Proven Guilty Chapter 4647

Chapter Forty-six

’’Morgan,’’ the Merlin said quietly.

Morgan stared at Molly. Then at the Merlin. He drew in a sharp breath and took a grip on the sword, lifting it vertically before him.

I looked frantically around the room. Ramirez, like most of the rest of the wizards there, had a stunned look on his face. He looked back at me with a blank expression, and gave me a little twitch of his shoulders. Lily looked remote and troubled. Fix's expression was blank, but his jaws were clenched hard, muscles standing out and creating shadows on his face.

’’Harry?’’ Molly whispered, shaking so hard she could hardly speak. ’’Harry?’’

I turned back to the Merlin. His eyes were hard, his face as unyielding as stone. Morgan looked as if he might be about to throw up-but it didn't stop him from moving toward Molly with a steady, dreamlike slowness, sword in hand.

’’Harry,’’ Molly sobbed.

I promised Charity.

I took my staff in both hands and stepped forward, putting myself between Morgan and the girl. ’’Morgan,’’ I said. ’’Stars and stones, man. Please don't do this. She's a child. We should be helping her.’’

My words slowed him, and he froze in place for a terrible heartbeat. Then he closed his eyes and swallowed, his face twisting with nausea. He opened his eyes again and whispered, ’’Stand aside, Dresden. Please.’’

I looked wildly around the room for someone, anyone to help, for some way to stop this madness. I felt a sudden pressure against my spine, and I looked over my shoulder.

My eyes fell on the Gatekeeper.

I whirled back to Morgan and lifted my hands. ’’Point of order!’’ I cried. ’’Point of order! The Senior Council has not yet made its decision.’’

Morgan paused, head tilting, and frowned at me. He lowered the sword and glanced back at the Merlin.

’’The Senior Council has decided the issue,’’ the Merlin snarled.

’’No,’’ I said. ’’The Senior Council must decide any capital crime in an open vote.’’ I pointed my finger at the Gatekeeper. ’’He has not cast his vote.’’

The Merlin spoke through clenched teeth. ’’I hold six of seven votes. However the honored Gatekeeper decides, it will not change the outcome.’’

’’True,’’ I said. ’’But that doesn't change the fact that he gets a damned vote.’’

’’Why are you doing this?’’ the Merlin demanded. ’’It is over. You only torment the prisoner with this unnecessary charade.’’

’’He gets a vote,’’ I repeated, and folded my arms on my chest.

The Merlin stared at me hard, and I could actually sense the pressure of his rage, like the end of a baseball bat poking steadily at my chest.

Morgan said, very, very quietly, ’’He's right, honored Merlin.’’

The Merlin narrowed his eyes. Then he turned his head to the Gatekeeper. ’’As you wish. We shall play this farce to its conclusion. Gatekeeper, how find you in this matter?’’

And the Gatekeeper said... nothing.

He just stood there, face almost invisible beneath his cowl.

’’Gatekeeper!’’ the Merlin called. ’’How find you?’’

’’I find the need for deliberation,’’ the Gatekeeper responded. ’’I beg the Council's indulgence while I ponder this matter.’’

’’Ridiculous,’’ the Merlin said.

The Gatekeeper tilted his head. ’’Death is rather final, honored Merlin. I must consider carefully before I consign a soul, any soul, no matter how guilty, to that end.’’

’’This is nonsense. It will make no difference how you vote.’’

’’True,’’ the Gatekeeper replied, very gently, the faintest shade of rebuke in his voice. ’’But that does not change my moral obligation to make this decision with care.’’

The Merlin took a deep breath and then said, forced calm in his voice, ’’I suppose a few moments for thought are not unreasonable.’’

’’Thank you,’’ the Gatekeeper said gravely.

Five minutes went by like five thousand years. Molly sagged against me, so frightened she could barely stand.

’’Enough,’’ the Merlin said, finally. ’’This travesty needs to end.’’

’’On that point,’’ the Gatekeeper said, ’’we agree.’’ And then he stepped forward to the circle marked on the floor, and smudged it with his boot, breaking the circle. He flicked a gloved hand, and the lock on the chained door sprang open and fell away, followed closely by the chains.

’’What is the meaning of this?’’ the Merlin demanded.

The Gatekeeper ignored him and pushed open the door. One of the Wardens on guard outside stood in front of it, one hand raised as if to knock. He blinked at the Gatekeeper, and then looked over his shoulder and said, ’’It's open, sir.’’

’’Get clear of the door, fool,’’ barked Ebenezar's voice. ’’Get them inside. Hurry, man! They're right behind us!’’

Outside there was an eerie howl and a sudden detonation of thunder that shook the concrete floor. Young people in roomy brown robes began to hurry through the doorway, most of them around Molly's age or a bit younger. They were led by a young woman with short, curly hair and cheeks that had a dimple even when she wasn't smiling-Luccio, the commander of the Wardens, in the young body a necromancer had trapped her in. The kids must have been her trainees.

She was followed by more children and a tall, brawny woman with dark skin and short, iron grey hair, helping a lanky young man with a wounded leg. Martha Liberty helped the young man settle to the ground and barked out a command for a medical kit. An old man with braided hair and Native American features brought up the rear, shepherding the last few young wizards ahead of him. ’’Injun Joe’’ Listens-to-Wind made sure they were all inside, and then turned and shouted, ’’I'm closing the way now!’’

There were several more howls, and a bell-like chime of steel. Something hit the wall of the warehouse hard enough to shake dust from the rafters. Then there was a rushing sound of wind that abruptly ended in heavy silence. Listens-to-Wind sagged and leaned against the doorway, panting. Then he rose and stood aside as Ebenezar McCoy came in.

My old mentor was wearing his usual overalls and T-shirt. His bald pate shone with sweat, and he looked tired, but he was smiling over the pugnacious set of his lower jaw. The air around him fairly crackled with intensity, a mantle of power that hung around him in a subtle haze. Ebenezar reached behind him to hold the door open.

Michael came in.

He wore his white cloak, his mail and breastplate, and he bore Amoracchius in his hands, stained with dark fluids. He glanced around the room, a smile firm on his face.

’’Papa!’’ Molly shrieked, and threw herself at him.

Michael blinked and managed to get the sword out of the way before Molly hit him with a hug that nearly knocked him from his feet. He got an arm around her, smiling. ’’Ooof! Careful, girl, the old man needs his ribs right where they are.’’

’’Who the hell is this?’’ Ramirez demanded, frowning at Michael. He looked like he didn't know whether to be upset or disturbed that an armed and armored stranger had just waltzed in and was now standing inside all of his security measures.

’’He's a bloody hero is what he is,’’ Ebenezar told him. ’’If he hadn't come along when he did, not a one of us would have gotten out of there alive.’’ He offered Michael his hand. ’’I've only heard of you by reputation, Sir Knight. But I've got to say that I'm damned glad to meet you. Thank you.’’

Michael grinned and juggled his sword and his daughter so he'd have a hand free to shake Ebenezar's. ’’I'm only a servant,’’ he said. ’’Any thanks are rightly owed to Him, not to me.’’

’’Aye,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’And thank God you came, Sir Knight.’’

’’Secure the building,’’ said the Merlin in a quiet voice. He walked forward to see what was happening, and stopped beside me. Michael nodded and moved out, tapping Ramirez and another Warden, and the three of them went to make sure the bad guys weren't still coming.

’’Vote isn't over,’’ I said in a very quiet voice. ’’Which means that the three of them will need to cast their votes as well.’’

’’Obviously,’’ the Merlin said in a neutral murmur.

’’That's Michael. Knight of the Cross.’’

’’Which Sword?’’ the Merlin asked idly.

’’Amoracchius,’’ I said.

The Merlin lifted a brow and nodded, never looking at me.

’’Looks like he just saved... about forty of our young people?’’

’’So it would seem,’’ the Merlin said.

’’Seems like the least we can do is save one of his.’’

