Small FavorJim Butcher
A s war councils go, our meeting was fast and dirty. It had to be.
Afterward I tracked down Murphy. She'd gone back to Charity's sewing room to check on Kincaid.
I stood quietly in the door for a minute. There wasn't much room to be had in there. It was piled high with plastic storage boxes filled with fabric and craft materials. There was a sewing machine on a table, a chair, the bed, and just enough floor space to let you get to them. I'd been laid up in this room before. It was a comforting sort of place, awash in softness and color, and it smelled like detergent and fabric softener.
Kincaid looked like the Mummy's stunt double. He had an IV in his arm, and there was a unit of blood suspended from a small metal stand beside his bed-courtesy of Marcone's rogue medical facilities, I supposed.
Murphy sat beside the bed, looking worried. I'd seen the expression on her face before, when I'd been the one lying horizontal. I expected to feel a surge of jealousy, but it didn't happen. I just felt bad for Murph.
"How is he?" I asked her.
"This is his third unit of blood," Murphy said. "His color's better. His breathing is steadier. But he needs a doctor. Maybe we should call Butters. "
"If we do, he's just going to look at us, do his McCoy impersonation, and tell you, 'Dammit, Murphy. I'm a medical examiner, not a pasta chef. '"
Murphy choked out a little sound that was as much sob as chuckle.
I stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder. "Michael says he's going to make it. "
She sat stiffly underneath my hand. "He isn't a doctor. "
"But he has very good contacts. "
Kincaid shuddered, and his breath rasped harshly for several seconds.
Murphy's shoulder went steely with tension.
The wounded man's breathing steadied again.
"Hey," I said quietly. "Easy. "
She shook her head. "I hate this. "
"He's tougher than you or me," I said quietly.
"That's not what I mean. "
I remained silent, waiting for her to speak.
"I hate feeling like this. I'm fucking terrified, and I hate it. " The muscles in her jaw tensed. "This is why I don't want to get involved anymore. It hurts too much. "
I squeezed her shoulder gently. "Involved, huh?"
"No," she said. Then she shook her head. "Yes. I don't know. It's complicated, Harry. "
"Caring about someone isn't complicated," I said. "It isn't easy. But it isn't complicated, either. Kinda like lifting the engine block out of a car. "
She gave me an oblique glance. "Leave it to a man to describe intimate relationships in terms of automotive mechanics. "
"Yeah. I was kinda proud of that one, myself. "
She huffed out a quiet breath, squeezed her eyes shut, and leaned her cheek down onto my hand. "The stupid part," she said, "is that he isn't interested in. . . in getting serious. We get along. We have fun together. For him, that's enough. And it's so stupid for me to get hung up on him. "
I didn't think it was all that stupid. Murph didn't want to get too close, let herself be too vulnerable. Kincaid didn't want that kind of relationship either-which made him safe. It made it all right for her to care.
It also explained why she and I had never gotten anywhere.
In the event that you haven't figured it out, I'm not the kind of person to be casually involved in much of anything.
I couldn't fit any of that into words, though. So I just leaned down and kissed the top of her head gently.
She shivered. Her tears made wet, cool spots on the back of my hand. I knelt. It put my head more or less on level with hers, where she sat beside the bed. I put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her against me. I still didn't say anything. For Murph, that would be too much like I was actually in the room, seeing her cry. So she pretended that she wasn't crying and I pretended that I didn't notice.
She didn't cry for long. A couple of minutes. Then her breathing steadied, and I could feel her asserting control again. A minute more and she sat up and away from me. I let her.
"They said you were under the influence," she said, her tone calmer, more businesslike. "That someone had done something to your head. Your apprentice said that. But Michael didn't want to say anything in front of the other wizard, I could tell. And no one wanted to say anything in front of me. "
"Secrets get to be a habit," I said quietly. "And Molly was right. "
Murphy nodded. "She said that we should listen for the first words out of your mouth when you woke up. That if something had messed with your mind, your subconscious might be able to communicate that way, while you were on the edge of sleep. And you told us to listen to her. "
I thought about it and pursed my lips. "Huh. I did. Guess I'm smarter than I thought. "
"They shouldn't have suspected you," Murphy said. "I'm a paranoid bitch, and I gave up suspecting you a long time ago. "
"They had a good reason," I said. I took a slow breath. It was hard, but I forced the words out. "Nicodemus threw one of those coins at Michael's kid. I grabbed it before the kid could. And I had a photocopy of a Fallen angel living in my head for several years, trying to talk me into picking up the coin and letting the rest of it into me. "
Murphy glanced obliquely at me. "You mean. . . you could have become one of those things?"
