUV roared up and came to a sudden halt behind the Hummer. Thomas and I traded a fast look, and we were both thinking the same thing. A car meant that an attacker would probably be a mortal, using mortal weapons. That meant guns. That meant that if they started shooting at us while we were still in the car, Molly, asleep in the backseat, wouldn’t have a prayer.

Both of us rolled out of the front seat, getting clear of the Hummer as fast as possible. Thomas had his handgun with him. I took the Winchester with me.

The occupants of the gold SUV didn’t come leaping out with guns blazing. The engine stopped. Then, several seconds later, the driver’s door opened, and someone got out. He walked calmly around the front of the SUV.

It was a slender man, a bit below average height. His hair was a blond so pale that it was nearly white. He wore faded blue jeans and a green silk shirt. He had a gun belt a lot like Thomas’s number, fitted with an automatic pistol on one hip and a sword on the other. He wasn’t a particularly good-looking man, and he didn’t carry himself aggressively, but his jaw and his eyes were both hard. He stopped at a point where he could see both of us and stood there, his arms akimbo, his hands not quite entirely relaxed by his sides—and near his weapons.

“Harry,” he said quietly.

“Fix,” I said. I knew him. He was my opposite number on the Summer side of things. His predecessor had been murdered by my predecessor.

“I heard that Mab had recruited you to be the new Winter Knight,” he said. “I was sure that it was a wild rumor. The man I knew would never have bowed to a creature like Mab.”

“I had my reasons,” I said.

He looked me up and down, slowly. Then he said, “You’ve been given instructions.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“You have,” he said. “Mab’s sent you to kill someone, hasn’t she?”

“It’s none of your concern,” I said quietly.

“The hell it isn’t,” Fix said. “The Winter Knight exists to execute people Mab can’t kill herself. You think I don’t know that?”

“I think that there’s an awful lot of glass in your house, Fix,” I said. “You’re in the same business as me.”

“Never,” Fix said. “The Summer Knight’s job isn’t to do Titania’s killing.”

“No? What is it, then?”

“To stop you,” he said simply. “Not even Mab should get to decide who lives and who dies, Harry. Life is too precious to be wasted that way. So when she sends you to kill someone, someone gets in the way. That’s me.”

I didn’t say anything for a minute. I had assumed that the Summer Knight would have the same job I did, just for a different crew. I hadn’t really thought about actually crossing swords with Fix—metaphorically or otherwise. Ten years ago, that possibility wouldn’t have fazed me. But Fix wasn’t the same guy he had been back then. He was the Summer Knight, and he was currently standing up to a champion of the White Court and the Winter Knight without batting an eye. I recognized the calm in him, the stillness that was almost like serenity—it was focus and confidence. He knew the danger, he didn’t want to fight, but he was quietly ready for it, and ready to accept whatever consequences it might bring.

It’s generally a really bad idea to fight guys who are in that particular mental space.

“You want me to run him off?” Thomas asked.

Fix’s eyes didn’t move from me, but he directed his words at Thomas. “Come try it, vampire.”

“Stars and stones.” I sighed. I took the Winchester and put it gently back into the Hummer. “Fix, can we stop the High Noon routine? I’m not going to fight you.”

He frowned slightly. “That sort of remains to be seen.”

“Thomas,” I said, “get back in the truck, please.”

“What?”

“I want to talk to Fix, and it isn’t going to be a real productive conversation if he has to keep one eye on each of us and his fingers by his gun in case you draw on him.”

Thomas grunted. “Suppose he draws and shoots you as soon as I’m not backing you up.”

“If that happens, and if it’ll make you feel better, you can come fight him, I suppose.” I regarded Fix for a moment and then said, “But he won’t.”

“Harry,” Thomas said.

“He won’t,” I said quietly. “I know him. He won’t.”

Thomas let out a low growling grumble—but he got back into the Hummer and shut the door.

Fix eyed me warily, and checked his surroundings quickly, as though expecting some kind of ambush.

I sighed and sat down on the rear bumper of the Hummer. “Fix,” I said. “Look, I’ve been doing this job for about six hours now. I haven’t gone all dark side. Yet.”

Fix folded his arms. His fingers were still close to his weapons, but a little farther away than they’d been a moment before. “You’ve got to understand. Lloyd Slate was a real monster, man.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know. Because you never had to face him without power, the way we did.”

I spread my hands. “I didn’t always have power, Fix. And even with it, there are plenty of big, scary things out there that I’m just as helpless against. I know.”

“Then you know what my problem is,” he said.

“Let’s assume for a moment that I’m sometimes an idiot,” I said. “What’s your problem?”

He gave me a brief smile. “You were dangerous enough without Mab’s hand on you. Now? You can make Lloyd Slate look like a grade-school bully.”

“But I haven’t,” I said.

“But you could.”

“Maybe I won’t.”

“Maybe you will.”

“If I’m as powerful as you seem to think,” I said, “then what makes you think you can stand up to me?”

He shrugged. “Maybe I can’t. But at least I have a chance. The people behind me wouldn’t.”

“Ah,” I said. We both sat for a moment. Then I said, “So I guess it won’t be enough for me to assure you that I’m not up to no good.”

“You know how you could tell when Slate was lying?”

“How?”

“His lips were moving.”

I smiled briefly. “Well. It seems to me you’ve got a couple of choices.”

“Oh?”

“You do the math. You see what I have the potential to do, and you plan for what I could do, rather than what you think I will do.”

“Might be smart,” Fix said. “Von Clausewitz would say so.”

“If this was a war and I was the enemy, sure.”

“What else do you think I could do?”

“Extend a little trust, maybe,” I said. “That’s the illusion here, man. As far as I’m concerned, we don’t need to be enemies. We don’t need to be at war.”

Fix pursed his lips. Then he said, “Here’s the problem with that. You belong to Mab. I like Harry. Maybe I could even trust him. But I know what Mab is like—and Harry belongs to Mab now.”

“The hell I do,” I said. “Just because I took this job doesn’t mean I’m all cozy with her.”

“You, uh, looked kinda cozy, man. With Mab. On the stone table.”

Sealing a contract like the one with Mab isn’t something you do with an impersonal handshake. I felt my cheeks heat up. “Oh. You saw that.”

“All of Faerie did,” Fix said.

“God, that’s humiliating,” I muttered.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “At least it wasn’t on pay-per-view.”

I snorted.

“Okay,” I said finally. “I’m under some time pressure here, so I think you need to make a decision.”

“Yeah?”

I nodded. “Who is going to make this call? You? Or von Clausewitz?”

Fix looked away. Then he said, “I hate this kind of crap. This is the first time I’ve had a job I’ve held down for more than six months.”

“I hear you.”

He gave me another brief smile. “I want to believe you,” he said. Then he took a steadying breath and faced me, lowering his arms to his sides again. “But there are people depending on me to keep them safe. I can’t afford to do that.”

I stood up, very slowly and reluctantly. “Fix, I don’t want this fight.”

“And you’ll get a chance to avoid it,” he said. “I’m going to give you until noon to get out of town, Harry. If I see you after that, I’m not going to spend any more time talking, and I’m not going to challenge you to a fair fight. If you’re really serious about being your own man, if you really want to keep the peace between us—you’ll go.”

“I don’t think I can do that,” I said.

“I didn’t think you could,” he said quietly. “You have until noon.”

We exchanged a nod. Then he moved back to his SUV, never taking his eyes off me. Once he was in, he started it and drove away.

I sank back down onto the Hummer’s back bumper again and closed my eyes.

Great.

One more thing.

I liked Fix. He was a decent guy. He’d become the Summer Knight, and as far as I knew, he’d never abused his power. People in the supernatural community liked and respected him. I’d even seen him in action once. He was a hell of a lot more formidable than he’d been as the scared young man I’d first met.

I didn’t want to fight him.

He might not give me a choice.

Mab was not about puppies and kittens, and I’d known that when I signed on. Even if she wasn’t evil, exactly, she was vicious, violent, and ruthless. I had no doubt that Mab had done for a number of decent people in her time, one way or another. There were stories about the Winter Knight stretching back for centuries, and various vile personalities had held the title. Some of them had even been famous. Gilles de Rais. Andrei Chikatilo. John Haigh. Fritz Haarmann. If I were in Fix’s shoes, and he were in mine, I might well have pulled the trigger without thinking twice.

I leaned my head back against the truck with a little thunk.

Thomas sat down next to me, and the Hummer settled a little more. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“He going to back off?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

“Sure it does.”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter because he’s a decent guy, and I’m not going to hurt him.”

“He might not give you much choice.”

“There’s always a choice,” I said. “That’s the thing, man. There’s always, always a choice. My options might really, truly suck, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a choice.”

“You’d let him kill you?” Thomas asked.

I looked up at him. “No. But I won’t hurt him.”

My brother gave me a tight-lipped look and then got up and walked away.

There was a shimmer in the air, and Molly appeared, standing about ten feet behind what had been Fix’s position during our conversation. She watched Thomas go with an unhappy expression.

I blinked at her. “How long have you been standing there?”

“I got out of your side of the car when Thomas got in,” she said. “You know. Just in case something happened. It seemed like a good idea to make sure he went down quick if a fight broke out, so you wouldn’t have to kill him.”

I smiled at her. “Totally unfair.”

“I had this teacher who kept telling me that if I was ever in a fair fight, someone had made a mistake,” she said.

“Sounds like a jerk.”

“He has his moments,” she said. She squinted after Thomas and said, “He’s just afraid, you know. He doesn’t want to lose his brother twice.”

“I know,” I said.

“But I’m really proud of you, boss,” she said, her voice quieter. “I mean . . . I know you’ve had some hard calls to make lately. But my dad would say that you were right about this one. There’s always a choice.”

I grunted. “If I get into it with Fix,” I said, “I don’t want you to get involved.”

“Why not?”

“Because faeries keep score,” I said. “And they’ll never leave a score unsettled.”

“If I told you that, you’d tell me that wasn’t my choice to make.”

“And I’d be right,” I said, and sighed. “But I have enough worries already, grasshopper. Leave it alone. For me.”

She looked like I’d just asked her to swallow a bug. “I’ll try,” she said.

“Thanks,” I said, and extended my hand.

She helped me up. “What’s next?”

“A phone call. Let’s go.”

Chapter Twenty

“I don’t care how busy he is,” I said into the phone. “I need to talk with him. Period.”

We were in Thomas’s living room. Thomas was sprawled on a recliner. The hideous high-tech brushed-steel look that had been the place’s trademark had been softened with window dressings and various bits of decoration—Justine’s touch. Thomas, like most men, regarded a throw pillow as something to throw.

One bounced off of my chest. “Way to turn on the charm, Harry,” he murmured.

I covered the phone’s receiver with one hand. “Polite gets you nowhere with these people. Trust me.” I turned back to the phone. “No,” I said. “Not over this line. It’s bugged. Just tell him that Doughnut Boy needs to speak to him or an informed high-level operative in person, within the hour.”

Thomas mouthed the word operative at me, his fingers spread in a gesture meant to convey spooky importance. I kicked the pillow back at him.

“Don’t give me excuses,” I said. “He can get here if he damned well wants to and we both know it. Call me back at this number.” I thunked the phone down.

“Earlier today,” Molly said, from where she sat on the floor, “someone said something to me about not burning my bridges. Let me think. Who was that?”

“Ixnay,” I growled. “I know what I’m doing.” I turned to Thomas. “How many bugs does Lara have on this place?”

“Harry,” Thomas said in a scandalized tone—one that was just a little bit too well projected to be meant for me. “I’m her brother. She would never behave that way toward her own flesh and blood, her own kin, her own dear sibling.”

I growled. “How many?”

He shrugged. “It changes. New ones come in sometimes when I’m not home.”

I grunted. I put the phone on the counter, unplugged it, and grabbed a pepper shaker. I put a circle of pepper around the phone, and sealed it with a gentle effort of will. “You’re set for money, right?”

“With Lara’s money, yes.”

“Good,” I said, and then I unleashed a burst of will with a mutter of, “Hexus,” that burned out every bit of electronics within fifty feet. The apartment’s lightbulbs all winked out at the same instant.

Thomas groaned, but he didn’t otherwise complain.

“Grasshopper,” I said.

“On it,” Molly said. She rose to her feet, frowning, her eyes mostly closed, and began walking slowly around the apartment.

While she did that, I broke the circle of pepper with a brush of my hand and plugged the phone back in.

“If you were going to do that,” Thomas asked, “why not do it before you made the phone call that absolutely did set off every flag Lara’s security teams have to wave?”

I held up a hand for silence, until Molly had wandered down the hall and back. “Nothing,” she said.

“No spells?” Thomas asked.

“Right,” I said. “Anyone who came in uninvited wouldn’t be able to make that kind of spell stick. And no one you’ve invited in has . . .” I frowned. “Molly?”

“I didn’t,” she said quickly.

“. . . has planted a spell to listen in on you,” I finished. “And I wanted Lara’s people to know who I contacted. When they try to follow up on it, they’ll betray their presence and he’ll be alerted to how they operate.”

“It was a payment,” Thomas said.

I shrugged. “Call it a friendly gesture.”

“At my sister’s expense,” Thomas said.

“Lara’s a big girl. She’ll understand.” I considered things for a moment and then said, “Everyone be cool. Something might happen.”

Thomas frowned. “Like what?”

“Cat Sith!” I called in a firm voice. “I need you, if you please!”

There was a rushing sound, like a heavy curtain stirred by a strong wind, and then, from the fresh, dark shadows beneath Thomas’s dining table, the malk’s alien voice said, “I am here, Sir Knight.”

Thomas jerked in reaction, despite my warning, and produced a tiny semiautomatic pistol from I knew not where. Molly drew in a sharp, harsh breath, and backed directly away from the source of the voice until her shoulder blades hit a wall.

It was just possible that I had understated how unsettling a malk sounds when it speaks. I’d clearly been hanging around creepy things for way too long.

“Take it easy,” I said, holding a hand out to Thomas. “This is Cat Sith.”

Molly made a sputtering noise.

I gave her a quelling glance and said to Thomas, “He’s working with me.”

Cat Sith came to the edge of the shadows so that his silhouette could be seen. His eyes reflected the light from the almost entirely curtained windows. “Sir Knight. How may I assist you?”

“Empty night, it talks,” Thomas breathed.

“How?” Molly asked. “The threshold here is solid. How did it just come in like that?”

Which was a reasonable question, given that Molly didn’t know about my former cleaning service and how it had interacted with my old apartment’s threshold. “Beings out of Faerie don’t necessarily need to be invited over a threshold,” I said. “If they’re benevolent to the inhabitants of the house, they can pretty much come right in.”

“Wait,” Thomas said. “These freaks can walk in and out whenever they want? Pop in directly from the Nevernever? And you didn’t tell us about it?”

“Only if their intentions are benign,” I said. “Cat Sith came here to assist me, and by extension you. As long as he’s here, he’s . . .” I frowned and looked at the malk. “Help me find the correct way to explain this to him?”

Sith directed his eyes to Thomas and said, “While I am here, I am bound by the same traditions as would apply were I your invited guest,” he said. “I will offer no harm to anyone you have accepted into your home, nor take any action which would be considered untoward for a guest. I will report nothing of what I see and hear in this place, and make every effort to aid and assist your household and other guests while I remain.”

I blinked several times. I had expected Sith to hit me with a big old snark-club rather than actually answering the question—much less answering it in such detail. But that made sense. The obligations of guest and host were almost holy in the supernatural world. If Sith truly did regard that kind of courtesy as the obligation of a guest, he would have little choice but to live up to it.

Thomas seemed to digest that for a few moments and then grunted. “I suppose I am obliged to comport myself as a proper host, then.”

“Say instead that I am under no obligation to allow myself to be harmed, or to remain and give my aid, if you behave in any other fashion,” Sith corrected him. “If you began shooting at me with that weapon, for example, I would depart without doing harm, and only then would I hunt you, catch you outside the protection of your threshold, and kill you in order to discourage such behavior from others in the future.”

