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Jim Butcher

Chapter 37~38

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  I t was snowing again. Five or six inches had fallen since the last time anyone cleared the Carpenters' front walk. My footsteps crunched through the silent winter air. You could have heard them a block away.

  Nicodemus waited for me, stylishly casual in a deep green silk shirt and black trousers. He watched me come with a neutral expression, his eyes narrowed.

  I shivered when a breath of cold wind touched me, and my weary muscles threatened to go out of control. Dammit, I was the one working for the Winter Queen. So how come everyone else got to be perfectly comfortable in the middle of a blizzard?

  I stopped at the end of Michael's driveway and planted my staff on the ground. Nicodemus stared silently at me for a while. The shadows had shifted to mask his expression, and I couldn't see his face very well.

  "What," he said in a low, deadly tone, "is that?"

  Mouse stared at Nicodemus, and let out a growl so low that individual snowflakes jumped up off the ground all around him. My dog bared his teeth, showing long white fangs, and his snarl rose in volume.

  Hell's bells. I'd never seen Mouse react like that, except in earnest combat.

  And it looked like Nicodemus didn't like Mouse much, either.

  "Answer my question, Dresden," Nicodemus growled. "What is that?"

  "A precaution against getting stuck in deep snow," I said. "He's training to be a Saint Bernard. "

  "Excuse me?" Nicodemus said.

  I mimed covering one of Mouse's ears with my hand and stage-whispered, "Don't tell him that they don't actually carry kegs of booze on their collars. Break his little heart. "

  Nicodemus didn't move, but his shadow shifted until it lay in a shapeless little pool between him and Mouse. His face came into view again, and he was smiling. "It's been a little while since anyone was quite that insolent to my face. May I ask you a question?"

  "Why not?"

  "Do you always retreat into insouciance when you're frightened, Dresden?"

  "I don't think of it as retreating. I think of it as an advance to the cheer. May I ask you a question?"

  The smile widened. "Oh, why not?"

  "How come some of you losers seem to have personal names, and the others just get called after the Fallen in the coin?"

  "It isn't complicated," Nicodemus said. "Some of our order are active, willing minds, with strength enough to retain their sense of self. Others are"-he shrugged a shoulder, an elegant, arrogant little motion-"of little consequence. Disposable vessels, and nothing more. "

  "Like Rasmussen," I muttered.

  Nicodemus looked puzzled for a moment. Then his eyes narrowed suddenly, focusing intently upon me. His shadow stirred again, and something made a noise that sounded like a disturbingly serpentine whisper. "Oh, yes, Ursiel's vessel. Precisely. " He looked past me to the house. "Have your friends begun whispering behind your back yet?"

  They sure as hell had, though I had no idea why. I hung on to my poker face. "Why would they?"

  "Try to imagine the Aquarium from their point of view. They enter a building with you, along with someone they would not normally bring along-but you have insisted that the police detective accompany your group. As a result, you walk away to a private conference with just you, me, and the Archive's guard dog. Then the sign goes up, and they can hear a terrible conflict raging. They race to the scene as quickly as possible and find my people dragging you out of the water-to take back the coin you had in your pocket, but your friends had no way of knowing that. They find the Archive gone, her bodyguard wounded or dead, and you being apparently assisted by my people.

  "And they never saw what happened," Nicodemus continued. "To a suspicious mind, you might seem an accomplice to the act. "

  I swallowed. "I doubt that. "

  "Oh?" Nicodemus said. "Even though you're about to propose giving me back the coins you took at the Aquarium? Eleven coins, Dresden. Should I recover them, everything you and your people have done during the past few days will mean nothing. I'll be just as strong and possess the power of the Archive to boot. It is hardly a stretch to consider that you would be ideally positioned to betray them at a critical moment-which this is. "

  I. . . hadn't thought of it like that.

  "'What if he's finally falling to the influence of her shadow?' they're thinking. 'What if he's not wholly in control of his own decisions?' they're thinking. Treachery is a more dangerous weapon than any magic, Dresden. I've had two thousand years to practice arranging it, and your friends the Knights know it. "

  Suddenly Michael's attitude began to make a lot more sense, and the pot roast fought to come back up. I tried to keep my poker face, but it wouldn't stick.

