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Changes, Page 15

Jim Butcher

Chapter 35~36

  Chapter 35

  By the time Murphy and I had moved into the hall, gunfire had erupted on the floors below us. It didn't sound like much - simple, staccato thumping sounds - but anyone who'd heard shots fired in earnest would never mistake them for anything else. I hoped that nobody was carrying rounds heavy enough to come up through the intervening floors and nail me. There just aren't any minor injuries to be had from something like that.

  "Those screams," Murphy said. "Red Court, right?"

  "Yeah. Where's Susan?"

  "Interrogation room, that way. " She nodded to the left, and I took the lead. I walked with my shoulder brushing the left- hand wall. Murph, after dragging the sputtering Rudolph out of the office, walked a step behind me and a pace to my right, so that she could shoot past me if she had to. We'd played this game before. If something bad came for us, I'd stand it off long enough to give her a clean shot.

  That would be critical, buying her the extra second to place her shot. Vampires aren't immune to the damage bullets cause, but they can recover from anything but the most lethal hits, and they know it. A Red Court vampire would almost always be willing to charge a mortal gunman, knowing how difficult it is to really place a shot with lethal effect, especially with a howling monster rushing toward you. You needed a hit square in the head, severing the spine, or in their gut, rupturing the blood reservoir, to really put a Red Court vampire down - and they could generally recover, even from those wounds, with enough time and blood to feed upon.

  Murphy knew exactly what she was shooting at and had proved that she could be steady enough to deal with a Red - but the other personnel in the building lacked her knowledge and experience.

  The FBI was in for a real bad day.

  We moved down the hall, quick and silent, and when a frightened-looking clerical type stumbled out of a break room doorway toward us, I nearly sent a blast of flame through him. Murphy had her badge hanging around her neck, and she instructed him to get back inside and barricade the door. He was clearly terrified, and responded without question to the tone of calm authority in Murph's voice.

  "Maybe we should do that," Rudolph said. "Get in a room. Barricade the door. "

  "They've got a heavy with them," I said to Murphy as I took the lead again. "Big, strong, fast. Like the loup-garou. It's some kind of Mayan thing, an Ik-something-or-other. "

  Murphy cursed. "How do we kill it?"

  "Not sure. But daylight seems a pretty good bet. " We were passing down a hallway that had several offices with exterior windows. The light of the autumn afternoon, reduced by the occasional curtain, created a kind of murky twilight to move through, and one that my ambient blue wizard light did little to disperse.

  Eerier than the lighting was the silence. No air ducts sighed. No elevators rattled. No phones rang. But twice I heard gunshots - the rapid bang-bang-bang of practically useless panic fire. Vampires shrieked out their hunting cries several different times. And the thub-dub of the Ick's bizarre heartbeat was steady, omnipresent - and slowly growing louder.

  "Maybe we need a lot of mirrors or something," Murphy said. "Bring a bunch of daylight in. "

  "Way harder to do than it looks in the movies," I said. "I figure I'll just blow open a hole in the side of the building. " I licked my lips. "Crud, uh. Which way is south? That'll be the best side to do it on. "

  "You're threatening to destroy a federal building!" Rudolph squeaked.

  Gunshots sounded somewhere close - maybe on the third floor, directly below us. Maybe on the other side of the fourth floor, muffled by a lot of cubicle walls.

  "Oh, God," Rudolph whimpered. "Oh, dear, sweet Jesus. " He just started repeating that in a mindlessly frightened whisper.

  "Aha," I said as we reached the interrogation room. "We have our Cowardly Lion. Cover me, Dorothy. "

  "Remind me to ask what the hell you're talking about later," Murphy said.

  I started to open the door, but paused. Tilly was armed, presumably smart enough to be scared, and it probably wasn't the best idea in the world to just open the door of the room and scare him. So I moved as far as possible to one side, reached way over to the door, and knocked. In code, even. Shave and a haircut.

  There was a lengthy pause and then someone knocked on the other side of the door. Two bits.

  I twisted the knob and opened the door very, very slowly.

  "Tilly?" I said in a hoarse whisper. "Susan?"

  The interrogation room didn't have any windows, and it was completely dark inside. Tilly appeared in the doorway, holding up a hand to shield his eyes. "Dresden?"

  "Yeah, obviously," I said. "Susan?"

  "I'm here," she said from the darkness, her voice shaking with fear. "I'm cuffed to the chair. Harry, we've got to go. "

  "Working on it," I said quietly.

  "You don't understand. That thing, that drumming sound. It's a devourer. You don't fight them. You run, and pray someone slower than you attracts its attention. "

  "Yeah. Already met the Ick," I said. "I'd rather not repeat the experience. " I held out a hand to Tilly. "I need cuff keys. "

  Tilly hesitated, clearly torn between his sense of duty and order and the primal fear that had risen in the building. He shook his head, but it didn't seem like his heart was in it.

  "Tilly," Murphy said. She turned to him, her expression ferociously determined, and said, "Trust me. Please just do it. People are going to die as long as these three are in the building. "

  He passed me the keys.

