When it comes to the magical ruling body known as the White Council, Harry is thought of as either a black sheep or a sacrificial lamb. And none hold him in more disdain than Morgan, a veteran Warden with a grudge against anyone who bends the rules. But now, Morgan is in trouble. He’s been accused of cold-blooded murder—a crime with only one, final punishment.
He’s on the run, wanting his name cleared, and he needs someone with a knack for backing the underdog. So it’s up to Harry to uncover a traitor within the Council, keep Morgan under wraps, and avoid coming under scrutiny himself. And a single mistake may cost someone his head.
Someone like Harry...
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The summer sun was busy broiling the asphalt from Chicago’s streets, the agony in my head had kept me horizontal for half a day, and some idiot was pounding on my apartment door.
I answered it and Morgan, half his face covered in blood, gasped, “The Wardens are coming. Hide me. Please.”
His eyes rolled back into his skull and he collapsed.
Up until that moment, I’d been laboring under the misapprehension that the splitting pain in my skull would be the worst thing to happen to me today.
“Hell’s frickin’ bells!” I blurted at Morgan’s unconscious form. “You have got to be kidding me!” I was really, really tempted to slam the door and leave him lying there in a heap. He sure as hell deserved it.
I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing, though.
“You need to get your head examined,” I muttered to myself. Then I deactivated my wards—the magical security system I’ve got laid over my apartment—grabbed Morgan under the arms, and hauled him inside. He was a big man, over six feet, with plenty of muscle—and he was completely limp. I had a hard time moving him, even though I’m no junior petite myself.
I shut the door behind me and brought my wards back up. Then I waved a hand at my apartment in general, focused my will, and muttered, “Flickum bicus.” A dozen candles spaced around the room flickered to life as I pronounced the simple spell, and I knelt beside the unconscious Morgan, examining him for injuries.
He had half a dozen nasty cuts, oozing and ugly and probably painful, but not life-threatening. The flesh on his ribs, beneath his left arm, was blistered and burned, and his plain white shirt had been scorched away. He also had a deep wound in one leg that was clumsily wrapped in what looked like a kitchen apron. I didn’t dare unwrap the thing. It could start the bleeding again, and my medical skills are nothing I’d want to bet a life on.
Even Morgan’s life.
He needed a doctor.
Unfortunately, if the Wardens of the White Council were pursuing him, they probably knew he was wounded. They would, therefore, be watching hospitals. If I took him to one of the local emergency rooms, the Council would know about it within hours.
So I called a friend.
Waldo Butters studied Morgan’s injuries in silence for a few moments, while I hovered. He was a wiry little guy, and his black hair stood up helter-skelter, like the fur of a frightened cat. He wore green hospital scrubs and sneakers, and his hands were swift and nimble. He had dark and very intelligent eyes behind black wire-rimmed spectacles, and looked like he hadn’t slept in two weeks.
“I’m not a doctor,” Butters said.
We’d done this dance several times. “You are the Mighty Butters,” I said. “You can do anything.”
“I’m a medical examiner. I cut up corpses.”
“If it helps, think of this as a preventative autopsy.”
Butters gave me an even look and said, “Can’t take him to the hospital, huh?”
Butters shook his head. “Isn’t this the guy who tried to kill you that one Halloween?”
“And a few other times before that,” I said.
He opened a medical kit and started rummaging through it. “I was never really clear on why.”
I shrugged. “When I was a kid, I killed a man with magic. I was captured by the Wardens and tried by the White Council.”
“I guess you got off.”
I shook my head. “But they figured that since I was just trying to survive the guy killing me with magic, maybe I deserved a break. Suspended sentence, sort of. Morgan was my probation officer.”
“Probation?” Butters asked.
“If I screwed up again, he was supposed to chop my head off. He followed me around looking for a good excuse to do it.”
Butters blinked up at me, surprised.
“I spent the first several years of my adult life looking over my shoulder, worrying about this guy. Getting hounded and harassed by him. I had nightmares for a while, and he was in them.” Truth be told, I still had nightmares occasionally, about being pursued by an implacable killer in a grey cloak, holding a wicked cold sword.
Butters began to wet the bandages over the leg wound. “And you’re helping him?”
I shrugged. “He thought I was a dangerous animal and needed to be put down. He really believed it, and acted accordingly.”
Butters gave me a quick glance. “And you’re helping him?”
“He was wrong,” I said. “That doesn’t make him a villain. It just makes him an asshole. It isn’t reason enough to kill him.”
Butters lifted his eyebrows. “Then why’d he come to you for help?”
“Last place anyone would look for him be my guess.”
“Jesus Christ,” Butters muttered. He’d gotten the improvised bandage off, and found a wound maybe three inches long, but deep, its edges puckered like a little mouth. Blood began drooling from it. “It’s like a knife wound, but bigger.”
“That’s probably because it was done with something like a knife, but bigger.”
“A sword?” Butters said. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“The Council’s old school,” I said. “Really, really, really old school.”
Butters shook his head. “Wash your hands the way I just did. Do it thorough—takes two or three minutes. Then get a pair of gloves on and get back here. I need an extra pair of hands.”
