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Changes, Page 16

Jim Butcher

Chapter 37~38

  Chapter 37

  Vampires and Icks are fast, but I'd dueled their like before. Like the apocryphal Loki, my previous opponents had learned that no matter how quick you are on your feet, you aren't faster than thought.

  The spell I'd been holding ready lashed out before either of our opponents had moved more than a couple of feet, naked force howling out from my outstretched hand to seize not the Ick, but, in a sudden flash of inspiration, I directed it at the vampire beginning to bound along beside and a little behind it. Clearly, maybe even wisely, the vamp was hoping to stand in the Devourer's shadow when the hurt started flying.

  I cried out, "Forzare!" and my raw will hammered the vampire down and at an oblique angle - directly in front of and beneath the feet of the Ick.

  If you have no weapons with which to fight the enemy, find a way to make your enemy be your weapon. If you can pull it off, it makes you look amazing.

  The vampire went under the Ick's feet with a wailing squeal and a crunchy-sounding splatter of vile fluids. The collision tripped up the massive hunting creature as its legs tangled with the vampire's rubbery, sinuous limbs, and the Ick came crashing to the ground, its unnatural drumbeat heart thudding loud and furious, swiping and smashing in fury at the entanglement without ever bothering to consider what it might be destroying.

  Susan adjusted almost instantly to what had happened, and closed on the sprawling Ick with incredible speed. Her arm blurred as the Ick began recovering its balance, smashing her club straight down onto its skull and driving its head down to rebound from the floor.

  The Ick took the hit like it was a love tap, slashing at Susan with its claws - but she had already bounded into the air, jerking her knees up to avoid the grabbing claws and flying clear over the Devourer to a roar of approval from the watching goblins. She landed in a baseball player's slide and shot forward over the gore-smeared stone, snapping one hand back to grab the throat of the downed vampire as she did.

  The battered body came free of the Ick's limbs, minus a limb or two of its own, and thrashed weakly, slowing Susan's slide and stopping her forward motion a bare inch before her feet would have slid into the green flame surrounding the fighting ring.

  The Ick whirled around as it staggered to its feet again, preparing to pursue her, when I lifted my blasting rod, snarled, "Fuego," and hammered it with all the power I could shove through the magical focus. Blue-white fire, blindingly bright against the rather dim green flames of the Erlking's will, drew a group scream of surprise and discomfort from the gathered goblins. The fire struck the Ick and gouged a chunk of black, rubbery flesh the size of a watermelon out of the massive muscles of its back. Its head whipped back so sharply that the top of its head practically touched its own spine, and it lost its balance for another second or two, slipping on the gore the first vampire had provided as it turned toward me.

  I dimly took note of Susan as this happened. The half-crushed, half-dismembered vampire flailed wildly with its remaining claws and fangs, putting up an insanely desperate, vicious fight in an attempt to hang on to its life.

  Susan took a hard blow to the side of the head, and when she turned back, her lip was bloodied, her teeth bared in a snarl, and the dark swirls and points of her tattoos began to spread over her face like black ink dripped upon water. She dropped the improvised club, got both hands on the vampire's throat, and, with calm, precise strength, thrust its head into the green fire.

  There was a bloody explosion as that fire devoured the vampire, and though its heat had seemed no greater than any campfire's, the temperature within that fire had to be something as hot as the sun. As the vampire's skull entered it, it simply disintegrated with a howl of vaporized liquids, spattering tiny bits of bone like shrapnel and covering Susan and the dying vampire both in an enormous, dark, foul-smelling cloud.

  "Susan!" I shouted, and darted over to one side so that I wouldn't be loosing blasts of fire blindly into that cloud if I missed. I hit the Devourer, gouging out a small trough in one of its arms, missed with the third blast, and scored with a fourth, burning a scorch mark as wide as my thigh across its hip. The drumbeat of its heart was a huge, pounding rhythm by now, like the double bass drums of a speed-metal band. The hits seemed only to make it more furious, and it shifted into a controlled forward rush meant to crowd me into the outer ring of fire or else leave me unable to escape its grasping claws.

  But either the blow on the noggin or one of the blasts I'd unleashed had slowed the Ick down. I sprinted for the angle on its approach, for the path that would let me evade the Devourer and its outstretched claws, and got clear of its attack, beating the monster out on footwork and keeping from being trapped against the circle's perimeter as it came at me.