"Yeah," I said. "Couple of times, it was close. "
"Is it still. . . Is that what. . . ?"
I shook my head. "It's gone now. She's gone now. I guess the whole time she was trying to change me, I was trying to change her right back. And in the Raith Deeps last year, she took a psychic bullet for me-at the very end, after everyone else had gotten out. " I shrugged. "I had. . . We'd sort of become friends, Murph. I'd gotten used to having her around. " I glanced at her and gave her a faint smile. "Crazy, huh? Get all broken up over what was essentially my imaginary friend. "
Her fingers found my hand and squeezed tight once. "We're all imaginary friends to one another, Harry. " She sat with me for a moment, and then gave me a shrewd glance. "You never told Michael the details. "
I shook my head. "I don't know why. "
"I do," she said. "You remember when Kravos stuck his fingers in my brain?"
I shuddered. He'd been impersonating me when he did it. "Yeah. "
"You said it caused some kind of damage. What did you call it?"
"Psychic trauma," I said. "Same thing happens when a loved one dies, during big emotional tragedies, that kind of thing. Takes a while to get over it. "
"But you do get over it," Murph said. "Dresden, it seems to me that you'd lock yourself up pretty tight if someone took a regular bullet for you with a regular body. Much less if you were under psychic attack and this imaginary friend died right inside your own brain. Something like that happens, shouldn't you have expected to be a basket case, at least for a little while?"
I frowned, staring down at my hands. "I never even considered that. "
She snorted gently. "There's a surprise. Dresden forgets that he's not invincible. "
She had a point there.
"This plan of yours," she said. "Do you really think it's going to work?"
"I think I've got to try it. " I took a deep breath. "I don't think you should be involved in this one, Murph. The Denarians have human followers. Fanatic ones. "
"You think we're going to have to kill some of them," Murphy said.
"I think we probably won't have much choice," I said. "Besides that, I wouldn't put it past them to send someone here for spite, win or lose. "
Murphy glanced up at me rather sharply.
I shrugged. "They know that Michael and Sanya and I are going to be out there. They'll know that there will be someone here, unprotected. Whether or not they get the coins, Nicodemus might send someone here to finish off the wounded. "
Murphy stared at me for a seco
nd, then looked back at Kincaid. "You bastard," she said without emphasis.
"I'm not playing big brother with you, Karrin," I replied. "But we are dealing with some very bad people. Molly's staying with Kincaid. I'm leaving Mouse here too. I'd appreciate it if someone with a little more experience was here to give the kid some direction, if it was needed. "
She scowled at Kincaid. Then she said, "Trying to guilt me into playing worried girlfriend, domestic defender, and surrogate mother figure, eh?"
"I figured it would work better than telling you to shut up and get into the kitchen. "
She took a deep breath, studying the sleeping man. Then she reached out and touched his hand. She stood and faced me. "No. I'm coming with you. "
I grunted, rising. "You sure?"
"The girl is important to him," Murphy said. "More important to him than anything has been for a long time, Harry. He'd die to protect her. If he was conscious, he'd be demanding to go with you. But he can't do that. So I'll have to do it for him. "
"Could be real messy, Murph. "
She nodded. "I'll worry about that after the girl is safe. "
There was a clock ticking quietly on the wall. "The meeting's in an hour. "
Murphy nodded and reached for her coat. The tears were gone, and there was no evidence of them in the lines of her face. "You'd better excuse me, then. If we're going to have an evening out, I need to change into something more comfortable. "
"I never tell a lady how to accessorize. "
Going forth to do battle with the forces of darkness is one thing. Doing it in a pair of borrowed sweatpants and an ill-fitting T-shirt is something else entirely. Fortunately, Molly had been thoughtful enough to drop my own clothes into the washer, bless her heart. I could forgive her for the pot roast.
In the laundry room I had skinned out of Michael's clothes and was in the act of pulling up my jeans when Luccio opened the door and leaned in, her expression excited. "Dresden. I think I know wh-Oh. "
I jerked my jeans the rest of the way up and closed them as hurriedly as I could without causing any undue discomfort. "Oh. Um. Excuse me," I said.