  "Ouch," Nicodemus said, his eyes widening. "After all those years of baseless suspicion and hostility from your own Council, that must be a painful realization. " He smirked at Mouse and then at me. "Your little heart must be breaking. "

  Mouse pressed his shoulder against my leg and snarled savagely at Nicodemus, taking a step forward.

  Nicodemus ignored him, his focus all on me. "It's a tempting offer," he said. "Exchanging the coins for the Archive? Presenting me with an opportunity to walk away with every jewel in the vault? It's something I can hardly ignore. Well-done. "

  "So?" I said. "Where do you want to set it up?"

  He shook his head. "I don't," he said quietly. "This is endgame, Dresden, even if you and yours can't accept it. Once I have the Archive, the rest is simply an exercise. Losing the coins will hurt, true, but I don't need them. Thorned Namshiel is of no real use to me in his current condition, and I haven't worked for two thousand years only to take a gamble at the last second. No deal. "

  I swallowed. "Then why are you here?"

  "To give you a chance to reconsider," Nicodemus said. "I think you and I are not so very different. Both of us are creatures of will. Both of us live our lives for ideals, not material things. Both of us are willing to sacrifice to attain our goals. "

  "Maybe we should wear matching outfits. "

  He spread his hands. "I could be an ally far more effective and dangerous than any you have now. I'm willing to compromise with you, and make some of your goals my own. I can provide you with support beyond anything your own Council has ever done for you. The material gain of such a partnership is a passing matter, ultimately, but wouldn't you enjoy living in something other than a musty basement? Don't you get tired of coming home to cold showers, cheap food, and an empty bed?"

  I just stared at him.

  "A great deal of work needs to be done, and not all of it is repugnant to you. In fact, I should imagine that some of it would prove to be quite satisfying to your personal sense of right and wrong. "

  To hell with the poker face. I sneered at him. "Like what?"

  "The Red Court is one example," Nicodemus said. "They're large, well organized, dangerous to my plans, a plague upon mankind, and aesthetically repugnant. They're parasites who are inconvenient in the short term, dangerous in the middle distance, and fatal to any long-range plan. They need to be destroyed at some point, in any case. I should have no objection to giving my assistance to you, and through you to the White Council in their efforts to do so. "

  "Make the Council into cat's-paws to wipe out the Red Court?" I asked.

  "As if you have not been made into their tool on many occasions. "

  "The Council doesn't need my help to be a bunch of tools," I muttered.

  "And yet the reversal appeals to your sense of justice, as does the notion of visiting destruction upon the Red Court. Especially given what they did to Susan Rodriguez. " He tilted his head to one side. "It may be possible to help her, you know. If anyone might know of a means to free her of her condition, it is the Fallen. "

  "Why not just offer me floating castles and world peace while you're at it, Nick?"

  He spread his hands. "I only suggest possibilities. Here is what is concrete: Y
ou and I share a great many foes. I am willing to help you fight them. "

  "Let me get this straight," I said. "You're telling me that you want me to work with you, and that I still get to keep being one of the good guys. "

  "Good and evil are relative. You know that by now. But I would never ask you to work against your conscience. I have no need to do so in order to make use of your talents. Consider how many people you could help with the power I'm offering you. "

  "Yeah. You seem like a real philanthropist. "

  "As I said, I'm willing to work with you, and I am quite sincere. " He met my eyes. "Look upon my soul, Dresden. See for yourself. "

  My heart ripped out about a thousand beats in two seconds, and I jerked my eyes away from him, terrified. I didn't want to see what was behind Nicodemus's dark, calm, ancient eyes. It could have been something monstrous, his soul, something that ripped away my sanity and left a stain of itself on my own like a smear of grease.

  Or it could be even worse.

  What if he was telling the truth?

  I glanced back at the Carpenter house, feeling very cold and very tired. Tired of everything. Tired of all of it. I looked down at my borrowed clothes and my bare ankles, covered with snow just like my shoes.

