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Small Favor, Page 18

Jim Butcher

Chapter 41~43

  Chapter Forty-one

  T he next few minutes were intense, and I didn't dare let it show. If I'd been completely wrong in my deductions-which was possible; God knew it had happened before-then Michael, Sanya, and I were about to walk into the lion's den together. Granted, that worked out for Daniel, but he was the exception to the rule. Most of the time it works out well only for the lions. That's why the Persians used it as a means of execution.

  Granted, Michael was working for the same employer, and technically Sanya was too, even if he wasn't wholly decided on whether or not that was what he was doing. But me and the Almighty haven't ever really sat down for a chat. I'm not really sure where He stands on the Harry Dresden issue, and as a result my theological stance has been pretty simple: I try not to get noticed by anything Godly, godly, or god-ish. I think we're all happier that way.

  All the same, given who I was up against, I didn't think it would be inappropriate if a couple of breaks came my way. Hopefully Michael had put in a good word for me.

  Rosanna walked down the street and lifted a hand. A van cruised up out of the night. It was occupied by a single driver, a thick-necked, broken-nosed type whose eyes didn't look like he was all the way there. One of Nick's fanatics, probably. They had their tongues ritually removed as a point of honor and practicality-from Nicodemus's perspective, anyway. I supposed I could ask him to open up and confirm it, but it seemed a little gauche.

  Michael stuck his head in the van and checked it out. Then he politely opened the passenger door for Rosanna. The Denarian stared levelly at him for a moment, and then nodded her head and slid into the van.

  Sanya went in the van first, taking the rearmost seat. I went in after Michael. Rosanna muttered something to the driver, and the van took off.

  I got nervous for a minute. The van headed west-in exactly the opposite direction from the lake. Then the driver turned north, and after a few minutes I realized that we were headed for one of the marinas at the north end of Lake Shore Drive. I forced myself to keep my breathing smooth and even. If the bad guys tumbled to the fact that we'd already guessed their location, the situation could devolve pretty quickly.

  Michael sat calmly, his face imperturbable, his hands resting on the sheathed form of Amoracchius, the picture of saintly serenity. Sanya, behind us, let out a low, buzzing snore. It wasn't as saintly as Michael, but it conveyed just as much blithe confidence. I tried to match their calm, with mixed results. Don't get jittery, Harry. Play it cool. Ice water in your veins.

  The van stopped at one of the marinas off Northerly Island. Rosanna got out without a word and we followed her. She stalked down to the shore, out onto the docks, and out to a modestly sized ski boat moored at the dock's end. Michael and I went aboard after her. Sanya untied the lines holding the boat to the dock, pushed it away from the pier, and casually hopped across the widening distance and into the vessel.

  It took her a couple of minutes, but Rosanna coaxed the old boat's engines to life and turned us away from the lights of the city and out into the darkness of the great lake.

  It was eerie how swiftly the world became pitch-black. That strange faerie-light of the night under a heavy snow vanished out on the waters of the lake, where the snow simply sank into the depths. The low overcast gave us a little light, for a time, reflecting the glow of the city, but as the boat continued skimming out into the center of the lake, even that faded away until I could barely distinguish the outline of the boat and its occupants against the water all around.

  I wasn't sure how long we went on like that in the dark. It seemed like an hour, but it couldn't have been more than half that. The boat bounced across waves, whump, whump, whump, throwing up splashes of spray that coated the bow in a shining crust of ice. My stomach got a little queasy as I tried to anticipate the motion in the darkness and failed.

  At length, the rumble of the boat's engine died away, and then stopped altogether. The silence was disorienting. I've lived my entire adult life in Chicago. I'm used to the city, to its rhythms, its music. The hum and hiss of traffic, the clatter of elevated trains, the blaring radios, the beeping horns, cell phones, sirens, music, animals, and people, people, people.

  But out here, in the center of the vast, empty cold of the lake, there was nothing. No heartbeat of the city, no voices, no nothing, except the glug and slap of water hitting the hull of the boat.

  I waited for a couple of minutes while the boat was rocked by the waves of the lake. Now that we weren't moving under power, I thought that they were rocking the boat to a really alarming degree, but I wasn't going to be the one to start whimpering.

  "Well?" Sanya demanded, about five seconds before I would have cracked. "What are we waiting for?"

  "A signal," Rosanna murmured. "I would as soon not tear out the boat's bottom on rocks and drown us all, dear animal. "

  I reached into my duster pocket and took out a chemical light. I tore it out of its package, snapped it, and shook it to life. Up sprang a greenish glow that lit up the immediate area well enough, considering how dark it had been for the past half an hour or so.

  Rosanna turned to look at the light. Sometime during the trip her human form had changed, vanishing back into the shape of the scarlet-skinned, goat-legged, bat-winged demoness I had seen at the Aquarium. Her eyes, both the brown ones and the glowing green pair, focused on the chemical light, and she smiled, revealing white, delicately pointed fangs. "No magic, wizard? Are you so fearful about husbanding your strength?"

  Out this far from shore, floating over this much water, it would have been difficult to put together a spell of any complexity-but I was sure Rosanna knew that as well as I did, if the flames I'd seen her tossing around back at the Shedd were any indication. It would have been a waste of energy I might need later. But I reminded myself about the ice water alleged to be in my veins.

  "Mostly I just think the glow lights are fun," I said. "Did you know that they used these things for the blood of the Predator in that movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger?"

  The smile faltered. "What are you talking about?"

  "That's the problem with you nearly immortal types," I said. "You couldn't spot a pop culture reference if it skittered up and implanted an embryo down your esophagus. "

  At the back of the boat, Sanya started coughing.

  Rosanna stared at him for a moment, her eyes unreadable. Then the barest shadow of something mournful touched her features, and she turned away from him. She walked to the front of the boat and stood facing east into the darkness, her arms folded across her body in a posture of tightly closed insecurity, her wings wrapping around her like a blanket.

  Sanya didn't miss it. He'd been forcing himself to conceal a grin, but it faded into uneasy discomfort at Rosanna's reaction. He looked like he was about to say something, then frowned and shook his head. He turned his face to stare out over the water. Large flakes of snow continued to drift down, flickers of crystalline green in the glow light. Michael started humming contentedly-"Amazing Grace. " He must have learned the song from some Baptists somewhere. He had a nice voice, rich and steady.

  I stepped up next to Rosanna and said in a quiet voice, "Tell me something. This maiden-of-sorrow thing you've got going-how many Knights have you killed with it?"

  Her eyes, both pairs, flicked aside to glance at me for a second, then back out at the night. "What do you mean?"

