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Changes, Page 12

Jim Butcher

Chapter 30~31

  Chapter 30

  The third repetition of her name hung ringing in the air, and deafening silence came after as I awaited the response.

  When you trap something dangerous, there are certain fundamental precautions necessary to success. You've got to have good bait, something to draw your target in. You've got to have a good trap, something that works and works fast. And, once the target is in the trap, you've got to have a net or a cage strong enough to hold it.

  Get any of those three elements wrong, and you probably won't succeed. Get two of them wrong, and you might be looking at a result far more disastrous than mere failure.

  I went into this one knowing damned well that all I had was bait. Mab, for her own reasons, had wanted to suborn me into her service for years. I knew that calling her by her name and title would be enough to attract her interest. Though the mechanism of my improved summoning circle would have been a fine trap - if it still existed, I mean - the cage of my will had always been the weakest point in any such endeavor.

  Bottom line, I could get the tiger to show up. Once it was there, all I had was a really good chalk drawing of a pit on the sidewalk and "Nice kitty. "

  I wasn't going into it blind and ignorant, though. I was desperate, but not stupid. I figured I had the advantage of position. Mab couldn't kill a mortal. She could only make him desperately wish he was dead, instead of enduring her attentions. I didn't have a lot to lose. She couldn't make me any more useless to my daughter than I was already.

  I waited, in perfect darkness, for the mistress of every wicked fairy in every dark tale humanity had ever whispered in the night to put in an appearance.

  Mab didn't disappoint me.

  Surprise me, yes. But she didn't disappoint.

  Stars began to appear in front of my eyes.

  I figured that was probably a really bad thing, for a moment. But they didn't spin around in lazy, dizzy motion like the kind of stars that mean your brain is smothering. They instead burned steady and cold and pure above me, five stars like jewels on the throat of Lady Night.

  Seconds later, a cold wind touched my face, and I became conscious of a hard smoothness beneath me. I laid my hands carefully flat, but I didn't feel the cot and the backboard under me. Instead, my fingers touched only cold, even stone, a planar surface that seemed level beneath my entire body. I wriggled my foot and confirmed that there was stone beneath it there, too.

  I stopped and realized that I could feel my foot. I could move it.

  My whole body was there. And it was naked. I wavered between yelping at the cold suddenly being visited upon my ass, and yelling in joy that I could feel it at all. I saw land to one side and scrambled to get off the cold slab beneath me, crouching down and hanging on to the edge of the slab for balance.

  This wasn't reality, then. This was a dream, or a vision, or something that was otherwise in between the mortal world and the spiritual realm. That made sense. My physical body was still back in St. Mary's, lying still and breathing deeply, but my mind and my spirit were here.

  Wherever "here" was.

  My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I saw gentle mist and fog hanging in the air. Boiling clouds let a flash of moonlight in, and it played like a spotlight over the hilltop around me, and upon the ancient table of stone beside me. The moon's touch made deeply carved runes all around the table's edge dance with flickers of illumination, writing done in some language I did not know.

  Then I understood. Mab had created this place for our meeting. It was known as the Valley of the Stone Table. It was a broad, bowl-shaped valley, I knew, though the mist hid most of it from me. In its exact center stood a mound maybe fifty feet across and twelve feet high at its center. Atop the mound stood the massive slab of stone, held up on four stumpy pillars. Other stones stood in a circle around it, some tumbled down, some broken, only one remaining in Stonehenge-like lintel. The stones all shed faint illumination in shades of blue and purple and deep, deep green. Cold colors.

  Winter colors.

  Yeah. It was after the equinox. So that tracked. The Table was in Winter's domain. It was an ancient conduit of power, transferred in the most primitive, atavistic fashion of all - in hot blood. There were grooves and whorls in the table's surface, coated with ancient stains, and it squatted on the hill, patient and hungry and immovable, like a snapping turtle waiting for warm, vital creatures to wander too close.