I swallowed. “Uh. Butters, I don’t know if I’m the right guy to—”
“Oh bite me, wizard boy,” Butters said, his tone annoyed. “You haven’t got a moral leg to stand on. If it’s okay that I’m not a doctor, it’s okay that you aren’t a nurse. So wash your freaking hands and help me before we lose him.”
I stared at Butters helplessly for a second. Then I got up and washed my freaking hands.
For the record, surgeries aren’t pretty. There’s a hideous sense of intimately inappropriate exposure to another human being, and it feels something like accidentally walking in on a naked parent. Only there’s more gore. Bits are exposed that just shouldn’t be out in the open, and they’re covered in blood. It’s embarrassing, disgusting, and unsettling all at the same time.
“There,” Butters said, an infinity later. “Okay, let go. Get your hands out of my way.”
“It cut the artery?” I asked.
“Oh, hell no,” Butters said. “Whoever stabbed him barely nicked it. Otherwise he’d be dead.”
“But it’s fixed, right?”
“For some definitions of ‘fixed.’ Harry, this is meatball surgery of the roughest sort, but the wound should stay closed as long as he doesn’t go walking around on it. And he should get looked at by a real doctor soonest.” He frowned in concentration. “Just give me a minute to close up here.”
“Take all the time you need.”
Butters fell silent while he worked, and didn’t speak again until after he’d finished sewing the wound closed and covered the site in bandages. Then he turned his attention to the smaller injuries, closing most of them with bandages, suturing a particularly ugly one. He also applied a topical antibiotic to the burn, and carefully covered it in a layer of gauze.
“Okay,” Butters said. “I sterilized everything as best I could, but it wouldn’t shock me to see an infection anyway. He starts running a fever, or if there’s too much swelling, you’ve got to get him to one of two places—the hospital or the morgue.”
“Got it,” I said quietly.
“We should get him onto a bed. Get him warm.”
We lifted Morgan by the simple expedient of picking up the entire area rug he was lying on, and settled him down on the only bed in the place, the little twin in my closet-sized bedroom. We covered him up.
“He really ought to have a saline IV going,” Butters said. “For that matter, a unit of blood couldn’t hurt, either. And he needs antibiotics, man, but I can’t write prescriptions.”
“I’ll handle it,” I said.
Butters grimaced at me, his dark eyes concerned. He started to speak and then stopped, several times.
“Harry,” he said, finally. “You’re on the White Council, aren’t you?”
“And you are a Warden, aren’t you?”
Butters shook his head. “So, your own people are after this guy. I can’t imagine that they’ll be very happy with you if they find him here.”
I shrugged. “They’re always upset about something.”
“I’m serious. This is nothing but trouble for you. So why help him?”
I was quiet for a moment, looking down at Morgan’s slack, pale, unconscious face.
“Because Morgan wouldn’t break the Laws of Magic,” I said quietly. “Not even if it cost him his life.”
“You sound pretty sure about that.”
I nodded. “I am. I’m helping him because I know what it feels like to have the Wardens on your ass for something you haven’t done.” I rose and looked away from the unconscious man on my bed. “I know it better than anyone alive.”
Butters shook his head. “You are a rare kind of crazy, man.”
He started cleaning up everything he’d set out during the improvised surgery. “So. How are the headaches?”
They’d been a problem, the past several months—increasingly painful migraines. “Fine,” I told him.
“Yeah, right,” Butters said. “I really wish you’d try the MRI again.”
Technology and wizards don’t coexist well, and magnetic resonance imagers are right up there. “One baptism in fire-extinguishing foam per year is my limit,” I said.
“It could be something serious,” Butters said. “Anything happens in your head or neck, you don’t take chances. There’s way too much going on there.”
“They’re lightening up,” I lied.
“Hogwash,” Butters said, giving me a gimlet stare. “You’ve got a headache now, don’t you?”
I looked from Butters to Morgan’s recumbent form. “Yeah,” I said. “I sure as hell got one now.”
Morgan slept. My first impression of the guy had stuck with me pretty hard—tall, heavily muscled, with a lean, sunken face I’d always associated with religious ascetics and half-crazy artists. He had brown hair that was unevenly streaked with iron, and a beard that, while always kept trimmed, perpetually seemed to need a few more weeks to fill out. He had hard, steady eyes, and all the comforting, reassuring charm of a dental drill.
Asleep, he looked . . . old. Tired. I noticed the deep worry lines between his brows and at the corners of his mouth. His hands, which were large and blunt-fingered, showed more of his age than the rest of him. I knew he was better than a century old, which was nudging toward active maturity, for a wizard. There were scars across both of his hands—the graffiti of violence. The last two fingers of his right hand were stiff and slightly crooked, as if they’d been badly broken, and healed without being properly set. His eyes looked sunken, and the skin beneath them was dark enough to resemble bruises. Maybe Morgan had bad dreams, too.
It was harder to be afraid of him when he was asleep.
Mouse, my big grey dog, rose from his usual napping post in the kitchen alcove, and shambled over to stand beside me, two hundred pounds of silent companionship. He looked soberly at Morgan and then up at me.
“Do me a favor,” I told him. “Stay with him. Make sure he doesn’t try to walk on that leg. It could kill him.”