  I found a fierce smile spreading over my lips as I moved. I kept hurling blasts at its legs as I ran, attempting to slow it even more. I didn't hit with more than a quarter of them, I think, but the missed bolts of fire splashed against the Erlking's green fire in sizzling bursts of light. The adrenaline made my senses crystalline, bringing me every sight and sound with a cold purity, and I suddenly saw where the Devourer was weakest.

  Though it was hard to tell with its alien movement, I realized that it was favoring one side ever so slightly. I darted in for a better look, nearly got my head ripped off by a flailing fist, and saw that the Ick's leg was wounded, low on the back of its thigh, where the black flesh was twisted and mangled. Had it been mortal skin and tissue, I would have thought it the result of a severe burn - as long as whatever had done the burning had been molten-metal hot and shaped like Mouse's teeth. The Foo dog had gotten to the Ick during its encounter with Thomas, with a wound that had threatened to cripple it. That was why it had been forced to withdraw. If it stayed and Mouse had managed another such strike, it would have been entirely immobilized.

  "Good luck this time, big guy," I heard myself say. "You've got nowhere to run. "

  The part of my mind that was still mostly sane thought the statement was utterly crazy. Maybe stupid, too. The Ick was still chasing me, after all. If it hit me once with one of those enormous, clawed hands, it would liquefy the bones under whichever part of my body it hit. (With the possible exception of my head. I maintain that all evidence seems to point to the fact that someone did one of those adamantium upgrades on my skull when I wasn't looking. )

  I was scrambling and blasting away for all I was worth, and I couldn't keep up a pace like that forever. I was scoring on the Ick, maybe slowing it even more, but I wasn't even close to killing it.

  It all came down to a simple question: Was the Ick better at taking it than I was at dishing it out? If so, then I was living on borrowed time, and the continuing onslaught of magic I threw at the thing amounted to an extremely high rate of interest.

  Before I could find out, the fight changed.

  The Ick made a painful-looking surge of effort, and got close enough to hit me. I barely got out of the way in time, almost fell, turned it into several spinning steps instead, and recovered my balance. The Ick turned to follow, and Susan burst out of the cloud of greasy smoke the instant it turned its back.

  Her tattoos had flushed from black to a deep, deep crimson, and she moved with perfect grace and in perfect silence. So when she gracefully, silently swung that steel table leg at the side of the Ick's knee joint - on its unmarred leg, no less - it took the monster entirely off guard.

  There was a sharp, terrible crack, a sound that I would have associated only with falling timber or possibly small-caliber gunfire if I'd heard it somewhere else. The steel bar smashed the Ick's knee unnaturally inward, until it made an angle of nearly thirty degrees.

  It bellowed in agony and one arm swept back toward its attacker. The Ick hit Susan, and though it had been off balance, startled, and falling when it did so, it still knocked her ten feet backward and to the ground. Her club bounced out of her hand with a chiming, metallic clang, and tumbled, ringing like a tinny gong, i
nto the circling flames.

  The heat within the green fires sliced off half the table leg as neatly as any high-temperature torch possibly could have done. The colors of the flame briefly striated with tendrils of amber, violet, and coppery red. The severed end rolled free of the fire, and its edge was glowing white-hot.

  I noticed it in the periphery of my heightened vision.

  Susan had landed on the ground with her back twisted at an impossible angle.

  The Ick lurched toward me as I stood there, frozen in shock for the briefest of instants. It was more than enough time for the Devourer to close, rake at me with its claws, and bat me twenty feet across the circle, all at the same time.

  Again, the spells on my coat withstood the brute power of the Ick's claws, but this hadn't been a glancing blow, or incidental damage collected when it had tripped over me. This was a full-on sledgehammer slam of the kind that had probably tossed the Blue Beetle onto Thomas's sports car du jour. It was exactly what I had dreaded, and as my body hit the ground, a kind of resolved calm washed over me, along with howls of goblin excitement.

  I was a dead man. Simple as that. The only question was whether or not I would survive long enough to feel the pain that the shock of impact was delaying. And, of course, where to aim my death curse.

  My limp arms and legs slowed my tumble and I wound up on my back with my hips twisted to one side as the Ick threw back its head and let out a burbling, teakettle scream. Its heart pounded like surreal thunder, and my body suddenly felt awash with cold, as if I'd landed in a pool of icy water. The Ick came at me, pain showing in its movements now. It howled and lifted both arms above its head, ready to smash them down onto my skull. I didn't have much time to use my death curse, said the little sane voice in my head.

  And then another voice in my head, one far louder and more furious, screamed denial. My few glimpses of Maggie whirled through my mind, along with images of her death - or worse - at Arianna's hands. If I died here, there would be no one to take her out of darkness.