The Merlin's eyes narrowed, and he did not speak.

’’Look at it this way,’’ I said quietly. ’’There's no downside to this for you. If you're wrong about Molly, the Council gets another wizard. Fairly talented one, too.’’

’’And if I'm right?’’ he asked quietly.

’’If you're right,’’ I said, ’’you still get to kill the girl.’’

The Merlin glanced at me. ’’True,’’ he said. ’’And you with her.’’

Chapter Forty-seven

After a second, much less lengthy round of questions and answers, the Senior Council voted, and Molly was officially declared my apprentice, to be granted clemency under the Doom of Damocles. ’’Doom of Damocles’’ was wizard-speak for probation. If Molly abused her magic or came anywhere near violating any of the Laws of Magic, she'd be executed at once-and I'd join her.

But I'd lived with that before. I could do it again.

It was full dark by the time the conclave ended and everyone filed out. As the wizard who had called the conclave, it was my job to make sure everyone departed safely and to take care of any last-minute details.

Between providing food and further medical supplies for the unexpected arrivals, and coordinating with Ramirez to make sure our comings and goings weren't being observed, I didn't get the chance to speak to anyone about personal matters. With Lily's help, we'd given the vampires a stiff kick in the balls, but the fight was far from over. The combat-hardened wizards and the talents of the Senior Council were needed elsewhere, and they departed with hardly a pause for food and drink.

Once it was done, I left the warehouse and sank down against the wall, just letting the cool summer evening wash over me.

I'd saved the girl from the bad guys. And more importantly, from the good guys. Which seemed the sort of thing that should pay my Warden's salary overtime, but for the moment I was simply glad it was over.

I'd gambled horribly in my attempt to play the collective will of the Council against the Merlin. I shouldn't have done it that way. The Merlin was a politician. If I'd been willing to eat a little crow, he probably would have come to some sort of compromise with me. A humiliating and disadvantageous compromise, from my perspective, but he might have worked something out.

Instead, I'd gained the moral support of the Council present there tonight, and I'd wielded it against him like a sword, chopping off his options and maneuvering him into bending to my will. I had exercised power over him in a way that no one had yet dared. I had struck a blow against his authority, declared myself an enemy of his administration. There was no way he could ignore that kind of challenge from a morally suspect young punk like me. He would have to bring me down. If I wanted to avoid that, I'd have to keep my eyes open, my wits sharp, and I'd have to continue to do whatever I could to secure myself against him.

In short: I'd become a politician.

But instead of moaning about it, I found myself laughing. Given all that had happened, matters could have been much, much worse. Molly was coming home safe. The murderous fetches had been dispatched. The vampires had been handed their first significant defeat since the cold war combusted.

After the events of the day, tomorrow surely held nothing for me to fear, and I trusted that it would take care of itself until I could rest, eat, and put an end to the last details of the business at hand.

Molly and Michael had waited with me: When Michael covered Luccio's retreat through the nearer regions of the Nevernever, he had gotten back to Chicago without paying for the gas, but his truck was still back in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. He'd need to have it shipped back, or else make a long drive with a partner. He needed a ride home, and I was it.

The Beetle's floorboards settled almost all the way to the ground by the time everyone was on board, and I drove carefully away from the warehouse. Molly chattered on about a confusing blur of things for maybe two minutes and then went abruptly silent.

Michael checked over his shoulder. ’’Asleep,’’ he reported quietly.

’’She's had a busy day,’’ I said.

He sighed. ’’Tell me what happened?’’

I told him everything. Except the parts with Lasciel in them. And I didn't mention Charity's neglected talent for magic. I thought for a second that I could hear a ghostly, amused laugh from somewhere nearby. Optimistically, I wrote it off to my fatigued imagination.

Michael shook his head. ’’How did you know that I would return as I did?’’

’’Oh, I didn't,’’ I said. ’’I just figured that you must have been sent off to do something to help your kid, so I asked Forthill to get word to you that you needed to be back here pronto, and that if you were with any Council members they should come with you. You got the message?’’

He nodded. ’’It found me at Luccio's camp in Colorado. We'd beaten off a vampire attack and were preparing to move. If I hadn't gotten the message, I wouldn't have followed them on their path through the Nevernever.’’

’’What happened?’’

’’Demons,’’ Michael said. ’’Quite a few of them, actually.’’

’’What kind?’’

’’Oh. Fangs. Tentacles. You know, the usual.’’

I snorted. ’’No. I mean, were they Outsiders?’’

’’Ebenezar said something about Outsiders, yes, now that you mention it. Apparently his magic had difficulty dealing with them.’’

I shook my head. ’’I'm glad you were with them.’’

’’Under the circumstances, so am I.’’ He pursed his lips thoughtfully. ’’You assumed I had been sent to help the White Council so that they would show mercy to my daughter.’’

I shrugged. ’’It was either that or else I was the one meant to look out for her, which would mean that it was possible for me to do so. So I decided to lean on the Merlin.’’

Michael blinked and stared at me. ’’If I do not mistake your meaning, you just told me that you took a leap of faith.’’

’’No. I took your leap of faith, by proxy.’’ I shook my head. ’’Look, Michael. I try to stay out of God's way as much as I possibly can. I don't expect Him to send a rescue party for me if I'm in trouble.’’

’’Harry, I know you aren't a churchgoing man, but God does help people who aren't perfect.’’

’’Sure,’’ I said, and I couldn't keep all the sneer out of my voice. ’’That's why the world is such a happy, orderly place.’’

Michael sighed. ’’Harry, God does protect us from harm-it's part of what I and my brothers in arms are tasked to do. But he's a great deal less involved in protecting us from the consequences of our choices.’’

’’I know the theory,’’ I said. ’’That God mostly only steps in when there's supernatural evil afoot, yeah?’’

’’That's an oversimplification, really, and-’’

’’Spare me,’’ I said. ’’Hell, Michael, I had one of those bastard Denarians here last year. Quintus Cassius. You remember him? While I was lying there watching him slice his way into my guts, I thought maybe it would be a good time for someone like you to show up. You know. One of those Denarian Knights. I thought to myself, hey, it would be a great time for one of the Knights of the Cross to show up, eh?’’ I shook my head. ’’It didn't work out that way.’’

’’What is your point?’’ he asked quietly.

’’Heaven ain't safeguarding me, Michael. But you're different than me. I figured God was going to look out for you and yours, out of professional courtesy if nothing else. And I've seen how He's arranged things for you in the past. So what I did wasn't about faith. It was just a matter of deducing probabilities.’’

He shook his head, not agreeing with me, but not pressing it, either. ’’Charity?’’

’’She's fine,’’ I assured him. ’’Kids too. Should be back home by now.’’

’’She and Molly?’’

’’Reconciled. Well. On polite speaking terms and hugging again, at least.’’

His eyebrows shot up, and then his mouth curved into a wide grin. ’’Glory to God, I wasn't sure it would ever happen.’’

I buffed my nails on my shirt. ’’Sometimes I amaze even myself.’’

Michael smiled at me, then looked over his shoulder again and frowned. ’’My Molly. Magic. Isn't that sort of thing passed through bloodlines?’’

’’Usually,’’ I said. ’’But it doesn't have to be. Some people are just born with it. We don't really understand the how and why.’’

He shook his head. ’’But how could I not have realized what was happening to her?’’

’’I dunno. But if you find out, make sure to tell Charity. She asked me the same question.’’

’’I suppose we're all blind to what is closest to us,’’ he said.

’’Human nature,’’ I agreed.

’’Is Molly in danger?’’ he asked me, his tone frank.

I frowned and thought about it. ’’Some. She's got real power. And she's abused it a little. She's going to be real tempted to use it again when she starts running into problems that look unsolvable. Not only that, but learning to harness the kind of strength she's got can be pretty tricky all by itself. But she's smart and she's got all kinds of guts. If her teacher keeps from making any stupid mistakes, I think she'll be all right.’’