  "You know. You've got that beautiful sad aura going. You look mournful and tragic and pretty. Radiate that 'save me, save me' vibe. Probably get all kinds of young men who want to carry you off on a white horse. "

  "Is that what you think of me?" she asked.

  "Lady," I said, "a year or three ago, I'd have been the first in line. Hell, if I thought you were serious about getting out, I'd probably still help you. But I don't think you want out. I think that if you were all that pathetic, you wouldn't be controlling your Fallen-it would be controlling you. I think you're T
essa's trusted lieutenant for a reason. Which means that either this tragic, trapped-lady routine is a bunch of crocodile tears, or else it's hypocrisy on such an epic scale that it probably qualifies as some kind of psychological dysfunction. "

  She stared out into darkness and said nothing.

  "You never did answer my question," I said.

  "Why not say it louder?" she asked me in a bitter undertone. "If that is what you think of me, then your friends need to be forewarned of my treachery. "

  "Right," I said. "I do that, and then your eyes well up with tears, and you turn away from me. You let them see one tear fall down your cheek, then turn your head enough to let the wind carry your hair over the rest. Maybe let your shoulders shake once. Then it's the big bad suspicious wizard, who doesn't forgive and doesn't understand, picking on the poor little girl who is trapped in her bad situation and really just wants to be loved. Give me some credit, Rosanna. I'm not going to help you set them up. "

  The glowing green eyes turned to examine me, and Rosanna's mouth moved, speaking in an entirely different, feminine voice. "Lasciel taught you something of us. "

  "You might say that," I replied.

  Ahead of us and slightly to the right a light flared up in the darkness-a bonfire, I thought. I couldn't tell how far away it was, given the night and the falling snow.

  "There," Rosanna murmured. "That way. If you would excuse me. "

  As she walked back to the wheel of the boat, a breath of wind sighed over the lake. In itself that wasn't anything new. Wind had been blowing all the way through the snowstorm. Something about this breeze, though, caught my attention. It wasn't right.

  It took me another three or four seconds to realize what was wrong.

  This was a south wind. And it was warm.

  "Uh-oh," I said. I held up the chemical light and started scanning the waters all around us.

  "Harry?" Michael said. "What is it?"

  "Feel that breeze?" I asked.

  "Da," Sanya said, confusion in his voice. "Is warm. So?"

  Michael caught on. "Summer is on the way," he said.

  Rosanna shot a glance over her shoulder at us. "What?"

  "Get us to shore," I told her. "The things coming after me might not give a damn if they take you out along with me. "

  She turned back to the wheel and turned the ignition. The boat's engine stuttered and wheezed and didn't turn over.

  The breeze picked up. Instead of snowflakes, thick, slushy drops of half-frozen sleet began to fall. More ice began forming on the boat, thickening almost visibly in the green glow of my light. The waves began to grow steeper, rocking the boat more and more severely.

  "Come on," I heard myself saying. "Come on. "

  "Look there!" Sanya called, pointing a finger down at the water beside the boat.

  Something long, brown, fibrous, and slimy lashed up out of the water and wrapped around the Russian knight's arm from wrist to elbow.

  "Bozhe moi!"

  Two more strands whipped up from different angles, one seizing Sanya's upper arm, one wrapping around his face and skull, and jerked him halfway from the boat in the time it took me to shift my weight and reach for him. I managed to grab one of his boots before he could be pulled all the way over the side into the water. I planted one foot on the wall of the boat and hauled on Sanya's leg for all I was worth. "Michael!"

  The boat's engine coughed, turned over, stuttered, and died.

  "In nomine Dei Patri!" Michael roared as Amoracchius cleared its sheath. The broadsword flashed in a single sweeping slash, and severed the strands strangling Sanya. The edges of the slashed material burned away from the touch of Amoracchius's steel like paper from an open flame.

  I dragged Sanya back into the boat, and the big Russian whipped his saber from its sheath just in time to neatly sever another lashing brown tendril of animate fiber. "What is it?"

  "Kelpies," I growled. If they tangled up the blades of the engine our boat wasn't going anywhere. I howled at Rosanna, "Come on!"

  The boat suddenly rocked violently to the other side. I twisted my head to look over my shoulder and saw kelpies coming up over the sides. They were slimy, nebulous things, only vaguely humanoid in shape, made up of masses of wet weeds with gaping mouths and pinpoints of glittering silver light for eyes.

  I turned and swept my arm in a slewing arc, unleashing my will as I cried out, "Forzare!"

  Invisible force ripped the kelpies from the sides of the boat, leaving long strands of wet plant matter clinging limply to the fiberglass hull. They let out gurgling screams as they flew back and splashed into the water.

  The boat's engine caught and rose to a roar. The rear end of the boat sank, and its nose rose as it surged forward.

  One of my feet flew out from underneath me. I went down, flailing my arms and legs, dimly aware that one of the kelpies had somehow gotten a limb tangled around my ankle. I got dragged to the back of the boat in a quick series of painful jerks and impacts, and had just enough time to realize that the boat was about to surge right out from under me, leaving me in the drink. Then it would just be a question of what killed me first-the icy water or the strangling embrace of the company within it.

  Then there was a flash of scarlet and white, a whistle and a hissing sound, and a lance of fire on one of my feet. I went into free fall and bounced into the rear wall of the boat, then to the floor. Icy rain and freezing water splashed up against me, viciously cold. I looked down to find a strand of fibrous weed curling and blackening as it fell from my bleeding ankle. Sanya reached down and plucked the remains clear of my leg before tossing it over the rear of the boat and back into the water. My ankle was bleeding, my blood black in the green chemical light. More black stained the tip of Esperacchius.

  I clutched at my ankle, hissing in pain. "Dammit, Sanya!"

  Sanya peered out at the darkness behind the boat and then down at my leg. "Ah. Oops. "

  Michael came back to kneel beside me and hunkered down over my foot. "Harry, hold still. " He poked at my ankle, and it hurt enough to make me snarl something about his parentage. "It isn't bad. Long but shallow. " He opened a leather case on his sword belt, opposite the sheath of Amoracchius, and withdrew a small medical kit. Sanya's sword had already slashed open my jeans, but Michael tore them a little more to get them out of the way of the cut. Then he cleaned the injury with some kind of disposable wipe, smeared it with something from a plastic tube, covered it with a thick white absorbent bandage, and wrapped it in tape. It took him all of two or three minutes, his hands quick and sure, which was just as well. By the time he was done the shock of the injury had worn off, and the hurt had started up.

  "Not much to be done about the pain," he said. "Sorry, Harry. "

  "Pain I can live with," I said, wincing. "Just give me a minute. "

  "I am sorry, Dresden," Sanya said.