  "I don't have anything against you personally, Dresden," he said. "I respect your integrity. I would enjoy working with you. But make no mistake: If you stand in my way, I'll mow you down beside everyone else. "

  Silence reigned.

  I thought about what I knew of Nicodemus.

  I thought about my friends and those whispers behind my back. I thought about the awkward silences.

  I thought about what the world might become if Nicodemus turned Ivy.

  I thought about how scared the little girl must be right now.

  And I thought about a little old man from Okinawa who had literally laid down his life for my own.

  "You and I," I said quietly, "are both willing to give things up to reach our goals. "

  Nicodemus tilted his head, waiting.

  "But we have real different ideas when it comes to deciding who does the sacrificing and who gets sacrificed. " I shook my head. "No. "

  He took a slow, deep breath and said, "Pity. Good evening, Dresden. Best of luck to you in the new world. But I expect we won't meet again in this life. "

  He turned to go.

  And my heart sped up again.

  Shiro said I would know who to give the sword to.

  "Wait," I said.

  Nicodemus paused.

  "I've got more than coins to offer you. "

  He turned, his face a mask.

  "You give me Ivy and I give you eleven coins," I said quietly, "plus Fidelacchius. "

  Nicodemus froze. His shadow twisted and twitched. "You have it?"

  "Yeah. "

  That ugly whispering sound came again, louder and faster. Nicodemus glanced down at his shadow, frowning.

  "Suppose you get Ivy," I said. "Suppose you turn her and manage to control her. It's a great scheme. Suppose you get your apocalypse and your neo Dark Age. Do you think that's going to stop the Knights? Do you think that, one after the other, new men and women won't take up the Swords and fight you? You think Heaven's just going to sit there letting you do whatever you want?"

  Nicodemus had a better poker face than me, but I had him. He was listening.

  "How many times have the Swords broken up your plans?" I asked. "How many times have they forced you to abandon one position or another?" I took a stab in the dark that seemed worth it. "Don't you get tired of waking up from nightmares about taking a sword through the heart or the neck? Turning you into one more discarded Dixie cup for the Fallen? Terrified of what you're going to face once you shuffle off the mortal coil?

  "I've got the Sword," I said. "I'm willing to trade it and the coins alike. "

  His teeth showed. "No, you aren't. "

  "I'm just as willing to give you the Sword and the coins as you are to give me the Archive," I said. "I'm handing you an opportunity, Nick. A chance to destroy one of the Swords forever. Who knows? If things go well you might have a shot at taking out the other two at the same time. "

  The whispering increased in volume and speed again.

  Nicodemus stared at me. I couldn't read his expression, but his right hand was slowly clenching and unclenching, as if eager to take up a weapon, and hate poured off him like heat from an oven.

  "So," I said as nonchalantly as I could, "where do you want to do the exchange?"

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  I walked back up to the house again a few minutes later, Mouse at my side. Michael had been right: Before we went inside, the big dog shook himself thoroughly. I decided to follow his example and stomped whatever snow I could off my numb feet, then went in.

  I walked into the living room and found everyone there waiting for me-Luccio, Michael, Molly, Sanya, and Murphy. Everyone looked at me expectantly.

  "He went for it. We're going to have to haul ass in a minute. But I need to speak with you first, Michael. "

  Michael raised his eyebrows. "Oh, certainly. "

  "Alone," I said quietly. "And bring your Sword. "

  I turned and walked on through the house, out the barely functioning back door the gruff had damaged before all this began, and on to the workshop. I didn't stop to look behind me. I didn't need to look to know that everyone was trading Significant Glances.

  If Nicodemus actually did have people in the tree house, they were gone now. I wouldn't put it past the bastard to have been lying about them, just to keep me honest. I went inside the workshop and laid my staff down on the workbench. It had a lot of dings and nicks in it. It could benefit from a set of wood-carving tools, sandpaper, and patient attention.

