Turn Coat Chapter 1214

Chapter Twelve

’’I don't like it,’’ Morgan growled, as I pushed the wheelchair over the gravel toward the street and the van Thomas had rented.

’’Gee. There's a shock,’’ I said. Morgan was a lot to push around, even with the help of the chair. ’’You upset with how I operate.’’

’’He's a vampire,’’ Morgan said. ’’He can't be trusted.’’

’’I can hear you,’’ Thomas said from the driver's seat of the van.

’’I know that, vampire,’’ Morgan said, without raising his voice. He eyed me again.

’’He owes me a favor,’’ I said, ’’from that coup attempt in the White Court.’’

Morgan glowered at me. ’’You're lying,’’ he said.

’’For all you know it's true.’’

’’No, it isn't,’’ he said flatly. ’’You're lying to me.’’

’’Well, yes.’’

He looked from me to the van. ’’You trust him.’’

’’To a degree,’’ I said.

’’Idiot,’’ he said, though he sounded like his heart wasn't in it. ’’Even when a White Court vampire is sincere, you can't trust it. Sooner or later, its demon takes control. And then you're nothing but food. It's what they are.’’

I felt a little surge of anger and clubbed it down before it could make my mouth start moving. ’’You came to me, remember? You don't like how I'm helping you, feel free to roll yourself right out of my life.’’

Morgan gave me a disgusted look, folded his arms-and shut his mouth.

Thomas turned on the hazard lights as the van idled on the street;then he came around and opened up the side door. He turned to Morgan and picked up the wheelchair the wounded Warden sat in with about as much effort as I'd use to move a sack of groceries from the cart into my car's trunk. Thomas put the wheelchair carefully into the van, while Morgan held the IV bag steady on its little metal pole clamped to the chair's arm.

I had to give Morgan a grudging moment of admiration. He was one tough son of a bitch. Obviously in agony, obviously exhausted, obviously operating in the shambles of his own shattered pride, he was still stubborn enough to be paranoid and annoying. If he wasn't aiming it all at me, I probably would have admired him even more.

Thomas slid the door shut on Morgan, rolled his eyes at me, and got back into the driver's seat.

Molly came hurrying up, carrying a pair of backpacks, holding one end of Mouse's leash. I held out my hand, and she tossed me the black nylon pack. It was my trouble kit. Among other things, it contained food, water, a medical kit, survival blankets, chemical light sticks, duct tape, two changes of clothing, a multitool, two hundred dollars in cash, my passport, and a couple of favorite paperbacks. I always kept the trouble kit ready and available, in case I need to move out in a hurry. It had everything I would need to survive about ninety percent of the planet's environments for at least a couple of days.

Molly, acting on her own initiative, had begun putting her own trouble kit together the same day she'd learned about mine. Except that her backpack was pink.

’’You sure about this?’’ I asked her, pitching my voice low enough that Morgan wouldn't hear.

She nodded. ’’He can't stay there alone. You can't stay with him. Neither can Thomas.’’

I grunted. ’’Do I need to search your bag for candlesticks?’’

She gave me a chagrined shake of her head.

’’Don't feel too bad, kid,’’ I told her. ’’He had a couple of hours to work you up to that. And he's the guy who nearly cut your head off, during that mess around SplatterCon.’’

’’It wasn't that,’’ she said quietly. ’’It's what he said to you. What he's done to you.’’

I put my hand on her arm and squeezed gently.

She smiled faintly at me. ’’I've never... never really felt... hate before. Not like that.’’

’’Your emotions got the better of you. That's all.’’

’’But it isn't,’’ she insisted, folding her arms against her stomach, her shoulders hunching a little. ’’Harry, I've seen you all but kill yourself to help people who were in trouble. But for Morgan, that doesn't matter. You're just this... this thing that did something wrong once, and you'll never, ever be anything else.’’

Aha.

’’Kid,’’ I said quietly, ’’maybe you should think about who you were really angry with back there.’’

’’What do you mean?’’

I shrugged. ’’I mean there's a reason you snapped when he started in on me. Maybe the fact that he was being Morgan just happened to be coincidental.’’

She blinked her eyes several times, but not fast enough to stop one tear.

’’You did a bad thing once,’’ I said. ’’It doesn't make you a monster.’’

Two more tears fell. ’’What if it does?’’ She wiped at her cheeks with a brusque frustrated motion. ’’What if it does, Harry?’’

I nodded. ’’Because if Morgan's right, and I'm just a ticking time-bomb, and I'm trying to rehabilitate you, you haven't got a chance in hell. I get it.’’

She pressed her lips together, and it made her words sound stiff. ’’Just before Mouse knocked me down, I wanted to... to do things to Morgan. To his mind. To make him act differently. I was so angry, and it felt right.’’

’’Feeling something and acting on it are two different things.’’

She shook her head. ’’But who would want to do that, Harry? What kind of monster would feel that?’’

I slung the pack over one shoulder so that I could put my hands on either side of her face and turn her eyes to mine. Her tears made them very blue.