  "Yeah. Don't you dare save my life ever again," I told him. Then I lifted my leg onto one of the benches in the back of the boat to elevate it, and closed my eyes. There were a lot of ways to manage pain besides drugs. Granted, most of them wouldn't help you much, unless you'd had several years of training in focus and concentration, but fortunately I had. Lasciel's shadow had shown me a mental technique for blocking pain so effective that it was a little scary-when I'd used it before, I'd pushed myself until my body had collapsed, because I hadn't been aware of exactly how bad my condition was. I could have died as a result.

  Body or mind, heart or soul, we're all human, and we're supposed to feel pain. You cut yourself off from it at your own risk.

  That said, given what was ahead of us and coming up behind us, I could hardly put myself in any more danger, relatively speaking, and I couldn't afford any distractions. So I closed my eyes, controlled my breathing, focused my mind, and began to methodically wall away the pain of my new injury, my broken nose, my aching body. It took me a couple of minutes, and by the time I was done the pit
ch of the boat's engine had changed, dropping from a roar to a lower growl.

  I opened my eyes to find Sanya and Michael standing on either side of me, swords in hand, watching over me. Up at the front of the boat Rosanna cut the engine still more and turned her head to stare intently at me for a slow beat. The side of her mouth curved up in a slight, knowing smile. Then she turned to face front again, and I realized that there was light enough to see the outline of her delicately curling demon horns.

  I rose and found myself staring at an island that rose from the increasingly turbulent waters of the lake. It was covered in the woods and brush of the midwestern United States-lots of trees less than a foot thick, with the space beneath them filled in with brush, thickets, and thorns to a depth of four or five feet. Snow lay over everything, and the light reflecting from it was what let me see Rosanna's profile.

  The shoreline was covered in what looked like an old Western ghost town-only one that had been abandoned for so long that the trees had come back to reclaim the space. Most of the buildings had fallen down. Trees rose out of most of the ones that hadn't, and the sight reminded me, somehow, of an insect collection: empty shells pinned to a card. A sign, weathered beyond reading, hung from its only remaining link of rusting chain. It swung in the wind, aged metal squeaking. There was the skeleton of an old dock down at the shoreline, all broken wooden columns, standing up out of the water like the stumps of rotten teeth.

  Looking at the place filled me with a sense of awareness of the attention of an empty, sterile malevolence. This place did not like me. It did not want me there. It did not have the least regard for me, and the corpse of the little town ahead of me was a silent declaration that it had fought against folk like me before-and won.

  "Gee," I called to Rosanna. "Are you sure this is the right place?"

  She pointed silently up. I followed the direction of her finger, up the slope of the island, and spotted the light I'd seen from farther out in the lake-definitely a bonfire, I saw now, up on a hill above the town, at what looked like the highest point on the island. Something stood starkly against the sky there, the dark shape of a building or tower, though I couldn't make out any details.

  Rosanna cut the engine completely, and the boat glided silently forward to the broken wooden post nearest the shore. She climbed into the front of the boat and was waiting with a rope when the prow of the vessel bumped the column. She tied the boat to the post, then hopped down into the water and waded the rest of the way ashore.

  "Oh, good," I muttered. "More wet. "

  From back behind us, the still-rising wind carried forward a gurgling, warbling cry. I'd been up north a few times, and it might have been the call of a loon-but all of us there knew better. Summer was still on our trail.

  "We aren't going to make it any drier by waiting here," Michael said quietly.

  "There are men in those trees," Sanya murmured, sheathing his sword and taking up the Kalashnikov again. "Thirty yards up, there, and over there. Those are machine-gun positions. "

  I grunted. "Let's get moving. Before they get bored and decide to start making like this is Normandy. "

  "God go with us," Michael prayed quietly.

  I unlimbered my shotgun and said, "Amen. "

  Chapter Forty-two

  M ichael had planned ahead. He had a dozen chemical heat bags with him, the kind made for hunters to slip inside the wristbands of their coats. He passed them around to us, and we put them inside our socks after we waded ashore. Otherwise I don't know if we would have made it through the snow up that hill, not with our pants soaked to the knees.

  Rosanna, of course, wasn't having any issues with the weather. With her wings draped around her like a cloak, the demonic form she wore seemed inured to the cold, and her cloven hooves moved along the frozen, stony hillside as nimbly as a mountain goat's, her barb-tipped tail lashing back and forth dramatically as she went. Sanya walked along behind her, then me, and Michael brought up the rear. It wasn't a long walk, but it fit in a lot of unpleasantness into a little bit of time. The little town had been a company town, built up around what looked like an old cannery-a long building, falling to pieces now, at the very end of the ruined street.

  Partway up the hill we ran across a trail that had obviously been in use over the past several days. Someone had kept it clear of snow, exposing a path that had been cut into the rock of the hillside, including stone stairs that led up to its summit. As we went up the stairs the shape at the top of the hill became clearer, as light from the large fire beside it revealed it more clearly.

  "A lighthouse," I murmured. "Or what's left of one. "

  It might have been a fifty-foot tower at one time, but it had been broken off perhaps twenty feet up as if snapped by a giant's hand. Beacon towers dotted the shorelines and islands of all of the Great Lakes, and like all such structures they had accumulated more than their due of strange stories. I hadn't heard any stories about this one-but staring up at the rough grey stones, I got the impression that it might have had something to do with the fact that in order for strange stories to spread, someone has to survive a dark encounter in order to start the tale.

  This entire creepy place was giving me the idea that I wasn't merely walking on haunted ground-but that I was walking on major-league haunted ground, the kind of place that had never bowed its head to the advance of progress and civilization, to science and reason, that had no more regard for those children of human intellect than it did for their progenitors. The island seemed almost alive, aware of my presence in a sense that I couldn't really tangibly define-aware of it and sullenly, spitefully hostile to it.

  But that wasn't the creepy part.

  The creepy part was that it felt familiar.

  Walking up those stone steps, my legs settled into a steady pattern of motion, as if they'd already walked up that path a thousand times. I swerved slightly on one step, for no reason that I could see, only to hear Michael, behind me, continue walking in a straight line and slip as the stone he stepped on shifted beneath his foot. I found myself counting silently to myself, backward, and when I hit zero we mounted the last step and reached the summit of the hill.

  Somehow I knew, even before I saw it, that one side of the old lighthouse would be torn open to the sky, revealing an interior that was as hollowed-out and empty as the inside of a rifle barrel. I knew that the little stone cottage built against the base of the tower would still be reasonably intact, though about half of the slate-tile roof had collapsed inward and would need repairs. I knew that it had been made from the stones of the collapsed lighthouse. I knew that the front door rattled when you opened it, and that the back door, which wasn't in sight from here, would swell up during a rain and get stuck in its frame, much like the door at. . .

