Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Changes, Page 17

Jim Butcher

Chapter 39~40

  Chapter 39

  Sanya was guarding the door. He swung it open wide for us, and studied Susan with a grin of appreciation. "There are some days," he said, "when I just love this job. "

  "Come on," I said, walking past him. "We don't have much time. "

  Sanya literally clicked his heels together, took Susan's hand, and kissed the back of it gallantly, the big stupidhead. "You are beyond lovely, lady. "

  "Thank you," Susan said, smiling. "But we don't have much time. "

  I rolled my eyes and kept walking.

  There was a quiet conversation going in the living room. It stopped as I came through the door. I paused there for a second, and looked around at everyone who was going to help me get my daughter back.

  Molly was dressed in her battle coat, which consisted of a shirt of tightly woven metal links, fashioned by her mother out of titanium wire. The mail was then sandwiched between two long Kevlar vests. All of that was, in turn, fixed to one of several outer garments, and in this case she was wearing a medium-brown fireman's coat. Her hair was braided tightly against the back of her head - and back to its natural honey brown color - and a hockey helmet sat on a table near her. She had half a dozen little focus items I'd shown her how to create, none of which were precisely intended for a fight. Her face was a little pale, and her blue eyes were earnest.

  Mouse sat next to her, huge and stolid, and rose to his feet and padded over to give me a subdued greeting as I came in. I knelt down and roughed up his ears for a moment. He wagged his tail, but made no more display than that, and his serious brown eyes told me that he knew the situation was grave.

  Next came Martin, dressed in simple black BDU pants, a longsleeved black shirt, and a tactical vest, all of which could have been purchased from any military surplus or gun store. He was in the midst of cleaning and inspecting two sets of weapons: assault rifles, tactical shotguns, and heavy pistols. He wore a machete in a scabbard on his belt. A second such weapon rested in a nylon sheath on the table, next to a blade-sharpening tool kit. He never looked up at me, or stopped reassembling the pistol he'd finished cleaning.

  A small chess set had been set up on the other end of the coffee table from Molly, next to Martin's war gear. My brother sat there, with Martin (and, once he had finished greeting me, Mouse) between himself and the girl. He was wearing expensive-looking silk pants and a leather vest, both white. A gun belt bearing a large-caliber handgun and a sword with an inward-curving blade, an old Spanish falcata, hung over the corner of the couch, casually discarded. He lay lazily back on the couch, his eyes mostly closed, watching the move of his opponent.

  Murphy was decked out in black tactical gear much like Martin's, but more worn and better fitting. They don't generally make gear for people Murph's size, so she couldn't shop off the shelf very often. She did have her own vest of Kevlar and mail, which Charity had made for her for Christmas the previous year, in thanks for the occasions when Murphy had gone out on a limb for them, but Murph had just stuck the compound armor to her tac vest and been done. She wore her automatic on her hip, and her odd-looking, rectangular little submachine gun, the one that always made me think of a box of chocolates, was leaned against the wall nearby. Murph was hunched over the chessboard, her nose wrinkled as she thought, and moved one of her knights into a thicket of enemy pieces before she turned to me.

  She took one look at me and burst out giggling.

  That was enough to set off everyone in the room except Martin, who never seemed to realize that there were other people there. Molly's titters set off Thomas, and even Mouse dropped his jaws open in a doggy grin.

  "Hah, hah, hah," I said, coming into the room, so that Susan and Sanya could join us. No one laughed at Susan's outfit. I felt that the injustice of that was somehow emblematic of the unfairness in my life, but I didn't have time to chase that thought down and feed it rhetoric until the lightbulb over my head lit up.

  "Well," Murphy said, as the laughter died away. "I'm glad you got out all right. Went shopping after, did you?"

  "Not so much," I said. "Okay, listen up, folks. Time is short. What else did we manage to find out about the site?"

  Murphy told Thomas, "Mate in six," took a file folder from beneath her chair, and passed it to me.

  "You wish," Thomas drawled lazily.