Mouse nudged his head against my hip, made a quiet snorting sound, and padded over to the bed. He lay down on the floor, stretching out alongside it, and promptly went back to sleep.
I pulled the door most of the way shut and sank down into the easy chair by the fireplace, where I could rub my temples and try to think.
The White Council of Wizards was the governing body for the practice of magic in the world, and made up of its most powerful practitioners. Being a member of the White Council was something akin to earning your black belt in a martial art—it meant that you could handle yourself well, that you had real skill that was recognized by your fellow wizards. The Council oversaw the use of magic among its members, according to the Seven Laws of Magic.
God help the poor practitioner who broke one of the Laws. The Council would send the Wardens to administer justice, which generally took the form of ruthless pursuit, a swift trial, and a prompt execution—when the offender wasn’t killed resisting arrest.
It sounds harsh, and it is—but over time I’d been forced to admit that it might well be necessary. The use of black magic corrupts the mind and the heart and the soul of the wizard employing it. It doesn’t happen instantly, and it doesn’t happen all at once—it’s a slow, festering thing that grows like a tumor, until whatever human empathy and compassion a person might have once had is consumed in the need for power. By the time a wizard has fallen to that temptation and become a warlock, people are dead, or worse than dead. It was the duty of the Wardens to make a quick end of warlocks—by any means necessary.
There was more to being a Warden than that, though. They were also the soldiers and defenders of the White Council. In our recent war with the Vampire Courts, the lion’s share of the fighting had been carried out by the Wardens, those men and women with a gift for swift, violent magic. Hell, in most of the battles, such as they were, it had been Morgan who was in the center of the fighting.
I’d done my share during the war, but among my fellow Wardens, the only ones who were happy to work with me had been the newer recruits. The older ones had all seen too many lives shattered by the abuse of magic, and their experiences had marked them deeply. With one exception, they didn’t like me, they didn’t trust me, and they didn’t want anything to do with me.
That generally suited me just fine.
Over the past few years, the White Council had come to realize that someone on the inside was feeding information to the vampires. A lot of people died because of the traitor, but he, or she, had never been identified. Given how much the Council in general and the Wardens in particular loved me, the ensuing paranoia-fest had kept my life from getting too boring—especially after I’d been dragooned into joining the Wardens myself, as part of the war effort.
So why was Morgan here, asking for help from me?
Call me crazy, but my suspicious side immediately put forward the idea that Morgan was trying to sucker me into doing something to get me into major hot water with the Council again. Hell, he’d tried to kill me that way, once, several years ago. But logic simply didn’t support that idea. If Morgan wasn’t really in trouble with the Council, then I couldn’t get into trouble for hiding him from a pursuit that didn’t exist. Besides, his injuries said more about his sincerity than any number of words could. They had not been faked.
He was actually on the lam.
Until I found out more about what was going on, I didn’t dare go to anyone for help. I couldn’t very well ask my fellow Wardens about Morgan without it being painfully obvious that I had seen him, which would only attract their interest. And if the Council was after Morgan, then anyone who helped him would become an accomplice to the crime, and draw heat of his own. I couldn’t ask anyone to help me.
Anyone else, I corrected myself. I’d had little option but to call Butters in—and frankly, the fact that he was not at all involved in the supernatural world would afford him some insulation from any consequences that might arise from his complicity. Besides which, Butters had earned a little good credit with the White Council the night he’d helped me prevent a family-sized order of necromancers from turning one of their number into a minor god. He’d saved the life of at least one Warden—two, if you counted me—and was in far less danger than anyone attached to the community would be.
Me, for example.
Man, my head was killing me.
Until I knew more about what was going on, I really couldn’t take any intelligent action—and I didn’t dare start asking questions for fear of attracting unwanted attention. Rushing headlong into a investigation would be a mistake, which meant that I would have to wait until Morgan could start talking to me.
So I stretched out on my couch to do some thinking, and began focusing on my breathing, trying to relax the headache away and clear my thoughts. It went so well that I stayed right there doing it for about six hours, until the late dusk of a Chicago summer had settled on the city.
I didn’t fall asleep. I was meditating. You’re going to have to take my word for it.
I woke up when Mouse let out a low guttural sound that wasn’t quite a bark, but was considerably shorter and more distinct than a growl. I sat up and went to my bedroom, to find Morgan awake.
Mouse was standing next to the bed, leaning his broad, heavy head on Morgan’s chest. The wounded man was idly scratching Mouse’s ears. He glanced aside at me and started to sit up.
Mouse leaned harder, and gently flattened Morgan to the bed again.
Morgan exhaled in obvious discomfort, and said, in a croaking, dry voice, “I take it I am undergoing mandatory bed rest.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly. “You were banged up pretty bad. The doctor said that walking on that leg would be a bad idea.”
Morgan’s eyes sharpened. “Doctor?”
“Relax. It was off the books. I know a guy.”
Morgan grunted. Then he licked cracked lips and said, “Is there anything to drink?”
I got him some cold water in a sports bottle with a big straw. He knew better than to guzzle. He sipped at it slowly. Then he took a deep breath, grimaced like a man about to intentionally put his hand in a fire, and said, “Thank y—”
“Oh shut up,” I said, shuddering. “Neither of us wants that conversation.”