  I had to try.

  I thrust both fists at the Ick's least injured leg and let go with every energy ring I had left.

  I guess from the outside it must have looked like one of those kung fu-type double fist strikes, though the only thing my actual fists were doing was collecting a new round of bruises and little scars. The energy released from the rings, though, kicked the Ick's leg so hard that it swept out parallel to the floor. The Ick toppled.

  I rolled desperately, and escaped being crushed by its bulk by a hairbreadth. It landed in whistling agony.

  And I suddenly saw a way to kill it that would never have been visible to me if I hadn't been flat on my back and looking up.

  I raised the blasting rod to point at the ceiling above, deeply shadowed but still barely visible. It was a natural cavern roof. The floor might have been carved and polished smooth to host the Erlking's hall, but stalactites the size of city buses hung from the ceiling like some behemoth's grim teeth. I checked to be sure that Susan was on the far side of the circle, as far away as possible from what I was about to bring down.

  Then I hurled my fear and rage at the base of a great stone fang that was almost directly overhead, and put almost everything I had left into it.

  Blue-white fire screamed through the blasting rod, so intense that the rune-carved implement itself exploded into a cloud of glowing splinters. It hit the far- above stalactite with a thunderous concussion. Beside me, the Ick rose up and reached for my skull with one enormous hand.

  I threw up my hands, hissed, "Aparturum," and, with the last of my will, ripped open the veil between the Erlking's hall and the material world, tearing open a circular opening maybe four feet across - and floating three feet off the ground and parallel to the floor, oriented so that its entry point was on its upper side. Then I curled up into a fetal position beneath that opening and tried to cover my head with my arms.

  Tons and tons of stone tumbled down with slow, deadly grace. The Devourer's heartbeat redoubled its pace. Then there was an incredible noise, and the whole world was blotted away.

  I lay there on my side for several moments, not daring to move. Stone fell for a while, maybe a couple of minutes, before the sounds of falling rocks slowly died away, like the pops from a pan of popcorn just before it starts to burn. Only, you know, rockier.

  Only then did I allow myself to lift my head and look around.

  I lay in a perfectly circular four-foot-across tomb that was maybe five feet deep. The sides of the tomb were perfectly smooth, though I could see from all the cracks and crevices that they were made from many mismatched pieces of rock, ranging from one the size of my fist to a boulder half as big as a car.

  Above me, the open Way glowed slightly. All the stone that would have fallen on me had instead plunged through the open Way and back into the material world.

  I took a deep breath and closed it again. I hoped that no one was hanging around wherever it was that Way emptied out. Maybe in the FBI cafeteria? No way to know, except to go through and look. I didn't want to face the collateral damage of something like that.

  My sane brain pointed out that there was every chance that we weren't talking about falling stones at all. As matter from the spirit world, they would transform to simple ectoplasm when they reached the material world, unless ongoing energy was provided in order to preserve their solidity. I certainly hadn't been trying to pump any energy into the stones as they hit the Way. So odds were that I just dumped several dozen tons of slime onto a random spot in the FBI building - and slime that would evaporate within moments. It would grossly reduce the chances of inflicting injuries on some hapless FBI staffer.

  I decided that my sanity and I could live with that.

  I closed the Way with a wave of my hand and an effort of will, and slowly stood up. As I did, I realized that I felt a bit creaky, and that I was shaking with fatigue. But what I didn't feel was . . . pain.

  I tried to dust myself off and get a good look at my injuries. I should have broken ribs. Ruptured organs. I should be bleeding all over the place.

  But as far as I could tell, I didn't even have whiplash.

  Was that Mab's power, running through me, wrapped around me? I didn't have any other explanation for it. Hell, when Susan and I had run from the FBI building, she had been the one to get winded first, while I felt no more need to breathe heavily than I would have had walking out to my mailbox. For that matter, I'd outrun the Devourer during this fight.

  I thought I should probably feel disturbed by the sudden increase in my physical speed and toughness. But given what I'd had to pay for them, I couldn't feel anything but a certain sense of satisfaction. I would need every advantage I could get when I went to take Maggie away from the Red Court.

  I looked up as the green fire of the fighting circle began to die away, and as it did the goblins of the hall erupted into an earsplitting, spine-chilling symphony of approving howls.

  I climbed out of the hole, then over and around a couple of dump trucks' worth of rubble, and hurried over to Susan's side on the opposite end of the ring.

