As Winter Knight to the Queen of Air and Darkness, Harry Dresden never knows what the scheming Mab might want him to do. Usually, it’s something awful.
Mab has traded Harry’s skills to pay off a debt. And now he must help a group of villains led by Harry’s most despised enemy, Nicodemus Archleone, to break into a high-security vault so that they can then access a vault in the Nevernever.
Problem is, the vault belongs to Hades, Lord of the freaking Underworld. And Dresden is dead certain that Nicodemus has no intention of allowing any of his crew to survive the experience. Dresden’s always been tricky, but he’s going to have to up his backstabbing game to survive this mess...
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There was a ticking time bomb inside my head and the one person I trusted to go in and get it out hadn’t shown up or spoken to me for more than a year.
That’s a lot of time to start asking yourself questions. Who am I? What have I done with my life?
Who can I trust?
That last one is a doozy. It haunts you in moments of doubt. Sometimes when you wake up at night, you wonder if you’ve put your faith in the right people. Sometimes when you find yourself alone, for whatever reason, you review every little thing you know about someone, searching your memory for small, subtle things that you may have missed about them.
It makes you scared. It makes you think that maybe you’ve made some horrible mistakes lately. It drives you to do something, to act—only when you’re stuck on an island in the middle of Lake Michigan, you’re kind of limited in your choices of exactly what you can do to blow off steam.
I’d gone with my usual option. I was running through long tunnels filled with demons and monsters and nightmares, because it was easier than going to the gym.
The tunnels were big, the size of some of the substreets beneath the city of Chicago, their walls made of earth and stone, wound through with things that looked like roots but could not possibly belong to any tree this deep in the earth. Every few yards, more or less at random, there was a mound of luminous pale green quartz crystals. Inside every crystal mound was a recumbent, shadowy form. Some of the mounds held figures no larger than a medium-sized dog. Some of them were the size of houses.
I had just finished climbing over one of the huge mounds and was sprinting toward the next, the first in a series of three mounds more or less the size of my deceased Volkswagen.
“Parkour!” I shouted, and leapt, hitting the top of the mound with my hands and vaulting over it. I landed on the far side, dropped into a forward roll over one shoulder, and came up running.
“Parkour!” I shouted at the next mound, putting one hand down as I leapt, using it to guide my body up to the horizontal at the same level as my head, clearing the next mound, landing, and staying on the move.
“Parkour!” I screamed again at the third, and simply dove over it in a long arc. The idea was to clear it, land on my hands, drop into a smooth roll, and come up running again, but it didn’t work out that way. I misjudged the dive, my foot caught a crystal, and I belly flopped and planted my face in the dirt on the far side of the mound.
I lay there on the ground for a moment, getting back the wind I’d knocked out of myself. Taking a fall wasn’t a big deal. God knows, I’ve done it enough. I rolled over onto my back and groaned. “Harry, you’ve got way too much time on your hands.”
My voice echoed through the tunnel, number seven of thirteen.
“Parkour,” said a distant echo.
I shook my head, pushed myself up, and started walking out. Walking through one of the tunnels beneath the island of Demonreach was always an experience. When I ran, I went by the mounds pretty quick.
When I walked, the prisoners trapped inside them had time to talk to me.
Let me fulfill your every desire, crooned a silken voice in my head as I went by one.
Blood and power, riches and strength, I can give you all that you—promised the next.
One day, mortal, I will be free and suck the marrow from your bones, snarled another.
Bow down in fear and horror before me!
Loathe me, let me devour you, and I will make real your dreams.
Release me or I will destroy you!
Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Sleep and let me inside you . . .
Bloodpaindeathbloodfleshbloodpaindeath . . .
BLARGLE SLORG NOTH HARGHLE FTHAGN!
I skirted around a fairly small mound whose occupant had simply sent me a mental picture that had kept me up for a couple of nights the last time I walked by, and passed one of the last mounds before the exit.
As I walked by, the mound’s occupant projected a mental sigh and an unmistakable image of a man rolling his eyes. Ah. A new one.
I paused and studied the mound. As a rule, I didn’t communicate with the prisoners. If you were locked up under Demonreach, you were a nightmare the likes of which few people could really understand—immortal, savage, and probably foaming-at-the-mouth, hair-on-fire crazy to boot.
But . . . I’d been locked up almost as well as the prisoners for months, trapped on the island and in the caverns beneath. There wasn’t a lot of choice. Until I got the thing in my head out again, only the island had the power to keep it in check. I had visitors sometimes, but the winter months were dangerous on Lake Michigan, both because of the weather and because of the ice, and spring had only barely begun to touch the world again. It had been a while since I’d seen anyone.
So I eyed the mound, one about the size of a coffin, and said, “What’s your problem?”
You, obviously, replied the occupant. Do you even know what the word stasis means? It means nothing is happening. You standing here, walking by, talking to me, for God’s sake, buggers that up entirely, the way you novices always do. What was the phrase? Ah, yes. Piss off.
I lifted my eyebrows. To date, every single prisoner who had tried to communicate with me had been pretty obviously playing to get out, or else howling nuts. This guy just sounded . . . British.
“Huh,” I said.
Did you hear me, Warden? Piss. Off.
I debated taking him literally, just to be a wiseass, but decided that body humor was beneath the dignity of a Wizard of the White Council and the Warden of Demonreach, thus disproving everyone who says I am nothing but an overgrown juvenile delinquent.
“Who are you?” I asked instead.
There was a long moment of silence. And then a thought filled with a terrible weariness and purely emotional anguish, like something I’d experienced only at the very lowest moments of my life, flowed into me—but for this being, such pain wasn’t a low point. It was a constant state. Someone who needs to be here. Go away, boy.
A rolling wave of nausea went through me. The air was suddenly too bright, the gentle glow of the crystals too piercing. I found myself taking several steps back from the mound, until that awful tide of feeling had receded, but the headache those emotions had triggered found me nonetheless, and I was abruptly in too much pain to keep my feet.
I dropped to one knee, clenching my teeth on a scream. The headaches had gotten steadily worse, and despite a lifetime of learning to cope with pain, despite the power of the mantle of the Winter Knight, they had begun kicking my ass thoroughly a few weeks before.
For a while, there was simply pain, and aching, racking nausea.
Eventually, that began to grow slowly less, and I looked up to see a hulking form in a dark cloak standing over me. It was ten or twelve feet tall, and built on the same scale as a massively muscled human, though I never really seemed to see much of the being beneath the cloak. It stared down at me, a pair of pinpoints of green, fiery light serving as eyes within the depths of its hood.
“WARDEN,” it said, its voice a deep rumble, “I HAVE SUPPRESSED THE PARASITE FOR NOW.”
“’Bout time, Alfred,” I muttered. I sat up and took stock of myself. I’d been lying there for a while. The sweat on my skin had dried. That was bad. The ancient spirit of the island had been keeping the thing in my skull from killing me for a year. Until a few weeks ago, when my head started hurting, all it had to do was show up, speak a word, and the pain would go away.
This time it had taken more than an hour.
Whatever was in my head, some kind of psychic or spiritual creature that was using me to grow, was getting ready to kill me.
“ALFRED,” the spirit said soberly. “IS THIS TO BE MY NEW NAME?”
“Let’s stick with Demonreach,” I said.
The enormous spirit considered that. “I AM THE ISLAND.”
“Well, yes,” I said, gathering myself to my feet. “Its spirit. Its genius loci.”
“AND I AM ALSO SEPARATE FROM THE ISLAND. A VESSEL.”
I eyed the spirit. “You know the name ‘Alfred’ is a joke, right?”
It stared at me. A wind that didn’t exist stirred the hem of its cloak.
I raised my hands in surrender and said, “All right. I guess you need a first name, too. Alfred Demonreach it is.”
Its eyes flickered brighter for a moment and it inclined its head to me within the hood. Then it said, “SHE IS HERE.”
I jerked my head up, my heart suddenly speeding. It made little echoes of pain go through my head. Had she finally responded to my messages? “Molly?”
“NOT GRASSHOPPER. GRASSHOPPER’S NEW MOTHER.”
I felt tension slide into my shoulders and neck. “Mab,” I said in a low, hard voice.
“Fantastic,” I muttered. Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, Monarch of the Winter Court of the Sidhe, mistress and mentor of every wicked being in Faerie—my boss—had been ignoring me for months. I’d been sending her messengers on an increasingly regular basis to no avail. At least, not until today.
But why now? Why show up now, after all those months of silence?
“Because, dummy,” I muttered to myself, “she wants something.” I turned to Demonreach. “Okay, Alfred. Where?”
Which was smart. Demonreach, like practically every prison ever, was just as well suited to keeping visitors out as it was to keeping them in. When a freaking Walker of the Outside and his posse had shown up to perform a massive jailbreak on the island’s prisoners, they had been beaten back, thanks to the efforts of the island’s defenses and several key allies.