Thomas looked like he was about to talk some smack at the malk, but only for a second. Then he frowned and said, “It’s odd. You sound like . . . like a grade-school teacher.”

“Perhaps it is because I am speaking to a child,” Cat Sith said. “The comparison is apt.”

Thomas blinked several times and then looked at me. “Did the evil kitty just call me a child?”

“I don’t think he’s evil so much as hyperviolent and easily bored,” I said. “And you started it. You called him a freak.”

My brother pursed his lips and frowned. “I did, didn’t I?” He turned to Cat Sith and set his gun aside. “Cat Sith, the remark was not directed specifically at you or meant to insult you, but I acknowledge that I have given offense, and recognize that the slight puts me in your debt. Please accept my apologies, and feel free to ask a commensurate service of me should you ever have need of it, to balance the scales.”

Cat Sith stared at Thomas for a moment, and then inclined his head. “Even children can learn manners. Done. Until such time as I have need of you, I regard the matter as settled, Thomas Raith.”

“You know him?” I asked.

“And your apprentice, Molly Carpenter,” Sith said, his voice impatient, “as well as the rest of your frequent associates. May I suggest that you get on with the business at hand, Sir Knight? Tempus fugit.

One of Winter’s most dangerous creatures—most dangerous hunters—knew all about my friends. That was something that a smart man would be concerned about. I reminded myself that just because someone is courteous, it does not necessarily mean that they aren’t planning to vivisect you. It just means that they’ll ask whether the ropes holding you down are comfortable before they pick up the scalpel. Cat Sith might be an ally, for the moment, but he was not my friend.

“In a few minutes, we’re going to be leaving,” I said. “I’ve got a hunch that we’ll be under observation, and I don’t want that. I want you to distract anyone who has us under direct surveillance.”

“With pleasure.”

“Without killing them or causing significant bodily harm,” I said. “For all I know there’s a cop or a PI watching the place. So nothing permanent.”

Cat Sith narrowed his eyes. His tail twitched to one side, but he said nothing.

“Think of it as a compliment,” I suggested. “Any idiot could murder them. What I ask is far more difficult, as befits your station.”

His tail twitched the other way. He said nothing.

“After that,” I said, “I want you to get word to the Summer Lady. I want a meeting.”

“Uh, what?” Thomas said.

“Is that a good idea?” Molly asked at the same time.

I waved a hand at both of them, and kept talking to Sith. “Tell her it’s got to happen before noon. Can you contact her?”

“Of course, Sir Knight,” said Sith. “She will wish to know the reason for such a meeting.”

“Tell her that I’d prefer not to kill her Knight, and I’d like to discuss how best to avoid it. Tell her that I’ll meet her wherever she pleases, if she promises me safe conduct. Bring me her answer.”

Sith eyed me, then said, “Such a course is unwise.”

“I’m not asking you to do it. What do you care?”

“The Queen may be less than pleased with me if I break her newest toy before she’s gotten sufficient use from it.”

“Gosh,” I said.

Sith flicked an ear and managed to do it contemptuously. “I will bear this message, Sir Knight. And I will . . . distract . . . those who hunt you. When will you be departing?”

Behind me, Thomas’s phone began to ring.

“Tell you in a second,” I said. I answered the phone. “Go for Doughnut Boy.”

A woman with a voice cold enough to merit the use of the Kelvin scale spat, “He will meet you. Accorded Neutral Ground. Ten minutes.”

“Cool,” I said. “I haven’t had a beer in forever.”

There was a brief, perhaps baffled silence, and then she hung up on me.

I turned back to Thomas and Molly and said, “Let’s go. Sith, please be—”

The eldest malk vanished.

“—gin,” I finished, somewhat lamely.

Thomas swung to his feet and slipped the little automatic into the back of his pants, then pulled his shirt down over it. “Where are we going?”

“Accorded Neutral Ground,” I said.

“Oh, good,” Molly said. “I’m starving.”

Chapter Twenty-one

In the lobby, we found the doorman sitting on the ground grimacing in pain. A CPD patrol officer was next to him with a first-aid kit. As we passed, I saw several long, long slices in the back of one of the doorman’s legs, running from just above his heel to the top of his calf. His slacks and socks alike were sliced in neat, parallel strips. The wounds were painful and bloody, but not life-threatening.

Both men were both too preoccupied to pay an instant of attention to the three of us as we calmly left the building.

I winced a little as we went by them. Dammit. I hadn’t wanted to turn even the gentlest of Cat Sith’s attentions upon any of my fellow Chicagoans, but I hadn’t worded my command to him tightly enough. Of course, that was a rabbit hole I didn’t want to start down—experience has taught me that you do not win against supernatural entities at lawyering. It just doesn’t happen. I didn’t even want to think about what Sith might have done if I hadn’t forbidden him the use of deadly force.

Maybe this was the malk’s way of telling me to beware the consequences if I kept giving him commands like a common servant. Or maybe this was his idea of playing nice. After all, he hadn’t slashed up the cop and every passerby. For all I knew, he thought he’d been a perfect gentleman.

Molly checked out the parking garage from beneath a veil while Thomas and I waited. Once she pronounced the garage villain-free, we got into my brother’s troop transport and left.

* * *

In Chicago, you can’t swing a cat without hitting an Irish pub (and angering the cat), but McAnally’s place stands out from the crowd. It’s the favored watering hole for the supernatural scene of Chicago. Normals never really seem to find their way in, though we get some tourists once in a while. They rarely linger.

Morning traffic was roaring at full steam, and even though Mac’s wasn’t far, it took us a little time to get there. Clouds had swallowed up the bright dawn, thick and grey. A light rain was falling. Occasionally I could see flashes of distant lightning glowing through the clouds overhead, or hear a subtle growl of low thunder.

“And it was supposed to be nice today,” Molly murmured.

I smiled a little, but didn’t say anything.

Thomas pulled into the little parking lot adjacent to Mac’s, parking his Hummer next to an old white Trans Am. He stopped, frowning at it.

“I thought Mac usually opened up at noon,” he said.

“Eleven,” I said. My old office building hadn’t been far away. I’d eaten many a lunch at Mac’s place. “Guess he came in early today.”

“That’s handy,” Thomas said.

“Where does that saying come from?” I asked.

“Uh,” Thomas said. “Handy?”

I blinked as we walked. “Well, yeah, that one, too, but I was thinking of the phrase, ‘You can’t swing a cat without hitting something around here.’”

Thomas gave me a steady look. “Don’t you have important things to be thinking about right now?”

I shrugged. “I wonder about these things. Life goes on, man. If I stop thinking about things just because some psycho or crew of psychos wants me dead, I’ll never get to think about anything, will I?”

Thomas bobbed his head to one side in acknowledgment of my point.

About thirty feet from the door, Molly abruptly stopped in her tracks and said, “Harry.”

I paused and looked back at her.

Her eyes were wide. She said, “I sense . . .”

I narrowed my eyes. “Say it. You know you want to say it.”

“It is not a disturbance in the Force,” she said, her voice half-exasperated. “There’s a . . . a presence here. Something powerful. I felt it in Chichén Itzá.”

“Good,” I said, nodding. “He’s here. Seriously, neither of you guys knows where that saying comes from? Damn.”

I hate not knowing things. It’s enough to make a guy wish he could use the Internet.

* * *

Mac’s pub was all but empty. It’s a place that looks pretty spacious when empty, yet it’s small enough to feel cozy when it’s full. It’s a study in deliberate asymmetry. There are thirteen tables of varying sizes and heights scattered irregularly around the floor. There are thirteen wooden columns, placed in similarly random positions, their faces carved with scenes from old-world nursery tales. The bar kind of meanders, and there are thirteen stools spaced unevenly along it. Just about everything is made from wood, including the paneled walls, the hardwood floors, and the paneled ceiling. Thirteen ceiling fans hang suspended from the ceiling, ancient things that Mac manages to keep running despite the frequent presence of magical talents.

The decor is a kind of feng shui, or at least something close to it. All that imbalance is intended to scatter the random outbursts of magical energy that cause problems for practitioners. It must work. The electric fans and the telephone hardly ever melt down.

Mac stood behind the bar, a lean man a little taller than average, his shaven head gleaming. I’ve patronized his establishment for most of my adult life and he still looked more or less like he had when I first met him: neat, dressed in dark pants, a white shirt, and a pristine white apron that proved its ongoing redundancy by never getting messy. Mac was leaning on the bar, listening to something the pub’s only other occupant was saying.

The second man was well over six feet tall, and built with the kind of broad shoulders and lean power that made me think of a long-distance swimmer. He wore a dark grey business suit, an immaculate European number of some kind, obviously custom-made. His hair was the color of old steel, highlighted with sweeps of silver, and his sharp chin and jawline were emphasized by the cut of a short silver-white beard. The man wore a black eye patch made of silk, and even against the backdrop of that suit, it gave him a piratical aura.

The man in the eye patch finished saying whatever it was, and Mac dropped his head back and let out a short, hefty belly laugh. It lasted only a second, and then it was gone, replaced with Mac’s usual calm, genial expression, but the man in the suit sat back with an expression of pleasure on his face at the reaction.

“It’s him,” Molly said. “Who is that?”

“Donar Vadderung,” I told her.

“Whoa,” Thomas said.

Molly frowned. “The . . . the security company guy?”

“CEO of Monoc Securities,” I said, nodding.

“Empty night, Dresden,” Thomas said. “You just demanded that he come to see you?”

“Is that bad?” Molly asked him.

“It’s . . . glah,” Thomas said. “Think of doing that to Donald Trump or George Soros.”

Molly winced. “I’m . . . not sure I can do that.”

Thomas glared at me. “You set up Lara’s surveillance crew to go up against his guys?”

I smiled.

“Balls,” Thomas said. “She’s going to rip mine off.”

“Tell her it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have stopped me. She’ll get it,” I said. “You guys sit down; get some food or something. This shouldn’t take long.”

Molly blinked, then looked at Thomas and said, “Wait a minute. . . . We’re his flunkies.”

“You, maybe,” Thomas said, sneering. “I’m his thug. I’m way higher than a flunky.”

“You are high if you think I’m taking any orders from you,” Molly said tartly.

The two of them went to a far table, bickering cheerfully, and sat down, passing by the real reason we were meeting here—a modest wooden sign with simple letters burned into it: ACCORDED NEUTRAL TERRITORY.

The Unseelie Accords had supported the various supernatural political entities over the past few turbulent decades. They were a series of agreements that, at the end of the day, were basically meant to limit conflicts between the various nations to something with a definite structure. They defined the rights of those lords who held territory, as well as the infractions that could be committed against those lords by other lords. Think of them as the Geneva Conventions of the spooky side. That’s kind of close.

Mac had somehow gotten his place declared neutral ground. It meant that whenever any signatory of the Accords was here, he was obligated to be a good guest, to offer no harm or violence to any other signatory, and to take any violence that might erupt outside. It was a meeting ground, where there was at least a fair chance that you might actually get to finish a meal without being murdered by someone who might otherwise be a mortal enemy.

Vadderung watched Molly and Thomas sit and then transferred his attention back to me. His single eye was an icy shade of blue, and unsettling. As I approached him, I had an instinctive impression that he could see more of me than I could of him.

“Well, well, well,” he said. “Rumors of your death, et cetera.”

I shrugged. “I’m sure it isn’t an uncommon play among wizards,” I said.

Something in his eye flashed, an amused thought that went by almost before I could see it. “Fewer try it than you might think,” he said.

“I didn’t try anything,” I said. “It just happened.”

Vadderung reached out and lazily collected a cup of coffee. He sipped it, watching me. Then he leaned forward slightly and said slowly, “Nothing that significant just happens, Dresden.”

I squinted at him. Shrugged. Then I said, “Mac, can I get a beer?”

Mac had sauntered a discreet distance down the bar. He eyed me, and then a slowly ticking clock on the wall.

“I haven’t had a drink in a lifetime,” I said. “If I go all nutty about it, you can sign me up for AA.”

Mac snorted. Then he got me a bottle of one of his microbrewed ales. They are nectar and ambrosia. He opened it and passed me the bottle (since he knew I rarely drink beer out of a glass), and I tilted it toward him before drinking some.

“Pretty early for that, isn’t it?” Vadderung asked.

“I can smell the whiskey in yours from here,” I said, and held up my bottle.

He smiled, lifted his coffee cup toward me in salute, and took a long sip as I put back some more ale. Then we both set our drinks down.

“What do you need?” Vadderung asked.

“Advice,” I said. “If the price is right.”

“And what do you think a sufficient price would be?”

“Lucy charges a nickel.”

“Ah,” Vadderung said. “But Lucy is a psychiatrist. You realize that you’ve just cast yourself as Charlie Brown.”

“Augh,” I said.

Vadderung smiled. “You found it lonely where you were, I see.”

“Why would you say that?”

“The banter. The talk. Unnecessary companions. Many would say that now is the time for rapid, decisive action. But you have spent precious time reconnecting with your allies.” He tilted his head slightly. “Therefore, if you have such a driving need for it, I can logically assume that you have spent your recent time apart from such company. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

“Arctis Tor isn’t much of a vacation spot,” I said.

“No? What is it?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Wait. Are you trying to shrink me?”

He sipped his coffee. “Why would you ask me that question?”

“Because you keep asking questions,” I said. “Joke’s on you, Lucy. I don’t have a nickel.” I regarded my bottle. “I’ve got time for banter. Just not for games.”

Vadderung set his coffee down and spread his hands. “I don’t work for free,” he said.

“I haven’t earned enough money in my entire lifetime to afford your fees,” I said. “But you don’t need more money.”

He waited.

“I’ll owe you one,” I said.

That seemed to amuse the hell out of him. Wrinkled topography appeared at the corner of his eye. “Given the caliber of your talents for making enemies, I hope you’ll understand if I don’t consider what you offer a sound long-term value.”

I smiled and sipped some beer. “But it’s worth a few minutes of your time—or you wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”

That drew a quick flicker of an amused smile. “I will accept your offer of one favor—and a nickel.”

“I told you. I don’t have a nickel.”

He nodded gravely. “What do you have?”

I rummaged in my pockets and came out with the jeweled cuff links from my tux. I showed them to him.

“Those aren’t a nickel,” he said soberly. He leaned forward again, as he had a moment before, and spoke slowly. “What do you have?”

I stared at him for a second. Then I said, “Friends.”

He sat back, his blue eye all but throwing off sparks, it was so bright.

“Thomas,” I called. “I need a nickel.”

“What?” Thomas asked. “In cash?”

“Yeah.”

Thomas reached into a pocket and produced a bunch of plastic cards. He fanned them out and showed them to me. “What about these?”

“Those aren’t a nickel,” I said.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Molly sighed. She reached into a pocket and produced what looked like a little old lady’s coin purse. Then she flicked a nickel toward me.

I caught it. “Thanks. You’re promoted to lackey.”

She rolled her eyes. “Hail, Ming.”

I slid the nickel across the bar to Vadderung. “There.”

He nodded. “Talk to me.”

“Right,” I said. “Um. It’s about time.”

“No,” he said, “it’s about your island.”

I eyed him warily. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean,” he said, “is that I know about your island. I know where it came from. I know what it does. I know what’s beneath it.”

“Uh,” I said. “Oh.”

“I’m aware of how important it is that the island be well managed. Most of the people who came to your party in Mexico are.”

By which he meant the Grey Council. Vadderung was a part of it. It was a group of folks, mostly wizards of the White Council, who had joined together because it seemed like the White Council was getting close to meltdown, and they wanted to save it. But since the rats were in the walls, the only way to do it was covertly, working in cells. I wasn’t sure who, exactly, was a member, except for my grandfather and Vadderung. He had come along with the rest of the mostly anonymous Grey Council when I’d gone to take my daughter back from the Red Court, and seemed to fit right in.

