Turn Coat, Page 17Jim Butcher
We worked for three hours before I started dropping things, tripping on nice flat ground, and bumping into other people because I'd forgotten to keep an eye out for them.
"That's it, Harry," Georgia said firmly. "Your sleeping bag is in the cottage. Get some more sleep. "
"I'll be all right," I said.
"Harry, if anything happens to you, we aren't going to have anyone we know looking out for us. You need to be able to focus. Go rest. "
It sounded awfully good, but my mouth opened on its own. "We've still got to lay out the-"
Will had come up behind me in complete silence. He pulled my arm behind my back in a capable, strong grip, and twisted carefully. It didn't hurt, until he leaned gently into me and I had to move forward to keep the pressure off. "You heard the lady," he said. "We can finish the rest of it on our own. We'll wake you up if anything happens. "
I snorted, twisted at the waist, bumping Will off balance with my hip, and broke the lock. Will could have broken my arm and kept hold of me, but instead he let go before it could happen. "All right, all right," I said. "Going. "
I shambled into the cottage and collapsed onto a sleeping bag that lay on top of a foam camp pad.
Four hours later, when Will shook me awake, I was lying in the exact same position. Late-afternoon light slanted into the half-ruined cottage from the west. Morgan lay on his own pallet, made by stripping the foam mattress from the bunk on the Water Beetle. His eyes were closed, his breathing steady. Will must have carried him up from the boat.
"Okay," I slurred. "I'm up. I'm up. "
"Georgia has been patrolling the shoreline," he said. "She says there's a boat approaching. "
My heart began beating a little faster, and my stomach fluttered. I swallowed, closed my eyes for a moment, and imagined a tranquil tropical beach in an effort to calm my thoughts. But the beach kept getting overrun by shapeshifting zombie vampires with mouths on the palms of their hands.
"Well, that's useless," I said in sleepy disgust. I got to my feet and gathered my things. "Where's it coming from?"
"He'll have to sail a third of the way around the island then, to get through the reefs," I yawned. "Where's Georgia?"
Claws scraped on hard-packed earth, and a large tawny wolf appeared in the doorway. She sat down and looked at me, her ears perked forward.
"Good work," I told her. "Molly?"
"Here, Harry," she called, as she hurried into the cottage. She held a crystal of white quartz about two inches thick and a foot long in her hands.
"Get to work, grasshopper. Don't hesitate to use the crystal if things get dicey. And good luck to you. "
She nodded seriously and went to Morgan's side. She reached out and took his limp hand, frowned in mild concentration, and they both vanished behind one of her wonder veils. "God be with you, Harry," she said, her voice coming out of nowhere.
"Will," I said. "Get your game face on. " I turned to Will to find the young man gone and a burly dark-furred wolf sitting in his place next to a pile of loose clothes. "Oh," I said. "Good. "
I checked my gear, my pockets, my shoelaces, and realized that I had crossed the line between making sure I was ready and trying to postpone the inevitable. I straightened my back, nodded once, and began to stride toward the cottage door. "Let's go, people. Party time. "
It was getting darker over the enormous expanse of the lake. Twilight is a much different experience when you're far away from the lights of a city or town. Modern civilization bathes us in light throughout the hours of darkness-lighted billboards, streetlights, headlights, airplane lights, neon decorations, the interior lights of homes and businesses, floodlights that strobe across the sky. They're so much a part of our life that the darkness of night is barely a factor in our daily thinking anymore. We mock one another's lack of courage with accusations of being afraid of the dark, all the while industriously making our own lights brighter, more energy efficient, cheaper, and longer-lasting.
There's power in the night. There's terror in the darkness. Despite all our accumulated history, learning, and experience, we remember. We remember times when we were too small to reach the light switch on the wall, and when the darkness itself was enough to makes us cry out in fear.
Get a good ways out from civilization-say, miles and miles away on a lightless lake-and the darkness is there, waiting. Twilight means more than just time to call the children in from playing outside. Fading light means more than just the end of another day. Night is when terrible things emerge from their sleep and seek soft flesh and hot blood. Night is when unseen beings with no regard for what our people have built and no place in what we have deemed the natural order look in at our world from outside, and think dark and alien thoughts.
And sometimes, just sometimes, they do things.
I walked down the ancient hillsides of Demonreach and felt acutely aware of that fact; night wasn't falling, so much as sharpening its claws.