  I took them over to Susan, who was sitting in the same chair I had during my chat with the feds. She wore her dark leather pants and a black T-shirt and looked oddly vulnerable just sitting there during a situation like this. I went to her and started unfastening the cuffs.

  "Thank you," she said quietly. "I was getting a little worried there. "

  "They must have come in through the basement somehow," I said.

  She nodded. "They'll work their way up, floor by floor. Kill everyone they can. It's how they operate. Remove the target and leave a message for everyone else. "

  Tilly shook his head as if dazed. "That's . . . What? That's how some of the cartels operate in Colombia, Venezuela, but . . . "

  Susan gave him an impatient look and shook her head. "What have I been telling you for the last fifteen minutes?"

  A vampire let out a hunting scream, one not interdicted by floors.

  "They're here," Susan whispered as she rubbed at her newly freed wrists. "We have to move. "

  I stopped for a moment. Then I said quietly, "They'll just keep on killing until they find the target, floor by floor," I said.

  Susan nodded tightly.

  I bit my lip. "So, if we run . . . they'll keep going. All the way up. "

  Murphy turned her head to look at me, then jerked her eyes back out to the hallway, wary. "Fight?"

  "We won't win," I said, certain. "Not here, on their timing. They've got all the advantages. But we can't just abandon all those people, either. "

  She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "No, we can't," Murphy said. "So. What are we going to do?"

  "Does anyone have an extra weapon?" Susan asked. No one said anything, and she nodded, turned to the heavy conference table, and flipped it over with one hand. She tore off a heavy steel leg as if it had been attached with a kindergartner's glue rather than high-grade steel bolts.

  Tilly stared, his mouth open. Then he said, very quietly, "Ah. "

  Susan whirled the table leg once, testing its balance, and nodded. "It will do. "

  I grunted. Then I said, "Here's the plan. We're going to show ourselves to the vampires and the Ick. We're going to hit whoever they have out front with everything we have and squash them flat. That should make sure we have the attention of the entire strike team. "

  "Yes," Murphy said in a dry tone. "That's brilliant. "

  I made a face at her. "Once they're good
and interested, you, Tilly, and Rudolph are going to split off from the rest of us and hit the nearest emergency exit. If it comes down to it, you probably have better odds of surviving a jump out the window than you do staying in here. You with me?"

  Murphy frowned. "What about you?"

  "Susan, me, and your stunt doubles are going to jump over into the Nevernever and try to draw the bad guys after us. "

  "Stunt doubles?" Murphy asked.

  "We are?" Susan asked, alarmed.

  "Sure. I need your mighty thews to protect me. You being superchick and all. "

  "Okay," Susan said, eyeing me as if she thought I was losing my mind - which, hey, I admit. Totally possible. "What's on the other side?"

  "No clue," I said, and a touch to my mother's gem told me that she hadn't ever actually been in this building on her dimension-hopping jaunts. "We'll hope it isn't an ocean of acid or a patch of cloud five thousand feet above a big rock. "

  Susan's eyes widened slightly. And then she shot me a wolfish smile. "I love this plan. "

  "Thought you would," I said. "Meanwhile, you three get out. Does this place have an exterior fire escape?"

  Rudolph just rocked back and forth, making soft moaning noises. Tilly still looked stunned at what he had just seen from Susan.

  Murphy cuffed him lightly on the back of the head. "Hey. Barry. "

  Tilly shook his head and looked at her. "Fire escape. No. "

  "Find a stairwell, then," I told Murphy. "Go quiet and fast, in case some of them were too stupid to follow me. "

  Murphy nodded and gave Tilly's shoulder a little shake. "Hey. Tilly. You're in charge of Rudolph. All right? Keep him moving and out of any lines of fire. "

  The slender little man nodded, slowly at first, and then more rapidly as he seemed to take control of himself. "Okay. I'm his nanny. Got it. "

  Murphy gave him part of a grin and a firm nod.

  "Right," I said. "Is this a great plan or what? I'm point; Murph, you've got my six; Susan, you ride drag. "

  "Got it," Susan said.

  The faint, constant drumbeat of the Ick's throbbing heart got fractionally louder.

  "Go," I said, and hit the hallways again. At my request, Tilly steered us toward the central staircase running parallel to the elevator shafts, because I figured it would make sense for most of the strike team to use the central stairwell, while the others were covered by maybe a single guard.

  We ran into another handful of people who were hovering, uncertain of what to do, and who looked at me in a manner that suggested they would find my advice less than credible.

  "Tilly," I said, half pleading.

  Tilly nodded and started speaking in a calm, authoritative tone. "There's some kind of attack under way. Tammy, you and Joe and Mickey need to get to one of the offices with a window. You got that? A window. Take the curtains down, let the light in, barricade the door, and sit tight. " He looked at me and said, "Help's on the way. "

  I swapped a look with Murphy, who nodded confidently at me. Tilly had gotten the supernatural shoved in his face pretty hard, but he'd rebounded with tremendous agility. Or maybe he'd simply cracked. I guessed we'd see eventually.

  The federal personnel scurried to obey Tilly, running down the hall we'd just come from.

  If we'd been about ten seconds slower, the vampire would have found them first instead of us.

