Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Changes, Page 8

Jim Butcher

Chapter 19~21

  Chapter 19

  I went to my lab and started cleaning off my summoning circle. I'd knocked a few things onto it in the course of sweeping up anything incriminating. The FBI or Rudolph had added a bit to the mess. I pushed everything away from the circle and then swept it thoroughly with a broom. When you use a circle as a part of ritual magic, its integrity is paramount. Any object that falls across it or breaks its plane would collapse the circle's energy. Dust and other small particles wouldn't collapse a circle, but they did degrade its efficiency.

  After I was done sweeping, I got a new shop cloth and a bottle of cleaning alcohol and wiped it down as thoroughly as if I were planning to perform surgery upon it. It took me about twenty minutes.

  Once that was done, I opened an old cigar box on one shelf that was full of river rocks. All but one of them were decoys, camouflage. I pawed through it until I found the smooth piece of fire-rounded obsidian, and took it out of the box.

  I went to the circle and sat in it, folding my legs in front of me. I touched the circle with a mild effort of will, and it snapped to life in a sudden curtain of gossamer energy. The circle would help contain and shape the magic I was about to work.

  I put the black stone down on the floor in front of me, took a deep breath, straightened my back, and then began to draw in my will. I remained like that, relaxed, breathing deeply and slowly as I formed the spell in my head. This one was a fairly delicate working, and probably would have been beyond my skill before I had begun teaching Molly how to control her own power. Now, though, it was merely annoyingly difficult.

  Once the energy was formed in my mind, I took a deep breath and whispered, "Voce, voco, vocius. " I waited a few seconds and then repeated myself. "Voce, voco, vocius. "

  That went on for a couple of minutes, while I sat there doing my impression of a Roman telephone. I was just starting to wonder whether or not the damned rock was going to work when the lab around me vanished, replaced by an inky darkness. The circle's energy field became visible, a pale blue light in the shape of a cylinder, stretching from the floor up into the infinite overhead space. Its light did not make my surroundings visible, as if the glow from the circle simply had nothing to reflect from.

  "Uh," I said, and my voice echoed strangely. "Hello?"

  "Hold on to your horses," said a grumpy, distant voice. "I'm coming. "

  A moment later, there was a flash of light and a cylinder like my own appeared, directly in front of me. Ebenezar sat in it, legs folded the same way mine were. A black stone that was a twin to my own sat in front of him. Ebenezar looked tired. His hair was mussed, his eyes sunken. He was wearing only a pair of pajama bottoms, and I was surprised at how much muscle tone he had kept, despite his age. Of course, he'd spent the last few centuries mostly working on his farm. That would put muscle on anyone.

  "Hoss," he said by way of greeting. "Where are you?"

  "My place," I said.


  "My wards are down. I've got backup but I don't want to stay here for long. The police and FBI have gotten involved and the Reds have swung at me twice in the past two days. Where are you?"

  Ebenezar grunted. "Best if I don't say. The Merlin is preparing his counterstrike, and we're trying to find out how much they already know about it. "

  "When you say 'we,' I assume you mean the Grey Council. "

  The Grey Council was the appellation that had stuck to our little rogue organization inside the White Council itself. It consisted of people who could see lightning, hear thunder, and admit to themselves that wizards everywhere were increasingly in danger of being exterminated or enslaved by other interests - such as the Vampire Courts or the Black Council.

  The Black Council was mostly a hypothetical organization. It consisted of a lot of mysterious figures in black robes with delusions of Ringwraith-hood. They liked to call up the deadly dangerous demons from outside of reality, the Outsiders, and to infiltrate and corrupt every supernatural nation they could get to. Their motivations were mysterious, but they'd been causing trouble for the Council and everyone else for quite a while. I had encountered members of their team, but I had no hard proof of their existence, and neither did anyone else.

  Cautionary rumors of their presence had been met with derision and accusations of paranoia by most of the White Council until last year, when a Black Council agent had killed more than sixty wizards and infiltrated the Edinburgh facility so thoroughly that more than 95 percent of the staff and security team had gotten their brains redecorated to one degree or another. Even the Senior Council members had been influenced.

  The traitor had been stopped, if just barely, and at a heavy cost. And after that, the Council as a whole believed that there might be a faceless, nameless organization running amok in the world - and that any number of them could actually be members of the White Council itself, operating in disguise.

  Paranoia and mistrust. They had been steadily growing within the White Council, whose leader, the Merlin, still refused to admit that the Black Council was real, for fear that our own people would start going over to the bad guys out of fear or ambition. His decision had actually had the opposite effect on the frightened, nervous wizards of the White Council. Instead of throwing the clear light of truth on the situation, the Merlin had made it that much more murky and shadowy, made it easier for fear to prey upon his fellow wizards' thoughts.

  Enter the Grey Council, which consisted of me and Ebenezar and unspecified others, organized in cells in order to prevent either one of the other Councils from finding out about us and wiping out all of us at once. We were the ones who were trying to be sane in an insane time. The whole affair could backlash on us spectacularly, but I guess some people just aren't any good at watching bad things happen. They have to do something about it.