I walked out to the end of the floating dock alone. Billy and Georgia remained behind, in the woods. You would not believe how sneaky a wolf is capable of being until you've seen one in action. Wolves acting with human-level intelligence-and exceptional human intelligence at that-are all but invisible when they choose to be.
A boat was rounding the buoy that marked the opening in the reef. It was a white rental boat, like any number available to tourists in the area, a craft about twenty feet long and rigged for waterskiing. The wind had risen, coming in from the southwest, and the lake was getting choppier. The rental boat was wallowing a little, and bouncing irregularly against the waves, throwing up small shocks of spray.
I watched it come in over the last few hundred yards, until I could see who was on board. The boat was fairly new. Its engine made an odd, clattering noise, which served to identify the occupants. The White Council, it seemed, had arrived on time.
Ebenezar McCoy was at the wheel of the boat, his bald head shiny in the rain. Listens-to-Wind sat in the passenger seat, wearing a rain poncho, one hand gripping the side of the boat, the other holding on to the dashboard in front him. His weather-seamed face was grim.
In the center of the rear bench was a tiny figure in white silk embroidered with red flowers. Ancient Mai was Chinese, and looked as delicate and frail as an eggshell teacup. Her hair was pure white and long, held up with a number of jade combs. Though she was now old, even by the standards of the White Council, she was still possessed of a sizable portion of what would have been a haunting, ethereal beauty in her youth. Her expression was serene, her dark eyes piercing and merciless.
She frightened me.
Veteran Wardens sat on either side of Ancient Mai, dour in their grey cloaks, and three more were sitting or crouching elsewhere in the boat-all of them from the hard-bitten squad that had been on standby back in Edinburgh. They were all armed to the teeth, and their expressions meant business. Apparently Mai scared them at least as much as she did me: one of them was holding an umbrella for her.
I waited at the end of the dock, inviting Ebenezar by gesture to pull up on the side opposite the Water Beetle. He brought the boat in with considerably more skill than I had shown, killed the ailing engine while it was still moving, and got up to toss me a line. I caught it and secured the boat to the dock without taking my eyes off of anyone in the boat. No one spoke. Once the engine had fallen silent, the only sound was rain and wind.
"Evening," I ventured, nodding to Ebenezar.
He was staring hard at me, frowning. I saw his eyes scan the shoreline and come back to me. "Hoss," he said. He rose and stepped out onto the dock. One of the Wardens tossed him another line, and he secured the back end of the craft. Then he got off, walked up to me, and offered me his hand. I shook it.
"Rashid?" he whispered so low I could barely hear it over the rain.
"With us," I replied as quietly, trying not to move my
His head tipped me a tiny nod, and then he turned to beckon the others. Wardens and Senior Council members began clambering out of the boat. I walked down the dock beside Ebenezar, watching the Wardens over my shoulder. They were the sort of men and women who had no illusions about violence, magical or otherwise. If they decided that the best way to deal with me would be to shoot me in the back, they wouldn't hesitate.
I stepped off the dock and onto the island again, and immediately felt the presence of Demonreach. At the moment, the only persons on the island were those I had brought with me.
Ebenezar followed me, and I felt it the instant he stepped onto the shore. It wasn't as if someone had whispered in my ear. I simply knew, felt it, the way you know it when an ant is crawling across your arm. He stopped a step later, and I kept going until I was about ten feet away. I turned to face them as their group came down the dock to stand on the shore. I kept close track of them through the link with the island, making sure that there weren't any Wardens hiding behind veils so that they could sneak up behind me and start delivering rabbit punches.
Ebenezar, Ancient Mai, and Listens-to-Wind, his expression bearing a faintly greenish cast, stood side by side, facing me. The Wardens fanned out behind them, wary eyes watching every possible route of approach, including from the lake.
"Well, Wizard Dresden," Ebenezar said. He leaned on his staff and regarded me blandly. "We got your note. "
"I figured," I said. "Did you get as far as the part where I said if you wanted a fight, I would oblige you?"
The Wardens didn't actually bare their teeth and start snarling, but it was close.
"Aye, aye," Ebenezar said. "I thought it might be more profitable if we could talk about things first. "
"Indeed," said Ancient Mai. Her voice was too smooth and too confident to match the tiny fragile person speaking in it. "We can always kill you afterward. "
I didn't actually break out into rivulets of sweat, but it was close.