  I eyed him and opened the folder. There were multiple pages inside, color aerial and satellite photos of the ruins.

  "Good grief," I said. "How did you get these?"

  "Internet," Murphy said calmly. "We've got an idea of where they're setting up and what security measures they'll need to take, but before we can talk about an approach, we need to know where we're going to arrive. "

  I stroked a thumb over my mother's gem and consulted the knowledge stored there. Then I went through the maps until I found one of the proper scale, picked up a pen from the table, and drew an X on the map. "Here. It's about five miles north of the pyramid. "

  Thomas whistled quietly.

  "What?" I asked him. "You can't do five miles?"

  "Five miles of sidewalk, sure," Thomas said. "Five miles of jungle is a bit different, Dresden. "

  "He's right," Martin said. "And at night, too. "

  Thomas spread his hands.

  "Have done a little jungle," Sanya said, coming over to study the map. "How bad is the bush there?"

  "Tougher than the lower Amazon, not as bad as Cambodia," Martin said calmly.

  Sanya grunted. Thomas wrinkled his nose in distaste. I tried to pretend that Martin had given me some kind of tangible information, and idly wondered if Thomas and Sanya were doing the same thing as me.

  "How long, Martin?" I asked him.

  "Two hours, bare minimum. Could be more, depending. "

  I grunted. Then I said, "We'll see if Lea can't do something to help us along. "

  The room went still.

  "Um," Murphy said. "Your psycho faerie godmother? That Lea?"

  "Harry, you told me she was dangerous," Molly said.

  "And I still have the scar to prove it," Thomas added.

  "Yes," I said quietly. "She's powerful and by any reasonable standard she's insane and she's currently pointed in the direction of our enemy. So we're going to use her. "

  "We're using her, are we?" Sanya asked, grinning.

  "He told us what Toot said about Mab, Harry," Molly said softly.

  There was a long stretch of quiet.

  "You made a deal," Murphy said.

  "Yeah, I did. For Maggie, I did. " I looked around the room. "I'm me until this is all over. That was part of the deal. But if there's anyone here who wants to bail on me and Susan, do it now. Otherwise, feel free to keep your mouth closed about the subject. My daughter doesn't have time for us to debate the ethics of a choice that isn't any of your goddamned business anyway. "

  I looked around the room and Sanya said, "I am going. Who else goes with us?"

  Mouse sneezed.

  "I figured that," I told him.

  He wagged his tail.

  "Me, obviously," Martin said.

  Murphy nodded. Molly did, too. Then Thomas rolled his eyes.

  "Good," I said. "Lea will probably have something to speed the trip," I said.

  "She'd better," Thomas said. "Time's short. "

  "We will be there in time," Sanya said confidently.

  I nodded. Then I said, "And I have a favor to ask two of you. "

  I put the bag down and pulled Fidelacchius from where I'd tied it. The ancient katana-style Sword had a smooth wooden handle that perfectly matched the wood of its sheath, so that when the weapon was sheathed it looked innocuous, appearing to be a slightly curved, sturdy stick of a good size to carry while walking. The blade was razor-sharp. I had dropped a plastic drinking straw across it as an experiment once. The rate of fall had been all the exquisite weapon had needed to slice the straw neatly in half.

  "Ka
rrin," I said, and held out the Sword.

  Sanya's eyebrows climbed toward the roof.

  "I've . . . been offered that Sword before, Harry," she said quietly. "Nothing's changed since then. "

  "I'm not asking you to take up the mantle of a Knight," I said quietly. "I want to entrust it to you for this night, for this purpose. This sword was made to fight darkness, and there's going to be plenty to go around. Take it up. Just until my girl is safe. "

  Murphy frowned. She looked at Sanya and said, "Can he do this?"

  "Can you?" Sanya asked, looking at me.

  "I was entrusted as the Sword's guardian," I said calmly. "Exactly what am I supposed to do with it if it is not my place to choose the Sword's bearer to the best of my ability?"