’’But if she isn't,’’ Michael said. ’’If she abuses her power again...’’

’’Then clemency is revoked. They execute her.’’

’’And you,’’ Michael said softly.

I shrugged. ’’Isn't like I haven't lived with that over my head before. As far as the Council is concerned, I'm responsible for her now, until she either makes full wizard or sets her talents aside.’’

’’Greater love hath no man,’’ he said quietly. ’’Nothing I can say would be enough. She's my daughter, Harry. Thank you.’’

I felt my cheeks heat up. ’’Yeah, yeah. Look, don't make a big deal out of this. No one will enjoy that.’’

He let out a rumbling chuckle. ’’And this apprenticeship. What will it entail?’’

’’Lessons. Every day, at first, until I'm sure she's got herself under control. We'll have to practice some of it away from anything combustible. Trees, houses, pets, that kind of thing.’’

’’How long will you need to work with her?’’

’’Until we're finished,’’ I said, waving a vague hand. ’’I don't know yet. I've never been on this side of an apprenticeship.’’

He nodded in acceptance. ’’Very well.’’ We rode in silence for a moment. Then he said, ’’You remember the professional discussion I wanted to have?’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Shoot.’’

’’Fidelacchius,’’ Michael said. ’’I was wondering if you found any candidates for a new wielder.’’

’’Zippo,’’ I said, frowning. ’’You think I should be looking?’’

’’Hard to say. But with only two of us in the field, Sanya and I are getting a little overworked.’’

I scratched my chin. ’’Shiro told me that I would know the wielder. There hasn't been anything like that. At least, not yet.’’

’’I'm concerned that it may take more than simply patience,’’ Michael sighed. ’’I've consulted our records. This is not the first time one of the White Council has been asked to be the custodian of one of the Swords.’’

I arched my eyebrows and looked at him. ’’Seriously?’’

He nodded.

’’Me and who?’’

’’Merlin.’’

I snorted. ’’You sure? Because the Merlin is kind of a jerk. Even you would think so, trust me.’’

’’No, Harry,’’ Michael said, his tone patient. ’’Not the Merlin of the Council. Merlin. The original.’’

I sat there with my jaw suavely flapping in the breeze for a minute.

Then said, ’’Wow.’’ I shook my head. ’’You think maybe I should find a big rock or something? Stick the sword in and leave it on the White House lawn?’’

Michael crossed himself. ’’Heaven forbid. No. I just have an...’’ He scrunched up his nose. ’’An instinct.’’

’’You mean like when you get sent out on a mission from God?’’

’’No. I mean a regular old human hunch. I think that perhaps you should investigate the history around how Amoracchius was passed on, back then.’’

Said sword now rested at a slant across Michael's chest, safely in its scabbard, point between the knight's boots.

’’Wow. You mean... that sword right there. Your sword is...’’ I left it unsaid.

’’Probably,’’ he said, nodding. ’’Though the Church's records are fragmented, we've managed to establish that the other two Swords have been reworked from time to time, through the years. This one hasn't.’’

’’That's interesting,’’ I mused quietly. ’’That's interesting as he-uh, as heck.’’

Michael gave me a faint smile and nodded. ’’It's an intriguing mystery, isn't it?’’

’’You know what?’’ I said. ’’I can do mystery.’’ I chewed my lip for a minute and said, ’’But I hope you're not in a hurry. You may have noticed that the Council is having a busy year. I'll have time sooner or later, but for now...’’ I shrugged.

’’I know.’’ He was quiet for a moment, and then said, ’’But knowing the sword's history could become important. Sooner is better than later.’’

Something odd in his tone made me look at him. ’’Why?’’

His hand moved unconsciously to Amoraccbius's hilt. ’’I don't think I'll have the sword for much longer.’’ His voice was very soft.

When the Knights of the Sword retired, they did it feetfirst from the inside of a box.

’’Michael?’’ I asked. ’’Did the, uh, office send you a memo?’’ I carefully didn't say Like they did with Shiro.

’’No. Instinct,’’ he said, and smiled at me. ’’But I suppose I could be beginning my midlife crisis. But I'm not planning to change the way I live my life, and I certainly have no intention of an early retirement.’’

’’Good,’’ I said, though it came out more somber than I'd intended.

’’Do you mind if I ask you something personal?’’ Michael said.

’’I'm way too busy to answer rhetorical questions.’’

He grinned for a second and nodded. Then he pursed his lips and took his time about choosing his words. ’’Harry, you've avoided me for some time. And you seem... well, somewhat more dour than I've seen you before.’’

’’I wasn't avoiding you, exactly,’’ I said.

He regarded me with calm, steady eyes.

’’All right,’’ I said. ’’Yeah. But I've been avoiding most everybody. Don't take it personally.’’

’’Is it something I've done? Or perhaps someone in my family?’’

’’Enough with the rhetoric. You know it isn't.’’

He nodded. ’’Then maybe it's something you've done. Maybe something you should talk about with a friend.’’

The fallen angel's sigil on my left palm throbbed. I started to say ’’no,’’ but stopped myself. I drove for another block or two. I should tell him. I really should. Michael was my friend. He deserved my trust and respect. He deserved to know.

But I couldn't.

Then my mouth started moving, and I realized that what was bothering me the most had nothing to do with coins or fallen angels. ’’Last Halloween,’’ I said quietly, ’’I killed two people.’’

He drew in a slow breath and nodded, listening.

’’One of them was Cassius. Once he was beaten, I had Mouse break his neck. Another was a necromancer called Corpsetaker. I shot her in the back of the head.’’ I swallowed. ’’I murdered them. I've never killed, man... not like that. Cold.’’ I drove a while more. ’’I have nightmares.’’

I heard him sigh. For a moment, his voice was bleak. Pained. ’’I've been in this business longer than you have. I know some of what you're feeling.’’

I didn't answer him.

’’You feel like nothing is ever going to be right again,’’ he said. ’’You remember it perfectly, and it won't leave you alone. You feel like you're walking around with a sharp rock in your shoe. You feel stained.’’

Stupid damned streetlights, getting all blurry like that. I blinked a lot and stayed quiet. My throat was too tight to speak, anyway.

’’I know what it's like,’’ he said. ’’There isn't any way to make it disappear. But it gets better with time and distance.’’ He studied me for a moment. ’’If you had it to do again, would you?’’

’’Twice as hard,’’ I said at once.

’’Then what you did was a necessity, Harry. It might be painful. It might haunt you. But at the end of the day, so long as you did what you believed right, you'll be able to live with yourself.’’

’’Yeah?’’ I asked, chewing on my lower lip.

’’I promise,’’ he said.

I darted a glance at him. ’’You don't... think less of me? Knowing that I'm a murderer?’’

’’It isn't my place to judge what you've done. I regret that those lives were lost. That their owners never found redemption. I worry for the pain you've inflicted on yourself in retrospect. But I don't for an instant think that you would choose to take a human life unless you absolutely had to.’’

’’Seriously?’’

’’I trust you,’’ Michael said, his voice calm. ’’I would never have left my family in your protection if I didn't. You're a decent man, Harry.’’

I exhaled slowly and my shoulders loosened. ’’Good.’’ And then, before my brain could get in the way, I added, ’’I picked up one of the Blackened Denar¨¹, Michael. Lasciel.’’

My heart skipped several beats as I made the admission.

I expected shock, horror, outrage, maybe with a side order of contempt.

But instead, Michael nodded. ’’I know.’’

I blinked at him. ’’You what?’’

’’I know,’’ he repeated.

’’You know. You knew?’’

’’Yes. I was taking the trash around the house when Nicodemus's car went by. I saw the whole thing. I saw you protecting my youngest.’’

I chewed on my lip. ’’And... I mean, you aren't going to slug me and drag me off to a private suite in the Asylum for Wayward Denarians?’’