  The blood spilled upon this table would carry the power of its life with it, and would flow into the well of power in the control of the Winter Queen.

  A movement across the table from me drew my eye. A shadow seemed to simply congeal from the mist, forming itself into a slender, feminine shape draped in a cloak and cowl. Glittering green candle flames flickered in what looked like two eyes within the cowl's hood.

  My throat went dry. It took me two tries to rasp, "Queen Mab?"

  The form vanished. A low, feminine laugh drifted through the mist to my right. I turned to face it.

  A furious cat squall erupted from the air six inches behind me and I nearly jumped out of my skin. I spun to find nothing there, and the woman's laugh echoed around the top of the misty mound, this time more amused.

  "You're enjoying this, aren't you," I said, my heart pounding in my throat. "You told me so, didn't you?"

  Whispering voices hissed among the stones around me, none of them intelligible. I saw another flicker of mocking green eyes.

  "Th-this is a limited-time offer," I said, trying to make my voice sound steady. "It's been forced by circumstance. If you don't get off your royal ass and jump on it, I'm walking. "

  "I warned you," said a calm voice behind me. "Never let her bring you here, my godchild. "

  I carefully kept myself from letting out a shriek. It would have been unwizardly. Instead, I took a deep breath and turned to find the Leanansidhe standing a few feet away, covered in a cloak the color of the last seconds of twilight, the deep blue-purple fabric hiding her completely except for her pale face inside the hood. Her green cat eyes were wide and steady, her expression solemn.

  "But I'm here," I said quietly.

  She nodded.

  Another shadow appeared beside her, green eyes burning. Queen Mab, I presumed, and noted that she was actually a couple of inches shorter than my godmother. Of course, especially in a place like this, Mab could be as gargantuan or Lilliputian as she chose.

  Probably-Mab stepped closer, still covered in shadows despite the fact that she was nearer to me than my godmother was. Her eyes grew brighter.

  "So many scars," said my godmother, and her voice had changed subtly, growing cold and precise. "Your scars are beautiful things. Within and without. " The shadowed figure stepped behind one of the fallen stones and emerged from behind another on the opposite side of the circle. "Yes," said the cold voice coming from the Leanansidhe's lips. "I can work with this. "

  I shivered. Because it was really cold and I was naked, I'm sure. I looked from the dark figure to my godmother and back, and asked, "You're still using a translator?"

  "For your sake," said the cold voice, as a shadowed figure stepped behind the next menhir and appeared atop another. Walking deosil, clockwise.

  Mab was closing the circle around me.

  "Wh-why for my sake?" I asked.

  The cold voice laughed through the Leanansidhe's lips. "This conversation would quickly grow tedious if you kept falling to your knees, screaming in agony and clawing at your bleeding ears, my wizard. "

  "Yeah. But why?" I asked. "Why would your voice hurt me?"

  "Because she is angry," answered the Leanansidhe in her natural voice. "Because her voice is a part of her power, and her rage is too great to be contained. "

  I swallowed. Mab had spoken a few words to me a couple of years back, and I'd reacted exactly as she described. I'd lost a few minutes of time during the episode her words had provoked as well. "Rage?" I asked. "About
what?"

  The shadowed figure let out a spitting hiss, another feline sound that made me flinch and cringe away from it as if from the lash of a whip. My godmother jerked sharply to one side. She straightened only slowly, and as she did I saw that a long, fine cut had been drawn across one of her cheeks. Blood welled up and dripped down slowly.

  My godmother bowed her head to Mab, and the cold voice came from her mouth again. "It is not for my handmaiden to judge or question me, nor to speak for me upon her own account. "

  Lea bowed her head to Mab again, and not a flicker of either anger or chagrin showed in her features. Again, Mab moved from one stone to another without crossing the space in between. It should have been getting easier to deal with due to repetition. It wasn't. Each time she did it I realized that she could just as easily have reappeared behind me with foul intentions, and there wouldn't be anything I could do about it.