I’d spent the last year acquainting myself with the island’s secrets, with the defenses that I hadn’t even known existed—defenses that could be activated only by the Warden. If the Walker tried that play again, I could shut him down single-handed. Even Mab, as powerful as she was, would be well-advised to be cautious if she decided to start trouble on Demonreach’s soil.
Which was why she was standing on the dock.
She expected me to be upset. Definitely, she wanted something.
In my experience, when the Queen of Air and Darkness decides she wants something from you, it’s a good time to crawl in a hole and pull it in after you.
But my head pulsed with little twinges of pain. My headaches had slowly gotten worse and worse over several years, and I had only recently discovered their cause—I had a condition that had to be taken care of before whatever was hanging out in my noggin decided to burst its way out of my skull. I didn’t dare leave the island until that happened, and if Mab had finally decided to respond to my messages, I had little choice but to meet with her.
Which was probably why she hadn’t shown up to talk to me—until now.
“Freaking manipulative faeries,” I muttered under my breath. Then I headed for the stairs leading out of the Well and up to the island’s surface. “Stay nearby and pay attention,” I told Demonreach.
“DO YOU SUSPECT SHE MEANS YOU HARM?”
“Heh,” I said, starting up the stairs. “One way or another. Let’s go.”
My brother and I had built the Whatsup Dock down at the shore at one of Demonreach’s three little beaches, the one nearest the opening in the stone reefs surrounding the island. There had been a town on the hillside up above the beach maybe a century before, but it had been abandoned after its residents had apparently been driven slowly bonkers by all the dark energy around the hideous things imprisoned below the island.
The ruins of the town were still there, half swallowed by the forest, a corpse being slowly devoured by fungus and moss. I sometimes wondered how long I could stay on the damned island before I was bonkers, too.
There was an expensive motored yacht tied to the dock, as out of place as a Ferrari in a cattle yard, white with a lot of frosty blue chrome. There were a couple of hands in sight, and they weren’t dressed in sailing clothes so much as they were in sailing costumes. The creases were too straight, the clothes too clean, the fit too perfect. Watching them move, I had no doubt they were carrying weapons, and practiced in killing. They were Sidhe, the lords of Faerie, tall and beautiful and dangerous. They didn’t impress me.
Mostly because they weren’t nearly as pretty or dangerous as the woman standing at the very end of my dock, the tips of her expensive shoes half an inch from Demonreach’s shore. When there’s a Great White Shark in the water with you, it’s tough to be worried about a couple of barracuda swimming along behind her.
Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness, was wearing a tailored business suit somewhere between the color of smeared charcoal on newsprint and frozen periwinkles. The blouse beneath was snow-white, like her hair, which was bound up in an elaborate do that belonged in the forties. Opals flashed on her ears and at her throat, deep colors of green and blue, matching the shifting hues of her cold, flat eyes. She was pale, beautiful on a scale that beggared simple description, and I harbored a healthy and rational terror of her.
I came down the old stone steps in the hillside to the dock, and stopped an arm’s length away from Mab. I didn’t bow to her, but I inclined my head formally. There were other Sidhe there, on the boat, witnessing the meeting, and I had worked out a while ago that though I was no danger to Mab’s pride, she would not tolerate disrespect to her office. I was pretty sure that if the Winter Knight openly defied her in front of her Court, it would basically be a declaration of war, and despite what I now knew about the island, I wanted nothing of the sort with Mab.
“My Queen,” I said pleasantly. “How’s tricks?”
“Functioning flawlessly, my Knight,” she replied. “As ever. Get on the boat.”
“Why?” I asked.
Her mouth turned down into a slight frown, but it was belied by the sudden pleased light in her eyes.
“I’m predictable, aren’t I?” I asked her.
“In many ways,” she replied. “Shall I answer you literally?”
“I’d like that.”
Mab nodded. Then she leaned forward, very slightly, her eyes growing deep, and said in a voice colder and harder than frozen stone, “Because I told you to do so.”
I swallowed, and my stomach did this little roller-coaster number on me. “What happens if I won’t?” I asked.
“You have already made clear to me that you will resist me if I attempt to compel you directly to obey my commands,” Mab said. “Such a thing would render you useless to me, and for the moment, I would find it inconvenient to train a replacement. I would therefore do nothing.”
I blinked at that. “Nothing? I could deny you, and you’d just . . . go?”
“Indeed,” Mab said, turning. “You will be dead in three days, by which time I should have made arrangements to replace you.”
“Uh,” I said. “What?”
Mab paused and looked over her shoulder. “The parasite within you will emerge in that time. Surely you have noticed the pains growing worse.”
Boy, had I. And it added up.
“Dammit,” I snarled, keeping my voice too low to be heard by the goons on the boat. “You set me up.”
Mab turned to face me and gave me a very small smile.
“I’ve been sending out Toot and Lacuna with messages for you and Molly every damned day. None of them got through, did they?”
“They are faeries,” Mab said. “I am a Queen of Faerie.”
“And my sendings to Molly?”
“I wove nets to catch any spells leaving this island the moment I bade you farewell, my Knight,” she said. “And the messages you sent to her through your friends were altered to suit my needs. I find it useful how the tiniest amount of distrust creates so much opportunity for miscommunication. Your friends have been trying to visit you for several weeks, but the lake ice has held unusually long this year. Alas.”
I ground my teeth. “You knew I needed her help.”
“And,” she said, biting the words off crisply, “you still do.”
“Have you ever considered just asking me for my help?” I asked her. “Maybe even saying ‘please’?”
She arched a pale eyebrow at me. “I am not your client.”
“So you just go straight to extortion?”
“I cannot compel you,” she said in a reasonable tone. “I must therefore see to it that circumstance does. You cannot leave the island without being incapacitated by pain. You cannot send for help unless I allow it. Your time has all but run out, my Knight.”
I found myself speaking through clenched teeth. “Why? Why would you put me in a corner like this?”
“Perhaps because it is necessary. Perhaps it is to protect you from yourself.” Her eyes flashed with the distant fury of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “Or perhaps it is simply because I can. In the end, it does not matter why. All that matters is what is.”
I inhaled and exhaled a few times, to keep the anger from boiling out into my voice. Given what she had to manage, it was entirely possible that manipulating me and threatening me with death this way was asking politely—by the standards of Mab, anyway. But that didn’t mean I had to like it.
Besides. She was right. If Mab said I had three days to live, she meant it. She had neither the capability nor the need to speak any direct lies. And if that was true, which I felt depressingly confident it was, then she had me over a barrel.
“What do you want?” I asked. I almost sounded polite.
The question brought a pleased smile to her lips and a nod that looked suspiciously like one of approval. “I wish you to perform a task for me.”
“This task,” I said. “Would it happen to be off the island?”
I pointed a finger at my temple. “Then we have an issue with the incapacitated-by-pain thing. You’ll have to fix me first.”
“If I did, you’d never agree to it,” Mab said calmly. “And I would then be obliged to replace you. For your own health and safety, therefore, you will wear this instead.” She lifted her hand and held it out to me, palm up.
There was a small stone in her palm, a deep blue opal. I leaned a little closer, eyeing it. It was set on a silver stud—an earring.
“It should suffice to contain the parasite for what time remains,” Mab said. “Put it on.”
“My ears aren’t pierced,” I objected.
Mab arched an eyebrow. “Are you the Winter Knight or some sort of puling child?”
I scowled at her. “Come over here and say that.”
At that, Mab calmly stepped onto the shore of Demonreach, until her toes were almost touching mine. She was several inches over six feet tall, and barely had to reach up to take my earlobe in her fingers.
“Wait,” I said. “Wait.”
“The left one.”
Mab tilted her head. “Why?”
“It’s . . . Look, it’s a mortal thing. Just do the left one, okay?”
She exhaled briefly through her nose. Then she shook her head and changed ears. There was a pinpoint of red-hot pain in my left earlobe, and then a slow pulse of lazy, almost seductive cold, like the air on an autumn night when you open the bedroom windows and sleep like a rock.
“There,” Mab said, fixing the post in place. “Was that such a trial?”
I glowered and reached up to the stone with my left hand. My fingertips confirmed what my ears had reported—it felt physically cold to the touch.
“Now that I’ve got this to keep me safe off the island,” I said very quietly, “what’s to stop me from having Alfred drop you into a cell right this second, and solving my problems myself?”
“I am,” Mab said. She gave me a very small, very chill smile, and held up her finger. There was a tiny droplet of my blood upon it, scarlet against her pale skin. “The consequences to your mortal world should there be no Mab would be dire. The consequences to yourself, should you try it, even more so. Try me, wizard. I am willing.”