  I heard a scream, shrill and terrible, meant to send a jolt of terrorized surprise through the prey so that the vampire could close upon it. It really said something about the Red Court, that simple tactic. Animals would never have been startled into immobility that way. It takes a thinking mind, trying to reason its way to what was happening, to fall for a psychological ploy like that one.

  And it probably said something about me that it completely failed to startle me. Or maybe it wasn't that big a deal. As the Scarecrow, I felt that I had amply proven that I didn't have much of a brain with which to be messed.

  So instead of finding a helpless target waiting for him, the Red Court vampire found a field of adamant, invisible power as I brought my shield up. And while it might have supernatural strength, that didn't increase its mass. It bounced off my shield like any other body would if abruptly meeting someone's front bumper at fifty or sixty miles an hour.

  There was a flash of blue light, and I released the shield with a little English on it, tossing the vampire to sprawl on the ground on the righthand side of the hallway, squarely in Murphy's line of fire, and started moving forward again.

  Murphy calmly put two bullets into the vampire's head, which made an unholy mess of the wall behind it. She put two more into its blood-gorged belly on the way by, and as Susan passed, I heard an ugly, moist sound of impact.

  Tilly stood there staring for a second, frozen. Then Susan nudged him into motion again. The agent grabbed Rudolph and dragged him after Murphy and me.

  We found the first human body several steps later, a glassy-eyed young woman covered in her own blood. Beyond her, a man in a suit lay sprawled on his face in death, and the corpses of two more women lay within a few feet of him.

  There was the most furtive of sounds from a darkened supply closet near an intersection of hallways, its doorway gaping wide open. I didn't let on that I'd heard it.

  "You know what?" I said quietly to no one in particular. "That makes me mad. "

  I turned with my blasting rod's runes blazing into sudden life and roared, "Fuego!"

  A spear of white-hot fire erupted from the rod, blowing through the interior wall in a concussive chorus of shattering materials. I slewed it along the length of the closet at waist height, cutting through the wall like an enormous buzz saw.

  A surprised scream of inhuman agony greeted my efforts, and I spun in place at once, bringing up the shield again. A second vampire bounded around the intersection ahead, running on all fours along the wall, and threw itself at me. At the same time, another of the rubbery black creatures exploded out of an air vent I would have sworn was too tiny to contain it, coming down from almost straight overhead.

  I rebounded the first vamp from my shield, as I had only moments before, and Murphy's gun began to bark the instant it bounced off the wall and to the floor.

  I couldn't get my shield up in time to stop the one plunging down from overhead.

  It landed on me, a horrible, squishy weight, and with the crystalline perceptions of surging adrenaline I saw its jaws dropping open nightmarishly wide, unhinging like a snake's. Its fangs gleamed. Black claws on all four limbs were poised to rake, and its two-foot-long tongue lashed at me as well, seeking exposed skin in order to deliver its stupefying venom.

  I went down to the floor on my face, hurriedly covering my head with my arms. The vampire raked at me furiously, but the defensive spells on my duster held and prevented its claws from scoring. The vampire shifted tactics quickly, tossing me over like a rodeo cowboy taking down a calf. The writhing, slimy tongue lashed at my face, now vulnerable.

  Susan's hand closed on that tongue in midmotion, and with a twist of her wrist and shoulders, she ripped it out of the vampire's mouth. The vamp threw its head back and shrieked - and my ex-sweetie's improvised mace smashed its skull down into its torso.

  The vampire in the closet, still out of sight, continued to wail its agony as I rose again and checked around me to make sure everyone was there. "Anyone hurt?"

  "W-we're fine," Tilly said. For a guy who'd just had a couple of close encounters with imaginary creatures, he seemed to be fairly coherent. Rudolph had retreated to his happy place, and just kept on rocking, crying, and whispering. "What about you, Dresden?"

  "Peachy. "

  Murphy turned toward the closet, her face grim, her gun in her hand. I shook my head at her. "No. Let it scream. It'll draw the others to us and away from anyone else. "

  Murphy looked at me for a moment, frowning gently, but nodded. "God, that's cold, Harry. "

&nb
sp; "I lost my warm fuzzies for the Reds a long time ago," I said. The wounded vampire just wouldn't shut up. Fire's tough on them. Their outer layer of skin is combustible. My attack had probably left it in two pieces, or otherwise pared down its body mass. It would be a smoldering lump of agony writhing on the floor, in so much pain that it could literally do nothing but scream.

  And that suited me just fine.

  "We aren't just standing here, are we?" Tilly asked.

  A pair of particularly loud, simultaneous shrieks came through the vents and shafts, ululating over and under each other. They were particularly strident and piercing, and went on for longer than the others. A chorus of lesser shrieks wailed briefly in reply.

  The Eebs, as generals, sending orders to the troops. It had to be, coordinating the raid and directing it toward the injured member of the team.