  "There are ancient proprieties to be honored," Mab's voice said, her tone measured and somehow formal. "There are words which must be said. Rites which must be observed. Speak your desire, mortal man. "

  Now I really was shivering with the cold. I folded my arms and hunched in on myself. It didn't help. "Power," I said.

  The shadowed figure froze in place and turned to stare at me. The burning green eyes tilted slightly, as if Mab had cocked her head to one side. "Tell me why. "

  I fought to keep my teeth from chattering. "My body is badly injured, but I must do battle with the Red Court. "

  "This you have done many a time. "

  "This time I'm fighting all of them," I said. "The Red King and his inner circle. "

  The fire of her eyes intensified. "Tell me why. "

  I swallowed and said, "They've taken my daughter. "

  The shadowed figure shuddered, and her disembodied voice breathed a sigh of pleasure. "Ahhh. Yes. Not for your own life. But for your child's. For love. "

  I nodded jerkily.

  "So many terrible things are done for love," Mab's voice said. "For love will men mutilate themselves and murder rivals. For love will even a peaceful man go to war. For love, man will destroy himself, and that right willingly. " She began walking in a physical circle now, though her movements were so touched with unexpected motions and alien grace that it almost seemed that there must be something else beneath the shrouding cloak. "You know my price, mortal. Speak it. "

  "You want me to become the Winter Knight," I whispered.

  A laugh, both merry and cold, bubbled beneath her response. "Yes. "

  "I will," I said. "With a condition. "

  "Speak it. "

  "That before my service begins, you restore my body to health. That you grant me time enough to rescue my daughter and take her to safety, and strength and knowledge enough to succeed. And you give me your word that you will never command me to lift my hand against those I love. "

  The figure kept its eerie pace as she circled me again, and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees. "You ask me to risk my Knight in a place of dire peril, to no gain for my land and people. Why should I do this?"

  I looked at her steadily for a moment. Then I shrugged. "If you don't want to do business, I'll go elsewhere. I could still call Lasciel's coin to me in a heartbeat - and Nicodemus and the Denarians would be more than happy to help me. I am also one of the only people alive who knows how to pull off Kemmler's Darkhallow. So if Nicky and the Nickelheads don't want to play, I can damned well get the power for myself - and the next time I call your name, I won't need to be nearly so polite. "

  Mab let out a mirthless laugh through my godmother's lips. "You are spoiled for choices, my wizard. What reason have you to select me over the others?"

  I grimaced. "Please don't take this as an insult. But you're the least evil of my options. "

  The cold voice told me nothing about her reaction. "Explain. "

  "The Denarians would have me growing a goatee and gloating malevolently within a few years, if I didn't break and turn into some kind of murderous tardbeast first. And I'd have to kill a lot of people outright, if I wanted to use the Darkhallow. " I swallowed. "But I'll do it. If I have no other way to get my child out of their hands, I'll do it. "

  Silence reigned for an unbroken minute on the mound.

  "Yes," mused Mab's voice. "You will, won't you? And yes, you know that I do not kill indiscriminately, nor encourage my Knight to do so. " She paused and murmured, "But you have proven willing to destroy yourself in the past. You won your last confrontation with my handmaiden in just such a fashion, by partaking of the death angel. What prevents you from taking a similar action to cheat me of my prize?"

  "My word," I said quietly. "I know I can't bluff you. I won't suicide. I'm here to deal in good faith. "

  Mab's burning eyes stared at me for a long moment. Then she began to walk again, more slowly on this, her third traversing of the circle around me. "You must understand, wizard. Once you are my Knight, once this last quest of yours is complete, you are mine. You will destroy what I wish you to destroy. Kill whatsoever I wish you to kill. You will be mine, blood, bone, and breath. Do you understand this?"

  I swallowed. "Yes. "

  She nodded slowly. Then she turned to stare at the Leanansidhe.

  Lea bowed her head again, and snapped her fingers.

