Turn Coat, Page 15Jim Butcher
I looked at Luccio's still-unconscious form. The stress of coordinating the search for Morgan for who knows how long before he showed up, coupled with the pains of her injuries and the sedative effect of the painkillers I'd given her, meant that she'd never stirred. Not when the gun went off, not when we'd been talking, and not when we'd all had to work together to get Morgan back up the stairs and out to the silver Rolls.
I made sure she was covered with a blanket. The moment I did, Mister descended from his perch atop one of my bookcases, and draped himself languidly over her lower legs, purring.
I scratched my cat's ears and said, "Keep her company. "
He gave me an inscrutable look that said maybe he would and maybe he wouldn't. Mister was a cat, and cats generally considered it the obligation of the universe to provide shelter, sustenance, and amusement as required. I think Mister considered it beneath his dignity to plan for the future.
I got a pen and paper and wrote.
I'm running out of time, and visitors are on the way. I'm going someplace where I might be able to create new options. You'll understand shortly.
I'm sorry I didn't bring you, too. In your condition, you'd be of limited assistance. I know you don't like it, but you also know that I'm right.
Help yourself to whatever you need. I hope that we'll talk soon.
I folded the note and left it on the coffee table, where she'd see it upon waking. Then I bent over, kissed her hair, and left her sleeping safe in my home.
I parked the Rolls in the lot next to the marina. If we hurried, we could still get there before the witching hour, which would be the best time to try the invocation. Granted, trying it while injured and weary with absolutely no preritual work was probably going to detract more than enough from the ritual to offset the premium timing, but I was beggared for time and therefore not spoiling for choice.
"Allow me to reiterate," Murphy said, "that I feel that this is a bad idea. "
"So noted," I said. "But will you do it?"
She stared out the Rolls's windshield at the vast expanse of Lake Michigan, a simple and enormous blackness against the lights of Chicago. "Yes," she said.
"If there was anything else you could do," I said, "I'd ask you to do it. I swear. "
"I know," she said. "It just pisses me off that there's nothing more I can add. "
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, you're going to be in danger, too. Someone might decide to come by and try to use you against me. And if word gets back to the Council about how much you know, they're going to blow a gasket. "
She smiled a bit. "Yes, thank you. I feel less left out now that I know someone might kill me anyway. " She shifted, settling her gun's shoulder harness a little more comfortably. "I am aware of my limits. That isn't the same thing as liking them. " She looked back at me. "How are you going to reach the others?"
"I'd. . . really rather not say. The less you know-"
"The safer I am?"
"No, actually," I said. "The less you know, the safer I am. Don't forget that we might be dealing with people who can take information out of your head, whether you want to give it or not. "
Murphy folded her arms and shivered. "I hate feeling helpless. "
"Yeah," I said, "me, too. How's he doing, Molly?"
"Still asleep," Molly reported from the back of the limo. "I don't think his fever is any higher, though. " She reached out and touched Morgan's forehead with the back of one hand.
Morgan's arm rose up and sharply slapped her arm away at the wrist, though he never changed the pace of his breathing or otherwise stirred. Christ. It was literally a reflex action. I shook my head and said, "Let's move, people. "
Molly and I wrestled the wounded Warden into his wheelchair again. He roused enough to help a little, and sagged back into sleep as soon as he was seated. Molly slung the strap of my ritual box over her shoulder and started pushing Morgan across the parking lot to the marina docks. I grabbed a couple of heavy black nylon bags.
"And what do we have in there?" Murphy asked me.
"Party favors," I said.
"You're having a party out there?"
I turned my eyes to the east and stared out over the lake. You couldn't see the island from Chicago, even on a clear day, but I knew it was there, a sullen and threatening presence. "Yeah," I said quietly. A real party. Practically everyone who'd wanted to kill me lately would be there.
Murphy shook her head. "All of this over one man. "
"Over a hero of the Council," I said quietly. "Over the most feared man on the Wardens. Morgan nearly took out the Red King himself-a vampire maybe four thousand years old, surrounded by some disgustingly powerful retainers. If he hadn't bugged out, Morgan would have killed him. "
"You almost said something nice about him," Murphy said.
"Not nice," I said. "But I can acknowledge who he is. Morgan has probably saved more lives than you could count, over the years. And he's killed innocents, too. I'm certain of it. He's been the Council's executioner for at least twenty or thirty years. He's obsessive and tactless and ruthless and prejudiced. He hates with a holy passion. He's a big, ugly, vicious attack dog. "
Murphy smiled faintly. "But he's your attack dog. "
"He's our attack dog," I echoed. "He'd give his life without hesitation if he thought it was necessary. "
Murphy watched Molly pushing Morgan down the dock. "God. It's got to be awful, to know that you're capable of disregarding life so completely. Someone else's, yours, doesn't really matter which. To know that you're so readily capable of taking everything away from a human being. That's got to eat away at him. "
"For so long there's not a lot left, maybe," I said. "I think you're right about the killer acting in desperation. This situation got way too confused and complicated for it to be a scheme. It's just. . . a big confluence of all kinds of chickens coming home to roost. "
"Maybe that will make it simpler to resolve. "
"World War One was kind of the same deal," I said. "But then, it was sort of hard to point a finger at any one person and say, 'That guy did it. ' World War Two was simpler, that way. "
"You've been operating under the assumption that there is someone to blame," Murphy said.