’’The human kind. Molly, you are a good person. Don't let anyone take that away from you. Not even yourself.’’

She didn't even try to stop the tears. Her lip quivered. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were fever-warm under my fingers. ’’A-are you sure?’’

’’Yes.’’

She bowed her head, and her shoulders shook. I leaned down to rest my forehead against hers. We stayed that way for a minute. ’’You're okay,’’ I told her quietly. ’’You aren't a monster. You're gonna be all right, grasshopper.’’

A series of sharp, rapping sounds interrupted us. I looked over my shoulder and found Morgan glowering at me. He held up a pocket watch-an honest to God gold pocket watch-and jabbed a forefinger at it impatiently.

’’Jerk,’’ Molly mumbled, sniffling. ’’Big fat, grumpy jerk.’’

’’Yes. But he has a point. Tick-tock.’’

She swiped a hand at her nose and collected herself. ’’Okay,’’ she said. ’’Let's go.’’

The storage rental facility was located a couple of blocks from Deerfield Square in a fairly upscale suburban neighborhood north of Chicago proper. Most of the buildings nearby were residential, and it was tough to go more than a quarter of an hour without spotting a patrol car.

I'd picked it as the spot for my bolt hole for one reason: shady characters would stand out against the upper-middle-class background like mustard stains under a black light.

Granted, it would probably work even better if I wasn't one of them.

I used my key at the security gate, and Thomas pulled the van around to my unit, a storage unit the size of a two-car garage. I unlocked the steel door and rolled it up while Thomas got Morgan out of the van. Molly followed, and when I beckoned, she wheeled Morgan into the storage space. Mouse got down out of the van and followed us. I rolled the door back down, and called wizard light to the amulet I held up in my right hand, until its blue-white glow filled the unit.

The interior of the place was mostly empty. There was a camp cot, complete with sleeping bag and pillow, placed more or less in the middle of the room, along with a footlocker I had filled with food, bottled water, candles, and supplies. A second footlocker sat next to the first one, and was filled with hardware and magical gear-a backup blasting rod, and all manner of useful little items one could use to accomplish a surprisingly broad spectrum of thaumaturgic workings. A camp toilet with a couple of jugs of cleaning liquid sat on the opposite side of the cot.

The floor, the walls, and the ceiling were covered in sigils, runes, and magical formulae. They weren't proper wards, like the ones I had on my home, but they worked on the same principles. Without a threshold to build them upon, no single one of the formulae was particularly powerful-but there were lots of them. They began to gleam with a silvery glow in the light coming from my amulet.

’’Wow,’’ Molly said, staring slowly around her. ’’What is this place, Harry?’’

’’Bolt hole I set up last year, in case I needed someplace quiet where I wouldn't get much company.’’

Morgan was looking, too, though his face was pale and drawn with pain. He swept his eyes around and said, ’’What's the mix?’’

’’Concealment and avoidance, mostly,’’ I replied. ’’Plus a Faraday cage.’’

Morgan nodded, glancing around. ’’It looks adequate.’’

’’What's that mean?’’ Molly asked me. ’’A Faraday what?’’

’’It's what they call it when you shield equipment from electromagnetic pulses,’’ I told her. ’’You build a cage of conductive material around the thing you want to protect, and if a pulse sweeps over it, the energy is channeled into the earth.’’

’’Like a lightning rod,’’ Molly said.

’’Pretty much,’’ I said. ’’Only instead of electricity, this is built to stop hostile magic.’’

’’Once,’’ Morgan corrected me primly.

I grunted. ’’Without a threshold to work with, there's only so much you can do. The idea is to protect you from a surprise assault long enough for you to go out the back door and run.’’

Molly glanced at the back of the storage unit and said, ’’There's no door there, Harry. That's a wall. It's kind of the opposite of a door.’’

Morgan nodded his head at the back corner of the space, where a large rectangular area on the floor was clear of any runes or other markings. ’’There,’’ he said. ’’Where's it come out?’’

’’About three long steps from one of the marked trails the Council has right of passage on in Unseelie territory,’’ I said. I nodded at a cardboard box sitting in the rectangle. ’’It's cold there. There're a couple of coats in the box.’’

’’A passage to the Nevernever,’’ Molly breathed. ’’I hadn't thought of that.’’

’’Hopefully whoever was coming after me wouldn't, either,’’ I said.

Morgan eyed me. ’’One can't help noting,’’ he said, ’’that this place seems ideally suited to hiding and sheltering a fugitive from the Wardens.’’

’’Hunh,’’ I said. ’’Now that you mention it, yeah. Yeah it does seem kind of friendly to that sort of purpose.’’ I gave Morgan an innocent look. ’’Just an odd coincidence, I'm sure, since I happen to be one of those paranoid lunatics, myself.’’

Morgan glowered.

’’You came to me for a reason, Chuckles,’’ I said. ’’Besides. I wasn't thinking about the Wardens nearly so much as I was...’’ I shook my head and shut my mouth.

’’As who, Harry?’’ Molly asked.