  "Yes," Ebenezar said. "That is who I mean. "

  "I need the Grey Council to help me," I said.

  "Hoss . . . we're all sitting under the sword of Damocles waiting for it to fall. The events unfolding in Edinburgh right now could mean the end of organized, restrained wizardry. The end of the Laws of Magic. It could drive us back to the chaos of an earlier age, unleash a fresh wave of warlock-driven monsters and faux demigods upon mankind. "

  "For some reason, sir, I always feel a little more comfortable when I'm sitting under that sword. Must be all the practice. "

  Ebenezar scowled. "Hoss . . . "

  "I need information," I said, my voice hard. "There's a little girl out there. Someone knows something about where she is. And I know that the Council could dig something up. The White Council already shut the door in my face. " I thrust out my jaw. "What about the Grey?"

  Ebenezar sighed, and his tired face looked more tired. "What you're doing is good and right. But it ain't smart. And it's a lesson you haven't learned yet. "

  "What lesson?"

  "Sometimes, Hoss," he said very gently, "you lose. Sometimes the darkness takes everyone. Sometimes the monster escapes to kill again another day. " He shook his head and looked down. "Sometimes, Hoss, the innocent little ones are murdered. And there's not one goddamned thing you can do about it. "

  "Leave her to die," I snarled. "That's what you want me to do?"

  "I want you to help save millions or billions of little girls, boy," he said, his own voice dropping into a hard, hard growl. "Not throw them away for the sake of one. "

  "I am not going to leave this alone," I snapped. "She - "

  Ebenezar made a gesture with his right hand and my voice box just stopped working. My lips moved. I could inhale and exhale freely - but I couldn't talk.

  His dark eyes flashed with anger, an expression I had seldom seen upon his face. "Dammit, boy, you're smarter than this. Don't you see what you're doing? You're giving Arianna exactly what she wants. You're dancing like a puppet on her strings. Reacting in precisely the way she wants you to react, and it will get you killed.

  "I t
old you long ago that being a real wizard means sacrifice. It means knowing things no one else does," he said, still growling. "I told you that it meant that you might have to act upon what you knew, and knew to be right, even though the whole world set its hand against you. Or that you might have to do horrible, necessary things. Do you remember that?"

  I did. Vividly. I remembered the smell of the campfire we'd been sitting beside at the time. I nodded.

  "Here's where you find out who you are," he said, his voice harsh and flat. "There's a lot of work to do, and no time to do it, let alone waste it arguing with you over something you should know by now. " He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath, as if bringing himself back under control. "Meet me at the Toronto safe house in twelve hours. " He spoke in a voice of absolute authority, something I'd heard from him only a handful of times in my life. He expected his order to be obeyed.

  I turned my head from him. In the edge of my vision, I saw him scowl again, reach down, and pick up his own black stone - and suddenly I was sitting on the floor of my lab again.

  I picked up my sending stone wearily and slipped it into my pocket. Then I just lay back on the floor, breaking the circle as I did, and stared up at the ceiling for a little while. I turned my head to my left, and spotted the green, extra-thick three-ring binder where I stored all my files on entities I could summon from the Nevernever.


  I looked away from the book. When you call things up for information, you've got to pay their price. It's always different. It's never been pleasant.

  And the thought frightened me.

  This would be the time those beings had been waiting for. When my need was so dire that I might agree to almost anything if it meant saving the child. For her, I might make a deal I would never consider otherwise.

  I might even call upon -

  I stopped myself from so much as thinking the name of the Queen of Air and Darkness, for fear that she might somehow detect it and take action. She had been offering me temptation passively and patiently for years. I had wondered, sometimes, why she didn't make more of an effort to sell me on her offer. She certainly could have done so, had she wished.

  Now I understood. She had known that in time, sooner or later, there would come a day when I would be more needful than cautious. There was no reason for her to dance about crafting sweet temptations and sending them out to ensnare me. Not when all she had to do was wait awhile. It was a cold, logical approach - and that was very much in her style.

  But there were other beings I could question, in the light blue binder sitting on top of the green one - beings of less power and knowledge, with correspondingly lower prices. It seemed unlikely that I would get anything so specific from them, but you never knew.

  I reached for the blue book, rose, and set about calling creatures into my lab to answer a few questions.

  After three hours of conjuring and summoning, I came up with absolutely nothing. I had spoken with nature spirits in the shape of a trio of tiny screech owls, and with messenger spirits, the couriers between the various realms within the Nevernever. None of them knew anything. I plucked a couple of particularly nosy ghosts who lived around Chicago out of the spirit world, and summoned servants of the Tylwyth Teg, with whose king I was on good terms. I asked spirits of water what they and their kin had seen regarding Maggie, and stared into the flickering lights of creatures of sentient flame, whose thoughts were revealed in the images quivering inside them.

  One of the fire spirits showed me an image that lasted for no more than three or four seconds - the face of the little girl in Susan's picture, pale and a little grubby and shivering with fear or cold, reaching out to warm her hands over the fluttering lights of a fire. In profile, she looked a lot like her mother, with her huge dark eyes and slender nose. She'd gotten something of my chin, I think, which gave her little face the impression of strength or stubbornness. She was much paler than Susan, too, more like her father than her mother that way.