"Obviously, the disrespect you have offered the White Council merits some form of response," she continued. "Do not flatter yourself by thinking that we have come to you because we lack other options. "
Ebenezar gave Mai a mild look. "At the same time," he said, "your reputation as an investigator is unrivaled within the Council. That, added to the nature of your relationship with the alleged murderer, is reason enough to hear what you have to say. "
"Wizard Dresden," Listens-to-Wind said. "You said you had proof of Morgan's innocence. You said you had a witness. "
"And more," I replied.
"And where are they?"
"We need to wait a moment," I said, "until everyone arrives. "
Ancient Mai's eyes narrowed. The Wardens got even more alert, and spread out a bit, hands on their weaponry.
"What others, Hoss?" Ebenezar asked.
"Everyone directly involved in this plot," I said. "Warden Morgan wasn't the only one being set up as a patsy. When you manage to track down the source of the money found in Morgan's account, you'll find that it comes from a corporation owned by the White Court. "
Listens-to-Wind frowned. "How do you know this?"
"I investigated," I said. "After further investigation, I concluded that the money had probably been moved without the knowledge of the White Court's leaders. The guilty party not only wished LaFortier dead, and Warden Morgan to take the blame for it, he also wanted to manipulate the Council into renewing hostilities with the Vampire Courts. "
The Wardens traded looks with one another when I said that. It was getting darker, and I had trouble making out their expressions. Listens-to-Wind's face became thoughtful, though. "And there is proof of this?" he asked.
"I believe there will be," I replied. "But it might take time to find-longer than the duration of Morgan's unjust trial and undeserved execution, anyway. "
Ancient Mai suddenly smiled, an expression with all the joy and life of frozen porcelain. "In other words," she said, "whatever measures being taken to veil Morgan from our tracking spells were near their limits, forcing you to seek this meeting. "
I had to work hard to keep from twitching. The only thing worse than scary is smart and scary.
Mai turned to Ebenezar. "It seems obvious that Dresden was involved in this plot on some level, and if Dresden is here, Morgan is probably nearby. Arrest Dresden and resume attempting to track Morgan immediately. We can attend to the business in a proper and orderly fashion back at Edinburgh. "
Ebenezar eyed Mai and then looked at Listens-to-Wind.
The old medicine man stared at me for a time, and then reached up an ink-stained finger to pull back a few loose hairs that had been plastered to his face by the rain. He leaned on his staff and looked around the island for a long minute, his expression distant. "No mention was made of other parties being present," he said, finally. "This is Council business, and no one else's. Adding representatives of the White Court to this. . . meeting could prove as disastrous as the war you claim to be trying to avoid, Wizard Dresden. "
Ebenezar's jaw tensed up. "That's not the same thing as saying we should arrest him. "
Listens-to-Wind faced Ebenezar stolidly. "If what he says is so, the truth will come out. We can postpone a trial so that if this evidence exists, it can be found. "
"You know as well as I do," Ebenezar said, "that the outcome of the trial is not going to be changed by the truth. "
Listen-to-Wind's voice became hard and rough, holding a deep and burning anger that I had never heard from the old man before. "There is the world that should be," he growled, "and the world that is. We live in one. "
"And must create the other," Ebenezar retorted, "if it is ever to be. "
Listens-to-Wind looked down and shook his head. He looked very old and very tired. "There are no good paths to choose, old friend," he said quietly. "All we can do is choose if many die, or a few. " He looked up at me, his face hard. "I am sorry, Hoss Dresden. But I must agree. Arrest him. "
Demonreach allowed me to sense Billy and Georgia slinking closer, and to feel an uncertain sense of excitement that could have been tension or fear or anger coming from them. It had a much more vague idea of the emotions of the Wardens, but I could tell that they weren't eager to start a fight with me.
Which made me want to laugh. I mean, seriously. One on one, sure, maybe I could have been a handful for any of them. But there were three members of the Senior Council there, any one of which could have tied me in knots. And they had me outnumbered five to one, beyond that.
And then it hit me. They were dealing with something far more dangerous than me, Harry Dresden, whose battered old Volkswagen was currently in the city impound. They were dealing with the potential demonic dark lord nightmare warlock they'd been busy fearing since I turned sixteen. They were dealing with the wizard who had faced the Heirs of Kemmler riding a zombie dinosaur, and emerged victorious from a fight that had flattened Morgan and Captain Luccio before they had even reached it. They were dealing with the man who had dropped a challenge to the entire Senior Council, and who had then actually showed, apparently willing to fight-on the shores of an entirely too creepy island in the middle of a freshwater sea.