  She lay limp and still. There were small cuts and bruises all over her. Her leather pants had hundreds of little holes in them - the shards of bone from the exploding vampire skull, I guessed. Her spine was bent and twisted. I couldn't tell how bad it was. I mean . . . Susan had always been fairly limber, and I had more reason to know than most. With her entire body limp like that, it was hard to say.

  She was breathing, and her tattoos were still there, now bright scarlet. Her pulse was far too slow, and I wasn't sure it was steady. I leaned down and peeled back one eyelid.

  Her eyes were black, all the way through.

  I licked my lips. The tattoos were a warning indicator the Fellowship used. As Susan's vampire nature gained more influence over her actions, the tattoos appeared, solid black at first, but lightening to bright red as the vampire with
in gained more control. Susan wasn't conscious, but if she had been, she would have been insane with bloodlust. She'd nearly killed me the last time it had happened.

  It was sort of what had started this whole mess, in fact.

  Her body was covered in injuries of various sizes, and I thought I knew what was happening. It was instinctively drawing upon the vampire portion of her nature to restore her damaged flesh - but as she had not provided that nature with sustenance, it could offer her only limited assistance.

  She needed blood.

  But if she got it, woke up, and decided that she just had to have more . . . yikes.

  Her breathing kept slowing. It caught for a moment, and I nearly panicked.

  Then I shook my head, took my penknife from my duster's pocket, and opened a cut in my left palm, in an area where the old burn scars were thickest, and which still didn't have a lot of sensitivity.

  I cupped my hand while I bled into my palm. Then, very carefully, I reached down and tipped my palm to carefully spill a few drops into Susan's mouth.

  You would have thought I'd just run a current of electricity through her body. She quivered, went rigid, and then arched her back into a bow. Strange popping sounds came from her spine. Her empty black eyes opened and she gasped, then stared blindly, trying to find my hand again with her mouth, the way a suckling baby finds its meals. I held my hand over her mouth and let the blood trickle in slowly.

  She surged in languid motion beneath my hand, savoring the blood as if it were chocolate, a massage, good sex, and a new car all rolled into one. Two minutes of slow, dreamy, arching motion later, her eyes suddenly focused on me and then narrowed. She snatched at my arm with her hands - and I drove my right fist into her face.

  I didn't pull the punch, either. If her darker nature was allowed to continue, it would destroy her, killing me as a by-product of the process. Her head snapped back against the ground, and she blinked her eyes, stunned.

  I stood up, took a few steps back, and stuffed my injured hand into my pocket. I was tired, and feeling shocky. My whole arm felt cold. I didn't stop falling back until I was sure I could shield in time to hold her off if she came at me.

  I recognized it when Susan checked back in. Her breathing slowed, becoming controlled and steady. It took her four or five minutes of focus to push her darker self away from control, but eventually she did. She sat up slowly. She licked at her bloodstained lips and shuddered in slow ecstasy for a second before dashing her sleeve across her mouth and forcing herself to her feet. She looked around wildly, a terrible dread in her eyes - until she spotted me.

  She stared at me for a moment, and then closed her eyes. She whispered, "Thank God. "

  I nodded to her and beckoned for her to stand at my side.

  I waited until she reached me. Then we both turned to face the Erlking.

  Off to one side, the members of the Red Court remained where they had been - save that Esteban and Esmerelda had been trapped in the goblins' nets as well. I had apparently been too intent on Susan to hear the sound of any struggle in the aftermath of the duel, but I could guess what had happened. As soon as the Ick had begun to falter, they must have made a run for it. This time, though, they hadn't had the advantage of showing up in a totally unexpected place, with the goblins intent upon their meals.

  This time the goblins had taken them, probably before they had actually begun to flee. Both of the Eebs were staring at Susan and me with raw hatred written on their snarling faces.

  The Erlking looked at the captured vampires for a moment, and smiled faintly. "Well fought," he said, his deep voice resonant.

  We both bowed our heads slightly to him.

  Then he lifted his hand and snapped his fingers, once. It echoed like the report of a firearm.

  Screams went up from the entire helpless Red Court crew as several hundred violence-amped goblins fell on them in a wave. I watched for a moment in sickened fascination, but turned away.

  I hate the Red Court. But there are limits.

  The Erlking's kin had none.

  "What about the Red King?" I asked him. "The Lords of Outer Night?"