  "Indeed we are not. All right, folks. Murph, Tilly, Rudolph, get scarce. Follow Murphy and do whatever the hell she tells you to do if you want to get out of this alive. "

  Murphy grimaced at that. "Be careful, Dresden. "

  "You too," I said. "See you at the church. "

  She gave me a sharp nod, beckoned Tilly, and the two of them started off down another hallway to one of the side stairwells. With any luck, the Eebs had just sent everyone they had running toward me. Even if Murphy and Tilly weren't lucky, I figured they'd probably have only a single sentry to deal with, at the most. I gave Murphy even odds of handling that. A 50 percent chance of survival wasn't real encouraging, but it was about 50 percent higher than if they'd stayed.

  Susan watched them go and then looked at me. "You and Murphy never hooked up?"

  "You're asking this now?" I demanded.

  "Should I fix us both a nice cup of tea, in our copious free time?"

  I rolled my eyes and shook my head. "No. We haven't. "

  "Why not?" she asked.

  "A lot of reasons. Bad timing. Other relationships. You know. " I took a long, deep breath and said, "Keep an eye out. I've got to pull off something hard here. "

  "Right," Susan said. She went back to watching the gloom, her club held ready.

  I closed my eyes and summoned up my will. Time for some real razzle-dazzle stuff.

  Illusions are a fascinating branch of magic. There are two basic ways to manage them. One, you can create an image and put it in someone else's head. There's no actual visible object there, but their brain tells them that it's there, big as life - a phantasm. It's walking real close to the borders of the Laws of Magic to go that way, but it could be very effective.

  The second method is the creation of an actual visible object or creature - a kind of hologram. Those things are much harder to produce, because you have to pour a lot more energy into them, and while a phantasm uses a foe's own mind to create consistency within the illusion, you've got to do it the hard way with holomancy.

  Murph's image was easy to fix in mind, as was Rudolph's, though I admit that I might have made him look a bit skinnier and slouchier than he might actually have been. My holomancy, my rules.

  The hardest was Tilly. I kept getting the image of the actor from The X Files confabulated with the actual Tilly, and the final result was kinda marginal. But I was in a rush.

  I pictured the images with as much clarity as I could and sent my will, including a tiny bit of soulfire, into creating the mirages.

  Soulfire isn't really a destructive force. It's sort of the opposite, actually. And while I used it in fights to enhance my offensive spells, it really shone when creating things.

  I whispered, "Lumen, camerus, factum!" and released energy into the mental images. The holograms of Murphy, Tilly, and Rudolph shimmered into existence, so absolutely real-looking that even I thought they might have been solid matter.

  "They're coming!" Susan said abruptly. She turned to me and practically jumped out of her shoes upon seeing the illusions. Then she waved a hand at Tilly's image, and it flickered straight through. She let out a low whistle and said, "Time to go?"

  The thunder of the Ick's heart grew abruptly louder, a vibration I could feel through the soles of my shoes.

  Vampires boiled out of the central stairwell, a sudden tide of flabby, rubbery black bodies and all-black eyes, of spotted pink tongues and gleaming fangs. At their center, in their flesh-masked forms, were Esteban and Esmerelda. And looming behind them was the Ick.

  Susan and I turned and sprinted. The three illusions did the same thing, complete with the sounds of running footfalls and heavy breathing. With a group howl the vampires came after us.

  I ran as hard as I could, drawing up more of my will. I should have been feeling some of the strain by now, but I wasn't. Go, go, Gadget Faustian bargain.

  I gathered my will, shouted, "Aparturum!" and slashed at the air down the hallway with my right hand.

  I'd used a lot of energy to open the Way, and it tore wide, a diagonal rip in the fabric of space, crooked and off center to the hallway. It hung there like some kind of oddly geometric cloud of mist, and I pointed at it, shouting wordlessly to Susan. She shouted something back, nodding, while behind us the vampires gained ground with every second.

  We both screamed in a frenzy of wild fear and rampant adrenaline, and hit the Way moving at a dead run.

  We plunged through - into empty air.

  I let out a shriek as I fell, and figured I'd finally taken my last desperate gamble - but after less than a second, my flailing limbs hit solid stone and I dropped into a roll. I came back up to my feet and kept running through what appeared to be a spacious cavern of some kind, and Susan ran beside me.

  We didn't run far. A wall loomed up out of the blackness and we barely stopped in time to keep from braining ourselves against it.

  "Jesus," Susan said, panting. "Have you been working out?"

  I turned, blasting rod in hand and ready, to wait for the first of the pursuing vampires to appear. There were shrieks and wails and the sound of scrabbling claws - but none of them emerged from the shadows.

  Which . . . just couldn't have been good.

  Susan and I stood there, a solid wall to our backs, unsure of what to do next. And then a soft green light began to rise.

  It intensified slowly, coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and within a few seconds I realized that we weren't in a cave. We were in a hall. A medieval dining hall, to be precise. I was staring at a double row of trestle tables that stretched down the length of the hall, easily better than a hundred yards, leaving an open aisle between them. Seated at the tables were . . . things.

  There was a curious similarity among them, though no two of the creatures were the same. They were vaguely humanoid. They wore cloth and leather and armor, all of it inscribed with odd geometric shapes in colors that could only with difficulty be differentiated from black. Some of them were tall and emaciated, some squat and muscular, some medium-sized, and every combination in between. Some of the creatures had huge ears, or no ears, or odd, saggy chins. None of them carried the beauty of symmetry. Their similarity was in mismatchedness, each individual's body at aesthetic war with itself.