  But then the image was gone.

  That was as close as I got.

  I sat down on my stool after three hours of work and felt more exhausted than at any time I could easily recall. I'd gotten nothing that would tell me where she was, nothing that would tell me what was in store for her. Except for the single flicker of knowledge that Maggie was still alive, I'd gotten nothing.

  But even that might be enough. She was still breathing.

  Hang in there, kid. Dad's coming.

  I sat there on the stool for a moment, wearily. Then I reached for a piece of paper, an old pencil, and wrote:


  I need your help.

  It's for a little girl who is being held by bad people.

  Please contact me.

  Harry Dresd -

  Before I'd gotten finished writing my name, the phone rang.

  I'd just made contact with the Archive, with the magically constructed catalog of every bit of knowledge mankind has ever written down. It resided in the head of a teenager, the sum of human learning in the hands of a girl who should have been going to ninth grade this year.

  Knowledge is power, and a couple of years before, the Archive had proved it. As a child not much older than Maggie, she had pitted her magic against the skills of beings with centuries of experience, and come out, for the most part, ahead. She was an unwholesomely powerful child, and while she had always comported herself with the gravity of a woman of forty, I had seen flashes of the child supporting the vast burden of the Archive. I knew what would happen if that child ever decided to take control of how the Archive was administered. It would probably look a lot like that episode of The Twilight Zone with the monstrous little kid with superpowers.

  The phone rang again. I shivered and answered it. We'd run a long line down into the laboratory, and the old rotary phone sat near Molly's desk, benefiting from being on the fringes of such a well-organized place. "Hello?"

  "It's Kincaid," said a man's baritone. Kincaid was Ivy's driver, body-guard, cook, and all- around teddy bear. He was the single deadliest gunman I had ever had the terror of watching, and one of a relatively few number of people who I both disliked and trusted. He had once described the method he would use to kill me, if he had to, and I had to admit that he had an excellent chance of succeeding. He was tough, smart, skilled, and had a mercenary sense of honor - whoever held his contract was his charge, body and mind, and he never abrogated a contract once he had signed it.

  "Dresden," I replied. "This line probably isn't clear. "

  "I know," Kincaid replied. "What do you want?"

  "I need to find a child. She was taken by the Red Court a few days ago. We believe her to be somewhere in Mexico. "

  "Somewhere in Mexico?" Kincaid said, and I could hear his grin. "You tried walking around and yelling her name really loud yet?"

  "I'm getting there," I said. "Look, does she know anything or not?"

  Kincaid muffled the phone with something, probably his hand. I heard his low, buzzing voice as he asked a question. I might have heard a light soprano voice answering him.

  Kincaid returned to the phone and said, "Ivy says she can't get involved. That the business you're on is deadly. She dares not unbalance it for fear of changing the outcome. "

  I made a growling sound. "Goddammit, Kincaid. She owes me one. Remind her who came and took her away from those fucking Denarian lunatics. "

  Kincaid's voice became quieter, more sober. "Believe me, she remembers, Dresden. But she isn't free to share her knowledge like you or me. When she says she can't tell you, she's being literal. She physically cannot let such information leave her head. "

  I slammed the heel of my hand into a wall and leaned on it, closing my eyes. "Tell her," I said, "that this is information I must have. If she can't help me, I'll be taking it up with other sources. The ones in my green notebook. "

  Kincaid spoke with someone again. This time I definite
ly heard Ivy's voice answering him.

  "She can't tell you where the girl is," Kincaid said. There was a hint of steel in his voice, warning me not to push too hard. "But she says she can tell you someone who might. "

  "Any help would be greatly appreciated," I said, exhaling.

  "She says to tell you that before you try the green book, there's something else you might consider. The last man you want to see might have useful information. "

  I understood what she was talking about at once and groaned. "Dammit," I muttered. "Dammit. "

  I dialed another number. A receptionist asked me how she could direct my call.

  "This is Harry Dresden," I said quietly. "Put me through to Mr. Marcone's personal line, please. "

  Chapter 20

  "I don't like it," Molly said, scowling. "You sure you don't want me to go in there with you? He's got people. "

  "Definitely not," I said calmly. "I don't want you showing up on his radar. "

  "I'd like to see him try something," Molly said, clenching one hand into a fist and thumping the Blue Beetle's steering wheel for emphasis. "I'd eat him for breakfast. "

  "No, Molly," I said in a firm tone of voice. "You wouldn't. Marcone might be vanilla mortal, but he's dangerous. Most men have limits. He doesn't. Never forget that. "

  "If he's so dangerous, why are you talking to him?"

  "Because he also has rules," I said. "And besides. I just had to see him here. Keep your eyes open for a third party interfering. I'll worry about Marcone. Okay?"

  "Okay," Molly said, nodding, her eyes intent. In a spectacular bid for the Do as I Say, Not as I Do Award, she took a long pull from an energy drink in a can the size of a milk carton. "Okay. "

  I got out of the Blue Beetle and walked into my meeting with Gentleman Johnnie Marcone, the undisputed gang lord of Chicago.