"Only if I can catch him. " I shook my head. "If I can't. . . well. "
Murphy turned to me. She reached up with both hands, put them on the sides of my head, and pulled me down a little. Then she kissed my forehead and my mouth, neither quickly nor with passion. Then she let me go and looked up at me, her eyes worried and calm. "You know that I love you, Harry. You're a good man. A good friend. "
I gave her a lopsided smile. "Don't go all gushy on me, Murph. "
She shook her head. "I'm serious. Don't get yourself killed. Kick whatsoever ass you need to in order to make that happen. " She looked down. "My world would be a scarier place without you in it. "
I chewed my lip for a second, feeling very awkward. Then I said, "I'd rather have you covering my back than anyone in the world, Karrin. " I cleared my throat. "You might be the best friend I've ever had. "
She blinked quickly several times and shook her head. "Okay. This is going somewhere awkward. "
"Maybe we should take it from 'whatsoever ass,' " I suggested.
She nodded. "Find him. Kick his ass. "
"That is the plan," I confirmed. Then I bent down and kissed her forehead and her mouth, gently, and leaned my forehead against hers. "Love you, too," I whispered.
Her voice tightened. "You jerk. Good luck. "
"You, too," I said. "Keys are in the ignition. "
Then I straightened, hitched up the heavy bags, and stalked toward the docks. I didn't look at her as I walked away, and I didn't look back.
That way, we could both pretend that I hadn't seen her crying.
r owned an ancient battered commercial fishing boat. He told me it was a trawler. Or maybe he said troller. Or schooner. It was one of those-unless it wasn't. Apparently, nautical types get real specific and fussy about the fine distinctions that categorize the various vessels-but since I'm not nautical, I don't lose much sleep over the misuse of the proper term.
The boat is forty-two feet long and could have been a stunt double for Quint's fishing boat in Jaws. It desperately needed a paint job, as the white of its hull had long since faded to grey and smoke-smudged black. The only fresh paint on it was a row of letters on the bow that read Water Beetle.
Getting Morgan on board was a pain-literally, in his case. We got him settled onto the bed in the little cabin and brought all the gear aboard. After that, I climbed up onto the bridge, started the engines with my copy of the Water Beetle's key, and immediately realized I hadn't cast off the lines. I had to go back down to the deck to untie us from the dock.
Look, I just told you-I'm not nautical.
Leaving the marina wasn't hard. Thomas had a spot that was very near the open waters of the lake. I almost forgot to flick on the lights, but got them clicked on before we got out of the marina and onto the open water. Then I checked the compass next to the boat's wheel, turned us a degree or two south of due east, and opened up the engine.
We started out over the blackness of the lake, the boat's engines making a rather subdued, throaty lub lub dub lub sound. The boat had originally been built for charter use in the open sea, and it had some muscle. The water was calm tonight, and the ride remained smooth as we rapidly built up speed.
I felt a little nervous about the trip. Over the past year, Thomas and I had gone out to the island several times so that I could explore the place. He'd been teaching me how to handle the boat, but this was my first solo voyage.
After a few minutes, Molly came partway up the short ladder to the bridge and stopped. "Do I need to ask permission to come up there or something?"
"Why would you?" I asked.
She considered. "It's what they do on Star Trek?"
"Good point," I said. "Permission granted, Ensign. "
"Aye aye," she said, and came up to stand next to me. She frowned at the darkness to the east, and cast a wary glance back at the rapidly fading lights of the city. "So. We're going out to the weird island, the one with that big ley line running through it?"
"Yep," I said.
"Where my dad got. . . "
I tried not to remember how badly Michael Carpenter had suffered when he had gone there with me. "Crippled," I said. "Yeah. "
She frowned quietly. "I heard him talking to my mom about the island. But when I tried to go look it up, I couldn't find it on any of the maps. Not even in the libraries. "
"Yeah," I said. "From what I hear, bad things happened to everyone who went out there. There used to be some kind of port facility for fishing and merchant traffic, big as a small town, but it was abandoned. Sometime in the nineteenth century, the city completely expunged the place from its records. "
"Didn't want anyone to go out there," I said. "If they merely passed a law, they knew that sooner or later some moron would go there out of sheer contrariness. So they pretty much unmade the place, at least officially. "
"And in more than a century, no one's ever seen it?"
"That dark ley line puts off a big field of energy," I said. "It makes people nervous. Not insane or anything, but it's enough to make them subconsciously avoid the place, if they aren't making a specific effort to get there. Plus, there are stone reefs around a big portion of the island, and people tend to swing wide around it. "
She frowned. "Couldn't that be a problem for us?"
"I'm pretty sure I know where to get through them. "
"Pretty sure. "
Maybe she looked a little paler. "Oh," she said. "Good. And we're going there why?"
"The sanctum invocation," I said. "The island has a kind of spirit to it, an awareness. "
"A genius loci," she said.
I nodded approval. "Exactly that. And fed by that ley line, it's a big, strong one. It doesn't much care for visitors, either. It's arranged to kill a bunch of them. "
Molly blinked. "And you want to do a sanctum invocation? There?"
