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Changes, Page 11

Jim Butcher

Chapter 27~29

  Chapter 27

  Thomas supported most of my weight as my injured leg began to buckle, and settled me in one of the chairs in the living room.

  "We can't be here long," he said. "Those two Reds know he's injured and exhausted. They'll be back, looking for an opening or trying to pick one of us off when we're vulnerable. "

  "Right, right," Molly said. "How is he?"

  He crouched down in front of me and peered at me. His irises looked like polished chrome. "Still punchy. "

  "Shock?"

  "Maybe. He's in a lot of pain. "

  I was? Oh. I was. That might explain the way I wasn't talking, I guessed.

  "God," Molly said, her voice shaking. "I'll get some of his things. "

  "This isn't right," Thomas said. "Get Bob. "

  Molly sounded confused. "Get what?"

  His expression flickered with surprise and then went neutral again. "Sorry. Lips disconnected from my brain. Get the Swords. "

  "They aren't here," Molly said, moving around. Her voice came from my bedroom. "He moved them. Hid them, along with his ghost dust and a bunch of other illegal things. "

  Thomas frowned at that and then nodded. "Okay. It'll have to do. Where do we take him?"

  Molly appeared in my field of vision and knelt down to peer at me. She took one of my hands in hers. "Wherever is good, I guess. "

  Thomas took a slow breath. His silver eyes grew even brighter. It was creepy as hell and fascinating. "I was hoping you knew a good spot. I sure as hell can't take him to my place. "

  Molly's voice sharpened. "I don't even have a place," she said. "I still live at my parents' house. "

  "Less whining," Thomas said, his voice cool. "More telling me a place to take him where he won't be killed. "

  "I am - " Molly began. Then she closed her eyes for a second, and moderated her tone. "I am sorry. I'm just . . . " She glanced up at Thomas. "I'm just scared. "

  "I know," Thomas said through clenched teeth.

  "Um," Molly said. She swallowed. "Why do your eyes do that?"

  There was a lengthy pause before Thomas answered. "They aren't my eyes, Miss Carpenter. They're my demon's eyes. The better to see you with. "

  "Demon . . . " Molly said. She was staring. "You're hungry. Like, the vampire way. "

  "After a fight like that?" Thomas said. "I'm barely sane. "

  Both of them should have known better. Every time a wizard looks another person in the eyes, he runs the risk of triggering a deeper seeing, a voyeuristic peep through the windows of someone else's soul. You get a snapshot of the true nature of that person, and they get a peek back at you.

  It was only the second time I'd ever seen a soulgaze happen to someone else. There was an instant where both of them locked their eyes on each other's. Molly's eyes widened suddenly, like a frightened doe's, and she jerked in a sharp breath. She stared at him with her chin twisting to one side, as if she were trying - and failing - to look away.

  Thomas went unnaturally still, and though his eyes also widened, it reminded me more of a cat crouching down in anticipation, just before pouncing on its prey.

  Molly's back arched slightly and a soft moan escaped her. Her eyes filled with tears.

  "God," she said. "God. No. No, you're beautiful. God, you hurt so much, need so much. . . . Let me help you. . . . " She fumbled for his hand.

  Thomas never moved as her fingers touched his. Not a muscle. His eyes closed very slowly.

  "Miss Carpenter," he whispered. "Do not touch me. Please. "

  "No, it's all right," Molly said. "It's all right. I'm here. "

  Thomas's hand moved too quickly to be seen. He caught her wrist in his pale fingers, and she let out a short gasp. He opened his eyes and focused on hers, and Molly began to breathe harder. The tips of her breasts showed against her shirt and her mouth opened with another soft moan.

  I think I made a quiet sound of protest. Neither of them heard it.

  He leaned closer, the motion feline and serpentine at the same time. Molly began trembling. She licked her lips and began to slowly lean forward, toward him. Their lips met, and her body quivered, tensed, and then went rigid. A breathless sound escaped her as her eyes rolled back in her head, and Thomas was suddenly pressed against her. Molly's hips rocked against his. Her hands came up and began clawing at his shirt, tearing the buttons from the silk so that her palms could flatten against his naked chest.

  Mouse hit Thomas like a wrecking ball.

  The big dog's charge tore my brother away from my apprentice and slammed him into the brick of the fireplace. Thomas let out a sudden snarl of pure, surprised rage, but Mouse had him by the throat before he could recover.

  The big dog's jaws didn't snap closed - but the tips of his teeth sank into flesh, and he held Thomas there, a growl bubbling from his chest. My brother's hand flailed, reaching for the poker that hung beside the fireplace. Mouse took note of it and gave Thomas a warning shake, his teeth sinking a tiny bit deeper. My brother didn't quit reaching for the weapon, and I saw the tension gathering in the big dog's body.

  I came rushing back into myself all at once and said, weakly, "Thomas. "

  He froze. Mouse cocked an ear toward me.

  "Thomas," I croaked. "Don't. He's protecting the girl. "

  Thomas let out a gasping, pained sound. Then I saw him grimace and force himself to relax, to surrender. His body slowly eased away from its fighting tension, and he held up both hands palms out, and lifted his chin a little higher.