  . . . at home.

  I also knew that as freaking weird as all of that was, I couldn't afford to let any of it matter right now.

  Nicodemus and company were waiting for us.

  The sleeting rain was starting to cover everything in a thin layer of ice, but the bonfire laid on the ground before the opening in the wall of the tower was large enough to ignore it. The flames leapt ten or twelve feet in the air, and burned with an eerie, violet-tinged light, and the ice forming everywhere created the illusion of a purple haze that clung to anything inanimate.

  Beside the bonfire stones had been piled up into something that resembled the throne of some ancient pagan king. Nicodemus sat atop them, of course. Tessa stood at his right hand, entirely in human form for the first time since I had seen her. She was a little slip of a girl who barely looked old enough to hold a driver's license, and was dressed in something black and skintight. Deirdre knelt at Nicodemus's feet, and with the three of them together like that, I could see the blending of the parents' features in their daughter. Especially around the eyes. Deirdre's showed a full measure of both Nicodemus's soulless calculation and Tessa's heartless selfishness.

  Mago
g crouched at the base of the pile of stones, apelike and enormous, sullen eyes burning with bloodlust. The spined Denarian I had beaten down with the silver construct-hand lay reclining on the ground beside Magog, his face twisted with hate, one hand twisting and clenching-but his maimed body was otherwise motionless.

  My heart sped up in sudden excitement. There were still six of them. They hadn't broken Ivy yet.

  I held up a hand. We came to a stop, while Rosanna lightly mounted the steps to kneel down at Tessa's right hand.

  "Wow," I drawled. "That isn't a contrived tableau or anything. Are you here to do business, or did you get lost on your way to auditions for Family Feud?"

  "Gunman in the cottage," Sanya murmured, very quietly.

  "Beasts in the shadows behind the tower," Michael whispered.

  I kept myself from looking. If my friends said there were bad guys there, they were there, end of story.

  "Good evening, Dresden," Nicodemus said. "Have you brought the merchandise?"

  I jingled the Crown Royal bag and bumped the hilt of Shiro's sword, hanging over my shoulder, with the side of my head. "Yep. But you knew that already, or Rosie, there, wouldn't have brought us this far. So let's skip the small talk. Show me the girl. "

  "By all means," Nicodemus said. He gestured with one hand, and the shadows-his shadow, I should say-suddenly fell away from the interior of the ruined lighthouse tower.

  Red light filled that space, pouring up from the sigils and glyphs of the most elaborate greater circle I had ever seen-and I'd seen one made of silver, gold, and precious stones. This one incorporated all of those things plus art-grotesque pieces, mostly-sound, ringing forth in gentle, steady waves from upright tuning forks and tubular bells; and light, focused through prisms and crystals, refracted into dozens of colors that split and bent into perfectly geometric shapes in the air around the circle.

  Ivy was trapped inside.

  I've seen some fairly extreme abuse in my time, but it never gets easier to see more of it. Nick's people had gone with most of the classics for breaking someone down, and then added in a few twists that wouldn't be available to regular folks. They'd taken Ivy's clothes, for starters, which in this weather was sadistic on multiple levels. They'd shaved her hair away, leaving her bald, except for a couple of sad, ragged little tufts of gold. She was curled up into a fetal position, and she floated in the air, spinning slowly and apparently at random. Her eyes were tightly closed, her face pale with disorientation, terrified.

  Outside the circle they had chained a number of those hideous hunting beasts, hairless creatures that resembled nothing in the animal kingdom but fell somewhere between a big panther and a wolf. The creatures looked hungry, and stared intently at the floating morsel. One of them snarled and threw itself to the end of its chain in an effort to snap its fanged maw closed upon the girl's vulnerable flesh. It couldn't reach her, but Ivy twitched and let out a thready whimper.

  As she spun and twirled-a deliberate echo of what she'd done to Magog at the Aquarium, I felt certain-the motion revealed dozens of tiny scratches and bruises, evidence of a small legion of petty cruelties. They would, however, seem nightmarish enough to a child who had never experienced real pain of her own. All of this-the pain, the helplessness, the indignity, all of it-would be that much more horrific and terrifying to Ivy for its novelty. Say what I would about pain being a part of the human condition, when it comes to seeing it inflicted on children, I'm as hypocritical as the day is long.

  Some things just shouldn't happen.

  "There, you see?" the lord of the Denarians said. "Safe and sound, as agreed. "

  I turned my gaze back to Nicodemus, who was about ten seconds from an ass kicking-

  - and caught a little glimmer of something approximating satisfaction in his eyes that made my combat-readying reflexes cool off almost instantly.

  Ivy's treatment hadn't been only about putting her in the proper frame of mind to manipulate her.

  It had also been about manipulating me. It wasn't even all that tough to understand why. After all, I'd been in a situation something like this before.

  It wasn't enough for the Denarians to simply acquire the Sword. They couldn't break or smash or melt Fidelacchius, any more than the Church could smash or melt the thirty silver coins. The power of the Sword was more than merely physical, and as long as it was wielded by those of pure heart and intent, it would take more than mere physical means to undo it.

  Of course, if you handed the Sword to, for example, a wizard who was known for playing it shady once in a while, and who was known for having a bad temper, and who was known for occasionally losing it, and maybe for burning down a building or two when he got angry, that could change the situation entirely. Put him in an intense situation, give him a really good reason to be angry, give him a mighty magical weapon near at hand, and he might well seize it and use it out of sheer outrage-despite the fact that he wouldn't exactly be acting from entirely pure motives by doing so. After all, I had come here, ostensibly in peace, to offer up the Sword as a sacrifice for the life of a child. If I then took up that same weapon and used it to strike at Nicodemus and company instead, I, its rightful bearer, would be employing Fidelacchius, the Sword of Faith, in an act of treachery.

  Once I'd done that, then the Sword would just be a sword, an object of steel and wood. Once I'd done that, then Nicodemus and his insane little family could destroy the weapon. They needed someone to make that mistake, someone to make that choice, in order to unmake the weapon, just as any bearer of a coin had to make the choice to give it up to be free of the Fallen inside. They needed someone with a right to the Sword to choose to abuse that right.

  I'd made that mistake once already, on a stormy night much like this one, when Michael had asked me to carry Amoracchius for him. I'd used the Sword of Love to try to save my ass from the consequences of my own bad decisions and nearly gotten it destroyed as a result. It would have been unmade, in fact, if not for the intervention of my brother-even if I hadn't known about our kinship at the time. Thomas had. He'd been looking out for his little brother even then.