  Six cloaked figures appeared out of the mists, small, misshapen things that might have been kobolds or gnomes or any of a half dozen other servitor races of the Sidhe. I couldn't tell because the cloaks had rendered them faceless, without identity.

  But I knew the man they were carrying strapped to a plank.

  Like me, he was naked. He had been shorter than me, but more athletic, heavier on muscle. But that had been years ago. Now he was a wasted shell of a human being, a charcoal sketch that had been smudged by an uncaring hand. His eyes were missing. Gone, but neatly gone, as if removed surgically. There were tattoos covering his entire face, particularly his sunken eyelids, all of them simply a word in different languages and styles of lettering: traitor. His mouth was partly open, and his teeth had been inscribed with whorls and Celtic design, then stained with something dark and brown, turning his mouth into living scrimshaw.

  His entire body, in fact, was adorned with either tattoos or artistic, ritually applied scars. He was held to the plank with seven lengths of slender silken cord, but his emaciated limbs looked like they would never have the strength to overcome even those frail bonds.

  He was weeping, sobbing softly, the sound of it more like an animal in horrible pain than anything human.

  "Jesus," I said, and looked away from him.

  "I am somewhat proud of this," Mab's cold voice said. "To be sure, the White Christ never suffered so long or so terribly as did this traitor. Three days on a tree. Hardly enough time for a prelude. When it came to visiting agony, the Romans were hobbyists. "

  The servitors slid the plank up onto the stone table, positioning Slate in its center. Then they bowed toward Mab and retreated in measured silence. For a moment, the only sounds were those of a cold, gentle wind and Slate's sobs.

  "For a time, I was contented to torment him to the edge of sanity. Then I set out to see how far over the edge a mortal could go. " Her eyes glittered merrily in the shadows. "A pity that so little was left. And yet, he is the Winter Knight, young wizard. The vessel of my power amidst mortals, and consort to the Queens of Winter. He betrayed me. See where it has taken him. "

  The thing that used to be Lloyd Slate made quiet, hopeless sounds.

  I trembled, afraid.

  The dark shape came closer, and a pale hand emerged from the folds of cloth. Something glittered coldly in the strange light and landed in the thick grass at my feet. I bent to take it up and found an ancient, ancient knife with a simple leaf-blade design, set into a wooden handle and wrapped with cord and leather. It was, I thought, made of bronze. Its double edge had a wickedly sharp shine to it, and its needle point looked
hungry, somehow.

  Energy surged through the little blade, power that was unfettered and wild, that mocked limits and scoffed at restraint. Not evil, as such - but hungry and filled with the desire to partake in its portion of the cycle of life and death. It thirsted for bloodshed.

  "While Lloyd Slate lives and breathes, he is my Knight," said Mab's voice. "Take Medea's bodkin, wizard. Take his life's blood. "

  I stood there holding the knife and looking at Lloyd Slate. The last time I'd heard him speak, he had begged me to kill him. I didn't think he'd be capable of even that much now.

  "If you would be my Knight, then this is the first death I desire of you," Mab said, her voice almost gentle. She faced me across the Stone Table. "Send his power back to me. And I will render it unto thee. "

  I stood in the cold wind, not moving.

  What I did with the next moments would determine the course of the rest of my life.

  "You know this man," Mab continued, her voice still gentle. "You saw his victims. He was a murderer. A rapist. A thief. A monster in mortal flesh. He has more than earned his death. "

  "That isn't for me to judge," I whispered quietly. Indeed not. I was tempted to hide behind that rationale, just for a moment - just until it was done. Lie to myself, tell myself that I was his lawful, rightful executioner.

  But I wasn't.

  I could have told myself that I was ending his pain. That I was putting him out of his hideous misery in an act of compassion. Necessarily an act of bloodshed, but it would be quick and clean. Nothing should suffer as much as Lloyd Slate had. I could have sold myself that story.

  But I didn't.