  Sanya considered that for a moment, then shrugged. "Seems implicit to me. They gave you the power of choice when they entrusted you with the Swords. One of those things they seem to tell you without ever actually saying anything that sounds remotely related. "

  I nodded. "Murph. Used for the right reasons, in good faith, the Sword is in no danger. You're the only one who can know if you're doing it for the right reasons. But I'm begging you. Take it. Help me save my daughter, Karrin. Please. "

  Murphy sighed. "You don't play fair, Harry. "

  "Not for one second," I said. "Not for something like this. "

  Murphy was quiet for a moment more. Then she stood up and walked to me. She took the Sword from my hand. There was an old cloth strap fixed to the sheath, so that the weapon could be carried over one shoulder or diagonally across the back. Murphy slipped the weapon on and said, "I'll carry it. If it seems right to me, I'll use it. "

  "That's all I can ask for," I said.

  Then I picked up Amoracchius, a European long Sword with a crusader-style hilt and a simple, wire-wrapped handle.

  And I turned to Susan.

  She stared at me and then shook her head slowly. "The last time I touched one of those things," she said, "it burned me so bad I could still feel it three months later. "

  "That was then," I said. "This is now. You're doing what you're doing because you love your daughter. If you stay focused on that, this Sword will never do you harm. " I turned the hilt to her. "Put your hand on it. "

  Susan did so slowly, almost as if against her will. She hesitated at the last moment. Then her fingers closed on the blade's handle.

  And that was all. Nothing happened.

  "Swear to harm no innocents," I said quietly. "Swear to use it in good faith, to return your daughter safely home. Swear that you will safeguard the Sword and return it faithfully when that task is done. And I don't see any reason why you shouldn't be able to wield it. "

  She met my eyes and nodded. "I swear. "

  I nodded in reply and took my hands from the weapon. Susan drew it slightly from its sheath. Its edge gleamed, and its steel was polished as smooth and bright as a mirror. And when she moved to buckle it to her belt, the Sword fit there as if made for it.

  My godmother was probably going to feel very smug about that.

  "I hope that the Almighty will not feel slighted if I carry more, ah, innovative weaponry as well," Susan said. She crossed to the table, slid one of Martin's revolvers into her holster, and after a moment picked up the assault rifle.

  Sanya stepped forward as well, and took the tactical shotgun with its collapsible shoulder stock. "If He exists, He has never given me any grief about it," he said cheerfully. "Da. This is going very well already. "

  Thomas barked out a laugh. "There are seven of us against the Red King and his thirteen most powerful nobles, and it's going well?"

  Mouse sneezed.

  "Eight," Thomas corrected himself. He rolled his eyes and said, "And the psycho death faerie makes it nine. "

  "It is like movie," Sanya said, nodding. "Dibs on Legolas. "

  "Are you kidding?" Thomas said. "I'm obviously Legolas. You're . . . " He squinted thoughtfully at Sanya and then at Martin. "Well. He's Boromir and you're clearly Aragorn. "

  "Martin is so dour, he is more like Gimli. " Sanya pointed at Susan. "Her sword is much more like Aragorn's. "

  "Aragorn wishes he looked that good," countered Thomas.

  "What about Karrin?" Sanya asked.

  "What - for Gimli?" Thomas mused. "She is fairly - "

  "Finish that sentence, Raith, and we throw down," said Murphy in a calm, level voice.

  "Tough," Thomas said, his expression aggrieved. "I was going to say 'tough. ' "

  Martin had gotten up during the discussion. He came over to me and studied the map I'd marked. Then he nodded. As the discussion went on - with Molly's sponsorship, Mouse was lobbying to claim Gimli on the basis of being the shortest, the stoutest, and the hairiest - Martin explained what they knew of the security measures around the ruins.

  "That's why we're going in here," he said, pointing to the eastern-most point of the ruins, where rows and rows and rows of great columns stood. Once, they had held up some kind of roof over a complex attached to the great temple. "Now," Martin continued, "the jungle has swallowed the eastern end of it. They're only using torchlight, so movement through the galleries should be possible. There will be considerable shadow to move through. "

  "Means they'll have guards there," I said.