For a second, I thought about it. She was stacking up enough leverage on me that whatever it was she wanted me to do, I was sure I was going to hate it. I’d never wanted to be in Mab’s ongoing service anyway. The boss couldn’t be the boss if I imprisoned her in crystal hundreds of feet beneath the waters of Lake Michigan. And it wasn’t like she hadn’t earned some time in the cooler. Mab was a serious bad guy.
Except . . . she was our serious bad guy. As cruel and as horrible as she could be, she was a guardian who protected the world from things that were even worse. Suddenly removing her from that balance of power could be worse than catastrophic.
And admit it to yourself, at least, Dresden. You’re scared. What if you tried to take her down—and missed? Remember what happened to the last guy who betrayed Mab? You’ve never beaten her. You’ve never come close.
I didn’t let myself shudder. She would have seen it as weakness, and that isn’t a wise thing to show any faerie. I just exhaled and looked away from those cold, endless eyes.
Mab inclined her head to me, barely, a victor’s acknowledgment. Then she turned and walked back onto the dock. “Bring anything you may need. We leave at once.”
Mab’s yacht took us to Belmont Harbor, where the late-February ice had evidently been broken up by an unseasonably warm morning. My ear throbbed with occasional cold, but my head seemed fine, and when we docked I hopped over the rail and onto the pier with a large duffel bag in one hand and my new wizard’s staff in the other.
Mab descended the gangplank with dignity and eyed me.
“Parkour,” I explained.
“Appointment,” she said, gliding by me.
A limo was waiting for us, complete with two more Sidhe in bodyguard costumes. They swept us into the city proper, down Lake Shore Drive until we hit the Loop, turned, and pulled up in front of the Carbide and Carbon Building, a vast charcoal-colored creation that had always reminded me of the monolith in 2001, except for all the brassy filigree. I’d always thought it looked particularly baroque and cool, and then it had become the Hard Rock Hotel.
Two additional Sidhe bodyguards were waiting when we pulled up, tall and inhumanly beautiful. Between one step and the next, they all changed from a crowd of cover models into lantern-jawed thugs with buzz cuts and earpieces—glamour, the legendary power of faerie illusion. Mab did not bother altering her own appearance, save for donning a pair of designer sunglasses. The four goons fell into a square formation around us as we went in, and we all marched up to an awaiting elevator. The numbers rolled swiftly up to the top floor—and then went one floor up above that one.
The doors opened onto an extravagant penthouse loft. Mozart floated in from speakers of such quality that for a moment I assumed that live musicians must be present. Floor-to-fourteen-foot-ceiling windows gave us a sweeping view of the lake and the shoreline south of the hotel. The floors were made of polished hardwood. Tropical trees had been planted throughout the room, along with bright flowering plants that were busy committing the olfactory floral equivalent of aggravated assault. Furniture sets were scattered around the place, some on the floor, and some on platforms sitting at various levels. There was a bar, and a small stage with a sound system, and at the far end of the loft, stairs led up to an elevated platform, which, judging from the bed, must have served as a bedroom.
There were also five goons wearing black suits with matching shotguns waiting for us outside of the elevator doors. As the doors opened, the goons worked the actions on their weapons, but did not precisely raise them to aim at us.
“Ma’am,” said one of them, much younger than the others, “please identify yourself.”
Mab stared at them impassively through her sunglasses. Then, in a motion so slight that I doubt any of them noticed, she twitched one eyebrow.
I grunted, flicked a hand, and muttered, “Infriga.”
I didn’t put much power into the spell, but it was enough to make the point: A sudden thick layer of rime crackled into being over the lower two-thirds of the goons’ bodies, covering their boots and guns and the hands holding them. The men twitched in surprise and let out little hisses of discomfort, but did not relinquish the weapons.
“The lady doesn’t do lackeys,” I told them, “and you damned well know who she is. Whichever one of you chuckleheads is holding the brain should probably go tell your boss she’s here before she starts feeling offended.”
The young goon who had spoken staggered away, deeper into the loft, around a screen of trees and flowers, while the others faced us, dispassionate and clearly uncomfortable.
Mab eyed me and said in an intimate whisper, “What was that?”
I answered in kind. “I’m not killing a mortal just to make a point.”
“You were willing enough to kill one of my Sidhe for that reason.”
“I play on your team,” I told her. “I’m not from your town.”
She looked up at me over the rims of her sunglasses and then said, “Squeamishness does not become the Winter Knight.”
“It’s not about squeam, Mab,” I said.
“No,” she said. “It is about weakness.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, facing front again, “I’m only human.”
Mab’s gaze remained on me, cold and heavy as a blanket of snow. “For now.”
I didn’t shiver. I get muscle twitches sometimes. That’s all.
The goon capable of human speech returned, and was careful not to make eye contact with anyone as he bowed at the waist in Mab’s general direction. “Your Majesty. Please proceed. Your four guards may wait here, with these four, and I will show you to him.”
Mab did not so much as twitch to acknowledge that the goon had spoken. She just stepped out of the elevator smartly, her heels clicking with metronomic inevitability on the hard floor, and both the goon and I hurried to keep pace with her.
We walked around the screen of shrubbery where the goon had gone a moment before and found an elaborate raised platform with three wide steps leading up to it. The whole thing was thickly surrounded by more plant life, giving it the cozy feel of an alcove. Expensive living room furniture was spaced around it ideally for conversation, and that’s where Mab’s appointment was waiting for us.
“Sir,” the goon said. “Her Majesty, Queen Mab, and the Winter Knight.”
“Who needs no introduction,” said a man with a deep, resonant voice. I recognized it. That voice had once been smooth and flowing, but now there was a hint of rasp to it, a roughness that wasn’t there before, like silk gliding over old gravel.
A man of medium height and build rose from his chair. He was dressed in a black silk suit, a black shirt, and a worn grey tie. He had dark hair threaded with silver and dark eyes, and he moved with the coiled grace of a snake. There was a smile on his mouth, but not in his eyes as he faced me. “Well, well, well. Harry Dresden.”
“Nicodemus Archleone.” I slurred into a Connery accent. “My cut hash improved your voish.”
Something ugly flickered far back in his eyes, and his voice might have grown a little rougher, but his smile never wavered. “You came closer than anyone has in a long, long time.”
“Maybe you’re starting to slip in your old age,” I said. “It’s the little things that go first. For instance, you missed taking the tongue out of one of your goons. You’re going to make him feel left out if he’s the only one who can talk.”
That made Nicodemus smile more deeply. I’d met his gang of hangers-on before. They’d all had their tongues cut out.
He turned to Mab and bowed at the waist, the gesture more elegant than anything I could manage, the manners of another time. “Your Majesty.”
“Nicodemus,” Mab said in a frosty tone. Then, in a more neutral one, “Anduriel.”
Nicodemus didn’t move, but his freaking shadow inclined its head anyway. No matter how many times I saw that kind of action, it still creeped me out.
Nicodemus was a Knight of the Blackened Denarius, or maybe it was more accurate to say that he was the Knight of the Blackened Denarius. He had one of thirty silver coins on him somewhere, one that contained the essence of the Fallen angel, Anduriel. The Denarians were bad news, in a major way—even though angels were sharply curtailed in how they were allowed to use their power, hobbled and bound to a mortal partner, they were as dangerous as anything running around in the shadows, and when they teamed up with world-class lunatics like Nicodemus, they were several shades worse. Nicodemus, as far as I had been able to find out, had been perpetrating outrages for a couple of millennia. He was smart, ruthless and tough, and killing people was almost as significant to him as throwing away an empty beer can.
I’d survived him once. He’d survived me once. Neither of us had been able to put the other away.
“I beg your indulgence for a moment,” Nicodemus said to Mab. “A minor matter of internal protocol to which I must attend before we continue.”
There was a frozen microinstant of displeasure before Mab answered. “Of course.”
Nicodemus bowed again, and then walked a few steps away and turned to the goon who had led us over. He beckoned to the man and said, “Brother Jordan, approach.”
Jordan came to rigid military attention, swallowed, and then walked formally forward, stopping precisely in front of Nicodemus before bracing to attention again.
“You have completed the trials of the Brotherhood,” Nicodemus said, his voice warm. “You have the highest recommendation of your fellows. And you have faced a dangerous foe with steadfast courage. It is my judgment that you have demonstrated your loyalty and commitment to our cause beyond the meager bonds of any oath.” He reached up and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Have you any final words?”
The kid’s eyes gleamed with sudden emotion, and his breathing sped. “I thank you, my lord.”
“Well said,” Nicodemus murmured, smiling. Then he said, “Deirdre.”
The second person in the alcove rose from where she had been sitting quietly in the background. She was a young woman in a simple black dress. Her features were lean and severe, her body graced with the same slight, elegant curves as a straight razor. She had long, dark hair to go with black eyes that were a double of Nicodemus’s own, and when she approached Jordan, she gave him an almost sisterly smile.
And then she changed.