  Burger King had just opened its dining area, but it was already half-full. I ignored Marcone upon coming in and got in line. A sausage biscuit and cup of coffee later, I went to the back corner where Marcone sat and his retinue stood.

  Hendricks was there, of course, in an extra-large suit and a red-haired buzz cut. Maybe he'd been working out, because he looked like he'd put on a few more pounds. If he got any bigger, he'd need a building permit. Miss Gard stood a little apart from Hendricks, covering the angles the big man couldn't. She was just as blond and athletic and Amazonian as ever, her suit and tie muting her curves without reducing her appeal.

  Marcone sat in the booth as if at a boardroom table. He wore a silk suit probably worth more than my car, and sat with his elbows on the table, his fingertips pressed together into a steeple. He looked like a man in his mature prime, neat and precise from his haircut to his polished leather shoes. He watched me come over to the table and slide my plastic tray into place before me. I dumped four or five packets of sugar into my coffee and stirred it with a little stick. "You're not eating?"

  He looked at his watch, and then at me. He had pale green eyes the color of old bills, but less personal. His stare was unsettling, and he met my eyes without concern. We had already taken the measure of each other's souls. It was why I knew precisely how dangerous the man sitting across the table from me could be, and why I insisted upon treating him in as cavalier a fashion as possible. One doesn't show dangerous predators weakness or fear. It makes them hungry.

  I savored a bite of the biscuit, which was only a reminder of how good a real homemade biscuit and sausage was, but for the sake of my audience, I made sounds of enjoyment as I chewed and swallowed. "You sure?" I slurped some more coffee. "You're missing out on ambrosia, here. "

  "Dresden," Marcone said, "this is aggravating. Even for you. "

  "Yeah," I said, smiling, and took another bite of sausage.

  Hendricks made a growling sound.

  I finished chewing and said, "You sure about that, big guy?"

  "Hendricks," Marcone said.

  Hendricks subsided.

  I nodded. Then I said, "You have information I want. "

  "Undoubtedly," Marcone said. "What information are you after, and what do you offer for it?"

  "I'm not here to trade baseball cards with you, Marcone," I said.

  "And I am not a charity organization, Dresden," he replied. "I take it this has something to do with your office building exploding. " He shook his head in a gesture of faint regret.

  "Right," I said. "You're all broken up over the destruction. "

  "I didn't order it. I made no money on it. I failed to profit financially or politically from its destruction. And you survived. It was a complete waste. "

  Hendricks made another growling sound that might have been gorilla for a laugh.

  "Maybe it's got something to do with the building. How much do you know about its owners?"

  Marcone's smile was a wintry thing. "That they are a part of the organization whose servitors have been attempting to intrude upon my business. "

  I lifted an eyebrow. "Someone's muscling in on your territory?"

  "Briefly," Marcone said, "but incessantly. "

  "Then we might have a common problem. "

  Marcone looked at me as though I were a rather slow child. "Yes. Hence this meeting. "

  I grunted and finished the biscuit. "The Red Court is on the move. Trouble is being stirred up between them and the Council. My interest in the matter is an eight-year-old girl. The Reds took her from her home. I believe that they're holding her somewhere in Mexico. I need to know where. "

  Marcone's stare went on for several seconds before he said, "Somewhere. In Mexico. That's as specific as you can be?"

  "It's as much as I know," I said.

  "For what purpose was she brought there?"

  "Why does it matter?"

  "If she was taken to be used as a sexual object, she would be in a different place than if she was going to be used as slave labor or harvested as an organ donor. "

  I clenched my teeth and looked away briefly, treated to a number of delightful images by his words.

  Marcone's eyes narrowed. "Who is she to you, Dresden?"

  "My client's kid," I said, struggling to keep my voice level and calm. "I think they're going to use her in some sort of sacrificial ritual. "

  "Then that narrows things considerably," Marcone said. "As I understand the process, rituals such as the one you mention need to happen at a place of power. " He glanced up at Miss Gard, who nodded and immediately left the restaurant, heading for her car. "I suspect I can narrow it down even further for you, Dresden. Let's talk price. "

  "I'm going to use the information to put a major hurting on the people trying to take your territory away from you, Marcone," I said. "That's more than payment enough. "

  "And if I do not agree?" Marcone asked.

  "Then we throw down, right here, and after I toss your attack dogs over the top of the Sears building, I hurt you until you give me the information anyway. "

  That cold smile returned. "Is that how you think it would happen?"

  I shrugged a shoulder and kept my expression bland. "I think there's only one way to find out. " I leaned forward a little and pitched my voice in a conspiratorial murmur. "But just between you and me, I don't think the terrain favors you here. "

  He stared across his steepled fingers at me for a time. Then he said, "It certainly doesn't favor me in the manner I would prefer. " He laid his hands flat on the table and leaned back slightly. "There's no sense in making a confrontation out of this. And I have never yet regretted it when I allowed you to rid me of an enemy. "

  "I didn't do it as a favor to you. "

  He shrugged. "Your motivations are immaterial. The results are what matter. "

  "Just remember that you're on my list, Marcone. Soon as I get done with all the other evils in this town, you won't be the lesser of them anymore. "

  Marcone stared at me with half-lidded eyes and said, "Eek. "

  "You think it's

  "I am not unduly concerned by dead men, Dresden. "

  I bristled. "Is that a threat?"