  "Okay," he rasped. "Okay. It's okay now. "

  "Show me your eyes," I said.

  He did. They were a shade of pale, pale grey, with only flecks of reflective hunger dancing through them.

  I grunted. "Mouse. "

  Mouse backed off slowly, gradually easing the pressure of his jaws, gently taking his teeth out of Thomas's throat. He took a pair of steps back and then sat down, head lowered to a fighting crouch that kept his own throat covered. He kept facing Thomas, made no sound, and didn't move. It looked odd and eerie on the big dog.

  "Can't stay here," Thomas said. The bite wounds in his throat looked swollen, angry. Their edges were slightly blackened, as if the dog's teeth had been red-hot. "Not with her like that. " He closed his eyes. "I didn't mean to. Sorry. "

  I looked at Molly, who was curled into a fetal position and shaking, still breathing hard.

  "Get out," I said.

  "How will you - "

  "Thomas," I said, and my voice was slightly stronger, hot with anger. "You could have hurt Molly. You could have killed her. My only defense is down here babysitting you instead of standing guard. Get out. You're no good to me like this. "

  Mouse let out another warning growl.

  "I'm sorry," Thomas said again. "I'm sorry. "

  Then he eased around Mouse and departed, his feet making little sound as he went up the stairs.

  I sat there for a moment, hurting in practically every sense. My entire body tingled with unpleasant pinpricks, as though it had gone to sleep and was only now feeling the return of circulation. The soulfire. I must have pushed too much of it through me. Terror- adrenaline must have kept me rolling for a little while, but after that, I'd collapsed into pure passivity.

  Terror on behalf of my brother and Molly had given me back my voice, my will, but it might not last. It hurt to sit upright. It hurt to breathe. Moving anything hurt, and not moving anything hurt.

  So, I supposed, I might as well be moving.

  I tried to get up, but my left leg wasn't having any of it, and I was lucky not to end up on the floor. Without being told, Mouse got up and hurried into my room. I heard some heavy thumping as he rustled around under my bed, which had required him to lift it onto his massive shoulders. He came out a moment later, carrying one of my crutches, left over from injuries past, in his teeth.

  "Who's a good dog?" I said.

  He wagged
his tail at me and went back for the other one. Once I had them both, I was able to get up and gimp my way over to the kitchen. Tylenol 3 is good stuff, but it is also illegal stuff to have without a prescription if you aren't Canadian, so it was currently buried in my godmother's insane garden. I took a big dose of Tylenol the original, since I didn't have my Tylenol 3 or its lesser-known, short-lived cousin, Tylenol Two: The Pain Strikes Back.

  I realized that I was telling Mouse all of this out loud as I thought it, which had the potential to become awkward if it should become a habit. Once that was done, and I'd drunk a third glass of water, I moved over to Molly and checked her pulse. It was steady. Her breathing had slowed. Her eyes were slightly open and unfocused.

  I muttered under my breath. The damned girl was going to get herself killed. This was the second time she'd come very close to being fed upon by a vampire, though admittedly the first had been in a vicarious fashion. Still, it couldn't be good for her to be hit with it again. And if Thomas had actually begun to feed on her, there was no telling what it might do to her.

  "Molly," I said. Then louder, "Molly!"

  She drew in a sudden little breath and blinked up at me.

  "You're smearing paint all over my rug," I said wearily.

  She sat up, looking down at herself and at the green paint smeared all over her. She looked up at me again, dazed. "What just happened?"

  "You soulgazed Thomas. You both lost perspective. He nearly ate you. " I poked her with a crutch. "Mouse saved you. Get up. "

  "Right," she said. "Right. " She stood up very slowly, wincing and rubbing at one wrist. "Um. Is . . . is Thomas all right?"

  "Mouse nearly killed him," I said. "He's scared, ashamed, half out of his mind with hunger, and gone. " I thumped her leg lightly with my crutch. "What were you thinking?"

  Molly shook her head. "If you'd seen . . . I mean, if you'd seen him. Seen how lonely he was. Felt how much pain he was in, how empty he feels, Harry . . . " She teared up again. "I've never felt anything so horrible in my life. Or seen anyone braver. "

  "Apparently, you figured you'd help him out by letting him rip the life out of you. "

  She faced me for a moment, then flushed and looked away. "He . . . It doesn't get ripped out. It gets . . . " She blushed. "I think the only phrase that works is 'licked away. ' Like licking the frosting off of a cake. Or . . . or the candy coating off of one of those lollipops. "

  "Except that as soon as you find out how many licks it takes him to get to your creamy center, you're dead," I said. "Or insane. Which is somewhat chilling to consider, given the things you can do. So I repeat. " I thumped her leg with the tip of my crutch on each word. "What. Were. You. Thinking. "

  "It won't happen again," she said, but I saw her shiver as she said it.

  I grunted skeptically, staring down at her.

  Molly wasn't ready. Not for something like we were about to do. She had too much confidence and not nearly enough sound judgment.