First her eyes shifted, changing from dark orbs to pits filled with a burning crimson glow. A second set of eyes, these glowing green, blinked open above the first. And then her face contorted, the bones shifting. Her skin seemed to ripple and then hardened, darkening to the ugly deep purple of a fresh bruise, taking on the consistency of thick hide. The dress just seemed to shimmer out of existence, revealing legs that had contorted, her feet lengthening dramatically, until they looked backward-hinged. And her hair changed—it grew, slithering out of her scalp like dozens of writhing serpents, flattening into hard, metallic ribbons of midnight black that rustled and stirred and rippled of their own volition.
As that happened, Nicodemus’s shadow simply grew, with no change in the light to prompt it. It stretched out behind him, and then up the wall, growing and growing until it spread over the whole of that side of the huge loft.
“Bear witness,” Nicodemus said quietly, “as Brother Jordan becomes Squire Jordan.”
The green eyes atop Deirdre’s flickered brightly, as Deirdre lifted claw-tipped hands to cup Jordan’s face, quite gently. Then she leaned forward and kissed him, lips parted.
My stomach twisted and flipped over. I didn’t let it show.
Deirdre’s head suddenly snapped forward a little more, and Jordan’s body stiffened. A muffled scream escaped the seal of Deirdre’s lips, but was quickly choked off. I saw Deirdre’s jaws lock, and then she jerked her head away in the sudden, sharp motion of a shark ripping flesh from its prey. Her head fell back in something that looked horribly like ecstasy, and I could see the bloody flesh of Jordan’s tongue gripped between her teeth.
Blood fountained from the young man’s mouth. He let out a wordless sound and staggered, falling to one knee.
Deirdre’s head jerked in swallowing motions, like a seabird downing a fish, and she made a quiet gulping sound. Then she shuddered, and opened her burning eyes slowly. She turned to move deliberately to Nicodemus’s side, her purplish lips black with blood, and murmured, “It is done, Father.”
Nicodemus kissed her on the mouth. And, my God, him doing it with tongue now was even more unsettling than it had been the first time I’d seen it.
He lifted his mouth from Deirdre’s a moment later and said, “Rise, Squire Jordan.”
The young man staggered to his feet, the lower half of his face a mass of blood, dripping down over his chin and throat.
“Get some ice on that and see the medic, Squire,” Nicodemus said. “Congratulations.”
Jordan’s eyes gleamed again, and his mouth twisted into a macabre smile. Then he turned and hurried away, leaving a dripping trail of blood behind him.
My stomach twisted. One of these days, I’m going to have to learn to keep my mouth shut. Nicodemus had just casually had a young man maimed solely to make a point to me for teasing him about it. I clenched my jaw and resolved to use the incident to remind me exactly the kind of monster I was dealing with here.
“There,” Nicodemus said, turning back to Mab. “I apologize for any inconvenience.”
“Shall we conclude our business?” Mab said. “My time is valuable.”
“Of course,” Nicodemus said. “You know why I have approached you.”
“Indeed,” Mab said. “Anduriel once loaned me the services of his . . . associate. I now repay that debt by loaning you the services of mine.”
“Wait. What?” I said.
“Excellent,” Nicodemus said. He produced a business card and held it out. “Our little group will meet here at sundown.”
Mab reached for the card and nodded. “Done.”
I intercepted her hand, taking the card before she could. “Not done,” I said. “I’m not working with this psychopath.”
“Sociopath, actually,” Nicodemus said. “Though for practical purposes, the terms are nearly interchangeable.”
“You’re an ugly piece of work, and I don’t trust you any farther than I can kick you, which I’m tempted to see how far I can do,” I snapped back. I turned to Mab. “Tell me you aren’t serious.”
“I,” she said in a hard voice, “am perfectly serious. You will go with Archleone. You will render him all aid and assistance until such time as he has completed his objective.”
“What objective?” I demanded.
Mab looked at him.
Nicodemus smiled at me. “Nothing terribly complex. Difficult, to be sure, but not complicated. We’re going to rob a vault.”
“You don’t need anyone to help you with that,” I said. “You could handle any vault in the world.”
“True,” Nicodemus said. “But this vault is not of this world. It is in fact, of the Underworld.”
“Underworld?” I asked.
I was getting a bad feeling about this.
Nicodemus gave me a bland smile.
“Who?” I asked him. “Whose vault are you knocking over?”
“An ancient being of tremendous power,” he replied in his roughened voice, his smile widening. “You may know him as Hades, the Lord of the Underworld.”
“Hades,” I said. “The Hades. The Greek god.”
“The very same.”
I looked slowly from Nicodemus to Mab.
Her face was beautiful and absolute. The chill of the little earring that was keeping me alive pulsed steadily against my skin.
“Oh,” I said quietly. “Oh, Hell’s bells.”
My brain shifted into overdrive.
My back might have been against a wall, but that was hardly anything new. One thing I’d learned in long years of spine-to-brick circumstance was that anything you could do to create a little space, time, or support was worth doing.
I met Mab’s implacable gaze and said, “It is necessary to set one condition.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What condition?”
“Backup,” I said. “I want an extra pair of eyes along. Someone of my choosing.”
“Because Nicodemus is a murderous murdering murderer,” I said. “And if he’s picking a crew, they’re going to be just as bad. I want another set of eyes along to make sure one of them doesn’t shoot me in the back the second I’m not looking—you’re loaning out the Winter Knight, after all. You’re not throwing him away.”
Mab arched an eyebrow. “Mmmm.”
“Out of the question, I fear,” Nicodemus said. “Plans have already been made and there is no room for extraneous personnel.”
Mab turned her head very slowly to Nicodemus. “As I remember it,” she said, her tone arctic, “when you loaned me your service, you brought your spawn with you. I believe this request exhibits symmetry.”
Nicodemus narrowed his eyes. Then he inhaled deeply and inclined his head very slightly in agreement. “I do not have explicit authority over everyone involved. I can make no promises as to the safety of either your Knight or his . . . additional associate.”
Mab almost smiled. “And I can make none as to yours, Sir Archleone, should you betray an arrangement made in good faith. Shall we agree to an explicit truce until such time as your mission is complete?”
Nicodemus considered that for a moment before nodding his head. “Agreed.”
“Done, then,” Mab said, and plucked the card from my fingers. “Shall we go, my Knight?”
I stared hard at Nicodemus and his bloody-mouthed daughter for a moment. Deirdre’s hair rasped and rustled, slithering against itself like long, curling strips of sheet metal.
Like hell was I gonna help that lunatic.
But this was not the time or place to make that stand.
“Yeah,” I said through clenched teeth. “Okay.”
And without ever quite turning my back on the Denarians, I followed Mab back to the elevator.
* * *
At the bottom of the elevator ride, I turned to Mab’s bodyguards and said, “Time for you guys to get out and bring the car around.” When none of them moved, I said, “Okay. You guys filled out some kind of paperwork for how you want your remains disposed of, right?”
At that, the Sidhe blinked. They looked at Mab.
Mab stared ahead. I’d seen statues that indicated their desires more strongly.
They got out.
I waited until the elevator doors closed behind them, flicked a finger, and muttered, “Hexus,” unleashing a minor effort of will as I did. Mortal wizards and technology don’t blend. Just being in proximity to a wizard actively using magic is enough to blow out a lot of electronics. When a wizard is actually trying to blow out tech, not much is safe.
The elevator’s control panel let out a shower of sparks and went dark. The lightbulbs went out with little pops, along with the emergency lights, and the elevator’s interior was suddenly plunged into darkness lit only by a bit of daylight seeping in beneath the door.
“Are you out of your mind?” I demanded of Mab.
There was just enough light to show me the glitter of her eyes as she turned them to me.
“I am not going to help that dick,” I snarled.
“You will perform precisely as instructed.”
“I will not,” I said. “I know how he works. Whatever he’s doing, it’s nothing but bad news. People are going to get hurt—and I’m not going to be a part of that. I’m not going to help him.”
“It is obvious to me that you did not listen to me very carefully,” Mab said.
“It is obvious to me that you just don’t get it,” I replied. “There are things you just don’t do, Mab. Helping a monster like that get what he wants is one of them.”
“Even if refusing costs you your life?” she asked.
I sighed. “Have you even been paying attention, the past couple of years? Do you have any doubt that I would rather die than become part of something like that?”
Her teeth made a white gleam in the dark. “And yet, here you are.”
“Do you really want to push this?” I asked. “Do you want to lose your shiny new Knight already?”
“Hardly a loss if he will not fulfill a simple command,” Mab said.
“I’ll fulfill commands. I’ve done it before.”
“In your own inept way, yes,” Mab said.
“Just not this one.”
“You will do precisely as instructed,” Mab said. She took a very small step closer to me. “Or there will be consequences.”
The last Knight to anger Mab had wound up begging me to end his life. The poor bastard had been grateful.