Granted, I technically was that person, but they had no idea how close several of those calls had been. They didn't know the small details, the quirks of fate, or the assists from allies I probably didn't deserve that allowed me to shamble out of those clouds of insanity in more or less one piece.
They just knew that I was the one still standing-and that fact inspired a healthy and rational fear. More than that, they were afraid of what they didn't know I could do. And none of them knew that I would so much rather be back in my apartment, reading a good book and drinking a cold beer.
I didn't move when Listens-to-Wind made his statement. I just stood there, as if I wasn't much impressed. The Council had evidently sent the three Senior members as a
kind of quorum, and I would think that the word of two of them would be enough to decide a course of action-but the oldest of the Wardens there, a large man with a big black beard whose name was Beorg, or Yorg, or Bjorn-definitely Scandinavian-turned to look at Ebenezar.
The wizard of the Ozarks stood looking at me, a small smile on his face. I recognized the smile. When I'd first gone to live with him, after I'd killed my foster father, we would go into town every week for supplies. A gang of teenage boys, bored, reacted to the presence of a new boy with typical adolescent thoughtlessness. One of them had tried to get me to fight him.
At the time, I remember being annoyed at the distraction from my day. Because I had just wiped out a major demon and a former Warden of the White Council in a pair of fair fights, local teenage bullies were really kind of beneath my notice. They were kids playing a game, and I had grown older very quickly. I could have killed them, all of them, without too much trouble, but the very idea was laughable. It would have been like using a flamethrower to clean cobwebs out of the house.
I'd stood there, just looking at them, while they tried to tease me into fighting. I hadn't moved, or said anything, or done anything. I just stood there in a wall of silence and stillness, until that silence had become heavier and heavier. They had eventually been pushed back by it, and I had simply walked past them.
And I was doing the same thing again, letting the silence fuel their uncertainty.
I met Ebenezar's gaze, and we both smiled faintly in acknowledgment of the memory.
"Well, gentlemen," Ebenezar said, turning to face the Wardens. "You've heard the will of the Council, such as it is. But you should be advised that since you'd be doing something foolish at the behest of someone acting foolish, I won't be assisting you. "
Mai's head snapped around to focus on Ebenezar. "McCoy!"
Ebenezar bowed his head to her. "Wizard Mai, I would advise you not to seek a quarrel with the young man. He's a fair hand in a fight. "
The old woman lifted her chin haughtily. "He was not truly your apprentice. You kept watch over him for a mere two years. "
"And came to know him," Ebenezar said. He turned to eye Listens-to-Wind. "What did that raccoon pup you had think of him? You go on about what good judges of character young animals can be. Is he the sort of man who would involve himself in that kind of plot? You know the answer. "
Listens-to-Wind shook his head tiredly. "It isn't about that and you know it. "
"If you do not assist us in subduing him," Mai said, her voice crisp and thrumming with tension, "it could be considered treason, Wizard McCoy. "
"I am assisting you," Ebenezar said. "By advising you to avoid conflict. " He paused and said, "You might try asking him. "
"Excuse me?" Mai said.
"Asking him," Ebenezar said. He hooked a thumb in one strap of his overalls. "Ask him politely to come with you back to Edinburgh. Maybe he'd cooperate. "
"Don't bother, sir," I said. "I won't. "
"Ancient Mai," rumbled Warden Bjork. "If you would please return to the boat, we will see to this. "
I remained just as I'd been standing, and hoped that the others would be arriving soon. I didn't want to start up the dance music until everyone had taken the floor, but if the Wardens pressed me, I might need to.
"Ancient Mai," Warden Yorgi repeated. "Do you wish us to-"
He didn't get to finish the phrase before there was a deafening roar and a helicopter swept over the hillside behind us, flying about an inch and a half above the treetops. It soared past us and then banked around in a turn over the lake, only to return and hover thirty feet above the shoreline, maybe a hundred yards away.
In the movies, special forces guys come zipping down on lines. I've even been the guy on a line once, sort of, though I was more sack of meal than Navy SEAL. But when the people jumping off the helicopter are vampires, you don't bother with a lot of lines.