  "Hardly. One day, probably soon, you'll get yourself killed thanks to that set of irrational compulsions you call a conscience, long before my name tops your list. I needn't lift a finger. " He shrugged. "Giving you information seems an excellent way to accelerate that process. It will also tax the resources of my enemies. " Marcone mused for a moment, and then said, "And . . . I believe I have no objection to contributing against any organization which would victimize children so. "

  I glowered at him. Partly because he was probably right, and partly because he'd once again shown the flash of humanity that prevented me from lumping him in with every other evil, hungry, predatory thing lurking in the wild world. For his own reasons, Marcone would go to extreme lengths to help and protect children. In Chicago, any adult was fair game for his businesses. Any child was off-limits. Rumor had it that he had vanished every single one of his employees who had ever crossed that line.

  Gard reappeared, frowning, and walked over to our table.

  Marcone glanced at her. "Well?"

  Gard hesitated and then said, "He won't speak of it over the line. He says that you have incurred no debt with him for asking the question. He will only speak to Dresden. Personally. "

  Marcone lifted his eyebrows. "Interesting. "

  "I thought so," Gard said.

  "Ahem," I said. "Who wants to meet me?"

  "My . . . employer," Gard said. "Donar Vadderung, CEO of Monoc Securities. "

  Chapter 21

  Gard and I went to Oslo.

  It sounds like it would be a long trip, but it's a hell of a lot faster when you don't have to worry about boarding, clearing security, going through customs, or actually moving a linear distance.

  Gard opened a Way into the Nevernever down near the zoo, simply cutting at the fabric of reality with a rune-etched dagger. The Way took us on a short hike through a dark wood of dead trees, and ended when we emerged in what she said was Iceland. It sure as hell was cold enough. A second Way took us across the surface of a frozen lake, to stop before the roots of a vast old tree whose trunk could have contained my apartment with room to spare for a garage.

  From there, we emerged into what seemed like a cold, damp basement, and I found myself face-to-face with two dozen men wearing body armor and pointing sleek- looking, high-tech assault rifles at the end of my nose.

  I did absolutely nothing. Carefully.

  One of the men with guns said something, a short phrase in a language I didn't understand. Gard answered in what I presumed to be the same tongue, and gestured to me.

  The leader of the guards eyed us both suspiciously for a moment, then said something quietly and all the rifles stopped pointing at me. Two guards returned to stand on either side of a doorway. Two more took up a station facing Gard and me, evidently cautious about getting more company through the same Way we'd just used. The rest returned to a couple of card tables and a few sleeping cots.

  Gard shook her head and muttered, "Einherjar. Give them a little sip of renewed mortality, and four thousand years of discipline go right out the window. "

  "I recognize some of these guys," I said. I nodded toward a trio playing cards. "Those three. They were some of the mercenaries Marcone brought to that party in the Raith Deeps. "

  Gard glanced at the three and then rolled her eyes. "Yes. And?"

  "And they're just available for hire?" I asked.

  "If you can afford them," Gard said, smiling so that her teeth showed. "Though be warned that prices may vary. This way, Dresden. "

  I followed her out into a hallway and past several rooms filled with enough weaponry to win a minor war in a century of one's choice. Racks of ash-wood spears stood side by side with old bolt-action Mausers, which stood next to modern assault rifles. Katana-style swords shared a room with flintlocks and Maxim guns. One shelving unit housed an evolutionary progression of grenades, from powder-filled crockery with ignitable fuses to the most modern miniature flash-bang grenades. Judging from the variety of the place's contents, it was like looking at a museum - but from the quantities present, it could only be an armory.

  We got to an elevator whose walls were a simple metal grid, so that we could see out of them as we went up. I stopped counting after seeing seven floors of similarly equipped armories go by.

  "Guess your boss believes in being prepared," I said.

  Gard smiled. "It's one of his things, yes. "

  "It's a little extreme, isn't it?"

  She looked at me with an arched brow. Then she said, "One can have only as much preparation as he has foresight. "

  I considered that for a moment, and decided that as cryptic statements went, it was all kinds of bad.

  The elevator kept going up and up and up. Brief views of various floors went by. One floor looked like an enormous gym and was filled with sweating men and women working out. Another looked like an expensive legal office. Another was all done in antiseptic white, bathed with just a bit too much light, and smelled of disinfectant. Another was lit by candles and the murmuring of voices chanting. Still another was obviously some kind of enormous chemical laboratory. Still another level was filled with cells whose occupants could not be seen as anything other than shadowy presences. And so on.

  I shook my head. "Hell's bells. It's like some kind of demented theme park. "

  "The difference being that nothing you see here is meant to entertain," Gard said. "And don't bother asking questions. I won't answer them. Ah, we've reached the ground floor. "

  The elevator continued to rise up through an enormous atrium that housed ten or twelve stories of what looked like high-end corporate offices. Each floor was open to the atrium, and between the plants, decorative trees, the waterfall, and all the windows plus the skylights far above, the entire building looked like a single, massive garden. The sounds of office activity and equipment, birds, and the flowing waterfall all blended together into an active whole that formed a white noise bustling with life, variety, and movement. We soared up through the atrium and our open-sided elevator vanished into a short tunnel.