Of course, I was pretty sure he wasn’t a wizard. I was pretty sure he was a lot more than that.

So I broke it down for him, speaking very quietly. I told him about the attack being aimed at the island from across time. Hard lines appeared in his face as I did.

“Idiots,” he breathed. “Even if they could defeat the banefire . . .”

“Wait,” I said. “Banefire?”

“The fail-safe,” Vadderung said. “The fire the island showed you.”

“Right. It’ll kill everything held there rather than let them escape, right?”

“It is the only way,” Vadderung said. “If anyone managed to set free the things in the Well . . .”

“Seems like it would be bad,” I said.

“Not bad,” Vadderung said. “The end.”

“Oh,” I said. “Good to know. The island didn’t mention that part.”

“The island cannot accept it as a possibility,” Vadderung said absently.

“It should probably put its big-girl pants on, then,” I said. “The way I understand it, it might already be too late. I mean, for all I know, someone cast this spell a hundred years ago. Or a hundred years from now.”

Vadderung waved a hand. “Nonsense. There are laws that govern the progression of time in relation to space, like everything else.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that the echoes caused by the temporal event are proportionately greater than the span of time that was bridged,” he said. “Had the attack been launched from a century ago, or hence, the echoes of it would have begun far, far in advance of the event—centuries ago. These echoes have appeared only within the past few days. I would guess, roughly, that the attack must originate only hours from the actual, real-time occurrence.”

“Which is tomorrow,” I said. “So it’s happening sometime today or sometime tomorrow.”

“Most likely not tomorrow,” Vadderung said. “Altering one’s past is more than mildly difficult.”

“The paradox thing?” I asked. “Like, if I go back and kill my grandfather, how was I ever born to go back and kill my grandfather?”

“Paradox is an overrated threat. There is . . . a quality similar to inertia at work. Once an event has occurred, there is an extremely strong tendency for that event to occur. The larger, more significant, or more energetic the event, the more it tends to remain as it originally happened, despite any interference.”

I frowned. “There’s . . . a law of the conservation of history?”

Vadderung grinned. “I’ve never heard it phrased quite like that, but it’s accurate enough. In any event, overcoming that inertia requires tremendous energy, will, and a measure of simple luck. If one wishes to alter the course of history, it’s a far simpler matter to attempt to shape the future.”

I grunted. “So if I go back in time and kill my grandfather, what happens?”

“He beats you senseless, I suspect,” Vadderung said, his gaze direct.

Oh, man. Vadderung knew about Ebenezar. Which meant that either he was higher in the old man’s circle of trust than I was, or he had access to an astoundingly scary pool of information.

“You know what I mean,” I said. “Paradox? Universe goes poof?”

“If it works like that, I’ve never seen it, as evidenced by the fact that . . .” He spread his hands. “Here it is. I suspect a different form of apocalypse happens.”

I frowned. “Like what?”

“A twinned universe,” Vadderung said. “A new parallel reality, identical except for that event. One in which you never existed, and one in which you failed to kill your grandfather.”

I pursed my lips. “That . . . doesn’t really end well for me in either case.”

“An excellent reason not to meddle in the natural course of time, wouldn’t you say? Meddling with time is an irrationally, outrageously, catastrophically dangerous and costly business. I encourage you to avoid it at all costs.”

“You and the White Council,” I said. “So it’s going to happen sometime today or tonight.”

Vadderung nodded. “And nearby.”

“Why?”

“Because the energy requirements are astronomical,” he said. “Bridging a temporal gap of any length is something utterly beyond the reach of any mortal practitioner acting alone. Doing such a thing and then trying to project the spell over a distance as well? The difficulty of it would be prohibitive. And do not forget how much water surrounds the island, which will tend to mitigate any energy sent toward it—that’s one reason the Well was built there.”

I nodded. All of that hung together, based upon everything I knew of magic. People always assume that magic is a free ride—but it isn’t. You can’t pull energy from nowhere, and there are laws that govern how it behaves.

“So this . . . time bomb. It has to come from how close?” I asked.

“The shores of the lake, I suspect,” Vadderung said. “The island itself would be the ideal location, but I doubt that it will cooperate with any such effort.”

“Not hardly,” I agreed. “And you can’t just scribble a chalk circle and pull this spell out of your hat. It’s got to have an energy source. A big one.”

“Precisely,” Vadderung said.

“And those things tend to stand out.”

He smiled. “They do.”

“And whoever is trying to pull this off, if they know enough about futzing with time to be making this attempt, they know that the echoes will warn people that it’s coming. They’ll be ready to argue with anyone who tries to thwart them.”

“They most certainly will.” He finished his coffee.

I had made the right call here. Vadderung’s advice had changed the problem from something enormous and inexplicable to something that was merely very difficult, very dangerous, and likely to get me killed.

“Um,” I said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but . . . this is a high-stakes game.”

“The highest, yes,” he agreed.

“I’m thinking that maybe someone with a little more experience and better footing should handle it. Someone like you, maybe.”

He shook his head. “It isn’t practical.”

I frowned. “Not practical?”

“It must be you.”

“Why me?”

“It’s your island,” Vadderung said.

“That makes no sense.”

He tilted his head and looked at me. “Wizard . . . you have been dead and returned. It has marked you. It has opened doors and paths that you do not yet know exist, and attracted the attention of beings who formerly would never have taken note of your insignificance.”

“Meaning what?” I asked.

There was no humor at all in his face. “Meaning that now more than ever, you are a fulcrum. Meaning that your life is about to become very, very interesting.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

He leaned forward slightly. “Correct that.” He looked at his watch and rose. “I’m afraid I’m out of time.”

I shook my head, rising with him, blocking him. “Wait. My plate is already pretty full here, and if you haven’t noticed, I’m barely competent to keep myself alive, much less to prevent Arkham Asylum from turning into the next Tunguska blast.”

Vadderung met my eyes with his and said in a growl, “Move.”

I moved.

I looked away, too. I’d seen too many things with my Sight already. And I had a bad feeling that trading a soulgaze with Vadderung would not improve my performance over the next day or so.

“Where are Hugin and Munin?” I asked.

“I left them at the office,” he said. “They don’t like you, I’m afraid.”

“Birdbrains,” I muttered.

He smiled, nodded to Mac, and walked to the door.

“Can I do this?” I asked his back.

“You can.”

I made an exasperated sound. “How do you know?”

Odin turned to look back at me with his gleaming eye, his teeth bared in a wolf’s smile, the scar on either side of his eye patch silver in the light coming through the door. “Perhaps,” he murmured, “you already have.”

Then he opened the door and left.

I scowled at where he’d been standing, and then slouched back on my barstool. I grabbed my beer, finished it, and set it down a little harder than I had to.

Mac was back at the grill, making some of his famous steak sandwiches for Thomas and Molly. I waved at him, but before I could say anything, he had already added another steak to the first two. My stomach growled as I got up and went to Molly and Thomas’s table.

Perhaps you already have.

Now, what the hell had he meant by that?

Chapter Twenty-two

I filled Molly and Thomas in on what I had learned from Vadderung while we ate. Mac’s steak sandwiches were too awesome not to eat, even if it was more or less breakfast time.

Molly blinked as I finished. “Uh. Who is that guy?”

Thomas gave me an even look. My brother had figured it out. He tilted his head microscopically toward Molly.

“A friend, I think,” I said. “When you work it out, you’re ready to know.”

“Ah.” Molly frowned and toyed with a few crumbs, pushing them around with a forefinger. She nodded. “Okay.”

“So what’s next?” Thomas asked.

I finished the last few bites of my sandwich in a hurry. Man, that tasted good. I washed it down with some more of Mac’s excellent beer. Normally, a couple of bottles along with a meal would leave me ready for a nap. Today they felt about as soporific as Red Bull.

“Molly,” I said, “I want you to go talk to Toot. I need the guard to gather up and be ready to move when I give the word.”

“Scouts?” she guessed.

I nodded. “While you’re doing that, I’m going to go figure out the potential sites for the time bomb spell so we know where to aim the guard. Order some pizza; that will gather them in.”

“Okay,” she said. “Um . . . money?”

I looked at Thomas. “She already came through for me once. Your turn.”

Thomas snorted and slipped a white plastic card out of his pocket. It was utterly unmarked except for a few stamped numbers and a magnetic strip. He flicked it across the table to Molly. “When you get your pizza, have them run that.”

Molly studied the card, back and front. “Is this a Diners Club card or something?”

“It’s a Raith contingency card,” he said. “Lara hands them out to the family. Once they ring up the first charge on the card, it’ll be good for twenty-four hours.”

“For how much?” Molly asked.

“Twenty-four hours,” Thomas repeated.

Molly lifted her eyebrows.

Thomas smiled faintly. “Don’t worry about amounts. My sister doesn’t really believe in limits. Do whatever you want with it. I don’t care.”

Molly took the card and placed it very carefully in her secondhand coin purse. “Okay.” She looked at me. “Now?”

I nodded. “Get a move on.”

She paused to draw a pen from her purse. She scribbled on a napkin and passed it to me. “My apartment’s phone.”

I glanced at it, read it, and memorized it. Then I slid it to Thomas, who tucked the napkin away in a pocket. “You’re going to just send her out there alone?”

Molly regarded Thomas blankly. Then vanished.

“Oh,” Thomas said. “Right.”

I stood up and crossed the room to the door. I opened it and glanced out, as though scanning suspiciously for anyone’s approach. I felt Molly slip out past me as I did. Then I closed it again and came back inside. Thunder rumbled over the lake, but no rain fell.

“I noticed,” my brother drawled, “that you didn’t leave her a way to contact you.”

“Did you?”

He snorted. “You think Fix would hurt her?”

“I think she won’t give him much choice,” I said. “She’s come a long way—but Fix is exactly the wrong kind of threat for her to mess with. He’s used to glamour, he can defend against it, and he’s smart.”

“Molly’s not too shabby herself,” Thomas said.

“Molly is my responsibility,” I said.

I hadn’t meant for the words to come out that cold, that hard. The anger surprised me, but it bubbled and seethed still. Some part of me was furious at Thomas for questioning my decision regarding my apprentice. Molly was mine, and I would be damned if some chisel-jawed White Court pretty boy was going to—

I closed my eyes and clenched my jaw. Pride. Possession. Territoriality. That wasn’t me. That was the mantle of Winter talking through me.

“Sorry,” I said a moment later, and opened my eyes.

Thomas hadn’t reacted in any way, to my snarl, my anger, or my apology. He just studied me. Then he said, quietly, “I want to suggest something to you. I’m not trying to make you do anything. You just need to hear it.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m a predator, Harry,” he said. “We both know that.”

“Yeah. So?”

“So I recognize it in others when I see it.”

“And?”

“And you’re looking at Molly like she’s food.”

I frowned at him. “I am not.”

He shrugged. “It isn’t all the time. It’s just little moments. You look at her, and I can see the calculations running. You notice every time she yawns.”

I didn’t want what Thomas was saying to be true. “So what?”

“When she yawns, she’s showing us that she’s tired. It makes us take notice because tired prey is easy prey.” He leaned forward, putting one arm on the table. “I know what I’m talking about.”

“No,” I said, my voice getting cold again. “You don’t.”

“I tried going into denial like that when I was about fifteen. It didn’t work out too well.”

“What?” I asked him. “You think I’m going to attack her when she goes to sleep?”

“Yeah,” he said. “If you don’t recognize what’s motivating you and control it, you will. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow. But eventually. You can’t just ignore those instincts, man. If you do, they’ll catch you off guard some night. And you will hurt her, one way or another.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. I frowned down at my empty bottle of ale.

“She trusts you,” Thomas said. “I think some part of you knows that. I think that part sent her away from you for a damned good reason. Take this seriously, Harry.”

“Yeah,” I said quietly. “I’ll . . . try. This stuff keeps catching me off guard.”

“Nature of the beast. You’ve always been good at keeping things right between the two of you, even though she’s carrying a torch the size of a building. I admire you for that. I’d hate to see it come apart.”

I rubbed at my eyes. My brother was right. I’d been forcing myself to look away from Molly all morning. That had never been an issue before. That was part of Winter, too—hunger and lust, a need for heat in the darkness. It had driven Lloyd Slate, just as it had several other Winter Knights over the years.

It had driven them insane.

I had to learn to recognize that influence before someone got hurt.

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “When I get done sprinting from one forest fire to the next, I’ll . . . I’ll figure something out. Until then, feel free to slap me around a bit if you think I need it.”

Thomas nodded very seriously, but his eyes sparkled. “I’m your brother. I pretty much always feel free to do that.”

“Heh,” I said. “I’d like to see you . . .”

I trailed off, glancing at Mac, who was staring at the door to the pub, frowning. I followed his gaze. The glass on the top half of the door was faceted and partly frosted, but it was clear enough to give you a blurry image of whoever was standing outside the door. Or at least, it would have been if the exterior hadn’t been blanketed by a thick grey mist.

Thomas noticed me, and looked. “Huh,” he said. “Uh. Doesn’t the fog usually burn off in the morning?”

“We didn’t have any this morning,” I said.

“So . . .” Thomas drawled. “That isn’t right.”

“No,” I said. “No, it isn’t.”

There just weren’t all that many reasons someone would blanket an area with mist—to conceal an approach. We both stood up and faced the door.

Behind us, Mac reached under the bar and came out with a pistol-grip shotgun made of black composite material. It had a folding stock and barely enough of a barrel to qualify as a hunting piece.

“This is crazy,” Thomas said. “Nobody attacks Mac’s. It’s neutral ground.”

“What about these Fomor I’ve heard about?”

“Not even them,” Thomas said. “Every time they’ve gotten close to this place, the BFS came down on them like an avalanche. It’s practically the only thing they’ve really agreed on.”

I blanked for a second and then said, “Oh, Brighter Future Society.”

“It isn’t the faeries, is it?” Thomas asked.

“They’re called the Unseelie Accords,” I said. “Winter equals Unseelie. Anyone in Winter who violated Mab’s treaty would be thrilled to die before she was through with them.”

“Summer, then?”

“It isn’t noon yet,” I said.

The sounds of the city outside had vanished. An unnatural hush fell. I could hear three people breathing a little harder than they normally would, a creaky ceiling fan, and that was about it.

“Definitely magic,” I said. “Someone doesn’t want anybody seeing or hearing what happens in here.”

There was a sharp sound, a sudden motion, and a stone sailed through one of the faceted panes of glass on the door. Thomas produced his pistol, and Mac’s shotgun snapped up to his shoulder. Some broken glass tinkled to the floor, and the stone tumbled down and bounced off of my foot before it came to rest on the floor. It was a rounded piece of glassy black obsidian about the size of an egg.

Tendrils of mist came through the broken pane of glass, and the stone on the floor abruptly quivered and began to buzz. Thomas and I both took several wary steps away from it, but the buzzing increased and warped until it became an eerie, quavering voice, like something you’d hear on an old, worn-out vinyl record.

“Sssssend out the wizzzzard,” it hummed, each word slow and drawn-out. “Sssssend him to ussssss and all othersssss may ssssstay.”

“I know a good place for you to pound sand, you gutless fu—” Thomas began helpfully.

I held up a hand. “No,” I told him quietly. “Wait.”

“For what?”

“This is neutral territory,” I said in a voice pitched to carry outside the door. “If you want to talk, come on in. You won’t be attacked.”

“Sssssend him to usssss.”

That wasn’t creepy or anything. “My schedule is kind of full today,” I called. “How’s next Tuesday for you?”

“Thrice we asssssk and done,” hissed the voice. “Sssssend him to usssss. Now!”

I took slow, steady breaths to keep the fear at bay and think. I was pretty sure that whatever was out there, it wasn’t interested in talking. I was also pretty sure that I didn’t want to toddle out onto that narrow, mist-clouded stairway to start a fight. But I wasn’t the only one in the room. I looked back at Mac.