’’I don't know who they are,’’ I said. ’’But they've been involved in several things lately. The Darkhallow, Arctis Tor, the White Court coup. They're way too handy with magic. I've been calling them the Black Council.’’

’’There is no Black Council,’’ Morgan snapped, with the speed that could only have been born of reflex.

Molly and I traded a look.

Morgan let out an impatient breath. ’’Any actions that may have been taken are the work of isolated renegades,’’ he said. ’’There is no organized conspiracy against the White Council.’’

’’Uh-huh,’’ I said. ’’Gosh, I'd have thought you'd be right on board with the conspiracy thing.’’

’’The Council is not divided,’’ he said, his voice as hard and cold as I had ever heard it. ’’Because the moment we turn upon one another, we're finished. There is no Black Council, Dresden.’’

I lifted both eyebrows. ’’From my perspective, the Council's been turning on me for most of my life,’’ I said. ’’And I'm a member. I have a robe and everything.’’

’’You,’’ Morgan spat, ’’are...’’ He almost seemed to be choking on something before he blew out a breath and finished, ’’... vastly irritating.’’

I beamed at him. ’’That's the Merlin's line, isn't it?’’ I said. ’’There is no conspiracy against the Council.’’

’’It is the position of the entire Senior Council,’’ Morgan shot back.

’’Okay, smart guy,’’ I said. ’’Explain what happened to you.’’

He glowered again, only with more purple.

I nodded sagely, then turned to Molly. ’’This place should protect you from most tracking spells,’’ I said. ’’And the avoidance wards should keep anyone from wandering by or asking any questions.’’

Morgan made a growling noise.

’’Suggestions, not compulsions,’’ I said, rolling my eyes. ’’They're in common usage and you know it.’’

’’What do I do if someone does come?’’ she asked.

’’Veil and run,’’ I said.

She shook her head. ’’I don't know how to open a way to the Nevernever, Harry. You haven't shown me yet.’’

’’I can show her,’’ Morgan said.

Both of us stopped and blinked at him.

He was very still for a second and then said, ’’I can do it. If she watches, maybe she'll learn something.’’ He glared at me. ’’But doors open both ways, Dresden. What if something comes in through it?’’

Mouse went over to the open space and settled down about six inches away from it. He sighed once, shifted his weight a bit, and went to sleep again, though his ears twitched at every noise.

I went to the first footlocker and opened it, took out a boxed fruit drink, and passed it to him. ’’Your blood sugar's getting low. It's making you grumpy. But if you do get an unexpected visitor from the other side...’’ I went to the second locker, opened it, and drew out a pump-action shotgun, its barrel cut to well below the minimum legal length. I checked it, and passed the weapon to Molly. ’’It's loaded with a mix of steel shot and rock salt. Between that and Mouse, it should discourage anything that comes through.’’

’’Right,’’ Molly said. She checked the weapon's chamber and then worked the pump, chambering a shell. She double-checked the safety, and then nodded at me.

’’You taught her guns,’’ Morgan said. ’’But not how to open passages to the Nevernever.’’

’’There's enough trouble right here in the real world,’’ I said.

Morgan grunted. ’’True enough. Where are you going?’’

’’Only one place I can go.’’

He nodded. ’’Edinburgh.’’

I turned toward the door and opened it. I looked from Morgan with his juice box to Molly with her shotgun. ’’You two play nice.’’

Chapter Thirteen

Wizards and technology don't get on so well, and that makes travel sort of complicated. Some wizards seemed to be more of a bad influence on technology than others, and if any of them were harder on machinery than me, I hadn't met them yet. I'd been on a jet a couple of times and had one bad experience-just one. After the plane's computers and guidance system went bad, and we had to make an emergency landing on a tiny commercial airfield, I wasn't eager to repeat the experience.

Buses were better, especially if you sat toward the back, but even they had problems. I hadn't been on a bus trip longer than three or four hundred miles without winding up broken down next to the highway in the middle of nowhere. Cars could work out, especially if they were fairly old models-the fewer electronics involved, the better. Even those machines, though, tended to provide you with chronic problems. I'd never owned a car that ran more than maybe nine days in ten-and most of them were worse than that.

Trains and ships were the ideal, especially if you could keep yourself a good way from the engines. Most wizards, when they traveled, stuck with ships and trains. Either that or they cheated-like I was about to do.

Back at the beginning of the war with the Vampire Courts, the White Council, with the help of a certain wizard private investigator from Chicago who shall remain nameless, negotiated the use of Ways through the near reaches of the Nevernever controlled by the Unseelie Court. The Nevernever, the world of ghosts and spirits and fantastic beings of every description, exists alongside our own mortal reality-but it isn't the same shape. That meant that in places, the mortal world touched upon the Nevernever at two points that could be very close together, while in the mortal realm, they were very far apart. In short, use of the Ways meant that anyone who could open a path between worlds could use a major shortcut.

In this case, it meant I could make the trip from Chicago, Illinois, to Edinburgh, Scotland, in about half an hour.