  A moment later, the door opened on a rather novel reception area.

  It had all the things such offices always did: a prominent desk, several seats in a waiting area, a coffee machine, and a table laden with magazines. In this office, however, all of those materials were made of stainless steel. So were the floors. So were the walls. As was the ceiling. Even the lamps and the coffeepot were made of stainless steel. The magazines alone stood out as shapeless, soft-looking blobs of garish color.

  The logo for Monoc Securities stood out upon one wall, in basrelief, and somehow reminded me more of a crest upon a shield than a corporate marketing symbol: a thick, round circle bisected by a straight vertical line emerging from either side of the circle. It might have been a simplified, abstract representation of an eye being cut from its socket by some kind of blade - I have some of that symbol written in scar tissue on my own face, where a cut had run down from eyebrow to cheekbone but had barely missed my eye. It might have been simple abstract symbology, representing the female and the male with round and straight shapes, suggesting wholeness and balance. Or, heck, it could have been overlaid Greek lettering, omega and iota on top of each other. Omega-iota. The last detail? The final detail? Maybe it meant something more like "every last little thing. "

  Or maybe it combined all of those things: the blind eye that sees all.

  Yeah. That felt right.

  Two women sat behind the big desk at computer monitors consisting of small clouds of very fine mist, wherein were contained all the drifting images and letters of the company cyber-reality, floating like the wispiest of illusions. Sufficiently advanced technology, I suppose.

  The women themselves were, apparently, identical twins. Both had raven-dark hair cut in close-fitting caps, and it matched
the exact shade of their identical black suits. Both had dark eyes that sparkled with intensity and intelligence. They were both pale and their features were remarkable, if not precisely beautiful. They would stand out in any crowd, and not in an unpleasant way, either - but they would never be mistaken for cover models.

  The twins rose as the elevator doors opened, and their eyes looked very intent and very black as they stared at us. I've looked down the barrel of a gun before. This was like looking down four of them at once. They stood there, inhumanly motionless. Both wore headsets, but only one of them murmured into hers.

  I started to step out of the elevator, but Gard put out a cautionary hand. "Don't, until you're approved," she said. "They'll kill you. Maybe me, too. "

  "Like their receptionists tough in these parts, huh?"

  "It would be wiser not to joke," she said quietly. "They don't miss anything - and they never forget. "

  The receptionist who had spoken into her mike flexed one hand slowly closed and open. Her nails peeled up little silver curls from the stainless-steel desk.

  I thought about making a manicure joke . . . and decided not to. Go, go, Gadget wisdom.

  "Do you do oranges, too?" asked my mouth, without checking in with the rest of me. "What about sharpening table knives and scissors and lawn tools? My landlady's lawn mower blade could use a hand job from a girl like y - "

  "Dresden," Gard hissed, her eyes both furious and wide with near-panic.

  Both of the receptionists were focused on me intently now. The one who had remained silent shifted her weight, as though preparing to take a step.

  "Come on, Sigrun," I said to my companion. "I'm trying to be diplomatic. The wisdom of my ass is well-known. If I didn't lip off to them, after shooting my mouth off to faerie queens and Vampire Courts - plural, Courts - demigods and demon lords, they might get their feelings hurt. "

  Gard eyed me for a moment more, before her uncertain blue eyes gained a gleam of devil-may-care defiance. It looked a lot more natural on her than fear. "Perhaps your insults and insolence are not the valued commodities you believe them to be. "

  "Heh," I said. "Good one. "

  The chatty twin tilted her head slightly to one side for a moment, then said, "Right away, sir. " She pointed her fingernail at me. "You are to enter the office through the doors behind me. " She aimed her nail at Gard next. "You are to accompany him and make introductions. "

  Gard nodded shortly and then tilted her head in a "come along" sort of gesture. We walked out of the elevator and past the twins to the door behind them. They turned their heads as I went by, tracking my every movement. It was downright creepy.

  On the other side of the door was a long hallway, also made of stainless steel. There were multiple ports or hatches of some kind in a row along the walls, all closed. They were about the size of dinner plates. I got a feeling that any visitors who tried the hors d'oeuvres served up from those plates would not be asking for the recipe later in the evening.

  At the end of the hall was another set of steel doors, which gave way soundlessly before us, revealing another room done all in stainless steel, holding only a massive desk behind which was seated a man.

  Donar Vadderung sat with his chin propped on the heel of his hand, squinting at a holographic computer display, and the first thing my instincts did was warn me that he was very, very dangerous.

  He wasn't all that imposing to look at. A man in good shape, maybe in his early fifties. Lean and spare, in the way of long-distance runners, but too heavy in the shoulders and arms for that to be all he did. His hair was long for a man, and just a bit shaggy. It was the color of a furious thundercloud, and his eye was ice blue. A black cloth patch over the other eye combined with a vertical scar similar to my own made me think that I'd been right about the corporate logo. He kept a short, neat beard. He was a striking-looking rogue, particularly with the eye patch, and looked like the sort of person who might have served thirty years of a triple life sentence and managed to talk the parole board into setting him free - probably to their eventual regret.