  One thing was the same: They all had gleaming red eyes, and if ever a gang looked evil, these beings did.

  They had one other thing in common. They were all armed with knives, swords, axes, and other, crueler implements of battle.

  Susan and I had come in sprinting down the center aisle between the tables. We must have startled our hosts, who reacted only in time to catch the second batch of intruders to come through - and catch them they had. Some of the largest of the beings, easily weighing half a ton themselves, had piled onto the Ick and held it pinned to the earth. Nearby, the mob of vampires were lumped more or less together, each one entangled in nets made out of some material that I can only describe as flexible barbed wire.

  Only Esteban and Esmerelda stood on their feet, back- to-back, between the Ick and the netted minions. Ther
e was blood on the floor near them, and two of the native creatures were lying still upon the stone floor.

  "Jesus," Susan whispered. "What are those things?"

  "I . . . " I swallowed. "I think they're goblins. "

  "You think?"

  "I've never seen one before," I replied. "But . . . they match the descriptions I've heard. "

  "Shouldn't we be able to handle, like, a million of them?"

  I snorted. "You liked those movies, too, huh?"

  Her reply was a smile, one touched with sadness.

  "Yeah," I said. "I was thinking of you when I saw them, too. " I shook my head. "And no. This is a case of folklore getting it wrong. These guys are killers. They're sneaky and they're smart and they're ruthless. Like ninjas. From Krypton. Look what they did. "

  Susan stared at the downed Red Court strike team for a moment. I watched the wheels turn in her head as she processed what had happened to the vampires and the Ick, in a handful of seconds, in complete darkness and in total silence.

  "Um. I guess we'd better make nice, then, huh?" Susan asked. She slipped her club around behind her back and put on her old reporter's smile, the one she used to disarm hostile interviewees.

  And then I had a thought.

  A horrible, horrible thought.

  I turned slowly around. I looked at the wall I'd been standing against.

  And then I looked up.

  It wasn't a wall, exactly. It was a dais. A big one. Atop it sat a great stone throne.

  And upon the throne sat a figure in black armor, covered from head to toe. He was huge, nine feet tall at least, and had a lean, athletic look to him despite the armor. His helm covered his head and veiled his face with darkness, and great, savagely pointed antlers rose up from the helmet, though whether they were adornment or appendage I couldn't say. Within the visor of that helmet was a pair of steady red eyes, eyes that matched the thousands of others in the hall.

  He leaned forward, the Lord of the Goblins of Faerie, leader of the Wild Hunt, nightmare of story and legend and peer of the Queen of Air and Darkness, Mab herself.

  "Well," murmured the Erlking. "Well, well, well. Isn't this interesting . "

  Chapter 36

  I stared up at the Erlking, and with my typical pithy brilliance said, "Uh-oh. "

  The Erlking chuckled, a deep sound. It echoed around the hall, resonating from the stone, amplified into subtle music. If I'd had any doubts that I was standing at the heart of the Erlking's power, that laugh and the way the hall had responded in harmony took care of them for me. "It seems, my kin, that we have guests. "

  More chuckles rose up from a thousand throats, and evil red eyes crinkled with amusement.

  "I confess," the Erlking said, "that this is a . . . unique event. We are unaccustomed to visitors here. I trust you will be patient whilst I blow the dust from the old courtesies. "

  Again, the goblins laughed. The sound seemed to press directly against whatever nerve raised the hairs on my arms.

  The Erlking rose, smooth and silent despite his armor and his mass, and descended from the dais. He walked around to loom over us, and I took note of the huge sword at his side, its pommel and hilt bristling with sharp metal protrusions that looked like thorns. He studied us for a moment and then did two things I hadn't really expected.

  First, he took off his helmet. The horns were, evidently, fixed to the dark metal. I braced myself to view something horrible but . . . the Lord of Goblins was nothing like what I had expected.

  Upon his face, the hideous asymmetries of the goblins of his hall were all reflected and somehow transformed. Though he, too, shared the irregular batch of features, upon him their fundamental repulsiveness was muted into a kind of roguish distinction. His crooked nose seemed something that might have been earned rather than gifted. Old, faint scars marred his face, but only added further grace notes to his appearance. Standing there before the Erlking, I felt as if I were looking at something handcrafted by a true master, perhaps carved from a piece of twisted drift-wood, given its own odd beauty, and then patiently refined and polished into something made lovely by its sheer, unique singularity.

  There was power in that face, too, in his simple presence. You could feel it in the air around him, the tension and focus of a pure predator, and one who rarely failed to bring down his prey.

  The second thing he did was to bow with inhuman elegance, take Susan's hand, and bend to brush his lips across the backs of her fingers. She stared at him with wide eyes that were more startled than actually afraid, and she kept her smile going the whole time.

  "Lady huntress," he said. "The scent of fresh blood hangs upon you. Well does it become your nature. "

  He looked at me and smiled, showing his teeth, which were white and straight and even, and I had to fight to keep from flinching from his gaze. The Erlking had a score to settle with me. I had better come up with a plan, and fast, or I was a dead man.