Luccio smiled, the dimples in her cheeks making her look not much older than Molly. She didn't blush. Instead she folded her arms and leaned one shoulder on the door frame, her dark eyes taking me in with evident pleasure. "Oh, not at all, Dresden. Not at all. "
I paused and returned her look for a moment. "Aren't you supposed to be embarrassed, apologize, and quietly leave?"
Her smile widened lazily, and she shrugged a shoulder. "When I was a girl, perhaps. But even then I had difficulty forcing myself to act awkward when looking at something that pleased me. " She tilted her head and moved toward me. She reached out and rested her fingertips very lightly against a scar on my upper arm. She traced its outline and glanced up at me, lifting an eyebrow.
"Bullet wound," I said. "FBI werewolves. "
She nodded. Then her fingers touched the hollow of my throat and slid slowly down over my chest and belly in a straight line. A shuddering sensation of heat fluttered through my skin in the wake of her fingertips. She looked up at me again.
"Hook knife," I said. "Sorcerer tried to filet me at the Field Museum. "
Her touch trailed down my bare arms, lingering on my forearms, near my wrists, avoiding the red, scalded skin around my left wrist.
"Thorn manacles," I said. "From when Madrigal Raith tried to sell me on eBay. "
She lifted my scarred left hand between hers, fingers stroking over the maimed flesh. These days I could move it pretty well, most of the time, and it didn't look like some kind of hideous, half-melted wax image of a hand anymore, but it still wasn't pretty. "A scourge of Black Court vampires had a Renfield that got creative. Had a homemade flamethrower. "
She shook her head. "I know men centuries older than you who have not collected so many scars. "
"Maybe they lived that long because they were smart enough not to get them," I said.
She flashed me that grin again. At close range it was devastating, and her eyes looked even darker.
"Anastasia," I said quietly, "in a few minutes we're going to go do something that might get us killed. "
"Yes, Harry. We are," she said.
I nodded. "But that's not until a few minutes from now. "
Her eyes smoldered. "No. No, it isn't. "
I lifted my still-tingling right hand to gently cup the line of her jaw, and leaned down to press my mouth to hers.
She let out a quiet, satisfied little moan and melted against me, her body pressing full-length to mine, returning the kiss with slow, sensuous intensity. I felt her slide the fingers of one hand into my hair, while the nails of the other wandered randomly over my chest and arm, barely touching. It left a trail of fire in my flesh, and I found myself sinking the fingers of my right hand into the soft curls of her hair, drawing her more deeply into the kiss.
I don't know how long that went on, but it wound down deliciously. By the time she drew her mouth away from mine, both of us were breathing harder, and my heart was pounding out a rapid beat against my chest. And against my jeans.
She didn't open her eyes for five or ten seconds, and when she did, they were absolutely huge and molten with desire. Anastasia leaned her head back and arched in a slow stretch, letting out a long, low, pleased sigh.
"You don't mind?" I asked her.
"Not at all. "
"Good. I just. . . wanted to see what that was like. It's been a long time since I kissed anyone. Almost forgot what it was like. "
"You have no idea," she murmured, "how long it has been since I've kissed a man. I wasn't sure I remembered how. "
I let out a quiet laugh.
Her dimples returned. "Good," she said, satisfaction in her tone. She looked me up and down, taking in the sights again. This time it didn't make me feel self-conscious. "You have a good smile. You should show it more often. "
"Once we're done tonight," I said, "maybe we could talk about that. Over dinner. "
Her smile widened, and color touched her cheeks. "That would please me. "
"Good," I said. I arched an eyebrow at her. "I'll put my shirt on now, if that's all right. "
Anastasia let out a merry laugh and stepped back from me, though she didn't lift her fingertips from my skin until the distance forced her to do it. "Very well, Warden. As you were. "
"Why, thank you, Captain. " I tugged the rest of my clothes back on. "What were you going to tell me?"
"Hmmm?" she said. "Oh, ah, yes. Before I was so cleverly distracted. I think I know where the Denarians are holding the Archive. "
I blinked. "You got through with a tracking spell?"
She shook her head. "No, it failed miserably. So I was forced to resort to the use of my brain. " She opened a hard-sided leather case hanging from her sword belt. She withdrew a plastic tube from it, opened one end, and withdrew a roll of papers. She thumbed through them, found one, and put the rest back. She unfolded the paper into what looked like a map, and laid it out on the lid of the dryer.