“I don’t want to bring any trouble into your place, Mac,” I said. “You’re my host here. I’ll take it outside if you want me to.”

In answer, Mac made a growling sound and worked the action on the shotgun, pumping a shell into the chamber. Then he reached under the counter, produced a heavy-caliber automatic pistol, and put it on the bar within easy reach.

Thomas showed his teeth in a predatory grin. “I’m leaving bigger tips from now on.”

“Right,” I muttered. I gestured at Thomas to move a few steps back, and made sure that neither of us was standing in Mac’s line of fire to the door. I focused on the black stone. It would start there. “Hey, creep!” I called, lifting my left hand. “You heard the man. Kisssss my asssssss!”

“Ssssso be it,” hissed the voice from the stone.

And the black stone exploded.

I was ready for it, though. I’d already prepared the defensive spell, and I poured my will into a thick wall in the air in front of me as fragments of glossy black stone flew around the room. They bounced off my shield and went zinging, shattering one of my empty beer bottles on the table, slamming into the wooden columns, and gouging wood out of the walls. None of them got to Thomas, Mac, or me. I’d put the shield between us and the black stone while our attackers wasted time in negotiation. It wasn’t as good as the shield I could have thrown up if I had managed to replace my old shield bracelet, and I couldn’t hold it up anywhere near as long, but I didn’t need to.

Once the explosion had passed, I dropped the shield, already focusing my will upon my other hand, gathering a cannonball of raw force, and at the first flicker of motion outside the door’s glass, I snarled, “Forzare!” and sent it hurtling forth.

Force hammered into the door, and turned maybe fifty pounds of leaded glass into a cloud of razor-sharp shards. The stairwell down to Mac’s place was sunken—there was no way any of the shrapnel could fly out at street level.

An instant later, the bottom half of the door exploded into flying daggers of wood. My shield stopped anything heading toward Mac, but I couldn’t catch them all. One of them clipped my left cheekbone broadside—if it had tumbled for another fraction of a second, the sharp end would have driven right into my brain. As it was, it hit me like a baseball bat, stunning me and knocking me down.

The world did that slow-motion echo-chamber thing that happens sometimes with a head blow, and I saw our attacker come in.

At first, I couldn’t translate what I was seeing into something that made sense: It looked something like those giant spinning, whirling tubes covered in strips of soft cloth at an automated car wash, the ones that actually shampoo your car. Except it wasn’t a tube; it was a sphere, and it wasn’t at a car wash; it was rolling in through Mac’s doorway.

Mac’s shotgun went off, the sound of it slapping me in the back. Those things are loud in an enclosed space. Dust and bits of scrap cloth flew out of the attacker, but it didn’t slow down. The giant rag ball hurtled toward me, until Thomas dashed in from the side and smashed it with a roundhouse swing of one of Mac’s heavy oak tables.

Quick bar fighting tip for you—in real life, when you hit a guy with furniture, it doesn’t break into pieces the way it does in the movies. It breaks whoever you hit with it. There was a meaty sound of impact and the rolling shape’s forward momentum was instantly converted into a perpendicular line drive. It streaked across the room, trailing streamers of grey-brown cloth like a ragged comet, the cloth flapping and snapping with unnatural volume until it hit the wall with a solid thwack.

Another fighting tip for you: Don’t stay on the ground. If you don’t know exactly what you’re up against, if you aren’t sure that the guy you’re fighting doesn’t have a buddy coming along who might help, you can’t afford to be down and relatively motionless. My body was already moving, though I wasn’t sure how it was doing that, pushing me back to my feet.

Mac put a hand on the bar and vaulted up onto it like he did it all the time. The attacker bounced off the wall, rolled across a tabletop, and fell to the floor in a heap. Mac took a pair of quick steps to get a better line of fire, and boom went the shotgun again. Another cloud of scrap cloth and dust flew up from the attacker.

The room lurched back into normal speed. Dozens of strips of the dark sackcloth came flying off of the thing, twining in an instant around chairs and tables. A chair flew at Thomas, knocking the table out of his hands, and he was forced to dodge to one side instead of closing in. Mac’s shotgun bellowed three more times, and I hurled another lance of force at the thing. Mac’s shells did nothing but create puffs of debris, and my own arcane strike split and flowed around the thing, shattering a chair and smashing in a portion of the wall behind it.

And it laughed.

Furniture exploded out from it, flung with superhuman force. My shield barely caught the narrow edge of a table that had been flung like a Frisbee. Thomas’s legs were scythed out from under him by a flying bar stool, and he hit the floor with a huff of expelled breath. Mac had already thrown himself down behind the bar—but when another table hit it, there was an enormous cracking sound, and several pieces of wood broke under the impact.

A shape stirred in the writhing mass of ash-colored sackcloth and rose, its outline veiled but not entirely obscured by the cloth. It was lanky-tall, and had to stand hunched over to avoid the lazily spinning blades of the ceiling fans. It was more or less human-shaped, and I was suddenly struck by the realization that I was looking at a humanoid who was wearing some kind of enormous, ungainly garment made of all those restless, rustling strips.

It lifted its head slowly and focused on me.

It didn’t look at me—it didn’t have any eyes, just smooth skin laced with scars where they had once been. Its skin was pearly grey lined with darker stripes that made me think of a shark. Its mouth was gaping open in a wide grin that reinforced the impression. It didn’t have teeth—just a single smooth ridge of bone where teeth would have been on a human. Its lips were black, and its mouth smudged with more of it. Twin trails of saliva drooled from the corners of its mouth, leaving black streaks to down past its chin. There wasn’t a hair to be seen on its head.

“Wizard,” it said, and its voice was the same as had come through the glossy stone. “Your life need not end this day. Surrender and I will spare your companions.”

I could hear Mac reloading behind me. Thomas had his gun in his hand, behind his back, and was prowling silently around the room to force Sharkface to turn to keep an eye on him.

Except it didn’t have eyes. Whatever this thing was using to keep track of us, I had a feeling that just standing in an inconvenient spot wasn’t going to net us much of an advantage.

“Surrender,” I said, as though trying to place where I’d heard the word before. “Yeah, um. I’m not so sure I want any surrenders today. There was a sale on surrenders last week, and I missed it, but I don’t want to rush out and buy another one at the regular price right away. I’m afraid the sale might come back a week later, and then, I mean, come on. How stupid would I feel then?”

“Levity will not change the course of this day,” Sharkface said. Its buzzing, twisting voice was distinctly unpleasant in my ears, the aural equivalent of the stench of rotting meat. Which was appropriate, because the rest of him did smell like rotting meat. “You will come with me.”

“Isn’t that what Mab said, Harry?” Thomas quipped.

I kept my hand shielded from Sharkface with my body and gave my brother the finger. “Look, Spanky,” I said to Sharkface. “I’m a little busy to be tussling with every random weirdo who is insecure about his junk. Otherwise I would just love to smash you with a beer bottle, kick you in the balls, throw you out through the saloon doors, the whole bit. Why don’t you have your people contact my people, and we can do this maybe next week?”

“Next week is your self-deprecation awareness seminar,” Thomas said.

I snapped my fingers. “What about the week after?”

“Apartment hunting.”

“Bother,” I said. “Well, no one can say we didn’t try. See you later.”

“Harry,” said a strange voice. Or rather, it wasn’t strange—it was just strange to actually hear it. Mac isn’t much of a talker. “Don’t chat. Kill it.”

Mac’s words seemed to do what none of my nonsense had—they made Sharkface pissed off. It whirled toward Mac, dozens of sackcloth strips flicking out in every direction, grabbing whatever objects were there, and its alien voice came out in a harsh rasp. “You!” Sharkface snarled. “You have no place in this, watcher. Do you think this gesture has meaning? It is every bit as empty as you. You chose your road long ago. Have the grace to lie down and die beside it.”

I think my jaw might have hung a little loosely for a second. “Uh. Mac?”

“Kill it,” Mac repeated, his voice harder. “It’s only the first.”

“Yes,” Sharkface said, tilting its head almost to the perpendicular. “Kill it. And more will come. Destroy me and they will know. Leave me and they will know. Your breaths are numbered, wizard.”

As it spoke, I could feel a horrible, hopeless weight settling across my heart. Dammit, hadn’t I been through enough? More than enough? Hadn’t my life handed me enough misery and grief and pain and loneliness already? And now I was going to be up against something else, something new and scary, something that came galumphing at me by the legion, no less. What was the point? No matter what I did, no matter how much stronger or smarter or better connected I got, the bad guys just kept getting bigger and stronger and more numerous.

Behind me, I heard Mac let out a low groan. The shotgun must have fallen from his fingers, because it clattered on the floor. On my left, I saw Thomas’s shoulders slump, and he turned his face away, his eyes closed as if in pain.

The people who stayed near me got hurt or killed. As often as not, the bad guys got away to come embadden my life another day. Why deal with a life like that?

Why did I keep on doing this to myself?

“Because,” I growled under my breath. “You’re Charlie Brown, stupid. You’ve got to try for the damned football because that’s who you are.”

And just like that, the psychic assault of despair that Sharkface had sent into my head evaporated, and I could think clearly again. I hadn’t felt the cloying, somehow oily power slithering up to me—but I could sure as hell feel it now as it recoiled and pulled away. I’d felt it before—and I suddenly knew what I was dealing with.

Sharkface jerked its head toward me, and its mouth opened in shock. For a frozen instant, we stared at each other across maybe fifteen feet of cluttered pub. It seemed to last for hours. Thomas and Mac were both motionless, reaching out for physical supports as though drunk or bearing a heavy burden. They wouldn’t be able to get themselves out of the building in their current condition—but I didn’t have any choice.

Sharkface and its sackcloth cloak flung half a ton of furniture at me about a quarter of a second after I raised my right hand and snarled, “Fuego!”

I hadn’t used much fire magic lately, obviously. You don’t go messing around conjuring up flame when you’re at the heart of Winter. There are things there that hate that action. But fire magic has always been my strongest suit. It was the first fully realized spell I ever mastered, and on a good day I could hang around in the same general league as any other wizard in the world when it came to fire magic.

On top of that, I tapped into the latent energy a particularly meddlesome angel had bestowed upon me whether I wanted it or not—an ancient source of the very energy of Creation itself known as soulfire. Soulfire was never meant for battle—but its presence could infuse my battle spells with significant energy and momentum, making them far more difficult to counter. I had to be careful with it—burn too much in too short a time and it would kill me. But if I didn’t live to walk out of the pub, it wouldn’t matter how much soulfire I had stored up for a rainy day.

I expected a roar of flame, a flash of white and gold light, the concussion of superheated air suddenly expanding, right in Sharkface’s ugly mug.

What I got was an arctic-gale howl and a spiraling harpoon of blue-white fire burning hotter than anything this side of a star.

Sharkface hurled furniture at me, trying to shelter behind it, but the fire I’d just called vaporized chairs and tables in the instant it touched them. They shattered with enormous, screaming detonations of thunder, and every impact made sounds that by all rights should have belonged to extremely large and poorly handled construction vehicles.

Sharkface crossed its bony grey forearms before it in a last-ditch effort to deflect the spell. If I’d been focused on it, concentrating on pushing the spell past its defenses, maybe it would have burned right through Sharkface and its stupid cloak. But that wasn’t the plan. Instead, I sprinted across the distance between us, through the hideous heat of my spell’s thermal bloom. It was like running through an oven. I saw my spell splash against Sharkface’s crossed forearms, and the thing managed to deflect almost all of the spell away—but not all of it. Fire scorched across one of its cheeks and splashed over its right shoulder, setting a large mass of sackcloth strips aflame.

It screamed in pain, a sound that raked at my ears, and began to lower its arms to retaliate.

The second it did, I drove my right fist into its stupid, creepy face.

Man, the yahoos I scrap with never seem to anticipate that tactic. They all assume that what with me being a wizard and all, I’m going to stand back and chuck Magic Missiles at them or something, then scream and run away the second they get close enough to let me see the whites of their eyes.

Okay, granted, that is how a lot of wizards operate. But all the same, you’d think they would remember that there’s no particular reason why a wizard can’t be as comfortable with physical mayhem as the next guy.

Two things happened.

First, as my fist sailed forward, there was a sudden thrill that flowed up my arm from my hand, something delicious and startling. I had barely processed that when I heard a crackling noise, and then saw glacial blue and green ice abruptly coating my fist.

Second, I hit Sharkface like a freaking truck, starting right on the tip of its chin and driving straight toward South America. The ice coating my fist shattered into tiny shards that laced and sliced, but I barely felt it. Sharkface flew back as if I’d slugged it with a sledgehammer, and hit the wall with enough violence to crack and splinter the heavy oak paneling. Sharkface’s cloak fluttered hard as it went backward—the freaking thing was cushioning his impact, just as it had managed to stop shotgun pellets at short range.

Sharkface bounced off the wall, staggering, and I gave it a left and another right, and then kicked its legs out from underneath it as brutally as I knew how. It went to the floor hard.

Once Sharkface was down I stomped for its head with my hiking boots, going for a quick kill, which was exactly what this asshole had coming to it for messing with my favorite joint—but that stupid cloak got in the way. Strips flew out to gain purchase and hauled him out from beneath my boot. Even as I reacted, moving to follow him up, more of the sackcloth tendrils seized a dozen bottles of liquor from behind the bar—and flung them harshly onto the puddles of vicious blue-white fire still burning upon the floor where Sharkface had deflected them.

I slashed at the tumbling bottles with an effort of will, but I hadn’t had a soft-touch spell in mind during the previous seconds. My clumsy grab accomplished nothing but to shatter one of the bottles early, and flames roared up from where the spilled liquor fell.

Alcohol fires are a nasty business. Booze burns a good deal hotter and faster than, for example, gasoline. In seconds it can take the temperature from below freezing to seven hundred degrees, hot enough to turn flesh into briquettes. Mac and Thomas were both down. There was no way I could get them both out of the fire in time—which meant my only option was to stop it from happening.

Sharkface let out an eerie, defiant shriek and suddenly vanished into the writhing mass of his coat again, becoming nothing but flailing cloth and dust and stench. The creature bounded into the air and streaked like a sackcloth comet out the front door—and there was diddly I could do to stop it.

Instead, I turned to the fires just as bottles began to shatter on the floor, just as white-hot flames began to leap. I hurled my will through my body, drawing forth the frigid purity of Winter, calling, “Infriga!”

Howling wind and cold engulfed the nascent fires. And the floor around where the fires had been. And the walls. And, um, the ceiling.

I mean, pretty much every nonliving surface in the place was completely covered in a layer of frost half an inch thick.

Mac and Thomas started groaning. I gave them a minute to pull themselves together and watched the door. Sharkface didn’t show up for a rematch. Maybe he was busy changing into fresh undies because I’d scared him so bad. Right. More likely he was off doing a Right Stuff walk and gathering his gang.

The fog lightened and burned off within five minutes or so, and the sounds of the city returned.

The attack was over. Mac stared woozily around the pub, shaking his head. Covered in glittering frost and ice, it looked like the place Santa’s elves must go when they finish their shift at the toy shop.

Mac gave me a look and then gestured at the pub, clearly wanting an explanation.

“Hey,” I said crossly. “At least it didn’t get burned to the ground. Count your blessings, man. That’s better than most buildings get around me.”

Thomas sat up a moment later, and I helped him to his feet.

“What happened?” he asked blearily.

“Psychic assault,” I told him. “A bad one. How you feeling?”

“Confused,” Thomas said. He looked around the place, shaking his head. The pub looked like it had just been raided by Super Bowl–berserk Bears fans. “What was that thing?”

I rubbed at my forehead with the heel of my hand. “An Outsider.”

Thomas’s eyes went wide and round. “What?”

“An Outsider,” I repeated quietly. “We’re fighting Outsiders.”