"Oh, hell no," I said. "I don't want to. But I've got to find some way to give myself an edge tomorrow, or it's all over but the crying. "
She shook her head slowly. Then she fell silent until we actually reached the island a little while later. It was dark, but I had enough moonlight and starlight to find the buoy Thomas and I had placed at the entry through the reef. I swung the Water Beetle through it, and began following the coastline of the island until I passed a second buoy and guided the boat into the small floating dock we'd constructed. I managed to get the vessel next to the dock without breaking anything, and hopped off with lines in hand to tie it off.
I looked up to find Molly holding my ritual box. She passed it to me and I nodded to her. "If this works, it should take me an hour or so," I told her. "Stay with Morgan. If I'm not back by dawn, untie the boat, start the engine, and drive it back to the marina. It's not too different from a car, for what you'll be doing. "
She bit her lip and nodded. "What then?" she asked.
"Get to your dad. Tell him I said that you need to disappear. He'll know what to do. "
"What about you?" she asked. "What will you be doing?"
I slipped the strap to the ritual box over one shoulder, took up my staff, and started toward the interior of the island.
"Not much," I said over my shoulder. "I'll be dead. "
Grimm's fairy tales, a compilation of the most widely known scary stories of Western Europe, darn near always feature a forest as the setting. Monstrous and terrifying things live there. When the hero of a given story sets out, the forest is a place of danger, a stronghold of darkness-and there's a good reason for it.
It can be freaking frightening to be walking a forest in the dark. And if that isn't enough, it's dangerous, to boot.
You can't see much. There are sounds around you, from the sigh of wind in the trees to the rustle of brush caused by a moving animal. Invisible things touch you suddenly and without warning-tree branches, spiderwebs, leaves, brush. The ground shifts and changes constantly, forcing you to compensate with every step as the earth below you rises or dips suddenly. Stones trip up your feet. So do ground-hugging vines, thorns, branches, and roots. The dark conceals sinkholes, embankments, and the edges of rock shelves that might drop you six inches or six feet.
In stories, you read about characters running through a forest at night. It's a load of crap. Oh, maybe it's feasible in really ancient pine forests, where the ground is mostly clear, or in those vast oak forests where they love to shoot Robin Hood movies and adaptations of Shakespeare's work. But if you get into the thick native brush in the U. S. , you're better off finding a big stick and breaking your own ankle than you are trying to sprint through it blind.
I made my way cautiously uphill, passing through the ramshackle, decaying old buildings of what had been a tiny town, just up the slope from the dock. The trees had reclaimed it long since, growing up through floors and out broken old windows.
There were deer on the island, though God knows how they got there. It's big enough to support quite a few of the beautiful animals. I'd found signs of foxes, raccoons, skunks, and wildcats, plus the usual complement of rabbits, squirrels, and groundhogs. There were a few wild goats there as well, probably descendants of escapees from the former human residents of the island.
I began to sense the hostile presence of the island before I'd gone twenty steps. It began as a low, sourceless anxiety, one I barely noticed against the backdrop of all the perfectly rational anxiety I was carrying. But as I continued up the hill, it got worse, maturing into a fluttery panic that made
my heart beat faster and dried out my mouth.
I steeled myself against the psychic pressure, and continued at the same steady pace. If I let it get to me, if I wound up panicking and bolted, I could end up a victim of the normal threats of a forest at night. In fact, that was probably what the island had in mind, so to speak.
I gritted my teeth and continued, while my eyes slowly adjusted to the night, revealing the shapes of trees and rocks and brush, and making it a little easier to move safely.
It was a short hike to the mountain's summit. The final bit of hill was at an angle better than forty-five degrees, and the only way one could climb it safely was to use the old steps that had been carved into the rock face. They had felt weirdly familiar and comfortable the first time I went up them. That hadn't changed noticeably in subsequent visits. Even now, I could go up them in the dark, my legs and feet automatically adjusting to the slightly irregular spacing of the steps, without needing to consult my eyes.
Once at the top of the stairs, I found myself on a bald crown of a hilltop. A tower stood there, an old lighthouse made of stone. Well, about three-quarters of it stood there, anyway. Some of it had collapsed, and the stones had been cannibalized and used to construct a small cottage at the foot of the tower.
The silent presence of the island was stronger here, a brooding and dangerous thing that did not care for visitors.
I looked around the moonlit hilltop, nodded once, marched over to the flat area in front of the cottage and planted my ritual box firmly on the ground.
What I was about to attempt had its beginnings in ancient shamanic practice. A given tribe's shaman or wise one or spirit caller or whatever would set out into the wild near home and seek out a place of presence and power, such as this one. Depending on the culture involved, the practitioner would then invoke the spirit of the place and draw its full attention. The ritual that happened next wasn't quite an introduction, or a challenge, or a staking of a claim on the land, or a battle of wills, but it incorporated elements of all of those things. If the ritual was successful, it would form a sort of partnership or peerage between the shaman and the genius loci in question.
If it wasn't successful, well. . . It's a bad thing to have the full attention of a dangerous spirit that can exert control over the environment around you. This spirit, bolstered by the dark energy of the ley line that ran beneath the tower, was more than capable of driving me insane or recycling me into food for its animals and trees.
"And yet here I am about to pop you in the nose," I muttered. "Am I daring or what?"
I set my staff down and opened the box.