  "Sigrun," he said, his tone polite.

  Gard went down to one knee and bowed her head. There was no hesitation whatsoever to the woman's movements - the gesture was not simply a technicality she had to observe. She believed that Vadderung merited such obeisance.

  "My lord," Gard said. "I've brought the wizard, as you commanded. "

  "Well done," the grey-haired man said, and made a gesture to indicate that she should rise. I don't think she saw it, with her head bowed like that, but she reacted to it anyway, and stood up. Maybe they'd just had a few hundred years to practice.

  "My lord. May I present Harry Dresden, wizard and Warden of the White Council of wizards. "

  I nodded to Vadderung.

  "Wizard, this is Donar Vadderung, CEO of Monoc Secur - "

  "I think I've got a pretty good idea what he's in charge of," I said quietly.

  The old man's mouth turned faintly up at the corners when I spoke. He gestured to a steel chair across the desk from him. "Please. Sit down. "

  I pointed at the holographic display. "You sure you want to put that at risk? If I stand too close to it . . . "

  Vadderung turned his face up to the ceiling and barked out a laugh of genuine amusement. "I'll take my chances. "

  "Suits me," I said. I walked over to the desk and sat down in the steel chair across from Vadderung's. It didn't have a cushion or anything, but it was surprisingly comfortable nonetheless.

  "Coffee?" he asked me. "Something to eat?"

  I paused for a breath to think before answering. Duties such as this involved the obligations and responsibilities of guest to host and vice versa. If Vadderung was who I thought he was, he had been known, from time to time, to go forth and test people on how well they upheld that particular tradition - with generous rewards for the faithful, and hideous demises for the miserly, callous, or cruel.

  In the supernatural world, such obligations and limits seem to be of vital importance to the overwhelming number of supernatural beings. I'm not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the thresholds of protective energy that form around a home.

  "Only if it isn't too much trouble," I said.

  "And something to eat," Vadderung told Gard.

  She bowed her head and said, "My lord. " Then she padded out.

  Though the big man hadn't stood up, I realized that he was big. Damned near a giant, really. Standing, he'd have more than a couple inches on me, and his shoulders made mine look about as wide as the spine of a book. He rested his chin on the heel of his hand again and studied me with his bright blue eye.

  "Well," he said. "I take it you believe you know who I am. "

  "I've got a few guesses," I said. "I think they're good ones. Sigrun was kind of a tip-off. But honestly, that's got nothing to do with why I'm here today. "

  The blue eye wrinkled at the corners. "Doesn't it?"

  I frowned at him and tilted my head. "How so?"

  He lifted a hand palm up as he explained. "Someone with enough foresight might, for example, arrange to be in a position to assist a hot-headed young wizard of the White Council one day. Perhaps who I am is directly responsible for why I am here. "

  "Yeah. I guess that could be it," I said. "It's technically possible that your motives for assisting me are altruistic. On the other hand, it's also technically possible that you are speaking with a forked tongue, and that all you're really trying to do is find some way to take advantage of me when I'm under pressure. " I shrugged. "No offense intended, but there's kind of a shortage of altruism out there. "

  "So cynical for one so young. " He looked me up and down. "But you would be. You would be. "

  "I've got questions," I said. "Granted, they aren't as profound as 'Who am I?' or 'Why am I here?' but they're a lot more important to me at the moment. "

  Vadderung nodded. "You're looking for your daughter. "<
br />
  I felt my body go rigid. "How . . . ?"

  He smiled rather wolfishly. "I know things, Dresden. And if I don't know something, I can find out. Like yourself, it is what I do. "

  I stared at the man for most of a minute. Then I said, "Do you know where she is?"

  "No," he said in a quiet, firm voice. "But I know where she will be. "

  I looked down at my hands. "What's it going to cost me to find out?"

  "Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢," Vadderung said.

  I jerked my head up in surprise. I stared at the man for a moment. "I . . . "

  "Don't understand?" Vadderung asked. "It isn't complicated. I'm on your side, boy. "

  I raked my fingers back through my hair, thinking. "Why there?"

  "The Red King and his inner circle, the Lords of Outer Night, have got some big juju to brew up. They need a site of power to do it. For this, they'll use Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢. "

  "Why there?"

  "They're enacting a sacrifice. Like in the old days. " A snarl of anger touched his voice, and made it suddenly frightening. "They're preparing a bloodline curse. "

  "A what?"

  "Death magic," he said, "focused upon the bloodline. From the sacrifice, the child, to her brothers, sisters, and parents. From the parents to their brothers, sisters, and parents, and so on. Spreading up the family tree until there's no one left. "

  A chill hit my guts. "I've . . . never even heard of death magic on that kind of scale. The energy required for that . . . It's enormous. " I stopped for a moment and then said, "And it's stupid. Susan was an only child, and she's already lost her parents. Same with me . . . "

  Vadderung arched an eyebrow at me. "Is it? They like to be thorough, those old monsters. "

  I smoothed my expression over, trying not to give away anything. This spell they were doing would kill me, if they pulled it off. It could also kill my only family, my half brother, Thomas. "How does it work?" I asked him, my voice subdued.