The closest entry point to where I wanted to go in the Nevernever was a dark alley behind a building that had once been used for meat packing. A lot of things had died in that building, not all of them cleanly and not all of them cows. There's a dark sense of finality to the place, a sort of ephemeral quality of dread that hangs so lightly on the air that the unobservant might not notice it at all. In the middle of the alley, a concrete staircase led down to a door that was held shut with both boards and chains-talk about overkill.

I walked down the steps to the bottom of the stairs, closed my eyes for a moment, and extended my otherworldly senses, not toward the door, but toward the section of concrete beside it. I could feel the thinness of the world there, where energy pulsed and hummed just beneath the seemingly rigid surface of reality.

It was a hot night in Chicago, but it wouldn't be on the Ways. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, and a couple of pairs of socks beneath my hiking shoes. My heavy leather duster had me sweating. I gathered up my will, reached out my hand, and with a whisper of ’’Aparturum,’’ I opened a Way between worlds.

Honestly, it sounds quite a bit more dramatic than it looks. The surface of the concrete wall rippled with a quick flickering of color and began to put out a soft glow. I took a deep breath, gripped my staff in both hands, and stepped directly forward into the concrete.

My flesh passed through what should have been stone, and I emerged in a dark wood that lay covered in frost and a thin layer of snow. At least this time the ground in Chicago had been more or less level with the ground in the Nevernever. Last time, I'd had a three-inch drop I hadn't expected, and I'd fallen on my ass into the snow. No harm done, I suppose, but this part of the Nevernever was just chock-full of things you did not want to think you were clumsy or vulnerable.

I took my bearings with a quick look around. The woods were the same, all three times I'd been through them. A hillside sank down ahead of me, and climbed steadily into the night behind me. At the top of the small mountain I stood upon, I was told, was a narrow and bitterly cold pass that led into the interior of the Unseelie Mountains, to Mab's stronghold of Arctis Tor. Below me, the land sank into foothills and then into plains, where Mab's authority ended and that of Titania the Summer Queen began.

I stood at a crossroads-which was only sensible, since I'd arrived from Chicago, one of the great crossroads of the world. One trail led upslope and down. The other crossed it at almost perfect right angles, and ran along the face of the hillside. I took a left, following the face of the hillside in a counterclockwise direction, also known as widdershins, in the parlance of the locals. The trail ran between frozen trees, their branches bowed beneath their burden of frost and snow.

I moved quickly, but not quickly enough to slip and blow out an ankle or brain myself on a low-hanging branch. The White Council had Mab's permission to move through the woods, but they were by no means safe.

I found that out for myself about fifteen minutes into my walk, when snow suddenly fell softly from the trees all around, and silent black shapes descended to encircle me. It happened quickly, and in perfect silence-maybe a dozen spiders the size of ponies alit upon the frozen ground or clung to the trunks and branches of the surrounding trees. They were smooth-surfaced, sharp-edged creatures, like orbweavers, long-limbed and graceful and deadly-looking. They moved with an almost delicate precision, their bodies of a color of grey and blue and white that blended flawlessly with the snowy night.

The spider who had come down onto the trail directly in front of me raised its two forelegs in warning, and revealed fangs longer than my forearm, dripping with milky-white venom.

’’Halt, man-thing,’’ said the creature.

That was actually scarier than the mere appearance of economy-sized arachnids. Between its fangs, I could see a mouth moving-a mouth that looked disturbingly human. Its multiple eyes gleamed like beads of obsidian. Its voice was a chirping, buzzing thing. ’’Halt, he whose blood will warm us. Halt, intruder upon the Wood of the Winter Queen.’’

I stopped and looked around the circle of spiders. None of them seemed to be particularly larger or smaller than the others. If I had to fight my way clear, there wasn't any obvious weak link to exploit. ’’Greetings,’’ I said, as I did. ’’I am no intruder, honored hunters. I am a Wizard of the White Council, and I and my folk have the Queen's permission to tread these paths.’’

The air around me shivered with chitters and hisses and clicks.

’’Man-things speak often with false tongues,’’ said the lead spider, its forelimbs thrashing the air in agitation.

I held up my staff. ’’I guess they always have one of these, too, huh?’’

The spider hissed, and venom bubbled from the tips of its fangs. ’’Many a man-thing bears such a long stick, mortal.’’

’’Careful, legs,’’ I said. ’’I'm on speaking terms with Queen Mab herself. I don't think you want to play it like this.’’

The spider's legs shifted in an undulating motion, and the spider rippled two or three feet closer to me. The other spiders all shifted, too, moving a bit nearer. I didn't like that, not even a little. If one of them jumped, they'd be all over me-and there were just too many of the damn big things to defend myself against them effectively.

The spider laughed, the sound hollow and mocking. ’’Mortals do not speak to the Queen and live to tell the tale.’’

’’It lies,’’ hissed the other spiders, the phrase a low buzzing around me. ’’And its blood is warm.’’

I eyed all those enormous fangs and had an acutely uncomfortable flashback to Morgan driving his straw through the top of that damn juice box.