  I was a man seeking power. For good reasons, maybe. But I wasn't going to lie to myself or anyone else about my actions. If I killed him, I would be taking a life, something that was not mine to take. I would be committing deliberate, calculated murder.

  It was the least evil path, I told myself. Whatever else I might have done would have turned me into a monster in truth. Because of Lloyd Slate, I knew that whatever Mab might say, she did not control her Knight completely. Slate had defied her power and influence.

  And look where it got him, a little voice whispered inside my head.

  The full, round moon emerged from behind the clouds and bathed the whole Valley of the Stone Table in clear, cold light. The runes upon the table and the menhirs blazed into glittering, cold light.

  "Wizard," whispered Mab's appropriated voice, seemingly directly into my ear. "The time has come. "

  My heart began pounding very hard, and I felt sick to my stomach.

  "Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden," Mab's voice said, almost lovingly. "Choose. "

  Chapter 31

  I stared at the broken man. It was easy enough to envision my own mutilated face, looking blindly up from the table's surface. I took one step toward the table. Then two. Then I was standing over Lloyd Slate's broken form.

  If it was a fight, I wouldn't think twice. But this man was no threat to me. He was no threat to anyone anymore. I had no right to take his life, and it was pure, overwhelming, nihilistic arrogance to say otherwise. If I killed Slate, how long would it take for my turn to come? I could be looking at myself, months or years from now.

  I couldn't, any more than I could cut my own throat.

  I felt my hand drop back to my side, the knife too heavy to hold before me.

  Mab suddenly stood at the opposite end of the Stone Table, facing me. Her right hand moved in a simple outward motion, and the mists over the Table suddenly thickened and swirled with color and light. For a few seconds, the image was hazy. Then it snapped into focus.

  A little girl crouched in the corner of a bare stone room. There was hay scattered around, and a wool blanket that looked none too clean. She had dark hair that had been up in pigtails, but wasn't anymore. One of the little pink plastic clips had evidently been lost or stolen, and now she had only one pigtail. Her face was red from crying. She'd evidently been wiping her nose on the knees of her little pink overalls. Her shirt, white with yellow flowers and a big cartoon bumblebee on it, showed stains of dirt and worse. She crouched in the tiniest ball she could make of her body, as if hoping that if something should come for her, she might be overlooked.

  Her big brown eyes were quietly terrified - and I could see something familiar in them. It took me a moment to realize they reminded me of my reflection in a mirror. Other features showed themselves to me, muted shapes that maturity would bring forth eventually. The same chin and jawline Thomas and I shared. The same mouth as her mother's. Susan's straight, shining black hair. Her hands and her feet looked a little too large for her, like a puppy's paws.

  Dimly, as if from a great distance, I heard the cry of a Red Court vampire in its true form, and she flinched and started crying again, her entire body trembling in terror.

  Maggie.

  I remembered when Bianca and her minions had kept me prisoner.

  I remembered the things they had done to me.

  But it didn't look like they had harmed my child - yet.

  "Yes," said Mab's cold voice, empty of emotion. The image began to slowly fade away. "It is a true seeing of your child, as she is even now. I give you my word. No tricks. No deceptions. This is. "

  I looked through the translucent image to where Mab and my godmother waited. Lea's face was somber. Mab's eyes were narrowed to glowing green slits within her hooded cloak.

  I faced them both for a moment. The cold wind gusted over the hilltop and stirred the cloaks of the two Sidhe. I stared at them, at ancient eyes full of the knowledge of dark and wicked things. I knew that neither the child in the image nor the man on the table meant anything to them. I knew that if I went forward with Mab's bargain, I would probably end up on the table myself.

  Of course, that was why Mab had shown me Maggie: to manipulate me.

  No. There was a distinction in what she had done. She had shown me Maggie to make perfectly clear exactly what choice I was about to make. Certainly, it might influence my decision, but when a stark naked truth stares you in the face . . . shouldn't it?

  I'm not sure it's possible to manipulate someone with candor and truth.

  I think you call that enlightenment.