Maybe I imagined it, but it looked like he relaxed slightly. He nodded and closed his eyes again.
“Don’t go back to sleep yet,” I told him. “I still have to take your temperature. It would be awkward.”
“God’s beard, yes,” Morgan said, opening his eyes. I went and got my thermometer, one of the old-fashioned ones filled with mercury. When I came back, Morgan said, “You didn’t turn me in.”
“Not yet,” I said. “I’m willing to hear you out.”
Morgan nodded, accepted the thermometer, and said, “Aleron LaFortier is dead.”
He stuck the thermometer in his mouth, presumably to attempt to kill me with the suspense. I fought back by thinking through the implications, instead.
LaFortier was a member of the Senior Council—seven of the oldest and most capable wizards on the planet, the ones who ran the White Council and commanded the Wardens. He was—had been—skinny, bald, and a sanctimonious jerk. I’d been wearing a hood at the time, so I couldn’t be certain, but I suspected that his voice had been the first of the Senior Council to vote guilty at my trial, and had argued against clemency for my crimes. He was a hard-line supporter of the Merlin, the head of the Council, who had been dead set against me.
All in all, a swell guy.
But he’d also been one of the best-protected wizards in the world. All the members of the Senior Council were not only dangerous in their own rights, but protected by details of Wardens, to boot. Attempted assassinations had been semiregular events during the war with the vampires, and the Wardens had become very, very good at keeping the Senior Council safe.
I did some math from there.
“It was an inside job,” I said quietly. “Like the one that killed Simon at Archangel.”
“And they blamed you?”
Morgan nodded and took the thermometer out of his mouth. He glanced at it, and then passed to me. I looked. Ninety-nine and change.
I met his eyes and said, “Did you do it?”
I grunted. I believed him.
“Why’d they finger you?”
“Because they found me standing over LaFortier’s body with the murder weapon in my hand,” he replied. “They also turned up a newly created account, in my name, with several million dollars in it, and phone records that showed I was in regular contact with a known operative of the Red Court.”
I arched an eyebrow. “Gosh. That was irrational of them, to jump to that conclusion.”
Morgan’s mouth turned up in a small sour smile.
“What’s your story?” I asked him.
“I went to bed two nights ago. I woke up in LaFortier’s private study in Edinburgh, with a lump on the back of my head and a bloody dagger in my hand. Simmons and Thorsen burst into the room maybe fifteen seconds later.”
“You were framed.”
I exhaled a slow breath. “You got any proof? An alibi? Anything?”
“If I did,” he said, “I wouldn’t have had to escape custody. Once I realized that someone had gone to a lot of effort to set me up to take the blame, I knew that my only chance—” He broke off, coughing.
“Was to find the real killer,” I finished for him. I passed him the drink again, and he choked down a few sips, slowly relaxing.
A few minutes later, he turned exhausted eyes to mine. “Are you going to turn me in?”
I looked at him for a silent minute, and then sighed. “It’d be a lot easier.”
“Yes,” Morgan said.
“You sure you were going down for it?”
Something in his expression became even more remote than usual. He nodded. “I’ve seen it often enough.”
“So I could leave you hanging out to dry.”
“But if I did that, we wouldn’t find the traitor. And since you’d died in his place, he’d be free to continue operating. More people would get killed, and the next person he framed—”
“—might be you,” Morgan finished.
“With my luck?” I said glumly. “No might about it.”
The brief sour smile appeared on his face again.
“They’re using tracking spells to follow you,” I said. “I assume you’ve taken some kind of countermeasure, or they’d already be at the door.”
“How long is it going to last?”
“Forty-eight hours. Sixty at the most.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. “You’re running a fever. I’ve got some medical supplies stashed. I’ll get them for you. Hopefully we can keep it from getting any worse.”
He nodded again, and then his sunken eyes closed. He’d run out of gas. I watched him for a minute, then turned and started gathering up my things.
“Keep an eye on him, boy,” I said to Mouse.
The big dog settled down on the floor beside the bed.
Forty-eight hours. I had about two days to find the traitor within the White Council—something no one had been able to do during the past several years. After that, Morgan would be found, tried, and killed—and his accomplice, your friendly neighborhood Harry Dresden, would be next.
Nothing motivates like a deadline.
Especially the literal kind.
I got in my busted-up old Volkswagen bug, the mighty Blue Beetle, and headed for the cache of medical supplies.
The problem with hunting down the traitor in the White Council was simple: because of the specific information leaks that had occurred, there were a limited number of people who could have possessed the information. The suspect pool was damn small—just about everyone in it was a member of the Senior Council, and everyone there was beyond reproach.
The second someone threw an accusation at one of them, things were going to get busy, and fast. If an innocent was fingered, they would react the same way Morgan had. Knowing full well that the justice of the Council was blind, especially to annoying things like facts, they would have little choice but to resist.
One punky young wizard like me bucking the system was one thing, but when one of the heavyweights on the Senior Council did it, there would be a world of difference. The Senior Council members all had extensive contacts in the Council. They all had centuries of experience and skill to back up enormous amounts of raw strength. If one of them put up a fight, it would mean more than resisting arrest.