The spider in front of me flowed a little to the left and a little to the right, the graceful motion intended to distract me from the fact that it had gotten about a foot closer to me. ’’Man-thing, how are we to know what you truly are?’’

In my professional opinion, you rarely get handed a straight line that good.

I thrust the tip of my staff forward, along with my gathered will, focusing it into an area the size of my own clenched fist as I shouted, ’’Forzare!’’

An invisible force hammered into the lead spider, right in its disturbing mouth. It lifted the huge beast off all eight of its feet, drove it fifteen feet backward through the air, and ended at the trunk of an enormous old oak. The spider smacked into it like an enormous water bottle, making a hideous splattering sound upon impact. It bounced off the tree and landed on the frozen ground, its legs all quivering and jerking spasmodically. Maybe three hundred pounds of snow shaken loose by the impact came plummeting down from the oak tree's branches and half buried the body.

Everything went still and silent.

I narrowed my eyes and swept my gaze around the circle of monstrous arachnids. I said nothing.

The spider nearest its dead companion shifted its weight warily from leg to leg. Then, in a much quieter voice, it trilled, ’’Let the wizard pass.’’

’’Damn right let him pass,’’ I muttered under my breath. Then I strode forward as though I intended to smash anything else that got in my way.

The spiders scattered. I kept walking without slowing, breaking stride, or looking back. They didn't know how fast my heart was beating or how my legs were trembling with fear. And as long as they didn't, I would be just fine.

After a hundred yards or so, I did look back-only to see the spiders gathered over the body of their dead companion. They were wrapping it up in silk, their fangs twitching and jerking hungrily. I shuddered and my stomach twisted onto itself.

One thing you can count on when visiting the Nevernever: you don't ever get bored.

I turned off the forest path onto a foot trail at a tree whose trunk had been carved with a pentacle. The trees turned into evergreens and crowded close to the trail. Things moved out of sight among the trees making small scuttling noises, and I could barely hear high-pitched whispers and sibilant voices coming from the forest around me. Creepy, but par for the course.

The path led up to a clearing in the woods. Centered in the clearing was a mound of earth about a dozen yards across and almost as high, thick with stones and vines. Massive slabs of rock formed the posts and lintel of a black doorway. A lone figure in a grey cloak stood beside the doorway, a lean and fit-looking young man with cheekbones sharp enough to slice bread and eyes of cobalt blue. Beneath the grey cloak, he wore an expensive dark blue cashmere suit, with a cream-colored shirt and a metallic copper-colored tie. A black bowler topped off the ensemble, and instead of a staff or a blasting rod, he bore a silver-headed walking cane in his right hand.

He was also holding the cane at full extension, pointed directly at me with narrowed, serious eyes as I came down the trail.

I stopped and waved a hand. ’’Easy there, Steed.’’

The young man lowered the cane, and his face blossomed into a smile that made him look maybe ten years younger. ’’Ah,’’ he said. ’’Not too obvious a look, one hopes?’’

’’It's a classic,’’ I said. ’’How you doing, Chandler?’’

’’I am freezing off my well-tailored ass,’’ Chandler said cheerily, in an elegant accent straight from Oxford. ’’But I endure thanks to excellent breeding, a background in preparatory academies, and metric tons of British fortitude.’’ Those intense blue eyes took a second look at me, and though his expression never changed, his voice gained a touch of concern. ’’How are you, Harry?’’

’’Been a long night,’’ I said, walking forward. ’’Aren't there supposed to be five of you watching the door?’’

’’Five of me guarding the door? Are you mad? The sheer power of the concentrated fashion sense would obliterate visitors on sight.’’

I burst out in a short laugh. ’’You must use your powers only for good?’’

’’Precisely, and I shall.’’ He tilted his head thoughtfully. ’’I can't remember the last time I saw you here.’’

’’I only visited once,’’ I said. ’’And that was a few years ago, right after they drafted me.’’

Chandler nodded soberly. ’’What brings you out of Chicago?’’

’’I heard about Morgan.’’

The young Warden's expression darkened. ’’Yes,’’ he said quietly. ’’It's... hard to believe. You're here to help find him?’’

’’I've found murderers before,’’ I said. ’’I figure I can do it again.’’ I paused. For whatever reason, Chandler was almost always to be found working near the Senior Council. If anyone would know the scuttlebutt, he would. ’’Who do you think I should talk to about it?’’

’’Wizard Liberty is coordinating the search,’’ he replied. ’’Wizard Listens-to-Wind is investigating the scene of the murder. Ancient Mai is getting the word out to the rest of the Council to convene an emergency session.’’

I nodded. ’’What about Wizard McCoy?’’

’’Standing by with a strike team, when last I heard,’’ Chandler replied. ’’He's one of the few who can reasonably expect to overpower Morgan.’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said. ’’Morgan's a pain in the ass, all right.’’ I shivered and stamped my feet against the cold. ’’I've got some information they're going to want. Where do I find them?’’