  "True. We'll have to silence them. It can be done. If we can move fully through the galleries, we'll be within two hundred feet of the base of the temple. That's where we think they'll be performing the ritual. In the temple. "

  "Plenty of temples got built on top of ley line confluences," I said, nodding. I studied the map. "A lot can happen in two hundred feet," I said. "Even moving fast. "

  Martin nodded. "Yes, it can. And, if our various intelligence sources are correct, there are more than a thousand individuals nearby. "

  "A thousand vampires?" I asked.

  Martin shrugged. "Many. Many will be their personal guards. Others, the . . . highest-ranking servants, I suppose you would call them. They are like Susan and myself. There may also be mortal foot soldiers, there to keep the sacrifices in line. "

  "Sacrifices, plural?"

  Martin nodded. "The ceremonies of the Red Court of old could last for days, with blood sacrifices made every few minutes. There might be a hundred or two hundred others chosen to die before the ritual. "

  I didn't shudder, but only by sheer force of will. "Yeah. Priming the pump. " I nodded. "Probably they're doing it right now. "

  "Yes," Martin said.

  "What we need," I said.

  "A diversion," Martin said.

  I nodded. "Get everyone looking in one direction. Then Susan, Lea, and I will hit the temple, get the kid. Then we all run for Father Forthill's sanctuary on holy ground. "

  "They'll catch us long before we can cover that distance. "

  "You ever tried chasing a faerie through the woods at night?" I asked wryly. "Trust me. If we can break contact, we can make it a few miles. "

  "Why not retreat directly to the spirit world?" Martin asked.

  I shook my head. "No way. Creatures this old and powerful know all the tricks there, and they'll be familiar with the terrain on the other side that close to their strong places. I won't fight them on that ground unless there's no other choice. We head for the church. " I pointed to the location of the church, in a small town only about two and a half miles from Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢.

  Martin smiled faintly. "Do you honestly think a parish chapel will withstand the might of the Red King?"

  "I have to think that, Martin," I said. "Besides, I think a parish chapel with all three Swords defending it, along with two members of the White Council and an elder sorceress of the Winter Sidhe, will be a tough nut to crack. And all we have to do is make it until dawn. Then we're back in the jungle and gone. "

  Martin mused on that for a moment and said, "It might work. "

  "Yeah. It might," I said. "We need to move. Our ride i
s outside waiting. "

  "Right. "

  Martin looked at Susan and nodded. Then he put his fingers to his mouth and let out a piercing whistle. The good-natured discussion came to a halt and he said, "The car's outside. "

  "Let's go, people," I said quietly. "It's the big green car. "

  Everyone grew serious rather rapidly, and began gathering up their various forms of gear.

  Susan went out first, to make sure there weren't any problems with Lea, and everyone filed out after her, Sanya last.

  "Sanya," I said. "Who did I get cast as?"

  "Sam," Sanya said.

  I blinked at him. "Not . . . Oh, for crying out loud, it was perfectly obvious who I should have been. "

  Sanya shrugged. "It was no contest. They gave Gandalf to your godmother. You got Sam. " He started to leave and then paused. "Harry. You have read the books as well, yes?"

  "Sure," I said.

  "Then you know that Sam was the true hero of the tale," Sanya said. "That he faced far greater and more terrible foes than he ever should have had to face, and did so with courage. That he went alone into a black and terrible land, stormed a dark fortress, and resisted the most terrible temptation of his world for the sake of the friend he loved. That in the end, it was his actions and his actions alone that made it possible for light to overcome darkness. "

  I thought about that for a second. Then I said, "Oh. "

  He clapped me on the shoulder and left.

  He didn't mention the other part of the book. That following the heroes when they set out was the tenth member of their party. A broken creature who went through all the same dangers and trials, who had made a single bad choice and taken up a power he didn't understand - and who had become a demented, miserable, living nightmare because of it. In the end, he had been just as necessary to the overthrow of the darkness.