It would mean internal strife like the White Council had never seen.
It would mean civil war.
And, under the circumstances, I couldn’t imagine anything more disastrous for the White Council. The balance of power between the supernatural nations was a precarious thing—and we had barely managed to hang on throughout the war with the Vampire Courts. Both sides were getting their wind back now, but the vampires could replace their losses far more quickly than we could. If the Council dissolved into infighting now, it would trigger a feeding frenzy amongst our foes.
Morgan had been right to run. I knew the Merlin well enough to know that he wouldn’t blink twice before sacrificing an innocent man if it meant holding the Council together, much less someone who might actually be guilty.
Meanwhile, the real traitor would be clapping his hands in glee. One of the Senior Council was already down, and if the Council as a whole didn’t implode in the next few days, it would become that much rifer with paranoia and distrust, following the execution of the most capable and highly accomplished combat commander in the Wardens. All the traitor would need to do was rinse and repeat, with minor variations, and sooner or later something would crack.
I would only get one shot at this. I had to find the guilty party, and I had to be right and irrefutable the very first time.
Colonel Mustard, in the den, with the lead pipe.
Now all I needed was a clue.
No pressure, Harry.
My half brother lived in an expensive apartment on the very edge of the Gold Coast area, which, in Chicago, is where a whole lot of people with a whole lot of money live. Thomas runs an upscale boutique, specializing in the kind of upper-crust clientele who seem to be willing to pay a couple hundred dollars for a haircut and a blow-dry. He does well for himself, too, as evidenced by his expensive address.
I parked a few blocks west of his apartment, where the rates weren’t quite so Gold Coasty, and then walked in to his place and leaned on his buzzer. No one answered. I checked the clock in the lobby, then folded my arms, leaned against a wall, and waited for him to get home from work.
His car pulled into the building’s lot a few minutes later. He’d replaced the enormous Hummer that we’d managed to trash with a brand-new ridiculously expensive car—a Jaguar, with plenty of flash and gold trim. It was, needless to say, pure white. I kept on lurking, waiting for him to come around to the doors.
He did, a minute later. He was maybe a hair or three under six feet tall, dressed in midnight blue leather pants and a white silk shirt with big blousy sleeves. His hair was midnight black, presumably to complement the pants, and fell in rippling waves to just below his shoulders. He had grey eyes, teeth whiter than the Ku Klux Klan, and a face that had been made for fashion magazines. He had the build to go with it, too. Thomas made all those Spartans in that movie look like slackers, and he didn’t even use an airbrush.
He raised his dark brows as he saw me. “ ’Arry,” he said in the hideously accurate French accent he used in public. “Good evening, mon ami.”
I nodded to him. “Hey. We need to talk.”
His smile faded as he took in my expression and body language, and he nodded. “But of course.”
We went on up to his apartment. It was immaculate, as always, the furnishings expensive, modern, and oh so trendy, with a lot of brushed nickel finish in evidence. I went in, leaned my quarterstaff against the frame of the front door, and slouched down onto one of the couches. I looked at it for a minute.
“How much did you pay for this?” I asked him.
He dropped the accent. “About what you did for the Beetle.”
I shook my head, and tried to find a comfortable way to sit. “That much money, you’d think they could afford more cushions. I’ve sat on fences more comfy than this.”
“That’s because it isn’t really meant to be sat upon,” Thomas replied. “It’s meant to show people how very wealthy and fashionable one is.”
“I got one of my couches for thirty bucks at a garage sale. It’s orange and green plaid, and it’s tough not to fall asleep in it when you sit down.”
“It’s very you,” Thomas said, smiling as he crossed to the kitchen. “Whereas this is very much me. Or very much my persona, anyway. Beer?”
“Long as it’s cold.”
He returned with a couple of dark brown bottles coated in frost, and passed me one. We took the tops off, clinked, and then he sat down on the chair across from the couch as we drank.
“Okay,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Trouble,” I replied. I told him about Morgan.
Thomas scowled. “Empty night, Harry. Morgan? Morgan!? What’s wrong with your head?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think he did it.”
“Who cares? Morgan wouldn’t cross the street to piss on you if you were on fire,” Thomas growled. “He’s finally getting his comeuppance. Why should you lift a finger?”
“Because I don’t think he did it,” I said. “Besides. You haven’t thought it through.”
Thomas slouched back in the chair and regarded me with narrowed eyes as he sipped at his beer. I joined him, and let him mull it over in silence. There was nothing wrong with Thomas’s brain.
“Okay,” he said, grudgingly. “I can think of a couple of reasons you’d want to cover his homicidal ass.”
“I need the medical stuff I left with you.”
He rose and went to the hall closet—which was packed to groaning with all manner of household articles that build up when you stay in one place for a while. He removed a white toolbox with a red cross painted on the side of it, and calmly caught a softball that rolled off the top shelf before it hit his head. He shut everything in again, got a cooler out of his fridge, and put it and the medical kit on the floor next to me.
“Please don’t tell me that this is all I can do,” he said.
“No. There’s something else.”