’’Don't be ridiculous,’’ Michael said. ’’Remember that the Knights of the Cross were not founded to destroy the Denarians. We were founded to save them from the Fallen. It is therefore my duty to help you in whatever way I can. I can help you discard the coin if that is what you wish to do. It's best if you choose to do it yourself.’’

’’I don't need to discard it, actually,’’ I said. ’’I haven't really taken the coin up. I buried it. Never used it.’’

Michael looked surprised. ’’No? That is good news, then. Though it means that the Fallen's shadow is still attempting to persuade you, I take it?’’

This time the mental chuckle was a little more clear. I thought Oh, shut up very hard and sent it in Lasciel's direction.

’’Trying,’’ I said.

’’Keep in mind that Lasciel is a deceiver,’’ he said quietly. ’’One with thousands of years of practice. It knows people. It knows how to tell you lies you want to believe are true. But it exists for a single purpose-to corrupt the will and beliefs of mankind. Don't ever forget that.’’

I shuddered. ’’Yeah.’’

’’May I ask what it's told you?’’ He paused and narrowed his eyes. ’’No, wait. Let me guess. It's appeared to you as an attractive young woman. She offers you knowledge, yes? The benefit of her experience.’’

’’Yeah.’’ I paused and added, ’’And Hellfire. Makes my spells hit harder when I need them to. I try not to use it much.’’

Michael shook his head. ’’Lasciel isn't called the Temptress for nothing. She knows you. Knows what to offer you and how to offer it.’’

’’Damn right she does.’’ I paused a moment, then added, ’’It scares me sometimes.’’

’’You've got to get rid of the coin,’’ he said with gentle urgency.

’’Love to,’’ I said. ’’How?’’

’’Give up the coin of your own will. And set aside your power. If you do, Lasciel's shadow will dwindle with it and waste away.’’

’’What do you mean, set aside my power?’’

’’Walk away from your magic,’’ he said. ’’Forsake it. Forever.’’

’’F*k that.’’

He winced and looked away.

The rest of the trip to his home passed in silence. When we got there, I told Michael, ’’Molly's stuff is back at my place. I'd like to take her back there to get it. I need to have a talk with her, tonight, while everything is fresh. I'll have her back here in a couple of hours, tops.’’

Michael glanced at his sleeping daughter with a worried frown, but nodded. ’’Very well.’’ He got out and shut the door, then leaned back in the window to speak to me. ’’May I ask you two things?’’

’’Shoot.’’

He glanced back at his house and said, ’’Have you ever considered the possibility that the Lord did not send me out on my most recent mission so that I could protect my daughter? That it was not His intention to use you to protect her?’’

’’What's your point?’’

’’Only that it is entirely possible, Harry Dresden, that this entire affair, beginning to end, is meant to protect you. That when I went to the aid of Luccio and her trainees, I did so not to free Molly, but to prevent you from coming to blows with the Council. That her position as your new apprentice had less to do with protecting her than it did protecting you?’’

’’Eh?’’ I said.

He glanced at his daughter. ’’Children have their own kind of power. When you're teaching them, protecting them, you are more than you thought you could be. More understanding, more patient, more capable, more wise. Perhaps this foster child of your power will do the same for you. Perhaps it's what she is meant to do.’’

’’If the Lord was all that interested in helping out, how come he didn't send someone to help me against Cassius? One of old Nick's personal yes-men? Seems to be a solid rescue scenario.’’ Michael shrugged and opened his mouth. ’’And don't give me any of that mysterious ways tripe.’’ He shut his mouth and smiled. ’’It's a confusing sort of thing,’’ he said.

’’What is?’’

’’Life. I'll see you in a couple of hours.’’ He offered me his hand. I shook it.

’’I don't know of another way to end Lasciel's influence, but that doesn't mean there isn't one out there. If you should change your mind about the coin, Harry, if you want to get rid of it, I promise that I'll be there for you.’’

’’Thank you,’’ I said, and meant it.

His expression grew more sober. ’’And if you should fall to temptation. If you should embrace the Fallen or become ensnared by its will...’’ He touched the hilt of the great sword, and his face became bedrock granite, Old Testament determination that made Morgan's fanaticism look like a wisp of steam. ’’If you change. I will also be there.’’ Fear hit me in a cold wave. Holy crap.

I swallowed, and my hands shook on the Beetle's steering wheel. There wasn't any attempt at menace in Michael's voice, or his face. He was simply stating a fact.

The mark on my palm burned, and for the first time I gave serious consideration to the notion that maybe I was overconfident of my ability to deal with Lasciel. What if Michael was right? What if I screwed something up and wound up like that poor bastard Rasmussen? A demonically supercharged serial killer?

’’If that happens,’’ I told him, and my voice was a dry whisper, ’’I want you to.’’

I could see in his eyes that he didn't like the thought any more than I did-but he was fundamentally incapable of being anything less than perfectly honest with me. He was my friend, and he was worried. If he had to do harm to me, it would rip him apart.

Maybe the words had been his own subconscious way of begging me to get rid of the coin. He could never stand aside and do nothing while bad things happened, even if meant that he had to kill his friend.

I could respect that. I understood it, because I couldn't do it, either. I couldn't stand aside, abandon my magic, and cut myself loose of the responsibility to use it for good.

Not even if it killed me.

Life can be confusing. Good God, and how. Sometimes it seems like the older I get, the more confused I become. That seems ass-backwards. I thought I was supposed to be getting wiser. Instead, I just keep getting hit over the head with my relative insignificance in the greater scheme of the universe. Confusing, life.

But it beats the hell out of the alternative.

I went back to my place. I let the kid sleep until we got there, and then touched her shoulder with one hand. She jerked awake at once, blinking in weary confusion.

’’Where are we?’’ she asked.

’’My place,’’ I said. ’’We need to talk.’’

She blinked her eyes several more times and then nodded. ’’Why?’’

’’Because you need to understand something. Come on.’’

We got out of the car. I led her down the steps to my door and said, ’’Come stand next to me.’’ She did. I took her left hand and told her, ’’Spread your fingers and close your eyes.’’ She did that too. I held her left palm up about two inches from the door. ’’Now, focus. See what you can feel.’’

Her face scrunched up. ’’Um,’’ she said, shifting her weight back and forth restlessly. ’’There's... pressure? Um, or maybe a buzzing. Like high-power lines.’’

’’Close enough,’’ I said, and released her wrist. ’’What you're sensing are some of the energies that I used to ward my apartment. If you try to come in without disabling them, you'll take a jolt of electricity that wouldn't leave much more of you than a smudge on the ground.’’

She blinked at me, then twitched and pulled her hand sharply away.

’’I'll give you an amulet that will let you get through, until I'm sure you can disable them, go in, and start them up again. But for tonight, just don't try to open the door. In or out. Okay?’’

’’Okay,’’ she said quietly.

We went in. My cleaning service had come through. Molly had left a bag with clothes and sundries spread over half of one of my apartment's couches. Now the bag was neatly closed, and suspiciously nonbulgy. I'm sure the cleaning service had folded and organized the bag so that everything fit in without strain.

Molly looked around, blinking. ’’How does your maid get in?’’

’’I don't know what you mean,’’ I said, because you can't talk about faerie housekeepers or they go away. I pointed at the couch next to her bag and said, ’’Sit.’’

She did, though I could tell that my peremptory tone did not thrill her.

I sat down in a chair across from the couch. As I did, Mister drifted in from the bedroom and promptly wound himself around one of Molly's legs, purring a greeting.

’’Okay, kid,’’ I said. ’’We survived. I only had some very limited plans to cover this contingency.’’

She blinked at me. ’’What?’’

’’I didn't think I'd pull this off. I mean, raiding a faerie capital? Standing up to the Senior Council? All those movie monsters? Your mom? Hell, I'm shocked I survived at all, much less got you out of it.’’

’’B-but...’’ She frowned. ’’You never seemed like... I mean, you just went through it all like you had everything under control. You seemed so sure what was going to happen.’’