Chapter Twenty-three

“Outsiders,” Thomas said. “Are you sure?”

“You felt it,” I said. “That mental whammy. It was exactly like that night in the Raith Deeps.”

Thomas frowned but nodded. “Yeah, it was, wasn’t it?”

Mac walked silently past us to the ruined door. He bent down and picked something up out of the general wreckage there. It was the Accorded Neutral Territory sign. It was scorched on one corner, but he hung it back up on the wall. Then he leaned his hands against it and bowed his head.

I knew how he felt. Violent encounters tend to be scary and exhausting, even if they last for only seconds. My nerves were still jangling, my legs were trembling a little, and I wanted very badly to just plop down onto the floor and breathe for a while. I didn’t. Wizards are stoic about this kind of thing. And my brother would make fun of me.

Thomas exhaled slowly through his nose, his eyes narrowed. “I don’t know much about them,” he said.

“That’s not surprising,” I said. “There’s not a lot of information on Outsiders. We think that’s because most people who run into them don’t get a chance to tell anyone about it.”

“Lot of things like that in the world,” Thomas said. “Sounds like these things are just a little creepier than your average demonic nasty.”

“It’s more than that,” I said. “Creatures out of the Nevernever are a part of our reality, our universe. They can get pretty bizarre, but they have a membership card. Outsiders come from someplace else.”

Thomas shrugged. “What’s the difference?”

“They’re smarter. Tougher. Harder to kill.”

“You handled that one pretty well. Didn’t look so tough.”

I snorted. “You missed out on the end. I hit that thing with my best shot, and I barely made it uncomfortable. It didn’t leave because I hurt it. It left because it didn’t expect me to fight clear of its whammy, and it didn’t want to take any chances that I might get lucky and prevent it from reporting to its superiors.”

“Still ran,” Thomas said. “Yeah, that mind-meld thing was awful, but the bastard wasn’t all that bad.”

I sighed. “That little creep Peabody dropped one Outsider on a meeting of the Council. The best wizards in the world were all in that one room and took it on together, and the thing still managed to murder a bunch of them. It’s hard to make magic stick to Outsiders. It’s hard to make them leave. It’s hard to hurt them. It’s hard to make them die. They’re insanely violent, insanely powerful, and just plain insane. But that isn’t what makes them dangerous.”

“Uh,” Thomas said. “It isn’t? Then what is?”

“They work together,” I said quietly. “Near as we can tell, they all work together.”

Thomas was silent for a moment as he considered the implications of that. “Work together,” he said. “To do what?”

I shook my head. “Whatever they do. Their actions are not always predicated on rationality—or at least, that’s what the Council thinks.”

“You sound skeptical.”

“The White Council always assumes that it’s at least as smart as everyone else all put together. I know better.”

“Because you’re so much smarter than they are,” Thomas said wryly.

“Because I’m on the street more than they are,” I corrected him. “The Council thinks the Outsiders are just a giant box of crazy that can go rampaging in any random direction.”

“But you don’t think that.”

“The phrase ‘crazy like a fox’ leaps to mind.”

“Okay. So what do you think these Outsiders are doing?”

I shrugged. “I’m almost certain they aren’t selling Girl Scout cookies. But don’t quote me.”

“Don’t worry; I hardly ever want to sound clueless. But the fact that they’re working together implies a purpose. A goal.”

“Yes.”

“So?” my brother asked. “What do they want?”

“Thomas, they’re aliens. I mean, they’re like super-mega-überaliens. They might not even think, at least not in the way we understand it. How the hell are we supposed to make even an informed guess about their motivation—assuming that they have one?”

“Doesn’t matter how weird they are,” Thomas said. “Moving together implies purpose. Purpose implies a goal. Goals are universal.”

“They aren’t from this universe. That’s the point,” I said. “Maybe you’re right; I don’t know. But until I have a better idea, it’s smarter to keep reminding myself that I don’t know, rather than assuming that I do know, and then translating anything I learn to fit my preconceptions.”

“Here’s a fact that is no assumption,” Thomas said. “They wanted you.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“All I can do is guess.”

“So guess.”

I sighed. “My gut says they’re planning a jailbreak.”

Thomas grunted. “Might have been smarter for them to have left you alone. Now you know something.”

I made an exasperated sound. “Yes. Those fools. By trying to kill me, they’ve revealed their very souls. I have them now.”

Thomas gave me a steady look. “Being Mab’s bitch has made you a pessimist.”

“I am not a pessimist,” I said loftily. “Though that can’t last.”

That made Thomas grin. “Nice.”

“Thank you.”

At the door, Mac looked up suddenly and said, “Dresden.”

Thomas tilted his head, listening. Then he said, “Cops.”

I sighed. “Poor guys. Bet last night’s watch hasn’t even been released to go home yet. They’re going to be cranky.”

“The explosion thing?” Thomas asked.

“The explosion thing.”

We didn’t need to be detained and questioned all day, and I didn’t need to get into an altercation with the police, either—they’ve got no sense of humor at all for such things. You always hear about there being no rest for the wicked, but I’m pretty sure cops aren’t racking up much extra hammock time, either. Thomas and I traded a look and headed for the door.

I paused by it, and looked at Mac.

“It knew you.”

Mac stared at nothing and didn’t answer.

“Mac, that thing was dangerous,” I said. “And it might come back.”

Mac grunted.

“Look,” I said. “If my guess is right, that twit and its buddies might wipe out a big chunk of the state. Or possibly states. If you know something about them, I need it.”

Mac didn’t look up. After several seconds, he said, “Can’t. I’m out.”

“Look at this place,” I said quietly. “You aren’t out. Nobody is out.”

“Drop it,” he said. “Neutral territory.”

“Neutral territory that is going to burn with all the rest of it,” I said. “I don’t care who you are, man. I don’t care what you’ve done. I don’t care whether or not you think you’re retired from the life. If you know something I need it. Now.”

“Harry, we need to move,” Thomas said, urgency tightening his voice.

I could hear the sirens now. They had to be close. Mac turned and walked back toward his bar.

Dammit. I shook my head and turned to leave.

“Dresden,” Mac called.

I turned to look back at him. Mac was standing behind the bar. As I watched, he took three bottles of beer from beneath the counter and placed them down in a straight line, one by one, their sides touching. Then he just looked up at me.

“Three of them,” I said. “Three of these things?” Hell’s bells, one of them had been bad enough.

Mac neither nodded nor shook his head. He just jerked his chin at me and said, “Luck.”

“We’re gonna talk,” I said to Mac.

Mac turned a look on me that was as distant and as inaccessible as Antarctic mountains.

“No,” he said. “We aren’t.”

I was going to say something smart-ass. But that bleak expression made it seem like a bad idea.

So instead, I followed my brother up the debris-strewn stairs and into the rainy morning.

* * *

We passed the first police car to arrive at the scene on our way out, driving at the sedate pace of upright citizens.

“I love evading representatives of the lawful authority,” Thomas said, watching the car go by in his rearview mirror. “It’s one of those little things that make me happy.”

I paused and thought about it. “Me too. I mean, I know a bunch of these guys. Some of them are good people, some of them are jerks, but most are just guys doing a job. And it’s not like sticking us in a room and questioning us is going to accomplish anything to make their day go more smoothly.”

“And you enjoy driving authority figures insane,” Thomas said.

I shrugged. “I watched The Dukes of Hazzard at a formative age,” I said. “Of course I enjoy it.”

“Where next?” Thomas asked. “Molly’s place?”

I thought about it for a minute. I didn’t think it would be a great idea to be there when Fix came looking for a fight. Svartalves were a little prickly about territory, and they might not be at all amused if I dragged a personal conflict into their domain. But there were other people I wanted to contact before nightfall, and I needed a phone and some quiet workspace to do it in.

“The Summer Lady has granted your request for an audience,” said Cat Sith from the backseat.

Thomas nearly took the Hummer off the street and into a bus stop shelter. My heart leapt into my throat as if it had been given bionic legs and its own sound effects. Thomas regained control of the vehicle almost instantly, letting out a wordless snarl as he did.

“Sith,” I said, too loud. My heart was running at double time. I glared at him over the front seat. “Dammit.”

The malk’s too-long tail flicked back and forth in smug self-satisfaction. “Shall I interpret that as an order to burn something, Sir Knight? If you are to survive long in Winter, you must learn to be much more specific in your turns of phrase.”

“No, don’t burn anything,” I said, grouchily. I thought about giving the malk an order not to sneak up on me like that anymore, but thought better of it. That would be exactly the kind of order that Cat Sith would take grotesque amusement in perverting, and I wanted to avoid putting him into a playful mood. “What did Lily have to say?”

“That she would guarantee your safety from harm wrought by herself, her Court, and any in her employ or influence,” the malk said, “provided that you came alone and kept the peace.”

I grunted, thinking.

“Why would she want you alone?” Thomas asked. “Unless she planned on doing something to you.”

“Because the last time she saw the Winter Knight, he was murdering the previous Summer Knight?” I guessed aloud. “Because the last time she saw the corpse of the Summer Lady, I was the one who’d made it? Because I’m a known thug who wrecks things a lot?”

Thomas bobbed his head slightly to one side in acknowledgment. “Okay. Point.”

“Sith,” I asked, “where is the meeting?”

“A public venue,” Sith said, his eyes half-lidded. “Chicago Botanic Gardens.”

“See?” I said to Thomas. “That’s not a venue for an assassination—for either of us. There are too many people around. There are plenty of ways out for anyone who wants to leave. That’s a viable neutral location.”

“If I remember right,” Thomas said, “the last time the Summer Lady tried a hit on you, didn’t she animate a bunch of plants into a giant monster that tried to kill you in the garden center of a Walmart?”

I rode in silence for a few seconds and then said, “Yeah, but . . . it was dark. Not as many people around.”

“Oh,” Thomas said. “Okay.”

I held the back of my left fist up to him, then used my right fist to make a little circular cranking motion next to it, while slowly elevating the center finger of my left hand until it was fully extended. Then I turned to Sith.

“What do you think? Is the risk acceptable for a meeting in that location?”

“You would be foolish to meet with her at all,” Cat Sith replied. “However. Given her promise and her chosen location, I judge it to be at least possible that she may actually intend to treat with you.”

“Suppose she’s lying,” Thomas said.

“She can’t,” I told him. “None of the Sidhe or the greater powers of either court can tell an outright lie. Right, Sith?”

“Logically speaking, my answer to that question would be unsupportable as truth.”

I sighed. “Well, that’s how it is among them,” I said. “No falsehoods. They can twist words around, they can avoid answering, they can mislead you by drawing you to false conclusions, but they can’t blatantly tell a lie.”

Thomas shook his head as he pulled onto 94 and started north. “I still don’t like it. That crowd never gives you what you expect.”

“Think how boring it would be if they did,” I said.

We both considered that wistfully for a beat.

“You might have to go in alone,” Thomas said. “But I’m going to stay close. Things go bad, just make some noise and I’ll come in.”

“They aren’t going to go bad,” I said. “But even if they do, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Summer’s weird, but they’re basically good neighbors. I don’t blame them for being jumpy.”

Sith made a disgusted sound.

“Problem?” I asked him.

“This . . . compassion,” the malk said. “If you prefer, I can slash your throat open now, Sir Knight, and save the vampire the cost of fuel.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” I said. “I want you to stay close to Thomas and alert him to any source of danger. If a fight breaks out, your goal is to assist in making sure that both he and I escape, without doing harm to any innocent bystanders, and without killing any mortals.”

Sith started making a sound like my cat always did right before he spit out a hairball.

“Hey,” Thomas said. “Those are custom leather seats!”

Sith spit out a glob the size of a small plum, but instead of a hairball it was actually a small collection of splintered chips of bone. He flicked his tail in scorn and then leapt lightly into the rear bed of the Hummer.

“Jerk,” Thomas muttered.

“Just drive,” I said.

He grimaced and did. After a few miles he asked, “You think this is going to work? This peaceful summit thing?”

“Sure,” I said. After a second, I added, “Probably.”

“Probably?”

“Maybe,” I said.

“We’re down to maybe now?”

I shrugged. “We’ll see.”

Chapter Twenty-four

The Botanic Gardens of Chicago aren’t actually in Chicago, which always made them seem a little shady to me. Ba-dump-bump.

Rain was coming down in fitful little starts, averaging out to a mild drizzle. The air was cool, in the low fifties, and combined with the rain it meant that the gardens weren’t exactly crowded with ardent floraphiles. The weather didn’t bother me. In fact, I could have taken the jacket off and felt fine—but I didn’t.

My grandfather had taught me that magic wasn’t something you used in a cavalier fashion, and it wasn’t considered to be a seductive, corruptive force, the way black magic and the Winter Knight’s mantle were. I had an instinct that the more I leaned on Mab’s power, the more of an effect it would have on me. No sense flaunting it.

Once I was inside, I found myself in a setting of isolation that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else this close to the city. The gardens are the size of a moderate farm, more than three hundred acres. That wouldn’t mean much to city mice, but to translate that into Chicago units, it was a couple of dozen city blocks’ worth of garden. That’s a lot of space to wander in. You could walk the various paths for hours and hours without ever visiting the same place.

Most of those paths were grey and empty. I passed a retiree near the entrance, and a groundskeeper hurrying out of the rain toward what looked like a concealed toolshed, and other than that it seemed like I had the whole place to myself.

There were seasonal decorations out here and there—a lot of pumpkins and cornstalks, where they’d been planning on Halloween festivities. Apparently they were going to be hosting some kind of trick-or-treating function that afternoon, but for the time being the place did not teem with costumed children and bedraggled parents. It was a little eerie, really. The place looked like it should have been crowded, and felt like it was meant to be crowded, but my soft footsteps were the only sound other than the whisper of rain.

Yet I did not feel as though I were alone. You hear the phrase “I felt like I was being watched” all the time. There’s a good reason for that—it’s a very real feeling, and it has nothing to do with magic. Developing an instinct for sensing when a predator might be studying you is a fundamental survival trait. If you’re ever in a spooky situation and have a strong instinct that you are being watched, hunted, or followed, I advise you not to treat those instincts lightly. They’re there for a reason.

I walked for about five minutes, and instinct converted into certainty. I was being followed. I couldn’t spot who was doing it, exactly, and there were all kinds of plant cover to conceal whoever or whatever was pacing me, but I was confident that they were out there.

Maybe my brother’s fears hadn’t been entirely without merit.

Lily hadn’t said where she intended to meet me, exactly—or rather, I chided myself, I hadn’t badgered Cat Sith hard enough for the details. The furry jerk had calmly denied me that rather important piece of information, simply by never mentioning it, and I hadn’t questioned him closely enough. My own fault. I’d played the malicious obedience card more than a couple of times in my life, but this was the first time I’d had it played against me.

Man. No wonder it drives people insane.

So I started walking the main paths systematically. The gardens are built on a series of islands in a little lake, joined by footbridges and grouped into themes.

I found Lily waiting on the covered bridge to the Japanese garden.

Her long, fine hair flowed in gentle waves to the small of her back. It was silver-white. Evidently the weather didn’t bother her either. She was dressed in a simple green sundress that fell to her knees, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in July. She had a pastel green sweater folded over one arm for appearance’s sake. Brown leather sandals wrapped her feet, and their ties crisscrossed around her ankles. She stood very still, her deep green eyes focused on the ripples the little raindrops sent up on the surface of the lake.

And if I hadn’t known better, if I hadn’t known Lily’s features well enough to be sure it was her, I would have sworn that I was looking at Aurora, the Summer Lady I’d murdered at the stone table.

Before stepping onto the bridge, I paused for a moment to look around me, to truly focus my senses. There, in the bushes—something that moved with feline smoothness paced me in utter silence. More presences filled the water, stirring up more ripples than the rain could account for. And on the far side of the bridge, a number of presences lurked, veiled by magic that kept me from knowing anything about them beyond the fact of their existence.