He spread his hands. “Well?”
“I’d like you to find out what the Vampire Courts know about the manhunt. And I need you to stay under the radar while you do it.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then exhaled slowly. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I’ve got to know more about what’s going on. I can’t ask my people. And if a bunch of people know you’re asking around, someone is going to connect some dots and take a harder look at Chicago.”
My brother the vampire went completely still for a moment. It isn’t something human beings can do. All of him, even the sense of his presence in the room, just . . . stopped. I felt like I was staring at a wax figure.
“You’re asking me to bring Justine into this,” he said.
Justine was the girl who had been willing to give her life for my brother. And who he’d nearly killed himself to protect. “Love” didn’t begin to cover what they had. Neither did “broken.”
My brother was a vampire of the White Court. For him, love hurt. Thomas and Justine couldn’t ever be together.
“She’s the personal aide of the leader of the White Court,” I said. “If anyone’s in a good position to find out, she is.”
He rose, the motion a little too quick to be wholly human, and paced back and forth in agitation. “She’s already taking enough risks, feeding information on the White Court’s activities back to you when it’s safe for her to do it. I don’t want her taking more chances.”
“I get that,” I said. “But situations like this are the whole reason she went undercover in the first place. This is exactly the kind of thing she wanted to do when she went in.”
Thomas mutely shook his head.
I sighed. “Look, I’m not asking her to deactivate the tractor beam, rescue the princess, and escape to the fourth moon of Yavin. I just need to know what she’s heard and what she can find out without blowing her cover.”
He paced for another half a minute or so before he stopped and stared at me hard. “Promise me something, first.”
“Promise me that you won’t put her in any more danger than she already is. Promise me that you won’t act on any information they could trace back to her.”
“Dammit, Thomas,” I said wearily. “That just isn’t possible. There’s no way to know exactly which information will be safe to use, and no way to know for certain which bits of data might be misinformation.”
“Promise me,” he said, emphasizing both words.
I shook my head. “I promise that I’ll do absolutely everything in my power to keep Justine safe.”
His jaws clenched a few times. The promise didn’t satisfy him—though it was probably more accurate to say that the situation didn’t satisfy him. He knew I couldn’t guarantee her complete safety and he knew that I’d given him everything I could.
He took a deep, slow breath.
Then he nodded.
“Okay,” he said.
About five minutes after I left Thomas’s place, I found myself instinctively checking the rearview mirror every couple of seconds and recognized the quiet tension that had begun to flow through me. My gut was telling me that I’d picked up a tail.
Granted, it was only an intuition, but hey. Wizard, over here. My instincts had earned enough credibility to make me pay attention to them. If they told me someone was following me, it was time to start watching my back.
If someone was following me, it wasn’t necessarily connected to the current situation with Morgan. I mean, it didn’t absolutely have to be, right? But I hadn’t survived a ton of ugly furballs by being thick all of the time. Generally, maybe, but not all the time, and I’d be an idiot to assume that my sudden company was unconnected to Morgan.
I took a few turns purely for fun, but I couldn’t spot any vehicles following mine. That didn’t necessarily mean anything. A good surveillance team, working together, could follow a target all but invisibly, especially at night, when every car on the road looked pretty much like the same pair of headlights. Just because I couldn’t see them didn’t mean that they weren’t there.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I felt my shoulders ratcheting tighter with each passing streetlight.
What if my pursuer wasn’t in a car?
My imagination promptly treated me to visions of numerous winged horrors, soaring silently on batlike wings just above the level of the ambient light of the city, preparing to dive down upon the Blue Beetle and tear it into strips of sheet metal. The streets were busy, as they almost always were in this part of town. It was one hell of a public location for a hit, but that didn’t automatically preclude the possibility. It had happened to me before.
I chewed on my lower lip and thought. I couldn’t go back to my apartment until I was sure that I had shaken the tail. To do that, I’d have to spot him.
I wasn’t going to get through the next two days without taking some chances. I figured I might as well get started.
I drew in a deep breath, focused my thoughts, and blinked slowly, once. When I opened my eyes again, I brought my Sight along with them.
A wizard’s Sight, his ability to perceive the world around him in a vastly broadened spectrum of interacting forces, is a dangerous gift. Whether it’s called spirit vision, or inner sight, or the Third Eye, it lets you perceive things you’d otherwise never be able to interact with. It shows you the world the way it really is, matter all intertwined with a universe of energy, of magic. The Sight can show you beauty that would make angels weep humble tears, and terrors that the Black-Goat-with-a-Thousand-Young wouldn’t dare use for its kids’ bedtime stories.
Whatever you see, the good, the bad, the insanity-inducing—it sticks with you forever. You can’t ever forget it, and time doesn’t blur the memories. It’s yours. Permanently.
Wizards who run around using their Sight willy-nilly wind up bonkers.
My Third Eye showed me Chicago, in its true shape, and for a second I thought I had been teleported to Vegas. Energy ran through the streets, the buildings, the people, appearing to me as slender filaments of light that ran this way and that, plunging into solid objects and out the other side without interruption. The energies coursing through the grand old buildings had a solid and unmoving stability about them, as did the city streets—but the rest of it, the random energies generated by the thoughts and emotions of eight million people, was completely unplanned and coursed everywhere in frenetic, haphazard, garish color.