  It was frustrating. By the time I had been her age, I had finished my apprenticeship in private investigation and was opening my own business. And I had been living under the Doom of Damocles for the better part of a decade.

  Of course, I had an experience advantage on Molly. I had made my first dark compact, with my old master Justin DuMorne, when I was ten or eleven, though I hadn't known what I was getting into at the time. I'd made a second one with the Leanansidhe when I was sixteen. And I'd wound up under round-the-clock observation from the paranoid Warden Morgan.

  It had been a brief lifetime for me, at that point, but absolutely chock-full of lessons in the school of hard knocks. I had made plenty of dumb decisions of my own by then, and somehow managed to survive them.

  But I also hadn't been dallying around in situations as hot as this one was. A troll under a bridge or an upset spirit or two was as bad as it got. It had prepared me for what I faced today.

  Molly was facing it cold. She'd been burned once before, but it had taken me more than one attempt to learn that lesson.

  She might not survive her next test.

  She looked up at me and asked, "What?"

  "We need to move," I said. "I met the Eebs while you three were playing with the Ik'k' . . . with the Ik'koo-koo-kachoo . . . " I scrunched up my nose, trying to remember the name of the creature, and couldn't. "With the Ick," I said, "and they were charming in an entirely amoral, murderous sort of way. Thomas was right: They'll be after me, looking for an opening. We're going. "

  "Where?"

  "St. Mary's," I said. "The Red Court can't walk on holy ground, and Susan knows I've used it as a fallback position before. She and Martin can catch up to me there. And I've got to get some rest. "

  She rose, nodding. "Okay. Okay, I'll get you a change of clothes, all right?"

  "Call a cab first," I said. "And pack the Tylenol. And some of Mouse's food. "

  "Right. Okay. "

  I leaned on my crutches and stayed standing while she bustled around the room. I didn't want to risk sitting down again. The Tylenol had taken the worst edge off the pain, and my thoughts, though tired and sluggish, seemed to be firmly connected to my body again. I didn't want to risk relaxing into lassitude.

  "Say that five times fast," I murmured, and tried. It was something to do that I couldn't screw up too badly.

  A while later, Mouse made a whuffing sound from the top of the stairs outside, and Molly plodded up them wearily. "Cab's here, Harry," she called.

  I got myself moving. Stairs on crutches isn't fun, but I'd done it before. I took my time, moving slowly and steadily.

  "Look out!" she yelled.

  A bottle smashed against the top interior wall of the stairwell, and its contents splashed all over the place, fire spreading over them as they did. Ye olde Molotov cocktail, still a formidable weapon even after a century of use. There's more to one of those things than simple burning fuel. Fire that hot sucks the oxygen out of the air around it, especially when it has a nice, dank stairway to use as a chimney. And you needn't get splattered by the spilling fuel to get burned. When a fire is hot enough, it'll burn exposed flesh from inches or feet away, turning the atmosphere around it into an oven.

  I was only on the second or third step up from the bottom, but I staggered back before anything could get roasted - been there, done that, not going back. I tried to fall onto my uninjured side, figuring that it deserved a chance to join in the fun, too. I landed more or less the way I wanted to, and it hurt like hell, but at least I didn't faint. I screamed, though, a number of vitriolic curses, as fire roared above me, leaping from my little stairwell to the rest of the house, chewing into the old wood like a hungry, living thing.

  "Harry!" Molly called from somewhere beyond the flames. "Harry!" Mouse let out a heartsick-sounding bay, and I saw fire beginning to climb the sides of the house. The fire was starting from the outside. By the time it started setting off fire alarms, it would be too late to escape.

  At this time of night, somewhere up above me, Mrs. Spunkelcrief was asleep and unaware of the danger. And on the second floor, my elderly neighbors, the Willoughbys, would be in similar straits, and all because they were unlucky enough to live in the same building as me.

  I'd dropped one of my crutches up on the stairs and one end had caught on fire. There was no way I was pulling much in the way of magic out of my hat, not until I'd had food and some rest. Hell's bells, for that matter I didn't know if I could stand up on my own. But if I didn't do something, three innocent people - plus myself - were going to die in a fire.

  "Come on, Harry," I said. "You aren't half-crippled. You're half-competent. "

  The fire roared higher, and I didn't believe myself for a second.

  But I put my hands on the ground and began heaving myself upright. "Do or die, Dresden," I told myself fiercely, and firmly ignored the fear pounding in my chest. "Do or die. "

  The dying really did seem a lot more likely.


  Chapter 28

  I looked up at my apartment's ceiling, hobbling along on my crutch. I found the spot I thought would be the middle of Mrs. S's living room and noted that one of my old sofas was directly beneath it.

  Using the crutch as a lever, I slipped one end of it behind one of my big old bookcases and heaved. The bookcase shuddered and then fell in a great crash of paperback novels and hardwood shelves, smashing down onto my couch. I grunted in satisfaction and climbed up onto the fallen bookcase, using its back as a ramp. I crawled painfully up to the end of the ramp, lifted my right hand, and triggered one of the rings I wore there.