Chandler considered. ’’Ancient Mai should be in the Crystalline Hall, Wizard Liberty is in the Offices, Wizard McCoy should be somewhere near the War Room and Wizard Listens-to-Wind and the Merlin are in LaFortier's chambers.’’

’’How about the Gatekeeper?’’ I asked.

Chandler shrugged. ’’Gatekeeping, I daresay. The only wizard I see less frequently than he is you.’’

I nodded. ’’Thanks, Chandler.’’ I faced him soberly and put a formal solemnity in my voice as I adhered to security protocols more than five centuries old. ’’I seek entry to the Hidden Halls, O Warden. May I pass?’’

He eyed me for a moment and gave me a slow, regal nod, his eyes twinkling. ’’Be welcome to the seat of the White Council. Enter in peace and depart in peace.’’

I nodded to him and walked forward through the archway.

I'd come in peace, sure. But if the killer was around and caught onto what I was doing, I wouldn't depart in peace.

Just in pieces.

Chapter Fourteen

The Hidden Halls of Edinburgh were the redoubt and fortress of the White Council of Wizardry from time immemorial. Well, actually, that last bit isn't true. It's been our headquarters for a little under five hundred years.

The White Council has existed since pre-Roman times, in one form or another, and its headquarters has shifted from time to time, and place to place. Alexandria, Carthage, Rome-we were in the Vatican in the early days of the Church, believe it or not-Constantinople and Madrid have all been home to the Council's leadership at one time or another-but since the end of the Middle Ages, they've been located in the tunnels and catacombs hewn from the unyielding stone of Scotland.

Edinburgh's tunnel network is even more extensive than those beneath the city of Chicago, and infinitely more stable and sturdy. The main headquarters of the complex is located deep beneath the Auld Rock itself-Castle Edinburgh, where kings and queens, lords and ladies, have defied, besieged, betrayed and slaughtered one another since pre-Christian times.

There's a reason a fortress has been there for as long as mankind can remember-it is one of the world's largest convergences of ley lines. Ley lines are the natural currents of magical energy running through the world. They are the most powerful means of employing magic known to man-and the lines that intersect in the earth deep below the Auld Rock represent a staggering amount of raw power waiting to be tapped by someone skilled or foolish enough.

I walked over a ley line about three steps after I entered the Hidden Halls, and I could feel its shuddering energy beneath my feet, rushing by like an enormous, silent subterranean river. I walked a bit faster for a few paces, irrationally nervous about being swept off of my feet by it, until I could only sense it as a dim and receding vibration in the ground.

I didn't need to call up a light. Crystals set in the walls glowed in a rainbow of gentle colors, bathing the whole place in soft, ambient illumination. The tunnel was ancient, worn, chilly, and damp. Water always seemed ready to condense into a half-frozen dew the instant it was given the opportunity by an exhaled breath or a warm body.

The tunnel was about as wide as my spread arms, and maybe eight feet high. The walls were lined with bas-relief carvings in the stone. Some of them were renditions of scenes of what I'd been told were the historical high points of the White Council. Since I didn't recognize anyone in the images, I didn't have much context for them, so they mostly just looked like the crudely drawn cast of thousands you see on the Bayeux Tapestry. The rest of the carvings were wards-seriously world-class heavyweight wards. I didn't know what they did, but I could sense the deadly power behind them, and I tread carefully as I passed deeper into the complex.

The entry tunnel from the Nevernever was more than a quarter of a mile long, sloping gently downward the whole way. There were metal gates every couple of hundred yards, each of them manned by a Warden backed up by a pair of Ancient Mai's temple-dog statues.

The things were three feet high at the shoulder, and looked like escapees from a Godzilla movie. Carved from stone, the blocky figures sat inert and immobile-but I knew that they could come to dangerous life at an instant's notice. I tried to think about what it might be like to be facing a pair of aggressive temple-dog statues in the relatively narrow hallway. I decided that I'd rather wrestle an oncoming subway locomotive. At least then it would be over quickly.

I exchanged polite greetings with the Wardens on guard until I passed the last checkpoint and entered the headquarters proper. Then I took a folded map from my duster pocket, squinted at it, and got my bearings. The layout of the tunnels was complex, and it would be easy to get lost.

Where to begin?

If the Gatekeeper had been around, I would have sought him out first. Rashid had been my supporter and ally on more than one occasion, God knew why. I wasn't on what anyone would call good terms with the Merlin. I barely knew Martha Liberty or Listens-to-Wind. I found Ancient Mai to be a very scary little person. That left Ebenezar.

I headed for the War Room.

It took me the better part of half an hour to get there. Like I said, the tunnel complex is enormous-and after the way the war had reduced the ranks of the Council, it seemed lonelier and emptier than ever. My footsteps echoed hollowly back from stone walls for minutes at a time, unaccompanied by any other sound.