Or any lines. At all.
Three figures in white leapt from the hovering chopper, neatly flipped once on the way down, and landed together in a dancer's crouch. Then they all rose, the movement as beautiful, smooth, and coordinated as anything you'd see at the Cirque du Soleil.
Lara and her two sisters walked toward us, and they were good at it. Lara was wearing a white sundress that showed off her curves, with two black leather belts that crossed on her hips. A handgun in a holster hung from one of the belts. The other belt supported a sword, a genuine rapier whose worn handle looked as if it had seen actual use. Her long black hair was pulled up in a net, and the top of her head was covered in a white cloth, a very Gypsy sort of look. She wore a choker made of pure platinum, the metal seeming to hold its own glow, even in the failing light, and a single large bloodred ruby hung from it.
As she walked, it was impossible not to notice the gorgeously feminine curves of her body, the casual sway of her hips from side to side, each movement emphasizing the fact that she carried deadly weapons. And, since it was raining on her white dress, it was impossible not to notice a whole lot of other things about Lara-such as the fact that other than the weapons and her shoes, it was all she was wearing.
I concentrated on keeping my tongue from hanging down past my chin, and forced my eyes to look elsewhere.
Her sisters were wearing much different gear. Though they also wore white, they had both donned what looked like motorcycle leathers-not like archetypical American bikers, but more like the gear you see professional racing motorcyclists wearing. It looked very high-tech, and was obviously armored. In standard gear, the armor was heavy plastic, there to protect the rider in the event of a collision or a fall. I was willing to bet that it had been upgraded to something a lot stronger in the Raith's gear. They, too, were equipped with sidearms of both the past and present. Their hair was tied up and back, and like Lara, their skin was pale, their eyes were wide and grey, their lips dark and inviting.
I watched the three Raith sisters come and thought to myself that if there was any justice in the universe, I would get to watch that in slow motion.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mai calmly lift a hand to Warden Berserkergang, motioning him to stand down. It didn't surprise me. Ancient Mai had very strong notions of proper behavior and how it ought to be followed. She would never condone observable division amongst members of the Council where outsiders could witness it.
Lara stopped twenty feet away, and her sisters stopped a couple of feet behind her. Their eyes were on the Wardens, who returned the vampires' stares with calm attention.
"Harry," she said, her voice warm, as if we'd just run into one another at a soiree. "You are a wicked, wicked man. You didn't tell me I'd have to share you with others tonight. "
"What can I say?" I asked, turning to face Lara. I smiled at her and bowed my head without taking my eyes off her. It was a more enjoyable paranoia than I'd observed for the Wardens, if no less wary. "I used to be a trusting, gentle soul, but the rigors of the cruel world have made me cynical and cautious. "
Lara looked from the Wardens to me, her expression speculative. Then she gave them a smile that could have melted plate steel and walked to me, somehow making a swagger look perfectly feminine. She extended both hands to me as she came.
I smiled in return, though mine was a lot stiffer and more artificial, and whispered, through my smiling teeth, "You have got to be kidding. "
She cast her eyes down demurely, toning the smile down to a smirk, and breathed, "Be nice to me, wizard mine, and I'll return the favor. "
I don't think I hesitated very long before I offered her my hands in return. We clasped them. Her fingers were silken-smooth and very cold. She smiled radiantly and inclined her head to me, a slow, graceful, formal gesture.
Then, faster than I could blink, much less move, she smacked me in the kisser.
She used her open hand, which prevented the blow from being a lethal one. Even so, it hit like a club. It
knocked me several steps back, spinning me as I went, and I wound up caught in a drunken corkscrew that ended with my ass hitting the ground ten feet away.
"Once again you have lied to us," Lara snarled. "Used us. I have had my fill of your deceits, wizard. "
I sat there with my mouth open, wondering if my jaw would start wobbling bonelessly in the rising breeze.
Fury radiated from her in a cold sphere, and every fiber of her body looked ready to do violence. She faced me with the members of the Council on her left, the darkness of the forest on her right. I focused on my shield bracelet, certain that there was every possibility that she might be about to draw her gun and plug me.
"If my brother is not returned to me whole this night," she continued, her voice cold and deadly, "there will be blood between us and my honor will not be satisfied until one of us lies dead on the dueling ground. "
And then she winked at me with her right eye.
"Do you understand?" she demanded.