  They were magical tools, created to retain a little bit of kinetic energy every time I moved my arm, and when they were operating at capacity they packed one hell of a lot of energy - and I had freshly charged them up on the punching bag. When I cut loose with the ring, invisible force struck my ceiling, blowing completely through it and through the floor of the room above, tearing at faded carpeting the color of dried mustard.

  I adjusted my aim a little and blew the entire charge out of the ring on the next finger, and another one after that, each one blasting the opening wider, until it was big enough that I thought I ought to fit through it.

  I hooked the padded end of my crutch over the broken end of a thick floor joist and used it to haul myself up to my good leg. Then I tossed the crutch up through the hole and reached up to pull myself through.

  Mister let out a harsh, worried meow, and I froze in place. My cat was still in my apartment.

  I looked wildly around the room for him, and found him crouching in his usual favorite spot atop the highest bookshelf. His hair stood on end and every muscle on him seemed tight and strained.

  I'd already tossed the crutch through. If I went back for him, I might not be able to stand once I'd made it back to the ramp. I had no idea how I'd hold him while climbing up, assuming I could do it at all. Mister weighs the next-best thing to thirty pounds. That's one hell of a handicap on a pull-up.

  For that matter, if the fire spread as quickly as I thought it would, the extra time it took might mean that I wound up trapped with no exit. And there would be no one to help Mr. S and the Willoughbys.

  I loved my cat. He was family.

  But as I stared at him I knew that I couldn't help him.

  "Unless you use your flipping brain, Harry," I snapped at myself. "Duh. Never quit. Never quit. "

  The sunken windows around my apartment were too small to be a means of escape for me, but Mister could clear them with ease. I took aim, used a single charge from my ring, and shattered the sunken window closest to the cat. Mister took the hint at once, and prowled down the tops of two bookcases. It was a five-foot leap from the top of the shelf to the window well, but Mister made it look casual. I felt myself grinning fiercely as he vanished through the broken window and into the cool air of the October night.

  Stars and stones, at least I'd accomplished one positive thing that day.

  I turned, reached up into the opening with my arms straight over my head, and hopped as hard as I could with one leg. It wasn't much of a leap, but it was enough to let me get my arms through and my elbows wedged against either side of the opening. My ribs were on fire as I kicked and wriggled my way up through the hole and hauled myself into Mrs. Spunkelcrief's living room.

  It had last been decorated in the seventies, judging by the mustard yellow carpet and the olive green wallpaper, and it was full of furniture and knickknacks. I dragged myself all the way through the hole, knocking over a little display stand of collector's plates as I did. The room was dimly lit by the growing flames outside. I grabbed my crutch, climbed to my feet through screaming pain, and hobbled farther into the apartment.

  I found Mrs. S in the apartment's one bedroom. She was sleeping mostly sitting up, propped on a pile of pillows. Her old television was on, sans volume, with subtitles appearing at the bottom of the screen. I gimped over to her and shook her gently.

  She woke up with a start and slugged me with one tiny fist. I fell backward onto my ass, more out of pure surprise than anything else, and grimaced in pain - from the fall, not the punch. I shook it off and looked up again, to find the little old lady holding a little revolver, probably a . 38. In her hands, it looked magnum-sized. She held it like she knew what she was doing, too, in two hands, peering down at me through the gun's sights.

  "Mr. Dresden!" she said, her voice squeaky. "How dare you!"

  "Fire!" I said. "Mrs. S, there's a fire! A fire!"

  "Well, I won't fire if you just sit still," she said in a querulous tone. She took her left hand off the gun and reached for her phone. "I'm calling the police. You hold real still or I gotta shoot you. No bluff. This here is a grandfathered gun. Legal and proper. "

  I tried to point toward the bedroom door without moving my body, indicating it with my fingertips and tilts of my head.

  "Are you on drugs, boy?" she said, punching numbers on the phone without looking. "You are acting like a crazy junkie. Coming into an old woman's . . . " She glanced past me, where there was some fairly bright light flickering wildly in the hallway outside the bedroom.

  I kept wiggling my fingers and nodding toward it, desperately.

  Mrs. S's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Fire!" she said abruptly. "There's a fire right there!"

  I nodded frantically.

  She lowered the gun and started kicking her way clear of covers and pillows. She wore flannel pajamas, but grabbed at a blue robe in any case and hurried toward the door. "Come on, boy! There's a fire!"

  I struggled desperately to my feet and started hobbling out. She turned to look at me, apparently surprised that she was moving faster than I was. You could hear the fire now, and smoke had begun to thicken the air.

  I pointed up at the ceiling and shouted, "The Willoughbys! Willoughbys!"

  She looked up. "Lord God almighty!" She turned and hurried down the hall, coming within ten feet of a wall that was already becoming a sheet of flame. She grabbed at something, cursed, then pulled her robe down over her hand and picked up something, using the material as an oven mitt. She hurried over to me with a ring of keys. "Come on! The front door's already going up! Out the back!"