I felt intensely uncomfortable as I paced the Hidden Halls. I think it was the smell that did it. When I'd been a young man, hauled before the Council to be tried as a violator of the First Law of Magic, they had brought me to Edinburgh. The musty, wet, mineral smell of the place had been almost all I knew while I had waited, hooded and bound, in a cell for a full day. I remember being horribly cold and tortured by the knots my muscles worked themselves into after so many hours tied hand and foot. I remember feeling more alone than ever in my life, while I awaited whatever was going to happen.

I had been scared. So scared. I was sixteen.

It was the same smell, and that scent had the power to animate the corpses of some of my darkest memories and bring them lurching back into the front of my thoughts. Psychological necromancy.

’’Brains,’’ I moaned to myself, drawing the word out.

If you can't stop the bad thoughts from coming to visit, at least you can make fun of them while they're hanging around.

In a stroke of improbable logic, the War Room was located between the central chambers of the Senior Council and the barracks rooms of the Wardens, which included a small kitchen. The smell of baking bread cut through the musty dampness of the tunnel, and I felt my steps quickening.

I passed the barracks, which would doubtless be empty, for the most part. Most of the Wardens would be out hunting Morgan, as evidenced by the skeleton guard I'd seen at Chandler's post. I took the next left, nodded to the very young Warden on guard, opened a door, and passed into the War Room of the White Council.

It was a spacious vault, about a hundred feet square, but the heavy arches and pillars that supported the ceiling took away a lot of that room. Illuminating crystals glowed more brightly here, to make reading easier. Bulletin boards on rolling frames took up spaces between pillars, and were covered by maps and pins and tiny notes. Most of them had one or more chalkboards next to them, which were covered in diagrams, cryptic, brief notation, and cruder maps. Completely ordinary office furniture occupied the back half of the vault, broken up into cubicles.

Typewriters clacked and dinged. Men and women of the administrative staff, wizards all, moved back and forth through the room, speaking quietly, writing, typing, and filing. A row of counters on the front wall of the room supported coffeepots warmed by propane flames, and several well-worn couches and chairs rested nearby.

Half a dozen veteran Wardens lay sprawled on couches napping, sat in chairs reading books, or played chess with an old set upon a coffee table. Their staves and cloaks were all at hand, ready to be taken up at an instant's notice. They were dangerous, hard men and women, the Old Guard, survivors of the deadly days of the early Vampire War. I wouldn't have wanted to cross any of them.

Sitting in a chair slightly apart from them, staring at the flames crackling in a rough stone fireplace, sat my old mentor, Ebenezar McCoy. He held a cup of coffee in his thick, work-scarred fingers. A lot of the more senior wizards in the Council had a sense of propriety they took way too seriously, always dressed to the nines, always immaculate and proper. Ebenezar wore an old pair of denim overalls with a flannel shirt and leather work boots that could have been thirty or forty years old. His silver hair, what he had left of it, was in disarray, as if he'd just woken from a restless sleep. He was aging, even by wizard standards, but his shoulders were still wide, and the muscles in his forearms were taut and visible beneath age-spotted skin. He stared at the fire through wire-rimmed spectacles, his dark eyes unfocused, one foot slowly tapping the floor.

I leaned my staff against a handy wall, got myself a cup of coffee, and settled down in the chair beside Ebenezar's. I sipped coffee, let the warmth of the fire drive some of the wet chill out of my bones, and waited.

’’They always have good coffee here,’’ Ebenezar said a few moments later.

’’And they don't call it funny names,’’ I said. ’’It's just coffee. Not frappalattegrandechino.’’

Ebenezar snorted and sipped from his cup. ’’Nice trip in?’’

’’Got tripped up by someone's thugs on the Winter trail.’’

He grimaced. ’’Aye. We've had our people harassed several times, the past few months. How are you, Hoss?’’

’’Uninformed, sir,’’ I said.

He eyed me obliquely. ’’Mmmm. I did as I thought best, boy. I won't apologize for it.’’

’’Don't expect you to,’’ I said.

He nodded. ’’What are you doing here?’’

’’What do you think?’’

He shook his head. ’’I won't take you on the strike team, Hoss.’’

’’You think I can't pull my weight?’’

He turned his eyes to me. ’’You have too much history with Morgan. This has got to be dispassionate, and you're just about the least dispassionate person I know.’’

I grunted. ’’You're sure it was Morgan who did LaFortier?’’

His eyes returned to the fire. ’’I would never have expected it. But too many things are in place.’’

’’No chance it's a frame?’’

Ebenezar blinked and shot me a look. ’’Why do you ask?’’

’’Because if the ass is finally getting his comeuppance, I want to make sure it's on the level,’’ I said.

He nodded a couple of times. Then he said, ’’I don't see how it could have been done. It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, odds are it's a damn duck. Occam's razor, Hoss.’’

’’Someone could have gotten into his head,’’ I said.

’’At his age?’’ Ebenezar asked. ’’Ain't likely.’’

I frowned. ’’What do you mean?’’

’’As a mind grows older, it gets established,’’ he said, ’’more set in its ways. Like a willow tree. Supple when it's young, but gets more brittle as it ages. Once you've been around a century or so, it generally ain't possible to bend a mind without breaking it.’’

’’Generally?’’