I figured that there were at least twice as many guardians present, the ones I couldn’t sense without really buckling down. They would probably be the most capable and powerful of Lily’s escort, too.

If Lily meant to do me harm, walking out onto that bridge was a great way to trap myself, and an absolutely fantastic place in which to be shot. The railing on either side was of light, fine material, and would provide no real cover. There were an almost unlimited number of places where a rifleman could be lying in wait. If I went out there and Lily meant to hurt me, I’d have a hell of a time arguing with her.

But she’d given her word that she wouldn’t. I tried to look at this from her point of view—after all, I hadn’t given my word, and even if I had, I could always break it. Had I intended to attack Lily, the bridge presented her with an opportunity to block me in, to slow me down while she and her people escaped.

Screw this. I didn’t have time to waffle.

I hunched my shoulders, hoped no one was about to shoot me again, and strode out onto the bridge.

Lily didn’t give any indication that she’d noticed me until I got to within about ten feet of her. Then she simply lifted her eyes from the water, though she never looked at me.

I’d been the one to ask for this meeting. I stopped, gave her a bow, and said, “Thank you for meeting me, Lady Summer.”

She inclined her head the slightest visible degree. “Sir Knight.”

“Been a while,” I said.

“Relative to what?” she asked.

“Life, I guess,” I said.

“Much has happened,” she agreed. “Wars have raged. Empires have fallen.” She finally turned her head to regard me directly. “Friends have changed.”

Lily had been gorgeous as a mortal woman. After becoming the Summer Lady, her beauty had been magnified into something that was only barely human, something so tangible and intense that it shone out from her like light flowing out of her skin. It was a different kind of beauty from Mab’s or Maeve’s. Their loveliness was an emptiness. Looking on them created nothing but desire, a need that cried out to be filled.

By contrast, Lily’s beauty was a fire, a source of light and warmth, something that created a profound sense of satisfaction. Looking at Lily made the pains of my heart ease, and I suddenly felt like I could breathe freely for the first time in months.

And some other part of me abruptly filled my mind with a violent and explicit image—my fist tangled in Lily’s hair, that soft gentle mouth under mine, her body writhing beneath my weight as I took her to the ground. It wasn’t an idle thought, and it wasn’t a daydream, and it wasn’t a fantasy. It was a blueprint. If Lily was immortal, I couldn’t kill her. That didn’t mean I couldn’t take her.

I forgot how to speak for a couple of seconds as I fought the image out of my forebrain. Then I forced myself to look away from her, out to the water of the lake. I leaned down on the guardrail, gripping it with my hands. I was a little worried that if I didn’t give them something to do, they might try something stupid. I took a cleansing breath and reengaged my speech centers. “I’m not the only one who’s changed since that day.”

I could feel her eyes on me, intently studying my face. I had a feeling that she knew exactly what I’d just felt. “True,” she murmured. “But we’ve made our choices, haven’t we? And now we are who we are. I am sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Sir Knight.”

“What? Just now?”

I saw her nod in my peripheral vision. “A moment ago, you looked at me. I have seen a face with that precise expression before.”

“Slate.”

“Yes.”

“Well,” I growled, “I’m not Slate. I’m not some pet monster Maeve made to play with.”

“No,” Lily said, her voice sad. “You are a weapon Mab made to war with. You poor man. You always had such a good heart.”

“Had?” I asked.

“It isn’t yours any longer,” Lily said quietly.

“I disagree,” I said. “Strenuously.”

“And the need you felt a moment ago?” she asked. “Did that urge come from your heart, Sir Knight?”

“Yes,” I said simply.

Lily froze for a second, her head tilting slightly to one side.

“Bad things are inside everyone,” I said. “I don’t care how gentle or holy or sincere or dedicated you are. There are bad things in there. Lust. Greed. Violence. You don’t need a wicked queen to make that happen. That’s a part of everyone. Some more, some less, but it’s always there.”

“You say that you were this wicked from the beginning?” Lily asked.

“I’m saying I could have been,” I said. “I chose something else. And I’m going to continue choosing something else.”

Lily smiled faintly and looked back at the lake. “You wished to speak to me about my knight.”

“Fix, yeah,” I said. “He basically gave me until noon to leave town, or we shoot it out at the OK Corral. I’m busy. I don’t have time to skip town. But I don’t want either of us to get hurt.”

“What do you wish me to do?”

“Tell him to stand down,” I said. “Even if only for a few days. It’s important.”

Lily bowed her head. “It grieves me to say this, Sir Knight. But no. I will not.”

I tried not to grind my teeth audibly. “And why not?”

She studied me again, her green eyes intense. “Can it be?” she asked. “Can it be that you have come so far, have fallen in with your current company, without realizing what is happening here?”

“Uh,” I said, frowning. “You mean here, today?”

“I mean here,” Lily said. “In our world.”

“Yeah, uh. Maybe you haven’t heard, but I haven’t been in our world much lately.”

Lily shook her head. “The pieces are all in front of you. You have only to assemble them.”

“Vague much?” I asked. “Why can’t you just tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”

“If you do know, there is no need to speak. If you truly do not know, no amount of speech will convince you. Some things must be learned for oneself.”

I made a disgusted sound and spit into the lake. Take that, lurking bodyguards. “Lily,” I said. “Look, this isn’t complicated. Fix is about to come at me. I don’t want to hurt him. So I came here in peace to try to talk it out. What have I done here today that has convinced you that I’m some kind of psychotic maniac who can’t be trusted?”

“It isn’t anything you’ve done,” Lily said. “It isn’t anything you had any control over. You didn’t know.”

I threw up my hands at that. “Didn’t know what?”

Lily frowned and studied me, her expression drawn with worry. “You . . .” She shook her head. “God, Harry. You really mean it. You aren’t her creature?”

“No,” I said. “Not yet.”

Lily nodded and seemed to think for a moment. Then she asked, “Would it pain you for me to touch you?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I must know,” she said. “I must know if it is upon you yet.”

“What?”

She shook her head. “I cannot risk answering any questions until I am sure.”

I grunted. I thought about it. Yeah, I could keep my inner caveman on a leash, if it meant getting some answers. “Okay,” I said. “Go ahead.”

Lily nodded. Then she walked toward me. She reached up and her slender, warm fingers touched my forehead, like a mother checking a child for a temperature. She stayed that way for a long moment, her eyes distant.

Then abruptly she let out a little cry and flung her arms around me. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh. We thought you taken.”

Okay, inner caveman or not, when a girl that pretty is giving you a full-body hug, you don’t come up with the wittiest dialogue. “Uh. I haven’t had a girlfriend for a while now.”

Lily leaned her head back and laughed. The sound of it was like eating hot cookies, melting into a warm shower, and snuggling a fuzzy puppy all at the same time. “Enough,” she said. “Enough, come out. He is a friend.”

And, just like that, faeries popped out of absolutely everything in sight. Elves, tiny humanoids no more than a couple of feet high, rose up out of the bushes. A serpent the size of a telephone pole slithered out of the bridge’s rafters. Seven or eight silver-coated faerie hounds emerged from behind a stand of groomed arbor vitae. Two massive centaurs and half a dozen Sidhe of the Summer Court simply blinked into visibility from behind their veils. They were all armed with bows. Yikes. If I’d meant Lily any harm, my body would have resembled a feathery porcupine. The water stirred, and then a number of otters who were all too big to have been born this side of the last ice age came rushing out.

“Ee-aye, ee-aye, oh,” I said. “Uh, wow. All this for me?”

“Only a fool wouldn’t respect your strength,” she said. “Particularly now.”

Personally, I thought she’d gotten to overkill about one elf after those bows, but I didn’t want her to know that. “Okay,” I said. “You touched me. Make with some answers.”

“Certainly,” she said. Then she moved her hand, and the open air suddenly had the enclosed feeling of a small room. When she spoke, her voice sounded odd, as if it were coming over a radio. She’d put up a privacy spell so that no one could listen in. “What would you like to know?”

“Um, right,” I said. “Why did you touch my head like that? What were you looking for?”

“A disease,” she replied. “A parasite. A poison.”

“Could you repeat that answer, only without the poetry?”

Lily faced me squarely, her lovely face intent. “Sir Knight, you must have seen it. You must have seen the contagion spreading. It has been before your eyes for years.”

“I haven’t seen . . .” Then I paused. My head started adding things together. “You . . . you aren’t talking about a physical disease, are you?”

“Of course not,” Lily said. “It is a kind of spiritual malady. A mental plague. An infection slowly spreading across the earth.”

“And . . . this plague. What does it do?” I asked.

“It changes that which ought not change,” she said quietly. “It destroys a father’s love for his family by twisting it into maniacal ambition. It distorts and corrupts the good intentions of agents of mortal law into violence and death. It erodes the sensible fear that keeps a weakly talented sorcerer from reaching out for more power, no matter how terrible the cost.”

I felt my head rock back as if she’d slammed a croquet mallet into it, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach again.

“Victor Sells the Shadowman,” I whispered. “Agent Denton and the Hexenwolves. Leonid Kravos the Nightmare. My first three major cases.”

“Yes,” Lily whispered. “Each of them was tainted by the contagion. It destroyed them.”

I put a hand on the rail and leaned against it. “Fourth case. Aurora. A champion of peace and healing who set out to send the natural world into havoc.”

Lily’s eyes glistened with tears. “I saw what it did to her,” she said. “I didn’t know what was happening to my friend, but I saw it changing her. Twisting her day by day. I loved Aurora like a sister, Sir Knight. But in the end, even I could see what she had become.” Tears fell, and she made no effort to wipe them away. “I saw. I knew. In the end, you may have killed her, Harry. But you also did her a kindness.”

I shook my head. “I . . . I don’t understand why you didn’t want to tell me about it.”

“No one who knows of this speaks of it,” Lily said.

“Why not?”

“Don’t you see?” Lily said. “What if you had been tainted as well? And I revealed to you that I recognized what was happening?”

I kicked my brain into gear and thought. “Uh . . . then . . .” I felt sick. “You’d be a threat. I’d have to kill you to keep you quiet. Or make you the next recruit.”

“Exactly,” Lily said.

“But why suspect me of being tainted . . . ?” I heard my own voice trail off as I realized the only thing that could have moved Lily against me so strongly.

“Be at ease,” Lily said, and beckoned.

And freaking Maeve, the Winter Lady, strolled onto the far end of the bridge and sauntered toward us. She was dressed in leather pants of dark purple and a periwinkle sweater whose sleeves fell past the ends of her fingers, and her mouth was curled into a tiny, wicked smirk. “Hey, there, big guy,” she purred. “Lily give you the skinny?”

“Not yet,” Lily said. “Maeve, this isn’t the sort of thing one should simply ram down another’s throat.”

“Of course it is,” Maeve said, her smile widening.

“Maeve—” Lily began.

Maeve did a little pirouette that wound up with her toes practically touching mine as she smiled up at me, her too-sharp teeth very white. “Do you have a camera? I want someone to get a picture.”

“Oh, dear,” Lily said.

Maeve leaned in close, her smile widening. “Mab,” she breathed, “my mother, the Queen of Air and Darkness, and your liege . . .” She leaned closer and whispered, “Mab has been tainted and has gone utterly mad.”

My spine turned to brittle ice. “What?”

Lily looked up at me with a sad, sober expression.

Maeve let out a peal of giggles. “It’s true,” she said. “She means to destroy the mortal world, wizard, and to do it this very night—to unleash chaos and havoc that have not been known since the fall of Atlantis. And make no mistake, she will destroy it.”

Lily nodded, her eyes pained. “Unless,” she began. “Unless . . .”

I finished the thought Lily obviously did not want to complete. “Unless,” I whispered, “someone destroys her first.”

Chapter Twenty-five

This day had begun so simply: I’d nearly been killed at my birthday party and Mab had ordered me to kill an immortal. I’d survived the first, and if I’d had the good sense to shut up and do the second without asking questions, I might be somewhere reading a nice book or something, and waiting out the clock until it was Maeve-whacking time.

Instead I had this.

“I love watching him think,” Maeve told Lily. “You can almost hear that poor little hamster running and running on its wheel.”

“You clubbed him over the head with it,” Lily said. “What did you expect?”

“Oh, this,” Maeve said, her eyes sparkling. “Wizards are always so sure of themselves. I love seeing them off balance. This one in particular.”

“Why me?” I said. I wasn’t really participating in their conversation.

“You did kill my cousin, wizard,” Maeve said. “Aurora was a prissy little bint, but she was family. It makes me happy when you suffer.”

I glowered at Maeve and said, “One of these days, you and I are going to disagree.” I turned to Lily. “You say Mab wants to hold an Armageddon-thon, fine. How is she going to do it?”

“We aren’t completely certain,” Lily said, her eyes earnest.

“It’s something to do with that island,” Maeve said carelessly.

Gulp.

Wrecking someone’s powerful and deadly ritual wasn’t such a scary concept. I’d done that before, more than once. But somehow, knowing that it was Mab’s ritual I was supposed to derail made this situation a whole lot worse. I’d Seen Mab before, with the unadulterated perception of my Sight, and I remembered the kind of might she wielded with absolute clarity. Mab had the kind of power you had to describe using exponents. I felt like a man with a shovel and a couple of gunnysacks who has just been told to stop an oncoming tsunami.

And Mab knew the place. She’d taken care of me for months there. She knew Demonreach’s strengths, its defenses, and its potential. Hell, I’d been her ticket through the door—in fact, I was the only one who could have gotten her onto that island.

“You know,” I said aloud, “it’s just possible that I made a mistake in taking Mab’s deal.”

The two Ladies gave me level gazes. Neither of them said, “Obviously,” but it hung on the spell-muffled air nonetheless.

Then I had a thought. Cat Sith had lied to me very effectively only moments ago, because I assumed reasonable things and he allowed me to charge off down that line of thinking. This was no time to make a rookie mistake like that.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to do something I know you both hate. I’m going to get direct. And I’m going to get direct answers from you, answers that convince me that you aren’t trying to hide anything from me and aren’t trying to mislead me. I know you both have to speak the truth. So give me simple, declarative answers, or I assume you’re scheming and walk away right now.”

That made Lily press her lips together and fold her arms. Her gaze turned reproachful. Maeve rolled her eyes, casually gave me the finger, and said, “Wizards are such weasels.”

“Deal with it,” I said. “Lily. Are you sure that this contagion you speak of is real, and works the way you say it does?”

Lily looked like opening her mouth exposed her taste buds to something foul, but she answered, “Absolutely.”

“Are you sure Mab has been . . . been infected?”

“I am all but certain,” Lily said. “But I have not examined her for myself.”

“I have,” Maeve said calmly. “While you and my people were putting on such a garish distraction at that dreary little celebration of your birth, Sir Knight.” She stretched and yawned, making sure to pull her sweater tight against her chest. “That was the purpose of it, after all.”

I scowled. “You examined Mab?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re sure she’s infected?” I asked.

For just a fraction of a second, Maeve’s smug exterior changed, becoming graver, more somber. In that instant, she and Lily looked as though they might have been fraternal twins. “With absolute certainty.”

“And you’re sure she means to attack the mortal world as you’ve described?”

That serious version of Maeve met my eyes. “Yes,” she said. “Think, wizard. Remember your godmother, bound in ice at Arctis Tor. That was when my mother trapped her and spread the contagion into her. Think of the creatures of Faerie Wyld who have been behaving irregularly and unpredictably. Think of the strange conduct of some of the Houses of the White Court, changing their diets after centuries of stasis. Think of the Fomor, active and aggressive again for the first time in millennia.” She stepped up close to me. “None of these things is coincidence. It spreads, a force that will upend the world and all of us with it. And what has happened until now is nothing compared to what will come if Mab is not stopped before the sun rises once more.”

Maeve stepped back from me, watching me, her exotic eyes opaque.

Silence fell within the little privacy spell.