First, the circle. Using a short whisk broom, I quickly cleared dirt and dust from the rock shelf beneath me in an area about three feet across. Then I used a wooden-armed chalk compass, like those used in geometry classrooms, to draw out a perfect circle on the stone in faintly luminescent, glow-in-the-dark chalk. The circle didn't have to be perfectly round in order to work, but it was a little bit more efficient, and I wanted every advantage I could get.
Next, I got five white candles out of the box, and checked a magnetic compass so that I could align them properly. The compass needle spun wildly and aimlessly. The turbulence of the nearby ley line must have been throwing it off. I put the thing away and sighted on the North Star, setting the candles out at the five points of a pentagram, its tip aligned with due north.
After that, I got out an old and genuine KA-BAR U. S. Marine combat knife, along with a plain silver chalice and a silver former Salvation Army bell with a black wooden handle.
I double-checked each of the objects and the circle, then stepped a few feet away and undressed completely, losing my rings, bracelet, and all my other magical gear except for the silver pentacle amulet around my neck. I didn't have to do the ritual sky clad, but it reduced the chances of any of the enchantments on my gear causing interference by a small if significant amount.
All the while, the pressure from the island's awareness kept doubling and redoubling. My head started pounding, which was just lovely in combination with the fresh bumps on it. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Mosquitoes began to whine and buzz around me, and I shuddered to think of the places that were going to get bitten while I did this.
I went to the circle, checked everything again, got a box of matches out of the ritual box, and then knelt down in the circle. Yes, I could have lit them with a spell-but again, that would have left an energy signature on the candles that could potentially interfere. So I did it the old-fashioned way. As I struck the first match and leaned down to light the northernmost candle, a screech owl let out an absolutely alien-sounding cry from so nearby that I almost jumped out of my skin. I barely kept from losing my balance and smudging the circle.
"Cheap shot," I muttered. Then I lit a fresh match and began again. I lit the five candles, then turned to face the north and reached out to gently touch the chalk circle. A mild effort of will closed it, and the psychic pressure I'd been feeling for the last half hour or more abruptly vanished.
I closed my eyes and began to regulate my breathing, relaxing my muscles group by group, focusing my thoughts on the task at hand. I felt my will begin to gather. Outside my circle, the owl shrieked again. A wildcat let out an earsplitting yowl. A pair of foxes set up a yipping, howling chorale in the brush.
I ignored them until I felt that I had gathered all the strength I could. Then I opened my eyes and picked up the bell. I rang it sharply once, and filled my voice with the power of my will. "I am not some clueless mortal you can frighten away," I said to the hilltop. "I am magi, one of the Wise, and I am worthy of your respect. "
A wind came rushing up from the lake. The trees muttered and sighed with the force of it, a sound like angry surf, enormous and omnipresent.
I rang the bell again. "Hear me!" I called. "I am magi, one of the Wise, and I know your nature and your strength. "
The wind continued to rise around me, making the candles flicker. With an effort of will, I steadied their flames, and felt the temperature of my body drop a couple of degrees in reaction.
I set the bell down, took up the knife, and drew it along the knuckles of my left hand, opening a thin line in my flesh. Blood welled up immediately. I put the knife down, took up the chalice, and let my blood trickle into the cup.
And as it did, I used the one thing that made me think it was possible-just possible-to pull this thing off.
During a case a little more than a year ago, an archangel had decided to invest in my future. Uriel had replaced the power I'd lost when I resisted the temptations offered me by one of the Fallen. The demon's Hellfire had been literal hell on wheels for destructive purposes. Soulfire was apparently the angelic equivalent of the same force, the flip side of the coin-fires of creation rather than those of destruction. I hadn't experimented with it much. Soulfire used my own life force as its source of energy. If I poured too much into any given working, it could kill me.
As the blood dripped down into the chalice, I reached out to the place in my mind where the archangel's gift resided, and poured soulfire into my blood. Silver-white sparks began to stream from the cuts and accompanied the blood down into the chalice, filling it with supernatural power far in excess of what my blood, a common source of magical energy, contained on its own.
I lifted the chalice in my right hand and the silver bell in my left. Droplets of blood and flickering sparks of soulfire fell on the silver, and when it rang again, the sound was piercing, the tone so perfect and pure that it could have shattered glass.
"Hear me!" I called, and my soulfire-enhanced voice rang out in a similar fashion, sharp and precise, strong and resonant. Small stones fell from a broken section of the tower wall. "I am magi, one of the Wise! I make of my blood this gift to you, to honor your strength and to show my respect! Come forth!" I set the bell down and prepared to break the circle and release the spell. "Come forth!" I bel
lowed, even louder. "COME FORTH!"
I simultaneously broke the circle, released my will, and poured out the scarlet and silver fire of my enhanced blood onto the stone of the hilltop.
Animals of the forest erupted into screams and howls. Birds exploded from their sleeping places to swarm in the skies above me. Half a dozen tree branches snapped all together in the rushing wind, the sounds crackling over the stony hilltop like rifle shots.
And, an instant later, a bolt of viridian lightning crashed down out of a completely clear sky and struck the ground in the center of the empty shell of the old lighthouse.
There was little enough in the lighthouse that could burn, but some brush and grasses grew there. Their light danced and flickered on the walls, if only for a few seconds-and then suddenly revealed an indistinct and solid shape inside.