I leaned over to look at it. It was indeed a map, but instead of being marked with state lines, highways, and towns, it was dominated by natural features-most prominent of which was the outlines of the Great Lakes. Rivers, forests, and swamps figured prominently as well. Furthermore, a webwork of intersecting lines flowed over the map, marked in various colors of ink in several different thicknesses.
Footsteps approached and Molly appeared, carrying a plastic laundry basket full of children's clothing. She blinked when she saw us, but smiled and came over immediately. "What's that?"
"It's a map," I replied, like the knowledgeable mentor I was supposed to be.
She snorted. "I can see that," she said. "But a map of what?"
Then I got it. "Ley lines," I said, looking up at Luccio. "These are ley lines. "
Molly pursed her lips and studied the paper. "Those are rea
"Yeah, we just haven't covered them yet. They're. . . well, think of them as underground pipelines. Only instead of flowing with water, they flow with magic. They run all over the world, usually running between hot spots of supernatural energy. "
"Connect the dots with magic," Molly said. "Cool. "
"Exactly," Luccio said. "The only method that would have a chance of restraining the Archive's power would be the use of a greater circle-and one that uses an enormous amount of energy, at that. "
I grunted acknowledgment. "It would have to be dead solid perfect, too, or she could break loose at the flaw. "
"How much energy are we talking about?" I asked her.
"You might be able to empower such a circle for half an hour or an hour, Dresden. I couldn't have kept it up that long, even before my, ah"-she waved a hand down at herself-"accident. "
"So it would take loads of power," I mused. "So how are they powering it?"
"That's the real question," she said. "After all, the Sign they raised at the Aquarium suggests that they have an ample supply. "
I shook my head. "No," I stated. "That was Hellfire. "
Luccio pursed her lips. "You seem fairly certain of that. "
"I seem completely certain of that," I said. "It's powerful as Hell, literally, but it isn't stable. It fluctuates and stutters. That's why they couldn't keep the Sign up any longer than they did. "
"To imprison the Archive, they would need a steady, flawless supply," Luccio said. "A supply that big would also be able to support a very complex veil-one that could shield them from any tracking spell. In fact, it's the only way they could establish a veil that impenetrable. "
"Ley lines," I breathed.
"Ley lines," she said with satisfaction.
"I know of a couple around town, but I didn't realize there were that many of the things," I said.
"The Great Lakes region is rife with them," Luccio said. "It's an energy nexus. "
"So?" Molly asked. "What does that mean?"
"Well, it's one reason why so much supernatural activity tends to happen in this area," I said. "Three times as many ships and planes have vanished in Lake Michigan as in the Bermuda Triangle. "
"Wow," Molly said. "Seriously?"
"Next summer I think I'll stick to the pool. "
Luccio started tracing various lines on the map with a fingertip. "The colors denote what manner of energy seems to be most prevalent in the line. Defensive energy here. Disruptive force here, restorative lines here and here, and so on. The thickness of the line indicates its relative potency. "
"Right, right," I said, growing excited. "So we're looking for an energy source compatible with the use of a greater circle, and strong enough to keep a big one powered up and stable. "
"And there are four locations that I think are most likely," Luccio said. She pointed up toward the north end of Lake Michigan. "North and South Manitou islands both have heavy concentrations of dark energy running through them. "
"There's plenty of spook stories around them, too," I said. "But that's better than two hundred miles away. If I were Nicodemus, I wouldn't want to risk moving her that far. "
"Agreed. A third runs directly beneath the Field Museum. " She glanced up at me and arched an eyebrow as her voice turned dry. "But I think you're already familiar with that one. "
"I was going to put the dinosaur back," I said. "But I was unconscious. "
"Which brings us to number four," Luccio said. Her fingertip came to rest on a cluster of tiny islands out in the center of the lake, northeast of the city, and the heavy, dark purple line running through it. "Here. "
Molly leaned across me and frowned down at the map. "There aren't any islands in that part of Lake Michigan. It's all open water. "
"Listens-to-Wind gave this map to me, Miss Carpenter," Luccio said seriously. "He's spent several centuries living in this general region. "
I grunted. "I hear a lot of things. I think that there are some islands out there. They were used as bases for wilderness fighters in several wars. Bootleggers used them as a transfer point for running booze in from Canada, back in the Prohibition days. But there were always stories around them. "
Molly frowned. "What kind of stories?"