Well, crap.

That was pretty much that.

Neither of the Ladies could speak a direct lie. I hadn’t left them any room to dance around the truth. They were serious. I guess it was possible that they might have been mistaken, but they were damned well sincere.

“Neither of us can stop her,” Lily said into that silence. “Even working together, we do not have anything like the power needed to overcome Mab’s defenses, and she would never lower her guard for either of us.”

“But for you,” Maeve said.

“Her knight,” Lily said, “her champion.”

“She might not be quite so guarded,” Maeve said, her eyes shining fever-bright. “You have power enough to smite her, if you strike when she is unprepared.”

“What?” I blurted.

“What we ask you is not fair,” Lily said. “We know tha . . .” She glanced at Maeve. “Well. I know that. But we have no other options.”

“Uh, yes, you do,” I said. “What about Titania? The Queen of Summer is an equal opposite, isn’t she? Mab’s mirror?”

The two Ladies exchanged a guarded look.

“Out with it,” I said. “We’re way past word games here.”

Lily nodded. “She . . . refuses to act. I do not know why.”

“Because she’s terrified she’ll be infected, too, obviously,” Maeve snapped.

“Guys,” I said. “I have seen what Mab is. Even if I catch her off guard, I don’t have the kind of clout it takes to drop someone in her league.”

Lily blinked at me several times. “But . . . but you do. You have Winter.”

“Which is meaningful because . . . ?”

“Because she is Winter,” Maeve said. “The Winter within you is Mab and she is it. The one thing you can never protect yourself against is yourself. You of all people should know this, wizard.”

I shuddered. I did.

“The Winter Knight is a useful weapon,” Maeve said. “But it has ever been one with two edges. Mab stands no mightier than any of the Sidhe against your hand, Sir Knight.”

I narrowed my eyes at Maeve. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Why in the hell should I think you’re trying to help me? Since when have you cared about the mortal world, Maeve?”

Her smile widened. “Since I realized that should my mother fall, I will have a very large and very exclusive chair to sit upon back at Arctis Tor, wizard. Do not think for a moment that I do it from the kindness of my heart. I want the throne.”

Now, that was a scary thought. Mab was a force of nature, sure, but she also acted a lot like one. She rarely took things personally, she didn’t play favorites, and she was generally speaking equally dangerous to everyone. Maeve, though. That bitch was just not right. The thought of her with Mab’s mantle of power was something terrifying to anyone with half a brain—especially the guy who would be her personal champion.

“I don’t dig the idea of serving you, Maeve,” I said.

At that, the lazy sex-kitten look came back into her eyes. “I haven’t yet begun to persuade you, wizard. But be assured that I would never, ever throw away a tool so useful as you would be, should you succeed.”

“Even if it might slice into you next?” I asked.

Maeve laughed. “Oh, I am going to love playing games with you, Sir Knight. But first things first. You have no choice but to act. If you do not, millions of your fellow mortals will perish. In the end, you will act to protect them. That is what you are.”

“Lady Maeve has a point,” Lily said, with evident reluctance. “There is very little time. I understand your trepidation about the consequences of Mab’s . . . passing . . . but we have little choice. She is simply too dangerous to be allowed to continue.”

I made a low growling sound. “This is insane.”

“Fun,” Maeve said, her nose wrinkling, “isn’t it?”

I eyed both of them. “What are you holding back from me?”

Lily twitched again, and looked displeased at the question. “No one must realize that you know of the contagion,” she said. “You cannot know which of your allies or associates it has already taken. If you demonstrate awareness, anyone infected will either remove you or infect you.”

“Anything else?” I asked her.

“I will speak to Fix,” Lily said. “Otherwise, no.”

I nodded at her. Then I eyed Maeve. “What about you? Holding anything back?”

“I want to take you to my bower, wizard,” Maeve said, and licked her lips. “I want to do things to you that give you such pleasure your brain bleeds.”

“Uh,” I said.

Her foxlike smile sharpened. “Also,” she said, “my people are about to attempt to kill you.”

Lily’s eyes snapped toward Maeve, widening.

I promised him nothing,” Maeve said with a sniff. “And there are appearances to keep up, after all. I am certain my mother has eyes watching his every move. He can hardly meet peaceably with me without making her suspicious.”

“Ah,” Lily said, nodding. “Oh, dear.”

Maeve leaned toward me, taking a confidential tone. “They don’t know of the contagion either, wizard. So their attempts will be quite sincere. I advise you to resist. Strenuously.”

Seven figures stepped around a corner of the garden on the far side of the bridge and began striding purposefully toward our little gathering. Sidhe. The Redcap strode along in the center.

“Hell’s bells,” I snarled, taking an involuntary step back. “Right here? Now? You could have given me a couple of minutes to get clear, dammit.”

“And what fun would that be?” Maeve asked, pushing out her lower lip in a pout. “I am who I am, too. I love violence. I love treachery. I love your pain—and the best part, the part I love most, is that I am doing it for your own good.” Her eyes gleamed white all the way around her irises. “This is me being one of the good guys.”

“I’m so sorry, Harry,” Lily said. “I didn’t want this. I think you should go. . . .” She turned aside to Maeve. “So that the Winter Lady can introduce me to her vassals. This is the first time we’ve met.”

Maeve blinked, and her expression darkened into a scowl. “Oh. Oh, you prissy bint.”

Lily said, with utmost sincerity, “I regret that this inconveniences your enjoyment, Lady, but protocol is quite clear.”

Maeve stomped one foot on the bridge, scowled at me, and then seized Lily by the wrist. She started dragging the Summer Lady toward her oncoming entourage.

Lily gave me a quick wink, the expression as pleasant as the warmth from a cup of hot chocolate, and I started backing off. Once I was off the bridge, I turned and began to run. There was no telling how long Lily’s tactic would stall the Redcap and his buddies, and I wanted to be in the truck and gone before introductions were made.

That plan was going pretty well, right up until I passed a huge wall of thick evergreen plants of some kind. Then something small and blurry shot out of the brush about half a step ahead of me. I got a flash impression of Captain Hook in his miniature armor, trailing some kind of heavy cord, and then my feet were tangled in it and down I went.

I tried to be cool and roll into the fall and come back up on my feet, but that works a lot better when you don’t have one of your legs abruptly jerked out from beneath you. So mostly I hit the ground in a clumsy sprawl, then slid several feet forward on the damp concrete with my weight on my chest and my cheek.

Ow.

I got back onto my feet, moving as fast as I could. I didn’t feel like getting stabbed with more of those steel nails, and my eyes went up to the open sky, scanning quickly for any incoming hostile Little Folk as I got moving again.

So I wasn’t as ready as I should have been when a man in biker leathers emerged from the brush at my side and slammed a baseball bat into the base of my skull. My legs turned to jelly and I went down hard, landing on my chin.

I sort of flopped over onto my back, dazed, lifting my hands in a vague and useless defensive gesture. I took the tip of a motorcycle boot directly to the testicles, and my whole world went bright with confusion and pain.

“Yeah,” snarled the man. He was of medium height, and had curly dark hair and a short goatee. “That’s right, bitch. Who’s crawling on the ground now?”

Asking the question seemed to infuriate him. He slammed a kick into my ribs, then another right into the breadbasket, and I curled around myself gasping.

I had to move. The Redcap was coming. I hadn’t made any noise to tip Thomas off that I was in trouble—but even as heavily boosted as I was, it wasn’t enough to instantly overcome the stunning pain of those blows. Shots like that mess around with your nervous system, disrupting the machinery that sends signals around your body. I wasn’t going anywhere for a few more seconds.

“Nail him,” the man spat, and those frozen spikes of raw agony I’d felt before blossomed into my body from my right arm, my left calf, and somewhere in my lower back. I heard the buzz of little wings as my attackers zipped past me, driving nails in like harpoons into a floundering whale. It hurt so much that I could barely open my eyes and look up at my attacker.

I recognized him.

Ace, a changeling, one of his parents mortal, the other fae. He was the onetime victim of Lloyd Slate, the onetime betrayer of Fix and Lily and a girl named Meryl. He stared down at me with hate-filled eyes and bounced an aluminum baseball bat a few times in his hand. “I’ve been waiting years for this.”

And then he started clubbing me over the head.

Chapter Twenty-six

Taking a beating well is not for amateurs.

You have to get started early, maybe by getting beaten up a lot as a child in school. Then you refine your raw talent by taking more beatings as you get older. Generally, you can seek out almost any crew of athletic types, and you’ll find several willing to oblige you, under one guise or another. True craftsmen then seek out gifted individuals with a particular skill set to deliver the most skilled and professional beatings.

That’s how you learn to fight, really. You take beatings, and you get tougher, and if you don’t start avoiding all the fights, you continue taking beatings until you learn how it’s done. Or they kill you.

Some guys are born lucky, with mad natural fighting skills, and they hardly ever take a beating—but that’s never been me. I’ve had to learn the hard way.

Like every other kind of pain, beatings are educational.

Ace started swinging the aluminum bat, and I learned two things about him right away. First, he wasn’t any stronger than any other guy about his size—don’t get me wrong; that was plenty strong enough to kill me at the moment. But he wasn’t going to deliver the coup de grâce by dropping a forklift on my head. Second, he was emotionally invested.

See, beatings have only a couple of purposes. You are either deterring someone from something—flirting with your girl, stealing your wallet, strangling you, whatever—in which case the point of the beating is to convey a very simple message: Stop it. The second “reason” to deliver a beating is to simply inflict pain. There’s no actual reason involved, of course. It’s all an emotional drive, a need to make someone hurt. Sometimes that kind of drive is well justified. Sometimes it’s misdirected rage. And sometimes, maybe more often than we really want to believe, people just enjoy making someone else feel pain.

The third motivation for a beating is to kill someone. There’s some bleedover, ah hah, between the second reason and the third.

Ace was handing me a beating of the second kind. He wasn’t thinking. He had a need to make me feel pain. And I was obliging the hell out of him.

The nails were the worst, like frozen points of pure fire in my flesh. Beside that agony, the first couple of blows from the bat were a dull ache. I got my arms between my noggin and the bat, getting the meat of my forearms in the way wherever I could. Arm bones are considerably less robust than broomsticks, and a solid swing with a club will snap them. Get the muscle and soft tissue in the way, though, and it spreads out the impact, both in surface area and in duration. It disperses the force—and hurts like a son of a bitch.

He swung at me several times. I blocked some. One clipped my forehead. I wriggled out of the way of the rest, the bat throwing up chips from the concrete sidewalk. I kicked at his knees with my feet, though I was in a poor position to do it. That was the part of the conflict that was important to me.

Meanwhile, I gave Ace the part that was important to him. I screamed. It didn’t take a lot in the way of Method acting to make it convincing. The nails hurt so badly, I was pretty much going to start screaming anyway. So I screamed bloody murder, and he all but frothed at the mouth as he kept after me, swinging faster, more powerfully—and more erratically.

Swinging a club down at a struggling target is harder work than everyone thinks it is, and doing that and dodging clumsy kicks at the same time is the kind of aerobic workout you just don’t get at the gym. The longer it went on, the heavier he would be breathing, and the more intently he would be focused on me.

Screaming, howling, very noisy me.

See, surprises like this are exactly why you bring backup in the first place. I knew I couldn’t last more than a few seconds against Ace’s onslaught. I also knew how fast my brother could run.

But someone else got there first.

I heard a pair of light steps and then Ace grunted. I looked up through my impact-numbed arms and saw him swing the bat again, this time at a standing target.

The bat lashed out and never stopped moving in its arc, but suddenly there was a small figure rolling up close to Ace, coming between his chest and the bat in his extended arm. They whirled in a circle, following the spin of the bat, and Ace’s heels abruptly flipped up into the air over his head and he landed empty-handed on the concrete with a gasp of pain.

A woman stood over him. She was five nothing, and built with the kind of lithe, solid power that you’d expect in an Olympic gymnast who had stayed fit as she aged. Her blond hair was cut short, to finger-length. She’d had a pert upturned nose the last time I’d seen her. It had been broken since then, and while it had healed, I could see the slight bump the break had left. She had on jeans and a denim jacket, and her eyes were blue and blazing.

Ace started to get up, but a motorcycle boot much smaller than his own slammed down on his chest.

Karrin Murphy scowled at him, tossed the bat into the bushes, and said in a hard voice, “Stay down, creep. Only warning.”

It was difficult to translate frantic thought into verbalization through the pain of the cold iron piercing my skin, but I managed to gasp, “Incoming!”

Murphy’s eyes snapped around her, scanning in every direction including up, and she saw the first of the armored Little Folk diving down at her. Her hand snatched something out of her jacket pocket, and with a flick of her wrist she snapped out a small, collapsible baton. The Little Folk darted down upon her like a squad of angry wasps.

She didn’t try to evade them. She planted her feet and began snapping the little baton with sharp, precise motions. There wasn’t really time for her to aim at anything—she was running on pure reflex. Murphy’d been a martial arts practitioner since she was a child, mainly in aikido along with several others. Aikido included all kinds of fun areas of study, and one of them was learning how to handle a sword. I knew that she’d also been spending a lot of time training with a gang of ancient Einherjaren, postdead Norse warriors of Valhalla. I doubt any of her teachers had trained her for this situation.

But they’d come close enough.

That little baton was a blur as it moved in half a dozen quick, sharp strokes, batting away the incoming Little Folk one by one. There were several sounds of impact and then a sharp ping and then a miniature clatter as Captain Hook was struck from the air and went into a sprawling crash on the ground. There were a series of high-pitched shrieks of panic, and the Little Folk vanished.

Beginning to end, that little fracas had lasted maybe five seconds.

I started fumbling at the nails still sticking out of me, but Ace and his baseball bat had left my fingers numb and useless. I managed to pull the one in my arm out with my teeth, which was unpleasant in a dimension I hardly knew existed. I spit out the nail and heard myself making short, desperate sounds of pain.

Murphy took several steps back until her heel bumped my shoulder. Then she stepped carefully over my body, never taking her eyes off the downed Ace. “How bad?”

I managed to grate out, “Nails.”

The bushes crashed and Thomas appeared from them, pistol in one hand, that insanely big Gurkha knife in the other. His gun tracked to Murphy, then snapped upward, and retrained upon the downed Ace. “Oh, hi, Karrin.”

“Thomas,” Murphy said shortly. She looked down at me. I tried to gesture at the nails still sticking in me, but given the state of my hands and arms, I managed only to flail around weakly. “Dammit, Harry, hold still.”

It didn’t take her long. Two quick tugs and the nails were free. The level of pain I was experiencing dropped to maybe a tenth of what it had been. I sagged in relief.

“How bad?” Thomas asked.

“One of these wounds is bleeding, not bad,” Murphy reported. “Jesus, his arms.”

“We need to get out,” I said. My voice sounded raw to me. “Trouble coming.”

“No,” said a beautiful Sidhe baritone. “Trouble is here.”

They appeared from behind their veils, one by one, with so much melodrama that I was mildly surprised that they hadn’t each struck some kind of kung fu pose. The Redcap with his red beret was in the center of the group. The others were spread out around us in a semicircle, pinning us against the hedge behind us. They were all holding blades and guns. They looked more like models at a photo shoot than actual warriors, but I knew better. The Sidhe are prancy, but fierce.

Ace let out a croaking laugh. “You see?” he said toward the Redcap. “You needed my help after all.”

The Redcap gave Ace a glance and a small shrug that seemed to acknowledge the point. “Well, the vampire and the fallen woman. I cannot comprehend how you manage to convince yourself that you are some kind of heroic figure, Dresden, given the company you keep.”

That got a laugh from the other Sidhe, who probably hadn’t seen much comedy in the past few years.

I heaved a few times and managed to sit up. Murphy leaned back out of my way. She said to Thomas, “Who are these clowns?”

“Rambo there in the middle is the Redcap,” Thomas said. “Pretty big hitter in Faerieland, I guess. The others are his lickspittles.”