’’Rule number one of the wizarding business,’’ I said. ’’Never let them see you sweat. People expect us to know things. It can be a big advantage. Don't screw it up by looking like you're as confused as everyone else. Bad for the image.’’

She smiled at me a little. ’’I see,’’ she said. She reached down to stroke Mister and mused, ’’I must look horrible.’’

’’Been a rough day,’’ I said. ’’Look. We'll need to talk about where you're going to live. I take it that you had already decided to break things off with Nelson. I kind of picked up that vibe when we bailed him out.’’

She nodded.

’’Well. Inappropriate to stay with him, then. To say nothing of the fact that he's going to need time to recover.’’

’’I can't stay at home,’’ she said quietly. ’’After all that's happened... and my mom will never understand about the magic. She thinks it's all bad, every bit of it. And if I'm there, it's just going to confuse and frighten all the little Jawas, Mom and me arguing all the time.’’

I grunted and said, ’’You'll have to stay somewhere. We'll work that out soonest.’’

’’All right,’’ she said.

’’Next thing you need to know,’’ I said. ’’As of now, you get no slack. You aren't allowed any mistakes. You don't get to say 'oops.'The first time you screw up and slip deeper into bad habits, it kills both of us. I'm going to be tough on you sometimes, Molly. I have to be. It's as much for my survival as yours. Got it?’’

’’Yes,’’ she said.

I grunted, got up, and went to my tiny bedroom. I rooted around in my closet and found an old brown apprentice robe one of the shiny new Wardens had left at my place after a local meeting. I brought it out and handed it to Molly. ’’Keep this where you can get to it. You'll be with me at any Council meetings, and it is your formal attire.’’ I frowned and rubbed at my head. ’’God, I need aspirin. And food. You hungry?’’

Molly shook her head. ’’But I'm a mess. Do you mind if I clean up?’’

I eyed her and sighed. Then I said, ’’No. Go ahead and get it out of the way.’’ I stood up and went to the kitchen, muttering a minor spell and flicking several candles into light, including one near the girl. She took the robe and the candle, grabbed her bag, and vanished into my room.

I checked the icebox. The faeries usually brought some kind of food to stock the icebox and the pantry when they cleaned, but they could have mighty odd ideas about what constituted a healthy diet. One time I'd opened the pantry and found nothing but boxes and boxes and boxes of Froot Loops. I had a near-miss with diabetes, and Thomas, who never was quite sure where the food came from, declared that I had clearly been driven Froot Loopy.

Usually it wasn't that bad, though there was always a high incidence of frozen pizza, for which my housekeepers maintained the ice in my icebox with religious fervor. I often left most of a pizza lying around uneaten when I figured they'd be coming to visit, and thus continued my policy of shamelessly bribing my way into the Little Folk's good graces.

I was too tired to cook anything, and nothing was going to taste good anyway, so I slapped several hot dogs between two pieces of bread along with a couple of lettuce leaves and wolfed them down.

I got out some of my ice and dumped it in a pitcher, then filled the pitcher up. I got down a glass and filled it with ice water. Then I and my glass and my pitcher moseyed over to my fireplace. I set the pitcher on the mantel, idly flipped the neatly laid fire to life with my ignition spell, and then waited for the inevitable while sipping cold water and staring down at the fire. Mister kept me company from his spot on top of a bookcase.

It took her a little while to work up to it, but not as long as I had expected. My bedroom door opened and Molly appeared.

She had showered. Her candy-colored hair hung limp and clinging. She'd washed away the makeup entirely, but there were spots of pink high on her cheeks that I figured had little to do with cosmetics. The various piercings I could see caught the firelight in a deep, burned orange glow. She was also barefoot. And wearing her brown robe. I arched an eyebrow at her and waited.

She flushed more deeply and then walked over to me, quite slowly, until she stood not a foot away.

I gave her nothing to work with. No expression. No words. Just silence.

’’You looked into me,’’ she whispered quietly. ’’And I looked into you.’’

’’That's how it works,’’ I confirmed in a quiet, neutral voice. She shivered. ’’I saw what kind of man you are. Kind. Gentle.’’ She looked up and met my eyes. ’’Lonely. And...’’ She flushed a shade pinker. ’’And hungry. No one has touched you in a very long time.’’

She lifted a hand and put it on my chest. Her fingers were very warm, and a rippling flush of purely biological reaction bypassed my silly brain and raced through me in a wave of pleasure-and need. I looked down at Molly's pale hand. Her palm glided over my chest, barely touching, a slow, focused circle. I felt faintly disgusted with myself for my reaction. Hell. I'd known this kid before she'd had to worry about feminine hygiene products.

I managed to thwart my hormones'lobby to start growling or drooling, but my voice had gotten a shade or two huskier. ’’Also true.’’

She looked up at me again, her eyes wide and deep and blue enough to drown in. ’’You saved my life,’’ she said, and I heard her voice shaking. ’’You're going to teach me. I...’’ She licked her lips and moved her shoulders. The brown robe slipped down them to the floor.

The tattoo that began on her neck went all the way down to her pierced navel. She had several other studs and fine rings in places I had suspected (but never confirmed) they would be. She shivered and took swifter breaths. The firelight played merrily with her shifting contours.

I'd seen better. But mostly that had been from someone using her looks to get something out of me, and the difference had largely been one of presentation. Molly didn't have much experience in displaying herself for a man, or in playing the coquette. She should have stood differently, arched her back, shifted her hips, worn an expression of thickly sensual interest, daring me to come after her. She would have looked like the patron goddess of corrupted youth.

Instead, she stood there, uncertain and frightened and too naive (or maybe honest) to be anything but totally sincere-and vulnerable. She was afraid, uncertain, the lost princess helpless in a dark wood.

It was worse than if she'd vamped onto me like a trained courtesan. What I saw in her was honest and hopeful, trusting and terrified. She was real, and fragile and precious. My emotions got together with my glands and they ganged up on me, screaming that she needed acceptance and that the kindest thing I could possibly do would be to give her a hug and tell her everything was going to be all right-and that if something followed, who would blame me?

I would. So I just watched her with a straight face.

’’I want to learn from you,’’ she said. ’’I want to do everything I can to help you. To thank you. I want you to teach me things.’’

’’What things?’’ I asked in a quiet, measured tone.

She licked her lips. ’’Everything. Show me everything.’’

’’Are you sure?’’ I asked her.

She nodded, her eyes huge, pupils dilated until only a bare ring of blue remained around them.

’’Teach me,’’ she whispered.

I touched her face with the fingers of my right hand. ’’Kneel down,’’ I told her. ’’Close your eyes.’’

Trembling, she did, her breathing becoming faster, more excited.

But that stopped once I picked up the pitcher of ice water from the mantel and dumped it over her head.

She let out a squeal and fell over backward. It took her maybe ten seconds to recover from the shock of the cold, and by then she was gasping and shivering, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion-and with some kind of deep, heavy pain.

I faced her and squatted down onto my haunches to meet her eyes. ’’Lesson one. This isn't going to happen, Molly,’’ I said in exactly the same calm, gentle voice. ’’Get that through your head right now. It isn't ever going to happen.’’

Her lower lip trembled, and she bowed her head, shoulders shaking.

I gave myself a mental kick in the head and snagged a blanket from the couch. I went to her and wrapped it around her shoulders. ’’Get over by the fire and warm up.’’

It took her a moment to collect herself, but she did. She hunched her shoulders beneath the blanket, shivering and humiliated. ’’You knew,’’ she said in a shaking voice. ’’That I would... do this.’’

’’I was pretty sure,’’ I agreed.

’’Because of the soulgaze,’’ she said.

’’Nothing to do with that, really,’’ I replied. ’’I figured there had to be a reason that you didn't come to me for help when you came into your powers. I figure you've been interested in me for a while. That you wouldn't want to come up to your favorite rock star and start fumbling around on a guitar so that the first thing he thinks about you is that you're incompetent.’’

She shivered and blushed even more. ’’No. It wasn't like that...’’