“What consequences?” I asked.
“The parasite,” Mab said. “When it kills you and emerges, it will seek out everyone you know. Everyone you love. And it will utterly destroy them—starting with one child in particular.”
Gooseflesh erupted along my arms. She was talking about Maggie. My daughter.
“She’s out of this,” I said in a whisper. “She’s protected.”
“Not from this,” Mab said, her tone remote. “Not from a being created of your own essence, just as she is. Your death will bring a deadly creature into the world, my Knight—one who knows all that you know of your allies. Lovers. Family.”
“No, it won’t,” I said. “I’ll go back to the island. I’ll instruct Alfred to imprison it the moment it breaks free.”
Mab’s smile turned genuine. It was considerably scarier than her glare. “Oh, sweet child.” She shook her head. “What makes you think I shall allow you to return?”
I clenched my fists along with my teeth. “You . . . you bitch.”
Mab slapped me.
Okay, that doesn’t convey what happened very well. Her arm moved. Her palm hit my left cheekbone, and an instant later the right side of my skull smashed into the elevator door. My head bounced off it like a Ping-Pong ball, my legs went rubbery, and I got a really, really good look at the marble tile floor of the elevator. The metal rang like a gong, and was still reverberating a couple of minutes later, when I slowly sat up. Or maybe that was just me.
“I welcome your suggestions, questions, thoughts, and arguments, my Knight,” Mab said in a calm voice. She moved one foot, gracefully, and rested the tip of her high heel against my throat. She put a very little bit of her weight behind it, and it hurt like hell. “But I am Mab, mortal. It is not your place to judge me. Do you understand?”
I couldn’t talk, with her heel nudging my voice box. I jerked my head in a short nod.
“Defy me if you will,” she said. “I cannot prevent you from doing so—if you are willing to pay the price for it.”
And with that, she removed her foot from my throat.
I sat up and rubbed at it. “This is not a smart way to maintain a good professional relationship with me,” I croaked.
“Do I seem stupid to you, my Knight?” she asked. “Think.”
I eyed her. Mab’s voice was perfectly calm. After what I’d said to her, the defiance I’d offered her, I hadn’t expected that. She had never been shy about showing her outrage when she felt it had been earned. This perfect poise was . . . not out of character, precisely, but I had expected a good deal more intensity than she was displaying. My defiance endangered her plans, and that never left her in a good mood.
Unless . . .
I closed my eyes and ran back through her words in my head.
“Your precise instructions,” I said slowly, “were to go with Nicodemus and help him until such time as he completed his objective.”
“Indeed,” Mab said. “Which he stated was to remove the contents of a vault.” She leaned down, took a fistful of my shirt in her hand, and hauled me back to my feet as easily as she might heft a Chihuahua. “I never said what you would do after.”
I blinked at that. Several times. “You . . .” I dropped my voice. “You want me to double-cross him?”
“I expect you to repay my debt by fulfilling my instructions,” Mab replied. “After that . . .” Her smile returned, smug in the shadows. “I expect you to be yourself.”
“Whatever Nicodemus has going this time . . . you want to stop him, too,” I breathed.
She tilted her head, very slightly.
“You know he’s not going to honor the truce,” I said quietly. “He’s going to try to take me out somewhere along the line. He’s going to betray me.”
“Of course,” she said. “I expect superior, more creative treachery on your part.”
“While still keeping your word and helping him?” I demanded.
Her smile sharpened. “Is it not quite the game?” she asked. “In my younger days, I would have relished such a novel challenge.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Gee. Thanks.”
“Petulance does not become the Winter Knight,” Mab said. She turned to the elevator doors, which had an enormous dent in them the same shape as a wizard’s noggin. They swept open with a groan of protesting metal. “Do this for me, and I shall ensure the safe removal of the parasite when the task is completed.”
“Nicodemus, his daughter, and God knows what else is in his crew,” I said. “I’m working with my hands tied, and you expect me to survive this game?”
“If you want to live, if you want your friends and family to live, I expect you to do more than survive it,” Mab said, sweeping out. “I expect you to skin them alive.”
“To Mab’s credit,” Karrin Murphy said, “she is sort of asking you to do what you’re good at.”
I blinked. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“You have a tendency to weasel out of these bargains you get yourself into, Harry,” she said. “You have a history.”
“Like I shouldn’t fight them?” I demanded.
“You probably should focus more on not getting into them in the first place,” she said, “but that’s just one humble ex-cop’s opinion.”
We were sitting in Karrin’s living room, in the little house with the rose garden she’d inherited from her grandmother. She was sipping tea, her spring-muscle body coiled up into a lazy-looking ball at one end of the couch. I sat in the chair across from her. My big grey cat, Mister, was sprawled in my lap, luxuriating and purring while I rubbed his fur.
“You’ve taken good care of him,” I said. “Thank you.”
“He’s good company,” she said. “Though I wonder if he wouldn’t like it better with you.”
I moved from Mister’s back to rubbing behind his ears exactly the way he liked best. His purr sounded like a miniature motorboat. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the little furball until he’d come running up and thrown his shoulder against my shins. Mister weighed the next best thing to thirty pounds. I wondered how the diminutive Karrin had managed to keep from being knocked down by his affection every time she came home. Maybe she had applied some principle of Aikido out of self-defense.
“He might,” I said. “I’m . . . sort of settled now. And there’s nothing on the island big enough to take him. But it’s cold out there in the winter, and he’s getting older.”
“We’re all getting older,” Karrin said. “Besides. Look at him.”
Mister rolled onto his back and chewed happily at my fingertips, pawing at my arms and hands with his limbs without extending his claws. Granted, he was a battle-scarred old tomcat with a stub tail and a notched ear, but damn if it wasn’t cute, and I suddenly felt my eyes threaten to get blurry.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s kind of my buddy, isn’t he?”
Karrin’s blue eyes smiled at me over the rim of her teacup. Only attitude kept her from being an itty-bitty person. Her golden brown hair was longer than it had been since I could remember offhand, tied back into a ponytail. She wore yoga pants, a tank top, and a flannel shirt and had been practicing martial arts forms of some kind when I arrived.
“Of course,” she said, “you could do it the other way, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“You could live here,” she said. Then added, a beat too quickly, “In Chicago. You could, you know. Move back to town.”
I frowned, still playing with my cat. “I don’t . . . Look, when the next freak burns down my place, maybe I won’t get as lucky as I did last time.”
“Last time you wound up with a broken back and working for a monster,” Karrin said.
“Exactly,” I said. “And it was only because of literal divine intervention that none of my neighbors died.” I shook my head. “The island isn’t a kind place, but no one is going to come looking for trouble there.”
“Except you,” she said gently. “I worry about what will happen to you if you stay out there alone too long. That kind of isolation isn’t good for you, Harry.”
“It’s necessary,” I said. “It’s safer for me. It’s safer for everyone around me.”
“What a load of crap,” she said, without heat. “You’re just scared.”
“You’re damned right,” I said. “Scared that some bug-eyed freak is going to come calling and kill innocent people because they happen to be in my havoc radius.”
“No,” she said. “That isn’t what scares you.” She waved a hand. “You don’t want it to happen, and you’ll fight it if it does, but that isn’t what scares you.”
I frowned down at Mister. “I’m . . . really not comfortable talking about this.”
“Get over it,” Karrin said, even more gently. “Harry, when the vampires grabbed Maggie . . . they kind of dismantled your life. They took away all the familiar things. Your office. Your home. Even that ridiculous old clown car.”
“The Blue Beetle was not a clown car,” I said severely. “It was a machine of justice.”
I wasn’t looking at her, but I heard the smile in her voice—along with something that might have been compassion. “You’re a creature of habit, Harry. And they took away all the familiar places and things in your life. They hurt you.”
Something dark and furious stirred way down inside me for a moment, threatening to come out. I swallowed it back down.
“So the idea of a fortress, someplace familiar that can’t be taken away from you, really appeals to you right now,” Karrin said. “Even if it means you cut yourself off from everyone.”
“It isn’t like that,” I said.
“And I’m fine,” I added.
“You aren’t fine,” Karrin said evenly. “You’re a long, long way from fine. And you’ve got to know that.”
Mister’s fur was soft and very warm beneath my fingers. His paws batted gently at my hands. His teeth were sharp but gentle on my wrist. I’d forgotten how nice it was, the furry beast’s simple weight and presence against me.
How could I have forgotten that?
(“I’m only human.”)
I shook my head slowly. “This is . . . not a good time to get in touch with my feelings.”
“I know it isn’t,” she said. “But it’s the first time in months that I’ve seen you. What if I don’t get another chance?” She put the cup of tea down on a coaster on the coffee table and said, “Agreed, there’s business to do. But you’ve got to understand that your friends are worried about you. And that is important, too.”
“My friends,” I said. “So this is . . . a community project?”