  His red eyes gleamed. "His Majesty's folk failed to prove their peaceful intentions. The trial established their deception to the satisfaction of law and custom. Let him howl his fury if he so wills it. Should he begin a war over this matter, all of Faerie will turn upon him in outrage. And his people will make fine hunting. "

  Beneath the screams of the Red Court - Esmerelda's were especially piercing - a ragged chuckle ran through the hall. The sound danced with its own echoes. It was like listening to the official sound track of Hell. A goblin wearing thick leather gloves appeared, holding what was left of Susan's club as if it were red-hot. The touch of iron and its alloys is an agony to the creatures of Faerie. Susan accepted the steel calmly, nodding to the gloved goblin.

  "I presume, then," I said quietly, "that we are free to go?"

  "If I did not release you now," the Erlking said, his tone almost genial, "how should I ever have the pleasure of hunting you myself some fine, bright evening?"

  I hoped my gulp wasn't audible.

  The Lord of the Hunt turned and gestured idly with one hand, and a Way shimmered into being behind us. The green light that had let us see began to darken rapidly. "May you enjoy good hunting of your own, Sir Knight, lady huntress. Please convey my greetings to the Winter Queen. "

  My sane brain fell asleep at the switch, and I said, "I will. It was a pleasure, Erl. "

  Maybe he didn't get it. He just tilted his head slightly, the way a dog does at a new sound.

  We all bowed to one another politely, and Susan and I stepped through the Way, careful not to take our eyes off of our host, until the world shimmered and that hall of horrors was gone.

  It was replaced with an enormous, rustic-style building that appeared to be filled from the basement to the ceiling with everything you might possibly need to shoot, catch, find, stalk, hook, clean, skin, cook, and eat pretty much anything that ran, slithered, hopped, or swam.

  "What the hell?" Susan said, looking around in confusion.

  "Heh," I said. "This is the Bass Pro in Bolingbrook, I think. Makes sense, I guess. "

  "I didn't mean that," she said, and pointed. "Look. "

  I followed her gaze to a large clock on the far wall of the big store.

  It said that the time was currently nine thirty p. m.

  Thirty minutes after our departure time.

  "How can that be?" Susan demanded. "We were there for half an hour at the most. Look. My watch says it's two. "

  My heart began to beat faster. "Hell's bells, I didn't even think of it. "

  "Of what?"

  I started walking. Susan ditched her club behind a shelf and followed me. We must have made a charming sight, both of us all scuffed up, torn, ragged, and wounded. A few late shoppers stared, but no one seemed willing to approach us.

  "Time can pass at a different rate in the Nevernever than it does here," I said. "All those stories about people partying with the fae overnight and waking up in a new century? That's why it happens. " The next link in the logic chain got forged, and I said, "Oh. Oh, dammit. "

  "What?" Susan said.

  "It's a three-hour trip to Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢," I said quietly. "We can't get there by midnight. " Lead ingots began to pile up in my belly and on my shoulders and the back of my neck. I bowed my head, my mouth twisting bitterly. "We're too late. "

  Chapter 38

  "No," Susan said fiercely. "No. This isn't set up on Greenwich mean time, Harry. These creatures aren't performing their ceremony based on a clock. They're using the stars. We only know an approximate time. It could happen after midnight. "

  It could happen half an hour before midnight, I thought, but I didn't say that to Susan. Instead, I nodded. She was right. What she was saying just didn't feel right, but I knew, in my head, that she was on ta
rget. I forced myself to ignore that little whispering voice of defeat in my ear.

  "Right," I said. "Keep going, maximum speed. We need to get back to St. Mary's and pick up everyone there. "

  Susan nodded and said, "Half an hour back if there's no traffic. "

  "And if you have a car," I said, "which we don't. "

  Susan's mouth twitched into a smile. "Good thing there's a whole parking lot full of them, then. "

  I opened the front door for Susan, followed her out onto the sidewalk, and nearly got run over by an emerald green stretch limousine, its tail fins, elongated hood, and shining chrome grille marking it as something created in the extravagant years subsequent to the Second World War. The limo screeched to a halt, and the driver, dressed in a no-nonsense black suit, got out and hurried around to the door nearest us. He was medium height, thin, young, and good-looking enough to be acting or modeling - so much so, in fact, that I decided immediately that he wasn't human.

  Almost as soon as I had the thought, I suddenly saw the young Sidhe lord as he truly appeared - dressed in an emerald green tunic and tights, each with accents of deep violet. His sunny hair was bound back into a tight braid that fell past his waist, and his feline, cat-slitted amber eyes were piercing. He saw me staring and gave me a mocking little bow that only barely moved his head and chest, then opened the limo's door.