I shrugged. "The usual scary stuff. Hauntings. People driven insane by unknown forces. People dragged into the water by creatures unknown, or found slaughtered by weaponry several centuries out-of-date. "
"Then why aren't they on the maps and stuff?" Molly asked.
"The islands are dangerous," I said. "Long way from any help, and the lake can be awfully mean in the winter. There are stone reefs out there, too, that could gut a boat that came too close. Maybe someone down at city hall figured that the islands would prove less of a temptation to people if everyone thought they were just stories, and invested some effort in removing them from the public record. "
"That wouldn't be possible," Molly said.
"It might be," Luccio responded. "The energies concentrated around those islands would tend to make people unconsciously avoid them. If one did not have a firm destination fixed in mind, the vast majority of people in the area would swing around the islands without ever realizing what they were doing. "
I grunted. "And if there's that much bad mojo spinning around out there, it would play merry hell with navigational gear. Twenty bucks says that the major flight lanes don't come within five miles of the place. " I thumped my finger on the spot and nodded. "It feels right. She's there. "
"If she is," Molly asked, "then what do we do about it?"
Luccio tilted her head at me, frowning.
"Captain, I assume you already contacted the Council about getting reinforcements?"
"Yes," she said. "They'll be here as soon as possible-which is about nine hours from now. "
"Not fast enough," I said, and narrowed my eyes in thought. "So we call in some favors. "
"Favors?" Luccio asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I know a guy with a boat. "
I rushed around setting up details for the next half an hour. Everyone left to get into position except for me, Molly, and Kincaid. And Mouse.
My dog was clearly upset that I wasn't going to be bringing him along, and though he dutifully settled down on the floor near Molly's feet, he looked absolutely miserable.
"Sorry, boy," I told him. "I want you here to help Molly and warn her about any danger. "
"I got along just fine without you for quite a while," I told him. "Don't you worry about me. "
He rolled onto his back and gave me another pathetic look.
"Hah. Just trying to cadge a tummy rub. I knew it. " I leaned down and obliged him.
A minute later the back door opened, and Thomas came in. "Finally," he said. "I've been sitting in my car so long, I think I left a dent in the seat. "
"I'll live. What can I do to help?"
"Get back in your car and give me a ride to my place. "
Thomas gave me a level look. Then he muttered something under his breath, pulled his keys out of his pocket, and stalked back out into the snow.
"You're horrible," Molly said, grinning.
"What?" I said. "I'm expressing my brotherly affection. "
I shrugged into my coat and picked up my staff. "Remember the plan?"
"Man the phone," Molly said, ticking off each point on her fingers. "Keep my eyes open. Make sure Mouse stays in the same room as me. Check on Kincaid every fifteen minutes. "
At one time she would have been sullen about the prospect of being forced to sit at home when something exciting was under way-but she had grown up enough to realize just how dangerous things could be out there, and to respect her own limitations. Molly was extraordinarily sensitive when it came to the various energies of magic. It was one of the th
ings that made her so good at psycho-mancy and neuromancy. It also meant that when violent personal or supernatural events started happening, she experienced them in such agonizing clarity that it would often incapacitate her altogether, at least for a few minutes. Combat magic was never going to be her strong suit, and in a real conflict she could prove to be a lethal liability to her own allies.
But at least the kid knew it. She might not like it very much, but she'd applied herself diligently to finding other ways to help fight the good fight. I was proud of her.
"And don't forget your homework," I said.
She frowned. "I still don't understand why you want to know about our family tree. "
"Humor me, grasshopper. I'll buy you a snow cone. "
She glanced out the window at the world of white outside. "Goody. " She looked back at me and gave me a small, worried smile. "Be careful. "
"Hey, there were almost twenty of these losers at the Shedd. Now we're down to six. "
"The six smartest, strongest, and oldest," Molly said. "The ones who really matter. "
"Thank you for your optimism," I said, and turned to go. "Lock up behind me. "
Molly bit her lip. "Harry?"
Her voice was very small. "Look out for my dad. Okay?"
I turned and met her eyes. I drew an X over my heart and nodded.
She blinked her eyes quickly several times and gave me another smile. "All right. "
"Lock the door," I told her again, and trudged out into the snow. The lock clicked shut behind me, and Molly watched me slog through the snow to the street. Thomas's military moving van came rumbling through the snow, tires crunching, and I got in.
He turned the heater up a little while I stomped snow off of my shoes.