  Don't get me wrong: At times I can be a little thick-particularly when there's a woman involved. There's just no way I'm stupid enough to make a mistake quite that enormous twice.

  But. . .

  Nicodemus didn't know that I'd made it even once, now, did he?

  Oh, he knew me pretty well. He knew how angry his actions had made me, how I would react to the sight of what they'd done to Ivy-and he was counting on me to react according to my nature, in order to help him unmake Fidelacchius.

  This was going to be a dangerous game, going up against an opponent who had been around as long as Nick had, but I couldn't win if I didn't play-and I needed to buy a little more time and make sure that both of our prizes were on hand before we started the fireworks.

  So I gave him what he wanted.

  I slammed the end of my staff down onto the ground with my left hand, reached up to seize the hilt of Fidelacchius with my right, and snarled, "Get her the hell out of that thing, Nicodemus. Right now. "

  They laughed at me, all of them together, relaxed and insulting. It would have sounded rehearsed if it were any less well coordinated. Instead, it came off like something they'd done so often over the years that it simply came naturally now. "Look at his face," Tessa murmured, a little-girl giggle in her voice. "It's all red. "

  I clenched my jaw as hard as I could. It wasn't much of a stretch to keep pretending to be angry, but I tried to go all Method actor on them. Eat your heart out, Sir Ian. I jerked the Sword a couple of inches from its sheath. "I'm warning you," I said, trying to get a good look around. "Let the girl go before this gets ugly. "

  I must have been doing a pretty good job with the acting. Michael's voice, high-pitched with alarm, came from behind me. "Harry," he said, urgently, "wait. "

  I took two steps forward, ignoring Michael, and drew the
Sword from its sheath. Fidelacchius was a classic, chisel-tipped katana, encased in what looked like an old wooden walking cane. I'd kept the blade clean and oiled while it was in my care. It came free of its casing without a sound and gleamed coldly in the violet light of the fire. "I brought the Sword," I told Nicodemus, throwing some taunt into my tone. "See? You wanted this, right? In exchange for the girl?"

  His eyes narrowed as he stared at the blade, and I noticed, for the first time, that he wore a sword of his own at his hip-as did Tessa, for that matter. Super. I made a mental note not to try fencing any of them. I'm tall and quick, and I've got a lunge that can hit from halfway across the county, but when it comes to deadly swordplay, I'm a piker compared to the serious swordsmen, like Michael-and Michael considered himself barely more than a mild challenge to Nicodemus.

  "What on earth makes you think he's going to go through with the deal, wizard?" Tessa asked me, her voice a purr. "Now that you're here, the Sword is here, the coins are here?"

  "Maybe it escaped your notice, bitch," I snarled, "but the Sword is here. And the other two are as well. Maybe you want to think twice before making a fight of it. "

  Thorned Namshiel let out a croaking laugh. "You think six of us fear facing two Knights?"

  "I think there's about five and a half of you, stumpy," I shot back, taking another step toward them. I could see a little more of the tower's interior from there. "And for all you know, you're facing three Knights. "

  Nicodemus smiled, showing teeth. "And for all Michael and Sanya know, Dresden, the two of them are facing seven Denarians, not six. You did lead them here, after all. "

  "Harry," Michael said again, his tone tense.

  "Shut up!" I half screamed at Nicodemus, taking several steps closer. Almost.

  Magog let out a snorting rumble and shuffled a yard closer to me, scraping at the ground with his feet and knuckles, shaking his shaggy, horned head threateningly.

  I hefted the Sword and bared my teeth in a snarl. "Oh, you want some of this, Magilla?" I taunted, taking two more steps forward. "Come get some; I'll show you what keeps happening to Kong. "

  There! At the base of the tower wall, a crumpled human form, bloodied, bruised, half-frozen, but alive. He lifted his face as I came into sight and I met the gaze of Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.

  They'd tied him to the wall with ropes-something of a mercy, since metal chains would probably have killed him, given the weather over the past few days. One side of his face was puffy with bruises, but both eyes were open. He had a lot of blood on one side of his head. In fact. . .

  Hell's bells. Something had ripped off the top half of his left ear. Not neatly, either. The flesh had been raggedly torn. The knuckles of his right hand were thickly crusted with blood. Marcone had torn them open on something before he'd been bound. He'd fought them.

  I stopped talking trash and started backpedaling toward Michael and Sanya immediately.

  Magog froze, his head tilted comically to one side, his expression confused.

  Nicodemus sat up in place on the throne, sensing that the plan he'd thought was going along so swimmingly had begun to fall apart.

  "Michael!" I said, and tossed Fidelacchius into the air behind me.

  "Kill them!" Nicodemus snapped, his voice ringing over the hilltop. "Kill them now!"

  Tessa let out a scream that sounded almost orgasmic, and sections of scarlet-and-black chitin seemed to simply rip their way out of her flesh, her body stretching and distending into her mantis shape. Deirdre hissed and arched her back in a kinetic echo of her mother, her hair lengthening into steely blades, her skin darkening. Rosanna howled, and called fire-specifically Hellfire-into her spread hands, while Thorned Namshiel lifted his hand into the air and gathered flickers of green lightning between his fingertips.

  Magog simply bellowed and charged, and with howls of hunger and rage a dozen hairless beasts bounded from the shadows all around us and flung themselves at us with bloodthirsty disregard for their own lives. And, as if all of that weren't enough, half a dozen points of brilliant red light, the emanations of laser sights of hidden gunmen, flashed at us through the mist and sleet.

  Oh, yeah. Super plan, Harry.

  I had them right where I wanted them.

  Chapter Forty-three

  I didn't stop to see what happened to the sword I'd just thrown toward Michael. I plunged my hand into my duster and came out with the sawed-off shotgun. I dropped my staff, lifted the gun in both hands, turned my face away, and shouted, "Fire in the hole!" a second before I pulled the trigger.

  Once upon a time I'd seen Kincaid use Dragon's Breath rounds against Red Court vampires in a fight at Wrigley Field. It had been impressive as hell watching those shotgun rounds belch out jets of flame forty feet long. Since then I'd done a bit of research on fun things you can fire out of a shotgun, and as it turns out, there's all kinds of interesting stuff you can shoot at people. It's astonishing, really, the creativity that goes into the design of all the different specialized ammunition available on the market today.

  My personal favorite: a round known as the Fireball.