Karrin stared at me for a moment. Then she stood up and moved to stand beside the chair. She considered me for a few breaths, then pushed my hair back from my eyes with one hand, and said, “It’s me, Harry.”
I felt my eyes close. I leaned in to her touch. Her hand felt feverishly warm, a wild contrast to the brush of Mab’s cold digits earlier in the day. We stayed like that for a moment, and Mister’s throaty purr buzzed through the room.
There’s power in the touch of another person’s hand. We acknowledge it in little ways, all the time. There’s a reason human beings shake hands, hold hands, slap hands, bump hands.
It comes from our very earliest memories, when we all come into the world blinded by light and color, deafened by riotous sound, flailing in a suddenly cavernous space without any way of orienting ourselves, shuddering with cold, emptied with hunger, and justifiably frightened and confused. And what changes that first horror, that original state of terror?
The touch of another person’s hands.
Hands that wrap us in warmth, that hold us close. Hands that guide us to shelter, to comfort, to food. Hands that hold and touch and reassure us through our very first crisis, and guide us into our very first shelter from pain. The first thing we ever learn is that the touch of someone else’s hand can ease pain and make things better.
That’s power. That’s power so fundamental that most people never even realize it exists.
I leaned my head against Karrin’s hand and shivered again. “Okay,” I said quietly. “Okay. This is important, too.”
“Good,” she said. She left her fingers in my hair for another moment, and then withdrew her hand. She picked up my teacup, and hers, and carried them back to the kitchen. “So. Where did you go after you left the Hard Rock?”
“Hmm?” I asked.
Her voice drifted in from the kitchen. “Given what you told me, you left the meeting with Nicodemus about three hours ago. Where have you been since then?”
“Um,” I said. “Yeah, about that.”
She came back into the room and arched a golden eyebrow at me.
“What if I told you that I needed you to trust me?”
She frowned and tilted her head for a moment before the hint of a smile touched her mouth. “You went digging for information, didn’t you?”
“Um,” I said. “Let’s just say that until I know more about what I’m up against, I’m playing things a lot closer to the chest than usual.”
She frowned. “Tell me you aren’t doing it for my own protection.”
“You’d kick my ass,” I said. “I’m doing it for mine.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I think.”
“Don’t thank me,” I said. “I’m still keeping you in the dark. But I believe it’s absolutely necessary.”
“So you need me to trust you.”
She spread her hands. “Yeah, okay. So what’s the play? I assume you want me to assemble the support team and await developments while you and Thomas go play with the bad guys?”
I shook my head. “Hell, no. I want you to go in with me.”
That shocked her silent for a moment. Her eyes widened slightly. “With you. To rob a Greek god.”
“Burgle, technically,” I said. “I’m pretty sure if you pull a gun on Hades, you deserve whatever happens to you.”
“Why me?” she asked. “Thomas is the one with the knives and the superstrength.”
“I don’t need knives and superstrength,” I said. “What’s the first rule to protecting yourself on the street?”
“Awareness,” she replied instantly. “It doesn’t matter how badass you are. If you don’t see it coming, you can’t do anything about it.”
“Exactly,” I said. “I need you because you don’t have supernatural abilities. You never have. You’ve never relied on them. I need extra eyes. I need to see things happening, someone to watch my back, to notice details. You’re the detective who could see that the supernatural was real when everyone else was explaining it away. You’ve squared off against the worst and you’re still here to talk about it. You’ve got the best eyes of anyone I know.”
Karrin took that in for a moment and then nodded slowly. “And . . . you think I’m crazy enough to actually do it?”
“I need you,” I said simply.
She considered that gravely.
“I’ll get my gun,” she said.
Karrin drove us to the address on the card in her new car, one of those little Japanese SUVs that Consumer Reports likes, and we got there about ten minutes before sundown.
“An abandoned slaughterhouse,” she said. “Classy.”
“I thought the stockyard district had all been knocked down and rebuilt,” I said.
She put the car in park and checked the SIG she carried in a shoulder holster. “Almost all of it. A couple of the old wrecks hung on.”
The wreck in question was a long, low building, a simple old box frame only a couple of stories high and running the length of the block. It was sagging and dirty and covered in stains and graffiti, an eyesore that had to have been around since before the Second World War. A painted sign on the side of the building was barely legible: SULLIVAN MEAT COMPANY. The buildings around it were updated brownstone business district standard—but I noticed that no one who worked in them, apparently, had elected to park his car on the slaughterhouse’s side of the block.
I didn’t have to get out of the car to feel the energy around the place—dark, negative stuff, the kind of lingering aura that made people and animals avoid a place without giving much consideration as to why. City traffic seemed to ooze around it in a mindless, Brownian fashion, leaving the block all but deserted. Every city has places like that, where people tend not to go. It’s not like people run screaming or anything—they just never seem to find a reason to turn down certain streets, to stop on certain stretches of road. And there’s a reason that they don’t.
Bad things happen in places like this.
“Go in?” I asked Karrin.
“Let’s watch for a bit,” she said. “See what happens.”
“Aye-aye, Eye-guy,” I said.
“I want you to imagine me kicking your ankle right now,” Karrin said, “because it is beneath my dignity to actually do it.”
“Since I don’t want to get your yucky boy germs on my shoes,” she said, watching the street. “So what’s Nicodemus after?”
“No clue,” I said. “And whatever he says he’s after, I think it’s a safe bet that he’ll be lying.”
“Ask the question from the other direction, then,” she said. “What’s Hades got?”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “My sources say he’s the collector of the supernatural world. He’s famous for it. Art, treasure, gems, jewels, antiques, you name it.”
“Nicodemus doesn’t seem like an antiquer to me.”
I snorted. “Depends. There are a lot of kinds of antiques. Old coins. Old swords.”
“For example,” she said, “you think he’s after some kind of magical artifact?”
“Yeah. Something specific. It’s the only thing I can think of that he couldn’t get somewhere else,” I said.
“Could he be trying to make something happen with the act of burglary itself?”
I shrugged. “Like what? Other than pissing off something as big, powerful, and pathologically vengeful as a freaking Greek god. Those guys took things personally.”
“Right. What if he’s setting it up to make it look like someone else did the crime?”
I grunted. “Worth considering. But it seems like there’d be simpler ways to accomplish the same thing than to break into someone’s version of Hell.” I frowned. “Ask you something?”
“You planning to bring one of the Swords with you?”
Karrin had two swords that had been forged with nails from the Cross (yeah, that Cross) worked into the blades. They were powerful talismans, borne by the Knights of the Cross, the natural foes of Nicodemus and his crew of thirty silver-coined lunatics (yeah, those thirty pieces of silver).
She frowned, her eyes scanning the street, and didn’t answer for a moment. When she did, I had the impression that she was choosing her words carefully. “You know I have to be careful with them.”
“They’re weapons, Karrin,” I said. “They’re not glass figurines. What’s the point in having two genuine holy swords with which to fight evil if you don’t, you know, fight evil with them occasionally?”
“Swords are funny,” she replied. “The most capable muscle-powered tool there is for killing a man. But they’re fragile, too. Use them the wrong way, and they’ll break like glass.”
“The Denarians are on the field,” I said. “They’re the people the Swords were meant to challenge.”
“The things inside the Coins are what the Swords were meant to fight. The ones holding the Coins are the people the Swords were meant to save,” she said, her tone gently emphatic. “And that’s why I’m not carrying one. I don’t want to save those animals, Harry. And it’s not enough to use the Swords against the right foe. You have to use them for the right reasons—or they could be lost forever. I won’t be the reason that happens.”
“So you’ll just let them sit and do nothing?” I asked.
“I’ll give them to anyone I think will use them wisely and well,” she said calmly. “But people like that don’t come along every day. Being a keeper of the Swords is a serious job, Harry. You know that.”
I sighed. “Yeah. I do. But Nicodemus and his girl are right over there in that building—and we could use every advantage we can get.”
Karrin suddenly smiled. It transformed her face, though her eyes never stopped sweeping the street. “You’re just going to have to have a little faith, Harry.”
“That if a Knight with a Sword needs to be here, one will be here. For all we know, Sanya will come walking down the street and get in the car with us.”
I scowled at that, even though she was probably right. When a Knight of the Sword was meant to show up and intervene, one would damned well make an entrance and intervene, regardless of who or what stood in the way. I’d seen it more than once. But . . . part of me hated to let go of the advantage the Swords would offer.
Of course, that was what faith was all about, wasn’t it—letting go and trusting Someone Else.
Maybe wizards just weren’t terribly predisposed to surrendering control. I mean, not when they have so much personal power available to them. Once you’ve had your hands on the primal forces that created the universe, it’s a little hard to relax and let them slip through your fingers. It would certainly explain why so few of the wizards I knew were even mildly religious.