I took a slow breath and rose to my feet, facing the lighthouse. It was a rare thing for such an entity to take material form, and I had thought it so unlikely to happen that I had scarcely bothered to plan for it.
The woods all around me rustled, and I darted my eyes left and right without moving.
Animals had appeared. Deer were the largest and most obvious, the stags' horns wicked in the moonlight. Foxes and raccoons were there, too, as well as rabbits and squirrels and all manner of woodland creatures, predator and prey alike. They were all staring at me with obvious awareness that was far more than they should have had, and all of them were eerily still.
I did my best not to think about what it might be like to be overrun and chewed to death by hundreds of small wild animals. I turned my eyes back to the tower, and waited.
The dark shape, indistinct in the heavy shadows, moved and came closer, until it looked like. . . something that was not quite human. Its shoulders were too wide, its stance too crooked, and it walked with a slow, limping gait, drag-thump, drag-thump. It was covered with what appeared to be a voluminous dark cloak-oh, and it was eleven or twelve feet tall.
Green eyes the same color as the bolt of unnatural lightning burned inside the darkness of the cloak's hood. They faced me and flashed brighter, once, and a gust of wind washed down onto me, almost taking me from my feet.
I gritted my teeth against it and endured, until a moment later it died away.
I looked at the dark shape for a moment, and then nodded. "Right," I said. "I get you. " I reached for my will, infused it with a meager portion of soulfire, and hurled my right hand forward, calling, "Ventas servitas!"
Wind festooned with ribbons of silver light rushed from my outstretched hand, crashing into the figure. It didn't move the thing-the entity was far too massive for that-but the wind cast the grey cloak back as sharply as a ship's flag caught in a gale, making the fabric snap and pop.
My evocation died away, and the entity's cloak settled down again. Once more, its eyes flashed, and the earth beneath my feet and slightly behind me erupted, solid rock splitting and cracking. Sharp shards flew up from the supernatural impact, and I instantly felt half a dozen hot, stinging cuts on my legs and back.
"Ow," I muttered. "At least they weren't in any tender spots, I guess. " Then again I summoned my will and soulfire, this time focusing on the earth near the entity. "Geodas!" I shouted, and the earth beneath the entity twisted and screamed, suddenly opening into a sinkhole.
The entity never moved. It just stood there on empty air, as if I hadn't literally pulled the ground out from under it.
The entity's eyes kindled to life again, but this time I had anticipated it. Flame gathered before it in a lance and rushed toward me, leaving a coating of sudden frost and ice on the ground beneath it as it came. But my own will had reached down into the ground below me, and found the water from the stream that fed the cottage's little well. I drew it up through the cracks the entity had created in the rock, taking advantage of the work it had done, with a shout of, "Aquilevitas!" A curtain of water rose up to meet the onrushing flame, and they consumed one another, leaving only darkness and a cloud of steam.
I lifted a hand and my soulfire-enhanced will and shouted, "Fuego!" A column of silver-and-blue flame as thick as my chest roared across the ground and struck the entity hard in the center of its mass.
It rocked back at the impact. Not much. Maybe half an inch, though that column of fire would have blown apart a brick wall. But I had moved it that half an inch. There was no doubt about that.
Weariness was slowly seeping into my limbs as the entity stared at me. I forced myself to stand straight and face the being without blinking-and without looking weak.
"You want to keep it up?" I asked it aloud. "I could do this all night. "
The entity stared at me. Then it walked closer. Drag-thump. Drag-thump.
I was not at all scared. Even a little. The only reason my mouth was so dry was all that fire that had been flying around.
It stopped five feet away, towering over me.
And I realized that it was waiting.
It was waiting for me to act.
My heart pounded harder as I bowed my head respectfully. I don't know why I said what I did, exactly. I just know that my instincts screamed at me that it was the right thing to say, my voice infused with my will.
"I am Harry Dresden, and I give thee a name, honored spirit. From this day on, be thou called Demonreach. "
Its eyes flashed, burning more brightly, sending out tendrils and streams of greenish fire in a nimbus around its head.
Then Demonreach mirrored my gesture, bowing its own head in reply. When it looked up, its head turned briefly toward the cottage. Then the wind rose again, and darkness fluttered over the hilltop.
When it passed, I was alone, the hilltop empty of entity and animal alike. I was also freezing.
I staggered toward my clothes and gathered them up, shaking so hard that I thought I might just collapse on the ground. As I rose with my gear in my arms, I saw a light flickering in the cottage.
I frowned and shambled over to it. The door, like the windows, had long since rotted away, and there was very little roof to speak of-but the cottage did have one thing in it that still functioned.
A neat stack of fallen wood was burning in the fireplace, putting off a cheery warmth, its golden flames edged with flickers of green at their very edges.
I blinked at the fire for a moment, and then made my way over to it, reveling in the warmth as I dressed again. I glanced up, searching for that alien presence. I found it immediately, still there, still alien, still dangerous, though it no longer seemed determined to drive me away.
I slid will into my voice as I said, simply, "Thank you. "
The gentle wind that sighed through the trees of Demonreach may have been a reply.
Or maybe not.
I didn't return to the dock by the same route I'd taken to the tower. There was a much shorter, easier way, down what looked like a sheer rock wall. It proved to have an ancient narrow gully worn into the stone, almost completely hidden by brush. The gully's floor had a thin layer of silt in it, leaving little room for plants to grow, and was as easy to traverse as a sidewalk, even in the dark. Following it brought me back to the island's shoreline in half the time it had taken to go up.