  It fires out a spray of superheated particles of metal-tiny, tiny bits of metal blazing away at a temperature of over three thousand degrees. They spread out into an enormous cone of fire and light more than two hundred and fifty feet long, brighter and hotter than any fireworks you've ever seen. Forestry services use them to start backfires, and special weapons units use them to create enormous, eye-catching diversions.

  I unleashed two Fireball rounds simultaneously, straight up into the air, and for an instant turned that weirdly firelit hilltop as bright as a midsummer noon.

  Even with my eyes closed and my face turned away, the world turned bright pink through my eyelids. I heard gunfire from the direction of the cottage, and more from the tree line off to the left, but whatever gunmen Nicodemus had positioned there had been blinded by the flash, and it would take time for their night vision to recover.

  That had been half the point of using the Fireball rounds, there in the dark. It wouldn't give us much time to act, no more than a handful of seconds-but a lot can happen in a handful of seconds, if you're willing to use them well.

  I dropped the shotgun, grabbed my staff, and charged forward, screaming like a madman.

  Michael and Sanya came hard on my heels. Michael bore Amoracchius in his right hand and Fidelacchius in his left, and as he ran both blades suddenly became limned in a low, flickering silver light. One of the beasts that had been lurking behind the tower had bounded forward at Nicodemus's command, even blinded by the flash, but it had the bad fortune to rush past me directly at Michael. The Knight of the Cross twisted his body left, then right, delivering a pair of slashes with each weapon. There were hiss-thumps of swift impact, a scream of pain from the beast, and Michael pounded on, barely even slowing his stride, leaving the still-twitching body of the beast on the ground behind him.

  Then the air shook with the force of Magog's battle roar, and I jerked my gaze around to find the huge Denarian thundering directly toward me. I'd already tested my will against Magog's power, and I knew I could stop him if I had to do it. I also knew that it would take an enormous effort to manage it, and leave me vulnerable to one of his companions-so instead of trying to stop him, I called upon my will, and as the apelike creature bore down upon me, I swept my staff in an upcurving stroke, like the swing of a golf club, and cried, "Forzare!"

  The unseen force of my will reached out, adding to the momentum of Magog's charge and lifting him from the ground. With a howl Magog went flying over our heads and arched out into the air and over the steep, rocky hillside we'd just climbed. The animalistic howl broke out into savage words in some ancient-sounding tongue, interspersed with screams of fury and grunts of pain as the huge Denarian bounced down the stony, frozen hillside. He sounded more angry than injured, and I knew that I'd taken him out of the equation for only a moment, at most.


  Hopefully, that would be enough.

  Deirdre came down from the mound of stones, using all four limbs and individual blade-strands of her hair interchangeably for locomotion, so that she looked like some kind of bizarre, enormous spider-until Sanya raised his Kalashnikov and began firing at her. None of that spray-and-pray automatic fire, either. The Russian skidded to a stop and took swift aim. He bounced one round off a rock an inch to Deirdre's left, put the second shot through her thigh, and raised a cloud of sparks from the steely blades of her hair near her skull with a third round. She let out a shriek of startled pain and fear, and scuttled sideways off into the shadows as swiftly as a roach caught out in the middle of the floor when the light comes on.

  Gunfire came at us from both sides, still more or less blind and random, but no less lethal for that. Bullets are the damnedest things, going by. They aren't dramatic. By themselves they sound almost like big bugs, like something that might buzz by you real fast out in the country on a hot, muggy summer afternoon. It's almost hard to feel afraid of them, until it truly hits you exactly what they are. It's kind of handy, actually, that moment of disconnection between the time your senses tell you that death is flicking around randomly a couple of feet away, and the time your mind manages to make you understand that moving around in it is an awful idea. It gives you time to act before you get so scared that you just find a shady spot and stay there.

  "Go, go, go!" I called, still charging forward. Our only chance was to keep moving ahead, to rattle Nicodemus and company into jumping out of the way, and to get into the only shelter on that hilltop.

  "Kill them!" Nicodemus roared, his voice furious, and then there was the sound of rushing wind from overhead. He must have taken to the sky, flying upon that shadow of his as if upon enormous bat wings.

  More of the beasts had closed on Michael, and both Swords were at work again, striking out, silver light gleaming more brightly now from their blades. Sanya let out a shout, and more light flooded the hilltop, casting my own shadow out darker in front of me as Esperacchius joined the battle, and more of the beasts' cries of pain shook the air.

  In front of me Thorned Namshiel howled out in frustration and evident terror in some tongue I didn't know, and I saw that both Tessa and Hellmaid Rosanna had pulled a vanishing act. Namshiel, his arm outstretched in the general direction of the far side of the stone throne, added, despair in his voice, "Come back!"

  Then he turned toward me as he heard my feet churning through the wet snow. He still held a corona of green lightning in his spiny hand, and as his eyes focused on my general location he bared his teeth in a snarl of bitter hatred and flung out his hand, hurling a sphere of crackling emerald electricity at me.

  My shield bracelet was ready to go, and I had terror and rage and determination in plenty to empower my defenses. I deflected the sphere at an angle and sent it rebounding harmlessly up into the sky.

  "Amateur puppy," Namshiel snarled, and began to gather more sickly green power at his fingertips. He made an odd little gesture and flicked his fingers, and suddenly five tiny threads of green light leapt toward me on five separate, spiraling paths.

  I brought my shield around to intersect the new attack-and realized at the last second that each individual thread of energy was coming at me on a slightly different wavelength of the spectrum of magical energy, a variance of frequencies that my shield couldn't stretch to cover. Not all at the same time, anyway. I countered three of them and nearly got the fourth, but it slipped by me, and I never even touched the fifth strand.

  Something that felt like cold, greasy piano wire wrapped around my throat, and I couldn't breathe.

  "Insufferable, arrogant little monkey," Namshiel hissed. "Playing with the fires of creation. Binding your soul to it, as if you were one of us. How dare you so presume. How dare you wield soulfire against me. I, who was there when your pathetic kind was hewn from the muck. "

  It wasn't so much being strangled to death that I objected to, or even the megalomaniacal monologue I was being subjected to in the process. I just wished that I knew what the hell he was talking about. Granted, I had busted him up pretty good with that silver hand thing, but he was taking it so freaking personally.

  I lost track of what I'd been thinking. My head hurt. So did my neck. Thorned Namshiel was ranting about something. Practically foaming at the mouth, really-right up until Amoracchius flashed in a line of silver fire, and Thorned Namshiel's head hopped up off his shoulders, tumbled twice, and fell into the snow.

  Suddenly I took a deep breath and the world started sorting itself out again.

  Michael stepped forward, took one look at Namshiel's body, and hewed the right hand off at the wrist. He picked up the hand and dropped it into a pouch on his sword belt. Meanwhile, Sanya shouldered his rifle and dragged me to my feet.