Clouds of emotion were interspersed with the flickering campfire sparks of ideas. Heavy flowing streams of deep thought rolled slowly beneath blazing, dancing gems of joy. The muck of negative emotions clung to surfaces, staining them darker, while fragile bubbles of dreams floated blissfully toward kaleidoscope stars.
Holy crap. I could barely see the lines on the road through all of that.
I checked over my shoulder, seeing each occupant of the cars behind me clearly, as brilliantly lit shapes of white that skittered with other colors that changed with thoughts, moods, and personalities. If I’d been closer to them, I’d have been able to see more details about them, though they would be subject to my subconscious interpretation. Even at this distance, though, I could tell that they were all mortals.
That was a relief, in some ways. I’d be able to spot any wizard strong enough to be one of the Wardens. If whoever was pursuing me was a normal, it was almost certain that the Wardens hadn’t caught up to Morgan yet.
I checked up above me and—
Try to imagine the stench of rotten meat. Imagine the languid, arrhythmic pulsing of a corpse filled with maggots. Imagine the scent of stale body odor mixed with mildew, the sound of nails screeching across a chalkboard, the taste of rotten milk, and the flavor of spoiled fruit.
Now imagine that your eyes can experience those things, all at once, in excruciating detail.
That’s what I saw: a stomach-churning, nightmare-inducing mass, blazing like a lighthouse beacon upon one of the buildings above me. I could vaguely make out a physical form behind it, but it was like trying to peer through raw sewage. I couldn’t get any details through the haze of absolute wrongness that surrounded it as it bounded from the edge of one rooftop to another, moving more than fast enough to keep pace with me.
Someone screamed, and I dimly noted that it was probably me. The car hit something that made it shriek in protest. It jounced hard up and down, wham-wham. I’d drifted into the curb. I felt the front wheels shimmy through the steering wheel, and I slammed on the brakes, still screaming, as I fought to close my Third Eye.
The next thing I knew, car horns were blaring an impatient symphony.
I was sitting in the driver’s seat, gripping the wheel until my knuckles were white. The engine had died. Judging from the dampness on my cheeks, I must have been crying—unless I’d started foaming at the mouth, which, I reflected, was a distinct possibility.
Stars and stones. What on God’s green earth was that thing?
Even brushing against the subject in my thoughts was enough to bring the memory of the thing back to me in all its hideous terror. I flinched and squeezed my eyes shut, shoving hard against the steering wheel. I could feel my body shaking. I don’t know how long it took me to fight my way clear of the memory—and when I did, everything was the same, only louder.
With the clock counting down, I couldn’t afford to let the cops take me into custody for a DWI, but that’s exactly what would happen if I didn’t start driving again, assuming I didn’t actually wreck the car first. I took a deep breath and willed myself not to think of the apparition—
I saw it again.
When I came back, I’d bitten my tongue, and my throat felt raw. I shook even harder.
There was no way I could drive. Not like this. One stray thought and I could get somebody killed in a collision. But I couldn’t remain there, either.
I pulled the Beetle up onto the sidewalk, where it would be out of the street at least. Then I got out of the car and started walking away. The city would tow me in about three point five milliseconds, but at least I wouldn’t be around to get arrested.
I stumbled down the sidewalk, hoping that my pursuer, the apparition, wasn’t—
When I looked up again, I was curled into a ball on the ground, muscles aching from cramping so tight. People were walking wide around me, giving me nervous sidelong glances. I felt so weak that I wasn’t sure I could stand.
I needed help.
I looked up at the street signs on the nearest corner and stared at them until my cudgeled brain finally worked out where I was standing.
I rose, forced to lean on my staff to stay upright, and hobbled forward as quickly as I could. I started calculating prime numbers as I walked, focusing on the process as intently as I would any spell.
“One,” I muttered through clenched teeth. “Two. Three. Five. Seven. Eleven. Thirteen . . .”
And I staggered through the night, literally too terrified to think about what might be coming after me.
By the time I’d reached twenty-two hundred and thirty-nine, I’d arrived at Billy and Georgia’s place.
Life had changed for the young werewolves since Billy had graduated and started pulling in serious money as an engineer, but they hadn’t moved out of the apartment they’d had in college. Georgia was still in school, learning something psychological, and they were saving for a house. Good thing for me. I wouldn’t have been able to walk to the suburbs.
Georgia answered the door. She was a tall woman, lean and willowy, and in a T-shirt and loose, long shorts, she looked smarter than she did pretty.
“My God,” she said, when she saw me. “Harry.”
“Hey, Georgia,” I said. “Twenty-two hundred and . . . uh. Forty-three. I need a dark, quiet room.”
She blinked at me. “What?”
“Twenty-two hundred and fifty-one,” I responded, seriously. “And send up the wolf-signal. You want the gang here. Twenty-two hundred and, uh . . . sixty . . . seven.”
She stepped back from the door, holding the door open for me. “Harry, what are you talking about?”
I came inside. “Twenty-two hundred and sixty . . . not divisible by three, sixty-nine. I need a dark room. Quiet. Protection.”