"Uh," I said, trying to move my jaw. It was apparently whole. "Yeah. Message received. "
"Arrogant child. " She spat on the ground in my direction. Then she turned and walked purposefully toward the Senior Council members. She stopped about ten feet from Ancient Mai, just before the Wardens standing behind her would have snapped and started hurling thunder and fury. She came to a graceful stance of attention, and then bowed, rather deeply, to Ancient Mai.
Mai's face revealed nothing. She returned the gesture, bowing less deeply.
"It is a pleasure to meet you in the flesh," Lara said. "You must be Ancient Mai. "
"Lara Raith," Mai replied. "I had not anticipated your presence at this meeting. "
"Nor I yours. " She gave me a rather disgusted glance. "Courtesy, it seems, is a devalued commodity in this world. " She bowed again, to Ebenezar and Listens-to-Wind, and greeted them by name. "Your reputations, gentlemen, precede you. "
Injun Joe nodded without speaking.
"Lady Raith," Ebenezar said, calmly. "Touch that boy again and the only things left for your kin to bury will be your five-hundred-dollar shoes. "
"Ai ya," Ancient Mai said in a flat tone.
Lara paused at Ebenezar's statement. It didn't rattle her, precisely, but she gave Ebenezar another look and then inclined her head to him. "Gentlemen, lady. Obviously we both have urgent concerns that must be addressed. Equally obviously, none of us anticipated the presence of the other, and a violent incident would benefit no one. On behalf of the White Court, I propose a formal agreement of nonaggression for the duration of this meeting. "
Ancient Mai gave Ebenezar a hard look, then lifted her chin slightly and turned away, somehow giving the impression that she had formally dismissed him from reality. "Agreed," she said. "On behalf of the Council, I accept the proposal. "
I managed to stagger back to verticality. My wounded head felt like Lara had split it open, and I'd have a hand-shaped bruise on my cheek, but I wasn't going to sit there moaning about getting slapped by a girl. Granted, the girl was hundreds of years old and could change a fire truck's tires without using a jack, but there was a principle at work here. I got to my feet and then walked carefully over to stand beside Ebenezar, facing the vampires. One of the Wardens there made a little room for me, all his attention focused forward on Lara and her sisters.
Heh. They were much more comfortable with me when I was aimed at an enemy. I tried to keep a running portion of my awareness focused on Demonreach. I had done as much as I could in assembling this group. I was counting on my estimate of the killer to take it to the next level, and until he showed up, I had to keep stringing both Lara and the Council along.
The best way to do that, for the moment, was to keep quiet and let them talk.
"I suppose the first thing we must do is share knowledge," Lara said to Ancient Mai. "Would you prefer it if I went first?"
Mai considered that for a moment and then bowed her head in a slight acknowledgment.
Lara proceeded without further ado. "My brother, Thomas Raith, has been taken by a skinwalker, one of the ancient naagloshii. The skinwalker has offered an exchange. My brother for Warden Donald Morgan. "
Mai tilted her head to one side. "How is Dresden involved in this matter?"
"He claims that he is attempting to establish Warden Morgan's innocence in some sort of matter internal to the Council. As a gesture of goodwill to the Council and to help keep the peace within Chicago, I have instructed my brother to offer reasonably low-risk aid and assistance to Dresden. " She glanced at me. "He has abused my good intentions repeatedly. This time, he somehow involved my brother in his investigation, and Thomas was ambushed by the skinwalker. "
"And that is all?" Mai asked.
Lara glared at me again, and seemed to visibly force herself to take a moment to think. "He claims that a third party was behind Warden Morgan's predicament, and attempting to set the Court against the Council. To my surprise, my own investigation did not immediately disprove his statements as lies. It seems possible that one of my financial managers may have been somehow coerced into embezzling the contents of a considerable account. Dresden claims the money was sent to an account that was made to appear to belong to Warden Morgan. "
Mai nodded. "Was it?"
Lara shrugged elegantly. "It is possible. My people are working to find evidence that will establish what happened more precisely. "
Mai nodded and was still for several seconds before she said, "Despite how carefully you have danced around the subject, you know exactly why we are here. "
Lara smiled very slightly.
"The tale Dresden tells us lacks the credibility of simplicity," Mai continued. "Despite how carefully you have danced around saying the actual words, it seems that you wish us to believe that the White Court was not involved in the matter of LaFortier's death. Thus, your story, too, lacks the credibility of simplicity. "
"In my experience, matters of state are rarely simple ones," Lara responded.