  "It tears out the heart," Vadderung said. "Rips it to bits on the way out, too. Sound familiar?"

  "Hell's bells," I said quietly. It had been years since I had even thought about Victor Sells or his victims. They had featured in my nightmares for quite a while until I upgraded.

  Vadderung leaned toward me, his blue eye very bright. "It's all connected, Dresden. The whole game. And you're only now beginning to learn who the players are. " He settled back into his seat, letting silence add emphasis to his statement before he continued. "The sorcerer who used the spell in Chicago before didn't have strength enough to make it spread past the initial target. The Red Court does. No one has used Power on this scale in more than a millennium. "

  "And they're pointing it at me?"

  "They say you can know a man by his enemies, Dresden. " He smiled, and laughter lurked beneath his next words, never quite surfacing. "You defy beings that should cow you into silence. You resist forces that are inevitable for no more reason than that you believe they should be resisted. You bow your head to neither demons nor angels, and you put yourself in harm's way to defend those who cannot defend themselves. " He nodded slowly. "I think I like you. "

  I arched an eyebrow and studied him for a moment. "Then help me. "

  Vadderung pursed his lips in thought. "In that, you may be disappointed. I am . . . not what I was. My children are scattered around the world. Most of them have forgotten our purpose. Once the Jotuns retreated . . . " He shook his head. "What you must understand is that you face beings such as I in this battle. "

  I frowned. "You mean . . . gods?"

  "Mostly retired gods, at any rate," Vadderung said. "Once, entire civilizations bowed to them. Now they are venerated by only a handful, the power of their blood spread out among thousands of offspring. But in the Lords of Outer Night, even the remnants of that power are more than you can face as you are. "

  "I've heard that one before," I said.

  Vadderung just looked at me. Then he said, "Let me help you understand. "

  And a force like a hundred anvils smashed me out of the chair and to the floor.

  I found myself on my back, gasping like a landed fish. I struggled to move, to push myself up, but I couldn't so much as lift my arms from the ground. I brought my will into focus, with the idea of using it to deflect some of that force from me and -

  - and suddenly, sharply felt my will directly in contention with another. The power that held me down was not earth magic, as I had assumed it to be. It was the simple, raw, brute application of the will of Donar Vadderung, Thunder's Father, the Father and King of the Aesir. Father Odin's will held me pinned to the floor, and I could no more escape it or force it away than could an insect stop a shoe from descending.

  In the instant that realization came to me, the force vanished, evaporating as if it had never been. I lay on the floor gasping.

  "It is within my capabilities to kill you, young wizard," Vadderung said quietly. "I could wish you dead. Especially here, at the center of my power on Midgard. " He got up, came around the desk, and offered me his hand. I took it. He pulled me to my feet, steady as a rock. "You will be at the center of their power. There will be a dozen of them, each nearly as strong as I am. " He put a hand on my shoulder briefly. "You are bold, clever, and from time to time lucky. All of those are excellent qualities to have in battles like yours. But against power such as this you cannot prevail as you are. Even if you are able to challenge the Red King at Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢, you will be crushed down as you were a moment ago. You'll be able to do nothing but watch as your daughter dies. "

  He stared at me in silence for a time. Then the door to his office opened, and one of the receptionists leaned in. "Sir," she said, "you have a lunch appointment in five minutes. "

  "Indeed," Vadderung said. "Thank you, M. "

  She nodded and retreated again.

  Vadderung turned back to me, as Gard returned to the room, carrying a covered tray. She set it down on the big steel desk and stepped back, unobtrusively.

  "You've defied fate, Dresden," Vadderung said. "You've stood up to foes much larger than you. For that, you have my respect. "

  "Do you think I could swap in the respect for . . . I dunno . . . half a dozen Valkyries, a receptionist, and a couple of platoons of dead heroes?"

  Vadderung laughed again. He had a hearty laugh, like Santa Claus must have had when he was young and playing football. "I couldn't do without my receptionists, I'm afraid. " He sobered. "And those others . . . would be less strong at the center of the Red King's power. " He shook his head. "Like it or not, this is a mortal matter. It must be settled by mortals. "

  "You're not going to help," I said quietly.

  He went to a steel closet and opened the door, removing an overcoat. He slipped into it, and then walked over to me again. "I've been in this game for a long, long time, boy. How do you know I haven't given you exactly what you need?"

  Vadderung took the lid off the covered tray, nodded to me pleasantly, and left.

  I looked at the tray. A cup of tea steamed there, three empty paper packets of sugar beside it. The tea smelled like peppermint, a favorite. Next to the cup of tea was a little plate with two cake doughnuts on it, both of them covered in thick white frosting and unmarred by sprinkles or any other edible decorations.

  I looked up in time to see Vadderung walk by, trailed by the pair of receptionists, and saw them all simply vanish, presumably into a Way.

  "Well?" Gard asked me. "Are you ready to go?"

  "Just a minute," I said.

  I sat back down. And I drank the tea and ate the doughnuts, thoughtfully.