Also, it illustrated pretty clearly why I was never, ever going to be a Knight. Aside from the fact that I was working for the queen of the wicked faeries and getting into bed with jerks like Nicodemus, I mean.
Karrin’s eyes flicked up to her rearview mirror and sharpened. “Car,” she said quietly.
In a spy movie, I would have watched them coolly in the rearview mirror, or perhaps in my specially mirrored sunglasses. But as I am neither cool nor a spy, nor did I feel any particular need for stealth, I twisted my upper body around and peered out the back window of Karrin’s car.
A white sedan with a rental agency’s bumper sticker on it pulled up to the curb halfway down the block. It was shuddering as it did, as if it could barely get its engine to turn over, even though it was a brand-new vehicle. Before it had entirely stopped moving, the passenger door swung open and a woman stepped out onto the street as though she just couldn’t stand to be stuck in one place.
She was striking—rangy and nearly six feet tall, with long and intensely curled dark hair that fell almost to her waist. She wore sunglasses, jeans, and a thick, tight scarlet sweater that she filled out more noticeably than most. Her cowboy boots struck the street decisively in long strides as she crossed it, heading toward the old slaughterhouse. Her sharp chin was thrust forward, her mouth set in a firm line, and she walked as though she felt certain that the way was clear—or had better be.
“Hot,” Karrin said, her tone neutral, observational. “Human?”
I wasn’t getting any kind of supernatural vibe off of her, but there’s more than one way to identify a threat. “Can’t be sure,” I said. “But I think I know who she is.”
“A warlock,” I said.
“That’s a rogue wizard, right?”
“Yeah. When I was in the Wardens, they used to send out wanted posters for warlocks so the Wardens could recognize them. I didn’t hunt warlocks. But I was on the mailing list.”
“Why didn’t you?” she asked. “Word is that they’re dangerous.”
“Dangerous children, most of them,” I said. “Kids who no one ever taught or trained or told about the Laws of Magic.” I nodded toward the woman. “That one’s name is Hannah Ascher. She was on the run longer than any other warlock on recent record. She’s supposed to have died in a fire in . . . Australia, I think, about six years ago.”
“You drowned once. How much pressure did the Council put on you after that?”
“Good point,” I said.
“What did she do?” Karrin asked.
“Originally? Ascher burned three men to death from the inside out,” I said.
“Killed one Warden, back before my time. She’s put three more in the hospital over the years.”
“Wizards trained to hunt rogue wizards, and she took them out?”
“Pretty much. Probably why she doesn’t look worried about walking in there right now.”
“Neither will we when we go in,” Karrin said.
“No, we won’t,” I said.
“Here comes the driver.”
The driver’s-side door opened and a bald, blocky man of medium height in an expensive black suit got out. Even before he reached up to take off his sunglasses to reveal eyes like little green agates, I recognized him. Karrin did too, and let out a little growling sound. He put the sunglasses away in a pocket, checked what was probably a gun in a shoulder holster, and hurried to catch up to Ascher, an annoyed expression on his blunt-featured face.
“Binder,” she said.
“Ernest Armand Tinwhistle,” I said. “Name that goofy, don’t blame him for wanting to use an alias.”
Though, honestly, he hadn’t chosen it. The Wardens had given it to him when they’d realized how he’d somehow managed to bind an entire clan of entities out of the Nevernever into his service. He could whistle up a modest horde of humanoid creatures who apparently felt nothing remotely like pain or fear, and who were willing to sacrifice themselves without hesitation. Binder was a one-man army, and I’d told the little jerk that if I saw him in my town again, I’d end him. I’d told him to stay out, and yet here he was.
For about three seconds, I couldn’t think about anything but ending him. I’d have to make it fast, take him out before he could call up any of his buddies, something quick, like breaking his neck. Open the car door. Call up a flash of light as I got out, something to dazzle his newly unshaded eyes. A dozen sprinting steps to get to him, then grab him by the jaw and the back of the head and twist sharply up and to one side, then bring up a shield around myself in case his brain stayed alive long enough to drop a death curse on me.
“Harry,” Karrin said, quiet and sharp.
I realized that I was breathing hard and that my breath was pluming into frost on the exhale as the mantle of power of the Winter Knight had begun informing my instincts in accord with the primal desire to defend my territory against an intruder. The temperature in the car had dropped as if she’d turned the AC up full blast. Water was condensing into droplets on the windows.
I closed my eyes as the Winter rose up in me and I fought it down. I’d done it often enough over the past year on the island that it was almost routine. You can’t stave off the howling, primitive need for violence that came with the Winter mantle with the usual deep-breathing techniques. There was only one way that I’d found that worked. I had to assert my more rational mind. So I ran through my basic multiplication tables in my head, half a dozen mathematical theorems, which took several seconds, then hammered out ruthless logic against the need to murder Binder in the street.
“One, witnesses,” I muttered. “Even deserted, this is still Chicago, and there could be witnesses and that would get their attention. Two, Ascher’s out there, and if she takes his side, she could hit me from behind before I could defend myself. Three, if he’s savvy enough to avoid the grab, I’d be out there with two of them on either side of me.”
The Winter mantle snarled and spat its disappointment, somewhere in my chest, but it receded and flowed back out of my thoughts, leaving me feeling suddenly more tired and fragile than before—but my breathing and body temperature returned to normal.
I watched as Binder broke into a slow jog until he caught up with Ascher. The two spoke quietly to each other as they entered the old slaughterhouse.
“Four,” I said quietly, “killing people is wrong.”
I became conscious of Karrin’s eyes on me. I glanced at her face. Her expression was tough to read.
She put her hand on mine and said, “Harry? Are you all right?”
I didn’t move or respond.
“Mab,” Karrin said. “This is about Mab, isn’t it? This is what she’s done to you.”
“It’s Winter,” I said. “It’s power, but it’s . . . all primitive. Violent. It doesn’t think. It’s pure instinct, feeling, emotion. And when it’s inside you, if you let your emotions control you, it . . .”
“It makes you like Lloyd Slate,” Karrin said. “Or that bitch Maeve.”
I pulled my hand away from hers and said, “Like I said. This is not the time to get in touch with my feelings.”
She regarded me for several seconds before saying, “Well. That is all kinds of fucked-up.”
I huffed out half a breath in a little laugh, which threatened to bring some tears to my eyes, which made the recently roused Winter start stirring down inside me again.
I chanced a quick look at Karrin’s eyes and said, “I don’t want to be like this.”
“So get out of it,” she said.
“The only way out is feetfirst,” I said.
She shook her head. “I don’t believe that,” she said. “There’s always a way out. A way to make things better.”
I wanted to believe that.
Outside, the sun set. Sunset isn’t just a star orbiting below the relative horizon of the planet. It’s a shift in supernatural energy. Don’t believe me? Go out far away from the lights of civilization sometime, and sit down, all by yourself, where there aren’t any buildings or cars or telephones or crowds of people. Go sit down, quietly, and wait for the light to fade. Feel the shadows lengthening. Feel the creatures that stay quiet during the day start to stir and come out. Feel that low instinct of nervous trepidation rising up in your gut. That’s how your body translates that energy to your senses. To a wizard like me, sundown is like a single beat on some unimaginably enormous drum.
Dark things come out at night.
And I didn’t have time, right now, to dither about where I had my feet planted. I had three days to screw over Nicodemus Archleone and his crew and get this thing out of my head, without getting myself or my friend killed while I did it. I had to stay focused on that.
There’d be time to worry about other things after.
“It’s time,” I said to Karrin, and opened the car door. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
We got out of Karrin’s little SUV and headed toward the creepy old slaughterhouse full of dangerous beings. Which . . . pretty much tells you what kind of day I was having, right there.
You know, sometimes it feels like I don’t have any other kind of day.
On the other hand, I’m not sure what I would really do with any other kind of day. I mean, at some point in my life, I had to face it—I was pretty much equipped, by experience and inclination, for mayhem.
“Too bad,” Karrin mused.
“Too bad what?”
“We didn’t have time to get you an actual haircut,” she said. “Seriously, did you do it yourself? Maybe without a mirror?”
I put a hand up to my head self-consciously and said, “I had some help from the General. And, hey, I didn’t say anything about your man-shoes.”
“They’re steel-toed,” she said calmly. “In case I need to plant them in anyone’s ass as a result of him calling them man-shoes. And seriously, you let Toot help you with your hair?”
“Sure as hell wasn’t going to let Alfred try it. He’d probably scrape it off with a glacier or something.”
Karrin shuddered. “That thing.”
“It’s not so bad,” I said. “Not exactly charming company, but not bad.”
“It’s a demon that drove an entire town full of people insane to keep them away.”
“And it could have done much, much worse,” I said. “It’s a big, ugly dog. A cop should know about those.”
“You’re glad it’s there when someone breaks into your house,” she said, “because then it can drive them so freaking crazy that the city erases all record of the incident.”