  We both hurried out the back door of the house and into its minuscule little yard, and I saw at once that the entire front side of the house was aflame.

  The stairs up to the Willoughbys' place were already on fire.

  I turned to her and shouted, "Ladder! Where's the ladder? I need to use the ladder!"

  "No!" she shouted back. "You need to use the ladder!"

  Good grief.

  "Okay!" I shouted back, and gave her a thumbs-up.

  She hustled back to the little storage shed in the backyard. She picked a key and unlocked it. I swung the door open and seized the metal extending ladder I used to put up and take down Christmas lights every year. I ditched my crutch and used the ladder itself to take some of the weight. I went as fast as I could, but it seemed to take forever to position the ladder under the Willoughbys' bedroom windows.

  Mrs. Spunkelcrief handed me a loose brick from a little flower planter's wall and said, "Here. I can't climb this thing. My hip. "

  I took the brick and dropped it in my duster pocket. Then I started humping myself up the ladder, taking a grip with both hands, then hopping up with a painful little jump. Repeat, each time growing more painful, more difficult. I clenched my teeth over the screams.

  And then there was a window in front of me.

  I got the brick out of my pocket, hauled off, and shattered the window.

  Black smoke bellowed out, catching me on the inhale. I started coughing viciously, my voice strangled as I tried to shout, "Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby! Fire! You've got to get out! Fire! Come to the window and down the ladder!"

  I heard two people coughing and choking. They were trying to say, "Help!"

  Something
, maybe the little propane tank on Mrs. Spunkelcrief's grill, exploded with a noise like a dinosaur-sized watermelon hitting the ground. The concussion knocked Mrs. S down - and kicked the bottom of the ladder out from under me.

  I fell. It was a horrible, helpless feeling, my body twisting uselessly as I tried to land well - but I'd had no warning at all, and it was a futile attempt. The small of my back hit the brick planter, and I achieved a new personal best for pain.

  "Oh, God in Heaven," Mrs. Spunkelcrief said. She knelt beside me. "Harry?"

  Somewhere, sirens had begun to wail. They wouldn't get there in time for the Willoughbys.

  "Trapped," I choked out, as soon as I was able to breathe again. "They're up there, calling for help. "

  The fire roared louder and grew brighter.

  Mrs. S stared up at the window. She grabbed the ladder and wrestled it all the way back up into position, though the effort left her panting. Then she tried to put a foot up on the first step. She grasped the ladder, began to shift her weight - and groaned as her leg buckled and she fell to the ground.

  She screamed, agony in her quavering voice. "Oh, God in Heaven, help us!"

  A young black man in a dark, knee-length coat hurdled the hedges at the back of the yard and bounded onto the ladder. He was built like a professional lineman, moved more quickly than a linebacker, and started up the ladder like it was a broad staircase. The planet's only Knight of the Cross flashed me a quick grin on the way up. "Dresden!"

  "Sanya!" I howled. "Two! There're two of them in the bedroom!"

  "Da, two!" he replied, his deep voice booming. The curving saber blade of Esperacchius rode at his hip and he managed it with thoughtless, instinctive skill as he went through the window. He was back a moment later, with Mrs. Willoughby draped over one shoulder, while he supported most of Mr. Willoughby's staggering body with the other.

  Sanya went first, the old woman hanging limply over his shoulder, so that he could help Mr. Willoughby creep out the window and onto the ladder. They came down slowly and carefully, and as Sanya carefully laid the old woman out onto the grass, the first of the emergency response crews arrived.

  "God in Heaven," Mr. S said, weeping openly as she put her hand on Sanya's arm. "He must have sent you to us, son. "

  Sanya smiled at her as he helped Mr. Willoughby lower himself to the ground. Then he turned to my landlady and said, his Russian accent less heavy than the last time I had seen him, "It was probably just a coincidence, ma'am. "

  "I don't believe in those," said Mrs. Spunkelcrief. "Bless you, son," she said, and hugged him hard. Her arms couldn't have gotten around half of him, but Sanya returned the hug gently for a moment.

  "Ma'am," he said, "you should direct the medical technicians to come back here. "

  "Thank you, thank you," she said, releasing him. "But now I have to go get those ambulance boys over here. " She paused and gave me a smile. "And thank you, Harry. Such a good boy. " Then she hurried away.

  Mouse came racing around the side of the house where Mrs. S had just gone, and rushed to stand over me, lapping at my face. Molly wasn't far behind. She let out a little cry and threw her arms around my shoulders. "Oh, God, Harry!" She shouldered Mouse aside and squeezed tight for several seconds. She looked up and said, "Sanya? What are you doing here?"

  "Hey, hey," I said. "Take it easy. "

  Molly eased up on her hug. "Sorry. "

  "Sanya," I said, nodding to him. "Thanks for your help. "

  "Part of the job, da?" he replied, grinning. "Glad to help. "

  "All the same," I said, my voice rough, "thank you. If anything had happened to them . . . "

  "Oh, Harry," Molly said. She hugged me again.

  "Easy, padawan, easy," I said quietly. "Think you should be careful. "

  She drew back with a frown. "Why?"