Sure it was. But I'd hammered her hard enough for the time being. ’’If you say so,’’ I answered. ’’Molly, you may fight with your mom like cats and dogs, but the two of you are more alike than you know.’’

’’That's not true.’’

’’It's trite but true that a lot of young women look for a man who reminds them of their dad. Your dad fights monsters. I fight monsters. Your dad rescued your mom from a dragon. I rescued you from Arctis Tor. Seeing the pattern here?’’

She opened her mouth and then frowned at the fire-not an angry frown. A pensive one.

’’Plus, you've just been scared real good. You don't have any place to stay. And I'm the guy who is trying to help you.’’ I shook my head. ’’But even if there wasn't magic involved, it still wouldn't happen. I've done some things I'm not proud of. But I'm never going to take advantage of your trust.

’’What we're going to have is not a relationship of equals. I teach. You learn. I tell you to do something, you damned well do it.’’

A touch of sullen teenager-ness gleamed in her eyes.

’’Don't even think it,’’ I said. ’’Molly, getting pierced and dyed and tattooed just because you want to break the rules is one thing. But what we're dealing with now isn't the same thing. A botched dye job affects you. You botch the use of magic and someone-maybe a lot of someones-gets hurt. So you do what I say, when I say it, and you do it because you don't want to kill someone. Or you can die. That was our deal, and you agreed to it.’’

She said nothing. Her anger had faded from her face, but that sullen trace of rebellion remained.

I narrowed my eyes, clenched my fist, and hissed a single word. The fireplace flared up in a sudden, fiery cyclone. Molly flinched back from it, one arm lifted to protect her eyes.

When she lowered it, I was hunkered down right in her face. ’’I'm not your parents, kid,’’ I said. ’’And you don't have time to play teenage rebel anymore. This is the deal. You do what I say or you don't survive.’’ I leaned closer and gave her the look I usually save for rampaging demons and those survey people at malls. ’’Molly. Is there any doubt in your mind-any doubt at all-that I can't damn well make you do it?’’

She swallowed. The hard knot of defiance in her eyes suddenly shattered like a diamond struck at precisely the correct angle, and she shivered in the blanket. ’’No, sir,’’ she said in a tiny voice.

I nodded at her. She sat there shivering and frightened, which had been the point of the exercise;to knock her off balance while she was still unsteady from recent events and drive home the notion of what she faced. It was absolutely necessary that she understand how things had to play out until she got her power under control. Anything less than willing cooperation would kill her.

But it was hard to remember that, staring down at her as she shivered and stared at the fire, its light turning tears to gold on her cheeks. Heartbreaking, really. She was still so damned young.

So I crouched down and gave her that hug. ’’It's all right to be scared, kid. But don't worry. Everything's going to be all right.’’

She leaned against me, shivering. I let her for a moment, and then got up and said, ’’Get dressed and get your things.’’

’’Why?’’ she asked.

I arched an eyebrow at her. She flushed, took the robe, and hurried back into the bedroom. I had my coat on and was ready to go when she was. I led her out to the car and we took off.

’’Can I ask you a question?’’

’’I hope so. It's going to take you a long time to learn if you can't.’’

She smiled a little. ’’Where are we going?’’

’’Your new digs,’’ I said.

She frowned at me, but settled back in her seat. ’’Oh.’’

We pulled up to the Carpenter house, ablaze with lights despite the hour.

’’Oh, no’’ Molly muttered. ’’Tell me you're kidding me.’’

’’You're moving back in.’’

’’But-’’

I continued over her as if she hadn't spoken. ’’Not only that, but you're going to do everything in your power to be the most respectful, loving, respectful, considerate, and respectful daughter in the whole wide world. Especially where your mom is concerned.’’

She stared at me with her jaw hanging.

’’Oh,’’ I added. ’’And you're going back to high school until you're finished.’’

She stared at me for a long time, then blinked and said, ’’I died. And this is Hell.’’

I snorted. ’’If you can't control yourself well enough to finish a basic education and get along with a houseful of people who love you, then you sure as hell can't control yourself enough to use what I need to teach you.’’

’’But... but...’’

’’Think of your homecoming as an extended lesson in respect and self-control,’’ I said cheerfully. ’’I'll be checking up with your parents at least weekly. You'll do lessons with me every day until school is back in, and then I'll give you reading and homework for the-’’

’’Homework?’’ she half wailed.

’’Don't interrupt. The homework will only be on weekdays. We'll do lessons on Friday and Saturday evenings.’’

’’Friday and Satur...’’ She trailed off into a sigh and slumped. ’’Hell. I am in Hell.’’

’’It gets better. I take it that you're se*ually active?’’

She stood there with her mouth hanging open.

’’Come on, Molly, this is important. Do you boink?’’

Her face turned pink and she hid her face in her hands. ’’I... I... well. I'm a virgin.’’

I arched an eyebrow at her.

She glanced up at me, blushed more, and added, ’’Technically.’’

’’Technically,’’ I said.

’’Urn. I've... explored. Most of the bases.’’

’’I see,’’ I said. ’’Well, Magellan, no baserunning or boldly going where no man has gone before for you-not until you get yourself grounded. se* makes things complicated, and for you that could be bad.’’

’’But...’’

’’And no, ah, solo exploration either.’’

She blinked at me and asked in a blank tone, ’’Why?’’

’’You'll go blind,’’ I said, and walked up to her front porch.

’’You're joking,’’ she said, and then hurried to catch up. ’’That's a joke, right? Harry?’’

I marched her up to her house without answering her. Molly wore a hopeless look on her face, as though she envied a condemned criminal, who could at least hope that the governor might call at the last minute. But when the doors opened and her family's delight washed over her in a roar like a breaking wave, she smiled from her eyes all the way down to her toes.

I made polite chat for a minute, until Mouse limped over to me, smiling and wagging his tail. There was something on his muzzle that I suspected to be honey mustard, or maybe buffalo sauce, doubtless slipped to him by a young accomplice. I clipped his lead on him and took my leave, heading back to my car.

Before I got there, Charity caught up with me. I arched an eyebrow at her and waited while she fidgeted and finally asked, ’’Did you tell them? About what I was?’’

’’Of course not,’’ I said.

She slumped a little in relief. ’’Oh.’’

’’You're welcome,’’ I said.

She frowned at me and said, ’’If you hurt my little girl, I'll come down to that little closet you call an office and throw you out the window. Do you understand?’’

’’Death by defenestration, gotcha.’’

A few tiny cracks developed in her frown, and then she shook her head sharply, once, caught me in a hug that made my ribs ache, and went back into the house without another word.

Mouse sat there panting and grinning happily.

I went home and got some sleep.

I was working in my lab the next day, trying to make notes of all that had happened so that I wouldn't forget anything. Bob sat on the table next to me, helping me with the details.

’’Oh,’’ he said. ’’I found something wrong with Little Chicago's design.’’

I swallowed. ’’Oh. Wow. Bad?’’

’’Extremely. We missed a transition coupling in the power flow. The stored energy was all going to the same spot.’’

I frowned. ’’That's... like a surge of electricity going through a circuit breaker, right? Or a fuse box.’’

’’Exactly like that,’’ Bob said. ’’Except that you were the fuse. That much energy in one spot will blow your head off your shoulders.’’

’’But it didn't,’’ I said.

’’But it didn't,’’ Bob agreed.

’’How is that possible?’’

’’It isn't,’’ he said. ’’Someone fixed it.’’

’’What? Are you sure?’’

’’It didn't fix itself,’’ Bob said. ’’When I looked at it a few nights ago, the flawed section was in plain sight, even if I didn't recognize it at the time. When I looked again tonight, it was different. Someone changed it.’’

’’In my lab? Under my house? Which is behind my wards? That's impossible.’’

’’No it isn't,’’ Bob said. ’’Just really, really, really, really, really, really difficult. And unlikely. He would have had to know that you had a lab down here. And he would have had to know how to get around your wards.’’