“Exactly. And then no one remembers your ugly man-shoes.”
By then, we’d reached the door. Both of us knew why we were giving each other a hard time. There was nothing mean-spirited in it.
We were both scared.
I would go through the door first. My spell-wrought black leather duster was better armor than the vest Karrin would be wearing beneath her coat. I gripped my new staff and readied my mind to throw up a shield if I needed one. We’d done this dance before: If something was ready to come at us, I’d hold it off, and she would start putting bullets in it.
Karrin folded her arms over her chest, which happened to put her hand near the butt of her gun, and nodded at me. I nodded back, made sure my duster was closed across my front, and opened the door.
Nothing came screaming out of the shadows at us. Nobody started shooting at us. So far, so good.
The door opened onto a long hallway with light at the far end, enough to let us walk by. The interior walls of the building were old and cracked and covered in decades of graffiti. The night had brought a cold wind off the lake and the building creaked and groaned. The air smelled like mildew and something else, something almost beneath the threshold of perception that set my teeth on edge—old, old death.
“These evil freaks,” Karrin said. “They always pick the most charming places to hang out.”
“Dark energy here,” I said. “Keeps people from wandering in and randomly interfering. And it feels homey.”
“I know you haven’t burned down any buildings in a while,” she said, “but if you start feeling the need . . .”
When we reached the end of the hallway, it turned into a flight of stairs. We followed those up, silently, and at the top of them a door opened onto a balcony over a large factory floor two stories high, running three or four hundred feet down the length of the building. The remains of an overhead conveyor line were still there; it had probably once carried sides of beef from the slaughter pen to various processing stations, but the machinery that had been there was all gone. All that was left were the heavy metal frames, empty now, which had once held the machines in place, and a few rusted, lonely old transport dollies that must once have been loaded up with packaged ribs and steaks and ground beef.
In the middle of the floor were a dozen brand-new work lights, blazing away, and an enormous wooden conference table complete with big leather chairs, brightly illuminated in the glow of the lamps. There was a second table loaded with what looked like a catered dinner, covered with dishes, drinks, and a fancy coffee machine. A few feet away from that was a small pen of wire mesh, and inside it were a dozen restless brown-and-tan goats.
Nicodemus was sitting with one hip on the conference table, a Styrofoam coffee cup in his hands, smiling genially. Ascher was just being seated in a chair, which one of Nicodemus’s guards held out for her solicitously. Binder sat down in the chair beside her, nodded to Nicodemus, and folded his arms with the air of a man prepared to be patient. Deirdre approached the table in her girl disguise, holding a cup of coffee in each hand, offering them to the new arrivals, smiling pleasantly.
There were half a dozen of Nicodemus’s tongueless guards in sight on catwalks above the floor, and Squire Jordan, now all cleaned up, was waiting for us at the far end of the balcony. He had a sidearm, but it was holstered.
“Hi, Jordan,” I said. “What’s with the goats?”
He gave me a level look and said nothing.
“I don’t like having guns above us and all around us,” Karrin said. “Screw that.”
“Yep,” I said. “Go tell your boss we’ll come down there when the flunkies go find something else to do.”
Jordan looked like he might take umbrage at the remark.
“I don’t care what you think, Jordan,” I said. “Go tell him what I said, or I walk. Good luck explaining to him how you lost him a vital asset.”
Jordan’s jaw clenched. But he spun stiffly on one heel, descended an old metal stairway to the floor, and crossed to Nicodemus. He wrote something on a small notepad and passed it to his boss.
Nicodemus looked up at me and smiled. Then he handed the notepad back to Jordan, nodded, and said something.
Jordan pursed his lips and let out three piercing whistles, which got the instant attention of the guards. Then he waved a finger over his head in a circular motion, and they all descended from the catwalks to join him. They headed out, toward the far end of the floor.
Ascher and Binder turned to regard me as this happened, the former bright-eyed and interested, the latter justifiably apprehensive. Once the guards were out of sight, I started down the stairs, with Karrin walking a step behind me and slightly to one side.
“You’ve grown more suspicious, Mr. Dresden,” Nicodemus said as I approached.
“There’s no such thing as too suspicious with you, Nicky,” I said.
Nicodemus didn’t like the familiar nickname. Irritation flickered over his face and was gone. “I suppose I can’t blame you. We’ve always been adversaries in our previous encounters. We’ve never worked together as associates.”
“That’s because you’re an asshole,” I said. I picked the chair two down from Binder and sat. I gave him a steady look and then said to Nicodemus, “We’ve already got a conflict of interest going.”
I jerked a thumb at Binder. “This guy. I said the next time he operated in Chicago, we were going to have a problem.”
“Christ,” Binder said. He said it in Cockney. It came out “kroist.” He looked at Nicodemus and said, “I told you this was an issue.”
“Whatever problem you have with Mr. Tinwhistle is your personal problem, Dresden,” Nicodemus said. “Until such time as the job is over, I expect you to treat him as a professional peer and an ally. If you fail to do so, I will regard it as a failure to repay Mab’s debt to me and, regrettably, will be forced to make such an unfortunate fact public knowledge.”
Translation: Mab’s name would get dragged through the mud. I knew who she would take it out on, too.
I glanced back over my shoulder at Karrin, who had taken up a stance behind me and to one side, her expression distant, dispassionate, her eyes focused on nothing in particular. She gave a slight shrug of her shoulders.
“Okay,” I said, turning back to Nicodemus. I eyed Binder. “I’m giving you a three-day pass, Binder. But bear in mind that I’m going to hold you responsible for what you do in my town at the end of it. I’d be cautious if I were you.”
At that, Ascher stood up. “Hi,” she said, smiling brightly. “You don’t know me. I’m Hannah. Back off my partner before you get hurt.”
“I know who you are, hot stuff,” I drawled, not standing. I set my staff down across the table. “And I already backed off your partner. You can tell from how there aren’t any splatter marks. Play nice, Ascher.”
Her smile vanished at my response, and her dark eyes narrowed. She drummed her nails on the tabletop exactly once, slowly, as if contemplating a decision. A smirk touched her mouth. “So you’re the infamous Dresden.” Her eyes went past me, to Karrin. Ascher was a foot taller than she was. “And this is your bodyguard? Seriously? Aren’t they supposed to be a little bigger?”
“She represents the Lollipop Guild,” I replied. “She’ll represent them right through the front and out the back of your skull if you don’t show a little respect.”
“I’d like to see her try,” Ascher said.
“You won’t see it,” Karrin said softly.
The room got quiet and intent for a moment, though I never heard Karrin move. I knew she’d be standing there, not looking directly at anyone, watching everyone. That’s a scary look, if you know what really dangerous people look like. Ascher did. I saw the tension start at her neck and shoulders, and make her clench her jaw.
“Easy, Hannah,” Binder said, his tone soothing. He knew what Karrin could do on a fast draw. She’d dispatched some of his minions for him the last time he’d been in town. “Dresden’s given a truce. We’re all professionals here, right? Easy.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Nicodemus said in a patiently strained paternal tone. He went to the head of the table, of course, and seated himself. “Can we please settle down and get to work?”
“Fine with me,” I said, not looking away from Ascher and Binder, until Ascher finally sniffed and returned to her seat.
“Would you care to sit, Miss Murphy?” Nicodemus asked.
“I’m fine,” Karrin said.
“As you wish,” he said easily. “Deirdre?”
Deirdre picked up an armful of folders and came around the table, passing them out to everyone seated. She rather pointedly skipped Karrin, who ignored her. I opened my rather thin folder, and found a cover page that read: DAY ONE.
“Everyone here knows the general objective,” Nicodemus said, “though I’m going to be leaving specific details vague, for the time being. I trust that I need not emphasize the need for secrecy to anyone here. Our target has a great many ways of gathering information, and if he gets wind of our venture from any of them, it will certainly come to an abrupt and terminal conclusion for all of us.”
“Keep your mouth shut,” I said, loudly enough to be a little annoying. “Got it.”
Nicodemus gave me that not-smile again. “In order to make clear to you all the potential gains to be had in this enterprise, you shall each be paid two million dollars upon our successful removal of my particular goal, guaranteed.”
Karrin’s breath stopped for a second. My stomach did an odd thing.
Man. Two million dollars.
I mean, I wasn’t gonna take Nicodemus’s money. I wasn’t doing this for the money. Neither was she. But neither of us had ever been exactly wealthy, and there were always bills to pay. I mean, stars and stones. Two million bucks would buy you a lot of ramen.
“In addition,” Nicodemus continued, “you are welcome to whatever you can carry away from the target. There is an unfathomable amount of wealth there—more than we could take away with a locomotive, much less on foot.”
“What kind of wealth?” Binder asked. “Cash, you mean?”
Excerpted from "Skin Game"
Copyright © 2015 Jim Butcher.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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