“Is something after you?” Georgia said.
Even with the help of Eratosthenes, when Georgia asked the question and my brain answered it, I couldn’t keep the image of that thing from invading my thoughts, and it drove me to my knees and would have sent me all the way to the floor—except that Billy caught me before I could get there. He was a short guy, maybe five six, but he had the upper body of a professional wrestler and moved with the speed and precision of a predator.
“Dark room,” I gasped. “Call in the gang. Hurry.”
“Do it,” Georgia said, her voice low and urgent. She shut the door and locked it, then slammed down a heavy wooden beam the size of a picnic table’s bench that they had installed themselves. “Get him into our room. I’ll make the calls.”
“Got it,” Billy said. He picked me up the way you’d carry a child, barely grunting as he did. He carried me down the hall and into a dark bedroom. He laid me down on a bed, then crossed to the window—and pulled and locked a heavy steel security curtain over it, evidently another customization that he and Georgia had installed.
“What do you need, Harry?” Billy asked.
“Dark. Quiet. Explain it later.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Right.” Then he padded out of the room and shut the door.
It left me in the dark with my thoughts—which is where I needed to be.
“Come on, Harry,” I muttered to myself. “Get used to the idea.”
And I thought about the thing I’d Seen.
It hurt. But when I came back to myself, I did it again. And again. And again.
Yes, I’d Seen something horrible. Yes, it was a hideous terror. But I’d Seen other things, too.
I called up those memories, too, all of them just as sharp and fresh as the horror pressing upon me. I’d Seen good people screaming in madness under the influence of black magic. I’d Seen the true selves of men and women, good and bad, Seen people kill—and die. I’d Seen the Queens of Faerie as they prepared for battle, drawing all their awful power around them.
And I’d be damned if I was going to roll over for one more horrible thing doing nothing but jumping from one rooftop to another.
“Come on, punk,” I snarled at the memory. “Next to those others, you’re a bad yearbook picture.”
And I hit myself with it, again and again, filling my mind with every horrible and beautiful thing I had ever Seen—and as I did, I focused on what I had bloody well done about it. I remembered the things I’d battled and destroyed. I remembered the strongholds of nightmares and terrors that I had invaded, the dark gates I’d kicked down. I remembered the faces of prisoners I’d freed, and the funerals of those I’d been too late to save. I remembered the sounds of voices and laughter, the joy of loved ones reunited, the tears of the lost and bereaved.
There are bad things in the world. There’s no getting away from that. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done about them. You can’t abandon life just because it’s scary, and just because sometimes you get hurt.
The memory of the thing hurt like hell—but pain wasn’t anything special or new. I’d lived with it before, and would do it again. It wasn’t the first thing I’d Seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was not going to roll over and die.
Sledgehammers of perfect memory pounded me down into blackness.
When I pulled myself back together, I was sitting on the bed, my legs folded Indian-style. My palms rested on my knees. My breathing was slow and rhythmically heavy. My back was straight. My head pounded painfully, but not cripplingly so.
I looked up and around the room. It was dark, but I’d been in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light coming under the door. I could see myself in the dresser mirror. My back was straight and relaxed. I’d taken my coat off, and was wearing a black T-shirt that read “PRE-FECTIONIST” in small white letters, backward in the mirror. A thin, dark runnel of blood had streamed from each nostril and was now drying on my upper lip. I could taste blood in my mouth, probably from where I’d bitten my tongue earlier.
I thought of my pursuer again, and the image made me shudder—but that was all. I kept breathing slowly and steadily.
That was the upside of being human. On the whole, we’re an adaptable sort of being. Certainly, I’d never be able to get rid of my memory of this awful thing, or any of the other awful things I’d Seen—so if the memory couldn’t change, it would have to be me. I could get used to seeing that kind of horror, enough to see it and yet remain a reasoning being. Better men than I had done so.
I shivered again, and not because of any memory. It was because I knew what it could mean, when you forced yourself to live with hideous things like that. It changed you. Maybe not all at once. Maybe it didn’t turn you into a monster. But I’d been scarred and I knew it.
How many times would something like this need to happen before I started bending myself into something horrible just to survive? I was young for a wizard. Where would I be after decades or centuries of refusing to look away?
I got up and went into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. I turned on the lights, and winced as they raked at my eyes. I washed the blood from my face, and cleaned the sink of it carefully. In my business, you don’t leave your blood where anyone can find it.
Then I put my coat back on and left the bedroom.
Billy and Georgia were in the living room. Billy was at the window that led out to the tiny balcony. Georgia was on the phone.
“I’m not getting anything out here,” Billy said. “Is he sure?”
Georgia murmured into the phone. “Yes. He’s sure it circled this way. It should be in sight from where you are.”
“It isn’t,” Billy said. He turned his head over his shoulder and said, “Harry. Are you all right?”
“I’ll survive,” I said, and paced over to the window. “It followed me here, huh?”
“Something’s outside,” Billy said. “Something we’ve never run into before. It’s been playing hide-and-seek with Kirby and Andi for an hour. They can’t catch it or get a good look at it.”
Excerpted from "Turn Coat"
Copyright © 2010 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.
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