’’Plus intimate knowledge of the design to tinker with it like that,’’ I said. ’’To say nothing of the fact that he would have to know it existed at all, and no one does.’’

’’Really, really unlikely,’’ Bob agreed.

’’Dammit.’’

’’Hey, I thought you loved a good mystery, Harry.’’

I shook my head and started to tell him where to stick his mystery when someone knocked at the door.

Murphy stood on the other side and smiled at me. ’’Hey.’’ She held up my shotgun. ’’Thomas wanted me to bring this by. Said to tell you he was getting his own toys from now on.’’

She offered it and I took it, frowning. ’’He didn't even clean it off.’’

She smiled. ’’I swear, Dresden. You can be such a pansy.’’

’’It's because I'm a sensitive guy. You want to come in?’’

She gave me another smile, but shook her head. ’’No time. Got to see the first shrink in half an hour.’’

’’Ah,’’ I said. ’’How are things playing out?’’

’’Oh, there's a long investigation and evaluation to be done,’’ she said. ’’Officially, of course.’’

’’Of course,’’ I said.

’’But unofficially...’’ She shrugged. ’’I'm losing SI. They're busting me down to detective sergeant.’’

I winced. ’’Who's getting the job?’’

’’Stallings, most likely. He's the next most experienced, better record than most of the department, and he's respected.’’ She looked away ’’I'm losing my seniority, too. All of it. So they're partnering me with their most experienced detective.’’

’’Which is that?’’ I asked.

’’Rawlins,’’ she said, her mouth moving in a tight smile. ’’He did so good on this one they promoted him to SI.’’

’’No good deed goes unpunished,’’ I said.

’’Ain't that the truth,’’ Murphy sighed.

’’That a bad thing? He seems like a decent guy.’’

’’He is, he is,’’ Murphy said, scrunching up her nose. ’’But he knew my father.’’

’’Oh,’’ I said. ’’And it's possible you have issues.’’

’’Remotely,’’ she said. ’’What about you? You okay?’’

I met her eyes for a second and then looked away. ’’I, uh. I'll be okay.’’

She nodded, and then simply stepped forward and hugged me. My arms went around her without me telling them to do it. It wasn't a tense, meaning-laden hug. She was my friend. She was exhausted and worried and suffering, and she'd had what she valued most sullied and stained, but she was worried about me. Giving me a hug. Assuring me, by implication, that everything was going to be all right.

I gave as good as I got for a while. When we broke the embrace, it was at the same time, and it wasn't awkward. She smiled at me, just a little bittersweet, and glanced at her watch. ’’I have to get moving.’’

’’Right,’’ I said. ’’Thanks, Murph.’’

She left. A while later, my phone rang. I answered it.

’’Everything work out?’’ Thomas asked. ’’With the girl?’’

’’Pretty much,’’ I told him. ’’You all right?’’

’’Yeah,’’ he said.

’’Need anything?’’ Like maybe to talk about how he was feeding on people again and making money at the same time.

’’Not especially,’’ he told me. I was pretty sure he had heard the unasked question, because his tone of voice carried an unyielding coolness, telling me not to push. Thomas was my brother. I could wait.

’’What's up with Murphy?’’ he asked me.

I told him about her job.

He was silent for an annoyed second and then said, ’’But what's up with Murphy?’’

I glowered and slouched down onto my couch. ’’There isn't anything up with her. She isn't interested.’’

’’How do you know?’’ he asked.

’’She told me.’’

’’She told you.’’

’’She told me.’’

He sighed. ’’And you believed her.’’

’’Well,’’ I said. ’’Yes.’’

’’I had a talk with her when she drove me home,’’ he said.

’’A talk?’’

’’A talk. I wanted to figure something out.’’

’’Did you?’’ I asked.

’’Yeah.’’

’’What?’’

’’That you're both stiff-necked idiots,’’ he said, his tone annoyed, and hung up on me.

I glowered at the phone for a minute, muttered a couple of choice words about my half brother, then got out my guitar and labored to make something resembling music for a while. Sometimes it was easier for me to think when playing, and the time drifted by. I played and mulled things over until someone else knocked. I set my guitar aside and went to the door.

Ebenezar stood on the other side, and he gave me a nod and a cautious smile when I opened the door. ’’Hot enough for you?’’ the old wizard asked.

’’Almost,’’ I said. ’’Come in.’’

He did, and I grabbed a couple of beers, offering him one. ’’What's up?’’

’’You tell me,’’ he said.

So I told him all about the last few days, especially my dealings with Lily and Fix, Maeve, and Mab. Ebenezar listened to it all in silence.

’’What a mess,’’ he said when I finished.

’’Tell me about it.’’ I sipped at my beer. ’’You know what I think?’’

He finished his beer and shook his head.

’’I think we got played.’’

’’By the Summer Lady?’’

I shook my head. ’’I think Lily got suckered just as much as we did.’’

He frowned and rubbed at his head with one palm. ’’How so?’’

’’That's the part I can't figure,’’ I said. ’’I think someone set Molly up to be a beacon for the fetches. And I'm damned sure that it was no accident that those fetches took Molly to Arctis Tor when it was so lightly defended. Someone wanted me there at Arctis Tor.’’

Ebenezar pursed his lips. ’’Who?’’

’’I think we got used by one of the Queens to one-up one of the others, somehow. But damned if I can figure out how.’’

’’You think Mab really is insane?’’

’’I think it would be hard to tell the difference,’’ I said in a sour voice. ’’Lily thinks so. But Lily wasn't exactly widely famed for her intellect before she became the Summer Lady.’’ I shook my head. ’’If Mab really is loopy, it's going to be bad.’’

The old man nodded.

’’And since you can't swing a cat without hitting a cat's-paw lately, I think maybe someone was trying to use Mab for something. Like all the others who've gotten set up around here.’’

’’Setup?’’

I nodded. ’’Yeah. Starting with Victor Sells a few years ago. Then those FBI creeps with the wolf belts. I think that someone out there wants to get things done without getting his-’’

’’Or her,’’ Ebenezar said.

’’Or her own hands dirty,’’ I continued. ’’Consider all these things running around with more power than they should have had or better connected than they should have been. The Shadowman, the hexenwulfen, the Nightmare, the last Summer Lady-and that's just for starters. The Red Court sure are a hell of a lot more dangerous than anyone thought they would be.’’

Ebenezar frowned, nodding.

’’I think whoever is backstage moving things around tried to use Mab and got more than they bargained for. I think that's what the attack on Arctis Tor was about. Maybe they tried to put her down before she turned on them.’’

’’Which she would,’’ Ebenezar said.

’’Of course she would. She's Mab. She'd keep any bargain she made, but she isn't the kind who takes orders real well.’’

’’Go on, boy,’’ Ebenezar said gently. ’’You've got facts. Where do they lead you?’’

I lowered my own voice to a whisper. ’’A new power is moving around out there. Something big, smart, strong, and sneaky as hell. Something with a lot of strength and magical know-how.’’ I licked my lips. ’’Put that together with the evidence of varied powers. Wolf belts handed out to those poor FBI bastards. Black magic being taught to small-timers like the Shadowman and the Nightmare. Vampires cross-training one another in sorcery. Hellfire used on Arctis Tor. And, of course, the White Council's highly placed traitor. All of that together doesn't point to just one person. It indicates an organization.’’ I regarded the old man steadily. ’’And they've got wizards on the staff. Probably several of them.’’

Ebenezar grunted. ’’Damn.’’

’’Damn?’’

’’I was hoping maybe I was starting to go senile. But I came to the same conclusion.’’ He nodded. ’’Boy, don't breathe a word of this. Not to anyone. I got the feeling that this is information worth as much as your life.’’ He shook his head. ’’Let me think about who else needs to know.’’

’’Rashid,’’ I said in a firm voice. ’’Tell the Gatekeeper.’’