  I took a slow breath and said, very quietly, "I can't feel my legs. "

  Chapter 29

  It didn't take me long to talk Sanya and Molly out of taking me to the hospital. The Eebs, as it turned out, had shown up, pitched their fire-bomb from a moving car, and kept going, a modus operandi that was consistent with the earlier attempt on my life, except this time they'd been identified. Molly's description of the thrower was a dead ringer for Esteban.

  I had to admit, the vampire couple had a very practical long-term approach to violence - striking at weakness and harassing the victim while exposing themselves to minimal risk. If I'd been a couple of steps higher up when that Molotov hit, I'd be dead, or covered in third-degree burns. Individually, their attempts might not enjoy a high success rate - but they needed to get it right only once.

  It would be consistent with that practical, cold-blooded style to keep an eye on the hospitals in order to come finish me off - during surgery, for example, or while I was still in recovery afterward. Sanya, though, had EMT training of some kind. He calmly stole a backboard out of an open ambulance while its techs were seeing to the Willoughbys, and they loaded me onto it in a procedure that Sanya said would protect my spine. It seemed kind of "too little, too late" to me, but I was too tired to rib him over it.

  I couldn't feel anything below the waist, but that apparently didn't mean that the rest of me got to stop hurting. I felt them carrying the board out, and when I opened my eyes it was only to see nearly a third of the building give way and crash down into the basement - into my apartment. The building was obviously a lost cause. The firemen were focusing on containing the blaze and preventing it from spreading to the nearby homes.

  They loaded the backboard into the rental minivan Sanya had, by happy coincidence, been given at the airport when he arrived, at no additional fee, in order to substitute for the subcompact he'd reserved but couldn't have. As it drove away during the confusion and before the cops could lock everything down, I got to watch my home burn down through the back window of the van.

  Even after we were several blocks away, I could see the smoke rising up in a black column. I wondered how much of that smoke was made of my books. My secondhand guitar. My clothes. My comfy old furniture. My bed. My blankets. My Mickey Mouse alarm clock. The equipment in my lab that I'd worked so hard to attain or create - the efforts of years of patient effort, endless hours of concentration and spellcraft.

  Gone.

  Fire is as destructive spiritually as it is materially, a purifying force that can devour and scatter magical energy. In a fire that large everything I'd ever built, including purely magical constructs, would be destroyed.

  Dammit.

  Dammit, but I hated vampires.

  I'd had one hell of a day, all in all, but practically the only thing I had left to me was my pride. I didn't want anyone to see me crying. So I just kept quiet in the back of the van, while Mouse lay very close to me.

  At some point, sorrow became sleep.

  I woke up in the utility room at St. Mary of the Angels, where Father Forthill kept several spare folding cots and the bedding to go with them. I'd visited several times in the past. St. Mary's was a surprisingly stout bastion against supernatural villains of nearly any stripe. The ground beneath it was consecrated, as was every wall, door, floor, and window, blessed by prayers and stately rituals, Masses, and communions over and over through the decades, until that gentle, positive energy had permeated the ground and the very stone from which the church was built.

  I felt safer, but only a little. Vampires might not be able to set foot on the holy ground, but they knew that, and someone like the Eebs would certainly take that into account. Hired human killers could be just as dangerous as vampires, if not more so, and the protective aura around the building couldn't make them blink an eye.

  And, I supposed, they could always just set it on fire and burn it down around me if they really, really wanted to get me. I tried to imagine myself a century from now, still dodging vampires and getting my home burned to the ground on an irregular basis.

  No way in hell
was I gonna accept that. I'd have to deal with the Eeb problem.

  And then I remembered my legs. I reached a hand down to touch my thigh.

  I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. It felt like touching the limb of someone else entirely. I tried to move my legs and nothing happened. Maybe I'd been too ambitious. I pulled at my blanket until I could see my toes. I tried wiggling them. I failed.

  I could feel the backboard beneath me, and the band around my head that kept me from moving it to look around. I gave up on my legs with a sharp surge of frustration and lifted my eyes to the ceiling.

  There was a piece of paper taped to it, directly over my head. Molly's handwriting in black marker was scrawled in large letters across it: Harry. Don't try to get up, or move your neck or back. We're checking in on you several times an hour. Someone will be there soon.

  There was a candle burning nearby, on a folding table. It was the room's only light. I couldn't tell how long it had been burning, but it looked like a fairly long-lived candle, and it was nearly gone. I breathed in and out steadily, through my nose, and caught some half-remembered scents. Perfume of some kind, maybe? Or maybe just the scent of new leather, still barely tinged with the harsh aroma of tanning compounds and the gummy scent of dye. Plus I could smell the dusty old room. The church had only recently begun to use its heating system for the winter. I could smell the warm scent of singed dust that always emerges from the vents the first time anyone turns on a heater after it's been unneeded for a while.

  I was glad that I wasn't cold. I wouldn't have been able to do anything about it, otherwise.

  The candle guttered out and left me alone in the dark.