  Michael came in silently a moment later. I turned to face him. He wore his fleece-lined denim coat again, and bore Amoracchius in its sheath, attached to a belt he'd slung over one shoulder.

  I took my duster off and put it next to the staff. "Draw it, please. "

  "Harry," Michael said. "What are you doing?"

  "Making a point," I said. "Just do it. "

  He frowned at me, his expression uncertain, but he drew the blade.

  I added my energy rings to the pile on the workbench. Then my shield bracelet. Finally I took off my mother's silver pentacle necklace and put it down there too. Then I turned and walked over to Michael.

  I met his eyes steadily. I'd already looked upon Michael's soul. I knew its quality, and he knew that of mine.

  Then I reached down with my left hand, gently grasped Amoracchius's blade, and lifted it to rest against the left side of my neck, just below my ear. The jugular vein. Or the carotid artery. I get them confused.

  Michael went pale. "Harry-"

  "Shut up," I said. "For the past couple of days you've done all kinds of not-talking. You can do a little bit more of it until I've said my piece. "

  He subsided, his eyes troubled, and stood very, very still.

  What can I say? I have a gift for getting people's attention.

  I stared at him down the length of shining, deadly steel, and then, very slowly, took my hand off the Sword, leaving its wickedly sharp edge resting against the beat of my life. Then I spread my hands and just stood there for a minute.

  "You are my friend, Michael," I said, barely louder than a whisper. "I trust you. "

  His eyes glittered and he closed them.

  "And you want to know," he said heavily, looking up again, "if I can say the same. "

  "Talk is cheap," I said, and moved my chin a little to indicate the Sword. "I want to know if you'll show me. "

  He lowered the Sword carefully from my neck. His hands shook a little, but mine didn't. "It isn't that simple. "

  "Yes, it is," I told him. "I'm your friend, or I'm not. You trust me-or you don't. "

  He sheathed the Sword and turned away, facing
the window.

  "That's the real reason you didn't want to hat up and go gunning for the Denarians right at first, the way I wanted to. You were worried I was leading you into a trap. "

  "I didn't lie to you, Harry," Michael said. "But I'd be lying right now if I didn't admit that, yes, the thought had crossed my mind. "

  "Why?" I asked, my voice perfectly calm. "What reason have I ever given you for that?"

  "It isn't that simple, Harry. "

  "I've fought and bled to defend you and your family. I put my neck in a noose for Molly, when the Council would have killed her. I can't even tell you how much business I've missed out on because of the time I've got to spend teaching her. What was it that tipped you off to my imminent villainhood?"

  "Harry. . . "

  Nicodemus had been right about one thing: It hurt to be suspected by my friends. It hurt like hell. I didn't even realize I had raised my voice until I'd already screamed, "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

  Michael turned his face to me, his expression grim.

  "Do you think I've decided to side with Nicodemus and his buddies?" I snarled. "Do you really think that? Because if you do, you might was well put that Sword through my neck right now. "

  "I don't know what to think, Harry," he said quietly. "There's a lot you haven't said. "

  "I don't share everything with you," I retorted. "I don't share everything with anyone. That's nothing new. "

  "I know it isn't," he said.

  "Then why?" Some of the fire went out of my voice, and I felt like a half-deflated balloon. "You've known me for years, man. We've covered each other plenty of times. Why are you doubting me now?"

  "Because of Lasciel's shadow," Michael said quietly. "Because as long as it's in you it will tempt you-and the longer it stays, the more able it will be to do so. "

  "I gave Forthill the coin," I said. "I figured that pretty much said it all. "

  Michael grimaced. "The shadow can show you how to summon the coin. It's happened before. That's why we're so careful not to touch them. "

  "It's over, Michael. There is no more shadow. "

  Michael shook his head, his eyes filled with something very like pity. "It doesn't work like that, Harry. "

  The fire came back. The one thing I didn't want or need was pity. I'd made my own choices, lived my own life, and even if they hadn't all been smart choices, there weren't many of them that I regretted. "How do you know?" I asked.