  "And the new Knight of Winter," he continued. "I nearly had thee at Arctis Tor, when the ogres caught up to thee upon the slopes. Hadst thou departed but threescore heartbeats later . . . " He shook his head. "Thou art an intriguing quarry, Sir Knight. "

  I bowed to the Erlking in what I hoped was a respectful fashion. "I do thank thee for the compliment, O King," I said. "Though it is chance, not design, that brought me hither, I am humbled by thy generosity in accepting us into thine home as guests. Mine host. "

  The Erlking cocked his head slightly to one side, and then his mouth turned up into another amused smile. "Ah. Caught out by mine own words, 'twould seem. Courtesy is not a close companion unto me, so perhaps it is meet that in a duel of manners, thou wouldst have the advantage. And this hall honors cleverness and wisdom as much as strength. "

  A murmur of goblin voices ran through the hall at his words, because I'd just done something impossibly impudent. I'd dropped myself into the dinner hall of the greatest hunter of Faerie - practically thrown myself onto a plate with an apple in my mouth, in fact - and then used an idle slip of his tongue to claim the ancient rights of protection as his guest, thus obligating him, as host, to uphold those responsibilities to me.

  I've said it before. The customs of host and guest are a Big Deal to these people. It's insane, but it's who they are.

  I bowed my head to him respectfully, rather than saying anything like, Gee, it's not often one of the fae gets outwitted by a lowly human, which should be proof enough for anyone that I'm not entirely devoid of diplomatic skills. "I should not wish to intrude upon your hospitality any longer than is absolutely necessary, Lord of Hunters. With your goodwill, we will depart immediately and trouble you no more. "

  "Do not listen to it, O Erlking," called a woman's clear soprano. It was easy to recognize Esmerelda. "It speaks honeyed words with a poisoned tongue, full intent upon deceiving you. "

  The Erlking turned to regard the pair of vampires, still on their feet despite the efforts of the goblins who had initially attacked them. He studied them in complete silence for several seconds and then, after a glance at the fallen goblins near them, inclined his head. "Hunters of the Red Court, I bid ye continue. I listen. Pray tell me more. "

  "Wiley game indeed, this wizard kin," said Esteban. "It was well treed and out of tricks but for this shameful bid to escape the rightful conclusion of the hunt. With full intent did the wizard bring us here, into your demesne, intending to use you, O Erlking, to strike down his own foes. "

  "When hunting a fox, one must be wary not to follow it into the great bear's lair," the Erlking replied. "This is common sense for any hunter, by my reckoning. "

  "Well-spoken, Goblin King," Esmerelda said. "But by this action, the wizard seeks to draw you into the war betwixt its folk and ours, for we hunt it upon the express wishes of our lord and master, as part of our rightly declared war. "

  The Erlking's red eyes narrowed and flicked back over to me. I could hear a low and angry undertone to h
is next words. "I desire naught of any other being, save to pursue my hunts in accordance with the ancient traditions without interference. I tell thee this aright, Sir Knight. Should this hunter's words prove true, I will lay a harsh penalty upon thee and thine - one which the Powers will speak of in whispers of dread for a thousand years. "

  I swallowed. I thought about it. Then I lifted my chin and said calmly, "I give thee my word, as Knight of the Winter Court, that I had no such intention when coming here. It was chance that brought this chase to thy hall, O Erlking. I swear it upon my power. "

  The ancient fae stared hard at me for several more seconds, his nostrils flaring. Then he drew back his head slowly and nodded once. "So. I am given a riddle by my most thoughtful visitors," he said, his voice rumbling. He looked from the Eebs and company back to Susan and me. "What to do with you all. For I wish not to encourage visits such as this one. " His mouth twisted in distaste. "Now I am reminded why I do not indulge in courtesy as do the Sidhe. Such matters delight them. I find that they pall swiftly. "

  A very large, very powerful-looking goblin near the front of the hall said, "My king, render blood judgment upon them all. They are intruders in your realm. Place their heads upon your gates as a warning to any who would follow. "

  A rumble of agreement ran through the crowd of goblins.

  The Erlking seemed to muse on the idea for a moment.

  "Or," I offered, "such an act might invite more interference. The express servants of the king of the Red Court would surely be missed should they not return. The White Council of wizards would, I assure you, have very strong feelings about my own disappearance. To say nothing, of course, of Mab's reaction. I'm still quite new, and she hasn't yet tired of me. "

  The Erlking waved a hand. "Nay, nay. The Knight caught my words fairly. Guests they are, Lord Ordulaka, and I will not cheapen my honor by betraying that ancient compact. " He narrowed his eyes. "Mmmm. Guests they are. Perhaps I should treat them most courteously. Perhaps I should insist that you remain my guests, to be cared for and entertained, for the next century. " He gave me a chilly little smile. "After all, you are all but the first visitors to my realm. I could understandably find it greatly insulting were you not to allow me the opportunity to honor you appropriately. "

  The Eebs looked at each other and then both bowed sinuously to the Erlking. "Generous host," Esteban said, "you honor us greatly. We should be pleased to stay as your guests for whatever length of time you feel appropriate. "

  "Harry," Susan hissed, tensing.