"So," he said, starting down the street. "What's the plan?"
I told him.
"That is a bad plan," he said.
"There wasn't time for a good one. "
He grunted. "November is not a good time to be sailing on Lake Michigan, Harry. "
"The aftermath of a nuclear holocaust isn't a good time to be sailing there, either. "
Thomas frowned. "You aren't just running your mouth, here, are you? You're serious?"
"It's a worst-case scenario," I said. "But Nicodemus could do it, so we've got to proceed under the presumption that his intentions are in that category. The Denarians want to disrupt civilization, and with the Archive under their control, they could do it. Maybe they'd use biological or chemical weapons instead. Maybe they'd crash the world economy. Maybe they'd turn every program on television into one of those reality shows. "
"That's mostly done already, Harry. "
"Oh. Well. I've got to believe that the world is worth saving anyway. " We traded forced grins. "Regardless of what they do, the potential for Really Bad Things is just too damned high to ignore, and we need all the help we can get. "
"Even help from one of those dastardly White Court fiends?" Thomas asked.
"Good. I was getting tired of dodging Luccio. There's a limited amount of help I can give you if I have to stay out of sight all the time. "
"It's necessary. If the Council knew that you and I were related. . . "
"I know, I know," Thomas said, scowling. "Outcast leper unclean. "
I sighed and shook my head. Given that the White Court's modus operandi generally consisted of twisting people's minds around in one of several ways, I didn't dare let anyone on the Council know that Thomas was my friend, let alone my half brother. Everyone would immediately assume the worst-that the White Court had gotten to me and was controlling my head through Thomas. And even if I convinced them that it wasn't the case, it would look suspicious as hell. The Council would demand I demonstrate loyalty, attempt to use Thomas as a spy against the White Court, and in general behave like the pompous, overbearing assholes that they are.
It wasn't easy for either of us to live with-but it wasn't going to change, either.
We got to my apartment and I rushed inside. It was cold. The fire had burned down to nothing in the time I'd been gone. I lifted my hand and murmured under my breath, the spell lighting half a dozen candles at the same time. I grabbed everything I was going to need, waved the candles out again, and hurried back out to Thomas's car.
"You've got Mom's pentacle with you, right?" I asked him. I had a matching pendant on a silver chain around my own neck-which, other than Thomas, was my mother's only tangible legacy.
"Of course," he said. "I'll find you. Where now?"
"St. Mary's," I said.
Thomas started driving. I broke open my double-barreled shotgun, which I'd sawed down to an illegal length, and loaded two shells into it. Tessa the Mantis Girl had rudely neglected to return my. 44 after the conclusion of hostilities at the Aquarium, and I have rarely regretted taking a gun with me into what could prove to be a hairy situation.
"Here," I said when the truck got within a block or so of the church. "Drop me off here. "
"Gotcha," Thomas said. "Hey, Harry. "
"What if they aren't keeping the little girl on the island?"
I shook my head. "You'll just have to figure something out. I'm making this up as I go. "
He frowned and shook his head. "What about those goons from Summer? What are you going to do if they show up again?"
"If? I should be so lucky. " I winked at him and got out of the Hummer. "The real question is, what am I going to do if they don't show up, and at the worst possible time to boot? Die of shock, probably. "
"See you soon," Thomas said.
I nodded to my brother, shut the door, and trudged across the street and into the parking lot of St. Mary of the Angels.
It's a big church. A really, really big church. It takes up a full city block, and is one of the town's more famous landmarks, Chicago's version of Notre Dame. The drive leading up to the delivery doors in the back of the church had been cleared, as had the little parking lot outside it. Michael's truck was there. The ambient glow of winter night showed me his form and Sanya's, standing outside the truck, both of them wearing long white cloaks emblazoned with scarlet crosses over similarly decorated white surcoats-the Sunday-go-to-meeting wear of the Knights of the Cross. They wore their swords at their hips. Michael wore an honest-to-God breastplate, while Sanya opted for more modern body armor. The big Russian, always the practical progressive, also carried a Kalashnikov assault rifle on a sling over his shoulder.
I wondered if Sanya realized that Michael's antiquated-looking breastplate was lined with Kevlar and ballistic strike plates. The Russian's gear wouldn't do diddly to stop swords or claws.
I'd made some modification to my own gear as well. The thong that usually secured my blasting rod, on the inside of my duster, now held up my shotgun. I'd tied a similar strip of leather thong to either end of the simple wooden cane that held Fidelacchius, and now carried the holy blade slung over my shoulder.