I didn't wonder how I'd known about the path until I stepped out of the woods and saw the dock again. I hadn't been that way before. I hadn't known it existed. Yet when I decided to take that trail, the knowledge had come to me as completely and immediately as if I had lived there for years: pure information.
I paused and looked around me. I knew not to walk directly to the dock from where I stood. There was a large hornet's nest in the earth at the base of a fallen tree, and I would risk arousing their anger if I accidentally crushed it while walking by. I also knew that a grumpy old skunk was trundling its way back to its den, thirty yards in the other direction, and that it would happi
ly douse me with musk if I came anywhere close.
I glanced over my shoulder, back toward the tower, casting out my supernatural senses. The island's awareness continued being that same constant presence I'd felt ever since leaving the tower. I considered going back, taking the old stairs this time, to see what would happen, and immediately I understood that there was a cottonmouth that made its home in a large crack on the twenty-sixth step. If I delayed the trip until later in the morning, the snake would be out on the stones, sun-bathing to build up its body heat for the day.
The dawn was approaching, and the sky had begun to lighten from black to blue. I could see the tower standing, lonely and wounded, but unbowed, a black shape against the sky. Demonreach began to awaken to the first trills of songbirds.
I walked down to the dock, thoughtfully, and walked out to where the Water Beetle was moored. "Molly," I called.
Feet pounded on the deck, and Molly burst up out of the ship's cabin. She flew across the distance between us, and nearly tackled me into the water on the far side of the dock with the enthusiasm of her hug. Molly, the daughter of two ferocious warriors, was no wilting violet. My ribs creaked.
"You came back," she said. "I was so worried. You came back. "
"Hey, hey. I need my rib cage, kid," I said, but I hugged her in return for a quiet moment, before straightening.
"Did it work?" she asked.
"I'm not exactly sure. God, I need something to drink. " We both boarded the Water Beetle, and I went below and removed a can of Coke from a cabinet. It was warm, but it was liquid, and more important, it was Coke. I guzzled the can's contents and tossed it into the trash bin.
"How's Morgan?" I asked.
"Awake," Morgan rumbled. "Where are we?"
"Demonreach," I said. "It's an island in Lake Michigan. "
Morgan grunted without emphasis. "Luccio told me about it. "
"Oh," I said. "Oh, good. "
"Miss Carpenter says you were attempting a sanctum invocation. "
Morgan grunted. "You're here. It worked. "
"I think so," I said. "I'm not sure. "
I shook my head. "I thought that when a bond was formed with the land in question, it gave you access to its latent energy. "
Which meant that my magic would be subsidized by the island, whenever I was here. I'd get a lot more bang for my buck, so to speak. "I thought that was all it did. "
"Generally," Morgan said. I saw him turn his head toward me in the dim cabin. "Why? What else has happened?"
I took a deep breath and told him about the hidden trail, the hornets, and the skunk.
Morgan sat up in his bunk by the time I got to the end. He leaned forward intently. "You're sure you aren't mistaken? Confrontations with a genius loci can leave odd aftereffects behind. "
"Hang on," I said.
I went back to the woods where I knew the hornets were, and found their nest in short order. I retreated without crushing anything and went back to the boat.
"Yeah," I said. "I'm sure. "
Morgan sank back onto the bunk as if he was being slowly deflated. "Merciful God," he said. "Intellectus. "
I felt my eyebrows go up. "You're kidding. "
Molly muttered a couple of candles to light so that we could see each other clearly. "Intell-whatsis?" she asked me.
"Intellectus," I said. "Um. It's a mode of existence for a very few rare and powerful supernatural beings-angels have it. I'm willing to bet old Mother Winter and Mother Summer have it. For beings with intellectus, all reality exists in one piece, one place, one moment, and they can look at the whole thing. They don't seek or acquire knowledge. They just know things. They see the entire picture. "
"I'm not sure I get that," Molly said.
Morgan spoke. "A being with intellectus does not understand, for example, how to derive a complex calculus equation-because it doesn't need the process. If you showed him a problem and an equation, he would simply understand it and skip straight to the answer without need to think through the logical stages of solving the problem. "
"It's omniscient?" Molly asked, her eyes wide.
Morgan shook his head. "Not the same thing. The being with intellectus has to be focused on something via consideration in order to know it, whereas an omniscient being knows all things at all times. "
"Isn't that pretty close?" Molly asked.
"Intellectus wouldn't save you from an assassin's bullet if you didn't know someone wanted to kill you in the first place," I said. "To know it was coming, you'd first need to consider the question of whether or not an assassin might be lurking in a dark doorway or on top of a bell tower. "
Morgan grunted agreement. "And since beings of intellectus so rarely understand broader ideas of cause and effect, they can be unlikely to realize that a given event might be an indicator of an upcoming assassination attempt. " He turned to me. "Though that's a terrible metaphor, Dresden. Most beings like that are immortal. They'd be hard-pressed to notice bullets, much less feel threatened by them. "
"So," Molly said, nodding, "it might be able to know anything it wants to know-but it still has to ask the right questions. Which is always harder than people think it is. "
"Yeah," I said. "Exactly. "
"And now you've got this intellectus, too?"