  "Go," I choked out, barely able to get the words out through my half-crushed throat. I regained my own feet and waved Sanya off me, gesturing ahead. "The lighthouse. Fast. "

  Sanya looked from me to the hollow tower and promptly sheathed his Sword to take up his rifle again. The big Russian advanced on the tower, the Kalashnikov at his shoulder, and began putting precise shots through the heads of each of the beasts that had been chained to the walls inside to torment Ivy, who still floated bound within the greater circle.

  I followed Sanya as quickly as I could, wheezing in breaths through my aching neck. By the time Michael and I had gotten into the shelter of the mostly closed ring of the tower's stones, the gunfire from around us had begun to close in on us again as the gunmen's night vision returned. The tiny window of opportunity the flash of the Fireball rounds had created had waned.

  "How did you know?" Michael asked, panting. "How did you know they would break if we charged them?"

  "You don't survive two thousand years in a game like this one without predator reflexes," I replied. "Any predator in the world reacts the same way to a loud noise, a bright flash, and a noisy and unexpected charge. They get the hell out of the way. Can't really help themselves. Habit of a couple millennia is a bitch to break. "

  Sanya calmly shot another beast.

  I shrugged. "Nicodemus and company thought that they knew how things were going to proceed, and when they didn't go the way they expected, they got flustered. So the Nickelheads got clear. " I pursed my lips. "Of course, they're going to be back in a minute. And very upset. Hey, there, Marcone. "

  "Dresden," Marcone said, as if we'd passed each other outside the coffee shop. He sounded a little tired, but calm. All things considered, that was probably an indicator of exactly how much moxie the crime lord had. "Can you help the child?"

  Dammit. That's the thing I hate most about Marcone. Every once in a while he says or does something that makes it difficult to label him "scum, criminal" and file him neatly away in a drawer somewhere. I glared at him. He returned the glare with a faint, knowing smile. I muttered under my breath and turned to study the elaborate circle, while Sanya finished the last of the beasts.

  "I've never seen anything like this," Michael said quietly, staring.

  I didn't blame him. Even among professionals this circle was impressive. Lots of luminous, glowing lines and swirls involved, and that always looks fantastic, especially at night. The gold and silver and precious stones didn't hurt things, either. The light and music show being put on by the chimes and crystals added a wonderful little eerie edge to it all, especially given the grotesque art that framed the interior magical symbology. "This is some upper-tier stuff," I said quietly. "It will be another century, maybe two, before I'm good enough to come close to this level of work. It's delicate. One single thing a fraction of an inch out of place and the whole thing goes kablooie. It's powerful. When you're putting this together, if any one of a couple of dozen of the power flows slips for even an instant, the whole thing goes out of balance and could go up with enough force to blow the top off of this whole hillside. It took a freaking
genius to put this together, Michael. "

  I hefted my staff.

  "Fortunately," I said, and took a two-handed swing at the nearest stand of slender, delicate crystal. It shattered with gratifying ease, and the encasing light around the greater circle began to waver and dissipate. "It only takes a monkey with a big stick to take it apart. "

  And I waded into the circle, smashing things with my staff. It was therapeutic. God knows how many times the bad guys had destroyed the careful work of lifetimes when they'd robbed people of homes, of loved ones, of life itself. It felt sort of nice to bring a little cup of Shiva D into their lives for a change. I shattered the crystals that bent light into a cage to hold the Archive prisoner. I bent and mashed the tuning forks that focused sound into chains. I crushed the depictions of bondage and imprisonment meant to restrain the very idea of freedom, and from there I went on to break ivory rune sticks, to crush glyph-scribed gems, to pound into illegibility golden plates inscribed with sigils of imprisonment.

  I'm not sure at which point I started screaming in outrage. Somewhere along the line, though, it hit me that these people had taken magic, the power of life, of creation, a force meant to create and protect, to learn and preserve, and they had bent and twisted it into a blasphemy, an obscenity. They had used it to imprison and torment, to torture and maim, all in an attempt to enslave and destroy. Worse, they had turned magic against the Archive, against the safeguard of knowledge itself-and still worse, against a child.

  I didn't stop until I had shattered their expensive, elaborate, elegant torture chamber, until I could deliberately drag my staff across the last, smooth golden circle at the innermost point of the design, marring it all the way across its surface, breaking the last remaining structure of the spell.

  The energies of the prison let loose with an outraged howl, sailing straight up into the air overhead in a column of furious purple light. I thought I could see faces twisting and spinning inside it for a few seconds, but then the light faded, and Ivy fell limply to the cold ground, just a naked little girl, bruised and scratched and half-unconscious with cold.

  Michael was at my side at once, removing his cloak. I took it and wrapped Ivy in it. She made whimpering sounds of protest, but she wasn't really conscious. I picked her up and held her close to me, getting as much of my own coat around her as I could.

  I looked up and found Marcone watching me steadily. Sanya had cut him free from the wall and evidently given the crime lord the cloak off his back. Marcone now hunched against the sleet in the white cloak, holding one of the chemical warming packs between his hands. He stood just a bit over average height and was of medium build, so Sanya's cloak covered him like a blanket. "Will she be all right?" Marcone asked.

  "She will," I said with determination. "She damned well will. "

  "Down!" barked Sanya.

  Bullets raised sparks off the inside of the lighthouse and rattled wildly around its interior. Everyone got down. I made sure I had my body and my duster between Ivy and any incoming rounds. Sanya leaned out for a second and squeezed off a couple of shots, then hurriedly got back under cover again. The volume of fire from the outside grew.

  "They're bringing up reinforcements from down the hill," Sanya reported. "Heavier weapons, too. "

  Marcone glanced around the featureless interior of the ruined lighthouse. "If any of them have grenades, this is going to be a relatively brief rescue operation. "

  Sanya leaned out and snapped off another pair of shots, barely getting back before return fire started chewing at the stone where he'd been. He muttered under his breath and changed magazines on his rifle.

  The enemy gunfire suddenly ceased. There was silence on the hilltop for twenty or thirty seconds. Then Nicodemus's voice, filled with anger, came through the air. "Dresden!"

  "What?" I called back.

  "I'm going to give you one chance to survive this. Give me the girl. Give me the coins. Give me the sword. Do that, and I'll let you walk away alive. "

  "Hah!" I said. It was possible that I didn't feel quite as confident as I sounded. "Or maybe I'll just leave from here. "

  "Cross into the Nevernever from where you're standing?" Nicodemus asked. "You'd be better off asking the Russian to put a bullet through your head for you. I know what lives on the other side. "

  Given that they'd chosen this location for the greater circle precisely because it was a source of intense dark energy, I had no trouble believing that it connected to some nasty portions of the Nevernever. There was every chance that Nicodemus was not bluffing.