’’You can't push it that far,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Push a loyal man into betraying everything he believes in? You'd drive him insane before you forced him into that. Which means that Morgan made a choice.’’

’’If he did it.’’ I shook my head. ’’I just keep asking myself who profits most if we axe Morgan ourselves.’’

Ebenezar grimaced. ’’It's ugly all the way around,’’ he said, ’’but there it is. I reckon you 'gazed him, Hoss, but it ain't a lie detector. You know that, too.’’

I fell silent for a while and sipped coffee. Then I asked, ’’Just curious. Who holds the sword when you catch him? It's usually Morgan who does the head chopping.’’

’’Captain Luccio, I reckon,’’ Ebenezar said. ’’Or someone she appoints. But she ain't the kind to foist something like that off on a subordinate.’’

I got treated to the mental image of Anastasia decapitating her old apprentice. Then of me, taking Molly's head. I shuddered. ’’That sucks.’’

Ebenezar kept staring at the fire, and his eyes seemed to sink into his head, as if he had aged twenty years right in front of me. ’’Aye.’’

The door to the War Room opened and a slender, reedy little wizard in a tan tweed suit entered, lugging a large portfolio. His short white hair was curled tightly against his head and his fingers were stained with ink. There was a pencil tucked behind one ear, and a fountain pen behind the other. He stopped and peered around the room for a moment, spotted Ebenezar, and bustled right on over.

’’Pardon, Wizard McCoy,’’ he said. ’’If you have a moment, I need you to sign off on a few papers.’’

Ebenezar put his coffee on the floor and accepted a manila folder from the little guy, along with the fountain pen. ’’What this time, Peabody?’’

’’First, power of attorney for the office in Jakarta to purchase the building for the new safe house,’’ Wizard Peabody said, opening the folder and turning a page. Ebenezar scanned it, then signed it. Peabody turned more pages. ’’Very good. Then an approval on the revision of wages for Wardens-initial there, please, thank you. And the last one is approval for ensuring Wizard LaFortier's holdings are transferred to his heirs.’’

’’Only three?’’ Ebenezar asked.

’’The others are eyes-only, sir.’’

Ebenezar sighed. ’’I'll drop by my office when I'm free to sign them.’’

’’Sooner is better, sir,’’ Peabody said. He blinked and seemed to notice me for the first time. ’’Ah. Warden Dresden. What brings you here?’’

’’I thought I'd come see if someone wanted help taking Morgan down,’’ I drawled.

Peabody gulped. ’’I... see.’’

’’Has Injun Joe found anything?’’ Ebenezar asked.

Peabody's voice became laced with diffident disapproval as he answered. ’’Wizard Listens-to-Wind is deep in preparations for investigative divination, sir.’’

’’So, no,’’ I said.

Peabody sniffed. ’’Not yet. Between him and the Merlin, I'm sure they'll turn up precisely how Warden Morgan managed to bypass Senior Council security.’’ He glanced at me and said, in a perfectly polite tone, ’’They are both wizards of considerable experience and skill, after all.’’

I glowered at Peabody, but I couldn't think of a good dig before he had accepted the papers and pen back from Ebenezar. Peabody nodded to him and said, ’’Thank you, sir.’’

Ebenezar nodded absently as he picked up his coffee cup, and Peabody bustled out again.

’’Paper-pushing twit,’’ I muttered under my breath.

’’Invaluable paper-pushing twit,’’ Ebenezar corrected me. ’’What he does isn't dramatic, but his organizational skills have been a critical asset since the outbreak of the war.’’

I snorted. ’’Bureaucromancer.’’

Ebenezar smiled faintly as he finished his cup, the first couple of fingertips of his right hand stained with blue ink. Then he rose and stretched, drawing several faint popping sounds from his joints. ’’Can't fight a war without clerks, Hoss.’’

I stared down at my half cup of coffee. ’’Sir,’’ I said quietly. ’’Speaking hypothetically. What if Morgan is innocent?’’

He frowned down at me for a long moment. ’’I thought you wanted a piece of him.’’

’’I've got this weird tic where I don't want to watch wrongly accused men beheaded.’’

’’Well, naturally you do. But, Hoss, you've got to underst-’’ Ebenezar froze abruptly and his eyes widened. They went distant with thought for a moment, and I could all but hear gears turning in his head.

His eyes snapped back to mine and he drew in a slow breath, speaking in a murmur. ’’So that's it. You're sure?’’

I nodded my head once.

’’Hell's bells,’’ the old man sighed. ’’You'd best start asking your questions a lot more careful than that, Hoss.’’ He lowered his chin and looked at me over the rims of his spectacles. ’’Two heads fall as fast as one. You understand?’’

I nodded slowly. ’’Yeah.’’

’’Don't know what I can do for you,’’ he said. ’’I've got my foot nailed to the floor here until Morgan's located.’’

’’Assuming it's not a duck,’’ I said, ’’where do I start looking?’’

He pursed his lips for a moment. Then he nodded slowly and said, ’’Injun Joe.’’


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