I shook my head. "It's Demonreach that has it. It stopped when I got out over the water. " I tapped my finger against my forehead. "I've got nothing going on in here at the moment. "
I realized what I had said just as the last word left my mouth, and glanced at Morgan.
He lay on the bunk with his eyes closed. His mouth was turned up in small smile. "Too easy. "
Molly fought not to grin.
Morgan pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Can the entity feed you any other information, Dresden? The identities of those behind LaFortier's murder, for example. "
I almost hit myself in the head with the heel of my hand. I should have thought of that already. "I'll let you know," I said, and went back to the shore.
Demonreach sensed me at the same time as I perceived it, and the mutual sensation felt oddly like a hand wave of acknowledgment. I frowned thoughtfully and looked around the island, concentrating on the issue of LaFortier's killer.
Nothing sprang to mind. I tried half a dozen other things. Who was going to win the next World Series? Could I get the Blue Beetle out of impound yet? How many books had Mister knocked off my shelves in my absence?
So I thought about hornet's nests, and instantly felt certain that there were thirty-two of them spread around the hundred and fifty or so acres of the island, and that they were especially thick near the grove of apple trees on the island's northern side.
I went back to the boat and reported.
"Then it only exists upon the island itself," Morgun rumbled, "like any other genius loci. This one must be bloody ancient to have attained a state of intellectus, even if it is limited to its own shorelines. "
"Could be handy," I noted.
Morgan didn't open his eyes but bared his teeth in a wolf's smile. "Certainly. If your foes were considerate enough to come all the way out here to meet you. "
"Could be handy," I repeated, firmly.
Morgan arched an eyebrow and gave me a sharp look.
"Come on, grasshopper," I said to Molly. "Cast off the lines. You're about to learn how to drive the boat. "
By the time we made it back to the marina, the sun had risen. I coached Molly through the steps of bringing the Water Beetle safely into dock, even though I wasn't exactly Horatio Hornblower myself. We managed to do it without breaking or sinking anything, which is what counts. I tied off the boat and went onto the dock. Molly followed me anxiously to the rail.
"No problem here, grasshopper. Take her out for about ten minutes in a random direction that you choose. Th
en turn off the engine and wait. I'll signal you when I'm ready for you to pick me up. "
"Are you sure we shouldn't stay together or something?" she asked anxiously.
I shook my head. "Tracking spells can't home in too well over water," I said. "And you'll know if someone's coming for you from a mile away. Literally. Keep Morgan out there, and you should be as safe as anywhere. "
She frowned. "What if he gets worse?"
"Use your noggin, kid. Do whatever you think is most likely to keep you both alive. " I started untying the line. "I shouldn't be gone more than a couple of hours. If I don't show, the plan is the same as when I went up to the tower. Get yourself vanished. "
She swallowed. "And Morgan?"
"Make him as comfortable as you can and leave him. "
She stared at me for a minute. "Really?"
"If I get taken out, I don't think you'll be able to protect him," I said, as matter-of-factly as I could. "Or catch the real bad guy. So run like hell and let him look out for himself. "
I saw her think that over. Then she smiled slightly.
"It would really humiliate him if he found himself under the protection of a girl. An apprentice. And a possible warlock, to boot. "
I nodded. "True. "
Molly pursed her lips thoughtfully. "That might be worth staying for. "
"Kid," I said, "the smart thing for you to do if it all goes sour is to run. "
"Smart," she said. "But not right. "
I studied her soberly. "You sure? Because there's a world of hurt waiting to fall. "
She nodded, her face pale. "I'll try. "
And she would. I could see that in her eyes. She knew better than most exactly how dangerous such a thing would be for her, and it clearly terrified her. But she would try.
"Then if I'm taken off the board, see Murphy," I said. "She knows everything I do about the case. Listen to her. She's smart, and you can trust her. "
"All right," she said.
I tossed the mooring lines back onboard. "Get a move on. "
I started walking down the dock. Behind me, Molly called, "Harry? What signal are you going to use?"
"You'll know it," I called back.
I left the docks in search of the tool that could rip apart this tangled web of suspicion, murder, and lies.
I found it in the marina's parking lot.
A pay phone.
Lara answered on the second ring. "Raith. "
"Dresden," I said. "What have you got for me?"
"Oh, to have straight lines like that more often," she said, her tone wry. "What makes you think I have anything for you?"
" 'Cause I've got something to trade. "
"Men generally seem to think that way. Most of them tend to overestimate the value of their wares. "
"Pheromone Lass," I said, "can we have the rest of this conversation above the waistline?"
She let out that rich, throaty laugh of hers, and my hormones sounded the charge. I ignored them. Stupid hormones.
"Very well," she said. "It should interest you to know that the money deposited in Warden Morgan's account came from a dummy corporation called Windfall. "
"Dummy organization?" I asked. "Who owns it?"
"I do," she said calmly.
I blinked. "Since you're sharing this information, I take it that it happened without your knowledge. "
"You are quite correct," she said. "A Mr. Kevin Aramis is the corporation's manager. He is the only one, other than myself, with the authority to move that much money around. "
I thought furiously. Whoever aced LaFortier hadn't just intended the Council to implode. He or they had also gone to a lot of trouble to incite hostility with the White Court.