  The Leanansidhe leaned over from the far side of the passenger compartment, an exasperated look on her face. "And here thou art at last, child. What madness possessed thee to pay a social call upon the Hunter? He has a grudge against thee. Know you not what that means?"

  Susan tensed and took a step back from her. My godmother noticed it and favored her with a toothy smile. "Fear not, half child. I've no reason to restrain thee again - unless, of course, thou wouldst like to see where it leads. " She glanced up at the night sky - mostly hidden behind all the light pollution - and said, "Granted, we would be forced to indulge such curiosity another time. "

  "Godmother," I said, staring. "What . . . a big car you have. "

  She shook a finger at me. "The better to take you to the House of the Weeping Mother so that we may embark upon our quest, child. Glenmael, help them in, if you please. We race against time. "

  The young Sidhe gestured gallantly toward the rear of the limo and offered me a supporting arm.

  I scowled at him (provoking another smiling bow of his head) and helped Susan into the car. I got in without help of my own, and in short order we found ourselves seated facing the rear of the vehicle and my godmother as the young Sidhe pulled out of the lot and headed for I-55.

  "Ridiculous," Lea said, staring at me in disapproval. "You look utterly ridiculous. "

  I blinked at her and then down at myself. Okay, well, granted. I'd been smeared with ichor and then rolled around in dirt and debris and I had a bleeding cut on one hand, which does not for neatness make. My jeans were a wreck, my T-shirt was beyond repair and going to get cut up for rags, and even my duster looked dirty and strained. Susan wasn't in much better condition.

  "I'm not going to a state dinner, Godmother," I said.

  Her voice turned wry. "That depends upon who wins the battle, me-thinks. " She looked me up and down and shook her head. "No. No, it won't do at all. My queen has a certain reputation to maintain, after all. Your first engagement as the Winter Knight calls for something a bit less . . . postapocalyptic. " She studied Susan with a critical expression. "Mmmm. And your concubine cannot be allowed to bring any shame upon you and, by extension, upon the queen. "

  I sputtered.

  Susan arched an eyebrow. "His concubine?"

  "His lover, the mother of his child, yet to whom he is not wed? I believe the term applies, dear. " She waved a hand. "Words. La. Let us see. "

  She rested a fingertip thoughtfully upon the end of her nose, staring at me. Then she said, "Let us begin with silk. "

  She murmured a word, passed her hand over me, and my clothes started writhing as if they'd been made out of a single, flat organism, and one that hadn't yet had the courtesy to expire. It was the damnedest feeling, and I hit my head on the roof of the limo as I jumped in surprise.

  A few seconds later, clenching my head, I eyed my godmother and said, "I don't need any help. "

  "Harry," Susan said in a strangled voice. She was staring at me.

  I looked down and found myself garbed in silken clothing. My shirt had become a billowing affair of deep grey silk, fitted close to my torso by a rather long vest of midnight black seeded in patterns of deep amethysts, green-blue opals, and pale, exquisite pearls. The tights were also made of silk, closely fit, and pure white, while the leather boots that came up to my knees were the same deep grey as the shirt.

  I stared at me. Then at Susan.

  "Wow," Susan said. "You . . . you really do have a fairy godmother. "

  "And I've never been able to indulge," Lea said, studying me absently. "This won't do. " She waved her hand again. "Perhaps a bit more . . . "

  My clothing writhed again, the sensation so odd and intrusive that I all but banged my head on the roof again.

  We went through a dozen outfits in half as many minutes. A Victorian suit and coat, complete with tails, was nixed in favor of another silk outfit, this one inspired by imperial China. By then, Susan and Lea were actively engaged in the project, exchanging commentary with each other and ignoring absolutely every word that came out of my mouth. By the seventh outfit, I had given up trying to have any say whatsoever in how I was going to be dressed.

  I was given outfits drawing inspiration from widely diverse cultures and periods of history. I lobbied for the return of my leather duster stridently, but Lea only shushed me and kept speaking to Susan.

  "Which outfit is really going to get that bitch's goat?" Susan asked her.

  Finally, Lea's mouth curled up into a smile, and she said, "Perfect. "

  My clothes writhed one more time and I found myself dressed in ornate Gothic armor of the style used in Western Europe in the fifteenth century. It was black and articulated, with decorated shoulder pauldrons and an absurdly ornate breastplate. Gold filigree was everywhere, and the thing looked like it should weigh six hundred pounds.