  But he sure as hell didn't enjoy his part.

  I shook my head and berated myself sharply. Here I was wasting time talking about a damned book. About a world of blacks and whites with precious little in the way of grey, where you could tell the good guys from the bad guys with about two seconds of effort.

  And right now, I didn't give a damn about good and bad. I just wanted a little girl home safe.

  It didn't matter which of them I was. As long as I got Maggie home.

  I picked up my bag, left St. Mary's behind me, and stalked out to my wicked godmother's limo, pulling the soft hood of my dark cape up over my head.

  If I was on the road to Hell, at least I was going in style.

  Chapter 40

  There was room for everyone in the back of the limo. I was pretty sure that there hadn't been the first time I'd ridden in it. But it had gotten several extra feet of seats along the walls, and everyone was sitting there being only a little bit crowded as Glenmael charged out to assault Chicago's streets.

  "I still think we should try a frontal assault," Sanya argued.

  "Suicidally stupid," Martin said, his voice scornful.

  "Surprise tactic!" Sanya countered. "They will not expect it after a thousand years of never being challenged. Harry, what do you think?"

  "Uh," I said.

  And then Ebenezar's voice said, quite clearly and from no apparent source, "Damn your stubborn eyes, boy! Where have you been?"

  I went rigid with surprise for a second. I looked around the interior of the limo, but no one had reacted, with the exception of my godmother. Lea sighed and rolled her eyes.

  Right. The speaking stones. I'd stuck mine in the bag, but since I was holding it on my lap now, it was close enough to be warmed by the heat of my body to function. It was possible to send terse messages through the stones without first establishing a clear connection, as my mentor and I had done back toward the beginning of this mess.

  "Damnation and hellfire, Hoss!" growled Ebenezar's voice. "Answer me!"

  I looked from Sanya to my godmother. "Uh. I kind of have to take this call. "

  Sanya blinked at me. Thomas and Murphy exchanged a significant glance.

  "Oh, shut up," I said crossly. "It's magic, okay?"

  I closed my eyes and fumbled through the bag until I found the stone. I didn't really need to show up in my outlandish costume for this conversation, so I thought about my own physical body for a moment, concentrating on an image of my limbs and flesh and normal clothing forming around my thoughts.

  "So help me, boy, if you don't - "

  Ebenezar appeared in my mind's eye, wearing his usual clothing. He broke off suddenly as he looked at me and his face went pale. "Hoss? Are you all right?"

  "Not really," I said. "I'm kind of in the middle of something here. What do you want?"

  "Your absence from the conclave did not go over well," he responded, his voice sharp. "There are people in the Grey Council who think you aren't to be trusted. They're very, very wary of you. By missing the meeting, you told them that either you don't respect our work enough to bother showing up, or else that you don't have the wisdom and the fortitude to commit to the cause. "

  "I never saw the appeal of peer pressure," I said. "Sir, I'm finding a little girl. I'll come play Council politics after I get her home safe, if you want. "

  "We need you here. "

  "The kid needs me more. It's not as noble as trying to save the whole White Council from its own stupidity, I know. But by God, I will bring that child out safe. "

  Ebenezar's mostly bald pate flushed red. "Despite my orders to the contrary. "

  "We aren't an army. You aren't my superior officer. Sir. "

  "You arrogant child," he snapped. "Get your head out of your ass and get your eyes on the world around you or you're going to get yourself killed. "

  "With all due respect, sir, you can go to hell," I snarled. "You think I don't know how dangerous the world is? Me?"

  "I think you're doing everything in your power to isolate yourself from the only people who can support you," he said. "You feel guilty about something. I get that, Hoss. You think you ain't fit for company because of what you've done. " His scowl darkened still more. "In my time, I've done things that would curl your hair. Get over it. Think. "

  "After I get the girl out. "

  "Do you even know where she is?" Ebenezar demanded.