Michael nodded to me and then glanced down at his watch. "You're cutting it a little fine, aren't you?"
"Punctuality is for people with nothing better to do," I said.
"Or for those who have already taken care of the other details," murmured a woman's voice.
She stepped out of the shadows across the street, a tall and striking woman in motorcycle leathers. She had eyes that were the warm brown shade of hot chocolate, and her hair was dark and braided tightly against her head. She wore no makeup, but even without it she was a knockout. It was the expression on her face that tipped me off to who she was-sadness mingled with regret and steely resolve.
"Rosanna," I said quietly.
"Wizard. " She strode toward us, somehow arrogant and reserved at the same time, her hips rolling as she walked. The jacket was open almost all the way to her belly button, and there was nothing but skin showing where it was parted.
Her eyes, however, remained on the Knights. "These two were not a part of the arrangements. "
"And it was supposed to be Nicodemus that met me," I said. "Not you. "
"Circumstances necessitated a change," Rosanna replied.
I shrugged one shoulder-the one bearing Fidelacchius. "Same here. "
"What circumstances are those?" Rosanna demanded.
"The ones where I'm dealing with a pack of two-faced, backstabbing, treacherous, murderous lunatics whom I trust no farther than I can kick. "
She regarded me with level, lovely eyes. "And what is the Knights' intended role?"
"They're here to build trust. "
"Trust?" she asked.
"Absolutely. I can kick you a lot farther when they're around. "
A very small smile touched her mouth. She inclined her head slightly to me. Then she turned to Sanya. "Those colors hardly suit you, animal. Though it is more than agreeable to see you again. "
"I am not that man anymore, Rosanna," Sanya replied. "I have changed. "
"No, you haven't," Rosanna said, those warm eyes locked onto Sanya's now. "You still long for the fray. Still love the fight. Still revel in bloodshed. That was never Magog. That was always you, my beast. "
Sanya shook his head with a faint smile. "I still enjoy a fight," he said. "I simply choose them a bit more carefully now. "
"It isn't too late, you know," Rosanna said. "Make a gift of that toy to my lord and my lady. They will accept you again with open arms. " She took a step toward him. "You could be with me again, animal. You could have me again. "
Something very odd happened to her voice on the last couple of sentences. It became. . . thicker somehow, richer, more musical. The individual sounds seemed to have little to do with meaning-but the voice itself carried a honey-slow swirl of sensuality and desire that felt like it was going to glide into my ears and start glowing gently inside my brain. I was only on the fringe of it, too, and had gotten only a watered-down version of the promise contained in that voice. Sanya got it at full potency.
He threw his head back and laughed, a rich, booming, basso laugh that bounced back and forth from the icy stones of the church and the cold walls of the buildings around us.
Rosanna took a step back at that, her expression showing surprise.
"I told you, Rosanna," he rumbled, laughter still bubbling in his tone. "I have changed. " Then his expression sobered abruptly. "You could change, too. I know how much some of the things you have done disturb you. I've been there when you had the nightmares. It doesn't have to be like that. "
She just stared at him.
Sanya spread his hands. "Give up the coin, Rosanna. Please. Let me help you. "
Her eyelids lowered into slits. She shuddered once and looked down. Then she said, "It is too late for me, Sanya. It has been too late for me for a long, long time. "
"It is never too late," Sanya said earnestly. "Not as long as you draw breath. "
Something like contempt touched Rosanna's features. "What do you know, stupid child. " Her gaze swung back to me. "Show me the Sword and the coins, wizard. "
I tapped the hilt of Shiro's Sword, hanging from its improvised strap over one shoulder. Then I drew the purple Crown Royal bag out of my pocket and held it up. I shook it. It jingled.
"Give the coins to me," Rosanna said.
I folded my arms. "No. "
Her eyes narrowed again. "Our bargain-"
"You can see them after I've seen the girl," I replied. "Until then, you'll have to settle for some jingle. " I shook the bag again.
She glowered at me.
"Make up your mind," I said. "I haven't got all night. Do you want to explain to Nicodemus how you threw away his chance of destroying the Swords? Or do you want to get moving and take us to the kid?"
Her eyes flickered with something like anger, and warm brown became brilliant gold. But she only gave me a small, stiff nod of her head, and said, "I will take you to her. This way. Please. "