  She didn't need to explain it to me. A delay of even a few hours might mean Maggie's death.

  "Honored host," I said. "Such a path would be no less than your due, given the . . . unanticipated nature of our visit. But I would beg you only to consider my obligations to my Lady Mab. I pursue a quest that I may not lay aside, and which she has bidden me complete. It hinges upon things that occur in mortal time, and were you to insist upon your rights as host, it could compromise my own honor. Something I know that you, as mine host, would never wish to do. "

  The Erlking gave me a look that blended annoyance with amusement and said, "Few Winter Knights have had swords as swift as your tongue, boy. But I warn thee: name your Lady a third time and you will not like what follows. "

  I hadn't even thought of that. Hell's bells, he was right. Speaking Mab's name here, in the Nevernever, could indeed summon her. At which point not only would she be an intruder in another ruler's domain, perhaps vulnerable to his power or influence, but she would be extremely annoyed with one overtaxed wizard for having brought her. The clashing of such Powers in simple proximity could prove dangerous, even deadly.

  I bowed my head again and said, "Of course, mine host. "

  A goblin about five feet tall, and so slender that it looked like a stiff wind might blow him down, appeared from the shadows and diffidently took the Erlking's helmet. He began to turn to carry it away, paused, and suggested, in a spidery, whispering, unpleasant voice, "We are all predators here, my lord. Let it be settled in a trial of blood. "

  The Erlking spread his hands, as if he felt the suggestion should have been self-evident to everyone present. "Of course, Rafforut. Again, thou hast given excellent service. "

  The wispy goblin bowed at the waist and retreated to the shadows, his mouth curling up in a small smile.

  "Oh," I said. "Oh, crap. "

  "What?" Susan asked.

  I turned to speak quietly to her in a whisper pitched to register only to her more-than-human hearing, and hoped that the goblins didn't hear even better than that. "The Erlking can't harm us, or allow us to come to harm while we are his guests. Ditto for the Reds. But since we have competing claims that must be settled, he can establish a trial by combat to see who is correct - or at least, most committed to his version of the story. "

  Susan's eyes widened as she understood. "If we won't fight for our side of the story, he decides against us and for the Eebs. "

  I nodded. "At which point he can declare that we have abused his hospitality," I said. "And he will be free to kill us, probably without repercussion. "

  "But you just said - "

  "M - The Winter Queen doesn't feel a thing for me," I said. "She might be annoyed. But this time next week, she'll barely remember me. "

  "But the Council - "

  "I said they would feel strongly about it," I said. "I never said they'd be upset. "

  Susan's eyes got a little wider.

  "A trial of skill, then," the Erlking said. "A match. The Knight and the lady huntress versus two of your own, Red hunters. Choose which will stand for your side of the issue. " He clapped his hands once, a sound like a small cannon going off. "Prepare the hall. "

  Goblins leapt to obey, and cleared the long trestle tables outward with great energy and efficiency. Others began to rip at the stone with their bare, black-nailed hands. They tore it like wet earth, swiftly gouging out a great ring in the floor, a trench six inches wide, almost that deep, and thirty or forty yards across.

  "We're hardly armed properly for such a trial, mine host," I said. "Whilst the Red hunters are fully equipped for battle as they are. "

  The Erlking spread his hands again. "Ah, but they are armed with what they deemed necessary to them for the hunt. And a true hunter never leaves himself unprepared for what the world may bring to face him. Do you say, perhaps, that you are no hunter after all?"

  "No," Susan said at once. "Of course not. "

  The Erlking looked at her and gave her a nod of approval. "I am glad you find yourselves appropriately armed. " He glanced over at the Eebs, who were discussing matters in furious whispers, probably employing a nonstandard use of pronouns. "Sooth, boy, you were quick enough at wordplay that I would fain feed thee and send thee on thy way, had you come here unpursued. But I will not rouse the wrath of the Lords of Outer Night lightly. A war with them would be a waste of dozens of excellent hunting moons. " He shrugged. "So. Prove yourselves worthy, and you may be on your way. "

  I cleared my throat. "And our . . . fellow visitors?"

  The Erlking didn't smile or otherwise change his expression, but I suddenly got creeped out enough to have to fight to keep from stepping away from him. "My hall is fully furnished to receive all manner of outsiders. There are rooms in these caves filled with clever devices meant for the amusement of my kin, and lacking only the appropriate . . . participants. "

  "What happens if we lose?" Susan asked.

  "If fortune is kind, you will have clean deaths in the trial. If not . . . " He shrugged. "Certain of my kin - Rafforut, for example - are most eager to give purpose to all the rooms of my hall. You would amuse them for as long as you could respond. Which might be a very, very long time. "

  Susan eyed the Erlking. Then she said, "Let's do it, then. I, too, have promises to keep. "

  He inclined his head to her. "As you wish, lady huntress. Sir Knight, lady, please enter the circle. "

&n
bsp; I started toward it and Susan walked beside me.

  "How should we do it?" she asked.