  And as I stared at my daughter's fading image, my fear vanished.

  If I wound up like Slate, if that was the price I had to pay to make my daughter safe, so be it.

  If I was haunted for the rest of my life because Maggie needed me to make hard choices, so be it.

  And if I had to die a horrible, lingering death so that my little girl could have a chance to live . . .

  So be it.

  I tightened my grip on the hideous weight of the ancient bronze knife.

  I put one hand gently on Lloyd Slate's forehead to hold him still.

  And then I cut his throat.

  It was a quick, clean death, which made it no less lethal than if I'd hacked him up with an ax. Death is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter how you get there. Just when.

  And why.

  He never struggled. Just let out a breath that sounded like a sigh of relief and turned his head to one side as if going to sleep. It wasn't neat, but it wasn't a scene from a gorefest slasher movie, either. It looked more like the kind of mess you'd see in a kitchen when preparing a big bunch of steaks. Most of his blood ran into the carved indentions on the table and seemed to become quicksilver once there, running rapidly outward through the troughs and down the lettering carved in the sides and the legs. The blood made the letters reflect the eerie light around us, giving them a sort of flickering fire of their own. It was a terrible, beautiful sight. Power hummed through that blood; the letters, the stone, and the air around me were shaken by its silent potency.

  I sensed the two Sidhe behind me, watching with calm, predatory eyes as the Knight who had betrayed his queens died. I knew when it was over. The two of them let out
small sighs of . . . appreciation, I suppose. I couldn't think of any other phrase that fit. They recognized the significance of his death while in no way actually feeling any empathy for him. A life flowed from his broken body into the Stone Table, and they held the act in a respect akin to reverence.

  I just stood there, blood dripping from the bronze knife in my hand onto the earth beneath my feet. I shivered in the cold and stared at the remains of the man I'd murdered, wondering what I was supposed to feel. Sadness? Not really. He'd been a son of a bitch of the first order, and I'd gladly have killed him in a straight-up fight if I had the chance. Remorse? None yet. I had done him a favor when I killed him. There was no getting him out of what he'd gotten himself into. Joy? No. None of that, either. Satisfaction? Precious little, except that it was over, the deed done, the dice finally cast.

  Mostly? I just felt cold.

  A minute or an hour later, the Leanansidhe lifted a hand and snapped her fingers. The cloaked servitors appeared from the mist as silently as they'd left, and gathered up what was left of Lloyd Slate. They lifted him in silence, carried him in silence, and vanished into the mist.

  "There," I said quietly to Mab. "My part is done. Time for you to live up to yours. "

  "No, child," said Mab's voice through Lea's lips. "Your part is only begun. But fear not. I am Mab. The stars will rain from the sky before Mab fulfills not her word. " She tilted her head slightly to one side, toward my godmother, and said, "I give thee this adviser for thy final quest, sir Knight. My handmaiden is among the most powerful beings in all of my Winter, second only to myself. "

  Lea's warmer, more languid voice came from her lips as she asked, "My queen, to what degree am I permitted to act?"

  I thought I saw the fell light gleam on Mab's teeth as Lea's lips said, "You may indulge yourself. "

  Lea's mouth spread into a wide, dangerous smile of its own, and she bowed her head and upper body toward the Queen of Winter.

  "And now, my Knight," Mab's voice said, as her body turned to face me exclusively. "We will see to the strength of your broken body. And I will make you mine. "

  I swallowed hard.

  Mab lifted a hand, a dismissive gesture, and the Leanansidhe bowed to her.

  "I am no longer needed here, child," Lea murmured. "I will be ready to go with thee whenever thou dost call. "

  My throat was almost too dry to get any words out. "I'll want the things I left with you, as soon as you can get them to me. "

  "Of course," she said. She bowed to me as well, and took several steps back into the mist, until it swallowed her whole.

  And I was alone with Queen Mab.