Mai moved a hand, a tiny gesture that somehow conveyed acknowledgment. "Yet given recent history, the actions of a known enemy seem a far more likely source for LaFortier's murder than those of some nameless, faceless third party. "
"Of course. You are, after all, wizards," Lara said without a detectable trace of irony. "You are the holders of great secrets. If such a group existed, you would surely know of it. "
"It is possible that I am unfairly judging your people in accusing them of plotting LaFortier's death," Mai replied, her voice utterly tranquil. "You are, after all, vampires, and well-known for your forthright and gentle natures. "
Lara inclined her head, smiling faintly. "Regardless, we find ourselves here. "
"That seems incontrovertible. "
"I seek the safe return of my brother. "
Mai shook her head firmly, once. "The White Council will not exchange one of our own. "
"It seems to me," Lara said, "that Warden Morgan is not in your company. "
"A transitory situation," Mai said. She didn't look at me, but I felt sure that the steel in her voice was aimed in my direction.
"Then perhaps a cooperative effort," Lara said. "We need not allow the skinwalker to take the Warden. "
"Those who ally themselves with the White Court come to regret it," Mai replied. "The Council has no obligation to assist you or your brother. "
"Despite the recent efforts made on your behalf by my King and his Court?" Lara asked.
Mai faced her without blinking and said nothing more.
"He is my blood," Lara said quietly. "I will have him returned. "
"I appreciate your loyalty," Mai said, in a tone that suggested she didn't. "However, this matter of the skinwalker wishing an exchange is hardly germane to where we stand at the moment. "
"Actually," I said. "It kind of is, Ancient Mai. I had someone tell Shagnasty where to meet me tonight. Depending on how he crosses the water, he could be he
re any moment. "
Ebenezar blinked. Then he turned his face to me, his expression clearly asking whether or not I was out of my damned mind.
"Wile E. Coyote," I said to him soberly. "Suuuuuuper Genius. "
I saw him thinking and I recognized it when my old mentor got it, when he understood my plan. I could tell because he got that look on his face I've only seen when he knows things are about to go spectacularly wrong and he wants to be ready for it. He let his staff fall to rest against his chest and idly dug in a pocket, his eyes flicking across the woods around us.
I don't know where Mai's head was, or if she worked out anything at all. I had a feeling that she wouldn't. Since her thought processes would all have to start from given assumptions that were incorrect, she didn't have much of a chance of coming to a correct conclusion.
"All that means," she said to me, "is that it would be wise to finish our business here and retreat from this place. "
"Sadly, I am reaching a similar conclusion," Lara said deliberately. "Perhaps it is time for this meeting to adjourn. "
Behind her, one of her sisters shifted one hand very slightly.
Lightning flashed overhead, and thunder forced a pause into the conversation. The wind picked up again, and Listens-to-Wind suddenly lifted his head. His gaze snapped around to the north, and his eyes narrowed.
An instant later, I sensed a new presence on the island. More people had just touched down onto the far side of the bald hill where Demonreach Tower stood. There were twelve of them, and they began moving toward the hilltop at inhuman speed. White Court vampires, they had to be.
Seconds later, another pair of humanlike presences simply appeared in the woods four hundred yards away. And if that wasn't enough, two more people arrived on the northwest shore of the island.
Mai took immediate note of Injun Joe's expression and tilted her head, staring hard at Lara. "What have you done?" she demanded.
"I have signaled my family," Lara replied calmly. "I did not come here to fight you, Ancient Mai. But I will recover my brother. "
I focused on the two smaller groups, both of them pairs of new presences, and found that their numbers were growing. On the beach, many, many more pairs of feet had begun beating the ground of Demonreach, thirty of them or more. In the forest nearby, a presence that the island had never before encountered appeared, followed by more and more and more of the same.
There was only one explanation for that-the new arrivals were calling forth muscle from the Nevernever. I was betting that the pair on the beach was Madeline and Binder, and that he had begun calling out his grey men the moment his feet hit the ground. The two who had simply appeared in the forest had to have taken a Way and emerged from the Nevernever onto the island directly. It was possible a second summoning like Binder's was under way, but I thought it far more likely that someone had gathered up support and brought it with them, through the Way.