Ebenezar frowned, though it looked more weary than anything else. ’’Likely he knows already. Knew already. Maybe even pointed you in a direction that would show you more. Assuming he wasn't simply using you to poke a hornet's nest and see what flew up.’’

Which was somewhat creepy to think about. If Ebenezar was right, I could count myself among the pawns in play, courtesy of the Gatekeeper.

’’You don't want to tell him?’’ I asked.

’’Rashid is a tough one to figure,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Three, four years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice. But with all that's happened... since Simon died...’’ He shrugged. ’’Better to be cautious. We can't put the genie back in the bottle once it's out.’’

’’Or maybe that's the worst thing we could do,’’ I said. ’’Maybe it's what these... Black Council assholes are counting on.’’

He looked up at me sharply. ’’Now why would you call them that?’’

’’Black Council?’’ I shrugged. ’’If the shoe fits. It's better than the Legion of Doom.’’

He regarded me for a moment more and then shrugged. ’’Times are changing, Hoss. That's for sure.’’ He polished off his beer. ’’But they always do. I know you're going to do what you think you need to do. But I'd like to ask that you be very cautious, Hoss. We still don't know what our enemies look like. That means we'll have to bring in our allies carefully.’’

’’Meaning without troubling the White Council and the Wardens about it?’’ I asked, my tone dry.

He grunted in the affirmative. ’’Don't forget the other loose end.’’

I frowned and thought back over it. ’’Huh,’’ I said. ’’You're right. Who was driving that car that ran into me?’’

’’Exactly,’’ he said.

’’More mysteries.’’

’’Thought you were a professional investigator, Hoss,’’ he teased. ’’For you, this should be fun.’’

’’Yeah. Fun. Fun, fun, fun. I'm having fun already.’’

He smiled. ’’Mmmmph. It isn't good news that Winter isn't going to stand with us against the Reds, but it could have been worse. And we learned something valuable.’’

I grunted. ’’The traitor to the Council. Someone had to tell the Reds where Luccio's boot camp was hidden.’’

’’Yes,’’ he said, and leaned forward. ’’And outside of Luccio only four people knew.’’

I arched my brows at him. ’’Morgan?’’

’’That's one,’’ he agreed. ’’Injun Joe, the Merlin, and Ancient Mai were the only others.’’

I whistled slowly. ’’Heavy hitters. But knock Morgan off your list. He didn't do it.’’

Ebenezar arched his brows. ’’No?’’

I shook my head. ’’Guy is a kon***,’’ I said, ’’but he's on the level. We shouldn't tell him, but he's no traitor.’’

Ebenezar frowned for a moment and then nodded slowly. ’’Very well, then. I'll vouch for Injun Joe.’’

’’So what comes next?’’ I asked him.

’’Watching them,’’ he said. ’’Waiting. Not letting on that we know. We won't get more than one chance to take them off guard. When we do move, we got to make it hurt.’’

I frowned at my now-empty bottle and nodded. ’’We wait. Lie in the weeds. Keep a low profile. Got it.’’

’’Hoss,’’ my old teacher said quietly. ’’What you did for that girl...’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, waving a hand. ’’Stupid. The Merlin is going to be royally pissed at me. He'll probably start insisting I go on shooting missions now, in hopes someone will take me out and remove a thorn in his side.’’

’’True,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’But what I meant to say was that what you did was damned brave. From what I hear, you were ready to take on everyone there if you had to.’’

’’Wouldn't have lasted long.’’

’’No. But then, that wasn't the point.’’ He rose a little stiffly and said, ’’I'm proud of you, boy.’’

Something inside me melted.

’’You know,’’ I said. ’’You always told me you weren't at my trial. That the Council saddled you with me because you skipped out. I think that isn't true.’’

He grunted.

’’It was all in Latin, which I didn't understand then. And I had that hood over my head, so I couldn't see anyone. But someone had to have defended me, the way I did Molly.’’

’’Could be.’’ He rolled one shoulder in a shrug. ’’I'm getting old, Hoss. I forget things.’’

’’Ah,’’ I said. ’’You know, I've missed a meal or three lately. And I know this little joint that's got the best spaghetti in town.’’

Ebenezar froze in place, like a man walking on ice who suddenly hears cracking sounds. ’’Oh?’’ he asked, tone careful.

’’They've got this great bread that goes with it, too. And it's right by the campus, so cute waitresses.’’

’’Sounds promising,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Makes me feel a mite hungry hearing about it.’’

’’Absolutely,’’ I said. ’’Let me get my shoes. If we hurry we can get there before the evening rush.’’

We looked at each other for a long moment, and my old teacher bowed his head to me. It conveyed a lot of things. Apology. Gratitude. Happiness. Forgiveness. Affection. Pride.

’’You want me to drive us?’’ he asked.

I bowed my head in reply. ’’I'd like that, sir.’’

AUTHOR'S NOTE

When I was seven years old, I got a bad case of strep throat and was out of school for a whole week. During that time, my sisters bought me my first fantasy and sci-fi novels: the boxed set of Lord of the Rings and the boxed set of the Han Solo adventure novels by Brian Daley. I devoured them all during that week.

From that point on, I was pretty much doomed to join SF amp;F fandom. From there, it was only one more step to decide I wanted to be a writer of my favorite fiction material, and here we are.

I blame my sisters.

My first love as a fan is swords-and-horses fantasy. After Tolkien I went after C. S. Lewis. After Lewis, it was Lloyd Alexander. After them came Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Robert Howard, John Norman, Poul Anderson, David Eddings, Weis and Hickman, Terry Brooks, Elizabeth Moon, Glen Cook, and before I knew it I was a dual citizen of the United States and Lankhmar, Narnia, Gor, Cimmeria, Krynn, Amber-you get the picture.

When I set out to become a writer, I spent years writing swords-and-horses fantasy novels-and seemed to have little innate talent for it. But I worked at my writing, branching out into other areas as experiments, including SF, mystery, and contemporary fantasy. That's how the Dresden Files initially came about-as a happy accident while trying to accomplish something else. Sort of like penicillin.

But I never forgot my first love, and to my immense delight and excitement, one day I got a call from my agent and found out that I was going to get to share my newest swords-and-horses fantasy novel with other fans.

The Codex Alera is a fantasy series set within the savage world of Carna, where spirits of the elements, known as furies, lurk in every facet of life, and where many intelligent races vie for security and survival. The realm of Alera is the monolithic civilization of humanity, and its unique ability to harness and command the furies is all that enables its survival in the face of the enormous, sometimes hostile elemental powers of Carna, and against savage creatures who would lay Alera in waste and ruin.

Yet even a realm as powerful as Alera is not immune to destruction from within, and the death of the heir apparent to the Crown has triggered a frenzy of ambitious political maneuvering and infighting amongst the High Lords, those who wield the most powerful furies known to man. Plots are afoot, traitors and spies abound, and a civil war seems inevitable- all while the enemies of the realm watch, ready to strike at the first sign of weakness.

Tavi is a young man living on the frontier of Aleran civilization- because let's face it, swords-and-horses fantasies start there. Born a freak, unable to utilize any powers of furycrafting whatsoever, Tavi has grown up relying upon his own wits, speed, and courage to survive. When an ambitious plot to discredit the Crown lays Tavi's home, the Calderon Valley, naked and defenseless before a horde of the barbarian Marat, the boy and his family find themselves directly in harm's way.

There are no titanic High Lords to protect them, no Legions, no Knights with their might furies to take the field. Tavi and the free frontiersmen of the Calderon Valley must find some way to uncover the plot and to defend their homes against a merciless horde of Marat and their beasts.

It is a desperate hour, where the fate of all Alera hangs in the balance, where a handful of ordinary steadholders must find the courage and strength to defy an overwhelming foe, and where the courage and intelligence of one young man will save the Relam-or destroy it.

Thank you, readers and fellow fans, for all of your support and kindness. I hope that you enjoy reading the first book of the Codex Alera, Furies of Calderon, as much as I enjoyed creating it for you.


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