  "How do I know that you won't kill me the minute you get what you want?" I called back.

  "Harry!" Michael hissed.

  I shushed him.

  "We both know what my word is worth," Nicodemus said, his voice dry. "Really, Dresden. If we can't trust each other, what's the point in talking at all?"

  Heh. Gaining enough time to await the second half of what those Fireballs were supposed to accomplish, that's what.

  The twin two-hundred-fifty-foot jets of fire had briefly blinded our enemies, true.

  But they'd done something else, too.

  Marcone tilted his head to one side for a moment and then murmured, "Does anyone else hear. . . strings?"

  "Ah," I said, and pumped my fist in the air. "Ah-hahahah! Have you ever heard anything so magnificently pompous and overblown in your life?"

  Deep, ringing French horns joined the string sections, echoing over the hilltop.

  "What is that?" Sanya murmured.

  "That," I crowed, "is Wagner, baby!"

  Never let it be said that a Chooser of the Slain can't make an entrance.

  Miss Gard brought the reconditioned Huey up from the eastern side of the island, flying about a quarter of an inch over the treetops, blasting "The Ride of the Valkyries" from loudspeakers mounted on the chopper's underside. Wind, sleet, and all, still she flew flawlessly through the night, having used the twin jets of the Fireball rounds, visible for miles over the pitch-black lake, to orient herself as to where to arrive. The Huey turned broadside as it rose over the hilltop, music blaring loud enough to shake snow from the treetops. The side door of the chopper was open, revealing Mister Hendricks manning a rotating-barreled minigun fixed to the deck of the helicopter-completely illegally, of course.

  But then, I suppose that's really one major advantage to working with criminals. They just don't care about that sort of thing.

  The barrels began to spin, and a tongue of flame licked out from the front of the gun. Snow and earth erupted into the air in a long trench in front of the cannon. I risked a peek and saw men clad in dark fatigues leaping for cover as a swath of devastation slewed back and forth across the open hilltop and pounded the mound of stones into a mound of gravel.

  "There's our ride!" I said. "Let's go!"

  Sanya led the way, firing off more or less random shots at anyone who wasn't already lying flat in an effort to avoid fire from the gun on the helicopter. Some of Nicodemus's troops were crazier than others. Several of them jumped up and tried to come after us. That minigun had been designed to shoot down airplanes. What the rounds left of human bodies was barely recognizable as such.

  There was no place for the chopper to land, but a line came down from the other side, lowered by a winch while the aircraft hovered above us. I looked up to see Luccio operating the winch, her face pale, but her eyes glittering with excitement. She was how Gard had been able to know where to look for the signal-I'd given Anastasia a couple of my hairs to use in a tracking spell, and she'd been following me ever since I left to meet Rosanna for the trade.

  The line came down with a lift harness attached to it. "Marcone," I shouted over the sound of the rotors and the minigun-which is to say, I was more or less mouthing it exaggeratedly. "You first. That was the deal. "

  He shook his head and pointed his finger at Ivy.

  I snarled and pushed the girl into his arms
, then started slapping the harness over him. He got it after a second, and in a couple more we had him secured in the harness and holding the semiconscious Ivy tight against him. I gave Luccio the thumbs-up, and Marcone and Ivy went zipping gracefully up the line to the chopper, wrapped in the white cloak, the scarlet crosses on it standing out sharply in the winter light. Luccio helped haul them in, and a second later the empty harness came down again.

  "Sanya!" I said.

  The Russian passed me the Kalashnikov and slipped into the harness, then ascended to the helicopter. Again the empty harness came down-though now there were occasional bursts of heavier rounds coming from down the slope of the hillside, as evidenced by tracer fire that would sometimes go tumbling by in the night. It would be immediately answered by the far heavier fire of the minigun, but Gard couldn't possibly keep the chopper there for long.

  "Harry!" Michael said, offering me the harness.

  I was about to take it, but by chance I looked up and saw Gard looking down at us through the Plexiglas bubble around the pilot's seat-looking at Michael with an absolutely unnerving intensity that I had seen on her face once before, and my heart started hammering in terror.

  The last time she'd looked like that, I'd been in an alley outside Bock Ordered Books back in Chicago, and a necromancer named Corpsetaker and a ghoul named Li Xian had been about to murder me. A few minutes later Gard had told Marcone that she had seen that it was my fate to die then and there. The only reason that I survived it was that Marcone had intervened.

  But even if I'd never seen that look on her face before, I figured that anytime a Valkyrie hovering over a battlefield suddenly gets real interested in a particular warrior, it ain't good.

  I'd made the grasshopper a promise. If things were about to get hairy for whoever was left on the ground, it wouldn't be Molly's dad that had to deal with it.

  "You first," I said.

  He started to argue.

  I shoved the harness into his chest. "Dammit, Michael!"

  He grimaced, shook his head at me, and then sheathed Amoracchius. Still holding Fidelacchius in his hand, he shrugged quickly into the harness. I gave Luccio the thumbs-up, and Michael began to rise. Gard frowned faintly, and some of my screaming tension started to ease.

  Tessa and Rosanna came out from behind veils that were as good as anything Molly could have done, and I didn't have to be Sherlock to deduce who had done the lion's share of the work on the greater circle that had contained the Archive. I had half a second to act, but I got tangled in the strap of Sanya's gun, which he'd handed me so that I could defend myself in case I was suddenly attacked. Thank you, Sanya.

  Tessa, her pretty human face showing, her eyes gleaming with manic glee, swept a mantis claw at my head, and I at least managed to interpose the rifle before she ripped my head off. Only instead of smashing the gun, as I'd expected, she ripped it out of my hand, just as easily as taking candy from a baby and spun away from me.

  Then she winked at me, blew me a kiss, and opened fire on Michael with the Kalashnikov on full automatic from no more than ten feet away.

  My friend didn't scream as bullets tore into him. He just jerked once in a spray of scarlet and went limp.

  Fidelacchius tumbled from his fingers and fell to the ground.

  Sparks flew from the Huey as the bullets tore into it, too, and a burst of flame and smoke poured from a vent on one side of its fuselage. It dipped sharply to one side, and for a second I thought it was simply going to roll over and into the ground-but then it recovered, drunkenly, gathering momentum like a car sliding down an icy hill, still dragging my friend's unmoving body on the trailing cable like a baited hook at the end of a fishing line, and vanished into the darkness.