  "So," I said into the silence. "I guess there's . . . there's a ceremony of some kind to go through. "

  Mab stepped closer to me. She wasn't an enormous, imposing figure. She was considerably shorter than me. Slender. But she walked with such perfect confidence that the role of predator and prey was clear to both of us. I edged back from her. It was pure instinct, and I could no more stop from doing it than I could have stopped shivering against the cold.

  "Going to be hard for us to exchange oaths if you can't talk, huh," I said. My voice sounded thin and shaky, even to me. "Um. Maybe it's paperwork or something. "

  Pale hands slipped up from the dark cloak and drew her hood back. She shook her head left and right, and pale, silken tresses, whiter than moonlight or Lloyd Slate's dead flesh, spilled forth.

  My voice stopped working for a second. My bare thighs hit the Stone Table behind me, and I wound up sitting on it.

  Mab kept pacing toward me, one slightly swaying step at a time. The cloak slid from her shoulders, down, down, down.

  "Y-you, uh," I said, looking away. "You m-must be cold. "

  A throaty little laugh bubbled up out of her frozen-berry lips. Mab's voice, touched with anger, could cause physical damage to living flesh. Her voice filled with simmering desire . . . did other things.

  And the cold was suddenly the least of my concerns.

  Her mouth closed on mine, and I gave up even trying to speak. This wasn't a ceremony so much as a rite, and one as ancient as beasts and birds, earth and sky.

  My memory gets shaky after the kiss.

  I remember her body gleaming brightly above me, cold, soft, feminine perfection. I don't have the words to describe it. Inhuman beauty. Elfin grace. Animal sensuality. And when her body was atop mine, our breaths mingled, cold sweetness with human imperfection. I could feel the rhythm of her form, her breath, her heart. I could feel the stone of the table, the ancient hill of the mound, the very earth of the valley around us pulsing in time to Mab's rhythm. Clouds raced over the sky, and as she moved more quickly she grew brighter, and brighter, until I realized that the eerie luminescence around us all evening had been nothing but a dim, muffled reflection of Mab's loveliness, veiled for the sake of the mortal mind it could have unmade.

  She did not veil it as her breathing mounted. And it burned me, it was so pure.

  What we did wasn't sex, regardless of what it appeared to be. You can't have sex with a thunderstorm, an earthquake, a furious winter gale. You can't make love to a mountain, a lake of ice, a freezing wind.

  For a few moments, I saw the breadth and depth of Mab's power - and for a fleeting instant, the barest, tiniest glimpse of her purpose, as well, as our entwined bodies thrashed toward completion. I was screaming. I had been for a while.

  Then Mab's cry joined mine, our voices blending together. Her nails dug into my chest, chips of ice sliding beneath my skin. I saw her body drawn into an arch of pleasure, and then her green cat eyes opened and bored into -

  Her mouth opened, and her voice hissed, "MINE. "

  Absolute truth made my body vibrate like the plucked string of a guitar, and I jerked into a brief, violent contortion.

  Mab's hands slid down my ribs, and I could suddenly feel the fire of the cracked bones again, until those icy hands tightened as again she said, "MINE. "

  Again, my body bowed into a violent bow, every muscle trying to tear its way off of my bones.

  Mab hissed in eagerness as her hands slid around my waist, covering the numb spot where my spine had probably been broken. I felt myself screaming and struggling, with no control whatsoever over my body.

  Mab's feline eyes captured my own gaze, trapping my attention within their frozen beauty as again a jolt of terrible, sweet cold flowed out from her fingertips and she whispered, her voice a velvet caress, ". . . mine . . . "

  "Again!" screamed a voice I vaguely recognized.

  Something cold and metallic pressed to my chest.

  "Clear!" shouted the voice.

  A lightning bolt hit my chest, an agonizing ribbon of silver power that bent my body into a bow. I started screaming, and before my hips had come down, I shouted, "Hexus!" spewing out power into the air.

  Someone shouted and someone else cursed, and sparks exploded all around me, including from the lightbulb above, which seemed to overload and shatter into powder.