  "Cort¨¦s wore armor in just this style," Lea murmured. She studied my head and said, "Though it needs . . . "

  A weight suddenly enclosed my head. I sighed patiently and reached up to remove a conquistador's helmet decorated to match the armor. I put it down on the floor of the limo and said firmly, "I don't do hats. "

  "Poo," Lea said. "Arianna still hates the Europeans with a vengeance, you know. It was why she took a conquistador husband. "

  I blinked. "Ortega?"

  "Of course, child," Lea said. "Love and hate are oft difficult to distinguish between. She won Ortega's heart, changed him, wed him, and spent the centuries after breaking his heart over and over again. Calling for him and then sending him away. Giving in to him and then reversing her course. She said it kept her hatred fresh and hot. "

  "Explains why he was working in bloody Brazil," I said.

  "Indeed. Hmmm. " She flicked a hand and added a Roman-style cloak of dark grey to my armor-broadened shoulders, its ties fastened to the front of the breastplate. Another flick changed the style of my boots slightly. She added a deep hood to the cloak. Then she thoughtfully wrought all the gold on the armor into a spectrum that changed from natural gold to a green that deepened along the color gradient to blue and then purple the farther it went from my face, giving the gold filigree a cold, eerily surreal look. She added front panels to the cloak, so that it fell like some kind of robe in the front, belted to my waist with a sash of deep, dark purple. A final adjustment made the armor over my shoulders a bit wider and thicker, giving me that football shoulder-pad profile I remembered from Friday nights in high school.

  I looked down at myself and said, "This is ridiculous. I look like the Games Workshop version of a Jedi Knight.

  Susan and Lea blinked at me, then at each other.

  "I want my duster back, dammit," I clarified.

  "That old rag?" Lea said. "You have an image to maintain. "

  "And I'm gonna maintain it in my duster," I said stubbornly.

  "Harry," Susan said. "She might have a practical point here. "

  I eyed her. Then my outfit. "Practical?"

  "Appearances and first impressions are powerful things," she said. "Used correctly, they're weapons in their own right. I don't know about you, but I want every weapon I can get. "

  Lea murmured, "Indeed. "

  "Okay. I don't see why my image can't wear my duster. We need to be quick, too. This getup is going to be binding and heavier than hell. "

  Lea's mouth curled up at one corner. "Oh?"

  I scowled at her. Then I shook my shoulders and twisted about a bit. There was a kind of springy flexibility to the base material of the armor that steel would never match. More to the point, now that I was actually moving about, I couldn't feel its weight. At all. I might as well have been wearing comfortable pajamas.

  "No mortal could cut through it by strength of mundane arms," she said calmly. "It will shed blows from even such creatures as the vampires of the Red Court - for a time, at least. And it should help you to shield your mind against the wills of the Lords of Outer Night. "

  "Should?" I asked. "What do you mean, 'should'?"

  "They are an ancient power, godchild," Lea replied, and gave me her cat's smile again. "I have not had the opportunity to match my new strength against theirs. " She looked me up and down one more time and nodded, satisfied. "You look presentable. Now, child," she said, turning to Susan. "Let us see what we might do for you. "

  Susan handled the whole thing a lot better than I had.

  I got distracted while they were working. I looked out the window and saw us blowing past a highway patrol car as if it were standing still instead of racing down the highway with its bulbs flashing and its siren wailing. We had to be doing triple digits to have left him eating our dust so quickly.

  The patrolman didn't react to our passage, and I realized that Glenmael must be hiding the car behind some kind of veil. He was also, I noticed, weaving and darting through the traffic with entirely impossible skill, missing other motorists' bumpers and fenders by inches, with them apparently none the wiser. Not only that, but I couldn't feel the motion at all within the passenger compartment. By all rights, we should have been bouncing off the windows and the roof, but it didn't feel as if the car were moving at all.

  Long story short: He got us to St. Mary's in less than fifteen minutes, and gave me several dozen new grey hairs in the process.

  We pulled up and Glenmael was opening the door to the rear compartment at seemingly the same instant that the car's weight settled back against its parking brakes. I got out, the dark grey cowl covering my head. My shadow, on the sidewalk in front of me, looked friggin' huge and scary. Irrationally, it made me feel a little better.

  I turned to help Susan out and felt my mouth drop open a little.

  Her outfit was . . . um, freaking hot.

  The golden headdress was the first thing I noticed. It was decorated with feathers, with jade carved with sigils and symbols like those I had seen on the stone table, and with flickering gems of arctic green and blue. For a second, I thought her vampire nature had begun to rise again, because her face was covered in what I mistook for tattoos. A second glance showed me that they were some kind of precisely drawn design, sort of like henna markings, but far more primitive and savage-looking in appearance. They were also done in a variety of colors of black and deep, dark red. The designs around her dark brown eyes made them stand out sharply.