  "Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢," I said. "She's scheduled to be the centerpiece of one of the Red King's shindigs in the next couple of hours. "

  Ebenezar took a sharp breath, as if I'd poked him in the stomach with the end of a quarterstaff. "Chich¨¦n Itz¨¢ . . . That's a confluence. One of the biggest in the world. The Reds haven't used it in . . . Not since Cort¨¦s was there. "

  "Confluence, yeah," I said. "The Duchess Arianna is going to kill her and use the power to lay a curse on her bloodline - Susan and me. "

  Ebenezar began to speak and then blinked several times, as if the sun had just come out of a cloud and into his eyes. "Susan and . . . " He paused and asked, "Hoss?"

  "I meant to tell you the last time we spoke," I said quietly. "But . . . the conversation wasn't exactly . . . " I took a deep breath. "She's my daughter by Susan Rodriguez. "

  "Oh," he said very quietly. His face looked grey. "Oh, Hoss. "

  "Her name's Maggie. She's eight. They took her a few days ago. "

  He bowed his head and shook it several times, saying nothing. Then he said, "You're sure?"

  "Yeah. "

  "H-how long have you known?"

  "Since a day or so after she was taken," I said. "Surprised the hell out of me. "

  Ebenezar nodded without looking up. Then he said, "You're her father and she needs you. And you want to be there for her. "

  "Not want to be there," I said quietly. "Going to be. "

  "Aye-aye," he said. "Don't go back to the Edinburgh facility. We think Arianna laced it with some kind of disease while she was there. So far there are sixty wizards down with it, and we're expecting more. No deaths yet, but whatev
er this bug is, it's putting them flat on their backs - including Injun Joe, so our best healer isn't able to work on the problem. "

  "Hell's bells," I said. "They aren't just starting back in on the war again. They're going to try to decapitate the Council in one blow. "

  Ebenezar grunted. "Aye. And without the Way nexus around Edinburgh, we're going to have a hell of a time with that counterstroke. " He sighed. "Hoss, you got a damned big talent. Not real refined, but you've matured a lot in the past few years. Handle yourself better in a fight than most with a couple of centuries behind them. Wish you could be with us. "

  I wasn't sure how to feel about that. Ebenezar was generally considered the heavyweight champion of the wizarding world when it came to direct, face-to-face mayhem. And I was one of the relatively few people who knew he was also the Blackstaff - the White Council's officially nonexistent hit man, authorized to ignore the Laws of Magic when he deemed it necessary. The old man had fought pretty much everything that put up a fight at one point or another, and he didn't make a habit of complimenting anyone's skills.

  "I can't go with you," I said.

  "Aye," he said with a firm nod. "You do whatever you have to do, boy. Whatever you have to do to keep your little girl safe. You hear?"

  "Yeah," I said. "Thank you, sir. "

  "Godspeed, son," Ebenezar said. Then he cut the connection.

  I released my focus slowly until I was once more in my body in the back of the limo.

  "Who was it?" Molly asked. The others let her take the lead. She must have explained the whole speaking-stone concept to them. Which made me look less crazy, but I felt twitchy about her handing out information like that to the entire car. It wasn't a big deadly secret or anything, but it was the principle of the thing that -

  I rubbed at my face with one hand. Ye gods. I was becoming my mentors. Next I'd be grumbling about those darned kids and their loud music.

  "Uh, the Council," I said. "Big shock, they aren't helping. "

  Murphy looked like she might be asleep, but she snorted. "So we're on our own. "

  "Yeah. "

  "Good. It's more familiar. "

  Lea let out a peal of merry laughter.

  Murphy opened an eye and gave Lea a decidedly frosty look. "What?"

  "You think that this is like what you have done before," my godmother said. "So precious. "

  Murphy stared at her for a moment and then looked at me. "Harry?"

  I leaned my head back against the window, so that the hood fell over my eyes. Murphy was way too good at picking up on it when I lied. "I don't know," I said. "I guess we'll see. "

  It took Glenmael less than twenty minutes to get to Aurora. We got out at a park there, a pretty little community place. It was empty this time of night, and all the lights were out.