  In my memories, a bloody old caricature of a man, his skin more liver spots than not, leered at me in mad satisfaction and whispered, "Die alone. "

  I shivered and shook the image away. Cassius was thoroughly dead. I knew that. An outcast member of the society of demented freaks known as the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, Cassius had thrown in with an insane necromancer in order to get a chance to even a score with me. He'd come within a hairbreadth of dissecting me. I was able to take him down in the end - and he'd uttered a death curse as he croaked. Such a curse, a spell uttered in the last instants of life, could have hideous effects upon its victim. His curse, for me to die alone, was pretty vague as such things went. It might not even have had enough power or focus to take.

  Sure. Maybe it hadn't.

  "Hello?" I said to the darkness. "Is anyone there?"

  There wasn't.

  Die alone.

  "Stop that," I snapped out loud. "Control yourself, Dresden. "

  That sounded like good advice. So I started taking deep, steady, controlled breaths and tried to focus my thoughts. Focus. Forethought. Reason. Sound judgment. That was what was going to get me through this.

  Fact one: My daughter was still in danger.

  Fact two: I was hurt. Maybe badly. Maybe forever. Even the efficient resilience of a wizard's body had its limits, and a broken spine was quite likely beyond them.

  Fact three: Susan and Martin could not get the girl out on their own.

  Fact four: There wasn't a lot of help forthcoming. Maybe, with Sanya along, the suicidal mission could be considered only mostly suicidal. After all, the Knights of the Cross were a big deal. Three of them were, apparently, enough Knights to protect the whole world. For the past few years, the dark-skinned Russian had been covering all three positions, and apparently doing it well. Which made a vague amount of sense, I suppose - Sanya was the wielder of Esperacchius, the Sword of Hope. We needed hope right now. At least, I did.

  Fact five: I had missed the rendezvous with Ebenezar many hours ago. I'd never intended to go, and there was nothing I could do about the fact that he was going to be upset - but my absence had probably cost me the support of the Grey Council, such as it was.

  Fact six: Sanya, Susan, Martin, and whatever other scanty help I could drum up couldn't get to Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ without me - and I sure as hell couldn't get there in the shape I was in. According to the stored memories in my mother's jewel, the Way required a swim.

  Fact seven: I was going to Show Up for my daughter, and to hell with what it would cost.

  And there were only so many options open to me.

  I took the least terrifying one. I closed my eyes, steadied my breathing, and began to picture a room in my mind. My now-ruined improved summoning circle was in the floor. Candles were lit at five equidistant points around it. The air smelled of sandalwood incense and burned wax. It took a few minutes to picture it all, in perfect detail, and to hold it in my mind, as rock solid to my imagination as the actual room the construct was replacing.

  That took considerable energy and discipline.

  Magic doesn't require props to function. That's a conceit that has been widely propitiated by the wizarding community over the centuries. It helped prove to frightened villagers, inquisitions, and whoever else might be worried that a person was clearly not a wizard. Otherwise he'd have all kinds of wizardly implements necessary to his craft.

  Magic doesn't require the props, but magic is wrought by people, and people need them. Each prop has a symbolic as well as a practical reason for being a part of any spell. Simple stuff, lighting candles and the like, could be accomplished neatly in the mind, eventually becoming a task as easy and thoughtless as tying one's shoe.

  Once you got into the complicated stuff, though, you had an enormous number of things to keep track of in your mind, envisioning flows of energy, their manipulation, and so on. If you have the real props, they serve as a sort of mnemonic device: You attach a certain image to the prop, in your head, and every time you see or touch that prop, the image is packaged along with it. Simple.

  Except that I didn't have any props.

  I was winging the whole thing. Pure imagination. Pure concentration.

  Pure arrogance, really. But I was at a lower rock bottom than normal.

  In my thoughts I lit the candles, walking slowly around the circle in a clockwise fashion - or deosil, as the fairy tales, Celtic songs, and certain strains of Wicca refer to it - gradually powering up the energy it required to operate. I realized that I had forgotten to make the floor out of anything specific, in my head, and the notional floor space, from horizon to horizon, suddenly became the linoleum from my first ratty Chicago apartment. Hideous stuff, green lines on a grey background, but simple to envision.

  I imagined performing the spell without ever moving my body, envisioned every last detail, everything from the way the floor dug unpleasantly into my knees as I began to the slight clumsiness in the fingers of my left hand, which always seemed to be a little twitchy whenever I got nervous.

  I closed the circle. I gathered the power. And then, when all was prepared, when I held absolutely everything in my imagination so vividly that it seemed more real than the room around me, I slid Power into my voice and called quietly, "Uriel, come forth. "

  For a second, I couldn't tell whether the soft white light had appeared only in my head or if it was actually in the room. Then I realized that it stabbed at my eyes painfully. It was real.

  I kept the spell going in my head, easier now that it was a tableau. I just had to keep my concentration focused.

  I squinted into the light and saw a tall young man there. He wore jeans and a T-shirt and a farmer's duck coat. His blond hair fell over his eyes, but they were blue and bright and guileless as he looked around the room. He stuck his hands into his coat pockets and nodded slowly. "I was wondering when I'd get this call. "

  "You know what's happening, then?" I asked.