My imagination treated me to a prophetic nightmare. Morgan fights against the injustice of his frame. Hostilities erupt, creating strife between various factions of wizards. The Council eventually runs down the money trail, discovers Lara on the other end, and the Council seizes upon the opportunity to unify the factions again, thanks to a common enemy. Hostilities with the vampires start fresh. The Red Court sees the poorly coordinated Council exposing itself in battle with the White Court, and pounces, breaking the back of the Council. And after that, it would all be over but the heroic last stands.
Hell's bells, indeed.
"We're being played against one another," I said.
"That was my conclusion as well. "
A couple more pieces clicked into place. "Madeline," I said. "She got to this Aramis guy and coerced him into betraying you. "
"Yes," Lara hissed. Barely suppressed, wholly inhuman rage filled her level, controlled voice. "When I catch up to her, I'm going to tear out her entrails with my bare hands. "
Which took care of my hormone problem. I shivered.
I'd seen Lara in action. I could never decide if it had been one of the most beautiful terrifying things I'd ever seen, or if it was one of the most terrifying beautiful things I'd ever seen.
"You might try looking at the Hotel Sax, room twelve thirty-three," I said. "If I'm right, you're going to find Mr. Aramis's body there. Madeline's working for someone, a man. She didn't say anything that would help identify him. You should also know that she has hired the services of a mercenary named Binder. Not exactly a rocket scientist, but smart enough to be dangerous. "
Lara was silent for a second. Then she said, "How did you learn this?"
"Shockingly, with magic. "
I heard her speaking to someone in the room with her. Then she got back on the phone and said, "If Aramis is dead, Madeline has tied up the loose end in her plan. It will be impossible to provide credible evidence that I did not in fact pay for LaFortier's murder. "
"Yeah. That's why she did it. "
I heard her make a displeased sound, but it was still ladylike. "What do we intend to do about this, Harry?"
"Do you have a nice dress?"
I found myself grinning maniacally. "I'm throwing a party. "
Thomas's phone rang four times before the connection opened. There was a moment of silence. Then Thomas spoke, his voice raw and ragged. "Harry?"
My heart just about stopped beating to hear my brother's voice. "Thomas. How's it going?"
"Oh," he rasped, "I'm just hanging around. "
I've seen Thomas in agony before. He sounded exactly like this.
The phone emitted random noises, and then the yowl-purring voice of the skinwalker came over the line. "He is here. He is alive. For now. Give me the doomed warrior. "
"Okay," I said.
There was a moment of silent consternation from the far end of the line.
"Bring him to me," it said.
"Nah. That isn't going to happen. "
"You're coming to me. "
"Do you wish me to end his life this instant?"
"Frankly, Shaggy, I don't give a damn," I said, forcing boredom into my voice. "It'd be nice to be able to return one of the vampires to his own, get myself a marker I can call in some day. But I don't need it. " I paused. "You, on the other hand, need Thomas to be alive, if you expect me to trade Morgan for him. So this is how it's going to go down. At dusk, you will be contacted on this phone. You will be told where our meeting will take place. When you arrive, you will show me the vampire, alive and well, and when he is returned to me, you will take Morgan without contest. "
"I am not some mortal scum you can command, mageling," Shagnasty seethed.
"No. You're immortal scum. "
"You blind, flesh-feeding worm," Shagnasty snarled. "Who are you to speak to me so?"
"The worm who's got what you need," I said. "Dusk. Keep the phone handy. "
I hung up on him.
My heart hammered against my chest and cold sweat broke out over my upper body. I felt myself shaking with terror for Thomas, with weariness, with re
action to the conversation with Shagnasty. I leaned my aching head against the earpiece of the phone and hoped that I hadn't just ended my brother's life.
One more call.
The White Council of Wizards uses telephone communications like everyone else, albeit with a lot more service calls. I gave headquarters a ring, gave them the countersign to their security challenge, and got patched through to one of the administrative assistants, an earnest young woman not quite finished with her apprenticeship.
"I need to get a message to every member of the Senior Council," I told her.
"Very well, sir," she said. "What is the message?"
"Get this verbatim. Okay?"
"Yes, sir. "
I cleared my throat and spoke. "Be advised that I have been sheltering Warden Donald Morgan from discovery and capture for the past two days. An informant has come to me with details of how Warden Morgan was framed for the murder of Senior Council Member LaFortier. Warden Morgan is innocent, and what's more, I can prove it.
"I am willing to meet with you tonight, on the uncharted island in Lake Michigan, east of Chicago at sundown. The informant will be present, and will produce testimony that will vindicate Warden Morgan and identify the true culprit of the crime.
"Let me be perfectly clear. I will not surrender Warden Morgan to the alleged justice of the Council. Come in peace and we will work things out. But should you come to me looking for a fight, be assured that I will oblige you. "
The assistant had started making choking sounds after the very first sentence.
"Then sign it 'Harry Dresden,' " I said.
"Um. Yes, sir. Sh-shall I read that back to you?"
She did. I'd heard sounds of movement in the background around her, but as she read aloud, all of those sounds died to silence. When she finished, she asked, in a rather small, squeaky voice, "Do I have that down correctly, sir?"
Murmurs burst out in the background over the phone, excited and low.
"Yeah," I told her. "Perfect. "