  "Pitcher's mound, folks," I said, piling out and taking the lead.

  I was walking with long, long strides, staying ahead of everyone. Murphy caught up to me, moving at a slow jog.

  "Harry," she said, her voice low. "Your godmother?"

  "Yeah?"

  "Can we trust her?"

  I scowled. She wouldn't be able to see the expression, with the hood and all. "Do you trust me?"

  "Why do you think I'm asking you?"

  I thought about it for a moment and then slowed down, so that everyone else was nearer. That included my godmother.

  "Okay, folks. Let's clear the air about the scary Sidhe lady. She's under orders to go with me and to help. She will. She's got a vested interest in making sure I come out of this all right, and if she doesn't do it, she's in trouble with the queen. As long as you all are helpful to her mission, getting me in and out in one piece, she'll support you. The second she thinks you're a liability or counterproductive to her mission, she's going to let bad things happen to you. Maybe even do them herself. " I looked at Lea. "Is that about right?"

  "That is precisely right," she said, smiling.

  Susan arched an eyebrow and looked from me to my godmother. "You have no shame about it at all, do you?"

  "Shame, child, is for those who fail to live up to the ideal of what they believe they should be. " She waved her hand. "It was shame that drove me to my queen, to beseech her aid. " Her long, delicate fingers idly moved to the streaks of white in her otherwise flawless red tresses. "But she showed me the way back to myself, through exquisite pain, and now I am here to watch over my dear godson - and the rest of you, as long as it is quite convenient. "

  "Spooky death Sidhe lady," Molly said. "Now upgraded to spooky, crazy death Sidhe lady. "

  The Leanansidhe bared her canine teeth in a foxlike smile. "Bless you, child. You have such potential. We should talk when this is over. "

  I glowered openly at Lea, who looked unrepentant. "Okay, folks. The plan is going to be for me to stand where the fire is hottest. And if one of you gets cut off or goes down, I'm going to go back for you. " I kept glaring at my godmother. "Everyone who goes in with me is coming out again, dead or alive. I'm bringing you all home. "

  Lea paused for a few steps and arched an eyebrow at me. Then she narrowed her eyes.

  "If they can all carry themselves out," I said, "I believe that would be more 'quite convenient' than if they couldn't. Wouldn't it, Godmother?"

  She rolled her eyes and said, "Impossible child. " But there was a hint of a smile on her mouth. She bowed her head to me slightly, like a fencer acknowledging a touch, and I returned it.

  Then I figured I'd best not threaten her ego any more than I had to. "Be careful when you speak to her," I told the others. "Don't make her any offers. Don't accept any, not even in passing, not even things that seem harmless or that could only be construed through context. Words are binding around the Sidhe, and she is one of the most dangerous creatures in all of Faerie. " I bowed my head to her. "Fortunately for us. Before the night's over, we'll all be glad she's with us. "

  "Oh," the Leanansidhe purred, all but literally preening. "A trifle obvious, but . . . how the child has grown. "

  "Da," said Sanya cheerfully. "I am glad that she is here. For the first time, I got to ride in a limousine. Already it is a good night. And if spooky crazy death Sidhe lady can help serve a good cause, then we who bear the Swords" - he paused for a smiling second - "all three of them" - he paused for another second, still smiling - "will welcome her aid. "

  "Such charm, O Knight of the Sword," Lea replied, smiling even more endearingly than Sanya. "We are all being so pleasant tonight. Please be assured that should one of the Swords be dropped or somehow misemployed, I will do everything in my power to recover it. "

  "Sanya," I said. "Please shut up now. "

  He let out a booming laugh, settled the strap of the shotgun a little more firmly over his shoulder, and said nothing more.

  I checked my mother's memories and nodded as I reached the pitcher's mound. "Okay, folks. First leg here. Should be a simple walk down a trail next to a river. Don't get freaked when you notice the water is flowing uphill. " I stared at the air over the pitcher's mound and began to draw in my will.

  "Right," I said, mostly to myself. "Annnnnd here we go. Aparturum. "