Meanwhile, Mai and Lara were beginning to bare their claws.
"Is that a threat, vampire?" Mai said in a flat tone.
"I would prefer that you regard it as a truth," Lara replied, her own tone losing the charm and conviviality it had contained in some measure throughout the conversation.
The Wardens behind me started getting nervous. I could feel it, both for myself and through Demonreach. I heard leather creak as hands were put to the grips of holstered guns and upon hilts of swords.
Lara, in response, rested her fingertips lightly upon her own weapons. Her two sisters did the same.
"Wait!" I snapped. "Wait!"
Everyone turned to look at me. I must have looked like a raving mad-man, standing there with my eyes half focused, looking back and forth out of pure instinct and force of habit as the island's intellectus informed me of the rapidly transpiring events. The White Court reinforcements had bypassed the tower hill and were headed for the beach to support Lara-which was something, at least. Lara's helicopter hadn't dropped them up there specifically to look for Morgan. It must have come up low, from the north, using the terrain of the hilltop to mask the sound of its arrival.
I forced my attention back to the scene around me. "Holy crap. I knew this would put the pressure on him. But this guy's gone to war. "
"What?" Listens-to-Wind asked. "What are you talking about?"
"Don't start in on one another!" I snapped. "Lara, we need to work together or we're all dead. "
She turned her head a little to one side, staring at me. "Why?"
"Because better than a hundred-one hundred ten, now-beings have just arrived at different points of the island and they aren't here to cater the little mixer we've got going. There are only nine of us and fifteen of you. We're outnumbered five to one. Six to one, now. "
Mai stared at me. "What?"
Howls slithered into the air, muffled by the falling rain, but were made all the more eerie by the lack of direction to them. I recognized them at once-Binder's grey men. They were coming, moving with mindless purpose that cared nothing for the danger of a forest at night.
The second group was nearer. They'd stopped growing at a hundred and twenty-five, and were already on the move toward us. They weren't as fast as the grey men, but they were moving steadily and spreading out into an enormous curved line meant to sweep the forest and then encircle their quarry when they found it. Red light began to pour through the trees in their direction, casting eerie black shadows and turning the rain to blood.
I forced myself to think, to ask Demonreach the right questions. A second's consideration revealed that the two forces would converge on us at exactly the same time-they were working together.
The numbers disadvantage was too great. The Wardens might get some spells off, and the Senior Council members would probably leave mounds of corpses piled around them-but outnumbered six to one, on a dark night, when they would have trouble seeing their targets before they were within a few steps, they wouldn't prevail. The large group would hit them from one side, and the smaller one would come from the other, boxing us in.
Unless. . .
Unless we could get to one of the two groups first and eliminate it before its partner reached us and hit us from behind.
Outnumbered as hideously as we were, the smartest thing would have been to run like hell-but I knew that no one would. The Council still had to recover Morgan. Lara still had to recover Thomas. Neither of them enjoyed the advantage I did. To them, the danger was only a vague threat, some howls in the dark, and it would remain so until it was too late to run.
Which left us only one option.
We had to attack.
The grey men howled again, from much closer.
I gave Ebenezar a desperate glance and then stepped forward, lifting my staff. "They've got us boxed in! Our only chance is to fight our way clear! Everyone, with me!"
Lara and her sisters stared at me in confusion. The Wardens did the same-but the fear in my voice and on my face was very real, and when one human being displays a fear response, those nearby it tend to find it psychologically contagious. The Wardens' eyes immediately went to Ancient Mai.
I started jogging, beckoning as I went, and Ebenezar immediately fell in with me. "You heard the man!" Ebenezar roared. "Wardens, let's move!"
At his bellow, the dam broke, and the Wardens surged forward to join us.
Lara stared at me for another half a second, and then cried, "Go, go!" to her sisters. They began running with us, effortlessly keeping pace, their motion so graceful and light that it hardly seemed possible that they would leave footprints.
I looked over my shoulder as I slowly increased the pace. Ancient Mai had turned toward the hateful red glare coming from the forest to the south, facing it calmly. "Wizard Listens-to-Wind, with me. Let us see if we can slow the progress of whatever is coming this way. "
Injun Joe went to her side, and the two of them stood there, gathering their will and muttering to each other.
> I consulted Demonreach for the best route to follow toward the enemy, put my head down, and charged the demons that were coming to kill us, Wardens and vampires alike at my side.