  The room was dark and quiet for a few seconds.

  "D-did we lose him?" asked a steady, elderly man's voice. Forthill.

  "Oh, God," said Molly's quavering voice. "H-Harry?"

  "I'm fine," I said. My throat felt raw. "What the hell are you doing to me?"

  "Y-your heart stopped . . . " said a third voice, the familiar one.

  I felt my chest and found nothing there, or around my neck. My fingers quested out and touched the bed and the backboard beneath me, and found my necklace there, the ruby still fixed in place by an ugly glob of rubber. I gripped the chain and slipped a little of my will into it, and cold blue light filled the room.

  ". . . so I did what any good mortician would," Butters continued. "Hit you with a bolt of lightning and tried to reanimate you. " He held up two shock paddles, whose wires had evidently been melted right off them. They weren't attached to anything now. He was a wiry little guy
in hospital scrubs with a shock of black hair, narrow shoulders, and a thin, restless body. He held up his hands and mimed employing the shock paddles. Then he said, in a goofy voice that was probably meant to sound hollow, "It's alive. Alliiiiiivve. " After a beat he added, "You're welcome. "

  "Butters. " I sighed. "Who called you into - " I stopped and said, "Molly. Never mind. "

  "Harry," she said. "We couldn't be sure how badly you were hurt, and if you couldn't feel, you couldn't know either, and I thought we needed a real doctor, but the only one I knew you trusted was Butters, so I got him instead - "

  "Hey!" Butters said.

  I pushed the straps off of my head and kicked irritably at the straps on my legs.

  "Whoa, there, tiger!" Butters said. The little medical examiner threw himself across my legs. "Hold your horses, big guy! Easy, easy!"

  Forthill and Molly meant well. They joined in and the three of them flattened me to the backboard again.

  I snarled out a curse and then went limp. I sat there not resisting for a moment, until I thought they'd be listening. Then I said, "We don't have time for this. Get these straps off of me. "

  "Dresden, you might have a broken back," Butters said. "A pinched nerve, broken bones, damage to the organs in your lower abdomen - for God's sake, man, what were you thinking, not going to a hospital?"

  "I was thinking that I didn't want to make an easy target of myself," I said. "I'm fine. I'm better. "

  "Good Lord, man!" sputtered Forthill. "Be reasonable. Your heart wasn't beating three minutes ago. "

  "Molly," I said, my voice hard. "Unfasten the straps. Do it now. "

  I heard her sniffle. But then she sat up and came up to where she could see my eyes. "Um. Harry. Are you still . . . you know. You?"

  I blinked at her for a second, impressed. The grasshopper's insight was evidently serving her well.

  "I'm me," I said, looking back at her eyes. That should be verification enough. If someone else had come back behind the wheel of my car, so much change to my insides and a look like that would certainly trigger a soulgaze and reveal what had happened. "For now, at least. "

  Molly bit her lip. Then she said, "Okay. Okay, let him up. "

  Butters sat up from my legs and then stood scowling. "Wait a minute. This is just . . . This is all moving a little too fast for me. "

  The door behind him opened, and a heavyset man in street clothes lifted a gun and put two rounds into Butters's back from three feet away. The sheer sound of the shots was incredible, deafening.

  Butters dropped like a slaughtered cow.

  The gunman's eyes were tracking toward the rest of us before Butters hit the floor. I knew who he was looking for when his eyes swept over me and locked on.

  He didn't talk, didn't bluster, didn't hesitate. A professional. There were plenty of them in Chicago. He raised the gun to aim at my head - while I lay there, strapped to a board from the hips down and unable to move. And, as I lifted my left wrist, I noted that my shield bracelet was gone. Of course. They must have removed it so that the defibrillator's charge wouldn't have gotten any ideas, just as they'd taken the metal necklace from around my throat, and the rings from my fingers.

  They were being helpful.

  Clearly, this was just not my day.