  Under that, she wore a shift of some material that looked like simple, soft buckskin, split on the sides for ease of movement, and her feet were wrapped in shoes made of similar material, also decorated with feathers. The moccasins and shift both were pure white, and made a sharp contrast against the dark richness of her skin, and displayed the smooth, tight muscles of her arms and legs tremendously well.

  A belt of white leather had an empty holster for a handgun on one of her hips, with a frog for hanging a scabbard upon it on the other. And over all of that, she wore a mantled cloak of feathers, not too terribly unlike the ones we had seen in Nevada - but the colors were all in the rich, cool tones of the Winter Court: glacial blue, deep sea green, and twilight purple.

  She looked at me and said, "I'm waiting for you to say something about a Vegas showgirl. "

  It took me a moment to reconnect my mouth to my brain. "You look amazing," I said.

  Her smile was slow and hot, with her dark eyes on mine.

  "Um," I said. "But . . . it doesn't look very practical. "

  Lea accepted Glenmael's hand and exited the limo. She leaned over and murmured something into Susan's ear.

  Susan arched an eyebrow, but then said, "Okaaay . . . " She closed her eyes briefly, frowning.

  And she vanished. Like, completely. Not behind a hard-to-pierce veil. Just gone.

  My godmother laughed and said, "The same as before, but red, child. "

  "Okay," said Susan's voice from empty air, and suddenly she was back again, smiling broadly. "Wow. "

  "The cloak will hide you from the eyes and other senses as well, child," my godmother said. "And while you wear those shoes, your steps will leave no tracks nor make the smallest sound. "

  "Um, right," I said. "But I'd feel better if she had some Kevlar along or something. Just in case. "

  "Glenmael," said my godmother.

  The chauffeur calmly drew a nine-millimeter, pointed it at Susan's temples from point-blank range, and squeezed the trigger. The gun barked.

  Susan jerked her head to one side and staggered, clapping one hand to her ear. "Ow!" she snarled, rising and turning on the young Sidhe. "You son of a bitch, those things are loud. That hurt. I ought to kick your ass up between your ears for you. "

  In answer, the Sidhe bent with consummate grace and plucked something from the ground. He stood and showed it to Susan, and then to me.

  It was a bullet. The nose was smashed in flat, until it vaguely resembled a small mushroom.

  Our eyes got kind of wide.

  Lea spread her hands and said calmly, "Faerie godmother. "

  I shook my head, stunned. It had taken me years to design, create, and improve my leather duster's defensive spells, and even then, the protection extended only as far as the actual leather. Lea had whipped up a whole-body protective enchantment in minutes.

  I suddenly felt a bit more humble. It was probably good for me.

  But then I tilted my head, frowning. The power involved in my godmother's gifts was incredible - but the universe just doesn't seem to be willing to give you something for nothing. That was as true in magic as it was in physics. I could, with years of effort, probably duplicate what Lea's gifts could do. The Sidhe worked with the same magic I did, though admittedly they seemed to have a very different sort of relationship. Still, that much power all in one spot meant that the energy cost for it was being paid elsewhere.

  Like maybe in longevity.

  "Godmother," I asked, "how long will these gifts endure?"

  Her smile turned a little sad. "Ah, child. I am a faerie godmother, am I not? Such things are not meant to last. "

  "Don't tell me midnight," I said.

  "Of course not. I am not part of Summer. " She sniffed, rather scornfully. "Noon. "

  And that made more sense. My duster's spells lasted for months, and I thought I'd worked out how to make them run for more than a year the next time I laid them down. Lea's gifts involved the same kind of power output, created seemingly without toil - but they wouldn't last like the things I created would. My self-image recovered a little.

  "Lea," I asked, "did you bring my bag?"

  Glenmael opened the trunk and brought
it over to me. The Swords in their scabbards were still strapped to the bag's side. I picked it up and nodded. "Thanks. "

  He bowed, smiling. I was tempted to tip him, just to see what would happen, but then I remembered that my wallet had been in my blue jeans, and was now, presumably, part of the new outfit. Maybe it would reappear at noon tomorrow - assuming I was alive to need it, I mean.

  "I will wait here," Lea said. "When you are ready to travel to the first Way, Glenmael will take us there. "

  "Right," I said. "Let's go, princess. "

  "Of course, Sir Knight," Susan said, her eyes sparkling, and we went into the church.