  "Because in two thousand years, no one has rid themselves of the shadow of one of the Fallen-except by accepting the demon into them entirely, taking up the coin, and living to feel remorse and discarding it. And you claim that you never took up the coin. "

  "That's right," I said.

  "Then either the shadow is still there," Michael said, "still twisting your thoughts. Still whispering to you. Or you're lying to me about taking up the coin. Those are the only options. "

  I just stared at him for a minute. Then I said, "Hell's bells. And I thought wizards had a monopoly on arrogance. "

  He blinked.

  "Or do you really expect me to believe that the Church has been there to document every single instance of anyone picking up any of the cursed coins. That they've followed through with everyone tempted by a Fallen's shadow, taken testimony. Made copies. Hell, gotten it notarized. Especially given that you've told me that Nicodemus has worked as hard as he could to destroy the Church's records and archives through the years. "

  Michael's weight settled back on his heels. He frowned.

  "This is what they want, Michael. They want us at one another's throats. They want us to distrust one another. " I shook my head. "And right now is not the time to give it to them. "

  Michael folded his arms, studying me. "It could have done something to your mind," Michael said quietly. "You might not be in control of yourself, Harry. "

  I took a deep breath. "That's. . . possible," I admitted. "Anybody's head can be messed with. But if you go rewiring someone's brain, it damages them, badly. The bigger the changes you make, the worse it disorders their mind. "

  "The way my daughter did to her friends," Michael said. "I know. "

  "So there are signs," I said. "If you know the person well enough, there are almost always signs. They act differently. Have I been acting differently? Have I suddenly gone crazy on you?"

  He arched an eyebrow.

  "More so than usual," I amended.

  He shook his head. "No. "

  "Then odds are pretty good no one has scrambled my noggin," I said. "Besides which, it isn't the sort of thing one tends to overlook, and as a grade-A wizard of the White Council, I assure you that nothing like that has happened to me. "

  For a second he looked like he wanted to speak, but he didn't.

  "Which brings us back to the only real issue here," I said. "Do you think I've gone over to them? Do you think I could do such a thing, after what I've seen?"

  My friend sighed. "No, Harry. "

  I stepped up to him and put my hand on his shoulder. "Then trust me for a little longer. Help me for a little longer. "

  He searched my eyes again. "I will," he whispered, "if you answer one question for me. "

  I frowned at him and tilted my head. "Okay. "

  He took a deep breath and spoke carefully. "Harry," he said quietly, "what happened to your blasting rod?"

  For a second the question didn't make any sense. The words sounded like noises, like sounds infants make before they learn to speak. Especially the last part of the sentence. "I. . . I'm sorry," I said. "What did you say?"

  "Where," he said gently, "is your blasting rod?"

  This time I heard the words.

  Pain stabbed me in the head, ice picks plunging into both temples. I flinched and doubled over. Blasting rod. Familiar words. I fought to summon an image of what went with the words, but I couldn't find anything. I knew I had a memory associated with those words, but try as I might, I couldn't drag it out. It was like a shape covered by some heavy tarp. I knew an object was beneath, but I couldn't get to it.

  "I don't. . . I don't. . . " I started breathing faster. The pain got worse.

  Someone had been in my head.

  Someone had been in my head.

  Oh, God.

  I must have fallen at some point, because the workshop's floor was cold underneath one of my cheeks when I felt Michael's broad, work-calloused hand gently cover my forehead.

  "Father," he murmured, humbly and with no drama whatsoever. "Father, please help my friend. Father of light, banish the darkness that he may see. Father of truth, expose the lies. Father of mercy, ease his pain. Father of love, honor this good man's heart. Amen. "

  Michael's hand felt suddenly red-hot, and I felt power burning in the air around him-not magic, the magic I worked with every day. This was something different, something more ancient, more potent, more pure. This was the power of faith, and as that heat settled into the spaces behind my eyes, something cracked and shattered inside my thoughts.

  The pain vanished so suddenly that it left me gasping, even as the image of a simple wooden rod, a couple of feet long, heavily carved with sigils and runes, leapt into the forefront of my thoughts. Along with the image of the blasting rod came thousands of memories, everything I had ever known about using magic to summon and control fire in a hurry, evocation, combat magic, and they hit me like a sledgehammer.