  "Yes, yes," he answered, with perhaps the slightest bit of impatience in his tone. He turned his gaze to me and frowned abruptly. He leaned forward slightly, peering at me.

  I carefully fortified and maintained the image of the restraining magical circle in my imagination. When an entity was called forth, the circle
was the only thing protecting the caller from its wrath.

  "Please, Dresden," the archangel Uriel said. "It's a very nice circle, but you can't honestly think that it's any kind of obstacle to me. "

  "I like to play it safe," I said.

  Uriel let out a most unangelic snort. Then he nodded his head and said, "Ah, I see. "

  "See what?"

  He paused and said, "Why you called me, of course. Your back. "

  I grunted. It was more effort than usual. "How bad is it?"

  "Broken," he said. "It's possible that, as a wizard, your body might be able to knit the ends back together over forty or fifty years. But there's no way to be sure. "

  "I need it to be better," I said. "Now. "

  "Then perhaps you shouldn't have climbed that ladder in your condition. "

  I let out a snarl and tried to turn toward him. I just sort of flopped a little. My body never left the surface of the backboard.

  "Don't," Uriel said calmly. "It isn't worth getting upset over. "

  "Not upset?!" I demanded. "My little girl is going to die!"

  "You made your choices," Uriel told me. "One of them led you here. " He spread his hands. "That's a fair ball, son. Nothing to do now but play it out. "

  "But you could fix me if you wanted to. "

  "My wishes have nothing to do with it," he said calmly. "I could heal you if I were meant to do so. Free will must take precedence if it is to have meaning. "

  "You're talking philosophy," I said. "I'm telling you that a child is going to die. "

  Uriel's expression darkened for a moment. "And I am telling you that I am very limited in terms of what I can do to help you," he said. "Limited, in fact, to what I have already done. "

  "Yeah," I said. "Soulfire. Just about killed myself with that one. Thanks. "

  "No one is making you use it, Dresden. It's your choice. "

  "I played ball with you when you needed help," I said. "And this is how you repay me?"

  Uriel rolled his eyes. "You tried to send me a bill. "

  "You want to set a price, feel free," I said. "I'll pay it. Whatever it takes. "

  The archangel watched me, his eyes calm and knowing and sad. "I know you will," he said quietly.

  "Dammit," I said, my voice breaking. Tears started from my eyes. The colors and lines in my imagination began to blur. "Please. "

  Uriel seemed to shiver at the sound of the word. He turned his face from me, clearly uncomfortable. He was silent.

  "Please," I said again. "You know who I am. You know I'd rather have my nails torn out than beg. And I am begging you. I am not strong enough to do this on my own. "

  Uriel listened, never quite looking at me, and then shook his head slowly. "I have already done what I can. "

  "But you've done nothing," I said.

  "From your point of view, I suppose that's true. " He stroked his chin with a thumb, frowning in thought. "Though . . . I suppose it isn't too much of an imbalance for you to know . . . "

  My eyes were starting to cramp from looking to one side so fiercely without being able to move my head. I bit my lip and waited.

  Uriel took a deep breath and looked as if he were considering his words with care. "Your daughter, Maggie, is alive and well. For now. "

  My heart skipped a beat.

  My daughter.

  He'd called her my daughter.

  "I know you wanted Susan to be the woman you loved and remembered. Wanted to be able to trust her. But even if you weren't admitting it to yourself, you had to wonder, on some level. I don't blame you for it," he said. "Especially after those tracking spells failed. It's natural. But yes. " He met my eyes. "Flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. Your daughter. "

  "Why tell me that?" I asked him.

  "Because I have done all that I can," he said. "From here, it is up to you. You are Maggie's only hope. " He started to turn away, then paused and said, "Consider Vadderung's words carefully. "

  I blinked. "You know Od . . . Vadderung?"

  "Of course. We're in similar fields of work, after all. "

  I exhaled wearily, and stopped even trying to hold the spell. "I don't understand. "

  Uriel nodded. "That's the difficult part of being mortal. Of having choice. Much is hidden from you. " He sighed. "Love your child, Dresden. Everything else flows from there. A wise man said that," Uriel said. "Whatever you do, do it for love. If you keep to that, your path will never wander so far from the light that you can never return. "

  And as quickly as that, he was gone.

  I lay in the darkness, shivering with weariness and the effort of the magic. I pictured Maggie in my head, in her little-girl dress with ribbons in her hair, like the picture.

  "For you, little girl. Dad's coming. "

  It took me less than half a minute to restore the spell, and not much longer than that to build up the next wave of energy I would need. Until the last second, I wondered if I could actually go through with it. Then I saw a horrible image of Maggie in her dress being snatched up by a Red Court vampire, and my whole outraged being seemed to fuse into a singularity, a single white-hot pinpoint of raw, unshakable will.

  "Mab!" I called, my voice steady. "Mab, Queen of Air and Darkness, Queen of the Winter Court! Mab, I bid you come forth!"