“Ooh,” I said. “Lickspittles, nice.”

“Thank you,” Thomas said gravely.

“And they have a problem with Dresden, I take it?” Murphy asked.

“Wanna kill him or something. I don’t know,” Thomas said, nodding. “They tried it on Jet Skis earlier today.”

“Roger Moore Bond villains?” Murphy asked, her tone derisive. “Seriously?”

“Be silent, mortal cow,” snarled one of the Sidhe.

Murphy tracked her eyes calmly over to that one, and she nodded once, as if memorizing something. “Yeah, okay. You.”

The Sidhe fingered his weapons, beautiful features twisting into a scowl.

I tried to rise, but by the time I got to one knee I felt like crawling into a dark room and crying while throwing up. I stopped there and fought back the dizzies that tried to take me back down. I was feeling stronger than before already. If I’d had half an hour, I think I could have been ready to do something vaguely like magical violence. But I didn’t have half an hour. I couldn’t fight our way out of this, and if they didn’t have me supporting them, I was pretty sure Karrin and Thomas couldn’t do it either. We needed another option.

“Look, Red,” I said. “You made your play at my party and it didn’t turn out so well for you. That’s fine. No hard feelings. You tried to kill me and my friends out on Lake Michigan this morning, and I can see why you would. That didn’t go so swell for you, either. So what makes you think it’s going to turn out well for you now?”

“I like my chances,” said the Redcap, smiling.

“No reason this has to get ugly,” I said in reply.

There was something playful in his voice as he responded, “Is there not?”

“We can stop this right here. Turn around and walk away. We’ll do the same. We’ll let Ace here go free as soon as we get to our cars.”

“Oh, kill him if you wish to,” the Redcap said absently. “The halfblood is nothing to me.”

Ace let out a hissing sound and stared at the Redcap.

“You aren’t,” the Redcap said calmly. “I have made that clear several times.”

“But I . . . I snared him for you,” Ace said. “I slowed him down. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have caught up to him.”

The Redcap shrugged without ever glancing at the young man. “And I find that extremely convenient. But I never asked you to help. And I certainly never asked you to be so incompetent as to be captured by the prey.”

I was glad Molly wasn’t around, because the hate that suddenly flared out from Ace was so palpable that even I felt it. I could hear his teeth grinding, and the sudden flush of anger on his face was like something out of a comic book. Ace’s body tensed as though he were preparing to fling himself to his feet.

At that, the Redcap turned, a too-wide Sidhe smile on his face, and faced Ace for the first time. “Ah. There. You may not have talent, but at least you have spirit. Perhaps if you survive the night, we can discuss your future.”

Ace just sat there seething, staring daggers at the Redcap, and everyone was focused on the two of them.

Which was why no one but me noticed when the situation silently changed.

The Redcap looked back at me and said, “Have the vampire kill the halfblood if you wish. I’ll happily trade my son’s life for yours, Dresden. There are Sidhe who get all sentimental about their offspring, but I can’t say I’ve ever been one of them.” He focused on me and drew a small knife from his pocket, snapping out the blade. It was an instrument for killing at intimate distance. “Companions,” he said, a smug edge to his voice, “with whom should we begin?”

The air crackled with sudden tension. The Sidhe stared with too-bright eyes, their fingers settling on the hilts and grips of various weapons. This was going to be bad. I couldn’t fight. Karrin couldn’t possibly keep up with attackers who both outnumbered her and operated with superhuman speed and near-invisibility. The Sidhe could defend themselves against my magic, unless I was able to throw absolutely everything at one of them—and I wouldn’t get that chance against half a dozen. Physically I was pretty much useless for the moment.

Thomas might make it out, but when this crystalline moment of stillness finally broke, I was pretty sure Karrin and I wouldn’t.

Unless someone broke it exactly right.

“Hey,” I said innocently. “Weren’t there seven of you guys a minute ago?”

The Redcap tilted his head at me and then glanced left and right. Five other Sidhe looked back at him, except on the far side of their line, on my left. The Sidhe warrior who had been there was gone. The only thing remaining where he’d been standing was a single expensive designer tennis shoe.

Right then, in the exact instant of realization, screams, truly agonized screams erupted from several yards away in the brush. There was a crystalline, almost bell-like quality to the voice, and the sound was terrifying, nothing that a human would ever make. Then there was a horrible retching sound, and the screams ended.

There was a stunned silence. And then an object came sailing out of the brush and landed at the feet of the Sidhe nearest to the one who had been taken. It was a horrible collection of bloody bone, maybe a foot and a half long—a section of spine, ripped clear of its body, bits of tissue still clinging to it.

That got a reaction from everyone. The Redcap dropped into a crouch, hands up in a defensive posture. Several Sidhe took rapid steps back.

“Holy Mother of God,” Murphy breathed.

Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the grisly missile lying on the sidewalk, so their heads weren’t directed toward the future, weren’t able to see that the situation was about to change again.

“Hey,” I said, in exactly the same tone. “Weren’t there six of you guys a minute ago?”

Eyes swept back up in time to see the brush swaying where something had dragged the Sidhe from the opposite end of the line, on my right side, into the bushes, and more screams erupted, clawing at the rain-drizzled air.

“Sith,” hissed one of the female Sidhe, her widened eyes darting everywhere, followed by the barrel of her composite-material pistol. “Cat Sith.”

Her attention wasn’t on me, and I took the opening. I slammed my will down through my numbed right arm, snarling, “Forzare!”

At the same instant, Thomas turned his gun on the Redcap and opened fire.

Invisible force hit the female Sidhe with more or less the same energy as a small car doing twenty-five or thirty. It should have been a lot more than that, and focused on a smaller area, but in my current condition it was everything I had thrown into the best single punch I could throw. She hadn’t been able to counter the spell as it struck, and was flung back away from me. She bounced once in a bed of flowers, and then tumbled into the lake.

Meanwhile, the Redcap and the other Sidhe darted in every direction and blurred to near-invisibility behind their veils. Thomas might have hit one of them. It was hard to hear any sounds of impact or screams of pain over the thunder of the ridiculously large rounds used in his Desert Eagle. Other guns went off, too.

Adrenaline surged and I shoved myself to my feet, shouting, “Fall back!”

Something flashed by me, and then Cat Sith appeared from behind his own veil, leaping with all four paws extended, his claws unsheathed. He landed on what looked like empty air, and his legs moved in a blur of ripping, supernaturally powerful strikes. Blood fountained from the empty air, and Sith bounded away, vanishing again, as one of the Sidhe appeared in the space where Sith had been. The Sidhe’s upper body was a mass of blood and shredded flesh, his expression shocked. He crumpled slowly to the ground, his eyes wide, as if trying to see through complete darkness. His hands clenched aimlessly a few times, and then he went still.

I turned to run and staggered woozily. Karrin saw it and darted in close to my side, preventing me from falling. She didn’t see Ace, behind her, produce a small pistol and aim it at her back.

I shouted and lurched down on top of him. The gun went off once, and then I had his gun arm pinned to the ground beneath both of my forearms and the whole weight of my body. Ace cursed and swung a fist at me. I slammed my forehead into his nose a bunch of times. It took the fight out of him, and his head wobbled dazedly.

There was a high-pitched shriek and a tiny armored form covered in fishhooks hurtled into my face and neck. My injuries swelled into agony again as the damned little metal hooks pierced my skin. I got a quick glimpse of a miniature sword flashing toward my eye. I flinched in a big roll that took me off of Ace, flinging my head in a circle to counter the motion of the little sword with centrifugal force. It cut into my eyebrow and missed my eyeball, and a flood of scarlet blocked out half of my vision.

After that, things were fuzzy. I swatted at Captain Hook with my forearm, and on the third blow the barbed hooks tore free of my skin. A hand with the strength of a hydraulic crane gripped the back of my coat and dragged me to my feet, and then my brother was helping me move. I sensed Karrin on my blind side, shouting something to Thomas, and then the Desert Eagle started thundering on that side of my body.

A Sidhe exploded from the brush, visible and wounded, with Cat Sith in hot pursuit. The Sidhe leapt into the air, shimmered, and transformed into a hawk with golden brown feathers. Its wings beat twice, gaining maybe ten feet of altitude—until Cat Sith sailed through the air in a spectacular pounce, landed on the hawk’s back, and they both plunged down into the waters of the lake.

After that, there was a lot of movement that hurt like hell, and I would have fallen a dozen times without my brother’s support. Then I was being half thrown into the back of the Hummer, coming down on the custom leather seats hard, and too exhausted to do more than pull my feet in so that they wouldn’t get slammed in the door. Both of the front doors opened and closed, and the engine, already running, roared to life, the acceleration pressing me back against the seat for a moment.

We drove for a few minutes before I was able to start sitting up. When I finally did, I found Thomas driving, with Karrin riding shotgun, holding Thomas’s Desert Eagle in her hands and turned in the seat to steadily watch the road behind us.

My brother glanced up at me in the rearview mirror and winced. “You look awful.”

I could see out of only one eye. I reached up to the other one with my hand and found blood smearing it shut and beginning to dry. I leaned to look in the rearview mirror. I had quite a bit of blood on that side of my head. The hooks had made some messy, if not large holes in my skin when they came out.

Karrin’s eyes flicked toward me for just a second, and she might have gotten a little pale, but she didn’t let any other emotion touch her face. “Looks like we’re clear. No one back there.”

Thomas grunted. “They can use magic, and Harry left a bunch of blood on the ground. If they want to follow us, they can.”

“Dammit,” Murphy breathed. “Castle?”

“And have Marcone’s people cleaning the blood off him?” Thomas asked. “Fuck that.”

“Amen,” I agreed woozily.

“Where else, then?” Karrin asked. “Your apartment?”

Thomas shook his head emphatically. “Too many people will see us taking him in. They’ll call the authorities. And Lara has eyes on the place. If I take a wounded wizard in there, she’d show up faster than Jimmy John’s.” He grunted in discomfort as the truck hit a bump in the road.

Karrin turned toward him and leaned over to examine him. “You’re hit.”

“Only one,” Thomas said calmly. “If it was bad, I’d have bled out by now. Gut shot. Don’t worry about it.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Karrin said. “You know how easy it is for these things to go septic? You’ve got to take care of this.”

“Yeah, as soon as we stop somewhere.”

“Molly’s place,” Karrin said. “It’s under the aegis of Svartalfheim. No one’s getting in there without a major assault.”

“Right,” I said, the word slurring a little. “There.”

“Dammit, Dresden,” Karrin said, her voice exasperated. “Just lie down until we can look at you.”

I threw her a salute with my right hand and paused, feeling an unfamiliar weight on my arm.

I looked. Captain Hook dangled from it, half a dozen of his armor’s barbs caught in the denim of my jacket. I peered at the tiny armored figure and then poked him with a fingertip. He let out a semiconscious little moan, but the hooks had effectively immobilized him.

“Huh,” I said. Then I cackled. “Hah. Hah, hah, heh hahhah.”

Thomas glanced over his shoulder and blinked several times. “What the hell is that?”

“A priceless intelligence asset,” I replied.

Thomas lifted his eyebrows. “You’re going to interrogate that little guy?”

“If Molly has a turkey baster, maybe you can waterboard him,” Murphy said in an acid tone.

“Relax,” I said. “And drive. We need to . . .”

I forgot what I had been about to say we needed to do. I guess all that cackling had really taken it out of me. The world turned sideways and the leather of the backseat pressed up against my unwounded cheek. It felt cool and nice, which was a stark contrast to the waves of pure ache and steady burn that pulsed through my body with every heartbeat.

The world didn’t fade to black so much as turn a dark, restless red.

Chapter Twenty-seven

I woke up when someone shoved a branding iron into my neck.

Okay, that isn’t what happened, but I was coming out of unconsciousness at the time, and that was what it seemed like. I let out a curse and flailed with my arms.

“Hold him, hold him!” someone said in an intent voice. Hands came down on my arms, pressing them back against a smooth, rigid surface beneath me.

“Harry,” Thomas said. “Harry, easy, easy. You’re safe.”

There were lights in my eyes. They weren’t pleasant. I squinted against them until I could see Thomas’s upside-down head looming over me.

“There you are,” Thomas said. “We were getting worried.” He lifted his hands from my arms and gave the side of my face something somewhere between a pat and a slap. “You weren’t waking up.”

I looked around me. I was lying on the table in Molly’s apartment, the same spot where we’d seen to Toot’s injuries earlier in the day. There was the sharp smell of disinfectant in the air. I felt terrible, but less terrible than I had in the car.

I turned my head and saw a wiry little guy with a shock of black hair, a beaky nose, and glittering, intelligent eyes. He picked up a metal bowl in one hand, and moved a pair of needle-nose pliers in the other, dropping something into the bowl with a clink. “And he just wakes up?” Waldo Butters, Chicago’s most polka-savvy medical examiner, asked. “Tell me that isn’t a little creepy.”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

Butters held up the metal bowl, tilting it so that I could see inside. Several tiny, bright, sharp, bloodied pieces of metal were inside. “Barbs from those fishhooks,” he said. “Several of them broke off in your skin.”

I grunted. My collapse in the car made more sense now. “Yeah,” I said. “Any kind of iron gets under my skin, it seems to disagree with the Winter Knight’s bundle of awesome. Takes the gumption right out of me.” I started to sit up.

Butters very calmly put his hands on my chest and shoved me back down. Hard. I blinked at him.

“I don’t do assertive much,” he said apologetically. “I don’t really like doctoring people who are still alive. But if I’m going to do it, dammit, I’m going to do it right. So. You stay put until I say you can get up. Got it?”

“I, uh . . .” I said. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Smart,” Butters said. “You have two giant bruises where the lower halves of your arms usually go. You’re covered in lacerations, and a couple need sutures. Some are already inflamed. I need to clean them all out. That’ll work best if you hold still.”

“I can do that,” I said. “But I’m feeling all kinds of better, man. Look.” I held up my hands and wiggled my fingers. They felt a little tight. I glanced down at them. They were a mottled shade of purple and swollen. My wrists and forearms were blotchy with bruises and swollen, too.

“Harry, I once saw an addict pound his fist into concrete until he’d broken nearly every bone in his hand. He never even blinked.”

“I’m not on drugs,” I said.

“No? There’s damage to your body’s machinery. Just because you aren’t feeling it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Butters said firmly. “I’ve got a theory.”

“What theory?” I asked, as he got to work on the cuts.

“Well, let’s say you’re a faerie queen with a need for a mortal enforcer. You want the guy to be effective, but you don’t want to make him too powerful to handle. It seems reasonable to me that you might fiddle with his pain threshold. He’s not actually any more indestructible, but he feels like he is. He’ll ignore painful things like . . . like knife wounds or . . .”

“Gut shots?” Thomas suggested.

“Or gut shots, right,” Butters said. “And most of the time, that is probably a huge advantage. He can Energizer Bunny his way right through your enemies—and then, when it’s over, there he is. He feels great, but in reality he’s all screwed up and it’s going to take his body weeks or months to repair itself. If you don’t like the job he’s done, well, there he is all weakened and vulnerable. And if you do like it, you just let him rest and use him again another day.”

“Wow, that’s cynical,” I said. “And calculating.”

“I’m in the right ballpark, aren’t I?” Butters asked.

I sighed. “Yeah, it sounds . . . very Mab-like.” Especially if what Maeve had said about me being dangerous to Mab was true.

Butters nodded sagely. “So, as strong or quick or as fast to heal as it makes you, just remember: You aren’t any more invincible to trauma than before. You just don’t notice it when something happens. . . .” He was quiet for a moment and then asked, “You didn’t even feel that, did you?”

“Feel what?” I asked, lifting my head.

He put the heel of his hand on my forehead and pushed it down again. “I just stitched up a three-inch-long slice over one of your ribs. No anesthetic.”

“Huh,” I s