  I lay there shuddering for a minute or two as I took it all back in. The memories filled a hole inside me I hadn't even realized was there.

  Michael left his hand on my head. "Easy, Harry. Easy. Just rest for a minute. I'm right here. "

  I decided not to argue with him.

  "Well," I rasped weakly a moment later. I opened my eyes and looked up to where Michael sat cross-legged on the floor beside me. "Somebody owes somebody here an apology. "

  He gave me a small, concerned smile. "You don't owe me anythin
g. Perhaps I should have spoken sooner, but. . . "

  "But confronting someone who's had his brain twisted out of shape about the fact can prove traumatic," I said quietly. "Especially if part of the twisting was making damned sure that he didn't remember any such thing happening. "

  He nodded. "Molly became concerned sometime yesterday. I asked her to have a look at you while you were sleeping earlier. I apologize for that, but I didn't know any other way to be sure that someone had tampered with you. "

  I shivered. Ugh. Molly playing in my head. That wasn't necessarily the prettiest thing to think about. Molly had a gift for neuromancy, mind magic, but she'd used it to do some fairly nasty things to people in the past-for perfectly good reasons, true, but all the same it had been honest-to-evilness black magic. It was the kind of thing that people got addicted to, and it wasn't the kind of candy store that I would ever want that kid to play in.

  Especially considering that the inventory was me.

  "Hell's bells, Michael," I murmured. "You shouldn't have done that to her. "

  "It was her idea, actually. And you're right, Harry. We can't afford to be divided right now. What can you remember?"

  I shook my head, squinting while I sorted through the dump-truckload of loose memories. "The last time I remember having it was right after the gruffs attacked us here. After that. . . nothing. I don't know where it is now. And no, I don't remember who did it to me or why. "

  Michael frowned but nodded. "Well. He doesn't always give us what we want. Only what we need. "

  I rubbed at my forehead. "I hope so," I said sheepishly. "So. Um. This is a little awkward. After that thing with putting your Sword to my throat and all. "

  Michael let his head fall back and belted out a warm, rich laugh. "You aren't the sort of person to do things by halves, Harry. Grand gestures included. "

  "I guess not," I said quietly.

  "I have to ask," Michael said, studying me intently. "Lasciel's shadow. Is it really gone?"

  I nodded.

  "How?"

  I looked away from him. "I don't like to talk about it. "

  He frowned but nodded slowly. "Can you tell me why not?"

  "Because what happened to her wasn't fair. " I shook my head. "Do you know why the Denarians don't like going into churches, Michael?"

  He shrugged. "Because the presence of the Almighty makes them uncomfortable, or so I always supposed. "

  "No," I said, closing my eyes. "Because it makes the Fallen feel, Michael. Makes them remember. Makes them sad. "

  I felt his startled glance, even with my eyes closed.

  "Imagine how awful that would be," I said, "after millennia of certainty of purpose. Suddenly you have doubts. Suddenly you question whether or not everything you've done has been one enormous, futile lie. If everything you sacrificed, you sacrificed for nothing. " I smiled faintly. "Couldn't be good for your confidence. "

  "No," Michael said thoughtfully. "I don't suppose it would be. "

  "Shiro told me I'd know who to give the Sword to," I said.

  "Yes?"

  "I threw it into the deal with Nicodemus. The coins and the Sword for the child. "

  Michael drew in a sharp breath.

  "He would have walked away otherwise," I said. "Run out the clock, and we'd never have found him in time. It was the only way. It was almost like Shiro knew. Even back then. "

  "God's blood, Harry," Michael said. He pressed a hand to his stomach. "I'm fairly sure that gambling is a sin. And even if it isn't, this probably should be. "

  "I'm going to go get that little girl, Michael," I said. "Whatever it takes. "

  He rose, frowning, and buckled his sword belt around his hips.

  I held up my right hand. "Are you with me?"

  Michael's palm smacked solidly into mine, and he hauled me to my feet.