  "Fast and hard. "

  Her voice turned wry. "How did I know you'd want it like that?"

  I let out a short bark of genuine laughter. "I thought I was supposed to be the one with one thing on his mind. "

  "Oh, when we were younger, certainly," she replied. "Now, though, our roles have reversed. "

  "Meaning you want it fast and hard, too?"

  She gave me a sly and very heated look with her dark eyes from beneath her dark lashes. "Let's just say that there's something to be said for that, once in a while. " She spun the table leg in a few circles. I watched. She stopped and glanced at me, arching an eyebrow inquisitively.

  My godmother might have tipped me off to a cure, a way to free Susan of the creature that had devoured half of her being and thirsted for me, something the Fellowship of St. Giles had been trying - and failing - to do for hundreds of years. It was possible that, with a bit more work, I could make it happen for her, give her back control of her life.

  But even if I did, we couldn't be together. Not now.

  Mab was bad enough . . . and Hell's bells, I hadn't even thought about it, I'd been so busy, but Mab's understudy, Maeve, the Winter Lady, was arguably more psychotic than Mab herself. And she was unarguably pet-tier, more vicious, and more likely to want to play games with anyone close to me.

  I wondered how long it would take me to lose myself. Weeks? Months? Neither Mab nor Maeve would want me to remain my own man. I wondered if, when I was what they wanted me to be, it would bother me to remember what I had been. What others had meant to me.

  All I said was, "I miss you. "

  She looked down and away, blinking. Then she gave me a rather hesitant smile as a tear fell - as if it were something she hadn't done in a while, and was still remembering how to accomplish it. "I miss joking with you. "

  "How could you do it?" I asked quietly. "How could you not tell me about her?"

  "By tearing out a piece of myself," she said quietly. "I know it was wrong. I knew it was wrong when I did it, and that . . . that I was going to regret it someday. But I had to keep her safe. I'm not asking you to forgive. Just . . . just understand. "

  I thought about that moment of stillness and choice at the Stone Table.

  "Yeah," I said. I lifted a hand and touched her face with my fingertips. Then I leaned over to kiss her forehead. "I do understand. "

  She stepped closer and we hugged. She felt surprisingly slender and fragile in my arms. We stayed that way for a little while, both of us feeling the fear of what was coming. We tried to ignore the hundreds of red eyes watching us. We more or less succeeded.

  Another cannon clap of sound echoed around the vast hall, and the Erlking said, "Red hunters. Let your chosen champions enter the circle or else forfeit the trial. "

  "Okay," I said. "The Eebs will be tough but they're doable. They rely on stealth tactics, and this is going to be as straight up as you can get. I'm going to hit them with something that should give you enough time to close. Take whichever one is on the left. Move too far to the right and you'll be in my line of fire, so don't. You smash one, I burn the other, and we go get some custom coffee mugs to memorialize the occasion later. "

  Susan said, "I stopped drinking coffee. You know, the caffeine. "

  I looked at her with mock disgust. "You heathen. "

  "Fine!" Esmerelda said from the far side of the circle. She pointed a finger at one of the vampires trapped beneath the goblins' nets. "You. You do it. " Impatiently, the tiny woman went to the trapped vampire, hideous and inhuman in its true form, and sliced through the odd material of the net with her nails, freeing the captive. Without ceremony, she pitched the vampire into the circle.

  One of her foot soldiers? Okay. This might be easier than I'd thought.

  Esteban appeared then, walking calmly forward.

  The slowly accelerating lub-dub sound of the Devourer's unsettling heartbeat came with him. The Devourer loomed over Esteban, horrible and hungry-looking, and at a command from the vampire, it shambled forward into the circle, its all-black eyes staring at us with unnerving intensity. I might have been projecting or something, but it seemed to me that the Ick was spoiling for some payback.

  "Oh, crap," Susan said in a very small voice.

  "When the circle is closed," said the Erlking's deep baritone, "the trial begins. It will conclude when one party has been neutralized. Do the champions of the Red hunters stand ready?"

  All of the vampires let out wailing shrieks, and even the Ick emitted a hissing burble, like an overfull teakettle.

  "What are we going to do?" Susan whispered frantically.

  I had no idea. "You take the scrub," my mouth said. "I'll handle the Devourer. "

  "Right," she said, her eyes wide. "Right. "

  The Erlking appeared, halfway between the two parties, standing outside the circle. "Sir Knight! Do you and the lady huntress stand ready?"

  We both nodded sharply, though our eyes were fixed upon our opponents, not the Erlking. I began drawing in my will, and power seethed in my belly and chest and became an odd pressure behind my eyes.

  The Erlking drew his sword and held it high, and every goblin in the place began roaring. Fire licked up the blade of the sword, wreathing it in green flame, and then he dropped the sword, thrusting its tip into the trough in the stone the goblins had dug.

  Green goblin fire flared up with a howl and clouds of foul smoke. It raced around the exterior of the circle in both directions, until the two tongues of flame met at the point opposite where they had begun.

  Susan screamed. I screamed. The vampire screamed. The Ick . . . did that teakettle thing.

  And then we all started trying to kill one another.